The dark overcast swept through the sky above the courtyard situated in the center of the black castle. Trees of varied sizes and low hedges lined the cross-shaped stone path as another circular path divided the four sections created by the former. Straight ahead from the entrance hall door was a small staircase that led to the sunken plaza where a large, white stone fountain resided. Water poured from its peak and trickled into four tiers before pooling in the basin.
Ellie glanced around the courtyard before following one of the circular paths leading west, admiring the flowering bushes of ruby and indigo petals. Behind them were numerous windows of which were dusted over, making it nearly impossible to see the dark rooms to which they belonged.
Despite this, she attempted to peer through one of the windows near the path, but to no avail. Just to its right was a door, seemingly traveled to on a casual basis from the balding spots in the grass. Ellie rattled the handle curiously, but was not surprised when it didn’t give. She backed away and continued along the circular path.
Traveling through the courtyard, Ellie found another door on the south wall that faced the fountain. Judging by its outer appearance, it led to what appeared to be a room at least as large as the entrance hall. This door was more intriguing than the last, appearing more ornate in style in a way that was similar to the door of Bedelia’s home. However, this one stood a bit taller to the point that the frosted windows were well above Ellie’s head.
She expected no less, but she had to try the door handle anyway to see what lied beyond. And in accordance with her expectations, it did not turn. Hoping to at least have a peek at what was inside, she attempted to look through the window just beside the door. Aside from being just as, if not more dusty than the others, it was high enough that Ellie had to jump just for her eyes to meet the sill.
“Fine. You can keep your secrets, Lord Janus,” she grumbled.
Kicking a small stone on the path, Ellie descended into the sunken fountain plaza. She reached out and touched the crisp water, withdrawing her fingers from its chill only to dip them back in a moment later, finding the sensation calming.
Ellie noticed four stone benches that lined the edge of the small plaza, easing onto one as she stared at her surroundings. Having been so focused on the area level to her, Ellie hadn’t noticed that there were balconies above that peeked between the trees. Each one was accessed by a window door, of which were more ornate than the one in her room. The north and south walls were the exception; the balcony on the north end was almost the length of the entire wall while the south end had nothing.
Content with her exploration for the day, Ellie settled on remaining in the courtyard and enjoying the fresh air. She reached into her bag, removing the book that her grandmother had given her, ‘Melody of Shadows’. Ellie hadn’t a moment to read it since before she arrived in the Night Realm and eagerly flipped through the pages until she found where she left off. She was nearing the end and would have to find another book to read soon, though with how fantastical everything had been lately, she might be able to get by without reading another for awhile.
Despite how dark the sky was, Ellie was surprised that she could read fairly well in the overcast light. But she was only a couple of pages into her reading session when a pleasantly familiar voice call out to her.
Ellie grinned when she saw Gerald waddling toward her as fast as he could from down the east path until it shifted into a bounce, his tail bobbing with every hop.
“Gerald, I’m happy to see you.” She set her book down and reached out her arms, scooping him up and placing him beside her.
“I’m happy to see you, too, Miss Ellie. I haven’t seen you since yesterday morning. It’s nice that you’re out and about today.”
“Mm, I was surprised. Elise brought me some dresses to wear, and then Lord Janus had a change of heart and allowed me to wander the castle.”
“That was because of Elise, you know.”
“Well, Lord Janus was already wavering on his decision by the time she approached him, but her lecturing sent him over the edge.” Gerald wiggled in place to make himself more comfortable.
“That’s kinda surprising to hear. I was worried that maybe Elise didn’t like me.”
“Well, she was uncertain of you at first. But she saw how horribly you handled being cooped away, what with how much you slept, cried, didn’t touch your food, never noticed her enter your room. When she returned to the kitchen with the second uneaten meal, she stormed up to Lord Janus and told him that this was most inhospitable.”
“Oh, she was prepared to argue, Miss Ellie. But as soon as she said that, Lord Janus threw up his hands and said, ‘I know, Elise, I feel terrible! Tell me what I should do!’ Or something like that.”
“Gerald.” Ellie stifled a laugh at his animated impression. “How do you know all this?”
“Oh.” She was taken aback by how matter-of-fact he said it. “Well, that was rather sneaky of you.”
“Sneaky is what I do, Miss Ellie.”
Ellie pondered Gerald’s words for a moment, recalling Elise’s observations.
“I can’t say I’m happy that Elise saw me in that state. In fact, now that I think on it, I was feeling awfully dramatic at the time. I guess I’ll be carrying that embarrassment with me for awhile, won’t I?”
“Well, it all worked out in the end, Miss Ellie. If Elise didn’t confront Lord Janus, I’m sure he would have let you wander the castle eventually, though it might have taken another day.”
“I’ll have to be sure to thank her the next time I see her, then.”
Ellie looked at the path beneath them and traced the toe of her shoe along the gap between the stones, dispersing the mist that was nestled there. It fell back into place when she moved her foot away.
“Is it like this everywhere?” she asked.
Gerald made a confused noise before noticing Ellie looking at the ground.
“The mist? Yes, the mist is everywhere.”
“Why is that?”
“I could ask why the Prime Realm doesn’t have mist interwoven in the ground. That’s just the way it is, Miss Ellie. No one really knows why, and it’s harmless enough that no one really questions it.”
“I see. It doesn’t seem to make the ground slick, at least.”
“Thank goodness for that, or people in Haven would be slipping left and right on those cobble streets.”
The two giggled at the thought, then sat quietly as they watched the fountain and listened to the streaming water. It was strange, but Ellie felt a sense of contentment despite her situation. Of course, she was cooped up inside of this castle with one peculiar resident after another, but she would be lying if she said she wasn’t enjoying herself at least somewhat. It was almost like being on her own little adventure.
And yet, her mind tugged at her, conjuring pictures of her poor family calling her name in the woods or tearfully asking the residents of Phiana of her whereabouts. At the very least, she wished that there was some way that she could let them know that she was safe.
Their peaceful moment was interrupted by the caw of a crow as it skimmed passed the courtyard overhead. Gerald blinked as he emerged from his trance.
“What’re your plans for the rest of the day, Miss Ellie?”
“Hm, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I’m not really sure what there is to do here, especially with so many locked doors.”
“Well if you don’t have anything in mind, would you like to come visit my home? It’s nearby and wouldn’t be considered leaving the castle.”
“You live near here?”
Gerald hopped off the bench and made his way to the east stairs, motioning Ellie to follow.
“I certainly do. This way, Miss Ellie.”
Ellie scrambled to put her book away and slung her bag across her chest, taken aback by Gerald’s sudden charge. It was only one step away from him essentially sweeping her off her feet. Not that his tiny paws could lift her, anyway.
She trotted up to him and followed toward the far wall. Ellie had no idea what to expect and raised an eyebrow when she saw Gerald disappear behind a shrub at the end to the left. On the other side was a hole in the ground that angled down into a dark tunnel. Gerald sat in the opening and stared up at Ellie expectantly, his ears pink with excitement. He was the only inviting thing about the dark maw in the earth.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked.
“It might look a little scary, but you’ll see just how nice it is once you hop in. And don’t worry about bumping your head; the tunnel is taller than it looks. It has to be, if Lord Janus is to fit down here.”
“I guess he is rather tall, isn’t he,” she chuckled.
“Well, you said it yourself. Overgrown licorice stick, or something like that.”
Ellie’s lips curled inward, the conveniently forgotten memory unearthing itself. She eased into the hole and followed behind Gerald as they descended the steep slope into the tunnel beneath the courtyard. It eventually curved to the northwest, where glowing green mushrooms of varied sizes dimly lit their way. Most of them were on the smaller side, but a few came up as high as Ellie’s knees.
Just before another northward turn in the tunnel was a rat dressed in little suspenders and wearing a straw hat. He was leaning his back against the stem of one of the mushrooms.
“Good evening,” he nodded as they passed.
“It’s late afternoon, Dale.”
“Close enough.” He waved his hand dismissively at Gerald.
Ellie nodded back as they passed by, surprised to see another talking rat despite knowing that she should have expected as much.
The pair came around the corner, and it was at that moment that Ellie became aware of the distant bustling sounds that grew increasingly louder as they approached the warm glow at the base of the descent. Her anticipation peaked as they reached the tunnel’s opening, where it led into a large, well lit cavern. But the size of the cavern was not what fascinated Ellie.
Neatly placed throughout the massive earthen room were dozens, if not over one hundred small houses and buildings. She thought at first they might be doll houses, but on closer examination it was apparent that they were just like any other house, only smaller and on average about half to three quarters as tall as Ellie. Rats in outfits chattered along as they hurried through the streets, shopped in the markets, and had conversations from opposite balconies. Were it not for the fact that it was tiny and full of small, fuzzy residents, it would look like any other town she had ever seen.
“This is amazing!” Ellie’s delight was palpable. “It’s like something out of a storybook. And this cavern! I’ve seen athletic events played in courts as large as this.”
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Gerald stood upright and rested his front paws on his hips. “Welcome to Rat Town, my storied home!”
Ellie’s delighted expression morphed into something more quizzical.
“That’s—that’s it? It’s just called ‘Rat Town’?”
“Yes, Miss Ellie,” Gerald nodded. “It gets the point across, doesn’t it? No need to call it something fancy like ‘Phiana’ or ‘Haven’. In fact, most rats here just say ‘People Town’ when referring to the latter.”
Ellie chuckled at the ridiculous thought of calling their towns something so simple, but if it worked for the rats and everyone still knew what they were talking about, then there really was no reason to dispute it.
Gerald bounced down the dirt street and beckoned for Ellie to follow. She took one step forward before glancing at all the rats about, concerned that they only moderately took note of her presence.
“Are you sure it’s okay? I’m afraid of stepping on someone.”
“You’re far from the first tall one we’ve ever had here, Miss Ellie. We know how to handle visitors such as yourself.”
Cautiously, Ellie stepped into the little street as she followed behind Gerald, several rats calling out to others to make way for the ‘tall one’. From the window of one of the homes, a rat wearing a dress and bonnet bid a good day to Ellie, who smiled and waved back gently with her fingers.
Alternating between watching where she stepped and admiring the town, Ellie felt like a literal giant as she made her way down the streets. She was fascinated by the attention to detail, with each house feeling as though they were a delicately crafted miniature of homes she might as well have seen in Phiana. Adorning the streets themselves were plentiful lamps, keeping the otherwise dark cavern relatively well lit with the help of the mushrooms along the cavern’s edge. In addition to that, there were glowing gemstones nestled into the ceiling like stars in the night sky.
They had been walking for only a couple of minutes before Gerald stopped in front of a particularly large home that stood three stories high.
“This is where I live,” Gerald said. “I wish I could show you the inside, but...”
He gestured upward at Ellie’s height and the pair shared an awkward laugh.
“I’ll be right back, Miss Ellie. I’m gonna go get my family so they can meet you.”
Gerald scuttled inside the house and immediately called out for his parents. She couldn’t see or hear much from where she stood, especially with all the other rats bustling about nearby. Occasionally, Ellie could glimpse Gerald through the windows, opening doors and gathering up other rats in the house.
A few minutes passed before a tiny hatch opened on the roof from where Gerald peeked out. Ellie was amused that he had apparently taken the time to also change from a blue shirt into a yellow one.
“Sorry for the wait.”
He hopped out to the roof with several other rats following behind; two that were older and nine that were younger. It was like opening a nesting doll as each rat was smaller than the one that proceeded it. When the smallest rat struggled to climb onto the roof, Gerald reached down and helped them up by the scruff of their neck. Each of the neatly dressed rats stared up at Ellie with delighted bewilderment.
“Miss Ellie, this is my family.” Gerald’s voice was chipper. “My mother and father, and my brothers and sisters.”
“Pleased to meet you, miss.” Gerald’s father extended a paw to shake Ellie’s finger. “We don’t get many tall ones visiting, especially to our home. Why, I don’t think we’ve had a tall one come to us specifically since our boy was recognized for his talents. He seems to have a knack for making friends with tall ones.”
Gerald squirmed proudly as his father spoke.
“Gracious me!” His mother reached a paw out to touch Ellie’s hand. “But you are certainly a lovely young lady. Almost as pleasing on the eyes as Lord Janus. You’re his ward, right? What a pretty pair you’d make.”
“Mother!” Gerald yelled, scrambling to clamp her mouth shut with his paws. “Why must you always say every embarrassing thing that springs to your mind?”
Ellie laughed uncomfortably as she rubbed her brow.
“But he’s—” Gerald’s mother mumbled through a closed mouth.
“—That’s enough out of you, dear mother.” He pushed at her to go back inside, his father chuckling as he followed. The children scurried about and all talked at once, making it impossible for Ellie to isolate one sentence from the other.
Gerald disappeared back into the house with his siblings in tow, an audible ruckus coming from within. Ellie’s expression changed with each sound she heard, wondering what could possibly be happening inside the little rat house.
Moments later, Gerald returned to the roof and slammed the hatch shut, dropping to his backside on top of it and crossing his arms.
“Well, that was certainly a short meeting,” Ellie laughed.
“I am so sorry, Miss Ellie. I wanted to formally introduce everyone, but mother always immediately goes into the weird things she thinks of the moment she meets someone new.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Gerald. Some mothers are just like that. It wouldn’t be the first time I heard a similar remark. I bet your mum is a bit on the gossipy side too, isn’t she?”
“Is she ever…”
“It’s okay. We’ll have a more formal meeting next time and you can better prepare yourself for whatever ridiculous scenarios she might cook up.”
Ellie extended her arm to Gerald, who promptly scuttled his way up to her shoulder.
“Well, putting that behind us, where are we off to next?” she asked.
“Let’s go to the edge of town for a bit.” He pointed toward the end where they had entered from. “It’s a nice spot to sit and chat while watching the town.”
Ellie gave Gerald a small pat on the head and backtracked toward the entrance. In the sizable gap that divided the town from the cavern wall, she found a nice, flat rock to sit down on that was out of the way. The two remained quiet for a time as they watched the rats scuttle about their day to day. With a smirk, Ellie raised her hand and pretended to pinch one of the far-off houses between her fingers. She didn’t have to open them very wide to fit the house between them.
“What do you think of Rat Town, Miss Ellie?”
“I like it. I didn’t know what to expect, but it really is just a town like any other, but with rats. It’s pretty whimsical to someone like me. I didn’t realize there were so many other rats like you, though.”
“We’re a thriving bunch, aren’t we?”
“Mhm. Although I’m curious; why is it that so many of you are able to talk and live like people?”
“We’re descended from humans.”
“From humans?” Ellie’s brow raised in surprise.
“Well, technically speaking. Many, many years ago, there were humans that were forcibly turned into rats. The was no way to turn back, so they learned to thrive as they were. They could do everything humans could, but they were still rats. For all intents and purposes, we are just rats that live like humans do. Rats with culture, you could say.”
Gerald’s shoulders sank.
“But because of that, we don’t really fit in with either people or normal rats, so we mostly stick to our own. A few of us live on the surface, but I’m one of the only ones that actually assimilates into Haven on a regular basis.”
Ellie pondered this as Gerald continued.
“That being said, the rats here do like it when tall ones visit. Since we’re under the castle, it’s usually just the staff and Lord Janus, but everyone is always pleasant to us. The head chef will even bring the town a whole load of treats at the end of each month, so we’ve made something of a feasting celebration out of it.”
“Are you talking about Smaul? I met him earlier, he seemed rather nice.”
“Oh, yes! He and the other goblins are quite kind to us. We never—”
A sharp gasp escaped Ellie’s lips and she gripped the edge of the rock when the ground beneath them shook. It wasn’t a violent tremor, but certainly enough to cause a little dirt to fall and dislodge a pair of gemstones from the ceiling. The tremor lasted for several seconds, having hushed everyone in the cavern as they waited to see if it would start again. When it was apparent that it was over, the rats spoke up and began skittering about, extending a paw to those who had fallen and knocking on the doors to check on their neighbors.
“Well, that was a little longer than usual.” Gerald narrowed his eyes and stared at the ceiling.
“Are tremors like that common?”
“Not at all, Miss Ellie. Sure, we get them from time to time, but they’re always so short that there’s no harm done. At least this wasn’t any more intense than usual, or it might have been bad for how long that lasted.”
“Well this would be an awfully scary place to be if a larger one hit.”
“Mm, I agree. Thankfully the tunnel is safer, so we could always seek shelter there.”
The two observed as the rats gradually resumed going about as normal, determining that the tremor was nothing to get upset about. Nearby, one rat waddled toward a building with one of the gemstones in its front paws, stashing it away for later repairs.
“I should probably return to the surface for now,” Ellie said. “I have no idea how late it is and I’d hate to waste another meal because I wasn’t around.”
“Oh, I’ll go with you as far as the Great Hall. I was heading to Haven as it was when I saw you with your nose buried in your book.”
Ellie carried Gerald on her shoulder and made her way back up the tunnel to the surface, finding that the sky had already shifted completely from overcast day into a crystal clear night. She could have sworn she wasn’t in Rat Town for that long, but the drastic change made her feel like she had been there for hours. She followed along the path, lit up by small lights near to the ground. Upon entering the Great Hall and passing the stairs, Gerald hopped down and turned to face Ellie.
“That was fun, Miss Ellie. Please come visit Rat Town again soon!”
“I had fun, too, and I certainly will,” Ellie smiled.
The two bid one another a good evening before Gerald scurried toward the front gate, exiting the castle through the tiny rat door. With a contented sigh, Ellie started up the steps to return to her room, but was startled when she heard another door open nearby. She glanced around before noticing Elise step out of the parlor and decided to seize the opportunity to thank her.
“Hello, Elise,” she called out.
Elise snapped her attention to Ellie, having not noticed her there.
“I wanted to—“
“—Where are you going, Miss Eleanor?” she asked.
“I’m… going to my room for the night.”
Elise shook her head and beckoned Ellie to her.
“I think not. Dinner is nearly ready.”
Ellie blinked. It didn’t occur to her until that moment that now that she had freedom to explore the castle, there wasn’t much reason to eat her meals in her room anymore. She stepped back to the first floor and moved toward Elise, who waited patiently before starting down the east corridor. They walked only a few steps before she stopped beside the door next to the parlor. It was the very same door that Ellie forewent opening earlier that day when she heard Smaul’s ruckus in the kitchen.
The door opened with ease as Elise bustled inside and held it open. Ellie stepped into the room and was amazed by the sight around her; a large dining hall lit with luxurious chandeliers that descended from the high ceiling. Unsurprisingly, the room was constructed in the same three-storied fashion as the drawing room, gallery, and chapel. Situated in its center was a long, ornate dining table, crafted from a fine, dark wood. Ten matching chairs embellished with red cushions sat on either side with two larger ones on each end. Spaced across the surface were several lit candelabras.
Ellie crept across the dining hall as Elise made her way to the far end, pulling out the chair on the left beside the seat at the head of the table.
“Please be seated, Miss Eleanor. Your food will be ready shortly.”
She placed her hand on the back of the chair before easing herself in and pulling closer. Elise strode across the room to the east wall where a door with no handle resided. She pushed her way in and disappeared into the room beyond, leaving Ellie alone in the dining hall with nothing more than the ticking of a clock and the crackling from the fireplace to keep her company.
Ellie sighed as she scanned the room, taking in every little detail. The gray marble walls were decorated with sconces and portraits that were all perfectly spaced apart from one another. On the wall behind her was the lit fireplace that was no less impressive than the one in the drawing room.
The sound of the far door opening caused Ellie to jump in her seat. She glanced to the end that she had just entered from and was surprised when she saw Lord Janus standing in the doorway. He noticed Ellie and gave her an equally as puzzled look.
“Miss Eleanor? I certainly wasn’t expecting any company this evening, let alone you.”