Black as Light, Part 13

“Please state our first request.”

“Oh, yes, of course. We request the chance to live in peace. We will not bother anyone and no one must bother us. I believe Manny is next?”

“Yes,” Manny said. He cleared his throat. “Secondly, we ask that you approach us in a civil manner rather than charge our home. In exchange, we will not venture into Bottlecreek for any reason whatsoever. Bede?”

“We appeal to you in favor of a name amendment. We repudiate the title monsters and stipulate an alteration to said designation in order to be termed misunderstood creatures.”

The king and his councilors stared at each other.

“I’m sorry,” Lord Brett said nervously. “What did you just say?”

“I reiterate—” Bede began.

Drago prodded Bede in the back and the troll glanced up at him with a disproving look.

“He said that we want to be called misunderstood creatures instead of monsters,” Drago translated, with Lord Paris staring at him and visibly swallowing as he snapped his gold flaked quill in half.

“Did not I articulate that?” Bede asked in confusion.

“Not in those exact words,” Manny said, still shuffling papers, while Drago grinned at Lord Paris, causing the youth to accidentally yank off a golden button.

“Would you stop that?” Euclid squealed at Manny.

“Next,” Tanith said, interrupting whatever argument the two would launch into.

“We request that our home be closed off to Bottlecreek and will only allow visitors if they have submitted a letter of intent to visit, and that visit must be declined or accepted by us before we allow the visit,” Drago said.

“Those are the terms we put before you,” I said. “What are yours?”

“We want you to leave,” Lord Colin said flatly.

“We won’t!” Manny cried out. “It’s our home. You can’t force us from our home.”

“We can and must!” the king cried back.

“Stop it!” Euclid shrieked. “Get me out of here! They’re out to get me, to get us! They’ll kill us!”

Euclid somehow managed to clamber over the dragon and went running from the room.

“Can I eat the table?” Drago asked civilly.

“No,” I replied. “We’re not done yet.”

“Ah, so like another poem of my own,” Virgil said with a sigh. “Away, away we must go/ Far from here we must roam/Return not to the home we knew/Gone to another/For peace and new hope.”

“Yes, leave!” Lord Thane said. “Go away. Leave Bottlecreek. You don’t belong here. We don’t want you here.”

“They’re not going to leave, Lord Thane,” I said crossly. “And if you don’t accept their terms, Princess Tanith will never return home.”

“That’s right,” Tanith spoke up. “I’ll stay in the Black Castle forever.”

“No and no,” the king said.

Lord Paris fiddled with the gold edging of his royal blue coat and twisted another golden button as he listened to the exchange. He avoided Drago’s direct gaze and focused instead on the table.

“Just hurry up,” Lord Paris said in a quivering voice. “That thing is scaring me!”

“Quiet, Paris,” Lord Colin snapped. “We don’t want to deal with you right now.”

“Dear me, oh, dear me,” Lord Brett muttered, smoothing his white hair with trembling fingers.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” I muttered to Tanith.

“No, it’s not,” she admitted. “At least we tried.”

“Wait. I have an idea.”

“What are you doing?” Tanith hissed as I stood.

I ignored her and waited for the room to quiet before I decided to speak.

“Your Majesty, Your Highness, misunderstood creatures, and councilors, we came with very simple requests,” I began. “This would go a lot faster if Lord Brett would recover his wits and be as sharp and fair as he was back in his day, if Lord Colin would lose his sour expression and stop being a jerk to everyone, if Lord Paris would either remove himself from this room or stop being scared half to death, if Lord Thane would stop being such an idiot, if Virgil would stop reciting poetry, if Drago would stop drooling over the table, if Bede would speak so we all could understand him, and if Manny would please stop shuffling those papers.”

The room was silent and I felt rather pleased with myself as they looked at each other in varying stages of embarrassment.

“Now. All we ask is that you leave the misunderstood creatures, not monsters, alone. In return, they will leave you alone. If anything, everything will return to what they were before Tanith ran away. That all suited everyone, right?”

“True, very true,” Lord Brett muttered.

“Quite precise,” Bede conceded.

“What do you say, Your Majesty?” I asked. “Everyone will be left in peace and your daughter will return home.”

The king pondered it. “It does sound fair.”

“It all depends on how much you want me to return,” Tanith said sweetly. “I, for one, wouldn’t mind staying with my new friends.”

“Well, I mind,” King Adam snapped. “Very well, get it written out. Paris, I like your writing best. Get to it.”

Lord Paris scrambled for some blank paper and a new quill. When he was ready, he jotted down some notes as the councilors and misunderstood creatures stated what they wanted. Then, working with Tanith and Lord Brett, he wrote out a treaty and passed it around to be read by everyone. Then it was signed by all of us.

“Excellent. Now may I eat the table?”

“No, Drago” Tanith said. “It’ll give you indigestion.”

“No it won’t. I’ve eaten this type of wood before.”

“But not with varnish on it.”

“Well, no, but it looks awfully tasty.”

“Maybe another time, okay?”

“Okay,” Drago said resignedly.

 

After that, I’d like to say everything went back to normal, but of course that would be a lie. Oh, they all left each other alone, but that didn’t keep Tanith from visiting. I accompanied her every so often, but not as much as I think she would have liked. King Adam was happy she was back and even offered to let me marry her. Of course, I couldn’t and absolutely wouldn’t. I knew Tanith didn’t want to be married and I didn’t want to have to deal with her more than I had to.

The people of Bottlecreek are still terrified of the Black Castle, so things outside of what happened between the misunderstood creatures and the councilors have remained the same. There’s still talk of vampires and dragons, giant serpents and living gargoyles, starving werewolves and giant man-eating cats. But no one other than the councilors, King Adam, Tanith, and I know for sure since nary a soul is brave enough to cross the bridge arching over a moat of steaming cold water.

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Black as Light, Part 12

We all stood on the bridge the following morning, just staring at each other. Euclid, trembling uncontrollably, was held tightly between Tanith and I. The misunderstood creatures stood in fright of the knights and the knights stood in fright of the misunderstood creatures.

“Release my daughter!” King Adam said authoritatively from astride his clearly trembling stallion.

“We have a proposition for you,” I called back when Eva kicked my heel. It was a hard kick, too, and it left me wishing I had worn my armor so her foot would hurt instead of mine. “We would like to negotiate a treaty with you.”

I glanced over at Tanith to make sure I had used the right words and she nodded encouragingly.“I will discuss no treaty with you until my daughter has been returned.”

“Father, you need to negotiate a treaty before I’ll return,” Tanith said crossly. “Otherwise I’ll just stay here forever.”

“Over my dead body!”

“We can arrange that, you know,” Ferguson said silkily. “You might not want to forget what we are.”

We could see King Adam’s grip on the reins tighten. “All right. Well discuss this at Bottlecreek Castle right now.”

The seven of us assigned to negotiate the treaty parted from the others and followed the army of knights back to Bottlecreek Castle. The people of the small town had flooded the streets once they heard the knights approach and they promptly vanished when the misunderstood creatures made their presence known.

Once we were at the castle, King Adam called for his councilors and we all gathered in the council chambers. A huge oval table sat in the middle, surrounded by chairs of the same wood. Unfortunately, it was one of the woods that Drago adored.

“Can I eat it?” Drago asked eagerly the moment he saw the table.

Lord Brett, a muddled grandfather, looked up in fright, clasping his papers to his chest. “Dear heavens!”

“No, Drago,” Tanith said patiently, moving to take a seat at the table. “Maybe later you can eat the table. For now, just settle down.”

“He wants to eat the table?” Lord Thane, a pompous idiot, screeched. “Of all the ridiculous things I’ve ever heard, eating the table. Hmph!”

“I do believe that is what I said, Lord Thane,” Tanith said calmly, arranging her papers before her.

“Let’s all have a seat,” King Adam said, sitting at the head of the table. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can send everyone on their way.”

We all sat, the councilors on one side and the misunderstood creatures on the other with Tanith and I. Drago, though, was too big to sit on a chair and settled for curling around the table and propping his head on the surface. He stuck his head between Euclid and Bede and grinned at the councilor across from him. Lord Paris, the youngest and most flamboyant of the four councilors looked about ready to jump up in fright.

“Are you certain this is necessary, Your Majesty?” Lord Colin said, his features permanently twisted into a sour expression.

“Absolutely, Colin,” the king replied. “I want my daughter back where she belongs and if this is the only way, then so be it.”

“Shall we commence then?” Bede asked.

“Certainly,” King Adam said.

Manny awkwardly shuffled the papers in front of him with his paws and Euclid jumped at the sound. The zombie turned to look at the manticore, who didn’t notice his friend’s frightened look.

“Would you please stop that?” Euclid said shrilly.

Manny looked up. “My apologies, Euclid.”

“It’s bad enough there are five of them,” Euclid said, gnawing at his fingers. “I can’t deal with you right now!”

“You’re doing very well, Euclid,” Tanith said soothingly.

“Now then,” King Adam began in a booming voice.

Euclid screamed and leapt up. Drago immediately closed in around him and sheltered the smaller creature. Euclid grasped one of Drago’s wings and refused to let go. Lord Paris stared at the two in fright.

“If you wouldn’t mind, Father,” Tanith said, “I must insist that you don’t speak so loudly. It frightens him. Now, we are the representatives of the creatures in the Black Castle. We have come to you to negotiate a treaty that will benefit all of us. Virgil, would you please begin?”

The basilisk turned his head in Tanith’s general direction. “Begin? Oh, yes, of course.”

“And you can put your papers on the table,” Tanith said.

“Table?” Virgil said, peering through his glasses. He leaned forward until his nose was practically touching the varnished surface. “Dear me, it is a table. I hadn’t noticed. And here are my papers. Yes, here they all are.”

The councilors glanced uncomfortably at each other, unsure of what to think. I just sat there, impatiently tapping my foot, waiting for this to be over and done with. Tanith gave me a sharp look and I instantly stopped tapping my foot.

“We don’t want them to think were anxious or anything,” she whispered to me.

“I just want this to be over and done with,” I whispered back.

“We have to wait until Virgil can see what he needs to see.”

“I say, is anyone there?” Virgil asked, blinking across the table at Lord Thane.

“Of course there’s someone here,” Lord Thane snapped. “I’m here.”

Euclid jumped, and Drago was there for him. Manny took charge of Euclid’s papers and began to shuffle them in with his own, neatly putting them into order. Bede simply sat there, patiently waiting for his turn to speak.

“Who is there?” Virgil asked. “If you would come forward so I could see you, that would be marvelous. Just like in a poem I once wrote. Forward here/So I may see/What can be so clear/What is to be.”

The basilisk chuckled and then cleared his throat. “Pardon me. I do get so carried away. Would you mind stating your name? I cannot see you, but I can envision you in my mind if I know your name.”

“Lord Thane,” the councilor snapped.

“Very good, very good. Lord Thane. A bit of a pompous one, always in a rush. Yes, I have it. Very well. What exactly do I do now, Tanith?”

Black as Light, Part 11

“Tanith!” Eva yelled.

“In here!” Tanith called back from the library, where we sat with Virgil, Drago, Manny, Bede, and Euclid.

Books on diplomacy and books containing copies of hundreds of treaties lay open around us. We seven would be taking care of the treaty business, but only Tanith had any idea of what to do, which really wasn’t much.

It was the day before King Adam would arrive with his army and we still had a lot to do.

Eva appeared at the doorway and we all looked at her in varying states of exasperation and frustration. The preparations were not going well.

“Look!” Eva cried out, holding out a muddied White Sword to us. “Just look at what those two did!”

Tanith sighed and rose to go to her. She took the sword from the ogre and turned to beckon to me.

“Gina and Gray?” Tanith guessed.

“Of course. Only those two nuisances would argue over such a thing. I don’t know how, but it ended up in a nice big mud puddle!”

“Calm down, Eva,” Tanith said with a sigh. “Shane and I will get it all cleaned up.”

“We will?” I asked.

“Certainly. You’re supposed to be the guardian of this thing until we return it to Father. It’s your job to clean it.”

She had that look in her eyes, the one that told me to not defy her. I had no choice; I had to go with her.

So, we walked down a long winding staircase until we came to a little wooden door. Tanith pushed it open and we stepped out onto a concrete platform. Before us swirled the moat.

Tanith turned and thrust the sword at me.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, closing my fingers around it.

“Stick it in the water, of course,” she said, putting her fists on her hips. “How else do you expect to clean it?”

I held the sword and looked at the steaming water dubiously. But who was I to defy Tanith?

“Well? Hurry up.”

I knelt and stuck the sword into the water. My fingers brushed the surface and I jerked them away, barely keeping my grip on the sword. I had thought the moat would be boiling water. Instead, it was freezing. If it had been any colder, it would have been frozen.

“It’s cold!”

“Of course it’s cold,” Tanith said in exasperation. “The water comes directly from the glaciers. Look, the blade is clean. Just stick the hilt in now. We don’t have time for this, Shane.”

Cautiously, I took hold of the blade and stuck the hilt in. In a matter of minutes, it was clean and Tanith was yanking me back inside, chattering about all the things we still had to learn about diplomacy.

My head was spinning. There was no way I would be able to remember everything. And there was certainly no way I could imagine Euclid facing King Adam’s councilors without running and screaming from the room, though Tanith had instructed Euclid to scream a few pleasantries as he went running out. And we could only hope that the table was made from one of the few woods that Drago refused to eat. There was also the matter of Bede’s genius. Tanith was certain he would talk above everyone’s heads, but she hoped it would prove they were intelligent creatures worthy of a treaty. And as long as everything was neat and orderly, Manny would be happy. We were most confident in Virgil. He didn’t rhyme when speaking, which would make understanding him very easy.

Tomorrow would be very interesting. I was not looking forward to it.

Black as Light, Part 10

Walking back through Bottlecreek, I could believe that. Walking back to the Black Castle, I couldn’t. I should have gone hiding behind my couch with all the other knights and let the kings army storm the castle. But then Tanith would never forgive me. I would never hear the end of it.

I sighed and just kept clunking back up the hill to the Black Castle, the White Sword hanging at my side.

When I reached the doors, I paused to pull off my boots. I didn’t want Manny screaming at me about dirt on the floors, much less Eva’s scolding. Once was bad enough.
I pushed open the doors and found all of them gathered in the entry. I just stared at them and pushed the door closed behind me. We stared at each other as I pulled the White Sword out.

“Ahh!” Euclid screamed. “It’s going to get me!”

Euclid threw up his arms and went running and screaming from the entry. We could still hear him screaming for several more minutes, and then glass shattering.

“If that’s the dining room stained glass windows, I’m going to kill him,” Eva said.

“What a mess,” Manny grumbled as he turned and headed off in the direction of shattering glass. “And, of course, I’m the only one who can clean it up properly.”

“It certainly is a fine specimen of craftsman work,” Bede remarked. “I must look up that design. Its quite stunning.”

Bede walked off after Manny and the rest of us looked down at the hilt to see a very intricate design created by a large amount of tiny white gems.

“You know,” Ferguson spoke up, “I was once an expert swordsman.”

“Not to be trusted,” Virgil said, peering intently at the sword. “I say, is that a sword? I daresay it is. My goodness. Haven’t seen one in years.”

“Is it made of wood?” Drago wanted to know.

“I saw it first,” Gina said.

“No you didn’t,” Gray countered. “I did.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Be quiet,” Tanith ordered.

The two gargoyles sniffed at each other and then headed off in opposite directions.

Flavian glided over to me and peered down at the blade. He lifted my hands so he could admire himself in the metal.

“Flavian, it’s not a mirror,” I said.

“Could have fooled me.” Flavian laughed and glided over to one of the actual mirrors in the entry.

“You might want this,” Ferguson said, thrusting a sword out to me.

I took it and looked down to examine the two swords. They looked exactly the same, but the Black Sword had a design created by tiny black gems on the hilt.

I looked up at Tanith helplessly. “What do I do?”

“You put them together.”

“How?”

“Good question.”

“You don’t know?”

“Well…not exactly.”

“Tanith, we’ve got four days to figure this out.”

“Four days?” she said in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, your father is amassing an army of knights from all over and they’re going to storm this castle in four days.”

“They can’t!” Eva gasped, covering her mouth with her hands.

“You can’t let that happen, Shane,” Tanith said. “You have to put the swords together now!”

“Again, how?”

“I don’t know! Just stick them together.”

Frustrated, I pushed the two swords together. We all saw a spark, but that was it. I twisted the swords around each other, pressing them together any way I could, but there was no Gray Sword to be had.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the two swords at Tanith. “You do it.”

She took a step back. “I can’t. I’m a princess. Princesses don’t touch swords.”

Now she wanted to act like a prim and proper princess? Now?

“Then someone else has got to do this,” I said, exasperated and frustrated with Tanith and this whole situation. “I can’t figure it out.” I threw down the swords and marched off, clunking all the way up to my room. If they wanted the Gray Sword, then they could make it themselves.

Once I got into my room, I pulled off my armor and stretched out on my bed. I was just about to drop off to sleep, with Euclid’s screaming echoing in my ears since he was just down the hall from me, when a knock came at my door.

“Come in!” I called out, too tired and lazy to get up and open the door.

The door opened slowly and Tanith poked her head in. I sighed and sat up. She walked over to me, the swords in her hands and an apologetic look on her face. She sat on the edge of my bed and gingerly set the swords down between us.

“I’m sorry, Shane,” she said quietly. “I know I’ve been pushing you a lot lately. But, the truth is, you’re the only one who can put the swords together. You’re a protector. Only a protector can make the Gray Sword. And I realize you’re still loyal to my father and still a little afraid of the creatures. Your loyalties are pulled in opposite directions and that’s why you cant make the Gray Sword.”

“So what do you propose I do now?” I asked wearily.

“In four days, you will meet my father on the bridge and tell him the creatures have agreed to discuss and sign a treaty.”

I sighed. “Okay. But if this isn’t over by then, that’s it. I’m through. No more. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” she said with a firm nod.

Black as Light, Part 9

I couldn’t believe it. I was really walking back across the moat, headed back for Bottlecreek. Well, actually, I guess I could believe it. I had spent months imagining myself heading back to town triumphant. But I had always imagined Tanith would be with me and the monsters, er, misunderstood creatures, would be vanquished.

Instead, I’m stuck walking back, alone with all those creatures waiting for me to return with the White Sword.

“What did I ever do to deserve this?” I muttered to myself, my armor clanking with every step I took.

I marched down the hill, trying desperately to not think of what I would say to King Adam Well, what would you say to your ruler whose daughter you were supposed to have been saving, but was not with you? It wasn’t something I wanted to think about.

“It’s him!” a voice shouted as I walked into Bottlecreek. “It’s Sir Shane! He’s returned!”

A crowd began to gather around me as I clanked down the cobblestone streets.

“Out of my way,” I growled, snapping down my visor. This was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

The crowd followed me all the way to the castle, all the way inquiring after Princess Tanith. Of course I didn’t answer them. She obviously wasn’t with me, so what more did they want? It was all her fault, anyways, that I was stuck clunking through down surrounded by everyone in Bottlecreek.

Fortunately, I left the crowd behind as I approached the castle. The guards standing at the doors looked at me.

“Sir Shane of Bottlecreek,” I snapped. “I need to talk to the king regarding Princess Tanith.”

The moment I said her name, the doors were pulled open and the guards hustled me inside.

I was standing before King Adam before I knew it.

“You may remove your helmet, Sir Shane,” the king said with a trace of humor in his voice.

I pulled it off and tucked it under my arm.

“You’ve been gone a long time, Sir Shane. We had given up all hope of your return. Where is my daughter?”

“Er, uh.” I cleared my throat. “Your Majesty, Princess Tanith is alive and well. Um, unfortunately, I cannot free her from the, uh, creatures without the White Sword.”

“That is their ransom?” the king asked, frowning.

“Uh, yes, Your Majesty.”

“Then by all means you will have the sword. I must have my daughter back safe, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” I said just as the doors were flung open and several pages tumbled into the room, excitement glowing on their young faces.

The king stood and looked past me at them.

“Well?” King Adam asked expectantly.

“They’re here,” one page said excitedly. “They’re all here.”

“Excellent!”

“Who is here?” I asked, narrowing my eyes slightly.

The king turned to me. “Why, all the knights of the surrounding lands, of course. All of my cowards, I mean knights, refuse to come out from behind their couches. I had to resort to asking all the other lands for knights to go and bring back my daughter. Needless to say, I’m amassing an army to storm the Black Castle!”

I started in surprise. “Your Majesty, please don’t!” I cried out before I could stop myself.

The king looked at me sternly. “What do you mean?” he asked, his voice ominous.

“I mean, Your Majesty,” I started, thinking furiously, “I can get Princess Tanith back. If you would lend me the White Sword and agree to hold off your army, I will have her back within the next four days.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive, Your Majesty,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel.

“Very well. Come with me.”

Black as Light, Part 8

“When are you going back to the castle for the sword?” Tanith asked, sitting beside me in the library.

For once, the castle was quiet since Gina had gone to spend the evening with the harpies and had dragged Euclid along with her. I assumed Flavian was raiding the kitchen again for more cinnamon and Ferguson was with him, munching on some turnips Eva had allowed him to have. Eva herself was doing the dishes and doing her best to keep Flavian from finding the cinnamon. Drago was presumable out in the forest taking a walk with Bede as he usually did every night. Manny was quietly rearranging the books in the library according to size and I had a pile of them sitting on my lap, patiently waiting for them to be removed. Virgil was probably once more locked in his room, writing yet another volume of poetry that would be printed and bound by Bede and put onto one of the shelves in the library and never opened at all. Gray was pacing around the castle, not quite sure of what to do with himself without Gina. Though the two argued whenever they were within yelling distance of each other, Tanith assured me they really did care about each other and wouldn’t know what to do without the other.

“Are you crazy?” I answered her, turning to look at her in disbelief. “I can’t go back!”

“Why not?” she asked stubbornly.

“I-I just can’t!”

She looked at me crossly and I knew then that I was going back to the Bottlecreek Castle.

But of course I couldn’t give up without a fight.

“Why not?” she demanded.

“Your father will have my head if I return without you,” I replied, trying desperately to make it sound reasonable and logical and, from her expression, knowing I had failed to convince her.

“Shane, I need you to return to the castle and retrieve the White Sword. My father is not going to kill you. All you have to do is tell him you found me alive and well, but the only way I’ll be released is with the White Sword.”

I had nothing to say to that. Tanith’s logic is just so much more sound than my own.

“I’ll go when I feel like going,” I said, turning away from her, hoping it was a compromise.

“You’ve got a lot to learn, kid,” Manny said, walking over to us and sitting before us.

“What do you mean, Manny?” Tanith asked.

“Not you, my dear. Sir Shane has much to learn. You don’t go when you want to go; you go when Tanith wants you to go.”

“And since when has she become queen of the castle?”

“Since always,” Tanith said, looking at me, puzzlement glowing in her dark eyes.

“Didn’t you know?” Manny asked.

“Know what?”

“This castle is the original Bottlecreek Castle. Eva and I were the first ones to arrive here a long time ago and, unfortunately, the humans were terrified of us and left the castle to us. They then built the other castle and the ruling family continued to reign there. One old lady, though, did remain with us for a time. She was the king’s mother, who had abdicated her throne to her son when she became too old to want to do her royal duties. She was also a bit of a fortune teller and said our rightful queen would arrive after running away from the second Bottlecreek Castle and would be named Tanith. And here she is, our queen. When she arrived, we knew the old lady had been right and she became our lady of shining merit and our queen. She rules this castle.”

“Though I only enforce it when I have to,” Tanith put in. “Like now. All other times, I’m equal with my new family. I really do need you to get the White Sword, Shane.”

“And I really don’t want to.”

“You must,” she insisted. “What if I told you it is necessary not only for the survival of these misunderstood creatures, but also for the survival of myself?”

I glared at her. “Fine. When do you want me do go?”

“Now would be wonderful,” she replied sweetly.

Black as Light, Part 7

“We need the Gray Sword,” Tanith said to me one day when we were strawberry picking.

“What?” I said, looking down at her.

She was kneeling on the ground, picking the strawberries, while I followed her with the baskets.

“The Gray Sword.”

“Never heard of it. Why do we need it?”

“It’s the only sword that can protect us, silly. And you need it since you’re our protector. It’s the only way you can protect us,” she said insistently.

“And how do I get this Gray Sword?” I asked dubiously, obediently following her from plant to plant.

“By combining the Black Sword with the White Sword, of course.”

“Right,” I drawled. “And how do I do that?”

“Well, we have the Black Sword and Father has the White Sword. We get them both together and then they’re supposed to combine on their own.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. There was a lot I didn’t know what to say to. I kept quiet. A lot. Like now.

“It’s really not that hard,” Tanith said cheerfully, dropping a nice ripe strawberry into one of the baskets.

“Uh huh.”

“I’m sure you could do it.”

“I didn’t say you said I couldn’t.”

“Honestly, Shane, you’re impossible.”

“And here I was thinking you were impossible.”

“I am?”

“Of course. You refuse to return to the Bottlecreek castle, just to let your father know you’re still alive and well.”

“That’s different. Father’s altogether too annoying. He’ll have some prince lined up to meet me within a minute of my arrival back at the castle and I’ll never be let out again.”

“That’s true,” I admitted, though not happily. “So how do I get this White Sword?”

“You ask Father for it.”

“Are you sending me back to the castle?”

“Yes.”

“And yet you won’t go.”

“No.”

“Hmm.”

She laughed and stood. “That’s all. Ferguson couldn’t possibly eat three basketfuls of strawberries.”

“Want to bet?”

She tilted her head. “Not really.”

“I thought so. Back to picking, my lady.”

She glared at me and I couldn’t help but laugh.

In the end, we both picked another basketful of strawberries. One was given to Eva and the other three went to Ferguson, who finished them in three hours.

Black as Light, Part 6

The room Eva showed me to was right across the hall from Tanith’s and, thankfully, none of the monsters were quartered in that part of the hall. They called it the “Human Visitors Quarters.” Ferguson wasn’t considered a human. He was a werewolf to them and he seemed perfectly happy about it, so it was just Tanith and I.

It was actually a very nicely arranged room with soft ruby red carpet and matching heavy velvet curtains that pulled back to reveal a view of the meadow and the forest and mountains beyond. There was a wide, long bed with drapes that matched the curtains and carpet and the quilt was a ruby red and sapphire blue checked pattern and the pillows a snowy white. The desk, wardrobe, and a small round table and two chairs were all made of dark wood decorated with gold leaves. The fireplace across from the foot of the bed was blue and white marble and I was astounded to discover that it turned on in every room like clockwork to announce dinner and then turned off sometime during deep slumber.

When the fireplace burst into flame, I heard a knock at the door and warily went to answer it, wondering which monster would be on the other side. I don’t know why, but I had removed my armor and now stood in dark brown trousers, a loose white shirt, and my boots. The armor was strewn across the little round table. I suppose I should have kept it all on just in case one of the monsters decided to attack me, but it got hot in there and the clanging had been driving me crazy.

Anyways, to my great surprise and utter delight, Tanith stood before me in a lovely cream colored gown when I opened the door.

“Dinner is ready,” she said cheerfully. “Come on. Eva’s fixed a wonderful dinner. You’ll love her cooking.”

I looked at her warily, not moving an inch. “I won’t eat poisoned food,” I said, perhaps a little too harshly.

Her features hardened and she clenched the skirt of her dress in her hands tightly, which told me she was far from pleased with me.

“We do not keep poison in this household,” she said, very, very quietly.

Then she turned and swiftly walked away down the hall. I was forced to run to catch up with her, which wasn’t easy because Tanith is actually a very swift walker and I knew from our childhood that it was impossible to catch up with her when she ran.

The dining hall was snug, but large enough to fit everyone, even Drago, who lay curled around the table with a huge dish of wood sitting before him, accompanied by a large slab of meat that he was eyeing disapprovingly. The table was long and wooden with a red tablecloth running down the center of it. Golden dishes lined the edges of the tablecloth and a golden goblet and dish sat in front of every chair. No one sat at the head of the table; everyone sat on the sides.

I took a seat beside Tanith and she passed me a dish of potatoes. My stomach embarrassingly growled, but she was kind enough to not comment, but her small grin didn’t escape me. I very soon found my goblet filled with cold water and my plate filled with a little of everything: potatoes, greens, a fruit salad heavily made up of oranges and tangerines and a few sliced strawberries (though I didn’t get any because Ferguson had already picked through it for all of the slices), an unidentifiable red meat cooked to perfection accompanied by a brownish-white gravy, a thick slice of bread slathered with butter, a selection of four different cheeses that I failed to recognize, and a slice of chocolate cake. These monsters really didn’t seem to be into eating meat, but I refused to believe them.

I kept my eye on all of the monsters as I ate and caught sight of one I hadn’t yet had the honor of meeting. I was startled to note it was a basilisk with glasses perched close to its eyes. It was peering rather closely at its food and carefully picking through it.

I nudged Tanith. “What’s that?” I whispered, looking at the basilisk.

“Oh, that’s Virgil,” she said, spearing a potato. “He’s a basilisk, but can’t hurt you because he’s incredibly myopic. The glasses barely help him. Bede and Ferguson are trying to come up with stronger lenses, but it’s just not working. He’s also a poet, so don’t get him talking for long.”

I had finally met every monster that lived in the castle. And I can tell you I didn’t sleep much that night, so my fireplace was on until dawn.

Anyways, dinner was surprisingly delicious and my conversation with Tanith and Eva, who sat across from me, and Flavian, who sat across from Tanith, was more entertaining than I thought it would be. We talked about everything from my childhood with Tanith to Tanith’s sisters to Eva’s gardens to the various types of oranges that Eva cultivated in the orange grove in the middle of the forest. I almost, almost, forgot they were monsters.

They were monsters; how could that possibly be completely forgotten?

The surrounding conversations were lively and the gargoyles were sitting far enough apart that they didn’t even register the other’s presence, so there was no arguing. Euclid was sitting far enough from me that my presence didn’t make him throw himself out of the beautiful stained glass windows. Virgil was too intent on picking through his food to care about poetry. Bede had engaged Manny in some supposedly interesting conversation (though I don’t know what could be so entertaining about knitting), so Manny was relaxed and somehow didn’t notice a piece of lettuce hanging out of one of the salad bowls.

I have to admit it was much better than dining with the squires and attending to the knights or the royal court. I will admit to you, and to no one else but you, that I did enjoy myself. Somehow. I’m not quite sure how, and I’m afraid to find out.

The next several days passed in the same manner and I found myself eating less and less meat. There was always a meat course, but it was always eaten as a chore by everyone. Each of the monsters was employed in his or her own activities for most of the day and, on occasion when one of the harpies in a far off castle would visit, we all would have to have tea together until she took her leave. I must say that my favorite was Annie because she always brought fresh cookies. I didn’t see much of any of the monsters. I spent most of my days practicing my fencing with Tanith, following Tanith around, wandering around the grounds, or being bored to death by Flavian or Bede when there was absolutely nothing else to do. I hardly ever saw Euclid, who was still terrified of me and even broke right though one of the lovely stained glass windows in the library.

Needless to say, the monsters came to grow on me and I came to enjoy their company. I could see why Tanith didn’t want to leave, but I never could give up on calling them monsters. They, in turn, usually referred to me as “human” and it became something of a joke between us all.

If Tanith was their “lady of shining merit,” I was dubbed their “protector in beige.”
I still wish I knew how that had come about, because they were still monsters to me and I was still human to them. We didn’t understand each other any better than we did when we first met. Life is often very strange, stranger than I care to figure out most of the time. I hate getting headaches, because Evas cures are always horrendous.

Black as Light, Part 5

I don’t know how I could have been so stupid, but I decided to remain. Who was I to abandon my oldest friend to a bunch of monsters? When I finally found the kitchen, my helmet now tucked firmly under an arm, I caught Flavian rustling around in the cabinets looking for more cinnamon sticks. He looked at me with a guilty expression and told me Eva was out in the gardens feeding Drago after making me promise I wouldn’t tell her he had been stealing into the kitchen for more cinnamon.

After a few wrong turns and another run-in with the zombie, who went running and screaming out a window, I finally found myself in a neck-high garden of flowering bushes. I clanged through them and finally came out into what looked like a meadow…and screamed.

The ogre and giant blue and green dragon before me also screamed and the dragon choked on a piece of wood, spitting it out into the bush garden.

“What’s that?” the dragon screeched, clutching at its throat.

Eva was pressing a hand to her chest and recovering from her fright. Then she pressed her fists to her hips as the dragon hunched its wings protectively over a pile of wood.

“My goodness, Sir Shane, you frightened us,” Eva admonished.

My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. I was being accused? I had frightened them? They were the frightening-looking ones, not me!

“Oh, do shut your mouth,” Eva said crossly. “And get over here and meet Drago.”

“Get…get over…there?” I said, barely concealing my fright, as I lifted a finger and shakily pointed at the dragon. “Call me crazy, but I do not want to die.”

“Die!” the dragon, Drago I presumed, said indignantly. “Eva, did you hear that? The human is insinuating that we actually like the taste of humans!”

“What an idiot,” a quiet, very masculine voice said off to my side, in a very cultured voice, clearly enunciating each syllable as elegantly as possible.

Very carefully, I turned my head and jumped and screamed in fright when I caught sight of a hideous troll half my size strolling towards us from the forest beyond. From its voice, I assumed it was male, but it wore a black wizard’s robe and a matching peaked hat, so I couldn’t tell for sure. Golden glasses were perched on his long, thin nose and his eyes were dark and very intelligent looking.

“Calm yourself, Sir Shane,” Eva said. “I would like you to meet Drago, our gluttonous wood-eating dragon. He’s very harmless and even has a pet fly named Florence. I’m not quite sure where she is at the moment, but probably flitting around here somewhere. And this is Bede, our own scholarly troll. He was educated at the distant Magical Association University and served as the headmaster there some decades ago. He’s absolutely brilliant, so don’t get him talking.”

“I do resent that, Evadne,” the troll said courteously. “It is certainly not mentally strenuous for one to converse with me.”

I blinked at him, not entirely sure of what he had just said.

“That’s because you’re not on the receiving end of it, Bede.”

“Well, if I ever,” Bede huffed. He turned abruptly and disappeared into the bush garden with his nose in the air.

A door slammed and I heard a low chuckle from behind me.

“I do believe you insulted him, Eva,” a very soft voice said.

I swallowed and slowly turned once more. I found myself staring at a very hairy man leaning against the dragon and contentedly munching on a handful of greens. Like the troll, he was dressed in a black wizard’s robe, but his head was too full of dark hair for a hat to sit right atop it. His eyes looked decidedly wolfish and his teeth were slightly larger than normal.

My eyes slid over to Eva, who was reaching up towards the man. She snatched the greens from his hand and he found himself staring at nothing but his hand, his mouth wide open and his eyes blinking blankly.

“That was for dinner,” Eva said reproachfully. “Kindly stop eating dinner before its made.”

The man looked wounded and clasped his hands to his chest. “But I was hungry,” he bemoaned.

“If you’re so hungry, why don’t you go ransack the pantry with Flavian.”

“I’m not ransacking the pantry!” Flavian’s silky voice rang out from the kitchen windows.

“And that’s why your voice is coming from the kitchen,” Eva called back. “Don’t think I don’t know when cinnamon is missing from my kitchen.”

I heard a muttered oath coming from behind the kitchen windows and a door slam. Eva sighed and I turned to look at her just in time to see her roll her eyes.

She held out the hand without the greens to the hairy man. “Sir Shane, this is Ferguson, our vegetarian werewolf. He won’t eat you, either. Ferguson came to us also via the Magical Association University. He used to be the most brilliant chemist, but one of his potions went awry and he turned into a werewolf when he was supposed to be finding the cure for a werewolf’s bite. For that, he lost his magical powers, was discredited by the university, and came here with Bede when Bede retired. I gather that the next full moon is coming up very soon. Ferguson always gets terribly hairy a couple days before the next full moon.”

“Correct,” Ferguson said, pushing away from the dragon. “I expect it’ll come in two days.”

“I’d better go and shield my turnips from you.” She turned to me. “He absolutely adores turnips. We found that out the first time he turned into a werewolf here and I found my entire turnip garden destroyed.”

“Oh, now, you don’t have to go through all that trouble for me, Eva dear,” Ferguson said smoothly, putting an arm around the ogre.

She glared up at him. “ItIt’ss no trouble at all. But don’t you worry. I’ll leave some out for you, along with some other vegetables,” she said, feigning resignation.

“And put in some strawberries,” he said brightly. “It’s strawberry season and you know I adore strawberries.”

“I’ll go ask Tanith if she wants to go strawberry hunting.”

“Thank you, Eva. You’re a dear. Now I’m off to ransack the pantry. Nice to have met you, Sir Shane.”

He saluted me and headed off and disappeared into the bush garden.

“Maybe he’ll eat the fruitcake Uncle James sent us last winter,” Drago said hopefully. “Uncle James always likes to hide preserved strawberries in it.”

I turned and fully faced the ogre and the dragon. The woodpile had vanished and the dragon was lying on his side, a satisfied look on his face and wood splinters sticking out from between his pointy teeth.

“Perhaps. But, what can we do for you, Sir Shane?” Eva asked kindly.

“Er, um, Tanith said you would take me up to a guestroom,” I stuttered, still wondering why I was willing to stay. It had to have been because of Tanith. What else could keep me in a castle full of monsters?

Black as Light, Part 4

Her face brightened and she squealed in delight. The next thing I knew, she was suddenly hugging me and asking how I liked the castle and how well Flavian was showing me around. All I could do was simply stare at her excited face.

“Another human! Another human!” And with that, the zombie went zooming out of the room, looking about as frightened as I felt.

I drew myself up straight a moment later and held Tanith at arms length, a serious expression on my face.

“I’m here to rescue you, my princess.”

She stared at me and then burst out laughing. She grasped onto my armored shoulders and her head fell back as she laughed. I shook her and she only laughed harder.

“Oh, Shane, don’t you understand?” she finally asked, trying to catch her breath, a hand pressed against her heaving breast. “I don’t want to go. This is my home, these are my family members.”

“They’re monsters!” I yelled, pushing her away.

Silence permeated the room and eight eyes stared at me in shock. I shifted uncomfortably in my armor as Tanith backed away from me and took one of the gargoyle’s hands.

“Don’t you dare say that again, Shane,” Tanith said quietly. “They are simply misunderstood creatures. If anyone’s a monster, it’s that father of mine! I’m happy here, Shane. These creatures are my new family. You had better accept that.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself. When she opened her eyes, she smiled brightly. “Shane, I’d like you to have met Euclid,” she said, indicating the door the zombie had used as an escape route. “He can be somewhat paranoid, but is otherwise quite a wonderful creature. I’m afraid you scared him, but he’ll come around sooner or later. And the other two nuisances here are Gina and Gray.”

“Nuisances!” one of the gargoyles cried out, and I could faintly recognize a female voice.

“How dare you!” the other, presumably Gray, replied at the same moment.

Tanith rolled her eyes. “Pay no attention to them, Shane. Their favorite past time is to argue with each other and everyone else.”

“I resent that!” both gargoyles shouted, then glared at each other and huffed out of the library through different doors.

Tanith sighed and turned her eyes on Flavian. “Are you going to go, too, Flavian?”

The vampire had been smoothing his slicked hair and admiring his complexion in a nearby mirror. He turned when Tanith addressed him.
“Oh, well, if you insist. I’d better go and see that Eva uses the correct oranges for supper. Mi scusi, my dears.”

And Flavian swept out of the library, leaving me with Tanith.

I instantly grabbed hold of her arm and tried to drag her from the room, but she held fast to a chair that had apparently been bolted down to the floor (I later learned that nearly every piece of furniture had been bolted down so that Gray and Gina could not use them on each other and so that Euclid wouldn’t be afraid that they would get up in the middle of the night to attack him and so that Drago, the gluttonous wood-eating dragon I would soon meet, wouldn’t eat all the furniture) and refused to let me pull her from the room.

“Stop it, Shane,” she said crossly, wrenching her wrist from my armored grasp and pulling herself up straight. “I’m not going back. I can’t. My new family needs me here. Who am I to disappoint them?”

“What about your father and your sisters?” I demanded.

“With me out of the way, my father only has to worry about six princesses that he has to marry off. And my sisters are probably moaning about how they weren’t bright enough to come running over here to avoid Father. Besides, none of us particularly cared for the others. It’s hardly a loss.”

“But, Tanith, these are evil creatures,” I hissed, leaning close to her, ignoring how right she was.

Anger flashed in her gray eyes and she balled her hands into fists at her sides. “I won’t have you insulting my friends, Shane, even though we were once playmates. No, I won’t have it. You are welcome to return to Father’s castle or you may remain here. Eva will show you to a guestroom if you choose to remain. You will probably find her out in the gardens out back or in the kitchen.”

She looked me over, sniffed, suppressed a chuckle, and stalked out of the library. I watched her go and collapsed into the chair she had been hanging onto, my armor clattering as I did so.