I screamed and jumped, only to be faced with an ogre holding my sword. It was big and greenish-brown with a hat on its head, huge blue-gray eyes, a calico dress hiding a shape I knew to be positively hideous, and a crisp white apron with cheerful lace around it. She had her fists on her hips and my sword was clasped in one of them.
“Oh, good Heavens, MUD!” a voice roared behind me.
I screamed and jumped, yet again, to see a lion-sized manticore standing there, furiously flapping his wings against his lion body. The head was distinctly human with long dark hair and blazing blue eyes. He had a long tail that reminded me of a dragon and it was swinging to and fro like a cat’s would.
“Eva!” the thing continued. “Do you see that MUD? That disgusting brown slime? I need a towel. I need a towel.”
He continued on with these four words as he turned and leaped down the hall, most likely to get a towel. Within moments, he returned with a large towel clamped between his lips. He promptly dropped it over the muddy footprints behind me and began to furiously paw at it. The ogre still stood there, my sword still in hand.
“Listen here, if I find any claw or teeth marks on that towel, you’re dead meat, you hear?” the ogre admonished the manticore.
He looked up at her with a withering glance. “I’m not stupid, Eva. Now get rid of that thing before you take someone’s head off.” He went back to rubbing at the mud.
The ogre sighed and dropped my sword into a cylinder sprouting with ducky umbrella handles. Then she turned to me.
“Would you please remove your boots and hand them to me?” she asked kindly. “If you don’t, you’ll get more mud on the carpet and I’m afraid he’s rather obsessive-compulsive.”
Slowly, I reached down and tugged off the metal boots to reveal my softer leather boots that I wore underneath. I tossed them to her with misgivings and straightened to keep my eyes on both of them.
“Thank you, dear. I’m Evadne, or Eva, by the way,” she said, tucking the boots under her arm.
“Manny,” the manticore huffed.
“What’s your name, dear?”
I gaped at them in fright for a full minute before pulling myself upright, lifting my visor, and attempting my most ferocious look. “Sir Shane of Bottlecreek, here to rescue the Princess Tanith.”
The ogre looked somewhat at a lost. “Tanith? Well, I’m not quite sure where she is at the moment. I haven’t seen her since she helped me do the breakfast dishes. She’s around here somewhere, though. Oh, Flavian!” she suddenly called.
I half turned and caught sight of a lean figure wrapped in a black cape with a heavily starched collar, slicked black hair, and a white complexion, glide down the spiral staircase at the other end of the hall. He glided over to us and I started in fright to realize he was a vampire.
“Yes, Evadne, my dear? And what do we have here?” he said, turning to me with curious black eyes glinting in the dim hallway.
“Flavian, please meet Sir Shane of Bottlecreek. He’s here looking for our Lady, the Princess Tanith. Sir Shane, this is Flavian–”
“Duke, Evadne. Duke Flavian of Moors, never forget that, darling.”
The ogre rolled her eyes and huffed. “Fine. Sir Shane, this is Duke Flavian of Moors. He will lead you in a tour around our castle and you’ll eventually find Tanith.”
“Come along, Sir Shane of Bottlecreek.”
He turned and I took a tentative step towards him. Then the vampire turned abruptly and I stopped dead in my tracts, my eyes wary and my beige-encased hand resting on my empty scabbard at my hip.
“Oh, and Eva, the mouse blood this morning, sehr gut.”
The ogre grinned shyly. “Thank you, Flavian. I just added a little cinnamon to your goblet.”
“Bon. Come, Sir Shane.”
He whipped out a handful of cinnamon sticks and turned, catching my arm in his hand. I held myself stiffly as he munched on the cinnamon and led me to the end of the hall towards a mahogany door.
“I simply adore cinnamon,” the vampire said conversationally as we halted so he could admire himself in the giant hall mirror. “Have you ever tried it? It’s delicious. I just can’t stop eating it. Oh, I know you’ve heard all the stories, but I find human blood terrible, absolutely horrid. It’s sour and…just horrid. I can’t stand it. It’s horrible for my complexion. Makes me terribly blotchy. But, I must have a daily dosage of blood to keep my strength up. After some experimentation, with some nasty results to my digestive system, I assure you…”
The vampire continued on like this as we passed into a ballroom and as he peered at himself in every single mirror or shiny surface we came to, interrupting his own discourse to ask if his hair looked right, if he didn’t look just a tad tired, and were those bags under his eyes (no, it couldn’t be, could it?)? The gist of his explanation on his eating habits, though, was that he seemed to adore mouse blood, and the castle was absolutely infested with mice. He also enjoyed cinnamon (as evident), oranges, tangerines, and green bell peppers (“Love them. Just can’t get enough of them. Eva makes them so well, you know.”).
I followed him into the library, wondering what the heck I was doing, and wondering what those loud noises were coming from behind the heavy doors.
“I tell you, woman, it’s driving me crazy!” a high pitched male voice cried out off to my left.