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 contently 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 it’s 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 you’re 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. “It’s 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.”
It 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?