There is an old stone castle that perches, rather precariously, on the very tip-top of a steep hill in a strange land where things are often not as they seem. It is a finicky old castle with a temperamental moat, but that is no wonder as moats tend to like protecting things and this particular moat has not had the opportunity to fend off a visitor in a long, long time. That is because below the moat, wrapped around the foot of the hill like a tea-cozy around a mug, lies an enchanted forest. And almost everyone in that land knows better than to enter an enchanted forest—anything might happen.
In that castle, on the top of that hill, lives a ragtag group. There lives a jolly old Professor Spindle, short and round with no hair on his head but plenty on his chin. Professor Spindle lives with his brainy ten-year-old nephew Robin, and a nine-, almost ten-, year-old girl with straw-like red hair and a face full of freckles. Her name is Elsbett and she moved in when Professor Spindle found her sleeping amongst the potatoes in the garden, just over nine years ago. The three of them lived alone, content as a happy, familial trio, since that day those many years ago. That is, until just over three weeks ago. Just over three weeks ago, the three found themselves with two new members in their household: a housekeeper of poor constitution, Martin, who slouches around the castle with an ever-dripping nose and an omnipresent sneeze, and a household manager, Anastasia, with a permanently ill temperament.
Some say change is good. And, sometimes, it really is. But that change, dear reader, was not so good. No, that change is what started all the trouble—that change is what sent the happy trio’s perfect little world careening far, far off of its axis.
But here I go again, getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning—but when was that? Oh well, we’ll just jump right in, then.
Right now, at this very moment, Elsbett is lying sprawled across her bed, up in her room in the very highest tower of the castle. She flips to the last page of her mathematics lesson and springs up from her bed. She dances a jig, bouncing from one foot to the other, around the perimeter of her room, stopping at the small door beside her dresser. It is a very small door, suited to her very small room, and even Elsbett, who is very small herself, must duck her head as she leaves her room. She slides down the twisting banister of the winding staircase, her red hair flying behind her head like a flame as she lets out a loud “whoop!” She slides faster and faster down the winding staircase, until she comes shooting off the end in the dungeon.
“Hello, Lula!” Elsbett says, taking big strides into the dark, dank space. “It’s time to dust your scales!” Elsbett fumbles along the wall until her fingers connect with the handle of a broom. “Oh, come on out, Lula. Please?”
The floor quakes as Lula, a big dragon at a sturdy twenty feet long and three tons heavy, lumbers towards Elsbett. The dim lighting from the staircase glints off of her blue-green scales as she settles down on the floor in front of the little girl. She rests her head on her forepaws, carefully retracting her dagger-sharp claws.
“Now that’s a good girl,” says Elsbett, dusting Lula from the front the tip of her snout to the tip of her tail with her broom. Lula sighs, a rumbling sound punctuated by a short burst of flame, and rolls her red eyes. She does not like being dusted and does not understand why the small human always wants to clean her. There is no harm in a little bit of grime, she thinks. But she lets Elsbett complete her fifteen-minute midday routine, because the little human girl appeals to her maternal instincts. Lula is well into her mothering years but, being a choosy dragon in a not-particularly dragon-rich part of the land, does not yet have any little dragonlings of her own. Lula is fairly attractive, as dragons go, and had her fair share of suitors when she was a young, spry little thing, but that is a very different story. In the here-and-now, Elsbett finishes sweeping off Lula.
“There you are!” exclaims Elsbett, “Now you’re all clean!” She steps back a few paces to look at her work and grins with satisfaction. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go eat lunch with Robin. We’re going on a picnic!” With that, Elsbett spins around and bounds up the first flight of stairs, taking them two at a time.
As Elsbett runs into the kitchen, she runs straight into Anastasia, sending them both sprawling on the floor. “Oops,” giggles Elsbett, “Sorry .”
“EEK!” shrieks Anastasia, “My blouse! My new silk blouse! And my pants. My one-of-a- kind Oliver Vantucci pants! EEK!” Anastasia’s new designer clothes, which she seems to have an endless supply of, despite the apparent isolation of the castle, are ruined. The dainty porcelain cup in Anastasia’s freshly manicured hand is empty and a large, espresso-colored stain covers her front.
“Well, you did say espresso is very ‘in’ right now” Elsbett offers, looking only vaguely apologetic.
“Argh!” is all that Anastasia says in reply, as she teeters back onto her stiletto-ed feet and totters out of the kitchen, emitting high-pitched sounds of distress every few moments. Robin walks in, looking over his shoulder at Anastasia’s retreating figure.
“What did you do this time?” Robin asks as he opens the fridge and pulls out a carton of milk. He unscrews the cap and holds the carton inches above his mouth as he pours the milk in. “Ahhhhh.”
“I bumped into her and made her espresso spill,” answered Elsbett, with a little shrug, “I’ll make the sandwiches. You pack the drinks and desserts, ’kay?” She ducks under his arm and takes cherry jelly and peanut butter from the fridge, along with a long, golden baguette. She takes a sharp knife and slices the baguette right down the middle before slathering one half with almost an inch of peanut butter and the other with almost an inch of jelly. She sprinkles walnuts on the peanut butter half and slaps the two halves together, slicing the baguette into quarters. She wraps it all in a red- and-white checkered dishtowel. “Done!”
Robin finishes packing some things into a wicker basket and Elsbett throws her red-and- white checkered packet on top.
“Where are we going today?” asks Robin as the two leave the kitchen.
“You’ll see!” sings Elsbett, skipping ahead. She skips all the way to the big, wooden front doors, where she has to wait for Robin to catch up. They grab onto the heavy, brass door handles and throw their entire combined weight against it. The door creaks open slightly. They heave again, grunting as the door creaks open another centimeter. They give one more heave and the door flies open as easily as if its multiple-century-old hinges had been oiled minutes, rather than decades, ago. Elsbett and Robin slide backwards, but, expecting the unexpectedness of the strange-tempered doors, do not fall. Elsbett gathers up the wicker basket in one hand and takes Robin’s hand in the other.
“Come on. Come on, let’s go!” she says. “Go where?” asks Robin. “You’ll see!” she says. Robin sighs and brushes his average
brown hair off of his average sized forehead, blinking his average brown eyes. Elsbett’s appetite for adventure has landed the pair in several less than desirable situations, one of which involved a very upset gaggle of geese and copious amounts of dandelion syrup, and Robin has learned to know better than to take a surprise picnic at face value.
“Have I ever led you astray?” Elsbett asks, in response to his sigh.
“Well...” begins Robin, “there was that time that you said it would be a good idea to see what the—”
“Never mind that,” interrupts Elsbett with an agitated flick of her wrist, “You’ll like this. I promise.”
Robin sighs again, but he follows Elsbett out through the doorway, anyway. He always does. Elsbett and Robin are best friends and have been best friends since almost the very first moment that they met, when Professor Spindle brought Elsbett into the castle those many years ago and Robin offered to share his favorite stuffed animal, a one-eyed rabbit, with her. The rabbit has long since disappeared to the mysterious land of lost toys, along with a baby doll that spit water and a boomerang that never returned, but the friendship has only grown stronger with time.
“Is that watermelon juice?” asks Elsbett. Robin looks down over the side of the bridge, into the moat. Sure enough, today the content of the moat is a clear pink fluid that sloshes up against the bridge, leaving a sticky film in its wake. “I’m going to taste it!”
“I wouldn’t—” starts Robin, wrinkling his forehead. He looks skeptically at the pink liquid. It may look like watermelon juice, he thinks, but that doesn’t mean it is.
His warning is, as usual, too late. Elsbett has already leaned over the side of the bridge as far as she can and plunged her face into the moat. Robin holds his breath until Elsbett reemerges, grinning.
“Yum” she says, licking her lips, “There’s nothing like watermelon juice before a picnic!” With that, she grabs his hand and runs ahead, over the bridge. They run down the hill, past their usual picnic and playing spots, and keep running.
Uh-oh. Robin feels a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. They are rapidly nearing the foot of the hill and Elsbett is not slowing down. That can only mean one thing.
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