I ended the first installment a little too soon, I realized yesterday. There’s a little more of that scene I should have included. Here is it.
She was tall and pale, with long gray hair that hung to the back of her knees, although she did not look older than when he had last seen her, at his wedding. She wore a gray linen dress that, although it was midsummer, reminded him of winter.
“How is my nephew? This is his name’s day, is it not?”
“It is, Lady. As to how he is –” The miller told her. He might not have, if the beer had not loosened his tongue, for he was a proud man and he did not want his sister-in-law to think that his son was doing badly. But with the beer and his worries, it all came out – the days Ivan spent staring out of windows or walking through the countryside, how the local farmers thought of him, even that name – Idiot.
“I warned you that no good comes of a mortal marrying a fairy woman,” said the Lady. “But those in love never listen. Send my nephew to me. I will make him my apprentice for three years, and at the end of that time we shall see. For his wages, you may take these.”
She handed him a purse. He bowed in acknowledgment, saying, “I thank you for your generosity –” but when he straightened again, she was already walking away from him. Just before leaving the innyard, she turned back for a moment and said, “The Castle in the Forest, remember. I will expect him in three day’s time.”
The miller nodded, although she had already turned away from him. As he rode home, he looked into the purse she had given him – in it was a handful of leaves. He wondered how he was going to tell his son about the bargain he had made. But when he reached home, the boy was sitting at the kitchen table whittling something out of wood, and he simply said, “I have apprenticed you for three years to your aunt, the Lady of the Forest. She expects you in three day’s time.”
The boy did not say a word. But the next morning, he put all of his possessions – they were few enough – into a bag, which he slung over his shoulder. And he set out.
In three day’s time, Ivan walked through the forest, blowing on the whistle he had carved. He could hear birds calling to each other in the forest. He whistled to them, and they whistled back. He did not know how long his journey would take – if you set out for the Castle in the Forest, it can take you a day, or a week, or the rest of your life. But the Lady had said she expected him in three days, so he thought he would reach the Castle by the end of the day at the latest.
Before he left, his father had looked again in the purse that the Lady had given him. In it was a pile of gold coins – as the miller had expected, for that is the way fairy money works. “I will keep this for you,” his father has said. “When you come back, you will be old enough to marry, and with such a fortune, any of the local girls will take you. I do not know what you will do as the Lady’s apprentice, but I hope you will come back fit to run a mill.”
Ivan had simply nodded, slung his bag over his shoulder, and gone.
Just as he was wondering if he would indeed find the castle that day, for the sun was beginning to set, he saw it: through the trees, its turrets rising above a high stone wall.
He went up to the wall and knocked at the wooden door that was the only way in. It opened, seemingly by itself. In the doorway stood a white cat.
“Are you the Idiot?” she asked.
“I suppose so,” he said, speaking for the first time in three days.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “You certainly look the part. Well, come in then, and follow me.”
He followed her through the doorway and along a stone path that led through the castle gardens. He had never seen such gardens, although in school his teacher had once described the gardens that surrounded the King’s castle, which she had visited on holiday. There were fountains set in green lawns, with stone statues spouting water. There were box hedges, and topiaries carved into various shapes. There were pools filled with waterlilies, in which black and orange carp were swimming. There were arched trellises from which roses hung down in profusion, and an orchard with fruit tress. He could even see a kitchen garden, with vegetables in neat rows. And all through the garden, he could see cats, pruning the hedges, tying back the roses, raking the earth in the flower beds.
It was the strangest sight he had ever seen, and for the first time it occurred to him that being the Lady’s apprentice would be an adventure – the first of his life.
The path took them to the door of the castle, which swung open as they approached. An orange tabby walked out and stood waiting at the top of the steps.
“Hello, Marmalade,” said the white cat.
“Good evening, Miss Blanchefleur,” he replied. “Is this the young man her Ladyship is expecting?”
“As far as I can tell,” she said. “Although what my mother would want with such an unprepossessing specimen, I don’t know.”
The orange cat bowed to Ivan and said, “Welcome, Ivan Miller. Her Ladyship is waiting in the solar.”
Ivan expected the white cat, whose name seemed to be Blanchefleur, to leave him with Marmalade, but instead she followed them through the doorway, then through a great hall whose stone walls were hung with tapestries showing cats sitting in gardens, playing instruments, even hunting for rabbits and catching fish. Here too there were cats, setting out bowls on two long wooden tables, and on a shorter table set on a dais at the end of the room, for what would evidently be an evening feast. As Marmalade passed, they nodded, and a gray cat who seemed to be directing their activities said, “We’re almost ready, Mr. Marmalade. The birds are nicely roasted, and the mint sauce is really a treat if I say so myself.”
“Excellent, Mrs. Pebbles. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to those birds. Tailchaser said that he caught them himself.”
“Well, with a little help!” said Mrs. Pebbles, acerbically. “He doesn’t go on the hunt alone, does he now, Mr. Marmalade? Them as boasts most does least, that’s what I’ve always found. Oh, begging your pardon, Miss,” she said when she saw Blanchefleur. “I didn’t know you were there.”
“I couldn’t care less what you say about him,” said Blanchefleur, which a sniff and a twitch of her tail. “He’s nothing to me.”
“As you say, Miss,” said Mrs. Pebbles, not sounding particularly convinced.
At the back of the great hall was another, smaller door that led to a long stone hallway. Ivan was startled when, at the end of the hallway, which had been rather dark, they emerged into a room filled with sunlight. It had several windows looking out onto a green lawn, and scattered around the room were low cushions, on which cats sat engaged in various tasks. Some were carding wool, some were spinning it on drop spindles, some were plying the yarn or winding it into skeins. In a chair by one of the windows sat the Lady, with a piece of embroidery in her lap. One of the cats was reading a book aloud, but stopped when they entered.
“My Lady, this is Ivan Miller, your new apprentice,” said Marmalade.
“Otherwise known as the Idiot,” said Blanchefleur. “And he seems to deserve the name. He’s said nothing for himself all this time.”
“My dear, you should be polite to your cousin,” said the Lady. “Ivan, you’ve already met my daughter, Blanchefleur, and Marmalade, who takes such marvelous care of us all. These are my ladies in waiting: Elderberry, Twilight, Snowy, Whiskers, and Fluff. My daughter tells me you have nothing to say for yourself. Is that true?”
Ivan stared at her, sitting in her chair, surrounded by cats. She had green eyes, and although her gray hair hung down to the floor, she reminded him of his mother. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said.
She looked at him for a moment, appraisingly. Then, she said, “Very well. I will send you where you need not say anything. Just this morning I received a letter from an old friend of mine, Professor Owl. He is compiling an Encyclopedia of All Knowledge, but he is old and feels arthritis terribly his legs. He can no longer write the entries himself. For the first year of your apprenticeship, you will go to Professor Owl in the Eastern Waste and help him with his Encyclopedia. Do you think you can do that, nephew?”
“It’s all the same to me,” said Ivan. It was obvious that no one wanted him here, just as no one had wanted him at the mill. What did it matter where he went?