The Enchanted Castle
One sunny morning, Jett went down to the market place to shop. He paid for a new round loaf with six iron shims, and then went to the tiny bookshop.
Ludmilla the huntress was there already, complete with her boots and tight jacket. From side on, her prominent nose made her look like a bird of prey.
"You're so beautiful," she remarked. "I've never said this to men."
"Oh?" Jett wasn't sure how to answer that. "Um… looking for any good book? I like the Chekhov scripts, even if we can't see them acted out around here."
She gazed at him, her brown eyes intense. He found himself faltering under her stare.
"Do you like the Cherry Orchard? It was about the end of an era," he added.
"That is very well put. We have a lot in common. I'm thankful for that. You are unbearably cute, and an intellectual as well." She interposed herself between him and the door and pushed herself up against him. The scent of the outdoors mingled with the aroma of tobacco hung about her. She pressed herself against him, mashing her firm breasts against his chest.
Madam Lola, the librarian looked up. "Personal space, Milla," she said.
Milla stepped back. "You may not realise it yet, but we're going to be seeing a lot of each other, boy."
Weird lady. Jett had all but forgotten this when he returned to the tumbledown shack he shared with his brother, Hindley. He groaned. Hindley was drunk again. Was he trying to give up on reality?
"You better have found work," he slurred.
"I just went to the market place," said Jett.
"You waste of space, must I do everything?" he burbled, his eyes bloodshot. He hurled a bottle against the wall, near Jett. If he had been aiming to hit the wall, he might actually have hit his brother, but as it was he had aimed at Jett, so of course he missed. Well there was nothing keeping Jett here. He could look for work far away…
Trekking through the woods, Jett began to feel less confident. His sense of direction was not that good, really. He could have asked Milla for help, but was a bit uneasy at the idea of being alone in the woods with her. Call it intuition.
Jett had only taken a basket with some sandwiches with him, but he quickly lost it when he strayed from the path trying to find a shortcut. He struggled through brambles and briar, the ground sloping upwards. Suddenly he was out of the trees. The moon was full now and bathed everything with an eerie radiance. A great wall stood before him. It looked old and cracked. Where was this? No one had told him there was a great stone building of any kind nearby. There was a huge iron gate. Rusty, but there was not padlock. He pushed it open and it swung aside with a terrible screeching sound. He slipped through the gate.
Beyond the gate was a rough and pitted drive leading to a huge, crumbling black house. Hideous gargoyles leered down from the cornices. Jett picked his way carefully towards the front door. Perhaps whoever lived in a place like this could offer work.
The knocker on the great, oak door was fashioned into the shape of an ugly, snarling face like the gargoyles above, but strangely, the door was slightly ajar. Jett pushed it and entered a gloomy hallway lit only by candlelight. The hallway led to a great, stone staircase, with corridors leading off on either side. Jett could hear whispering voices.
"What is this?" A girl's voice. It sounded like she had a French accent.
"A young lad, of course. Your eyes still work." An English lady. Milla was not the only one in the area who was not Greyland born, then.
Where were the voices coming from? Jett picked up the candle, casting flickering shadows on the walls. The scenes in the faded tapestries were bleak and gloomy…
"He has everything she liked. Wide dreamy eyes, smooth skin, a freckled nose and cheeks…"
"Can he reach her heart, that's the question?"
The French girl sounded like she was whispering into his ear. He turned round trying to see her. "Warmer, getting warmer," she murmured. Then he noticed the candle was round and had a little smiley face. "Hallo, you cutie." Jett gave a little start, almost dropping her. With the unreal, dizzy feeling you get from a high temperature he stared back.
"H – Hello." He decided against asking, 'what are you?'
"Come, sit by the fire. I'm Marie," chattered the candle.
"Olivia, head of household staff," came a voice from the clock, which Jett noticed had two beady little eyes in its face. "Right. Get him by the fire and we'll think about how to introduce him to the Mistress."
Something magical was at work here, clearly.
Jett went where Marie directed in the direction of a crackling fire and sat down in a rich, purple armchair. Olivia the clock hopped after them.
Jett sat down. The chair was very soft, like velvet. He almost felt himself sinking into it.
"How about some tea?" said Oliva. A trolley whizzed up of its own volition and a teapot poured some brown liquid into a cup. Jett wondered whether he was dreaming. He probably was. He picked up the teacup.
"He's supercute," giggled a high pitched girl's voice from the cup. The cup had a little smiley face on it and had spoken.
"H – Hello?" he stammered, wondering whether he should drink out of her.
Suddenly, the door was kicked aside and a shadow fell across the room. Jett felt a thrill of foreboding.
Olivia spoke. "Ah. Mistress, we have an important guest, a handsome young fellow as you can see…"
The sound of heavy breathing and then a huge figure loomed over Jett. He gave a cry at the sight of her face…
She was huge. Maybe ten feet tall. Her face was an immobile grotesque mask that looked like it was moulded out of green rubber, with angular cheeks and a pointed chin. Only her blue eyes were alive and bright through eye holes in the mask. Jett stared transfixed. He couldn't help it. The awful sight mesmerised him. The mask-like face moved, stretching weirdly and she spoke in a rumbling voice.
"Why are you here, boy?" The voice was a woman's but unnaturally low pitched, adding to her whole uncanny aspect. She leaned close to him. She was breathing through her nose, making a weird, wheezing sound.
"I – I – " he stammered, unable to tear his gaze away from her.
"What are you staring at?" she demanded, and her husky voice was trembling. Was she near tears?
"Sorry," he said quickly, reaching out to touch her cheek to comfort her. Her face even felt like cold rubber. Her blue eyes stared through the holes in her mask of a face. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"*Ahem* Dinner," chimed Olivia the clock.
The grotesque lady rose. Her hair was long, glistening strands… or tentacles. They seemed to writhe all on their own. The intricate designs on her blue robes seemed to shimmer and shift in the firelight as she moved. The firelight shone off her green nose and cheeks. "I do not need your prompting, Olivia. Boy, I am the Countess. Tell me your name."
"Jett," he replied, "look, I'm really sorry, I should have explained myself…"
She put a long green finger over her mouth. "Save it."
The dining hall was lit up by a crystal chandelier, bristling with candles. The enchanted servants got dinner ready in record time, including a rack of steaming roast lamb. The smell made Jett's mouth water.
He had told her he was going to explain himself. He had to somehow balance eating and talking at her from across the long table. Her goblet and cutlery were all really weird and elongated, like she was. The gravy jug ran across the table on stubbly little legs. It didn't have a face on it or try to speak. Had some of the strange household objects been people once? He tried to speak up so his voice carried all the way across the room to the Countess. "I was looking for work. Since father died, it's just me and my brother at home and erm…" he wasn't sure what to say with all the strange servants probably listening. He beckoned to her.
"You come and whisper into my ear," she said imperiously.
Her sidled up to her, slipping into the seat next to her and kneeled in the seat as she leaned towards him and pushed the tentacles coming out of her head to one side. "My brother has a violent temper. I'm afraid of him," he whispered.
She wrapped her long arm around his shoulders. It had an unpleasant, squishy feel, like rubber or taffy. "I see. Well you have nothing to fear here. Tell me what kind of work you are looking for."
"I – I don't know…" he hadn't thought ahead. "I'm not good at anything."
"You don't get to decide that," she snapped. "Now what do you like doing?"
"I – I like reading," he said, remembering going to the bookshop that evening. He thought he should mention Shakespeare. He was timeless. Jett liked King Lear best of all, but Romeo and Juliet was timeless as well, and more popular. "Romeo and Juliet is great if you have someone to read it aloud with."
"Ahhh… you are right. Shakespeare must be read or acted with passion, or it becomes turgid. As to his romance, I have had a long time to reflect on life. And I have found a new appreciation for matters of the heart. I may have a place for you in my staff. How does librarian sound?"
"Oh, that would be great!" He tried to put his arms around her. She was thin enough despite her height, that he could get his arms around her. She seemed to stiffen and he could hear her weird, wispy breathing.
"Listen to me, Jett… you will of course have noticed something … odd about this place."
"Oh no," he protested, not sure how he should respond to be polite.
"Don't try to be funny," she snapped. "As I was saying… I ran afoul of one of the old gods and he cursed me. And my household. My servants, my charges are cursed as I am. I regret that even more bitterly than my own tragedy. The results of which you can see. It is my own fault."
"No…!" said Jett. "The old gods ran roughshod over mortals. You couldn't be responsible for what one of them decided on a whim to do. I've read the mythologies."
She did not reply at first. He wondered if he had offended her. "So, you've read about them? I hope you never have to experience them."
The library was even better than he had expected. Towering shelves laden with books on all subjects from all eras…
"This is wonderful, Countess."
"Don't call me Countess," she snapped. "Call me… Milady."
"Yes, Milady," he said. Hadn't she introduced herself as the Countess though?
She gazed down at him, her mask-like face expressionless as always. "I will give you your instructions tomorrow."
Jett's bedroom was decorated with lush, green drapes and had a fourposter. The Countess was certainly a very hospitable lady. Jett felt indignation at the god who had cursed her.
"You're very welcome here, pet," said a voice from the wardrobe. Jett wasn't really surprised to find that the wardrobe had a carved face and a human voice. She sounded like a lady from England, like Olivia, although probably from further North. England was just a ferry journey away. In this world, Greyland is a tiny island in the middle of the North sea.
"We don't want anything from you, lovely. We're all just friendly, like," the wardrobe assured him.
The Countess retreated to her tall tower that evening. Her special private retreat where she contemplated. For the first time in years, she dared to hope… could she have found a way to save her household from the terrible curse she had brought on them all.
Zeldalia, her faithful servant, transformed by the curse into a live, mantis-maid marionette, reared up from the dark corners of the contemplation room. She rubbed her wooden legs together, creating an eerie, dirge-like melody.
"A good evening to you, Zelda," said the countess.
"You are preoccupied, Mistress?" hissed Zelda.
The Countess sighed. "Yes. A boy arrived today. I am amazed he found us, with the haze of enchantment on the place."
"A boy?" Zelda muttered.
"A devastatingly handsome youth," said the Countess. "It's been so long since I sat at the table with anyone so attractive. I admit… there was a time when I would have just taken him to my bed immediately and never mind the preliminaries. How shallow I was." She sighed.
"What's he doing here?" buzzed Zelda. "This enchanting creature?"
"Just looking for work. The poor lad is down on his luck. But what I'm thinking now is that he may very well be the one to break the curse."
"Break the curse?" Zelda's voice had an edge to it and she rubbed her legs together menacingly.