Part F, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
Fortunately, Ermie accepted her apology for thinking he was a giant white rat. He was sort of cute, once she got over her initial misconception. And quite charming with his accent.
“So, you’re a Scottish ermine?” she asked.
He replied in a distinctly non-Scottish accent, “Nope, I just really like the accent. And the ladies love it.” Then he winked at her and said, “Come along then, lass, or ye’ll be answering to Himself for tardiness. Tardiness.” And he scurried into a dark tunnel.
Good grief. Zoey refrained from rolling her eyes and clutched the softball-sized chunk of white quartz he’d given her. It had looked unremarkable in the fire-lit cave, but once they entered the dark tunnel it glowed brightly enough for her to see several feet in front of her. She hoped he didn’t want it back once they got out.
Zoey realized Ermie was muttering something and caught up with him so she could make out what it was.
“This is highly unusual. Highly unusual,” he said.
“You’re telling me,” Zoey said. “Cave Dragons, talking animals. What’s next?”
Ermie stopped and gaped at her. “She granted you her protection, lass. Her protection.”
“But that’s what she does, right? She protects treasure. People must come into her cave all the time with treasure to protect.”
“Lass, no one dares enter that cave without permission. They wait outside. Outside.”
“Oh?” So she’d breached dragon etiquette just by walking in. It’s a wonder she was still alive.
“Aye, she vowed to guard yer treasure. But she also granted you protection. Were ye not listening? She hasn’t done that . . . in centuries. Maybe not ever. Not ever.”
“Oh.” Well, that was unusual then. Zoey hoped it wasn’t going to be a problem when she needed to leave this place.
She touched the smooth piece of pale green sea glass the dragon had given her before they set out. It had a small hole in the center through which ran a delicately woven silver chain. The dragon had told her to keep it with her always and then stared at her, fierce and unblinking, until Zoey put it around her neck and promised not to take it off.
She and Ermie made their way through tunnels that were more dirt than rock in places, a passageway that hadn’t been used in some time if the spider webs were any indication. Parts of it narrowed enough that Zoey had to crawl, a claustrophobic sensation she disliked immensely, though it helped to have the ermine in front of her, urging her to hurry.
The last turn was rather abrupt and Zoey realized they’d emerged under a large stand of thick bushes growing near a back corner of the mansion. Nicely concealed, she’d never have noticed it. She climbed out of the tunnel after Ermie, tucked the quartz in her coat pocket, and just sat there, breathing in fresh air and savouring the sunset.
Wait a minute. The sun was still hovering at the halfway mark, just as it had been when she entered the cave. The only difference being that clouds had gathered on the horizon and prevented reflection on the flat sea. The top half was still glowing brightly.
She turned to ask Ermie how that was even possible, only to find him with one paw up to his mouth, making a low shushing sound. He gave a quick nod toward the cliff.
Ferraro stood there in the last rays of the setting sun, hands clasped loosely behind him, staring out to sea. For all his apparent ease, he was taut as a newly tuned string, displeasure radiating off him in waves that were almost tangible. Zoey remembered what the dragon had said about his temper and control and decided she might do well not to test it any further just now. Assuming she was the reason for it. Maybe he just hated sunsets. She moved to stand up and the ermine hissed at her.
“Sit down, lass. Ye’re a filthy mess. Ye cannae greet Himself looking like that. Not like that.”
Zoey figured her appearance was the least of her problems, if the look on Ferraro’s face was any indication. She flicked one hand in casual dismissal. “Oh, I don’t care ab–”
“Ack. Haud yer wheesht, lass,” he hissed.
“Hold my . . . what?” she whispered back.
“It means stop talking. Think before ye speak and have a care what ye wish for. Words have meaning and power. Aye, meaning and power.”
Zoey paused to consider the truth of that. “All right, yes, it would be nice to freshen up a bit. Perhaps you know of a nearby stream? Although, I wouldn’t say no to a long soak in a nice warm bathtub if you were to conjure one up.”
The ermine made a sound that could have been irritation or amusement. “Close yer eyes and be still.”
She did as instructed and felt the soft brush of paws whisking over her hair and face and then down over her coat and jeans. Quick movements, finished almost as soon as they began.
“Aye, that’ll take care of the worst of it.”
“What, no bluebirds to fix my hair?”
“Ye’ve a quick tongue, lassie. Some folks, such as m’self, appreciate that. Others,” he glanced at Ferraro, “others nae so much. Nae so much. Ye ken?”
Zoey sighed. “Aye, I ken.” She leaned over to brush a cobweb from his ear and then pressed a quick kiss on his soft silky head. “Thanks for your help, Prince Ermie.”
Not wanting to just pop up out of seemingly nowhere, or draw attention to the cave entrance, Zoey scooted around behind the back of the mansion before she stood up. She gently stretched her sorely abused muscles, shook her hands vigorously, then walked out into the side yard as if nothing were amiss.
Ferraro didn’t so much as twitch, but she could tell he sensed her presence by the way his posture seemed to get impossibly more rigid.
She walked up next to him, leaving a good few feet between them. “Lovely sunset.”
He slanted a sideways glance at her and there was thunder in his eyes, lightning too. Or maybe it was fire. She had an odd feeling in that moment that he knew exactly where she’d been and what she’d done the past several hours. She made a mental note to check for security cams on the beach, next time she ventured out. That there would be a next time was not even in question.
She turned her gaze out to sea for a moment, collecting herself as exhaustion started to set in, and when she looked at him again he was his normal cold and implacable self. He raised one sardonic eyebrow and waited, as if expecting her to speak.
What was it with the raised eyebrows all the time? Was it some kind of code? Like the language of fans? It was all she could do not to raise one back at him, though who knows what message she’d send. She kept her mouth shut and her eyebrows in place. She knew enough not to volunteer an explanation.
He cleared his throat. “Perhaps you’d like to invite your friends to dinner.”
He tilted his head in a slight nod, indicating something over her right shoulder.
No, it couldn’t be. Surely they wouldn’t. She turned, slowly, to see Ermie and Bubbie peeking around the far corner of the mansion. The dragon must have flown, there’s no way she’d have fit through the tunnels. Then it dawned on her . . . he could see them too? She wasn’t sure whether that was disturbing or reassuring.
“Ah, they aren’t my–” She cut herself off when she saw the twin looks of disappointment, the suddenly slumped shoulders of her new friends. Meaning and power. “Er, that is, they aren’t hungry. My friends ate earlier. I plan to leave some dessert on the back stoop for them later.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “I see. Do inform Cook. Perhaps then you’d care to dress for dinner.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Fine,” he repeated.
There went that eyebrow again, even higher this time. She could only imagine just how not-fine and bedraggled she looked. “Perfectly fine. I would like to wash my hands, though.”
“And perhaps your face,” he muttered under his breath.
But she heard and gave him one of her brightest smiles in return. “I seem to have lost track of time, exploring your lovely estate. I do hope I’m not late for dinner.”
He gave her an inscrutable look before he replied. “I’d say you returned just in time.” He made a sweeping gesture toward the front of the mansion. “After you, Ms. Prescott.”
Just before she turned away, she saw the sun set. In an instant, as if the string holding it up had suddenly been cut. And in an instant, the darkness of night was complete.
Zoey walked ahead of Anton to the front door she’d exited what seemed like a lifetime ago, and felt the weight of his disapproving stare on her back the entire way.
F is for Friends