Margueritte looked into the dark and felt immediately overwhelmed by the smell of mold and old bones. She turned her head. “Will you wait for me?” she asked, and the unicorn agreed. Margueritte nodded her thanks, and with tears in her eyes, from fear as much as from the smell, she stepped into the dark of the graves.
Down a long corridor, and she had to turn away from the light altogether. She needed her hand at that point to touch the wall and not lose her way. She felt sure she touched dead bones more than once, but the bones and the dark did not frighten her. The ghosts of lost souls that haunted the passageways raised the hair on the back of her neck.
She came to no more turns before she caught the glimmer of firelight ahead. She heard the deep, gravel voices of the ogres in the distance, but curiously, they did not make her nearly as afraid as the thought of ghosts.
“The lady will be happy with the girl,” one said.
“Is that what it is? A girl?” That sounded like a much deeper voice. Margueritte guessed the first one was the female—the smart one.
“I’m hungry.” That had to be the little one, though it was hard to tell by the voice.
“The sheep’s a boiling,” the female said. “We’ll get a good winter’s nap from that lot.”
Margueritte shook her head as she neared the light. The sheep were already gone. She only hoped Elsbeth was still in one piece.
“Eh!” That was an imp voice. “Fingers out of the pot.” She heard a sharp crack of a metal spoon rapped against rocks, which Margueritte rightly interpreted as the ogre’s knuckles.
“Ow! But I like it more raw.” The ogre complained in a voice which suggested he might be the grandfather.
Margueritte stole that moment to peek and guessed that the ogres would all be turned away. Sure enough, their eyes were on the fire and the old ogre who licked his knuckles. The imp stood on a tall stool over a cauldron big enough for three men where she stirred the meat with a spoon studded with spikes against over eager hands.
“Well, just wait with the rest.” The imp went back to stirring, while Margueritte, who saw an opening, took that moment to sneak in behind a rough-hewn cabinet which had been pushed only lazily toward the wall. She waited there a long time while the ogres argued over the stew, before they settled grumpily around the tremendous fire which took up the whole center of the room. Margueritte appreciated the cabinet, since the heat from the fire felt sweltering.
Elsbeth sat in the corner, well away from the fire, her hands wrapped with thick chords of rope, tied to the bench she occupied. Margueritte imagined the imp tied her there since she would be the only one with fingers capable of tying a knot without accidentally breaking Elsbeth’s wrist. Elsbeth looked awake but stared blindly as if in shock and unable to fully comprehend what was happening to her. Margueritte tried several times to get her attention, but to no avail.
At last the imp declared the sheep ready enough and everyone grabbed a favorite piece and began to munch, bones and all. Margueritte, who had been brought up with some manners felt repulsed by the scene. She knew she ought to wait until they finished and hopefully went to bed, or at least to sleep, but the longer she stayed behind the cabinet, the more worried she became. It would be dark soon. The unicorn might not wait much longer. Surely, they are so absorbed with eating, they will not notice her. She saw a cupboard of sorts and a terribly oversized wooden bucket she could slip behind along the way. And all this finally convinced her to move before it was prudent.
The cabinet was easy to get to. But the bucket sat some steps off. She decided to try the old rock throwing routine, but her first rock, instead of sailing over the heads of the ogres and making a nice clattering sound on the other side of the cave, it slammed into the father ogre’s head. Then again, he did not even feel it and only paused long enough to mumble something about nasty insects.
Margueritte’s next stone sailed truer to the target. It did not clatter quite like she hoped, but it did turn the ogre heads long enough for her to dash to the bucket.
“More likely rats.” The mother ogre commented before they returned to their feast. “Maybe we can catch some for dessert.”
Elsbeth saw her sister suddenly and looked about to shout out. Margueritte barely kept Elsbeth quiet long enough to hunker down behind the bucket rim. She still concentrated on keeping her sister quiet when the father ogre got up and stepped to the bucket. He scooped up a drink in the tremendous ladle and then splashed the scoop back into the bucket which caused the water to slosh over the side and soak Margueritte’s head. One step and the ogre’s vision caught up with his brain, and his arm was much longer than Margueritte would have believed.
“Hey!” The ogre shouted and in one reach, scooped Margueritte up by her hair. Elsbeth screamed and that caused a moment of confusion, which allowed Margueritte to slip to the ground, free of the Ogre’s grasp. Marguerite flew to Elsbeth’s side, but the thick rope proved too hard to untie quickly. In a moment, the imp was on her and the ogre family blocked the way out.
“What have we here?” The imp asked.
“The Danna. The Don.” Margueritte answered without thinking. “And you have invaded my house without asking.” Her fear made her angry and opened her mouth with whatever words might come out.
“Now come, pretty.” The imp reached out to grab Margueritte’s arm, but something like lightning from ruby slippers caused the imp to jump back and suck her fingers. Margueritte finished untying her sister. “I told Ping no children!” Margueritte shouted while the imp’s eyes widened as big as dinner plates.
“You saw my husband?” she whispered through her fingers.
“I said no children, and I never said he could have even one sheep,” Margueritte raged. “You stole them. You are thieves and you owe me your lives in return.” It seemed a bold madness drove the poor girl. Even Elsbeth stared. Margueritte grabbed her sister’s hand and marched to the door full of ogres. Elsbeth averted her eyes because they were so hideous to look at. Margueritte, however, stared right at them all and demanded. “Move!”
The mother, the young one and the dim-witted grandfather were all inclined to follow instructions, but the father bent down and tried to grin. Lucky, Elsbeth was not watching. The sight of an ogre grinning could make the strongest stomach give it up.
“Now, then, you don’t mean it,” the ogre said. “Why not stop for a bite to eat and a bit of calm down?”
Margueritte’s fear peaked. “Smasher!” She shouted the ogre’s name. “I said move!” She screamed and her little hand rushed out and slapped the rock-hard ogre jaw dead on. Of course, nothing should have happened other than Margueritte hurting her hand, but to everyone’s amazement, the ogre got knocked all the way to the wall and slid to his seat, unconscious. Margueritte was not about to look that gift ogre in the mouth. With a tight hold on Elsbeth’s hand, she raced down the long, dark hall and the other ogres gave her plenty of space. She turned toward the light. She heard the young one call after her.
“Don. Danna. Wait. Please.”
Margueritte did not wait. As soon as she got out the door, she saw the sun well on its way to the horizon. Gratefully, she saw the unicorn still there, not having moved an inch.
“Margueritte?” Elsbeth said, and followed immediately with, “So pretty!” The unicorn dropped to one knee and Margueritte placed her sister on the beast’s back. She slipped up behind while she told her sister to hold tight to the unicorn’s mane. Then they were off at a soft gallop which the girls hardly felt. Margueritte even had time to look back and see that ugly young head peek out of the open door. “Hammerhead is a dweeb.” Margueritte thought to herself and felt rather affectionate toward the youth, ogre though he was. She attributed the feeling to the unicorn and imagined that one could not do other than love in the purest sense when in such a creature’s presence. In truth, everything was by necessity pure in the presence of a unicorn.
Whether by magic or by design, only moments later they found Lord Bartholomew, Tomberlain, and several soldiers of the Franks. The troop halted and stared in wonder at the beast which carried the innocents. Margueritte got down right away when the unicorn stopped, a good ten yards from the troop. Elsbeth still hugged the unicorn, utterly in love, and Margueritte knew, fully cured from the trauma she had suffered. A tear of pure joy and gratitude showed in Margueritte’s eye when she leaned over and kissed the unicorn on the nose. Elsbeth did not want to let go, but Margueritte got her down, slowly. As soon as Elsbeth got free, the unicorn bounded into the forest, and so fast it looked like the animal vanished into thin air. Elsbeth cried, but her father came up quickly and lifted her in his arms.
Tomberlain hugged Margueritte to pieces. “I thought I lost my very best sister,” he said.
“I was so scared,” Margueritte admitted, and then she saw her dog draped over one of the soldier’s horses and she cried with her sister.
The next day, she told her family the whole story. Elsbeth praised her courageous sister and embellished the part in the ogre’s lair almost beyond reason. In turn, they told how they trailed her, how they found her old dog and, oddly enough, the tails of all the sheep hanging from a tree branch as if set out to dry in some strange ritual.
“I don’t think those ogres will give us trouble anymore, at least as far as children go,” Margueritte said, and then she wandered down to the kennels where her dog got buried and set a small wood cross on the grave.
“Mother?” she asked. “Do dogs go to heaven?”
“I don’t see why not,” her mother said. “God made them, too.”
After the trouble in Banner Bein, there are tales and secrets to tell… Until Monday, Happy Reading