As if she were narrating a mansioners’ play, Elodie spoke across the strait. " And so our heroine " — she blushed at calling herself heroine—"young mistress Elodie, returns to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she has become — " She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.
Her traveling companions joined her at the bow railing while the cog rose and fell in moderate swells. On her right, His Lordship, Count Jonty Um, an ogre, who rarely spoke, said nothing. His dog, Nesspa, a tawny, long-haired mountain hound—a big dog for a person but not for an ogre — sat at his feet, panting.
On Elodie’s left, her masteress, the dragon Meenore, creator of the foul smell, drawled in ITs nasal voice, "I believe I see a pimple on the horizon, Lodie."
"Elodie." She breathed through her mouth. She had come to like ITs stench, but the adjustment always took a few moments.
"Do not correct your elders, Lodie." IT used her full name only on grand occasions when she’d won ITs approval. "And certainly not your employer." IT was a detecting dragon, and she ITs assistant.
A winter wind straight from Lahnt attacked the cog. She clutched her cap—newly bought, hardly worn by its former owner, mainland made, pink with red roses—and squinted into the distance. Might that dot be Lahnt? she wondered. Right now at Potluck Farm, smaller than a pinprick in the dot, Mother would be dressing under the coverlet, while Father, already in his tunic and hose, added a log to the fire. His helper, her friend Albin, would be imploring the sun to stop rising and grant him more sleep. It was Albin who’d taught her to mansion—act.
If she were there—if she’d never left home—she’d be laughing at Albin, jumping up for Father’s morning hug, eager for Mother’s pottage and even for her tart chiding, but dreading another day herding geese.
When she returned, however, she’d have the happiness of home and the joy of the people she loved. The geese would be bearable, since they were no longer her fate.
"What should we know of your native land, Lodie?"
She leaned back against the bulwark railing and addressed ITs ugly face, the long snout covered in brownand- orange scales and the lipless mouth over which hung two crooked yellow fangs. "Just mountains and farms and tiny villages, Masteress. Few own anything worth caring about if it’s lost." IT excelled at finding lost items. "Lahnt has brunkas, though."
"Brunkas . . . Brunkas . . ." ITs smoke rose in puffs. "Brunkas . . . Ah, yes. Not human or fairy or elf. Certainly not dragon or ogre. Residing on the island of Lahnt and nowhere else, and not numerous even there. One lives on every mountain, and one in each village. A bevy dwell together in the north, where the children—"
"Brunkles," Elodie said. "That’s what young brunkas are—"
"Neither interrupt nor correct your elders, Lodie. Where the brunkles are born and raised. Brunkas are short creatures even when full-grown, kindly, oddly willing to sacrifice their comfort for others. Calm and rarely rattled. Possessed of sharpened senses: sight, hearing, and smell."
Count Jonty Um boomed—he could speak softer than a boom only with effort—"They can make rainbows, can’t they, Elodie?" He always used her full name, and she always had his approval.
She craned her neck up at his pleasant, enormous face. "Most can just flick out little ones, but I’m told High Brunka Marya can send hers across a whole valley."
IT wrinkled ITs eyebrow ridges. "They have their flaws, too, do they not? Good, but faultfinding. Uncompromising."
Elodie rushed to their defense. "They help the deserving!"
"And decide who that is, Lodie."
She shrugged. "Some say they’re the best thing about Lahnt."
In the afternoon the cog docked in the tiny harbor village of Zee. Elodie couldn’t miss the villagers’ fright when they saw an ogre and a dragon. Her stomach, though pleased to be on dry land, tightened. Albin, who’d seen the world, wouldn’t mind, but her father’s teeth chattered at the mere mention of ogres or dragons. Lambs and calves! Mother might run at them with the long rake, as she’d done when a bear had lumbered into their yard. Masteress Meenore cared nothing about the disdain of others, but His Lordship suffered, and Elodie ached in sympathy.
What if her parents were to insist that IT and His Lordship leave and she remain at home?
The three stayed in Zee barely long enough to buy provisions for the journey and to load two oxcarts, the first with His Lordship’s many trunks and Masteress Meenore’s hoard (mostly cases of books, although IT couldn’t read). Elodie’s thin satchel went on top in a blink. The second cart held Masteress Meenore. IT could fly great distances but trudge only short stretches. His Lordship walked next to the first cart, guiding the oxen. Nesspa kept pace at his side.
Elodie drove the second cart. Masteress Meenore rested ITs head next to her on the driver’s bench and kept her warm.
Of course they could have flown. Elodie’s masteress had carried her on ITs back in the past, and—but for Nesspa— His Lordship could have shifted into a bird. There was no rush, however. The count was traveling for pleasure; Masteress Meenore had come along for pay and curiosity. Both wanted to see the wonders on the way to Elodie’s parents’ Potluck Farm, where they hoped to spend the winter.
Elodie tightened her jaw. If Mother and Father wouldn’t consent to her companions’ presence, she’d leave with them, for the excellent reason that Masteress Meenore provided her livelihood—her fascinating livelihood.
An hour outside Zee they camped for the night. The journey north would take two weeks if the weather favored them. November could be mild or harsh, and few traveled between October and April. Lahnt ran southwest to northeast, a hundred fifty miles long, the whole of it a chain of seven mountains, as close together as teeth in a wolf’s jaw. The one major river, the Fluce, wound through the valleys. The one major road kept to the midslopes, above the spring floods. The going was rough even when the sun shone, as it did the next morning when they set out in earnest.
Natural marvels surrounded them: enormous sky, spiky peaks, sheep and goats dotting the mountainsides, purpleand- white toad lilies that lined the road and bloomed in Lahnt even through light snow, blue waters of the strait to the southeast, and green waves of the ocean to the west, both visible on a clear day. But these sights were all too familiar to a farmer’s daughter who hated farming.
As they rounded Bisselberg, the lowest mountain in the range, IT surprised Elodie, who had never heard IT sing before, with a ditty:
"There once was a dragon called Larragon, who wore neither robe nor cardigan yet was still fashion’s true paragon with scales that sparkled like platinum as ITs crimson flame flared and carried on."IT switched register from line to line, soprano to bass and back, confounding Elodie yet again as to ITs gender. Someday, she swore silently, I will find out.
"Travel brings out the minstrel in me, Lodie. Perhaps I will sing again and torment you anew with curiosity." IT laughed, sounding like a donkey holding its nose: Enh enh enh.
Later, while they shared their midday meal, IT asked, "What are the mountains called?"
Elodie paused with a meat pasty—a small meat pie— halfway to her lips and rattled them off: "South to north: Bisselberg, Ineberg, Svye, Zertrum, Navon, Dair, Letster."
"Did you learn the names charmingly as a babe at your mother’s side, Lodie?"
She swallowed a morsel of pasty. "I suppose. ‘Bear Is So Zany, No Dogs Lie.’"
His Lordship murmured loudly, "Nesspa never lies," and scratched the dog behind his ears.
"Ah. A memory device derived from the first letter of each mountain. Bisselberg, Ineberg, Svye, Zertrum, Navon, Dair, Letster. Beautiful Island’s Seven Zeniths Never Disappoint Lahnters. Mine is better."
How clever IT is, Elodie thought proudly. "Mine is shorter and easier to recall."
"You will remember mine forever. Will we soon approach any Lahnt landmarks?"
"We aren’t far from the Oase, where thousands of relics of Lahnt and brunka history are kept. It’s on Ineberg, the next mountain. High Brunka Marya, the Ineberg brunka, lives there with her bees—her helpers."
"Bees are people, Your Lordship. You might think they’re servants, but they’re more than that. The Oase is close to the road. We could stop"—she mansioned the longing out of her voice—"if you’re interested." The Oase held the Replica, Lahnt’s most important wonder. Every Lahnter wanted to see it at least once, and she never had.
"Does the high brunka like ogres?"
"She’s probably never met any. But brunkas are friendly."
Count Jonty Um said nothing for a full five minutes, then, "Perhaps we can come back before we leave Lahnt."
A lump of sympathy rose in Elodie’s throat. His Lordship had reason to be shy. She swallowed her disappointment and the lump. "Of course." With luck they’d meet a brunka on the road, and with more luck, the brunka wouldn’t greet an ogre with fright and loathing. Then the count might really want to come back.
At night, after the evening meal, they slept under bright stars, Elodie rolled up in her cloak, His Lordship rolled up in his, Nesspa curled in the crook of his knees, the three of them close enough to Masteress Meenore to enjoy ITs warmth.
A wet dawn woke them. They crossed the valley between Bisselberg and Ineberg in a steady rain. As the carts climbed the lower slopes of Ineberg, the downpour turned to snow. His Lordship lifted Nesspa into his cart. IT spread a wing protectively over Elodie, whose cloak steamed dry in a trice. While the landscape turned the page from fall to winter, she sat, munching on a raisin roll, in an alcove of summer.
The snow thickened. Occasionally they passed a path, which would be the route up the mountain to a farm cottage or down to the river.
By evening, they were in a blizzard. Snow invaded Elodie’s haven under Masteress Meenore’s wing.
The road vanished. Elodie’s oxen halted. She couldn’t see the cart ahead—or her hand an inch from her eyes. Snow surrounded them, wove them into a frigid cocoon. She wondered how His Lordship, Nesspa, and the oxen could draw air to breathe.
Where was His Lordship? Were his oxen still lumbering on?
People and beasts died regularly in blizzards on Lahnt, although she was in no danger. Nor was His Lordship—if he could make his way back to them. Masteress Meenore would keep them both warm, but she doubted IT had heat enough to prevent the oxen from freezing to death.
Where was His Lordship?