Once Upon a Winter's Night

Once Upon a Winter's Night

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by Dennis L. McKiernan
     
 

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From the bestselling author of the Mithgar novels comes a new version of a classic French fairy tale. A young woman marries a mysterious Prince, only to have magic steal him away-and, once upon a winter's night, her quest begins.See more details below

Overview

From the bestselling author of the Mithgar novels comes a new version of a classic French fairy tale. A young woman marries a mysterious Prince, only to have magic steal him away-and, once upon a winter's night, her quest begins.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101119266
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/01/2002
Series:
Once Upon , #1
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
319,007
File size:
0 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

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Once Upon a Winter's Night, Chapter 2By Dennis L. McKiernan

Chapter 2: Offer

Silence fell, but for the storm, and but for Giles's racking cough. Moments passed, none daring to say aught, none daring to move, except to stare wide-eyed at one another. Finally, Lisette whispered, "Perhaps it's gone." Yet no sooner had the words passed her lips, when again came the thunderous pounding, and all the girls but Camille screamed, she to wince and clutch Giles tighter, the lad yet gasping and wheezing with his cheek pressed against her breast.

"Papa," asked Camille, "how large is the Bear?"

"Huge," quavered the father, backing away from the entry.

"Large enough to smash down the door?"

"Oh, yes, Camille. Quite easily."

"Yet he does not," observed Camille. "Here, Papa, take Giles." She gave over the lad and blanket to her sire.

"What are you going to do?" cried the mother.

"I'm going to see what it wants," replied Camille, stepping toward the door.

"Oh, oh," cried Joie, clutching her twin, "now we shall all be killed." At this the girls began to weep, and huddled even closer together.

But Camille rotated the bar about its end axle and cautiously opened the door.

With the blizzard shrieking all 'round, the frigid squall howling inward and threatening to blow out the meager fire, a huge white Bear stood on the doorstone, its paw lifted as if to strike the planks again, the wind rippling its fur.

In the fluttering light cast by the struggling blaze, Camille, her loose golden hair aswirl, called out above the blast, "What is it you want, O Bear?"

The Bear raised its head up and turned it aside and stood very still, revealing a leather canister affixed to a strap about its neck, the cylinder a foot or so long and some three fingers in diameter.

Leaving the door to swing wildly in the wind, Camille knelt and with trembling fingers unfastened the tube, her heart beating frantically, for she was fearful of the Bear's great claws and teeth, though if the creature decided to attack there was little she could do to defend herself or her family within. The moment the canister was free, the Bear backed away a step or two, Camille suppressing a gasp of startlement at the great white beast's sudden move. But the Bear stopped and once again became still. Camille then stood and, shivering with cold or dread or both, stepped back into the cottage and grabbed the door and latched it shut. Inside, she heaved a great sigh of relief and slumped against the wind-battered planks, the storm howling to be let in again.

"What is it?" cried the father, he and Giles now huddled with the others, spinning snowflakes yet swirling through the air within and drifting down to the clay floor.

"It is a message tube," said Camille, pushing away from the door and moving to the table. She held the leather canister up for all to see, her hand yet trembling with residual fright. "Now and again by courier, Fra Galanni would receive one similar to this"-she glanced back at the rattling door-"but never one borne by a Bear."

Camille twisted off the cap and shook out a scroll from inside and set the canister down on the board.

"What does it say?" asked Aigrette, the mother moving opposite.

"It is sealed, Maman," replied Camille, showing her mother the fix of green wax holding the scroll closed, wax impressed with an ornate signet depicting a wide-branching tree-an oak, perhaps.

"Well, open it, for surely it was meant for us, else the Bear would not have brought it here."

Camille nodded and broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. The message it bore was written in a very fine hand.

"Read it to us," urged Lisette, now stepping to Camille's side.

"Oh, do," cried Colette, she and Felise rushing forward as well, the others crowding 'round the table after, including the father and Giles, the lad's coughing finally come to a stop.

They all craned their necks to look at the writing, which none could read but Camille, for, unlike them, she had been taught by Fra Galanni to read and write. Her mother had bound Camille over to the elderly monk as a servant girl at the age of eight, and she had attended him for nearly four years, until he had died of the ague.

Tilting the letter toward the firelight, the better to see the script, Camille quickly scanned down the scroll and sharply drew in a breath. She looked up at her father.

"Come, come, daughter, what does it say?" he asked.

Camille looked again at the letter and, her voice slightly quavering, read, "To the parents of the girl who sings in the field . . ."

To the parents of the girl who sings in the field: Greetings.
Fear not the Bear, for he would do you no more harm than would I. Think of him as my ambassador, and offer him your hospitality ere reading on.

Camille looked up from the page. "Papa, let the Bear in."

"Bu-but, what if-"

"The Prince of the Summerwood has so ordered," said Camille, gesturing at the letter.

"Prince?" gasped Aigrette, her eyes flying wide, a gleam of expectation within. "Henri," she barked, "do as Camille says."

Sucking in air through gritted teeth, Henri loosed his hold on Giles and stepped to the door and lifted the latch and opened it wide, the wild wind and snow howling about to set the strings of beans and turnips and other such to madly sway, the pots and pans to clang, and the fire and wrapped 'round blankets to whip and flutter in the blow. "Enter, Monsieur Bear," Henri called, his voice trembling, and then quickly stepped wide of the way. The great Bear ambled inward, the girls scrambling together and in a body retreating, Camille and Giles standing firm on the side of the table nearest the Bear, the mother cringing but remaining opposite.

Taking up most of the free space, with a "Whuff!" the Bear sat down and grunted as if in satisfaction.

Shutting out the storm, the father closed and latched the door, though momentarily he peered out into the fury beyond, as if perhaps seeking more bears or mayhap thinking of bolting.

With pale eyes, the Bear looked at Camille and the opened scroll and cocked his head.

"He wants you to go on," Aigrette whispered across the board.

Camille nodded and peered at the scroll again and started at the beginning once more:

To the parents of the girl who sings in the field: Greetings.
Fear not the Bear, for he would do you no more harm than would I. Think of him as my ambassador, and offer him your hospitality ere reading on.
That done...I am smitten by your golden-haired daughter, and I seek your permission to marry her-

"Not fair!" cried Lisette, outrage honing her words as she glared with dark blue eyes at Camille. "I am the eldest, and I should be first to marry. And to a prince at that."

"And I next!" called out Colette indignantly, her own blue eyes ablaze. "And a prince for me as well."

The Bear swung his great head toward the pair and a growl rumbled deep in his chest, and with small yips the two fell silent.

"A prince," hissed Aigrette to Henri, her eyes narrowing in calculation. "A prince wishes to marry our daughter. Go on, go on, Camille; pay your sisters no heed. Go on, read the rest."

Taking a deep breath, Camille continued:

...I seek your permission to marry her. If you accept, she will be the mistress of a grand estate, and my holdings in Faery are-

"In Faery?" blurted Giles, and then began coughing again.

Embracing the rail-thin lad, the father repeated, "In Faery? But therein dwell monsters most dire, and-"

"Quiet, both of you," snapped Aigrette. "Our daughter is to marry a prince. Read on, Camille. Pay no heed to your father and brother."

...my holdings in Faery are considerable. Too, if you accept, I will settle upon you a sizeable bride-price of gold as well as an annual stipend, enough for you and your remaining children to live in modest luxury.
I await your answer. If it is yes, my ambassador will bear her to me.
Until your decision, I remain,
Lord Alain,
Price of the Summerwood

Now the Bear sat back on its haunches and glanced from fretting father to avid mother and back again.

"Oh, but isn't this wonderful," said Aigrette, rubbing her hands together and beaming, her usually downturned mouth smiling for the first time in months. "Our own Camille is to be married to a rich-"

"But, Maman," protested Camille, "I don't wish to be wedded to someone I have never met."

"Hush, child," replied the mother. "You knew someday we would arrange a marriage for you."

Lisette shoved forward. "But you should first arrange a marriage for me," she angrily snapped, "for I am the eldest, while Camille is the youngest of all."

A clamor arose from the other girls, each crying out that they were certainly older than Camille, and the twins began arguing with each other as to which of the two had been born first, Gai crying, "Me!" and Joie crying, "No, me!"

"Be quiet, all of you," shouted Aigrette.

When a disgruntled silence fell, Aigrette said, "Don't you see, the prince asks no dowry, but instead will pay us a bride-price and an annual stipend for the hand of Camille. By accepting this proposal, not only will we have wealth to escape this dismal life your father has visited upon us, we will also have dowries for each of you, wealth to attract suitors."

With sharp intakes of breath, the girls looked at one another, realization illuminating the face of each. And then, clamoring, they turned to Camille, and she in turn looked at her father, tears in her eyes, but he could not meet her regard. In that moment Camille wished that Fra Galanni were there to comfort and advise her. Again she looked at her father and whispered, "Papa."

Henri turned to the Bear and said, "We will sleep on it."

"What?" demanded the mother in shock. "Sleep on it? Henri, the one who made the offer is a prince!"

Henri flinched, but then took a deep breath and gritted his teeth. "I said, we will sleep on it."

The great white Bear grunted, and lay down and closed his ashen eyes.

Henri took to his bed; Aigrette, sissing angrily, followed him. The girls, too, retired-Camille and the twins sharing the lower bunk, Lisette, Felise, and Colette sharing the upper-and Giles took to his cot by the fire.

In spite of the blizzard, the cottage was cozier that night, made so by the presence of the Bear, his huge bulk shedding warmth into the room. Yet at the same time the chamber was distressingly chill, for Aigrette seethed in frigid ire. Camille lay a long time awake in the angry whispers coming from her parents' bed-Aigrette raging at Henri, her furious hissings muted by the storm rampaging without and the great sleeping breaths of the Bear within.

The next morning dawned to quiet, for the blizzard had blown itself out sometime in the night. At breakfast, at the mother's urging, once again Camille read the letter to them all, and over their gruel they argued, and only Camille and Giles were opposed to the proposal: Camille would not wed someone she had never seen, and Giles would not lose the one sister he had come to love, who made him laugh and played riddle games and taught him échecs and who sang so sweetly. Henri did not speak, his ears weary from Aigrette's late-night harangue. The mother and sisters, though, clamored for Camille to quickly accept the fact that it was a prince whom she would wed.

The Bear sat silent, though he did share a bowl of the porridge with Camille, who had no appetite at all.

Finally, Henri said, "We must write a response unto the prince."

"Papa," said Camille, sighing, "we have no parchment, no pen, no ink."

"And even if we did have such," hissed Lisette, "how would we know what she had written on any note we would send?"

At this the Bear growled, and Lisette snapped her mouth shut.

"He seems to know what we are saying," said Aigrette, nodding toward the Bear. "Simply tell him that we accept and send him on his way to bring back the promised gold."

Tears in her eyes, Camille silently gazed at her father. Henri once again could not meet her mute stare. He turned to the Bear. "Come back in a sevenday, for then we will have our answer."

Angrily, Aigrette glared at him.

Grunting, the Bear moved to the door, and, before anyone else could stir, Aigrette sprang to her feet and opened the wooden-planked panel and led the Bear outside. 'Round the corner of the cottage she went with him, and there she said, "Come prepared to pay the bride-price and bear Camille away, for I shall see to it that she goes with you."

The Bear growled low-whether in ire or agreement, Aigrette could not say-and then ambled away from the stone hovel and toward the twilight border of mysterious and dreaded Faery, for therein strange and terrible creatures did dwell, or so it was said. Hugging herself against the cold, Aigrette didn't blink an eye as the Bear rambled across a pristine white field of new-fallen snow, leaving heavy tracks behind, to pass into the silvery twilight and vanish; but inside the cottage, with an eye pressed to a chink in the back wall, Camille watched as well, her heart beating swiftly in fright.

—From Once Upon A Winter's Night by Dennis L. McKiernan. (c) July 2001, Roc Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Used by permission.

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