- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st ed
- Age Range:
- 9 - 12 Years
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The Dragon of Middlethorpe
By Anne Leo Ellis
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1991 Anne Leo Ellis
All rights reserved.
The Apothecary Shop
It was St. Margaret's Day. Kate looked around the empty market square, clutched her long skirts, and ran across the cobbles. Her mother would be horrified at such unseemly behavior in a maid of thirteen, but Kate didn't care. It was such a glorious morning! As she turned into Spice Alley, she looked up at the tall narrow houses with their pointed roofs. It seemed to her the whole of Middlethorpe looked scrubbed and sparkling for Daisy's name day. Windows glittered in the sun. Shafts of light between the buildings illuminated the winding street and the wares of its shopkeepers, displayed on countertops in the open air. Kate darted back and forth among clumps of housewives and tradesmen, stopping only to play with some mangy dogs, old friends, who yelped joyfully when they caught sight of her.
But there was no time for play, Kate reminded herself sternly, pushing away assorted dusty paws and wet noses, steeling herself against several pairs of reproachful eyes. She dare not stop longer! Besides, though the errand at Master Clement's was for her mother, Kate had important business of her own. But each time before, when she had tried to speak, her throat contracted and her tongue turned into a huge lump. Perhaps today she would be brave enough to say something. She ran quick fingers through her always-tangled curls and smoothed her skirts, disordered from tussling with the dogs. Kate's heart pounded. If only her nerve would not fail this time!
She stopped for a moment to calm herself, admiring Master Clement's beautiful sign which swung gently in the breeze. It was the painting of a large mortar and pestle on a green background. Master Clement had explained to her that the green stood for the herbs and grasses he pounded in his mortar to make his medicines. Master Clement was the only apothecary for miles around, and everyone said he had more knowledge than the most learned doctor in London or Paris.
As she stepped into the cool, dim shop, Kate was engulfed by the pungent aroma of a hundred medicinal plants and herbs. A large stone mortar, model for the sign outside, stood on one side of a high oaken counter. On the other side rested a set of delicate brass scales. The walls were lined with a bewildering array of jars, bottles, and boxes filled, Kate knew, with countless varieties of oils and ointments.
Master Clement spent many days in the woods and fields around Middlethorpe gathering the roots and berries and barks, the leaves and grasses and fungi from which his medicines were derived. Kate loved to watch him at his work. Best of all were the times when he allowed her to help, weighing out powders and potions on the scales, or pounding berries and roots in the large stone mortar. Then he would tell stories of the herbs he had gathered, and of the strange lands where his spices grew. Kate thought that Master Clement's shop was the most wonderful place in the world. But at the moment it was silent and seemed empty.
"Master, are you there?"
"One moment, one moment." A head appeared over the high counter, followed by narrow shoulders covered with a dusty, herb-stained robe. The hair was gray and hung in wispy strands. The face was pale and delicate, with a network of fine wrinkles. "My daughter, what a pleasant surprise! How can I serve you?" Kate smiled up at him, startled as always by his height.
"Mother wants ginger and black pepper," she said, holding out a small fabric pouch. "She thinks Father may be home today from Flanders. She's preparing a feast for him."
"That is indeed good news," said the master, taking a jar from a nearby shelf. "And I shall be glad to get my spices." He poured precious black peppercorns into the pouch and added several dried roots of ginger. "Here you are, my daughter."
"Master, I came for another reason." Now! she thought to herself. Ask him!
"What is it? What do you wish to know?" Master Clement looked at her with kind, questioning eyes.
"Master, do you know Tim? The glassblower's apprentice?"
"Indeed I do! One of the finest young craftsmen in the district."
Kate relaxed. It was a good beginning. "Master, Tim loves glass, and is happiest when he is working with it. He told me being an apprentice is the greatest joy he could ever have dreamed of."
"That does not surprise me," replied the apothecary. "If one truly loves one's craft, nothing is more satisfying than the plying of it. I remember my days of apprenticeship with equal pleasure."
Now was the moment! Kate took a deep breath. "Master, I love herbs and healing as Tim loves his glass. I want to learn about them."
"That, too, does not surprise me," replied the apothecary. "It is a love you inherit from your Grandmother Kate. None other in these parts was as well-versed as she. But you already know a good deal, my child."
"Only what I have learned from watching you. Mother has an herb garden, but cares for naught save her kitchen plants. Master, I want to learn. Really learn. Not bits of this and that, as one does without thought. I want to become your apprentice." Kate stopped for breath. She had done it!
Master Clement stared. "My apprentice!"
"Why not? If Tim can be an apprentice, why can't I?" She looked at him anxiously, overwhelmed by a terrible thought. "Do you think I'm not clever enough?"
"Clever enough? I cannot think of another maid as clever."
"Well, then?" Kate clenched her hands and felt her face grow hot. "Is it perhaps because I am a maid?"
"Be calm, my child," said the apothecary. "Your grandmother was one of the most accomplished herbalists in the district, though she never had a day of formal training. But it is true that I have not known a maid to serve an apprenticeship." He stroked his chin reflectively. "And yet, why not? We live in new and different times." He lapsed into thought. Kate looked at him and held her breath. At last he spoke. "Why not, indeed? If noblewomen in Paris can learn to read, why should I not have a maid as my apprentice?" He chuckled. "Let me think on it, my daughter. It is a strange notion." He smiled and added, "But one I do not find distasteful."
"Oh, Master!" Kate was dizzy with joy. With relief. "Oh, I'll work hard and learn all you teach me!" She remembered the heavy volumes of herbal lore stored in his private living quarters. "Could I learn a little about reading, as well?"
"Perhaps, my child," said the master, still smiling. "Perhaps."
Kate was triumphant. Finally she had asked, and the master had not said no! Suddenly, with horror, she remembered the time. "I must go. It will soon be time for Daisy's feast. Will you be there as well?"
"Alas, no," replied the apothecary. "Two of the baker's little ones are ill and require a potion." He rummaged beneath the counter. "Later I shall send Daisy a sugar cone, but it must wait until your father arrives with my new supply. As for the other matter we discussed," he added with a reassuring nod, "we shall speak of it again."
As she made her way down Spice Alley, Kate felt she was floating. She knew that she would still need to persuade her father and mother of the plan. And it would not be easy, for Kate knew her father had no taste for his daughter's adventurous ideas. And her mother, absorbed with house and garden, could not fathom that a maid might yearn for something else. Fortunately, reflected Kate, they both thought more highly of Master Clement than of anyone she knew.
In a moment she was back in the great market square, surrounded by the grandest buildings in Middlethorpe. Kate loved the square, its large and splendid Guildhall, and the even more magnificent Cathedral. She paused for a moment to watch the stonecarvers at work on the figures of saints near the great doorway, and to marvel at the huge round opening that someday would hold Tim's rose window. With a slight shudder she passed the stocks, today fortunately without an occupant. Kate hated it when some poor wretch was forced to sit for hours with arms and legs clamped into that dreadful contraption.
Over her shoulder she caught a glimpse of Simkin and his dancing bear in the shadow of the Guildhall. She waved, but they did not see her, and reluctantly she continued on her way. Why were they here so soon? Kate wondered. Simkin came each year without fail for the Middlethorpe Fair, but it was still early. Her father was not even back from Flanders. At the thought of Master Simon's return, she started to run. Her mother was at home waiting for the spices, and Kate should have delivered them long before now. Besides, she still needed to gather flowers for Daisy's feast!CHAPTER 2
A Rumor of Dragons
Kate breathed deeply of the fragrant air, heavy with the scent of mint, wild flowers, and fresh summer grass. How beautiful the meadow was! Like the precious tapestry in the Guildhall — rich emerald green scattered with the sharp gold and white of a million daisies and buttercups, framed on the horizon by the dark line of the forest. She looked around. Everything was perfect! The beautiful day, the flower-strewn meadow, the outcome of her long-dreaded talk with Master Clement. With a burst of sheer joy Kate flung out her arms, spun around wildly, and collapsed dizzy and laughing in a tangle of skirts and grasses.
She sat up and looked back at Middlethorpe, spread over a shallow rise, the Cathedral's tower soaring above the massive wall that surrounded the town. Below, where Beechwood Brook ran through the fields, lay Daisy's tiny village. The weathercocks of Middlethorpe glittered in the sun, and the smoke of a hundred chimneys rose lazily into the cloudless sky. Kate could almost smell the simmering dinners, and her stomach growled, reminding her of Daisy's feast and that there would be wonderful things to eat! She sprang to her feet and turned her attention firmly to the daisies.
They grew thick all around her, gold and white, their slender stalks almost hidden in fresh young grass and fragrant mint. Swiftly she gathered an armful. Daisy was a nickname for Margaret, and today was St. Margaret's Day. Daisies for Daisy! Kate's gift would be masses of the flowers that bore her friend's name.
Hurrying through the fields, Kate caught sight of Beechwood Brook as it threaded its way to the village. On its banks the fullers were pounding and scrubbing mounds of woolen cloth, while masses of sheep tumbled over each other in their eagerness to drink. Beyond, almost hidden by a grove of ancient oaks, were the glassblowers. Kate wondered if Tim was there. She loved to watch him wield his blowpipe, shaping bubbles of blue or green, scarlet or purple, or of shining crystal that reflected all the colors of the rainbow. Suddenly she remembered that Tim would be at Daisy's feast to play his flute for the dancing. She could tell him about her talk with Master Clement!
Reaching the village, she hurried past the straw-thatched cottages, most of them empty, their occupants out in the fields or already at the celebration.
Daisy waved from the little cottage garden. She was small, with trusting blue eyes, and the child beside her looked like a tiny version of his mother. Robin. Though usually dressed in coarse homespun, today Daisy wore a sky blue gown that matched her eyes, every strand of hair hidden by a crisp white kerchief. Once when Kate had objected, Daisy had been shocked. "Miss! I'm wed, and a mother. It's not proper I should leave my hair uncovered for everyone to see! Wait till you're wed," she had added. "Then you'll understand."
Kate knew she'd never understand, but that was for another time. Right now nothing mattered except the festive day.
"For you." Kate gave the flowers to Daisy and bent down to hug Robin.
"Oh, Miss, they're beautiful! And just wait till you see what I have to put 'em in! Go out with the others," she said to Kate, pointing to the back garden, then hurried back into the cottage, little Robin trailing after her.
In the shade of a towering elm stood a table heaped with good things to eat, and leaning against the massive trunk or seated on the grass were the guests. Kate spotted Brother Luke, clad in a robe of coarse brown homespun belted with a heavy rope, his tonsured hair forming a ragged fringe around his shaven head. He was deep in conversation with Tim, who stood rumpling his shock of flaming hair, his gentle face deep in thought. Wat, the blacksmith, was on all fours giving two of his daughters a horse ride. Harry, Middlethorpe's innkeeper, held out his tankard to arthritic old Bet, who poured him a measure from an earthenware pitcher.
Someone grabbed Kate by the shoulder. "Sister! What kept you?"
She looked up into the smiling face of a boy not much older than herself. With close-cropped dark curls and gray eyes so like her own, there was no mistaking the connection.
"Geoffrey! Don't you remember? I went to pick flowers for Daisy."
Suddenly Kate heard the sound of fiddle and flute. "Look, they're starting to dance!" She watched the tall figure of Daisy's husband come through the garden, Robin perched high on his shoulder. He spun the little boy around until he was dizzy and laughing, then set him down under the great tree.
"Miss Kate!" he called. "A dance with old Rob, the gatekeeper!"
Kate jumped to her feet and off they went. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Tim, head bent over his flute, red hair aflame in the sun, and wished she were dancing with him. Soon everyone whirled and stamped in rhythm to the music, even Brother Luke. Finally they formed a large circle around the old elm, moving faster and faster, suddenly letting go hands and dropping, breathless and laughing, to the ground.
"Oh," gasped Jen, the plump and pretty wife of Wat, "I haven't danced like that since round the maypole in Lord Hugo's meadow!"
"It was a jolly dance," said Harry, carefully lowering his bulk to the ground. "You do well on that flute," he called to Tim. "You too, fiddler!"
"Cake! Cake!" Little Robin spied his mother coming from the cottage, bearing a vast pastry covered with apples and nuts.
Then everyone gathered to eat all the good things on the table. There were Daisy's cakes, stewed fruits and nuts, fish salads, egg dishes, and puddings made of curdled milk and spices.
"Tomorrow it's back to oats and cheese," said Wat, his mouth full of honey tart. "But I'll pretend my oatcake is stuffed with apricots and rolled in sweet sugar."
Daisy took some empty platters from the table and replaced them with her birthday surprise: a large jug of glowing purple glass filled to bursting with Kate's daisies. "Isn't it beautiful, Miss?" She looked at Tim. "There was no need," she said with a radiant smile, and hurried back to the cottage for more cakes.
"I'm glad I could make it for her," said Tim to Kate. "We all know Daisy's love of flowers."
Kate ran her finger along the jug's smooth curves, and straightened a flower. "I didn't know you could make such things, Tim," she said admiringly.
"We had pigment left over from a section of the rose window," he explained. "The master said I might have it." He looked at her shyly. "With those daisies, it looks as if you and I had planned it."
Kate felt her face grow hot; she could tell she was blushing. "I knew nothing," she said, but suddenly the day was even more wonderful. "Tim, this morning I saw Master Clement, and ... Daisy! What is it?" she exclaimed as Daisy rushed back out of the cottage.
"Oh, Miss! Something terrible! Fife's outside."
And, indeed, just rounding the cottage was the itinerant peddler who traveled the length and breadth of the region with his faithful old mule. Where was Peterkin? Kate wondered, for the peddler and his animal were inseparable. Fife wore his usual ragged surcoat and ancient cap pulled low over unkempt locks. His eyes were wild.
"Fife! Whatever's wrong?"
The peddler's usual whining, petulant manner was gone. His face reflected nothing but terror.
"A dragon, Miss! There's a dragon loose!" Fife looked around. "He could come swoopin' down on us any moment!"
Everyone stared at him, too stunned for speech.
"Don't you understand?" The peddler's voice shook. "The dragon's returned! The dragon of Middlethorpe's come back!"
"You! Peddler!" Rob had hurried over at the sound of the commotion. "What brings you here? This is a feast, an' no one asked for you."
"There's a dragon loose, Gatekeeper! I've come to warn you!" The peddler began to shiver, his eyes darting in all directions. "It was terrible!" Fife pulled a filthy rag from his tunic and wiped his face. "I was comin' from Thornleigh. I'd settled to sleep by the side o' the road. You know, where it runs beside the woods. Suddenly there was smoke an' fire. In great huge spurts — like a dragon breathin'." He looked around at his listeners. "There was a terrible stink in the air." His eyes looked mad, staring. "The devil is after us! That monster's Satan himself!"
"What nonsense you talk!" exclaimed Harry. "It's naught but the ale in that miserable body of yours! I've seen you drunk too often to count!"
"It was the monster!" shrieked the peddler. "I know it was! You should a' been —" He stopped. "The stink! You never smelled such a stink! An' flashes of light dartin' all around." He wiped his sweating face. "You should've been there! It was just like last time!"
Excerpted from The Dragon of Middlethorpe by Anne Leo Ellis. Copyright © 1991 Anne Leo Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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