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Ellie sat on her favorite boulder and looked Tak right in the eyes, telling him what was on her mind. “Gramps shouldn’t have taught me to read.”
Tak responded as he usually did when he received Ellie’s confidences. He lowered his head, placing it on her knee for a rub.
Ellie obliged her pet, stroking the white hair between his nubby horns with one hand while digging in the pocket of her homespun pinafore with the other. The mountain breeze toyed with the paper she withdrew. With difficulty, she smoothed the small poster out on her other knee. Dirty and wrinkled, it still made her heart beat a little faster.
Royal Wedding and Coronation
Prince Jayrus, Dragonkeeper and Paladin
All invited to the celebration
“All invited. But Ellicinderpart Clarenbessipawl and her goat Tak can’t come. No chaperone, no travel. Ma and Da aren’t interested. And Gramps just laughs. ‘You’ll see. You’ll see,’ is all he says. He should take me himself.”
Her younger brother’s shrill yell came from the knoll rising out of the river to the east. “Ellie! Ellie!”
He stood on the hill, grinning like a bear with a paw in the honey hive and his face red from running. His stubby tumanhofer body bounced with excitement. He held his fists above his head and whirled them around in circles. Something had set him off.
She stood and hollered back. “You be calling me by my proper name out in the open ’n’ at the top of your lungs, Gustustharinback. Ma will tan yer hide if she’s finding out you disgrace the family with such shabby care of our dignity.”
When he saw her, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Yer wanted at home. Itta be good news.”
That information didn’t impress her. Probably a delivery of the bolt of muslin ordered, which meant she’d be cutting and dyeing lengths for making new clothes. Not exciting news at all.
“Can it wait?” She gestured behind her to the scattered goat herd. “I’ll have to gather Tak’s clan if I’m to come home now.”
“I’ll come help you.” Gustus charged down the hill toward the footbridge across the river.
Ellie stared at him for a moment with her mouth hanging open. The good news had nothing to do with cloth. Her brother would never voluntarily help bring in the goats for something as mundane as new clothes. He scurried down the path, slipping some on the loose rocks. But the precarious descent did not slow him a bit. Even in the narrower patches, where exposed roots of arranndon bushes tripped careless hikers, her sturdy brother skidded downward.
Folding the royal celebration notice into a small square, Ellie stuffed it back in her pocket. She turned away from watching her brother’s progress and nudged the goat. “Come on, Tak. You find the nannies, and I’ll find the billies.”
Ellie went one direction and Tak another. In a few minutes, she located the fifteen goats that formed the herd. Mostly young males, these animals preferred the rockier terrain. She suspected it had to do with their perpetual game of I’m-up-highest.
She clicked her tongue and tapped her staff on a rock. Their heads rose as if all attached to the same string, though they didn’t come right away. Each one chewed what was in his mouth and casually left his place one by one. Taking a serene amble down the hillside, they passed her, heading toward the bridge and home.
When the last one clomped by, Ellie rested her staff on her shoulder and followed. Tak already had the nannies plodding along the bank toward the footbridge. Gustustharinback trailed the nannies and carried the smallest of the baby goats in his arms.
He shouted when he caught sight of his sister. “Hurry! Aunt and Uncle Blamenyellomont are at the house. I can’t tell you the surprise, and I’m gonna burst with keeping my tongue from waggin’ and you from knowin’.”
She tapped her staff on the rock beneath her feet. The billies scampered before her, picking up her impatience and gratefully heading for home. Even after eating all day, they appreciated the handfuls of button grain they got from the farmer’s younger children.
With the goat hoofs pounding on the wooden bridge, Ellie couldn’t hear or be heard. So she waited until she’d caught up with her brother on the other side.
“What’s with all the falderal, Gustus?”
She watched as he forced a glare onto his face, erasing the impudent grin he’d been wearing. “You are to call me by my proper name if I have to call you by yours.”
“There’s a difference between shouting ‘Ellie’ and speaking ‘Gustus’ quietly.” She grabbed his arm. “Now tell me, or I’ll toss you into the river.”
He pressed his lips together and gave her his most obstinate glower. The corners of his lips twitched, and she knew he wanted to laugh. She let go. She couldn’t really dunk him while he carried the small kid.
“Why are our aunt and uncle here?”
“Can’t tell you that either. But they’s only stopping, not staying. We’d better hurry.”
Ellie lost Gustustharinback’s help as soon as they came in sight of the pens. He scuttled down the last hill and opened the gate but then ran through the goat barn, across the yard, and into the house.
The herd followed the leader through the opening and took up different places to observe their world. Ellie and Gustus had put many odd things within the goat pen for the animals to climb on. Old wooden benches, barrels, a huge thick branch they had pulled with the donkey’s help, and crates littered the ground. The goats enjoyed scrambling up, over, and around the obstacles.
Tak stayed at Ellie’s side as she put water in the trough and fastened the barn door securely open so the animals could come in if they wanted. He followed her out the door on the other side of the barn and waited patiently while she latched it shut.
Entering the back door so she could wash before meeting their visitors, Ellie noticed that the kitchen showed signs of serving tea. Her mother must have prepared refreshments to carry into the common room. Through the pantry door, she could see empty spots on the shelves, which meant the good china pot and the blue glass dishes were being used.
Warm water sat in a tub in the sink, and she used that to wash her face and hands. She pulled the scarf off her head, gathered her long, curly black locks into a ponytail and used the scarf to tie it in place. Wisps of hair immediately escaped and framed her tanned face. She washed her face again as if she could rid herself of the look of a farm girl. Hopefully Aunt Tiffenbeth wouldn’t make that tired old comment: “Your blue eyes would be more attractive if you scrubbed away some of that mud you use for face cream.”
Voices from the family’s conversation drifted through the partially open door. Aunt Tiffenbeth quarreled with Ellie’s father.
“Brother, you are wrong in this. Ellicinderpart is your eldest child and way past the age to be in the village looking for a husband.”
“If there’s a man good enough for her, he can just come courting here.” Her father’s voice rumbled in the wood-paneled room, and Ellie did not even have to strain to hear him. She stepped closer to the door in order not to miss a single word her aunt spoke.
“You are the most vexing man. That is not going to happen. It isn’t the way of things, and you know it. You’re selfish and your mind is rootbound.”
Only his older sister could get away with talking like that to Ellie’s father. She probably ought to go in before the discussion escalated to verbal warfare. She finished wiping her hands and draped the towel over one of the kitchen chairs around the square table.
“The girl is needed here.”
“The young woman is your unpaid servant.”