|The man whistled and tipped his hat back on his head.|
"That's a powerful long ways. Do you intend to walk the whole distance?"
The afternoon sun beat down upon her back, but she did not want to rest until she discovered what had become of her Telmarine family.
Melanie had walked for at least an hour when she heard the clatter of a horse and wagon behind her. She moved to the side of the road to let it pass, but the driver only pulled up alongside her and called, "Oy! Where might you be going, fair maid?"
Melanie turned her head up to look at him, though she did not stop walking. She shielded her eyes against the evening sun. "I am going into town," she said.
The man whistled and tipped his hat back on his head. "That's a powerful long ways. Do you intend to walk the whole distance?"
Melanie smiled, "If you are offering a ride, I would not be disinclined to accept it."
"Well then!" the man burst out jovially, "Come on up, my pretty lass!" He reached out a hand to assist Melanie as she grasped the edge of the wagon. Soon she was comfortably seated and traveling at a much faster pace than walking. She glanced in the back of the wagon and saw it was full of jars, vases and other clay wares. This man, she ascertained, was a potter.
A very happy potter, judging by the way he whistled in time with the horses' hoof-beats. Presently, they came upon a signpost. The potter paused to read them, and chose the direction that indicated the marketplace. "Yes ma'am, this way to market," he said, snapping the reins and urging the horses down the correct path. It was not long before they reached the center of town, preceded by a large banner reading Welcome to the Market of Nast in large, colorful letters. The potter read this aloud as well.
Melanie grinned. "You read very well," she complimented.
The old potter blushed, "Oh, I'm a new student. The children, now, they're a mite faster than we adults are, but they say I'm among the quickest of the lot! Perhaps when the schoolmaster returns, I'll finally be able to learn how to pen my name!" His face glowed with excitement.
Melanie's quick ears caught a bit of information that interested her. "The schoolmaster is gone?"
The potter nodded. "The school's been closed for a while now; but no matter about that. Tell me lass, what brings you to the market? A shopping trip? I see you have naught to trade. Do you have coins to spend? It's what the merchants will be wanting."
Melanie shook her head. "I am only going to town to find an old friend. Do you know Taurin, the son of Marven the farmer?"
The potter stared at her with a surprised expression she did not understand. "By that you mean Sir Taurin, don't you? He was the schoolmaster until dear Lord Fausberg took ill. Nowadays he lives at the castle. He's the heir apparent to Lord Fausberg, you know."
Melanie raised her eyebrows. "Sir Taurin?" she echoed. Before, she had been thinking how little had changed in five months, yet now she began to realize how much had actually changed.
The farmer halted the wagon, "Well, this is as far as I go, young passenger!" He helped Melanie disembark.
"Thank you, sir!" she cried gaily, "but before we part, I would be very much obliged to you if you could point me to the castle."
The potter pointed to the far side of the marketplace, where Melanie could just see the tall spires of the castle extending beyond the village housetops. "Just keep them spires in your sights, and you'll get there all right."
"Thank you again, and good day!" Melanie waved.
"Fare thee well, lady!"
The young girl turned her eyes toward the spires, excited with the hope of reuniting with Taurin.
At long last, Melanie climbed the stone steps to the great oaken door of the castle of Nast. Lifting the ornate iron knocker (shaped like a bull's head, with the knocker forming the ring in its nose), she swung it against the door. A small window in the door opened and the doorkeeper hollered, "Who knocks?"
"Melanie, and old friend of Sir Taurin who desires to see him again!" Melanie called in reply.
There was silence from the door for a very long time. "Lady Melanie?" The voice finally spoke in a tone of wonderment, "One moment, please."
Melanie heard the clank of a large bolt being drawn, and the great door slowly swung open. The doorkeeper was an older man, not wizened, but grey-haired, with a kindly face and gentle hands as he led Melanie through the door and bowed low.
"At last you return, Milady. Sir Taurin has long awaited and hoped for this day."
He turned and beckoned to a pageboy standing nearby. "Conduct Lady Melanie into the presence of Sir Taurin."
The boy's eyebrows shot upward. "Lady Melanie?" he breathed.
The doorkeeper gave him a small push. "Go now," he said. The boy bowed respectfully to Melanie. "Right this way, ma'am."
All this attention made Melanie wonder. And why had the doorkeeper spoken of Taurin's anticipation as if it had been five ages—or even five years—instead of only five months? She dismissed these thoughts as they approached two tall, ornately carved doors. The pageboy turned to Melanie, "He is within," he said, and left Melanie with a bow.
Melanie placed her hands on the doorknobs, took a deep breath, and flung them wide open.
"Well, Taurin, I should say you've done quite well for yourself!"
Taurin started up from his decidedly un-royal position on the couch: heels planted on the cushions, knees bent revealing the tops of his silk stockings under his trousers, and long arms flung across his face. Everything about this spoke of his frustration and discomfort. Upon hearing Melanie, however, he jumped like a frightened animal and clutched wildly at the pillows, eyes wide with amazement tinged with horror.
"Melanie!" he gasped, "Is it really you, after all this time?"
Melanie laughed and sat next to the boy so soon grown into a man, it seemed. "Oh, Taurin! How you do talk! It can't have been longer than five months at least, and look at you! All decked out in ruffles and silks, and all grown into a man! How are your parents? Is the school a success? Do tell me all!"
Taurin persisted in looking at her with wide eyes. "Five months, Melanie? Is that all? The sun must take a different route in your Eenland, for in your five months ten years have passed in Telmar."
Melanie felt her heart skip a beat at Taurin's words. "Ten years?" she gasped.
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