Juan's arms trembled with the weight of his sword and shield.
The ogress observed him critically.
'You're holding them wrong.'
He blinked. 'What?'
She lowered her club and leaned on it. This wasn't unfolding at all the way Juan had hoped.
'Look to your defences, monster!' he cried, in what he hoped was an authoritative tone.
'That's really quite hurtful,' she said, but declined to lift her club again. Which, he had to admit, was probably for the best. The ogress had sprung to her feet with alarming speed when he entered the dell, and her pocked hide looked as if a siege engine wouldn't dent it.
There were a couple of shields propped next to the cave mouth. Juan tried not to imagine what had become of their owners.
'What do you mean "I'm holding them wrong"?'
'Your weapons,' she said. 'You hit me holding your sword like that, you'll just jar your elbow. And your shield's too low. It'll trip you if you have to back up.'
'I...' Juan stopped, not sure what he had been about to say. If he was going to attack the beast, he should just do so. The ogress had rather unfairly wrested control of the initiative, he felt. He should at least try to wrest it back. His feet didn't seem to want to move, though, and the sword and shield were getting heavier by the second.
A painfully familiar hot dread crept across his skin. Seeking escape, his gaze darted about the sheltered dell outside the ogress's cave. It really was idyllic. The sort of scene he would have enjoyed painting, with the trickling waterfall feeding a little pool, which in turn overflowed into a tiny brook, framed by wild raspberry bushes, the whole scene part-shaded by the wide branches of an oak, leaning out from the top of the bank.
Juan's gaze alighted on a woven mat and rumpled blanket where the ogress had been sitting. An incense burner was set on the grass by the mat.
'Were you meditating?'
The ogress roared and lunged. Juan backpedalled with a squawk. The bottom of his shield caught the top of his greave. He flailed wildly with his sword and by chance connected with the head of the ogress's club. The impact reverberated painfully up his arm and he dropped the sword.
Juan sat down with a thud. His shield clipped him under the chin and for a moment he saw stars.
When his vision cleared, the ogress was watching him with an expression of mixed amusement and concern. 'This really isn't your thing, is it?'
Juan wiped blood from his mouth. He thought he might burst into tears. 'No,' he said, wretchedly. He shook himself free of the shield and tried massaging some feeling back into his sword hand. 'I'd be better at painting you than fighting you.'
'Painting won't win me a wife, will it?' he went on, bitterly. '"Ogress meditating by a waterfall" would hardly be hung in the finest of galleries. Or get me a rich patron, no matter what my references are.'
'No, I suppose not,' said the ogress.
Juan shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny. 'Sorry for disturbing you,' he said, standing. 'I'm not cut out for this hero business.' He wondered if he could outrun her. 'May I go?'
The ogress shrugged, noncommittal. 'Why the sudden interest in killing ogres?'
Juan started to back up. 'I told you.'
'Yes, yes.' She waved dismissively. 'But I've been living here in peace for years. Now all of a sudden you're the third hero in a week.'
He paused. 'The third?'
She pointed a thumb at the propped shields. 'They were in too much of a hurry to talk.'
The ogress turned to toss her club over towards her meditation mat. Juan wondered if now was the moment to run.
'Until they arrived,' she went on, 'the only people I ever ate around here were a few highwaymen. I thought folk were grateful!'
Definitely the moment. His feet remained rooted. 'You ate them? Ate the other two?'
She gave him a condescending look. 'Ogre. And some highwaymen, yes. Seven highwaymen and two heroes.' She paused. 'Actually, one of the highwaymen turned out to be a local farmer, moonlighting. Caused a bit of fuss.' She shrugged. 'Still, turned out he'd been robbing his neighbours, so everyone was happy in the end.' She frowned at Juan. 'Isn't that why you're here?'
'Eating people? Uh, no.' He shook his head. 'For the princess.'
Her confusion seemed so genuine that Juan felt embarrassment heated his face once again.
'Ah. The stories are that you've - beg pardon - imprisoned a princess and put her under a sleeping spell that can only be broken by, um, true love's, uh, first kiss.'
The ogress snorted. 'And you think your kiss will be true love's?'
'Uh.' Juan swallowed rapidly. 'They say the princess is of such surpassing beauty that the, ah, hero who saves her will, um, instantly...' He trailed off, overcome by the ogress's slowly rising eyebrows.
She roared with laughter. The prickly heat from Juan's face spread over his scalp and down his neck.
Chuckling, the ogress wiped her eyes. 'Would you like to see?'
Juan looked at the dark cave mouth. 'In there?'
She turned towards the cave, waving away his fears. 'It's alright. I have a rule.'
Juan found himself taking a step after her. 'A rule?'
She glanced back. 'I don't eat anyone who'll to have a conversation with me. Are you coming?'
'That's a good rule.' Feeling as if his feet were carrying him along against his will, he followed the ogress into the cave.
He stopped for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. He didn't have to. An oil lamp flickered into life.
'Oh,' said Juan.
'Just because it's a cave, doesn't mean it has to be uncivilised,' said the ogress.
The cave was dry, with a swept dirt floor. Reed mats covered most of it. It was furnished with a large, four posted bed, hung with mosquito netting, a squashy-looking armchair and battered sideboard. A wood-fired cooking range occupied an alcove in the wall, above which there appeared to be a chimney, up through the rock. Behind a wicker screen and half-open curtain, Juan spied what appeared to be a garderobe. The cave even had a wooden front door, currently pushed back against the wall.
'I paid some dwarves to do the plumbing and the chimney,' said the ogress. 'Should have known they wouldn't keep their mouths shut. Little buggers are hopeless with genders.'
'Here.' The ogress lifted her lamp higher.
By the furthest wall of the cave, a clear glass sarcophagus rested on a wooden pedestal. A large figure lay inert inside.
Eventually, Juan said, 'She's a he.'
'You noticed that?' said the ogress. 'My Filippo.'
'Your Filippo?' Juan looked closer. He had thought the body inside the sarcophagus was just a very big human man, but noticing the greenish tinge and citrus-rind texture to the skin, he wasn't so sure. 'What is he?'
'He's human,' she said. 'He's becoming an ogre to be with me.' Now the ogress seemed as awkward as Juan had felt before. 'We bought the spell from a witch. If our kiss was true love, then Filippo would sleep for seven years and wake as an ogre.'
She brushed a finger along the glass. 'The stories are wrong, you know,' she said, smiling faintly. 'True love doesn't wake you. It makes it safe to sleep.'
'How long has he been... like this?' Juan could scarcely credit that the man in the sarcophagus was alive. There was no sign of movement in the body at all.
'Five and a half years,' she said. A weight of anticipation hung on her words. 'I look forward to sleeping in his arms again.'
Five and a half years. And another one and a half to go. The well of Juan's soul felt as shallow as a puddle. 'You've been watching over him, all this time.'
'Of course! Look what he's doing for me.' One heavy shoulder rose in a half-shrug. 'No-one ever expects an ogre to be a romantic.'
'You do eat people,' he pointed out, to his own horror once his brain caught up with his mouth.
The ogress chuckled, though. 'Only highwaymen and heroes.' She hesitated. 'Do you think you could do that painting?'
'"Ogress meditating by a waterfall." I have gold to pay you.'
'Highwaymen,' she reminded him. 'Some of them were quite successful. Are you any good?'
'As a painter?' A warm kind of peace settled over Juan, like a lazy Sunday afternoon in summer. For the first time that day, he felt he knew what to say.
'Yes,' he said, truthfully. 'Yes, I am.' He licked his lips. 'How much gold?'
The ogress went over to the sideboard and opened the doors.
'Oh,' said Juan.
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