Igraine woke up because something was crawling over her face. Something with a lot of legs. She opened her eyes and there it was, sitting right on the end of her nose, a fat black spider. Igraine was scared stiff of spiders.
“Sisyphus!” she whispered in a trembling voice. “Wake up, Sisyphus. Shoo that spider away!”
The cat raised his furry gray face from Igraine’s stomach, blinked, stretched—and snapped up the spider from the end of her nose. One gulp, and it was gone.
“Did I say anything about eating it?” Igraine wiped cat spit off her check and pushed Sisyphus off her bed. “A spider on my nose,” she muttered, throwing back the covers. “The day before my birthday too. That’s not a good omen.”
Barefoot, she went over to the window and looked out. The sun was already high in the sky above Pimpernel Castle. The tower cast its shadow over the courtyard, doves were preening on the battlements, and a horse snorted down in the stables.
Pimpernel Castle had belonged to Igraine’s family for more than three hundred years. Her mother’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had built it. (There may have been a few more “greats” in that; Igraine wasn’t sure.) The castle was not large; it had only a single tower, which leaned over sideways, and the walls weren’t much more than two fee thick, but Igraine thought it was the most beautiful castle in the world.
Wildflowers grew between the paving stones in the courtyard. Swallows nested under the roof of the tower in spring, and water snakes lived under the blue water lilies in the great castle moat. Two stone lions, high on a ledge above the gateway, guarded the castle. When Igraine scraped the moss off their manes they purred like cats, but if a stranger came near they bared their stony teeth and roared. They sounded so terrifying that even the wolves in the nearby forest hid.
The lions, though, were not the only guardians of Pimpernel. Stone gargoyles looked down from the walls and made terrible faces at any stranger. If you tickled their noses with a dove’s feather they laughed so loude that the bird droppings crumbled off the castle battlements, but their wide mouths could swallow cannonballs, and they crunched up burning arrows as if there were nothing tastier in the world.