Chapter Six

The sounds of morning woke Mary before the sky lightened. Safe in her nest under the roof, she peaked down on the soldiers mustering for their morning draught and work assignments. She scrambled around the circle of roofs to get down in time for a mug of cider but returned to the safety of the roofs for the balance of the morning.

Burg Altz was a hollow oval of buildings. From outside it looked like one huge tower soaring seventy feet above the river. The thick exterior walls conformed to the shape of the bank, which made for many odd and wedge-shaped rooms inside. These oddities created the castle’s many nooks and crannies: Mary’s domain.

The castle’s first three levels were dressed stone, except for the hall on the north side’s upper level, which was half-timbered. Beneath the hall, the north side housed shops, stores and kitchen—and the three dungeons. The south side housed animals on the ground level, soldiers above them, and lodging for the baronial staff and officers.

Unlike larger castles, Burg Altz lacked towers around its perimeter. Only the five-level square western keep rose higher than the wall. The baron lived in the keep, which also housed the armory and treasury. The roof of the rest followed a beam line around the third level. Rain off the inward draining eaves was collected in troughs and drained into the cistern in the northeast corner above the dungeons. 

She returned to the attic whenever she could escape Meg’s tyranny. Cook had released her from duty after examining her frosted foot. So Mary spent the balance of the day hidden. 

She knew a dozen of private ways to traverse the castle. Her main thoroughfare was the eaves under the roofs. Once in the attics, she traveled quickly around the castle’s perimeter. She could lie above the end of the great hall, as she did now, and watch unobserved. 

Dinner was under way. With the high table below her empty, a relaxed atmosphere prevailed. Soldiers talked among themselves along two trestle tables parallel to the outer wall. The steward and officers sat at two smaller tables to her right. The door under her opened. She could not see who opened it, but the sudden quiet in the hall suggested the Dragon’s arrival. Half a dozen people rose.

“Steward. Captain Ulrich. Come.” His voice carried throughout the room. He didn’t yell or demand. The two called came promptly. 

“My lord?” the steward asked.

“With me.”

The others waited until the door closed before resuming their meals. Quietly at first, but soon the buzz of conversation returned.

That the Dragon summoned those two suggested some secret communication. Mary normally avoided the Dragon and his tower, but her curiosity stirred. He conducted his private business inside his tower. Her safest tower entry was through the first dungeon. She pushed herself up from her prone position and crab walked back under the roof and down a hollow corner. She moved a particular crate and slipped into a triangular opening.

She looked out on the hallway, waiting for the trio to pass. Once the passage was clear, she walked openly to the door opposite her. Better built than most castle doors, its metal hasp belied its suggested welcome. She slid back the pin, which she kept well oiled, and opened the door. The small, triangular room had a single bed, chair and table. The walls were covered with waxed wood paneling carved and fitted in squares and rectangles. The lack of windows betrayed the room’s primary function as confinement. Mary listened, then slid under the bed. There she moved the panels like a puzzle box fashion revealing a narrow opening. Only someone as skinny as Mary could slip through.

Mary worked her way to her feet in the narrow space between the wood paneling and the stone wall. Carefully she climbed the rough stones to a well-used passageway through the tower wall. She hurried along it and climbed the wall by the far door to another crawl space. She dared not watch the men but could determine who spoke by their voices.

“… two weeks ago,” the Dragon was saying. “On foot, and without money or friends, it might take him a month to get here. But he has friends, and he may not be traveling on foot.”

“I’ll alert the guards,” the guard captain said.

“No, increased security might warn him. Have we purged all who might be loyal to him?”

“I assure you, My Lord,” said the steward. “None of his family or staff survives. Everyone is a new hire from far away.”

“I know better.”

“My lord, even the stable boys and kitchen girls have only been here two or three years. I assure you—”

“One of the recent volunteers may have come to expressly to betray me. For now, it is enough that you two know. Ulrich, tell your sergeants to bear down harder. Don’t tell them why. No, tell them that there’ve been thefts. Oh, and Ulrich, I want to review the recent arrivals myself. You understand.”

“I do, my lord,” answered the gravelly voice of the captain. 

Both the steward and captain as well as three of the sergeants arrived with the Dragon five years ago. They didn’t seem aware that Mary had lived in the castle all her life. Once one of these tower rooms had been hers. She’d had two dresses, instead of the rag she wore now. Of course, even then she’d tried to avoid notice.

She waited after the three left, then retraced her path to the dungeon. After all the puzzle boards were back in place, she listened by the door and pushed it. Locked. 

Mary sighed. Locked in the first dungeon … again. Someone walking by must have noticed the dungeon unlocked—even though it held no prisoner, the rule was that it stayed locked—and slide the pin back into the hasp. It happened many times.

She snorted. There was nothing for it but for her to retrace her route into the wall, only this time shimmy around the other way, unbolt the door, and close the puzzle panels before someone discovered them or her. Then she must hurry to the kitchen.

As Mary accomplished her escape, she wondered about this man they discussed. Perhaps some rival of the Dragon. Well, good for him. She knew that the Dragon was a bad man.

“Where you been?” asked Meg, raising a wooden spoon. “Here we’ve been slaving away by myself all afternoon. Get to work on washing them bowls. Then we’ve got to finish shellin’ those nuts.”

The used dinner platters and bowls had not been touched, except to pick out edible remains from the debris. Working together, the girls cleaned the stoneware, rinsing them in hot water which flowed down the drain toward the second dungeon. 

As Mary stood at the end of the marble bread table crushing each walnut with her hammer then picking out the meat with a boning knife, Meg bustled around mostly doing nothing. Mary gave up on one nut and, without looking, reached where she’d set her tool. It was gone.

“What’s this then?” Meg stood close squinting at the stamp she’d picked up.

“That’s mine. Give it back.”

“Ain’t yours. It’s somebody’s seal. You stole it.”

“Did not. It’s my nut hammer.” Mary chased her into the corner by the sinks, grasping at her hammer, which Meg held well out of Mary’s reach. “Give it back.”

“You little thief. I’ve a mind to tell Cook”

“Tell him but give it back.” Mary started to beat on Meg with her little fists.

“Quit that!” Meg pivoted to fend Mary off with one arm while holding the seal farther away with the other.

“Then give it to me.” Mary’s eyes were blurred with tears.

“If you don’t quit, I’ll wallop you good. Leave be.”

“Give it back.” Mary persisted in grasping at her treasure.

Meg shoved Mary away, then turned, thrusting the slim tool into the drain. She turned to push Mary away with both hands.

“Where is it?” Mary screamed.

“Ain’t no concern of yours no more, you little thief.” Meg strode across the kitchen to fetch her stirring spoon. “Get back to work”

Mary realized that Meg no longer held her hammer. She turned and felt into the shallow sink but, while wet, it was empty. She glanced at the cutting board and shelves. Mary would have known if Meg hid it in either of those. Frantically, Mary reached her fingers into the drain. It was mostly horizontal, draining through the dungeons before disappearing into the middens. Her questing gingers touched nothing but the slick coating of grease and soap.

“No.” She refused to believe it was gone. “No, no, no.”

“It won’t distract you no more. Get back to work.”

“You stole it.” Mary doubled her fists and turned to face Meg. “It was mine and you stole it and … and you pushed it down the drain. You’re evil, Meg. I hate you.”

Meg’s eyes grew larger as Mary stomped toward her. She raised her spoon like a club. 

“… and this is your new assignment.” Cook led someone into the kitchen. “Hey, what’s going on here?”

“Meg stole my nutcracker and pitched it down the drain.”

“I never. She—“

“Liar. You stole it, and you lost it.”

“No, I—“ 

Now, Mary, if’n it’s in the drain, we can get it back. To be sure I’ll need to get someone to open the dungeon, but the drain’s open in there. We’ll get it back for you.”

“But she—” Meg started.

The pleasant face Cook had been showing Mary disappeared. His eyes went dead as he turned toward Meg. “Not another word. I know how you are. Be thankful I don’t beat you blue.” Mary turned, blinking away her tears. She mustn’t appear weak to anybody.

“Before we retrieve Mary’s tool, meet my new helper. The kitchen girls are Meg, Mary, Sarah, and Luci,” Cook said. “The little ones are napping. Mary, turn around and meet Will.”

Mary debated not looking, until a familiar voice said, “Mud and blood.” 

She pulled her lank, ash hair over her face as she turned. The new helper was the same young man who’d guarded the outside door the previous morning. She did didn’t know why, but she felt as bad to be seen crying by a stranger as by losing her treasure.

“Now, let’s see to your tool.” Cook left the kitchen. He hadn’t bidden her to follow, but Mary scampered after him. 

Cook went to the Oaf first, but he just shook his head. Then Cook climbed to the yard level and found a guard sergeant.

“You want me to open the second dungeon because one of your stupid girls let a tool slip down the drain?”

“If you please.” Cook nodded. 

The sergeant looked at Cook, then down at Mary, who hid behind Cook. “Sure, it’ll be warmer down there.” He walked to the guard room and returned with a ring of heavy keys. Mary and Cook followed him back to the kitchen level, where they opened a door on the left. “Bring a light.”

Cook reached back and lifted an oil lamp from its sconce. The flame flickered as it moved. The hall ahead hid in darkness. When Cook held it high, Mary slipped under his arm to watch the sergeant unlock the heavy door on the right. The sergeant opened the double-planked door. Before he or Cook could duck through the low door, Mary scooted into the dungeon. When Cook entered, the lamp lit the bare room, the lower half cut out of living stone, the upper half large made worked stones laid and apparently mortared tight.

Mary advanced carefully because she knew the floor descended slightly toward the drain. The drain started at her waist level on her right and traversed the outer wall as an open trough as wide as her thumb was long. She ran to the kitchen end and felt in the trough. Nothing. She followed the trough down the wall, sliding her fingers through the grease and kitchen debris. Still nothing. She felt into the lower drain, then ran back to the higher end and poked her fingers as far as they’d go into the wall. Nothing.

“Mary, the tool may not had slid through the wall from the kitchen,” Cook said. “You know that be a thick one.” All the basement walls were thick, but the one between the kitchen and dungeon was extra thick, perhaps because it held the weight of the cistern above. “Maybe if I pour some water in from there, it’ll slide on through. Did it have a point? Might it catch on anything?”

She shook her head. “No, it was just a wooden handle about this big.” She held up her thumb. “One end had a metal cap. Hard metal. Good for cracking nuts.”

Mary stayed in the dungeon while Cook gave the lamp to the sergeant, then left to pour water down the drain. The water came, but it carried nothing but the expected sludge. Mary wanted to stay and wait, but the sergeant said he had duties and couldn’t leave the dungeon unlocked, even though it was empty.

Mumbling her thanks, Mary followed him out of the cell and trudged back to the kitchen. Cook was instructing Will about kitchen things. Meg was absent.

“Mary, you go be by yourself a while,” Cook said.

Mary climbed slowing to her cubby. She got out lace and ribbon and clutched them to her chest as she cried herself to sleep.

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.