The evening after Will was thrown into the second dungeon, Mary stayed close to the kitchen. She considered contacting him, but still suspected that his arrest was part of an elaborate trick to entrap her. The Dragon was such a liar. Her attempts to hide from him may have served only to attract his attention. Besides, she didn’t want anyone to know that she knew how to get in and out of the second dungeon.
Without their new helper—and with no sign of a replacement—the kitchen was running late again. When the heavy snow melted it would fill the cistern, but the days stayed cold. Only snow on the side of the roof facing the sun had melted and then just to refreeze in the down spouts, causing what came after to rain down on the yard or form massive icicles. The snow and freeze closed the river. Mary was grateful to be spared water bucket duty.
“Cook, his lordship requires your presence.” The steward called from the door as if he thought he’d soil himself by entering the kitchen.
“What’s it about now? How’m I supposed to prepare meals if I get pulled out of here all the time?”
“I believe his lordship plans to interrogate your kitchen boy again.”
“He wasn’t mine. I had him for one day. If’n you need him worked, let me work him.”
“Perhaps. For now I’ve been ordered to summons yourself and the captain.”
“Let’s get it done then.” Cook waddled out the door.
“I gotta go.” Mary yelled at Meg as she pulled the door open and scampered out.
“Hey! You can’t leave me—”
Mary ducked into her tunnels, climbed to her cubby, and emerged in the attic over the hall. She lay over her viewing crack as two soldiers brought Will through the door beneath her. Cook and Ulrich sat to her right, along the outer side of the trestle table where the officers of the castle normally ate. The Dragon sat below her at the high table. Will looked dirty and cold, but apparently hadn’t been beaten.
“Now, young man,” the Dragon said in his room-filling voice. “Tell me again. Why did you come to me and who sent you? This time, tell the truth.”
“My lord, I told you the truth. I came to join your garrison. I brought my family sword. I mean to make a name for myself in your service and become something other than a sheep farmer as has been the fate of my father and his father before him back to when the first Willard came back from the Holy Lands with that sword, but no fortune to speak of.”
The captain stood and walked around the trestle table, but did not approach Will. “That’s what he told us when he showed up last month. He didn’t look like much, but he was healthy and had that black-bladed sword which he knew how to handle in a rudimentary way. I signed him on.”
“So, why was he on kitchen duty?”
“Well, you hear how he talks. He got to sounding uppity with the other recruits. I let the sergeants take care of dealing with his kind, and his sergeant put him on outside duty, when—”
“You had this possible traitor guarding the gate?”
“The postern, my Lord.”
“That’s worse. What were you thinking? Why don’t you just leave it open?” The Dragon was still sitting. Mary had seen him perform. He’d go through a whole routine of gradually getting madder and more threatening. She’d enjoyed it before. Not today. She knew occasionally his victim paid for some real or imagined sin with his life or being sent to the third dungeon. Everyone knew that the only way out of the third dungeon was down the drain.
She wondered if anyone was alive down there now. As far as she knew they weren’t fed. While she was lost in her own thoughts, she missed what else Ulrich said. But the Dragon’s accusations of stupidity and betrayal were probably heard by everyone in the castle.
“And how have you used the boy to undermine me?” The Dragon asked Cook. “I suppose you let him poison my meals.”
“He was sent to me the same day Ulrich arrested him again, milord. I put him to work. Since he was new—and I knew out of favor with someone upstairs—I made sure I watched him all the time. He didn’t do nothing wrong. He worked hard. I got the meals done on time for a change. I sure needed the extra hand. I’m not telling no tales, milord, I need help down there. Hard keeping a sixty folks fed with only the five of us, and two of them children.”
“Five of you including this boy?”
“No, me and the four girls.”
Mary froze. No, don’t say my name. Please don’t say my name. He doesn’t need to know my name.
“No boys? How do you get it all done?”
“Not very well, milord. If I may venture to suggest, should you decide to keep this boy, I’d work him hard in the kitchen. Keep an eye on him, too.”
“Why are you defending this boy you supposedly just met?”
Cook looked at Ulrich then back at the Dragon. “I’m not defending him, your lordship. I just need help, and to be sure he’s been a hard worker. I wasn’t defending him so much as—”
“Enough. I understand your need, but he’ll go nowhere and serve no one until I determine if he’s safe.”
“Yes, milord. It’s just—”
“Enough!” The Dragon shouted. Cook jerked and huddled as if expecting a blow. The Dragon looked back at Will. “So, tell me about this black-bladed sword. Was it really owned by a crusader?
“Yes, my lord. That is, my great-great-a-lot-of-greats grandfather was a soldier in the Crusade when the Emperor went. Drowned in that river in Anatolia. The emperor, that is; not my great-great. My forefather, Willard by name, went on with the dead emperor’s brother or cousin to Acre. They took the emperor’s body in a barrel of vinegar, planned to bury him in Jerusalem. Only they never made it.”
He talked so fast that Mary wondered when he breathed.
“Yes, yes, I know all that,” said the Dragon, waving a hand.
Mary knew none of that. From the looks on their faces neither Cook nor Captain Ulrich had heard it either.
The Dragon lifted a sword from the table in front of him. As Will had said, its blade was very dark and seemed to shimmer in the lambent light of the candles. “What about this sword? How did you forefather receive it from the emperor if the emperor was dead?”
“Well, he wasn’t. That is, he wasn’t dead when he gave it to the first Willard. There’d been a big battle and that Willard did something special. So the emperor gave him—the first Willard—that sword and a horse to ride and a book with words in it.”
“The horse, of course, is long since dead. What kind of book, a Bible?”
“No, my lord. Least, I don’t think so.”
“Then what does some book have to do with your claim?”
“There’s supposed to be writing in it.”
“Of course there’s writing in it,” the Dragon yelled. “What kind of fool do you think I am?”
“No, my lord. I mean writing about the sword and the horse.”
“What kind of writing?”
“Don’t know. I’ve never seen it.”
“Why not? What happened to the book? You could bring it to me and that would prove your story. Maybe I would believe you. I’d certainly allow such a well-bred soldier into the ranks of my army. Maybe give you a horse, even.”
“Can’t, my lord.”
“Who are you to tell me what I can’t do?” The Dragon sat straighter.
“No, my lord, I mean I can’t bring you the book. Some years ago one of my other great-greats gave the book to the holy brothers. They keep it with their other books.”
“Fools.” The Dragon leaned forward and massaged his temples. He sat like that long enough that all three men present started to shift on their feet. “Stop that! You can stand still for long enough for me to think.”
“Yes, my lord,” they chorused.
“Back in the dungeon with you.” The Dragon pointed at Will, who jerked as if poked with a hot iron. The Dragon looked at Cook. “You feed him an honest meal, then see that he is fed once a day and gets his morning draught until I have decided on a disposition. And you, Captain, have Erdmut identify the book this one says substantiates his claim. If he can, dispatch one of his clerks to find the book and read the inscription.”
Mary knew what books were but couldn’t think how it could be important.
All three men bowed in obvious relief and began to withdraw.
“Wait. What dungeon were you in?”
“I don’t know,” Will said. “Is there more than one?”
“Burg Altz has three dungeons, young man. With varying fittings for varying levels of imprisonment. Ulrich?”
“He’s in the second dungeon, my lord.”
“Just to show what a reasonable person I am,” the Dragon spread his hands as if offering a benediction, “you may choose your dungeon. I strongly suggest you not choose the third as the only way out is down.”
“If it please your lordship, I think I would prefer the first.”
“Good choice.” The Dragon’s chuckle caused Mary to shiver. “Out, all of you.”
As the men cleared the hall, the Dragon picked up the dark sword and examined it. “Very interesting, if true. And apparently master Will has no idea.”
Mary waited until the Dragon left, taking the sword with him. Then she crawled away and returned to the kitchen. Cook and Will had arrived before her. Will was scooping stew out of a small bowl with his bare hand. Half a small loaf sat beside him on the wooden table.
“I don’t know why the Dragon is treating you so kindly, boy, but you better hope he don’t change his mind,” Cook said. “The first dungeon’s not all that bad.”
Mary thought that if Will was in the second, she could get him out, if necessary. He could never fit through the angles she used getting out of the first dungeon. Why she’d help him and how he would escape the castle was more than she could imagine, but she didn’t wish imprisonment on anybody.
One of the sergeants appeared at the kitchen door with Oaf behind him. “I’m to take ‘his highness’ to the royal dungeon.” He laughed.
Will stood slowly, grabbed the remains of the loaf and started toward out the door.
“Wait,” Cook said. “His lordship said this man was to receive an honest meal. Let him finish.”
The sergeant shrugged and helped himself to a loaf of bread, which he tore a chunk from and stuffed it into his mouth. After Will emptied the bowl, he wiped it with his crust. He thanked Cook and nodded to the sergeant and squeezed by Oaf.
“Enough lost time,” Cook said after they left. “We best be hustling with supper.
Later that night, after all the fires had been banked and all but the guards were asleep, Mary crept through the walls to the first dungeon. She listened first to the passageway and then to the closed room. Finally, she risked whispering, “Will?”
He did not respond. She tried two more times and thought she’d risked enough, when he whispered, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Mary. The kitchen girl.”
“Mary.” He paused. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the space between the stone outer wall and the wood paneling.”
“How—why did you come?”
“Wanted to see if you were really here. They lie all the time, you know.”
“I’m learning that.”
“One more thing, I don’t know why I’m risking myself just to tell you this when you probably figured it out for yourself. The Dragon is awfully interested in your sword and that book.”
“I don’t think it’s good for the Dragon to be interested in you. Dangerous, you know.”
“I—I understand. Why are you telling me this?”
“You might consider not telling the clerk enough about that book that he can find it. Either he’ll destroy it or use it against you.”
“Well, that’s easily accomplished because I’ve never seen that book. I have no idea what it looks like or what it says. Only what I told the Dragon, that there’s supposed to be writing in it from the Emperor.”
Mary considered how a book or the writing of two hundred years ago could help or hurt anyone today.
“I’m still here. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Nor I. Mary, thanks for coming.”
“God be with you, Will.”
“And with you.”
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.