Rolf pushed and pushed but the door wouldn’t budge. Pale light outlined it. Must be locked on the other side. Not knowing who or what might be beyond, he dared not knock. He shivered at the thought of re-entering the water. He couldn’t get this far and fail. This, not downstream, must be the escape route designed into the castle.
Rolf explored the door again with his fingers. No latch. The door itself was heavy wood. Probably hardwood as it showed no fatigue or rot. The hinges were set into the door with smooth-headed metal hardware. No way to—wait.
If the hinges were on his side of the door, it must open inward. He had been fooled by the lack of a latch or pull. It might still be barred from the far side, but at least he now knew to pull rather than push.
The door did not so much as rattle.
He pressed his ear against the door. Muffled sounded—maybe voices—came from beyond it. He rapped his knuckles hard against the wood.
The noises stopped.
He knocked again.
Dull shifting and scrapping sounds came through the door. Wood rubbing sounds followed. The door moved. It dragged from lack of use. The air was warm and humid. It smelled of wood smoke, cooked meat, and bread dough.
Rolf blinked against the fire light. He fell forward across the sill, gasping.
A heavy man near the door, a heavier woman with two girls behind her stared at Rolf.
“Who be you? And where’d you come from?” the man asked.
Rolf considered how he should identify himself to these strangers “I’m Will’s brother, Rolf. A friend of Mary’s. Help me, please.”
“Saints alive,” the cook exclaimed. “How’d you get in there? Ain’t you supposed to be in the third dungeon?”
“I was. I escaped.”
“Ain’t supposed to be no way out but the drain.”
“In fact, that’s true.” Rolf shuddered. “I escaped down the drain. Now I’m thoroughly wet and cold. Please help me with these boxes.”
The woman huddled as if she thought Rolf was a ghost, but the cook helped him through the narrow door. Rolf hobbled to the hearth.
“You mean there’s water—fresh water down there?” The cook looked in the door Rolf had exited. “I never knew there was no door here. I thought that was the back of the shelves. We could have been drawing water without going outside.”
“Maybe it was hidden intentionally.” Rolf stood so close to the fire that he hurt. “Since I escaped the third dungeon, you must know I have to get out of the castle, or we’ll both be in big trouble. Maybe Mary, too.”
“You can’t get out,” Cook said. “You’ll just get Meg and I throwed into the dungeon with Mary.” He pointed toward the door. “Can’t you go back down that hole?”
“Not and live. There’s a door on this side of the castle. Can’t I get out that way?”
“Not hardly. It’s guarded closer than the front gate.”
Rolf needed to get through the kitchen and out of the castle. He remembered Mary coming out a door to intercept him. He’d find that door and hope it wasn’t closely guarded. “But I’ve got to get out.”
“To be sure,” Cook responded, “but first we must get you warm and dry. And maybe a bite to eat.”
“Yes.” Rolf’s hands shook as he sat on the hearth. Cook handed him a bowl of warm stew and a hard crust. Rolf dipped the bread into the stew and sighed. When Cook and woman started talking again, it took him a moment to understand that they weren’t talking about him.
“I’ll try again in the morning,” Cook was saying. “Even if we can’t get her out, we can keep her fed and warm.”
“It’s making extra work, with all this fire building and water boiling,” the woman answered. “She’d better appreciate all I done for her.”
“Mary appreciates you better than you do her,” the man said. “That front pot should be about to boil. Help me lift it to the drain.”
Rolf realized Mary must be imprisoned in the second dungeon. The hot water was being produced for her benefit, it only streamed into the third dungeon after passing through the second. Without that warmed water, he would never have discovered the moving bars, let alone the escape shaft. These people had saved his life without knowing or intending it.
Once the hot water was poured and the pot refilled, Rolf said, “There’s a door out near here, isn’t there? I must go. If they find me, they’ll kill me.”
The woman made a muffled squeak and crowded a corner with two girls as far from Rolf as possible.
“You have to help me. My only hope to save all of you is to rejoin the true baron.”
“Save us?” The man cocked his head. “We don’t need saving. I thought the old baron was dead.”
“You’ve been told a lot of lies, which he’ll set to rights, but I’ve got to get out.”
“Wait.” The cook looked back at the door in the shelves. “What kind of escape hole turns up inside the walls? You’d think they’d have made a way outside.”
“The only exit comes out here. Whoever designed and built this place must have thought this was close enough.”
The cook sighed. “You’d never get near the front gate. The postern is your only hope, to be sure. But you can’t just walk out free as you please. “
“So, you’ll help me?”
The cook scratched his thinning hair. “Let me see what I can do. First, let’s get you warm.” The cook took a stone from the hearth. “Hold this. It’ll draw out the cold. You won’t last long outside without a fire in your belly and dry clothes on your back. Take off them wet things.”
Rolf started to untie the lacings on his top. The bone he’d tied to it tangled the thread.
“Here! What’s that?” The woman grabbed at the bone.
Rolf turned aside to deflect her. “It’s a bone or stick I found in the dungeon.”
“That’s mine.” She tried to snatch it from Rolf. “It fell down the drain.
Rolf saw no reason not to surrender the object to its apparent owner. He did try to look at it before she could grab it.
“Let me see that,” the cook said.
Rolf let go, and Meg snatched the stick. She was just about to stuff it into her collar, when Cook grasped her hand.
“I said, let me see that.”
“It’s my nutcracker.
“A nutcracker it may be, but it belongs to Mary.” Cook tightened his grip.
“You’re hurting me.”
“Not yet, but I will.”
“Ow. Take it then. It never was no good to me.”
Rolf stripped out of his garments while they argued. He noticed the fire light gleam off the object. He looked closer as Cook squinted at it. One end was metal as he had thought in the dark.
Cook turned toward the fire and examined the metal end. “This ain’t no nutcracker. It’s one of them stamps the fancy folks use to seal things.”
“Do you think it belongs to the Lord Konrad?” Rolf asked.
“See? It weren’t Mary’s,” Meg said.
“No, it doesn’t look like his seal. That one has a long-necked dragon. Here, your eyes should be better.” Cook handed it to Rolf.
Rolling the object in his fingers, Rolf could see that it was indeed a miniature seal. The metal face was no wider than Rolf’s thumb, same as the handle. The character in the middle of the seal looked more like a bird than a dragon, but he couldn’t tell. “Have you got some wax I can make an impression in?”
“Not down here. Use this bread dough.” Cook tore a piece off the batch rising.
“No, it’s not sharp enough. Maybe if I press it against my thumb.” Rolf pushed the seal hard enough that it hurt. When he removed it, a clear impression of a bird with wings spread. He showed his thumb to Cook. “That’s no dragon.”
“Nope. Wonder whose it is?”
Cook looked at Meg. “That’s less likely now than before. It’s Mary’s, but I wonder where she got it.”
“She probably stole it,” Meg said.
“Maybe she found it,” Rolf said.
“To be sure. Mary’s all over this castle.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means we need to keep it safe for her, and not let the Dragon find it. But how?”
“Where is she?” Rolf asked.
The cook pointed to the wall beyond the shelves. “In there. The second dungeon.”
“Cause of you and your brother.”
“Hidin’, I suspect. The Dragon is powerful upset at both of you.”
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
Cook laid Rolf’s clothes on the warming table while Rolf finished his stew. It was old, but warm. Any food tasted great.
“Meg, get some breeches and a cloak for the lad. You know where. And not a word to anyone, especially not about this.”
After Meg left, the cook handed the seal to Rolf. “You take this. It’s not safe in here. That one will tell on us for sure. It’s your life as well as mine if we don’t get you—and this—out of here fast. The guards aren’t getting the straight word on what the Dragon wants. Maybe we can slip you out saying it’s his orders. Hope you’re a fast talker.”
“I’ll say whatever words the good Lord puts in my mouth,” Rolf said. Meg returned with rags more miserable than those Rolf had taken off, but she brought two sets, both of which he put on. His old ones he took off the warming oven and wrapped around his feet. He re-tied the seal to the tunic lacing.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” the cook said. “I’ll take you to the door guard and tell him you’re being sent out. He’ll open the inner door and alert the outer guard you’ll be coming through. But if either of them don’t buy what we be peddling, you won’t get throwed back in that third dungeon again, though they may be interested in how you got out. And we’ll—well, we’ll be as dead as you. Meg, as you can see, ain’t had no part of this, so she’s innocent. Ain’t that so?”
“Meg is innocent,” Rolf repeated without conviction. Meg shivered in the far corner.
“Let’s get you gone.”
“Wait, where do I go from here?”
“You don’t know?” the cook asked.
“No, I came from the east. Can’t go back that way.”
“No, nothing but mountains east. Follow the rock around the north side of the castle. Once you’re a couple furlongs away, cut back west to the road. Follow it north and west to Hohen Elstergau. That’d be Count Godfrey. He’s the Dragon’s liege lord, though the Dragon don’t carry on like no vassal. He’s your best hope. Tell him what’s going on. Show him that seal. Maybe he’ll know whose it is.”
The cook led Rolf into the passageway. Behind them loomed the door to the dungeons. To their left a narrow passage penetrated the thick outer wall. An oil lamp dimly lit the massive man watching Rolf and the cook approach the door. The lambent light reflected off the blade of the short sword the big man held beside himself.
“Blaz, this here is Rolf. He be a friend of Mary’s. Do you remember my little kitchen girl?”
“Know Mary. Not know Rolf.”
“No, you wouldn’t. Rolf is new. He has to run an errand. The bridge is pulled up. So, rather than lower it, we want you to let him out here.”
“Out here?” Blaz asked.
“Not for some time. When he returns, he’ll come in the main gate. Will you let him out?”
“Sergeant say only kitchen girls and outside guards,” Blaz said. “Not unless he say.”
“I could go find the sergeant, to be sure, but Rolf’s only leaving not entering. Your job is to keep people out.”
“I protect door.”
“Yes, well. Will you let him out?”
“Where little girl?”
“Oh, Blaz.” Cook shook his head. “Mary is in trouble with the Dragon.”
The big man stood still so long that Rolf wondered if he’d heard. “What trouble?”
Rolf had let the cook talk before, but now he knew that he must speak. The guard sounded sympathetic, if slow.
“Blaz. I’m Rolf.” He pointed at himself, then toward the dungeon doors. “I’m going out to find help for Mary. I want to help her, but I have to get out.”
“Yes, I’m going to get help for Mary.”
Blaz laid his short sword against the wall. He opened a sliding bar and examined the dark beyond. He lifted two wooden beams that fit as snugly as the dungeon wood and stonework. More evidence of Burg Altz’ master builder, Rolf thought. Blaz swung the heavy door inward, revealing second door beyond. Blaz hammered his fist against the door. “Opening.”
“Come,” a voice responded.
Rolf expected the outer door to open, but Cook pushed him toward the still closed door. “You have to stand between the doors. They never open both at once.”
“I won’t fit,” Rolf protested.
“It’ll be tight.” The cook nodded.
Rolf squeezed himself into the door frame. When the inner door closed against him, he feared he would be crushed.
“Closed,” Blaz called.
Nothing happened. Rolf pushed against the outer door. It was barred. “Hey, let me out.”
The outer door bolt screeched. Rolf pushed it open.
“I never want to do that again,” Rolf said to the soldier, keeping his head down in case this man had been among those who captured him.
“I hate it, too,” the soldier confided. “And I go out or in it all the time.”
Rolf stepped away from the door. Looking away. “Do you get used to it?”
“Never.” The soldier secured the door. “A bit late for a walk in the woods, ain’t it?”
“Got an errand to run.”
“Tonight? Dressed like that?”
“I didn’t exactly volunteer.”
“Ah, I got ya. Well, you’re lucky it’s warmed the last few days, but it’s still going to be freezing.”
“I hope to get under shelter soon.”
Rolf found his way down steps to the river side. He skirted the rocky outcropping around the castle, heading west as the cook had directed and eventually stumbled to the road. By then it was getting dark, but Rolf wanted to get as far from the Dragon as possible.
Even on the road, Rolf found it hard to keep on his feet. He lurched through the night. Before dawn lit the sky behind him, Rolf detected watch fires ahead. He was considering whether to duck off the road and approach secretly when soldiers stepped from behind trees on either side of the road.
“Halt,” one of them ordered.
He couldn’t see their tabards, but both carried barbed pole arms like those used at Burg Altz. He turned to run, only to discover another soldier steeping out from behind a tree behind him, raising his crossbow to aim at Rolf’s chest.
Rolf stood tall and spread his arms.
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.