Chapter Twenty-Nine

Rolf woke in darkness. He felt wet. He was wet. He sat up and touched his back, then around himself. The floor down one side of the cell was wet … and warm. Blood? Was he bleeding? No, he didn’t feel cut, besides warm blood had a particular odor which he didn’t detect. This smells more like rancid fat. Rotten meat.

Where did it come from? Rolf traced the path of liquid upward and discovered a large hole high up the wall, where it started to curve over his head. He could barely reach it. The water was warm as it entered, giving up its heat to the stone as it trickled to the drain. Soon the dribble became a flow and poured into the cell splattering on the stone below.

He couldn’t understand where the warm water came from or what purpose it served. He hesitated, then tasted it. Foul, of course, but water. Rolf forced himself to drink his fill. It might be the last—no, he shouldn’t think about that.

The coating became slippery. He might soon be so hungry he would scrap that rot and eat it. He shuddered.

Over the next hours, the water flowed at varying rates. He counted to time the surges. They seemed to come about every hour and lasted for as long as it took him to count all his fingers the same number as his fingers. A hundred.

After his initial pleasure, the water became an irritant. It was noisy and made the cell damp. It increased the stench. While it heated the cell, he didn’t doubt that when the water stopped, his cell would become uncomfortably wet and cool. 

Rolf considered and discarded the idea that this water was meant to be torture. As torture, it failed. So far it had improved his lot. Certainly no one consciously poured warm water down here to benefit him. No one knew he was here. No one cared. And if it recurred daily, he could subsist much longer with water than without. 

He remembered the trough carved in the wall of the second dungeon. Maybe the water came from there. He was so turned around he couldn’t tell if that was the right direction, but that seemed to connect. Before that? The kitchen, but why boil and discard so much water?

As the cell grew warmer, Rolf went back to the puzzle of the drain. Whether intentional or accidental, the warm water might raise the temperature of the water in the drain enough that he could explore it. He shuddered at the thought. Were there were bars below? What if there weren’t? Might he escape through the drain?

If he dropped deeper than he could reach—and he knew that the water level in the drain hadn’t risen, so there must be an outlet—he might not be able to reach the rim and pull himself back up. He’d eventually drown. The smooth walls of the bore would not admit climbing since they had the same slimy coating as the cell. Maybe that’s why there were no bones in the cell. Sooner or later, perhaps everyone jumped into the drain through experimentation, desperation, or accident. Or the water washed away the rotting remains. Maybe the bottom of the shaft was filled with bones. He shivered.

He thought. They said the only way out of the third dungeon was down the drain. He and apparently everyone else assumed that meant death, not a clue to escape. Mary said there were ways in and out of most everywhere in this castle and that some of them were surprising. And she quoted the saying about going down the drain.

He sat on the drain edge in the complete darkness, warm water splashing in his face. He couldn’t just sit there forever; he had to try. Even if he died, he would die trying. Not waiting.

He raised a short petition for protection, planted one hand on each side of the hole, and lifted his body to the center of the shaft. He slowly lowered himself into the drain. Nothing. He continued to dip as far as he could, perhaps another foot. Nothing. Shifting his grip to put his hands together on the drier side of the rim, he let himself down. 

Several feet farther his toe touched something. He fluttered his feet. They struck something hard. Something that didn’t move. Hard and round like a bar. Rolf felt with his toes until he found a footing. Without releasing his grip on the edge, he gradually shifted his weight to his feet. He was standing on bars as large as those which closed the entrance hole. He released one hand at a time and flexed his fingers.

Tired but exhilarated, Rolf explored the bars with his toes. No escape down the drain. The gurgling was louder. Water must be close. And flowing. The thought of just releasing his grip on the edge and dropping flashed through his mind, but he wasn’t giving up. 

He wriggled the fingers of each hand separately and gripped the edge above. He kicked off the bars and he pulled himself up.

He stopped short.

Something had moved under his foot. It was there, then gone. He let himself back down and felt again. Crossed bars, just like the entrance above, but one was missing. Whatever had moved was gone. An arm or leg bone perhaps. Perhaps it had been laying crosswise. The grid of bars was large enough that a skull might pass through. Perhaps this dungeon killed its residents and then disposed of them without human action. While that idea made Rolf shudder, it also spoke to the cleverness or evil which went into building the dungeons. Every bit as fascinating as an enchantment. He wondered if dwarfs had been hired to cut the stone.

Rolf pushed and pulled at the bars with his toes. None seemed to move. But apparently one had moved. It stood to reason they couldn’t just be slid out of the way, or every prisoner would have escaped. But the open bar suggested that one prisoner had tried to escape and either made it or died trying. He hadn’t come back to close this exit.

He must use his hands. The shaft was wide enough that he might double himself over as a larger man might not. No matter how clean the incoming warm water was, the water below contained, if nothing else, his own urine. He smiled. The shepherds said to pee downstream of where you drank. That was hours ago.

Rolf took a deep breath and leaned forward. It wasn’t as easy as he anticipated to reach down without inverting himself. He finally squatted and leaned, barely touching the bars with his fingers. They felt slimy. He pushed and he pulled, but none moved. He took many breaths and made many attempts. Maybe this was his imagination. But his mind as well as to his emotions asserted that the castle’s builder had designed a way out. Rolf stood up again. He had missed something. What?

One bar was gone. Thinking of the bars across the entrance, Rolf remembered how they slid out of the way. The lower bars couldn’t move the same way or anyone who came through the top would already know how to exit the bottom. There must be a trick. 

As Rolf considered the puzzle, he shifted his weight, and his foot slipped off one of the bars. He pulled himself back up. His foot hadn’t slipped, the bar had rolled. Rolf thought about it. He had once seen a fastener that rotated as it passed through a hole. Was it possible that the dwarf or whoever built Burg Altz employed such a tool here?

He leaned down and gripped the bar which had moved. Yes, it rotated. More wonderfully, as it rotated it moved to the side. He turned it again and again, having to stop and flex his fingers because the bar was slippery. As it moved to the side, Rolf started feeling the spiraling groove on the end pulling out of the wall. Once the end was free from the wall, the rest of the bar slid easily into the far wall. The mason had drilled a hole as deep as the bar was long. Almost. Its end protruded far enough that Rolf could pull it out again, though he couldn’t conceive why. 

Now that he knew where to feel, he found a similar hole and nub for the missing bar. It was opposite the bar he’d just slid back. The third bar wouldn’t turn. Rolf finally got it to rotate, but not far enough to push into the wall. He might squeeze through the wide, narrow opening, but might not get up again. The fourth bar rotated easily. Yes! 

With three retracted he was sure he could get through the bars, he considered what might lay beyond. Water, of course, but how deep? Where did it come from? Where did it go?

Standing on the last bar, Rolf took many deep breaths. He could dive down and feel the shaft and still resurface, but he didn’t know if he’d find more bars, blind false channels, or other traps. Even if he found a clear passage to the river, he couldn’t hold his breath long enough. Besides, the water down there would be frightfully cold.

This must be an escape route. Why else thread the bars? It wasn’t necessary for the construction of the dungeon. This had to be an intentional escape route. Rolf prayed for it to be so. The builder wouldn’t introduce more puzzles now. Rolf must trust him. Rolf needed an escape, and the builder had provided it. He paused. It was like the priest’s idea that God had provided an escape from sin hundreds of years before Rolf lived and sinned.

At that moment, he needed to escape. Sermons later. He took a deep breath, steeled himself against the cold water he knew was just below, and plunged downward. The water was colder than he imagined, but he pressed on. Almost immediately he ran into debris at the end of the shaft. Bones and softer objects filled the bottom. He turned and pushed upward. The water near the surface was still refreshingly warm.

Rolf gasped and clung to the remaining bar.

There must be a way out. He drew another deep breath and dove. The water turned shockingly cold again. This time he felt the sides as he descended. Just a few feet below the bars, Rolf felt a cross shaft smaller than the vertical drain. A strong current flowed from the right-hand opening and out the left. Which way to go? With the flow would be easier, but he felt along the rough-cut horizontal shaft upstream. His fingers found an edge. Out of air. So cold he couldn’t think. Disoriented by the cold and flow. I’m gonna die.

He pushed straight up. And climbed up on the bar. He shivered and blew. His fingers and toes ached. If he wasn’t careful, he would kill himself right here. Knowing how cold it would be, he had to steel himself to dive again. 

This time he braced his feet against the down-current opening and stretched into the incoming side. Again the icy, turbulent water confused him. He scrapped his fingers along the channel. No bars. Another shaft intersected. Larger, square, rough cut. Dare he pull himself into it? He must. He couldn’t force himself into this water again. If he didn’t do something soon, he’d drown. The current pushed him back toward the dungeon’s drain. 

I’m gonna die, I’m gonna—his fingers scraped on the rough stone—die, I’m—he broke the surface a few feet up. He gasped in the air and opened his eyes. Still pitch dark. He struggled onto a platform a foot above the water. He gasped and shivered. Even though he was out of the water, the air in this new chamber felt frigid.

He could still go back if he had to but felt sure he’d found the right route—the only route. The area was completely dark, but he could sense by the echo that it was small. He felt around the walls—normal, vertical walls here, barely an arm’s span apart. Like the dungeon and shafts, this room was carved out of solid stone. Water flowed into a high pool, then spilled into the shaft he had just emerged from. Narrow steps rose to one side. He had to turn to keep from rubbing his shoulders on the rough walls. He was soaked and would freeze if he didn’t find heat soon.

He felt his way up. The edge of each step was sharp and square. Perhaps no one had trod them since Burg Altz was built. Halfway up, he felt the steps pass from living stone into masonry construction. He was now at least as high as the third dungeon’s entrance. At the top of the stairs on the left side was a small door, barely a forearm span high and wide. He felt for other openings but found none. Feeling the door itself, he found no latch or locking mechanism. Nothing but the hinges on his side. 

He pushed.

The door did not move.

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