Chapter Twenty-Three

Rolf leaned against the cold stone wall and cried. He had no idea how long he’d been in here. It felt like forever. Probably not a day. Dressed in only his tunic and trousers, he shivered. The right-hand wall was warmer, so he huddled next to it.

Despite being exhausted when they threw him in, he couldn’t sleep. Silvester’s horrible murder kept coming back to him like an unholy vision. Rolf knew he was responsible. What else could he have told the Dragon? He had betrayed every confidence—not to mention his oaths to his father and to Jordanes—to the Dragon, and it hadn’t been enough.

When the Dragon ordered Ulrich to kill Silvester, Rolf threw himself over the old man. Soldiers had been called and dragged him away, but the Dragon instructed them to keep Rolf in the room to witness, as he called it, the fruit of his treachery.

Ulrich hesitated long enough for the Dragon to tell him again, then he pulled the long sword from his scabbard and taking a two-handed grip swung it at Silvester’s neck. The hermit had babbled and protested, but he didn’t defend himself from the blow. The blade nearly severed his head. Silvester’s body jerked and bled for some time before it stilled. 

Rolf’s body had shaken. At first, he thought it was his reaction to the murder, then he realized that the emotion emanated from the Dragon. Where Rolf usually felt power and beauty radiate from the man, at that moment a gut-clutching malevolence pulsed through the room. Rolf stepped back from the gigantic reptilian monster he thought he saw again. The Dragon leaned forward in hungry pleasure, as if he was feeding off Silvester’s pain.

“Your words,” the Dragon said to Rolf, “condemned this man, whom you thought of as innocent, to die. Remember this lesson, Rolf. Words are important. There is life … or death in words. Take him away.”

Huddled by the dungeon door, Rolf drew his knees closer to his face and sobbed. “Holy God, forgive me for I have sinned. That innocent man’s blood is upon my head. I don’t know how I could have saved him, but I know that I bear the guilt. Please protect me from the Dragon.”

Rolf must have finally fallen asleep because the rattling of the lock woke him. A soldier entered carrying a torch. The light allowed Rolf to get his first look at his prison. The dungeon, like many rooms in Burg Altz, formed a truncated wedge. The door wall was little wider than the door itself. The vaulted ceiling loomed low near the door but, as the solid rock floor fell away, high at the far wall. A groove ran along the outside wall, entering at the middle of the right corner downward toward the lower corner on the left.

The Dragon ducked his head under the low portal and stood, hands on his hips, looking down at Rolf.

“Well, young man, have you considered your role in the death of that unfortunate old man? You had the power of life and death for him, and you let him die. I hope you are sobered by your callousness. I am.”

“But you ordered him killed.”

“Because of your defiance. I am a merciful man, Rolf, but I rule a critical fortress on a dangerous frontier. At any time the forces of Bavaria or Saxony may come against my liege lord, the king of Bohemia. And then there’s those lawless Lithuanians and the self-ruled and self-righteous Teutonic Knights. Dangerous times, Rolf, and a dreadful responsibility. I must be vigilant. Spies buzz about like flies. And right in the midst of it, you walk up demanding entrance and a sword.

“And then, to compound your treachery, you confess that you are in league with Jordanes, the erstwhile baron of Burg Altz. Jordanes, who fled his post and betrayed his king, and collaborated with his enemies. Jordanes, who now returns to plot—what does he plot, Rolf? My overthrow? The betrayal of Burg Altz to the highest bidder? What am I to think? What am I to do?

“I think you’re a spy, Rolf. I do what I must. You feel yourself aggrieved? How must I feel? And what of your brother? Did your father send him to sniff me out, too? Was he, not you, the tip of the blade between my ribs?”

“No, my lord Dragon. Will is a good and true soldier in your service. Because my father thought that Will would stay true to you, he despaired getting our sword back and sent me to recover it.”

“Don’t lie to me, Rolf. I can feel your hate. You have betrayed me. How? By helping overthrow me?  Is that why you really came here?”

“No, my lord, my father never said anything about you.  He just wanted our sword back.”

“The great and mysterious Willard sword. And don’t forget the book. You know what I think, Rolf? I think there is no book. You say you have not seen this book. Your brother admitted that he never saw it. In fact, he can’t and you won’t tell us enough about the book for my clerks to find it. You do remember my asking about the book, don’t you?”

“Yes, my lord Dragon.”

“So, here I am—surrounded by spies, traitors, and enemies. And you, young man, are not my friend. Only out of mercy have I not dumped you into the third dungeon. And what do I have to show for it?” The Dragon stared at him as if he expected Rolf to tell him where Jordanes and Columba hid or what they planned to do.

“I don’t know, my lord. I—I don’t know what to say.”

“One more night, Rolf. My patience is at an end. Tonight only. Tomorrow I shall dispose of you and send men to question your father. Is that what you want?”

“No, my lord, my father and mother are good people. They only know of you by rumor, and Will coming to join you. Don’t bother them.”

The man stood straighter, his shadow filling the dungeon. “I will do what I must. Consider their peril, if not your own.”

The Dragon left, followed by the soldier with the torch. The door closed, and Rolf heard the bolt slide fast. He slipped down the wall and clutched his knees. He’d failed. The family sword was lost, his brother in trouble and poor, old Silvester dead. And tomorrow the evil that he’d stirred up would spread to threaten his family.

No, he said to himself. You’ve gotten a look at your cell. It isn’t full of refuse or rats, though the bits of old straw reek. There may be a way out. A little poking around seemed in order. Rolf stood and first explored with his fingertips the full extent of the wall surrounding the door. Nothing suggested itself. Like all the upper walls, it was built of mortared stones, roughly a hand span tall by two spans long. The mortar felt hard and dry. 

He eased his way down the warmer side wall to his right. The shallow slope of the floor posed little danger of him slipping. The well-laid blocks ended, and the lower portion felt carved out of living stone—the bedrock on which the castle stood. In the corner, he explored until he found the opening leading into the trough. Inside the trough was damp and a bit slimy. Poking with his fingers, he discovered that the trough originated at a channel through the wall—wider than the length of his thumb. He could not feel where it came from. And, though he could not see any light through the channel, he heard sounds from it consistent with a kitchen. That might explain the warm wall. He considered yelling but decided whoever might hear him had no reason to respond and good reasons not to.

Inching across the lower end of the cell, Rolf felt the course of the open trough descend the cold outer wall to exit in a drain in the corner. Along that outer end of the wedge, the wall ran twice as far as the door wall opposite it. The trough cut into the solid sandstone, damp along its entire length.

A gut-turning stench wafted up from the drain hole, also a thumb-length wide. He wished for some rag to stuff in the hole. He felt his way up the remaining wall. Still no sign of weakness. What did he expect: a secret opening?

He slumped against the warmer wall by the door. The entire dungeon felt warm for this being the middle of winter and the outer wall exposed to the outside. Cold, but not frigid. He twisted his legs to lift his feet off the cold floor and rested his head on his arms. 

Rolf relived the death of Silvester, and in the quiet dark cried for deliverance. He wept that he would not see his mother again. He prayed that his brother and the kitchen girl would be delivered from this valley of the shadow of death. 

Ever before his mind’s eyes lay the bleeding body of Silvester.

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.