In which the young master discovers a secret…
Late in the month of Jol, 903 PAE (Post Ancient Earth)
A red glow lazed about the room like an unwelcome guest, reluctant to leave. Odors from the distant kitchens meandered across the floor stones and ascended to his nostrils. He snorted. The scent of burnt flesh—even stag— had always sickened him. Bringing a gloved, bejeweled hand to his face, he covered his eyes. The red lights from the room’s two lanterns dulled his senses and lulled him into a hazy half-consciousness. Footsteps resounded on the stairs leading to his room. A scowl escaped his freshly licked lips.
It was Jori, his manservant.
“My Lord Maslyn,” Jori politely chimed when he arrived at the top of the staircase.
The manservant was met with silence. Lord Maslyn continued to cover his face and feigned sleep.
“Lord Maslyn,” Jori nudged the young noble’s shoulder.
“What?” the boy asked, disinterested.
“It’s almost Night Bells, sir,” Jori informed him.
Lord Maslyn sighed and stretched. He hated Jori’s roundabout way of ushering him to bed almost as much as he hated the infernal Night Bells that the village church rang each night. Jori walked behind him, like a dog, over to the four-poster bed. Lord Maslyn rolled his eyes when the manservant promptly started to undress him. Jori deposited Lord Maslyn’s linen nightgown over his master’s head and put his day clothes into the wicker basket adjacent to the door. The servant girl would pick it up in the morning.
Once the noble was properly tucked beneath the covers, he dismissed Jori and pretended, once again, to fall compliantly asleep as his manservant walked down the staircase. It was almost impossible for Lord Maslyn to hear the great door slam, for it lay far and away at the end of the long corridor that ran from his tower to the main castle. He didn’t bother to strain his hearing in order to make sure that Jori was truly gone. Lord Maslyn listened carefully for any telltale sounds of life around his room—his nightly custom. There used to be birds nesting in the rafters of his ceiling, but they were gone now. Even though it was the month of Jol—the dead of winter on Niflheim—it was colder than usual outside. No summer birds would survive the frigid cold of his lofty domain this time of year. They would have long since gone underground to their nesting caverns.
Lord Maslyn’s window was tightly bolted and he never attempted to open it, not once in six long years. Still, sometimes, he pulled back the drapes and looked at the outside world to which he was denied access. In summer, he saw birds and other animals that lived in the forest behind his tower frolicking in the snow. The bars and bolts over the glass made the whole world look as though great black stripes ran through it. Often, at night, he would pretend that he knew of a sort of power that could move objects from far away. If he ever mastered that imaginary skill, he envisioned that he could open the latch on the outside and open the windows, even if only for a frigid breeze. He knew that he would never survive a climb or a fall from the height of his window; it just would have been nice to feel fresh wind on his face.
Instead of wishing for magical powers, tonight he was content to lie in bed, awake. He opened one eye. Only silence and the red aura of the lanterns piqued his senses. Again, he detected the horrid smell of cooking meat. The kitchens were probably preparing venison for drying the next day. Or the servants could have been eating dinner together. He didn’t really know. He always ate by himself, or with Father Kimbli. It was not permitted for him to associate with the rest of the castle. The same people came every day, week, month, year. The same three people: Jori, Jordis the servant girl, and Father Kimbli. His entire social sphere consisted of those who were either assisting him with every aspect of his life or offering him counsel about it.
Thoughts of such things irritated him. The covers were scratchy against his legs, and bile rose in his throat. He truly hated everything about his life in the tower. He hated the red lanterns, the putrid smells seeping from the air shafts, the stone steps, and, most of all, he hated the silence that permeated every single crack in his broken existence. Never, in six long years, had he left that room. Being a twelve year old boy, he was sure his social development was being stunted from such isolation.
The tower was like a stone cell. But, of course, he guessed that was exactly what it was meant to be. They threw him in the tower ages ago, though he couldn’t remember the exact night. He remembered his life before the tower, the fire that killed his family, and his life after, but he didn’t remember why those men had locked him in the tower room. Before, he had a father, mother, and two older brothers. After, he had only his loneliness. Why did they want to isolate him? He still remembered waking up after the fire with the disgusting scent of blood and burnt flesh in his nose and the memories of people he would never see again. The stone prison was grating on his nerves. The empty noble’s title he bore did him no good. It was all meaningless.
After a while, his mind wandered and his thoughts settled on his weekly visit from Father Kimbli that happened the afternoon before. He didn’t mind the priest’s visits, if only because they dispersed some of the monotony of his increasingly dull waking moments. The priest had come up the stairs, like smoke, meandering about as shadows would before settling over one area. Kimbli was kind, but somewhat of a mother hen type. He always asked after Lord Maslyn’s health and seemed immensely interested in any little detail of the boy’s life and daily pursuits. He never asked Lord Maslyn about his past or about his family. The noble thought this a little odd, since he remembered the priest from the time before the tower, but he never brought it up.
Yesterday, as usual, Father Kimbli descended onto the cushioned chair at the table and stared at the boy like a great, moth-eaten vulture. For all his kindness, the man looked to be nearing the further side of ninety. Not for the first time, Lord Maslyn wondered what had happened to the priest that caused his face to permanently freeze in a contented smile. Again, as usual, Father Kimbli opened with, “So, what have you been doing this week, Lord Maslyn?”
“Lord Maslyn, you must remember that you are free to tell me anything you wish about your life and your thoughts. I have watched over you since you were very young. Please, tell me about your week. It would please me to hear.”
“I have infinite patience, my lord, and I assure you,” Kimbli said with a chuckle, “That I will continue to come every week, regardless if you feel like talking or not. I should think it would break up the monotony for you.”
This was always how their visit went. Father Kimbli said everything and Lord Maslyn said nothing. In the early years, the boy had attempted to ask the priest about the tower and why he was there. He also tried asking about the incident, but Father Kimbli always changed the subject, a cloud descending on his wrinkled face. Years later, Lord Maslyn was at a loss as to what he was supposed to talk about—given that he did the same thing every week and nothing ever changed. He was never allowed to go anywhere or do anything that would entice sinning, excitement, or mischief. So, every meeting was an exhausting hour of sighs, nods, eye rolling, and staring off into blank space. Eventually, Father Kimbli exhaled heavily and, with great ceremony, stood. Ending as he always did, the priest said, “Until next week, my Lord Maslyn. I will pray for you. I hope you can find something to spark your interest in the coming days.”
The memories of these events always troubled him. Though the priest’s visits were ultimately harmless, they still annoyed the young lord. What bothered him so much was the fact that the priest knew exactly what the boy wanted: something to interest him. He desired more than anything to leave the tower, to discover, to explore. The red lamps had finally dimmed to the ember-like shade of a dying fire. Lord Maslyn raised himself up. Even with the bolted window, heavy drapes, and coverlets, he shivered. It was utterly barbaric that he was not allowed to keep logs in his room. They never let him have anything that could be considered “dangerous”, though he did not know why. Perhaps it was because he was a boy and, traditionally (at least in the books he read), boys were rambunctious and unruly. He supposed that fire most certainly fell under those categories.
Chilled, he still left the warmth of his bed, sliding into his slippers to walk towards the impotent fireplace situated in the center of his stone prison. Wind licked at the shaft of the chimney and he could feel a frozen draft pooling around the base of the hearth. A shudder racked his small frame. He tightly held his arms about him as if they could provide any warmth. He continued to sit in front of the windy alcove and felt utterly consumed by sadness. A cold facade remained on his face in front of the servants and Father Kimbli, but in his room, in the dark with the Night Bells ringing, he let himself become the scared young boy that he was.
The cold air tugged at his nightshirt and his limbs grew stiff. As his mind started shutting down for sleep, he sensed another draft near the fireplace. From the bottom left corner, he felt a warmer sort of air spilling out of a crack. Now, he was intensely interested. Never in six years had anything interested him about this room. For the first time in eons, he felt the urge to do something. Smiling to himself, he thought he may indeed have found something to talk about with Father Kimbli. Lord Maslyn knelt down and pressed his small face to the crack, tried to smell and feel the air. It smelled fragrant—like flowers. It was a familiar scent…like someone he once knew, though he could not say whom. The air definitely came from below instead of from the chimney lip twenty feet up. Lord Maslyn craned his neck to look up the tunnel. He saw the snow swirl around outside the mouth of the chimney and he pressed his body closer to the warmer air that came up from the crack.
As he scooted his body closer to the corner of the fireplace, he felt his spine come into contact with a sharp object. At first, he thought he had hit a rock or a piece of jagged brick in the hearth. When he turned and felt it with his fingers, he discerned a handle. Lord Maslyn went very still. “Just what is hidden in this fireplace?” he thought to himself. Hesitant, he lifted his frozen hand and felt of the metal latch. It was warm. He pulled on the handle. There was a small click and a hidden door swung inward, open. Lord Maslyn realized that some of the bricks in the fireplace were an illusion, merely plaster, fastened to a wooden door that posed as the left panel of the hearth.
The air blew full-force out of the opening, and the boy reveled in the warmth of it. He looked behind him, over the table that blocked his view of the staircase. Listening, he only heard silence and he could see the dying flames in the red lanterns. Lord Maslyn smiled to himself. That night, for the first time in six years, something different would happen to him. Mustering any courage he had, he peered down through the small doorway. It was just big enough for his small body to crawl through. He felt sure that a grown adult would have had difficulty fitting through such a tiny opening. There was something comforting about that, as though the doorway were there just for him.
After his head and shoulders squeezed inside, he let his eyes adjust to complete darkness. With the fingers of his right hand, he cautiously reached forward and felt the stone floor. Astonishingly, it was smooth and seemed as if it had been hewn by an artisan. Letting his fingers travel further along the floor, he felt a lump in his stomach when the floor suddenly stopped and only empty air remained. This was discouraging, but then a thought occurred to him…stairs. He backtracked to where the floor seemed to end and he did, indeed, find an edge that ran downwards until it hit another horizontal floor. Stairs.
A delicious thrill curled in his chest and he slowly eased himself out of the opening, carefully shutting the false door. He made sure that he could use the hidden latch to reopen it at will. As much as he wanted to explore the entirety of the secret passage at once, he knew that it would be more prudent to wait and do so the following night, after he had had time to plan and secure some light for the tunnel. He made sure that nothing looked amiss in the fireplace or the hearth around it, and shuffled back to bed. Excitement kept him from sleep right away, so instead, he pulled back the curtains and stared out at the snow falling over the castle grounds. He could see the church, far away on the hill and footmen who cared for carriages down in the yard, nodding off at their posts. He closed the curtains and buried himself under the mountainous covers. The next night, he would explore the tunnel and perhaps find something wonderful nestled beneath his dark prison.
* * *
He felt a gentle shaking bring him out of his dream. Jori. Groaning, Lord Maslyn rolled over and was disgruntled to feel his whole face dragged through the drool that had escaped to his pillow during the night.
“Ugh!” he grimaced.
“Sir, shall I have your sheets laundered?” Jori asked, not the least bit concerned.
The boy raised himself and ran a hand through his tousled hair before wiping the slime from his cheeks.
“Uh…yes. That would be fine, Jori.”
Lord Maslyn could tell that there was a slight smile at the edge of his manservant’s face and felt embarrassed by the whole thing. He had always slept with his mouth open. Casting insecurity aside, he rose and stretched while Jori took his nightclothes and put them in the basket near the door for Jordis. The manservant also left a basin of warm water on the table with a cloth for Lord Maslyn to bathe. Then, Jori left without further comment and descended to see that his master’s breakfast was ready.
Lord Maslyn craned his neck to see around the doorframe and discerned the tall, skinny figure of Jori walking down the corridor leading to the main castle. The boy stole a glance at his everyday bathing amenities to see if they could be of any use to him in his exploration of the tunnel that night. Soap and a basin of clear water rested on the tray. Beside these things were a comb and his clothes for the day. “Humph,” he thought to himself. “It will take some imagination to find anything useful in this room.”
He washed, inspecting his surroundings as he did so. There were four walls in the tower. On the south wall stood his bed and window. On the east wall was the fireplace. The west had the doorway and the north wall—the north wall…Lord Maslyn took his wet washcloth with him and smiled when he realized that the north wall contained his answer! There was a shelf there chocked full of books. He now knew how he could inconspicuously get candles for the tunnel. When Jordis came, he would ask her for a candle, because he was trying to work up the discipline to read each night. It was a long shot, and all the servants supposedly knew he was not allowed to have fire, but he felt certain that Jordis would understand. She was nearly his age after all, perhaps only a year younger. Surely she would be sympathetic if he told her that it could be a secret. She would not suspect anything amiss if it was for something as common as reading, especially when he was the most boring creature alive, as far as his servants were concerned. Lord Maslyn made sure never to be a bit of trouble.
Jori returned to find his master freshly washed and ready for dressing. Lord Maslyn always hated that part. He found it rather stupid that he had to allow someone else to dress him. A previous attempt to dress himself had resulted in a tongue lashing from the servant. “Wretched man,” Lord Maslyn thought, though he truly didn’t mean it. Jori was acceptable. A slight smile threatened to form on his face, but he was careful to squash the urge. If anyone suspected his altered behavior, who knew what the servants might say? In the future, with the façade in place that he was reading every night, he was sure that he could get away with seeming more excited or alert. He would simply say that he had read the most interesting book the previous night.
His manservant did not seem to notice the boy’s excited mood and left soon after the dressing was over. Lord Maslyn knew that Jordis would soon come with breakfast and retrieve his laundry. The young noble thought it would be the perfect time to ask for a reading candle, since she would have all day to try and get it without being detected. He hoped he wouldn’t get her into any sort of trouble. She was sort of pretty—and very nice. In fact, he wondered if speaking to her would change something between them. They never really spoke to one another and he felt a little sorry that he never thanked her for all the things she did for him each day.
Strolling over to his window, the boy stared out at the snow that shrouded all things in mystery. Snow was a beautiful thing— and yet so cold. Hopefully Jordis would not be icy and unforgiving like that. Shouts from the guard drew his attention to the right. Plastering his face to the window, he strained to see out to the far edge of the castle. The scene was happening far away, but he was able to discern a stray horse that was causing chaos for the stablemen. It was none of his concern, so he left the window to pace the floor until Jordis arrived ten minutes later.
© L.M. Sherwin. All Rights Reserved.