A Simple Fairy Tale (part 19)

The Great Hall of Witten Castle (commonly called the Throne Room) was a long, narrow chamber with King Bernardino’s large, ornate, golden and toasty-warm throne at one end and two crenellated balconies at the other. These two balconies overlooked an inner courtyard and were useful for waving to adoring subjects, or throwing hot pitch on them. The walls of the Great Hall were covered in tapestries, as was most of Witten Castle. These were hung for warmth and worked well. Everyone still froze all winter but the tapestries took their minds off it.

There were many places in Witten Castle an ordinary housemaid would never be permitted to see. The armory. The strong room. The secret passageways. (Most people didn’t even know they existed). But Bernardino was the king, his first-born son was in a coma, his two remaining children had disappeared on a Quest, and he was clinically depressed. So King Bernardino was pretty much “off the reservation” when it came to maids and castle protocol. After recovering his balance he graciously thanked Gloria (I think I mentioned that) and said, “Come, my dear. There’s something I want to show you.” He led her towards the back of the throne room adding, “And you mustn’t tell a soul.”

In the farthest corner of the room they came upon an old tapestry, a heraldic escutcheon en surtout featuring the Bernardino family crest. It pictured a fish (at the Point d’Honour) sitting on a goat (at the Point d’Nombril) above the motto: Better Luck Next Time. At the bottom of this heraldic crest were some nutty red and blue squiggles added by a distant ancestor who thought they looked fabulous…really nice…terrific… (They didn’t. They looked terrible.)

The fish was armed with a buckler and a sword and was, in fact, the Fighting Flounder of Eulalia. For some reason, the Fighting Flounder looked like a pike, which was better because it’s a scarier looking fish. (The goat just looked like a regular goat.) Anyway, King Bernardino walked up to this tapestry, raised his fist, and struck the hilt of the Fighting Flounder’s sword. There was a deep rumble and a sensation of weighty shifting. “I love this part,” the King said. His face lit up. “The children used to play in these tunnels for hours.”

King Bernardino slipped behind the tapestry. Gloria followed and took the king’s hand. Behind the tapestry it was dark. It was close. And it smelled a little moldy. Gloria was a little afraid of the dark. A little afraid of tight spaces. And she wasn’t a huge fan of mold, either. (These were not debilitating fears, but you wouldn’t take her caving, for instance.)

“Sire, I will never say a word.”

They walked sideways with the tapestry rubbing their backs and their noses scraping the stone (well, Gloria’s nose and Bernardino’s stomach) until they came to an opening about two feet across. “There’s a torch inside,” the King said, “but we can’t light it until the door is shut. Smoke, you know. Would give it away.” (Actually, many courtiers already knew about this passageway because the rumbling was pretty loud. But they didn’t know how to open it, so there’s that.)

They slipped through the opening. In the darkness, Gloria could smell the distinctive odor of burnt torch. The King made the rumble noise again. The door slid shut. Gloria could feel the space they were in was narrow. And confining. Very, very narrow. Very, very confining.

“Just a moment,” said the King, fumbling with the torch. Gloria wished he would hurry up. She was getting nervous about the tightness, the darkness, the moldiness and the general ick factor of this dark, unknown, confining place. Suddenly she heard the welcome sound of a match, saw a small, brave flame, and beheld the cheery sight of a pine torch alight.

“Thank god,” muttered Gloria.

“You’re welcome, my dear,” said Bernardino, who was slightly deaf in that ear.

The pine torch (which smelled great, by the way) lit up a scene that was decidedly not cheerful. Gloria could see bars to her left, bars to her right. And bars overhead. There was just a regular stone floor, though. (Not that it made her feel any better.)

“Um…” said Gloria. “We’re in a cage.”

“Yes,” said Bernardino happily. “It’s a killing room! Not to worry! I’ve got the key right here…somewhere.” After a little fumbling the King pulled a big iron key out from under his Pallium Regale. The handle of this key was shaped like four-leaf clover and was the size of a Damson plum. “Just a sec…”

“What’s a killing room?” asked Gloria. (Gloria really didn’t want to know. She just asked because she was nervous.)

“Oh, it’s just a room to kill people. Invaders, mostly. Huns. Vandals. Visigoths. Ostrogoths. Regular Goths. Anyone that popped in, really. Our spearmen, axmen, swordsmen, bowmen, pike men, maul men, lance men, etc., would be stationed right outside these bars. They would make quick work of anyone who tried to come through the secret passageway, in theory…”

“In theory?”

“For the most part,” said Bernardino, “killing rooms just didn’t work. Enemy soldiers just poked their heads in and said, ‘Oh, look! A killing room! Let’s just burn and sack the rest of the place and keep out of here.’”

(King Bernardino was right. But that didn’t stop killing rooms from becoming a go-to feature of castle architecture. Why? Because architects made a killing. The construction guilds made a killing. The locksmiths made a killing. Basically, killing rooms created jobs. So medieval kings just couldn’t say no.)

Thankfully, the big iron key worked. The door squeaked open and they found themselves in a normal-sized secret passageway. “You can go anywhere from here,” said Bernardino with pride. “Anywhere!”

“No!” said Gloria in shocked amazement. (Gloria wasn’t amazed or shocked. It just felt like the right thing to say. And it was! King Bernardino beamed.)

“Yes!” he said. “This very passageway leads to a tunnel that comes out a quarter mile away in a cave. Another leads to the basement of a fletcher’s shop in Delia.” He chuckled. “Even the fletcher doesn’t know about that one. And if you go this way…” he took her hand and led her down a pretty nice-looking tunnel with clean sand on the floor, “you can get to the battlements, the strong room, or the armory. There’s even a way to the kitchen!” Bernardino sighed. “That’s the only one I use these days.”

“This is amazing!” said Gloria. (She meant it this time.) “Is this what you wanted to show me?” Gloria was a practical person who liked to get to the point.

“Oh,” said Bernardino. “I almost forgot. What I want to show you is this way.”

He took her hand and led her deeper into the labyrinth. As they turned (now left, now right) he kept up a patter like a magician performing a trick. “Now I’m going to take you to see the greatest mystery Witten Castle has to offer…a mystery that defies imagination…a mystery that has caused the brave to tremble…the wise to weep…and the foolish to offer in-depth analysis.”

The King stopped before an ornately cast bronze door and said, “I’m only showing you this because I’m bored.”

“After that introduction,” said Gloria, “it must be really terrific.” They both laughed. By Aeus, she cheers me, thought Bernardino. But he said solemnly, “I will let you decide.”

From beneath the Pallium Regale he took out some…thing. It had an oval shape and a clear glass front. Gloria (who had pretty sharp eyes) could see little gears inside, the kind you might see in a clock. Bernardino held up the strange object. “I know how to work this,” he said, “but I can’t tell you how it works. No one can. My father taught me how to use it, And his father taught him, and his father taught him, etc. It’s been in our family for many generations. We call it the ‘razor’.”

Bernardino inserted the razor (which had started to glow for Pete’s sake) into a small opening in the ornate bronze door. There was a whirr, a click, a really big click, and a clunk. Bernardino slowly pulled the door open. Despite its great weight, it moved smoothly and silently. (Why? Molybdenum ball-bearing hinges. That’s why.)

(to be continued…)