'It's about time you got here.'

“It’s about time you got here, Alred,” Sigefrith grumbled. “When I said ‘after breakfast’ I didn’t expect you to rise at noon.”

“It isn’t noon!” Alred protested. “And I had to go by the hill and see how the chapel is coming.”

“Oh, you and your chapel! Are you come to give us lessons in piety, you old rake?”

“No, I am come to give you lessons in construction, you old sinner, but I am happy to observe that you have finally taken my advice and had them start fixing that monstrous ravine in the court. Last time Bacchus caught his hoof on the edge of the thing and we nearly fell in.”

'We nearly fell in.'

“It’s this wide, Alred! An ant could scarcely fall in! And if you hadn’t taken all of our stonecutters to build your chapel I might have started earlier.”

“Tsk! That crevasse was swallowing up dogs and small children for weeks before I even had the idea of the chapel.”

“Have you quite finished, gentlemen?” Cenwulf interrupted.

“Quite, quite finished, old man,” Alred said. “How’s your girl these days?”

“No better, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Well, Matilda entrusted me with a kiss for her, but I’ll just have to save it for when I see her, because I don’t intend to kiss your homely face.”

“I thank you for that.”

“Why, Aylmer!” Alred cried when he saw his man hesitating in the doorway. “What are you doing here? Matilda sent you after me?”

“No, no,” he said, bowing himself in. “I’m here on Her Grace’s business, but it was the men sent me up to speak to His Majesty. None of them dared come.”

'The men sent me up to speak to His Majesty.'

“What men?” Sigefrith asked.

“Them as work on the court, Your Majesty. They found something they want Your Majesty to see, but they didn’t dare come tell.”

“And they thought you would dare?” Alred asked, amused.

Aylmer shrugged. “Someone had to come. It’s important.”

“Well, what is it?” Sigefrith asked.

“There seems to be a chamber under Your Majesty’s court. They found a few flags that was attached to the top of a sort of trapdoor, just in front of the kitchens.”

'There seems to be a chamber under Your Majesty's court.'

“A chamber! What’s in it?”

“I don’t know, no one dares go down there.”

Sigefrith laughed. “What do they dare?”

“Stand around and gossip, if Your Majesty don’t mind me saying so.”

“I don’t mind! Alred, you have Egelric and this precious one too – it isn’t fair!”

“They weren’t born this way,” Alred winked. “It takes some training.”

“Well, Aylmer, do you dare come with us to see what’s in this chamber?”

“If Your Majesty dares to explain to my lady why I return late,” he shrugged.

“I’ll take care of your lady,” Alred laughed.

“Come on, Cenwulf, let’s go see,” Sigefrith said eagerly. “Remember when we found that cellar under the old stable?”

“I remember you falling in and breaking your arm!” Cenwulf laughed.

'Well, it's built up in stone.'

“Well, it’s built up in stone,” Sigefrith observed once they had gathered around the trapdoor. “It’s not just a hole in the earth.”

“I told you Bacchus and I could have fallen in,” Alred said.

“Get us a ladder!” Sigefrith ordered.

“I’ll go first,” Aylmer offered once a ladder had been lowered into the hole and a torch brought. “We don’t want Your Majesty breaking no more arms.”

“May I keep him?” Sigefrith asked Alred.

“No, you may not.”

“What do you see?” Sigefrith called eagerly, kneeling at the edge.

'Two devil faces in stone.'

“Two doors,” he called up. “And two devil faces in stone.”

“We’re coming!” Sigefrith laughed excitedly. “I haven’t had this much fun since I was twelve and broke my arm!”

The three noblemen clambered down the ladder and looked around the small chamber. The walls were stone but the floor was thickly coated with dried mud.

“It must flood here sometimes, Sigefrith,” Cenwulf said. “This may not be safe. It’s amazing the court hasn’t collapsed yet.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t build a tower over this spot,” Alred added. “The weight might have brought it crashing down. Say, that would have been something!”

'Say, that would have been something!'

“What do you think of these statues?” Sigefrith asked.

“Ugly devils. I wonder what’s behind that door?”

“I would rather look behind the other first,” Cenwulf said. “It looks like the water comes from the other direction.”

“You’re just afraid of the devils,” Alred laughed.

“That too,” Cenwulf admitted.

'That too.'

Sigefrith broke the rusted old lock from the door with the hilt of his dagger and pushed it open.

“What’s in there?” Alred called eagerly as Sigefrith stepped inside.

'That too.'

“Give me a torch and I shall tell you!”

“Well?” Alred asked after Aylmer had lit and passed the King another torch.

“More doors, gentlemen! At least one for each of us!”

'More doors, gentlemen!'

“Let me see!” Alred said, trying to push past him through the narrow corridor.

“Not so fast! You know your precedence, men. The King goes first,” Sigefrith laughed.

“Don’t get too excited, Alred,” Cenwulf said. “Even if we find treasure behind your door, it belongs to His Majesty.”

“You had better believe I’ll be tearing up my court before nightfall!”

“Your court is dirt, you ninny,” Cenwulf laughed.

“Digging then. I never had the chance to break my arm as a child – I shall not miss this opportunity!”

“Oh, God!” they heard Sigefrith moan once he had pushed the first door open.

And then he saw.

Alred rushed into the doorway. “What is it?” And then he saw, and he crossed himself.

“What?” Cenwulf asked, crowding into the corridor behind him.

“This,” Alred said, pointing into the corner of the tiny room that lay behind the door.

A skeletal body sat leaning its head against the wall.

A skeletal body sat leaning its head against the wall in an attitude of great weariness, or of great despair.

“They must have simply left him here until he died,” Alred muttered.

“This is some kind of dungeon,” Cenwulf said. “All of these doors must be cells.”

“Say something, Sigefrith,” Alred prompted after a long silence.

“Oh, God!”

“Come on, old man – you’ve seen the dead before. In sorrier states than this natty gent, even.”

“But he’s been here all of these years, Alred,” Sigefrith said softly. “Under my court. I’ve walked over his head a thousand times.”

“Well, this is a sort of tomb, isn’t it?”

“But he can’t be resting easily.”

“So we shall bury him properly.”

“There’s another one down here,” Cenwulf called, having slightly opened another door and seen a skeletal leg behind it.

He saw a skeletal leg behind it.

“All of the cells probably have one,” Alred said. “Come on, Sigefrith. We shall take care of them, and their souls will praise you in the gates.” He took his friend’s arm and led him back into the first room.

“I can’t believe they left them here to die – to starve,” Sigefrith was murmuring.

“Who did it, do you think?”

“Honestly, Alred, I don’t know. I never got a satisfactory answer out of Theobald or his father. I am not sure whether it was his family who ruled when this castle was built, or whether it was some other family that his replaced in a less than honorable manner. Either way, he’s not proud.”

'Either way, he's not proud.'

“Do you think he knows about this place?”

“I doubt it, Alred,” Cenwulf said after he had knocked the lock from the second door. “No one has been here for a hundred years or more. His family has forgotten, if they ever knew.”

They followed Aylmer and his torch through the door.

'What is all this?'

“What is all of this?” Alred asked uneasily.

The room was in a sorry state – some of the walls had begun to crumble, and mud had seeped through the cracks and piled up against the stones, partially engulfing the large statues of lions that stood on either side of the room. In other places the dirt floor had sunk into pits filled with water. 

'Worse than these were the bodies.'

They could see the rusted remains of blades or other strange implements hanging on the walls, but worse than these were the bodies – some still hung from chains, while others had fallen into piles of bones or been swallowed up by the mud.

“This is not a dungeon,” Cenwulf said. “This is something worse.”

'We need Father Brandt.'

“We need Father Brandt,” Alred said softly, staring into the stony eyes of a lion statue.

“Oh, God!” Sigefrith moaned again. The three rushed to his side. “What holds it there?” he asked.

'What holds it there?'

A glassy green sphere hovered over the surface of a pedestal inscribed with a five-​​pointed star.

“What in God’s name is it?” Alred asked, moving around to the other side of the pedestal. He blew on it, expecting it to swing from the thread on which it hung, but the sphere did not move. He passed a hand above it and below it, expecting to find the thing that held it in place, but he found nothing.

The sphere did not move.

“Don’t touch it, Alred,” Cenwulf cautioned.

“I don’t intend to touch it,” Alred whispered. “We need to send for Father Brandt.”

Just then the four of them jumped back, startled, for they heard screams and sounds of commotion coming from up in the court. 

They all ran for the ladder and climbed back into the light, where they found the men cowering around the edges of the court.

“What happened?” Sigefrith cried, but none would answer.

Aylmer passed his torch to Alred and then strode up to one of the men, took him by the tunic, and shook him.

“It was p-​​p-​​people what come up!” the man stuttered. “White people – naked people! More people than what went down!” he wailed.

“Naked people! Don’t be a fool!” Aylmer growled.

“We all saw ‘em!” another man said.

“You’ve all been drinking!”

“No never! There was two people what come up, and they run straight out the gate, faster than any people can run!”

“You ask the guards!” the first man said.

“An excellent idea. Let’s ask the guards!” Sigefrith said.

But only one guard remained in the gatehouse, for the other two had run out into the woods in pursuit of the two naked people who had run through the gate. However, the remaining guard was able to provide the additional information that he thought one of the people had been a woman.

“Well, men,” Sigefrith announced, going back into the court. “I believe that either we are not the first to find this trapdoor, or else there is another way in there. But I would wager that we had simply interrupted a man and a maid who had found a quiet place to meet.”

“They must be depraved to choose to meet in a place like that,” Alred muttered.

“Hush, Alred,” Sigefrith said softly. “I don’t want them knowing what’s down there. Now you go saddle Bacchus and my hunter – you and I are going out in search of the two of them. Cenwulf, you stay here and keep them out of there. Tell them it’s empty – and in danger of collapse. I don’t want word of this getting out.”