So there I was. Ahead of me, the light cast a white glare over the rough stone wall. I fumbled in my pocket. Holding my flashlight carefully, I read the parchment again.
To the wanderer through this den,
Comes this friendly warning from our pen.
Follow the river down to the fall,
Curve a half circle, then climb the wall.
The third step is fatal, so only take two,
Follow instructions exactly – nothing else will do!
I took a deep breath. Follow the river down to the fall. What did it all mean? I held the flashlight up high. There was no river. On the contrary, I was hemmed in by two massive stone walls on either side of me. Behind me snaked the long corridor I had come through and in front of me a massive oak door calmly awaited my next move.
I walked toward it and pushed cautiously. It yielded to my touch, though the hinges screamed in protest. I took a confident step forward and pulled back just in time. The floor dropped sharply right at the threshold. My heart gave a lurch and I backed up carefully, peering into the darkness.
The fall? Could this be the fall? If that were so, the corridor I had been in was the river. I paused, irresolute.
Curve a half circle – that was the next step. But I did not feel interested in scaling the sheer drop ahead. Was I even in the right place, anyways?
“Nothing venture, nothing win,” I muttered under my breath, stooping and holding the flashlight close to the drop. To my surprise, I found a narrow ledge extending off towards the left.
I stood up again and followed it carefully, first taking my shoes off – tying them around my neck – so that my bare feet would give me a quick indication of any inequality in the rough stone ledge. The flashlight lit up the wall to my left, blazoned with grimy paints and runic etchings, seeming to record ancient battles. On my right, the light waged a losing warfare with the deep, inky darkness of what seemed to be quite a large cavern.
Suddenly the light caught a wall directly in front of me, and I halted in consternation. But the words of the mysterious poem flashed across me again… curve a half circle, then climb the wall…
Were those tiny cracks supposed to be toeholds? Well, I had come too far to go back. Sticking my flashlight into a hook on the wall, I began to climb carefully, hoping it was not as high as it looked.
Each step left the light farther below me, and each step left my courage farther behind me. At last I reached the extreme edge of the circle of light, and there was still no end of the wall in view. I didn’t dare to look down, but I was sure that I must be at least eight feet off the ground, barely clinging by my fingers and toes.
After a minute or two of agonized attempts to retrace my steps, I summoned my resolution and decided to keep climbing. Truth was, I was finding it impossible to go down, but it was still possible to go up by feeling for the next handhold. And to my immense relief, a few more feet took me to another ledge, which I scrambled onto as fast as I dared.
Then another difficulty hit me – my flashlight was at the bottom of the wall. I could see nothing around me, though I looked desperately for a glimpse of light.
A second ago I had been aware that my palms were sweating; now I felt chilled to the bone. I stared into the darkness as hard as I could, trying to will a spark into existence.
At last I bethought me of the poem again. The third step is fatal, so only take two… not a very inviting encouragement to continue my journey! But it was all I had. With a deep breath, I took two steps forward – and waited.
My anticipation was beginning to wear thin; I shuffled my feet a little impatiently – and the ground gave way suddenly beneath me.
With a gasping scream I plummeted into unknown regions below, landing with a hard thud that deprived me of consciousness.
When I woke up, my first thought was that the previous adventure had been a dream. But I was most definitely not in or even near my comfortable hotel bed. Instead, I was on a huge pile of straw and beside me – standing upright in the straw – was an immense broadsword, with yet another parchment attached to it. The room was lit by a shaft of light entering in from an angled window high up on one wall.
Grumbling a little, I tore the paper off the sword and tried to read it. I could make out just enough to be tolerably certain that it was in French.
“It’s official now,” I thought to myself. “I’d have made a terrible knight errant. But take courage, faint heart! If there ever was some dragon guarding this old ruin, he’s dead by now.”
A sudden growl warned me not to speak too soon, besides sending my heart into my throat again. The next moment a huge, raggedy mastiff came tearing into the room, foaming at the mouth and looking desperately hungry.
But, fortunately, the loose straw proved to be a bad foothold for the incensed dog. He sprang at it – floundered in it – finally backed out, shaking pieces of straw all around the room. Meanwhile I scrambled to the center point of the heap, making a little nest around me by my motions, but being careful to keep within reach of the broadsword.
With another furious growl the mastiff circled round my impromptu fort, evidently looking for an opening. In desperation I tugged at the sword, but it refused to budge.
Straw was sticking all over me – my jacket, my pants, my hair – and I was feeling extremely uncomfortable watching the canine gyrations around my fortalice. Something had to be done; I threw all my weight into another pull at the broadsword.
It came loose with a rush, throwing me back onto the straw, and the next instant a tremendous grating sound filled the room. I realized that the floor I was laying on was moving, and I sprang quickly to my feet, a little giddy with the unusual sensation.
The floor was moving up – and not very smoothly, either. It was all I could do to keep on my feet between jerks and creaks. But after all, what could you expect of a mechanism that must have been several hundred years old?
It finally stopped moving, and I enjoyed my triumph over the baffled dog below. I wondered if he had been part of the original pageant, or just a little something that had turned up for my own especial benefit.
I was now near the roof, perched on a stone slab about four feet wide, clutching an old-fashioned broadsword, and wishing desperately that I had paid more attention during French class. Across from me was the small window whence entered all the light the chamber possessed. As it was the closest wall to where I sat, and, besides, seemed to offer the only escape route – if a window too small for me to ever stick even my two feet through could be termed an escape route – I decided to investigate it further.
It was not within reach; but by the light that flooded in through it I could see that there was some sort of lever along the sill. I stretched the broadsword across the gap between us and tried gently to move the lever.
Vain effort! No rusty bolt in this ancient attempt at an obstacle course could be moved by gentle force. I pushed harder, then harder still – then in a moment of impatience I swung the broadsword as much as I could and drove the lever across the sill. I also broke the broadsword, and I have been told on good authority that by doing so I lost several thousands of dollars that would otherwise have been deemed on the cheap side of a price for such a venerable piece of antiquity. As it was, I sold the broken broadsword after the adventure for a pretty penny, and my first use of the money was to buy a replacement flashlight – but, to return!
The lever had moved, which, at that point, was the important thing to me. I watched in delight as the window expanded. But it had only opened a couple more inches when there was a sudden halting of the machinery. There were a few abortive efforts to keep moving; but they proved futile, and I realized to my deep chagrin that I must make my way out through the small aperture, for it was not getting bigger any time soon.
To add to the difficulties of the case, not only was the opening inconveniently small (heartily did I wish that I had taken Mom’s recommendation of a hundred jumping jacks a day!), it was also several feet away, and a fall would be… I looked down, saw the mastiff licking his chops as if in anticipation, and decided that falling was simply out of the question.
I first tossed the broken half of a broadsword through the window, then made a desperate leap and found myself hanging halfway over, bruised elbows and all, in a fair way to plummet head first into the next room.
With a little scrambling and pulling, I found myself – still brushing off bits of straw – in what had evidently once been a well furnished apartment. Now, of course, the furniture was moldering, besides being covered in dust; but from what I could see, it had originally been festively decorated, doubtless for the reception of whatever illustrious hero might have made it through the labyrinth.
On a velvet cushioned, but still very uncomfortable-looking chair, lay yet another parchment. I picked it up, gingerly dusting it off and hoping it was not in French.
The manuscript was mostly illegible, but I could decipher the following words, “…son… completed… you will have become… and are deserving of… the Baro… mera… year of… Lord… th… rty.”
I have since given that manuscript into the custody of an erudite friend who assures me that with proper treatment the writing can be completely restored. He tried to explain the proper treatment, but only succeeded in convincing me that I will be very lucky if I ever see the parchment in one piece again.
After having put this manuscript into my pocket, where it lay in good company with the other two, and having picked up the broken broadsword, I left the room through the only door and, without further adventure, soon found myself again admiring the old Scottish ruins from the heights of Ben Dearg.
And I wondered by what strange twist of events I, a twenty-first century vacationer, had ended up walking the mysterious course evidently intended for the heir of a feudal Baron more than two hundred years ago.
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