Chapter One: Discovery in the Dungeon
I was found on the drawbridge of Toad-in-a-Cage Castle on a cold December night. I was naked, they tell me, wrapped only in a blanket and tucked in a basket. If the Baron had not been out riding that night he would not have seen me, and I would have been buried beneath the snow by morning.
To the surprise of Hulda, his housekeeper, the Baron didn't send me away. Instead, he hired a nurse to come and take care of me.
I liked Nurse, despite her unusual fondness for toads. However when I was about five she fell into the moat and was eaten by something or other.
After that I pretty much took care of myself.
I had the run of the castle and could go anywhere I wanted -- except the North Tower, which was always locked. Naturally, I wanted to know what was up there. But I learned early on not to ask about it. Questions upset people.
Not that there were many people to upset; only the Baron, Hulda, and Karl, the young man who tended the library.
I liked Karl. He was very smart, and when he had time he would give me lessons. However, this did not happen often, because caring for the library was a big job. (The Baron owned so many books he had had to knock out the walls between seven rooms to hold them all!)
Most of what I knew about the outside world came from the books Karl shared with me.
The library itself was my favorite place in the castle. Its floor was covered by a thick, soft carpet, its walls made of dark wood. Mazes of tall, book-crammed shelves filled the interior. The windows, which curved out from the side of the building, were twice as tall as a man; the huge velvet curtains that covered them used to be red and were still soft and warm. On cold days I liked to take a book and curl up on one of the sills. Wrapping a curtain around me like a blanket, I would alternate between reading and staring out at the distant village, the forest, the mountains.
I often wondered what it was like out there, beyond the castle walls that I had never left.
From one of the windows I could see the North Tower, which was shrouded in mist on even the sunniest of days.
One rainy evening in October Karl was repairing books, Hulda was sleeping, and the Baron was hidden away with one of the mysterious visitors that sometimes came to the castle gate. I was on my own, as usual. For some reason -- perhaps because the voices that moaned along the hallway outside my room had been so loud the night before -- I couldn't settle down to read.
I went to my room and played with Mervyn, the rat I had tamed the year before. When he ran off, I decided to go to bed. Slipping out of my clothes, I pulled on my nightshirt, then drew aside the curtain surrounding my bed and climbed beneath the covers.
I couldn't sleep.
A streak of lightning sizzled through the night. I liked to watch lightning, so I got up and sat by my window. But the lightning did not continue. After a while I grew tired of watching the thick drops splat against the glass and decided to go exploring. I had been exploring the castle for years and still hadn't discovered everything about it -- partly because it was so huge, partly because it had so many secret passages and hidden rooms. These were what I looked for when I explored. To find them I pushed bricks, moved picture frames, and fiddled with the knobs carved in the mantelpieces of the fireplaces.
Lighting a candle, I went to my own fireplace, which was tall enough to stand in. I pushed a certain brick and the fireplace swung around, putting me in the passage behind it.
I had discovered this passage when I was only six. Once in it, I could get into any other room on my floor. But since it was my floor, since I was the only person living there, it didn't do me much good.
The worst thing about the secret passages was that they were so dark. When I first started exploring I had tried taking torches with me, but somehow the Baron always found out and told me not to. I understood why; some passages were lined with wood, or even drapes, and it would have been easy to start a fire in them. Finally I had started carrying candles. They didn't provide much light, but they were better than nothing, and the Baron never said anything about them.
About a hundred feet from my room a hidden stairway led to some secret rooms in the East Tower. Holding my candle before me, I made my way to the steps, then climbed three flights to a room dominated by a clock several feet taller than I am. I had seen this clock many times without ever really looking at it. But on this day I felt a hunch about it.
Opening the glass-paneled door, I put my hand inside, The wood behind the counterweights seemed solid. But when I climbed a chair and moved the hands of the clock to point straight up, as if it were midnight, I heard the familiar whisper of a sliding panel. The back of the clock had disappeared!
I jumped off the chair. Squeezing my way through the clock's door, I found myself in a narrow passage. Keeping one hand against the smooth, cool stones of the wall, I moved slowly forward. Even with the candle, I didn't notice the stairway going down until I put my foot on a spot that wasn't there.
The jolt knocked the breath out of me. Had I not been going slowly, I probably would have broken my neck falling down that stairwell, which stretched as far as I could see, no matter how high I lifted the candle.
I began to count as I walked. Fifty steps. A hundred steps. Two hundred steps. By now I must be down among the wine cellars.
Three hundred steps? I began to wish I had changed back into my clothes. The air was cool down here.
I had to be far past the wine cellars now, all the way to the dungeons. I shivered. I had never been to the dungeons before. In fact, I only knew they existed because Karl had told me about them, hinting that they held dark secrets.
Four hundred steps. Four hundred and fifty.
How far into the earth does this stairway go? I wondered as I neared the five hundredth step. But number five hundred was the end of it. Keeping my left hand pressed against the wall, I moved slowly forward.
Fifteen paces brought me to a wooden door held together by thick iron crosspieces.
I could either turn back or open the door. Grasping the latch, which was enormous, I struggled to lift it without making any sound. It's hard to say why I felt a need to move so quietly. I was sure I was alone. But something about moving in the darkness inspires silence.
Besides, I liked to keep secrets.
When I managed to lift the latch the door swung open easily.
I saw a light flickering in the distance.
My heart began to beat more rapidly. Who could possibly be down here?
Again I thought about turning back. But my curiosity was driving me on, and I felt confident I could move so silently no one would know I was coming -- though I don't think even then I really believed there was anyone there.
I started toward the light. Soon I could tell that it came from beyond a curve in the wall. As I continued forward I could see the outlines of the stones in the floor. The wall itself was damp and slightly chill beneath my fingers. Even so, I pressed myself against it when I reached the curve. Inching my way forward, I saw the source of the light -- a torch, stuck in a bracket.
To my astonishment, I also heard someone singing! The voice was little more than a low growl, but the tune was rollicking.
I could not make out the words.
I stopped and tried to talk myself into turning back. But in my whole life I had never met anyone besides Nurse, the Baron, Hulda, and Karl. I had to know who was down here.
Dropping to the floor, I set my candle down and began to creep forward. Beyond the torch an open door led to the source of the singing.
Closer I crept, closer still, until I had almost reached the door. I took a deep breath.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I poked my head around the corner.
Copyright © 1992 by Bruce Coville