SWORDPLAY

What SWORDPLAY is about

This book is made up of four stories–one short story, two novelettes, and a novel.  They should be read in their proper order, as presented below, for in that way they make up a greater story that brings the reader from the dawn of civilization through two sword-fighting eras and up to the present in which fencing has become a sport.  This exciting journey of ringing steel deals with matters of pacifism and violence, peace and war, heroes and villains, good and evil.

 

Following is a brief description of the book’s four stories:

 Story One: THE BLACKSMITH (short story)

Near the beginning of human culture, when people are beginning to get serious about fighting one another, their most effective weapon is a pointed stick.  Then one of the early blacksmiths gets a bright idea.

Story Two: THE FREEDOM FIGHTER (novelette)

The Roman Empire dominates the world, and its soldiers hold their power with the shortest swords ever devised.

In this two-part novelette, which deals with the tumultuous lives of two young men–one a Hebrew outlaw and the other a Roman soldier–a dramatic crossing of their paths escalates the adventurous nature of their lives and influences each into the need for making hard, life-changing decisions.

Story Three: THE DUNGEON OF VALOR CASTLE (novel) (for sample chapter see below)

This adventure novel is set in medieval times when broadswords are the weapon of choice.

A soldier of fortune more or less purposely lets himself be imprisoned in a dungeon with the hope that he can help the other prisoners escape.  But he runs into a problem when he finds that the others, who have all been born in the underground prison and have never seen the light of day, are terrified at his proposal.  The way they feel about escaping to the world above is somewhat the way many spiritual people on the surface feel about dying and going up to Heaven–basically a happy thought, but frightening nevertheless.  The thought of escape particularly horrifies the dungeonites because the evil lord of the castle–whom they consider to be a powerful god–has brainwashed them into thinking that they are more like rats than humans and therefore not worthy of this transition to a higher existence.

The tension grows as two of the dungeonites–a teenaged boy and girl–decide to follow the stranger in his attempt at escape while the others continue to refuse.  The story builds into a suspenseful, exciting, heroic, action climax.

Story Four: THE FENCING CLUB (novelette)

For many modern-day fencing enthusiasts, the slim-bladed rapier is their favorite sword.

JEFF MARTINS, a survivor of the Bosnian War, decorated with medals for bravery and sick of violence, struggles with the matter of whether or not violence is ever justified.  The aggressive, competitive streak in his nature steers him into the sport of fencing.  Because of this skill he is asked by the police department of his city to infiltrate a particular fencing club in which they suspect secret blood-letting duels are being held.

He agrees, but what he quickly uncovers is so shocking that the secret duels, although they are a fact, are quickly forgotten.  The Blades of Chivalry Fencing Club, it turns out, is involved in a terrifying plot that threatens to destroy western civilization.

For a sneak preview of the third story, THE DUNGEON OF VALOR CASTLE, read the following sample chapter:

ONE — THE FIVE GOATS INN

A man on a bay stallion rode slowly through dense forest.  There was heavy underbrush and much windfall so that the horse was forced to move at a slow, careful pace.  The man slouched somewhat in his saddle as though he already had a long journey behind him.  He was athletic looking, in spite of the slouch, for his shoulders were wide in contrast to his waist and hips, and his long legs showed powerful muscles through the tight brown leggings.  His high boots, shirt, and sleeveless tunic were also brown, as were his beard and curly hair.  His handsome face looked tired, except for the eyes which burned with a fire of determined purpose.

He broke through into a clearing and immediately pulled the stallion to a stop.  Ahead of him lay a wide, open expanse, green and beautiful in the summer sunlight, and beyond that a hill.  On top of the hill was a castle.

For a long moment the man’s eyes held to the castle.  It stood gray, somber, and important looking, dominating the scenery below and around it.

Now the man turned his horse and rode back into the bush.  Dismounting, he tied the animal to a tree, removed the saddle, and untied a bedroll from that.  He spread the blankets on the ground and lay down in them.  He was soon sound asleep.  His horse, whom he had given quite a bit of rope, grazed contentedly as the afternoon wore on.

After some time a second equestrian approached, but he came from the opposite direction, from the castle.  Riding slowly at a walk, he came over the meadow and pulled his horse to a stop close to where the other man continued to sleep soundly.  The newcomer dismounted and wrapped the bridle reins loosely around the branch of a hawthorn.  He walked toward the sleeper.

A strange looking man was this second arrival.  In face and figure he was almost beautiful, his face being clean-shaven and well featured, his form tall, slender, and graceful.  But his clothes were a combination of beauty, outlandishness, and ridiculousness and were more colorful than the feathers of the proudest peacock.  His head carried a construction that had too many peaks to be called a hat, and these peaks fanned out in every direction with the ends curving down toward the earth because of the law of gravity and the little brass balls that were fastened one to the end of each.  To make matters worse, each peak had a different color.  The rest of his outfit had obviously been created by the same insane designer.  White cloth gloves reached to his elbows, his belt was decorated with gold braid, and the whole left half of his muscle-hugging suit was a bright yellow, whereas the right side was an almost glowing hue of scarlet.  His boots were blue-dyed leather with toes twice the necessary length and curled up like sleigh runners.  Slung from one shoulder on a strap was a stringed instrument, a lute.

He came within a few feet of the sleeper and looked down at him.  “Up, up, Robby!–awake!” commanded the living rainbow in a loud voice.  “This is no time to sleep!”

The sleeper awoke with a start and convulsed into a crouching position with one hand on the sword at his waist.  He did not draw it, however, nor move any further at all.  This was either because he was momentarily stunned senseless by the blinding sight that met his eyes, or, as his words indicated, because he recognized a friend.  “Can you find no better way to awaken me?  Will you never change your rascally ways?”

The other laughed.  “What do you expect of a fool?”

“True,” said Robby.  He rose to his feet and clasped hands with the handsome monstrosity.  “It’s good to see you again, Willie.  How did everything go?–I mean our plans.”

“Good, I think,” said Willie.  “But we can’t talk here.  We must go to town at once where we can talk in the inn.”

“Is it safe?” asked Robby, “–I mean for me.”

“It’s safe enough,” encouraged the other.  “Now we must hurry.”

Robby quickly began to saddle his horse.  “Why the great haste?”

The fool explained, “I’m expected to be at the inn at the same time whenever Wellingweer sends me.  Sir Wellingweer also sends out some of his trusted men to keep an eye on other of his trusted men, and if I should be late Wellingweer would likely find out about it.  Then he’d ask me to my face why it took me so long to get to the inn.  If I had no good explanation … well, one morning I might wake up and find my head missing.”

“It ought to be easy to find again, with that stupid hat on it,” said the bearded man.  “But on what errand has the good Sir Wellingweer sent you?”

“Once every week, on this same day, at this same time of day, the mighty one sends me out on an errand of great consequence–an errand that he trusts to no one but myself, his most loyal and faithful servant.  Every week on this day I ride to the Five Goats Inn and there receive a sack full of jugs of ale, and return with them to my good master.”

The bearded man was hurriedly tying his bedroll behind the saddle.  “That’s a lot of goats,” he said.  “Are you sure there are five?”

“You can read the sign yourself when we get there….  Did Gilbert have any trouble in bringing my message to you?  And did you have any trouble finding this meeting place?”  The fool turned to go for his horse.

Robby followed leading his own mount.  “No, no trouble.”

They both swung into their saddles.

“One thing I must know at once,” said Robby, holding his horse back for a moment.  “Is the story true?”

The fool turned toward him, and for the first time it was a completely serious face that peered out from under the peaks and brass balls.  “The story is true,” he said.  Then he put heels to his horse and started the animal into a brisk canter.  Robby’s horse followed only a neck behind.  They galloped through several little clearings and then followed a narrow, winding trail that soon led into a wider, more traveled road.  A mile of steady cantering brought them to the outskirts of a small town.  They slowed to a walk as they started up the main street.

It was a typical English town of the early twelfth century.  There were ornately constructed oak-framed houses with upper stories bulging out over the narrow street, there were a few larger structures with towers and spires, and some of the business places had cathedral-like windows of colored glass partially concealed behind iron bars.  These places also had handsome signs hanging from fancy iron supports.

The two riders reached their destination.  It was an ordinary looking top-heavy building with a large dangling sign that advertised: THE FIVE GOATS INN, and, sure enough, there were the five little whiskered beasts cleverly painted in a neat row right under the bottom word, all with their heads lowered and looking eager to bunt someone’s ass.

The riders left their horses at a rail near one side of the building and walked toward the entrance.

“I have made it in time,” announced the garish man as he paused to glance at a sundial that stood beside the inn door.  “Now that I’m here I can take my ease, and you may do the same.”

They entered the inn.  Several rough looking peasants sat at one of the two long wooden tables.  A few of them were eating and the rest were drinking ale.  They were all at the same table because the only source of light for the room was the sun, and its rays had to filter through the colored glass of two high, narrow windows, so that those who sat at the table directly underneath could usually see what they were eating or drinking.  However, if the bread looked green they may have had a hard time to know if it was mold or a ray of light that had passed through the green part of the window.  The front door was open and this helped matters some, and also some light managed to bounce along a zigzag course through the living quarters and kitchen that were attached to the rear of the building.  Nevertheless, the back part of the main chamber was more or less lost in gloom.

The two newcomers had taken only a few steps into the inn before the men at the table took definite notice of them–or at least of the colorful man.

“Ha!  The jester is here!” announced one of the ale drinkers.

“The minstrel!” exclaimed others.

“He’s more than a minstrel,” said another, the tone of his voice revealing his happiness at the arrival.  “He’s the court fool.”

In a few seconds the jester and his bearded companion were seated at the table with the others.  The jester had, without making any attempt to do so, brought a new atmosphere into the room; and now the conversation picked up, there was laughter, and a subconscious urge for merrymaking began to rise to the surface in the minds of all.

“How was life at the castle this week?” a burly, leather-jerkined peasant inquired of the jester.

“There was much ado as usual,” replied Willie.  “There was singing, dancing, laughing, eating.  It’s hard work for everyone.  I’m very tired.  My servants knew of this and begged to let them carry me here in a bed, but I wouldn’t hear of it.  Sir Wellingweer says I must come on a horse.  And then, too, I have some pride.  You men would despise me if I was carried here in a bed, horse and all.  I’d be a laughing stock.”

Robby sat quietly for the most part, now and then joining in a little with the laughter of the others as the farce continued.

“A song, Jester, sing us a song!”

“Sing us one of your naughty songs!”

“Sing us the one about the knave who stole a chicken and was chased by the good serf’s daughter and….”  The peasant who spoke could not finish his sentence because of his own uncontrolled laughter.  Obviously something hilarious had happened either to the knave or to the serf’s daughter, or maybe to the chicken.

“I sing no naughty songs,” said the jester with mock sternness.  “I sing happy songs, I sing songs of love, and I sing songs that make people laugh.”  He rose to his feet and placed one foot on the bench.  The lute, which had been swung around to his back while he sat at the table, he now brought to the front and struck a few harmonious chords.  He cleared his throat.  “Today I shall sing you a song that I have myself composed of late.  It’s a song about the times in which we live, so I call it–” he cleared his throat again, “–The Times in Which We Live.”  This got him a round of laughter.  He began a rhythmic strumming.  Then he started into his song in a good quality tenor voice.

 

“In damp, chilly castles when winter winds blow,

Sit nobles and ladies, pink noses aglow.

The jester froze solid while juggling with money;

The times that we live in are not always funny.”

 

Still strumming, he turned and walked a few steps away from the table and leaned against a wall shelf loaded with bottles and crocks.  The men sitting on his side of the table could now turn and have a better view of him because he was a little farther away and because he was now in the rays of sunlight shining through one of the stained glass windows.  The reds, yellows, blues, and greens of the window reflected from the equally vivid hues of the entertainer’s clothing and from the bottles that stood behind him.  Every movement he made brought about a kaleidoscopic effect.  He continued to sing.

 

“There are blaring trumpets and steeple chimes;

The chimes speak of honor, the trumpets of crimes;

The trumpets are many, but few are the chimes,

And that means we live in evil times.

 

“The peasant must crawl or his head will fall;

He must be content with his life.

While the nobles brawl, for fight do they all–

Oh, we live in a time of bloody strife!

 

“The knight in bright armor fights to stay free,

Yet kneels for a lady and weds her with glee.

Then she kicks him around for the whole world to see.

Oh, we live in a time of great chivalry.”

 

The minstrel began a slower strumming.  His facial expression also changed, becoming more serious.  Then he stepped to one side out of the light from the colorful window and stood there in comparative gloom.  When he continued his song, it was in a slower, lower voice.

 

“Brave men-at-arms crown every castle tower,

In this great age while knighthood is in flower.

While just below in perfumed chambers fair,

Sit lovely ladies preening at their hair.

 

“And in the feast hall somewhat farther down,

There struts the liege lord in his kingly gown.

His noble friends are there with wine and song,

All faces happy in that brilliant throng.

 

“But pray do delve yet farther down below;

Into the darkness of the dungeon go

Where prisoners lie and rot for paltry crimes.

For those poor souls these are … the terrible times!”

 

With a final, long drawn out strum on his lute, the minstrel brought the song to a close.  He returned to the table.

“A fine verse, Minstrel,” complimented one of the serfs.

“Ay, and very true,” put in another.

While the minstrel had been singing, a small white-haired man, an old woman, and a boy had come into the room from the kitchen, no doubt to better enjoy the song.  Now that it was over the woman and boy left the room, but the little man approached the minstrel.  “A clever song, Jester,” he said, then added, “The ale is ready.  I’ll bring it out when you’re ready to go.”

“Ah, very good,” returned the jester.  “I’ll soon be on my way.  But first my friend must eat.  Bring him a big hearty meal of whatever you have.”

The innkeeper cast a quick sweeping glance over the men seated at the table and picked out the tired looking bearded man as the only stranger.  “Ay,” said the innkeeper and returned to the kitchen.

“Another song!” demanded a peasant.

“I’d like to,” said the jester, “but my friend, Cuthbert, and I haven’t seen each other for a long time, and we have many things to talk about.  I must ask him how my mother fares, and many other things….  Come, Cuthbert, we’ll go sit at yonder table and talk while you wait for your meat.”

“Don’t you want to eat too?” asked “Cuthbert” as he rose from the bench and the two started toward the unoccupied table that stood on the darker side of the room.

“No, I’ll eat tonight at the castle.”

They sat down, one on each side of the table.  At the first table the spirit of merrymaking which the jester had aroused continued and now there was a constant drone of conversation.

Enough light reflected into the dim part of the room to reveal an expression of annoyance on Robby’s bearded face.  “Couldn’t you think of a better name than Cuthbert?” he said with disgust.

“It was the first one that came to my mind,” replied the jester.  “I see nothing wrong with it.”

“It sounds so … so Cuthberty.”

The jester chuckled.

Robby said, “But I did like your song … particularly the truth of the last verse.  Do you often sing such songs about the evil done by the noblemen?”

“No, if I did I’d soon have a rope around my neck.”

There was a brief moment of silence, then Robby said, “I can’t bear this any longer.  Tell me at once all you’ve learned in the castle.”

“Ay,” said the jester in a low voice.  “First of all, the tale we heard is true–it really is true.  But I couldn’t get into the dungeon.  I haven’t seen the prisoners, but I know they are there, for everyone in the castle talks about them from time to time.”

“Maybe they’re just ordinary dungeon prisoners,” ventured Robby.

“No, no, it’s just as we heard, I’m certain of it.  And the castle is heavily armed, the men well trained.  There’s a lack of care, however, in regard to sentries.  Wellingweer has become so proud that he cannot imagine anyone attacking Valor Castle.  His well-trained army is used in little wars of conquest against smaller lords toward the north, but it seems no one would dare to oppose him except out of the sheer necessity of defending their own domains.”

Robby considered all this silently for a few seconds, then asked, “Have you found anything else that could be of help?–anything that might help to avoid the loss of life that there would be if we used our motley army to attack the castle?”

“I don’t know,” answered the fool thoughtfully.  “I know the whole castle inside and out, save the dungeon … but I know how to get to the great iron door that leads down into it.  I know which parts of the castle are guarded most heavily, and at which hours.  I also know that Wellingweer is the most evil man that has ever lived and what he eats for breakfast, but whether any of these things will help, I don’t know.”

“You’ve done very well,” said Robby.

“And how have things fared with you?  Is your little army all trained and ready?”

“As ready as they’ll ever be,” said Robby with a wry twist to his mouth.  “They’re all good men, and with willing hearts, but I think their minds and hearts are better suited to guide a plow than a sword, and this is no disgrace to them.  Ah, yes, they’re ready, some on horses, but mostly on foot.  They have weapons but little armor.  And they are all brave men, determined to rid the world of Wellingweer and to set the prisoners free–if word is brought to them that the story is true.”  Robby stroked his short wavy beard slowly and a sober expression held strong to his face.  “They wait only for the word from me.  The moment I give it they will come running, galloping, leaping, their swords waving viciously above their heads.  They will walk straight through the moat and will try to walk straight through the castle walls also, and in the meantime Wellingweer’s men will have the greatest and bloodiest sport they’ve ever had.  Wellingweer may want to make it a yearly event.”

The jester was about to reply when Robby gave him a warning look.  The innkeeper came up to the table and set down a large platter that held meat, bread, and half a turnip.  “There’s not much light here,” said the innkeeper.  “You would do better to sit at the other table.”

“No, there is plenty enough light to eat by,” said Robby.

The jester said, “Let them have their merrymaking at the other table.  We will sit here and quietly talk of days gone by, as old friends should.”

“As you wish, good jester,” said the innkeeper, “but I’ll bring you a candle.”

They thanked him for this consideration and the little old man left and quickly returned with a tall candle stuck in the top of an empty bottle.  He set it on the table, lit it, and politely left without any further words.

“You surely don’t have much faith in the army you’ve worked so hard to collect,” said the jester.

“Maybe they’re better than I think,” said Robby as he pulled a dagger from his belt and began to cut at the piece of roasted meat before him.  “All the same, I hate to give the word.  Many of them have wives and children.”  His straight white teeth began to tear at a strip of meat he held in his hand.

“Then what will you do?”

“I don’t know,” answered Robby and continued to eat.  After a while he spoke again.  “You say you know the whole castle inside and out.  Is there any way that one man could enter secretly?”

“Knowing you as I do,” replied the jester, “I could not help but consider that such a plan might come into your head, therefore I searched out the matter with care.  Yes, there is a simple and easy way for one man to get into the castle.”

Robby’s interest was aroused enough to cause him to stop eating for a moment.  “Tell me about it.”

“I hesitate to do so, for to enter that castle alone….  But I suppose I must tell you.  It’s so simple that maybe you won’t believe me and therefore not attempt this plan, and so live.”

“Come, come, out with it,” demanded Robby impatiently.

“I’ve studied the drawbridge,” complied the jester, “and the planking is not of the best workmanship.  There are many large cracks which, when the bridge is pulled up, would make fine hand holds, and toe holds.  The bridge is never pulled entirely against the wall, so that the space between the two at the very top is about the length of a man’s arm.  A nimble man, by starting to climb on the edge of the bridge and then when he reached a somewhat higher point placing himself between the bridge and the castle, could easily scale to the top of the castle wall.  Then too, there are no windows shedding light anywhere nearby except the one in the drawbridge tower, and here there are only a few feeble candles–no torch.  But that is the greatest danger.  It’s a large window, always open in summer, and it throws its light directly over the top part of the raised drawbridge.  But a man could swing himself to one side by holding on to the chain, and then he could pull himself up over the wall just beside the tower.  There’s only one tower to the gatehouse, with the gate leading directly through the bottom of it….  And there is the moat which must be crossed.”

“The moat is no problem,” stated Robby, “but what of the gatehouse guard?  Is there no guard in the tower?”

“Ay,” smiled the jester, “there is a guard, and he’s the father of the most beautiful maiden in the castle, and, I venture to say, the most beautiful maiden in all of England.  Her face is the face of an angel, her hair long and raven-black–”

“Will you forget the maiden and tell me about her father?”

“He sleeps every evening while on duty in the tower, without fail,” said the jester.  “Shortly after sunset he piles his overweight body into a big chair he has there in the tower, and remains unconscious for two or three hours.  He always wakes up when he hears the sound of approaching footsteps–except for the catlike steps of the court fool, namely myself–and so both he and I have managed to keep from having our necks stretched by Wellingweer….  The tower guard is the least to worry about, and yet you will have to move quietly so that you don’t disturb his slumber.  As I already said, Wellingweer feels overly secure in his great strength and doesn’t take the care he should.  At midnight three extra sentries come on duty on the walls and stay there till sunrise, but until midnight there’s only the one sleepy drawbridge guard.”

Robby ate silently for a quarter of a minute.  Then he said, “It’s a foolish plan.  I think I’ll try it.  They’d never expect anyone to do anything so foolhardy.”

“And after you’re inside the walls of the castle, then what?  For although Wellingweer listens to my songs and stories with pleasure, my sway over him is not such that I could have him spare you.  He would probably have you tortured to death by a group of dancing devils, for I think he is in league with hell, and make me supply the music.”

“You won’t be there,” said Robby,  “You must leave now and bring a message to my army.  You must take command and be ready to attack.  But move the men at night, for if you don’t take Wellingweer by surprise you won’t have any chance at all.  But first you must hasten to Woodcaster where our good friend waits with the horses.  Send him quickly to the edge of the clearing near Wellingweer’s castle so that I and the prisoners will have a way to escape once we get out of the castle.”

The jester was surprised by this development of plans.  “Then I must … leave the castle–not go back there anymore?”

“Ay,” said Robby, “your life as a jester has come to an end.”

“It was a good life,” said the ex-jester sadly.

“You have been a very fine fool,” said Robby, “even composing your own songs.  That’s something that not all fools can do.  I knew you’d be a good jester, and a good spy.  When I heard that Wellingweer was looking for a court jester, it was a fine chance.  And you have done your work well both as a jester and as a spy.”

“I’m glad you think so,” said the other, “but what of Theresa?–the fair maiden, the daughter of the drawbridge guard?  She has taken my heart … and I’m afraid she may come to harm when the castle is attacked.”

“You’ve left your heart with so many fair maidens,” smiled Robby, “that I think you should soon be running out of hearts.  But then you can always leave your liver.”  His face turned serious and he said, “You must make one thing very clear to the fighting men just before the battle.  I want no women or children to show even a scratch when it’s all over.  Therefore no harm should befall this damsel.  But I’m sorry that we must interfere with your romance.”

“She’s a wonderful girl,” said the jester.  “She has the face of an angel–”

“You already said that.”

“–and her hair is raven-black, she’s beautiful from head to toe, she’s sweet and kind and gentle … and Wellingweer is as crazy about her as I am.  That’s another reason why I don’t like to leave the castle just now.  Wellingweer wishes to marry Theresa.  She has refused, but Wellingweer usually gets what he wants.  If only I could get her out before Wellingweer forces her to marry him.”  The jester’s face lit up with a new thought.  “Let me go back there for a day or two, then I’ll escape with her.  I know she’d be willing to come.”

“No,” said Robby firmly, “it’s not safe enough.  A word might slip and my plan would be ruined.  We must remember the poor souls in the dungeon.  What other chance have they to escape?”

The jester submitted to this, and then for a while the bearded man ate in silence.  He finished and wiped the grease from his hands on a remaining piece of bread which he threw to the innkeeper’s dog.  The long-legged beast had been sitting there waiting patiently for some time.

Robby paid for his meal, the jester picked up the sack of ale, and amid farewells from the peasants the two friends left the inn.  Some of the merrymakers also came out.  These split up and went in several directions, but one of them followed the conspirators a few steps.  “I’m a man much like you are,” he told the jester.  “I too must go back to work.  If I don’t get the south field plowed by tomorrow night, Sir Wellingweer may put me in that dark dungeon you sang about.”

“Ay, then you had better get it done,” said the jester.  “I wouldn’t want any of my good friends to be in a dungeon.”

The jester and Robby watered their horses at a nearby trough; then they mounted and rode out of town in the direction of Valor Castle, the abode of the mighty Sir Wellingweer.  They soon left the main road and took the same winding trail on which they had come on their way to town.  Not much later they passed the place where Robby had slept, but keeping to the bush they continued on to another point about half a mile farther on.  Although the men were well under cover of foliage, the large meadow surrounding the hill on which the castle stood was only a few yards to one side.  But the castle itself was at least half a mile away.  Robby drew rein.  “This is as good a place to wait as any.”

They dismounted and tied their horses to trees.  Robby said, “As soon as darkness falls and I leave for the castle, you must hurry away to Woodcaster and send Johnny out with the horses.  Then he’ll wait here, at this spot, for me and the prisoners.  A night’s ride will bring you from Woodcaster to our army, and on the following night you’ll bring them here under cover of darkness.  Then you must wait through the day, if I haven’t been successful in bringing out the prisoners and am still in the castle, and when darkness falls, attack.  But I hope that I will already have escaped with the prisoners so there will be no need to attack–at least not until we’ve raised a better army.  But you must stay here now until darkness falls so that no one sees you start out for Woodcaster.”

The jester nodded his head but didn’t seem happy about the whole idea.  “I hope they don’t start looking for me tonight.”

“That’s a chance we’ll have to take.”  Robby pointed to a small area of ground where no grass grew.  “Draw me a plan of the entire castle.”

Using his finger for a quill and the dust of the earth for a parchment, the jester began to draw in detail the walls, the courtyard, and the various inner parts of the great stronghold.  This included every room and corridor.  At the same time he pointed out where the most activity was and which doors were open and which were kept locked.  Robby followed every word with intense concentration.  Now and then he asked a question.  When this bit of schooling was over the two men continued to discuss the matter, giving the various segments of the plan greater detail.

The vivid colors of a summer day slowly changed into the softer hues of dusk.  Daisies that grew thick along the edge of the clearing began to lose their brightness as the light grew dimmer.  Then the trees were black silhouettes against the western sky.  Next came darkness, relieved only by the light of stars.

And still the conspirators continued to iron wrinkles out of their plans.  They now stood under a large tree and looked out in the direction of the castle, even though it was no longer visible in the darkness.

“Are you sure,” said Robby, “that only the men in charge of the dungeon wear gray tunics and steel caps?”

“Ay,” assured the jester, “it’s their special dress.”

“I hope I find one that fits me well.  I’m always careful of my appearance–and I hope their keys fit well in the locks.”

“The keys will give you no trouble, if only you can get your hands on them,” said the jester.  “Every dungeon guard has keys to every door that would block your path.  But how you expect to bring a dungeonful of prisoners up through the castle and to escape with them is beyond my power of reason.”

“I must try,” said Robby.

“You could wait till we have a better force of fighting men.”

“No, no matter how good they would be, there would be much bloodshed.  I must try this….  And now the time has come.  It’s dark so I see no purpose in delaying things further–unless you think the bridge guard is not yet asleep.”

“He’s sound asleep,” said the jester confidently.  “I don’t even see a light in the tower window, which probably means a breeze has blown it out.  Now there’s a stroke of luck.  But shouldn’t you wait till the horses are here?”

“No, the horses will come sure enough–you will see to that.  And the night is dark.  If I can just get the prisoners away from the castle walls we’ll find places to hide.  Then we’ll soon find our way here to where the horses will be waiting.  I must go now before the gatehouse guard lights another candle.”  Robby had already removed his sword harness, for that long weapon tended to rattle against things, and he was now armed only with a sheathed dagger at his waist.

Facing each other, Robby and Willie laid their right hands on one another’s shoulders.

“God be with you,” said Willie.

“And with you,” said Robby.

The bearded man then started on foot toward the castle; the jester mounted and rode at a gallop toward the nearby hamlet of Woodcaster, leading Robby’s horse.

Soon Robby was halfway across the clearing.  Dimly in the starlight the castle could be seen now, only a quarter of a mile away.  Then the ground began to slope upward.  A gradual climb brought him to the moat’s edge at the foot of the castle.  He looked up and around warily.  All was still.

He hesitated a few seconds more before lowering himself into the water; then he quietly dog-paddled across.  Upon reaching the other side he crawled out onto a narrow bank of dry ground and made his way to the erect drawbridge.

He studied it for a moment; he began to climb.  As the jester had said, the cracks between the heavy, horizontal planks offered good hand and foot holds.  He started upward on the outer edge of the bridge, but soon there was enough room between it and the wall so that he could get his body in between.  This made the rest of the climb considerably easier.  Silently and cautiously he worked his way higher.  So carefully did he proceed that the only sound he made came from a small amount of water that dripped from his wet clothing.

Robby reached the top of the drawbridge and this brought his head almost to a level with the top of the castle wall.  He remained quiet for a moment, listening.  Then he grasped one of the heavy chains that held the drawbridge, and, bracing his feet against the wall, climbed up and crawled in between two battlements.  He lowered himself onto the walk, then crouched low.  He was in shadow but was looking down into a courtyard, part of which was illuminated by torchlight.  On hands and knees he crawled silently away from the drawbridge tower.

He heard a sound behind him and at once stopped moving.  He crouched low and watched intently over his shoulder as a door swung open in the gloom, creaking slightly on its iron hinges.  It was the door to the drawbridge tower.  There was no light, only the sound of creaking hinges from the black doorway, and then footsteps.  Next, vaguely outlined against the night sky, appeared the dark figure of a large man.  The footsteps ceased as the drawbridge guard stood still.  He stood quietly for a moment as though listening for something.  Then he yawned audibly and his hand came up to rub his eyes.  He turned and walked back into the tower but did not close the door behind him.  The prowler began to crawl quietly on hands and knees along the walk, putting distance between himself and the guard.

He soon reached a narrow stairway that led down into the courtyard.  As he began to descend he looked back in time to see that the guard had lit a candle in the tower and now flickering yellow light fell weakly from the doorway to the walk.

Halfway down the stairs Robby paused for a moment, making up his mind about which way to go once he got to the bottom.  Down there all was silent except for the snort of a horse somewhere in the darkness.  It was not a snort of alarm, only a mild snuffling sound of the kind horses often make for some reason known to themselves.  There was a tying rail in the lighted part of the courtyard but no horses were tied there.

Robby continued on down the stairway, and when his feet touched the ground he moved quickly and silently toward the denser darkness of one of the inner walls of the castle that separated it from the courtyard.  Reaching this wall, he pressed up close against the rough stones, but in a second moved on.  He came to a doorway.  He listened, his head close against the wooden panels.  There was only silence.  His hand found the large iron handle and began to pull.  A slice of light escaped through the opening door, falling on the prowler’s arm and bearded face.  He stopped for a moment, then opened the door wider.  He stepped inside.

“Who are you?” demanded the voice of a man who had been hidden from Robby’s view by a stone pillar.

Robby turned to face the one who had discovered him.  He found himself confronted by a knight in full armor.  The knight’s sword came up with great speed and the point of it hovered menacingly a hand’s breadth from Robby’s heart.  At the same time the knight gave out a loud yell.  This was answered by the sound of running footsteps in the corridors as other men came to see the trespasser who had been caught.

There was nothing Robby could do, so he thought he’d show some bravado by pretending to make light of the situation.  “My good man,” he said to the armored knight, “I realize that the hour is late, yet it was not my intention to disturb anyone’s slumber….  But tell me, isn’t it uncomfortable to go to bed wearing all that metal?”

 

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