Something smelled horrible and dingy, like meat that had rotted for a hundred years. Wendell held his nose with one hand and swung into the darkness with the dagger, trying to feel if anything was there. It was absolutely black, and he wasn’t sure there was even any floor anywhere. After a while a bit of light shone up ahead.
He crept along carefully, carefully, and saw that it was a measly torch, hanging on a wall. Three pitiful halls stretched away from the light with nothing beyond them.
He paused for a long time by the torch, which flickered sometimes from the cold but never burned down. He couldn’t just stand there forever he knew, but there was no difference between the pathways, nothing to show him if one went to a treasure room and the other fell to a pit.
Finally he had an idea. He took a small pouch he had taken along and shook out some coppers and brassies. Then, carefully, he stepped down the left-side way and threw a small coin ahead into the empty space. It was silent for a long while. Then a faint splash echoed, and he quickly went to the other hallway and threw another coin. It clinked a few times and was quiet. A deep growl shuddered through the stones, but then there was no more noise. The little torch flickered again and kept burning, but nothing else happened.
There was only one hallway left, and quickly he chose a brass coin and threw it ahead. The tinny clink of metal on stone echoed a few times, and then stopped. He tiptoed down that way, careful not to make too much noise.
Soon he came to a little rotted door and bashed it open with the dagger. A few glittering candles met his eyes, shining off of boxes and piles of treasures. It was more than anyone could carry away, but there was no point in dragging such stuff along now, and he didn’t bother to think of how much anything was worth. But he quickly found some pouches of round, small gemstones and put them on his belt, and then went out through a small door on the other side, peering through first.
Black iron walls bent up to an empty ceiling, rigid and featureless. There were no alcoves to hide in here, nothing but endless chambers of openness. Now he waited behind the blank corner of the massive passageway.
The floor began rattling, and with a pang he realized that of course this place was not as empty as he could hope! But what would be large enough to cause such shaking? Perhaps there were huge machines here, with some horrible task, or some part of the castle might be falling apart, after so many years. He glanced around the corner in a quick way, and there was a huge, towering shape nearby, going along slowly. Wendell stopped looking and shrunk by the wall without a sound.
It was a frightening thing to see a living giant, even though he had seen the paintings before. But he had never understood the huge, brutish weight and searching eyes that had inspired many travelers to terror and wide-eyed stories, only to be laughed at by others. He understood their terror now, but he couldn’t let it rule him! If only he tried he could trick it, just like he had done before with so may other things… like Curdie would do…
Quickly, without arguing with himself Wendell took out two large emeralds and poised one up high. It will be no different at all than chasing crows, he assured his thoughts as he aimed carefully at a spot far away.
But there was no time left to think, or to feel afraid as the floor shook more and more terribly. With a snap he threw, as he had so many times before, and the emerald soared up high and dashed onto the stone floor with a ring.
“One raven,” he muttered to himself as he spurted out from the corner and threw another gem behind the giant’s back. Now Wendell changed direction and headed for another corner. The emerald struck against a wall, clanging loudly.
“Two ravens,” he said to himself encouragingly. Now the giant turned about, startled, but Wendell held a large diamond already. As the great foot lifted up, Wendell skipped the diamond across the floor with precision, just as the giant stepped.
“Three ravens,” Wendell murmured, as the huge monster stumbled back wildly and smashed into a wall. Now the flailing body crashed downwards, dazed from the fall, and the enormous hall shuddered and was suddenly still.
Wendell sputtered over to the side of the fallen monster. A filthy smock, belt, and enormous boots, covered the giant as it lay sprawled on the ground. Wendell still shuddered as he looked at the unconscious face, but he moved closer and closer to see if there was something useful he could quickly borrow. He noticed something promising, a large ring of keys dangling from its belt, some larger than his own hand. He ran over and reached up to unfasten them. They fit snugly around his belt, next to the dagger, and he hurried away without looking back even once.
Traveling through the empty, towering halls, he could hear more giants stomping in the distance. Gratefully, there was a small door carved into a corner, and after trying several keys he went through. He had to leave the key ring behind though, because it rattled much, but he promised himself that if he needed it he might return.
He found himself on a rampart now. He had gone up a winding, ancient stairwell that went on for some time, and then opened at last to the sky. The rampart overlooked much of the fortress, and a stale wind tried to press him back against the old stones. A single thin tower rose high above the rest not far away, where a torchlight flickered in a small window. That must be where Karen is being kept, he thought suddenly for no reason. It could be the easiest place to guard he reasoned, and she could hardly run away.
Even though it might not be true, he had a terrible, lonely feeling about it. She was there now, just a crow’s flight away, he thought. Stuck right there, where he could see but never reach. His eyes hurt too much from watching the window and he went over to the rampart’s edge, covering his face against the thrashing wind.
He looked over to see if there was any way down and across, but the wall slanted backwards after a few feet down and there was no way to climb at all! If only he had some rope of some kind, a very long rope!
But if he could remember always which direction the tower was, he could make his way along the castle’s passages… until he reached it! And then if he could climb up, and then get past the guards and cut the chain and then… it was a lousy plan, but that didn’t really matter to him here, watching the window. Wendell took note of distant mountains, and then went through a different door than he had come from.
The walls here were shorter, slimy and reeked of foulness. If he was going to make this ridiculous idea work, he would have to find windows sometime and see his direction every now and then, he thought hurriedly while scurrying down one way and another. There was a door here at the end, but it was locked good and tight! It was a solid door, and would bear much battering unfortunately. Even the keys he had taken might never fit. But then the lock rattled, and something, someone was coming through.
Wendell ran back down the passage again as fast as he knew how. The sound of hinges followed him, and an ugly speaking between two voices was heard.
There was a sort of dining room on one side of the hallway, and he shut the door behind him after going inside. If they passed by this place, he could sneak around and get through without being caught! Wendell waited, listening very closely for a long time. Footsteps echoed carelessly closer and closer, and the talking went on. Then it all stopped, outside the room.
Wendell looked around, and saw a table decked with a rotting tablecloth, and flung himself under it. The door wrenched open thoughtlessly. Soon two boots stuck under the tablecloth as an orcish creature sat down at the table and began a grisly feasting on something.
Crackling bones and gorging went on above Wendell on the tablecloth. He slowly crawled away from the creature’s feet, and peered out from the cloth at the other end. There was some kind of cabinet there, with its drawers and doors shut tightly, but it might be helpful!
Wendell remembered now a story about Curdie, and he had an idea. Although he knew that people always feared orcs and ogres, the orcs also feared people, and were not brave at heart. But if he was going to do this, he needed to do it right!
Quickly he took his dagger and prodded the cabinet with the tip, rattling one of the drawers, and then snuck away to the other end of the table. The sounds of feasting stopped quickly and there was a snort of disbelief. The orc got up and muttered blackly while going over to the cabinet, and rattled the drawers for itself.
Wendell looked up through a crack in the table, and could see where a pitcher was. He shoved the sword’s tip up and tipped it over, spilling a dark liquid with a crash. The orc gave a cry of alarm and rushed back, but Wendell had already gone to the other end and was rattling the cabinet again. Then he rushed back across the way, and went out from under the tablecloth and behind a shadowy tapestry hanging in one corner. As the orc looked at the cabinet stupidly, Wendell whispered, “Curdie… Curdie…”
The orc spun around then, and ran from the room. Giving up the ruse now, Wendell rushed out back to the hallway and followed the retreating footsteps, not too closely but always just behind. The door that had been locked tightly before was hanging wide open, and Wendell went through after watching to see if it was safe.
An ogrish bellow of pain came from somewhere in the distance, and some more strange words. Wendell hurried along now, sometimes hiding in dark prison cells that were along the way, as more orcish denizens ran past, some fitted with crude armor. Then he would sneak out again, and press forward.
There was a winding, curving staircase up ahead, and he realized it must be the tower! Wendell drew the dagger and stormed up, not bothering to see what was ahead. The many steps turned around and around and around, and then he was there at the top, but there was no one there except a few empty chains and a pile of straw. After looking around for a few desperate moments, he had no choice but to hurry down the steps again.