The light jumps around the arched door and the stone wall as Oliver moves his lantern about.
“No doorknob.” He turns to me. “Should we try here, or move on?” He nods into the darkness, where the passage turns left. “This one is under the Eastern tower, and the next one is, you know—the big fish.”
The door looks heavy, it’s wood old and partly rotten. I reach out and touch its cool surface, and I wonder if we can really be sure where we are. We could have taken a wrong turn in this underground labyrinth.
“Did you bring the map?” I say.
“Of course not.” Oliver frowns. “It has his handwriting on it. If they catch us, we can’t incriminate him. Whoever that Justice may be, he’s helping us.”
Or leading us into a trap. Either way, we must find out if the map is true.
“We’ll try here,” I say. “Less likely to run into some guards than in the King’s tower.”
“Is that the only reason?” He raises the lantern and peers into my face. His normally tanned, smooth skin looks pale and ghostly in this light. “Not because you hope to stumble into your brother or something?”
I shake my head. “No. We don’t even know for sure if he serves the prince.”
“You saw him follow his carriage.”
“Only once. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now.” I place both hands on the door.
“Wait.” He blows off the light, and the lantern clunks as he puts it on the floor. “Bruno,” he says in the darkness. “One more thing. That dream of yours --”
“I know,” I say. “It won’t happen today.”
I push with both hands, but the door doesn’t budge. I increase the pressure until, with a shushing sound, the door moves a little. When I push again it gives some more and a whiff of fresh air reaches my nose. I pause and listen, but apart from our breathing, I can hear nothing.
If the map is to be believed, the door will open to a little store room at the bottom of the Eastern Tower. It’s unlikely there will be any people around. We did take the precaution of dressing in the grey garments that castle slaves usually wear, but if someone sees us appear from a secret passage, the masquerade won’t help.
I peer through the crack.
It’s rather dark outside, but there is some greyish light coming from somewhere above, enough to see the small, windowless room, only a few feet wide. Its walls are lined by tall stacks of chopped wood, ending just before the first step of a stone staircase. There’s no one here but us. Lucky so far.
Oliver pokes me impatiently in the back. I step out, and he follows.
“We’re in the castle.” He giggles nervously. “Can you believe it?”
“Shush,” I tell him. I walk to the staircase and look up. It spirals out of my vision. The light probably comes from some tower window a few floors higher, but I can only see the first dozen steps.
“Let’s go up,” Oliver whispers, his voice jittery with excitement. “Let’s see from the window if it’s really the place.”
I nod and gesture for him to stay put. He gives me an indignant look and opens his mouth to protest, but I shake my head and start up the stairs before he can say anything. He’s too excited to let him walk around. He could try something stupid, like leaving the staircase and going to explore the castle.
It’s not a game. If we get caught, we’ll die.
I climb a winding flight of stairs and reach the first landing. There’s a simple wooden door, nothing like the thick old one we just came through. There’s more light here, yet I still can’t see the window. I should go higher.
A noise comes from behind the door, and my heart drops into my stomach. I whirl around, and stumble into Oliver. Quietly, I grab him, push him back down the stairs, and follow him in a rush as the door begins to open.
We stop at the bottom and look at each other, holding our breaths. Above us, the door opens and then slams closed. Then comes the sound of footsteps and soft splashing. Someone carrying a bucket with water? For one chilling moment, it seems the sounds are getting closer. My fists clench, ready for fight. Then, the noises get vaguer.
The person is going upstairs.
Oliver breathes out, shakes his head and leans an elbow on the stack of wood. Before I can tell him it’s a bad idea, a couple of short wood billets slide off the stack and fall to the floor, one of them landing on his foot.
“Arh!” he growls, before slapping both hands over his mouth.
Up on the staircase, something drops nosily. I freeze and hold my breath tight. I can see Oliver’s doing the same and the fear in his eyes probably mirrors mine. And then there’s water, rushing down the stairs, and, following it, comes an empty wooden bucket. It rolls over and stops by my foot.
We exchange glances and take off. Whoever has dropped it, will be here soon—not only to retrieve it, but to check what was the noise that made him drop it in the first place. It’s probably a servant or a slave, and I wouldn’t want to hurt him.
“Where’s the doorknob?” Oliver’s hands travel franticly over what looks like just another section of the wall. Of course, being a secret door, it’s made to look like a stone wall on the outside. If I didn’t know this section is supposed to open, I wouldn’t have guessed.
“Why did you close it?” I join his efforts, yet my hands find nothing but the stones. It’s as if the door has magically disappeared.
There’re footsteps behind us. I whirl around and face a man standing in a puddle of water next to the bucket, gaping at us. He’s dressed in grey garments similar to ours, but that’s not the only thing that’s similar.
His face looks just like mine.
I move away from the wall and towards him. As more light falls on me, he notices the similarity, too. His eyes bulge with shock and his jaw drops.
It feels strange. The last time I saw him, we were little children. I have forgotten what it feels like, to look at another person and see your own face starting back at you.
“Grumio?” I say. “Don’t be afraid. It’s me, Bruno.” Unbidden tears well in my eyes. Perhaps Oliver was right. I did hope to meet him here.
He shakes his head and backs away.
“Grumio,” I say. “Just be quiet, please. I’m here now. We’ll help you...”
He takes another step back, and his mouth opens even wider.
Then he begins to scream at the top of his lungs.