A hall boy stumbles onto a plot to assassinate the royal family.
| The putrid contents of the chamber pot slopped around as Andreas struggled to carry it down the stone stairs. The week’s wet weather had left a treacherous layer of moisture on the steps which threatened to cause him to slip if he was less than careful. Emptying and scrubbing the chamber pots was an unpleasant job, but as one of the three hall boys, it was one of his morning duties.
Finally reaching the foot of the stairs, Andreas sat down to rest a moment. Life as a hall boy was hard, but he figured it was better than the alternative since he got food and shelter in exchange for his hard work. Today however, was expected to be longer than most, as the servants had to ensure the burg was ready to receive an important visitor.
“Hall boy!” Andreas jumped to his feet at the sound of the angry voice and looked around for the source. Ditmar, the chef, had an active dislike for hall boys –Andreas in particular– due to their lowly status (after all, one can’t get any lower than someone who scrubs chamber pots) and kept a stern eye on them. The thin bearded man soon rounded the corner and locked his gaze on Andreas.
“Good morning, Ditmar,” Andreas cheerfully said, “what can I do for you today?” The boy tried to keep the quaver out of his voice as he spoke.
Ditmar glanced at the copper vessel at Andreas’ feet and wrinkled his nose in disdain. “Kindly keep your filthy work from the kitchens today. I have important business to discuss with our visitor and I don’t want you to disturb him!”
Andreas’ shoulders sagged slightly – avoiding the kitchens meant going the long way around to the cesspit.
“I could hurry on through without stopping,” he offered, hoping that Ditmar was in a reasonable mood today. “I have to get the pots cleaned quickly so I can do my other duties, and they may be needed so their absence would be missed if I had to take the long way around.”
Ditmar leaned toward Andreas and hissed angrily, “They are not used during the day! There will be no urgent need for them. You are to obey my instructions to the letter! Stay away from the kitchens!” With that, the old man kicked over the chamber pot as he turned to leave, its contents spilling onto the floor and over Andreas’ feet. Anger roiled within the teen as he watched Ditmar storm down the hall.
He pulled his rag from his trousers and leaned down to sop up the foul liquid; its pungent aroma would follow him the rest of the day. Andreas seethed with anger at the vexatious man, but dared not to speak his thoughts aloud for he was certain that Ditmar would hear of it. Officially, Ditmar was the head cook, but he and the other hall boys suspected that he was a vengeful wizard. Some even suggested that he was in league with the devil – but never too loudly, in case one of the rats was Ditmar himself. Andreas’ only friend swore that he watched the cook cast a spell on some poor soul who’d crossed him.
With the mess finally cleaned up, Andreas prepared to make the long journey to the cesspit; he was nearly halfway down the hall before he realized he had no need to empty the chamber pot. Ditmar, in his spite, had actually done the boy a favor! This lifted his spirits somewhat, and Andreas turned to go the other way – he would need water to clean with. As he passed the kitchens, Andreas was careful not to be seen and quickly hurried to the courtyard where the well was.
An odd thought struck him as he scrubbed the chamber pot clean: the scuttlebutt among the servants was that the important visitor they were expecting was none other than the famous traveling jester, Thijl Ulenspiegel. What business could he possibly have with Ditmar? The longer he contemplated this oddity, the less sense it made to him.
As puzzling as it was to him, Andreas forgot about it during the course of the day as he attended to his cleaning duties. Later that evening, one of the butlers (who the hall boys reported to) waved him over as he scrubbed the floors.
“Yes sir?” Andreas stood with his head slightly bowed before the man, barely making eye contact.
“Go to the kitchens and give this to Ditmar.” The butler handed the boy a folded piece of parchment. “This is what he is to prepare for the breakfast feast tomorrow.”
Andreas took the parchment and turned to go when he remembered his orders from that morning. “Sir,” he said, hesitatingly, “Ditmar said I was not to go into the kitchens today.”
“He did, did he? What did you do this time?”
“Nothing, Sir,” he protested. “I was scrubbing the chamber pots and he came to me and told me that I was not to go to the kitchens today because he needed to talk to the visitor.”
The butler guffawed, “You nearly had me going, boy! Ditmar isn’t important enough for Thijl to speak to him. He’s the greatest jester in all of Europe so he wouldn’t waste his time with a mere cook. Go to Ditmar and pass him this message before I whip you!”
‘But Ditmar is no mere cook,’ he thought as he scurried away from the hulking man, ‘everyone knows he’s a wizard… or worse – a warlock!’
He hurried through the halls and quickly reached the kitchen entrance. Andreas hesitated at the door before slowly opening it. He poked his head in and looked around – Ditmar was nowhere to be seen in the empty chamber. ‘Where is everyone?’ he asked himself.
Several minutes passed before he realized he was holding his breath. Andreas slowly let it out and slipped into the outer kitchen. There was no one around and it didn’t look as if anyone had been there all day. The kitchens were normally bustling with sounds and activity as the staff prepared the meals and cleaned; the silence hung palpably in the air. He walked past the bread ovens silently as he made his way to the back rooms. The sound of hushed whispering caught his attention and he followed it to the root cellar.
“This is a dangerous plan, Ditmar. If we’re caught…” a low voice said.
Ditmar interrupted, “If we’re caught, it will not matter! By that time, no one will dare defy me!” A bright light suddenly flashed behind the heavy door, followed by a sound reminiscent of someone beating a side of meat with a club.
“You fool! Do not show off your powers in a vain attempt to impress me! I taught you what you know and you still have many more years before you can even dream of attaining my skill level. Your carelessness will see you hanged. What are these rumors I heard of people vanishing?” The other man’s voice took a tone of amused annoyance.
“Nothing to concern yourself with, Thijl,” Ditmar said dismissively. “I would venture to say you are the fool. You, the greatest warlock in history! And you parade yourself around Europe as a mere court jester, when you could have the world!”
“You are too quick to use your powers, Ditmar,” Thijl scolded, “when there are other means available to accomplish things without exposing yourself. This powder, for example, is a potent poison that will kill in the smallest quantities.”
“We cannot use poisons – have you gone mad? The cupbearer will drop dead at the first taste!”
Andreas went pale and trembled; he leaned against the wall to support himself and avoid making any noises that would bring attention to himself. Again, he found himself holding his breath as the conversation continued on the other side of the door.
“Ahhh,” Thijl’s voice sounded slippery now, “that’s the beauty of this poison. It was brought to Rome by Marco Polo himself when he returned from his journey. The mystics of that faraway land have concocted this powder not to kill instantly; rather, it takes several days before it kills. By that time, no one will suspect poisoned food and your magic remains safely hidden from public view. I myself tested it on a Pope; it turned out to be a success beyond all imagining!”
“The Pope is dead!” Ditmar sounded aghast.
Thijl let out a wicked cackle, “No, my young friend, the current Pope is alive and well. You forget –willfully, I might add– my skills in the dark arts, and underestimate my cunning. No, not even I would dare kill a Pope in my lifetime. The unfortunate man I tested that particular poison on will not be born for another 500 years! He will have the distinction of reigning as Pope for only a month before succumbing to it. It only took the tiniest amount to ensure death after three weeks of ingestion!”
“You killed a Pope in the future?”
“I did! And you think yourself a powerful warlock? You have yet to learn the secrets of both time and space, how to traverse the aether! You wish to kill the royals and take the throne?’
“Then it is by this poison that you must do so. Mix a small pinch into the gravy at the breakfast meal tomorrow and they shall be dead by week’s end! And while we are discussing that, I do believe that we have a visitor bearing your orders for the breakfast.”
Andreas’ eyes widened in fear and he bolted from the spot to which he’d been frozen. The oak door exploded into a thousand fragments as he ducked behind a butcher’s table. Ditmar and Thijl stood in the now-open doorway and stared at the hall boy.
“It is tragic, my young friend, that you had to witness that,” Ditmar said, almost regretfully. “Of all the hall boys, it was you I liked the most. It pains me that I will no longer have the pleasure of your company. Hand me the parchment.”
‘His favorite? He must be mad! He’s never liked me!’ Andreas thought. “I won’t!” he said defiantly.
Thijl’s eyes narrowed to slits and his voice sounded silky smooth as he spoke, “You won’t , what, boy?”
Andreas’ heart pounded in his chest as the two men approached him. “I won’t help you kill anyone! I won’t give you the parchment,” he shouted.
“Defy me not, boy!” A quick wave of Thijl’s hand, and the table Andreas hid behind vanished, leaving no trace of its existence. Suddenly exposed, he rushed to his feet and ran for the hall.
“HELP ME! WARLOCKS IN THE BURG!” shouted Andreas, as loud as he could manage. He looked behind himself as he rushed through the entryway. Neither Ditmar nor Thijl seemed overly concerned that he was escaping. On the contrary, they appeared amused at something.
He rushed down the hall, running faster than he had ever before run. Panting, he rounded a corner and saw the butler who’d set him off on his mission earlier. “Sir!” he called, “Ditmar is a warlock! He plans to kill the royal family!”
A look of disgust crossed the butler’s face. “Hall boy!” he yelled.
“Sir, I’m telling the truth! Ditmar and Thijl are …” he broke off when he realized the butler wasn’t talking to him.
Another hall boy hurried over. “Sir?”
The butler pointed at Andreas angrily, and said, “Get that rat out of my presence! You were supposed to exterminate the lot of them before nightfall!”
The hall boy looked over at Andreas in surprise. “He must have just gotten in. I’ll get him.” He walked slowly toward Andreas, who stood there in confusion. Andreas suddenly found himself being scooped up into a burlap sack.
It wasn’t until he felt himself being thrown out a window and the cold water of the moat started filling the sack that he realized he was no longer human. He cried out in fear and desperation as he sank to the murky bottom. ‘At least they didn’t get the parchment,’ he thought as he drowned.
Ditmar bent over and picked up the parchment that Andreas had dropped in his flight from the kitchen. “Only a pinch, you say?”
Word count: 2,054