Dorfmund ascended the narrow dungeon stairway, carrying a rough wooden tray that barely cleared the walls. If the curve of the passage had been any sharper, he thought the tray would have become wedged fast. The straight black spear of a cat’s tail bobbed up the stairs in front of him. It was remarkably similar to being escorted by an actual castle guard. The confident feline certainly seemed to expect to be obeyed, even more than most of the guards themselves. The young servant chuckled to himself when he thought of just how much most people in the castle stood to learn from its resident cat.
The cat itself was Dorfmund’s favorite aspect of his life as a castle servant. Everyone around, from the nobles, to the staff, down to himself, all performed their duties from day to day quite predictably. The cat was the only inhabitant of the fortress who could go where he pleased, and do what he liked, when he liked. At times, it almost seemed that the black tomcat was both respected and feared by more residents than even the nobles themselves. To Dorfmund’s eye, at least, the nobles didn’t always respect each other, yet they never tried to presume a higher station than the resident mouse-catcher. They, too, were guilty of giving in to the feline demands for a warm lap, a long scratch behind the ears, or a pilfered morsel of food from a plate. Odd, it felt to him, that the nobles he watched struggle so carefully to convince other nobles to do things, so easily gave in to the cat’s every whim.
What was now a fairly large black male cat had been only a kitten the first time that Dorfmund had ever been down into the dungeon. He remembered seeing the guards who sat at the bottom of the stair entertaining the tiny young thing by pulling a piece of string erratically around their small square tabletop. As a boy, he had laughed aloud at the antics of the kitten and the way it amused the guards, and so had drawn undue attention from one of them – the gruff one, the one who actually volunteered for dungeon duty (or so the servants whispered to each other when no guards were near). He had looked over at Dorfmund with his gaunt, stern face, and said nothing, just scowled. Then, quickly, he simply winked, and returned to the feline game. That was the first time that Dorfmund had ever imagined that just perhaps – some people weren’t only what they seemed to be on the outside.
It had now been several years since he’d started delivering meals to those unlucky souls who were “visiting the castle inn,” which was how the head cook referred to the criminals locked in the dungeon. He’d grown to prefer this leg of his daily rounds, even more than the very rare occasions when he was allowed to bring a meal to a lord or an honored guest. At first, he’d been warned that the jailed miscreants may try to abuse him, and when possible lash out at him, someone they resented simply for being allowed to roam free. He had also been told stories of how the crafty ones might tell him fibs, trying to convince him that they weren’t bad people, just misunderstood, so they might take advantage of that trust and trick him into giving them something they weren’t allowed to have. A kitchen knife, for example, would not be used for cutting food, as they would claim, but would serve as a digging tool, or even a weapon to hurt a guard who came too near the bars. As he kept returning with their food, however, they proved themselves to be too smart to bite the hand that feeds, as it were, and Dorfmund even learned some unexpected bits of wisdom from the prisoners. Life in the dungeon was fairly restricted, but it was not truly isolated from the rest of the castle. Secrets and rumors still floated down the narrow stairway as regularly as the lunches he brought.
Perhaps because he listened politely, even to these men who had fallen so low, he was privy to many exchanges that even the guards did not easily hear. Some prisoners actually spoke to Dorfmund, though he was sure that this attention was due more to curiosity than to some sense of esteem. Regardless, he did not mind a chance to learn about a people that never failed to surprise him with uncharacteristic intelligence, despite simplicity or lack of respect for the law. His only complaint about the inmates was that they loved to ask why he was still the one to bring them meals, as smart as he was. They would proclaim that he should have been selected as some noble’s pageboy long ago, though he knew they were mostly just flattering him, trying to catch him off his guard.
Nevertheless, their words rang in his ears throughout his first few months of “Cellar Duty.” The pageboys themselves would laugh at him when they saw him carrying a tray of food around, laden with plates and bowls. They were the only boys his age around the castle, and so Dorfmund had resented them for their harsh words and inaccurate assumptions about his intelligence. They always seemed to find him when they were running and playing together, and it was always while he was busy and hard at work. He hated seeing them get even a moment to enjoy themselves, since he was much lower down in the ranks of staff and the classes of society, so he rarely had such luxury. If he finished his rounds and completed his duties early, he was given more, his superiors ever eager to ensure he had no time to play while he could be of any use to them. His time to relax would have to come after the last bit of light had left the sky, and the stars or clouds had crowded over the tall, thin tower of the keep. By then, of course, he was almost too exhausted to do anything but sleep, but he always made sure to look up at the sky before turning in. He liked to know that the day’s hours and the weather flowed by the castle at the same pace as always, regardless of how much or how little the people inside it accomplished.
He had also born resentment for the nobles, back then, for at his age of early adolescence, he had imagined that they simply lounged about all day, taking their meals at their own leisure, instead of the servant’s hurried pace, and only got around to doing something useful with their day when they felt like it, since no one would yell at them about wasting the daylight. However, over the years of walking up and down the stairways and passages separating the lords and ladies from the staff, or the servants from the inhabitants of the dungeon, he had arrived at the conclusion that life was equally difficult for the noble as for the criminal, just as stressful overall for the pageboy as for the butler. As Dorfmund saw it, everything was a matter of scale: the castle itself was not very large, compared to most other castles near and far, as he heard it told, and the importance of its position was only tenable depending on the events of the world outside it. The nobles who kept the keep needed to be ready always in case of deadly attack, and simultaneously had to plan for future threats and political opportunities, while still training the coming generations in the finer points of siege warfare and regal politics. The taxes and tariffs collected from the village and especially from the trade moving along the river would not collect themselves, and they certainly couldn’t be trusted to count themselves – as Dorfmund had overheard more than once while working near the top of the tower, where the master of the castle preferred to check his records. Throughout his time working in the dungeon, as well, he had left his ears open, and had learned more than a few things about the economics and politics of the prison and the village beneath the castle, and heard the concerns of the poor and lawless. Those considered to be the bottom rung of society seemed to him to have just as many rules for interacting with each other, and as many worries about being betrayed by one another, as had the nobles who often visited the keep during their important regal travels. To Dorfmund’s mind, the only difference between the two was the way they dressed and the words they chose. Certainly, both groups were effectively trapped inside the castle, one by locks and bars, the other by sworn duty, military necessity, and allegiance to more powerful men.
It was the black tomcat alone, among every being in the fort, who seemed to care nothing about what others thought of him. He strutted around when no one was watching, but slinked and crept by a crowd of people who would gawk and wonder at his behavior. No creature was safe from his predatory eyes, and his hungry claws and teeth: Dorfmund had once gotten whipped for delivering a noble’s lunch late and cold, because he had spent ten minutes too long staring at the cat’s capture, evisceration and subsequent consumption of a large rat that almost rivaled the feline in girth. It was the only punishment he had ever borne completely without regret, and he had hardly grovelled at all when it was finished. This was despite the fact that it was the longest whipping he’d ever received, doubtless out of an attempt to get him to react to it. He’d later heard the noble remark that the “quiet boy” must have been “simple” to have not only gotten lost delivering a simple lunch, but also not to have noticed the whip’s sting. Thinking back on the occasion, Dorfmund realized that after the occurrence, he had been whipped quite a bit less frequently, as if the supervisors realized it wouldn’t achieve anything, anyway. He made a mental note to thank the tomcat later, perhaps with a juicy piece of roast pheasant or quail he might nick from the cook’s carving board, if he was lucky.
The cat in question had now reached the landing at the top of the narrow, winding stair which led to servants’ area. This was his destination now, to leave the empty tray in the kitchen and finish his midday tasks. Today was a special day for him, however. After he finished cleaning the dirty things left by the cooking staff who had prepared the lunches, he would report to the captain of the guard for what might be his only chance to ever escape the servile life of the castle staff. It was today, and today only, when the actual decision would be made for a replacement of the dungeon guard regiment. Dorfmund could only just contain the jump that pushed at his feet. His step quickened as he thought of the fortune he might have. He reigned in this stallion of excitement by remembering what had led to such an opportunity. Many able and trained men had been conscripted by lords and organizations far away from the castle, to be equipped, trained, and sent off to fight other men, farther away, whom they had never met. They would probably have never seen them at all, if not for the bloody war about to wash over those foreign lands – strange places which lay across the river and through many forests and towns. Dorfmund was nevertheless exceedingly grateful that he had not been chosen to go off and fight, since he had hardly received any training with weapons or giving commands. The deadliest thing he had ever touched had been the new “cannon” that the recent lord had installed upon the newest battlements, and that was only to move it into the very position that it had now occupied for months. As a simple servant, he had been passed over by the king’s men who had come to take away all the talented souls who were not already sworn by knighthood or oath to serve the lord of the castle directly. That left many positions vacant among staff and militia, and most of those duties which could not be shouldered by the remaining workers had already been given to local villagers who had jumped at the chance to live and work in the fort. There remained just one necessary position to fill: that of a dungeon guard. Now was his best chance to step up out of the dregs of servanthood and into the regular ranks of the men in charge.
His musings on the coming selection kept his mind occupied throughout the remainder of his afternoon duties, and before he realized what he’d done, he had cleaned the entire kitchen and prepared it completely for the cooking of evening meals. He was a half an hour ahead of his own schedule. He quaffed a cup of water quickly, and then hurried off toward the office of the head of the castle guard. There were many twists and turns along his path, but before he had reached the room he sought, his eye caught the flash of black fur to his left, moving away from his destination. Knowing he had been set to arrive early, judging from the angle of the sun, Dorfmund thought he could spare a moment to go and thank the tomcat as he had earlier considered. He had managed to steal no food from the kitchen, since he had been preoccupied in his work, but the cat had never darted away from his hand before, and usually tended to rub against him as if drunk and stumbling, so Dorfmund supposed that the little hunter would have to satisfy himself with a mere pat on the head and scratch beneath the chin for now. The dark feline did not let most people in the castle touch him, except for the discerning nobles and a few choice servants and guards. This had lent weight to the joke that the cat was the most particular of all the nobles within these walls. Nobles and their staff alike often laughed about the whims of the black tom.
Catching sight of the darting line of fur once more, disappearing into an open doorway that led toward the dungeon stair, he followed and called out for the cat, snapping his fingers as he walked slowly down the steps. He rarely referred to the cat by name, since not everyone knew it, but usually called him by his title. It was a sort of nick-name that all castle denizens agreed was best for the cat: that of Mayor. Less a dig at the “democratic” politics of the village beneath the castle hill, it was more a joke about the cat’s self-important attitude, frequent expectations of gifts and praise, and religious avoidance of scrutiny. The black tom would act as if he had done no wrong, even when it was he who had pushed his milk bowl onto the floor in his haste to lap up the last drops, or his own paw which had thrown a wooden spoon loudly onto the floor when a noble was trying to read peacefully. This would not mean he wouldn’t be expecting another toy or snack to replace the one he had dismissed so easily. Clearly, in his own eyes, he could not be blamed for anything bad, but tried to take credit for any good thing he could, and so the castle population gave him the title they felt best justified this pompous carriage and nonchalant abuse of people’s good graces: the same one held by men who might abuse their position, but regardless, certainly never admitted any wrongdoing, even when caught in the act – that of the highest politician in the area. The cat was indeed the (self-appointed) Mayor of the castle community.
Dorfmund finally saw the golden eyes of the tomcat hovering above the shadow of the bottom stair, seemingly glowing in the darkness. The cat had never had a problem navigating any part of the castle in the dark, least of all the dungeon stairs, which he traversed up and down many times each day. Dorfmund stopped on the bottom step and squatted down on his haunches to hold out his hand to the cat’s nose. The moist black skin touched his for only a second before the mystical creature pushed his face solidly against Dorfmund’s knuckles. The young man petted roughly at the back of the cat’s neck, and the tom’s back arched up into his movement. He spent a moment smoothing the fur down, from the top of the cat’s head, along his back, all the way down to the tip of his tail, and doing it all again, before the cat gave a melodic mewl and looked in the direction of the dungeon. Dorfmund suddenly noticed the man seated at the table in front of him. It was the captain of the guard, himself, the very man whose office he had been hurrying to when he saw the cat dart down into the dungeon. Dorfmund quickly stepped carefully out of the archway, not wanting to stand up hastily and risk smashing his head the low overhang he had passed under so many times before. It would not do to bruise his head right in front of the very man he was intent on impressing. He straightened up and threw an amateur salute before asking,
“Captain Wolfgang! …Sire? Why are you down here, so far from your office and seat?”
The older man nodded at Dorfmund to lower his hand and posture, and waved off the question with both hand and word.
“Ah, my good man, worry not, I am just taking a page out of that cat’s book: I am doing whatever I feel like doing, when I feel like doing it.”
Having thus avoided answering the question, Wolfgang picked up a wooden cup from the table in front of him and took a sip. Smacking his lips, he continued,
“Ah! So, Dorfmund, is it? You have brought many of my men their sustenance for many years now, I believe.”
“Yes, sire, that is true. It has been an honor to serve the fine men who guard this castle.” Dorfmund did not hesitate in his reply, attempting to maintain the guise of confidence despite his complete lack of understanding. “Many of them have sat where you now sit, in fact. May I ask, though, why you do sit there, sire, when many men will soon knock upon the door to your office, hoping to become your next guard? Aren’t you afraid they will despair and give up hope of finding you, and possibly quit the application?”
“No, my good boy, not at all! That thought doesn’t worry me one bit!” The head of guards laughed loudly, and leaned back in his chair further. “I welcome them to give up the chase of the last available guard position! It’s been the hardest one to fill so far. Having fewer unqualified applicants will save me the trouble of having to decide who will get the job. You see, I could use any man in this castle to sit around and guard some gates which will just stay closed, anyway. The hard part of guard duty is looking a prisoner in the eye as you command him, showing him you’re not afraid of him, and resisting the urge to give him something we can’t allow him to have. It’s a necessary evil, but I fear the regular townsfolk couldn’t be trusted to handle it. They would only see their cousin, or friend, or brother of their neighbor, behind those bars, instead of the criminals we guard. What’s more, and more important – we only have one uniform, one armory weapon, and rations enough for just one more guard right now! Most of our resources have been commandeered for the war efforts,” he lamented, his voice growling down into a baritone of annoyance.
“But sire,” continued Dorfmund, “how will you make this decision, if no man can find where you are, to ask you to take him on?”
The seated man looked straight into Dorfmund’s eyes.
“You found me, didn’t you, young man? Funny, too, that you did, easily and early, instead of going to that cursed office you mentioned. I had only meant to finish off this brandy,” he held up his cup, “and take my time considering what to do about the whole ordeal, before arriving back at my blasted office too late to see any applicants. Now, however, I should think I have all the applicants I need, right here, and right on time.”
Before Captain Wolfgang could conclude his soliloquy, he was interrupted by the heavy breathing and none-too-quiet cursing of a young man hurrying down the stairs blindly, complaining loudly of darkness and narrowness, of bad odors and unsafe conditions. The expensive leather boots of a merchant appeared on the stairs, followed by well-tailored trousers, a shiny belt, and a linen shirt that was beginning to come untucked. No sooner had the two castle residents noticed this, than there was a soft “thud” of skin smacking stone, and a loud curse echoed back up the stairwell. A young man similar in age to Dorfmund fairly fell out of the stairway, holding his hands over his forehead and whining. He barely caught sight of the two in time to swallow another tirade of insults concerning the architecture and state of the castle building.
“Oh! Err, ahem, excuse me, gentlemen-” at this word, the young man looked Dorfmund up and down, critically, “-but I was looking for the captain of this fine castle’s regiment of guards. You see, I was told-” here he glanced back over his shoulder with a sneer, “-by this castle’s, er, chef, that I might find him here, attending to some necessary duties, that brought him away from his office….” He looked once more at Dorfmund with an odd glint in his eye, almost as if he were laughing, and then settled his gaze upon the head of guards, and his speech trailed off. He had the unmistakable accent of someone from the village below the castle, along the river, but with a hint of noble affectation.
“Yes, lad, I am the captain of the militia here. And who might you be?” Wolfgang sipped at his cup again, and used this gesture to hide the incredulity in his eyes as he looked over the newcomer’s clothes once more. They were clearly nicer and cleaner than anything that anyone in the castle would ever own, other than the nobles, but indeed were a good two steps below the style of the nobles, themselves.
“Sir! My name is Fritz Heinrich Steuerein, and I am here to receive the post of guard that is available in your regiment. Sir!” The teen-aged boy winced after this last bark and put a hand to his head for a moment.
Captain Wolfgang put down his cup and rose from his chair, standing almost as tall as Fritz, who was taller than Dorfmund. The servant straightened up as best he could, but still felt just a hair too short for the situation. He was also suddenly conscious of the difference in the style of clothes he wore, compared to Fritz, and for that matter, to the captain.
“So, you are here to apply for the available position in my ranks?” The older man answered, giving the verb just a breath of emphasis. “And please tell me, son, what qualifies you for this station of dungeon guard?”
“Oh, dungeon guard…” muttered the taller boy, glancing fearfully behind him at the archway over the stairs, “…yes, sir, well, I have been helping my father keep the books straight and the shelves stocked in his store in the village for five years now. I can read and write, and I’m good at moving many heavy things around the store. So…I am the obvious choice for your newest guard! I have years of various experience, and there is no one better qualified or more suited,” Fritz’s eyes flitted in the direction of Dorfmund, standing next to him in his dusty trousers and loose shirt, his shoes worn, “to be your newest guard. Besides, sir, when I am inevitably noticed by some noble for my many outstanding skills, I will do your regiment great honor by being chosen as his squire. It will show that you only hire and train the best! Sir.”
The captain scowled at the boy for a moment before focusing his eyes on Dorfmund.
“What about you, my boy?” he asked the servant. “Why did you come here today, instead of applying at my office?”
The young man held himself straight-backed and watched the captain’s eyes as he spoke.
“I must be honest, sire, actually, I was trying to get hold of the Mayor, here,” he motioned toward the cat now licking his hind leg, upon the chair the captain had just vacated, “to ask him to wish me luck for this application. I had been on my way straight to your office, but I was a little early for your afternoon break, and so I followed him down here first. That’s when I found you sitting here, instead. I had planned to go right back up to your office after catching the Mayor, but it looks like he knew better. As usual….” He looked again at the cat, who lifted his head just long enough to blink at Dorfmund, before returning to his bath.
Fritz scoffed, and muttered, “Who chases a cat? That’s a fool’s errand. Anyway, I hate cats. They make me sneeze.”
At this, the Mayor himself dropped down off his chair and trotted over to Dorfmund’s legs. He rubbed around and around his worn shoes, falling over into the dusty pant legs as if he had sampled some of the captain’s brandy. For all Dorfmund knew, he probably had. His work here complete, the tomcat went prancing off up the stairs and out of the dungeon. Captain Wolfgang turned a wide smile on Dorfmund, and proclaimed:
“Well, I am but a humble guard – who am I to argue with the Mayor, himself? It would seem my choice has been made!”
The stupefied look of confusion on Fritz’s face passed by as quickly as the clouds over the castle did in the Springtime. He spluttered for but a moment before he turned angrily on his heel and stormed back up the stair, hitting the archway overhead with his palm violently, as if he blamed its existence on his failure to find employment that day. Dorfmund thought he heard some words about getting some coins back from the “chef,” but his attention was focused on the captain’s face.
“My good lad,” Wolfgang declared jovially, “anyone who can catch the Mayor should have absolutely no trouble handling some liars, thieves and cheats! How would you like a promotion, so to speak? We’ll get you out of those drab peasant’s clothes and into a proper guard’s uniform today!”
The young man beamed from ear to ear, and didn’t know what to say, so he simply saluted, and began his new career in earnest.
Was ist los?
Na, der Hund ist los, die Katze ist im Kellar, und der Bürgermeister ist betrunken!
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