From the tall ramparts with their crumbling stone, to the grey towers with their crooked peaks, to the chill wind cutting through its echoing halls, to the still moat which encircled it all, the castle ruins presented all the warning signs that it would be better left alone. With an empty potato sack slung over his shoulder, Stefanus marched inside, ignoring all these warnings. Only the precious contents that may be hidden within concerned his desperate mind.
It wasn’t until he entered the foreboding rune that it began to rain. Stefanus thought of this as a piece of luck, nature itself holding back till he felt shelter. At least, this is what he preferred to think. His pace quickened, as did his heart, as the sound of the heavy rain faded behind him.
Stefanus was not the first and he knew that much.
There are many who have been in-and-out of old castles, taking what they could sell or burn to keep them through the cold winters. Yet, he knew from the many days he spent atop a nearby hill, that there was something of worth in the highest peak. Something that shined, something that gleamed invitingly, when a stray ray of sunlight bounced off its surface and into his watchful eye.
It was with this knowledge in mind that Stefanus ignored most rooms, with their assorted cobwebs and decrepit, useless furnishings. He sought stairs that took him higher, ever closer to the central peak. As he climbed, his mind ran through the stories he heard of the old castle.
In a time not yet forgotten, the castle was home to a king and a queen. Protected by strong knights, the king would work towards bettering their army for their people. Invading forces, savages and the like, were burning their way across the country, killing all who opposed.
Yet, the king failed, somewhat.
The invading forces were vanquished, but not before the village was crushed and its people captured. Some say all were killed that day, others say every villager was executed within sight of the king and queen. The very thought of leaders so benevolent, tried and failed, watching their people die one-by-one from the safety of their castle.
Whether this much of the story is true or not, the king, with the remaining knights, unleashed their wrath. With immense, righteous power, they dropped the drawbridge and charged the barbarians. Much blood was spilt, but it could not pay the debt the king felt in his heart.
The story does not end there.
Stefanus could see the damage of swords and combat throughout the castle. The barbarians had made their way inside, unleashing their evil upon the few that still remained. Their bodies, now skeletons, remained. Lacking armour, as it had long since been looted, but their ragged clothing contrasted the torn finery the noblemen and women wore.
Stefanus could almost hear the cries for help. He could almost feel the cruelty of the barbarians, as they chose what they knew would be their last few acts, to cut down the defenceless. For the briefest moments, Stefanus thought he heard a final prayer whispered behind him and he turned on the spot. Nothing, as expected.
Putting that moment at the back of his mind, Stefanus continued unaffected.
The king with his remaining knights, left the battlefield, returning to the castle too late. Every barbarian was cut down, but not before every innocent had fallen victim to their axes and spears. Stefanus could see some broken weapons as he climbed, but their metal was corrupted and their wood too hard to burn. Not worth carrying, but Stefanus had no intention in doing so.
Instead, Stefanus found himself at a dead-end. Standing in the centre tower, surrounded by broken stairs, he stared up at an impossible climb. It was no wonder now why the highest peak was left untouched, but it only served to encourage Stefanus.
Dropping the sack to the ground, Stefanus examined the walls. He tested his grip, his strength, but it was inevitably futile. Next, he tried striking the wall with a rusted axe head, but the results were pitiful even before the axe heard broke apart.
Before his spirits could drop, Stefanus was presented with an opportunity.
Lightning flashed and as it began, it would end thanks to Stefanus’ observation. As the thunder reverberated through the castle, Stefanus examined one side of the wall, seeing small, narrow niches. Holes in the wall illuminated by the lightning. Once discovered, it was easily manipulated by the looting peasant.
Clutching the weapon handles and pieces of a broken spear, Stefanus began to climb the hidden ladder. It was a perilous ascent, but uneventful. Upon reaching the top of the ladder, Stefanus reached out to clutch the remaining stairs. With a small measure of effort and a hard push on one handle, he rolled onto the upper floor.
Stefanus caught his breath and pushed forward. Thinking on his return, he was caught unaware by the dust covered weapons on the ground. Bouncing off another set of stairs, Stefanus crumpled, falling too close to the edge. He stared down at where he started, eyes wide with momentary fear. Yet, it did not subside as it should have.
Another whisper beside his ear, a warning.
They are coming.
Stefanus heard thundering through the halls, but it was not caused by lightning. Instead, it was the thundering of many, metal-clad feet. Stefanus saw dark figures below, their shapes in combat stance with clenched fists. Yet, they knew they had reached a dead-end. He stared at them, perplexed more than fearful. The figures began to return to the halls and with foolish confidence, Stefanus smiled.
A smile that vanished when the last figure’s foot got caught on something. It was the potato sack that Stefanus had carried and in that moment, the figure raised its eyes towards the tower. Stefanus pulled away from the edge, but it was too late. There were many shouts from below, orders in a language he didn’t understand, consisting mainly of angry grunts.
Without hesitation, Stefanus did just that. He climbed the remaining stairs, pushed by fear and voices. At last, he reached the highest room in the tallest tower, only to be surrounded by knights. Each one held swords with shields, or pikes of shining steel. Their armour was clean, but battle scarred and cracked. Stefanus stopped and expected death with the next strike, but none came.
The knights stood motionless, facing the stairs. Their height bearing down upon Stefanus, but not much more than that. The scavenger stared despondent at the sets of armour, as he had no time nor strength to don the armor. Weaving between them as he went, Stefanus soon reached the other side of the room. Beyond the wall of protecting knights, sat the king in his beautiful armour on a simple throne, beside him sat a skeleton, crowned in finery and wearing a dress that lost most of its beauty many years ago.
It was a wonderful sight to behold for only a moment. Stefanus saw the dead king, feeling honoured to stand before such a man who lost so much. Stefanus saw the dead queen, feeling sadness that such good, innocent life was snuffed out by evil.
That peace of thought was momentary, as the voice returned, although its tone was much more sinister.
Now, face judgement.
Stefanus sensed movement behind him. Thinking it was the other looters who reached the top of the stairs, he turned fearful. Yet, he faced many fearsome knights, who had their blades pointed towards him. The armor moved silently, as if it were a dream. The swords thrust forward, Stefanus saw the blades cut through him, yet he did not bleed. The blades were drawn from his body and when he raised his eyes, the knights once more had their backs to him,
It's over, rest easy, friend.
Once more, Stefanus sensed movement, but this time he heard it as well. With fear still rushing through him, he found himself unable to flee. It didn’t matter too much in his mind, as he had nowhere to run. He backed away from the stairs as the looters climbed them. Inching closer and closer to the thrones, Stefanus knew that he would spend his last moments in the presence of greatness.
The looters reached the room, taking a moment to marvel at the knights, but then seeing Stefanus. The lowly man stood there terrified, no longer finding the strength to move, only to stand. The small band of looters smiled wickedly, drawing old, worn blades, coated in the blood of previous victims. The looters moved between the knights and once they stood before Stefanus, they yelled in bloody fury as they moved to strike.
Stefanus closed his eyes.
A dagger's point touched his shirt, but went no further before falling to the ground with a clatter. Stefanus felt rain. Opening his eyes, he saw nothing but the backs of the knights. At his feet, he saw pools of blood, splashed across the stone and himself. He choked in horror, deciding to flee the room. As he did, looked back once more at the royalty and their loyal knights. He knew in his heart what happened, but he didn’t trust himself to stay among them, even if they did keep him from meeting his end.
He was not stopped. His descent was slow, but without pause. He fled the castle, into the sunlight, across the dry ground, not thinking how it was so. Stefanus was grateful to be alive, but not to be in the presence of such power. He pushed the rain, the grim halls, the knights and their lord and lady out of his mind, and he ran.
Never will he return, it is better this way.