The Magic Quill No. 157: Dungeon Brownies
Contest winner: Rehannah
The light at the tips of their wands revealed a grim sight to Merlin and Miss Pucey. Ahead of them, a flagstoned passage receded into darkness. Along each side ran an endless series of heavy doors with barred windows in them at eye level. When they looked through the windows, they saw heaps of bones, some more or less held together by remnants of sinew and tattered clothes. The bones of humans mingled with those of the rats who had starved with them - or, at least, shortly after them.
Miss Pucey shuddered. Merlin growled at the back of his throat, sounding fiercer than he felt.
The dungeon continued straight ahead, damp and cold and still and heavy with despair and death. It seemed they had been walking through it for hours, yet the cell doors marched onward in unbroken formation. Now and again Merlin checked to see if a cell had been occupied, and each time he came away from the window with the same bitter growl.
Then, for the first time since passing the Joke Knocker, they saw something different. It appeared so suddenly, in fact, that the duo only noticed it when Merlin tripped over it. They stopped to look around, Miss Pucey hiking her skirts up over her ankles.
"It's a shoe," said Merlin, pointing his wandlight at it.
"A shoe in remarkably good condition, compared to what's left of the inmates' footwear," said Miss Pucey, measuring it roughly against her own shoe. "Men's size ten, give or take."
Merlin didn't say it aloud, but the thought came to him unbidden: "That's my size." But it wasn't his shoe. His shoes weren't in top condition like this one. They had, for example, gotten soaked in the waters of the Venetian lagoon and dried out in the dank air of the merhags' larder. He could do with a new pair, and this one looked pretty good.
"How did it get here?" he wondered aloud. "There was nothing ahead of us. We would have seen it. And then I just tripped over it."
Miss Pucey sucked her breath through clenched teeth when Merlin picked up the shoe. He turned it over in his hand, suffering no ill effects. It didn't seem to be poisoned or cursed. Not yet, at least.
"I wouldn't wear that if I were you," said Miss Pucey. "Haven't you heard what happens to witches or wizards who put on shoes when they don't know where they came from? You could end up dancing yourself to death."
"I'm not putting it on, am I?" Merlin stuffed the shoe into a pocket in his robes. "We might need it to get out of here."
After following the dungeon walk another length of a football field, the pair found another shoe, the mate of the first. Merlin pocketed it as well. Shortly after that a sturdy, sensible calfskin shoe, seemingly tailored to Miss Pucey's right foot, appeared. Then another for the left.
"This is starting to feel ominous," Miss Pucey noted as Merlin pocketed the second woman's shoe. "I mean, what comes next? Kid gloves? Stockings with garters?"
What came next was a commotion in the darkness ahead. Merlin rummaged in his satchel and brought out the portable wall Harvey had given him. He tugged a cord at one end of it, and in moments it grew to fill the passage ahead of them. From their side of it, it looked like a layer of thin gauze stretched over a rickety frame. Through it they could see the length of corridor ahead of them, still lit by their wandlights, but Merlin knew that from the other side it would appear to be a section of dungeon wall advancing down the corridor.
"It's funny," whispered Miss Pucey, as they began walking toward the noise ahead, "but I don't feel very well-protected."
Merlin silenced her with the look on his face.
As they approached one of the cells, seemingly identical to all the others, they heard whispering voices from within. Someone seemed to be saying: "What's that light?" Another: "They're coming." Other words and voices were stifled by a general shushing sound.
Peering through the portable wall, Merlin saw the inside of the cell by wandlight. No one seemed to be there except the last occupant of the cell, now no more than a pile of desiccated bones. "Hello?" Merlin called gently. Other than a feeling of frozen fear and waiting, no one seemed to be home.
Merlin looked more closely at the bones on the dungeon floor. There seemed to be more than bones there. A tattered piece of cloth or skin lay spread on the floor with several items arranged on it. Tools. Merlin peered harder, wishing he had a free hand to scratch his head. Then it came to him. The spade-like lasts arranged according to size; the pointy awls, sharp leather-cutting tools, heavy needles, fine instruments for pinching and gripping and hammering... These were the tools of a cobbler. But what could a cobbler have done to provoke the wrath of one of the counts of Bestemmia?
Merlin jumped at a loud noise farther along the corridor. Something had landed against the flagstones with a metallic clang.
"Oh, this place!" Miss Pucey moaned, her hands fluttering about her.
"This way," said Merlin, pushing the inflatable wall ahead of them.
"Are you sure?" she murmured.
"There's no other way out but forward," he said.
"Are you sure?" she repeated.
He rolled his eyes. "Aren't you curious about what's going on here?"
"Curiosity killed the cat," said Miss Pucey. "You wouldn't have a cat in that bag of yours? You know, to scout ahead?"
"Sorry," Merlin grinned, "we'll just have to risk it."
They risked it, and soon enough they found out what had made the clanging noise. It was a horseshoe.
Miss Pucey darted a look behind them, holding her wand above her head.
"What?" cried Merlin.
She sighed. "Nothing. I just had to check to see whether a horse was following us. Or maybe a thestral. Could you see a thestral if one was there?"
"There's no thestral behind us," Merlin said confidently. "Whoever has been dropping footwear ahead of us has apparently noticed that we've run out of feet."
Another clang up ahead made both of them jump again.
"Maybe there will be horses to go with these shoes," Miss Pucey suggested, "when we get to wherever this corridor leads."
They collected a total of eight horseshoes before the corridor led anywhere but past more dungeon cells full of grisly remains. Once more they followed a sound of whispering to a cell door where, as soon as Merlin looked through the window, the whispering stopped. This time the victim's corpse was surrounded by other tools - anvil, forge, hammers, tongs - suggesting that a farrier had met a fate similar to that of the cobbler.
"This Maledicto person," Miss Pucey said, pronouncing the name as if it brought the taste of bile to her lips, "seems to have it in for honest tradesmen."
"I think," said Merlin, "he's just greedy. He wants the best of everything, and then he destroys the artist who made it so that no one else can enjoy the same quality. Or perhaps he kills them so that he needn't pay for their services."
"How very like a spoilt child," Miss Pucey sneered. "People ought to have their children brought up better."
Torn between making a pointed observation on how she had phrased her last assertion and asking how much credit she
took for the way Rigel had turned out, Merlin bit his tongue.
They continued forward for only another quarter-mile or so. Then, quite suddenly, the dungeon ended. The flagstoned floor plunged into space as a deep chasm opened before them, so deep that their wandlight could not reach bottom. The opposite side was only a stone's throw away. Directly across from them stood another heavy wooden door. There was just enough flagstoned floor before the door for one or two people to stand upon, and a thick metal rod jutted out of the stone wall beside the door, angled upwards.
Merlin groaned. There seemed to be no way across this canyon. There was no path around the edge. There was no bridge over it. It was too far to jump. "All right," he said. "Let me try something."
Miss Pucey stood back a few paces while Merlin attempted to levitate the portable wall across the gap. As it hovered in midair about halfway across, an updraft caught it and smashed it against the vaulted stone ceiling. The wall crumpled and disintegrated before their eyes, raining fragments into the dark depths.
"This isn't good," Merlin noted.
"Look!" Miss Pucey gasped and pointed.
Merlin squinted in the direction she was pointing, but ultimately had to ask: "Look at what?"
"There's a kind of path running straight up the face of the cliff!"
It was true. Similar to the flagstoned floor they stood on, a smooth path ascended the opposite side of the ravine, as if designed for a human fly to walk upon. Looking over the edge before him, Merlin confirmed that a length of even flagstones descended the near side as well, terminating well above the edge of their circle of light.
Miss Pucey spoke through her fingers, which she had pressed to her lips as if to hold her excitement within: "Do you suppose the shoes we found will allow us to walk down the wall and up again?"
"Maybe," said Merlin. "The trouble is, we can only find out by trying. And if they don't work that way, we won't get a chance to try a different theory."
"All right," she suggested in a sensible tone, "how about that lever over there? Perhaps if we pull it down, the path will rise up off the sides of the cliff and form a bridge."
"That's also possible," Merlin admitted. "But how can we pull the lever from over here?"
Something went clang directly behind them. In their surprise, they nearly jumped off the cliff. When Merlin looked down, he spotted a ninth horseshoe lying on the stone floor just behind his heel. He also caught a glimpse of something moving close to the wall, but when he looked in that direction, nothing was there.
"I've seen some weird things," said Miss Pucey. "I mean, my young man is Life Commissioner of the League of Head Quidditch, Ghost Rugby Union, and Spectral Sports. I've been formally introduced to everything that goes bump in the night. But this is starting to give me the creeps."
"I fully understand," said Merlin. But he looked awfully calm about it.
"Do you?" said Miss Pucey. "I've had the screaming heebie-jeebies over for ice cream. I coached the winning team in a djinn sand volleyball tournament. I've played pachesi against three 15th-century Persian moguls on a board the size of Leicester Square, with the ghosts of sixteen fat eunuchs acting as gamepieces. I once spent an entire cruise on the Flying Dutchman
listening to Marie Antoinette giving beauty tips to Lucrezia Borgia. I can deal with that. But right now, right here, I am this
close to having a full-on panic attack. Can you understand that?"
Merlin shook his head. "I meant, I understand what's going on now. You remember that poor cobbler? And the farrier too?"
"Of course I remember them! I'll remember them until the day I die, which won't be long now unless we get across this hole in the ground..."
"Can you think of something cobblers and farriers always have around them?"
Miss Pucey shook her head. "Tools? But we saw
"No," said Merlin. "Not tools. Creatures."
The lightbulb went on in Miss Pucey's face. "Ah! Not..."
"Yes," said Merlin. "Brownies. They've spent who knows how long preparing the best possible shoes, using whatever materials were on hand, just for us."
"And horseshoes," Miss Pucey pointed out, looking around but still seeing no horses nearby.
"And horse-..." Merlin's eyes went blank. He turned around and looked at the lever on the far wall of the chasm. "Oh," he added. "I see it now. We're to play horseshoes..."
The first two horseshoes missed the far wall entirely, falling silent into the void below. The third horseshoe struck sparks from the stone above and to the right of the lever. It wasn't until the sixth throw that Merlin made a ringer. The shoe hung its weight on the uptilted lever, but nothing changed.
He threw the seventh horseshoe. By now his aim was spot-on. By the eighth throw, he had three horseshoes hanging on the lever. Only one remained in his hand.
"Make this one count," he told himself.
Miss Pucey covered her face with both hands.
Merlin's heart almost stopped when the shoe struck the wall above the lever. But then, miraculously, it dropped straight down onto the lever. Before clattering off into nothingness, the last iron shoe lent its weight to the three that already hung there, and suddenly the lever tilted downward. All the shoes rattled off and sailed into the darkness. But already something was happening, and it evidently couldn't be stopped by anything as mundane as three horseshoes falling off an iron rod.
The lengths of path running down both sides of the chasm rose up and joined in the middle, forming a narrow bridge. Quickly, Merlin and Miss Pucey crossed it in single file, he reaching back to hold her hand. The bridge stayed where it was behind them while they stood considering the door on the opposite side.
"Locked," Merlin observed.
"Shall we knock?" Miss Pucey suggested.
"No," said Merlin, thinking back to the Joke Knocker with an inward shiver. "I have a better idea...."
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #159 +++
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