Aldrich had been told to arrive for questioning at dusk. Exhausted, he had hoped for a quick nap but was too nervous. The young man lay on a thin straw mattress on the inn’s rough attic floor and watched an occasional raindrop splash from a crack in the roof. Dim light appeared through the gap, signaling the coming end of day.
This room, the cheapest at the worst inn in Waldeck, had cost two pfennigs, all the cash he had. If the questioning went badly, if he was not offered a position in the Prince-Bishop’s household, he would walk home tomorrow, broke and exhausted. A failure.
The muddy walk from his father’s small farm had been long and arduous. The road was deserted, other than two oxcarts, neither of which would give him a ride. He’d asked for water at several huts without success. One farmer cursed him and used a pitchfork to see him off his land, and another had sicced his dogs on him. He’d ended up drinking from a ditch.
When he judged the sun low enough, he got up, brushed straw from his shabby garments, ran his fingers through his hair, and descended the many flights of creaking stairs to the ground floor.
“You’re leaving?” the innkeeper asked. “Now, at nightfall? I wouldn’t advise it.”
“I expect I’ll be back soon. Can you tell me how to find the palace?” Aldrich asked.
“It’s hardly a palace. Not even much of a castle,” the innkeeper sniffed. “Just wander through the streets until you see a drawbridge. You’ll find it soon enough.”
The streets were narrow and dark, with the tall houses overhanging the street from each side, rising four, five, or even six stories, as if trying to close the gap between them to completely block the day’s last light.
He roamed through the town’s grimy lanes, but there were no avenues, no main streets, just buildings placed wherever someone with bricks and timbers thought it convenient. He did encounter a church dedicated to the Holy Virgin and the rubble of another church, probably Lutheran, likely torched in the recent wars of religion. He wondered if some Protestant heretics had been burned in the building. He crossed himself and recited a Hail Mary to fend off any lingering ghosts.
Despite the innkeeper’s warning, he did not encounter any ruffians and was relieved when, at dusk, he finally discovered the drawbridge. It spanned a dry moat and led to a tall arching gateway in the castle’s thick stone walls. The guard at the far end accosted him, demanding his name and business. He obliged and turned over a letter of introduction written by his village priest, the man who’d taught him his letters.
The guard did not open the letter but escorted him through the gatehouse, along a short passage, and into a small windowless room. When he entered, the guard shut the heavy door behind him and with a thud, shot close a bolt, leaving him in total darkness.
Aldrich prided himself on not being afraid of the dark, but the small cell seemed to get smaller as he waited, and his eyes began to see flashes and lightning and spirits that could not be there. As the wait lengthened, he began to hear noises. Rats? But rats do not cry and weep. Fear crept over him, rising from his chest to his mouth, which, rather than crying out, uttered a prayer to St. Stephen, entreating protection from that blessed martyr.
After what seemed like hours, the door opened, and a cleric entered carrying a candle. It cast a dim light on the wooden box he was carrying. The box was a cube, one foot on each side, bound by leather straps. Two straps crossed at the top, and attached to them were two odd-looking handles, one of which the cleric clutched tightly. Each handle consisted of two slim blades, one copper and one zinc, hinged together by a spring. The cleric had folded together the blades of his handle, one atop the other, so they fit snuggly, making the handle easy to grip. But the spring on the other handle kept the hinge open so the copper and zinc blades lay flat, not touching.
“Are you the messenger?” the cleric asked without preamble.
“I… I don’t know. Is that the position being offered?”
The cleric glanced at his letter. “Your village priest says you are reliable. Are you?”
“Yes, yes, I am.”
“You need to be for this task. It is of the utmost importance for the safety of the realm.” The cleric studied him by the candle’s dim light. “I can assure you, this is not a matter for levity!” he barked. But Aldrich was shocked and confused, not laughing.
“And,” he continued, “in the Prince-Bishop’s opinion, for the safety of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church here on earth. Should you fail, an unspeakable evil will be released into the world.”
The cleric looked down at the box he was holding. It was leaking a small amount of green gas that stank of sulfur and of the dead.
“As wicked as is the heresy of Martin Luther, the evil of which I speak would be more malevolent by far. It would not discriminate between the heretic and the saved.”
“Is the evil here? Right here in the box?” Aldrich asked.
“I cannot tell you what is in the box. But you must never open the box or try to peer into it.”
The cleric pressed the box into Aldrich’s chest.
“Here, take the box. Oh, by the other handle, for God’s sake! Always by the handle! You must clutch the handle, squeezing it, keeping the two blades compressed together as I am doing. If your hand gets tired, you can grasp the other handle but never, ever, release both handles.
“It is essential that one of the two handles be squeezed at all times so a zinc blade is touching its copper mate. This allows the magnetic flux to flow between the blades.”
Aldrich did as he was ordered. When he squeezed the two metal blades close, he felt tingling in the palm of his hand.
“You feel that? Yes, good.”
“Here is your charge. You must take the box to the archbishop’s palace in Rothberg and give it directly to His Excellency before dawn. It must reach him before sunrise and not one minute later. Give it to no one else. And make sure the archbishop has properly gripped one of the handles before you release yours. There can be no pause, no matter how short, in which both handles are released. Do you understand?”
Aldrich nodded his head.
“A coach is waiting just beyond the drawbridge. Go and sit inside the coach. Lock the doors. The coach driver knows where you’re going. You will not speak to him.
“Finally, I am sending you with a pistol. It will provide you with a single shot. You shouldn’t need to use it, but if you do, use it on the worst obstacle you may face.”
Aldrich wondered how many obstacles he might face and how he might know which was the mission’s worst.
“Go with God, my son.”
Aldrich was no sooner seated when the coachman lashed the horses, and the coach raced away from the castle, out of town, and onto the road to Rothberg. It bounced and rocked, defying him to retain his grip on the box. By the cloudy moonlight, he looked out the window and watched trees streaming by, sometimes scraping the carriage.
They were passing through the Black Woods, where no traveler dared stop. Off in the distance, Aldrich saw a campfire and, huddled around it, several figures. He realized these were the famed witches of Endor. On several occasions, the Prince-Bishop’s guardsmen had entered the woods, hoping to arrest, torture, and burn them, but without success. During the day, they left no traces, and no one, not even the guardsmen, dared seek them after nightfall. The coachman whipped his team, and the coach quickly left the campfire behind.
Roadside trees disappeared as the carriage wound its way up a mountain pass. At the summit, the clouds cleared, and the road was bathed in the full moon’s glare. On a tight turn, an outside wheel slipped off the road, throwing Aldrich to the floor, barely retaining his grip. The coachman applied his whip, but the team could not pull the vehicle back onto the road.
Would the coachman dismount and somehow jack up the carriage? A glance out the window showed four, perhaps six, animals circling the coach. Dogs? No, they began to howl, revealing themselves as wolves, known to be creatures of Satan and sent, Aldrich had no doubt, to thwart his mission. Their baying motivated the team as the coachman’s whip never could, and the fearful horses pulled the vehicle to safety.
To Aldrich’s relief, the summit of the pass marked the journey’s halfway point. Foul gas seeping from the box had filled the coach. He was thankful he’d had no money to purchase dinner, for with this stench, he would have spewed on the coach floor. His hands were growing tired, though he switched them often, giving each a turn at squeezing a handle. As they dropped below the tree line, great pines appeared again beside the road.
Without warning, the coach skidded to a halt. Aldrich remained in his seat until the coachman came back and shouted through the door. “Tree on road. Can’t go no further.”
Aldrich unlocked, opened the door, and stepped out, retaining his essential grip on the box. Indeed, an old tree trunk, long stripped of branches, had toppled into their path. The coachman walked the width of the road, examining the trunk, and turned to Aldrich. “Not so heavy. Two can shift it.”
He moved to the top of the trunk and wrapped his arms around it, waiting for Aldrich to do the same. He did not and could not, not while holding the box. “Put down yer damn box. Lift like a man.”
“Then there’s naught but to turn the coach about and go back.”
“I must go on, and speed is of the essence.”
“Then you best run, you and your precious box.”
“No, you best unharness a horse, and I’ll ride to Rothberg.”
“Bareback? I have no saddle.”
“I have done it before,” Aldrich said, “Begin now,” he ordered in what to his own ear was a commanding voice.
The coachman gave a mocking laugh. “Hell shall come to Waldeck, ere I unbuckle my team.”
“Hell will come to Waldeck if I don’t reach Rothberg by dawn.”
“Back in the coach, boy, or not. It’s no care of mine. I go back.”
Aldrich shifted the box to his left hand and, with his right, pulled the pistol from his belt.
“Unharness a horse, driver, or only your ghost will go back.”
The coachman glanced from Aldrich to the pistol and back several times before shrugging. “Likely, you and the gibbet are destined for a fine friendship,” he said, grinning at the thought, but he started to unhitch a horse. “Spedi be this beast’s name. Slow but reliable. Be gentle. Spedi be my friend.”
With no saddle and stirrups, mounting Spedi while gripping the box was a challenge. Aldrich touched his heels to the horse’s sides, and they were off, the beast effortlessly stepping over the fallen log.
As they cleared a bend in the road, Aldrich was relieved to see the lights of Rothberg ahead. “We’re almost there,” he told Spedi, who gave no sign of caring.
Spedi walked the road at a maddingly slow pace. Aldrich kicked his sides, hoping for a trot, if not a canter, but with no effect. Cresting a small hill, Aldrich found his way blocked by three men. Two held torches, and between them stood a man with a spear.
“Not much of a catch,” the spear wielder said to the man on his left.
“Perhaps he has a purse with gold,” said the man on his right.
“But look, he has a box. It might be worth something,” the other torch holder said.
“Get off the horse, boy, if you hope to see the sunrise,” the spear wielder said.
Perhaps I can gallop past or around them. Yet Spedi is anything but. And that spear looks deadly.
Aldrich slid off the horse and stood facing the highwaymen.
“Give us the box, boy.”
“I cannot. I have been charged by the Prince-Bishop of Waldeck to deliver…”
“Your charge, which is of no concern to us, will be hard to realize when you’ve a spear through your guts.” He stepped forward to grasp the box.
Aldrich drew his pistol, aimed, and fired. The spearman fell, the other two fled, and Spedi, fulfilling his name for once, galloped back up the road the way they’d come. Aldrich did not pause to look at his victim. He could see the hint of dawn on the horizon. Little time remained. He tucked the now-spent pistol into his belt and stumbled down the road as fast as his weary feet would move.
The lights of Rothberg came into sight just as the road became almost impassable. The Ertzelsbach Creek, which crossed the road, was in flood and had overflowed its banks. There was no bridge; a usually only ankle-deep stream did not warrant one. When Aldrich forded it slowly and with the utmost caution, the water rose to his thighs and threatened to wash him away. Even when he was safely across, he found the flood had turned the road to thick mud. Each step sucked on his boots, nearly leaving him barefoot.
The sun was just minutes away from appearing when Aldrich arrived at the archbishop’s palace in Rothberg.
There were no guards at the palace gate, but he encountered a scullion emptying nightsoil onto a nearby midden. The bleary-eyed servant studied him and announced, “The palace gate opens in two hours.”
“This box,” said Aldrich breathlessly, “I have this box for the archbishop. He must take it now. Immediately.”
“Give it to me. I’ll see he gets it when he wakes. He’s usually up by noon.”
“No, it must go to him, no one else, and now, before dawn.”
“Well, it’s already past dawn.”
Aldrich looked to the east. The scullion was wrong. The sun would not peek over Peterskopf Mountain for a few more minutes. Rather than argue with the scullion, Aldrich tried to move around him, only to have the servant block his way. When Aldrich drew his pistol and placed its muzzle on the scullion’s chest, the man quickly stepped aside, leaving the path to the palace gate open.
Finally, he entered the palace. Magnificent, with murals covering the walls, paintings splashed across the ceiling, and pink and gold Italian marble paving the floor, marble he was soiling with every step his muddy boots took. Then, suddenly, his way was blocked by a tall man wearing ivory and white clerical robes and a bishop’s mitre.
“Please, sir, help me, I come from Waldeck…”
“To bring this deadly box. Yes, I have been expecting it,” he spoke in a deep, booming voice.
“I will take it now.”
“Please, sir, and with respect, I can only deliver it into the archbishop’s own hands.”
“Do I not look like the archbishop? Do my garments not make that clear?”
“Again, and with the utmost respect, how am I, a poor farm boy, to know who you are?”
“I am who I am, but how can I convince you?”
“I would accept an oath,” said Aldrich, “an oath taken on the Holy Bible, asserting your title and condemning your soul to everlasting hellfire if you be lying.”
From a side passage, a short man emerged, dressed in plain garb and carrying a bible. He stepped between the mitre-wearing man and Aldrich, lifted the bible, and placed his own hand on it, to Aldrich’s surprise.
The short man began to speak. “I, Gerhard of Cambrai, swear before God and Man that I am the duly consecrated archbishop of the principality of Waldeck and, if I be lying, may my soul be consigned to hell for all eternity.”
Aldrich, with disbelieving eyes, handed the deadly box to the true archbishop, ensuring a handle was adequately gripped at all times. His shoulders sagged with relief, and he sank to the floor.
“Well done, my boy,” said the archbishop. “The responsibility for dealing with this is now mine.” Before turning to go, he said, “You must never speak of tonight’s events with anyone.” He disappeared with the box into the depths of the palace, leaving in his wake a thick trail of noxious green smoke.
The tall man, now shed of the mitre and other unwarranted trappings of the archbishop’s office and dressed as a simple deacon, helped Aldrich wash and eat. The coach soon showed up—the log obstacle now cleared—and Spedi was back in his harness. Despite Aldrich threatening the coachman with a gun, he seemed to bear no hard feelings. He drove Aldrich back to the Prince-Bishop’s palace, traveling this time at a stately pace. Aldrich slept in the carriage.
Aldrich was greeted at the palace gate and led straight away into the presence of the Prince-Bishop. He dropped to his knees before his lord.
“We are told that you, Aldrich—Your name is Aldrich, is this correct?—having shown bravery, initiative, and perseverance, have saved our realm and perhaps the entire empire from a terrible evil. Is this true?”
“So I am led to believe, my lord.”
“Then we are in your debt. Is there some reward, any reward, that we can offer to satisfy this debt?”
“I came to Waldeck yesterday, my lord, hoping to secure some position within your household. Perhaps as a doorman?”
“As it happens, Aldrich, we have an opening in our honor guard. Would such a position be of interest to you?”
Indeed, it would. It surpassed any ambition Aldrich had ever dreamed of achieving.
Years passed, and Aldrich rose through the ranks, first as Lieutenant and finally as the Captain of the Prince-Bishop’s honor guard.
One day, he was summoned into his lord’s private audience chamber.
“Captain Aldrich, we understand a vacancy has opened in our honor guard.”
“Aye, my lord. One of your long-time guardsmen has achieved the fiftieth year of his age and, in accordance with our by-laws, has been granted retirement with an annuity for life.”
“Yes, that would be Private Gunther. He was a loyal servant.”
“And so he remains my lord, but now in a private capacity.”
“We have a young man arriving this evening from the country,” said the Prince-Bishop, “a possible candidate to fill the vacancy. Our court cleric, Alcuin, will interview him. In preparation for that, we need you to provide Alcuin with a pistol loaded with powder, but no bullet. In addition, you will enter the old storage room. From it, fetch and give Alcuin an old wooden box with two odd handles bound by leather straps. It should look and smell familiar to you. Alcuin knows how to make it ready for the candidate. And the archbishop has been notified. All is ready.”
Aldrich stood dazed for a moment before asking, “And the fallen log? And the highwaymen?”
“As I said, all is ready.”
Robert S. Phillips is an avid reader and history buff. Born in Vancouver, BC, Robert has lived in many places in North America, only returning to the Pacific Northwest in the last decade. Home is Bellingham, WA. His three grown children all live in Washington; two in the State and one in D.C.
Robert’s first novel, “Elodia’s Knife,” set in the 4th century, features a young Gothic woman who defies enslavement by the Romans. His short story “The Great River” was featured in Issue 05 Summer Solstice: Life Expectancy.