Wet At the Top of the Stairs, by Juliana Rew
“Clean that up, you lazy wretch!”
Dethen had heard that order one too many times. He was sick of cleaning up the messes of the knights and ladies and regretted the day his older brother had gotten him this job at the great castle in the south. The place had been a wonder of the world in its day, but it had fallen on harder times the past couple hundred years.
“I should have stayed in the village,” he muttered, bringing a mop and bucket to swab at the puddle of red wine created when the tipsy Sir Gentry knocked over the Lady Millicent’s goblet. “That’s going to leave a stain.”
Besides, he wasn’t the lazy one. It was his brother Tally, who, ever since becoming pals with the young King Ganther, wouldn’t deign to lift a finger, although his official position was valet, or sometimes squire, when the king couldn’t find someone to saddle his horse and polish the gore off his sword. All Taliesin ever seemed to do was party with the knights in the dining hall, then return to his room to bury his nose in a book and pretend like he had magickal powers or something. That seemed highly unlikely to Dethen, although they did come from a village fabled as the birthplace of Merlin.
Returning to the quarters he shared with Tally, Dethen dumped the bucket’s contents out the window and tossed it and the mop in the closet. Tally’s bedside table was a pure disaster–piles of books, plates of decaying food, and assorted crucibles filled with the metals and ashes of his alchemy experiments. He’d told Deth never to touch anything, upon penalty of sibling reprisal. Still, it was hard to ignore, Deth being so tidy by nature.
His gaze fell upon the stack of books. The one at the bottom was much fancier than the others, bound in embossed leather and fastened with a clasp. Tally was obviously trying to hide it in plain sight. It looked a bit dusty, so Deth couldn’t resist running his finger along the book’s spine, tracing a clean path. To his surprise, the trail seemed to close itself, replacing the dust he’d removed. He tried it several times. Sometimes he got stuck trying things over and over again. It was kind of a tic, Tally had said. Deth just called it “being thorough.” No luck. This book stubbornly stayed dusty.
The wooden door creaked as Tally returned. Deth jumped back and busied himself neatly stacking the wood alongside the fireplace.
“Hah, did you see Millicent making a fool of herself tonight?” Tally said jovially.
“How could I miss it? Sir Gentry was all over her, literally,” Deth agreed. Mostly, he couldn’t see the attraction. Millicent was amply endowed, but she was loud and vulgar. But she was amply endowed. . .
Deth crawled into bed and pulled his blanket over his face. He was learning to sleep through the sulfurous and other smells generated in Tally’s nightly researches. More than once he’d awakened screaming hoarsely, his heart pounding in panic for fear of perishing in a fire. Now, if he could just ignore the occasional “whomp” sound, like air rushing into an explosion, he’d have it made. Every time he peeked, however, there was nothing to see. Finally he drifted off, hoping he’d dream about his childhood days in the village. His mother had once promised him a puppy of his own, but that probably wouldn’t happen, now that he worked in the castle.
The next morning Deth awoke to the cock’s crow. At least something here reminded him of home, even if it was at an ungodly hour. He sprang out of bed and hurried over to the fireplace to coax the embers back into a small blaze and clear the brimstone smell. Tally continued to snore gently; he wouldn’t be up before noon. Deth pulled on a homespun cape and prepared to go downstairs to help with the general chores of rousing the castle. He stopped, turning once again toward Tally.
“Tally?” he called. “Tally!” more urgently this time.
“Wha– What is it?” Tally sat up and rubbed his eyes.
“Would you teach me to read sometime?”
“Sure, whatever you want. Just go and leave me in peace,” Tally replied. He flopped back down, instantly asleep.
Deth pestered Tally unceasingly until he made good on his promise, and the reading lessons began in earnest.
“What’s this word?” Tally prompted.
“Un–, un–,” Deth began.
“Unspeakable,” Tally finished for him. The ‘un’ part means ‘not.'”
“So, that must be why they call the ladies’ undergarments ‘un-mentionables,'” Deth opined. Tally smirked.
“You’re really making progress,” Tally said later. “Maybe I’ll teach you to write too, and you can write letters for the ladies.”
Deth smiled and said that sounded pleasant. He would carefully bide his time before asking to take notes for Tally, or even to take a look at the fancy book. No need to upset him un-necessarily. Dethen complimented himself silently at his expert usage of the ‘un’-word.
The lessons came to an abrupt halt when the summer tournament season rolled around. One of Tally’s official duties was the rubbing of sheep’s fat into the king’s stirrups and scabbards, although he palmed this task off to Deth whenever possible.
Deth too was busier than usual, delivering notes from ladies to their champions and fetching bits of silk for them to embroider as battle favors. Deth knocked on the door to Lady Millicent’s rooms, but the only answer was a peal of laughter as the ladies joked about who had the greater chance of winning. Millicent’s companion, the homely but really quite nice Lady Valerane, bit her lip and concentrated on her needlework. Although Deth was just a boy, he knew the ladies were really discussing who had the bigger. . .
“Eeek!” Millicent yelped. “Who said you could come in, you little rat?”
“I knocked, m’lady. I’ve brought the bolts of silk you wanted.”
“Well, you took long enough. Put them down and get out. Go get us some tea, and don’t let it get cold this time.”
That afternoon, Deth went to his room to take a breather. The ladies would be getting ready for dinner, and heaven only knew what Tally was up to lately.
It was nice to be without supervision for a change, Deth thought, edging slightly closer to the book on the table. Almost without his bidding, his hand shot out and pulled the tome out from under the others in Tally’s disordered pile.
Glancing about, he pulled it against his chest. Hurrying over to his cot, he sat down, already fumbling to open the clasp. A musty odor wafted up as he opened the book, which appeared to be an old French grammaire. Just his lot. He could read now, but the language wasn’t Brythonic. The frontispiece featured a drawing of an angry-looking man, and someone had scrawled a caption.
He could make out a few French words, “Arabe,” and “fou.” So this person was a mad Arab? That didn’t make any sense. The only Arab he had ever seen was at last season’s tournaments. Come to think of it, Tally had followed the Saracen around like a dog. What was his name? Omar. Yes, that was it. But he was a warrior and bore no resemblance to this evil-looking character depicted in the book. Was he the owner, and was this a warning not to steal the book?
Deth noticed his eyes were beginning to burn. This castle was often smoky, and it could be a chore trying to read a book by candlelight. Suddenly the words on the page flared as the letters traced in flame. That’s more like it, he thought. He began to leaf through the pages, his excitement growing at what seemed to be a magical bond with the book.
Maybe he could understand the French words a little better if he sounded them out.
Ça n’est pas mort qui peut dormir éternellement
Et avec les éternités étrange la mort-même peut mourir
That didn’t sound quite right. He tried again.
La mort-même peut mourir
Better, but not quite. He was going to repeat it until he got it perfect.
LA MORT-MÊME PEUT MOURIR
Deth’s words boomed out as though projected from the deep, dark dungeon below his feet. He slammed the book closed, extinguishing the light and struggling not to break wind. Marshalling his senses, he noticed that the sun was setting, and shakily replaced the book at the bottom of the pile. Then he hurried down to the dining hall to help with the opening night banquet the king was hosting for the tournament.
The hall bustled, as servants scurried about, dragging a dozen trestle tables from storage behind the cavernous kitchens and arranging them in a big open rectangle. The famous round table was spacious, but it would not accommodate the fifty warriors assembled for the festival. Deth staggered under a load of straw, with orders to lay an even coating on the stone floor. It did make cleanup easier; the greasy bones and raw garbage tossed by the diners could just be swept out with the straw.
Finally all was in readiness, as the parade of knights and ladies entered the great hall and took their seats. Servers circuited the table, keeping the flagons at the full. Deth took his customary post in the corner, sitting on the floor with his hands clasped around his knees so as not to trip any of the waiters. A harpist plucked out the haunting melodies of Ys, the mythical fairyland.
The room hushed as Lady Millicent entered the room. She was undeniably a vision, in a rustling green silk dress embellished with gold threads. Sir Randolph of Auron handed her to the table, over the scowling disapproval of the fat Sir Gentry. Then Millicent broke the spell by opening her mouth.
“Are we now allowing the rats into the hall?” she shrilled, pointing at Deth in his dim corner. Sir Gentry’s squire grabbed Deth by the arm and expelled him unceremoniously.
Although still stinging from the insult, Deth waited outside until the last guest left so he could start the cleanup.
“That un-civil Millicent! I’ll see she pays for her cocky attitude,” Deth mumbled, sweeping the detritus on the floor into a big pile. The area was scattered with peelings from an exotic fruit Sir Omar had brought as a present from Moorish Iberia, and Deth nearly lost his balance more than once when he accidentally stepped on one of the slippery jackets. “I’ll fix her–I’ll put this stinking rubbish at the top of the stairs outside her room,” he said, eyeing the results of his odious task with satisfaction.
Revenge properly executed, Deth returned to his room and fell unconscious onto his cot.
The next morning, a scream rang through the castle from the rooms above. Deth opened his eyes, saw Tally sleeping through the uproar as usual, and ran out toward the stairs. Evidently Lady Millicent had discovered the pile, he thought with satisfaction. Wiping the grin off his face, he feigned a look of concern as he loped up the curved stone staircase. It was still dark at the top, but he was familiar with the number of steps. As he rounded the final bit, he spied the wet pile of garbage–and it was moving.
A number of what looked like tentacles wiggled from under the fetid pile, dragging it toward the stairs. Deth was shocked. He’d never seen food scraps go bad so fast, and the worms were un-comprehensibly large.
He swallowed. “You screamed, m’Lady?”
“It wasn’t me, you dolt. That was the king. This is all your doing! The thing tried to eat my foot,” Millicent wailed. She showed her foot, which was no longer dainty and was dripping blood. She was going to have a limp, that was sure.
Deth shrank against the wall as the straw pile oozed down the staircase. He considered comforting Millicent, but seeing her blotchy face thought better of it, instead cautiously pursuing the thing, whatever it was. It left an un-mistakable trail of vitriolic slime that was not hard to follow. As he looked ahead, he saw that it had stopped in front of Tally’s and his room!
“Tally! Look out! The garbage has been magicked!” Deth cried.
The door opened. Tally yawned, pulling on his night shirt. He espied the slime trail leading to the room and quickly slammed the door shut.
The door opened again, and Tally held the book. He began chanting something, and the pile did an abrupt about-face and fled down the next course of stairs.
Tally looked at Deth. “Did you have something to do with this?”
“Me? No!” Deth said. “I think.”
“Have you been touching my books?”
“No! Well, only a little,” Deth admitted.
“Did you say anything from this one?” he said, holding up the grammaire. “Sir Omar gave it to me. I was supposed to destroy it.”
“Well, I read something about ‘mort,’ was all. And there was something about a Welshman named Crwthor–or was it Crwthllu? I didn’t really understand anything in it.”
Tally made him point to the page he had read from. The picture of the Arab was looking even more evil than he had remembered.
“I told you to keep your hands off. Anyone who tries to use this book usually comes to a bad end,” Tally said. “Come on, we’ve got to get to the king.” They tore back up the stairs, deftly avoiding the slime.
“What can the king do?” Deth asked between puffs.
“He’s got a sword of power.” Deth didn’t know what that would do.
“Can’t we just burn the pile?” he asked.
“Quite the opposite. It will probably spontaneously combust and set everything afire. We’ve got to stop it before it destroys the castle.”
They were a bit late on that score. Myriad screams emanated from below. A quick look out of a turret slit toward the ground below revealed dozens of the piles, all flaming and crawling around on tentacles. Several knights were already dead, lying in smoldering, bleeding heaps. Although it was well into morning, the sky was still nearly black, and the earth shook.
“How did it multiply so fast?” Deth wondered aloud.
“Well, how many times did you repeat the incantation?”
Deth didn’t want to say the number–it was probably un-countable.
King Ganther crouched naked and gibbering atop his malodorous mattress, which was stained yellow as a crow’s foot, but we shall speak of that no further. The king came to his senses after a few well-placed slaps. Luckily he trusted Tally unquestioningly with the sword Eurandel and pointed hysterically at the tentacles trying to climb the bedpost. Tally commenced a hard day’s work of beating and stabbing the piles until they went back to the unspeakable world they had come from. It is said the white-hot flames from the mouths of the two chimeras on the hilt of Eurandel blazed so bright they were dreadful to look upon. Tally descended the stairs, working systematically. Deth felt a little guilty, seeing his brother do all the work.
“Um, is there anything I can do to help?”
“I think you’ve done quite enough,” Tally retorted, hacking and slashing at the next unutterable horror. “Oh, all right, take the scabbard and go heal Lady Millicent’s wounds.”
Unreasonably happy, Deth dashed off.
But by that time, the whole of Castle Camelot was alight.
The king cancelled the tournament, and it was many a year before he threw another one. It’s rumored he slept with Eurandel under his pillow the rest of his life. Most people tried their best to forget about King Ganther’s reign and how Camelot was utterly destroyed under his un-mindful watch.
Juliana Rew was a science and technical writer and editor at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado, and is convinced by the scientific evidence for global warming. She loves to travel to exotic places, although sometimes she has to make them up. She is currently nursing a bad case of bluegrass mandolin thumb.
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Tags: fairy tales, fantasy, Juliana Rew, magic, satire