Short Fiction: A Disturbed House, Part Four

The portcullis was raised and the gates stood open and there was a skittering of startled little claws.  Cullen groaned.  His dislike of rats was well-known to the others.   The walk through the gatehouse was a nervous affair with the walls and ceiling lined with holes for attacking anyone attempting to assault the structure. Darkness enveloped them as the group ventured further.   At a nod from Ulrich, Cullen and Elijah went ahead, but they returned moments later.

“The gate ahead is open, my lord.”

“There is no open courtyard,” Selig asked.

“No, my lord,” Ulrich replied, “It appears to have been covered over as the structure was repaired.”

Selig nodded to the pages, who began taking out lanterns from their packs.  Some of them were strangely shaped, confusing Nima, until she saw them being affixed to the groups shields.Elijah and Cullen took the rear of the group and the other three remained in the center, holding large lanterns in one hand and weapons in the free hand.  They were added to the group shortly before Nima was assigned to accompany Selig.  They lacked the experience the other two had developed over the years.  The group were protective of the recent additions, teaching them as much as possible to prepare them for future battles.

Ulrich and Constance resumed leading the goup until the sound of footfalls behind them caused the group to rapidly turn brandishing their weapons.  Their lights illuminated the mercenaries that were shuffling through the passage, torches held aloft.  It was apparent that they were apprehensive walking into the darkness, a number visibly shaking.  Ulrich was heard hissing curses, but Anse was pleased to see them.

“My friends,” he breathed, “The more the merrier!”

Cullen snorted, saying:  “Try not to stab someone with your shaking hands.”  With that he turned his back on them and Selig signaled that they should proceed.  However, Anse growled before cuffing Cullen in the ear.  Selig kicked the large man’s knees from under him, holding his mace in both hands and using the haft to choke the man.  “Never do that again, you meaningless worm.”  He released Anse, pushing his stumbling body towards the mercenaries before proceeding down the hall with his retainers.

Entering into where a courtyard was expected to be, the group fanned out, looking into the various doorways in the walls.  After taking stock of the surroundings, they gathered in the center of the chamber.  No one found anything of note beyond weapons in poor shape and rotten food.

“Well, there are three ways to go,” Constance noted, “but where do we look first?  The keep, down the staircase in that hallway, or up those stairs?”

Osa, who had been silent since they entered, spoke:  “I will take Cullen and take the stairs down.  We should be back quickly.”

Selig said nothing, staring into her eyes for several breaths before speaking.

“Cullen, would you do this for me?”

“Certainly my lord, my curiosity is alive and well,” the young man said with a grin.

Osa nodded toward the mercenaries.  “I’ll take a few of them if we need a hand.”

Every member of the party looked at their opposite number with suspicion.  Selig pointed to two of them and said, “You will go with them.”  The two began to protest, but quailed under the older man’s glare.  They reluctantly followed the other pair down the narrow passage.  The staircase down was narrow and wound in sharply angled turns.

The quartet entered a sizeable chamber that stretched ahead into the dark.  After a few steps, it was apparent that the walls were lined with alcoves that held manacles and large hooks.  Cullen hung the mace on his belt, reaching forward to adjust the gate on his lantern.  With the light narrowed into a beam, it reached nearly the full length of the chamber.  There were trap doors at intervals in the floor.  The young man walked forward and began to tug at the ring on the first door.  It began to budge, but he had to sling his shield across his back.  Grabbing with both hands, the heavy wood door shifted and he walked backward until he was able to lower it to the floor.  

The other three were apprehensive of their surroundings, but fell into gaping astonishment at the strength possessed by the boy.  Watching his efforts, they began to walk over when he shined his lantern into the hole.  The floor was obscured by the tumbled mass of bones that filled the pit.

“An oubliette,” Cullen said, “I’ve seen one before, but this is beyond imagining.”  His voice was low and husky.  He moved on and tugged open another to find the same carnal discovery.  He stared down and made a strange gesture and seemed to whisper a prayer.

“Who would slaughter so many children,” he whispered.

Osa jumped at his words and, though her mouth was moving, no sound emerged.  The mercenaries shook in horror.  Cullen looked at each in turn.

“Look closer.  These are not the bones of adults.”

Looking around, he realized there were scratches on the bottom of each door.  Walking back and forth, Cullen recited the words:

One by one

Two by two

Three by three

All the little children

Up the steps

Round the keep

Down the steps

All the little children

Rushing across the room, he hurled open the remaining oubliettes.  There were more inscriptions:

Curtsy the queen

Bow the king

Around about

All the little children

Tables are set

Candles are lit

Into the kitchen

All the little children

Down the steps

Under the tower

Round the hole

All the little children

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