Secrets are spoiling at the Markree Castle tonight.
“Smooth and hearty, Lu. An excellent decision,” Alastar didn’t make much of a move to fix the drinks just yet. He just stood back a little and smiled, for some reason admiring his crew of accomplices.
“Four lemonades it is then,” he stated with a wave of his hand. “Coming right up.” He had a knack for making the boys feel older, feel like part of the team, even a part of the castle. They were the regulars, they knew the barman. They were practically locals. They all felt it and enjoyed every moment of it. If they never had to leave the bar, it would be too soon. For a brief period while standing next to the imposing wood structure of the bar, knowing what they were about to do, about to be served by the barman they knew so well, they were the center of attention and the stars of the show. It was glorious to be them. Keys and dungeons could wait, this was the life.
“Could you make mine a double, Alastar?” Dec said as casually as he could.
Alastar didn’t miss a beat, “As per usual, sir,” he tipped an imaginary hat. “Would you like that shaken or stirred?”
Li couldn’t resist as he knew that one, “Ooh, I know,” he said aloud accidentally, then the part that he meant to say, “Shaken, not stirred.”
“Excellent, my good man,” Alastar played along as smooth as soy milk. “Glad to see you know your James Bond, Li. Very well done,” he winked at Li, which partly made him nervous, but mostly made him so proud that he couldn’t hold back his smile. He felt a connection with Alastar that he had rarely–if ever–felt with anyone older and it sent chills up his spine to the hairs on his neck. If there was a moment in his life where he was happiest, this was surely it. Alastar seemed to know this and he nodded at Li in recognition of the connection.
There were a few wedding guests in the bar, but they were sitting at tables. They were busily chatting and laughing.
“Boys, listen up,” Alastar started. He glanced at the other guests in the bar, but it was clear their only attention was being paid to their drinks. “We’ll head downstairs in a minute, but it’s good we start our story here in the bar.” The boys sipped their lemonade, trying to be as cool as cucumbers.
“My great, great, great, great, great, great, great … ”
Lu cut him off, “Really?”
Laughing as if this were all just a big game, Alastar pointed at Lu and said, “Just making sure you’re paying attention, my fine lads.” Alastar’s smile was one of those that was visually infectious so much so that when he smiled and especially when he truly felt pangs of joy, you couldn’t be human if the corners of your lips did not rise in cooperation. Alastar seemed to be someone who could be light and yet talk about serious historical topics at the same time–the ideal teacher.
“I think it was actually four counts of great in there, I’m not sure anymore as the story gets told and retold so much it’s forever changing,” he started again. “But I know that on a stormy night in 1684, right here in this bar room stood that great, great, great, great grandfather of mine together with the great, great, great, great uncle of our dear friend Killian.”
The boys physically shuddered at the name, but they sipped and listened and their attention was so focused on Alastar that no school teacher of theirs would have recognized them.
“There were several other people there. Local landowners, some politicians, other estate barons, and a few more, mostly family relations of locals. It was something of a party, but a few of them knew that the future of the castle was at stake,” he continued on without missing a beat or detail. “You see, the owners of the castle at that point had gone deep into debt, mostly gambling debt, and they were trying to work out a deal to save the castle and keep it in the family.”
Dan raised his hand.
“Yes, Dan?” Alastar asked.
“So was your great, great, great, great grandfather the owner of the castle?” he asked.
“He was, Dan, but they were in trouble. He was a gambler and,” he cleared his throat, “Ahem, that trait has continued down the family lineage,” he said. “I fancy myself a bit of player myself. Been playing the World Cup and, if I do say so myself, have been doing quite well.”
“Better than your grandfather,” Li connected the dots.
“Right you are, Li. Right you are,” he paused, then continued his story. “In fact, my great, great, great great wanted to try to save his castle by making a wager on a card game. But this wasn’t just a regular card game. You see, my grandfather was also something of a mystic, or someone who believed in things that most people didn’t believe in back then.”
“Was he like a wizard?” Dec asked.
“Well, I don’t know if he really had magic powers or such, but he at least liked to think he did. I don’t know, it depends on who you ask or what you believe of what people say.”
The boys sipped their lemonades like four zebras sipping at a watering hole with no known lions around.
“The thing was that he wasn’t a very good mystic,” Alastar dug in deeper. A guest approached the bar, asked for a pint of Guinness and while he waited for the head to settle, Alastar continued, caring less who heard anything as he was more and more into his own story.
“That is to say, things happened that weren’t easily explainable by science at the time, but it also wasn’t exactly what he was planning on either,” Alastar stopped.
“Like what kinds of things happened?” Dan asked.
“Well, let’s see. There are loads of stories and you never know anymore what’s true and what’s not, but things often backfired,” he finished off the last draw on the Guinness and served the man waiting, who, at this point, wasn’t in a hurry to leave as he was happily eavesdropping.
“He’d make a big circus out of something small, even invite people to come see it happen, like a magic show today,” Alastar seemed to still be thinking of which stories to tell. “Oh, I know one you’ll like. He had an elaborate stage where he was going to cut a woman in half with a big saw,” he made a sawing motion with his hands.
“Cool,” Li said in awe. “So what happened?”
“Well, not much. He started with the saw and the box and the woman and all that, but when he got deeper, someone screamed in pain, but it wasn’t the woman, it was one of the spectators,” Alastar raised his voice in excitement. “She had somehow wedged her finger between something and sliced a huge gash in her finger and it was bleeding profusely,” he leaned in a little closer to the boys. “But the best part is how grandpa would pull it all off anyway and somehow make it seem like part of the show. The woman, for some reason, ran up on his little stage and bled all over the box and the woman and the box opened and blood was everywhere and people just thought it was part of the act,” he couldn’t hold back his admiration for his ancestor. “People loved him, they’d come to see his odd shows because you’d never know what was going to happen,” Alastar stared up into nothing as if he remembered it all as if he had been there.
“Lots of people said the castle was haunted before then, but in the time of grandpa, there were just more and more unexplainable things going on.”
“What about the key and the second room and all that?” Dec asked.
“Oh, right,” Alastar came back to life. “I get so caught up in all of the old lore of the castle,” he found his train of thought again. “So that night when all of the barons and land owners were here, grandpa had one of his kooky shows planned, although it might have been his last as he was in terrible debt and although most people loved him, those greedy landlords from other manors smelled the fresh blood like a vulture to a kill.”
With talk of kooky, fresh blood, and kill, the boys needed nothing more in their world. The castle could have been attacked by Roman invaders and they wouldn’t have moved a muscle–except to sip lemonade. “But even though grandpa was a bit of a poor man’s wizard and believed in all kinds of hocus pocus, he was also rather clever. He wasn’t about to lose his castle that easily.”
“They played a card game, I think it was poker, and every so often, I’m not sure of the exact details, but let’s say every time someone won a round, they were given the opportunity to, well, do something that no one else could believe,” Alastar was enjoying telling the story as much as the boys were listening.
Two more guests came to the bar for pints of lager. Alastar moved with the grace of a ballerina to the tap and back to the boys without skipping a beat. He seemed to float above the ground behind the bar.
“Guys, it’s going to get busier around here soon, we need to get downstairs,” Alastar warned them.
“But what about the key? What happened with the poker game?” Li asked, but then four more guests came to the bar. He poured and served, smiled and chatted, then returned.
“Dear lads, I need to get back to work, but let’s meet down at the entrance to the first gate in 15 minutes, I’ll need to get supplies from the storage room and my colleague will tend bar for a short while. Does that work for you?”
The boys nodded as they had no other choice, but they felt very mature that Alastar asked them anyway if that worked for them.
“Do you remember how to get there?” Alastar asked.
“Through the door that says Staff Only,” Lu replied.
“Excellent,” Alastar smiled. “See you very soon.”
The foursome would have finished off their lemonades but they had slurped and sipped through Alastar’s story so unconsciously that their glasses were as dry as a California riverbed. They left the bar and headed quickly, but quietly, through the halls and doorways to get them back downstairs. There was no sign of Killian anywhere.
“What did Killian say that we shouldn’t forget to bring down here?” Li asked.
“I don’t know, that’s when Dec broke the ashtray, so we never heard it,” Dan said.
Li just nodded and accepted that they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
There was no one in the storage room so they tiptoed in and closed the door. Now they knew where the light switch was as well as the far door. They were regulars, they were pros, they had skills to pay the bills.
Through the smaller hallway, then down the steps, finally following the narrow corridor. They made it, they let their held breaths out, they waited.
“I’m scared,” Lu said.
“I’ve got your back, Lu,” Li said in one of those moments of deep brotherly love you wish as a parent to be present for, video record, or at least know happened.
Lu looked at his brother with admiration and gratitude. “Thanks, Li.”
Dan chimed in with reassuring reality, “Guys, but didn’t he say that all this stuff is going to happen tomorrow night, not tonight? So tonight is just a test run, right?”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” big brother Dec answered.
“Hey, I hear a door,” Li whispered.
“I hope it’s not Killian,” Lu said what they were all thinking. They waited in silence. The footsteps seemed light and quick, more like Alastar than Killian. There were four breaths being held and not another sound besides the footsteps that echoed like, well, footsteps in a deep and dark hallway under an medieval castle.
“Boys,” Alastar’s friendly voice was more than just welcome, it gave them their breath back. “You made it.”
The four boys were a little awkward with how to greet Alastar, but Lu did as he often did with pretty much strangers–he hugged him.
“Glad to see you, Lu,” Alastar hugged him back, smiling at the affection. “Are you guys ready?”
“I guess so,” Dec said.
“I am,” Dan said.
“Good, let’s go,” Alastar said.
“But tonight is like a test run, right? The real thing happens tomorrow night, right?” Dec asked.
“Well, yes and no, Dec,” Alastar said as he swiftly put the key into the huge lock. “Tonight we’ll get as far as we can and see what we learn,” he stopped a moment and closed the gate behind them. “But you see, I haven’t come this far before as I haven’t had the crew I’ve needed. Now that you’re here, we might get farther than I’ve ever come before.”
The boys nodded, but hesitantly as they weren’t sure if this was good news or bad. If Alastar wasn’t sure what was going to happen, what did they know? They barely knew what time breakfast was in the morning.
The lights were dim, everything in the room was dusty. Furniture was covered in sheets, but hadn’t been touched in years. If anything was to be haunted, this was an excellent choice. It made for a great movie set, but a little too realistic for the boys. Still, Alastar was there, he knew what he was doing. Well, sort of.
“What about your grandfather and the key?” Dan couldn’t wait to know. The boys sat where they could: on dusty, covered chairs, up on a table, Dec sat on the ground.
“Right, yes, well then,” Alastar got his groove back on and it didn’t take long. “My grandfather, well, great, great, great, great,” he smiled, but the boys were impatient and Li even rolled his hand over and over in a come on already move. “So then, if someone else could do something that no one could prove was a trick, but they believed it, truly believed it, and grandpa was completely convinced, then grandpa would give them the key to the castle.”
“How would he know if he was convinced?” Dan asked.
“Well, that’s an interesting question,” Alastar started. “From what the stories afterwards said, grandpa would just know because the person who did such a thing could only be a mystic like himself. Or, well,” he paused and rolled his head around, “at least what he thought himself to be.”
“So like they had a secret language?” Lu asked.
“Exactly, Lu,” Alastar said, happy to have someone else help him out with the vague parts of the story. “So yes, that’s right, something like that. If someone else could speak to grandpa in his own language, somehow on a different level or in a different world or whatever you want to call it, then grandpa felt the castle would be in good hands,” he stopped to think. “Well, I’m not sure ‘good hands’ is the right term, but someone at least that grandpa thought would keep up the traditions of the castle.”
“So did someone win?” Dec asked.
“Well, hmm, yes, that’s where it gets even more interesting,” Alastar breathed out a long and slow breath and the room got even quieter than the pure silence it already was. The only sounds were four beating little hearts.
“Grandpa brought everyone down to the hall we’re in right now. He’d let them do their thing and the others were the judges and he was the final say,” Alastar spoke softly, but softly was all that was needed. “Let me help you set the scene a little bit,” he added.
Dan audibly groaned at the thought of being delayed another second.
Alastar smiled and kept going, “We’re just about there, Dan, but it’s important for you to know what happened to help you know what to do.” Dan nodded reluctantly.
“Most of these people knew each other and some of them knew each other for years and very well. They were friends or at least drinking buddies as you might say today,” Alastar was in his flow, “But these drinking buddies owned castles and manors and such,” Alastar smiled.
“Even though the ownership of the castle was on the line, it was a jovial atmosphere. Most of the men had already been drinking for a few hours and they were up for a good time. A good time at grandpa’s castle was always even more interesting. Life was never dull at the castle,” he paused for moment. “In fact, most of them didn’t really want to take over ownership of the castle at all, they wanted it to stay in his hands as only in his hands would it remain, well, the way it was,” he stopped as if he was done. But he wasn’t. He continued.
“So grandpa had them do their thing, their trick or their show and they also had to make a wish of sorts,” Alastar again laughed, he just couldn’t help hiding his admiration for his grandfather. “He was always making people do things they didn’t really want to do, but once they did them, they gave in and were the better for it,” he paused for the gazillionth time, but no one was complaining. “He also asked people to say, out loud, what magical power they would like to have if they could wish for anything. Grandpa just liked to hear what people had to say, but he also had no patience for those who didn’t want to play along. If you were skeptical or even making fun of the scene, you were, in polite but non-negotiable terms, asked to leave. If you were asked to leave, you probably didn’t mind. Not many were asked to leave and those who wanted to stay, played along.”
Dan raised a hand, but Alastar held up a hand, “I’m almost there, Dan.”
“Grandpa also liked word games,” Alastar happily continued. “He liked to make people work to earn his trust or earn whatever it was they were going to win. He didn’t want to just give things away and he felt that whoever was the recipient would also value what they were getting if they had to work for it, whether that meant physical labor or exchange of goods or figuring out a puzzle. Because grandpa cared most about people and their character traits and how they might come to a conclusion, he was always concocting games and riddles, puzzles and word jumbles. He would turn his castle into something of a treasure hunt and, the crazy part is how these other adults, these other wealthy, prestigious men would act like kids and work to figure things out, to get to the conclusion.”
“But it gets even stranger,” once again his pride and bewilderment shown through. “I can’t imagine how he got barons and wealthy land owners to do all of this crazy stuff, but we hear it all from many sources, so it couldn’t have been otherwise. So once he got them to state their wildest wish of a magical power, try to prove to him their trick or magic, he’d turn out the lights and the room was in complete darkness,” Alastar looked at each of the boys. A chill went through most everyone whose spine was 9 through 11 years old at the thought of complete darkness.
“Grandpa said that in that complete darkness, he would be able to tell whose trick or game or magic was the most real, who believed the strongest. He said that he could somehow sense it, but he had to turn out all of his other senses to focus on that deeper sense. So he’d turn off the lights and have everyone remain completely silent.”
“What’s a deeper sense? What does that mean?” Lu asked.
“Dude, it’s like a dog,” Li answered. “You know how they can hear a dog whistle, but we don’t hear anything? It’s like that.”
“Oh,” Lu said. “But then how do you hear it?”
“That’s exactly it, my dear Lu. How do you hear something that you normally can’t hear? And that’s where grandpa said he was different–and I think he was.”
“So he could hear dog whistles?” Dec asked.
“He could hear or see or feel something that others couldn’t,” he thought for a moment, “Or, at least, that’s what he said.”
“But that night, he had it down to four men. Four men who each had a quality that grandpa admired. These qualities weren’t so regular or common, but grandpa’s own sort of system to judge whether or not he thought these men might be good ones to continue with the management or at least part ownership or in some relationship to the castle,” Alastar spoke as if he were remembering all of this from memory.
“We don’t know for sure what was so special about this one night or these four men, but what we have learned is that the four words, the four characteristics that these men were somehow important and if we could figure these out, then we might solve the riddle or figure out the puzzle.”
“So what were the words?” Li asked.
“Well, that’s just it, Li,” Alastar was thrilled that the boys were so engaged and curious. “We don’t know what the words were, but we’ve tried to piece together who the four men were to help us figure out what the words were.”
“But where are the words? We don’t know what they were, but how can we figure that out? Where are they? Are they like a secret code or something?” Dan asked.
“I think you may be onto something there, Dan,” Alastar said and pointed at Dan. “I think that’s exactly what grandpa had in mind, that we figure out what the words were or who the men were behind those characteristics that grandpa admired in people.”
“But if we don’t know your grandpa, how are we going to figure out which words they are? I mean, are they just types of people? Like smart or fat or strong?” Dec asked.
“I bet they’re less obvious than that, Dec,” Alastar said. “Remember that grandpa liked games, word puzzles, and people who liked those things. He was an intelligent man, but also a gaming man. He was happy to get to the solution, but was at least as interested in how you got there—and that you learned something along the way and . . . “
“That you had a good time getting there,” Lu guessed.
“Exactly, Lu. Exactly,” Alastar said and was more and more certain these were just the boys who could help.
“So what happened next?” Dan asked.
“They were all in the room in complete darkness and silence, waiting. Waiting. Waiting.”
Two, three or even four boys almost asked What happened? but managed to hold their tongues.
“Grandpa felt something, sensed that someone had connected to him or somehow talked to him or whatever you want to call it. He turned on the lights and looked for the one who connected. He looked and looked and soon they realized that one person was gone. He was the one who he connected with.”
“But if he connected with him, how was he gone?” Dan asked.
“No one knows, but they searched everywhere and they couldn’t find him,” Alastar said somberly.
“But when did they find him?” Lu asked.
“Ever?” Dec asked.
“Never,” Alastar said.
The boys were silent, but they were now breathing. Hearts were beating, but maybe a little more quickly than before. It wasn’t excitement and anticipation that was fueling the blood, but fear, the unknown, and trying to understand what happened in the room they were in many, many years previous.
The moments ticked by, but no one spoke. Alastar wasn’t going to be the first one.
Dan was. “So,” now it was his turn to clear his throat, “Ahem,” he said in a 9-year old version of an old man. “What are we doing here tonight?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. Popcorn and a movie were sounding quite appealing about now.
“Well, right, there’s that,” Alastar started, but much more slowly and hesitantly than while he was the grand storyteller. “You see, legend has it that if we replay the events of that evening, telling each other our dreams of magic powers, trying out our tricks and getting the others to believe, one of us will be granted entry to the second room.”
“Is that where the man who won ended up?” Li asked.
“Well, that’s another story,” Alastar said.
“Do you mean a different story or do you mean a story for another time,” Dan asked, aware that he might be classified as annoying.
Alastar smiled and although he didn’t verbally confirm that Dan was annoying, his smiled translated on quite another level that they both knew what he was thinking.
“It’s both, my clever comrade,” Alastar whispered. The boys had to do some calculations to figure out if that was a good or bad thing, but it wasn’t immediately clear.
“But, so, wait,” Dan started out. “The guy who won disappeared? That’s no good. If you win, you kind of want to be around to be the winner, right? Do you think we could avoid that part? I’d kinda rather be the other guys who, I don’t know, might not win the whole thing, but at least they’re around. Don’t you think?”
“Dan, I’m with you completely, one hundred percent and I’d much rather that there are four winners of this puzzle, but no one how it might work out. We only know about the four men and the four words, although we don’t really even know who the four men were or what the words were, but maybe that’s where you can help.”
“But how do we start? How do we know where to look? How do we know we’re the kids you need?” Li started out, then thought a little more and a larger question came around. “How do we know we’re the right ones?”
Alastar again looked into each boy’s eyes, then started again, “My fine boys, there is more to the story and I’m happy to tell all, but I need to know who’s in and who’s not,” he continued right away. “Please know, my friends, that leaving now is most absolutely an option and no one, not me, not one of these other fine boys, will judge you less for it.”
“I’m in,” Dan said before anyone could say anything else.
“Me, too,” Lu said, surprising the others, but mostly himself.
Trying not to add pressure, but it was inevitable that even glancing in the general direction of Dec or Li, the older brothers, no less, was going to do just that: add pressure.
Li’s cheeks filled with air and his eyes widened. He wasn’t quite ready for such a decision. Dec helped him decide by deciding first.
“I’m in,” Dec said. “Well, I’m in if Li is in,” he added.
All eyes were on Li.
“I’m out if you want to be out, Li,” Lu said in a show of solidarity that did actually do some help, but also gave him an easier out. Four sets of eyes were on Li.
Something moved inside of him, a feeling he had never felt before, somewhere deeper than he had known. It was either lunch settling in the wrong place in his stomach or a feeling, like a gut feeling. It helped him decide. It chose his words for him. They came out of his mouth although he didn’t remember saying them or even choosing to say them.
“I’m in,” Li said and only knew when he heard the words float in the air what he had said, as if someone else had said it.
Alastar smiled and a slow laugh came out of his throat. Not even his mouth, but also from a deeper place. Not an evil laugh, but a joy of the unknown to come. Somehow an unknown that he had trust in, even though it was just that: unknown.
He didn’t need to say anything more and he said nothing more. The five of them sat there together in the darkly lit room and looked around at each other. Some smiling, some trying to hide their smiles. Others smiling with a chance of frown. But they were in, they were in together. Dan said the only words and they hung in the air like smoke from an extinguished candle.