This Week’s Prompt: 40. Warning that certain ground is sacred or accursed; that a house or city must not be built upon it—or must be abandoned or destroyed if built, under penalty of catastrophe.
The Research:The Ground Under Your Feet
Part 2: Here
It began with a fallen brick, a loose piece of stone work that drew everyone’s attention with a crash at the top of the stairs. Three generations of Oberherrscher watched as the single block fell from the top of the arch, leaving a pair of broken stone fangs at the crest. And then, after a moment, a dozen more followed, the archway collapsing almost in it’s entirely. Beside them, Lady Holdberg and her brother Tobias gasped in horror. For, to the tears of all, the youngest of the Oberherrscher family, William, was now beneath the great stones of the hall.
The footmen on hand rushed them out of the hall as the mother fell to her knees weeping. Up a few flights, the would-be bride and her brother were taken. Tears, they had once been told, were for the privacy of closed doors.
“Do you think…do you think it did him in?” Lady Holberg said, after recovering herself.
“It is possible. But men have surivived in the depths of fallen mines. He might be alive.” William said, sitting by the bed.
“A strange thing, for the stones to break. Stone ought last longer.” Lady Holberg said, turning out the window. “But I suppose crumbling stone is to be expected in this valley.”
Along the valley, in clear veiw, was the stone caracasses of castles rising out of the mist. Lady Holberg wondered how so much had fallen away so fast. Why none of the halls and towers had been swept away and rebuilt later.
“You know, I once heard the crusaders tore down entire monuments, that they could raise more castles in the distance.” She said, staring at the crumbling ruins. “It seems strange to spare these architectural cannibalism.”
“Perhaps,” William said, walking over to the same veiw, “but there are no new castles to be built, are their? And forts in the colonies and frontier are so far that carrying the stones seems a fools idea. Maybe if there is a war on the continnent, they’ll carve new ones out of the hills.”
William’s eyes drifted from fallen peripat to tumbled tower, until it cam to rest again on an intact and inhabited residence. It was a stained window into an old hall. William could see the eldest of the Oberherrschers seated at the table, a man more wrinkles than skin. Beside him, dimly in the sunlihgt, William made out the form of the elderly matriarchs of the Oberherrscher family, sisters that were piles of black veils and gowns, nearly living shadows in their perpetual mourning dead husbands. He wondered briefly if it was his sisters fate.
“How many elders are you marrying into?” William asked, as his eyes scrutinized the table more carefully.
“What? I don’t…just the three I think.” Lady Halberg said, coming over to her brother. She counted the members at the table he pointed at. Seven, seven bodies in seven seats, each a shifting and whispering mass of silk.
“That is…odd. Perhaps there are others they are entertaining?” Lady Holberg wondered.
“They seem familiar, and concerned.” William said.
“Panic makes sense, when your youngest son dies a week before the wedding night.” Lady Halberg said, leaning over to see more clearly. However, their observations were interrupted by a pounding on the door.
Another footman with the red-yellow crest on his chest explained that the family had good news down in the main hall, if the lady was more at ease and not anxious of heart. Lady Holberg infromed the footman that she had regained her composure. William Holberg had never lost it.
So the Holbergs were escorted down the stairs to the main hall. A large hall built like an upside down ship, with a large set of cross beams, the columns were topped by the great lions of the mountains, claws outstretched in order to grasp invisible prey. Lady Holberg wondered if the arhitect realized that they seemed to be reaching for the people sitting in the hall.
The middle generation of Oberherrschers was waiting in the middle of hall. The eldest Oberherrscher had abdicated to Heinrich Oberherrscher when he passed his seventieth year. Heinrich had since lost a great deal of his youth to the castle, by most accounts. By his thirtieth year, his hair was rendered silver despite his face still having something young about it. His eyes were bagged and seemed to catch the light of lanterns and candles, making them glowing orbs set into a melting waxen mold. His wife was a singluar stripe of red, with hair kept in curls. She sometimes seemed to Lady Holberg to be a tongue rising from the Earth. The lady was pale by her own discretion as well, her face a somber moon even in the brightest room. They were speaking quietly, as best not to be overheard, until the Holbergs arrival imposed silence as the two turned to face them.
“Sofia, madame, I am glad to see you well. Well, as well as you can be all things considered.” the Lord Oberherrscher said, bowing his head slightly. “but we have good news, grand news in fact.”
“Is it about Tobias? Is he safe?” Lady Holberg asked. William observed that the footmen moved back and forth quickly with hammers and chisels. Thing with which one could break down stone, presumably to clear out the mess.
“Our beloved is safe and sound, yes. After you left, we found found him. Some stones broke his leg, and his of course deeply frightened. But he is alive and, with some work and bracers, will be able to walk in a few weeks time.” the Lord Oberherrscher replied, his mouth forming a thin smile.
“Oh, that’s wonderful news! Why didn’t you simply tell me?” Lady Holberg asked.
“It seemed…inappropiate not to address your dismay, young lady.” Lady Oberherrscher replied.
It was days before there was another incident. William and Sofia made a point of visiting Tobias, broken thing that he was. He resembled his father ever so slightly, being broad shouldered and with a wide head. He was striking in his striving for fitness, but it never seemed to wear on him properly. With the cane that was now his custom, it seemed even less. William once remarked to their father that he seemed to bulge through his skin, as if it was a suit tailored for a much younger and smaller man.
But the calamity that came did not befall Tobias. They were walking in the main hall, Heinrich Oberherrscher directing them in the rituals of the familial marriage with the eldest of the family. The aged former lord was never addressed by name, only Grandfather or Father. Sofia had never seen him walk, always seated rather in a chair. A pair of attendants stood on hand, presumably to move him whenever he needed to be moved. At times, when the light was dim, they were identical in everyway. The sun seperated them nicely however.
The rituals were not to strange, additions to the sacrament that only a devout man would object to. They featured a cup that was filled with wine from the ancient vineyard, from which both man and wife would drink. A specially prepared loaf would be eaten, containing a few specks of the castle grounds baked in.
“And then, after this, you shall recite the vows. These vows–” Lord Oberherrscher said, before a loud crack of stone cut him off. A second followed, then a third , a fourth, fifth. One of the great lions of the hall suddenly came tumbling down, claws out stretched. In silent terror, Lord Oberherrscher dived out of the way, but not fast enough. Long stone talon marks struck across his back, leaving bleeding lash marks.
“No, no don’t mind me!” the bleeding lord shouted, struggling to his feet as footmen rushed towards him. “Carry on, carry on, I’ll be fine. I’ve got more than enough blood in me, I’ll be fine.”
“I think it might be best to pause, wait for your recovery.” Maximillian said, eyes glancing at where the lion fell from. There was a scafaloding hidden behind it, a way for servants to move in the upper towers. And for instant he saw a large form slink down the hall, a shadow darting down.
“No, no, it’s fine, I’m—” here the Lord’s protestations were interrupted by a coughing fit as he gripped his back. His palms were stained as the footmen lifted him up.
“We must stop, for the night.” the eldest Oberherrscher said, a sudden burst of shouting from his oversized mouth, elongated by wrinkles. “Tomorrow morning we will finish. Lady Holberg seems to have the jist of it anyway, and I won’t have you dripping blood on the floor. It must be kept clean, very clean.”
“I…do get the general idea, thank you Lord Oberherrscher for your concern.” Lady Halberg said, curtsying briefly. Her brother walked her up some of the stairs towards their room. The walls were narrower here and the bricks were blended over, emerging only in wounds of the wall. If one was not cautious or perceptive, one might be misled and think the whole castle was but one large cave grown out of the mountainside.
“This place is not well in the head.” Lady Halberg whispered to her brother.
“No, it does not seem. Still, I wonder if it’s the place or something else.” Maximillian said, frowning. “I saw a man, or a thing, pushing the lion.”
“Nothing human could have moved it. No, I think this place has simply gotten old. Look, here, feel this patch of stone.” Lady Halberg said touching a break in the wall. “It’s spongey and warm. I can sometimes see roots growing, or dark molds breaking through the edges of the stone.”
“Festering architectural wounds aside, I saw something move that statue. And if it couldn’t be a man, well, then perhaps it was something else. Old castles and ruins attract red caps and worse. They might have come up here in the mean time.”
“And next you’ll have us running to the friar. Misfortune comes with age, because it looks so similair.” Lady Halberg said, glancing again down at the heaps of stone below. In the setting sun, they seemed almost silver and gold, shining stripes against a blue green earth.
“Well, be cautious. I best make sure that my own room lacks cuts and bruises that send large stone lions crashing down.” Maximillian Halberg said, taking his leave.
Lady Halberg waited until night came, until the sun was gone and the pallid moon made the world a dim shadow of itself, to begin preparing for the night. She told her self that such misfortunes as had come to pass must be common to the family and the castle, too old to stand alone anymore. To old to be anymore.
As she stared at the wallpaper peeling like potchmarked skin, she began to slowly drift to sleep. It seemed to rise from the bed like an intoxicating fog. Her sleep had been the best in this old crumbling castle, it’s age welcoming her below, a temporary excursion to the lands of the dead.
But then, there was a scratch in the hall, an iritant that began to rouse her. The scratch came again, louder. Something dragging along the hall. Her eyes slowly flickered open, to hear great thumping now. Footsteps, no, horsesteps. Marching down the hall, clopping along the stone floor. That roused the Lady instantly. She reached for a poker from the fire place and crept toward the door. The horse had grown louder, larger. Lady Halberg had heard of no horse of such size, the ground seeming to shake with each step.
Despite the wills of her father and mother, Lady Halberg had some valor and fire in her heart. She opened wide the door, raised poker to smote whatever intruder was waiting. But what she found astounded her.
Atop a white destrier was a man in shining white, a scimitar at his side and dressed in bright blue robes. He rode on at full speed now, galloping through the halls and shouting in a tounge she did not understand. At best, she imagined it an archaic Arabic. But the roar of wind that followed him down the hall, a light like star, startled her back into the room. After a moment to regain her composure, she looked again.
And naught was there but moonlight, shining through a window. It’s light cast a pale image of St. George running through the dragon along the hall, with only the red and green to distinguish the blurred image. Lady Halberg cursed the veil of sleep for betraying her, as no sign of hoofsteps were on the floor.
But as she stood, she did see something, something bent over in the hall. It had the form of a great man, one of immense and impossible stature, staring with a loathsome eye and a long beard like roots. She back slowly into her room, reaching for a candlestick. Here eyes never left the form and it’s eye, which was locked with hers. Gripping a small silver stick, she turned away only to light it with a match in the drawer.
When she turned back around, it was gone.
But the lady was familiar with the hunt, and considering herself well armed, decided to pursue the figure. She took the candle down the hall where that form lurked, thinking it some burglar or the attempted murderer of her soon to be father-in-law. She was not entirely wrong on either account, to her credit. The form had abandoned the hall, but Lady Halberg found it easy to follow footsteps. It stayed atop the castle for a time, before fleeing down stairwells that Lady Halberg barely knew. Only lighting more eagerly sought the ground than this man.
Lady Halberg stayed close behind, thundering along. She made no attempt to hide her pursuit, perhaps hoping that it would frigthen the theif into surrender or inaction. Instead, he seemed more set on escape. So set that, after delving a layer beneath the earth itself, he had vanished. There was nothing but the room plastered over, with giants holding up it’s roof. Lady Halberg caught her breath, cautiously examining her surroundings. She had no desire to go from hunter to hunted.
As she paced, the lady tapped the walls absent mindedly with her prod, eyes darting round. She paid it no mind, until it strukc a portion of the wall and sounded hollow. She frowned, turned and struck it harder. Hollow. Something on the other side. She knelt down cautiously, touching her hand to the spot.
And quickly recoiled from it’s heat. She resolved to retire for now. She would inform Maximillian in the morning. After all, her sleeplessness would be apparent, and she suspected it would not due for her to be pursuing the castle secrets in the dead of night.
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