CHAPTER SIXTEEN – a tight squeeze

Martin Baynton.
Martin Baynton
February 28th, 2023

Jane’s mind was churning. What had she done bringing Robert here? She had trusted him, vouched for him. Now he was wandering freely about the castle. Maggots, how could she have been so foolish?

‘Many enemies await you,’ Sir Theodore had cautioned her in one of his many lectures. ‘They lie in hiding in the strangest of places, and yet the most dangerous enemy of all sits close at your side each and every day. Complacency, Jane. Complacency!’  

‘Wait for me!’ Jester was three steps behind her. ‘What does your new friend want?’

‘Friend? He wants a beating and I mean to give it to him!’

‘Calm down, Jane And SLOW down!! If we know what he wants, we will know where to start searching for him.’ 

‘The library,’ Jane yelled back without stopping. ‘He wants to see the Scholar King’s collection.’

‘What! That makes no sense.’ Jester had to shout, he was only half way up and Jane was almost at the top. ‘Robert could have made that request himself, through Haroldus.’ Jester stopped and leant on the wall as he fought to catch his breath. ‘The King is proud of his collection. He would have granted them a visit.’

‘Exactly!’ Jane stopped at the top of the stairwell, and looked down at her friend. ‘So there is a great deal more to this. Back at the ravine Robert talked about one book, just one book in the collection that he is truly interested in - the one our late king wrote himself, the one our enemies lay siege to get their hands on all those years ago. The Scholar King’s own writings on dragon lore.’  

‘The Complete Truth About Dragons?’

‘Yes, and there’s something else you should know.’


‘You need to get more exercise.’

‘Jane, be serious, please.’ Jester walked the last few steps until he was just one below her. Why did she always do this, change the subject and make a joke whenever the conversation became difficult. There was so much that needed to be said between them. So much.

‘I am being perfectly serious. One flight of steps and here you are wheezing like an old donkey. Come to training tomorrow.’

‘Now you are being boring.’

Jane raised an eyebrow. 

‘Predictable is boring Jane You always do this, the moment a conversation becomes uncomfortable you deflect its course with a joke or some silly slight against my character. This is no time for that, is it? So, answer the question. Why would Robert be looking for a book that doesn’t exist. It was destroyed, cremated with the Scholar King when he died.’ Jester tried his best to breath normally. Jane was right, he was wheezing like a donkey. ‘The whole court knows the story, Jane. The whole kingdom knows it.’

‘Perhaps that is all it is, a story. If the book does exist, then I want to find it before Robert does.’

‘There you go again! Lavinia is missing, an outsider is running free around the castle and suddenly this is all about you again, you and your promise to Dragon. Where does your duty lie? Was the Queen right? Do you place that promise above your duty as a Knight of the king’s Guard?’

‘Not you too, Jester. Spare me that, please. I’ll go and alert Sir Theodore that Robert is missing. You go to the library and see if he’s there. If he is, keep him there.’

‘How? He could swat me aside with one finger.’

‘Maggots,’ Jane knew he was right. She had done this too often, her reckless need to take action had put all her friends in jeopardy over the years. ‘Small change of plan - if you see him, do NOT confront him.’

‘This plan I like.’ 

‘Stay out of sight and follow. Clearly he has uncovered some gossip that the book still exists. He means to find it, so we track him as if we are scavengers in the field, let him lead us to his prey. We will move in together, take it off him and arrest him.’

Lavinia watched from her hiding place as Jane raced off across the training yard. Then she watched as Jester followed, the poor man was moving a great deal more slowly, but with the same look of urgency. Where were they going in such a hurry? Were they looking for her, or for Robert? Both perhaps. She had seen Jane’s new friend a short time before. He had emerged rather more furtively up those same steps. She had thought about confronting him. Never before had she seen a outsider wandering freely about the castle without an escort. It was all very puzzling. If only she could have stepped out in front of Jane and Jester just then, jumped out, startled them, and then commanded them to give her fair council.

‘Not today,’ she whispered. Today everything was upside down. The only person who would give her the advice she needed without getting Gunter into terrible trouble, was still sitting up on the ledge outside his cave. Or she hoped he was. It was impossible to see from her hiding place behind the dense rose bush that grew in the corner of the yard beneath Jane’s turret window. She had been there for such a long time her bones were aching from all the crouching time.

      ‘Finally!’ she whispered, as Jane and the Jester disappeared on their separate missions. She crept out, raced along the back wall and up the stone steps to the battlement that led to Jane’s room. The door stood wide open. Lavinia shook her head. The door was always open. How could a trained knight of the King’s Guard be so relaxed about security? She would have to speak to her about it …again!.

Lavinia eased through the gap and into the room. Jane’s patrol clothes lay strewn on the bed, but not her sword. That would be in the wooden chest at the foot of Jane’s bed. She opened the lid and there it was, Jane’s prize procession, her dragon blade.

There were three ways to enter the Royal Library; seven if you counted the four arched windows that filled the room with daylight. A stout wooden door, carved with images from a dozen ballads, gave direct access from the audience chamber. A second, more discreet door, allowed entry from the Royal Apartments. The third was a small, dumb waiter that allowed food to be sent up through the castle from the basement kitchens. 

‘No!’ Pepper stared as Jester squeezed himself into the serving hatch. ‘You are far too big and too old for that malarkey!’

‘Needs must,’ Jester grunted. It was surprisingly difficult, he realised, to talk and breath when you were hugging your folded legs to your chest like a squatting frog.

‘Her little majesty got herself stuck in there, remember?’ 

‘I do,’ Jester tried not to laugh at the memory, there was no chest room for laughter. ‘I found her.’

‘She was a lot smaller and a lot younger.’

‘Yet.. oof …here I am.’ 

‘She was a lot smarter too. And still is, clearly. So out!’ Pepper picked up her floor mop and began twirling it like a staff. ‘I mean it!’

‘Wait.. okay!’ Jester unpacked himself and stepped out of the tiny serving hatch. ‘Listen Pepper, Jane tasked me with this.’

‘With what? Hurting yourself and my food hatch?’

‘Robert is missing, off wandering the castle on his own. Jane wants me to keep an eye on him.’

‘Poor Robert. Is he lost?’

‘Lost? No, Pepper. He is wandering around and up to no good! That man has been deceitful from the start.’

‘A little jealous are we? How very cute.’

‘No. Please Pepper.’ Jester reached out with both hands to fend off the mop. ‘This is not about me.’

‘Or course it is. You have a very complicated affection for Jane.’

‘Yes, perhaps!’ Jester put his hands on Pepper’s shoulders and leaned forward. ‘Which means I care about her. Right? We all do. As her friends we need to look out for her.’

‘I always look out for her.’

‘I know. And you must help me to do so now. This Robert fellow is a danger to her. He posed as a forester to test her, then he used Haroldus to set up a wild goose chase that took her far away from the safety of castle. Away from us. Something happened between them, I know it did, Jane is not herself.’

‘Yes, something happened, I agree.’

‘Thank you! Thank you Pepper. You see it too! That man has filled her head with all kinds of nonsense.’

‘Yes. Romance.’

‘What? No!’ Jester frowned, then shook his head as if shaking the idea away like a dog shedding water. ‘Alright, maybe, a pretence to romance, I will grant you that. All part of his deceit.’

‘And what does Jane think?’

‘Jane would never fall for it, she is far too smart to be taken in by flattery and fluttering eyelids! Too smart.’

‘Listen, Jester,’ Pepper reached up and patted one of his hands.

‘No, Pepper, you listen. I need to act. I need to protect Jane! From him. I need to find out what he’s up to! He’s filled her head with ideas, dangerous ideas.’

‘Dangerous for who, for you? For your heart?’

‘This is not jealousy, Pepper, I am clear eyed about this. Robert has fooled everyone. Now he’s drunk Gunther and Sir Ivon under the table. The man is wandering the castle. Jane thinks he’s headed for the Library and she has directed me to keep an eye on him!’

‘Oh my poor Jester, I think you are mistaken. I think Robert is a kind and gentle man and I also think you know this. THAT is what has sent you spinning like a top.’ She sighed and shook her head. ‘Yet, if you must spy on him, at least take the middle shelf out of this serving hatch. Make a proper space for yourself!’ 

‘It’s bigger?’

‘Twice as big.’ She eased him aside. ‘Look.’ What Jester had taken for the floor of the unit, was a shelf. Pepper tapped down on one end, the other bounced upward and she lifted it out.

‘Oh! Thanks.’

‘Now you can fold yourself up in there without sticking your knees up your nose.’ 

A few minutes later, Jester was in the dumb waiter, winching himself up through the castle. He slowed as the Royal Library came into view. His field of vision was restricted to a thin slit, the gap above the outer door of the unit. He teased the door of the serving hatch open, and peered out. A number of books and scrolls lay on the central reading table. They were strewn there, an untidy mess, as if their guest had been quickly scanning the covers. Of his quarry, Jester could see no sign. Then he looked up. 

Robert was standing atop the library’s one ladder. What was he looking for up there? Not books, all the books and scrolls sat within easy reach of the ground, stored in the stout oak cabinets that lined the walls. There were no shelves hanging from the walls, only large tapestries celebrating special moments from the castle’s history. 

‘Ha!’ Robert let out a small laugh of triumph. ‘There we have it!’

‘Have what?’ Jester whispered to himself. He tipped his head to one side to get a better line of sight. Despite the extra space Pepper had created for him, Jester still had his long legs hugged to his chest. One leg chose that moment to complain. It locked with cramp.

‘Ow!’ Jester could not contain himself. He fell from the dumb waiter, spilling out onto the floor of the library as he grabbed his leg and tried to ease the cramp. 

Robert jumped from the ladder and rushed at him. Jester was too caught up in the pain of his cramp to offer any resistance. He watched helplessly as Robert bent down, grabbed his foot, and started to extend it up, pushing the toes towards the ceiling. 

‘Lie still,’ said Robert. He pulled Jester’s hat off, wrapped it under the arch of the wayward foot. Then he gave the two ends of the improvised sling to Jester. ‘Keep pulling on these, it will stretch the cords at the back of your leg. Right now they are tight as lute strings.’ 

Jester was too busy with the pain to reply, it was all he could do to breath. He squeezed his eyes shut as the last of the cramp began to ease a little. 

‘Thank you,’ he whispered at last. When he opened his eyes, the room was empty. ‘I was not made for battle,’ he sighed. 

After a few moments, he let go of his hat and tested his leg. It felt better, as if the cramp had been a shard of ice that had all but melted away. He made a solemn promise not to fold himself into any more small spaces, and walked over to the ladder. It was propped up beneath one of the smaller tapestries, a depiction of the Scholar King. The king himself stood at the centre. He was smiling, arms stretched out in wonder at all the knowledge surrounding him. This king was famed for dedicating his life to learning, and here, that accumulated knowledge was depicted as large blocks of stone on an archway under which he was standing. Each stone block was carved with a symbol of learning. A leech for medicine, a sword for warcraft, a boat for travel and a sheaf of wheat for farming. At the top of the archway was a large capstone baring the symbol of a dragon. At the base of the tapestry one line of text had been stitched in brown and green. 

All my books are here to see. One alone, it dies with me.  

Jester stared at the tapestry. He had seen it more times that he could count. The meaning was clear. The book Robert was looking for had been burnt, cremated at the funeral of its author. 

‘So what did you see?’ he whispered. ‘What made you climb up there and yelp with such delight?’ He took hold of the ladder and was taking the first step when Jane came racing through the door.

‘Was he here?’

‘Yes, he was studying this tapestry.’ Jester took another step up the ladder. ‘Then he saw something that sent him racing off like a boy on a treasure hunt. Ow!’ The cramp in his his gripped him again and he stepped down. ‘You go up. My leg is holding me hostage, today.’

‘Today and every day. Before long it will be your voice cramping up. You must come and train with Gunther and myself.’

‘To be a knight!?

‘To be alive, Jester. To be a healthy balladeer, not a wheezing donkey.’ She took him by his elbows and steered him to a chair by the central table. ‘Sit here, I’ll take a look.’

Jane climbed the ladder and scanned the tapestry. What had Robert seen? Then she spotted it too. The end of one thread of yarn had pulled free and was hanging in a little curve. The curl of thread wa, no longer than the tip of Jane’s thumb.

‘Woah!‘ She could hardly believe it. Such a little thing, yet it changed everything. ‘Look, Jester, this loose end of thread, it makes a curl on the letter ‘d’. But it’s not a ‘d’ at all, it’s an ‘l’. The word isn’t dies. It’s lies. All my books are here to see, one alone it lies with me.’

‘That means..’ Jester stood up and tested his leg. 

‘The book on dragon lore wasn’t burnt at all. It was buried with the King. It’s in his tomb! Jester, that’s where Robert is, down into the catacombs. He means to open the sarcophagus of the scholar king. 


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