I’d never seen men inside the courtyard before. As far back as I can remember, it was only my uncle and cousin who lived in the castle with me.
I crouched behind a rhododendron, catching my breath, watching two men work in the shadow of a towering stone wall that kept us safe from the jungle.
“Evan Burl!” my Uncle Mazol yelled from somewhere in the darkness behind me. “I’m gonna find you. I know you stole it.”
I felt the bulge in my pocket, making sure I hadn’t dropped the book during my flight. Lantern light flashed in the bushes. Mazol was closer than I realized.
But I couldn’t take my eyes off the men, one twice as tall as the other and five times as large around. The short one slapped a weary, starved horse beside him. Neighing, the beast heaved against a heavily loaded cart. It creaked forward, limping on uneven wheels.
“Burl!” My uncle’s voice was getting closer. I pictured the whip he hung above his desk. I’d probably get ten lashes for stealing the book. If I was caught. I turned to the castle, it’s dark hulking form silhouetted against the night sky in the distance. If I could make it to the elusian—a secret room I’d found near the tallest of the castle’s towers–I could hide for a few days until Mazol cooled down. I’d convince him he’d lost the book in the jungle somewhere. Maybe I wouldn’t get lashed.
The two men lumbered beside the cart, lanterns in hand, along a path that passed a few feet from where I was hiding. Where did they come from? How had they survived the jungles without runners and armored passage? What was that huge, strange shape under a canvas tarpaulin in the back of the cart?
“How dangerous could Evan Burl really be?” the giant said. “He’s only ten-years-old.”
“I don’t buy it.” The cart creaked to a stop.
“Mazol said we’ll be in more danger inside these walls than out in them jungles.”
“We’ll be a smart bit more comfy in that big old castle than rotting in a dungeon.”
“You shouldn’t have killed her. We had a nice gig. Now we have to take up with this Mazol and his haunted castle.”
“It ain’t haunted.”
“No one who comes up here is ever seen again.”
“That’s just the jungles. Not everyone has your talent for survival.”
“The old Miller man was whispering last week about a monster that lives up here.”
“I ain’t worried about no monsters. I’m gonna rest pretty. Find me a right soft cott to sleep in tonight. Just mind you keep that big gate shut tight and we got nothing to worry about.”
“Me mind the gate? Said you were gonna shut it.”
The short man looked around, as if realizing something dangerous might be watching him from the shadows. “You better get to it. Something could’ve snuck in already.”
My uncle emerged from the trees behind them. The two men jumped.
“Either ya’ll seen the boy?” Mazol said. I edged backward.
But instead of answering, the shorter man pointed up in the sky. “You see that?”
“A flash of light.”
“It’s time,” Mazol said without a trace of pleasure.
Lightning split the sky. Thunder rolled. With a patter, fat rain drops began to fall, growing stronger and faster by the second. I felt suddenly cold, pulling my thin shirt around me. Rusty wind rushed through the trees.
I peered into the sky, rain pelting my face.
With a crash, a dark shape plummeted through the tree canopy, cracking and snapping branches. It landed with a thud a few feet from where I hid.
Fog cleared, revealing something like a casket, covered in grime and cobwebs, with cracks and dents and rusty engraved iron and bronze. Greased gears surrounded a key hole in its center.