“He went that way!” cried the startled guard in response to the shout from the Captain. “And there was this…”
The sentence trailed away in confusion as the guard tried to figure out what exactly there had been but it didn’t matter for the Captain was already off down the corridor, showing a surprising turn of speed for such a big man. Michael’s long legs meant he was close on the Captain’s tail. I trailed somewhat in their wake, pelting along as fast as my significantly shorter legs would carry me. Master Ferdinand, whose sedentary life had clearly not equipped him well for this kind of activity, brought up the rear.
In this procession we swept on along the corridor, down a circular flight of stone stairs and along another lengthy passageway, prompted by directions from a succession of stunned guards stationed along the way. The Captain and Michael had built up a substantial lead by the time they turned a corner at the end of the lengthy passageway and I lost contact with them after they plunged down a narrow, twisting staircase. I ploughed down the stairs two at a time in an effort to catch up and thus found I was unable to apply the brakes in time when a final turn revealed they had come to an unexpected stop at the foot of the stairs. I cannoned directly into the broad back of the Captain, bounced backwards and landed squarely on my arse on the bottom step. The Captain scarcely noticed.
I picked myself up just as Master Ferdinand, his usually pale face flushed a deep red, caught up with us and we joined the Captain and Michael in gazing confusedly at the broad, cavernous kitchens onto which the stairs had led. Here, it seemed, the trail had gone cold. The tale of the hasty evacuation of the Chateau was revealed in the large pans of partially-peeled vegetables dotted about, the brace of half-skinned rabbits lying on the table and the dying embers of the fire in the vast hearth. But of Guillaume and the vengeful cloud of yellowish smoke there was no sign. The Captain hesitantly stepped forward and had actually begun to peer uncertainly into pots and beneath chairs before Master Ferdinand suddenly pointed towards a dark recess beyond the fire and cried, “Down to the well!”
A sharp nod of understanding from the Captain and he led the way over to where the shadows concealed a low archway leading onto a slippery set of steep stone steps. We followed the rough stairway as it burrowed into the very bowels of the Chateau before opening out onto a small damp chamber. In the middle of this chamber, illuminated by distant sunlight which poured down from a narrow chimney, stood a circular stone well. And in front of the well, his eyes flicking nervously around the room, stood Guillaume.
He raised a finger to his lips as we approached. “Shhh,” he whispered anxiously. “I think I’ve lost it.”
It was true that the smoke was nowhere to be seen within the cramped confines of the cavern. But a single sniff of the air suggested it couldn’t be far away. The familiar sour stench was a little flatter down here, as though the sharp tang was dampened somehow by the chill, clammy conditions, but it was there nonetheless. And if the smell had made it down here then surely the smoke lurked somewhere nearby. We all looked around anxiously.
“Where do you think it could be?” murmured the Captain to nobody in particular.
“Look at the walls!” I suddenly exclaimed after a moments silence. “They’re all wet!”
“Of course they are,” replied Master Ferdinand dismissively. “It’s always damp down here – water seeps in from the moat.”
“Perhaps it does,” I retorted. “But I imagine that water runs down the wall, not up.”
“Mon Dieu! She’s right!” exclaimed the Captain. “Look at it there! And there!”
“And look at the colour,” added Michael excitedly. “That’s clearly not water.”
All across the walls of the cavern thick shiny droplets of a yellowish liquid were slowly edging their way up over the cold damp stones in flagrant defiance of the laws of gravity. We all stood, transfixed for a minute or two, at this strange spectacle.
“It must be the cold down here,” I said. “The smoke hasn’t disappeared, it’s liquefied.”
“But where is it going?” demanded a perplexed Master Ferdinand.
No-one had an immediate answer so we continued to watch as the individual drops gradually came together to form pools, small at first but growing larger and larger as they continued to push determinedly up towards the ceiling. Once these glittering trails reached the roof of the chamber they set out immediately across it, rippling slowly out from the walls towards the centre.
It was another minute or so before Guillaume realised that the path of the yellow liquid appeared to be leading to a spot directly above his head. He gave a sudden shriek of terror and darted around to the other side of the well. Instantly there was a slight but noticeable shift in the trajectory of the yellow liquid to take aim at this new spot.
Guillaume gave out another sharp shriek of terror. “What is it doing?”
“Following you it would seem,” remarked Master Ferdinand blithely.
“But why?” demanded Guillaume, edging first one way, then another in alarm. “What does it want with me?”
“Perhaps it thinks you have whatever it was that it was looking for in the library,” suggested Michael.
As Guillaume darted back around to the other side of the well in an effort to escape the pursuing liquid I was sure I caught a flicker of recognition upon his face, a sudden guilty awareness of some ill-judged action. “What did you do Guillaume?” I challenged him. “What have you taken?”
“Nothing,” replied Guillaume in a less than convincing tone. “I’ve taken nothing.”
“Tell us,” ordered Master Ferdinand flatly. “Before I decide it’s in all our interests for me to ask mon Capitaine here to tip you down that damned well.”
The Captain flexed his arms briefly in a manner which seemed designed to suggest this would not be too onerous a task. Guillaume’s nervous glance flicked between Master Ferdinand and the rippling liquid on the ceiling for a moment longer before he reluctantly slipped his hand into his leather bag. “It’s nothing that isn’t rightfully mine anyway,” he muttered sulkily as he drew out the small nugget of gold we had seen in the library.
As he sheepishly held the nugget out in front of him there was an unexpected hiss from the pool of yellow liquid on the ceiling above and a solitary drop suddenly plunged down towards his outstretched hand. Guillaume instinctively jerked backwards but this action caused him to stumble on the earthen floor. As he staggered back he automatically flung out his hands in an effort to maintain his balance and the nugget of gold was thrown forward. It bounced three times around the rim of the well like a roulette ball spinning around a wheel before finally disappearing down into the stone circle. A series of echoing clinks related the progress of the nugget as it bounced against the walls before concluding with a distant splash.
There was a moment of silence before the pool of yellow liquid suddenly surged forward with an outraged fizz and promptly plunged down into the well after the gold.
In the instance that followed a deathly hush seemed to fill the whole chamber. One by one we hesitantly stepped forward and peered curiously down the well. At first nothing was visible in the murky depths. But then we heard a low deep rumble. And suddenly a bright golden spark flew upwards out of the well, scattering us all backwards. It was followed a moment later by another, then another. Long trails of the most dazzling light flew up out of the depths and exploded brilliantly all around the cavern.
“Volatile gold!” exclaimed Guillaume excitedly. “The conditions down the well. Don’t you see – we’ve actually created Balthazar of Tyre’s recipe!”
For a minute or two there seemed nothing to do but stand and watch the glittering spectacle. It was indeed the most dazzling display as the delicate golden sparks continued to fly upwards. But the low deep rumble that had heralded the onset of the display continued to grow in volume. And after a while the close confines of the low chamber began to tell. One or two of the sparks managed to find their way up the narrow chimney but the rest bounced back off the walls and ceiling, bursting with a furious energy as they struggled against the cramped conditions.
“Aaaggh!” cried Guillaume as one of these flashes of golden light crashed into his shoulder.
“Ooof!” grunted the Captain as another pinged off his chest.
Suddenly all five of us were trying to scramble up the narrow stairway at once, tripping over one another in an effort to escape the sizzling darts of golden light that were pinging violently back and forth. The deep violent rumble seemed to be growing both in pitch and volume with every second now, overlaid with a lightly percussive rain of clangs and tings. Our progress instinctively slowed as we reached the top of the stairs but we continued to back away from this ominous symphony, edging nervously into the kitchen.
We were still heading this way when we were met by two curious guards coming in the opposite direction. “Apologies, mon Capitaine, for leaving our post,” said the first with a respectful bow, “but we heard…”
The rest of his sentence was lost in a gasp as a solitary trail of golden light shot up from the stairs, ricocheted off the wall opposite and exploded in a dazzling shower of phosphorescent energy.
“By all the saints!” exclaimed the second guard as we hurried forwards out of the range of the shower of brilliant sparks. “What in heaven is that?”
Before anyone could offer an explanation another spark made its way up from the stairs and began flying back and forth across the room, bouncing off a pot left on the table with a resounding ting. The deep rumble from the direction of the well was so loud now that it seemed to be felt rather than heard, juddering up through the ground beneath our feet.
“Out!” cried Master Ferdinand abruptly. “Everybody out!”
The sense of an uncontrollable pressure building somewhere below convinced the guards to abandon their unanswered questions and join us as we hurried across the kitchen and up the staircase. In the corridor beyond we came across more curious guards, drawn from their posts by the strange sounds. But the deafening rumble was by now causing the walls around us to quiver and shake and so their questions were also brushed aside in favour of immediate evasive action.
“Everybody outside!” cried the Captain, a cry that was swiftly taken up and passed around. “Out into the courtyard.”
Michael and I blindly followed Master Ferdinand, Guillaume and the Captain through the maze of corridors, along with a growing flood of guards, drawn by the juddering rumble from all quarters of the Chateau. I could see an open doorway just ahead of me, with the bright sunlight of the courtyard just beyond, when all of a sudden everything in the Chateau seemed to go quite still. I had the strange sense of moving in a vacuum as I hurried the final few steps towards the fresh air.
There must have been at least ten of us clustered around the narrow doorway when the stillness suddenly exploded with a shattering boom and a mighty blast of air somehow served to fling every one of us through the door at the same time.
For a second I was aware of nothing but a dull ringing in my ears. Then I slowly contrived to pick myself up off the luckless guard who had broken my fall and blinked several times into the bright sunlight. In the centre of the courtyard stood a small grubby peasant who had somehow either escaped or defied the evacuation of the Chateau holding the collar of a bedraggled donkey. His eyes were fixed upon the sky above with an expression of dumb wonder whilst a shower of dazzling sparks drifted to the ground all around him. With some effort I dragged myself to my feet and stumbled forward a few paces to lift my own face to the sky but there was nothing left to see now but a thick yellowish cloud drifting away towards the horizon.
Slowly, reluctantly, the peasant drew his eyes down from the sky and looked with an expression of dull curiosity at the gaggle of stunned guards gradually picking themselves up off the floor. When he saw Master Ferdinand amongst the group he hastily pulled his woollen cap off his head and gave a sharp bow. “Heavens, Master Ferdinand, that’s a mighty fireworks display you had there,” he said, turning his eyes wistfully up to the now empty sky. “Is it a practice for St Stephen’s day?”
The dazed steward did not reply.
The peasant, unperturbed, drew his eyes with the same slow steady care down from the sky and passed them over the blackened walls and crumbling masonry that were all that was left of one corner of the Chateau. “Next time though if you don’t mind my saying,” remarked the peasant thoughtfully, “perhaps best not use quite so much powder.”
To be continued…