Ch. 11: The early bird gets the laugh
The boys slept fine. The castle less so. Change was in the air.
The stones of the great castle breathed a deep sigh of relief as the four boys were finally asleep. For 330 years, since 1684, the castle had slumbered and awoken every day to relative peace and safety. The secrets and the history, the land barons and local kings, the families and the enemies, all had weathered the centuries without so much as a dent in the door. There had been attempts, there had been robbers and looters, mystics and gold diggers, but none had the pieces of the puzzle one needed to breach the gates below the castle.
It was something stronger than brute force. A hacksaw and a sledgehammer weren’t going to get in, nor would even fire or flood. What would get into the secret rooms below the majestic manor were far simpler–and far more complex at the same time. Alastar felt that the solution was near. Even in his short life, he had been one of the many who had studied the history of the castle, but he was also one who went at the challenge knowing he couldn’t go it alone. He knew there were others who needed to be involved. But to recognize who these others might be took patience, experience and a keen eye for the unexpected.
This group wasn’t something that he would recognize with his intellect, but more have a gut feeling about. It would be a group of people so unexpected that it would seem absurd, but then it would seem perfect. The unexpected clan, in Alastar’s opinion, were now in this castle and on the edge of helping him finally gain entry into the forbidden halls below. He just had to convince them to want to get down there, to have an interest in helping him and to be brave enough to follow through, no matter what the consequences. They were almost ready, more or less willing, and one thing that Alastar had going for him was that the boys were motivated mostly by fantasy, yogurt and cheeseburgers.
They were also, finally, asleep.
* * *
“Li,” Dan whispered, hovering over Li’s body. His mouth hung open and although his body was resting on its side, his neck was somehow twisted so that his face and mouth pointed up to the vaulted ceilings of the boys’ room.
“Li, are you awake?” Dan whispered again a little louder. Li’s eyes moved and opened once and then quickly closed again.
“Two more minutes,” he said half asleep and out of instinct from school days and rolled over. Dan looked around and Lu and Dec were practically in a coma in their beds. No help there. Dan went over and peeked out the window.
For almost as far as the eye could see, there was a dark green that covered the earth like a cozy blanket. Tall pines and thick shrubs–certainly the den of furry wild animals. The sky was a powdery blue high above then a warmer blue down near the fuzzy green blanket. They weren’t in Beijing anymore, he thought.
“Li,” he whispered again. “Come on, let’s get going, I want to show you something.” Although Dan had nothing he actually wanted to show Li, it sounded like a good technique to get him out of bed. He walked over to Lu. It looked as if Lu had been hit by a small truck and was left splayed out on his bed with limbs pointing in medically impossible directions. His eyelids flickered so maybe he was dreaming. Better to leave that sleeping dog lie.
“Li, are you about ready?” he whispered optimistically even though his body had not moved a nanometer since his last effort. He walked over to Dec.
It wasn’t even worth a whisper as he was so snuggled up in his covers that it was hard to determine if there was a breathing human in there. Back to the window.
There was movement. Along a wall to the side of the grounds, there was a man walking. Dan opened the curtain a little wider and with that movement, the man must have noticed the slight change in the castle’s facade as he stopped and looked towards the exact window that Dan was looking out of. Dan squinted to see better, but couldn’t make out the face. Dan brought his hand up to wave slightly, a friendly early-morning gesture.
The man waved back with a slow wave, his arm only about at shoulder height. Dan’s eyes focused a little better and then he knew exactly who it was. Killian.
He tried to retract slowly and not obviously as he pulled himself back in the room, closed the curtain and crawled back into his bed. Not a creature had stirred, not even a mouse.
“What’s the rush, anyway?” he half-whispered to himself and he reminded himself that he was in a castle and practically a prince here and with Killian far away on the grounds and the possibility that he was actually a good guy, Dan felt a sly smile on his face and within seconds he was back asleep.
* * *
“Dan,” Li whispered. Dan slept sweetly with his mouth closed and body in a normal sleeping position. No reaction, no movement whatsoever. Li went to the window.
Greens on the grounds and blues up above and a group of several dozen people in wildly colorful sports apparel bouncing and dancing like a bunch of hyper zombies on the sprawling grass in front of the castle. Li got his glasses from his nightstand and looked again. A white-haired tall man was leading legions of people in what looked like dancing or aerobics. He pushed the window a bit and the music streamed through. Eighties pop music filtered through the crack in the window and Li instinctively looked for his parents in the group as they wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to dance to eighties music.
He was pretty sure he saw them, although the clothing was all wrong. They had on colorful sweat pants and shirts that Li was certain they didn’t actually own. He looked back into the room: sleeping boys. He looked back outside: dancing fanatic parents and adults. This was going to be an easy decision.
“Dan,” he also shook his shoulder a little with a gentle touch. “Hey, we have to get out of here, all of the adults are outside, we can probably go wherever we want in the castle.”
Dan was more receptive to Li’s wake-up call than Li had been to Dan’s. He rubbed his eyes like kids do in the movies, but Dan did it too, naturally. “OK, let’s go. What about Lu and Dec?”
“They’re totally asleep,” Li said, looking over at the unconscious bodies mummied in yummy duvets.
“Where are my shoes?” Dan asked no one.
“Dude, you’re just like my brother. He can never find his shoes in the morning. If you just put them in the same place every night, then you know where they are,” he said and didn’t even catch that he spoke, word for word, what his father told him for years to little avail.
“Here they are,” Dan said finding his shoes under a pile of Lu’s clothes. “Don’t you think we should wake up Lu and Dec?”
“Nah, I think they were out pretty late,” Li said.
“Oh, did you hear them come in?” Dan asked.
“No, I just think they were out really late. Lu is a zombie, but he’s usually up way earlier than I am,” Li said, looking at his shoe laces, making sure they lined up correctly. “Are you ready to go?”
“Let’s go,” Dan said. “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know,” Li said without concern.
“I’m starving. Let’s go to breakfast,” Dan said. Li nodded, looked at himself in the mirror again and they were out the door.
They went down a hallway, down a flight of stairs, through another long hallway that had a door in the middle of it for no reason, down another red-carpeted hallway, a slight turn, then they were next to the long-awaited paradise: the dining room.
It was empty. Li and Dan looked around and it was very inviting. Tables and chairs everywhere, all properly set up and waiting to be sat in and perfect for eating whatever the kitchen had on offer.
“Good morning, lads,” came the soft voice of a young woman. They turned around. “I’m Darcy.”
“Good morning,” Dan said. “I’m Dan and that’s Li,” he said in an awkward and very quick exchange of names. “Where is everybody?”
“I think they’re all out there doing Heyrobics,” she said. It all made sense to the boys and they nodded, but then they stopped nodding with that last word when it sounded a little different.
“Did you say aerobics?” Li asked.
“No, Heyrobics,” she said again and kept a straight face, toying with the boys. “Don’t you know what it is?”
“Uh, no,” Dan admitted slowly.
“Well, lads, I don’t know under what stone you’ve been sleeping, but it’s all the rage in Ireland now, don’t you know,” her Irish accent was as thick as glue and her intonations were all in different places than the boys were used to.
“Oh,” Li said and was ready to switch the topic to breakfast.
“It was started by a Swedish guy Johan and now it’s even in Beijing,” she stopped to look at Dan. “You probably know about it in Beijing, right?”
“I guess so,” Dan said, rather confused at all of this so few minutes after his eyes had been open. He also wondered how she knew he lived in Beijing.
The woman looked at the boys in anticipation of an answer, but when there was only silence and blank stares, she finally gave in.
“Oh, I’m just playing with you boys,” she shrieked and both boys’ heads physically jolted back an inch at the change of tone. She kept going, now more enthusiastic than ever. She spoke quickly and without pause, “I hadn’t heard of it either, lads, up until about an hour ago when Johan came in here looking for some orange juice,” she took a breath, but wasn’t about to stop. “Did you know that he started Heyrobics more than 30 years ago in Sweden and now his son has built it up in Beijing? I can’t believe this guy, I think he must be 70 and he’s out there bouncing around and sweating with people half his age. Athough,” she trailed off as she glanced out the huge dining room windows towards the gardens. It took the boys off guard that she stopped talking at all.
“Although what?” Li asked, not at all interested in Heyrobics, but very interested in the ‘although.’
“Yes, well, right,” she stopped and started, the first time she hesitated all morning. “They’re dancing out there rather near some of the headstones.”
“Headstones?” Dan asked and his eyes perked up. “Do you mean like a cemetery?”
“Yes, although they’re sometimes hard to see and you can even step right on them and you might not know it,” she caught her breath and took in some more air to keep her thought going. “I’m sure Johan doesn’t know he’s Heyrobicising on top of some the old manor barons from hundreds of years ago. He seemed like such a jolly chap.”
Their hunger curiously went away as they heard headstones, manor barons and talk of hundreds of years ago.
“Do you know about the history of the castle?” Dan asked.
“Oh me? My now, lads, I’m relatively new here, only been here a few years, I reckon,” she looked up to the ceiling as if to count in her head and then did count her fingers out, but didn’t come up with a number or at least say it out loud. “There are some old geysers lurking around here that know it all, though. Yes, they know the history of the Markree as if it all happened yesterday.”
“Like who?” Dan asked.
“Have you come across the old man with the bushy eyebrows?”
“Do you mean,” Li almost didn’t want to repeat the name out loud, but she was so patiently waiting and it was a bit awkward if he started this train of thought without actually coming up with a name. “Do you mean Killian?”
“Oh dear me, yes, he’s like a historian around here. He knows everything, yes,” she stated and stopped.
“Are there others we might talk to to learn more?” Dan asked, then elaborated, “I mean, other than Killian?”
“Oh yes, a wee bit weary of the bushy-eyed old warlock, are you? I understand boys, he can be a bit of Jekyll and Hyde, that one,” she again looked up to the ceiling. There must have been so much knowledge up there. “Ach, that Killian, though, nothing to be worried about there, he’s a big teddy bear,” she saw that she had the boys complete attention so she kept at it. “Well, except for when,” she lowered her voice and came even closer to their faces. They could see the roots of her eyebrows. “Except for when those boys went down under the castle with him and were never heard from again.”
Dan was so scared had no feeling in his body other than his throat trying to swallow and it getting stuck somewhere by his Adam’s apple. Li’s mouth hung open and visions of gruesome slasher films flashed through his mind like an Oscar’s night tribute to horror.
Once she saw that they weren’t breathing, she let out just a single word, but it burst out of her mouth like a firecracker.
“Boo!” she shrieked.
Both boys reeled back as if she had just pushed them hard and fast. She laughed and laughed and even did that whole belting her thigh with her hand that the boys thought people didn’t really do. She had a roaring laugh for such a small and young woman, like she was part Irish waitress, part Irish witch.
“Oh, lads, I had you there, didn’t I?” she howled and Li counted how many people in the room thought this was funny at all. He got to just one and stopped. “Ooh, you should have seen your faces. Oh, I needed to record this. Jiminy Cricket, you’ve made my morning, I tell you that you have,” she looked at one them in the eyes and then the other. “You have to lighten your day with some good-humored fun, stir things up a bit, put a little scare into your soul. Wouldn’t you agree?” she asked and it seemed it was actually a question she wanted an answer to.
“Uh, I guess so,” was all that Dan could muster. He wasn’t sure when this was a conversation and when it was a theater show and when he was supposed to really answer and when it was just talk like in a play.
“If you say so,” said Li, the visions of gruesome murder scenes only slowly leaving his brain.
“My dear lads, Killian is a bear, he’s a soft old gent who has only mission left in his life,” she spoke quickly, but those last few words slowed her down and she stopped smiling and stopped laughing. Again, the boys were hanging on her every word. She kept joking as if it was no big deal, but then she’d finish with something they needed to hear the end of, but she purposely left them hanging.
“What’s his only mission?” Dan asked.
She hesitated again. This time she looked around the room, but it was just the three of them. She whispered again, but this time it wasn’t a witch, she was back to the friendly kitchen girl, “He’s obsessed with what’s under this castle.” She stopped, but the boys were waiting for more.
When nothing came, Dan spoke up, “What’s under this castle?”
“Oh, dear, my precious lads, now you’ve tapped out all of my information,” she said with some concern. “Maybe I’ll learn it someday, but from what I’ve heard, you know, the talk around the kitchen late at night, there’s not much to learn because not many people know what’s under the castle.”
“Well,” Dan probed, not ready to quit just yet, “What do you know?”
“I’ve heard there are some puzzle pieces around the castle, even over by those same headstones where your Swedish friend is kicking up his boots,” she again looked out the window, but the boys didn’t want her to stop. She was full of information and it didn’t seem like she wanted to kill them.
“By the headstones or on the headstones or … ” Dan asked, not sure he wanted to know more.
Li filled in, “Or under the headstones?”
“My no, young friends, you won’t have to dig up any dead bodies around here, that’s for certain,” she laughed again and was clearly having a good time with all of this. The boys were having less of a good time and the thought of having to go through Killian to get information wasn’t their favorite.
“But read the headstones and, well, pay attention, read between the lines,” she stopped talking and looked at them, she seemed to look into them. “You see, lads, I don’t know what I’m looking for, so I can’t find it, but you boys might have better luck reading into the cryptic language to learn something,” she spoke with more and more energy, but her voice got deeper as she seemed to care more now that they were more important pieces of the puzzle.
“You know, boys, I have the feeling that you’re not going to give up, that you’re somehow going to be a part of this,” then she stopped and she again hit her palm into her forehead.
“Wait a minute, are you the boys who went downstairs with Alastar last night?” She didn’t wait for a response because they didn’t deny it quickly enough. “Of course you are, you’re the only kids in the whole castle” she was now clearly interested. She yet again looked to the ceiling then quickly back to them. “Well, there are two others I heard about. Where are they?”
“Those are our brothers, they’re still sleeping,” Dan said.
“Lads, you might be more involved in this whole thing more deeply than you thought. I thought you were just up for a little fun, but you could be more important than you understand,” she paused. “Alastar doesn’t just bring anyone down under the castle now, lads. Do you understand what that means?”
“Well, not really,” Li answered.
“It means he might try to reenact what happened down there hundreds of years ago,” she said.
“When the one guy disappeared?” Dan asked.
“Exactly, my friend. But do you know where he ended up that one who disappeared?”
“I thought they never found him again?” Li said.
“Aha, that’s what we hear, yes. But it wasn’t always clear,” she turned her head as there was some commotion coming from the kitchen. “There are many different stories about what happened to him. You might learn something out at the grave stones,” she again looked out the window and now pointed at all of the dancing colorful bouncing wedding guests.
“Ach, lads,” she just kept on going, “You should get out there and join them all. It looks like it’s a rocking party.”
“Do you … ” Dan began, but was quickly cut off as if Darcy knew exactly what he was going to ask.
“Ach, of course, you boys are hungry!” she slapped her palm up against her head and her head bonked backwards but then came forward like a bouncy ball and was so close to their faces that they could feel her breath. “I’ll go make you an Irish breakfast you’ll never forget. Just grab a seat here, lads, right by the window and I’ll be back before you can say Heyrobics.”
“Heyrobics,” Li said plainly, but then cracked a smile.
“You got me, lad. You are some clever young boys, you are,” she pointed a finger at them and wagged it up and down not unlike an old witch. “I will just say this now as I tend to say what’s on my mind, in case you hadn’t noticed,” and she winked quickly. “I like you boys, you’re quick witted and fun, that’s going to take you far, but,” and she held that same pointed finger up pointed to the ceiling, “it’s going to help you tonight. Just keep that in mind, stay quick of wit and keep it fun. Remember that old mystic who ran this castle, that’s what he was like and that’s what he appreciated: quick of wit and quick to laugh,” one last stare at somehow all four of their eyes at the same time. “That’s what will help you get under this castle and find what’s hiding behind those doors, lads.”
With that, she winked, but with both eyes quickly. She turned and walked to the kitchen.
The boys fell into the two chairs at the table by the window and simultaneously let out a deep sigh as if they had just finished a huge exam, ran a marathon or had their brains rewired by a waitress witch in the dining room of the Markree Castle.
At first, they only stared at each other with blank stares, just plain overwhelmed with the overload of information from Darcy. These boys didn’t know each other that well, but they were experiencing so much every moment in this place that they were quickly becoming brothers of sorts.
They couldn’t take their eyes off of each other, but they also couldn’t say anything. The look of worry and disbelief slowly morphed as they communicated with each other without speaking. One corner of a lip in Li curled slightly and Dan’s upper lip moved up slightly. Without realizing it, their faces were transforming into smiles although they didn’t know why or how.
Within just seconds, they were giggling, but a giggle they didn’t recognize. Something of a knowing, more mature chuckle that came from somewhere they didn’t quite know. They shared an experience together that they would never forget and maybe no one would ever believe. There was already so much that had already happened and so much that would maybe still happen.
It was only Saturday morning and they had so much to do and they were getting a better idea of what it was.
Although it wasn’t something he did often, Dan pulled his arm up from his side and put his fist above the middle of the table. Li didn’t take his eyes off of Dan and raised his own fist and without a word spoken since Darcy left, they bumped their fists lightly and brought their hands back to their sides.