A CASTLE Of CONUNDRUMS
“Always a pleasure to meet new people. Welcome to my home!”
Under normal circumstances, he is completely correct. It is a pleasure to meet new people, and you’d normally be glad of the hospitality after a long journey.
Of course, since you’ve spent the past six days lost in the woods after the plane crash, and the “home” he speaks of is a freaking castle, “normal circumstances” is no longer really an option for you, now is it?
And that’s before you take into account that the first words you’ve heard spoken in six days came out of the mouth of an honest to goodness Centaur.
“Don’t mind my pets. They don’t bite.”
That’s extremely comforting as a saber tooth tiger would probably bite pretty hard. He rests one meaty paw on the creature’s neck. Big cats are not supposed to be able to purr, but it does.
Through parched lips, you manage to get out a few words, “Where am I?”
“That,” he replies, “is an excellent question.” He looks around and smiles. “You are at my home. The castle has been in my family for a dozen generations.”
“It’s amazing.” It’s totally true. As far as you can tell the building shouldn’t be able to stand.
“So glad you like it. Please, consider yourself my guest. What would you like to do first?”
Chosen: “Do you require rest? Come and pick out a room where you may stay.”
“Do you require rest? Come and pick out a room where you may stay.”
Speaking as little as you did hurt your throat, so you simply nod your thanks and trod alongside the centaur. He beams broadly at you and claps you on the back. It’s nearly enough to send you to the floor.
Entering the castle is a challenge in itself. The short flight of stairs lead up to a solid wall, and what you recognize as the entrance is completely by itself above the moat with nothing leading to it.
“Tell me, friend, if I may call you so, why have you come here on foot? Surely eagle-back would have been an easier trek?”
You turn to look at him. “I was lost in the woods. My plane went –” Your throat catches, and you start to cough. When the fit ends, you’re inside the castle. You have no idea how, and it occurs to you that now you have no idea how to get out. Certainly, there’s no door behind you now.
“I’ll go fetch you some water, friend. You may choose any of the rooms down this hallway. I’ll come back soon and find you.”
The hallway stretches on in front of you. Doors of every color and size, some so small you couldn’t possibly fit through them, line either side.
Which one do you choose?
Chosen: The door that seems like it’s made of smoke.
How often will you ever have a chance to open a door made of smoke? You reach out and take a hold of the handle.
As you probably should have expected, your hand passes right through it. With a shrug, you walk on past the door into the room beyond. The smell of smoke is overwhelming, and you start to choke. Your eyes burn as you stumble backwards. Somehow, the door is no longer there.
“Hey, buddy, you’re not looking so hot.”
Perhaps it’s the smoke in your eyes, but as you turn, you’re pretty sure you see a figure shuffle toward you. The figure is made primarily of hot coals.
“Pal, you are in the wrong spot. What the heck did you mean coming in this door? Don’t you know where there’s smoke there’s fire?”
“Quit grilling the meat, Toast.” This new voice breaks out from an open flame to your left. You’re pretty sure the fire itself is doing the talking. “Much longer here and there will be a briquette where a human used to be.”
“Fine, Tinder. Whatever you say.” Toast turns to you. “The way I see it, you have a few choices. . .”
Chosen: There is a metal door set in the wall of the cavern. From the other side, you can hear a torrent of wind. A nice, cool breeze?
There is a metal door set in the wall of the cavern. From the other side, you can hear a torrent of wind. A nice, cool breeze?
You point to the door. “Please,” you choke out into the smoke.
The coals that make up Toast’s head tilt to the side. “That one? Sure. Hasn’t opened in a long time, but I can probably break the seal.”
He begins trudging toward the door, leaving you to crawl after him. The ground is hot on your knees and hands as you try to stay below the worst of the smoke.
“Oh, my, it’s been so long since that door was open,” says Tinder. “I can’t remember how long since I’ve fed.”
It strikes you as an odd statement. Fire feeds on fuel, right? Tinder is sitting on a pile of wood that hasn’t even burned all the way down. What else could a fire want to feed on?
“Come on, you stupid door,” grunts Toast. You can dimly see the problem. The seals around the door have oxidized and become covered in a thin layer of rust.
A sudden rush of oxygen into a room full of hot coals.
“Wait,” you cry as best you can.
You are too late.
You awaken in a white room, The air is cool, and the sheets on your bed are soft. For the first time in days, you are not even a little thirsty as you waken.
And the unicorn standing over your bed seems nice enough.
“Good to see you awake,” she says.
“How did I get here?” You’re amazed at the clarity of your voice after so long feeling like your throat was made of sandpaper.
She gives you an equine smile. “Dear, I’m a unicorn. We are creatures of air and water. Curing the damage of fire is as nothing to me.”
“Is he up?” comes a familiar voice from outside the room. A moment later, your host, the centaur appears. “Oh, thank the heavens. I wasn’t sure you’d be up in time.” He looks at the unicorn. “Is this little one strong enough, Auntie?”
“Have you ever known me to cure someone that wasn’t, nephew?” She looks at you. “It’s best if you go now, little one. Go, before there is interest on your debt.”
“Well, you did almost burn down the castle!” There is no anger in his voice. He smiles a rough grin at you. “There have been damages, and as is the custom of my people, they must be repaid, but I think I found some tasks that won’t be too, well, tasking.” He cocks a head at you. “You don’t object do you? I promise, it’s nothing beyond your abilities, and then we can put all this unpleasantness behind us.”
“What did you want me to do?”
“Oh, I have a few little chores for you, any one of which will more than satisfy the debt.”
What do you choose?
Chosen: A squirrel has stolen some trinkets from the centaur and taken them high into a tree. You can go and climb it as a centaur is supremely unsuited for that task.
It only seems fair. Of course you can do this one little task for your host, particularly as you’d probably be dead if it weren’t for the little trip to the Unicorn. The centaur mentions a few tasks to you, but you stop him when he mentions climbing a tree to go fetch some trinkets a squirrel stole from him. After all, as a child, you were constantly climbing the tree in your back yard.
Of course, the tree in your back yard was only a tenth the size of this one. You stare up at the tree, its trunk half again around as your first car, and you feel your heart in your throat.
“Not to worry, you don’t need to climb the whole way,” says the centaur. “There’s a knot in the tree about ten feet beyond the second branch from the bottom. I saw the squirrel go in there.”
The news is welcome, but with branches that tall, you’ll still need a plan.
Chosen: No need to behave abnormally just because the situation is abnormal. Ask for some rope and possibly some climbing gear.
You look at the pegasus tied up in the yard. You look at the innocent pogo stick lying at your feet. Defiantly, you shake your head. You are not giving in to the weirdness of this place.
“May I borrow a good stout piece of rope, please, sir?” You tell yourself firmly that you’re addressing a very tall man, not a centaur. “And if you have some shoes with cleats or something like that?”
“Rope you say?” He looks intrigued. “Interesting. Back in a flash.”
He brings you the rope and some spikes to attach to your shoes. “Now what on earth are you planning to do with these?”
You tie the rope around yourself, and then around the tree to give yourself a safety harness of sorts and then you begin to ascend.
“Amazing! What they won’t think of next,” says the centaur, clapping his hands.
The climb is fairly easy as such things go. You’re already about 20 feet up when you see the squirrel coming down toward you.
“Intruder! What are you doing here?!” His voice is surprisingly deep.
You decide not to make an issue of the talking squirrel. “The centaur below is missing some items he says were taken from him. He’s asked me to get them back for him.”
“Never!! Once I get something to my knothole, it belongs to me!!”
“We can talk about it once I get up there.”
“You never will!” And so saying, the squirrel scurries to the rope right out of your reach and begins chewing on the fibers. You need to figure out something to do before you become ground pizza.
Chosen: There’s some slack in the rope, You could try to whip the squirrel off.
It is absolutely true that squirrels are made for climbing. They are not, however, made for hanging onto a rope whipping like a demented dog’s tail. The squirrel shouts in surprise as you whip the rope you’re using as a lifeline. It holds on, barely, the first time. You’d stop if your life weren’t on the line, so you snap the rope again, and the squirrel flies off into the air.
For just a moment, your blood runs cold. You’ve just possibly murdered another living, thinking being. Then, the centaur gallops across the field and leaps impossibly high into the air. Your host grabs the squirrel by the scruff of the neck and lands gracefully on the field below. With his other hand, he flashes you a thumbs up.
The remainder of the climb is uneventful. You reach the knothole and look inside. There’s more in here than you could ever hope to carry, but you should decide what you’re actually taking down with you.
Taking more than what you were sent for might mess with that debt you’re supposed to be repaying. You don’t understand those scales, so it’s probably best not to go tipping them.
You reach in and grab the trinkets you were sent for, four rings and four horseshoes. The rings go into your pocket. and you manage to tuck the horseshoes into your belt. The climb down is uneventful and the centaur meets you with a wave.
“Wonderful!” The centaur says with a smile. “I’ve missed these so very much.”
“Thief! Robber! Homewrecker!”
“Feel free to shut up,” you tell the squirrel. You look to the centaur. “Are the shoes for . . .?”
“Me? Heavens no. They’re for the game! You put a spike in the ground and try to throw them so the shoe wraps around the spike. Haven’t been able to do it the last three family reunions.”
You hand him the shoes, then pull out the rings. “Don’t forget these.”
“How could I?” He takes one from your hand and gives it to the squirrel. “This one is for you.”
The squirrel sputters and squeaks. “But they were all mine before!”
“Yes, but now this one is a gift, and that makes all the difference.”
The squirrel has no idea what to say to that, until finally, almost reluctantly, it takes the ring and rushes back up the tree.
“Confused the devil out of the poor blighter, didn’t I?” He grins down at you. “And I’ll take the other two as well.”
“But there’s three, sir.”
“There are only two for me. The other is to let you go home if you wish.” His smile becomes softer. “You are welcome here, as you have always been. But a welcome is an imprisonment if you have no alternative. Place the ring on your ring finger, and you shall return home in an instant and think all of this to have been a dream. Place it on your index finger, and you’ll return home and remember every single thing. Or you could put it in your pocket and hold onto it until you’re ready to go.”
You stare at the simple wooden ring in your hand. “And what if I put it on another finger?”
He considers. “No idea. You could always find out if you like. The choice, my friend, is yours.”