Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Story of Otto Kleinhund, Part the Second

The cellar was dark, the air cold and stale. Yet Otto began to sweat. Why had Master Wilhelm mentioned trolls? Was there something that Otto hadn't been told? He took a last look up at the comforting square of light above him, raised the torch and scanned the room.

Barrels, sacks and some wooden crates. And spiders. Not very promising. No shelves of scrolls. And crates wouldn't hold the parchments he was looking for, would they? He looked in several, disturbing several kinds of crawling thing from their nests, but found nothing of interest. Rolls of cloth, and some old robes. Some wooden cups and bowls. A small chest containing knives and spoons - not of any great quality as far as Otto could tell. Perhaps they'd been moved down here when the College got some nicer ones, he thought.

So, no scrolls, no scrolls... he scanned the room again. Piles of crates, barrels, black mouth of sinister unexplored corridor that I'm not looking at, barrels, sacks, and back to the piles of crates. It was no good. He would have to go on into the darkness.

"Come on Otto, no point delaying." Not for the first time, he wished that he had never left Knisterbad. But, then he thught of Ruglinde and her scornful words at their parting. She had mocked him soundly as a pale excuse for a man, more like a shrivelled thing one found under a stone. "Oh well, at least I don't have that problem any more," he said aloud. Inside the College precincts, the only female he came into contact with was Old Mother Grout, who was in charge of cleaning the linen. She was even older than Master Wilhelm and had a face like a gnarled foot. What lurked under her clothing was anyone's guess, perhaps even Mother Grout no longer knew, but whatever was there, it was bulky, even though her clothing was bulky too. Fortified by the thought of Old Mother Grout's formidibale frame, scary enough to put fear into a troll for sure, Otto steeled himself, thrust the torch into the black gap, and continued forward.

The next room was a disappointment too. Almost a copy of the first, it contained some thin metal buckets with lids containing dried-up but still smelly liquids - some kind of wood preserver, Otto supposed. He placed the torch in a bracket helpfully fixed to the wall, and continued his examinantion. There was also a tapestry, though not a particularly interesting one. The central panel seemed to have some shapes that might be birds but it was difficult to tell behind the cobwebs, dust and mildew. As he was examining it, he heard a slight noise behind him. Instantly he spun round, wishing the torch was in his hand not the bracket on the wall. It was a small sound, a scuttling sound. Not trolls. But, perhaps, rats?

In a second his mind was running through all the stories he'd ever heard about people being eaten allive by rats... even worse, the rumours of ratmen who walked on two legs, who were the size of a person and used weapons... foolish, foolish stories, but then, who knew for certain what lurked in the dark in the city's underbelly?

After a few momemts, he remembered to breathe. Slowly, slowly, he expelled the air from his lungs and began to edge towards the torch. But he saw nothing. At last he reached it, and his fingers closed around its shaft - just as something furry moved across his hand. Terrified, he called out and jumped back, but saw that it merely a thick cobweb.

"Otto, get a hold of yourself!" he said angrily. "You are a man of learning, not a fool to be spooked by imagined terrors!" With difficulty, he controlled his shaking hands, lifted the torch from the bracket, and resolved to continue.

A short corridor joined the tapestry room to the next. No trolls, no ratmen, Otto repeated to himelf, silently with every step. It seemed an age - though in reality it was less than 20 paces - to the next room. Otto paused at the doorway, then thrust the torch forward.

What he saw took his breath away. The room was perhaps five paces square and most of the walls were covered in shelves - piled high with scrolls and sheets of parchemnt, and small chests, some of which were open and, Otto could see, also contained documents. This was surely the archive to which Master Wilhelm had referred - the lost treasure-house of knowledge of the Guild of Speculative Antiquarians.

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