In this section, the main character, Logan, has become lost in the King's castle and finds himself in the women's quarters by accident. The society he now lives in is very conservative in terms of gender relations, and there are stiff penalties for breaches in conduct. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it's during this adventure that Logan finds something of a fabled treasure ...
...I had to find a way out fast before one of the female guards found me and had me castrated or something. Naturally, at that very moment, I heard footsteps.
So, I did what anyone would probably do when faced with such dire straits. I panicked. I started running around, trying to open all the doors. They were all locked except for one, a janitor's closet. I ran inside, closed the door, and waited for the guard to pass. When the footsteps abated, I breathed again and turned the knob of the door. It wouldn't budge. Great. I tried it again. And again and again and again. Somehow, I had picked the one janitorial closet in probably the whole castle that locked. It was pretty dark inside, and of course I didn't have any matches to see if there was a latch or lever that could spring the door. I felt my way around the doorframe. Nothing. I sank to the floor to think. And then I saw it, and it all came rushing back.
* * * * * * * *
In order to understand what I was thinking, I must first digress. There was a running rumor among all soldiers in training about a stash of treasure hidden somewhere in the castle. Not the King's treasure vault; no, this was different. This treasure vault contained all the things that we soldiers wanted but couldn't afford, since no one was paid until after all training had been completed. Nobody was entirely sure what was in there, but there were plenty of speculations: gold coins and jewels, alcohol, tobacco, and dirty magazines, exotic weapons, fine clothes, and fancy preserved foods ... the possibilities were endless.
There was even a whole legend that had been built up around the rumor. No one knew how much was true, but according to the story, long ago, when times were stricter, the King would send his soldiers out across his realm to make sure no one was selling or harboring any illegal substances. If they found any, they were to confiscate them immediately and bring them back to the castle for inspection. What constituted an “illegal substance” was a hotly contested point whenever the legend was told, but as the story goes, a few bored recruits decided to turn pirate, hijack the convoy carrying these contraband materials when it returned back to the castle, and then disseminate the goods among the rest of the soldiers. Thus, they had the support of all the troops, who went out of their way to make sure the ringleaders had every spare moment free to plan the attack, their method of transporting the goods, and where they would hide everything. On the night the convoy returned, they attacked. The convoy guards were caught completely by surprise, and everything went as planned. The stash was hidden, the location known only among the enlisted men, who had to swear upon the penalty of death to keep the location a secret.
The raid had been so successful, in fact, that the next time the convoy returned, the recruits tried again. They almost got away with it, but their luck ran out as they were carrying the last bit of contraband to their hide–out. They were caught, a fight broke out, and one of the recruits was killed. His name – Ian McCroff. And ever since then, the stash was known as McCroff's treasure. No one involved would talk, and eventually, the matter was forgotten. Over time, even the secret of the treasure's location was forgotten. But the story lived on, passed from one generation of soldier to another, all the way down to me.
I was as curious as anyone else, but the whole thing had always sounded like a crock to me, something somebody had made up and spread around to see how far it would get, just to pass the time. It was a nice idea – hidden treasure always was – and it put some mystery and hope back into our lives. In that sense, it was a good thing. But like a lot of other folks, I found it hard to take seriously.
Up until that moment, that is. When I’d shut the door to the closet, another door to my back had popped open. You had to squat down to see it, and when I sat down on the floor of the closet to think, it caught my eye. By then, my eyes had adjusted to the dark, and I found that I was staring into a passageway. A faint glimmer of light emerged from its depths, allowing me to just make out a little plaque someone had mounted on the inside of the doorframe. “MCCROFF – WE REMEMBER,” it read.
Could it be? I crawled in the direction of the light. I eventually came to a fork in the path and chose the one that seemed brighter. It was getting really hot in there, and though I couldn't see too well, I felt all grimy, like I was covered in dust and dirt. But I kept crawling, and finally, the air seemed to get cooler. I found myself looking down into a large storeroom. The faint glimmer of light I'd seen all the way at the other end of the tunnel was due to a small window near the ceiling that let in some light from outside. It didn't exactly make it bright inside, but I could make out stacks of boxes. I lowered myself down from the tunnel opening onto a few of the boxes and stepped onto the cool floor of the storeroom.
I pushed the lid off one of the wooden boxes. Inside, packed in hay, were several dark bottles. I opened one up and sniffed it. Wine. I popped the lid on the next box. More wine. Then I peered around the room. The boxes, some of which had blankets thrown over them, seemed to be grouped into piles. Perhaps some kind of organizational system? I ran to the pile across from me. Those boxes were filled with little vials that contained powders that seemed like spices. The next was forks and knives. Was this just a storeroom for the castle kitchen? My heart sank a little at the thought, but I ran to the next pile of boxes and was trying to pry the lid off when I heard the sound of a match striking. The sound of hard heels against the stone floor reverberated off the walls. I froze.
“Freeze! You've seen enough,” came a female voice. My heart sank even lower.
The guard carried a lantern and a spear. She hung the lantern from a hook in the wall and walked towards me, spearpoint first.
“Where did you come from?” I asked forlornly.
“That's none of your concern. How long have you known about this?”
“About five minutes,” I said.
She studied me over. “You used the closet entrance, didn't you?”
“I ... I guess,” I said.
“Yeah. You're filthy. Alright, enough gaping. Get down from there.”
In trying to avoid the spear she had poked in my side, I sidestepped and slipped on a dusty blanket. Flailing my arms to regain balance, I fell right on top of the next pile of boxes. The boxes and I hit the floor with a crash. I landed on my side, but something soft kind of eased my fall.
“You clumsy idiot! Look what you've done!” the guard shouted.
I was going to say something when I realized what I was lying on top of. A pretty woman's picture stared right back at me. And another and another. A broken box lay near my head, and from it spilled volumes and volumes of old, yellowed magazines.
“Whoa,” I think I said, as my virgin eyes, suddenly less so, stared in a mixture of confusion, curiosity, revulsion, and admiration at my latest find. Maybe this really was McCroff's treasure after all ...
“Hey! Quit stalling! Get up!” yelled the guard. She walked over with a lantern and peered down at me. She gasped.
“Hey! Gimme those! They're mine!” she yelled and kicked me off the pile of magazines. She carefully picked them up, one by one uncreasing bent pages, and stacked them neatly back into the somewhat injured box. “Nosy good–for–nothing–grumble–grumble–grumble ...” was all she said as she worked. I couldn't help but shake my head in amused bewilderment.
“Umm ... sorry I busted the box,” I said. “All those are yours?”
The guard glared at me, then in a flash, drew her dagger and grabbed me by the throat.
“You tell one person what you found here today, and I will personally hunt you down, cut your balls off, and toss them in the moat. Do you understand?”
She loosened her grip a little.
I panted for air. “Alright, I won't tell anyone about your dirty magazines, okay?”
“No, no, I mean this whole place!”
“You mean ... this really is McCroff's treasure?”
“Yes, you idiot! Didn't you see the sign? Or can't you read?”
“Well, yeah, I saw the sign ... but all I found was some wine and some cooking stuff. Well, and that your porn collection ... how come you keep it locked in here? Kind of inconvenient to get to, isn’t it?” I couldn’t help blurting out.
Her grip tightened again.
“Okay, okay, I promise not to tell.”
She let go and eventually succeeded in clamping my hands behind my back with heavy chains despite my struggling.
“Jeeze, take it easy. How come you get all this stuff, and no one else does? In the story, this junk was for everyone!” I protested as she led me out at spearpoint.
“Don't believe everything you hear, kid. Like you said, that was just a story.”
“Where are we going?”
“You'll see. Or rather, you won't.”
A sack was tossed over my head, and all the guard could hear were my muffled protests. I kept stumbling ahead blindly, lead only by the point of the guard's spear and her gruff commands. At one point it became light, and we kept walking awhile before I was ordered to stop. I felt myself being pushed down and stumbled onto a pile of hay. The sack was removed from my head.
“Open your eyes. I have too much to lose by killing you,” said the guard. “An investigation is the last thing we need right now. But I need to be sure you're not going to talk. That 'treasure,' as you put it, is the only thing worth keeping in this castle, as far as we're concerned, and its secret stays with us. It's been safe for hundreds of years – as long as we've been around, and it's going to stay that way. That entrance you found – it won't be there tomorrow. The one I led you out of – that won't, either. As far as you're concerned, it won't exist. Gone, vanished,” she said, with a snap of her fingers. She paused. “So, what did you really see? The truth this time.”
I looked around. We were standing in the royal stables, near the back. I could see daylight ahead. I could make a run for it. I looked at the guard. She'd whipped out the dagger again and was flipping it around in her hand.
The dagger was at my side in an instant. “Just because I said I wouldn't kill you doesn't mean I can't make the next few minutes very, very uncomfortable. Are we clear?” The dagger moved down and hovered at my groin.
Oh, boy. What a day. “I told you already. Just the kitchen stuff. The magazines. Honest. That's all I got to see.”
The guard paused and considered this for a moment. Then she straightened up, taking the dagger with her.
“Oh. Well, then it's nothing to you. Just another overblown rumor. You know what the penalty is for being caught in female quarters?”
“Say anything about any of this, and you get that and worse. Now look up at the watch tower. Wait till the guard isn't looking, then hightail it to the wall. She can't see you there. Then go back to your camp. If all goes well, no problems for either of us. I don't wanna explain this to my commanding officer. Or it won't be just your body parts in the moat. Now go on, run, get out of here!”
* * * * * * * *
That night, after dinner, I was walking back to the barracks when a hand reached out from the shadows and yanked me into an alley.
The now familiar face of the female guard that had caught me that morning greeted me.
Oh, boy. Not her again.
“I didn't say ...”
She pressed a strong, gloved hand over my mouth. I looked up into the shadowy face of the guard, which spoke of tension and worry.
“Don't worry, kid. Your nuts are safe. But it's trouble. On my end. Someone overheard us in the stables. One of us. Word got around.” The guard sighed. “Let's just say that things within the female guard aren't as rosy as I made them out to be.” She uncovered her hand and let me go.
“What does this ...”
“Have to do with you? Simple. The word's out now that you were seen in the female quarters. Nothing official. Just a rumor. Figured I’d let you know.”
I sighed. “I guess it's just been one of those days. Hey, what's so bad about being caught in the female quarters anyway?”
“Ah, you're not from around here, kid, you wouldn't understand.”
“You know, where I grew up, boys and girls lived together in the same room for years, and it was never any big deal,” I said, shaking my head.
“Really? I didn't know there were places in the world like that. Never would have guessed! Good for you. All men could take a lesson from you.”
“Well ... I doubt that very much.”
“No ... it's not that,” I said. “I mean, there were always plenty of girls around when I was growing up. And sure, there were plenty of people fooling around, but ... I never really did.”
The guard laughed at first, then did a double take. “Wait, you're joking, right?”
“Maybe you prefer men?”
“No, I like women.”
“So, you mean you never had a sweetheart?”
“Didn't you ever want one?”
“Then why didn't you get one?”
I thought about it awhile then shrugged again. “I dunno.” When she continued staring at me, I blurted out, “I was busy with ... other things, I guess.”
“Geeze, kid.” The guard stared at me curiously then said, “Well, at least you're honest about it. Most men think they know more about women than they really do and end up looking like jackasses.”
“Yeah. Well, thanks for the compliment,” I said, not without bitterness.
“Ha! You're still pretty pathetic, but hey, you're just a kid.”
“But seriously, what a shame,” she said. She actually sounded like she felt sorry for me, which was probably the last thing I needed. “All those opportunities you might've had when you were growing up – all gone, never to be had again. And goodness knows you won't learn much in this dump. Aren't you at all curious?” she asked incredulously.
“Yeah, I guess. But why are we talking about this?”
“Hey, it's none of my business, but I'm just looking out for you, kid. What would your mama say if she knew you were out here all alone with no one to look after you?”
“My mama's dead ... but ... thanks, I guess, maybe she would've appreciated it.”
The guard's face softened a little, and she said, “I'm sorry, kid. Well, your dad then.”
“No, I'm an orphan.”
“Geeze, kid, you're full of great news. Don't you have anyone?”
“Well ... I have this one friend. Far away.”
“Do you pray?”
“Well, maybe it's time to start. Though I can't say I blame you. You got dealt a lousy hand.”
“Are you religious?”
She snorted. “Me? Are you kidding? Gave that up a long time ago. But still ... at one time, it was ... nice to have something to believe in. Anyway, the world's a strange place. You grow up with girls, and that's not what you think about. Here, men and women live separately all their single lives, but that's all they can think about, know what I mean? You'll see. Things are different here. You may have it tough for a few days.”
“Maybe it'll just blow over.”
“Well, hopefully it will. You know, I was watching you. You didn't talk. To be honest, I was surprised. Is it just today? You didn't seem to talk much to anybody.”
I shrugged. “They're older. I dunno what to talk to them about.”
“Well ... we all gotta have a few friends. It's tough to go through life all by yourself. That's all I'm saying. Anyway, I gotta go. Sorry, kid. I never meant for all this to happen. Just thought it would be a stand–up thing to do if told you first.”
“Thanks. I appreciate the risk you're taking.”
“Forget it. Here, I brought something for you. For not talking. Entertainment for most soldiers, but, in your case, I'd lean more towards education.” The guard held out something for me to take.
I laughed when I looked at what it was. It was one of her prized adult magazines from the treasure trove.
“But it's one of your magazines,” I said, laughing.
“No big deal. I've got doubles of this issue. Besides, what are you, eighteen, nineteen? If I knew then what I knew now ... believe me, if your folks were alive, they'd thank me. All I'm saying is that you need to get with the program. You're not exactly in a profession that comes with a pension, you know? You'll be lucky if you make it to thirty. You gotta get out there. In a way, you guys have it lucky. We become women whether we're ready for it or not. But you guys ... well, it's never too late to learn to become a man, you know?”
I nodded even though I didn't really understand.
“And while you're at it, sow your oats. You might not be around to do it tomorrow.”
“What, have kids, you mean?”
“Why not, I got three, how many you got?”
“Well, none, I ...”
“Hey, you gotta grow up some time, kid. Might as well start today. Just take the magazine. Read it, look at the pictures. The drawings in that one aren’t the best, but maybe you'll get some ideas. Hey, it worked for me. Anyway, I gotta scram and get the kids in bed. Later.”
Then she winked at me, and just like that, she was gone, leaving me standing alone in that dark alley. I stood there in shock for a minute before realizing that the magazine was still cradled in my trembling hands. I looked down at the cover. For a moment, society's voice chirped in, and I felt like throwing it out. But curiosity got the better of me. What did “society” (whatever that was) know anyway? The hell with them. This was part of McCroff's treasure, and how many soldiers could lay claim to even a little part of that? Besides, it was probably more educational than anything else around here. I stuffed my hard–earned treasure in my pocket and walked out of the alley.