I awoke to an unfamiliar ceiling. Interpreting the room’s light was a steady task for quite some time and proper shapes only arrived when I found my elbows for support, each entangled with bedsheets of strict cornering and stricter starching. The next task was one of comprehension—iron bars contained my bed. There was no space for me to even swing my legs off the mattress. The cage extended from floor to that unfamiliar ceiling and the gaps between the bars offered only meager gaps in the gridwork for me to tease with my fingers. These caged beds rowed the room like a boardinghouse for birds, terminating at an exit and a desk bathed in morning’s light, behind which sat—
“Hello?” I called, alarmed at my voice’s pathetic first shot at contact. I swallowed my mouth’s remaining dryness and tried again. “Hello, can you hear me?”
A young woman looked over her glasses from her place at the desk. Taking no rush, but not dawdling, she found her feet and came to my place at the end of the cages.
“Wide awake, Master Keyes?” she said. She came straight up to the cage and poked her fingers through the bars. I squeezed them. They were warm. She smiled and her eyes told me half a story. “Thank goodness. Took a lot of doing. Madam Vestoff rushed you here as quick as she could after you fainted in the carriage. You’ll have to thank her heaps.”
“Yes, I certainly should,” I said. “Have I arrived? Am I at Shackleburg? What is your name, Miss?”
“Yvonne,” she introduced herself. “Yvonne Bartlett. Yeah, you’ve sure arrived. At the infirmary at least. Oh, goodness, I’m breathing a good deal easier, now that you’re awake.”
“Your kindness does not go unnoticed. Are you a doctor, Yvonne?”
“I’m fixing to be, Master Keyes. Two more years of study and I’ll ask you to call me Doctor Bartlett.”
“I’ll call you whatever you ask for what you’ve done for me. Next, maybe you can explain why my bed is in a cage?”
Yvonne knocked a knuckle against the wrought iron bars. “Don’t need to worry your pretty face. These are leftovers from ages past. See, the infirmary here used to be a prison for women accused of witchcraft.”
“See this here?” Yvonne said, bending to show me. She brushed at the studs where the bars met the floor. “These bolts are fixed straight into foundation stones. I’ve asked a hundred times for a blacksmith to examine them, maybe get them ripped out, but none have figured a way to pull them up without cutting the whole floor apart. It simply can’t be done. What’s more—” She etched her fingernail on the screws fixing the thing to the floor. “None of the men who’ve come to work at pulling these cages up have ever seen screw heads such as these. They must’ve been put in by a very certain set of tools. Takes a lot of doing to keep a witch from getting out.”
Yvonne stood back up and smoothed her white medical robes. “How do I get out?” I asked through the bars.
She lifted an understanding finger and nodded. A small blue key appeared from her pocket and she set it to the lock on the cage I hadn’t noticed before. She worked three more locks with the same key. At last, the door swung away. I was immediately aware of a stifling sensation sliding away. This, coupled with a sudden, disorienting vertigo, must have been the total of a feeling that had been absent from my heart for some time—certainty. While I did not deny I’d likely lost quite a few challenges in my travel from my father’s house to this odd infirmary, I nonetheless did not go wanting for whether such losses were worth the victory that awaited me when I set my feet to the floor. It didn’t matter how the cold shot all the way up to my stomach at first touch, even reaching a little further as I attempted to shrug off the significance. The absence of doubt was warmth enough. And Yvonne’s genuine honesty and kind conversation was certain, and lively, and good.
She showed me my clothes had been washed and folded. Even my coat was free of stains and my boots were shined. The thought crept through my mind that someone had undressed me after I’d fallen unconscious. I sensed no trepidation in Yvonne’s explanations as she recited the contents of the paperwork at her desk, and I did not inquire further on the topic. The room’s windows, high on the walls, welcomed the light but offered me no chance to look outside this prison-cum-infirmary. As Yvonne muttered some final words on the discharge paperwork that my addled brain couldn’t interpret and process, I chanced a look back down the line of caged beds and a question escaped my lips.
“Why was the cage locked?”
The scrapings of Yvonne’s pen halted. “For your protection,” she said. She’d spoken the words into the desk and had not raised her face to address me.
“Protection?” I echoed, examining the neatly-dressed beds in the tall cages built for women accused of witchcraft. All their doors were now unlocked and opened, mine included, likely with that blue key Yvonne carried in her robe.
“Students have been disappearing in the night,” Yvonne said, finding her voice somewhat. She removed the cloth, habit-like dressing off her head to wipe at her brow. Her forehead was smooth, even when she squinted to pinch the bridge of her nose. She was as young as I, perhaps twenty years old. I’d seen all types of travelers come through my hometown in Platavilla. It was a gap town in the Rockies, offering plenty of work for those looking, and even more material for purchase and bartering. Their eyes were always searching. Needful—perhaps for a mouthful of food, a warm bed, or just the nearest road out of town, all were acceptable options. Cursed with a need to survive and no good knowledge of how to go about it. They were so small from where I stood, up at my father’s lodge. Men, women, and children were passed through Platavilla, in search of some something or somesuch. None resembled Yvonne. There it was again. Certainty. In her face, as clear as the certainty as I recognized in myself.
She knew what she must do.
“Are the students being taken?” I asked. “From their beds?”
“We don’t know,” Yvonne said. “And no matter the cautions we take, they keep vanishing. I hope—” She clutched her pen close to her body. “I hope you believe me. And that you aren’t frightened about coming to Shackleburg. It’s not often we have students hand-delivering their letters of acceptance.”
“Would the governing body have informed me of the disappearances if you’d received my letter stating I’d attend?” I asked.
“Can you keep a secret, Yvonne?” I asked next.
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“My father already didn’t want me attending,” I said. “And there’s no force in creation stronger than my father’s contempt. I’ve already vanquished that demon, standing before you as I do now. Cold, carriages, and cages haven’t frightened me off yet. And now I’ve come to a place where kind people would place a stranger under lock and key to protect them while they sleep. What’ve I to fear in such a place?”
My business concluded and my goodbyes to Yvonne soon given, I found myself on the infirmary’s steps. I pulled my coat’s freshly-washed collar up against my cheeks to fight the cold. My new acquaintance’s medical advice on taking in bedrest and consuming hearty meals slipped from my mind as my eyes beheld the world I’d stepped into.
This former witch’s prison rested along the edge of a steep slope. It wasn’t a far drop to the treeline and the distance from the trees below was hardly a yard to the cloudbank. My altitude was unknown but the gentle clouds extended beyond any recognizable distance. There was no sign of a valley, a path, or railroad track, at least in that direction—only a limitless cloud sea.
The steps from the infirmary led me to a pathway of elegant slate that curled back, along, and even beneath the building for a moment, and for the first time, I beheld the slope of the mountain. The campus buildings rose before me, standing firm and bright in the October sun. The dusting of snow slathered an identical soul across the grounds. I counted more than ten buildings. Each architectural achievement was a thing unto itself and I could only wonder at the time toward each building’s purpose, or if I even saw them all right then. I recalled Yvonne Bartlett’s words of trepidation and worry. How could a place so elegant and diverse threaten one such as I, who had successfully shirked the demands of one Heinrich Keyes, master of silver itself, by his reckoning?
I glanced to the instructions Yvonne had passed me regarding where I might rendezvous with my trunk and perhaps matriculate at this university.
“Look for the Clock Tower,” I read. “It’s the oldest thing on campus. Your dormitory is beneath it; also, trunk. Jasper Barlowe can show you the rest of the way. Alright, then.”
My eyes hardly mustered any effort deducing which building might be the Clock Tower. It was the tower with the clock standing at the center of it all, partway up the mountain slope where the campus lay. Taking up my approach into the grounds, I mused to myself regarding this destination. It was unmistakably older than the other construction, Yvonne had not exaggerated. Its stone was rougher than the rest. It’s mortar yet held—an encouraging sign that the whole thing wouldn’t fall down on me while I slept. The clock face at its peak appeared a feat of remarkable engineering and design, clear and obvious from any distance.
I halted. The clock tower’s face was missing digits. It was round and it was graced with two hands, certainly, but it was missing the numbers eleven and twelve. Instead, ten was at the top and five at the bottom. Carrying on my approach, I could not move my gaze away, watchful that the thing was at least functioning, and I was rewarded. In the passage of time I required to reach the Clock Tower, the long hand had visibly shifted. Perhaps a minute, or perhaps some temporal movement defined by a draconian measurement that eluded me.
At the door of the Clock Tower, I looked back along the path I’d traveled. My bootprints alone dotted the snowy path, clear and legible back down to the infirmary at the campus edge. The cloudbank still hovered over the valley, and we at Shackleburg hovered above the clouds.
I pressed through the door. The cold of the black iron handle sizzled against my nerves, even through my gloves. I was immediately greeted by the same calming warmth that blessed the inside of the infirmary. Bless the university’s furnace keepers. The Clock Tower’s ancient stone walls were surfaced with a tan covering of what must have been thick adobe mud because they were smooth, warm, and reflective of the firelight. The door led down just two steps to a wide room decorated with sofas and deep chairs encircling a fire belching smoke up a brick chimney rising up the tower’s central shaft.
Boys about my age were gathered around the fire taking to conversation and enjoying the warmth. Some read carefully while others only held their books on their laps and focused intently on the discussion at hand.
Two steps down and now on equal footing with what I imagined were my students, I noticed one boy with red hair and freckles was sitting not on a cushioned ottoman, but on my traveling trunk.
He carried on with the familiar conversation one cannot fully enter or comprehend, even from so near a distance as I, and he did not look up when I drew closer.
“Are you—? Excuse me,” I began. The discussion halted instantly. I smoothed my hair and lowered my coat collar. “Are you Jasper Barlowe?”
The red-haired boy knocked his boot-heel against my trunk and smiled.
“You K.K.?” he asked, tapping my initials on the trunk. The other boys laughed. I smiled with my mouth but couldn’t do much else. “Yes. I’m Jasper Barlowe. Welcome to Shackleburg, mate.”
-- Alex Crumb
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