The riddle of the dungeon
Jean-Claude and his sister Christine were spending part of their summer vacation at their grandmother's house in the country. She had allowed them each to bring someone along. For Jean-Claude, it was his best buddy Philippe, and for Christine, it was her closest friend, Véronique.
The boys often dressed all in blue, wearing t-shirts and jeans or shorts. Philippe liked his chestnut hair to be perfectly styled, while Jean-Claude kept his hair as far away from a comb as possible.
Christine and Véronique were very different. Véronique carefully brushed her long blond hair every morning, always taking her time. She picked her dresses or skirts so that the colors all matched. Christine had short, dark brown hair, and her favorite clothes were old jeans and her big brother's well-worn t-shirts. But they were still close friends.
The four of them spent these few days of intense camaraderie quite pleasantly.
One morning, Grandmother suggested that the four children visit Val-Fleuri Castle.
"You'll find the château quite interesting," she said. "You'll see a period portcullis, a rampart walk, a dungeon, arrow slits, and machicolations from which stones or burning objects could be dropped on attackers. You can also walk through the gardens that form a huge square around the building. There's a tower at each end of this square, one to the north, one to the south, one to the east, and one to the west. These four towers, at the edge of the grounds, are themselves surrounded by old trenches and a river that served as a moat."
Grandmother gave them money for the entrance fee.
The friends set off on their bikes. It was a seven-mile ride to the structure's parking lot. The cashier told them to hurry so they could join a group that was beginning a tour of the main building.
The four friends caught up with the other tourists and listened closely to the guide's fascinating explanations.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Val-Fleuri Château was occupied by the same family for almost nine hundred years. It included characters of all kinds, from the best to the worst.
"The most horrible, the most terrifying of them all was Lord Guillaume, who lived here around the year 1350. While his wife, Lady Johanne, was charming, gentle, sensitive, refined, and intelligent, he was brutal, violent, crude, egotistical, and foolish."
The guide continued, "The local peasants were afraid of Lord Guillaume. All the men, women, and children in the villages trembled as he passed. Everyone tried as much as possible to avoid running into him."
"One night, when he was sitting at the dinner table with his wife in the room where we are now, a servant approached him.
'Master, someone is asking for you at the château entrance.'
'Let him wait,' the brute replied. 'I'm eating.'
'Hang him then.'
'He gave me his name.'
'Well, then, tell me what it is. What are you waiting for?'
'He's a monk.'
'What use do I have for monks?'
'Lord Guillaume, it's Brother Robert.'
"The was a moment of silence," the guide said.
Our friends Jean-Claude, Philippe, Christine, and Véronique, along with the others, listened even more intently to hear the rest of the thrilling story.
'Brother Robert! Send him in.'
"Soon, a rather tall, bald man dressed in a long brown woolen robe and a black hooded cloak stepped into the dining room. His piercing brown eyes showed keen intelligence.
'My dear friend!' exclaimed Lord Guillaume, rising to his feet. 'Thank you for coming. Did you have a good trip?'
'A miserable trip,' answered Brother Robert. 'In my country in the Far North, in Scandinavia, when it snows, it stays beautiful and white. In your country, snow melts. You wade through mud and dirt on all the roads. Those filthy streets are revolting.'
'Sorry about that. Have you eaten?'
'No, I was waiting for you to invite me,' replied the monk.
'In that case, sit down and I'll serve you.'
'And something extraordinary happened: Lord Guillaume-the terror of the region who cleared out villages, fields, and forests-served Brother Robert like a lackey serving his master.
"A short time later, they both sat down in front of a large fireplace where a cozy fire was burning. Lord Guillaume's wife, Lady Johanne, had just retired to her rooms. The monk leaned towards the master of the house.
'So, tell me Guillaume, why did you ask me to come?'
'I'll explain,' the castle's owner replied. 'Come with me. Let's go down to the armory. You see that door?'
"It was massive, and made of dark wood like many others in the château."
'There's a dungeon on the other side of this door and I'd like you to make me a mirror like the ones in your country, the same as the one that Björn Lingström-the rich merchant from Stockholm-has, if you remember him. He told me about it when I ran into him last summer.'
"Oh!" Brother Robert replied. "Do you want me to install a one-way mirror to replace these boards?"
"What's a one-way mirror?" Guillaume asked.
"Well, it's what you're asking for. On one side, you see yourself in a mirror, and on the other, you can see through it like a window."
'Yes, that's it,' the lout replied. 'That's it exactly. And I want the mirror to be in this room. I plan to make it my dining room. And I want the person who is locked up in the dungeon to see everything that goes on here, as if they were looking through a window.'
'No problem,' Brother Robert replied. 'It will cost two bags of gold.'
'Do you want them right away?'
'No. One bag now and the other when I leave.'
Guillaume added, 'I also want whoever is in the dungeon to be able to hear all the conversations that take place in the dining room. But no matter how much someone screams and shouts in the cell, no matter how much they bang on the glass, no sound, no vibration should pass through the door that separates the prison from the dining room.'
'I can take care of it for another bag of gold,' said Brother Robert.
'And finally,' said the master of the house with an evil smile, 'I want the door to open very easily from the room where we are, but with great difficulty from the dungeon. For example, I'd like you to install a mechanism that only works with a password to open the door on the prison side.'
'Okay,' the monk replied. But it will cost you an additional bag of gold.'
'You'll get it,' Guillaume agreed. 'I'll have them prepare your room next to mine.'
"The monk spent the whole winter at the château.
One spring evening, Brother Robert asked his host to come and try the door. The brute's wife had already gone upstairs to bed.
'Look,' the monk explained. 'From this side, you can see the mirror. It's easy to open the door. Clap three times, then twice, then once.'
Guillaume did as he said, and the door opened slowly into the dungeon, giving access to it."
'If you'd care to enter, dear friend...'
'With you, Robert,' Guillaume said with a smile.
They both stepped into the prison cell. The mirrored door slowly closed behind them. Once they were locked in the dungeon, they could see perfectly well into the dining room, as if through a window. They could also hear the slightest noise, even the crackling logs in the fireplace. But getting out was a different matter.
'You can scream and bang on the door, but it won't open, and no one will hear you shouting from the cell,' said the monk.
'And how do we get out of here?' Guillaume fretted.
'With a password, just as you requested.'
"What's the password, then?'
'Look, I've carved three riddles on the three sides of the door. The answer to these three riddles consists of one word, just one word, which is the same for all three.' On the left, it said, The dead eat me. At the top, I am greater than God. On the right, going downward, Brother Robert had concluded, If the living eat me, they die.
"The lout scratched his head, but he couldn't come up with the solution.
Brother Robert whispered it in his ear.
The château's owner said it out loud and the door opened."
You, who are reading this story, can you guess the word?
'I love it!' Lord Guillaume exclaimed. 'Robert, here are the bags of gold you were promised.'
"The monk loaded them onto a cart and left at dawn the next day.
A few days later, Sir Guillaume invited his wife to visit the dungeon. As she was maybe a bit naive and definitely too gullible, she walked into the dark cell and the door closed behind her. She never figured out the password to the terrible riddle. She never managed to leave the dungeon. She died there.
Meanwhile, this monster was roaming the countryside, picking up a few shepherdesses he liked and taking them to the château. He had fun every night, happily eating and drinking at the table set up in front of the mirror in the company of these women while on the other side of the door, Lady Johanne was suffering a thousand deaths, seeing everything, hearing everything, and slowly dying of hunger."
The guide stopped talking. Everyone remained silent after the terrifying tale.
"If you'd like to follow me, ladies and gentlemen, you can go inside the notorious dungeon."
She clapped three times, then twice, then once, and the mirrored door opened, providing access to the terrible prison. The guide propped open the door with a heavy stone.
She explained that the answer to the riddle had been lost over the centuries. So, they needed to take precautions and block the mechanism before entering.
Jean-Claude, Philippe, Christine, Véronique and a few others stepped into the ominous room.
Our friends read the three mysterious statements, but not even Philippe could come up with a solution.
The dead eat me. I am greater than God. If the living eat me, they die.
Can you guess it now, dear reader?
When everyone had emerged from the dungeon, the guide removed the stone and the door closed.
"Around the year 1600," the guide continued, "another owner, Lord Jean, who was a descendant of the dreadful Lord Guillaume, made some changes to the dungeon to ensure a way out. A few days before, two of the good gentleman's children had gone in one evening while playing hide-and-seek but couldn't get out. They were found forty-eight hours later, famished and terrorized. After that incident, the château owner had a spiral staircase dug. It leads to an underground passage that used to connect the château to the south tower, alongside the river."
At the end of the visit, the guide said that those who wanted could visit the gardens and then go to the four towers that flanked them. And finally, if they weren't afraid, on the night of the full moon, which was in forty-eight hours, thrill-seekers could return to the South Tower.
"They say that on certain summer nights, you can still hear the ghost of Lord Guillaume's wife crying in the South Tower."
The guide noted that she had never heard anything.
"But for those who are interested, I wanted to mention that the tower is open to the public day and night."
"That's so cool!" said Jean-Claude as they walked back to their bikes. "What a great riddle! I'd love to solve it."
"Me too," said Christine.
"I don't have the slightest idea what the word might be," Philippe added.
"What did it say again?" Véronique asked.
"The dead eat me. I am greater than God. If the living eat me, they die," Philippe replied.
Well, dear reader. Hove you thought of the word? Or not yet? Try again before you keep reading.
"Who wants to come with me one night to hear the ghost?" asked Christine.
The four friends rode their bikes back to Grandmother's house. They decided to return to the South Tower the next Friday night under the full moon to hear the ghost of Lady Johanne crying.
All four of them thought that it was probably just a legend. But as Christine had said, why not give it a try?
Besides, it would be a beautiful ride and an exciting adventure.
It took a while to convince Grandmother to let them go. But after dinner that Friday night, our friends got on their bikes and headed for the South Tower.
They walked the last few hundred feet along the impassable ditches of the old moat, then stopped at the tower in question. It stood dark, sinister, and forbidding in the starry night.
The building itself was of no interest.
They entered a wide-open door into the totally empty building, overrun with dust and slightly unsettling cobwebs. A stone staircase that ran along the wall led to the second floor. There, they could make out an old fireplace with worn carvings.
A wooden staircase went up to the third floor. From this level, they had to climb a ladder to reach a terrace that gave them a view of the woods, the fields, the lights of the villages on the horizon and behind them, the imposing black mass of the castle, several hundred feet away.
While our friends were admiring the landscape under the moon that had just risen behind the trees, Christine noticed a crack between two stones in the wall she was leaning against. A slip of paper was sticking out. Curious as usual, she took it out, unrolled it, and thanks to her brother Jean-Claude's flashlight, they read a short, handwritten note.
"If you want to hear the ghost of Lord Guillaume's wife crying, go to the stone bridge six hundred feet to the left, the one that used to lead to the castle and that spans the river. It's abandoned now."
Our friends looked at each other.
"Why not?" Philippe said.
"Be quiet," Véronique whispered. Look down there, on the right. I see flashlights. Someone's coming. Let's get out of here!"
"We're not doing anything wrong," Jean-Claude noted.
Christine folded up the message and put it back where she found it.
Our four friends quickly made their way down the ladder and stairs in the tower and back outside. They set off along the river, walking towards the old bridge.
When they turned around, they thought they saw a group of children, perhaps Girl or Boy Scouts, or maybe from a summer camp. They were walking towards the South Tower.
After a short, hurried walk through the tall grass along the river, the four arrived at the old bridge: a large stone arch that was overgrown with grass and plants.
No matter how quiet they were and how much they listened, all they could hear was a hooting owl nearby, or the distant yelp of a fox deep in the woods. But there was no woman crying, ghost or otherwise.
Shining the flashlight along the edge of the bridge, they again spotted a small piece of paper sticking out of a crevice. They quickly took it out and unfolded it.
"To hear the ghost of Lord Guillaume's wife crying, go down under the arch of the bridge. Go through the metal gates and follow the old underground passage if you're not afraid."
The flashlight beams were slowly drawing closer. Christine folded the paper and returned it to the crevice where she had found it. Then they went down to the water's edge.
They soon found themselves surrounded by tall grass and reeds. Brambles were scratching their ankles here and there, and the ground was gradually turning into mud.
The four friends took off their shoes and slipped barefoot into the small river. The water reached the knees, then their bellies. It was anything but warm that night. Their soaked clothes, whether overalls or jeans and a t-shirt, were heavy and stuck to their skin. They were shivering.
They arrived under the arch of the bridge and found an old metal gate there. It was open. A chain hung from one side, with a padlock dangling at the end. Of course, our friends didn't have the key, but it didn't matter since it wasn't closed.
They moved into the tunnel and turned on their flashlights to examine the underground passageway that ran beneath the castle gardens to the main building, fifteen hundred feet away. The further they went, the shallower the water became because the ground rose a little. Soon, it was only up to their knees.
At that point, the underground passage split in two. Should they go left, or right?
The four friends were quiet for a moment. In the oppressive silence of the night, in the total darkness that prevailed since they had just turned off their flashlights, they heard a voice to the left that was crying, weeping miserably.
Nonplussed by the sobbing and surprised by the arrival of the group of children entering the underground tunnel, Jean-Claude, Philippe, Christine, and Véronique chose the corridor on the right.
They proceeded boldly, without turning on their flashlights, so they wouldn't be spotted. They soon came to a place where the ceiling had collapsed. It was impossible to continue. They stood in silence for a moment. What was going to happen now?
Soon, they saw the flashlight beams approaching. They also heard the splashing of the dirty water stirred up by the group. Luckily for them, someone shouted, "No, go left instead of right, and be quiet." When there was complete silence, the crying began again.
The children who had just passed the junction of the two tunnels began screaming in terror, frightened by the wailing, probably believing they were facing the ghost at that moment. Yet they went further into the left-hand tunnel. Suddenly, there were screams, no doubt cries of terror upon seeing a ghost. Then peals of laughter.
"We recognized you! We knew it was you!" one of them said. He was showing off a little.
"Well done! You're really good at crying. I actually believed it for a second," said another.
"I believed it, too," a third child said. "But I wasn't afraid."
"Liar!" said a fourth. You were shaking."
Then the group retraced their steps and exited the passageway. Our friends soon found themselves back in the usual heavy silence of the place.
Jean-Claude, Christine, Philippe, and Véronique waded back to the place where the dark corridor branched off. This time, they went to the left.
No matter how slowly they moved forward, stopping from time to time, turning off the flashlights and listening carefully, they heard no ghostly weeping. They realized that the vacationing children were participating in a night game and that one of the group leaders, probably disguised as a phantom and hidden in the underground passage, had pretended to cry to create a spooky atmosphere. And had perfectly succeeded.
After walking for a long time through the now-dry dark passageway, they came to the bottom of a spiral staircase. Turning on their flashlights, they carefully climbed up to the château's dungeon, behind the door with the one-way mirror.
From where they stood, they could perfectly see the dining room lit by the glow of the full moon. They could make out the tables, the chairs, the large fireplace, the paintings on the walls, the bronzes, and the chandeliers, all of them unlit, of course. On the dungeon side, there was no mirror, just a simple window.
It was almost eleven o'clock at night. The main château building was locked. There were no visitors inside. The caretaker was asleep in the guardhouse at the entrance, quite far away. Our friends would have liked to go into the château and visit it by night. But to do that, they needed to come up with the much-talked-about password.
No matter how many times they read and re-read the strange riddle, even Philippe couldn't find the answer.
"The dead eat me. I am greater than God. If the living eat me, they die."
Have you figured it out yet?
Having found no solution, and therefore unable to open the door with the one-way mirror, they went back down the spiral staircase, along the long underground passage again, and reached the stone arch under the bridge over the river. A nasty surprise awaited them. The metal gate was closed. The chain was firmly fastened with the padlock in place.
No matter how much our friends shook the chain and tried to open the portcullis, lifting, pulling, and pushing it, they only managed to hurt themselves. They screamed and shouted, but no one was nearby to hear their pleas. The summer campers were now far away. The guard had probably asked the head counselor to close the underground entrance on their way out with the children. Since our four friends had kept quiet while they passed by, no one suspected they were there.
The bars were heavy and close together. There was no way to squeeze between them.
Worried, they walked back and forth between the gate and the dungeon five times, ten times, searching every corner of the tunnel, stamping their feet, knocking on the walls, looking at the door, thinking about the riddle, feeling each brick in the dungeon to try and find a passage, a secret door, who knows what. They returned to the right side, the collapsed part of the passageway, but they saw no other way out besides the closed gate on one end and the chilling, incomprehensible riddle on the other.
When the flashlight began to dim because the battery was running out, the four returned to the dungeon and sat down on the floor.
"I guess we're spending the night here," said Christine.
"This is no fun," Véronique sighed.
"We're in the same situation as Lady Johanne back then."
"Luckily, we don't hear the ghost," Philippe said. "Unless, of course, it creeps up on us when we get tired and doze off."
"Stop it," Veronique implored.
"Tomorrow morning," Jean-Claude said, "the first visitors will arrive around nine o'clock and the guide will show them the dungeon. She'll open the door and we'll be free."
The four friends chatted a bit, sitting next to each other, then as the hours passed, fatigue took over and eventually, they all fell asleep. No ghosts came to bother them.
When they opened their eyes, a sunbeam was shining into the dining room. Nobody had arrived yet. Around nine o'clock, the first visitors would come with the guide, and she would open the dungeon for them. Our friends would finally be able to leave their prison.
Shortly before nine o'clock, several people dressed in black ties and white jackets entered the dining room. Our friends could very clearly pick up what they were saying, while those outside the door couldn't hear any shouting or screaming, or even the children banging against the glass. And remember, they couldn't see them, either.
"Where should we put the bride?"
"At this table near the mirror."
"Isn't that going to be in the visitors' way?"
"No, there won't be any visitors today or tomorrow," the maître d' replied. No tourists will be admitted until Monday morning. The bride and groom rented the château for the entire weekend."
"Oh, no!" Christine cried.
"Help! Help!" Véronique shouted.
"I think we're going to be locked up in here for two days. They're not going to let us out until Monday morning," Philippe said.
"More like we're going to starve in here until Monday morning. This is unbelievable!" Jean-Claude said, outraged.
"Philippe," Véronique said, turning to our friend, "you always solve the most difficult problems, do you really not understand this riddle?"
The four friends read it again.
"The dead eat me. I am greater than God. If the living eat me, they die."
All of a sudden, Philippe said, "What would you do without me?"
"We'd try to struggle along," said Jean-Claude.
"Thanks," the boy replied, a bit irritated. "It's so nice to know I can count on my loyal friends."
"You've figured out the riddle," said Jean-Claude, noticing his pal's mischievous smile.
"Yes, at least I think so."
"You know the password!" both girls exclaimed at the same time.
"Yes, and it's pretty obvious. Think about it. I'll read the three lines. The dead eat me. Put that aside for now," Philippe said. "I am greater than God. You need to start there. In your opinion, what's greater than God?"
"I don't get it," Christine replied. "Nothing is greater than God."
"That's the answer! Nothing is greater than God. The word is NOTHING! Try it with the other two riddles. The dead eat me," Philippe continued. "The dead eat nothing! If the living eat me, they die. If the living eat nothing, they die."
"Philippe, you're awesome," Christine enthused.
"Good job!" Jean-Claude added.
Standing close together and holding hands, the four of them said the word "NOTHING" in a loud, clear voice.
The door with the one-way mirror swung open.
The newlyweds had just arrived, along with their families, to oversee the final preparations for the afternoon's reception. They were stunned to see four children emerge from the dungeon.
Someone quickly called the grandmother, who was probably worried about the four friends' absence, to reassure her and invite her to the celebration. Then the bride and groom shared an excellent breakfast with everyone.
The adventure ended with happiness and laughter. Besides a long night with little sleep and a few scary moments, everyone was safe and sound.
Translation : Beth Smith