It was a bright and sunny day in the middle of Zurich, Switzerland. Two young children were playing in a field of flowers not far from their more than modest home. The two—one being a little girl no older than about seven years old, with light blonde hair and big, bright blue eyes, and the other being her older brother of ten years with dishwater blonde hair and the same bright blue eyes as his sister—were playing a delightful game of tag amongst the flowers. The wind was chilling, and the little girl shivered through her thin, threadbare sweater just after her brother “tagged” her.
“Johann, I am cold…” she said, complaining.
“I know, Mary. I told you that you should have brought your heavy coat.”
“I know, but mommy still needs to fix it. It has that big hole in the back…”
“…That you wore in it from rolling around in the grass so much. I know already, sis. You should not play so rough. You know we cannot afford to buy new things all the time, not like princes and princesses.”
“I wish we could.”
“Well, wishing gets you no where. Papa said so…”
“How old were you when papa died? I don’t remember him.”
“Well, I was six years old at the time. You were just two, so you don’t remember him. He used to always tell me, ‘Johann, wishing gets you nowhere. If you want something then you have to get it yourself.’”
“Do you miss him?”
“’Course I do, sis! How can you ask such a question?”
“I miss him…”
“You don’t even remember him!”
“I know, but I don’t have to remember him to miss him. Let’s go home now. It’s getting dark, and cold. Mama must be worried sick!”
“And she does need us to check on her, what with her health being so poor…”
“Let’s not talk about that please, it’s too sad.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
Johann wrapped his right arm around his sister’s shoulders and lead her through the flowering field back to their little hut.
The next day Johan woke up later than usual. There was already a fire in the fireplace, and sitting next to it was his sister and his mother. His mother was sewing up the hole in the back of his sister’s heavy coat, and his sister was watching intently, hoping to learn how to sew as well as her mother did. Mary had always been good at learning by merely watching the person do the work, and Johan supposed he was a bit jealous of her for it. However, Johan had talents of his own. He was patient and kind with his sister and mother, quite grown up for his age, and was really good at working with wood. He had remembered everything his father showed him about wood working, before a tree fell on him while he was out in the middle of a storm, crushing him to death.
Mary stood to stir a pot of poor-man’s porridge that was cooking over the fireplace just as Johan came into the little room.
“Oh, mama, you’re awake. Are you feeling better today?”
“Just a bit. Enough to do some sewing that needed to be done.”
“Good! I am glad to see it!” said Johan as he wrapped his mother in a warm hug.
“You’re late today, Johan.” Mary said.
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about that mama and Mary.”
“It’s okay, Johan, it happens. To tell the truth, Mary and I got up earlier than usual. It was just too cold, so Mary built a little fire and got some porridge cooking.”
“It’s done now,” Mary piped in, “Mama, may we eat by the fire?”
“It’s too cold to do otherwise,” their mother said, her kindly face now tired and drawn, “afterwards, could you two go pick some berries? It is spring now and there should be ripe berries available. Soon our vegetable garden will be ready to harvest and I will need you two to take the harvest and sell it in the market.”
“Yes, mama,” they chorused as Johan washed the only three bowls they had and Mary washed the three spoons they had. Mary carefully pulled the pot away from the fire and served up the bowls of porridge, leaving enough in the pot to eat later that evening.
A couple of hours later, Johan and Mary were out picking strawberries in a field a couple of miles from their house. Each carried a basket that they had woven themselves, for they had no money to buy baskets with, and each basket was nearly half full. Mary looked up at her brother, Johan, with a little red smile, her mouth stained with the juice of the strawberries she had been snacking on as she was picking them.
“Don’t eat too many, Mary. We still have to get some home to mama so she can make preserves.”
“I know. I was just a little hungry, so I ate a few.”
“Well, you’re wearing more than you ate.”
“Yes, I guess so,” she said with a sheepish smile, “do you think we have enough?”
“Almost. Once we fill these baskets we can go home and play. Does that sound good?”
“Last one to finish picking berries is a rotten goose egg!” said Johan as he hurredly picked more strawberries. Mary soon joined him, picking as fast as she could with her little hands. She was determined not to be the “rotten goose egg”.
Half an hour later, both Mary and Johan had finished filling their baskets with strawberries. Their fingers were stained red from the juice, as were their mouths from popping berry after berry into their mouth as they picked them and put them in their basket.
“Looks like you’re the rotten goose egg,” Mary said. In spite of her small hands, she had barely managed to fill her basket first.
“Yeah, well, your basket is smaller.”
“It is not and you know it. Remember? It took me longer to make my basket because my hands are smaller, but I still made it the same size as yours.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Congratulations, sis, you’re not the rotten goose egg this time.”
“Do we still have time to play?”
“Sure! There’s plenty of daylight left. I saw a cave over that way,” he said, pointing to the east at some hills that surrounded where they live, “and I was hoping we could explore it. We can take the baskets with us, in case we get hungry.”
“That’s not a good idea. We got the berries so mama can make preserves. Maybe we should leave our baskets outside the cave.”
“Then wild animals will eat the berries.”
“Good point. You’re so smart, big brother!”
“Thanks…I think…Let’s go.”
Johan started off towards the cave he had seen earlier. The mouth of the cave was pretty high up—at least twice as tall as Johan—and there was little light inside.
“Do you have a candle, Johan?”
“Of course I do! After getting lost in the dark so many times I have learned to keep a candle and matches with me at all times.”
Johan quickly lit the candle and they both wandered inside. The rock walls were damp and cold. In the distance they could vaguely hear the steady drip of water into a puddle below it. Rather than instill fear in the children’s hearts, it thrilled them. They loved the unknown, and they loved to explore. They could see to their right another passageway and peered into the darkness.
“Think we should go this way?” Johan asked.
“Sure! I’ll mark it.” Said Mary as she picked up a stone, and drew an arrow on the wall of the new passageway, pointing in the direction they had come from. “At least this way we won’t get lost.”
They walked down the new cavern, Johan leading and lighting their path with his candle, peering around in a childish delight mixed with awe.
“It’s beautiful in here!” Mary exclaimed.
“Its certainly is…” Johan agreed, “These stalagmites are all different colors. Almost as though different minerals were dissolved in the water that dripped over them. Those stalactites have me concerned, though. They’re pretty big…”
“Yeah, but I don’t see any cracks in them, so maybe they will hold.”
“Let’s hope so. This floor is slick, sister, be careful that you don’t fall.”
“Okay…” she said as she trailed off, staring in awe at the multi-colored cave filled with tall stalagmites and intimidating stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
As they continued down the passage way, it seemed to end abruptly in a wall. But this wall was different. It lacked the many different colors that the rest of the cave had, almost as if the wall was new.
“Brother, look at this! This wall is different.”
“Boy, I’ll say. I’ve never known one cave wall to be different from all the others, at least not like this. Do you suppose it is a door?”
“Could be…I mean, I don’t really know of any other reason why this wall would be so different, other than the fact that someone put it there to hide something. Let’s push on it and find out!”
“Alright,” he said, leaning his right shoulder against the wall, “On three…One…Two…Three!”
As he counted, both Mary and Johan pushed as hard as they could on the wall. Gradually the rock in front of them seemed to tilt to one side, revolving on a single pivotal point. It opened just wide enough for them to walk through sideways, walking in a single file line.
As they stepped through, what they saw amazed them even more. In front of them were walls filled from floor to ceiling with barrels. There seemed to be hundreds of barrels lining the walls of this particular passage.
“I wonder what is in those barrels…” Johan trailed off.
Mary sniffed the air. Sure, the air was a bit stale, as she had expected, but there was something else strange about the air. It smelled funny, not like the usual air you could smell in such a cave.
“Brother, what is that I smell? It’s not stale air…It’s something else.”
Johan joined her in sniffing the air.
“You’re right, that is not stale air. It smells a little like black powder.” He said as he stepped up to one of the barrels. He found one that did not have another barrel stacked on it, with a cork stopper shoved in a small hole on the top. He removed the cork with his little pocket knife and looked inside.
“Mary, I think we should leave soon. These barrels are full of black powder.”
“Well, I want to see what is in the other side of this room. Just be careful not to get the candle too close to one of those barrels.”
“We really should go back.” Johan argued.
“But I want to see where this leads!” she said, pouting just a little bit. She knew Johan could not resist her little pouting face, and she was right.
“Alright,” said Johan with a sigh, “Let’s go. But you better not fall behind!”
“I will stay right with you.” She said as she followed closely behind Johan.
The two children followed the passageway until they came to a set of stone stairs, carved into the floor of the cave. The steps were slick with water and algae that had gathered quickly in the cold, dank cave. They carefully followed these steps up to the top, where they found a small, wood door in front of them.
“Another door. Suppose we find out what is on the other side?” Said Mary.
“Well, that would be intrusion, little sister.”
“On a house with black powder underneath it?”
“Good point. Let’s go.”
Johan carefully opened the door. Beyond it was a large, dark room. As they stepped inside, the little bit of light from their candle revealed an armory in front of them. The walls were made of stone, and many different weapons and suits of armor lined the walls and cluttered the floor. They looked back at the door, surprised to find above it a rolled up tapestry.
“Whoever made that cave and filled it with powder sure didn’t want anyone to know about it. They made an effort to hide the door there.”
“Johan, I hear footsteps. Let’s hide!” Mary said.
Johan jumped behind a suit of armor, careful to hide the candle light with his hand. Mary found a large shield and ducked behind it. No sooner had they hid themselves, than two men entered the armory. The first one was a taller man with dark hair and light eyes. They could not tell his exact hair or eye color, as he was holding the lantern he was carrying with him away from his face. He shone the light around the room, briefly revealing the second man. He was a little shorter, with blonde hair and dark eyes.
“Well, Chancellor Bob, it looks like you are well armed,” said the taller man with the dark hair to the shorter one, “If we had this kind of armament, we would win for sure.”
“True, but I would rather that it be blown to pieces. That way neither side can win, Luke.” Said the shorter man.
“Always the neutral one, I see. Good to see that nothing has changed.”
“I never was fond of war—or our king.”
“You made the right choice. Your plan was good, too, to put all that powder beneath us.”
“If the king finds out, it will be my head.”
“He won’t find out. We funded it, so he has no way of tracing it to you. Are the preparations complete?”
“Then we will blow this place to kingdom come tonight, if you pardon the pun.”
“Good to see your jokes have not changed,” said Chancellor Bob wryly as they stepped out of the armory.
When they were sure the two men had left, Johan and Mary stepped out of their hiding places.
“Mary, did you hear that?”
“Yes, they are going to blow this place up tonight.”
“They were talking about this armory…and the king…Mary, I think that cave was a secret passage to the King’s Castle!”
“We have to warn him, Johan!”
“If the soldiers find us, they will imprison us as trespassers.”
“Well, at least we can tell them and they can tell the king.”
“They torture prisoners!”
“Better than being blown up!”
Johan could not argue with her on that. Being tortured for a bit did seem more appealing than being blown to little pieces.
“Well, at least we should be careful to not be caught. I would rather tell the king himself than a soldier who holds the keys to our freedom.”
With that, Johan and Mary quietly exited the armory through the door that the two traitors had come through. In front of them was a maze of hallways. Since neither of them knew their way around the castle, they decided to carefully follow a century who was making his rounds. Since the century already had a light with him, Johan blew out his candle, and they followed the light, quiet as church mice. The further the century walked, the more people they began to see, and the more lights there were along the walls. They could tell they were nearing the kings court room, where his throne was, when they saw men and women of expensive dress walking around, some entering and exiting through a pair of tall oak doors.
“Johan,” Mary whispered from behind a suit of armor she was hiding behind, “I think we found it.”
“How do we get past all of these people?” Johan asked quietly from behind his own hiding spot, “I am sure you are small enough to hide under a lady’s skirt, but I cannot, and these suits are too heavy for me to walkin.”
“Maybe we can pretend we are kitchen boys.”
“We aren’t dressed as one.”
“We don’t need to be. Kitchen boys wear regular clothes.”
“I hope you’re right. Let’s go.”
They both carefully stepped out of their hiding places and walked towards the doors, trying to act nonchalant. One of the guards at the door stopped them.
“Who are you?” he asked roughly.
“We are the kitchen boys. We, uh, wanted to ask the king what he wants to eat for dinner.”
The guard’s face softened a bit and stepped aside so they could pass by him.
“Be quick. The king has been waiting for you, and is not pleased by how late you are.”
“Our apologies. We, uh, ran a little behind on our chores.” Mary said innocently as they walked through the tall doors and into the kings court. In front of them were several court jesters performing tricks for entertainment. Musicians stood off to the left, playing a beautiful minuet and dancing girls twirled gracefully across the room to the beat of the music. At the other end of the room was the king, who looked rather bored and irritated as he sat on his throne. His dark hair was interrupted only by a extravagant crown set on top of his head, and his dark eyes peered across the room at them.
“State your business,” the king commanded, “and make it quick. The kitchen boy has not come by to serve me and I am hungry.”
“Our apologies, sire,” said Johan as they approached the throne, “but we have urgent news for you. Two traitors from this very court are planning to explode a cavern full of barrels filled with black powder beneath your armory. We saw the barrels for ourselves, and heard their conversation.”
“Realy? One of my own court.”
“Two, we believe, sire,” Mary answered, “They mentioned their own names in their conversation. Chancellor Bob, and a man named Luke.”
“Luke and Bob? You have a strange sense of humor for children. Chancellor Bob is my closest and most trusted advisor, and Luke is my best friend.”
“We are not joking!” Johan exclaimed, “Chancellor Bob had the cave excavated to fit the barrels, and Luke funded it.”
“And why would they do that?”
“Chancellor Bob said he would rather have the armory blown up than to see either side use it.”
“What do you mean, ‘either side’?”
“Sire, what country is Luke from?”
“He is an Italian, but he is loyal to Switzerland.”
“Sire, we both heard the conversation.”
“Children, these are serious charges you are talking about. You certainly have a good imagination.”
“We are not imagining it!” Mary cried out, “Let us show you the cave so you will believe us.”
“Well,” said the king with a frown, “I can see you two are serious, and would not otherwise dissuade you. Come, show me this cave. However, if you are lying to me, I will have you both imprisoned for treason and trespassing. Where is this cave?”
“There is a secret door in the armory,” Johan said, “Please, come with us.”
The king rose from his throne and followed them out of his court. He lead them to the armory, carrying a torch with him to light the way. The walls of the armory were lined with rich tapestries, and the tapestry which covered the door was unrolled, covering the door.
“I see no door, children.”
“Wait!” said Mary, “It is covered with one of those tapestries.”
“Which one? There are many.”
“It’s over here,” she said as she ran over to one of the walls, “I hid behind one of these shields when they came in.”
She walked up to the first tapestry near the shield she hid behind and moved it aside. Behind it was nothing but a stone wall.
“I see nothing.”
“There are more tapestries, sire, and behind one of them is a secret door.” Johan reasoned as he walked up to the next tapestry and moved it aside. Behind the tapestry was a wooden door, the very one they had come through.
“Here it is, sire,” he said as he carefully moved the tapestry so that it would be held back by a spear that was held firmly in place by a suit of armor.
The king walked up to the door and examined it carefully.
“I don’t recall this door ever being here,” he said thoughtfully.
Johan opened the door slowly and motioned for the king to enter. As the king stepped through the door, they followed close behind, being careful to not slip on the wet earthen floor. In front of them were the walls lined with barrels of black powder.
“How did you children find this?” The king asked.
“Well,” Mary explained, “we had been picking berries so our mother could make preserves. When we finished we found this cave and decided to explore it. We went down a passageway and found it came to an end, but the end wall was different from all the rest. The rest of the walls had been colorful from mineral deposits, but this wall was not. We pressed against the wall and it opened into this room. The wall is on the other side of this room. We wanted to see where this room lead, and it lead us to the armory.”
“So, you two were telling the truth. What are your names?”
“I am Johan,” Johan explained, then pointed to his sister, “And this is my sister, Mary.”
“Our father died when we were young,” Mary said, “He was crushed under a tree. He was really good with wood. Our mother is very ill and is expecting us home soon.”
“Well, I am going to have this room cleared by my soldiers and imprison my two traitorous friends. You two have saved us, is there anything I can do to repay you?” said the king as he lead them out of the room and into the winding hallways as they walked back to his court.
Johan and Mary looked at each other, trying to think, and at the same time, trying to read each other’s mind. As poor as they were, they were content with their lives. They didn’t want or need anything expensive, and though their home was not much, they were content with it.
“Sire, we are very poor,” Johan said, “but we are content. However, our mother is very ill, as Mary said, and we cannot afford a doctor. Perhaps if you could provide me with a job, I could earn the money to get a doctor for our mother.”
“I will do better than that,” the king said with a serious and thoughtful expression on his face, “I will lend you my own doctor, free of charge. If you want a job, you can carve things for me. Mary mentioned your father worked with wood, and hearing of his demise reminded me of a dear friend who carved the very doors you see in front of my throne room. You’re father’s name was not Jonathan, was it?”
“Yes, it was,” Johan said with a puzzled expression, “Do you think your friend was our father?”
The king nodded solemnly as they walked down the corridors.
“Yes. My friend was a very good wood worker, and could not stop talking about his two children, Johan and Mary. He was killed four years ago in a storm when a tree toppled and crushed him. Did he teach you much about wood, Johan?”
“Everything he knew.” Johan explained. By this time they had reached the throne room.
The king sat in his throne, the two children in front of them. He turned to his highest ranking guard and spoke to him with a commanding voice.
“Captain, I want Bob and Luke imprisoned immediately for treason, and I want you to send my doctor with these children to their home. Once their mother is cared for, bring them back here so I can reward them. These two children have saved us today.”
The guards eyes went wide for a moment, unnoticed by the court, but not by the children. He saluted and commanded two of his officers to gather more of his men to hunt down the two traitors. He then left the throne room to search for the doctor himself. Moments later, the doctor was brought in, followed by the guard.
“Children, this is Doctor Sven. He is the greatest doctor in all of Switzerland.”
The old doctor walked with a slight limp, supported by a finely carved cane in his right hand. His gray hair was thin, and his light blue eyes were warm and welcoming. Johan remembered hearing of him, and hoping that one day he could afford to have him treat their sickly mother. In his left hand he carried a back with an embroidered red cross on it, which held all his tools and medicines that he could carry with him.
“Doctor,” the king said, “these are the children of my dear, belated friend, Jonathan.”
The doctor walked up to them and bent down to examine them more closely.
“Ah, yes.” He said as he stood up slowly, “They have his eyes. Your father was a close friend of the king,” The doctor explained, “He carved this cane that I carry with me. I am sorry to hear that his wife is so ill, and his children are so poor. I wonder why his family was not cared for when he died?”
“Well,” the king said, “what matters now is that they are cared for now. Doctor, take the best care you can with their mother, and I will pay for the entire thing myself.”
“It will be a privilege to do so. It is the least I can do for a dear friend. It is on the house, sire. Lead the way, children.”
The children lead the doctor and the guard back to their little hut just outside the castle gates. When they arrived home, the fire had nearly gone out, and their mother was in bed resting. Johan rebuilt the fire as Mary led the doctor to their mother’s bedside, waking their mother.
“Oh, my! We have visitors! Mary, please put on a pot of porridge for our guests.”
“That is not necessary,” said the guard, “the king has ordered that you be taken care of by his personal doctor.”
“The king?!” she exclaimed, “Why would the king do such a kind favor to us?”
“Because your husband was a close friend to the king and myself,” the doctor explained, “It is my honor and privilege to treat the wife of our dear friend, free of cost.”
“It’s a long story, mama,” Johan explained.
“I would like to hear it. I am quite confused about what is going on.” She said as the doctor began to examine her.
During the examination, Johan and Mary recounted their tale to their mother, each one periodically interrupting the other.
“Goodness! You two certainly have been busy today! Exploring caves, catching traitors, talking to the king himself…Am I sure I am not still dreaming?” she said.
“No, you’re awake mother.”
Mary walked up to her mother and gave her a tight hug.
“Could you feel a hug if you were asleep?” she asked.
“No, I suppose not. I guess I AM awake.”
The words were no sooner out of her mouth when the doctor spoke up.
“Well, it seems she has a nasty case of pneumonia. I am surprised she is awake and not delirious with her fever. Here,” he said as he pulled a bottle out of his bag, “give her tea made of these leaves three times a day, and keep her warm and dry. It would be best to move her next to the fire to keep warm.”
“Thank you, sir,” Johan said as he gathered up his mother’s blankets and make-shift pillow next to the fire, his mother slowly following behind him. Mary set a kettle over the fire to boil water for tea.
As they waited for the water to boil, the doctor let Johan examine his cane. It was intricately carved with designs of leaves and exotic flowers, resembling a jungle carved into the length of the cane. The wood was dense and heavy, and had been finely polished. The head of the cane had been carved to look like a tiger’s head.
“It’s beautiful,” Johan commented.
“Yes, it is. Your father was quite talented. I hear he taught you everything.”
“I think there is a good place for you in the castle. We need a good wood carver. Your father was the best, and the ones we have now lack his talent. Do you have any works I can see?”
Johan nodded and stood. On a little table that sat next to his mother’s chair was a little statue of a horse, carved to be a candle holder.
“I made this last year to hold our candle sticks.” He said.
The doctor turned it over and over in his hands. The back of the horse had drips of wax on it, but it was otherwise spotless. The wood was not as good quality as his cane, but it was beautifully carved. If it had not been so small and stiff, he would have believed it was a real horse. Johan had polished it nicely.
“Just like your father. Perhaps you can teach our wood workers how to do things right. None could carve something so intricate as this, not since your father. He taught you well, and you learned well. I propose that you work for the king and teach his wood workers. It will pay well, and you can move closer to the castle, where you can get more protection, among other things.”
“It sounds nice,”, their mother interjected, “And it would give you something to do, Johan.”
“I don’t want to move, though,” said Johan.
“Neither do I.” Mary chimed in.
“Well, maybe we can stay here. At least you could earn enough money to get us some food.”
“He will earn much more than that,” the guard finally said, “Wood workers make a lot of money in the castle, and with his talent, Johan could earn double.”
“Would it be enough to afford them a good education?”
“Sounds good to us!” Johan said.
“We will go tell the king, and you can start tomorrow, Johan.” The doctor said.