Sunflower Dungeon

An Excerpt


Jeanette F. Chaplin



The Alps Region of France

The Middle Ages


Lionel du Chat stood desolate on a turret of the most ancient section of the castle, his cape drawn about him and a sword at his side. Even the best of France’s sixteenth century defenses could do nothing to protect him. He looked down at the deserted tower of the keep. Even its strategic position in the center of the courtyard below would not serve in his defense this day. Lionel was weary of fighting, too broken to resist. They would have to take him where he stood.

His mind recalled every detail of the turbulent events: Those years of futile fighting and fervent appeals for the truth. All those deaths. All those worthless peace pacts. All had come to naught.

From his vantage point Lionel could see the thick forest that encompassed the castle, smell the nearby lake. In the distance he could hear the staccato sounds of firearms and the faint thundering hooves of horses, punctuated by screams of livestock and the desperate cries of people—his people.

He could see the clouds of dust that signaled the approaching mob. The acrid smell of fires inflamed his nostrils and he knew it reached him from his neighbors’ cottages. The tranquility of their alpine haven was shattered once again. He refused to even think on the fate of his family homestead—that stronghold of freedom that had served the faithful these many centuries. Now all their dreams were lost.

All was lost for Lionel as well: the crops, the animals, the servants. The dreams and accomplishments of his unremarkable life would be snuffed out in a moment of madness. The castle—his beloved Il Girasole—would be taken for certain. The rest would exist solely in his memory. If he survived to cherish a memory.

He stood alone and awaited his final moments with the patient stoicism passed down through many generations of a persecuted people. The moat was full, the drawbridge was raised, the heavy iron grate of the portcullis was secured. All senseless trappings. One man alone cannot defend a castle.




Then, without warning, the mood of the attackers transmuted. For some inexplicable reason the angry postures melted into submission. Wary eyes turned upward, looking toward the parapets of the keep across from where Lionel stood. Incredulously he followed their gaze. It was she: Yolande.

Regal as ever, she stood rigid and tall above the threats of the mob. She wore a riding cape the color of the forest with a soft rabbit skin collar, and stood immovable in sturdy leather boots. Her solemn face was partially obscured by the shadow of the conical roof, but no one doubted who stood above. In an uplifted hand she unflinchingly held her standard—the white on red cross of her monarch.

Somehow he had known she would come—appearing as always when he most desperately needed her help. The Knight once again rescued by the Lady. A scornful sound escaped his lips. A knight he would never become, but a lady she had always been and forever would remain. She must have eluded the townspeople and slipped through the secret passageway known to only a handful of trusted allies. There she stood as he had always thought of her. Always strong. Always wise. Always right.




 “You . . . will . . . spare . . . him,” she pronounced in measured tones. Gaining strength she proclaimed, “In the name of my cousin, Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Savoy: You . . . will . . . leave.”

Duke Emanuele Filiberto: The Iron Head. No one dares resist his will.

“My lady . . . .” The leader removed his hat and bowed meekly, stepping backwards a pace.

In an abrupt motion, she raised the banner in an arc over her head. “Leave. Now.” Her voice crescendoed as she once more slashed the unfurled cloth through the air. The tip now pointed menacingly at the huddled leaders at the front of the crowd. “All of you.”

Like a mighty tempest in reverse, voices quieted, shoulders slumped, heads bowed, feet shuffled. The now subdued rioters departed through the stone arches they had entered, daring not to gaze upon the fiery female countenance, as though they feared to be struck down by some Olympic thunderbolt.

Now alone, the two friends regarded each other across the emptiness of time and space.

Finally she spoke. “Greetings, Lionel du Soleil.”




He moved closer to the turret surrounding the walkway of his beloved snail tower, and placed both hands on the cool stone. He allowed himself a melancholy smile at the memory of their first meeting. Then sighing, he spoke of the present. “Pity that I was not worthy enough to rescue my own blood. Again you were right. Had I but listened . . . ”

Her rigid pose softened still more, the woman replacing the warrior. “Do not despair. The final outcome for your family is not yet decided.”

“I have no family.”

“Things are not always as they seem.”

He regarded her silently. “You always know what is going on in your kingdom.” His response echoed their shared past, an attempt to mask the palpable pain that pressed behind his eyes.

She paused, then spoke in solemn tones. “There are secrets about your family I am not allowed to reveal. But you will hear the rumors soon enough. You will discern the truth in your heart when the time is come.”

He looked at her uncomprehendingly.

A smile crept across her sun-weathered face and a familiar flash glinted in the depths of her dark brown eyes. She dipped her white and red banner to him in a salute. “This I promise: The family of Lionel du Soleil will prevail.” Without another word she vanished from the upper regions of the keep into the cold impersonal sanctuary of the stone passage below.

“As you say,” he whispered to the now-deserted space. “I truly desire that about this matter you are correct, Countess.”





The Venetian Bead


Le Musée Bourdeau. Lake Bourget, France. The Present


The tall stately woman walked with measured steps through the cool inner courtyard of the museum, past the dusty exhibits and the disarray of recent construction to where the police inspector waited in the vestibule, scribbling notes in a small notebook. She approached him as unobtrusively as her heels clicking on the flagstones of the corridor would allow. “Inspecteur?”

He slipped the notes into his coat pocket and extended a confident hand. “Bon jour, Madame. My name is Leroux. Paul Leroux.”

She received the handshake with a tentative grip. “Rocheforte. Adelaide Rocheforte. I trust I am not wasting your time.”

“Delighted to make your acquaintance. We are always pleased when citizens come forward to aid in our investigations.”

“I’m not sure what I have will be of use to the gendarmerie.”

“That remains to be seen. What exactly have you found?”

“It is complicated to explain. Much better if you see for yourself.”

“Precisely. Let’s have a look.”




“As I explained on the phone, we can’t be sure of too many particulars. We are certain the bones are quite old, and many of the other relics have disintegrated from age. But what we have been able to identify may help us solve an ancient mystery.”

“And quite possibly one of our modern ones?” He studied her face and took out a note pad.

She nervously twisted a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her ear. “I understand the man who was murdered was from Spain.”

“Drowned. There is no indication it was a homicide, regardless what rumors may suggest.”

Her next words were delivered calmly and confidently. “I believe he was murdered. And I think I know why.”

The inspector stopped writing and regarded her steadily. “These . . . bones . . . that were recovered. You are quite certain they are from antiquity?”

“Absolutely.” She abruptly turned to face him. “I assure you—these were not from a recent homicide. The body was buried with care, according to medieval customs.”

He nodded and scratched a brief note.

“The item of most significance is this bead.”




“Of course. But please explain, Madame Rocheforte, why you think this new-found grave might have a bearing on my case. How could an ancient corpse in a secret passage possibly be connected to an accidental drowning four hundred years later.”

She gestured to a framed photograph of a castle that hung behind her desk. “For hundreds of years the rumors have persisted in the alpine region about the true ownership of Il Girasole castle.”




What have our ‘locals’ told you about the recent return of possible heirs?”

He tapped his pen on the notebook. “On that point they have chosen to remain silent. Perhaps you can answer a critical question for me. Why come back now? After all these centuries?”

“Actually, the answer is quite simple.” The curator produced a large, stiff folder tied with a cord. From it she removed a manuscript, which she placed carefully on the desk between them. “The deadline for the rightful heirs to make their claim is approaching, so I surmise that pressure might provoke some to murder. This is the first known document relating to the property in question.”

He leaned forward and studied it for a moment. “I’m afraid my old French is a bit rusty.”

“Latin. This journal was written by one of the early chroniclers of l’Abbaye d’Hautecombe.”

The inspector reached for the crumbling piece of parchment, then abruptly withdrew his hand. “I suppose I shouldn’t touch this. Please be so good as to translate.”

She pointed to the document. “This is an account of a piece of property that was procured by Count Lorenzo of Savoy—they weren’t dukes yet—for the purpose of building a castle by the shores of le Lac du Bourget in the thirteenth century. Official permission was required at that time to construct a castle.”




“If we could prove kinship of this unfortunate young woman to the House of Savoy, we could perhaps convince the remaining members of the family to become patrons to our modest facility. It would be a fitting tribute for the royal family with the longest period of rule in Europe. You see, I have ample reason to be interested in your current case. There is, actually, one more important detail that connects it with your case.”

“And what might that be?”

“The property in question was originally donated by a wealthy landowner for the purpose of bringing the royals to the pre-alpine region.”

“With the attendant prosperity and protection due to the presence of the count and his retinue.”

“Correct. But even more significant is the fact that the transaction was executed in a palindromic year.”

“One that reads the same forward and backward.”

“You are well versed in areas other than law.” She gave him an easy smile. “In 1221 the people were quite superstitious about that sort of thing. The abbot feared that the acquisition of the property in such an inauspicious year would somehow bring a curse upon all his congregants and on the royal family, so he urged young Count Lorenzo to pledge the eventual return of the land to the people of the region.” The curator crossed to a small window and stood with her back to her guest.

The inspector leaned back in the chair and linked his fingers together over his chest. “I still fail to see the supposed connection with the current police matter. Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

She turned to face him. “The count agreed to hold the property for exactly 777 years—seven is believed by the devout to be a number of completeness and perfection.”

The inspector twisted his face as he appeared to perform the mental calculations. “Which brings us up to . . . the current year, n’est ce pas?”

Madame Rocheforte nodded. “The agreement also provided that if there were legitimate heirs to the property after the 777 years were fulfilled, the closest heir, or heirs, would be entitled to make decisions regarding the disposition of the property.  If that heir chose not to occupy the property, he would be expected to offer the land for sale to local residents for a mutually agreeable price in line with current valuations of like property.”

“Not to the church?”

“No. Count Lorenzo was very civic minded. He felt the citizens should benefit from the use of the land. Should there be no heirs, the land would be held as public property and administered for the good of the local community.”

“In that event, who exactly would administer this public property?”

The curator returned to the seat behind her desk. “A recent legal opinion was rendered that named the museum as an appropriate recipient of that trust.”

He studied her a moment. “You realize, of course, that your last statement has made you a suspect in what you yourself have called a homicide.”

“Or a potential target,” she replied quickly. “You see, Inspecteur, I have very good reason for keeping the authorities informed of developments. I fear that some of the supposed heirs have come back to make their claim and are willing to take the lives of anyone who might stand in their way. That is another reason I contacted you.”

“So perhaps your true need might be of a bodyguard rather than one of our fine forensic scientists.”

The curator rubbed her arms against a chill perceived only by her. “I am convinced the drowning was not an accident. If I knew more specifics perhaps I could assist you further . . .”

“You realize I am not at liberty to discuss the particulars of a case in progress.”

“Of course.”

He studied the brightly-colored bead on its bed of cotton in front of him. He reached for it. “May I?”




 “Lovely craftsmanship. Venetian, is it not?”

“Correct. A millefiori, to be precise. A thousand flowers. Very rare and priceless. Even at the time it was made, pieces like this were reserved for the very wealthy. The procedure for making this kind of bead was very complex, involving the design and production of many narrow canes of various designs, which were cut into tiny pieces and finally incorporated into the final bead. Thus, no two are alike, and as you can imagine, they were very costly to produce.”

“Yet this one was found in the grave of a commoner?”

“Evidence would suggest in every way that a commoner was buried in that isolated tomb, Monsieur Leroux. Except for the presence of the bead. Had this been a royal grave, there would have been more items of value within the crypt. But the other preserved objects in this tomb were of heavy wool and crude leather, more befitting a humble alpine dweller who fashioned items from the skins of sheep and goats. And most certainly the tomb of the royals would have had an effigy carved on the lid.”

“Like the abbey crypts.”

She nodded, and sat again, leaning back in her chair, which creaked a protest. “Unless this were the illegitimate child the rumors speak of. In which case he—or she—wouldn’t have been given a royal burial.”

“Perhaps a servant girl stole the bead from her mistress and it was buried with her.”

“I doubt it. Loved ones tend to include burial artifacts that had special meaning for the deceased. No one would bury her with an item intimating the departed was a common thief. That would, according to their beliefs, condemn her soul for eternity.”

The inspector cocked his head and returned the bead to the box. “In my business I have learned never to trust the theory that seems the most obvious. But you believe placement of the bead in the grave is an indication of great honor?”

She nodded as she closed the box and replaced the small padlock.

He waited for her to secure the treasure before he spoke. “But that doesn’t answer the question of how the grave ended up in a hidden passage.”

“No, our ancient mystery remains unsolved.”

“As does the current one. Do you suspect the current owners?”

She stood. “The current inhabitants are merely caretakers. It is said that they are descendants of the original retinue of house servants. I have spoken to them. They are willing to buy a modest portion of the land, should that become an option. Or they might stay on as employees of the museum.”

The inspector also stood and began moving toward the door. “Since you seem to have heard so much about the case already, you must know that we had another visitor to the region of late. A distant relative of the Poor of Lyon group that used to live above the lake.”

She nodded. “Up near the Dent du Chat. Those mountain valleys were popular dwelling places for the families who sought a remote region to escape religious persecution as early as the twelfth century. Many of them took a vow of poverty. I doubt that any of their descendants would be treasure seekers.”

“So is that why you are so sure this matter is connected to the death of our unfortunate Señor Garza de la O?”

The curator blanched. “Did you say de le O?

The inspector shifted uncomfortably.

The curator spoke softly, incredulously. “The cousin of Duke Emanuele Filiberto was married to a Spanish count from the de la O family.”

The inspector paused in the doorway, clicking his pen. “My dear Madame Rocheforte. I have already said much more than I should about the case. Perhaps you can give me one final piece of information. Did you say the grave was discovered by a tourist?”

“Yes, a young American woman. She is visiting France with her mother—doing family research.”

He once again poised his writing instrument. “Do you have the name of this jeune americaine who is looking for her ancestors—or an inheritance?”

Un moment. I believe I wrote it here somewhere. They were staying at a youth hostel in Aix les Bains.”


“They may have returned to Chambéry. A hotel directly across from the train station, if I’m not mistaken. She retrieved a slip of paper. “Ah, yes. Here it is. Madison. Torrie Madison.”

“So perhaps you have directed me to a suspect after all, Madame. If this is indeed a crime, as you suppose, your young American may have a motive.”

The curator’s face registered alarm. “You think a young woman capable of a brutal murder?”

“If she is a potential heir, as your story suggests . . .”

“Inspecteur Leroux, if I may be so bold as to suggest—you might want to ascertain why she was wandering without food or water and thoroughly disoriented in an abandoned underground passageway. She may be the next victim.”


Copyright © 2006 Jeanette F. Chaplin