Chapter 1

An Early Fright

Not far from Vienna, we, though by no means a magnificent family, inhabit a castle. A small income, in this part of the world, goes a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders for the properly modest family. Across the sea this small income would scarcely cover the expenses of a carriage and four but here we are considered quite wealthy. My father is English, and though I bear an English name, I have never seen England. But here, in this lonely and primitive place, where everything is so marvelously cheap, I really don't see how ever so much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or even luxuries.

My father had been in the Austrian service until three years ago whereupon he retired with a small pension and his patrimony. He purchased this feudal residence, and the small estate on which it stands, at a great bargain which pleased him immensely. Nothing could have been more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence deep in the forest. The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge, never raised in my time. The surrounding moat is stocked with perch and sailed over by many black swans among soft white fleets of water lilies. Over all this the castle shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its brooding Gothic chapel.

The forest opens into an irregular and very sunny glade before its gate, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the ancient trees. I have said that this is a very lonely place. Judge whether or not I speak the truth. Looking from the hall door towards the road, the forest in which our castle stands extends fifteen miles to the right, and twelve to the left. The nearest inhabited village is about seven miles to the left and on a nice summer day is a good stretch of the legs. The nearest inhabited estate of any historic associations, is that of old Ravenswood Hall nearly twenty miles away to the right.

I have said "the nearest inhabited village," because there is, only three miles westward, that is to say in the direction of Ravenswood Hall, a ruined village, with its quaint little church, now roofless, in the aisle of which are the moldering tombs of the proud family of Karnstein, now extinct, who once owned the equally desolate chateau which, in the thick of the forest, overlooks the silent ruins of the town. Respecting the cause of the desertion of this striking and melancholy spot, there is a legend which I shall relate to you another time.

I must tell you now, how very small is the party who constitute the inhabitants of our castle. I don't include servants, or those dependents who occupy rooms in the buildings attached to the estate. My father, who is the kindest man on earth, but growing old; and I, at the date of my story, only nineteen comprise our tiny family. My mother died before I learned to walk, but I had a good-natured governess, who had been with me from, I might almost say, my infancy. I could not remember the time when her round gentle face was not a familiar picture in my memory.

This was Madame Perrodon, a native of Berne, whose care and good nature brought a mothers comfort to me after the loss of my own, whom I do not even remember, so early she in my life she went to God. Madame made a third at our little dinner party. There was a fourth, Mademoiselle De Lafontaine, a lady such as you term, I believe, a "finishing governess." She spoke French and German, Madame Perrodon French and broken Italian, to which my father and I added English, which, partly to prevent its becoming a lost language among us, and partly from patriotic motives, we spoke used it daily. The consequence was a verbal mishmash, at which strangers used to laugh, and which I shall make no attempt to reproduce in this narrative. And there were two or three young lady friends besides, pretty nearly of my own age, who were occasional visitors, for longer or shorter terms; and these visits I sometimes returned.

These were our regular social resources; but of course there were chance visits from neighbors of only five or six leagues distance. My life was, notwithstanding, rather a solitary one, I can assure you. My governesses had just so much control over me as you might conjecture such sage persons would have in the case of a rather spoiled girl, whose only parent allowed her pretty nearly her own way in everything.

The first occurrence in my existence, which produced a terrible impression upon my mind, which, in fact, never has been effaced, was one of the very earliest incidents of my life which I can recollect. Some people will think it so trifling that it should not be recorded here. You shall see however, by-and-by, why I mention it.

The nursery, as it was called, though I had it all to myself, was a large room in the upper story of the castle, with a steep oak roof. I can't have been much more than six years old, when one night I awoke, and looking round the room from my bed, failed to see the nursery maid. Neither was my nurse there; and I thought myself alone. I was not frightened, for I was one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly, or the flicker of an expiring candle makes the shadow of a bedpost dance upon the wall, nearer to our faces.

I was vexed and insulted at finding myself, alone and neglected. I began to whimper, preparatory to a hearty bout of roaring; when to my surprise, I saw a solemn, but very elegant face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, so warm and soft and lay down beside me on the bed, then drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again.

Sometime after I was awakened by a sensation most painful as if two needles ran deeply into my breast at the same moment, and I cried out in shock. The lady started back, with her eyes fixed on me, luminous and cat like in the dark. Then without a sound she slipped down upon the floor, and, as I wondered what she would do next, hid herself under the bed.

I was now for the first time frightened, and I yelled with all my might. Nurse, nursery maid, housekeeper, all came running in, and hearing my story, they made light of it, soothing me all they could meanwhile. Child that I was, I could still perceive that their faces were pale and tight with an unwanted look of anxiety. I saw them look under the bed, and about the room, and peep under tables and pluck open cupboards only to find what was expected. Then the housekeeper whispered to the nurse: "Lay your hand along that hollow in the bed; someone did lie there, as sure as you did not; the place is still warm to the touch."

I remember the nursery maid petting me, and all three examining my chest, where I told them I felt the puncture, and pronouncing that there was no sign visible that any such thing had happened to me.

The morning after I saw this apparition I was in a state of terror. Trembling and fearful I could not bear to be left alone, daylight though it was, for even a single moment. I remember my father coming up and standing at the bedside, and talking cheerfully, and asking the nurse a number of questions, and laughing very heartily at one of the answers; and patting me on the shoulder, and kissing me, and telling me not to be frightened, that it was nothing but a dream and could not hurt me.

The housekeeper and the two other servants who were in charge of the nursery, remained sitting up all night; and from that time a servant always sat up in the nursery until I was nearing the age of sixteen. But in truth I was not comforted, for I knew the visit of the strange woman was not a dream; and I was awfully frightened. I was slightly consoled by the nursery maid's assuring me that it was she who had come and looked at me, and lain down beside me in the bed, and that I must have been half-dreaming not to have known her face. But this assurance, though supported by the nurse, did not quite satisfy me.

The skin just above my heart still felt tender and warm to the touch. Even as a small child I wondered how that could be? Did not the sensations of a dream fade with the morning light? For I remembered with startling detail my night visitors face and it was nothing like the rounded, freckled face of my nurse maid with her warm amber eyes.

I remembered, in the course of that day, a venerable old man, in a black cassock, coming into the room with the nurse and housekeeper. Talking a little to them, and very kindly to me; his face sweet and gentle, he said they were going to pray for me. Then he joined my hands together, and desired me to say, softly, while they were praying, "Lord hear all good prayers for us, for Jesus' sake."

I think these were the very words, for I often repeated them to myself, and my nurse cautioned me for years to say them in my prayers. I remember so well the thoughtful sweet face of that white-haired old man. His black cassock draped about him, as he stood in that rude, lofty, brown room, with the clumsy furniture of a fashion three hundred years old. The scanty light entering its shadowy atmosphere, dancing with motes of dust in the breeze through the small lattice as his soft words calmed me. He kneeled, and the three women with him, and he prayed aloud with an earnest quavering voice for, what appeared to me, a long time.

I forget all my life preceding that event, and for some time after my memories remained also obscured, but the scenes I have just described stand out vivid as the isolated pictures of the phantasmagoria surrounded by endless darkness.

During my eighteenth summer, father deemed it no longer necessary for me to have a night watch in the form of nurse or servant. Yet it was only at the start of the next cool spring as I neared my nineteenth birthday that the dreams began anew. I could not imagine speaking of them to father as the subject matter would have alarmed him unnecessarily. He was growing frail with age and I feared my overly active nocturnal imagination would hasten his decline. Then there was also the consideration of my impending women-hood; should father feel I was not in the best of health he may decide to delay seeking a suitable companion as husband for me. So I kept my secret close to my heart just under the warm spot on my skin where I had felt that phantom bite so many years ago.

Even so, there were times when the staff would comment to father about the periodic mornings when they would find me in such a disheveled state; nearly naked and in a stupor that father expressed his concern about my situation and bemoaned the loss of my mother for he was sure she would have known what to do. He grew convinced that the source of my night terrors; for that is what he called them had to do with the nursery. He directed me to choose any room in the castle for my new bedroom and gave me a generous allowance with which to decorate it.

I spent weeks pouring over ideas for my new chamber. First I toured all the unused rooms on the upper most floors in the castle seeking furniture that I might like and also to please my father by not over-extending my funds. Each day I emerged dusty and tousled for lunch where the ladies would bemoan my state and father would chuckle at his intrepid daughter's excursions.

One afternoon it was quite dreary and the sky was leaden with unshed rain. I had wandered into another room and in a fit of pique slumped on a low chaise by the heavy curtains that whispered with dust. I must have drifted off for it was the stealthy voices that dragged me for my afternoon slumber. I opened my eyes but did not rise from my hidden spot as I was held in place by a low male chuckle of amusement. "Your cheeks are flushed; pray tell my pretty rose, are you in need of my assistance?"

While the words shocked me it was a far greater surprise when I realized that it was in fact Mademoiselle De Lafontaine who was also present.

"Ravish me" she whispered in a voice heavy with desire. "I can wait no longer." I peered through the ornamental screen that concealed my presence from the randy servants. I watched with my heart skipping faster as strong muscled hands gripped her waist and swung her easily onto the tester bed. He pushed the delicate fabric from her shoulders with one swift movement to expose her breasts to the cool air causing a shuddering sigh to pass her lips. His hands curved over them, his thumbs rubbing the already taut nipples to an aching plush hardness. It was obvious Mademoiselle was enjoying herself as her eyes were half closed perhaps to better concentrate on the sensations washing over her. I felt myself growing flushed with desire as she moaned wordless approval of his skills. I turned my eyes away for I was both shocked at my blatant interest and fear that I would be caught out as a voyeur. Yet I could not constrain my interest and let the lust of the others wrap me in the moment.

Once again plying my gaze through the screen I found that he was kissing her breasts and sucking on her nipples as her head was thrown back in a semblance of rapture. Her chest was rising and falling as she panted in her need for his continued attentions. He seemed to be reading her responses which then cued him to further actions. She let out a whimper and pulled her head back to gaze at the top of his crown and in an instant he had pushed her back on the bed following her to press his hands against the insides of her knees and force them apart. Finding her welcoming and willing he parted the soft fabric of her drawers to enable his fingers to make contact with the softer heated flesh beneath. His touch was light and with the utmost delicacy his fingers fluttered through her curls down to her bum and back where they swirled around her swollen hood. "Oh dear God, yes," she gasped her voice reverberating with need.

He played with her, teasing, tantalizing, until she was gasping with frustration attempting to push herself onto the elusive thick fingers. Rocking her hips back and forth she still could not gain satisfaction. I found myself flexing my pelvic muscles in time with Mademoiselle neither of us gaining satisfaction but rather driving both of us to a sexual need that was all enveloping. I nearly moaned in frustration that she would at least be rewarded but I was surely to be left to my own devices.

Rolling her head forward she opened her eyes and whispered, "please," as her gaze focused on the long masculine fingers now slippery with her juices. Planting her delicate heels against the footboard she thrust her hips skyward forcing his palm to press down on her trembling mound. But still he denied her. His golden brown eyes radiated amusement and I realized he was fully enjoying her torment. I watched and wondered what it would be like to change places with her and stare upwards into that handsome face grinning down at me as I twisted and shuddered with need.

I could feel a rising sense of her anger merge with desperation for satisfaction as she pushed herself up onto her elbows and speared him with angry blue eyes. "Bastard" she hissed lightly at him, "if you find yourself not up to the task then leave off teasing me and I'll do the damn job myself." I nearly gasped aloud at the harsh words of Mademoiselle.

Throwing back his head he roared with laughter and squeezed his fingers firmly into the soft flesh of her thighs. "Well now, I've always wanted a redhead but I had no idea they could be so very demanding".

"Well," she murmured "If you had truly wanted something simple you would have chased someone other than me."

"Hmmm, that's true and yet even though I knew from the beginning it was probably a terrible idea I found myself unable to stop. You fascinated me from the first day I saw you and no matter how I tried I couldn't walk away."

Laughing with delight she chortled back, "I can and I will."

Cocking his head he asked, "You can and will what?"

"Walk away unless you give me what I need."

His teeth flashed white against the blackness of his goatee, "Oh really?"

Dark eyes raked across her torso as his hand slapped gently against her swollen hot lips causing her hips to slam into the mattress and a startled gasp to escape her mouth. Lowering his head to her stomach he flicked his tongue across her belly button then smiled as he watched her shudder. I could scarcely contain my own rising excitement as I watched his dark head burrow between her cool white thighs. I could not see what he was doing with his mouth but it was blatantly obvious that she was thrilled beyond measure with his skill. Panting and whimpering she clutched her hands into his hair as if to keep him in place while her hips rocked into him. I could not tear my gaze from the scene displayed before me. I was torn between shock and an increasingly ardent desire to make myself known if only to stop the violent shudders that were consuming me. Closing my eyes did nothing to sway my feelings of rising and wanton heat that thrummed throughout my body.

It was a loud gasp that caused my eyes to fly open and peek again through the screen. He had stood up and was looming over her with a calculating look on his face. Suddenly without a word he grabbed her hips dragging her bottom to the edge of the bed and thrust himself within her. Her arms flew backwards over her head and she arched suddenly shoving her breasts into the air while the muscles of her neck stood out. I could not take another moment like this. I squeezed my eyes shut and shoved my right hand between my legs rubbing in tight circles while the wet slapping sounds from the bed assaulted my ears. It seemed to last an interminable amount of time but eventually I realized that soft laughter was caressing the air. They must have been spent and would shortly be about their duties. I determined to wait them out and continue on my search for Papa would expect me at dinner to discuss my latest find.

By late afternoon I had selected a massive dark oak bedstead found in a corner room which appeared not to have been entered in a generation the rest of my choices followed in less than a fortnight. I quickly located chests, cabinets and trunks to house my belongings. Everything was placed in the center hall until it could be properly cleaned.

Just before dinner I approached father in the study; he was deeply engrossed in the estate accounts and took no notice of me at first. I wandered around wondering if I should intrude since I had a question for him that required permission for me to act. After much sighing, he finally laughed and pushed down his glasses.

"What now my daughter, have you found some other relic that you must have but it's in a shop window?"

I tried a pout as if I'd been insulted but he saw through my charade and laughed all the more.

"Well speak girl and tell me what's on your mind that has you in such high spirits."

I stood before his desk and blurted out in a most unlady-like fashion, "Tapestries, I have found two in my travels amongst the dust and wish to have them cleaned and hung in my room. I've not seen them before but they are beautiful and would do much to warm the room during the winter."

I waited rocking on my toes for I knew the cost of cleaning and repairing them could be far more than my allowance would cover. Father looked again at the papers spread across his blotter, and then his eyes slowly searched my face.

"Dearest to my heart, let us go together and have a look at these necessary tapestries and see if they are worthy enough to justify the lightening of my purse."

I clapped my hands in delight for I knew that once he saw them he would be unable to leave them rotting in the dark. As he came around the desk I reached for his hand and squeezed it in familial happiness. How lucky a daughter was I, to have such a father, patient, wise and indulgent; he was ever one to encourage my learning and supported my restless mind. I knew he would be as thrilled with my discovery as I.

We took an eternity to arrive on the fourth floor; endless stairs took their toll on father's stamina and I had not the heart to hurry him further despite my excitement. Finally we arrived and paused to slow our breathing at the landing. Father peered into the gloom and asked, "What on earth possessed you to come all the way up here? This lonesome place has not seen the passage of servants in decades. I don't even know if this part of the house is safe for habitation."

I shrugged off his concerns and with the utmost assurance stated, "I have been in this hall and its rooms for the past three days Papa. I have not seen anything untoward nor felt myself fearful for my safety."

Grinning at him I pointed to the door half way down the hall where my precious tapestries awaited his examination. "Come dear Father and you shall see why I beg your indulgence."

The window at the end was totally obscured with dirt and it cast the hall in grubby twilight. Sounds were hushed here and it felt as if we were alone in the world for this brief moment in time. We walked together as he told me that many years before when the castle was full of servants; this had been the floor where they resided. Long ago this castle supported a large family and the number of servants needed to care for them and their guests had filled the halls. Sadly such was not our situation. Fifty servants were no longer required for we were a family of two and father did not host hunts or balls; most of our servants had taken up residence in the larger guest rooms in the third floor hall. Outside of my old nursery none of the rooms on the upper most floors had heard a maids giggle in a century or more.

Father was a most considerate person and saw no reason to house the servants in small wind-blown rooms when so many others went begging for an occupant. It was a tidy arrangement; Cook and her husband had rooms off the kitchen, while the rest slept in chambers located opposite of the central hall.

Periodically he drew to a halt testing a latch to see if it would yield to his hand. Poking his head through a few doors and finding himself beset with sneezing he remarked "How very odd this all is. I had no idea we had such a surplus of furniture"

It seemed many of the rooms had been converted to storage so long ago he had no idea what was in them. He had received an inventory upon the purchase of the estate and its holdings but had not troubled himself or the servants to tackle this area. His only concern had been that the supports and roof were sound. Prior to my parents' arrival he had sent some of the footmen to ensure that there were no leaks or crumbling supports but had issued no orders beyond that. He laughing confessed that after all the years we had lived here this was his first trip to the abandoned uppermost floor of the castle.

Midway along the hall we came to a giant set of double oak doors; black with age and the latches nearly rusted shut with disuse.

"Here it is," I declared with a ringing tone of excitement. "This room is filled with remnants of what the former owners treasured enough to keep but for some reason abandoned. Furniture, tapestries and boxes filled with ladies dresses; although so out of fashion I would hesitate to bother having them cleaned."

I shoved open the heavy doors and proudly turned to him, "there is even more to discover in here that I have not been able to reach."

He followed me in looking around him at the piles of unknown shapes hidden under massive dusty clothes. "Tis amazing Papa, yesterday I even discovered a packet of letters but they were so brittle I could not make out the writing. When I attempted to discern their contents they crumbled into ash."

I wondered aloud who the author had been and why her letters were left here. He looked surprised that so many personal items had been left without care.

"Have you any idea of the author my dear?"

"No all I could make out was the year; 1670, it must have been some type of tragedy befalling the family to have shut away letters and clothes like that. One would think that the lady author would have despaired of their loss."

"Ah and how have you come to the conclusion that the author was a lady?"

"The letters were tied up in aged ribbons and all the clothing I have found suggest a young woman wore them. I surmised that the items were related by ownership."

My eyes dropped down and I realized I was fingering one of the fine brocade sleeves dropping from the edge of an open chest. Sighing with the potential romance of it all I found myself lost in the possibility of some epic Shakespearean tragedy that driven the family to seal off their beloved's effects over two hundred years ago. I was pulled back from my wool-gathering as father piped up.

"My brilliant girl you are most likely right, now show me these tapestries that have so enflamed you."

I turned and picked my way along the near wall until I reached a large wardrobe. Propped along the floor next to it were the rolled tapestries. They were too heavy for me to drag to where father stood gazing about him with an air of bemused contemplation. In my haste I did not wait for him to join me but simply unrolled part of the nearest one to show him the brilliant colors now muted with age. As he walked over he was taking note of the size of the room and how it was nearly packed with shrouded images.

"I imagine we should have some of the stronger footmen go through these rooms. I am quite sure there are items we could donate to some of the estate households for their benefit."

I crouched down and pointed out the leaves and trees that were visible. Golden threads picked out rays of light and the remainder we could see was just as detailed. Father reached down and began to tug; after a bit of exertion on both our parts we had managed to unroll more than half it.

It was a forest scene in which a young girl was petting a unicorn while hunters hid in the foliage. I tore my eyes from the image before me and sought out his reaction. Would he approve? Would he allow the expense needed in restoring the old threads that might have come undone? I could feel my tense shallow breathing and wished he would say something; anything to let me know if he approved or not.

His eyes smiled and he said, "My child this piece is centuries old, perhaps even medieval but no doubt it is well worth the cost of possible repairs. The myth depicted here is beyond ancient. Only a virgin pure of heart, body and soul could call the elusive unicorn to her aid but even then neither is safe from evil. One must always be vigilant and never feel any sympathy for the devil."

I was nodding in agreement when I felt the oddest sensation. Not frightening, just a queer skip of my heart as if for the briefest of moments it had stuttered of its own accord. Thankfully father had turned back to gazing around him as he made his pronouncement and had not noticed my odd behavior. Tossing my head like a nervous colt I shook myself free of the disquiet I felt and rushed to stand with Papa.

He kissed my forehead and petted my hand then told me not to concern myself the tapestries would be cared for at once. Father agreed to have two footmen bring the tapestries down onto main floor. They would be brought outside to the bricked area off the kitchen for a preliminary cleaning. Then we would be able to determine if further restoration was needed.

That night I wondered what we would find the next day once the tapestries were moved. I had only been able to see a corner of the bottom tapestry and had no true notion of what image was woven through it. Father had suggested the servants not be dispatched to move them until morning when he hoped the rain would cease.

As he said, "It would not be prudent to allow rain to damage them further. They have waited all these many years; another day will not bother them."

During dinner the conversation revolved around the room I had found and the mystery owner who once cherished the things in it. It was enough of a curiosity that I was able to engage the assistance of Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De Lafontaine the following day to assist me further in my exploration.

The next day dawned favorably with clear skies and warm breezes which meant after breakfast we could start exploring further. I went into the kitchen to pick up the basket I had previously arranged from cook. Hefting it off the small side table I was delighted to realize it would feed the three of us without the need to make the lengthy trek back through the castle for lunch. Even more important we would not have to change for lunch and again for dinner. I fully expected we would be quite dirty after a day spent exploring. Hearing my name uttered in a questioning fashion I blushed hotly when I realized that the tables along the back wall were filled with male staff eating their breakfast.

So intent was I on gripping the basket without pausing to look up I had taken no notice the room was not empty. Thomas the most handsome of the footman nodded to me and wished me a good morning. "We shall be up shortly to fetch the tapestries young Miss and you need not worry as we shall be most careful with them."

I thanked him and Cook for their assistance and enjoined them to finish their meal in comfort. I realized as I retreated with flaming cheeks that Father and I were a most fortunate family in our staff; for they were trustworthy, kind and even more important they seemed genuinely fond of both of us.

Unlike some homes I had visited where servants were treated as invisible unless a mistake was made, my father preferred to treat them as he would junior clerks who had once worked for him at the ministry. They were well cared for, well fed, treated with affection and when no longer able to earn a salary due to age or infirmary he ensured for their comfort within the estate holdings. None would be turned out to fend alone or become a burden to poor relatives. He even refused to dismiss an upstairs maid when it became known she was with child. Poor chit! The girls husband had absconded with their meager wedding gifts leaving her alone and penniless.

I recall it was my tenth summer when this happened but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Seeing the poor girl weeping as she completed her tasks, telling no one of her heartache and fears; I had gone to Father and told him that something was dreadfully wrong with Marie and I wanted him to fix her so that she would smile again. Like all children who look up to their fathers. I believed my papa could solve any trouble within our home. I recall sitting in the garden with my nurse when Father came roaring out of the castle. Shouting like a man possessed he called for his horse.

Yet I could not understand why he should be so violent in his actions. Father would not even allow spurs to be used on his mounts yet I had seen with my own eyes as he gave a hard kick to Goliaths ribs with the heels of his boots. Spinning his horse away from the house cursing in such a fashion my ears burned as he galloped towards the bridge. I had never seen him before in such a state and wondered what had caused it. His obvious anger frightened me and I began to weep; not knowing why. Tears of dismay and confusion rolled down my cheeks as nurse tried to assure me that all would be well.

She hugged me close and said, "Your father is a good man, a kind man, if he is angry there is cause for it. Don't worry any more for I am sure you will see him tonight and he will be much the same as always."

I waited all day for his return, constantly peering out the windows to watch for his arrival. Eventually he arrived at a canter, dismounted and spoke to the head groom. I ran out to greet him and threw myself into his arms.

"Ah daughter, how good of you to welcome me home" he said in a tone that rang of false cheer. "I shall need to take care of some estate business before dinner, so be a good girl and tell Cook I have returned."

He patted me on the head and gave me a gentle shove to send me on my way. I sensed something wrong but did as I was bid. Trudging off to the kitchen I realized he had not included his usual order to avoid pestering everyone with my curiosity which gave me leave to ferret out what I could. I understood this to be an opportunity which in my good conscience gave me free rein to pester at will.

However I had no luck in the kitchen for the adults present refused to answer my questions about Marie. It was only at dinner that father finally addressed the tension rolling through the castle.

"Daughter I wanted to tell you that I am pleased you showed such concern for Marie."

He sighed deeply and looked at the footmen, butler and cook who lingered along the wall. His eyes rested then on the four of us seated at the table.

"You should know that Marie will be blessing the castle with a child and that we should all say prayers for her safe delivery. She is a member of this estate and will be treated as such. Her sister lives nearby within the estate grounds and will help care for the child. Marie will continue to work however she will confine herself to the lower levels. I would not have her risk her health on the stairs. If she should decide to marry again we shall provide a suitable dowry for her. I shall not speak further on this matter."

I heard Cook stifle a sob of gratitude; she then bobbed a courtesy and excused herself back into the kitchen. Remembering poor Marie gave me a renewed sense of purpose. What if the letter writer had been a girl callously abandoned by her betrothed? Had she died of a broken heart? Was that why her parents had shut up all her belongings and left them behind? Had the tapestries been her favorites and once hung in her bedchamber? I hoped to learn more before the day was out.

Two weeks later I heard the carriage rumble across the bridge as I was reading nearby with Mademoiselle de Lafontaine who labored diligently correcting my French pronunciation.

I laid my book in her hands and shouted "They are here, arrived safely and now we shall see them anew!"

I pulled on her arm in my haste and begged her to hurry with me.

"Please we must be quick. I want to see them before they are hung in my new chamber."

Gracious woman that she was, she laughed and raced along with me. We arrived nearly breathless and a bit wild looking from our speedy passage across the lawn. It minutes we were standing before the castle entrance as the driver called a halt to his horses. Father came out and with greetings exchanged offered refreshment to the driver and his two horses. Mr. Statz was pleased to accept a cold drink for them all and laughed when grooms appeared with water buckets and nosebags for his animals.

Grinning with pleasure he chortled, "Ah my Lord you will spoil us all with your hospitality." Bending at the waist he threw out his left arm and drew off the corner of the burlap covering that shielded his cargo.

"I believe the young miss will be greatly pleased with my work. I have brought you the tapestries and they are magnificent. The color has been restored and all damage has been repaired. They are ready for your inspection of course."

I could barely contain my excitement as the tapestries were unloaded and carried into the main hall. Each one was carefully slipped from its protective shroud. The first I saw was the forest scene with the Virgin radiant against the white unicorn. It was more beautiful than I could have imagined. Father pronounced himself well pleased with work of Mr. Statz and we both wondered aloud what the next tapestry would reveal. Smiling at us both in recognition of our pleasure with his expert craftsmanship he whispered in a reverential tone.

"My Lord, young Miss this next tapestry is beyond compare I should not be surprised to find it's like hanging in the Pope's chambers. Tis a rare jewel that you found moldering and I'm greatly pleased to have been given the commission to restore it to its proper glory."

Mr. Statz stepped forward and began unrolling the woolen treasure and I leaned around him trying to understand what I was seeing. Ground, scorched earth, rocks, a horses hooves and something near it; green, scaly with wicked claws whatever could it be? I could not make sense of the bits I could see. Father must have known because he smiled in understanding while I remained perplexed. It was not until Mr. Statz stepped back I could gaze upon the entire scene. It was Saint George slaying the dragon in brilliant colors with such detail the figures seemed to be suspended in the silken knots. St. George astride a glowing white horse flashed golden armor against a sullen sky. Gripping his lance above the dragon's heart as flames danced round his head from the creature's maw he looked more archangel than man.

I stepped closer and felt my eyes go wide for the visor was raised allowing the viewer to see righteous anger igniting deep blue eyes which stared past the monstrous head directly into mine. I could feel my heart thudding in my chest as I searched the image before me. Though not the same, the resemblance was striking nonetheless; Thomas. The footman was clad in a knight's garb and daring anyone who looked to deny his strength, heart and loyalty to defend the realm and the innocent. I continued to cast my eyes about the piece wondering if anyone else would see what I did. Father draped his arm around my shoulders and asked if I liked it.

"Tis not what I had expected but lovely nonetheless" I said. "But do you or Mr. Statz notice anything familiar about it?"

Both men stood in silent contemplation until Mr. Statz offered up his opinion.

"I think young Miss that as I can recall the few others that I have seen with a similar theme, uh, well the dragons' eyes have been black. But when my apprentice was doing the cleaning he first took note of the eyes."

His arm extended and a finger pointed down, "See if you look close you'll see the beast has multi-colored eyes. Dark green rings around a ruby orb. A most unusual choice for whoever commissioned this piece."

Father chortled and said "Perhaps because the dragon represents the Devil himself in one of his many forms or mayhap the gentleman that contracted for it desired to hang it in the main hall where candlelight would make the beast come alive. Give the ladies a reason to cling closer to their husbands after a glance at it."

Father shook hands and requested Mr. Statz follow him to his study so that he might conclude his bill. I was left standing alone with these images and wondering why a young lady might have chosen this terrifying dragon as part of her bedrooms' decoration. I was a bit disturbed by the dragon writhing in death throes but could not tell Papa to hang it somewhere else after the cost he had paid for it. I resolved to say nothing and be of good cheer when he returned.

Later that night I tucked myself into bed and stared at the newly hung tapestries. In the firelight the images seemed to move as if the story they told would progress if only I had eyes to see. I snuggled down into my pillow pleased that I had this new chamber all to myself. I had secreted a book from the mystery room on the top floor. During our excavations I had found a small studded truck, filled with books and journals. It was not so heavy that I could not carry it myself and so just before dinner I placed it in my room so that I might go through it in privacy. Who knew what I might find?

I chose a maroon leather bound book that told tales of ancient Rome and soon found myself engrossed in lives lived long ago. I drifted to sleep thinking of sun-drenched streets and the scent of olive trees. I was warm and content seeing my dream self wander along the Forum. I could feel the heat rising off the cobbles and stroking my legs. The warmth crawled along my limbs until I felt myself in a stupor of languid repose. I was drifting in a haze of growing intensity yet I was not frightened; after all not even nightmares can truly do more than provide a good scare.

It was the queerest sensation; to be dreaming and yet somehow still aware. I could smell the ocean and it was like nothing I had experienced before; a tangy scent I could taste on my tongue. I drew my cloak around me as I felt the chill breeze coming off the water and voice came to me, "do not be afraid for I shall keep you warm and safe." I slowly opened my eyes and looked into the face lying on the pillow next to mine.

I should have been terrified but somehow my mind noted this was just another part of the dream and I relaxed. Icy green eyes appeared to be lit from within but of course this was only the reflection brought about by the last candle still burning. They fixated on me and I waited for what would come next. A warm, soft voice tripped through her impossibly red lips, "I have loved you for so long and it is only now that I can come to you without bringing you harm. Each night over these many years I have waited and it has been the most exquisite agony but no longer for you are ready."

I sighed with happiness for this face that had brought me terror as a child was no threat but just the longed for friend to help assuage my solitary existence. I would have a friend my own age to gossip with, to ride with and maybe we would even attend a party together. I smiled back at her and wondered who she was. "What is your name?"

"Shush, not yet." I watched as she moved closer and began to stroke my hair.

"Such a golden color, I am thinking you are liquid sunshine and moon glow. Such soft skin and so very warm; your essence is intoxicating to me."

I watched her through sleepy eyes and was content to be with her. The stroking was so delicate I again felt myself drifting away. Her breath was sweet and soothing on my face. I wondered how long she would stay and was rewarded with a kiss on my cheek. Her lips trailed hot kisses along my jaw line and lingered on my neck. Her tongue rasped along my throat like a cat and she gently moved her attentions back to my face when I whimpered.

A chuckle rumbled low from her throat. "Ah my sweet, you are trembling and so lovely in your awakening. I shall take special care to give you the utmost pleasure. This night will be my first gift to you; the first of many more. Do not question, do not think, just feel-nothing more will I ask of you."

I opened my eyes to find her looking down at me, turning my head slightly I could see that she was propped up on one elbow. I returned my gaze to her face and let myself go.

She must have sensed my surrender for she gave a slow sultry smile while her eyes narrowed in satisfaction. "You will enjoy this" she purred as she brushed her lips across mine. Had I not been dreaming I would have rejected this advance but after all a dream means nothing and is gone with the morning dew. What harm could come from this strange dream? Giving in I felt her hot tongue lick the corners of my mouth and I felt the strangest tingling rush throughout my body. Her arms came round and clapped me tightly to her as she ravaged my mouth with soft movements. Closing my eyes I found myself responding with a growing passion. Heat, touch and breath had become my existence; there was nothing else.

I was lost to the sensation. The smallest of bites on my lower lip made me open my eyes. I found her gleaming teeth smiling down at me.

"You are lovely to kiss and I am sure that the rest of you is beyond compare. Come, I wish to see you in the moonlight; with your skin glowing bright in passion."

My unnamed dream friend rose up the sheets and pulled me to her. "Come let us see what we can make of the dark that seeks to hide what is ever beautiful."