He mounted the stairs, his already pounding heart accelerating as he climbed. The odd feeling that something was waiting for him up there filled him, not with the dread of unseen monsters, but with the childish hope of a birthday morning. A little farther and he would find an amazing gift just for him.
The sensation continued to grow as he reached the landing and explored the second floor. But the special something wasn’t here. The crazy inner GPS directed him toward another flight of stairs. He took out his flashlight and flicked it on before continuing his way up the stairs.
The third level appeared to be servants’ quarters, tiny rooms with a cot in each. Joel hurried past them, his feet winged as he neared his destination. He didn’t even question the undeniable urge that drove him on to another doorway. This one opened to reveal a stairwell that spiraled ’round and ’round inside one of the towers. The backs of his calves ached as he climbed the steep, narrow steps. At last he reached the top, a tiny area too small to even call a hallway, and yet another door begging to be opened.
He put his hand on the knob and turned it, holding his breath as he entered the room. He pointed the flashlight at what lay on the floor and stared. Ruins of the Brea Monument be damned, this sight was far more shocking.
A woman lay there, unconscious or perhaps dead. Her bright auburn curls and pale, lightly freckled skin were a dramatic contrast to her emerald green dress, parts of which shone like silk through the layers of disturbed dust.
Joel dropped to his knees beside the sleeping woman and lifted her wrist to feel for a pulse. Her heart beat slowly and steadily. Alive then, but deeply asleep or perhaps in a coma. He bent over her and touched the side of her face.
“Hey, lady. Are you all right? Wake up.”
Something gripped her shoulder hard, and a hand kept patting at her face.
“Lady, wake up,” a man’s deep voice commanded.
Aurora frowned and shrugged, trying to shake off the hand. She needed sleep. She was exhausted and it wasn’t time to get up yet.
“How did you get here?” The deep voice kept speaking. Why wouldn’t he be quiet? Couldn’t he see she was asleep? Likely it was a new footman, some lad from the country who had no idea of protocol. His accent was thick and strange, as if he were a foreigner. But what on earth would a manservant be doing in her bedroom? Such outrageous behavior was unforgivable, no matter how ignorant the new footman might be.
Her eyes flew open and she bolted upright. Her head spun at the sudden movement and her body ached all over, every joint screaming. She gasped in pain and stared at the man bending over her.
His hair was brown, cut unfashionably short, and he wore some sort of short-sleeved tunic with a jacket over it and a pair of dark blue leggings. No moustache or beard hid his jaw and chin, but the unshaven stubble of several days shadowed them. Dark brows knit together over blue eyes that gazed at her with inappropriate intimacy.
“How did you get here? What happened to you?” His rough, informal address shocked her, and yet the timbre of his voice sent warm ripples of excitement through her. She suddenly felt wide awake, much more alert than she had in years.
“Who are you?” she countered. “And what are you doing in my bed chamber? I shall have you dismissed.”
The man glanced around. “I don’t think this is your bedroom.”
Aurora followed his gaze and realized she was in the south tower. Suddenly memories began to seep back into her consciousness. A siren call that had guided her feet to this place almost against her will. The spinning wheel haloed and glowing, drawing her to it, beckoning her to touch it. Her parents’ admonitions throughout her life about staying away from any kind of needle, pin, knife or any other pointed object had flown from her mind as she reached out to touch the shining spindle that drew her like a moth to flame. She remembered the sharp prick on her finger, a roaring sound that filled her ears, and then utter darkness.
She rubbed her forehead. “What happened to me? Why am I lying on the floor?”
“I don’t know. Did you hike up to this castle?” He stared at her gown. “Maybe you were doing a movie shoot, or…uh, wandered away from a medieval fair?”
“What are you talking about? Your words make no sense.”
“Never mind. Just relax. I’ll get you back to where you came from.” The man slid a satchel from his shoulder, opened it and took out a clear glass bottle from inside. He unscrewed the blue cap and handed it to her. “Have a drink.”
Aurora was surprised at the lightness of the water bottle. It wasn’t glass at all but some strange, slick material she’d never encountered before. Perhaps he was a wizard trying to get her to swallow a magic potion. But his eyes were kind, and she was too thirsty to care. She took the bottle and drank deeply before handing it back to him.
“Thank you, kind sir.” She addressed him formally since she couldn’t tell his class. She’d never seen any man dressed in such strange attire, and even his demeanor was different from the courtiers, noblemen, guards and menservants she’d known in her life. What country had this bright-eyed stranger come from and what gave him the temerity to address the Princess of Schlaushagen with such informality?
Aurora started to rise, but her legs buckled beneath her. The man shot out an arm and caught her. “Slow down there. You may have a head injury. Why don’t you just sit for a few minutes and then I’ll help you stand.”
“Tonight is my betrothal ball. I must finish getting ready. Help me rise at once and return to my rooms.”
“Your rooms in the castle?” His dark brows shot up.
“Yes, that is correct. What other? I will forgive your oafishness as you clearly do not know who I am. You are addressing the Princess Aurora. My father is King Hubert.”
“Oh.” The man nodded, but a pitying look filled his eyes and Aurora knew he did not believe her. Did he think she was some ladies’ maid dressed in her mistress’s ball gown?
The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Joel Thorne from Gwyn City in Linderwylde. Pleased to meet you.”
She stared at his hand, uncomprehending. What did he expect her to do with it?
After a moment, he dropped his hand. “Okay then. Maybe we should talk a little bit before I take you downstairs. Those tower steps are steep anyway.” Joel Thorne sat back on his heels. “I think I’d better warn you there’s no one besides us in the castle. The place looks like it’s been deserted for hundreds of years.”
The whirling inside Aurora’s head grew stronger. Her stomach heaved, and for a moment she was certain she would vomit the water she’d just drunk. “What are you saying?”
“This place is abandoned. Whoever you’re expecting to find down there is long gone.” He reached out and took her hand. “I’m sorry.”