It was like the end scene in Ape Planet when Charles Hester beheld the Brea Monument half buried in sand and realized he’d never left his own world. Joel sucked in a breath and blinked, unable to believe what he was seeing. In front of him stood a massive structure completely covered in ivy and brambles—a castle shrouded in greenery. The peaked roofs of two towers were the only manmade things to rise above the overgrowth and show there was a building underneath.
“What the fuck is this, and why isn’t it on the map?” he muttered to himself as he walked toward where he judged the front gate might be. The answer to his second question was obvious. It was because he was so far off the map even a GPS unit couldn’t find him. He’d hiked farther than he’d intended into these remote mountains and would likely have to spend the night up here. With any luck he could make his way back down to civilization in the morning.
Still, one would think ancient ruins like this would be tourist-worthy. The principality of Schlaushagen should have clearly marked signs to direct people to the site and a gift shop with brochures explaining the castle’s history and selling tacky snow globes. Untapped financial potential always left Joel feeling a little uneasy, like a picture that begged to be straightened. He wasn’t known as the Prince of Midas Street for nothing. If there was a way to turn any idea into money, Joel Thorne generally had a hand in it.
The bizarre ruins beckoned him to explore. Moving closer to the dense vegetation convinced him he would not find a way inside. Just as well, because it was likely crumbling masonry would kill him and no one would ever find him. Then suddenly he saw a path through the thorny vines, almost as if the briars had parted to make way for him.
Joel’s curiosity over what might lie inside the structure was too great to resist. After all, he was on vacation. He was allowed to investigate this mystery without considering time or money management. It was curiously liberating, reminding him with an unexpected pang, of the daring, adventurous boy he’d once been.
He headed up the rough pathway and not one bramble scratched him or barred his way. He felt a strange pull inside as if something were drawing him onward, and the very air held the hushed sense of an impending change in the weather. It was eerie.
A pair of rusty iron gates was set into the castle wall. The thick, sweet scent of roses nearly choked him as he walked beneath an arching branch of the climbing flowers and pushed on the gates. They would be locked, of course. But with a squeal of their hinges, they swung open into a courtyard.
Entering the murky green space was like diving underwater. Tangled branches grew overhead, sheltering the courtyard like a roof. Dried leaves carpeted the ground, but beneath them were solid flagstones. Joel stopped and looked around. There was a fountain with dancing nymphs holding up jugs to catch water that had long since stopped flowing. Time and the elements had faded the carving on the statues, giving the nymphs a creepy, featureless quality. Joel felt a paranoid fear one of the statues would suddenly turn toward him, step down from the fountain and come at him, holding out her empty jug. The mental image was so strong it sent a shiver down his spine. He shook off the primitive fear and walked forward, determined to look inside the building.
He approached a pair of double doors, once stately and imposing, now a derelict shambles. One hung crookedly on its hinges, so they were clearly not locked or barred. The way was open to him as if the castle was welcoming him to come in. The hinges wailed as he pushed one of the heavy wooden doors open.
The inside of the front hall was nearly pitch-black. He stood for a moment waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. Portraits in ornate frames lined the walls, the faces pale blotches beneath the patina of age that covered them. He walked down the corridor on a velvety-thick layer of dust, past cobweb-draped wall sconces and occasional chairs and sideboards.
Coming to an archway, Joel paused and peered inside a room. From the furnishings, he guessed it had been a parlor. The divans, chairs, ottomans and end tables were coated with years of dust, as if the people who’d lived here had simply walked away one day, leaving the entire castle empty. Where had they gone and why?
He didn’t generally think of himself as a man who was frightened by the unexplained or supernatural. But then, in his life he’d never encountered anything otherworldly. A career built on facts and figures, deadlines and diagrams had dragged him from poverty to the pinnacle of wealth, consuming every moment of his time and attention. He’d never bothered to ponder the oddities or miracles in the world. But this place was completely inexplicable. Even Joel Thorne couldn’t overlook the strangeness of an ancient abandoned castle.
It was late afternoon outside, but as gloomy as midnight in the shadowed rooms. He wandered from one to another and wondered if he dared light a fire on the hearth of the sitting room and pass the night. The alternative was sleeping under the open sky on the side of the mountain, so no matter how haunted this place might feel, he would probably stay here.
Joel returned to the great hall and surveyed the grand staircase with its ornate, curving banisters that glimmered faintly beneath the layers of dirt. Real gold? He went over and rubbed the metal clean. It shone a dull yellow even in the darkness. He put a tentative foot on the bottom step—solid stone, not likely to crumble. 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.”
She looked at the man’s hand wrapped warmly around hers and felt comforted rather than alarmed, despite his insane words. Of course she didn’t believe him. What he suggested was impossible, and yet something had happened to her after she’d touched that spindle. Something had come over her and made her swoon for heaven knew how many hours. Perhaps it was dark magic.
She lifted her gaze, taking in the dusty, cobwebbed walls and the tiny, filthy window. This wasn’t right. It hadn’t looked like this when she’d come up here. And where was the spinning wheel that had so fascinated her? Had someone come up and taken it away, yet left her here on the floor?
Somehow, that idea was more frightening than anything the odd stranger had yet said. Panic surged inside her with such force that she had to gasp to control it.
“Do you feel all right? You’re not going to pass out again, are you?” Joel Thorne pressed a hand to her forehead, feeling for a fever. “I need to get you to a doctor, but we’re miles from the nearest village.”
Aurora met his concerned gaze and found enough strength to respond with dignity. “Sir, much of what you say confounds me, and yet I trust you mean me no harm. From whence do you come and what brings you to the kingdom of Schlaushagen?”
“I’m from Linderwylde, here on vacation. I was hiking in the mountains when I came across these ruins…I mean, this castle. I was curious, so I came inside to explore. Sorry to destroy your illusions, miss, but there really is no one else here besides us. Whatever people you might have been traveling with have apparently left you behind.”
She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Something was amiss here and she needed to find out what. She started to rise from the floor, gritting her teeth at the aching in her joints. Her body felt as if she’d lain on the cold, hard floor for a hundred years.
The man called Thorne offered her his arm again and she gratefully took it, allowing him to draw her upright. Her legs trembled and she grimaced as her head spun again. “Please escort me downstairs. I wish to find my father and mother.”
“All right.” He stopped trying to convince her that the castle was empty and slipped a presumptuous hand around her waist to support her as he led her toward the stairs. Aurora leaned into him more than was proper, but excused her behavior due to her dizziness. She certainly wasn’t leaning because his strength reassured her or made her feel safe.
They walked close together down the very narrow spiral staircase. By halfway down, Thorne was nearly carrying her. With every step, Aurora felt a growing sense of trepidation. She feared what she would find, for the stranger’s words disturbed her despite her protestation of disbelief. She kept remembering the silvery light around the spinning wheel, her overwhelming compulsion to touch the spindle and her mother’s dire warnings throughout the years. Aurora had been forbidden to spin or even do needlepoint, bizarre prohibitions she’d never understood. But what if there’d been a reason behind her mother’s apparent madness, a prophecy her parents had been trying to avoid? And what if by that one touch of her finger to the spindle, Aurora had brought down calamity upon herself and her family, a curse from which they would never recover?
She clung to Joel Thorne’s hand and drew a deep breath as he pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairs.