Monday, December 27, 2010
The soft leather spines of the innumerable books in the library gleamed in the candlelight. Catalena's guilty conscience plagued her since Lady Heleni's parents collected their daughter, her mangled foot beyond repair. Lady Vivian remained in seclusion in her bedroom, leaving Catalena to wander silent corridors alone. She barely settled into the massive wing chair with a familiar tome when a rustling behind her disturbed her flight into the safer realm of the literature on her lap. A stooped woman emerged from the gloom, rag in hand as she lovingly cared for one of the few rooms in the castle she was allowed to maintain. Catalena couldn't help but notice while the wrinkles in the old woman's face indicated a lifetime's worth of happiness and troubles, there remained an irrepressible twinkle in her hazel eyes. "My apologies. I had no desire to disturb you," Catalena spoke, sitting up straighter in her chair. "It is I who should be apologizing, my dear. It has been so long since we had guests. I go about my routine as if there is no one here but the ghosts. What troubles you so, my child?" "Why do you assume I am troubled?" Catalena responded. "I am getting on in years, and my eyes are not as sharp as they once were, but I know a sad spirit when I encounter it." Catalena did not answer, not knowing what to say. "You are mourning the lady's accident, are you not?" "It was my fault. My curiosity placed us all in danger." The old woman tucked the polishing cloth into her belt for safe keeping as she approached with a comforting click of her tongue. "Nonsense. He loosed the wolf in the dungeon on purpose. You are merely a pawn in an elaborate game the prince is playing. Do you see that chess board there?" the old woman asked, directing Catalena's attention to the well loved ivory and ebony standing at attention on a small round table. "I remember when the young prince would sit on his mother's lap as she and his father taught him to play. I remember his tiny fingers barely dexterous enough to move the pieces across the board. The set has not been touched since the king and queen died. Instead, his heart has grown cold, his spirit callous, and the games more dangerous." "Why would he do this? We have done nothing to him," Catalena responded, grasping for understanding. "By royal decree, each prince must attempt to find a suitable princess by their twenty-fifth birthday. He has a month to do that which he does not want to do. These games are to prove you all unsuitable so the law will be fulfilled and he will be left alone." Catalena crossed her arms over her chest in stoic irritation. She knew quite a bit about the games of boys. "It is not right. The game is only fair if the opponents are allowed to face each other." The old woman smiled, pointing a gnarled finger behind her towards the tapestry depicting a knight slaying a dragon. "It has been some time since our prince had a worthy opponent, my dear. Perhaps he has forgotten how to play." The old woman exited while Catalena immediately investigated the tapestry. She silently opened the door hidden behind, stone steps spiraling upwards towards the tower room where a shaft of golden light snuck under the door at the top, alerting her she indeed found the prince's secret retreat. She scribbled a note on a spare scrap of parchment and carefully gathered the chess set before mounting the stairs. Catalena ensured every last rook and knight was in its proper place before leaving her note and the game. Prince Dragos heard the scuffling and waited for the door at the bottom of the stairs to close before he disturbed his melancholic refuge. The candles illuminated the landing where the chess board sat, one piece out of place as Catalena moved an ivory pawn two spaces forward towards his ebony line. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he grinned as he caught sight of her feminine scrawl on the paper lying in the middle of the board. Your move. -Catalena.
Monday, December 20, 2010
An unexpected gust of wind whistled through the stale prison. The candles guttered and died, plunging them into unforgiving blackness. Catalena heard one of her companions whimper in terror, but her mind was focused on escape. They could not return the way they came, but surely there was another path out of this dreadful place. "Stay close to me. There must be another exit." Catalena's hushed command was heeded by her companions as the two other women held hands, staying as near to Catalena as they were able. She ran her hands along the stone walls to get her bearings, her eyes adjusting to the gloom. The breeze must have come from somewhere, she reasoned. Even in the pitiless dark there were faint slivers of alabaster rays in the distance. If light could escape then perhaps they could too. They were not six feet from their goal when the same chilling howl reverberated down the corridor behind them. It was closer this time...much closer. In a sheer flight of panic, Lady Heleni broke away, scurrying towards the oasis of light. Catalena warned her to stop, but the warning came too late. The young woman's screams nearly drowned out the metallic clang as the jaws of a rusty device snapped shut around her leg. Catalena knelt next to the device, straining for a better glimpse. "Heleni, stop struggling. You will only do further damage," Catalena advised. "What is this monstrous machine?" Lady Vivian queried as she made herself useful by consoling Lady Heleni as best she could. "An old animal trap. I have seen them used by hunters before," Catalena answered as she lightly ran her hand over the bloody metal. Her dexterous fingers finally found the metal toggle on the bottom of the center plate. She pushed the toggle down, yanking back on one side of the trap's jaws with all her might. The trap opened inch by painful inch. As soon as Lady Heleni's injured appendage was safely away, Catalena let the trap snap shut again. So focused on her task, it was only then did she hear the canine panting. Warm breath on the back of her neck sent a shiver down her spine. Still in a crouch, she carefully turned to face the horrid thing. A hulking wolf with forest green fur and thickly braided tail stood mere inches from her face. Dull maroon eyes glared an evil warning as the beast sized up its prey. "Vivian, help Heleni. Head towards the light. Go quickly," Catalena whispered. The women hobbled for what they could only hope was safety. Attracted to the flurry of motion, the wolf lunged, but Catalena grasped the heavy chain attached to the trap and swung the device with every ounce of strength. It struck the animal square across the chest, sending it reeling. The wolf recovered quickly, staring down its adversary standing between it and easier victims. Catalena fearlessly held her gaze on the predator's dead eyes. Her damnable curiosity placed them all in this position. She would rather die than let this wolf harm the others. "Catalena, the door was unlocked. Hurry," Vivian's frightened soprano squeaked in terror. Catalena swing the hefty trap at the beast again, distracting him with the motion while she sprinted for the door. The wolf snarled, razor teeth grazing against Catalena's back as she shoved herself and the others through the opening, kicking the metal door shut with an enormous clang. The wolf slammed against it, but the integrity of the door held. The animal snarled in frustration from the opposite side of the wall as the horrified women tumbled out from behind a dusty tapestry into the safety of a deserted hallway.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Judging by the beleaguered faces around the hushed breakfast table, Catalena's eerie visitations had not been a unique experience. One young woman heeded the spirit's warning, fleeing into the night, leaving three to eat their tepid porridge, all three too exhausted to complain about trifles like cold food. Thick soled shoes clomped down the hall towards the dining area. Catalena secretly hoped it was Prince Dragos so she could relate her annoyance and disapproval with regards to his hosting duties and accommodations, but it was the Vizier not the prince who appeared. He exchanged no pleasantries, not even a glimmer of a smile disturbed the harsh lines of his weather-beaten face as he spoke. "You ladies may amuse yourselves as you see fit today provided you remain in this wing of the castle. You are not to leave or wander off into other sections. To disregard my warning is to do so at your own peril." The Vizier turned to depart, but the mousy voice of one of the women halted him. "When are we to see the prince?" she inquired. "The prince desires to see none of you at present, Lady Heleni," the Vizier's answer as abrupt as his exit. Catalena left her chair as he left the room, half her porridge uneaten. "Where are you going, " Lady Vivian queried her dining companion. "The Vizier said we could explore the castle. That is just what I am going to do." Catalena snatched the candelabra from a table as her companions trailed behind. Even during the day, the palace was dark as midnight, heavy curtains restraining the playful sun. They went from room to room, each more deserted and ramshackle than the last except the library which seemed cozy and well-utilized. At the end of the hallway they came to a massive wooden door with a thick iron lock. Catalena was about to open it when Lady Heleni grasped her arm. "Remember what the Vizier told us, Catalena. We are not to leave this part of the palace." "I want to see what lies beyond. If you do not wish to come, you are under no obligation to follow," Catalena responded. The latch clicked as she opened the door and pulled it ajar with all her strength. Spiral stone steps wound down towards a black abyss, disappearing into silent nothingness. Flame cast bizarre shadows along the damp walls as Catalena carefully descended, her frightened companions timidly at her heels. Reaching the bottom, she held the light aloft, examining her surroundings. Rusty shackles hung from walls and metal bars laid into the rock demarcated cells devoid of prisoners. "I do not like this, Catalena. I want to leave," Lady Vivian whispered. Before Catalena could respond, a thunderous bang ricocheted down the stairs as the door slammed and locked. The two women behind her whimpered, but that was not what made Catalena grasp tighter to the candelabra, her heart thundering under her ribs. A deep, throaty snarl echoed from the gloom like the growl of a demonic wolf. They were trapped in the dungeon... and they were not alone.
Monday, December 6, 2010
Catalena and the other three young women were escorted through the unkempt palace to their rooms by one of the palace guards. She examined her dusty, dark, and damp bedroom, her heart sinking as the guard turned the key in the lock, trapping her inside. The once regal bedding was torn as if some animal used it for a nest. At least she had a place to sleep. A chill swept through the room, freezing her to the bone as the bitter wind crept through every crack and crevice. If she was to survive the night, she must have something to stave off the cold since the guard had seen fit to leave her without even a simple candle. Dust billowed, rising like great plumes of smoke, as she tore down the heavy velvet curtains. Catalena wrapped the musty drapery snugly around her in the creaky bed, favoring preventing frostbite over cleanliness. Shadows danced eerily about the cavernous room, pale moonlight unable to penetrate the crushing darkness. She softly hummed her mother's lullaby, tricking her apprehensive mind into rest even as the odd noises of the castle roared in her ears. "Catalena," a hushed, raspy voice whispered. She jerked up in bed, searching the gloom for the source of the disembodied sound. "Who's there?" she demanded of the darkness. Instead of an answer, a spine tingling cackle slicked through the night, mocking her determination. "Run, Catalena. Leave tonight if you value your life," the rasping ghost warned. In spite of her coverings, Catalena shivered. She summoned all her courage and made a thorough search of the room, finally returning to the bed. She drew up her legs against her chest under the makeshift blankets, protecting herself against the cold and fear. There was no one else in the room with her and she had no idea where the continued groans and unnerving noises emanated from. "Stop it this instant. I am not leaving and I will not allow you to scare me, ghost or no ghost. Go away." Her firm directive was steady in spite of her dread. The ghostly noises did not obey. The shrieks, knocks, and raspy taunts continued ceaselessly until dawn. Catalena spent a sleepless first night in the castle, her sole companions the resident phantoms and her pounding heart.