The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 8
Lady Katherine And The Haunted Castle
October 1191, Nottinghamshire, England
to MercyCroft and Jay for beta reading this for me. This one is dedicated to Jay and her Most Haunted obsession ;)
This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in any way, shape or form - this is just a bit of fun. This story includes an all female relationship, so if you don’t like that then look away now.
Lady Katherine Johnson tugged forcefully on the reins in her hand. The soaked leather bit painfully into her palm, which was fast becoming numb with the cold. “Come on, Delta,” she pleaded, “Move, will you.”
Her horse looked down at her with his big brown eyes, and she could have sworn he had a stubborn look in them, if horses were capable of such things.
Taking a moment to brush her rain-sodden auburn hair from her face, she fixed him with an equally baleful stare. “You think I want to be out in this anymore than you do?” she tried to reason, though she wasn’t entirely sure why she was talking to a horse, “But we’re not going to get out of it any faster if you don’t pick up your bloody hooves and move!”
Katherine yanked the reins again, but the recalcitrant steed just whinnied and dug his feet even further into the clogging mud of the track. Katherine bit back numerous swear words that were threatening to spill out of her mouth. Gritting her teeth, she made one last almighty effort to force him to follow her down the road, failing spectacularly as the reins slipped out of her hand and she stumbled backwards to land on her backside in the mud.
“Damn!” she cried angrily, slapping her hands down and sending a shower of water and mud all over her already filthy trousers.
“Are you all right?” came a voice from beside her.
She titled her face up, blinking a few times as the rain lashed into her eyes. Standing beside her was her travelling companion, Nicholas. Raindrops cascaded down his face and slipped off his drenched beard.
“I’m just great,” said Katherine sarcastically, “Bloody marvellous! Fantastic! I’m having a lovely time, in fact!”
Nicholas looked like he was trying to hold back a smile as she flailed about in the mud. Katherine thought it best he did, as she really wasn’t in the mood for his un-ending cheeriness. It had seemed like a simple enough task to go and fetch some supplies from Mansfield. Katherine had thought it would make a nice diversion from the outlaw camp and Nicholas was usually interesting company, possessing a few more brain cells than some of the less-blessed outlaws. Katherine had seen the anxious look on Anne’s face when she had told her of her plans, though the young woman knew better than to try and dissuade Katherine from any course of action she had set her mind to. Katherine wasn’t insensitive to Anne’s needs though, knowing it was mainly Anne’s insecurities over the loss of her parents that still clouded how she dealt with those she loved and made her somewhat over-protective. So Katherine had reassured her that she would be fine and not to worry. What could go wrong on a day’s journey to Mansfield? she had said. How she regretted those words now!
“Come on,” said Nicholas, disturbing her thoughts, “Let’s try and keep going.”
Katherine took the hand he offered and clambered to her feet, dragging up half the track with her. She wiped the lumps of mud off her clothes with disdain. “Believe it or not, that’s what I was trying to do, but this stupid animal refuses to budge!”
“How about you take the bag and I’ll try and get him to move,” offered Nicholas helpfully.
Katherine sighed. “Good luck!”
She took the bag off him and watched with amazement, and not a little annoyance, as he successfully encouraged Delta forwards. As Nicholas led him past, Katherine thought she caught a smug look on the colt’s face.
That’s it, I’ve officially gone insane, she told herself. Not only had she happily volunteered for the trip, but now she was attributing human expressions and characteristics to animals. Falling in behind them, she hunched her shoulders and bowed her head to try and ward off the driving rain that whipped down the road in the cold October wind.
Digging her hands into the pockets of her over-tunic, she attempted to rub some life back into her frozen digits. Cursing her own stupidity, she realised she should have known better than to agree to any significant journeys away from the camp after she got back from the trip to Loughborough some three weeks previously.
Though on that occasion things had started off badly, and gotten much worse when she had nearly killed Anne, before getting much, much better. Whereas this time things had started off well enough, only for her to find herself stuck in the middle of nowhere, with just Nicholas, the obstinate Delta and a torrential rainstorm for company.
Despite the horrendous weather, she couldn’t help the small smile that twitched at her lips as she thought of the journey back from Loughborough and all the fun she and Anne had had. When they did finally get back to the camp, some ten days after leaving the town, Robin had been starting to get seriously worried that something had happened to them. Katherine could sense that he saw right through Anne’s vague excuse about being “delayed” on the journey home, but he had been gentlemanly enough not to press her on exactly what could delay them for that long.
A flash of lightning lit up the leaden skies, bringing Katherine resoundingly back to the present. As the rumble of thunder quickly joined its stormy companion, she pondered over how the current trip had gone wrong. It had started out well enough, with the day being surprisingly fair considering they were well into October now. They had reached Mansfield in good time and made the necessary trades. Katherine had even had time to sort out a small present for Anne. She briefly rummaged in her bag, suddenly wanting to check that she hadn’t lost it in all her rolling about on the ground. She heaved a sigh of relief as her fingers wrapped round the small object. While at Mansfield Nicholas had been in good spirits too, and they’d even had time to stop for a quick mug of warming ale before setting off home. And then everything had started to go downhill.
She realised Nicholas had stopped again in front of her, and she walked up beside him, her boots quickly sinking into the mud as she stopped. “What is it?” she asked.
He turned to look at her, the worry evident on his face. “I don’t think we’re going to make it back before nightfall at this rate,” he said slowly, glancing up to the overcast skies. “It was all right when we were riding Delta, but as soon as we had to abandon that…”
He trailed off as he saw the dark look on Katherine’s face. Could things get much worse? Bringing Delta along had seemed like a good way to be able to make the trip in a single day, and give him a run out at the same time. Since most of the road to Mansfield lay through Sherwood Forest, Robin had agreed that it was probably safe enough for them to take the horse. However, not long after leaving the town, the skies had darkened and they had been enveloped in a vicious storm. The merciless rain had quickly turned the track into cloying mud that Delta had been unable to navigate with the added burden of two people on his back. Reluctantly, they’d had to dismount and try and lead him through it. Which led them to their present situation.
“So what do you suggest?” said Katherine testily. She knew it wasn’t Nicholas’ fault, but the non-stop battle through the rain and wind had made her weary to the point of not really caring whether she was being fair or not.
As was Nicholas’ way he completely ignored any slight towards him. “We need to find somewhere to shelter for the night,” he suggested.
“Nice idea,” agreed Katherine, “Though I don’t see a whole host of likely places, do you?”
“Well, there is somewhere close by we could go,” he began warily.
Katherine really wasn’t in the mood for a guessing game as another blast of icy wind shot through her damp clothes, causing her to let out a shiver. “Spit it out man!” she demanded, thrusting her hands on her hips and staring at him.
He still looked reluctant to continue. However, as Katherine maintained her intense stare, despite the drops of rain that kept plopping into her eyes, he obviously decided that whatever it was he was scared of was nothing compared to Katherine’s ire. “Well, there is Clipstone Castle, I think it’s about half a mile from here.”
“But,” prompted Katherine, sensing there was one coming.
“But it’s abandoned, and there are tales…” he trailed off once again, adding a few nervous glances around.
“Oh, for god’s sake, Nicholas!” cried Katherine, “Will you just get on with it, before I sink up to my neck in this blasted mud.”
He was so spooked that he actually jumped at her outburst. “They say it’s haunted,” he quickly answered.
“Yes, by a terrifying knight, John Darcy, who killed his family, all his servants and himself.”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you actually believe in ghosts?”
“I’m telling you - people have seen him,” Nicholas insisted, “He chases away anyone that goes up there, though not before scaring them witless. I’ve even heard that some people have gone there and not come back.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” sighed Katherine, “How old are you? Ghost stories are just intended to scare children, not grown men who should know better. Look there’s only one thing that bothers me, and that is - will we be able to get out of this godforsaken weather if we go there?”
“Then let’s go!” Katherine started to stomp off down the track without waiting to see if he was going to join her. “Are you coming, or would you rather stand here and wait to drown in this rain?” She glanced back at him, the squat outlaw barely visible through the teeming rain, even though he was only a few feet away.
“Er, it’s this way,” Nicholas said, pointing off the side of the track.
Katherine squinted where he was indicating and could just make out a small side road, that she would probably have never noticed without him. “Right, of course,” she said confidently, as if she had known all along and was just testing him.
She trudged back past him and took the rather overgrown path, leaving Nicholas to drag Delta along after her. Katherine had to brush the dripping branches out of the way as she made her way along, the hammering of the rain on the leaves a constant beat to accompany her steps. Finally the vegetation thinned out and she could see a dark ominous shape ahead, looming high against the gloomy horizon. She assumed it was the castle Nicholas had spoken of.
Another flash of lightning arced across the sky, conveniently lighting up the battlements in the fast-fading light. Katherine tutted as she saw Nicholas jump at her side when a great crash of thunder followed. She rolled her eyes skywards for a moment. If you’re trying to scare me, it’s not working, she said internally, addressing the heavens. It’s going to take a bit more than a few flashes of lightning to dissuade me that going in there to get out of this rain is anything but a good idea! As if on cue, there was another rumble from the above. “Nope, still not working,” she said.
“Did you say something?” stammered Nicholas by her side.
Katherine hadn’t realised she had said the last sentence out loud. “No,” she lied, “Come on, let’s get inside.”
She had taken a couple of steps when she realised that Nicholas wasn’t following. “Nicholas!” she shouted, raising her voice over the storm that buffeted them relentlessly on the exposed ground.
His eyes flicked between her and the imposing castle several times before he finally fell in behind her. As they approached the main gate, Katherine could see that the castle was in disrepair. There were several gaping holes in the walls and ivy and other vegetation had overridden large sections of the stone. The gate itself lay in pieces, scattered across the main courtyard, which they now entered. The wind whipped viciously around the enclosed inner yard, blinding Katherine momentarily. She shielded her eyes and tried to search out the castle entrance, spying a solid wooden door on the far side.
“There!” she yelled to Nicholas over the wind.
He nodded in reply. “I need to tether Delta first, though” he shouted back, indicating a stable over one side of the yard.
As he led the steed to the block, Katherine struggled over to the main door. The wind almost knocked her off her feet as it raged round the yard, and she thought they had found the castle just in time – the storm was getting worse. The door refused to budge as she depressed the latch, as if something were blocking its progress on the inside. Katherine pushed all her weight against it, but it still remained stubbornly shut. Taking a couple of steps back she squared her shoulders and ran at the door, which obligingly crashed open with the impact. Katherine had only a brief moment to be satisfied as she tumbled through the door, before she realised that her feet were now spiralling in thin air and she plunged down into darkness.
Anne’s breath caught in her throat, and the rope she held in her hand dropped limply from it onto the forest floor. She glanced anxiously around the trees that surrounded her for an explanation of the chill that had swept through her. The branches creaked high above the outlaw camp as the wind howled through them. A few spots of rain landed lightly on her upturned face, having fallen from the grey clouds that covered the sky.
Katherine was in danger.
Anne didn’t know how she knew, only that every fibre of her being was telling her it was so.
“Anne? Are you all right?” A hand on her shoulder startled her out of her distraction.
She swung round to Robin, fixing him with an intense stare from her icy blue eyes. “Katherine’s in trouble.”
“They are late back,” noted the outlaw leader, “But they probably just took longer than expected in Mansfield. I’m sure they’ll be back before the storm really gets going.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Anne said, shaking her head, “She’s in danger, I can sense it.”
Robin put down the ropes he had in his hands and turned his full attention to Anne. The pair of them had been busy securing the dwellings of the camp against the expected storm, while the rest of the outlaws also prepared for the worst, making sure everything was inside and accounted for. Robin regarded Anne quizzically for a moment with his dark eyes. “You can sense it?” he asked doubtfully.
“I know it sounds odd, but I just know something’s wrong,” Anne tried to explain, though she couldn’t really fathom it herself.
“Have you felt anything like this before?”
“No,” she admitted.
Closing her eyes, Anne tried to reach out, to see if she could grasp what it was that had invaded her senses and given her the strong sense of foreboding. Her mind started to drift as the thrum of nature swirled around her. She could feel the whisper of the air across her cheek; sense the myriad animals in the trees; feel the beat of the earth itself beneath her feet. However, whatever it was that had spoken to her was gone. All she was left with was a gnawing sense of unease.
Anne realised Robin was frantically shaking her arm. “What?”
He sighed in relief, “Christ, I thought I had lost you there for a moment.”
“I was just trying to tap into nature,” she explained, seeing the worried look on his features, “But whatever it was that was warning me was too ethereal, I can’t seem to consciously grasp it.”
“Just tell me next time when you’re going to start with the chanting, all right?”
“I was chanting?” Anne looked at him in surprise, only then spotting the mischievous look in his eye. “Ah, very funny.”
He half-smiled at her before his face took on a more serious look. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to joke, you just worry me sometimes with these powers of yours.”
“It scares me at times too,” agreed Anne, reaching out to put a reassuring hand on his arm.
Robin placed his own hand over hers, giving it a small squeeze. “So, is that why you haven’t really tried exploring them, because you’re frightened? That doesn’t sound like you.”
“I know, but where these pagan powers are concerned, even I’m a little wary. Or maybe just sensible,” confessed Anne, “Though now I’m beginning to wish I had explored them more. Maybe then I’d have some way of pinpointing what’s wrong, or at least knowing where Katherine is. I guess I’m going to have to do it the old fashioned way.”
Robin’s brows knitted together in a look of puzzlement.
Anne didn’t answer immediately, turning and starting to stride across the camp towards her hut. “I’m going to have to go out there and look for her,” she clarified to Robin as he scurried after her.
Robin’s hand shot out onto Anne’s shoulder, stopping her in her tracks. “Are you crazy? With the storm approaching?”
Anne shook the hand off and continued walking. “I don’t have a choice,” she stated adamantly, “Didn’t you hear me? Katherine’s in trouble.”
Robin ran to catch up with the determined woman again. “But you said it yourself,” he remarked, pulling alongside her, “You don’t even know where she is.”
“I’ll find her,” declared Anne, dipping inside her hut.
Robin followed her in. “In this weather?” he tried to reason, “At least wait until morning…”
“I’ll find her!” Anne glanced up at him from where she was searching out her sword and other belongings. The look in her eyes told him that there was no point in arguing or trying to dissuade her. Finding what she was looking for, she brushed past the momentarily dumbstruck outlaw chief as she headed back outside.
“At least take someone with you,” suggested Robin, hurrying after her again.
Anne secured the scabbard that held her sword to her belt. The thick leather strap fastened round the waist of her heavy winter tunic. “I don’t want anyone slowing me down,” she remarked, placing her dagger in her boot.
“Please,” said Robin, “For me?”
Anne stopped what she was doing for a moment. She knew Robin was just genuinely concerned for her. He was like the older brother she had never had, having looked after her when her parents had been killed. Sometimes, though, Anne thought that he forgot she had ever grown up. She wasn’t that frightened eleven year old who had first come to the camp all those years ago anymore.
She sighed, resigning herself to agreeing to his request, if it would put his mind at rest. “All right, someone can come with me.”
“Good, hang on!”
Robin dashed off to grab one of the men, leaving Anne to pace nervously as she waited. She shot a look up at the leaden skies once more. It would be dark soon, she realised, and her mind was telling her it was extremely foolhardy for her to set off to find Katherine now. However, at the same time, her heart was telling her that she could do nothing less. The sense that something was wrong had been too overwhelming for her to ignore. The cold October wind flicked at her hair, whipping some loose blond strands into her face. Anne brushed them away, staring off at the dark forest. Somewhere out there was Katherine and she was in danger. That was all Anne needed to know.
“All right, Henry’s going to go with you,” said Robin, as he came back over to join her.
Anne glanced over her shoulder at the dark-haired young man. “Come on then,” she said, not wanting to dawdle any longer.
“Wait!” Robin came over to Anne and gave her a quick hug. “Be careful,” he said softly.
Anne offered him a reassuring smile before turning and heading off into the trees.
Katherine opened her eyes. At least she thought she had opened her eyes. She blinked them a few times just to make sure. No, they were definitely open, she surmised. Wherever it was she was lying was just pitch black. Trying to sit up, she let out an involuntary gasp at the pain that shot through her left arm. She flopped back down on the hard stone floor for a moment as she caught her breath, the agony slowly subsiding. Tentatively Katherine reached her right hand over to touch her left forearm, wincing at the contact. Without even being able to see the damaged limb, she could tell it was broken.
Katherine groaned to herself as she finally struggled into a sitting position. Well, at least I’m not getting wet anymore, she thought grimly. Rubbing her other sore spots, she berated herself for her own recklessness. She realised she should have known that, given the state of the outside of the castle, the inside would be in a certain state of neglect too. She hadn’t realised that would include having no floor immediately inside the front door, though. She wondered if Nicholas had met the same fate.
“Nicholas!” she called into the darkness.
Her voice echoed off the walls, revealing that she was in a reasonably large room. She waited a moment for any reply, but all she could hear was the sound of the storm outside, along with a faint dripping noise closer by. Another jolt of pain stabbed through her arm, taking her breath away. Katherine grimaced as she attempted to fight back the rising tide of pain and bile. Breathing heavily, she took a moment to try and analyse her surroundings using her other senses. She quickly recognised the faint whiff of decay that permeated the darkness.
“Nicholas!” she tried again, more anxiously this time.
“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed Katherine in shock as the man’s voice answered her from right beside her. “Don’t bloody do that!”
“Do what?” he asked in confusion.
“Sneak up on me like that.”
“I didn’t scare you did I?” asked Nicholas, “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts?”
Despite the fact that he was obviously standing directly in front of her, Katherine couldn’t see him at all. It was extremely disconcerting. “I don’t,” she stated firmly, “That doesn’t mean you should go sneaking around in the dark, though.”
“Well, I can just go away again, if you’d rather?”
“No!” cried Katherine quickly, “No, now you’re here, you may as well give me a hand up.”
Nicholas’ hand shot down in the dark, aiming for where he had guessed she was, only he caught Katherine’s left arm by accident.
“Ow!” screamed Katherine.
“What? What is it?” came Nicholas’s concerned voice, closer now, making Katherine think he had knelt down beside her.
“It’s my arm,” she explained, cradling the throbbing limb to her, “I think I broke it when I fell through the floor.”
“Damn,” sighed Nicholas, “Even more reason for us to get out of this dungeon so we can get a look at it.”
“Yes, what else do you expect to find underground in a castle?”
“I can’t say as I’ve been underground in many castles,” noted Katherine ruefully, “And if this dungeon is anything to go by, I don’t think I want to make a habit of visiting them either.” Now she knew where she was, she had an explanation for the overpowering stench. Katherine didn’t really want to think about what had died down there, or what she was presently sitting in.
“Here let me help you up,” offered Nicholas, reaching out more slowly this time until his hand connected with her body. He wrapped his arm around Katherine’s waist and helped her to her feet. “The exit is back this way, if I remember rightly,” he added, attempting to guide her across the floor.
“Thanks,” answered Katherine, allowing herself to be led by the outlaw. As they blundered across the room in the dark, Katherine recalled the only other time she could remember being in a dungeon. It had been some six months previously, at Nottingham Castle, when she had rescued Anne from the Sheriff’s clutches. Thinking back to that, she wished that Anne were the one with her now instead of Nicholas; that her strong hands were the ones guiding her to safety.
“Ow!” cried Katherine again as she stubbed her toe on something hard.
“Ah, that will be the stairs,” noted Nicholas helpfully.
“Thanks,” replied Katherine sarcastically, starting to carefully ascend them, “So, I’m guessing you took the regular route down here, rather than following my express one.”
“Yeah, I saw the hole, since you had already opened the door, and then found the stairs down here.”
Katherine stumbled slightly in the dark, gripping onto Nicholas for support. “Aren’t you going to tell me you told me so then?” she asked the outlaw.
“About coming in here. Looks like it wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
“You couldn’t have known about the floor,” he replied, “Though from what I saw upstairs, the rest of it is pretty similar, you really need to watch your step.”
A faint light issued from the top of the stairs, guiding them upwards. Once upstairs, Katherine saw that the upper level was only marginally less gloomy than the underground section of the castle, though at least she could just about see Nicholas at least.
“Sit here for a minute and let me take a look at your arm,” he suggested, gesturing to the steps that continued on up to a higher level.
Katherine did as instructed, flinching when Nicholas took her arm even though he was obviously trying to be as gentle as he could. He made a few worried noises of deliberation as he studied the limb. “I think you’re right, it’s broken. Though fortunately it looks like a clean break, and the bone hasn’t ruptured the skin.”
“Lucky me,” muttered Katherine sarcastically, “Shame it still hurts like a bastard.”
“Come on, let’s try and find a safe room to stay in, where we can start a fire too,” he suggested, standing up again, “Just be careful crossing this floor.”
“Anne! Wait up!”
Anne let out a sigh and turned for a moment to wait for her travelling companion. His voice had barely registered over the storm, and she could only just make out his outline as he struggled along the muddy track towards her. The rain lashed down relentlessly on her head, running down her neck and back and soaking every bone of her body. She didn’t care one bit; all she cared about was finding Katherine.
Henry finally made it to her side, panting heavily from the effort of slogging through the heavy ground. “Don’t you think maybe we should turn back?” he suggested, resting his hands on his knees for a moment.
“Or at least find somewhere to shelter until the storm passes?” tried the young outlaw.
“We’re never going to find them in this, though,” moaned Henry, “I can barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone anyone else.”
“You can go back if you like,” offered Anne, “But I’m carrying on until I find them.”
“Oh yeah, Robin would love that…’Sorry Robin, I left Anne out in the storm on her own, you don’t mind do you?’…I’d be cleaning the latrine for months, if I was still in one piece.”
“I didn’t make you come with me,” remarked Anne, annoyance creeping into her tone. Every second they were stood on the road deliberating was another one something terrible could be happening to Katherine.
The young man stepped closer, so she could see his dark eyes peeking out from below his dripping fringe. “No, you’re right, I volunteered, because, believe it or not, some of us actually care about you, especially Robin.”
“I’m sorry, Henry, I didn’t mean to snap at you,” sighed Anne, “But I have to find Katherine.”
Henry studied her serious face for a moment before nodding his head. “Come on then,” he said, “The sooner we find them, the sooner we can get out of this weather.”
They carried on in silence for a while, Anne curbing her urge to press on. Henry was a few inches shorter than her and was finding it hard to keep up when she utilised her full stride.
“You really love her don’t you?”
Anne was taken aback by the question out of the blue, turning to study the young man who had a thoughtful expression on his face. “Yes, yes I do,” she replied earnestly, “More than anything.”
“You must do, to want to battle through this,” he remarked.
“I’d run through the gates of hell itself, if it meant saving Katherine.”
Henry was dumbstruck for a moment. “Wow,” he finally managed, “I hope I find someone I love that much one day.”
Anne smiled at him as they continued walking. “You will, one day. Just be patient, it can happen when you least expect it.”
“I suppose so,” he allowed, returning her smile, “I mean who could have guessed that us ambushing Katherine’s party all those months ago could lead us here.”
“Exactly,” Anne agreed, “If anyone had told me back then that I was going to fall in love with some posh noble woman I would have laughed in their face. But you can’t tell where your heart is going to take you,” she recalled wistfully, “To be honest, I knew from the first moment in her bedroom at Nottingham Castle that there was something special about her, though of course I tried to deny it for a while.”
“Didn’t like where your heart was leading you?”
“No, but it was like trying to resist the power of nature itself – I had no hope!” Anne laughed. “Not that I regret succumbing for a second,” she added, “I treasure every moment I’ve had with Katherine. Well, apart from the ones where we’ve been arguing, and even those had a certain…something…about them…”
Henry watched her as she trailed off, recalling some of those incidents. Even when they were at loggerheads, Anne had found it hard not to find Katherine irresistibly attractive. There was a certain magnificence about the older woman when she was angry – the fiery look in her eye; the defiant stance; the low, menacing voice…
Anne had to shake herself before she got too caught up in her reminiscences. “Anyway,” she continued, “Enough recollection, let’s get back to the task in hand.”
“Talking of which,” said Henry, “Is that a hoof print there?”
Anne crouched down where he was pointing to a small path off to side of the track. She ran her fingers over the mud, tracing the outline of the print that was fast-fading with the continued pounding of the rain. “Well done, Henry,” she said, shooting him a smile over her shoulder, “It’s Delta’s print all right.”
“They’ve headed up to Castle Clipstone,” he noted, glancing warily up the small track, “They must have been desperate.”
“Indeed,” she agreed, straightening up, “I’m sure Nicholas is well aware of its reputation. Though something tells me Katherine wouldn’t have been easily put off by tales of ghosts, which means we can’t be put off either.”
Henry swallowed nervously. “We’re going up there?”
“Yes, Henry, we’re going up there.”
Despite her best attempt at bravado, Katherine was finding it increasingly difficult not to find her current surroundings somewhat spooky. The corridors of the house were ramshackle and gloomy as they made their way along them – it didn’t look like anyone had lived there for years. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and grime, with numerous cobwebs working their way down from the ceiling. Outside the rain continued to beat down, with the whistling of the wind lending a certain eerie quality to the atmosphere. The holes they had spotted in the walls outside meant the wind also whipped freely around inside the house, stirring up the dirt every now and then as a fresh gust blew their way. Katherine considered that it certainly didn’t help when Nicholas practically leapt out of his skin every time there was the faintest noise either.
“Sorry,” he said once again, as he disengaged himself from her uninjured arm, having gripped onto it for comfort.
“Nicholas, we’re the only ones here,” she repeated for the umpteenth time, “The noise is just from the storm buffeting the castle.”
“If you say so,” he replied uncertainly
“You’ll feel better when we find a habitable room and light a fire,” Katherine reassured him.
They had already checked a few rooms but they all were either exposed to the elements or missing their floor. They’d had to ascend to a higher floor in search of somewhere suitable to rest up. Katherine hoped they found somewhere soon; her arm was really starting to ache now.
Suddenly there was another flash of lightning from outside, spectacularly lighting up the interior of the house.
Katherine spun round frantically to see what had frightened Nicholas.
Nicholas clutched his hand to his chest, breathing heavily. “S-sorry,” he stammered, “It was the picture.”
Katherine followed his shaking finger to a faded portrait hanging on the wall, depicting a dour-looking knight.
“When the lightning flashed, I just saw these eyes, staring at me,” Nicholas tried to explain.
Katherine walked up closer to study the picture in more detail. The knight had hard, chiselled features and sported white hair and a matching beard. The most notable thing about him was his eyes; their grey depths seeming to bore into her out of the picture. She supposed the man portrayed could be considered quite imposing, but hardly justified Nicholas’ hysterical reaction.
“Do you think that’s him,” asked Nicholas anxiously.
“The knight that haunts the castle,” he clarified.
Katherine rolled her eyes and took a breath before replying. “Nicholas, no one haunts this castle, it’s just your imagination playing tricks on you.”
“He looks like the sort that would haunt somewhere,” continued Nicholas, “Look at those mean, beady eyes.”
“Nicholas!” snapped Katherine to get his attention. “You’re just working yourself up,” she continued more calmly, “There is no one else here - no ghosts, no one watching us. Now come on.”
Nicholas scurried after her as she strode purposefully off, neither of them spotting the eyes that followed them from the shadows.
Will Scarlet grinned evilly to himself – so it appeared he wasn’t the only one who had needed to take shelter on this wretched night. Things had been going pretty badly for him up until that point, but now it looked like the evening was about to get much more interesting.
Will had been on a mission for the increasingly short-tempered dark witch, Bronwyn, fetching her some specialist herbs from Mansfield. When he’d discovered that the merchant didn’t have all the ones she required, Will knew his return to the witch’s forest hideaway would not be a pleasant one. To make matters worse, a storm had set in during his trip back and he had reluctantly had to take shelter in the supposedly haunted Clipstone Castle. Like most of the locals, he knew the tales about the castle - the rumours about it being haunted by a fearsome knight. Will personally thought it was a load of rubbish, but he could now see how useful the fear the castle engendered might be.
From what he had already seen, it appeared the buffoon Nicholas was certainly spooked by being there. He considered that The Lady Katherine didn’t seem to be quite so perturbed, but he was sure he could work on that. He practically rubbed his hands together in glee as he thought of all the ways he could put the wind up them – this was going to be fun. And if something untoward, perhaps even…fatal…befell the noblewoman in the process then so much the better.
Will ducked out of his hiding place and crept along the corridor after them. As he stepped on a loose floorboard it emitted a loud creak. Swiftly he leapt off to the side of the corridor as he heard Nicholas’ panicked tones drifting back along it.
“Did you hear that? I’m telling you someone is following us!”
“Nicholas, I’m a reasonable woman, but I swear I’m going to slap you in a minute,” came Katherine’s annoyed voice in reply.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Fine, I consider myself warned, now come on.”
Will listened to them moving off again, deciding to wait a couple of moments before pursuing.
The first time he’d met Katherine, Will had taken an instant dislike to her. She was a typical noble, always thinking they were better than every one else. Yet somehow she’d managed to ingratiate herself with the outlaws. Will knew Robin was a bit of a bleeding heart, willing to see the good in anyone, but he was surprised that some of the other men were so easily taken in.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Katherine had then had the audacity to steal Anne away, which was something Will could never forgive. Not that he and Anne had been an item at the time of Katherine’s arrival on the scene, but Will had known that it would only have been a matter of time. They’d been lovers once before and would have been again if it wasn’t for Katherine’s interference. She’d led Anne astray, putting all sorts of fanciful ideas in her head. Now the young blond seemed to think she was in love with the other woman, which was obviously ridiculous. Anyone knew that two women couldn’t be in love, and Will didn’t even want to think about what they got up to all those evenings in Anne’s hut or the noises he had heard emanating from it.
Shaking those thoughts off, he judged it was safe to follow once more, and he worked his way slowly along the corridor. It wasn’t hard staying in the shadows in the dingy hallway, and he could safely see Katherine and Nicholas up ahead without much risk of them spotting him. They had stopped at the end of the corridor, no doubt deliberating which way to go.
A loud gust of wind suddenly whipped through the house and something crashed into the window where the other two were standing, causing Nicholas to let out another ear-piercing scream.
“Nicholas!” cried Katherine, grabbing the outlaw’s arm as he tried to flee, “It’s just a branch!”
The bearded man just looked at her in shock, his mouth opening and closing mutely. Will had to resist the urge to laugh.
“On the window,” continued Katherine, in a soft, reassuring voice, “See, it was just a tree branch.”
Nicholas let out a long sigh. “We really need to find a room to stay in - quickly.”
They set off once again, having decided on the left-hand fork. Will quickly made his way to the end too, so he didn’t lose sight of them, peeking round the corner to check on their progress.
Thinking back to Katherine and Anne again, he told himself that obviously Katherine had confused Anne to the point where she didn’t know if she was coming or going. Will considered that if he could arrange a little disappearing act for Katherine, then maybe things could get back to the way they were before.
Will resolutely ignored the part of his mind that was telling him Anne had dumped him long before Katherine turned up, and wouldn’t touch him now if he was the last man on earth. Especially not if she discovered he had been helping her nemesis, the dark witch.
He knew he was skating on increasingly thin ice where the witch was concerned. Bronwyn steadfastly maintained that she had some grand plan that was all going to pan out soon, but Will was sceptical. It had been over three months since Anne had wounded her, and there was no recovery in sight. Whatever this scheme was, he prayed Bronwyn was going to make her move soon, before his duplicity was uncovered.
Henry pushed the final rain-laden branch on the path out of the way to reveal the towering castle up ahead, its outline stark against the dusk sky. Leaving the meagre cover of the trees, Anne was buffeted by the savage wind that cut across the open ground that lay before the crumbling walls. In the force of it, the rain was like a million tiny daggers driving into her cheek. Bowing her head, she hurried to get inside the courtyard. As she passed through the open gateway her breath caught in her throat and she stopped suddenly.
Henry ran straight into her back, bouncing off a couple of steps. “What is it?” he asked, looking at her in confusion.
Anne swung her eyes around the yard, trying to discern what it was that had made her feel like someone had walked over her grave as soon as she entered the enclosed area. She couldn’t really see much through the relentless rain and was about to dismiss her concerns when she heard it. A voice. Faint on the wind, but a voice nonetheless.
“Anne?” pressed Henry again. Anne held up a hand to shush him as she tried to make out where the voice was coming from or what it was saying. All she could tell was that it was a man’s voice, haunting, yet also strangely alluring in its lilting quality. It was almost like he was singing a lullaby.
Finally she turned back to Henry. “Can’t you hear it?” she asked him, seeing the confused look on his face.
“Hear what? All I can hear in this bloody rain hammering on my head.”
“Never mind,” replied Anne, “Let’s just get inside.”
Katherine watched her companion as they gingerly picked their way along the corridor. She was concerned that Nicholas was going to lose any last vestiges of control at any minute. The poor man had wound himself up so tightly, that the slightest movement in the shadows was enough to turn him into a nervous wreck.
Suddenly he leapt behind her again, and she could feel his trembling as he cowered behind her, tugging at the tunic on her back.
“What is it this time?” she asked as calmly as she could.
“T-there, something moving…” was all he could manage from between his chattering teeth.
Katherine peered into the gloom before turning and prising him off her. “It’s a mouse, Nicholas. Not a ghost, not a ghoul, not a spectre. A mouse.”
Nicholas’ terrified eyes flicked briefly to her, before he stepped over to the nearest door. “That’s it, I’ve had enough, we’re going in here,” he stated, rattling at the knob.
“Nicholas, wait…” began Katherine
“Bloody door!” cried Nicholas in frustration. He started to thump his shoulder against it in an effort to get it to budge.
“Nicholas,” said Katherine again, “It’s probably not a good idea to…”
Her words were cut off as the door finally flew open and Nicholas barrelled through the opening. His momentum carried him forward and straight through the crumbling floor.
“Nicholas!” exclaimed Katherine, making a desperate lunge to grab him.
She was too late though, his cries as he crashed downwards ringing in her ears. Katherine knelt by the hole he had left, trying to see where he had landed. “Nicholas? Nicholas, can you hear me?”
There was no answer, and she couldn’t make out anything through the thick pall of dust that had been thrown up in the wake of his passage. Katherine clambered to her feet, brushing the dirt from her knees with her one good hand. “Damn.” She supposed she needed to go and find him back downstairs, since he could be badly wounded. This was just great, she cursed to herself as she trudged off down the corridor in the direction of the stairs, it would be like the blind leading the blind. Her left arm was throbbing painfully now, and she reflexively cradled it in her other.
The cobwebs clung to her face as she descended the stone steps, and she swept them away with annoyance. Reaching the foot of the stairs, her footsteps echoed loudly on the floorboards in the dark hallway.
Stepping tentatively along, Katherine realised she was starting to feel a bit of what Nicholas had been feeling. Now she didn’t have him to distract her, the darkness and silence seemed to press in on her, every sound picked out with stark precision, every movement causing her to whirl round anxiously to try and catch whatever it was that had stirred in the gloom. Only there was never anything there, just the shadows looming menacingly, swaying slightly as the wind rocked the castle. She swallowed nervously and tried to tell herself that it was all in her mind. Nicholas and she were the only ones there.
“Nicholas?” Her voice came out a hoarse whisper. She hadn’t realised her mouth had become so dry up until that point. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Nicholas?”
Squinting up the corridor, Katherine could see a pile of fresh rubble on the floor up ahead, no doubt where Nicholas’ fall had landed him. Only there was no sign of the outlaw. Maybe he hadn’t been that badly hurt and was on his way back upstairs to find her, she reasoned.
Turning back the way she had come, she started to stride back towards the stairs. An irrational urge to run swept through her, and she had to fight it down. She would just walk calmly back up there and find him, she told herself. There was no need to panic. The pounding of her heart was telling her otherwise, though, and she found herself quickening her pace anyway.
Reaching the end of the corridor another form suddenly loomed out of the darkness in front of her, it’s dark silhouette towering over her.
“Aieeeeee!” screamed Katherine.
Desperately she turned to flee, but the spectre latched onto her arm.
“Let go!” she demanded, pulling frantically at the steadfast grip.
As she yanked and tugged away, it slowly permeated her terror-stricken mind that the ghoul was speaking to her.
“Katherine! Katherine, it’s me!”
Katherine stopped her squirming and peered into the gloom. The figure obligingly stepped forwards slightly so she could properly make out their features.
“Anne?” said Katherine, her mouth dropping open in surprise.
Katherine couldn’t quite comprehend that the young woman was there in front of her. Anne was absolutely drenched, looking like she had been swimming in a river to get there. Her black clothes clung tight to her body while her smooth, blond hair was plastered to her head. A few droplets of water still tracked down her pale face. That face brightened now as Anne merely smiled back at Katherine in response, her white teeth bright in the dark.
In the sudden surge of relief at seeing Anne, Katherine forgot all about retaining any semblance of dignity and launched herself at the younger woman, wrapping her right arm around Anne’s neck. “Thank god!”
Anne’s arms slipped round Katherine’s waist in return, pulling her close. Katherine let out a small groan as her injured arm was squashed between them, and Anne immediately loosened her hold.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” she asked urgently, her eyes scanning Katherine’s face.
“It’s nothing, just my arm. I’m so relieved to see you here,” gabbled Katherine. “What are you doing here?” she added as the incongruity of Anne’s appearance at the castle struck her. “Not that I’m complaining,” she continued in a hurry, seemingly unable to stop the frantic rush of words from her mouth.
“Never mind that,” dismissed Anne, “Let me see your arm.”
Realising Anne was brooking no argument from her tone, Katherine proffered up her damaged limb. Anne gently took it in her hands, and Katherine couldn’t stop the little cry that escaped her lips as Anne slowly rolled her sleeve up so she could examine it.
On seeing the already bruised skin, Anne sucked in a breath. “This is broken,” she noted. Her eyes flicked up to Katherine. “Nothing indeed,” she tutted, “You’d say that if your legs had been ripped off by a wild boar.”
Katherine looked abashed at being caught out. “I didn’t want to worry you. It’ll be all right, it just needs time to heal. It probably looks worse than it is.”
Anne didn’t reply, still holding the arm gently in her hands, an intense look of concentration on her face as she gazed back down at it. It took Katherine a moment to realise what the other woman was doing.
“Anne, don’t…” she started to say as she felt a tingling sensation building in the limb. She tried to pull her arm away, but Anne held it in place.
Katherine could only watch as Anne’s eyes closed, while heat radiated from where her hands touched Katherine’s skin. Casting her eyes down at her arm, Katherine saw the bruising beginning to fade until her skin returned to its normal pale colour.
Suddenly Anne let go, stumbling backwards and slumping down the wall onto the floor. Her breath came in great ragged gasps, as her head remained bowed. Katherine knelt down beside her and reached out her newly mended left arm, tilting Anne’s head up with her fingers.
“It’s all right,” Anne reassured her, between gasps, “Just give me a moment and I’ll be fine.”
Katherine ruefully shook her head as she stroked her fingers down Anne’s cheek. “You shouldn’t have done that,” she said, a mild castigation in her tone, “I’m glad you did, but you know how I feel about you using your power like that – it’s dangerous.”
“I’m fine, really,” Anne insisted, “It just takes it out of me for a minute.”
Katherine was so busy smiling at the welcome sight of Anne, gazing into her blue eyes with a ridiculous grin on her face, that she failed to notice the other person until they were almost standing on top of her.
“You found her then?”
Katherine jumped as the voice sounded in the dark, before flicking her eyes up to see the young outlaw, Henry.
“Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” he said apologetically.
“That’s all right,” said Katherine, “I’m just a little jumpy after wandering round this place alone. Not that I believe any of those silly stories about ghosts, but it still gets to you in the end, the eerie darkness.”
“Where’s Nicholas then?” asked Henry, casting his eyes around in confusion.
“Good question,” she noted, “He fell through the floor, but when I got down here he was gone.”
“G-gone,” stammered Henry.
Katherine rolled her eyes. Oh good, another frightened outlaw, she muttered to herself. Don’t any of these men have a backbone? “Yes, gone,” she reiterated, “He probably went back upstairs – we were looking for a room to take shelter in. Which brings me back to what exactly you two are doing here.”
Having seemingly regained her composure, Anne tentatively got to her feet. Katherine followed her up, holding on to the young woman to make sure she could stand all right on her own.
“We were looking for you,” remarked Harry in the absence of Anne offering any reply.
Katherine looked at Anne incredulously for a moment. “You were looking for us? She repeated dumbly, “You came all the way out here, in this weather, to look for us?”
Anne just nodded.
“There was a little more to it than that,” continued Henry, “Anne had some special sort of sense that you were in trouble.”
Katherine glanced over at Anne who was busy shooting Henry a furious look. “Anne?”
The young woman turned her attention back to Katherine. “It was just a small inkling really, nothing to be concerned about.”
“A small inkling, my arse,” cried Henry, obviously not having taken the hint that he should be quiet, “She was practically storming out of the camp on her own after you, before Robin intervened and insisted someone come with her.”
“You knew we were in trouble?” Katherine asked Anne, raising her eyebrows slightly in surprise.
“Not the both of you,” admitted Anne, “Just you, Katherine. I can’t really explain it. I just had this overwhelming sense that you were in danger. That was followed by an irresistible desire to find you.”
“I think that one is called love,” muttered Henry quietly, though loud enough for them both to hear.
When Katherine’s eyes settled back on Anne, she could see that the young woman was blushing and looking down at the floor. “Why are you blushing?” she asked gently, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed of loving you,” declared Anne emphatically, “It’s more that this sense obviously came from my mystic abilities, and I know you’re not keen on me trying to use them without proper training. But the foreboding feeling was just too strong. I couldn’t ignore it.”
“Oh, Anne, I only want you to be careful with your abilities,” replied Katherine, “Not ignore them completely. You don’t need to disregard your instincts. Especially since they proved to be right in this case.”
“So you don’t mind that I followed some weird sixth sense to find you?”
“Of course not! I’m bloody glad you did,” replied Katherine, “What with Nicholas doing a disappearing act on me.”
“Speaking of which, perhaps we should go and look for him?” suggested Henry.
Will watched from the shadows as Katherine, Anne and Henry made their way back up the stairs. He couldn’t believe that Anne had turned up, just when Katherine was on her own too, ripe for the picking. Will had no idea what had happened to Nicholas, but he wasn’t about to spurn the opportunity the other man’s disappearance had presented him. Will had been creeping along after Katherine, drawing his sword in readiness when Anne had suddenly ruined things.
He supposed he could still have a bit of fun at their expense, but his chances to kill, or at least injure Katherine would be minimal. Dashing across the floor, he shot up the staircase after them. In his eagerness he was less than careful, his foot falling heavily on the floorboards as he bounded up to the top. As Anne swung round at the noise he flung himself into the shadows.
“Nicholas? Is that you?”
Katherine whirled round too as Anne was instinctively slipping the sword from her scabbard, her eyes scanning the corridor behind them.
“What is it?” asked Katherine, coming to stand by her.
“There’s someone back there, I swear,” explained Anne, still peering off into the darkness, trying to spot any movement.
“Not you too,” sighed Katherine.
“I’ve just spent the last hour or so wandering around this place with Nicholas as he insisted every little bump in the night was someone following us around,” explained Katherine.
Anne wasn’t giving up easily, though, her sword held out in front of her at the ready. Her body was tense as if she was waiting to pounce. Katherine followed her gaze but couldn’t spot anything untoward. “Come on, it was probably just another mouse,” offered Katherine.
Just as Katherine was turning to go, Anne suddenly sprinted off down the corridor, leaving a surprised Katherine standing. “Anne wait, the floor…” cried Katherine, dashing off after her, taking care to hop over the holes and loose floorboards.
Unfortunately Anne wasn’t so careful, and just as she neared the end her foot went straight through a large section of the decrepit floor. Anne stumbled, her legs crashing through the hole and making it bigger. As her elbows impacted on the edge of the hole, her sword flew from her hand, plunging downwards and making a loud clanging noise as it clattered past at least one level of the castle.
Anne’s fingers scrabbled frantically at the floorboards as she began to slip backwards, half her body already through the hole.
Katherine flung herself forwards, grabbing onto Anne’s arm with one hand as she slipped further away. However, Anne’s weight continued to pull the pair of them towards the hole, dragging Katherine along on her front, through the dirt of the floor. Katherine desperately tried to brace herself against something, her free hand frantically clawing at the floorboards as she slid along.
Miraculously, they came to a halt just as Katherine’s shoulders reached the edge of the drop. Anne was now dangling below her, swinging precariously in the air, held up only by Katherine’s determined grasp. The broken floor beneath Katherine’s chest creaked under the strain of supporting the pair of them.
Katherine reached down her other hand to grab onto Anne’s arm with that too, even more grateful that Anne had repaired her damaged limb now. Katherine could see that not only had Anne made a hole in their current floor, but that there was another gaping chasm beneath her, meaning she would have at least a two storey fall if Katherine lost her hold. Anne’s eyes frantically flicked up to Katherine, the older woman grimacing with the effort of holding onto her.
“It’s all right, I won’t let you drop,” stated Katherine adamantly, “But I suggest you try and climb up, quickly.”
“Easier said than done,” grunted Anne, trying to gain purchase on something other than Katherine. Finally she managed to reach up far enough to grip the rotting floorboards above. Katherine heaved a sigh of relief as some of the strain was taken off her arms, Anne carefully clawing her way up over Katherine. Finally Anne was up and out of the hole, allowing Katherine to roll over onto her back, rubbing her sore arms.
“Are you two all right?” asked Henry, having caught up with them.
“Yes, thanks to Katherine,” noted Anne as she sat on the floor next to her. “Sorry for dashing off like that,” she added to Katherine, “I thought I saw something.”
Katherine sat up too. “You need to be bloody careful around here,” she remarked, “As I learnt to my cost already. How do you think I hurt my arm in the first place?”
“Maybe we better just stay put and hope Nicholas finds us, before we have any more accidents,” suggested Anne, “We could just be wandering around and missing him anyway.”
“True,” agreed Katherine, “If we stay in one place hopefully he’ll come to us.”
“Here, I think this room is all right,” called Henry, having opened a nearby door.
Anne clambered to her feet and pulled Katherine up off the floor. “Thanks for saving me,” she whispered as she held Katherine close.
“Makes a nice change, me saving you for once,” noted Katherine with a cheeky grin.
“Perhaps I should put myself in danger more often then, so you can come be my hero?” offered Anne playfully.
“If you two have quite finished?” interjected Henry.
They both swivelled their heads to look at him as he stood with his arms crossed watching them standing in each other’s arms. Anne dropped her hands from Katherine’s hips where they had been resting.
“I was just thanking Katherine,” remarked Anne innocently, “But I’m sure I can thank her in there.”
Will watched as the other three headed into one of the rooms. He leant back against the wall and heaved a huge sigh of relief - that had been just a little too close for comfort. Not only had he nearly been spotted by Anne, but then the young woman had almost managed to kill herself in the process of chasing after him. He knew his life wouldn’t be worth living if Bronwyn found out he had let anything happen to Anne. Though Will didn’t know exactly what the dark witch’s plans were, he knew enough to realise that Anne formed an integral part of them. Will considered that perhaps he ought to stay away from the others after all; he didn’t want to risk any more accidents.
Suddenly Will felt something brushing past his arm, and he reflexively leapt to the side. “Nicholas, is that you?” he asked, peering into the shadows next to him.
The touch came again, whispering past Will’s back and causing a shiver to run down his spine.
Will spun around but there was no one there. “Nicholas? This isn’t funny!”
Will gulped nervously as the small hairs on his neck prickled at the sudden chill in the air. Trying to get a grip of himself, he began walking off down the corridor. “I’m not playing your stupid game,” he stated, his voice starting to tremble.
Another icy blast shot past his ear and Will started running for the stairs, taking them two at a time as he careened haphazardly down them. Reaching the foot of the steps, Will blundered straight into some thick cobwebs, desperately trying to rip them away from his face as he continued to stumble along the corridor.
The hand that landed on his shoulder was the final straw. Will let out a scream, and sprinted for the front door, crashing through the rotting floorboards of the floor before he made it.
Katherine used her boot to prod hopefully at the grate in the room Henry had found, a great cloud of dust billowing up and coating her trouser leg.
“Do you think we can light a fire in it?” she asked the other two occupants of the room.
It was now pitch black outside, the only light coming from the periodic flashes of lightning that flickered at the windows. Katherine could just about make out Anne and Henry standing close by once her eyes grew accustomed to the dark once more.
Anne joined Katherine, leaning forwards to look up the chimney. “I don’t see why not,” she agreed, coughing slightly as the disturbed detritus got caught in her throat.
“There was some loose wood, just down the corridor,” suggested Henry helpfully, “I could go and fetch it.”
“Are you sure that’s wise,” said Katherine cautiously, “Not only have we already lost Nichloas, but that floor is treacherous in the dark.”
“I’ll be careful,” replied Henry, “And it won’t take me a minute. Unless you’d rather sit here in the dark and cold?”
Katherine considered for a moment. “All right, but make sure you watch your step.”
Henry nodded and headed for the door, leaving Katherine to sit down by the fireside and wait for his return. Anne immediately joined her, sitting right next to Katherine and wrapping her arm round her shoulders. Katherine leant into the warm embrace, trying to shake off the chills that were a result of the actual cold temperature of the room and the general spooky atmosphere.
Katherine felt Anne’s head moving slightly as it rested against hers and she stole a quick glance up at Anne’s face, wondering what she was doing. Her ice-blue eyes were swivelling distractedly from side to side as if she was listening out for something.
“Something wrong?” enquired Katherine.
Anne visibly started, before looking down at her. “Did you just hear something?” she asked, still shooting a few uncertain glances around the room, “A bit like a voice, singing?”
“No,” replied Katherine, following Anne’s gaze a couple of times, “Did you?”
Anne shook her head. “Must be my ears hearing things. It was probably just the wind.”
“It certainly does whistle round this place,” allowed Katherine, though she could see that Anne still looked rather perturbed. Katherine reached forward to rub her left thigh, which had started to ache.
“Are you all right?” asked Anne, noticing the gesture.
“Yes, it’s just my leg, where those outlaws shot me back in May,” explained Katherine, referring to the incident five months previously when Anne had come to her rescue.
“You’ve not had trouble with it before have you?” queried Anne, the concern evident in her tone.
“No, I guess it must be the cold damp, weather causing it. It just aches a bit that’s all, after all the walking I’ve done today. It’ll be fine after I’ve rested it for a bit.”
“If you’re sure,” said Anne doubtfully.
Katherine moved her hand over to reassuringly stroke Anne’s thigh instead. “Yes, it’s fine,” she insisted, “And there’s definitely no need to try healing it either,” she quickly added, before Anne got any clever ideas.
Anne smiled, “As if I would. Far be it from me to deny you your pain. Though that doesn’t mean I can’t try other ways to relieve it.”
Anne fingers snaked across Katherine’s thigh, dancing delicately across it, before straying dangerously close to more intimate areas.
“You seem to have a strange grasp of anatomy there,” noted Katherine huskily.
Anne leant closer, so she could whisper in Katherine’s ear. “I bet you’ve forgotten about the ache in your leg though…”
Katherine shivered again, only this time it was from the tendrils of desire skittering through her. Anne’s fingers continued their upwards path, brushing between Katherine’s legs.
“Anne!” cried Katherine in surprise, “Henry could be back at any second!”
“He’ll be at least a couple of minutes yet…”
Katherine laughed and turned to the young woman, gently stroking her hand across Anne’s smooth cheek. She pulled her forward into a tender kiss. “You are incorrigible, but maybe we should wait until a slightly more private, and less scary time. I think the church the other day was about as risqué as I’m willing to get!”
A smile played across Anne’s features as she no doubt recalled that illicit encounter.
“I do have something for you, in the mean time,” offered Katherine.
Anne quirked her eyebrow expectantly, “Oh yes?”
Katherine shook her head as she laughed again. “Nothing like that!” she chided, “Do you only have one thing on your mind?”
“It must just be the affect you have on me,” replied Anne with a small wink.
Katherine delved in her pockets trying to find the item she was referring to.
“I thought you said we were waiting?” noted Anne sarcastically as Katherine continued to rummage.
Katherine just narrowed her eyes by means of response before she produced what she had been hunting for, holding it up by its chain for Anne to see.
Anne reached out to touch the blue pendant of the necklace that was dangling before her. “You got it fixed,” she said in wonder.
“Yes,” confirmed Katherine, “I hope you’ll do me the honour of wearing it again”
“Absolutely, the honour is all mine,” insisted Anne, smiling at Katherine, “I hardly got much of a chance to wear it before, what with everything that happened.”
Katherine glanced away briefly at the reminder of the time when she had been forced to lie to Anne by Charles Kirby, in an attempt to save the young woman’s life. It had only been shortly after Katherine had given her the necklace for the first time, and Anne had subsequently broken it and hurled it back at Katherine in disgust when she had found out about Katherine’s impending marriage to the obnoxious knight, oblivious to the fact that it was all a sham. Luckily the wedding had never gone ahead, Katherine’s husband Mark having returned from the dead to see to that. Katherine thought ruefully that it was about the only good thing Mark’s return had accomplished. After that she had been thrown out of Markham Manor and Mark had taken over in her place, running the manor and the peasants on it into the ground.
“Katherine,” said Anne softly, sensing Katherine’s distraction, “Maybe you could put it on for me?”
Katherine smiled. Even if she didn’t have the manor right now, she still had Anne, and that was infinitely more important. She reached round to fasten the chain around Anne’s neck, the young woman taking a moment to appreciate the stone before she tucked it away under her black shirt.
“Thank you,” said Anne warmly, dipping her head to press her lips gently against Katherine’s.
Just as Katherine was wondering if she could resist the temptation those lips were enticing her with, a shrill scream shot down the corridor. Anne was up and off in the direction of the scream immediately, Katherine taking a couple of seconds to register what was happening before she followed suit. When Katherine caught up with Anne she was glancing frantically up and down the dark hall, standing by a pile of discarded firewood.
“He’s gone,” said Anne hauntingly, turning to face Katherine.
Katherine swallowed nervously as she cast her eyes about too, though it was fairly pointless since she could barely see more than a few feet down the corridor.
“Come on, let’s get back to the room, it’s no good looking for him now,” suggested Anne, “We’ll just have to wait until morning and hope we can find him and Nicholas.”
“That’s if we make it to morning,” noted Katherine as Anne grabbed the wood and headed back the way they had come.
Anne assembled the logs in the grate as Katherine sat shivering once more. Or maybe she was trembling, she wasn’t quite sure. Though she had dismissed Nicholas’ fanciful notions of ghosts when they had first arrived at the castle, she was beginning to see how people could be spooked enough by the surroundings to start believing in such things. Henry and Nicholas’ mysterious disappearance only served to heighten Katherine’s sense of unease. A small flare indicated that Anne had sparked the fire into life, and Katherine heaved a small sigh of relief as the faint glow illuminated the room, however slightly. She could see that it was rundown, just as the rest of the castle, with bare floorboards and no furniture. The only decorations were a couple of grimy paintings on the wall, the subjects of which Katherine couldn’t make out given the combination of low light and the degree of dust on them.
“Still feeling cold?” asked Anne as she joined Katherine in front of the fire.
“And a little nervous,” admitted Katherine, not afraid to trust Anne with her concerns, “Nicholas told me this place was haunted, and now I’m almost starting to believe he was right.”
“You don’t believe in spirits then?” asked Anne.
“What, as in ghosts? No. Do you then?” Katherine enquired in return.
“Not ghosts as you may think of them, haunting castles such as this, rattling their chains to scare off the locals. But I do believe in the power of spirits, in the power to contact people beyond this realm,” Anne confessed.
“Really?” said Katherine, raising her eyebrows slightly before another thought randomly struck her. “That’s not the reason for your nickname is it?”
Anne looked at her with a puzzled expression, and Katherine realised she probably had gone off at a bit of a confusing tangent.
“Sorry, I’m not sure where that came from,” she confessed, “I know it’s a completely silly thought to be having given the circumstances.” She wondered if it was anything to do with her nerves, that her mind was trying to find anything to distract her.
“You may as well ask now,” offered Anne.
“Well, I just wondered if it was the number of ghosts you’d seen, Seven that is,” explained Katherine.
Anne rolled her eyes. “No, I’ve never seen a ghost. You’re going to have to keep trying.”
“Damn,” cursed Katherine, “Are you ever going to take pity on me and tell me the answer?”
“Probably not, it’s too much fun watching you squirm,” Anne teased her.
Katherine’s mind drifted back to the original topic of the conversation, still intrigued by Anne’s revelation of her belief in spirits. “So you still believe in ghosts, though you haven’t seen one,” pondered Katherine, “Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, what with your pagan background.”
“Don’t forget, you yourself have been to a spirit realm,” Anne reminded her, “Is it really so hard to believe there are some other planes of existence beyond that too?”
Katherine shivered again and reflexively put her hand to her chest, brushing her fingers across the spot where the dark witch, Bronwyn, had stabbed her. “I’d rather not think about that place at all,” she remarked quietly.
“Sorry,” said Anne regretfully, placing her hand gently over Katherine’s, “I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories, I was just trying to make a point.”
“I suppose you’re right, there are no doubt all sorts of other possibilities I’m not aware of,” Katherine allowed.
“Though I’m sure it’s probably some simple explanation in this case,” Anne tried to reassure her, “The pair of them probably just fell down a hole somewhere and are stumbling around in the dark trying to find us again.”
Katherine thought that Anne was trying to convince herself as much as Katherine, but she wasn’t about to argue against Anne’s optimistic assessment of the situation.
“Why don’t we try and get some sleep,” continued Anne, “Then it will be morning and we can get out of here.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” agreed Katherine, lying down on the bare floor.
Anne slid down beside her, wrapping her arms round Katherine from behind and snuggling her head into Katherine’s shoulder. Katherine closed her eyes and tried to dismiss all thoughts of ghosts and spirits. However, after an indeterminate period of time, Katherine found herself shifting uneasily on the hard floor, unable to find the elusive sleep she sought.
“Anne?” she whispered to the young woman who was pressed up against her back, “Are you awake?”
The lack of reply answered Katherine’s question for her.
“Damn,” muttered Katherine to herself.
She supposed she would just have to try and distract herself into sleep. She decided that perhaps she should try and think of something more pleasant than her current location. Thinking back over the past few days, her mind immediately lighted upon one memory in particular.
She and Anne had gone to meet Tobias, to get Katherine’s regular report on what was happening at Markham Manor and on the estate Katherine had once governed and still felt responsible for. Anne had asked to come with Katherine since she had arranged to meet Tobias much closer to the manor house than she normally did. Tobias was finding it harder and harder to slip away for too long without Mark or Kirby questioning where he had been. They had managed to meet without trouble, but after Tobias had headed back to the house a group of the Johnson guards had spotted them and Katherine and Anne had been forced to start running as they gave chase…
“We need to hide somewhere,” Anne noted as they sprinted through the village with the guards in hot pursuit.
“Any ideas?” asked Katherine, glancing over her shoulder at the men who seemed to be gaining.
“Only the church…”
“The church?” interjected Katherine in surprise.
“Yes, don’t forget Friar Tuck has been helping us out for years, there are some handy hiding spots in that church.”
“The church it is then,” concurred Katherine, ducking between two huts to head in that direction.
They dashed through the churchyard and flung the doors open. “This way,” said Anne indicating one of the corners.
Katherine was amazed to discover a hidden doorway behind a tapestry when they got there. She had been coming to the church for seventeen years and never known it was there. Anne pulled open the heavy door and motioned Katherine inside before joining her and closing the door behind them, sliding across a bolt to secure it. The hidden room was hardly worth the name, more of a small space just about big enough for two people. The only light was from the crack at the edge of the door, which also afforded Katherine a view of the main church door through it.
Shortly after she and Anne had secreted themselves away in the room, Katherine saw the Johnson guards come barrelling into the church looking confused as they glanced around. They started searching round the church, one of the men actually heading in their direction. Katherine found herself holding her breath as he came to stand directly in front of the tapestry. Just when she thought he was going to lift the heavy material away one of the other guards called over that there was a back door to the church and he turned to join the rest of them heading in that direction.
Katherine let out an audible sigh, and she could feel that Anne had done the same behind her when the young woman’s breath whispered past her ear.
“Maybe we ought to wait a while, to make sure the coast is clear,” noted Anne in a hushed voice.
Katherine nodded. “I suppose we ought to,” she agreed, keeping her voice low too.
“Well, since we have to wait here, in this enclosed space…”
Katherine suddenly felt Anne’s hands slipping round her waist from behind, pulling Katherine closer.
“Anne, this is a church!” whispered Katherine in surprise, trying to ignore the flutterings of arousal that had shot through her as she felt Anne’s warm body pressing up against her back.
“So?” remarked Anne nonchalantly, “ I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Any objections Katherine might have been forming died on her lips as Anne tickled her tongue along the edge of Katherine’s ear and on down her neck. At the same time her hands slid round Katherine’s body and up her chest, gently cupping her breasts.
Katherine let out a low, guttural moan, tipping her head back onto Anne’s shoulder.
Anne trailed her tongue back up to Katherine’s ear again. “You’ll need to be a little quieter than that,” she whispered seductively when she got there, a few loose strands of her blonde hair dancing across Katherine’s cheek.
Katherine bit her lip as one of Anne’s hands tracked down over her stomach and slipped under the waist of her trousers. When Anne’s fingers grazed lightly through her pubic hair, Katherine felt the familiar surge of desire and pushed back harder against Anne who was in turn pressed into the wall. Katherine could feel Anne’s soft breasts squashed up against her spine, and she couldn’t resist the urge to grind her body into Anne’s groin as Anne’s fingers glided ever lower.
Katherine desperately tried to hold back her moans as Anne’s fingers slid between her legs and into the wetness that lay there. When Anne slipped a finger inside her, Katherine had to reach up her own hand to grab onto the back of Anne’s head, needing something to hold onto as her legs began to tremble. Perhaps Anne sensed Katherine’s faltering strength as she tightened the arm that held Katherine up round her middle, holding the pair of them pressed firmly together in the dark space.
Anne’s long fingers slowly eased in and out of Katherine, building a gentle rhythm. Feeling the soft internal caress of her lover, Katherine rested her head back on Anne’s shoulder allowing herself to let out a gasping sigh, hoping that it wasn’t too loud but unable to restrain herself.
Katherine could feel a second finger joining the first, stroking against her slick flesh. Then a thumb brushing across her clitoris sent fresh shivers of pleasure shooting through her. Anne’s breath was hot as it panted out past Katherine’s ear, while her fingers continued their teasing play. Katherine rubbed wantonly up and down against Anne’s lithe body in time to the movement of her fingers, spreading her legs further apart so Anne could easily enter her.
Katherine bit her lip once more as Anne increased the intensity of her thrusting, Katherine’s heart responding in like. Just when Katherine thought her head was going to explode from all she was holding back, the rush of orgasm filled her. Then she was trembling in Anne’s supportive arms, panting heavily
Katherine suddenly jolted awake, disorientated for a moment as she tried to get her bearings. She hadn’t realised she had dozed off. Blinking in the gloom that enveloped her, she had trouble distinguishing reality from the pleasant daydream for a few seconds. Then a chill wind whipped across the floor, providing her with a stark reminder of exactly where she was.
At least a small snuffle from behind her reassured Katherine that she was not alone, and she gingerly rolled over to see that Anne was still fast asleep on the floor next to her. Shivering again, Katherine realised that the fire was down to its last embers. Carefully peeling Anne’s arm off her body from where it had been casually resting, Katherine clambered to her feet.
Luckily they had piled some spare wood in the room with them, so she wouldn’t have to go hunting for more and risk meeting the same fate as both Nicholas and Henry. She hoped both men were all right and that they would find them safe and sound in the morning.
Given both men’s mysterious disappearances, even the small trip across the room set Katherine’s nerves on edge, especially as the light had also faded with the fire. She found her heart beating much faster than it normally would and the sweat on her palms was noticeable, despite the low temperature. She tried to shake away the strong foreboding feeling, telling herself that there really weren’t any ghosts and that the castle was just old and deserted, that was all. Katherine knelt by the stack of logs and reached out to grab one.
Something brushed rapidly past her fingers. Katherine let out a small yelp of shock and stumbled backwards, falling on her backside. She was starting to scrabble frantically away when she saw a pair of small yellow eyes looking at her from amongst the wood - it was just a rat!
Tutting at her own reaction, she wondered how she could have been so easily scared by the small animal. The spooky castle was really starting to get to her she surmised. Grabbing a log, Katherine shoved the rodent out the way, the animal making a small squeak of protest before it skittered off across the floorboards and into the darkness. Collecting several of the logs, Katherine carried them back over to the hearth. She was pleased to see her little bit of rat trouble hadn’t been enough to stir Anne from her slumber. Katherine marvelled at the other woman’s capacity to sleep through pretty much anything, guessing it must come from years of living out in the woods with all manner of animals, not to mention drunken outlaws, roaming about the place at night.
Putting the logs in the hearth, Katherine searched about on the floor for the flint Anne had used to ignite the fire in the first place. Her hands groped across the dusty floor, finally closing over the small stone. Katherine tried unsuccessfully to strike the stone and generate the necessary spark. Letting out a small curse she glanced over at Anne. It had seemed so easy when she had done it. Taking a few deep breaths, Katherine leant forwards once more.
Suddenly a hand shot out of the darkness of the fireplace and latched onto her throat. Gasping, Katherine dropped the flint, which clattered amongst the logs. She reached up to grab desperately at the hand, trying to prise away the fingers that were squeezing at her windpipe.
How in god’s name had he managed to hide in the fireplace all this time?
Despite her efforts, the fingers maintained their steadfast grip, the bony digits digging painfully into Katherine’s flesh as they got ever tighter. Katherine frantically tried to pull away, bracing her feet on the edge of the hearth and tugging backwards, but it was no use.
Still clawing at the arm that held her, Katherine craned her head round. She could see Anne was still asleep, only a few tantalising feet away but completely oblivious to what was happening. Katherine opened her mouth to try and call out to her, but all that came out of her constricted throat was a strangled cry.
The clammy fingers closed even tighter, and Katherine could feel her strength fading as she was gradually starved of oxygen. Her racing mind suddenly remembered the dagger in her boot, and she stretched down, searching out the hilt. She was glad that she had started to follow Anne’s lead and make a habit of carrying one. Whipping it out, Katherine plunged the blade forcefully into the arm that gripped her.
Only the fingers didn’t loosen in the slightest, they didn’t even flinch. Katherine couldn’t believe it - who the hell was this person? She drew out the dagger and frenetically stabbed at the arm a few more times before she finally lost consciousness.
A loud clanging noise resounded round the room, rousing Anne from her slumber. She immediately sat bolt upright when she realised the body that should have been next to her wasn’t.
“Katherine?” she asked into the dim room.
Despite the gloom, Anne could see that there was no sign of the other woman.
“Katherine?” she asked again anyway, not wanting to believe that she was gone.
A horrible sinking sensation settled in Anne’s stomach as she swivelled around a few more times, her eyes searching every corner of the room for any sign of life. Suddenly she spotted something on the floor by the fire and she crawled over to examine it. Picking up the dagger, Anne immediately recognised it as belonging to Katherine. Anne’s anxiety deepened further as it occurred to her that not only had Katherine felt the need to get the dagger out, but that she had also subsequently been forced to abandon it. To reinforce the fact that she was now very much alone, a howling gust of wind blew down the chimney at that point and sent an icy chill straight through Anne.
Shifting away from the draft, she berated herself for not having woken sooner. Come to that, why had she allowed herself to fall asleep at all? She should have realised that the castle was dangerous and maintained a watch instead. Her hand came up to her chest, resting over where Katherine’s necklace lay beneath her shirt. The small stone lay close to her heart, which she could feel beating frantically beneath her fingers.
Trying to spur herself into action, Anne reasoned that it was too late for regrets now - they weren’t going to help her find Katherine. It now seemed obvious that there was something else going on at the castle beyond just some of their party getting lost. Whether that something was supernatural in origin, she didn’t know. There had been that odd voice she had heard a couple of times, with its inviting melody. Even odder was that none of the others seemed to be able to hear it, even though it had been quite obvious to her, especially the second time in the room with Katherine. She hadn’t wanted to worry the other woman at the time, though now she wished she had mentioned something. Anne considered that no matter how lovely their voice, if the owner of it was the one responsible for Katherine’s disappearance then they were going to be sorry.
Anne tried to ward off the insidious thoughts that were attempting to worm their way into her brain and tell her that something much worse could have befallen Katherine. Instead she resolutely told herself that she would know if Katherine was hurt or even…dead. No, she quickly told herself, she was alive; she had to be.
Shaking off her doubts, Anne resolved herself to going in search of the others. Since she had dropped her own sword earlier, she bent down to search through Katherine’s belongings, relieved to find that she had brought along Anne’s “lucky sword”. Anne had allowed Katherine to keep it after she had successfully used it to defeat Charles Kirby. Anne hoped it would prove equally as lucky now as she gripped it in her hand and made her way from the room.
Will scrabbled to his feet, slipping a few times in the damp mire that covered the floor. It was pitch black and he had no idea which way to go to get out of wherever he was. Feeling decidedly sorry for himself, Will rubbed his hand over his back, trying to ease the throbbing ache from where he had landed heavily on the unforgiving stone floor. He just wanted to get out of this wretched castle. He couldn’t care less about scaring the others now. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now his main concern was self-preservation.
Picking a direction, he started stumbling across the room, hands outstretched. After a few false turns he managed to find some steps, gratefully starting up them. It was then that he heard the other footsteps.
Or were they the echoes of his own steps?
He stopped for a moment, halfway up the staircase. The other steps stopped too. Will strained to hear anything, but all his could make out were the far-off sounds of the storm that was still raging outside. Shaking his head, he set off once again, but once again the matching steps started. Will pulled up abruptly, hoping to catch the other person out. However, as before, the only noise was from the howling wind and his own nervous breathing.
Was he just imagining it?
Deciding that it was just best to get out of there as quickly as possible, Will started running up the stairs instead. After ascending them for a few seconds he suddenly realised he should have come up to the main entrance floor by that point. That particular set of steps must have bypassed that floor, he surmised. He paused on the stairs, wondering whether he should keep going up or go back down and try a different way. It was then he realised that the following footsteps hadn’t stopped that time. In fact they were ascending the stairs after him. Rapidly.
Anne stepped carefully down the corridor, sword held out in front of her to ward off any potential attackers. All her senses were on full alert - her eyes scanning her surroundings warily, her ears alive to the slightest sound as she made her way along. A few times she had stopped, sure she had heard something, only to find it was just the echoes of the wind whistling around the draughty castle.
Reaching the stairs, Anne deliberated over which way to go – up to the second floor or down to the ground floor and the dungeons below. Just as she was about to start descending she heard a faint noise. The wind again? Listening intently to try and make out what it was, she realised it was actually another voice; or more precisely a low moaning noise. The pitch of it sent a strange chilling sensation right through her and she convulsively hunched her shoulders, shuddering as it invaded her ears. This was not the sweet lullaby of the other voice.
Anne spun round on the spot, trying to identify the source of the ethereal sound, but it seemed to be coming from all around her.
“Hello?” she called out, “Is someone there?”
There was no direct reply, the moaning just continuing as before, echoing off the walls. She supposed it could be Nicholas or Henry, but more likely it was someone playing games and trying to scare her. Well, she wasn’t in the mood for games.
“Why don’t you just show yourself?” she demanded of the voice.
The moaning suddenly ceased and a faint glow appeared at the end of the corridor. Squinting into the darkness, Anne could see that it was a single candle that was producing the flickering light. Supposing she had little choice but to play along for now, Anne walked down the corridor to where the candle sat in a rusted holder attached to the wall. As she got there another candle suddenly flared into life further on down the hallway.
“So, you want me to follow the candles do you?” she muttered to herself.
Anne tightened her hold on her sword, and set off for the next one. Again, just as she got there another candle sparked alight, indicating that she should continue on down the corridor. She followed the trail of candles forward, the path they lit for her taking her up the stairs to where a large set of doors faced her.
Before she could decide whether to try the handle, the doors dramatically flew open of their own accord, crashing against the wall. Anne thought that if this was all some elaborate trick, it was certainly well done. She glanced around a couple of times to see if she could spot anyone lurking in the darkness, but all she could see moving was her own shadow, dancing on the floor in the flickering candlelight. Taking a deep breath she stepped over the threshold of the room in front of her.
There was no light inside; the candles back out in the corridor providing the only illumination. Anne could just about see that it was much larger than any of the other rooms they had been in so far. She could make out a large table in the centre of the room with a number of high-backed chairs positioned around it. Anne supposed it must be some sort of dining room. As she moved inside, the doors behind her slammed shut again, plunging her into almost total darkness. Suddenly two torches flared into life at the far end of the room, framing the fireplace that sat there. Above the hearth was a large portrait of a man with well-defined features, white hair and a matching beard. His grey eyes almost seemed to be watching her from out of the canvas, and Anne glanced away from the intense stare.
Looking back at the table, Anne realised there were actually figures seated in the chairs around it. The torchlight flared momentarily, lighting up the auburn head of the person in the nearest one.
“Katherine!” cried Anne, forgetting all about being careful and dashing over to the side of the chair. Having reached it, she noticed that the other chairs were occupied by Henry and Nicholas, both of them looking to her with a mix of surprise and worry.
Katherine’s face swivelled round in surprise. “Anne!” she exclaimed, the relief evident in her tone.
“Are you all right, are you hurt?” Anne asked frantically, her eyes quickly sweeping over Katherine.
“No, I’m fine, really,” insisted Katherine, “Though there is one slight problem…”
It was then that Anne noticed the marks around Katherine’s neck. “What happened to your throat?” she asked worriedly, instinctively reaching out to the damaged skin.
“Someone was hiding in the fireplace,” replied Katherine, “They grabbed me when I tried to relight the fire. I tried to call out to you, but his grip was too strong, I couldn’t speak. Then I lost consciousness and woke up here.”
Anne’s heart clutched painfully as she heard of what had happened to Katherine while she had been sleeping. Part of her wanted to find whoever it was that had hurt Katherine and hurt them too, but she knew the wiser course of action was to escape while they could. “Come on, let’s get out of here before they come back,” she suggested, fighting back her more violent urges.
“Ah, there’s that little problem I mentioned,” noted Katherine cryptically.
Anne looked down at her quizzically.
“I can’t seem to get up off this chair,” explained Katherine.
“What?” queried Anne, not quite sure she had heard right.
“I can’t get up,” repeated Katherine, “I can’t even move my arms. I seem to be pinned in place by some sort of invisible force. We all are,” she added indicating Nicholas and Henry with her eyes.
“It’s true,” said Henry from his position opposite Katherine, “I can’t move my arms and legs, it’s been that way since I woke up here.”
Anne couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. An invisible force? Not wanting to believe it without proof, she reached down for Katherine’s arm, trying to move it off the armrest of the stout chair but it wouldn’t budge. She desperately tried the other one but that was stuck firm too. In a last ditch attempt, she placed her sword down on the wooden table, wrapped her arms around Katherine’s body and tried to yank her up from the seat, but to no avail.
“No!” she cried in frustration as she let go and stepped back, “Who could do this?”
“That would be me.”
Anne’s eyes flicked to the speaker at the head of the table. Standing there was an older man, somewhere in his forties with white hair and a beard. He looked distinguished in his knight’s clothes of chain mail covered by a luscious red tabard that was edged with fine gold embroidery. Looking back at his face, Anne suddenly realised it was the same man as in the portrait over the fire.
As her eyes met his she found herself unable to look away from the intense stare of the pale grey orbs. They had an almost hypnotic effect, and as she carried on looking she began to think that perhaps his eyes weren’t so harsh after all. In fact she didn’t even know why she had she thought they were in the first place. They were so soft, warm, inviting.
Then the gentle voice started echoing around the room again. She still couldn’t make out the words it was singing in its soft cadence. Yet she didn’t need to hear them to know that the sound made her feel safe, welcome. Her eyes were so transfixed with the knight’s that she couldn’t tell if it was he who was the source of the song. At this moment she didn’t really care. All she knew was that the combined effect was building an overwhelming urge to go towards the enticing gaze of the knight. Anne’s feet automatically started placing themselves one in front of the other in response to her desire, carrying her forwards. Her mind just registered the concerned ‘Anne!’ that came from Katherine as she left her behind in the chair, but she ignored it. She had to go to the knight; nothing else mattered.
Anne’s entranced steps brought her before him and she stopped, gazing up into his handsome face. He smiled down at her, reaching out his fingers to gently caress her cheek. Their tips were soft as they brushed down her skin and cupped her chin, tilting up her enraptured face. Anne took another step closer as he drew her towards him, closing her eyes in anticipation.
Only another voice was still there. Discordant. Breaking the harmony of the song. It was the same one that had called out to her a moment ago. It was calling out to her again – persistent, nagging. Anne just wanted it to go away, so she could be with the knight. Yet there was something familiar about it. Maybe if she could just make out what it was saying?
The questioning response had issued subconsciously from Anne’s lips that were now only a hairs breadth from the knights. Suddenly Anne’s eyes flew open on the knight’s face that was immediately in front of her. She gasped at the completely different view of him that she now saw. Gone was the handsome knight and in his place was a ghostly shadow of a man. The skin of his face was sickly pale, practically hanging off his skeletal features. The formerly warm, grey eyes were sunken so far back in his head that Anne couldn’t even see the whites of them in the black pits. His clothes were worn and tatty, the red of his bedraggled and fraying tabard barely visible through the encrusted dirt.
Anne stumbled away from the horrific vision, backing up the table, her hand searching out the sword she had left behind. “Who are you?” she asked as sternly as she could manage. She kept her eyes on him as she slowly reached out to take her sword back off the table from its position by Katherine’s chair.
“My name is John Darcy and this,” he said sweeping his arm grandly round the dusty room, “is my castle.”
“Your castle?” asked Anne sceptically, edging in his direction once more now she had retrieved her weapon, “No one has lived here for years.”
The knight let out a maniacal laugh. “You’re absolutely right,” he agreed, his voice grating on her ears, “No one has lived here for years. Only one small thing - I’m not alive.”
Anne stared disbelievingly at him. “Not alive? Then you’re a…ghost?”
“You could call me that,” he said with a small nod. “Or a spirit…a ghoul…a spectre!” he added, thumping his fist resoundingly on the table as he said the last one.
If he was a ghost he was a pretty solid one, noted Anne. That would certainly make things easier, she thought as she crept closer to him, the familiar weight of the sword in her hand.
“So why have you kidnapped my friends? Why did you lead me here? What were you trying to do to me just then?” she asked, tracking up the side of the table. She was almost in striking distance now; she just needed to keep him talking a bit longer. “Is this your idea of some kind of sick joke?”
“Now, now, Anne, no need to get so angry,” he replied patronisingly.
Anne’s eyes darted to his face, the dark pools of his eyes fixed intently on her. She didn’t deign to reply to his taunt, though, figuring he would feel the need to elaborate further anyway.
“You know I’ve been watching you ever since you got here,” he continued, proving her right, “There’s nowhere to hide from me in my castle, and no one ever leaves either,” he added darkly, taunting her once more, “Especially not you or your precious Katherine.”
“No!” Anne raised her sword and leapt at the knight.
She was running at full pelt and completely unprepared when her sword swished straight through him without making purchase. Her momentum carried her forwards, she herself falling through the knight’s nebulous body just as her sword had done. Anne sprawled in an ungainly heap on the floor, rolling over to look up at the looming spectre in shock.
“I did tell you I was a ghost,” he said, looking down on her with disdain.
Anne scrabbled to her feet and charged again, unwilling to believe him. Only her attack ended up in the same result – she flew straight through him, tumbling onto the floorboards once more and scrapping her knuckles on the harsh surface as her sword clattered down upon it.
Anne whipped round, glancing up at the knight from her position on the floor. The expression on his ghostly face had changed now. He was regarding her with a mixture of disappointment and sadness, his challenging arrogance seemingly gone for the time being.
“I had hoped you might be different,” he noted mournfully, “I thought I had sensed something special in you, a connection. I suppose it must just have been wishful thinking, my mind playing tricks on me after all these years.”
Anne didn’t know what he was referring to and she didn’t really care. All she was concerned about was finding a way out of there with everyone safe and sound. She clasped her sword, though she didn’t know what use it would be, since it seemed the knight was impervious to conventional weapons.
The knight, meanwhile, had wandered over to a smaller table next to the fireplace, while still keeping a watch on Anne the whole time. He picked up a sword that was sitting there. “I think you dropped something,” he said, holding it up for Anne to see. As the firelight reflected off it’s metallic surface, Anne could see it was her sword, the one she had lost through the floorboards earlier that evening. “Very helpful of you to bring me a new sword,” continued the knight, looking admiringly at it, “Mine were all getting a bit rusty without the servants to clean them for me.”
“I guess that’s what happens when you murder them all,” remarked Anne scathingly, clambering to her feet once more. She held the sword she currently had up, ready to defend herself, figuring that even if the knight were non-corporeal, she would at least be able to parry his very real weapon.
A dark look crossed the knight’s features. “I see the tales about me still spread far and wide then.”
Anne noted the way his mood had changed once again. He seemed to be swapping between arrogance, despair and anger in equal measures, suggesting to her that he was not a little unhinged. She supposed she could have guessed that already from the way he had been stalking and kidnapping them. Before she could contemplate it any further he suddenly lunged for her. Anne swiftly dodged to the side, bringing her blade round to deflect his. Only his sword passed through her weapon as if it wasn’t there, but then sliced painfully through the flesh of her forearm.
Anne staggered back in surprise, dabbing at the blood that was already dampening her shirtsleeve. “How?” she said in consternation, flicking her eyes up at him.
“Haven’t you worked out that I can switch back and forth from my solid form at will?” he asked scornfully, “That extends to anything I may be holding too. It seems you have failed my final test. I thought that just maybe you would be able to parry my weapon when faced with danger, but I guess not. In which case I have no more use for you…or your friends.”
He raised his sword again and started charging. Only he wasn’t heading for her, Anne suddenly realised in dismay, he was going for Katherine. His sword was up and on a path aimed directly at Katherine’s neck. Anne could see Katherine’s blue eyes widening in shock as she sat pinned in place, unable to move as the sword flew in her direction. A horrified Anne realised the knight was looking to slice Katherine’s head clean off.
Anne flung herself forwards in a desperate attempt to stop the knight. His sword was already swinging round in its final arc, intent on its deathly course. Anne stretched every muscle in a last ditch effort to get there on time.
A resounding clang echoed around the room as the knight’s sword crashed into Anne’s blade, only inches from Katherine’s exposed neck. The relief on Katherine’s face as the two weapons hovered before her was obvious. The knight’s hollowed eyes darted to Anne, evident surprise on his ghostly features.
“You are different!”
Without replying, Anne flicked his weapon away from Katherine with her blade and lunged at him, her anger now driving her on. This time she felt the satisfying feel of her blade connecting with flesh as she sliced through his side. He merely looked down at the wound in amazement as he stumbled backwards.
Anne pressed forwards intent on making the most of her momentary advantage. The knight barely had time to get his sword up before the next blow came swinging in at his head. The swords clashed noisily once more, and the knight staggered back from the force of Anne’s blow. He had no time to regroup as Anne dove at him again, now in full battle flow, not able or wanting to stop her frenzied assault on the knight.
A series of furious blows came in at him, the knight desperately trying to parry them as he was pushed back across the room. Anne could see she had the upper hand and made a final mighty swipe at the man. The sheer power of it sent his sword flying from his hand, the weapon scooting off across the wooden floor. He fell backwards holding up his hands as Anne raised her sword.
Anne stopped, her sword still above her head, waiting to deal the fatal blow.
“Please,” pleaded the knight again pitifully as she hesitated, “I just want your help.”
“What?” exclaimed Anne incredulously, “You want my help? You kidnap my friends, try to kill them and then you want my help? You have to be joking.”
She tensed her arms again, ready to swing her weapon once more.
“Please! Don’t!” whined the knight, cowering before her now, “Look, I’m sorry for taking your friends. Here, they’re free to go.”
He made a gesture with his outstretched hand and Anne briefly glanced round to see that Katherine was tentatively taking her hand off the armrest of her chair and looking bemusedly at it. Her eyes came up to meet Anne’s and the young woman was almost floored by the sense of relief that swept through her. She lowered her sword but still kept a firm hold of it as she turned back to the knight.
“What’s going on here?” demanded Anne, jabbing the point of her sword in his direction, “Why all the games?”
He tentatively got up off the floor, keeping his hands up the whole time to indicate it didn’t intend her harm any more.
“I didn’t know if you would help if I just asked you,” he tried to explain.
“Asked her to do what?” asked Katherine suspiciously, as she came to stand by Anne’s side in front of the knight. Anne felt Katherine’s hand surreptitiously giving her own a small squeeze of support. Anne gave a quick responding rub of her thumb across the back of Katherine’s hand to show she appreciated the gesture.
“I need your help to cross over,” replied the knight.
“Cross over?” repeated Katherine, “To where?”
“He means to the other side,” Anne answered, turning to Katherine.
Katherine looked up at her, a doubtful expression on her face. “The other side? You mean as in to the afterlife? But why would he need your help?”
Anne could see Katherine’s mind working in an attempt to answer her own question. “Your mystic abilities,” she deduced.
Anne merely nodded.
“And you have the ability to do what he’s asking?” asked Katherine.
Anne wasn’t entirely sure and before she could reply the knight chipped in for her. “I think she does,” he attested, “I wasn’t sure to begin with but after what just happened…As soon as Anne arrived at the castle, I sensed she might be able to help me, but I wasn’t certain whether she could or if she’d be willing to if she was able.”
“So instead of thinking to ask, you decided to kidnap us and hold us as prisoners?” asked Katherine still viewing the knight with no small amount of suspicion.
The knight lowered his head in shame. “Yes, I thought that I could lure Anne here, determine if she had the necessary power and then coerce her into helping by threatening you. I’m sorry it was wrong of me.”
Anne regarded the knight sceptically. He had already shown that he was unstable and she considered that his contrition could just be part of the game he was playing, though there was the fact that he had released Katherine and the others.
“Why should she help you, though?” remarked Nicholas, who had also come over to where they were talking. “There is a reason you’re stuck here after all – you killed your wife and everyone here!”
The knight swung away from them, leaning heavily on the wall with his hand as he spoke. “I didn’t mean to kill her,” he said, his voice breaking, “It was a terrible accident.”
“Oh what, you ‘accidentally’ hacked her to pieces followed by all the servants?” scoffed Nicholas. Anne spotted Katherine holding out a hand to try and hush the outlaw, to stop him antagonising the spectre.
The knight swivelled back round. “What? No, that’s not what it was like, not what happened at all,” he insisted, “Yes, I did kill my wife and I’ve regretted it every day since, but I didn’t do anything to the servants. They just left of their own accord after my own death.” He trailed off as his eyes drifted downwards once more with the recollection of his demise.
“She was having an affair,” he continued, his eyes fixed on the floor, “Whenever I had to go away to court or any other trips she would meet up with him. Not that I can blame her in a way, I wasn’t a very good husband. I was never there for her, never paid much attention to her, but I did love her nevertheless.”
“So when I came home early from one trip and found them together…well, I lost all sense of what was right or wrong. I was in a jealous rage…we argued and I hit her.” The knight paused for a moment as he recalled his terrible actions. “I kept hitting her. I was so angry. And then…then…she wasn’t moving…I…I had killed her. I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t live with what I had done so I went up to the highest tower of the castle and I leapt off. Just before my body smashed onto the stones of the courtyard I thought it was going to be a blessed release.”
“But it wasn’t?” prompted Anne when he didn’t continue immediately.
“No, that was just the beginning of my suffering. I found that I was stuck here, no doubt to pay for my sins. To begin with I thought it was no less than I deserved and I kept quiet in my misery as everyone else left the castle and it fell into disrepair. But years on your own with only your guilt to keep you company can do strange things to your mind, or what passes for my mind these days. I found myself growing bitter, twisted. If anyone came near the castle I would play games on them, scare them until they ran away screaming. But I never actually hurt them.”
“But you were going to hurt us!” Nicholas interrupted again, “You were about to chop Katherine’s head off if Anne hadn’t stopped you!”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” replied the knight remorsefully, “After all these years your presence gave me a little bit of hope that all this would finally be over. Then I thought I had been mistaken, that those hopes had been dashed and I was indeed doomed to an eternity of haunting this place. But I’m so tired off all that. I don’t even know how long it’s been since I died. I’m so sorry for what I did to my beloved Mary, for what I tried to do to you. I just want some peace.”
Anne looked upon the pitiful creature before her. He appeared genuinely remorseful for his past crimes and she couldn’t really see the benefit of forcing him to stay and haunt the castle any longer. All that would achieve would be to drive him further into madness and endanger anyone who happened to find themselves taking shelter at the castle as they had done. “All right, I’ll help you,” agreed Anne eventually.
“What?” cried Katherine in surprise. She came round in front of Anne so she could speak to her face to face, placing her hands gently on Anne’s arms as she did. Her eyes searched Anne’s face with concern. “Do you actually know what’s involved in this?” she asked softly, “It could be dangerous, especially since you powers aren’t properly developed.”
“It’s all right, Katherine,” Anne reassured her, “It shouldn’t be dangerous, at least not to me. I’m not sure about for our ghostly friend here though.”
“I’m willing to take the chance if it means I can finally leave this place,” he affirmed. “I never thought you would agree to help, though,” he added in wonder. “I guess I’ve been scaring people so long, I’d forgotten about the human potential for kindness and compassion,” he pondered, “Thank you for re-affirming my belief in those things.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Anne. “You’re just lucky someone recently re-affirmed my belief in those things too,” she added flicking a quick glance at Katherine.
Katherine noticed the look, offering Anne a smile to acknowledge she had got the reference. Despite the chill in the air, Anne felt warmth spreading inside her that had nothing to do with the weather conditions and everything to do with the obvious love that was displayed in just that small gesture.
Suddenly Anne was broken out of her distraction by the sound of screaming coming from outside the room. It was getting closer and she glanced at the knight who seemed as nonplussed as the rest of the group as to its source. Before anyone could consider it further the doors to the room flew open again and a figure came hurtling through them, still screaming like a banshee. The man stopped for a moment before the knight, his eyes widening in terror, and Anne suddenly realised that it was actually Will Scarlet. He didn’t seem to even notice the rest of them, just staring in horror at the ghostly face of the knight. Then he was off and running again, looking for a means of escape.
The knight flicked his hand out, and one of the windows towards which Will was running obligingly opened, the rain whipping in through it. Without even hesitating, Will kept running and leapt through the opening. The knight nonchalantly gestured once more and the window banged shut behind him, just as the sound of a faint splash was carried up on the wind.
Everyone stood looking at the window for a moment, too stunned to say anything. It was finally Nicholas who managed to find his tongue.
“Was that…was that Will?” he asked incredulously.
“I think it was,” agreed Henry, equally confounded, “But what on earth was he doing here?”
“Trying to scare you, I believe,” revealed the knight, “He was following you around, so I played a few games on him too. Though last I left him was on the back stairs after a little chase. After that it seems he succeeded in scaring himself quite nicely.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” remarked Anne, “Will always was a coward.”
Nicholas had gone over to the window, glancing out at the darkness beyond. “Do you think he’ll be all right? We are on the second floor after all.”
“I think there is still a bit of water left in the moat,” replied the knight with a shrug.
“I’m sure he will have survived,” agreed Anne, “It would be too much to ask that he might have hurt himself in the fall. He’s probably having fun, playing around with the other worms in the mud right now.”
Katherine went over to pull Nicholas away from the window, placing a reassuring arm around his shoulder. “We’ll pop out and check on him in a minute if it’ll make you feel better.”
Anne turned her attention back to the knight after the unexpected interlude. “So what do we need to do, to help you cross over?”
“You don’t know?” he asked in surprise.
“Not really, no,” she admitted, “Though I have these innate abilities I’ve never used them much, and certainly never to do anything like this. All I know is my vague recollections from the books I read as a child.”
“And what did they say?”
“Somehow I need to help you to see the light, and then you walk towards it or something.”
He looked at her quizzically.
Anne merely shrugged. “Don’t ask me, it’s what it said in the books. You can’t expect me to remember the precise details after fifteen years. You’re the ghost - you should know what to do.”
“Surprisingly I haven’t ever done this before either,” he commented sarcastically.
“Oh great,” noted Katherine, throwing up her hands in exasperation, “And you said this wasn’t going to be dangerous?”
Anne tried to give Katherine another reassuring glance, but she could see that the other woman was getting increasingly anxious about the potential hazards from the worried look in her eye.
“Honestly, I’m pretty sure there’s no danger to me,” Anne replied, fixing her eyes on Katherine, “I wouldn’t try it if I thought I was going to get hurt. I think we need to try and help him, though. I want to try and help him. He did something wrong, something terrible, but I think he’s suffered enough now, don’t you?”
Katherine let out a resigned sigh. “I suppose you’re right,” she allowed, “Just be careful.”
Anne nodded and moved over to the knight. She tentatively reached out to take his hand, unsure what she was going to feel there. He seemed reluctant to allow her at first, perhaps worried she would be abhorred by it, but finally he offered it up. As her fingers clasped the flesh, Anne noted that it was unnaturally cold and clammy, and she had to resist the urge to shudder as she held on to it. Closing her eyes and trying to forget about the unpleasant feel of the knight’s skin, Anne attempted to compose herself and tap into the power of nature. She deliberately calmed her breathing into steady, deep breaths, allowing her mind to clear of all extraneous thoughts. All she needed to concentrate on was the knight and what he desired.
The others in the room waited silently as Anne and the knight remained locked together in their quest. Anne could sense the air in the room shifting, stirring up the dust that had accumulated over the years and whipping it about them. Then Anne could feel something else, a strange distortion in the very fabric of the room. Slowly opening her eyes she saw see a bright white glow hovering in the air a few feet in front of them. It was small, no larger than a hand, but the intensity of the light from it was almost blinding. As it began to expand outwards, Anne had to bring her free hand up to shield her eyes.
The knight released his grip of her other hand and Anne turned to look at him. The smile on his face was obvious as he looked directly into the radiant glow.
Sensing her study, his eyes flicked to her. She could actually see his pupils once again and the pale grey irises that surrounded them. He looked almost human. “Thank you,” he said, “I am in your debt.”
“I hope you find the peace you are looking for,” she replied sincerely.
The knight smiled once more, before he started walking for the light. Anne watched as his form became enveloped in the brilliant whiteness and for a moment she thought she saw other figures in the light, indistinct shapes coalescing around him. Then all of a sudden the light collapsed in on itself and Anne was left in only the dim torchlight of the room. The dust slowly fluttered back down to the ground as the air stilled once more.
The astonished exclamation had come from Henry behind her and Anne now turned to look at the others, the looks of wonder on all their faces plain to see.
“That was…” Katherine searched for an appropriate term “…truly amazing,” she finally settled on though she didn’t look satisfied that the expression quite did justice to what they had witnessed. “How do you feel?” she asked Anne as she reached out a caring hand.
“Fine,” Anne replied, “In fact more than fine. It’s hard to describe but I have this kind of warm inner glow, like I did something good and right.”
“I think you did,” Katherine agreed reaching up to stroke her fingers lightly across Anne’s cheek, “I’m proud of you.”
The inner glow Anne was feeling increased tenfold at the delicate touch, and she placed her own hand over Katherine’s fingers, grateful to feel the warm flesh of the living once again.
Nicholas was the one who finally interrupted the loving gaze they were sharing. “Well, I suppose we better go and fish Will out of that moat then?” he reminded them.
“If we must,” agreed Anne reluctantly, bringing her hand down along with Katherine’s, not quite wanting to surrender the link as they left the room.
Will Scarlet sat watching the contemplative look that passed across the features of the dark witch Bronwyn. He was in her woodland hut, the one she had been recuperating in ever since Anne had wounded her. He hoped and prayed that the information he had just imparted to the green-eyed woman would be enough for her to overlook the fact that he had been unable to procure the correct herbs for her from Mansfield.
“And you’re saying she helped this ghost cross over to the other side?” Bronwyn questioned, making sure she understood correctly.
“That’s right,” confirmed Will.
Will had recounted the events of the previous night to Bronwyn, thinking she would be interested in Anne’s latest display of power, though he had selectively omitted a few of the details regarding his own actions. After falling from the second floor window at the castle he had fortunately landed in the half-full moat. Not that he would have cared if he had broken all the bones in his body at that particular moment in time, such was his terror and need to escape the haunted building by any means possible. Unfortunately he then found himself stuck in the mud and had to wait until the others deigned to come down and yank him out. He could see the looks of barely concealed amusement on their faces when they spotted him flapping about in the filth. Well, they would be laughing on the other sides of their faces soon, he thought nastily to himself.
Having freed him from his muddy prison, the others had wanted to go back inside for the rest of the night. Will had steadfastly refused – there was no way he was going back in that place. It was then that Nicholas told him about what had happened with the ghost and that it was safe now. Still, Will didn’t want to believe him and decided he would rather stay out in the stables instead. As the others had headed back inside without him, Will couldn’t fail to hear the crack about it being an appropriate place for him, among the other asses. He’d barely been able to catch a wink of sleep what with the howling wind and the fear that still gripped him. Katherine’s stupid horse, constantly nibbling at his hair, hadn’t help either.
“Well, that certainly is interesting,” noted Bronwyn finally, breaking Will out of his contemplation of how he might kill the animal, “Hopefully this is a sign that Anne is finally ready to start exploring her powers.”
“And when she does…” prompted Will.
An evil smile flickered across Bronwyn’s face. “When she does, I shall be ready and waiting.”
COMING NEXT: Lady Katherine and The Dark Awakening