If the cold of the falling night didn't kill him, the stink probably would. Michael d'Aboro bitterly realized that if Teinraum ever released him, it would probably be with some horrid disease gnawing at his guts or perhaps even at his skin. The stench alone floating off the middens and through the dungeon assured that. Two of the learned men at his father's castle had argued once quite loudly about the nature of stench and disease. Brother Theodori had taken the position that stench was the cause of disease, and if you smelled it for too long you were doomed to illness. Brother Johannes had taken the position that stench merely heralded disease and smelling it was no danger as long as you could get away from it. Both agreed that if the air carried a foul stench then disease was likely near.
Disease and rot, when it had a chance to take hold. Michael doubted it would have a chance here-- not with the rats he had seen. He even feared to sleep. They would probably bite his toes off first-- the guards had taken his boots.
"I am surely in trouble this time," he growled, addressing the skeleton in the opposite corner. "At least your soul has gone on to its reward. Surely this purgatory was enough to expiate all your sins, my friend." He tested the chains once more and found them as strong as last time. "I am going mad, talking to the dead."
After a while had passed the silence bore down on him and he had to release it. "You won't keep me here!" he bellowed. "My father will effect my freedom and your deaths before the day is out! Do you hear me?"
This time he didn't even hear the rustle of the guards. They knew that he wasn't going anywhere. He knew it too. The chains about his ankles assured that, just as did the iron cage doors, two of them, one on his cage and the other down the hall.
He worried about Johann, his man-at-arms, who had also been taken. They had been out on a hunt together, not to kill but merely to track. Johann was an expert at both, but they had meat enough and this morning was to be nothing more than an exercise. Michael bitterly recalled how little effect he had had when they had been ambushed by Tienraum's soldiers.
Drained by the cold, yet still more angered than despaired, he muttered, "There seems no way out of this one, Sir Michael."
"No," a womanly voice said, "There doesn't."
He startled, casting about for the speaker. "Who spoke?" he demanded.
"I did." The voice then giggled as a girl would as she hid her smile behind a hand.
"I am going mad," Michael repeated to himself. "Who are you?" he said, louder.
"You may call me Katherine," the voice replied. "Call me a saint anything and I shan't speak to you again."
Saint? Saint Katherine? He had a passing familiarity with the story now only fifty years in the past. "Katherine the Pure?" he asked.
The room seemed to darken. "Call me not that either!"
"You needn't be cross with me!" he replied, instantly regretting the jerking anger that he normally held to deal with his sister's temper. Silence once again filled the dungeon, interrupted only by the drip of water and the occasional chirp of a bird outside the bars. Michael swallowed and decided to speak to his madness. "Katherine, I am sorry. Forgive me." The silence remained. He worried about his soul, about talking to ghosts, about his fear of madness, but she had responded as he had spoken, and he wanted desperately for someone with whom to talk. "Katherine, please."
He heard a sigh as soft as a summer breeze caress the air about him. "Very well, Sir Michael, but only because you are handsome and brave and polite." The air seemed to pale before him, as clear water whitens when it becomes ice. It then solidified into the appearance of a girl no older than sixteen. His eyes were drawn upwards from the white laced gown over her full bosom to eyes of fierce blue cast in a lovely face of soft angles and determined chin. Her hair, the color of the purest gold he had ever seen, fell in straight lines down her back and over her shoulders. When she smiled her cheeks defined a diamond out of dimples. She giggled. "You act as if you've laid eyes on a ghost, Sir Michael."
He stammered for a moment before managing to blurt, "Have I?"
She nodded vigorously. "I am the Ghost of Katherine Mottelehu." She took a seat in front of him, making a brushing motion as if to clear away the dirt and debris of the dungeon floor. "And you are Sir Michael... ?"
"D'Aboro," he said.
"D'Aboro!" she said. "You are still around after all this time."
Michael thought quickly. His grandfather had been a witness to the claim of the Tienraum family. "It has been almost fifty years, Lady Katherine."
Her face fell and again the room seemed to darken. Michael though it odd that the darkening was so dramatic with her mood, yet he never noticed that it became any brighter afterwards. "So long without..." Her voice trailed off.
"Without what?" he asked.
"Without resolution." She stared at him with an examining gaze that made him uneasy. She was looking for something with that gaze and he knew not what a ghost might want from him. "Michael, I must ask something very odd of you. Are you betrothed to anyone right now?"
"No, my Lady, I am not," he said immediately, and immediately wondered at her question. "Why?"
She answered by turning, rising onto her knees, and leaning over him. "Can I ask a favor of thee, then?"
"Aye," he replied, feeling somewhat uncomfortable. This close, she did not seem a ghost at all. Her body seemed solid and, compared to the cold and unyielding stone at his back, she radiated warmth.
"What?" he asked, flabbergasted. "Why?"
"Because I ask it of thee," she said.
"I have no... familiarity with kissing, Lady Katherine. No skill."
"Nor have I. Let us teach each other briefly," she asked, her mouth a whisper's distance from his own. He closed his eyes, convinced he had become mad, and reached forward with his lips expecting to touch nothing.
Instead he touched the soft lips of a woman. The jolt was so great he almost opened his eyes and pulled away, but he meant to keep his promises and caressed her lips for just a moment with his own. "You are very warm, Lady Katherine."
"And you are very much a man of honor, Sir Michael," she said. "Can I ask something of thee?"
"I am not going anywhere," he pointed out.
"If I help free you do you agree to help free me?"
He thought about it. He didn't know what he could do to help a ghost but his own freedom demanded that he accept her offer. "I do agree, Lady Katherine."
She reached out for his hand and touched the metal shackle that bound it. The shackle seemed to waver and then fall away, unbroken and unopened, through the flesh of his hand. He pulled his hand away in fear but he felt nothing unusual. He watched as she repeated the ritual with the other hand and in a moment he was free of the shackles.
Amazed, he looked to her. "I am free," he whispered to her. "But the door--"
She cast her hand through the lockwork and opened it. "There."
"There are guards at the other end," he said quickly.
"Yes, but that is not the only way out of here," she said, taking his hand. She led him to a wall made of stone, felt along a mortared edge with one hand, and pressed inwards. There followed a soft click. "Push it, Sir Michael."
Michael pushed against the stone with his shoulder. It made a soft grating sound as if stuck from years of neglect. It opened to reveal a stone passageway. They both ran into the passageway and Michael worked hard to shove the door closed from inside again. "Now, milady," he said, breathing hard, "if you would show me the way out."
"This way," she said, leading him down a corridor, up a ladder, and along another narrow corridor.
"This castle has many secret corridors," he observed.
"Many," she agreed. "And they served me well in life, although not well enough in the end." She stopped at a small wooden door no more than four feet high. She tried to turn the lock, but it would not budge. "Sir Michael?"
He took the lever in one hand and pushed downwards as hard as he could muster. With one solid hit, it clattered open loudly and the door creaked inwards. "Come," she said.
As she passed through the door she pushed aside what felt to Michael to be a heavy tapestry. He followed her into a small, closed room. Candles occupied three walls, burning with enough light that he could see her face clearly. The room was small and simple. A single wooden bed occupied one corner and next to it stood a small desk with a Holy Bible, some paper, a quill, and an inkpot. He imagined the ink to have dried a long time ago. "Where are we?"
"My dungeon," she replied, her voice sad.
She sighed. "Michael, what do you know of me?"
"Only what I hear from the minstrels. That you were the fourth and youngest daughter of Duke Mottelehu, a respected man who had shown great leadership during campaigns against the Turks. The minstrels sang that the blood of the Duke's daughters, for he had no sons, ran hot in their own campaigns of passion and love and that your three elder sisters all had to be married quickly to avoid embarrassing the family. But you were different. During the troubles with the Empire old Baron Tienraum came into your lands and killed your family. You are named 'The Pure' because you were not like your sisters and died innocent. Or so goes the legend."
He had watched her face go from happiness to sadness to anger as he told the stories they both knew too well. "What is it, milady?"
Katherine raised her head sadly and when she looked up there were tears in her eyes. "I am not so unlike my sisters, Sir Michael. Like them, I burn to know the love and passion of a man in my arms. I was slaughtered in the room next to this one, my Father's room, as he bade me to flee. Tienraum's men came into the room and killed us both. We were weaponless." She looked up at him. "They did not even have the common decency to rape me before murdering me."
Michael stood there, speechless, as she discussed her murder. The tears flowed down her cheeks and spattered onto her bosom, barely restrained as it was by the white dress and laced vest. "Do you know why I am here, Sir Michael?" she asked, her voice barely above a tortured whisper. "I am here because I am still pure. And this was my dungeon," she said, gesturing with one arm around the room. "Here, in the room next to his own, my father kept me and allowed only nuns to attend to me from the moment I showed interest in another man. I started to bleed when I was thirteen, Sir Michael, and I spent three lonely years being attended to by women, never getting near another man but my father. He wanted me to be kept so I could be married to a prince or king with my maidenhood intact." She sat down on the bed and clenched her fists to her chest. "I understand, but by God it hurt so much. And the first man to touch me in all that time strikes me down with his sword and kills me."
She looked up at him. "I have freed you, Sir Michael. Now I beg of you to do the same for me. Free me from this unending bondage, Michael. Please."
Michael stared at her. He was not sure if he understood her. "How?"
"Must I beg you on my hands and knees?" she asked, her voice rising. "Love me, Sir Michael. Give me what my body so craved."
Michael sat down next to her. "You know not what you ask, Milady. I must cleave to one woman for life when I am ready. I am sworn to that by my faith and I cannot break it."
She looked at him and warm anger glowed in her face. "I have freed you, Sir Michael. You owe me this." She softened. "Do it for me, Michael, and I will help you further. I know of ways out of here by which they can never find you. Or I can help you kill the young Tienraum himself."
Michael thought about it. Loring Tienraum, the great grandson of the Baron Wolfgang Tienraum who had killed the Mottelehu family, was only slighty older than himself. Loring was without wife or family but it was widely known that his ambitions outgrew his little fiefdom. Michael knew that even now the Baron had sent ransom demands to his father. He also knew that his father's small army could not stand up to the kind of forces Tienraum could conjure in a few weeks' time. Loring Tienraum displeased everyone who met him but that did not mean he did not have the wealth and power to solidify a larger power in the northern kingdom.
But Michael was a Godly man and unlike many of his peers he and his father tried to live by the word of the Lord as much as possible. The fidelity of the marriage bed was one of many subjects he agreed with his father about. It had surely worked for his father and he had hoped to marry the right, blessed woman himself sometime in the future. This dark hour had brought him a sore and painful test. He believed that to know another woman would haunt him the rest of his life. But the souls of his comrades who had beknighted him too early in life would suffer greatly for his capture and return if he did not find a way out of here on his own. He sighed. "Very well, Lady Katherine."
She embraced him suddenly, knocking the wind from him. "Thank you, Sir Michael! Thank you!" She tore at his clothing, removing the tattered shirt in which he had been captured. He was bewildered at her enthusiasm, especially when she finally tore the shirt entirely off him. "Ohhh, Sir Michael, you are the most handsome creature I have ever laid my eyes upon." Michael did not know how to respond to that. She tugged at the leather drawstring that held his breeches closed and once she had opened it beseeched him to take them off.
While he stood to doff the remainder of his clothing she took to removing her own. She unlaced the vest and tossed it aside, standing to allow the kirtle to slip off her. Her undergarments, in the crinkled look that had been popular with women a half-century past, also fell off just as easily and soon she stood before him in her naked glory.
Michael found his mouth gone dry at the sight of her. She had full hips and magnificent breasts, the kind that legendary Helen once had, the kind that sent a thousand ships to war. He understood why her sisters had been so easily enthralled with the attentions of men when those attentions could be so easily attracted with lures such as these. He found himself desiring her without even trying. He reflected that it was something of a miracle that his vows had lasted so long with such temptations at hand. But then, he realized, beauty like hers was as rare as unicorns. She was truly a creature of legend.
She walked towards him, her breasts swinging gently against one another. "You like what you see, Sir Michael."
"Yes, Milady. I only pray, pray that you aren't the Devil himself come to curse me from my vows."
"No, Sir Michael, I believe we serve the same Lord. I know what I want is not holy but it is why I remain here and do not go to Heaven. Help me, Michael." Her hands touched his shoulders, her touch as soft as feathers. He felt her warmth again. His head was dizzy from the rapid breathing.
Her hands slipped down his chest, touching the bare, hairless flesh to the small brace of curls that started at his navel and descended to his cock. Yet for all the excitement he had felt at her vision his erection failed him now. Guilt and doubt assailed him. He wanted to help Katherine if she was real; he wanted to preserve himself whether she was or not. "Michael?" she asked as her fingers pressed against the tender flesh. "Do you find me unlovely?"
"No, my lady. But I fear for the honesty of my soul."
She kissed his cheek. "I understand. I cannot overcome that fear with words or deeds. But my sisters told me of ways to distract a man from his worries and fears." She kissed his neck. He leaned back slightly, his hands grasping the footboard of the bed to steady himself as the warmth of her mouth made its way down his chest, leaving touches of cool in its path. He wondered how a ghost's kiss could be so wet. Even that wonder soon ceased to matter as she knelt and took his hard cock in both her hands. "So this," she said, "will be the device of my freedom." She kissed the head, and Michael moaned. She took the head into her mouth and swabbed her tongue around it. Michael moaned louder, unable to contain the pleasure that already threatened to bring him into Heaven itself. Her hands grasped his buttocks as she slowly swallowed the length of his cock, taking it all into her mouth. She struggled with the very last inch of it but soon gave up.
Michael's whole body throbbed with the demands of his lust, the powers she had aroused within him. He opened his eyes and looked down at the mass of golden hair that slowly waved back and forth over his erection. "Katherine, please... stop. I will not be able to fulfill my side of the bargain if you continue."
She did stop, tilting her head back to smile at him with a glee that he found unmistakable. "You are indeed a handsome young man, Michael." She turned her gaze to his erection. "Indeed, to the very last morsel of you." She sat down on the bed and pushed herself up to the headboard, her legs spread open wide. "Come here."
Michael had never before seen a woman's sex before but as he crawled into bed with her he looked. A thicket of golden curls obscured all but the briefest sight of pink flesh underneath. He saw a tiny droplet of wetness at the bottom of the crease that separated her sex from her nether hole. He realized he should be curious or perhaps shocked, but what she had been doing to his cock just a moment earlier had aroused in him little room for these other emotions. He wanted her. He nearly hurled himself between her thighs, his cock bumping up against her flesh and seeking an opening.
"Michael," she breathed.
"Lady Katherine?" he asked, lifting his eyes to her face.
"I have never done this before. Be gentle."
He swallowed. "I will try," he said.
She placed her hands between their bodies, taking his cock and guiding it between the folds of her sex. A warmth surrounded his cock that he had never before felt, a giving moisture that called to him. He pressed inward until she closed her eyes, and then he thrust down. She whimpered, biting her lower lip, and he knew he was inside her. He lowered himself the rest of the way until his hips met her thighs and his cock was sunk as far inside her as it would go. "Katherine?"
She nodded, looking up to him, her lip quivering softly. "I am fine, Michael."
"It does not hurt?"
"It did... for a moment. It... I feel it, Michael. Feel it within me. Love me, Michael. Take me."
He kissed her lips to still their trembling. She opened her mouth to kiss him back as his hips began plunging and retreating, loving her. Her mouth hungrily consumed his cheeks, face, and throat. He replied with more kisses, even bending his head down to nip and pinch at her nipples, and when he caught one in his mouth she made soft squeals of delight. Her legs spread wider. He thrust her against the bed as it creaked with their lovemaking. "Yes, Michael!" she cried, and the tears again ran down her cheeks as she grasped onto his torso and guided him, pushed him, demanded more of him.
Michael felt as on the edge of a great cliff as downwards he plunged into her body, taking her. He could feel her writhing underneath him, could feel the heat of her body coursing against the skin of his chest and belly. Their bodies slapped against one another in a loud rhythm and the moans from both of them filled the room. Her eyes were wide, her mouth tugged at the sides into a great smile. His cock felt as solid as all the castles in all the world and as unrelenting as a river. "I could make love to your forever, Katherine!"
"Yes, Michael!" she agreed. "If only you could!"
If only he could. He felt something building within him, a great pressure that started in his chest and swelled from there, taking his heart, his belly, and his brain. It reached down into his thighs and spread into his cock and he knew soon he would be overwhelmed. He knew what it was but never had his own guilty self-pleasuring built with this kind of strength. He slowed his lovemaking to look down upon her. She was staring at him, watching him, and he could see the passion within her face as the restraint within him lost all and he came with a shout of pleasure. He reeled, the room spinning about him, Katherine's smile always in the center.
He crashed down onto the bed beside her. "Ohh, Katherine..."
"Oh, Michael, my Michael. Bless you. Thank you." She was sobbing gently.
Bewildered by the tears, he knew not what to do but hold her and comfort her. "Why do you cry?"
She sniffed. "They are tears of joy, Michael. You have given me what I have wanted for fifty years. You have given me more than I shall ever be able to repay you. Someday, when you are old and married and happy, will you forgive me for asking you to break your vows?"
"Beloved Katherine, I forgive you now, if your motives were pure."
"They were selfish but they were all I had. You have freed me, Michael." They lay together for a time. Michael expected her to fade away at any moment. "Michael, let me go. Please?"
He opened his arms, releasing her. She crawled away from him and stood. "It is time I kept my promise. Wait here," she said. She vanished.
A moment later she returned. "Dress quickly. Tienraum is in the next room, my father's room. He is sleeping. His guards know you have escaped and are looking for you, but he is alone. The door is behind that tapestry. If you go now, you have a chance of killing him. There is a dagger on the table by his bedside."
Michael took her words to heart and began dressing quickly. He pulled on his breeches and his torn shirt. "Which tapestry?"
"That one," she said.
"Why are you still here?" he asked the still naked, beautiful, and so enticing ghost.
"I do not know. Maybe my promise to you is unfulfilled."
He nodded. He found the door with his fingers, located the lock mechanism. It refused to budge. He wanted this to be sure and silent. Loring deserved to die for the atrocities of his ancestor, and Loring deserved to die for what he had done that morning to Michael. But the latch had frozen solid in the past years and still refused to give way. Michael grew desperate.
He needed more light to see the lock and the tapestry blocked the candles so he tore them down. The latch was nothing more than a bent shaft of metal stuck into the door. He took a step back and kicked at it. It gave with a loud crack, and Michael ran to it, shoving it open and stepping out into the bedroom.
He heard another voice in the room shout "What...?" as he looked around in the dim light of the single oil lamp for the bed. He found it, and the dagger, and leapt for both.
Tienraum got there first but Michael let the leap carry him into Tienraum, throwing both of them back onto the bed. The two of the scuffled for the knife. Michael, still tired from his lovemaking, was barely a match for the still groggy Tienraum, but the other man would soon have the advantage. Michael rolled away and off the bed, coming up in a crouch as Tienraum did the same. "You!" he growled.
"Yes, Tienraum. Me."
"How did you get in here?"
"The spirits of the past led me here," Michael replied. "And now you are going to die."
"I don't think so," Tienraum said, charging with the knife. Michael barely dodged the thrust, falling down against a chest that was lying on the floor. He looked in and saw a dirk among the clothing stored within. He grabbed it, but Tienraum was already on top of him, the dagger swinging down for his neck.
Michael rolled and the dagger struck stone. Tienraum cursed but Michael was already coming up with the dirk. Tienraum got one arm under Michael's guard and blocked, and the two of them became locked in a close struggle, Tienraum's larger dagger closer to Michael. "You are going to die, boy," he snarled.
"I don't think he will," said Katherine's voice.
"Wha?" Tienraum looked up to see the stunningly beautiful and naked Katherine standing over him. The distraction was all Michael needed; he forced Tienraum's guard and plunged the dirk into the other man's throat. Tienraum screamed, gurgling as blood spat from between his fingers. He collapsed, then rose to his knees. "Who..."
"Katherine, daughter of Duke Fulbright Mottelehu. Die now."
Tienraum keeled over as if following her order. Michael looked down at the lifeless body, giving it a kick for good measure. He turned to thank Katherine. She was gone.
Michael found Tienraum's sword among his effects. "Wish I'd found this during the fight," he mused. He set about some gory work.
There were few guards in this part of the castle and for that he was grateful. That was not much unlike his father's own home. He sneaked down the stairs with a cloth bag in one hand and the sword in the other. Tienraum's boots had fit his feet a little more snug than he preferred but it was better than bare feet on the stone floor. He heard voices talking. One said, "When we find that child, we'll hand him over to the bastard. But I truly think this little endeavor is more dangerous than is worth."
Michael decided there wasn't much time but that last comment endeared him to whoever had said it. He stepped out into the room. "You mean this child?"
"Grab him!" a tall, black-bearded man said.
"Wait!" Michael said, reaching into the bag and letting it fall to the ground. He gestured to the severed head with his sword. "Did you mean this bastard?"
"That... Baron Loring?"
"Yes. The house of Tienraum is dead. d'Aboro has won this war."
The man who appeared to be the leader stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I am Captain Lonnard. If you agree that my men will be paid through the end of this term, I will call a truce to this conflict and return you and your man-at-arms to your father unharmed."
"Is there enough in Tienraum's coffers to make that deal?"
"Then it will be easily done," Michael replied. "You have the word of Michael d'Aboro."
The man-at-arms approached. "Well met, Sir d'Aboro."
"We are well met this time, Lonnard." Michael grinned, as did the other man. "I could use some sleep, however. And I would like my man released."
"We will see to it."
In the morning, Michael was reunited with Johann. "What happened to your arm?"
"I took a dagger. Nothing bad about it. It'll heal," said the older man, who kept his arm in a sling. "Knock on me noggin's a lot worse."
Michael nodded. "Good to know you're alive."
"As are you, I see. How did you manage it?"
Michael smiled cryptically. "A ghost helped me escape."
"A ghost?" Johann asked, surprised, and then crossed himself. "Whose?"
"I'll keep that to myself," Michael replied. A page brought them two horses. "You can reach your own lands by nightfall," Lonnard told them as he walked up. "I have had the good Father write down the terms of our agreement. Can you read?"
Michael nodded, opened the scroll Lonnard had offered, and examined the contents. It looked right to him. "This is what we agreed to."
"Then off with you. The weather promises to be good."
It was a beautiful day after all. They rode until the sun was overhead, stopping only to water the horses and eat the bread and fruit they had been given before continuing on. In the afternoon they came to a wide, unfarmed meadow with a hill gently rising off to their left as they rode southwards. "Did you hear that?" Johann said.
"I thought I heard someone calling your name. Don't you hear it?"
Michael listened, and then on the edge of his hearing he heard it. A voice. Her voice. "It came from over there," Michael said, kicking his horse to his left.
"Wait, Michael! It could be a trap!"
"I don't think so!" Michael shouted back. He rode for the top of the hill, but never made it there as a magnificent white horse with a rider came over the top and ran right past him. "Katherine!"
The horse stopped and turned about, and Michael got a good look at Katherine, now dressed in clothes more suitable for riding out the day. "Michael!"
She dismounted, and he did the same. They ran to each other and held one another tightly. "Michael! It's so good to see you again!"
"Why are you here? What... what happened?"
"I cannot leave yet," she said. "We promised we would free each other. But in freeing me, you bound our hearts with different chains."
"What are you saying, Katherine?"
She smiled as Michael had seen her the night before. "Michael, I have been giving another chance at life. I am alive. I am no ghost anymore. And I will stay in this happy state, Michael... if you will marry me."
Michael took her hands in his own, kissed each palm, and then said, "Oh, Katherine. I will be thy husband, if you would be my wife."
"Yes," she breathed, and kissed him, hard. He embraced her as he hoped he would for the rest of his life.
Johann rode up and looked at the two of them. "What in the name of God's blood is going on? Who is this woman?"
Michael looked up at Johann and laughed. "Johann, meet my ghost. Katherine, this is Johann, my most trusted friend. Johann, meet the last surviving member of the Mottelehu family, Katherine."
"Not Katherine the Pure?" he asked.
She laughed, but Michael saw the twinge in her eyes just the same. "No. Certainly not the Pure. A... descendent of hers."
Michael said, "She broke me out of my chains and led me through secret tunnels to Tienraum's room. That's how I killed him." He looked at Katherine, then at Johann. "Johann, even if her claims to blood cannot be proven I intend to back them. And I intend to marry her. Will you be at our wedding?"
"She saved your life better than I managed to," Johann said. "I'll be there. God bless the both of you then. Now come on, I want to get to your father before nightfall."
Katherine mounted her horse. Michael rode his up next to her, leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Thank you," he said.
"The Lord has given me all I wanted, and he will give you all you want as well," she said, looking up at the sky. Then she touched his arm. "I love thee, Michael."
"And I love thee, Katherine. To the end of our natural days."