The wind was shrieking through the narrow pass, bitter and cold, piercing right through her well-worn cape. Isabella Vernaducci pulled the long fur-lined cape closer around her shivering body and glanced anxiously at the high cliffs rising sharply overhead on either side. It was no wonder the don’s army had never been defeated in battle. It was impossible to scale those terrible cliffs that rose straight up into air, like towers reaching to the clouds.
There was a shadow lurking within Isabella, an impression of danger. It had been growing steadily stronger in the last few hours as she traveled. She ducked her head into the horse’s mane in an attempt to gain some relief from the unrelenting wind. Her guide had deserted her hours earlier, leaving her to find her own way along the narrow, twisting trail. Her horse was nervous, tossing its head and jumping skittishly from side to side, showing every sign it wanted to bolt as well. She had the sensation that something was pacing along beside them, just out of sight. She could hear an occasional grunt, almost like a cough—a strange noise she’d never heard before.
Isabella leaned forward, whispering softly, soothingly into the ears of her mount. Her mare was used to her, trusted her, and, although its great body was trembling, the animal made a valiant effort to continue forward. Icy particles stung both horse and rider, like angry bees piercing flesh. The horse shuddered and danced but moved stoically forward.
She had been warned repeatedly of the danger, of the wild beasts roaming freely in the Alps, but she had no choice. Somewhere up ahead of her was the only man who might save her brother. She had sacrificed all to get here, and she would not turn back now. She had sold everything she had of value to find this man, had given what remained of her money to the guide, and had gone the last two days without food or sleep. Nothing mattered but that she find the don. She had nowhere else to go; she had to find him and be granted an audience with him, no matter how elusive, no matter how dangerous and powerful he was.
His own people, so loyal they refused to help her, had warned her to stay away. His lands were enormous, his holdings vast. Villages and townships whispered of him, the man they looked to for protection, the one they feared above all others. His reputation was legend. And lethal. It was said he was untouchable. Armies attempting to march into his holdings had been buried by snow or rock slides. His enemies died swift and brutal deaths. Isabella had persisted despite all warnings, all accidents, the weather, every obstacle. She would not turn back no matter how the voices in the wind howled at her, no matter how icy the storm. She would see him.
Isabella glared up at the sky. “I will find you. I will see you,” she declared firmly, a challenge of her own. “I am a Vernaducci. We do not turn back!” It was silly, but she felt convinced that somehow the owner of the great palazzo was commanding the very weather, throwing obstacles into her path.
A noise like grating rock captured her attention, and, frowning, she swung her head around to look up at one steep slope. Pebbles were bouncing down the mountain, picking up speed, dislodging other rocks. Her horse leapt forward, squealing in alarm as a shower of debris pelted them from above. She heard the chink of the horse’s hooves as it scrambled for purchase, felt the great muscles bunching under her as the animal fought to stay on its feet amidst the rolling rocks. Isabella’s fingers were nearly numb as she gripped the reins. She couldn’t lose her seat! She would never survive the bitter cold and the wolf packs that roamed freely through the territory. Her horse crow-hopped, stiff-legged, each movement jarring Isabella until even her teeth ached from the impact.
It was desperation more than expertise that kept her in the saddle. The wind lashed at her face, and tears were torn out of the corners of her eyes. Her tightly braided hair was whipped into a frenzy of long, silken strands, pried loose by the fury of the coming storm. Isabella kicked her mare hard, urging it forward, wanting to be out of the pass. Winter was fast approaching, and with it would come heavier snowfalls. A few more days and she never would have made it through the narrow pass.
Shivering, teeth chattering, she urged the horse along the winding trail. Once she was out of the pass, the rising mountain on her left side dropped away to a ledge that appeared crumbling and unstable. She could see jagged rocks far below, a drop-off she had no hope of surviving should her horse lose its footing. Isabella forced herself to remain calm even as her boot scraped along the mountainside. Small rocks tumbled from above, rolled and bounced on the narrow ledge, and careened off into empty space.
She felt it then, an oddly disorienting sensation, as if the earth shimmered and twisted, as if something better left alone had awakened upon her entrance into the valley. With renewed fury the wind slashed and tore at her, ice crystals burning her face and any part of her skin that was exposed. She continued riding for another hour while the wind came at her from all directions. If blew fiercely, viciously, seemingly directing itself toward her. Overhead, storm clouds gathered rather than move swiftly away with the wind. Her fingers tightened into fists around the reins. There had been a hundred delaying tactics. Small incidents. Accidents. The sound of voices murmuring hideously in the wind. Strange, noxious smells. The howling of wolves. Worst was the terrible far-off roar of an unknown beast.
She wouldn’t turn back. She couldn’t turn back. She had no choice. She was beginning to believe the evil things said about this man. He was mysterious, elusive, dark and dangerous. A man to avoid. Some said he could command the very heavens, that the beasts below did his bidding. It didn’t matter. She had to reach him, had to throw herself on his mercy if that was what it took.
The horse rounded the next bend, and Isabella felt the breath leave her body. She was there. She had made it. The castello was real, not a figment of someone’s imagination. It rose up out of the mountainside, part rock, part marble, a huge, hulking palazzo, impossibly large and sprawling. It looked evil in the gathering dusk, staring with blank eyes, the rows of windows frightening in the lashing wind. The structure was several stories high, with long battlements, high, rounded turrets, and great towers. She could make out large stone lions guarding the towers, stone harpies with razor-sharp beaks perched on the eaves. Empty but all-seeing eyes stared at her from every direction, watching her silently.
Her mare shifted nervously, sidestepping, tossing its head, eyes rolling in fear. Isabella’s heart began to pound so loudly it was thunder in her ears. She had made it. She should have been relieved, but she couldn’t suppress the terror welling up inside her. She had done what was said to be impossible. She was in sheer wilderness, and whatever manner of man lived here was as untamed as the land he claimed dominion over.
Lifting her chin, Isabella slid from the back of the horse, clinging to the saddle to keep from falling. Her feet were numb, her legs wobbly, refusing to support her. She stood still for several moments, breathing deeply, waiting to recover her strength. She stared up at the castello, her teeth worrying her lower lip. Now that she was actually here, now that she had found him, she had no idea what she was going to do. White wisps of fog wound around the palazzo’s columns, creating an eerie effect. The fog stayed in place, seemingly anchored there despite the ferocious wind ripping at her.
She walked the horse as close to the castello as she could manage, tying the reins securely, not wanting to lose the animal, her only means of escaping. She tried patting the mare’s heaving sides, but her hands were clumsy and burning with cold. “We made it,” she whispered softly. “Grazie.” Hunching deeper into her cape, she pulled the hood up around her head and was swallowed by the garment. Stumbling in the vicious wind, she made her way to the steep steps. For some reason she had been certain the castello would be in a state of disrepair, but the steps were a solid, shiny marble beneath her feet. Slippery with the tiny ice particles on them.
Huge lion heads were carved on the great double doors, incongruous so far out in the Alpine wilderness. The eyes were staring fiercely, the manes shaggy, and the great muzzles open, revealing fangs. The knocker was inside one mouth, and she was forced to put her hand in past the teeth. Taking a deep breath, she reached in, careful not to cut her flesh on the sharpened spikes. She let the knocker fall, and the sound seemed to vibrate through the palazzo while the wind lashed at the windows, furious that she had escaped into the comparative shelter of the rows of columns and buttresses. Shaking with cold, her legs weak, she leaned against the wall and tucked her hands inside her cape. He was within the walls of the castello. She knew he was home. She felt him. Dark. Dangerous. A monster lying in wait…He was watching her. She felt eyes on her, malevolent, malicious, venomous eyes. Something evil lurked in the bowels of the palazzo, and with her peculiar sensitivity, she felt it like a fist around her heart.
The compulsion to run back into the fury of the storm was strong. Self-preservation told her to stay in the shelter of the large castello, but instead, everything inside her rose up in rebellion. She couldn’t make herself knock again. Even her tremendous willpower seemed to desert her, and she actually turned toward the lashing wind, ready to take her chances there. Then Isabella clamped down hard on her wayward imagination. She was not going to panic and run back to her horse. She actually grasped the heavy doorframe, her fingernails digging in hard to hold her in place.
The creak of the door warned her. Soft. Ominous. Forbidding. A portent of danger. The interior beyond was dark. An elderly man dressed in severe black stood looking at her with sad eyes. “The Master will not see anyone.”
Isabella froze where she was. Seconds earlier she had wanted nothing more than to run back to her horse and ride away as fast as she possibly could. Now she was annoyed. The storm was growing in a frenzy, sheets of ice slamming to earth, white crystals covering the ground almost instantly. As the door began to swing closed, she thrust one booted foot into the crack. Jamming her ice-cold hands into her pockets, she took a deep breath to calm her trembling body. “Well, he will have to change his mind. I shall see him. He has no choice.”
The servant stood impassively, staring at her. He neither moved out of her way nor opened the door wider to allow her entry.
Isabella refused to look away from him, refused to give in to the terrible warnings shrieking at her to run while she still had the chance. The storm was full-fledged now, the howling wind hurtling pieces of ice that felt like spears even into the shelter of the covered entryway. “I must put my horse in your stable. Please direct me immediately.” She lifted her chin and stared the servant down.
The manservant hesitated, glanced into the darkened interior, and then slipped out, closing the door behind him. “You must leave this place. Go now.” He was whispering, his eyes restless and his gnarled hands shaking. “Go while you still can.” There was desperation in his eyes, pleading. His voice was a mere thread of sound, almost unheard in the bitter shrieking of the wind.
Isabella could tell that his warning was genuine, and her heart stuttered with fear. What was so terrible within that this man would send her out into an icy blizzard to take her chances with raw nature rather than have her enter the palazzo? Where his eyes had been blank before, they were now filled with trepidation. She studied him for a moment, trying to judge his motives. He had a quiet dignity about him, a fierce pride, but she could smell his fear. It oozed out of his pores like sweat.
The door opened a crack, no more. The servant stiffened. An older woman poked her gray-haired head out. “Betto, the master has said she must come in.”
The male servant sagged for a fraction of time only, his hand shooting out to the doorframe to steady himself, but then he was bowing low. “I will see to your horse myself.” His voice was flat, revealing no emotion at all at his being caught in a lie.
Isabella looked up at the high walls of the castello. It was a fortress, nothing less. The great doors were large and thick and heavy. Her chin rose, and she nodded at the older man. “Grazie tanto for going to so much trouble for me.” To warn me. The unspoken words hung between them.
The man lifted an eyebrow. She was clearly an aristocratica. Women such as this one rarely even noticed a servant. He was shocked that she didn’t berate him for his lie. That she seemed to understand he was desperately attempting to help her. To save her. He bowed again, hesitated slightly before turning toward the icy storm, then squared his shoulders in resignation.
Isabella stepped across the threshold. Alarm triggered her heart to thud wildly. A thick stench of evil permeated the castello. It was a cloud, gray and somber and edged with malice. She took a deep, calming breath and looked around her. The entryway was quite spacious, tapers burning everywhere to light up the great hall and dispel the darkness she had glimpsed. As she stepped inside, a wind whipped down the corridor, and the flames leapt in a macabre dance. A hiss of hatred accompanied the wind. An audible hiss of acknowledgment. Whatever it was recognized her just as surely as she recognized it.
The interior of the castello was immaculately clean. Wide-open spaces and high, vaulted ceilings gave the impression of a great cathedral. A series of columns rose to the ceilings, each ornately carved with winged creatures. Isabella could see the apparitions winding their way upward. The castello preyed on the senses—the artwork rich, the structure impressive—yet it was a trap for the unwary. Everything about the palazzo was beautiful, but something unearthly watched Isabella with terrible eyes, watched her with malignant hatred.
“Follow me. The Master wishes you to be given a room. The storm is expected to last several days.” The woman smiled at her, her smile genuine, but her eyes held a hint of worry. “I am Sarina Sincini.” She stood there a moment waiting.
Isabella opened her mouth to introduce herself, but no sound emerged. All at once she was aware of the utter silence in the huge palazzo. No creaking of timbers, no footsteps, no murmur of servants. It was as if the castello were waiting for her to utter her name aloud. She wouldn’t give her name to this hideous palazzo, a living, breathing entity of evil. Her legs gave way, and she sat down abruptly on the marble tiles, close to tears, swaying with a dark dread that was a stone in her heart.
“Oh, signorina, you must be so tired.” Signora Sincini immediately wrapped an arm around Isabella’s waist. “Allow me to help you. I can call a manservant to carry you if need be.”
Isabella shook her head quickly. She was shaking with cold and weak from hunger and the terrible journey, but the truth was, it was the unnerving feeling of a malignant presence watching her that filled her with dread, that caused her already shaking legs to collapse beneath her. The feeling was strong. Carefully she looked around, trying to appear composed when all she wanted to do was run.
Without warning, from somewhere close by a roar filled the silence. It was answered by a second, then a third. The horrifying noise erupted from every direction, near and far. For one terrible moment the sounds blended and surrounded them, shaking the very ground beneath their feet. The roars reverberated throughout the palazzo, filling the vaulted spaces and every distant corner. A strange series of coughlike grunts followed. Isabella, standing with Signora Sincini, felt the older woman stiffen. She could almost hear the servant’s heart thudding loudly in tune to her own.
“Come, signorina, we must get you to your room.” The servant put a trembling hand on Isabella’s arm to guide her.
“What was that?” Isabella’s dark eyes searched the older woman’s face. She saw dread there, a fear betrayed by the woman’s slightly trembling mouth.
The woman attempted to shrug casually. “The Master has pets. You must not leave your room at night. I will have to lock you in for your own safety.”
Isabella could feel terror welling up inside her, sharp and strong, but she forced herself to breathe through it. She was a Vernaducci. She would not panic. She would not run away. She had come here for a purpose, risked everything to get to this place, to see the elusive don. And she had done what all others had failed to do. One by one the men she had sent out had turned back and told her it was impossible to continue. Others had come back to her facedown on the back of a horse, with hideous wounds much like a wild animal might inflict. Still others had never returned at all. Time and time again her inquiries had been met with silent shakes of heads and signs of the cross. She had persevered because she had no other choice. Now she had found the lair, and she had entered it. She could not quit now, could not allow fear to defeat her at the last moment. She had to succeed. She could not fail her brother; his life was at stake.
“I must speak with him tonight. My time is running out. It took me far longer than I expected to reach this place. Really, I must see him, and if I don’t leave soon, the pass will be closed, and I won’t be able to get out. I have to leave immediately,” Isabella explained in her most authoritative voice.
“Signorina, you must understand. It is not safe now. Dark has fallen. Nothing is safe outside these walls.”
The wealth of compassion in the woman’s faded eyes only increased Isabella’s terror. The servant knew things she did not and obviously feared for Isabella’s safety.
“There is nothing to be done but to make you comfortable. You are shivering with cold. A fire is burning in your room, a warm bath is being prepared, and the cook is sending food for you. The Master wants you to be comfortable.” Her voice was very persuasive.
“Will my horse be safe?” Without the animal, Isabella had no hope of covering the many rugged miles between the palazzo and civilization. The roars she had heard were not those of wolves, but whatever made the noise sounded dreadful, hungry, and doubtless had very sharp teeth. Isabella’s brother had given her the mare on her tenth birthday. The thought of the horse being eaten by savage beasts was horrifying. “I should check.”
Sarina shook her head. “No, signorina, you must stay in your room. If the Master says you must, you cannot disobey. It is for your own safety.” This time there was a distinct warning note in the sweet voice. “Betto will see to your horse.”
Isabella lifted her chin defiantly, but she felt that silence would serve her better than angry words. Master. She didn’t have a master, and she had no intention of ever having one. The thought was nearly as abhorrent as the murky feeling pervading the palazzo. Pulling her cloak closer around her, she followed the older woman through a maze of wide halls and up a winding marble staircase, where a multitude of portraits stared at her. She could feel the eerie weight of eyes watching her, following her progress as she made her way through the twists and turns of the palazzo. The structure was beautiful, more so than anything she had ever seen, but it was an icy kind of beauty that left her cold. Everywhere she looked she saw carvings of enormous maned cats with razor-sharp teeth and ferocious eyes. Great beasts with shaggy hair around their necks and down their backs. Some had huge webbed wings spread to launch them into the sky. Small icons and large sculptures of the creatures were scattered throughout the halls. In an alcove recessed into one of the walls was a shrine with dozens of burning candles before a fierce-looking lion.
A sudden thought made her shiver. Those roars she’d heard could have been from lions. She had never seen a lion, but she certainly had heard of the legendary beasts that were reputed to have torn countless Christians to pieces for the entertainment of Romans. Did the people in this terrible place worship the beast? The devil? Things were whispered about this man. Surreptitiously she made the sign of the cross to protect her from the evil emanating from the very walls.
Sarina stopped beside a door and pushed it open, stepping back to wave Isabella through. Glancing at the servant almost for reassurance, Isabella stepped across the threshold into a bedchamber. The room was large, the fireplace roaring with the warmth of red and orange flames. She was too tired and drained to do more than offer a murmur of appreciation for the beauty of the long row of stained-glass windows and the carved furniture. Even the huge bed with the thick quilt only penetrated the edge of her awareness. She had poured every ounce of her courage and strength into getting to this place, into seeing the elusive Don Nicolai DeMarco.
“Are you certain he will not see me tonight?” Isabella asked. “Please, if you would just let him know the urgency of my visit, I am certain he would change his mind. Would you try?” She stripped off her fur-lined gloves and tossed them onto the ornate dresser.
“Just by your coming to this forbidden place, the Master knows that what you seek is of great importance to you. You must understand, it is not of importance to him. He has his own problems to deal with.” Sarina’s voice was gentle, even kind. She started to move out of the bedchamber but turned back. She looked around the room, out into the hall, and then back at Isabella. “You are very young. Didn’t anyone warn you away from this place? Weren’t you told to stay away?” Her voice held a scolding note, a gentle one but a reprimand all the same. “Where are your parents, piccola?”
Isabella crossed the room, keeping her face turned away, afraid the sympathetic note in the woman’s voice would be her undoing. She wanted to crumble into a pathetic heap and weep for the loss of her family, for the terrible burdens that had fallen onto her slim shoulders. Instead, she clutched at one beautifully carved post of the giant bed until her knuckles turned white. “My parents died a long time ago, signora.” Her voice was tight, unemotional, but the hand gripping the post tightened even more. “I have to speak to him. Please, if you have any way to get word to him, it is very urgent, and my time is very short.”
The servant moved back into the room, firmly closing the door behind her. At once the terrible, oily thickness that permeated the air of the palazzo seemed to be gone. Isabella found she could breathe more freely, and the tightness in her chest eased. She noticed a strange scent rising from the surface of the hot water in the tub prepared for her, a clean, fresh, floral fragrance she had never before encountered. She inhaled deeply and was grateful for the cup of tea the serving woman pressed into her trembling hand.
“You must drink this immediately,” Sarina encouraged. “You are so cold, it will help to warm you up. Drink every drop—there’s a good girl.”
The tea did help warm her insides, but Isabella was afraid nothing would ever warm her thoroughly again. She was shaking uncontrollably. She looked up at Sarina. “I really can manage. I do not want you to go to any trouble. The room is lovely, and I have everything I could possibly want. By the way, I am Isabella Vernaducci.” The bed looked comfortable, the fire cheerful and warm. Despite the inviting, steaming water in the tub, the moment the serving woman left her alone, Isabella intended to fall onto the bed, completely clothed, and just go to sleep. Her eyelids drooped no matter how hard she tried to stay awake.
“The Master would want me to help you. You are swaying with weariness. If my daughter was far from home, I would want someone to aid her. Please do me the honor of allowing me to assist you.” Sarina was already pulling Isabella’s cape from her shoulders. “Come, signorina, the bath is hot and will warm you much more quickly. You are still shivering.”
“I’m so tired.” The words slipped out before Isabella could stop them. “I just want to sleep.” She sounded young and defenseless even to her own ears.
Sarina helped her undress and urged her into the hot water. As Isabella slid into the steaming tub, Sarina loosened the silken braids and fanned the younger woman’s hair out. Very gently she massaged Isabella’s scalp with her fingertips, rubbing in the homemade soap that smelled of flowers. Gradually, as the heat of the water seeped into Isabella, her terrible shaking began to lessen.
Isabella was so tired, she knew she was drifting as the servant rinsed her hair and wrapped her in a heavy robe. She stumbled to the bed as if in a dream world, half aware of her surroundings and half asleep. The feel of Sarina working at the knots in her hair, smoothing the long tresses, then replaiting the heavy mass as Isabella lay quietly was comforting, something her mother had done when she was very young. Her long lashes drifted down, and she lay passively on the bed, the robe around her naked body soaking up the excess dampness from her bath.
A knock on the door failed to rouse her interest. Even the aroma of food couldn’t capture her attention. She wanted to go to sleep, exhaustion taking over and pushing out all worries and fear. Sarina murmured something she couldn’t quite catch. She just wanted to sleep. The food was taken away, and Isabella continued to drift, the beauty of the room, the comforting crackle of the fire, and Sarina’s hands in her hair lulling her into a sense of well-being.
From far away, insulated in her dreamlike state, Isabella heard Sarina gasp. She tried to open her eyes and managed to peek out from beneath her lashes. The shadows in the room had lengthened alarmingly. The rows of tapers on the wall had been snuffed out, and the flames in the fireplace had died down, leaving the corners of the bedchamber dark and unfamiliar. In one corner she made out the shadowy figure of man. At least she thought him human.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, with long hair and slashing eyes. Flames from the fire seemed to blaze red-orange in his hot gaze. She could feel the weight of his burning gaze on her exposed skin. His hair was strange, a tawny color that darkened into black as it fell to his shoulders and down his broad back. He was watching her from the shadows, blending in so she couldn’t discern him clearly. A shadow figure for her dreams. Isabella blinked to try to bring him into sharper focus, but it was too much trouble to rouse herself from her dreamy state. Her body felt like lead, and she couldn’t even find the energy to drag her exposed arm beneath the robe. As she lay, trying to make out the shadowy figure, her vision blurred still more, and his large hands appeared to be claws for a moment, his great hulk moving with a grace not quite human.
She felt exposed, vulnerable, but as hard as she tried, she could not manage to rouse herself. She lay facedown on the bed, staring apprehensively into the darkened corner, her heart slamming painfully hard.
“She is much younger than I had imagined. And much more beautiful.” The words were said softly, as if merely mused aloud and not for anyone’s hearing. The voice was deep and husky, a blend of seduction, command, and a throaty growl that nearly stopped her heart.
“She has much courage.” Sarina’s voice came from the other side of her, quite close, as if she might be hovering protectively, but Isabella didn’t dare check, afraid to take her gaze off the shadowy figure watching her so intently. Like a predator. A great cat. A lion? Her imagination was running away with her, mixing reality with dreams, and she wasn’t sure what was real. If he was real.
“She was foolish to come here.” The lash in his voice stung.
Isabella tried to force her body to move, but it was impossible. It occurred to her that something had been in the tea, or perhaps in the scented bathwater. She lay in an agony of fear, yet she was hazy and dreamy, removed from the fear, disconnected, as if she were watching all this happening to someone else.
“It took great courage and endurance. She came alone,” Sarina pointed out gently. “It may have been foolish, but it was courageous, and nothing short of a miracle that she could accomplish such a feat.”
“I know what you are thinking, Sarina.” A singular weariness tinged the man’s voice. “There are no miracles. I should know. It is better not to believe in such nonsense.” He moved closer, looming over Isabella so that his shadow fell upon her, engulfing her completely. She couldn’t see his face, but his hands were large and enormously strong when he caught her up in his arms.
For a horrified moment she stared at the hands gripping her with such ease. One moment the hands seemed to be great paws with razor-sharp nails, and the next, human hands. She had no idea which was the illusion. Whether this was real or a nightmare. Whether he was real or a nightmare. Her head lolled back on her neck, but she couldn’t lift her lashes high enough to see his face. She could only lie helplessly in his arms, her heart pounding loudly. He tucked her beneath the quilts, robe and all, his movements sure and efficient.
His palm cupped the side of her face, his thumb stroking a gentle caress over her skin. “So very soft,” he murmured to himself. His fingers slid down her chin to push the thick rope of hair from her neck. There was unexpected heat in his fingertips, tiny flames that seemed to ignite her blood, and her entire body felt hot and achy and unfamiliar.
The strange roars began again, and the castello seemed to reverberate with the hideous sounds.
“They are restless tonight,” Sarina observed. Her hand tightened around Isabella’s, and this time there was no doubt she was being protective.
“They feel a disturbance, and it makes them uneasy and therefore dangerous. Be most careful this night, Sarina.” The man’s warning was plain. “I will see if I can calm them.” With a sigh, the shadowy figure turned abruptly and stalked out. Silently. There was no whisper of clothing, no footfalls, absolutely no sound at all.
Isabella felt Sarina touch her hair again, fuss with the quilt, and then she drifted to sleep. She had dreams of a great lion relentlessly stalking her, padding after her on huge, silent paws while she ran down a maze of long, wide corridors. All the while she was watched from above by silent winged harpies with sharp, curved beaks and greedy eyes.
Sounds penetrated her strange dreams. Strange sounds to go with her strange dreams. The rattle of chains. A rising wail. Screams in the night. Restlessly Isabella snuggled more deeply into the quilts. The fire had died down to orange embers glittering brightly. She could just make out the pinpoints of light in the darkened room. She lay staring at the colors as an occasional draft breathed life into tiny flames. It was several minutes before she realized she was not alone.
Isabella turned over, peering through the darkness to the shadowy figure seated on the edge of her bed. As her eyes adjusted, she could make out a young woman rocking herself back and forth, her long hair tumbling around her body. She was dressed simply but elegantly, obviously not one of the servants. In the darkness the gown was an unusual color, a deep blue with a strange starburst pattern, something Isabella had never seen before. At Isabella’s movement, the woman turned and looked at her, smiling serenely.
“Hello. I didn’t think you’d wake up. I wanted to see you.”
Isabella fought the fog surrounding her. Carefully she looked around the room, searching the shadows for the man. Had he been a dream? She didn’t know. She still felt the brush of his fingers against her skin. Her hand crept up to slide over her neck to capture the sensation of his touch.
“I’m Francesca,” the young woman said, a hint of haughtiness in her voice. “You mustn’t be afraid of me. I know we’re going to be great friends.”
Isabella made an effort to sit up. Her body didn’t want to cooperate. “I think there was something in the tea,” she said aloud, testing the idea.
A tinkling laugh escaped the curving mouth. “Well, of course. He cannot very well have you running around the palazzo discovering all the long-kept secrets.”
Isabella fought the haze, determined to overcome her terrible drowsiness. She pushed herself into a sitting position, clutching the slipping robe, suddenly aware she had no other clothes. For the moment it didn’t matter. She was warm and clean and out of the storm. And she had reached her destination. “Are there secrets here?”
As if to answer her, the chains rattled again, the wails rose to a shriek, and from somewhere far away came a rumbling growl. Isabella pulled the covers more closely around her.
The woman laughed merrily. “It is a secret how I was able to get into your room when your door is locked securely. There are many, many secrets here, all so deliciously wicked. Have you come to wed Nicolai?”
Isabella’s eyes widened with shock. She pulled the heavy robe even more tightly around her. “No, of course not! Where did you get such an idea?”
Francesca gave another tinkling laugh. “Everyone is talking about it, whispering in the halls, in their rooms. The entire palazzo is speculating. It was such fun when we heard you were on your way. Of course, the others wagered you would never live through such a journey or that you would turn back. I hoped you would make it!”
Isabella’s mouth trembled, and she bit down carefully on her lower lip. “The don of the palazzo was aware I was coming, and he sent no escort to meet me?” In truth she could have been killed. “How is it you even knew?”
The woman shrugged carelessly. “He has spies everywhere. He knew long ago that you wished an audience with him. He never sees anyone he doesn’t wish to see.”
Isabella studied the young woman. She was approximately Isabella’s age yet seemed quite childlike and mischievous. In spite of the circumstances, Isabella found herself smiling. There was something contagious in Francesca’s saucy grin. “What are those terrible noises?” The sounds didn’t appear to bother Francesca in the least, and Isabella found herself relaxing a bit.
The woman laughed again. “You will get used to it.” She rolled her eyes. “Silly, really. Sometimes it goes on for hours.” Francesca leaned forward. “How did you get here? No one can come here without an invitation and an escort. Everyone is dying to know how you did it.” She lowered her voice. “Did you use a spell? I know several spells but none strong enough to protect anyone from the perils of this valley. Was it difficult to get through the pass? Everyone says you did it on your own. Is that true?” Francesca fired the questions at her in rapid succession.
Isabella chose her words carefully. She knew nothing of these people, didn’t know if they followed the dictates of the Holy Church or were devil-worshipers. It didn’t sound good that Francesca dabbled in spells, and worse that she would admit it aloud. Isabella half expected a bolt of lightning to crash down from the heavens.
“I did come through the pass,” she admitted. Her mouth was dry. Beside the bed was an ornate pitcher filled with water, along with a delicate fluted glass. Isabella stared at the water, afraid that if she drank it, it might contain something to send her back to sleep. Her fingers twisted in the covers. She thought carefully about her trip, how difficult it had been, how she had felt as she overcame each obstacle. “It was exhilarating and at the same time frightening,” she answered truthfully. Now that she knew the don had been aware of her plight all along, she was even more pleased that she had done what so many others had failed to do.
Francesca bounced on the bed, laughing softly. “Oh, that is too rich. Wait until the others hear what you said. ‘Exhilarating’! That is too perfect!”
In spite of the strangeness of the conversation, Isabella found herself smiling, because Francesca’s laughter was so infectious.
A ferocious roar shook the palazzo. A hideous, high-pitched scream of agony mingled with the terrible sound. It echoed throughout the vast castello, reaching to the highest vaulted ceiling and the deepest hidden dungeons and caverns the castello guarded. Isabella clutched the robe to her, staring in frozen horror at her closed door. The scream was cut off abruptly, but a terrible din followed. From every direction wild animals bellowed, and she covered her ears to block out the sounds. Her heart was pounding so loudly it sounded like thunder, mixing with the chaos. She turned her head toward Francesca.
The woman was gone. The bed was smooth, the quilt without a crease where she had been sitting. Isabella swung her gaze wildly around the room, searching out every corner, trying desperately to pierce the darkness. As abruptly as the terrible noise had started, it stopped, and there was only silence. Isabella sat very still, afraid to move.