Dieter hadn’t been kidding when he gave her directions to the castle. They were necessary. She'd written them down so that she could make sure she followed them correctly and was glad she had taken that measure, rather than trying to remember them all in her head. There were several obscure landmarks to look for that she undoubtedly would have missed if she hadn’t written them and drawn asterisks by them to make them stand out on the page. Some of the roads she had to turn on were obscured by bushes or trees. She had to stop and back up at one point when she realized she had just driven by a turn she needed to take. The castle was nestled on a hillside and once she had it in sight, she stopped the car just to stare at it from the distance. Her breath caught in her throat. It was even more beautiful than Dieter had described on the phone. How could she have never known about this one before? It was a gem, hidden away as it was.
The tires kicked up a cloud of dust as Danica hastily resumed course toward the castle. She parked in the driveway as close to the entry as she could, hurried up to the door and used the huge, heavy knocker. Even through the thick wooden door, she could hear it boom inside. She glanced at her watch. She was on time.
Seconds later, the door creaked as it opened. A man bowed to her. Danica wasn’t expecting that. “Ms. Heuer, I presume?” His voice was soft. His eyes did not meet hers.
“Yes, I am Danica Heuer.” She extended her hand politely.
The man shook it limply. It put Danica off slightly that he did not have a firmer handshake. That was one thing she had learned from Uncle Art. In the business world, your handshake tells a lot about you. If you show a firm handshake, then you show respect for the person with whom you are transacting . She tried to put it out of her mind for now. So what if he gave a woman a limp handshake? Many men did, thinking she could not handle it if they squeezed her hand more vigorously. Danica often proved them wrong. “Welcome to Castle Vollhoffer,” he greeted her politely, despite his lackluster handshake. “I am Radulf.” He spoke much better English than Dieter did, she noted.
“You are the steward” Danica stated.
“I am. Come inside, I will show you around.” He stepped back and gestured for her to enter.
“Thank you. I’ve been to Austria before but I never knew about this place. It is very secluded.” Danica was wishing she had checked to see if she had cellular reception here before coming inside in case Radulf turned out to be a nutter, but she hadn’t. She’d just have to risk it.
“We’ve prided ourselves on our security for generations.” He led her through the expanse of the castle, giving an annotated description of each room. Danica’s intrigue deepened with each new room. Her gut feeling told her that she had finally found the one. She didn’t need to see the whole place to know it. She had already made up her mind to buy this castle, though she kept that from Radulf and allowed him to continue the tour. When they reached one door in particular, he stopped. “I will ask you not to go in here. These are my quarters. I trust Dieter explained the condition of the sale to you?”
“Yes, he said that you must be kept on no matter what.” Danica had thought that to be an odd condition of the contract, but had assumed that the steward would be an old man who had worked at the castle all his life and wanted to live out his final years there. Radulf was far from that. If Danica had to guess his age, she would have put it close to her own age, maybe thirty at maximum. Despite his youthful appearance, his eyes gave a weathered appearance as if he had seen far more years than his outward visage disclosed. Once she finally had seen his eyes, she realized that they were different colors. One of his eyes was green and one was blue. The shade difference was not pronounced, unless you saw him up close. Maybe that is why he would not met my glance when he opened the door, she thought.
“This position has been held in my family for centuries. We are as much a part of Castle Vollhoffer as the mortar and stones are.”
“Well, I see no problem with it so far. You do know the place best, it seems.” Danica had intended to keep the current staff hired on anyway. They were already familiar with the place. “How many people are on staff here?”
“Now there are only seven, including myself. There are three groundskeepers, a man and his two sons. There is a marshal, a cook and a maid who handles almost all of the cleaning. The cook cleans her own area. In the early days of the castle, it was staffed fully. Now, there is no need. There has not been a Lord Vollhoffer to attend to in many years. There have been other owners but most find that owning a castle is far from the glamour they had expected it to be at the time they purchased it and they resell it. Modern technological advances have made many of the original servants obsolete.”
“When this castle was young it probably had a chamberlain, numerous chamber maids, a bottler, a chandler, a chaplain,” Danica mused aloud.
“You are correct on all points. You know your castles well.”
“My uncle and I toured many castles during our visits to Europe. We also stayed in quite a few. I learned a lot about them. It is partly what fueled my interest to acquire one of my own.” She kept the information from him about her word to Uncle Art. That was something private. She did not feel comfortable sharing it with this man she had met only today.
“I serve many of the functions now. The castle was wired for electricity, as you can tell, so there is no need for a chandler. We have telephone lines in many of the rooms. One of the prior owners saw fit to ‘modernize’ the interior as such.”
“I suppose some modern conveniences cannot be overlooked nowadays,” Danica remarked.
“That is true. The heating is still from the fireplaces. We do not have air conditioning. There are electric fans.”
“I’ve visited places without central heat and air before. I do not intend for the castle I buy to be my primary home. It will be my getaway.” She stopped short as they turned down another hallway. Centered on the wall was an oversized fresco portrait of a man. Danica approached it cautiously. An eerie chill crept up her spine. It felt like something straight out of a horror novel. In the back of her mind, she half-expected the painting to morph and come alive anyway. “Who is this?”
“That is the last Lord Vollhoffer to live in this castle. It was painted in the mid-Fourteenth Century.”
Danica’s jaw dropped. “I could tell what era it was meant to signify, but it is authentic?”
“It never felt right to any of the previous owners to change it or paint over it. They felt that it had been there for so long, to disturb it would be a travesty.”
“When you put it in that context, I can understand their logic. Look at it, though. The colors are still vibrant. Time has barely touched it. Look at his clothing, notably the zaddeln on the skirt and shoulder.” She turned to face Radulf. “It’s quite telling. Very Decameron, wouldn’t you say?”
The steward did not answer her question, only raising a curious eyebrow at the woman. “You are an art historian as well?”
“I suppose you could say I am a historian. History was one of my favorite areas of study.”
“You are full of surprises, Miss Heuer.”
“I will take that as a compliment,” Danica flashed a grin. “You said this man was the last Lord Vollhoffer to live in the castle. That leads me to believe he was not the one who built it.”
“No, his father did. This castle lived through two generations of Vollhoffers and has been in,” he paused a moment to clear his throat, “my family’s care from those days. That is why I required the clause in the contract to ensure my position here.”
“You have documented family history stemming from the Fourteenth Century?”
“Many of the stories are oral traditions.”
Danica nodded her understanding. This was not America. Oral history was not uncommon in Europe, especially so far removed from a major city. There was a small village at the bottom of the hill, but other than that, the drive had shown this place to be remote. She envisioned herself having long conversations with the steward learning the castle’s rich lore.
Danica blinked. The voice whipped through her head just as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud. She looked around. “Did you hear that?”
“I heard nothing,” Radulf stated, observing her curiously.
“Sounded like a voice. Guess it was just the wind outside or something, unless the castle is haunted. Is it?”
“There are no dead spirits lingering here that I have ever seen or heard,” Radulf stated.
“Darn. Ghosts can always be counted on for some entertainment,” Danica chuckled.
Radulf moved away from the Gothic painting, not giving it another glance. “Perhaps they are only quiet around me. You may be the one to discover them, if there are any.” He walked quickly to another room, showing her through more of the castle.
“Why has your family kept up the tradition of caring for this castle if the Vollhoffer line died out, what, 700 or so years ago? What is in it for you?”
Radulf paused to consider that, then answered softly, “Legacy.”
Danica started to reply but was suddenly overcome with a wash of emotion. She felt a seething anger, but not from within herself. It was as if she were channeling the sentiment from an outside source. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She glanced around, wondering if there really was a ghost in there . She wondered if Radulf had been telling her the truth when she asked if the castle was haunted, or if he was trying to ease her mind by telling her there were no ghosts in an attempt to salvage the sale.
“Miss Heuer?” Radulf’s voice cut through her momentary stupor.
Danica jerked her head, brought back to reality. “I’m sorry. Just lost myself in a thought there for a moment.” She felt it was probably for the better if she did not mention her perception to Radulf.
“I asked if you wished to see the courtyard and out buildings now?”
“Yes, please. I noticed when I drove in that there is no portcullis. Has it always been that way, to your knowledge?”
“It is said that the portcullis was destroyed in the final battle, when Lord Vollhoffer was overthrown and the castle taken from him. None were crafted to replace it. Only the archway through the gatehouse remains.”
“Is there a sally port?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“A secret entrance somewhere?”
Radulf gave a low chuckle. “That information is divulged only to the owner of the property.”
The same voice rang out clearly in Danica’s head. She had no doubt now that this place held some sort of lingering spirit. Her fascination grew exponentially. She had already made up her mind to buy the castle, but now she had no doubts at all. She wanted this place. It was too alluring to pass up . “Ah, security reasons. I understand.” She got the distinct impression that the spirit did not like the current steward and wondered why. So far he had shown himself to be an intelligent and devoted person in her opinion. Time would tell.
Radulf led her down a winding staircase. Danica grazed the newel with her fingertips. Her lips curled in to a dainty grin. She loved this place already, ghost and all. She remembered the first time she was in a castle with a stairwell such as this one. Her mind then imagined the true reason the stairwell was crafted. Newel stairs were meant to be a deterrent to castle invaders. If they ascended such a stairwell, they had to hold their sword right-handed to be effective, and the curvature of the stairwell exposed more of their bodies to the waiting defenders. Knights were always right-handed. Left-handed men were not permitted to become knights because being left handed was a mark of the devil in medieval times. Radulf had mentioned that Lord Vollhoffer was deposed after a battle that had taken place in this very castle. She wondered if this stairwell had been utilized by an invading horde, intent on assassinating the man.
“Tell me more about Lord Vollhoffer Were there any stories or legends passed down about him?”
“The first Lord Vollhoffer was reportedly a philanderer. He was a harsh and cold man. His son was no better. He was a self-indulgent, arrogant scoundrel and defiler of virgins.” Radulf’s tone did little to hide his disdain.
If Danica hadn’t known better, she’d say that he was speaking about someone he knew personally. A wave of anger radiated from the spirit for a few seconds, then was replaced by something entirely different … pain. She got the impression that the spirit was somehow experiencing agony; then the connection was broken. She managed to withhold her shudder as she followed Radulf outside.
He showed her the various buildings that were also part of the property. There were storage buildings. Some were original and some had been constructed later. There was a stable with a few horses in it. The property that came with the castle extended several hectares so travel to the far reaches of it was usually done by horseback. Nobody’d had the nerve to defile it with car tires yet. Danica was particularly pleased at that point.
The tour of the property took up most of the afternoon and the sun was waning down on to the horizon. Danica thanked Radulf for his time and his information, then started walking out toward her car. She had stopped in front of the castle to give one look back at it when she heard the voice one more time.
She blinked, then quickened her step to get to her car. “OK, so the place is haunted. That’s kind of cool. It seems like an angry spirit, or at very least an unsettled one.” Her thoughts came aloud as she slowly drove off, not wanting to leave a dust trail flying back toward the castle. “Maybe I’m just going crazy. Maybe I just imagined all that. People do that sort of thing all the time. They want something to be real so badly that it becomes real to them. There has to be some sort of psychological term for it.”
After she had arrived back in the village, she ate and then started making some calls back to the States to get the arrangements started. Buying a house was never a fast process and buying one internationally was going to take more finesse. She had buckled down to reason and spoke of her intentions to some of the people she trusted most not to involve the company as a whole. She had made it clear that this purchase was hers personally and not connected to Heuer Corporation. Once she was satisfied that things were set in motion, she settled back for a relaxing soak in the bath. Her stomach flip-flopped with excitement at the prospect of owning such a grand place all to herself. She’d have to tell Janet that it didn’t come with a handsome prince, only an eerie painting of the castle lord that had been on the wall for centuries. Radulf was not too bad, but his personality left much to be desired as far as Danica was concerned. He seemed cordial, but looking back on the day she spent in the company of the man, it was almost as if he were forcing himself to be nice in order to make the sale. He never once cracked a joke and hardly ever smiled. He did not even look her in the eye most of the time. Oh, well. He’d be an employee once she bought the castle. Despite the attraction she had briefly felt toward Thomas, Danica knew that getting involved with employees often spelled disaster.
* * *
Back at the castle, Radulf retired to his quarters. “You will frighten her off as you have nearly every other one who has come before her,” he spoke aloud. “If not, then...” he trailed off. “Mark my words. She will be gone before the first snowfall.” He merely laughed at the flare of anger he received in reply.
Danica Heuer gave her word to her Uncle Arthur on his deathbed. She would take her inheritance and buy a castle. The remark was flippant at the time, but now that Uncle Art is gone, she is honor-bound to keep that promise.
The castle Danica buys turns out to be the boon she needed to lift her spirits. Majestic and dignified, she falls in love with her new purchase immediately. The steward is a bit odd, but so far has been helpful and very informative about the castle’s rich history and lore. Things are perfect. Or are they?
Danica’s dreams become tumultuous. Strange sounds in the night wake her. The longer she stays, the more hushed whispers she hears in town about her castle.
What will Danica do when she discovers the terrifying truth about her castle, contained deep Within These Stone Walls?