"I can't believe she actually talked me into this," Anna mumbled as she took another cautious step down the unkempt and poorly-lit corridor, "Tricked me's more like it." Her old-fashioned heels resounded dully throughout the dark passageway in the deserted castle ruins. She gazed intently at the dusty, moth-bitten tapestries that had once hung proudly on the cold, stone walls, awed at the tiny details woven into each one. She was amazed to find them still hanging at all, but she smiled up at them nonetheless. Old things fascinated her.
"Perhaps a little too much," she mused, thinking about how she'd been conned by her best friend into coming to the ruins in the first place. Carefully, she hugged the wall, taking very small steps as she crept past another portion of the floor that was missing. She once again pushed to the back of her mind the fact that she was on the fourth floor. She hated heights. She always had.
Pausing to quiet the clutter of tangled thoughts and fears that abruptly invaded her mind, Anna heard a pebble behind her fall into the hole that she had just avoided. She couldn't help but notice that the stone took several seconds to finally land, sending a small clatter to bounce off the walls of the stone palace. Anna clenched her teeth and continued walking without glancing back. She shuddered as the dead fingers of a chilly draft lightly curled around her exposed shoulders, but the strange breeze was gone just as soon as it came. The suddenly still and cool air prickled across her skin, causing tiny goose bumps to rise across her body. The eerie silence blared in her ears louder than the constant bickering of her brothers and sisters at home. Her gray eyes peered curiously up through the darkness toward what she knew must be the ceiling, though she couldn't see anything other than an endless mass of blackness.
Shaking her head and looking back to the path before her, Anna stepped forward. She couldn't help but run a finger gingerly through the thick layer of dust on the top of an antique desk that she passed by on her left. She stopped a moment to study the candelabra and wine glasses—two were broken, leaving shards of glass in the bottoms of the cups—that sat atop a tarnished silver platter on the far right corner of the desk. Most of a rug still lay on one stretch of the floor that she passed, mostly faded of color it may have once held. She knelt to touch the frayed edges and memorize what she could make out of the red pattern in the dim light. Hesitantly, she finally decided to move on, looking for more rare treasures to appear as she walked. She continued until she came to an unanticipated dead end. "Oh!" she exclaimed softly, sliding her hands over the icy stone only inches in front of her face. Sighing, she turned around to walk back the way she'd come. This time, she tried to turn the dull, golden door handles as she passed them, but she soon discovered that they were all locked, the doors still tightly shut. "What a waste," she whispered, "to hide all these old rooms away forever."
Just as the thought left her mind, she noticed another startling wisp of wind, but this time it coiled around her ankles. She couldn't be sure, but after looking around, she thought that this was the same spot in the hall that she'd felt the first breeze. She stood in one of the darker sections of the corridor, far from one of the dim kerosene lamps scattered at distant intervals high on the walls. She'd passed no windows on any of the floors and no open doors either. Curious, she felt the wall to her right, searching for the source of the wind. Her fingers found another golden door handle. She pulled on the metal knob only to find that it was locked just as the others, but to her surprise, the door shuddered at the disturbance.
With an impulsive determination, Anna pushed against the wooden door, hoping that it would give way under the force of her shove. When the door refused to budge, she pulled at the handle again. In her next attempt, the girl shook the handle back and forth rigorously, pulling against the door with all of her weight in the end. Stubbornly the door stood, mocking her efforts. Hands on hips, she grumbled under her breath. She paced in front of the entrance, straining to think of some way to open the obstinate door. She hadn't passed anything that she could use to beat down the door or to use as a lever in some way.
Though the castle was in ruins, the town had proclaimed that the ruins were historic and of value to it. They vowed to clean and restore the old castle, to preserve its grandness. That had been a few years ago. All the movement had really accomplished was clearing the stone fortress of unnecessary debris and attaching the dirty lamps to every wall. A single man came in to refill the kerosene when he remembered, but other than that, the castle had stayed much the same as it had always been.
I could burn the door down, she thought with an amused smile. She cocked her head sideways to study the nearest lamp hanging on the wall, I wonder if I could actually reach one…there was that desk just up ahead, but could I move it and would it hold my weight? Sighing, she shook her head and sat on the floor beside the intriguing door. But I would have no way to control the fire, she reminded herself after more seriously contemplating the proposition.
Another teasing gust of cool air ruffled her skirts. She blew at the dark brown curl that had fallen into her face, but even it seemed to resist her wishes. She pushed the disobedient curl behind her ear with a frown. As it popped back into her face, an idea dawned on her. She scrambled to her knees, feeling along the floor for the bottom of the door. The distance between the door and the floor was just wide enough for her to squeeze most of her hand through. That's how the draft was getting in, she concluded, but she wasn't concerned with the draft. She continued to feel the door until she found the handle again. Just below the handle, she found the keyhole. She smiled as she kept one hand on the hole and moved the other to pull one of the pins from her fancy hairdo.
After a few minutes and using her last pin, Anna finally succeeded in picking the lock. She silently thanked her father for teaching her the trick as a game when she was a child and pushed once more against the door. With a great effort, she was able to push the door open just wide enough to slip into the room beyond.
Anna blinked, throwing a hand to her face, as the light of the late afternoon sun outside flooded into her eyes from across the room. The pale peach rays flew in from the large balcony that was on the far side of the room. The tattered, white curtains blew in the gentle breeze, still hanging from the doors that had once been made of glass. Anna now saw useless frames and shattered shards about the floor. Her eyes took only a moment to adjust to the new source of light. Pride filled her as she realized that she had accomplished her mission.
She gasped as she surveyed the large room she had barged into. The room featured a large four-poster bed, twice the size of any bed she'd ever seen before. The canopy matched the coverlet on the grand mattress. Anna gently pulled down the top comforter to see the pure white sheets beneath, soft as silk. The cases sewn onto the pillows were as white as the sheets. Pressing her hand down, Anna felt the softness of the feathered mattress. She resisted the impish temptation to throw herself onto the bed and revel in the grandeur. Carefully, she replaced the blankets and pillows to the exact positions that she had found them in, wondering why they hadn't become dingy. Next, she marveled at the large dresser and wardrobe. The wood was the same for both of them. Small golden knobs protruded from the drawers, not covered in as thick a layer of dust as everything in the hallway had been. Anna gently traced the intricate design elegantly carved into the sides of the furniture. It was thin and golden, twisting up the sides of the wood. She saw the ink pot and calligraphy pens sprawled messily across the desk on the other side of the bed. A mostly melted candle and paper curling at the edges captured her attention. Everything else seemed so neat and orderly, but this desk showed signs of frequent use.
After further exploration of the room, Anna stumbled upon a hidden door. Pushing the heavy, red velvet curtain aside, Anna muffled a yelp of surprise as the curtain fell to the floor at her feet, sending dust up like ash from a volcano. She coughed and sneezed until most of the dust had settled back down. Her eyes had started to water and burn just a little so she walked to the balcony to breathe in the fresh air until her lungs cleared again.
Returning to the fallen curtain, Anna carefully pushed it to the side in order to clear a pathway in the hopes that she could manage to open the secret door. Closing her eyes tightly and crossing her first two fingers on her left hand, she reached out with her right to see if it was locked. She smiled as the door pulled open without protest and took a step forward. She stared wide-eyed into a dark, twisting stairwell. Biting her lower lip, she considered which direction she should take. Finally she decided to go down, but first, she went to the desk to seize the candle. Rummaging through the drawers, she found another candle, completely unused, and decided to take it with her just in case. She ran into the hallway to one of the kerosene lamps. Standing on her tiptoes, she was able to remove the glass from the lamp and light her smaller candle. Cautiously, she guarded her flame as she slowly walked back to the hidden stairwell.
Once she entered the stairwell, the air became still again. She descended several steps with no consequence, but before she knew it, her heart skipped more than a beat as one foot stepped down to find no step. Her unexpected cry of fear rang sharply through the tight shaft, and she instinctively reached out to the walls to support herself, hardly managing to catch herself in time. Without realizing it, she had quickly come to a portion of the stairs that had fallen through. She stared into the darkness that she knew was before her, paralyzed, as her candle fell, the light having extinguished immediately.
In an attempt to calm herself, she slowly took a step back, carefully climbing the steps backwards until she deemed herself far enough away from the gap. She then turned around, stumbling up the stairs, frantically searching in the pitch-black stairwell for the door she had come through.
Bursting into the bedroom once more, Anna fell to the floor in relief. She felt something poking at her side as she rolled from her stomach to her back, taking in gulps of air. She sighed as she pulled out the unused candle from a fold in her dress. A small voice in her head challenged her to continue with her investigation, You haven't gone up yet.
Anna shook her head, sending her loose curls flying. "No way!" she said a little too loudly, "I almost fell!" She fought with herself, debating on why she should or shouldn't continue. In the end, she found herself facing the winding stairwell with another lighted candle, her curiosity too great. With her free hand, she gently gathered the mauve skirts of her vintage dress to ascend the stone stairs before her.
She paid particular attention to the steps before her, and thankfully, she didn't find any other missing patches. In fact, she climbed countless stairs for what seemed an eternity, finding nothing in her path other than more steps. She climbed until she almost gave up and turned back. She climbed until her candle was only half of what it started as, but just as she truly was preparing to retreat, she came to the end of the stairs—yet another mysterious door.
Pushing the heavy door open proved a difficult task, but it didn't take her too long to accomplish. As she did, Anna found herself shivering in a gale much stronger than the playful breeze from the hallway and the gentle wind in the room that had rustled her skirts. Stepping onto a large terrace, her lungs burned as she sharply inhaled the icy air. The scene before her filled her chest with awe. She'd never been so high before. She felt no fear, though, only wonder as she gazed at the sight around her now.
The sun was setting low in the cloudless sky, bathing the horizon in soft reddish-golden hues. Snow-capped mountains loomed so high into the soon-to-be night sky that the peaks weren't visible, even from here. An eagle soared proudly through the air, screeching its call to show all who heard that this was his home. Anna stepped further out into the cold, scanning the distance and smiling to herself. The air felt so fresh and new…and full of hope.
"Oh, Maria," she breathed, "this has so backfired on you." Sitting on the very edge of the castle wall, Anna's eyes lit up as she caught sight of the small waterfall in the valley between two mountains on her left. Villagers often traveled to the lake there to let their children play. The evergreen trees were thriving by the water's side. They looked so small from Anna's new perch, but she imagined she could almost smell the fresh wood and clear water. She loved living in the small town, far from modern society, but this was the most wonderful spot she'd ever found. She thought about showing her friend, Maria, who had fooled her into coming to this old, dilapidated castle—dressed up for a ball that didn't even exist—her new special vantage point, but then thought selfishly to keep it a secret all her own. The place brought her peace and comfort, so she sat until the sky was as dark as the stairwell she had yet to descend once more.