It was a dark and stormy night. The rain was lashing down hard and fast, while thunder roared across the sky and lightning flashed down from the heavy black clouds. Villagers huddled around blazing fires, wrapped in blankets to ward off the damp chill.
In the small castle high up on the hillside, the Lord's only daughter, Sasha, stared out from the window of the tallest tower. Sitting alone she watched the wind tear at the trees and the storm raging all around them. Although there was no glass for protection, her mink cloak, thrown hastily over her night robes, kept her warm. A single candle – placed carefully in a corner sheltered from the wind – provided her with a small flickering light. Apart from that and the stool upon which she sat, the tower room was bare and empty. It had been a library when she was a child, but some strange events had occurred and some accidents took place. The servants whispered that it was haunted. Eventually all of the books had been moved to another wing and the tower had been shut up.
But Sasha knew where her father kept the only key. On stormy nights when everyone else slept, the girl would slip out of bed, unlock the door and venture up the steep stone steps. There she would gaze out over the dark fields for an hour or more until the small flame flickered and died.
It had been a year, but still she waited. Ever hopeful that one day her lover would return to sweep her up in his strong arms and carry her away – just as he had promised. Although she knew it was risky, she had not been able to bear destroying his last letter, and had kept it carefully hidden away. But she remembered the words by heart anyway – Soon, my dearest love. Soon I shall return to your embrace and never again will anything ever separate us. One the darkest and most violent of nights, watch for me from the north tower. I will return for you, my love, and we shall be together forever.
There had been no more letters. Winter had passed into spring, spring had blossomed into summer and autumn had once again returned. But still Sasha could not stop the ritual, could not let go of the tiny hope that still sparkled in her heart.
The candle flickered its last, plunging the room into darkness. Sighing wearily, Sasha got up to go. Suddenly an odd sound reached her ears; the high-pitched whining of a stubborn horse, and the clattering of hooves striking cobblestones. Could it be? Hardly daring to hope, she rushed back to the window.
Far below her, a shadowy figure in a green soldier's uniform sat astride a black stallion, guiding the beast along the road to the castle with a steady hand.
“Earnest!” she cried out. Despite the noise of the elements he somehow heard her, and looked up towards her voice. Her cry of joy became a shriek of fear as she found herself looking not at the handsome face of her lover, but at a white grinning skull with strands of black hair clinging desperately to it. Half of his chest was missing, there remained only a gaping hole and a few ribs poking through.
“I have returned for you, Sasha. Come and be with me forever,” he pleaded, reaching his arms towards her.
Screaming, she fled from the window, the awful sight burned into her memory. But it was so dark and everything looked the same in her terror. Grappling for the door, aware of the hooves approaching, Sasha lost all sense of reason. She had to find her father, tell him everything... he would be so angry... but he would protect her.
“Sasha!” the voice called, mournfully. “I love you, dearest. I came back for you. Come and be with me, my love.”
Finding the exit at last, she stumbled down the stone steps... back to safety...
The next morning, the maid was alarmed to find Sasha's bed empty. The blankets were rumpled and some clothes were missing, but the girl was nowhere in sight. The servants searched the whole castle but found nothing. When the cook ventured out into the courtyard, however, the mystery was solved.
Her beautiful young body lay battered at the bottom of the grey stone steps of the tower, her neck having been broken in the fall. The doctor was summoned, who concluded that death had been almost instant. Just a sad accident, everyone agreed, a stumble on the wet steps in the dark. But there were two things that no one could explain.
Why her glazed blue eyes held an expression of utter terror, or why – clutched in her tightly closed fist – were a handful of black hairs.