All the servants in the castle had learned over the years to avoid the North Tower during certain times. Among those times were when lightening would strike the top of the tower during a thunderstorm; when the lord of the castle would run laughing up the steps with one of his many serving wenches; or when the guards would haul one of the lord's errant daughters up the steps to be locked in the top room.
Just such an event had happened earlier in the day as Princess Shelley, the youngest of six fair sisters, had been manhandled roughly up the sixty steps to the sparse chamber. Weeping and stumbling over every cobblestone, she was nothing more than a tangle of lengthy pale limbs and long shining fair hair, clad in a thin blue dress. King Grimwald had watched his daughter trip over every second step as he dragged her up the stairs, sometimes by the ear, sometimes by her hair.
"Stop your whining girl," the King snarled, "or I'll throw you out the window once we get there."
The chamber at the top of the tower was dark and had no bedding or furniture, just the cold smooth floor. There was only one small window that was big enough to crawl out of, had it not been for the two horizontal bars sunken into it. A cold wind constantly swept into the room and swirled about, chilling all that it touched.
Shelley lay in the middle of this horrid chamber and shivered, long after her father had tossed her onto the floor and rammed the door shut. Long after his mocking steps had faded away down the tower again. All she could do was shiver in the cold, her filmy dress clutched tight around her slender form. And she wept.
As her sobbing drifted gently down to the castle below many did their best to just hunch their shoulders and continue about their business. All the servants pitied the poor girl. Gossip being rife through the castle meant that all the cooks, tanners, goodwives, ostlers, porters and serving girls knew why the prettiest of the lord's daughters was being punished. And many of them, the serving girls especially, would also risk imprisonment rather than face a marriage to Duke Edgar.
"That poor, poor girl," said one goodwife to another over the washing tubs. "She has spirit, but she does herself no favours to defy the king so."
Princess Shelley was everything that Duke Edgar was looking for in a wife. Youthful, pretty, and growing steadily into womanhood for all that she was only just of marriageable age.
He valued not her mind, for it was determined and quick-witted. Instead he valued her beauty, in much the same way as he prized the skins and furs of the wild animals he had hunted on his lands. Like the boar and bearskins that litter the floor of the Dukes keep, so would the fair skin and long fair hair of the Princess be spread out over the Duke's wedding bed -- hair that fell down to the Princess’ waist. Hair so fair that it transcended gold to become shimmering silver, the colour of the moonlight.
And in the same way that the Duke's animals had been won by a large hunting party and many hounds, so too had his new fiancé been won. With money and land as a gift to her father. Never in his life had Edgar gained anything through his own wit and skill. Rather all through his power and wealth.
One serving girl in particular felt a deep sympathy for the captive princess. Her name was Mirella, and she was Shelley's personal servant.
When Mirella had first arrived at the castle from her small village she had been somewhat in awe of her new surroundings, and her appearance alone had marked her out as yet another ignorant country girl. She was rosy-cheeked, buxom, but with the most honest brown eyes ever seen. She wore plain country girl’s garb that added to her simple beauty, and her flowing dark brown tresses drew many an appreciative stare from the men in the castle.
And of course it hadn't taken long for her to get into trouble, which happened to be one of Mirella's natural talents.
On a day many months before Shelley's imprisonment Duke Edgar and his entourage had arrived, with the plan of seeking one of the King's daughters for his wife. His companions were all men of lesser nobility, not to mention some of dubious lineage. Numbering twelve in all they immediately settled into the castles quarters, pestering the servants with unreasonable demands and trying to impress the King's court with tales of their hunting journeys.
Many an eye of these young noble louts fell upon the daughters of the King, most of whom had the sense to stay well away from such attention, or to meet their advances with polite, but insistent refusal. One, however, seemed determined to confront them.
The Duke's party was lodged in a private wing of the King's castle. One night over a feast in their quarters and many a jack of mead, their boisterous behaviour became dangerous.
Mirella was one of four serving girls charged with keeping the noble party plied with food and drink. As was befitting she wore a tavern wenches garb, blue and white, with a billowing dress that flared out from her well rounded hips.
Throughout the course of the evening she had been pinched and slapped on her ample rump more times than she cared to remember, so much so that it pained her to sit down to rest. As she would walk among them to offer drink she would get all manner of helpful suggestions.
"Sit here on my lap girl!" cried one.
"Nay, 'tis not his lap upon which he wants you to sit."
Drunken laughter followed and Mirella had started to feel flushed about the face. She was aware that her dress was low in the bodice, and that her charms were almost totally on display. Again someone slapped her on the arse. This time with a force so great that she yelped in pain. More laughter. Only Duke Edgar himself did not join in the banter. He sat brooding at the head of the feasting table, his sharp eyes missing nothing.
"Methinks the horse is not going to move, slap it again Gregory!"
Another mighty slap resounded as hand met flesh once more, the serving girls dress doing nothing to protect her. Mirella yelped again, louder than before, and then turned to face her abuser. He had all the fine clothes and arrogant features of the rest of the party.
"Please, my Lord..." Mirella faltered, the jack of mead trembling in her hands.
Slap! But this one was not aimed at her rump, rather at her face.
Mirella staggered back into the chair of another noble, who shouted in anger at the intrusion. Slowly Gregory, the one who had fetched her the buffet across the face, rose to his feet.
"Never..." He loomed over Mirella as her vision swam about, blurred and confused.
"Ever..." Gregory was in a rage as he grasped her by the hair and pulled it back, forcing her to look up at him.
"Speak to me..." The sting from the first slap burnt through Mirella's cheek like acid. Eyes watering she looked up at the furious noble in terror.
"Again!" Gregory punctuated this last shout with another mighty blow. This time with the back of his closed fist which struck Mirella square across the jaw. She spun to the ground and lay there dazed, face down, the jack of ale flung from her hand and slowly pouring out its contents onto the floor. A renewed chorus of drunken laughter belted around the room.
"Poor lass cannot hold her drink!"
"What a waste of good mead. Punish the slut for being so careless!"
This last suggestion was met with a chorus of approval. The three other serving girls were already draped around the table and its patrons. They exchanged nervous glances with one another.
Mirella lay on the ground twitching, the spilt mead matting her hair and dress. She was stunned, her head felt as though it was on fire, and she could not see Gregory slowly approaching her from behind. He walked as a panther stalks its prey, and his dagger was drawn, the blade gleaming in the candlelight.
With a swift motion he knelt over her, Mirella's well curved form swelling beneath him. Quickly he drew his dagger under the lace at the back of her dress and sliced up, severing the string in one swift stroke.
All the nobles had now repositioned themselves to get a better view, shouting encouragement to Gregory. Methodically he set about denuding the helpless girl.
He cut through the back of her white flowing under-garb from the waist up. He then he slashed the sleeves to tatters. Mirella's back, shoulders and arms were now exposed.
Next he slashed down through the many layers, severing her dress and her modesty. A few more well aimed, horrendous sounding cuts later and the servant's dress was in tatters underneath her and spread out over the floor. Her quivering rump and shapely legs displayed in all their simple glory. All she was left wearing were her brown leather shoes. Howls of laughter and approval rose up from the excited group.
"That's not a wench," shouted one, "that's the back end of a horse!"
"Prithee you could not tell the difference!"
Gregory rose and looked down at his handy work. Then he turned to resume his seat. Almost as an afterthought he went back and crouched by Mirella's head. Gripping her hair he pulled her head back once more and said very calmly, "Lie here like this until sun up, she-dog. If you do not then I'll cut every inch of skin off your worthless body. Do you understand?"
Mirella's head had cleared, but she was still terrified. Whimpering she nodded to him, afraid to speak.
"Good." Gregory let her hair go, thumping her head back down onto the floor and bloodying her nose. He returned to his seat.
"My Lord Duke," he called to the head of the table, "what thinkest thou of our latest trophy skin? She did not put up much of a fight but she is large enough to cover most of the floor!"
At this jest the laughter was deafening. Duke Edgar merely raised his goblet to Gregory and smiled.
The howls of merriment and sounds of the feast drowned out the pitiful sobs of the helpless serving girl. Her rolls of flesh quivered in her shame and fright. As the night wore on and the nobles began to leave they would exit the room only after trying out their new rug, crushing her legs, back and bottom, squashing her heavy breasts into the cold wet floor as they trampled her.
It felt an eternity before the room was silent and dark, but still Mirella lay on the floor. Silent but for her soft weeping, as if her tears could wash out the pain and fear she was plagued with. She dared not look around or try to stand in case Gregory was still there, just waiting with his gleaming dagger ready. Cold and bruised as she was she doubted if she had the energy.
It was like this that Shelley found her in the deserted room lying naked and shivering upon the flagstones.
Mirella until her dying day would not remember the slight, yet strong hands that helped her to the house of healing. Nor the cool moisture and gentle touch as Shelley bathed away her hurt and numbed her bruises with salve and a soft hand. Nor, blissfully, the sensation in her body that she had. As if she had been run over by the royal coach.
All she could remember is crying. Crying in her agony, and in her shame. No one had ever seen her grown body naked before. She had never lain with a man and after that night did not feel inclined to in her near future. Her shame lay as a lodestone would around her neck.
One other memory was hers from that torturous night. Waking in the morning and looking straight into Shelley's bright blue eyes: eyes fraught with question and concern over her. Mirella resolved in that instant to love and serve this gentlest of nobles until the day she died.
And on the day many months later, as Princess Shelley lay weeping in the North Tower, Mirella made another resolution: to do all in her power to set her mistress free.