8

The rest of that night I slept but poorly. I banked up the fire and dozed in a chair before it, rousing myself whenever the flame burned too low to feed more wood into it. By the time the grey light of dawn began to lighten the chamber, I was numb with fatigue. Only then did I return to my bed and surrender to sleep. Some time later there was a sharp rapping upon the door. I stumbled to it, drawing back the bolt to admit a scolding Tereza.

She bore in my tray, and it was not until she left and returned with my washing water that I realised she was more annoyed at having to do her sister’s work than at being locked from my room.

“Where is Aurelia?” I asked. I knew she would understand only her sister’s name, but I shrugged my shoulders and made a show of looking about the room to convey the rest of my question. I had learned that Tereza had a few words of German, but not enough to permit proper conversation, and I rather enjoyed our attempts at pantomime.

She made a comprehensive gesture that left no doubt. Aurelia was ill, messily so, from Tereza’s little pantomime. I made a face of concern, but Tereza flapped her hands as if the ailment were nothing to worry over. She uncovered my dishes and I fell upon them, suddenly too ravenous to attempt further conversation. The food was the same as it had been for the last fortnight, but the cooler weather had brought the addition of a bowl of porridge, called m?m?lig? by the local folk. It was tasty and well-prepared and I scraped the bowl clean and ate two of the bread rolls. A few cups of strong, dark Turkish coffee helped to clear my head, and washing myself attended to the rest.

The day passed quietly, for the storm held, and no one dared the Devil’s Staircase in the heavy rain. I made excellent progress on my book, larding the tale with the superstitions I had discussed with Dr. Frankopan. I crafted a character based upon Frau Amsel, with a fondness for strong drink and hearty food, whose husband-like poor Madame Popa’s-abandoned his family to roam the mountains as a lycanthrope. It was a horrifying tale, and I was enthralled with it as I had never been with my writing before. I had written pretty little horror stories to frighten ladies, I thought with some satisfaction. But now I was writing a book to chill the very marrow of the stoutest man.

I returned to my labours in the afternoon, and that evening, though the household retired early, the count did not come for me. Piqued, I took to my bed with the poems of Baudelaire, hesitating only a moment, for it had occurred to me to wonder if perhaps such sensational reading before bed had caused my unsettling experience the previous night. I read for only a little while before snuffing my candle. As soon as I blew it out, the room was softened by a silver glow from the moon falling through the casement, sometimes shining brightly through the broken storm clouds, sometimes covering her face with the stormy veil. It was the night of the full moon, the time for superstitions of the great and the mundane, the hour when werewolves are said to roam the shadows to feed, and an expectant mother must not go abroad lest the babe in her womb be born harelipped and dull of wit.

I slept fitfully because of the moonlight, dreaming of things I could not later remember. I heard a chorus of wolves, first a plaintive cry and then a response from far away, not the tricksters of faery tales, but the simple, slavering beasts that would devour the unwary traveller. I turned towards the wall and stopped up my ears with my hands, falling into a restless sleep even as I thought of poor Madame Popa and wondered if she heard them too.

The wolves began to howl again, just before dawn, and above them a high, keening wail from somewhere quite close. I came awake slowly, stupidly, surfacing from a dream. I lay still for some minutes until I heard the cry again and a commotion in the corridor. I rose and flung a coverlet about my shoulders.

Outside my door the noise was louder now, a terrible banshee cry I knew would echo in my ears so long as I lived. It came from the garderobe at the foot of the tower. I hurried down the small flight of stone stairs, stopping short when I reached the open door of the garderobe.

The small, icily cold room was full of people, all in varying states of undress. The count, pale and unshaven, wore his evening clothes of the previous night, his collar and neckcloth abandoned. Florian had drawn trousers over his nightshirt, and Frau Amsel and Cosmina supported the countess, all of them wearing nightdresses and wrapped in shawls or furs. They crowded around something huddled on the floor, and as I approached, they shifted enough that I could see Tereza, crouched like an animal over a bundle of clothes. A single candle trembled in her hands, the flame guttering as she swung it wildly in her panic.

The count took it from her and held it steady and only then could I see the pale form of Aurelia lying on the stone floor, her head twisted, her unbound hair covering her face.

The count reached out to touch the girl and her head rolled to the side, exposing the pale marble flesh of her shoulder and neck. Her nightdress had been torn, baring much of her smooth, plump bosom, unblemished save for two punctures rimmed by the dark, rusty red of crusted blood.

Pandemonium broke out. Florian groaned and Cosmina fell to her knees, crossing herself. The countess cried out to Heaven and Frau Amsel began to chant her prayers. Only the count remained silent, his fathomless expression unchanged in the pale pewter light of morning.

Tereza crawled forward to gather her sister’s body into her arms. She keened over her, lifting up her sorrow in lamentation, until the count murmured something, urging her to come away. She raised her hand and pointed at the count, uttering a single word, pronouncing it as both a judgement and a condemnation. “Teufel,” she spat.

He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at the spittle on his cheek. Tereza crouched, holding her dead sister and trembling as his cold grey gaze held hers. Then, with infinite calm, he replaced the handkerchief to his pocket and turned away. For a long moment the only sound was the rhythmic click of his retreating footsteps and the muttering of Frau Amsel’s prayers.

“Miss Lestrange, come away,” Florian said softly. “The countess will be having care of her.”

Like a coward, I permitted him to lead me away. Tereza’s grief was too palpable, a thing living apart in that tiny room, squeezing out the air until there was nothing left to breathe.

He walked me to the door of my room. “I will go back. Aurelia is dead,” he said by way of explanation, and I realised the servant girl was now simply a body, a burden to which attendance must be rendered.

“Florian,” I said finally, calling him back. His eyes were full of pain, and I felt a surge of pity for him, for all of them. I opened my mouth, but he shook his head to quiet me.

“It is not the time to make questions. Dress yourself. Someone will be bringing food.”

Food! The very thought of it turned my stomach to water. I closed the door, shooting the bolt behind him. I had seen the marks upon the girl’s breast, two distinct punctures, perhaps three inches apart. I had seen the bloodless, drained look of her. And I had heard the word Tereza had hurled at the count. Devil, she had called him.

I reached under the bed and extracted my boxes and began to pack.

Within a very short time I was ready to leave, neatly dressed in my plain travelling costume of dark tweed, travelling boxes at my feet. Frau Graben, the castle cook, brought a pot of thick Turkish coffee and some rolls from the previous day. She was a German woman of stout form and sober mien, and she did not tarry to gossip about the tragedy in the castle. She merely instructed me to dip the rolls into the coffee to soften them and apologised for the paucity of the meal. She looked for a long moment at the boxes I had packed, then left without a word, dipping me a sad-eyed curtsey as she withdrew.

I ate nothing, but fortified with two cups of the strong black brew, I made my way to the library, intending to speak with the count about making immediate arrangements for my departure. As I approached, I heard voices through the door, his and the higher one of the countess.

They were speaking in Roumanian, but the tones were impassioned and unmistakable, hers pleading, his implacable. I lifted my hand and knocked.

The countess called out sharply, and I entered. The count was standing at the fireplace, his hands braced upon the mantel, his head bowed. The countess was standing near him, her posture one of supplication.

When she turned to me, I saw that her eyes were glittering with emotion. “Miss Lestrange.”

“I apologise, madame, I believe I have come at an inopportune moment,” I began.

“No, I am glad to see you. Perhaps you will be my ally.” She put out a withered hand and I went to her, suddenly sorry for what I was about to do. It seemed a terrible and cowardly thing to abandon my hosts when their household had suffered such a calamity, but neither did it seem polite to linger.

“Madame, I-”

“You wish to leave us,” she said. The count’s head came up sharply, but he said nothing.

“Yes, madame.”

“Oh, Miss Lestrange. I must beg of you to reconsider. Selfishly, for I know these things must be strange and frightening to you. But I know what is afoot, and I would have you here with me for the battle we have yet to fight.”

I flicked an uneasy glance to the count, but he made no move to respond to her extraordinary statement. He was pale, unnaturally so, perhaps not an unusual thing given the ghastly circumstances. But I was too wary to spare him much pity. As much as I fought against the notion of vampires and monsters stalking the Carpathians, there was still the body of that girl, punctured horribly and drained lifeless. And there was this man, whom the dead girl’s sister had pointed to in accusation and called “devil.”

As if intuiting my thoughts, he dropped his head again, giving a little groan of anguish, and it was this sound, this small animal sound of desperation that roused my doubts. Was it possible that there had been some horrible, tragic misunderstanding?

The countess gestured towards a chair. “Please sit, Miss Lestrange. What I have to say to you will be very difficult for you to understand. But I must ask you to remember that we are in Transylvania, and things happen here that happen nowhere else in the world.”

“Do not tell her,” the count put in. “She will think you mad. She will think all of us mad, and who would fault her, for we are.”

“Andrei,” the countess said sharply, “be peaceful. Miss Lestrange has a right to know what is afoot in this place. She has seen the girl and she ought to know what you are.”

My eyes darted to his face. “I am no vampire,” he said bitterly, his cold grey eyes locked to mine.

I dropped my gaze. There was no response to be made, not even an apology for thinking such a monstrous thing.

“No, Andrei is no vampire. But there is a strigoi who stalks this castle. He must be destroyed before he kills again.”

I struggled to understand. “Madame, these things are impossible. They are faery stories, meant to frighten children and peasants.”

“Was that girl frightened to death then?” she asked softly. “Because I do not think even Aurelia’s vivid imagination could have punctured her neck and drained her of her life’s blood.”

“Don’t, madame,” I begged her. “It is too horrible.”

“It is horrible,” she agreed. “And it must be stopped before it happens to another.” She turned to the count. “Andrei, you know what you are and you know you are the only one who can possibly put a stop to him.”

He groaned again, something inhuman and protesting rising from his lips. So must Prometheus have sounded when the gods bound him to his rock.

“I cannot,” he said in sudden anger, raising a fist to smash it into the mantel. A pretty little Dresden shepherdess went flying, shattering against the hearth. There were splinters of porcelain on the hem of my skirt, but I did not move to collect them. The statue was broken beyond repair.

The countess appealed to him again. “I know what this will cost you, my boy. I know the price to your soul to destroy him. But you have no choice. It is the call of your own blood, your own destiny. This is what you were born for. You are the dhampir!” she said fiercely, fisting her hands at her sides. “Even as a child your father knew what you were. From the moment of your birth, when he saw the caul over your face, he knew you would destroy him. Why do you think he tried so hard to destroy you? Beating you? Starving you? He would have killed you with his bare hands were it not for your grandfather’s protection. And Bogdan knew the old man had kept you safe in order to ensure his destruction. Why else would he have desecrated his memory? Despoiled his very corpse?” She moved closer to him with each question, pressing her urgency upon him whilst I watched in horrified fascination.

She remained at his side for a moment, letting her words penetrate as salt into a wound, bleeding it afresh until it ran clean.

She turned to me. “Miss Lestrange, you see now why I need you. I have not strength enough to convince my son of his duty to this place, to his family. He is the dhampir, the only one who can send the strigoi back to the grave. He was born to this role, as his father was born to destroy us.”

“You think it is Count Bogdan who has done this, who has risen from the dead and has murdered this girl?” I asked.

“Impossible,” the count said, his voice strangely tight. His knuckles had turned white as he gripped the mantel. One of his hands was bleeding from the shards of the shepherdess and I was half surprised to see the normal crimson flow seeping from his flesh. He was mortal then, as human as I was. I sagged against my chair in relief.

“Then how can you explain this thing?” the countess demanded. “It is the curse of the strigoi to destroy his family. Bogdan was steeped in viciousness. He nursed every grievance, caused every evil to flower in his heart. He knew what he could become, and he welcomed it. He wanted to be revenged upon us all.”

“Even if this is true,” the count began, “and it cannot be, it is madness-why would my father wish to attack that girl?”

The countess’s beautiful eyes took on a sorrowful cast. “You know why. A strigoi begins by feeding upon his own kin, his own child. No one who is linked to him by blood is safe.”

“His own child,” the count echoed.

“Yes, a bastard, but still his child. Aurelia carried his seed within her womb. Your father and I quarrelled about this before his death and he threw the fact of it in my face. He had got the girl with child, and she carried his son beneath her heart. Now Bogdan has begun his reign of evil by destroying it. He must strengthen himself before he can attack you. He will take others to feed his monstrous needs. Who will be next, Andrei? In this house, no one is safe. He will begin with his blood kin, but who shall be next? The servants? Miss Lestrange?”

I gave a start, but the countess made a gesture to soothe me. “Forgive me, Miss Lestrange. I did not wish to frighten you. But I know that Andrei thinks well of you, and he must be made to do his duty. Upon him falls the protection of us all.”

I was startled that the countess knew of our erstwhile friendship, but I ought not to have been. They had always been close, Cosmina had told me, with only Count Bogdan’s cruel machinations to part them. But he had not interfered with their letters, and although the count refused to take his mother’s choice for a bride, he had to my observation always been kindly and even deferential to her.

I looked at the count to find his eyes upon me, no longer cold, but somehow pleading. He was trapped and something within him beseeched me.

“What is his duty?” I asked through stiff lips. “If this monstrous thing is true-and I do not say I believe it-what is it you are asking him to do?”

“You will be sorry you asked,” he put in bitterly. “It is medieval-grotesque.”

“It is the only way,” the countess rebutted calmly. “There is a ritual for banishing the strigoi back into the grave, putting him to rest once and for all. It is best if the head of the family does it, and if it is done by a dhampir, then all the better. The dhampir is the chosen one, blessed by God with the strength to vanquish the evil that walks among us. Such men are rare, but they are marked at birth with a caul, the symbol of their destiny. Andrei is such a man,” she finished with a look of pride at her son.

The count continued to look at me, his gaze penetrating. After a long moment, I spoke, slowly, cautiously.

“I think, if this thing will bring peace to the castle, if it will convince folk that you have done all that you can to lay your father’s ghost and fulfill your own destiny as dhampir, you ought to do it.”

“You do not know what you are asking,” he returned, colour rising harshly in his cheeks.

I thought of what Dr. Frankopan had told me of the mental weaknesses of the Dragulescus, of the superstitions of the peasants, and I knew for everyone’s sake the sooner this evil was banished, the better for all concerned. “I know that you do not believe it, but what of the others? They do believe, and to them you are the only salvation. If you do this thing, you will have saved them from their poisonous fears. What harm can there be in giving them what they need?”

I stopped to give him time to consider my words. The countess was wise enough not to speak. At length he spoke, his voice cold and clipped.

“Very well. Tonight. The second night of the full moon. I suppose that is a good enough time to work this magic of yours, Maman. I will do it. Assemble the household and tell them my intentions.” He turned to me, and his gaze was that of a stranger. “As for you, since you are so determined to see me do this thing, you will see me. You will stand at my side, and when the time comes, you will hand me my father’s heart when I have cut open his chest. And then you will know what you have asked of me,” he finished.

I had read of such things, but the fact that folk still practised such barbarity astonished me. I stared at him in horror, but the countess had folded herself onto her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks. She lifted her hands to heaven.

“May God and all His Angels bless and keep the last of the Dragulescu dhampirs,” she intoned. She rose and lifted me into her embrace, her tears damp against my shoulder.

“There is no reward great enough for what you have done,” she murmured.

The countess left then, leaning heavily upon her stick as she retired. I sank back into the chair, looking at the shattered shepherdess as the door closed softly behind her.

“I am sorry,” I whispered. “I did not realise-”

He gave a short, mirthless laugh. “No one does. It seems mad that people can still believe such things, but they do. And the worst of it is they can make you believe it as well.”

I said nothing for a long moment, thinking on what Dr. Frankopan had told me of the two varieties of strigoi, the living and the dead. I looked at the smear of the count’s blood upon the mantel and thought of my first, impulsive rush of relief and wondered if a strigoi viu could still bleed like a mortal man.

“Do you really mean to leave?” he asked suddenly.

“Not before tonight,” I temporised. “I have given my word and I will honour it.”

“But still you mean to go,” he said, his voice harsh in the quiet room.

“There are things here I do not understand,” I began evenly.

He surged forward and took hold of me, his hands tight upon my shoulders. He lifted me from the chair and pressed me to the length of him. I felt the hardness of him, muscle and bone, through the layers of burdensome cloth, and a sob rose within me.

“You cannot leave me,” he said, and then he began to kiss me, my eyelids and my temples, raining kisses upon me as though I were the most precious and sacred of things.

I put my arms about his neck and twisted my fingers into his hair, opening my mouth to his.

He moved from lips to neck to brow and back again, feverish and rough, his fingers bruising my waist. “You cannot leave me,” he said over and again. “I will protect you. But do not leave me. Promise me.”

He traced my lip with his finger and I tasted blood, his or mine, I did not know.

“Swear to me,” he groaned, his lips to my ear.

“I swear.”

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