11

I sat up in bed, knees drawn to my chest, arms hugged tightly about them. The ribbons had not fallen from my plaits, that much was apparent. Only two possibilities remained. Either I had unbound my hair in my sleep or someone else had done so.

I thought of the dream I had had, reliving each moment of it in the cold light of day. There had been an embrace with the count, a moment of abandon when I had given myself up to his caresses. And then his hands in my hair, fingers twisting through the weight of it. Had I been dreaming of something that actually happened? Had I-or someone else, I thought with a shudder-been unbinding my hair when I dreamt of the count doing so? Was it possible that something that had actually happened in my room had invaded my dreams?

And if so, then what had happened? It was not impossible that I had undone the knots myself. I was not given to somnambulism, but I might well be capable of unbinding my hair ribbons in my sleep.

But what if I had not? My door was bolted, as it had been the night the dog had appeared in my room. What creature of flesh and blood could pass through stone? I thought of the ruddy, gloating corpse of Count Bogdan in his coffin and felt my stomach turn to water.

I rushed from my bed and dressed hastily, coiling my hair tightly into place, thrusting each pin as if it were a stake to contain a malignant creature. My hands trembled, but my resolve was firm, and I left the little room in the tower determined to keep my wits clear and my heart stout.

I worked in the library alone for some time before I was interrupted by Clara Amsel, sent to find me on behalf of the countess. The older woman looked pale after the ordeal we had suffered the night before, but if I expected our mutual experience to bind us closer, I was mistaken. Frau Amsel had never shown a sign of desiring better intimacy with me, and she looked at me with scarcely concealed dislike as she disclosed her errand.

“The countess is unwell today and Dr. Frankopan insists she keep to her bed. Still, she wishes to see you,” she finished, with a glance of interest at the sheaf of papers I had stuffed beneath the blotter.

“I would be very happy to see the countess,” I told her. “I will need a moment to tidy my papers and then I will find my way to her,” I said by way of dismissal. But Frau Amsel was not to be dismissed, and instead she stood by, a plump, silent sentinel as I tamped the pages of my manuscript together and secured them in my morocco writing case.

I left it upon the writing desk and followed her, wishing I had insisted upon taking a moment to wash my hands or neaten my hair. There was something rather grand about the countess that made one feel grubby and mean.

Even her room was majestic, I realised, as Frau Amsel rapped upon the door and waved me in. The room was decorated with silver-gilt embellishments and hung with lily-green silk, a lovely combination, but a chilly one on a cold, sunless morning. A fire roared upon the hearth, and the countess was covered in a multitude of coverlets and heavy furs.

“My dear Miss Lestrange, how kind of you to come,” she said rather breathlessly.

“It was kind of you to invite me,” I returned.

She waved me towards a chair, a pretty affair of silver-gilt, embellished by feathery carvings meant to depict the wings of swans. A tapestry portraying the courtship of Zeus and Leda warmed one long wall, and upon another hung a portrait of a young Count Andrei next to a painting of a pair of beautiful young women. Andrei wore the traditional robes of a Transylvanian boyar in his, but the girls clung together in magnificent court gowns of white tissue, their skirts billowing together like a pale silken sea.

The countess followed my gaze. “My sister,” she said, with a touch of wistfulness. “Cosmina’s mother. That was painted the year of our debut in Vienna.”

“Cosmina is very like her mother,” I observed, noting the same high, white brow and thoughtful blue eyes.

“Yes, it comforts me to look at her sometimes. I remember the old days and it makes me happy,” the countess confided.

She fell silent then and I glanced about the room, noting that it wore the same settled air as my grandfather’s room, the domain of an invalid with all the necessary comforts close to hand. On a wide table next to the bed were gathered everything the countess would require for her amusement or her care. Unguents and potions jostled with the latest novels from Paris and a stack of fashion papers. There was a basket of correspondence, the envelopes thick with coronets and coats-of-arms, and a pot of scented powder and a stack of fresh handkerchiefs rested upon an Orthodox Bible. Jostling them was a pretty ormolu clock laden with porcelain roses and thick with gilding. The paintings and tapestry were the only pieces of secular art permitted in the room, for the rest of the space was given over to mournful icons in heavily gilt frames.

“I wanted to thank you for your help yesterday with Andrei,” she began, her voice uncharacteristically soft.

“Madame, I beg you will not mention it. I am not certain I acted for the best,” I told her truthfully.

“But you did!” she protested. “It had to be done, and I am grateful for your support. I am surprised that an outsider would be so sympathetic to our ways,” she added with a nod of approbation. “Even for Ferenc it is difficult, and he has lived among us for many years.”

“I understand his family are Hungarian,” I put in, grateful to steer the conversation from the events of the previous night.

The countess lifted a derisive brow. “Hungarians who have lost all sense of whence they come. They once loved this place as much as we, but they have sold themselves for the Austrian Emperor’s favour. The Germans, they sit in their palaces in Vienna and think to understand us, but they never can. It is like asking a cow to understand a lynx. They do not speak the same language, they do not value the same things.”

I gave her a rueful smile. “Rather like the Scots then, ruled from London by people who do not understand us at all.”

“Precisely. And like the Scots, our troubles are of long standing, born in the mists of time. Long ago this land was settled by Romans, the warrior legions who wrested these mountains from the hill tribes and civilised them. In the middle ages, Transylvania was independent, ruled by ruthless princes who did what they must to keep the Germans and the Turks and their empires at bay. Always there were wars and bloodshed in these valleys. This castle was built by the first Count Dragulescu to hold the valley against either empire. He lost his life upon the highest battlement, defending his homeland.”

“Dreadful,” I murmured, thinking of the legend the driver had told me of the Devil’s Staircase.

Her lips twisted again. “Dreadful was the fate of his wife, the first countess, a beautiful Wallachian princess, she whose daughter was sacrificed to build this castle. When the count, her husband, fell in battle, she knew she would not survive the siege of the Dragulescu fortress, that once the enemy breached the walls, she would be taken and used cruelly, as no woman ought ever to be used. But she would cheat them, she decided. She wished to die with her honour held high for all to see. She flung herself from the tower to the river below, where the silver water ran red with her blood.”

I blinked. “The tower? The tower where I am lodged?”

“The very room.”

I drew in a slow, shuddering breath.

The countess went on. “Can you imagine how desperate, how frightened, she must have been? To destroy herself, and with it, all chance at immortality in the comfort of God’s presence?

“Of course,” the countess continued, “she may well have thought of those Roman generals who were the first Roumanians, the sons of Jupiter, come to settle this land before the Huns. They knew how to die with honour.”

“And how did the Dragulescus keep their home if the count was killed in battle?”

“The count had a younger brother who rallied his soldiers, and at the last moment, the castle was saved. Many centuries later, when the Hungarians came to power, the Orthodox Dragulescus converted to Roman Catholicism and swore an oath of fealty to their Magyar masters.”

I nodded towards the gallery of dismal icons. “But you are Orthodox.”

“Devoutly. It is well for the Dragulescu men to maintain they are Catholic, and my son does, as did his grandfather and my husband. But the women are free to embrace the true faith, for all that they are of the Dragulescu blood. I am not a Dragulescu only by marriage, you understand. I was born of the blood, a second cousin to my husband, and the blood of dragons flows in my veins.”

She pronounced the last words with relish, her eyes alight with some inner fire.

“Dragons?”

“Yes,” she told me proudly. “The name Dragulescu comes from the Roumanian word for dragon. It is said that long ago a dragon lived in the belly of this mountain and we subdued him to make his mountain our own. Folk said we harnessed the dragon and rode him over the sky, raining fire upon our enemies. Even now, it is said he slumbers for a thousand years beneath the castle, waiting to be awakened should we have need of him.”

“It must be lovely to belong to such a place with such history,” I mused.

She nodded thoughtfully. “But with that belonging comes responsibilities that must never be shirked. One owes everything to the land and the people, everything,” she finished fiercely.

Having seen for myself the hardship that such dereliction could cause, I could well understand the violence of her feelings. Such a feudal system could only possibly function if the lord and master oversaw his demesne carefully, involving himself in every part of his dependents’ lives. They must be able to rely upon him, as fully as children rely upon a father, to decide upon which crops to plant, when to harvest, which animals to breed and which to cull. Their very livelihoods depended upon his choices, the very lives of their children. I thought of the shuttered school and the boarded church, the flooded fields and the pitted street. I thought of all that had been left to fall to ruin in Count Bogdan’s time and how much labour and effort it would cost his son to put it right. One only hoped he was up to the challenge.

“And that is why my son must have the proper helpmeet,” she added, with such delicacy that I might have missed the meaningful glance she darted me. A tiny furrow had appeared between her brows, and I realised then the difficult position in which she found herself. She was my hostess and must be hospitable; still more she was grateful to me for the role I had played in persuading the count to fulfill his duty. But I must not be permitted to entertain hopes, I reflected bitterly, and the countess’s remarks were by way of warning me not to nock my arrow at that particular target. I was merely the granddaughter of an esteemed but impoverished scholar, and I earned my keep by means of my pen. I was unworthy of his attentions, particularly attentions of the matrimonial variety.

“Of course,” I said faintly, wishing the interview over, but understanding I had no power to stop it.

“I had hopes he would marry Cosmina,” she went on carefully. “The match would have finished what my union with my husband began, the bringing together of both branches of our family.” She reached for a handkerchief and dabbed at her mouth, and I believed it was so she would not have to meet my eyes. “Andrei has proven difficult, and of course, his happiness is so important to me. It would grieve my mother’s heart to think of him unhappily settled. But there is more to consider than his own inclinations. The name and the blood of the Dragulescus must not be degraded by his choice.” The clock upon the table gave a little chime. “Oh, dear. It is time for my medicine,” she said, waving the hand that held the great pigeon’s-blood ruby. “Will you be so kind as to fetch Frau Amsel?”

I rose, and as I did so, I realised it was merely a clever stratagem on her part to change the subject. She had impressed upon me that I was an unsuitable match for her son and had done so in a way that had been calculated to bring embarrassment to neither of us, and the timing was calculated as well, I suspected, with the need for her medicine a suitable expedient to make certain the conversation would not be continued. It was cleverly done, and I could judge from the satisfied expression upon her face that she was pleased with the results. I had offered her neither argument nor resentment, and both of us knew I lacked the courage to reintroduce the topic once it had been so definitively retired.

I hurried to find Frau Amsel bustling in the door. Doubtless she had been hovering outside, perhaps even listening to our conversation. She brushed past me to attend the countess, and I closed the door softly after.

My rapid departure and the countess’s remarks left me feeling a little unsettled. A hasty glance out the window revealed that the sun had finally appeared, banishing the storm clouds, and I hurried to my room for my stoutest shoes and a warm plaid shawl. A brisk scramble down to the village might well prove muddy, but escaping the close atmosphere of the castle was worth any untidiness, I decided.

Just as I passed through the court and out into the paved area beyond, Florian called my name. His eyes were deeply shadowed, and I smiled at him in sympathy. Broken slumbers seemed to be endemic at the castle.

“Do you mean to be going to the village?” he asked.

“Yes. I wanted some fresh air.”

To my surprise, he gave me a rueful, knowing smile. “I am seeing to the pigs, so I am bound that way also. We go together?”

His face betrayed nothing arcane, no hidden motive, and yet I could not help but feel a frisson of emotion, as if he were silently appealing to me.

“Of course. That would be very kind of you,” I said, inwardly chiding myself for being fanciful. I had wondered if Florian nursed a modest affection for me, but nothing in his gaze seemed admiring. He was distracted, perhaps not unreasonably so, given what we had seen the previous night. It had made us comrades of a sort, and when he offered his arm, I took it with a greater sense of ease than I had felt in his company before. Whether from his innate courtesy or his desire to improve himself, he insisted we converse in English rather than German, and although it hampered us a bit, I appreciated his efforts.

We said little during the descent, for Florian had judged it correctly, and the way was slippery with mud and rotting vegetation. At the foot of the mountain was a path I had not yet taken that paralleled the river, winding past the odd farm and dark copse until it ended at a piggery. It was a ramshackle stone building, mended and patched to keep the pigs warm and dry, and beyond it lay a large field, carefully fenced and furnished with a good stone trough and a tidy mud puddle for the fat porkers. There were a goodly number of the animals, snuffling and rooting about the field, and several of them let out squeals at Florian’s approach.

“They are handsome animals, your pigs,” I offered.

Florian smiled, his boyish face lit with pride, and his accent grew thicker with his enthusiasm. “The best in the valley. Almost ten years to make such a herd,” he observed with satisfaction.

“It must be very gratifying,” I said, thinking out loud, “to apply one’s self to a project and see such substantial results.”

“Count Bogdan trusted me only to keeping the pigs. But I always think I do this well and he will give me more to do.”

“And did he?”

Florian shook his head. “No, miss. Count Bogdan trusted no one. He tell me he gave me the pigs because he does not care if they live or die. But I care.”

“And they are thriving now,” I pointed out.

“Pigs are simple. They have only to be growing fat and content,” Florian said, pointing at the largest of his sows, a great solid creature with a train of plump piglets scampering after.

“We ought to envy them that, I suppose. Tell me, do you have more responsibility under the present count?”

I am not certain what made me ask it, but Florian did not seem to mind the intrusion. “Count Andrei does not think so much about these things. Farmers pay the rents, and this is all the count is caring about. He gives me the harvest this year,” he said, his complexion flushing with pride. His eyes were downcast, but it was apparent he was deeply pleased to have been given such responsibility.

“Perhaps the coming of Count Andrei will be the making of you,” I said lightly.

He did not respond, but gave a low whistle. A tame pig trotted up to have its ears scratched. Florian hummed a folk song as he rubbed at the pig’s head, and I ventured a question I had been longing to ask.

“Florian, what do you make of the ceremony in the crypt? Do you think Count Bogdan will rest now?”

His hand faltered on the pig, then resumed its gentle stroking. “I pray God he will. All that must be done, it was not done,” he said carefully, “but perhaps what is done is enough.”

“I confess I am rather glad it all stopped when it did. I do not think I could have borne seeing a man’s heart taken out-” I broke off, sickened at the thought.

Florian gave me a sad smile. “It is their way, miss. I have lived here very long time. Roumanians are different to Germans. The magic and monsters are being real here. They say the waters of the Carpathian rivers must be your heart’s blood to understand it.”

“I want to understand it. It is a very beautiful land,” I told him truthfully.

“Then you must stop the thinking that Transylvania is like other places. It is different here. See what is. Not what you are wishing it.”

It was rather good advice, I decided. We left the piggery then and made our way to the village proper where, at Florian’s suggestion, we stopped to take refreshment. The village looked no better than it had during my previous visits; indeed it looked rather worse, for the recent storms had churned the sole street to a muddy expanse passable only at great risk to one’s shoes and hems. An enterprising soul had placed a bit of wood over the worst of the puddles and we reached the inn with scarcely more dirt than we had gathered at the piggery.

We were greeted by the innkeeper, a tall, thin man with a short, plump wife. He welcomed us heartily in German, speaking to Florian with some warmth and greeting me cordially, if not familiarly. Then he withdrew, shifting smoothly to Roumanian to call orders to his wife.

A few members of the local peasantry had also stopped to pass the time. They had fallen silent at our arrival, and though Florian nodded gravely to each of them in turn, they rewarded him with the merest inclination of the head in reply. To me they exhibited nothing but furtive curiosity, no friendliness or welcoming sally was forthcoming, and I wondered how much the villagers knew of the castle business.

The innkeeper and his wife alone greeted us with anything approaching warmth, but their custom depended upon good feeling, I reflected with some cynicism. They must pander a little to keep their business in good standing, and it was only after I caught the innkeeper’s wife flicking me a nervous glance that I realised the root of their worry: we were castle folk, and if we reported any ill feeling to the count, it would be a simple matter for him to see to it that the inn was shut, depriving the innkeeper and his family of their livelihood.

I darted a quick glance at Florian, thinking on Dr. Frankopan’s concerns about the dangers of loose talk. It would not do for any of us to share too freely the dark happenings at the castle with the innkeeper. Doubtless his position gave him the opportunity to spread a great deal of gossip in the valley, and I made a note to mind my tongue in his presence.

Florian, in spite of the cordiality of the innkeeper’s greeting, fell into a melancholy mood and said little. I asked him about his time in Vienna and his love of music, but even those topics did not rouse him, and after few more attempts to engage him, I was forced to admit defeat. He was preoccupied and turned in upon his thoughts, and it struck me then how similar he was to the villagers. For one of the castle folk, Florian seemed for all the world a simple farmer. He cared about his pigs and he dressed like a peasant, with the same tight white trousers and embroidered shirt rather than a gentleman’s tweeds.

Eventually, I tired of making conversation and amused myself by looking about the inn, careful to avoid the avid glances of the other patrons. It was a modest little establishment, only the front room of a private family home, but neat as a pin, with a row of polished metal tankards hanging from the ceiling and an immaculate blue-tiled stove sitting in the corner for warmth. But as I looked more closely, I saw that several of the tankard hooks were empty, as if their occupants had been sold off, and the clothing of our host and his wife, while clean and tidy, bore the hallmarks of long use, the colours faded with much washing and telltale patches at the elbows and knees.

The innkeeper’s wife came then bearing mugs of dark beer and platters of sausages and ham, cheese and bread. She brought pickled cabbage and beets and a great bowl full of mushroom soup. The other patrons ate nothing and drank only beer or the local plum brandy, and for an uncomfortable moment, I wondered if we had been served the family’s supper. But it would be an unthinkable breach of courtesy to send it back, and I nodded to her in thanks. She bobbed a clumsy curtsey, and as she left I saw strapped to her back a peculiar contraption, a little wooden box where a swaddled infant slept.

“How clever,” I observed. “It would keep the child close to the mother and not interfere with her work. Like the Indians in America.”

“Have you been to America?” Florian asked.

“No. Indeed, apart from my time at school, this is my first sojourn out of Scotland, although I mean to travel more. I find I have a taste for it.”

“I do not know why there is travel,” he said, his expression one of genuine puzzlement. “To love one’s home, one could not leave it and be happy.”

“And do you love your home so much?” I asked, reaching for another crisp, sizzling sausage.

“I speak of Austria,” he said softly.

“Of course, how stupid of me. You were but a child when you left, yet still it must be home to you.”

“Many things may make a man’s home,” he told me, his face sober, even anguished. He paused for a moment as if gathering his emotions close, then continued, his mien lighter and more conversational. “I hate this place when we come, but I learn to love Transylvania. We have everything here, here there is mountains, sky, forests. And we have the best music.”

“You have never heard a bagpipe,” I put in teasingly, the remnants of my Scottish pride pricked only a little.

“But I have!” Florian protested. “We have here a bagpipe, and the flute, made from the shinbone of the sheep, with music so sweet, it would charm the leaves from trees.”

A spirited debate on the merits of Scottish versus Roumanian music followed, and I discovered through the innkeeper that Florian was rather famous in the district for the sweetness of his tenor voice besides his other musical accomplishments. The innkeeper’s wife and I prevailed upon him to sing for us, and the innkeeper fetched a sort of lute, pear-shaped and rather medieval-looking, to accompany him. The other patrons, whose conversations had never risen above guttural whispers, fell entirely silent and assumed expressions of mournful interest as he began to sing.

We settled in to listen to him, and I was entranced from the first note. He sang in Roumanian, and I longed to understand the words. The innkeeper’s wife leaned near to me, her lips close to my ear as she translated into German.

“He is singing the miorita, a sorrowful song of three shepherds. One learns that his two friends are planning to kill him. He does not resist, for it is his philosophy to accept death. Just before he dies, he asks them to carry a message to his mother, to tell her he has married a beautiful woman-Lady Death.”

I felt a frisson of emotion at her words, but she went on, murmuring softly as Florian sang the shepherd’s lament. “I have gone to marry a princess, my bride. Firs and maple trees were my guests; my priests were the mountains high; fiddlers, birds that fly; torchlight, stars on high.”

When he finished we applauded and the innkeeper’s wife daubed at her eyes with her apron. It was very like the songs of the Highlands, full of woe and lamentation, and I wondered if poverty and oppression were necessary to create such music.

He sang again, a more cheerful song about death dancing through a field of flowers-the souls of children who had died-and by the time he finished, I had had my fill of Roumanian music, no matter how beautiful the melodies.

He must have caught something of my mood, for he gave the lute back to the innkeeper and gestured for me to rise. “We will go now to reach the castle before dark,” he advised.

He settled the bill with the innkeeper and accepted the muted blessings he and his wife insisted upon giving. I did not know if this was a Roumanian custom or if we were particularly vulnerable as we were returning to the castle, but I was glad of the gesture. The rest of the company watched us in heavy silence, and for the first time, I felt the weight of it, an ominous thing. Not to speak in the presence of others struck me as the purest form of aversion, but even as we took our leave, I saw one or two of them cross themselves Orthodox-fashion and cast us pitying glances.

I raised the subject as soon as Florian and I gained the muddy road. “The local folk do not seem hospitable toward strangers,” I ventured.

“They hear what happens at the castle.”

“So soon?”

Florian shrugged. “Gossip travels on the wind. Of course they hear. But they will say little to castle people. They belong to the master. He makes life good or bad for them.”

“You mean the count?”

His mouth worked, but he said nothing.

“Florian, let us speak plainly. The count could make life better for his people, and they resent him because he has not?”

He gave a single short nod, but even as he acknowledged the truth of what I said, his words denied it. “It is for him to rule as he is pleased.”

“Rule? He is a nobleman, but he is no prince.”

“I say again, Transylvania is different place. The old ways are the only ways. The count rules. What he wants, he will do. The peasants are tired. They are hungry and poor. He can be helping them. He does little.”

I felt a swift stab of fear. “Might they rebel then, if they are angered enough by his neglect of them?”

He shrugged. “Count Bogdan was not good. They do nothing. They drink sorrow and wait for the better times. They are sad now because Count Andrei, he is not better.”

“He has only been here a few weeks,” I argued, wondering even as I said the words why I felt compelled to defend him. “There has scarce been time for him to make changes to improve their lot.”

Florian met my eyes then, and I was struck once more by the fathomless sorrow I saw there. “They know the strigoi walks here. It is an omen. Evil things will happen.” Florian looked at the sky, noting the angle of the sun. “We must go. It grows late.”

But however I pressed him, he sank once more into his solitude, and I took his arm in silence as we started up the mountain path. The dying afternoon was a beautiful one, with the great blaze of turning leaves flaming over the valley. Gold and scarlet grasshoppers leapt in the dying grasses whilst bronze beetles winged their way to sanctuary for the night. The sun warmed our faces and the crisp air was full of birdsong. It would have been perfect, but for the fact that the hand I held was not the count’s, I reflected ruefully.

Suddenly, a roll of thunder echoed over the mountaintops. A cluster of dark grey clouds had gathered in the east and was rolling slowly towards the mountain.

I must have started, for Florian hastened to reassure me. “Do not fear. We are safe yet. Thunder sounds from far away. But some say it is Scholomance,” he added. “Do you know the Scholomance?”

“It is a bit of folklore,” I said, casting my mind back to my grandfather’s library. “It is a very old superstition, is it not? I seem to remember a lake.”

Florian nodded. “In the mountains south of Hermannstadt, there is lake, deep and black. Here the Devil has school for teaching dark magic. There is taught secrets of nature, language of animals, magic spells. The Devil gives learning to ten pupils. When learning is finished, the Devil says to nine to go home. But the tenth must stay with the Devil. He must ride a dragon and he prepares thunderbolts for the Devil. He brews thunder in the black lake. When the weather is fine, his dragon sleeps under the black lake.”

He paused and stared upward at the high stones of the castle, the sharp pointed towers piercing the sky above. “Here the people say, one time in a hundred years a Dragulescu goes to the Scholomance to learn the Devil’s ways,” he finished bitterly.

I took a deep breath and wrapped my shawl more closely about my body. For some unaccountable reason, all the talk of the occult and curses had overcome me, and I felt bowed with foreboding. “I think I have heard quite enough about the Devil for one day.”

I started up the Devil’s Staircase and Florian followed. We did not speak again.

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