Excerpt

MIRA
(March 2010)
Trade Paperback
ISBN-10: 0778327655
ISBN-13: 978-0778327653

THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST


Theodora Lestrange leaves her comfortable home in Edinburgh to visit Transylvania at the invitation of her childhood friend, Cosmina, now the betrothed of a Roumanian nobleman. Theodora arrives at the Castle Dragulescu to find that nothing is as she expected...


After a long while, the road swung upward into the high mountains, and we moved from the pretty foothills to the bold peaks of the Carpathians. Here the air grew suddenly sharp, and the snug villages disappeared, leaving only great swathes of green-black forests of fir and spruce, occasionally punctured by high shafts of grey stone where a ruined fortress or watch-tower still reached to the darkening sky, and it was in this wilderness that we stopped once more, high upon a mountain pass at a small inn. A coach stood waiting, this one a private affair clearly belonging to some person of means, for it was a costly vehicle and emblazoned with an intricate coat of arms. The driver alighted at once and after a moment’s brisk conversation with the driver of the hired coach, took up my boxes and secured them.

He gestured towards me, managing to be both respectful and impatient. I shivered in my thin cloak and hurried after him.

I paused at the front of the equipage, startled to find that the horses, great handsome beasts and beautifully kept, were nonetheless scarred, bearing the traces of some trauma about their noses.

Die Wölfe,” he said, and I realized in horror what he meant.

I replied in German, my schoolgirl grammar faltering only a little. “The wolves attack them?”

He shrugged. “There is not a horse in the Carpathians without scars. It is the way of it here.”

He said nothing more but opened the door to the coach and I climbed in.

Cosmina had mentioned wolves, and I knew they were a considerable danger in the mountains, but hearing such things amid the cosy comforts of a school dormitory was very different to hearing them on a windswept mountainside where they dwelt.

The coachman sprang to his seat whipping up the horses almost before I had settled myself, so eager was he to be off. The rest of the journey was difficult, for the road we took was not the main one that continued through the pass, but a lesser, rockier track, and I realised we were approaching the headwaters of the river where it sprang from the earth before debouching into the somnolent valley far below.

The evening drew on into night, with only the coach lamps and a waning sliver of pale moon to light the way. It seemed we travelled an eternity, rocking and jolting our way ever upward until at last, hours after we left the little inn on the mountain pass, the driver pulled the horses to a sharp halt. I looked out of the window to the left and saw nothing save long shafts of starlight illuminating the great drop below us to the river. To the right was sheer rock, stretching hundreds of feet to the vertical. I staggered from the coach, my legs stiff with cold. I breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and smelled juniper.

Just beyond lay a coach house and stables and what looked to be a little lodge, perhaps where the coachman lived. He had already dismounted and was unhitching the horses whilst he shouted directions to a group of men standing nearby. They looked to be of peasant stock and had clearly been chosen for their strength, for they were diminutive, as Roumanians so often are, but built like oxen with thick necks and muscle-corded arms. An old-fashioned sedan chair stood next to them.

Before I could ask, the driver pointed to a spot on the mountainside high overhead. Torches had been lit and I could see that a castle had been carved out of the living rock itself, perched impossibly high, like an eagle’s aerie. “That is the home of the Dragulescus,” he told me proudly.

“It is most impressive,” I said. “But I do not understand. How am I to—”

He pointed again, this time towards a staircase cut into the rock. The steps were wide and shallow, switching back and forth as they rose over the face of the mountain.

“Impossible,” I breathed. “There must be a thousand steps.”

“One thousand, four hundred,” he corrected. “The Devil’s Staircase, it is called, for it is said that the Dragulescu who built this fortress could not imagine how to reach the summit of the mountain. So he promised his firstborn to the Devil if a way could be found. In the morning, his daughter was dead, and this staircase was just as you see it now.”

I stared at him in astonishment. There seemed no possible reply to such a wretched story, and yet I felt a thrill of horror. I had done right to come. This was a land of legend, and I knew I should find inspiration for a dozen novels here if I wished it.

He gestured towards the sedan chair. “It is too steep for horses. This is why we must use the old ways.”

I baulked at first, horrified at the idea that I must be carried up the mountain like so much chattel. But I looked again at the great height and my legs shook with fatigue. I followed him to the sedan chair and stepped inside. The door was snapped shut behind me, entombing me in the stuffy darkness. A leather curtain had been hung at the window—for privacy, or perhaps to protect the passenger from the elements. I tried to move it aside, but it had grown stiff and unwieldy from disuse.

Suddenly, I heard a few words spoken in the soft lilting Roumanian tongue, and the sedan chair rocked hard, first to one side, then the other as it was lifted from the ground. I tried to make myself as small as possible before I realised the stupidity of the idea. The journey was not a comfortable one, for I soon discovered it was necessary to steel myself against the jostling at each step as we climbed slowly towards the castle.

At length I felt the chair being set down and the door was opened for me. I crept out, blinking hard in the flaring light of the torches. I could see the castle better now, and my first thought was here was some last outpost of Byzantium, for the castle was something out of myth. It was a hodge-podge of strange little towers capped by witches’ hats, thick walls laced with parapets, and high, pointed windows. It had been fashioned of river stones and courses of bricks, and the whole of it had been whitewashed save the red tiles of the roofs. Here and there the white expanses of the walls were broken with massive great timbers, and the effect of the whole was some faerytale edifice, perched by the hand of a giant in a place no human could have conceived of it.

In the paved courtyard, all was quiet, quiet as a tomb, and I wondered madly if everyone was asleep, slumbering under a sorcerer’s spell, for the place seemed thick with enchantment. But just then the great doors swung back upon their hinges and the spell was broken. Silhouetted in the doorway was a slight figure I remembered well, and it was but a moment before she spied me and hurried forward.

“Theodora!” she cried, and her voice was high with emotion. “How good it is to see you at last.”

She embraced me, but carefully, as if I were made of spun glass.

“We are old friends,” I scolded. “And I can bear a sturdier affection than that.” I enfolded her and she seemed to rest a moment upon my shoulder.

“Dear Theodora, I am so glad you are come.” She drew back and took my hand, tucking it into her arm. The light from the torches fell upon her face then, and I saw that the pretty girl had matured into a comely woman. She had had a fondness for sweet pastries at school and had always run to plumpness, but now she was slimmer, the lost flesh revealing elegant bones that would serve her well into old age.

From the shadows behind her emerged a great dog, a wary and fearsome creature with a thick grey coat that stood nearly as tall as a calf in the field.

“Is he?” I asked, holding myself quite still as the beast sniffed at my skirts appraisingly.

“No.” She paused a moment, then continued on smoothly, “The dog is his.”

I knew at once that she referred to her betrothed, and I wondered why she had hesitated at the mention of his name. I darted a quick glance and discovered she was in the grip of some strong emotion, as if wrestling with herself.

She burst out suddenly, her voice pitched low and soft and for my ears alone. “Do not speak of the betrothal. I will explain later. Just say you are come for a visit.”

She squeezed my hand and I gave a short, sharp nod to show that I understood. It seemed to reassure her, for she fixed a gentle smile upon her lips and drew me into the great hall of the castle to make the proper introductions.

The hall itself was large, the stone walls draped with moth-eaten tapestries, the flagged floor laid here and there with faded Turkey carpets. There was little furniture, but the expanses of wall that had been spared the tapestries were bristling with weapons—swords and halberds, and some other awful things I could not identify, but which I could easily imagine dripping with gore after some fierce medieval battle.

Grouped by the immense fireplace was a selection of heavy oaken chairs, thick with examples of the carver’s art. One—a porter’s chair, I imagined, given its great wooden hood to protect the sitter from draughts—was occupied by a woman. Another woman and a young man stood next to it, and I presumed at once that this must be Cosmina’s erstwhile fiancé.

When we reached the little group, Cosmina presented me formally. “Aunt Eugenia, this is my friend, Theodora Lestrange. Theodora, my aunt, the Countess Dragulescu.”

I had no notion of how to render the proper courtesies to a countess, so I merely inclined my head, more deeply than I would have done otherwise, and hoped it would be sufficient.

To my surprise, the countess extended her hand and addressed me in lilting English. “Miss Lestrange, you are quite welcome.” Her voice was reedy and thin, and I noted she was well-wrapped against the evening chill. As I came near to take her hand, I saw the resemblance to Cosmina, for the bones of the face were very like. But whereas Cosmina was a woman whose beauty was in crescendo, the countess was fading. Her hair and skin lacked luster, and I recalled the many times Cosmina had confided her worries over her aunt’s health.

But her grey eyes were bright as she shook my hand firmly, then waved to the couple standing in attendance upon her.

“Miss Lestrange, you must meet my companion, Clara—Frau Amsel.” To my surprise, she followed this with, “And her son, Florian. He functions as steward here at the castle.” I supposed it was the countess’ delicate way of informing me that Frau Amsel and Florian were not to be mistaken for the privileged. The Amsels were obliged to earn their bread as I should have to earn mine. We ought to have been equals, but perhaps my friendship with Cosmina had elevated me above my natural place in the countess’ estimation. True, Cosmina was a poor relation, but the countess had seen to her education and encouraged Cosmina’s prospects as a future daughter-in-law to hear Cosmina tell the tale. On thinking of the betrothal, I wondered then where the new count was and if his absence was the reason for Cosmina’s distress.

Recalling myself, I turned to the Amsels. The lady was tall and upright in her posture, and wore a rather unbecoming shade of brown which gave her complexion a sallow cast. She was not precisely plump, but there was a solidity about her that put me instantly in mind of the sturdy village women who had cooked and cleaned at our school in Bavaria. Indeed, when Frau Amsel murmured some words of welcome, her English was thwarted by a thick German accent. I nodded cordially to her and she addressed her son. “Florian, Miss Lestrange is from Scotland. We must speak English to make her feel welcome. It will be good practise for you.”

He inclined his head to me. “Miss Lestrange. It is with a pleasure that we welcome you to Transylvania.”

His grammar was imperfect, and his accent nearly impenetrable, but I found him interesting. He was perhaps a year or two my elder—no more, I imagined. He had softly curling hair of middling brown and a broad, open brow. His would have been a pleasant countenance, if not for the expression of seriousness in his solemn brown eyes. I noticed his hands were beautifully shaped, with long, elegant fingers, and I wondered if he wrote tragic poetry.

“Thank you, Florian,” I returned, twisting my tongue around the syllables of his name and giving it the same inflection his mother had.

Just at that moment I became aware of a disturbance, not from the noise, for his approach had been utterly silent. But the dog pricked up his ears, swinging his head to the great archway that framed the grand staircase. A man was standing there, his face shrouded in darkness. He was of medium height, his shoulders wide and although I could not see him clearly, they seemed to be set with the resolve that only a man past thirty can achieve.

He moved forward slowly, graceful as an athlete, and as he came near the shadows of the torches and the fire played over his face, revealing and then concealing, offering him up in pieces that I could not quite resolve into a whole until he reached my side.

I was conscious that his eyes had been fixed upon me, and I realised with a flush of embarrassment that I had returned his stare, all thoughts of modesty or propriety fled.

The group had been a pleasant one, but at his appearance a crackling tension rose, passing from one to the other, until the atmosphere was thick with unspoken things.

He paused a few feet from me, his gaze still hard upon me. I could see him clearly now and almost wished I could not. He was handsome, not in the pretty way of shepherd boys in pastoral paintings, but in the way that horses or lions are handsome. His features bore traces of his mother’s ruined beauty, with a stern nose and a firmly-marked brow offset by lips any satyr might have envied. They seemed fashioned for murmuring sweet seductions, but it was the eyes I found truly mesmerising. I had never seen that colour before, either in nature or in art. They were silver-grey, but darkly so, and complimented by the black hair that fell in thick locks nearly to his shoulders. He was dressed quietly, but expensively, and wore a heavy silver ring upon his forefinger, intricately worked and elegant. Yet all of these excellent attributes were nothing to the expression of interest and approbation he wore. Without that, he would have been any other personable gentleman. With it, he was incomparable. I felt as if I could stare at him for a thousand years, so long as he looked at me with those fathomless eyes, and it was not until Cosmina spoke that I recalled myself.

“Andrei, this is my friend, Miss Theodora Lestrange from Edinburgh. Theodora, the Count Dragulescu.”

He did not take my hand or bow or offer me any of the courtesies I might have expected. Instead he merely held my gaze and said, “Welcome, Miss Lestrange. You must be tired from your journey. I will escort you to your room.”

If the pronouncement struck any of the assembled company as strange, they betrayed no sign of it. The countess inclined her head to me in dismissal as Frau Amsel and Florian stood quietly by. Cosmina reached a hand to squeeze mine. “Goodnight,” she murmured. “Rest well and we will speak in the morning,” she added meaningfully. She darted a glance at the count, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw fear in her eyes.

I nodded. “Of course. Goodnight, and thank you all for such a kind welcome.”

The count did not wait for me to conclude my farewells, forcing me to take up my skirts in my hands and hurry after him. At the foot of the stairs a maid darted forward with a pitcher of hot water and he gestured for her to follow. She said nothing, but gave me a curious glance. The count took up a lit candle from a sideboard and walked on, never looking back.

We walked for some distance, up staircases and down long corridors, until at length we came to what I surmised must have been one of the high towers of the castle. The door to the ground-floor room was shut. We passed it, mounting a narrow set of stairs that spiralled to the next floor where we paused at a heavy oaken door. The count opened it, standing aside for me to enter. The room was dark and cold and the maid placed the pitcher next to a pretty basin upon the washstand. The count gave her a series of instructions in rapid Roumanian and she hurried to comply, building up a fire upon the hearth. It was soon burning brightly, but it did little to dispel the chill that had settled into the stone walls, and it seemed surprising to me that the room had not been better prepared as I had been expected. I began to wonder if the count had altered the arrangements, although I could not imagine why.

The room was circular and furnished in an old-fashioned style, doubtless because the furniture was old—carved wooden stuff with great clawed feet. The bed was hung with thick scarlet curtains, heavily embroidered in tarnished gold thread, and spread across it was a moulting covering of some sort of animal fur. I was afraid to ask what variety.

But even as I took inventory of my room, I was deeply conscious of him standing near the bed, observing me in perfect silence.

At length I could bear the silence no longer. “It was kind of you to show me the way.” I put out my hand for the candle but he stepped around me. He went to the washstand and fixed the candle in place on an iron prick. The little maid scurried out the door, and to my astonishment, closed it firmly behind her.

“Remove your gloves,” he instructed.

I hesitated, certain I had misheard him. But even as I told myself it could not be, he removed his coat and unpinned his cuffs, turning back his sleeves to reveal strong brown forearms, heavy with muscle. Still, I hesitated, and he reached for my hands...

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