BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA By Fred Saberhagen & James V. Heart
EASTERN EUROPE, 1462
Ever since her young prince had ridden away to war, the sleep of the Princess Elisabeth had been tormented by red dreams of horror and blood. Each night the princess fought as long as possible to stay awake; and when inevitably, sooner or later, she yielded to nature and closed her eyes, she soon found herself wandering amid nightmare fields of impaled bodies and amputated limbs. Again she fought as long as possible to keep from looking at any of the maimed soldiers’ faces—and again, sooner or later, she was compelled to confront one of them.
The face of the mangled prisoner was always his, and always Elisabeth woke screaming.
Tonight, in the hour before dawn, the hour of her deepest despair, Elisabeth paced the rooms of her high apartment on the safest side of the castle, while her serving women, exhausted by the near madness of their mistress, slept. Now in the lady’s waking imagination, even as in her dreams, the sanguine fluid ran thick and red from the veins of her young husband and lover; claret pressed from his body drop by drop, torn from him by the merciless instruments of the faceless Turkish torturers who held him as their prisoner.
Ceaselessly tonight the wind whined around the battlements and entered through her window open to the night, making a sound of dying groans, departing souls. The vision of the prince’s suffering and death could neither be endured nor avoided. Useless to tell herself that all the fear and horror was baseless, that she had no certain knowledge that her husband was a prisoner of the Turks, no concrete evidence he had been captured, slain, or even injured.
But the only certain knowledge this lady had, assured her that the world was filled with death and terror, and that the only fate of a soldier’s woman was to mourn.
In her present state of fear and exhaustion the lady was only half-aware of her immediate surroundings. She had interrupted her pacing in the one room of her apartment where there was light. Here, a dying fire smoldered on the small hearth, and the flame of one candle, burning on a central table, held back the predawn darkness that loomed outside the open window. Fireplace and candle together produced dim wavery illumination only suggesting the colors of tapestry and arras on the walls, and of the silken hangings of the curtained bed where he had claimed her as his bride.
In that bed he had held her against his heart, promised her he would return. There he, her noble prince, had bound her to him with such love that if he were dead—she knew it!—the light of her own life would go out like a small candle.
Even as the princess stood there in trembling contemplation, the arrow entered the apartment gently, fluttering through the high window as weary as a tired bird, flying at the very peak of the tallest curve of flight along which strong arms and a fine bow had been able to propel it. Before she had even recognized the nature of the messenger, the dark-haired lady recoiled from it, as she might have from some feathered flying demon, with the despairing shriek of one who knows that her own soul is lost.
The iron point of the war arrow, cruelly barbed, bit weakly at the soft wax of the lone candle, toppling candle and golden stick upon the solid wooden table. The single flame went out.
The Lady Elisabeth remained in the position of her horrified recoil, her face of classic beauty frozen like that of a statue, dark eyes staring at her doom. The dying fire upon the hearth, combined with the full moon setting outside the western window, gave light enough to show her that the messenger bearing her doom had come in the form of an arrow, wearing a small collar of white paper, tightly wrapped.
In a moment Elisabeth had embraced her demonic visitor and was opening the small wrap of fine white paper, gazing at the message that it bore. The Latin learned in girlhood came back to her—but even before she read the murderous words, she knew that they announced his death—and therefore hers.
It took her only a minute, moving now in the calm of utter madness and despair, to relight the candle, find more paper, and write the note that she must write.
A minute after that, running, climbing in a frenzy, she had reached the highest battlements, winning a race there with the first rays of the sun. The morning breeze, under the great dome of sky now painted with the dawn, blew at her raven hair. Far, far below, still wrapped in night, the river wound beneath the high-walled castle on its hill.
Screaming her lover’s name, the Princess Elisabeth ran swiftly, eager to join him there below in darkness. The stones of the parapet came rushing beneath her feet. And then her feet were treading only air.
Many hours later on that same day the prince himself, with a portion of his army, returned to his castle from a successful defense of his homeland against the Turks.
The young warlord rode near the center of a thin column of tired, hard-bitten foot soldiers. The men were marching briskly despite all the miles and all the fighting they had put behind them in the last few months. They were covering the ground swiftly, at route step, because at last, having endured so much blood and terror, having suffered so many casualties, these men were coming home. They were leaving behind them the horror, the slaughter of the wounded on both sides, the fields of impaled prisoners’ bodies.
The road—here, far from any major city, it was little more than an ascending track—came winding in from the east, and it carried the marchers, now squinting into the afternoon’s declining sun, up into the high Carpathians. As always in spring, this country, their homeland, bloomed with a bewildering mass of fruit blossom—apple, plum, pear, and cherry. On both sides of the marching column lay a green, sloping land, full of forests and small woods, with here and there steep foothills crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses.
Most of the men in the long veteran column shouldered spears, some of them bore long swords or other weapons. Only a few were mounted; and most conspicuous among these was their commander. He, the prince, was as battle-weary a soldier as any of them, but distinguished by his red armor, metal and cloth once bright and new, now battered and stained by war. A distinctive helmet was slung behind the leader’s saddle, along with the javelin that complemented the sword belted at his waist. A shield, marked with the insignia of the Order of the Dragon, hung on one side.
This afternoon the months of yearning and doubt and danger were over at last, and he was almost home. He spurred his powerful black war-horse, urging the animal up a difficult, winding road, to where a distant castle had now come into view, gray and stark against the sky.
A quarter of a mile below the castle the warlord paused, his face softening. It was as if, for the first time in months, life and hope were now daring to flood back.
“Elisabeth,” he murmured, as a man dying of thirst might have uttered the word water. The prince spurred his weary mount again, pressing forward past the thin file of his shuffling, almost exhausted foot soldiers, his countenance like theirs alive in the late-afternoon sunlight with the thoughts of rest and peace.
But before the warrior had covered half of the remaining distance to the castle, he reined in his stallion again. Unfamiliar black banners fringed the castle walls, a solemn funerary chanting of monks’ voices came drifting downhill on the sunset breeze. And for a long moment, as sometimes happened in battle, it seemed to the returning soldier that perhaps his heart had stopped.
Yet once more he spurred his great horse, this time savagely. Thundering past an outer gateway, traversing a grim gloomy tunnel built through mossy stone, the commander, his face now pale, reined his war-horse to a halt in the middle of a large inner courtyard, where he leaped from the saddle.
Many people were gathered in the courtyard when he arrived—servants, relatives, neighbors, a few old friends, comrades-in-arms—but the returning lord of the castle had no time for any of them now.
Before the noise and dash of the prince’s arrival, all of their attention had been focused on the dark doorway of the chapel, and on what was going on inside.
It was from that dark doorway that the mournful chanting sounded.
The tall, lean figure of the lord of the castle strode in through the dark doorway. Inside, a hundred or more candles burned, but most of them were set on and around the high altar at one end of the large chapel, so that their flames only seemed to intensify the gloom in the dim chamber’s farther reaches. As many folk seemed to be crowded in here as had been standing in the outer court. But still the man who had just arrived had eyes for only one face, one figure. His whole attention was riveted on the slight, pale, lifeless form of a young woman.