Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen & James V. Heart

The vague mental discomfort that Harker would ordinarily have expected to experience upon submitting to this popish and vaguely idolatrous custom for some reason failed to materialize. Instead he found the touch of the silver image—well, rather comforting.

He decided he would note it in those words, at the next opportunity he had of writing in his journal.

“Thank you,” he said, bobbing his head rather formally to each of the women in turn. “Thank you.”

And he thought that perhaps, though they could understand no English, his smile and gestures managed to convey his meaning. The women, as he thought, gave every sign of satisfaction with his behavior, but none that (as Harker had more than half expected) any form of payment was required from him.

Presently the sun was gone, its last rays turning pink the snowy eastern mountaintops; and at its disappearance the driver stopped, briefly, to light the coach’s lanterns against the fall of night. Then he resumed his high seat, and his whip again cracked sharply in the briskly chilling air, urging on the horses to maintain their speed despite the evident poorness and increasing steepness of the road.

The next stop, according to the instructions Harker had received from his client, should be the Borgo Pass.

In the darkness the road was no longer visible to the passengers, but the jolting of the coach testified that it must have deteriorated further. To the English traveler, the hours of the night seemed endless. The lanterns burning on the outside of the coach gave only feeble light. The moon remained for long minutes at a time behind scudding clouds, emerging rarely to hint at mountainous terrain, partially wooded and partly desolate, without, as far as Harker could discern, the light of a single farm or village for many miles.

Then suddenly, and quite unexpectedly as far as Harker was concerned, the driver was pulling his hard-worked horses to a stop. Peering from the window of the coach, Harker could dimly perceive that they had arrived at a clearing of some kind, a widening of the road as if at a fork or resting place, though no alternate track was readily discernible. Some kind of roadside shrine, as he thought it, was visible; vaguely in the silent darkness he could perceive what looked like a giant crucifix.

Harker was reasonably sure that the driver spoke at least a little English. Clearing his throat, he called out the window: “Is this—I say, is this the place? I…”

Harker received no answer, but evidently it was the place where he was to be met, or at least the driver had determined that it was, for the man had scrambled from his seat atop the coach and was hurriedly unstrapping Harker’s trunk. In another moment his entire baggage had been rudely, crudely thrown to the ground.

This brought a cry of outrage from the owner. “You there! You ought to be careful…”

But to protest seemed completely useless. And now the driver, his face grim, moving as if moments for some reason counted, was holding the door open for Harker, urgently beckoning him out.

On alighting from the coach, Harker looked around, hoping to catch sight of the conveyance which was to take him to the count. Each moment he expected to see the glaze of approaching lamps through the blackness, but nothing of the kind appeared. The only light was the flickering rays of the lamps of the vehicle in which he had been riding. In that illumination the steam from the hard-driven horses rose in a white cloud. He could now see the white sandy road lying ahead, but on it was no sign of a vehicle.

Getting out of doors at least made it possible for him to stretch his cramped legs, and to read his watch, by bringing it near one of the flaring coach lanterns.

“We are early!” Harker protested, staring, blinking at the dial, then holding the instrument to his ear. If his watch was correct—and the timepiece seemed to be ticking along as evenly as ever—the steaming horses had brought him to Borgo Pass a full hour ahead of schedule.

Again he endeavored to register a protest with the driver: “Even if this is the right place, we are an hour early, and no one is here to meet me. No…”

But it was futile. The merchant and the women were staring at their erstwhile companion with pity—and with relief, as if rejoicing to be rid of him. Then the door of the coach banged shut; and the driver, when Harker looked for him again, was already back on his high seat, picking up his whip.

A few moments after that, and as far as the young traveler from England could tell, he seemed to have the night and the high Carpathians all to himself. There was only the fading rumble of coach wheels, diminishing hoofbeats, the snap of a whip. Even running an hour ahead of schedule as they were, obviously neither driver nor passengers had been minded to dally in these parts a minute longer than was absolutely necessary—

And what was that? Harker asked himself, turning his head suddenly to listen.

Had it really been a wolf’s howl? In a country so wild, a world away from suburban London, he could well believe it.

The faint faraway wailing noise was repeated, then answered from somewhere rather uncomfortably near at hand. Unconsciously the solicitor found himself moving away from his dumped heavy baggage, moving toward the vaguely visible shrine or signpost, as if by so doing he might somehow cling to the nearest vestige of civilization, a sign that humanity indeed retained some foothold in this world.

Then it occurred to Harker that possibly a signpost might be helpful in some practical way, if he had been let out in the wrong place after all, and with the coming of daylight would have to find his own way back to civilization. Of course, in this darkness any letters or numbers would be difficult to read, even if the language should be familiar, which seemed unlikely.

And in fact the thing itself, when Harker came close enough to see it at all clearly, was very strange. At all events, it was certainly no signpost.

His first impression had evidently been correct. A great cross, but oddly enough the man-sized carven figure crucified upon it was not human—or not entirely.

Tentatively he reached up and touched the legs. The wooden body was a man’s, but the head appeared to be that of a wolf.

To Harker the strangest thing about the figure was that in this setting, it seemed somehow—appropriate.

Turning away from the shrine—if such it was—Harker spent a long and rather uncomfortable few minutes strolling back and forth over the same few yards of road, now and then whistling or humming to himself. He did his best to distract himself from thoughts of danger and difficulty by mentally reviewing the business he had come here to conclude. This was a fairly complex affair, involving the purchase of a number of properties.

At last, with some relief, he caught the sound of horses and a rumble of wheels approaching, this time from a direction at right angles to the road he had already traveled. By now his eyes had made a good adjustment to the darkness, and he could manage to make out the faint track of the side road. Jolting along it at a good pace came the sparks of the new vehicle’s lamps.

Soon it was close enough for Harker to obtain a better look. Coal-black and splendid animals were pulling a calèche, a half-open carriage with a high coachman’s seat in front.

The driver who crouched upon that seat was clad in a peculiar livery indeed, dark short cape and high collar under a black hat or helmet suggesting the head of a predatory bird. Only a portion of a pale face was left exposed.

Stopping the calèche in a position that brought his elevated perch exactly opposite the waiting passenger, the driver called down to him in guttural German: “My master the count bade me take all good care of you, mein Herr!”

A moment later Harker, to his vast astonishment, found himself caught by hand and shoulder, and literally lifted, swung into the half-open body of the carriage. Stunned, he could only sit for a long moment where he had been placed while the nimble coachman, giving further evidence of prodigious strength, hoisted his heavy trunk and other baggage aboard.

The young solicitor sat there, physically comfortable enough, while a heavy robe was draped efficiently around him. A flask, which by the smell of it contained slivovitz, the local plum brandy, was pressed into his hand. Then, with a crack of the whip, the final leg of his journey was under way.

And still, continually, out of the darkness surrounding the moving calèche, there sounded the hungry, mournful voices of the wolves as if the pack were following… Harker barely tasted the slivovitz.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred