by Bill Bowler
Chapter 7: The Count
part 1 of 4
A distant relative of Josey”s comes from Old Country — Count Dracula's old haunts — for a family visit. He swims ashore at midnight and is a very illegal alien. He has an even darker side: he thirsts for his lost youthfulness. There is Hope for him — but, it would seem, over Yanosh's dead body.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
The voice creaked like a rusty hinge. Josey turned on his heels and saw the speaker was a frail, withered old man, stooped with age, supporting himself with a wooden cane. His coat was threadbare and his pants had holes in both knees. His thin white hair fell to his shoulders and a long white moustache drooped from beneath his hooked nose. His face was creased and wrinkled, but the eyes flashed — almond shaped, piercing.
“Do I know you?” asked Josey. The old man had walked up behind him on the street. He seemed about to collapse.
“You did once,” said the old man.
There was something about the eyes. Memories, or memories of memories, maybe of forgotten dreams, surfaced in the back of Josey’s mind — a wooden sword, a splendid black mare, a dragon with an owl in its jaws.
“When?” asked Josey.
“When you were first born, before this life. When I was young and the world was a different place.”
The old man swayed on his feet and Josey took him by the arm to steady him. “Are you feeling ill?”
“Just old.” The old man smiled ruefully. Josey caught sight of a pair of yellowed, rather large incisors.
“I’ll tell you the last time I saw you,” the old man continued, as Josey helped him to a nearby bench. “I’ll never forget that dreadful night, the night you died...”
* * *
The rout of the Ottoman Janissaries had been complete and terrible. Count Dracul’s men had ambushed the Turks as they entered the valley and slain them all without mercy between the rows of prisoners impaled on stakes along the road from the pass to the castle.
After the battle, as he wearily remounted his black steed, Vladimir III, Count Dracul, Voyevode of Wallachia, wiped the dust from his face with his sleeve. His sword arm was drenched in the blood of many foes. His lips touched the salty red liquid and his tongue tasted it. Though near exhaustion, Vladimir felt a sudden surge of strength through his weary limbs. He licked his sleeve, again and again, and each taste of blood sent a burst of power surging through his mind and body.
* * *
Vladimir made his way to the witch’s hut, deep in the forest. A thin thread of smoke rose from the chimney of the little house nestled in the shadows of the ancient pines. All around was deathly still. The forest was hushed and silent.
He had come without his retinue or even his bodyguards. He wished to speak to the witch with no curious ears to hear what he had to say to her alone.
Vladimir tied his horse to one of the pines that towered around the little dwelling. He trod silently on the soft carpet of pine needles, stooped and pushed through the low doorway.
In the dim and smoky interior, a cauldron was boiling in the hearth. Strips of meat were laid out on a cutting board beside a long knife. Hot, thick steam filled the room with the smell of rotting flesh. The witch and her child were at the table, staring into the hag’s infernal globe as if their worthless lives depended on it. They seemed to be in some deep trance, insensible to the Count’s presence. His fingers wrapped around the hilt of his sword, gripping the coarse wolf hide that bound the cold steel. He had the urge to kill them both and be rid of them. The witch had served her purpose and now outlived her usefulness. No one would miss them. The world would be better off without them. But Vladimir stayed his hand. There were still many questions and no one else seemed to have the answers.
“Tamara!” Vladimir called out from the doorway. “Come to your senses. You have a guest.”
The old woman looked up slowly from the globe and shook her head. The little girl, Sonya, grabbed hold of the thick folds of the old woman’s skirt and hid her face.
“A third visit, Count Dracul, three days since the last, and only the three of us here. Three threes is the winning hand. No need to swim, the current will carry you.”
“I’m tired of your riddles. I need you to speak plainly for once.”
“What I say is plain as day to those with ears to hear, Count. If you don’t want to know, then don’t ask.”
“We drank your wretched potion, the three of us, Mihai, Nikko, and I.” Vladimir was struck again by the dominance of the devil’s number. “We became as beasts and slew the enemy though we were sorely outnumbered.”
“Such was your destiny, Count.”
“But something else has happened.” Vladimir dropped his eyes and fell silent for a moment. His smooth brow creased as an internal struggle played out on his face. His mouth turned up in a tight smile. “I’ve acquired a taste for blood.”
Tamara stood up from the table and gently pushed her grand-daughter away from the folds of her dress. “Sit down, for a moment, Sonyechka. Don’t be afraid of the Count. He won’t bite you.”
Tamara’s eyes met Vladimir’s and he had the thought that she was laughing at him.
The old witch shuffled to a cupboard, took down a thick book, too heavy for her thin, bony arms, and laid it on the table. She leafed carefully through the torn, yellowed pages, running her crooked finger along the lines of symbols.
“Yes. Here it is. Look at this, Sonya, my child. Can you read this, from this line here?”
The little witch-girl studied the lines and began to read haltingly in her sing-song voice,
...Pour in venom, Simmer heart, Consume the whole, Become the parts, Man into Beast, And Beast to Man, Great to least, Who couldn’t, can, The Spirits feast, The vessel’s hollow, Add blood, and flesh will follow...
“What does that mean, Grandma? I don’t understand it.”
“Nor do I.” Vladimir’s voice was full of menace. “I’ve told you — no more riddles. In the battle with the Turks, their blood flowed until the mud ran red with it. I fought at first in wolf form, thanks to your potion, and ripped the flesh from their throats. When the battle turned in our favor, I resumed human form and cut a swathe through the last of them. I was near exhaustion and could barely lift my sword. The blood of the invaders drenched my garments and touched my lips. From the mere taste of it, my strength was restored and grew tenfold. My vision, my speed, my perception, my understanding — all increased beyond measure. A new world opened to me and I had a glimpse, at last, of my true self. And now I crave blood.”
Vladimir fell silent again. The fire crackled in the hearth. Little Sonya was poking a strip of meat with her finger. Tamara stirred the cauldron with a wooden ladle and Vladimir caught the scent again of rotting flesh. Tamara began to speak, her back to Vladimir.
“Human blood is the final ingredient, Count. It transforms the effects of the potion. Blood is rarely used in the brewing. Many of the texts counsel against it and some omit mention of it entirely, as the side effects are too drastic.”
“What side effects?”
“With blood, you gain the night but lose the day. Others see you for what your are but you never again gaze upon your own face. Death will not come for you, even if bidden, and life will not depart, no matter how great your pain or heavy your burden.” She put down the ladle and turned to face him.
“It is one thing for the spirit to survive the body and travel through the ages in various temporary vessels of flesh. The potion I brewed for you accomplishes this and I would wish it even for my own grand-daughter. Add blood to the mix and not only does the spirit live on, but also the body. But at what price, Count?
“The death of the body brings the end of suffering. Death comes as a final release when we most need it, when the pain of living has become, at last, unbearable. This release is now denied you. Having drunk the potion, so long as you refresh your body with human blood, the door is closed. The only way out for you would be to abstain from blood until, finally, your poor flesh simply crumbled away.”
Vladimir felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. His body recoiled. His chaotic thoughts raced in all directions. He struggled to focus, to process what Tamara had said and then, in an exquisite moment, his vision cleared.
“I’m immortal,” said Vladimir. “I’ve become a god.”
“Again you fail to understand, Count. God and devil. Life and death. Good and evil. Spirit and flesh. Break the chain of dualities and the balance of harmonies is disrupted. Discord and strife...”
Tamara broke off and looked up. The door was open and the Count had gone.
* * *
Vladimir rode back to the castle in a foul mood. Tamara’s babbling about side effects had spoiled what should have been a wondrous moment: the attainment of his godliness among men, his ascension to the plane of immortality. As he rode up the steep path to the drawbridge that spanned the chasm, Vladimir thought he should have killed the witch on the spot. Why waste good blood in that wrinkled husk of a body when it could refresh and renew his own growing powers?
As he rode out of the thick fir trees and started across the bridge, Vladimir saw the castle gates had been draped in black. The plague, which raged in the countryside and followed the path of war like a faithful companion, had claimed another victim, this one within the castle walls. Vladimir cursed beneath his breath.
As the Count dismounted in the courtyard, Nikko the Faithful approached with a stricken look on his noble face.
“Your son...” The bodyguard began and broke off.
“Take me to him,” Vladimir commanded.
A deathly silence filled the castle halls. The servants averted their eyes as Vladimir followed his bodyguard to Josef’s room. The Countess, her lady-in-waiting, and the court physician were standing beside Josef’s bed. The boy lay unconscious. The physician was applying leeches to the lesions on the boy’s skin, which were turning now from red to black.
“He’s been coughing blood,” the Countess sobbed.
Vladimir turned to the physician.
“What are you doing, you charlatan?”
“Applying physic, Sire. Drawing blood. Draining the impurities is his only chance.”
“Blood is strength, you fool. You’re taking away his only means of fighting off the sickness.”
With a sweep of his gloved hand, Vladimir swept the leeches from his son’s body.
“Get out of here before I lay you in a tub of your own leeches, you devil.”
Vladimir turned to Nikko. “Get him out of here then fetch the old witch. Tell her my son is dying.”
* * *
Tamara came into Josef’s chamber with a wicker basket slung over her shoulder. She came to the boy’s bedside and gazed sadly at his prostrate form. She drew back his bedclothes and saw the oozing sores that covered his body, and laid a hand on his forehead.
“He’s burning hot, Count. The fever rages. His hour has come. There’s nothing we can do but soothe his wounds and give him comfort as his spirit abandons its Earthly coil.”
“Use your magic. Cure him.”
“It’s too late. I wish I could. The Lord of Death is here already, in the room, and has the boy in his grip.” Tamara sat at Josef’s bedside and took from her wicker basket a mortar and pestle. “At least we can give him comfort as he passes from this realm to the next.” She ground a paste and applied the balm to Josef’s sores.
In the dead of that moonless night, Josef’s spirit separated from his body and his physical suffering ceased. Tamara felt the spirit’s presence in the chamber and communed with the boy’s ghost, bidding it farewell. But to her surprise, the spirit did not ascend to the heavens. It lingered in the intermediary plane, drifting to and fro among the living auras.
She turned to Vladimir. “Count, did you share the potion with your son?”
“Of course not.”
“The boy’s spirit seems under its effect. It hovers among us and has not departed.”
It was as the witch said. Josef, and his cousin, Yanosh, too, had secretly partaken of the witch’s potion and drunk the dregs from the chalices of Vladimir and his bodyguards when none were watching. Like Vladimir and his men, the boys were now Upwyr, capable of bestial forms or modes, their souls not banished to the heavens at death but free to move from vessel to vessel.
When Josef’s body succumbed to the plague, his spirit did not depart for the netherworld but lingered, still hungering for physical life and pleasures, seeking a new corporeal dwelling, drawn to a point of light in the spreading gloom, a point of light that was a new Earthly life, the next in a series of unknown length and number.
* * *
His son’s death and the impotence of the witch and the physician threw Vladimir into a violent rage. He let out a terrible howl, like an animal in pain. Then, more frighteningly, he fell silent. Wrapped in his black cloak, he slunk from the castle, across the bridge, and down the steps that led through the mountainside forest to the village.
The youngest daughter of the village baker was hurrying to reach home before dawn. She had stayed late at her best friend’s wedding and been among the last guests to leave, lingering with the young couple, happy for them, and not wanting the music and dancing to end. The night hours had slipped away, the musicians had finally stopped playing and packed their instruments, and now the girl was rushing home for a brief hour’s rest before beginning the new day’s chores.
As she turned down the side street that led to her father’s house, someone in a black cloak stepped from the shadows and startled her, blocking her way. Before she could let out more than a whimper, a pair of fierce, almond shaped eyes locked on hers. She felt her willpower drain as a powerful mind took control of hers. She did not resist as the man in the cloak took hold of her and pulled her into the shadows. She felt a prick of pain in her neck and swooned into unconsciousness.
Vladimir’s rage was eclipsed by the instant surge of power and knowledge that coursed through his veins at the taste of blood. A burst of energy empowered his limbs and opened his senses to higher levels of perception and cognition. He dropped the limp body of his victim and licked his lips.
The cock crowed from a nearby farm where the farmer’s son was pouring feed for the hens. The first rays of dawn stunned Vladimir and blinded him. His skin, exposed to the light, began to blister as if under a hot iron.
When the baker opened his shutters to let in the morning sun before firing his oven, he was startled to see a huge bat fly by. The baker watched as the bat beat its black wings, swept through the air, and disappeared into the woods, in the direction of the castle.
As the sky turned pink and yellow in the east, the great bat fluttered through the forest, up across the chasm, and over the castle wall.
Vladimir, naked, struggled to his feet from the courtyard dust. He felt as if he were being cooked in an oven. His skin was on fire, burning and blistering into red welts, beginning to melt away from the bone.
The hounds barked in welcome from the pen as their master dashed across the courtyard and threw open the doors to the wine cellar. Once inside, Vladimir swung the doors shut and found himself at last in darkness, shielded from the hellish rays. He descended the steps, his eyes seeing perfectly the outlines of the caskets and barrels and the bottles resting in wooden racks along the walls. In the soothing darkness of the cellar, his skin no longer burned. Exhausted, he curled up on the floor, with hay for a mattress, and fell asleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler