Ever since she could remember, she had always had a friend who would come and tell her stories to help her fall asleep. It helped her insomnia, listening to the deep voice weave tales of ancient battles and unknown courts, opulent and dangerous. Sometimes, if she thought hard enough, she could recall that those nightly bedtime stories began after she met a silver-eyed servant looking at the old map in her grandfather's study after the rest of the house had fallen silent.
"And then," the voice sounded from the dark corner of her room, "the two princesses let the birds fly from their hands, laughing at the boy who was startled by their beauty.
"They called to him in the Persian tongue, asking him 'wherefore art thou afeared, little prince? They are but birds.' His tongue felt thick in his mouth. What could he say?"
She turned over, smiling at a tale she had heard before. "The sunlight," she murmured sleepily.
Her storyteller paused, and chuckled softly. "Yes, the sunlight. 'Ah, most beautiful and radiant princesses,' he said. 'It is but the sun on their iridescent wings - it has blinded me, as do your twin smiles.'
"'Ah, but young prince,' the elder sister replied, 'our smiles are not to be thine much longer.'
"This was true. For (you see, Anna) the girls had been promised by their father, the sultan, to his allies. And the poor little prince, a hostage? A foreigner? A christian? No words would have convinced their father, nor their brother.
"The weddings took place on the same day, as decreed by their kingly brother. The princesses were as beautiful in the pomp which is customary to wedding ceremonies as they always had been. And they departed for their husbands' lands within a fortnight.
"This left the little prince alone in the court, with no one but his brother for company. His brother, who (as you recall) was favoured by the future king. The future king whom the little prince hated with all of his heart."
The tale continued for some time after this, but she had already fallen asleep. Looking back, it was a miracle she was left in peace.
These nightly visits were not to last much longer. One day, she mentioned to her chambermaid, Luminita, that she wanted to hear the stories while others were still awake, so that she could hear more tales through to the end. The maid stiffened, paused in pulling at the stays of her dress to fasten it, and asked what kind of stories they were.
Soon afterwards, her grandfather was told about the matter. He was most interested in finding out more about when the stories started, what the story teller looked like, when he started appearing. Apparently, as was news to the five year old, there had been desertions by servants every two weeks or so. This no longer seemed to her family a case of thieving servants leaving in the witching hours, leaving with various purloined goods of little value beyond familial affection. No. Suddenly, the nightly visits were something she should fear.
As if sensing that something had changed, her storyteller did not come again. Whether this was because of the increased watchmen or something else was unknown to Anna. Other servants, realising her insomnia, sat by her bedside to inexpertly weave tales of local legends. This did not help, nor did the lit candle they sat beside while crafting their stories. After some deliberation, her grandfather had some priests come in from Rome. These priests refitted the doors and windows with new lintels, new hinges, murmuring prayers all the while.
Finally, fed up with it all, Anna stole away to the stables one night. Getting out of the house was easy, since everyone else was sleeping by the time she decided to visit her pony, Vasile. She snuck past the stable master's office, avoiding the lit windows, and entered the silent stable. The horses stood, sleeping in their stalls, and her single candle lit the way to her goal. Occasionally she thought she saw wet gleams on the horses' heads, but whenever she looked closer it was nothing strange. Just sleeping horses, some of with white markings that shone dimly in the candlelight.
Once she reached a certain stall, entered and quietly called out to Vasile. He woke after a few words, and demurely stood to the side of his enclosure. His eyes rolled nervously when she first entered, though after a few minutes of petting him he calmed down. She teased him about not recognising her in her nightgown before beginning to heatedly discuss her problems.
She simply didn't understand why the visits were a problem - they were just stories. Far more interesting than the faerie tales the servants tried to tell her now. No one had yet told her the true reason for their caution, unsure of how to tell the stubborn young princess the truth.
She had just pulled a pile of saddle blankets into her pony's stall and laid down on them when his voice rang out. The voice of the story teller.
"Anna. Shouldn't you be inside?" The tone was harsher than she remembered, more mocking, and she clutched Vasile's mane in her tiny fist.
"They put new windows in, it was loud and cold for so long. And it smells weird now. And none of the servants, Elena, Clara, Teodora, none of them! None of them know how to tell bed time stories! They're so boring, just the same old faerie tales about trolls and goblins."
It was silent for a while, and then a sharp laugh came from the rafters above her. "That does not answer my question, little princess. But if their tales are so lacklustre to your ears, why not come with me? I can tell you all the stories you wish."
She furrowed her brow, her lower lip protruding slightly. "Nagytata said that I'm not supposed to listen to your stories anymore."
"And why should you listen to that old man?" She jumped, for now the voice was just outside the door of the stall. She looked over sharply, but the moonlight revealed nothing but the saddles on the far wall.
Vasile snuffled her hand, whinnying softly. In the distance she could hear her name being called and the heavy thud of doors. Help was on its way, but her curiosity was overpowering.
"Why shouldn't I listen to him? He's my 'tata." She moved to stand against Vasile's shoulders, feeling his neck above her as he shifted uneasily in the dark.
The voice came from behind this time. "Are you afraid of me, Anna?"
It sounded like it was on the wall, but that seemed impossible. Vasile nickered, whining and shifting uneasily. She felt frightened, and angry. Fear for Vasile. Stronger than that was anger at her tiredness, anger at the fact he was scaring Vasile.
"No," she replied with a petulant stamp of her foot. "But you're scaring Vasile, and that's not nice."
The visitor did not answer. Suddenly, Vasile breathed heavily, and then took several shaking steps away from her. When she looked over the whites of his eyes were visible and his head twitched as if there were a fly buzzing around it. He laid down heavily, and snorted at her.
A three fingered hand landed on her right shoulder, the thumb lightly pressing into her upper arm. It could never be described as warm, more the absence of warmth. It seemed to freeze through her night shift, but she could not seem to move from beneath it.
"He doesn't seem too frightened to me," the voice rumbled behind her. "Look, he's even laid down to sleep." The word was spoken as a command.
Sure enough, Vasile had closed his eyes and laid his head down, breathing even. Her heart beat loudly in her ears. The shouts of people from the house were closer now. "Is he dead?"
"Do you want him to be, Annacska?"
"No! And don't call me Annascka!" She stomped down on his foot and twisted her arm, breaking his light hold and ran over to the riding crop on the wall. She clutched it tightly and knelt down to feel Vasile's heartbeat. Reassured that he was indeed alive, she turned to the storyteller.
He was a tall, pale man, with black hair and clothes that seemed to melt into the shadows. He smiled at her, tilting his head. He raised his hands to clap slowly.
"Well done, Anna," he exclaimed, silvery eyes looking into hers. "You truly are unafraid of me."
She raised the crop over her head, drawing it back. "You did something to Vasile! Let him go!"
He laughed at her. "A riding crop? Do you really think that will hurt me, Annacska?"
Furious and full of adrenaline, she ran forward and swung the crop as hard as she could. It landed harshly on his leg twice in rapid succession. He laughed again, and caught it on the next swing in one hand. His other hand fell to the top of her head, bending it back as he knelt down in front of her.
"Anna," he condescended, "You would make an excellent addition to my clan. A youth with your spirit would be endlessly amusing." He twisted his hand in her curls, forcing her to look him in the eye. "My brides would love you. You would be a beloved daughter."
He looked down, staring into the middle-distance. "A second chance," he murmured.
She breathed in sharply, struggling against his grasp. He looked her over, a content smile playing upon his lips. Then he jerked his hand to the side. Her neck was exposed. He began to open his mouth.
It didn't stop, the widening of the maw. She watched in horror as his teeth sharpened. She watched them becoming so many daggers glinting in the wavering candlelight. But she could do nothing to escape, as his iron grip kept her pinned like a fly in a web. He leaned towards her neck, and she finally found the strength to scream.
Just then, her grandfather burst through the doors, his shirt unfastened, and a cohort of servants followed with various weaponry from his study. Their lanterns illuminated the stables, finally awakening the other horses from their slumber. Free at last from whatever spell he had woven, they gave to whinnying and kicking in fear, snorting loudly.
Her grandfather's white head of hair and bushy beard contrasted starkly with the shadows, and he charged down the row of stalls with an ancient silver sword in one hand and a lantern in the other. Anna kicked blindly at the man before her, and felt her foot connect with something soft. A short breath of air escaped him, followed by an amused snort, and suddenly he was standing and she was free. She wasted little time in escaping into the passage and to the safety of her grandfather.
The elderly man paused long enough to push her behind him before brandishing his sword at the unwelcome guest. "Dracula!" His tone was more furious than Anna had ever heard it.
"Gergeli!" The response was mockingly polite.
"You would dare come to my lands, threaten my family?"
"Ah, but you see, Gergeli, they are my lands. I was, and am, the elder son. As for your family," Anna looked out to see a sardonic smile on the vampire's face as he motioned to her, "I was merely getting to know my youngest kinswoman. Great love of history lies within her. Truly inspiring."
Gergeli stiffened, and Anna looked down the hall to see the servants take aim with various crossbows and guns. "Your claim is forfeit! And stay away from my family!"
Dracula merely smiled. "Am I not to see my own relatives, however distant? How hurtful. Truly. Especially as you all seem quite keen on hunting me down every time someone reports me. Clearly I should simply leave no survivors. It would solve the inheritance situation."
"You are a demon, and it is our duty to destroy you and your kind, vampire," her grandfather snarled. "Anna, run!"
With that, he pushed her toward the servants and advanced with a graceful riposte on Dracula. His opponent snarked quietly ("Oh, are we doing this now?") and leapt easily out of the sword's path and into the hall. In his stall, Vasile awoke with a loud bray and joined the rest of the horses in kicking at the walls of their stalls.
Gergeli, startled by the loud reaction of the pony, faltered before turning on his foe again. When he turned, Dracula was no longer in the hall. Looking up, neck hairs rising, the elder saw a shadow in the rafters. "Shoot him," he commanded the servants. "There! In the rafters!"
The faithful group did as bidden, guns and crossbows firing in near unison at the shadow Gergeli had pointed to. Anna cowered next to a hay bale, covering her ears, until the last of the shots sounded. She looked up, breathing through an open mouth, to see the servants slowly reloading while keeping their gazes fixed on the shadow.
The horses continued to scream and kick at the walls of their stalls, and her grandfather moved from Vasile's open stall door. The pony immediately ran out of the stall and over to Anna. He stood next to her, shivering, eyes rolling wildly in his head.
The rafters creaked, and the shadow moved slightly. Anna held her breath as it fell from the rafters to land in front of her. At first she could not comprehend what she was seeing. By the time she did, she was already screaming.
As she screamed, the doors of the stables rattled ominously. Then the stalls flung open as one. The horses, finally fully released to their panic, screamed and raced from the confined spaces to the comfort of the herd and the pasture. Vasile screamed too, the instinct of the herd overtaking him as he followed the stampede towards the still open doors.
The servants shouted, both commands and wordless screams, as the horses bore down on them. A strange wind travelled throughout the stable as the hooves of the herd cut, bruised, and trampled the men who had cared for them. Anna screamed again, only to find herself jerked into Gergeli's protective grasp as he pulled her into Vasile's stall once again.
Over the stampede, Dracula's voice rang out. "Do try a little harder to look closely next time, Gergeli. Your eyes are growing weak in your old age." His laughter was booming, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Where exactly he was, Anna didn't know. She had buried her head into her grandfather's leg and refused to look out.
"I do enjoy our little chats, dear nephew, but I hope the next time we meet things will fare better for your men!"
The last of the horses escaped into the fields, and audible over their distancing, beating hooves was the fading sound of his cackle. Slowly, the sounds faded away and Anna became aware of the quiet moaning of the men in the hall.
Before she could look out to see what had happened, her grandfather knelt down and harshly gripped her shoulders, having lost his sword in the hall when he grabbed her.
"Anna," he said, speaking Hungarian in a voice as tight as his grip. "What were you thinking? You know better than to leave the house after dark!"
"But nagytata," she protested through welling tears, "I just wanted to talk to Vasile!"
"Vasile could have waited until morning, child!" He shook her roughly. "Do you know how worried we were about you? How worried your parents are?"
"I'm sorry, 'tata! I just couldn't sleep!" Her tears started coming down in earnest, and her grandfather looked stricken.
His lips, barely visible behind his beard, drew into a tight frown as he pulled his granddaughter into a tight embrace. "I'm sorry you can't sleep, Anika," he said, placing a quick kiss on the side of her head. "But please, come to me or your parents if you can't sleep. There are plenty of stories we would love to tell you."
Anna nodded, and allowed herself to be picked up by her grandfather's wiry arms. Gergeli smiled softly at his youngest grandchild, stroking her long hair out of her face before pressing her close to his heart. He stood carefully, mindful of keeping her face turned away from the hall. The innocence in her eyes was worth protecting.
His had been lost long ago. And so he looked with grim determination and resignation over the hall. Near the doors a few of the less battered servants glared out in pain into the night as they pulled the broken bodies of their brothers to the entrance. Some of the younger ones reloaded guns they pulled off the trampled corpses and started after the herd. They nodded in his direction curtly when he reminded them not to blame the horses, but the demon that had set them to their deadly sprint. A few minutes later he heard distant gunshots.
Gergeli frowned. "Bogdan, Petru." Two of the less wounded servants looked up. They were burly men, aged, their gazes calm despite the terror around them. "Go follow Ovidiu and the rest of them and make sure they aren't shooting the horses."
With a gruff "yessir" from Bogdan and a small bow from Petru, they left the building. "Viorel," he said to a young servant, barely eighteen, who was staring in horror at the blood soaked hay. "Viorel." The boy looked up, eyes wide and dry, unable to cry yet. "Viorel, I need you to take Anna back to the castle."
The boy nodded mutely and took Anna from Gergeli's arms. "Anika, I'll be in shortly to see that you're sleeping," he murmured to her before Viorel walked out of the stables. He made a mental note to talk to the boy later, thinking of his nephew, Simeon, and his reaction after his first encounter with vampires. Very similar to Viorel's, and hopefully Gergeli could handle the talk better this time. Of course, he had some fifty years of practice with others now.
Gergeli sighed, walking over to where he had dropped the silver sword. He examined it's shine in the weak light, and sheathed it once more. He looked down at the desiccated body it had been laying next to. Felix, the stable master. So this was where he was. His wife would be less than pleased to find that her familiar rant about her drunkard husband's nocturnal bar visits was so far from the mark tonight.
Gergeli spent some time helping to lay out the dead in a respectable manner. Tiredly, he ordered the equally exhausted servants to help him change the hay on the stable floor. He grabbed a ladder and laboriously climbed up to the hay loft to shuck down a few older bales.
"Your Illustr'ous Highness." The Romanian was spoken in a deep, gravely voice. Gergeli looked over the edge of the loft to see that Petru had returned.
"Yes, Petru, what is it," he questioned tiredly in the same tongue as he forked the last of the old hay onto the ground below.
Petru moved aside to avoid the cloud of dust that followed the hay, fingering his cap. "We done found the boys, Ovidiu and th' rest. They've not done no harm to the horses, far as Bogdan and I could tell. They tried to shoot the vampire, sir."
Gergeli slid down the ladder, grunting as the impact hit his knees, but didn't stop as he ran to the door. "Are they alright? Did they hit him at all?"
The servant watched his master's movements, head slightly tilted to the side. "No sir, they didn't hit him. He got a few of them though. Threw them into the trees, though they're tough lads, an' they'll be alright. Bogdan and I were getting them down when we'd remembered we'd ought to tell you what happened." Petru absently scratched at his stubble. "Ovidiu and a few that the vampire missed had gone and clambered up on some horses without tack to start and lead the herd back when I headed out."
The octogenarian wheezed in relief, leaning heavily against the doorframe. He looked out into the field and saw the distant bobbing of lanterns. Lanterns - that reminded him.
"Petru," he said evenly, trying to keep his composure. "You and Tiberiu over there finish up in here and make sure you extinguish the candles. Ovidiu and Bogdan should be coming back with the horses soon, just... make sure they all get in a stall. Ionia or Csilla will be by in the morning to make sure everyone's in their proper place." He pushed some loose hair out of his face. "If you could at least cover the bodies with blankets or something, that would likely be best."
The two servants bowed. Tiberiu looked at him, concern evident on his ruddy and lined face. "Prince Gergeli, do you need help getting back inside, sir?"
Gergeli barked out a laugh. "Do I look like I need help, boy? No - I'm simply resting. Not as easy as it once was, gentlemen, this business." He tapped his nose jovially as he pushed off of the frame. "Of course experience is always half the battle."
"Of course, your highness," Tiberiu grinned, lacing his hands behind his back. "What hour should we expect the ladies tomorrow?"
"About breakfast, I should imagine. Perhaps a short while afterward." Gergeli shivered in a sudden gust of wind, and laced up his night shirt more tightly. As he tucked the ends into the trousers he had haphazardly thrown on, he concluded with "I'll check on the stable office and settle things there, so once everyone's finished here you all can turn in for the night."
He left the main stables building to a chorus of 'yessir,' lantern in hand. When he reached the office building, he looked through the windows cautiously. The room was a mess - broken bottles and turned tables. Papers everywhere, sputtering candles spewing wax all over the documents.
'Csilla is going to be apoplectic,' he thought as he cautiously opened the ajar door further. The room was small, but he still did a thorough check to ensure that nothing dangerous was lurking anywhere within. Satisfied, he extinguished the long suffering candles and latched the door behind him.
To his surprise, after checking on Anna's sleeping form, Izabella was still awake when he crept into bed through the darkness some time later. He didn't realise this at first, however. His first warning that his wife was aware of his return was a sharp jab to the shoulder.
"I thought you were asleep," he hissed as he massaged the spot.
"I thought you had died," she hissed back. "Anna came back some time ago, carried by one of the servant boys. Boris and Raluca have only just returned to their own chambers. It's amazing Velkan didn't wake up with all the ruckus you made. Good Lord in Heaven, it's as if you intended to wake the very stones of the castle and fight demons with it!"
"Velkan could sleep through a storm at sea," he muttered. Izabella 'tsk'-ed in agreement, leaning her head on his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his chest.
He found it difficult to get to sleep, but refrained from shifting too much beyond drawing his love into his arms as well. Thinking she had fallen asleep, he closed his eyes and steadied his breathing in an attempt to force his own sleep.
She surprised him again by whispering once more. "What was it you found?"
"What do you think I found, Bella?" He could feel her glare at his facetious statement.
"I can't say I know for sure, otherwise I wouldn't have asked. But, judging by how long you were gone and how you left, I'd wager it was that... thing, again."
"Thing indeed. Yes, he was there. Got the stable master, Felix, and looked like he was going after Anna."
"He didn't bite her, did he?"
"No, I'm sure he didn't. There wasn't any blood on her."
"He could have drunk it."
"I just checked on her - there was nothing wrong. I know you're worried, we all were. But she's fine now, so we can rest for tonight."
"You're sure the frames those Romans put in will keep him out? They said specifically that it was for vampires, but who's not to say some wretched little minion of his couldn't get through and invite him in?"
"Nothing under his power will be able to get in as long as a Valerious resides within these walls."
"I'd still trust it more if it was done by a proper Orthodox." She paused. "I suppose the women of Stalwart Keep will be visiting us soon?"
"Yes, Csilla and Ionia will likely come as soon as they are informed of this. I sent a telegram just after I got in. In any case Simeon should to be informed. The good Lord knows someone up at my brother's castle must have noticed the activity by now anyway."
Izabella hummed, and nuzzled his shoulder as she shifted closer. "I wonder when Fyodr will return from Russia. Travelling at our age just is asking for something to go awry."
"Ekaterina wanted to visit her nephew in Kiev. And, good heavens woman, it's 1867! Trains make the travel easier once they get to Brasov."
"It's unnatural, travelling that fast." Her tone was vaguely petulant.
Gergeli smiled and pressed a lingering kiss to his wife's forehead. Before long the two drifted off to sleep, wrapped in each other's arms.