The Hunter walked up the mountain path, his breath like fog before him. He watched as some nearby wildflowers glowed as if on fire, as the sun dipped behind the horizon. Up ahead was a sort of outcrop, sheltered from the wind and dry. He managed to get a good fire started before it was properly dark, and was quite warm before the moon grew high. As he settled down from his small meal of bread, cheese, and some sausages, a howl split the air. It was close. And loud. Picking up his sword, he stood and listened. No other howl followed the first. Yet he was still on edge. Stories of the horrors of the mountain rang through his head; depraved parties ending in death, monsters that drank human blood, men who turned into wolves upon the full moon. The wind whipped around him, making it difficult to hear smaller sounds. The fire cast flickering shadows around his feet. Ears straining, sword ready, he waited. A growl behind him made him tense. Perhaps he accidentally placed his camp within a wolf’s territory. He turned, slowly, so as not to alarm the beast. The sight nearly made him drop his sword.
The light from the fire barely licked it, the size was unmistakable. Not quite as tall as a man, but larger than any wolf he’d ever seen, it stood on all fours with its lip curling in a growl. The teeth were large and pure white, not yellowed like a natural animal’s. It stalked closer to him, the growl rumbling in the back of its throat. As it approached, the fire lit up the scars in its fur. Many across the face and hide, the light from the fire and moon making it look striped. He tensed his muscles. The beast did the same. Then it lunged. He dropped, slicing the beast’s underbelly as it leapt over him. It didn’t yelp, simply landed and turned, as though the blade had not touched it. It circled, growling. He paced around with it, weighing up its weak spots. There was a look in its eyes, a knowing that betrayed more than the bestial. It was appraising him, as much as he was appraising it. This time, it was his turn to lunge. He danced forward, trying a swing at the wolf’s neck. It snapped at his arm, and he just barely dodged back. Again, he swung, this time back and forth to disguise the goal of the strike. He caught the beast’s shoulder, digging below the hide. It yowled, pulling back, disrupting the sword and his balance. The wolf jumped at him, landing on his chest. It snarled in his face. He took his non-sword arm, left free by the wolf, and punched the creature across the muzzle. He almost broke his hand, but he punched it again, causing it to snarl and bite at him. It caught his arm in its mouth. Their eyes met. He stopped struggling as the canine eyes shimmered with emotion. Then with a leap it was off him and away, leaving him bruised but alive.
After a sleep that was more like unconsciousness, he continued on his journey. He reached the castle when the sunlight was still weak and watery. Large and austere against the edge of the mountain, a shadow that owned the landscape. In days past, it would have housed hundreds of people, nobles, servants, visiting dignitaries. Now, it was neglected, falling into ruin. Although crumbling, the stone work was still expert. Beautiful and twisted carvings framed the massive wooden double doors, and sat on every window ledge. There must be at least six floors to the beast, if the windows were any judge. The wind whistled as he took in the sight. He knew the master of the castle could not move during the day. It would be sleeping, and therefore vulnerable. But he was certain that the castle would not be completely unguarded. An anticipatory smile split his face. A certain excitement could have been discerned, were anyone watching, from his determined stride towards the building. He climbed the steps, then pushed upon the doors. It didn’t surprise him much that the door was unlocked, and that there was no one to greet him in the large hall beyond. His feet echoed on the dusty stone floor. A grandiose stone staircase wound round the right wall, leading to a higher story. Any stairs to further up he could not see. Ahead was an arched doorway, leading deeper into the castle. The challenge now lay in finding his prey. And surviving any obstacles that lay in his path.
If the daylight was its enemy, then deep within the castle would be a wise place for it to hide. No chance of seeing the sun when one is underground. He headed through the archway, carved with winged humanoids that had sinister smiles. The arch led to a spacious hallway that was lined with un-lit torches in braziers. The hallway was wide, three or four people could have easily walked abreast. It came out into a large dining hall. Huge wooden tables, with curled legs and carven tops, stretched ahead of him. The hall could have easily seated three hundred diners, he guessed. On either side of the hall were three large stone fireplaces. He looked at one as he passed. It was empty, and completely bare of any dust or soot. Carved into the back was a demon dancing with a young woman. Her dress was turned around the demon, and it held her face as a lover would. The next fireplace showed a naked woman, arms outstretched to the sky. Much care had been put into making her figure as accurate as possible. He wondered how a lit flame might transform her stone body. The final fireplace showed three women, naked bodies twisted in a dance that was bordering on the disturbing, but was perhaps intended to be erotic. It seemed the master of this castle had a taste. He had heard that he had once been a man, the lord of this land and further, a war hero who had become twisted in his ideology. That his parties had always been lavish, but had fallen into decadence of an unsavoury nature in later years. He’d heard the villagers had gone to kill him, only to find a monster. He’d also heard the villagers had killed him, only to have him return later as a monster. Some said he’d been a monster all the while, and had merely masqueraded as a man. Whatever the past, Dracula was a monster now.
A sound crept into his ear, deep then high. Ethereal in its changing notes, beautiful in its melody. It circled him, enticed him, and he found his feet following it. Near the end of the hall was a door, tucked into a corner and unadorned, most likely a servant’s entrance from the kitchens. The song rang truer through the air as he opened the door, making him step into the cold stone corridor beyond. To his right, he could see what would be the kitchen, barren and dusty. He followed the voice to his left, down a close hallway and down thin, worn stone steps. Charmed, he followed the twisting steps down into a dungeon. The walls dripped with dark red fluid, rusted water from the bars that locked nothing in. Here the voice was overwhelming, seeming to come from the air itself. Still his feet moved, past empty shackles, spikes, stained tables, until he came to the very end cell. This alone was occupied. A woman sat knelt on the floor, looking up at a small window through which a small sunbeam shone through. She wore a crimson hooded cloak, that lay in a perfect circle around her, covering her entirely except for her face and neck. As he approached, the song ended softly as she turned to him. Big brown eyes, so dark they were almost black, looked at him with trepidation and a deep sadness. Her black hair was tied in a loose braid over her right shoulder, so loose that half a dozen ringlets had escaped to frame her face. The sunlight reflected off the many scars on her face, their pale, pinkish hue highlighted against her brown skin. He was struck by the beauty of her.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to get you out of here.” He said to her. He stood back to appraise the bars. They were old and rusted, and a bit of leverage would pull them away from the stone. He drew his sword, and set about pulling the rusted door off the hinges. She stood, stepping back slightly to avoid falling debris. When the dust settled, he held out a hand. The young woman took it gracefully, and he noticed her cape was fastened at the front, with small slits through which she could place her black-sleeved arms. The sleeves were bound to her forearms with black ribbon, allowing more movement than a lady was normally afforded. After they had stared at each other in silence for a long time, she finally spoke.
“You have come to kill Dracula.” She stated. Her accent was local, and had the eloquence of education added to it. She was clearly no peasant girl.
“Yes, I have.” He replied.
“You cannot.” She stated. This irritated him slightly. Surely, she should be grateful for her rescue. Or be amazed by his bravery.
“I will.” He simply responded. A light laugh played over her lips then. Ignoring this, he pushed on, “I am unable to guide you back down the mountain; I must reach Dracula before nightfall. I cannot guarantee I will return. You must do as you see fit, to wait or to attempt to leave on your own. I can give you a knife for protection.” As he said all this, she watched him with what appeared to be curiosity. As he held out one of his larger knives, she smiled softly.
“You would deprive yourself a weapon, for my sake?” She asked, amusement in her tone. He was still uncomfortable with her casual approach to their exchange. In response, he simply shrugged. It was one of his larger ones, but not the best crafted. It would suit a woman’s smaller hands, while providing enough bite to do harm to an attacker. He watched as she thought over his offer.
“The castle is large, and full of traps to lead you astray. On your own, you cannot hope to reach Dracula before nightfall.” Before he could protest this slant on his pride, she interrupted him, “I have been in the castle some time. I will help you reach Dracula.” Then she turned and left the dungeon, leaving him to stumble after her. Her steps were swift, the cape swishing behind her. He tried to dissuade her, to explain to her the dangers, that she could make it to a hunter’s hut before nightfall and then back to the village. She ignored his complaints, climbing up and out into the dining hall. Immediately the Hunter was on his guard, for one of the fires had been lit. As he cautiously approached it, he wondered who could have lit a fire in the short time he had been in the dungeon. And perhaps more importantly, why? He inspected the fireplace. The fire was blazing healthily, as though it had been stoked for hours. The image on the back was transformed by the lights and shadows of the fire. The naked woman raised her arms to an orange moon, her breasts seeming to pulse with breath.
“I will not help you kill him.” Startled, he looked up from the hypnotic orange flame to see her standing perfectly still and staring at him. Her tone was plain and straightforward. He realized right then that any attempt to convince her to go back would be futile.
“I would never ask you to.” Seemingly satisfied, she turned back around and led him out into the entrance way. He sent one last worried look towards the lit fireplace. It would have to wait, since it didn’t seem an immediate danger. However, he would have to bear in mind that someone other than his new guide.
“Even with my knowledge of the castle, it will take some time to reach Dracula.” She said as they ascended the grand staircase. We will head through the dance hall on the first floor. It is, unpleasant, but cuts out many rooms and passages. “” She had mentioned she had been the castle some time. How long could she have been there? She walked with a confidence one would not expect of a prisoner. She was clearly educated and, judging by her dress, from a reasonably wealthy family. The scars on her face seemed not too recent, some looking like claw marks and other like they had been left by blades. He judged her to be a young woman, at peek marriageable age. Had Dracula stolen her for her beauty, and given her scars to prevent any man from claiming her afterwards? If so, he had failed.
“My name Baren. What is yours?”
“Oh, I have been called many things. You though, you may call me Ylva.”
“Ylva. That’s a pretty name.” It had been some time since he had spoken to women. Untrue, he corrected himself. He spoke to many old women whom were considered insane by their villages. It had been some time since he had spoken to any woman close to his age. Her light laugh was his reward.
“You are right. It is pretty.” Her smile was soft, almost inviting. Now it seemed she slowed, so that they could walk next to each other. It was enough, he thought, to walk beside her.