They walked as if they bore a heavy load on their backs, wearing a look on their faces like frozen masks of sorrow. Not even living really but merely existing like Zombies, in the grip of malaise, solitude and ignorance. The children's inborn thirst for knowledge and curiosity were forced out of them as soon as they were old enough to go to school. Often beaten out of them by Father Klaus Morkolov, a small, frail-looking man with thinning hair. He had sharp, deep, dark and cruel-looking eyes. Anyone laying eyes on him for the first time, would have immediately taken pity on him. He looked as if the slightest gust of wind could have knocked him over. However, Father Klaus Morkolov was much stronger than his physique and his seventy-two years belied. Whatever bad luck life and fate had conspired to curse him with, he now took great glee in taking his rage, frustration and sorrow out on the poor young boys under his care. He was always pointing out to those very few concerned parents that might have dared to question his methods that the motto "Spare the rod and spoil the child," had not been invented needlessly. What made it even more horrifying was that his favourite form of punishment was to strike an offender's hands with his large, silver crosses, whose points were sharp, jagged and sharp. He would easily shield himself behind the power of the Great Mother Church, raging and ranting against the seemingly corrupt practices of those three hundred and sixty souls under his care. So strong was the power of the Church that not even the town mayor dared to go against him. The result of all this was that the very few Imperial troops stationed in that small village were to all effects and purposes under the direct command of the malevolent and maddened whims of Father Morkolov, and there were some people in the town who, not coloured by his church trappings and status, considered him to be the real devil incarnate. If the life within the town was indeed hard on Nicolae, it was made more bearable by the long walks he managed to take outside the walls. Walking along and staring at the amazing mountains rising on the horizons, his imagination was so vivid that he could imagine them being giants of old who had been stopped at the gates of civilization by the Gods of Ancient times and turned to stone. His jaunts were frowned upon by his mother, but only because each and every time he wandered outside the walls to enjoy the beauty and immensity of the steppes and the mountains that encircled them, she knew it would bring not only the wrath of the priest down on him, but also, subsequently, the hard, heavy belt of his ignorant father. But the boy did not care and the more they punished him, the more determined and even stronger he became, so that no one, least of all that wretched priest would ever stifle his never ending imagination, his curiosity or his thirst for adventure. Nicolae was not stupid however, and took great care in daring to disobey his father and the priest only so often. He knew he had to learn to survive, for it seems, the fate of one woman had remained etched in his mind.
Sara Viorleva had married young, at sixteen, to Boris Espetchov, the blacksmith. A man of such limited intellect and even more, restricted good grace, that it had indeed shocked many in the community. But it had been the will of Father Morkolov who had proclaimed that God had told him it would be a good marriage and would teach the young girl to do her duty as mother and wife. Women were not allowed to have any kind of education, but Nicolae believed it was better to have no education than being force fed the daily rubbish being dished out by Father Morkolov. Sara Viorleva had two wonderful talents. Apart from being beautiful, elegant and kind-natured, she had the voice of an angel, and with a secreted pencil, chalk or crude crayon, could draw beautifully. Every so often you would hear her voice floating out of her hut, and everyone who heard it would instantly smile, however harsh his or her day had been. When the weather was good and the village was blessed with sun, she would sit outside and draw anything that came to her mind. The people in front of her, the unafraid birds that flew to her or the mountains, even though she could barely see them. She was a true free spirit and she had come to represent everything that Father Morkolov both hated and feared. So when she came of age, he used all his influence, much against the wishes of her parents who were wise and loving, to have her married. To a brute of a man, whose sole existence was to work, eat, copulate and take all of his frustrations out on his wife. As the days following her marriage passed, her singing was heard less and less, and her once beautiful presence sitting in front of her house drawing and painting was gone forever. Nowadays when people saw her, they could tell how pale and gaunt she had become. Also, whenever she was seen out, her husband would always be by her side, holding her by the arm, steering her in whatever direction he desired. It was easy for all to see how slowly but surely she was wasting away. It was also easy to notice that every time her eyes met those of the priest, her face would darken in silent, defiant fury. If he noticed at all, he surprisingly ignored it. Probably confident that she could do nothing about what he had done to her. He had her just where he wanted her, like a bird in a cage. Days became weeks and weeks slowly became months until one day, five days before Christmas. Nicolae remembered this as vividly as if it were yesterday. The sky was clear, the air cold but dry, and some stars still twinkled in the early morning sky. It was a divine, soulful, angelic voice that pierced the cold, crisp air that quiet early morning. It was the voice of Sara Viorleva, strong and defiant.
Nicolae had awakened early that morning to take one of his walks when he had heard it. His hearing of this wonderful, melodic, angelic sound had made his whole body and mind seem to respond. He became happy to be alive once again, seemingly without a worry or care in the world as the voice reached deeper inside him. As if carried on the wings of an angel. Time had ceased to exist. It was perhaps fifteen minutes or more later that the angels voice was cut off. It stopped suddenly, and was supplanted by screams, screams that must have been heard by everyone in the town. Her husband had rushed back from his job at the foundry. Rushed to their house to beat her into submission, to silence her. But whatever he did to her, he did not break her or her spirit and the next morning her voice was heard again and every morning thereafter. The beatings from her husband did not stop and neither did the ranting and ravings of the priest, who in his weekly masses would point an accusing finger at her. Holding her up as perfect example of a wicked and loose woman. But Sara would not yield. She continued to sing every morning. Few but the most narrow minded of the members of the congregation would agree with the priest, but they did not dare challenge him and would merely feel sorrow for this young woman who was being robbed of her freedom and love of life.
It was another crisp, cold day in February, and Nicolae had been sitting on the steps of the village well. He was looking at the people as they passed by, when he heard an anguished scream coming from down one of the small streets. Suddenly! To his horror and to that of other passers-by, the priest emerged dragging Sara by her long beautiful hair and close behind was her husband kicking her every so often as she was dragged along! Screaming and pleading! Just behind them were her parents, also weeping and pleading and next to them was the equally horrified mayor! The priest reached the well and saw the young boy standing there. He had a look of pure horror in his eyes which quickly turned to hatred as the priest approached.
"Move boy", the priest commanded, but Nicolae did not move. He glanced at the young woman, who was bleeding and bruised and whose eyes bore deeply into his as if begging him silently for remembrance of her. The priest seeing that the boy did not move, took off his heavy crucifix and raised it above his head as if to strike him. Suddenly! A hand came out of nowhere, quickly grabbing a hold on his. It was then that Nicolae saw his father was standing alongside him, his face looked like a mask of thunderous calm before a storm.
"My son is a stubborn, but good boy, and if you touch him, you will have to face my anger."
Everything seemed to have stopped for a few seconds. As if someone had frozen time. The priests face was a mask of pure shock and disbelief as was that of the boy and before the priest could summon up an answer; the boy's father had lifted his son up and taken him away.
"Father, I want to see. Please?" The boy pleaded as he realized he was going to be taken away from what terrible deed was about to be committed.
"There is nothing to see here, Nicolae. We are going home now," his father replied sternly, putting him down gently but holding his hand firmly.
"Please papa?" the boy pleaded, and he saw his father look down at him, his face for a moment angry and then softening.
"Very well, but only from a distance," he replied and they both went back. Very little had happened. The priest had lost a little of his initiative after having his authority challenged so forcefully and by a very common man. Suddenly! His face seemed to brighten up! It became a mask of pure rage and venom as he cast his eyes once again on Sara. She was huddled on the ground at the foot of the well, her husband hovering over her like a demon.
"This harlot! This woman! This abomination! Continues to defy not only me but also her husband. She still refuses to fulfil the duties for which God created her! To be seen and not heard! To obey her husband and to defer to his will! She shows a libertine spirit that is not tolerated by God, and I as His representative in this village, I know that he does not tolerate it! It would serve her right to be thrown down this well and let her die slowly! But God is merciful and I shall be too!"
It was then, that a chorus of voices, now steeped in disapproval and hisses interrupted him, which he ignored. He took his stained handkerchief from his waist and wiped the spittle that was now dripping from his chin and carried on.
"Her husband has come to the conclusion that she cannot be made to see sense and so it is therefore my decision that she be given some clothes and some food and that she be exiled from this village!"
To his astonishment, a huge cacophony of voices began to fill the square and people now were beginning to advance on the priest and her husband. It was at this precise moment that Father Morkolov's nerves failed him. It was also at this precise moment that he glanced at the mayor who looked anything but pleased.
"Guards! Disperse the crowds now!" he uttered. Not convincingly, but they did as they were told. It was all over in less than half an hour, and it was in those horrifying minutes that I came to hate the mayor as much as the priest; hatred for his cowardice and lack of compassion. He could have refused to follow along and cut down the priest's authority at a stroke. But he had not! Now, twenty minutes later, a young, bleeding and bruised Sara was slowly making her way towards the gates leading out of the city and to the disgrace of that town. Very few followed her on her journey towards exile, save for her weeping parents, her brutish husband, the malevolent priest, a few soldiers and one young boy holding his father's hand tightly. As she crossed the threshold of the town, she turned her head for one last look. Her bearing was still proud, and no more tears were running down her cheeks. She glanced first at the priest with a look of pure hatred and contempt; then at her parents, her eyes full of love and compassion and then finally, at Nicolae. A deep knowing look, one that asked him to please remember her forever. And then she was gone and the gates closed behind her. Leaving a young boy's heart crushed.
The dark haired man looked at the roaring fire in front of him. His face became sorrowful, and then angry, as he remembered that boy and what he had felt that day. Thinking back on that horrifying and heart-breaking event from his past, had offered young Nicolae a glimpse into a different side of his father's character. Before that moment he had only known him to be very strict and somewhat narrow-minded, almost cold, showing as little emotion as possible, almost as if he feared it would make him appear weak and leave him exposed and vulnerable. But there, in front of the well and in front of the entire town, he had openly challenged Father Morkolov. He had shown had shown his caring and open-minded side. He had shown bravery and that had been risky, for in doing so he had also challenged a representative of the Church and the Church's authority was law and final. He also had allowed his young son to witness the final minutes before the enforced exile of the young Sara, And in doing so, he had exhibited to Nicolae, what it could be like to be truly compassionate and open-minded.
Twenty years later, there would be another significant event that would serve to confirm the boy's theory regarding his father. But now, in the time and place of the young Sara's exile, his father's facade had already begun to crack. However stinging and impudent the attack on the priest's authority had been and however shaken the old priest had felt, nothing more was said. No punishment was meted out, either on the boy or his parents. This was virtually unheard of, because everyone had heard terrible stories of various members of the Mother Church ruining the lives of countless innocent people for merely starting rumours regarding them. Let alone, personal attacks on Her and Her representatives. Nicolae was under no illusion that any such repeated behaviour from his father would ever be tolerated a second time.
As far as Father Morkolov was concerned, his authority and standing were untouched and unaffected. Life carried on very much as before, although there was now a noticeable change in the priest's behaviour during his classes. His raving and ranting was as fierce, relentless and shocking as it ever was and when he really got into his "darkness and sin" lectures, his face would go red, his eyes would roll, spittle would fly around and he would quite literally look like a man possessed. There was however, one good thing to come out of all that had happened that day. His use of the silver cross for corporal punishment had diminished slightly if not totally. This little respite in meting out some serious injuries to innocent boys counted for nothing really. He was still a frightening, sadistic, spiteful and vengeful old man with a grudge towards all those who showed the slightest inkling of independence, freethinking or happiness.
The young boy now seemed to spend his days, letting his mind wander outside the walls of the village, as far away as possible. His imagination was fuelled in part by his maternal grandmother, Elena, a small, sprightly woman of eighty-five whose tales of mythical monsters, lost continents and intrepid explorers, made young Nicolae's life seem so much easier, so much more bearable.
Elena had been a member of a large troupe of trapeze artists, animal tamers, clowns and strongmen and had travelled not only all over the vast Russian lands, but also abroad in the west. She had been born into a family of circus artists and had left only at the age of sixty-nine when her beloved husband, the strongman Boris Borovski had suffered a fatal heart attack during a show. In her travels she had witnessed events and seen wonders and places, that Nicolae could only dream of. He would often dream of all these wondrous scenes and images, wishing with all his heart and soul to see them too. After her death of her beloved husband, she had settled with her daughter who at the time was a mere teenager, into the village and although she bemoaned the lack of life and excitement in the village, she felt she had experienced enough excitement and happiness to last her many lifetimes. And so, she was content.
She doted on her grandson. Filling his nights and days with laughter and adventure. She was the only person who was allowed to do this for some unknown reason. Neither his father nor the hated priest tried to curb this, and no harsh words were ever spoken to the old woman. A woman who had been privileged enough to be part of a famous circus troupe that had performed all over Russia. Even giving a Royal Command Performance for the Czar, the entire royal family and his entourage.
Those evenings with his grandmother still remained etched in his mind and in his occasional dreams even after all these years, dreams of colour, laughter, adventure and awe. She had seen so much and done so much, and yet had remained true to her origins and to her faith, had loved one man and one man alone and had shown respect to all those men, women and children she had met, lived with or worked with. One particular evening was still etched in his mind, it had been a few weeks after Sara's exile and although life was returning to normal, there was still a lot of tension in the air, with many people clearly missing the beauty and tale of the young, vibrant woman. The snow had begun to fall, and no one save the small children seemed to be excited by this event, because to most it meant hardship and food shortage, which in turn gave the priest plenty of reason to lecture on the issue of sin, and how they were being punished because of their ungodly behaviours. That evening in question, young Nicolae had been suffering from slight fever and his parents had decided that he would be well looked after and comfortable with his grandmother. His grandmother was still very active, and did not need a walking stick to move about; her mind was vibrant and wondering like her grandson's. His grandmother always made him some of her special treats which is what he called them, cinnamon cakes with raisins, which alone made the evening worthwhile. She had looked at him with pride and happiness as he had eaten her cakes and biscuits, stroking his dark hair, but her face hid some kind of worry, some kind of fear:
"Nicolae, you are my only grandson and you are the last of the line; one day you will have to see the world as it is one day, not the world the priest shows you, but the real world, a world of amazing sights and terrifying creatures and places. I have travelled in many countries and have met people who were very different to what they seemed; all these nights we have spent together is not just to amuse you, my dear child, but to also educate you and I trust that you have taken in all I have taught you and told you," she told him, her clear blue eyes looking carefully at him, almost as if searching for clues in his face.
The young boy nodded, slightly not worried, but wondering why she was sounding and looking so serious, but he had always been taught to respect his elders and not only did he respect her but he loved her dearly, so he nodded:
"Yes Nana, I remember everything you have taught me, I see the images in my mind, and one day I would like to see all those things you have seen," he replied, his eyes wide and his face eager. The old woman closed her eyes gently as if deep in thought and then opened them and smiled, she knew that one day Nicolae would see those strange creatures and visit strange and wonderful places just like she had done, maybe more:
"I do not want you to live here too long, for when you come of age, you must leave this place, all free spirits are stifled, but I want to prepare you for that day and for what you will meet," she exclaimed, her face more serious, her hand taking his. She took a deep breath and turned her head slowly towards the window, they could both see the snow falling heavily and they both knew that soon in the next week at the latest, a dense blanket of fog would descend and the wolves would begin to prowl around their small hamlet and the uncertainty would begin as it did every winter. People always died in winter, for no matter how much food and wood and goods had been stockpiled, they never seemed enough, and it was as if the Gods were testing the resolve of those people, abandoned to their fate by the Czar:
"I will tell you a story and I want you to remember it well, Nicolae for it will save you, it will keep you safe if you know it well," she whispered, her head bent down towards his. Nicolae did not understand why his grandmother was talking in riddles but he knew that anything she told him always had a meaning, had real significance so he just nodded sure that she would make everything clear for him:
"I remember many moons ago, when I was in my middle 20s, the whole circus decided to tour Transylvania, a country full of myths and legends; most of us were not superstitious, we had our feet firmly on the ground and head on shoulders and we thought the strange women who looked into tea cups and scattered twigs or used strange cards with bizarre drawings to foretell the future to be very backwards, but in fact these women had knowledge that went back generations, knowledge of arcane, powerful magic and creatures, of places lost in the graves. These women warned us not to go to these places, for they told stories of strange men and women who were neither alive nor dead, seemingly human, but with the power to change into mist or animals, with the ability to hypnotize,” she explained gravely. Nicolae was not scared, he had heard many fearful tales from his grandmother but he never had nightmares, always safe in the knowledge that everything she told him was for his own good. She looked at him and then carried on:
“You must watch out for them one day, they are called Nosferatu and they roam only at night, under the cover of the moon or total darkness, for the light of the sun turns them to dust,” she continued, her gaze in the distant.
“Why are you telling me this Nana?” he asked, his voice not betraying the slightest hint of worry.
“When we went to Transylvania my dear boy, we were lucky to show our abilities to the great Dracul prince, who kept the Turks at bay, and although many thought he was one of the Nosferatu, it was a gentleman who lived in a large house not far from the Prince, who invited us and asked us to dine with him who caught our curiosity. This gentleman whose name I will not utter here, was never seen in the daytime, only in the night, but it was during one of these nights when he had asked us to perform in his large hall, that he told us of the Great Ancestor. He told us the story of a powerful being created by demons and angels together to bring balance to humanity, but it was while living on Earth that this being that was called Cronos after the greatest Titan, became corrupted with the pleasures of the world and shifted to evil. Cronos, the Great Ancestor using Ancient magic that is now lost to us all and will never be discovered, changed himself into a human form, but so corrupt was he that he became enamoured of blood and flesh and became the first vampire, a pure breed who could walk the light as well as the Dark… There were many like him after, but during a great Purge started by a powerful sect of Monks, most died save one… His name is also lost in time, but the stranger whom we later found out was a Nosferatu, called him Secreto, which is the Spanish for Secret. He explained that this vampire had fled to somewhere on the globe where the Monks could not or would not follow, and legend said that he was still alive. The gentleman, a noble by birth disappeared that night but not before taking our youngest dancer, a seventeen-year-old girl called Maya. But I am telling you this story for something perturbs me; for I sense a change in this village, but I do not know if it be for the better or the worse,” and with that the topic was closed and no amount of prodding could get the old woman to carry on.
The days passed each other in monotonous succession, most of the populace quite resigned to their unchanging life, content that the Fates would never improve their fate. Father Morkolov's power remained dented but his treatment of Nicolae had become somewhat tempered, he was no longer subjected to the jagged edges of the silver cross, and the boy did not try and test his luck, because he knew fully well that the priest's temper was explosive and his fuse extremely short. He was still the favourite recipient of the manic, bigoted ranting of Morkolov on a daily basis, but he was content to put with those because as his grandmother would quite rightly point out "Stick and stones may break your bones, but the lunacies of an old, dribbling idiot will never hurt you" and how he had chuckled at that!.
In spite of the monotony of the seemingly endless days, Nicolae was glad that spring was arriving and that meant a bit more light and warmer and crispier air for him, but above all it meant a clear sky to allow him to indulge in his favoured past time of star gazing. With the help of his grandmother, he was becoming an expert at naming the various constellations that his eye could make out. His father had largely gone back to being the brooding impatient man he knew and loved, but this was tempered by the thought that he was there to protect his son from any threat, that he did care. The episode with Sara Viorleva has been largely forgotten by the people in the village but not by Nicolae and he could not remove the image of the young proud woman giving him a look of gratitude, and every day he wondered what fate had befallen her; without her the village seemed grey and dry, like a desert without water or plants.
Nicolae was now used to the routine of village life, but was lucky to have certain distractions that stopped him from becoming as arid and colourless as most of the populace, but then one day the arrival of a stranger, a man with the gaze of an eagle, the bearing of a proud lion and the reflexes of a panther, changed village life forever.
March had been fairly uneventful save for the village baker surviving a nasty fall from his window, another in a long list of mishaps due to his excessive consumption of home made ale, the crops had enjoyed a good dose of rain and the priest's authority remained as solid as ever, and with the added bonus that Nicolae had kept mostly out of trouble and his grades at school had improved visibly much to the annoyance of the priest who would no doubt have loved to have a few more excuses to berate him. Everything seemed to change in April, as the weather worsened, the sky darkened and filled with dark grey ominous-looking clouds, and then on the 5th of April the heavens opened and the downpour began, relentless, day and night, without mercy, slowly flooding the crops and turning the ground into one massive muddy quagmire. This gave Morkolov even more rope to hang his pupils with, more reason to berate them and brand them miserable, damned sinners. With the worsening weather tempers began to flare and little feuds were waiting to happen, but somehow miraculously no fatal incidents were recorded, except for a few cat fights between women, a few black eyes and bruised ribs and battered egos, but simmering beneath these frayed nerves and angry souls lay something more frightening and primal: a fear of the dark, the fear that an ancient primordial power would emerge from the night and kill them in their sleep, in their dreams. This was not the deluded, nonsensical, superstitious delusions of a peasant populace, but rather a warning that seemed to have been sent by the Gods who looked upon these mortals, although such talks could ignite the manic ravings of Father Morkolov.
Then in the late evening of April 15th, one of the soldiers standing on guard on the overlook tower near the large gates shouted that a coach was approaching rapidly, and then almost as if signalling this new arrival, as if to welcome him, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part revealing a full moon. Nicolae's grandmother sat in her rocking chair and sighed, her mind thinking back of the old tales of age-old demons. People began to emerge from their houses, excited at the thought that a stranger was going to honour their small village with his presence, and by the looks of the coach he was a wealthy and possibly important visitor. At the same time, some of them were suspicious and did not trust strangers, and the most suspicious of them all was Father Morkolov, as he came out of his church, his robe flapping behind him, a grim and stern expression on his face, almost as if the bad weather had transferred itself to him.
As the coach neared the gates, the Mayor, dressed in his ceremonial robe and with his Mayoral sash on him, ordered the guards to open the gates and as soon as they were wide enough, a black coach pulled by two horses as dark as the depths hell thundered through at full speed forcing people to scatter out of the way in shock. Nicolae was standing outside his door and as the coach sped past, he saw one of the dark curtains being parted and he saw the glimpse of narrow, thoughtful eyes and an aquiline nose facing his direction.
As Nicolae looked carefully at the stranger's eyes, the curtains closed again, and then a tall, cadaverous-looking man got down from the coach with one elegant, swift leap, landing smartly in front of a startled mayor. The man towered over all of them, but although pale and seemingly gaunt, he was thickset and with muscles. His eyes were of a clear blue, like a cloudless sky, and he would bat his eyelids slowly and methodically as if he did not carry the slightest worry in the world. The Mayor was trying to stand as tall, erect and proud as he could, but Nicolae thought to himself that he risked breaking his spine in attempt to reach the coachman's chest.
"My master is tired, is there a suitable hotel or residence where he would be able to rest and have some privacy?" he asked, his voice cold as ice, but polite.
The mayor stood up, his chest sticking out with pride:
"I am the mayor of this proud town, I will do my upmost to make his stay comfortable and enjoyable," he exclaimed, his voice full of pride and authority.
The man looked down on him, quite literally, and a small snide smile formed on the corner of his lips:
"My master is not here for enjoyment, if that were the case, he would have stayed in Moscow or St Petersburg, he is here for peace, privacy and quiet," he replied, his voice tinged with a slight smear of sarcasm.
The mayor's face reddened in embarrassment but before he could proffer a reply, the figure of the priest appeared into view, his face reddened by the effort of having to run from the town gates to the town square:
"Will your master be coming to Mass tomorrow," he asked, his tone half pleading, half menacing, and then he recoiled in shock as the coach doors burst open and a tall man with dark hair, eyes as dark as a starless night and the smile of a predator, almost glided out and stood right in front of the priest. The stranger was not as tall as his coachman, nor as physically imposing, but his presence was much more majestic, more menacing and exuded much more authority and power. He looked at the priest, his eyes seemingly boring into Morkolov's soul, and then his whole demeanour changed and charm and elegance oozed out of him:
"Mayor, as my valet, Vorok has rightly explained, I am here for rest, the journey has been long, and, without meaning to cause offence, I have searched for a place as far away from civilization as possible, and this place suits me perfectly. Whatever accommodation you are able to find me and my valet, I will be most grateful," he uttered, his voice as soft as silk.
The Mayor beamed proudly, and then beckoned to Sergei Morostov, the local innkeeper:
"This is Mr Morostov who has a fine inn and brewery in this town, and he will be delighted to offer fine accommodation for you and your valet, and I as Mayor of our humble but proud town of Valeshaa, welcome you both here, sir....?" he asked, proffering his hand.
The stranger smiled and took hold of his hand; it must have been a very strong shake because the Mayor visibly winched, bravely holding his proud smile:” I always welcome such warm reception, I find that small town are much more sincere with their warmth, Mayor; and you may address me as your Excellency if you wish. I am Count Ivan Sorodev of St Petersburgh," he replied still holding the Mayor's hand with considerable strength, even though to the naked eye it seemed as if he was barely touching it. Finally, to the Mayor's relief, he released his hold and bowed elegantly and turned to Mr Morostov, less of a man, more of a barrel, with a red face, the result of too much ale drinking, unkempt red hair and his large, handlebar moustache, his proud and joy:
"Mr Morostov, if you will be kind enough to accompany me to your fine establishment, my valet will take my luggage," he uttered, his voice still calm and polite, as soft as silk and at the same time as powerful as a tornado. Sergei Morostov bowed slightly, his overlarge stomach preventing him from bending forward more than a few inches and then he trundled off. The Count surveyed the curious crowd and smiled, and then he turned his gaze towards me and winked before turning and moving back into his coach. His valet stood impassively for a few seconds and then to everyone's astonishment, he leapt up and landed smoothly on top of the coach, and then as he pulled the reins, the two black horses moved forwards. Nicolae smiled to himself, wondering why the Count had winked at him and then he felt a presence by his side and he looked up and saw the priest giving him a hard, cold stare, upon which the young boy's smile faded rapidly, and he heard Morkolov's muttering: "And keep it that way, wretched boy", as he moved away.
Everyone had started drifting away, although some "prominent" members were slowly making their way towards the inn to get a glimpse or perhaps even a handshake from the Count. Nicolae looked at the coach speeding away, debated whether to follow it, but then realised that the visitor wanted to rest and not be gawped at like some circus attraction and besides, he was hungry and his mother would be expecting him for dinner. He knew that the arrival of such a rich and elegant stranger would be an amazing event for the people of this village, because very little happened, and more than that very little happened that could gladden people's hearts.
He reached the door of his house and it opened revealing the stern face of his grandmother who grabbed hold of him and dragged him in, a little too roughly to his liking:
"What's wrong Nana?" he asked, winching.
She gazed at him with her clear blue eyes, unsmiling, her brow creased with worry, leaning on her solid ebony stick, a present as rumours would have it from a rich admirer before she had married the circus strongman:
"I have been watching everything, there is a reason the Count has come here, and believe me when I say it is neither for the weather, nor for peace and quiet," she exclaimed.
The boy looked worriedly at his grandmother, and was suddenly gripped by a senseless but powerful fear, the fear that his beloved maternal grandmother would not be around to delight him with her wonderful stories, her wonderful buns and useful snippets of information. She then caught his worried expression and her own face softened, once again full of hope, joy and strength:
"Do not worry yourself, Nicolae; I have seen that gentleman before, I am sure of it, but I am not sure where and for what purpose, and although I sense that he poses no danger to me or you, I would not trust him entirely, his intentions are well hidden from me like an elusive shadow. Be mindful of his friendly disposition, and be mistrustful of his charm, for beneath the charm there lies a man used to getting his own way by whatever means he can," she exclaimed, her face friendly as she ushered the boy in, casting one last glance outside before shutting the door behind both of them.
An hour and a half later, Nicolae was lying on his back staring at the night sky, he marvelled at the expanse of space and at the wonderful sights around him, the towering mountains in the horizon to the East, and in the half-light strange shadows seemed to dance around them, like huge creatures spawned by the magic of those giants turned to stone. He lay there and thought about what his grandmother had said earlier, and tried to balance that with the friendly gesture the count had made at him, the mischievous wink. As these thoughts flew around his head, he heard a soft whisper behind him and he stood up and looked around, and gave a sharp intake of breath, the Count was standing next to him, his demeanour calm, and a friendly smile on his face:
"I apologise, young man, I did not mean to startle you, but I love staring at those mountains, and I have a feeling you do too," he uttered, his voice calm, as he held out a hand; Nicolae grabbed and felt a strong, but not painful hold, rather very firm and he imagined, capable of great feats of strength. He was hoisted up to his feet, so easily and effortlessly, he could have been a bag of air.
"I do love the mountains, legends say that they are giants turned to stone by the Gods," he said, staring carefully at the Count, particularly at his eyes, and it seemed as if strange red lights danced there, almost fleeting, trying not be caught out. The Count was staring at him too, but he was being much more subtle than the boy, and if the gawping Nicolae offended him in any way, he did not show it, almost as if he expected it:
"No, Nicolae, those mountains were not giants, they are prison for primordial demons, imprisoned there for eternity by your God," he explained, a gentle smile on his lips.
"Really? What kind of demons?" the boy asked, his eyes lighting up in curiosity.
Count Sorodev's eyebrow raised, and he smiled even more broadly and the boy took a step back as he spied the sharp, longish canines sticking out, but then he sighed and thought that all the strange tales spun by his grandmother about Nosferatus:
"Take a walk with me, Nicolae," the Count asked, his voice still polite; he must have noticed the boy stepping back alarmed, but he had chosen not to make any comment. The boy nodded and they headed in the direction of the mountains, the sky a strange mixture of red and blue:
"A long time ago, before men knew guns, before they found out the world is round, one of the angels cast from heaven created a small group of demons, made from his hatred for humanity, and these demons began to intermingle with women, and to corrupt the minds of all, causing them to do evil deeds of murder and theft and adultery; these demons were cast out and imprisoned in mountains like these by powerful monks, and it is why when you go near mountains you hear strange howlings; these are the angry howlings of these demons," he said, his face grave.
"Were these demons Nosferatus?" the boy asked and then he saw the count's eyes glow red, for a split second, and this time he jumped back alarmed, and his alarm turned to fear as the nobleman thrust out his arm and grabbed his shoulder in a vice-like grip, causing him to winch:
"How do you know of Nosferatus, and what do you know of them," he exclaimed, his voice now manacing and then realising that he was hurting a young boy, he relaxed his grip.
"My grandmother told me of them, they feed on human blood," the boy replied quietly, looking round him, hoping someone would rescue him.
"Ah, young Elena, no doubt; such a remarkable woman," the count replied letting go of the boy, and then he sighed:
"Forgive me for startling you and hurting you, it is a painful subject for me, Nosferatus," his voice sad, he looked tired, not just physically, but tired of life.
Then he turned and they both saw a figure in the distance, it was Nicolae's father, and the young boy realised that they had started walking back towards the village, so engrossed had he been that he did not even remember the itinerary he and the Count had taken.
Eventually they met up with Nicolae's father, he looked worried and then as he saw them approach, his face showed evident relief, and he took off his cap as he saw the Count:
"Your Excellency, I hope my son has not been bothering you; he is sometimes too curious for his own good, but he is a good boy" he exclaimed, bowing slightly.
The Count shook his head, smiling:
"No, he has been a pleasure to talk to, there is nothing wrong with curiosity, nor with thirst for knowledge; as long as he remembers that there is but one God, he should not hesitate to always learn; do not let that wretched priest stifle his curiosity and intellect,"
Nicolae's father could only nod, surprised at the count's remark about the priest, which he shared to a large extent, but before he could offer a reply, the Count nodded again, and ruffling the boy's hair, he smiled:
"I will retire to my bed, it has been a tiring day, but not all of it wasted, thanks to you, Nicolae," and he walked away leaving a startled Nicolae and his equally amazed father.
As they walked back home together, his father smiled to himself with pride, his heart glowing inside him so to speak:
"My son has captivated a Count; I knew my boy was special," he thought nodding at the passing figure of the Mayor who looked at him quizzically.
"If only he knew," he thought, chuckling to himself, stroking Nicolae's hair, playfully and was happy to see the boy smile at him, he couldn't wait to tell his wife and his mother-in-law, they would be so impressed, although then he frowned thinking that Elena would probably appear none chalant, seeing that she has entertained the Royal family in her youth, but he was sure that because it was her grandson, she would be very happy. As they opened the door, he quickly blurted out:
"Nicolae has interested the Count, he kept his Excellency entertained with his intelligence," and Nicolae saw two contrasting responses, his mother smiling and running towards him and to his bitter disappointment, his grandmother's face became dark and she stood up from the dining table and made her way towards her room, muttering.
Husband and wife looked at each other and then he shrugged and sat at the table, his wife shaking her head, and calling her mother who after a few minutes emerged, her face like thunder, refusing to explain the reason for her displeasure, but every so often throwing a cross look at her grandson, who for some unknown reason had suddenly fallen out of favour with her. Nicolae was close to tears, because of all the people he really wanted to please, it was his grandmother, the one person who had really taught him something meaningful about life, but he bit his lip and carried on eating, trying his hardest to ignore the dark looks she was giving him. There was complete silence at the table and all attempts to start a conversation or to break the ice failed miserably. Eventually, Nicolae left the table and started heading towards his room to get ready for bed; his countenance still one of utter misery, and his grandmother's dark looks following him as he rose and left for his room. As he entered his little bedroom, the moon seemed to shine in intensity, directing its powerful beam at him, almost as if trying to lift his spirits.