Jeanne Kalogridis

LORD OF THE VAMPIRES


Prologue
Memorandum of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia
Bucharest, Curtea Domneasca, 28 December 1476.
Outside, the promise of snow; the weather has turned bitter and the sky leaden, cloaking the overhead sun. Yet the air tingles, as if with unhurled lightning. It dances upon my skin.

We wait.

He comes…Basarab is coming….

I smile up from parchment, ink and quill at my trusted aide Gregor's face, draped with shadows from the torchlight. Child of boiers, the Roumanian nobility, his features are mine - sharp, hawkish nose and chin, large heavy-lidded eyes, raven hair falling to his shoulders. No doubt we are related by blood, distant cousins at the least; he is at most half a thumb taller, so close are we in height.

The resemblance ends there, for the intelligence possessed by our forebears flows in my veins alone. Look at him: The fool cannot resist peering from time to time through the curtains, at the city spreading out below us, at the high, fortified walls built at my command. At what lies - what will lie soon - beyond those walls. He thinks I do not know.

Laiota Basarab with an army of fourth thousand Turks, come to murder me inside these stone walls and steal my throne, so recently reclaimed. And I with but half as many men, and my champions returned to their northern kingdoms.

The traitor comes…

You know all that can be known of treachery, do you not, Gregor? Oh yes, you return my glance with the most fawning of courtesies, but I see your heart; I hear your very thoughts. You swear fealty to me, the voivode, but your loyalties lie with the inconstant boier, the nobles who will again deliver their country into the hands of Basarab, lover of Truks, for the sake of a mercenary peace.
All this did the Dark One reveal to me last night within the Circle. I doubt it not, for I have of late acquired further talents unknown to common mortals: the reading of the thoughts and hearts. As Gregor paces uneasily before the curtain, I see now his guilt as clearly as I see the words scrawled here before me.

I know treachery myself too well, having been often betrayed. Betrayed by my father, when he surrendered my brother and myself, both of tender age, to be the sultan's hostages. Betrayed by my fair brother, Radu, lover of women and men and the sultan Mehmed, on whose account Radu seized my throne from me.

(And you are dead now, are you not, my dear younger brother? Killed at last by the womanish acts that won you Mehmed's heart and army - and thus my kingdom. Those beautiful eyes the colour of blue-green sea are closed forever; those full red lips which sought the breasts of women with the same fervour that they suckled at the sultan's lap, shall never kiss again. May your syphilitic Turkish lovers follow you soon!)

Betrayed even by my one trusted friend, Stefan cel Mare, whose kingdom I helped win. (You play the friend once more, my Stefan, now that it falls to your advantage. But I will not forget or forgive your maneuvers that put Basarab in my place. I take your help now that regret overtakes you; but the time for recompense will come.)

Still quiet. No cries from the watchtower, just the hiss of the fire, the scratch of the quill against parchment, the silence of imminent snow. And the scuffle of Gregor's boots against stone as he paces; I am far too entertained by his anxiety to give him leave to go. An hour ago, I bade him: "Send to the stable for horses, one for each of us, and a day's provisions."

Ah, the look of ill-concealed terror in his eye, at the thought the boiers' scheme might go awry! "Where shall we go, my lord?"

Had I been in my usual humour, I would not have deigned to reply with more than a scowl (nor would Gregor have dared to ask, had his desperation not been so great). As it was, my amusement was such that I answered, "Riding."

And, as he backed away, bowing, towards the door, his expression one of comical dubiousness, I added - loudly so that those standing watch at the entry would hear: "And send in two guards. I am not of a mind to wait alone."

They heard and entered without waiting for Gregor's relay - two fine strong Moldavians, one dark and the other golden, both tall and armed with swords, both left behind as tokens of Stefan's guilt over past infidelities. This I did so that Gregor might not, should he arm himself in his absence, return and indulge his anxiousness to see me destroyed.

Later, when he returned, cheeks and nose reddened and glistening from the cold, to report that the horses should be ready within the hour, I sent him straightway on another errand: "Fetch clothing for me and yourself and bring it here, to my private chambers. We shall go disguised as Turks."

This gave him great alarm, which he barely stifled. Did I know of the boier plot to send Basarab and the

Turks to slay me and my army? Did I suspect him?

In his veiled eyes I saw the machinations of a traitorous mind. I had given no clear sign of suspicion yet; certainly I could have easily ordered the bodyguards to dispatch him had I discovered the truth. Was this one of the fearsome voivode's fatal games - was I delaying his execution in order to savour - or was it chance that I had chosen this moment to leave my stronghold disguised, alongside the man who would play my Judas?

He left, and in moments returned with clothing: a peaked cap, tunic and wool cloak to shield against the cold. He assisted me with my dress under the attentive eye of the Moldavians, watched as I wound the turban round my head, and looked askance when I asked him:

"Olmeye hazirmisin?" Are you prepared to die?, for I am as fluent in the speech of my enemies as I am my own tongue, having spent my youth as the sultan's prisoner. I know their dress, their mannerisms, and can pass for one of them. And I lughed, for though he is their minion -- he who serves the boiers serves the Turks - he understood not one word I had uttered. He laughed also, yellowed teeth flashing beneath the drooping moustache so like mine, thinking my mirth sprang from my successful impersonation.

Then I went over to the wall and lifted down from its place of honour a great scimitar, gleaming in the firelight, and with it a curving sheath. This I fastened to my belt, then said:

"Dress."

He did so, and I looked on in silent approval at a body small in stature, but muscular, broad of chest and shoulder. His scars are fewer - he has not been tested in battle as often as I - and he lacks half a front tooth, but the similarities are enough.

After a time, a boy ran up to say the mounts were ready. But I would not be rushed. I had begun this entry and was obliged to finish it - for this will be my last remembrance as a mortal. I had learned from the Dark Lord in Circle the hour of Basarab's coming and knew I was still safe and further I was not inclined to end Gregor's anxiety. Let him wait! Let him suffer in uncertainty - which he does to this very moment, pacing in his Turkish robes, praying that I will change my mind and remain here, to be slaughtered.
Were the guards not here, he would risk killing me now. I know that the moment we are alone on horseback, he will seek the first opportunity; for that, I am ready.

I must not die now! Not so close to the touch of the Dark Lord, and Eternity…

******

Snagov Monastery, 28 December.
To the north we rode upon black stallions, first along the banks of the Dimbovita, then across the frozen ground into the bare-limbed Vlasia Forest, tinged with evergreen. The air was grey with smoke and the approaching storm, and laden with a strange, fleeting smell: of lightning spent, of iron wielded; of blood and snow.

I galloped at full speed, wind stinging my eyes, keeping Gregor well behind me - a danger, perhaps, but I had seen him dress and knew he carried no weapon save the sword at his waist. If he wished to kill me at that moment (and he did), then he would have to overtake me, throw me from my horse, slay me before I could draw my own sword. Perhaps the singular intent in my eyes frightened him; if so, he was wise to fear. He might have turned and hastened away to the south, returned to his beloved Basarab, and warned them of my escape to the north - but that action would have alerted me at once to treachery and bettered my chance of survival.

So we continued apace over hard earth and rocks and dead crackling leaves until at last we reached the banks of a great lake, frozen solidly, its surface opaque grey-white dirtied by swirls of dark suspended flotsam. At its centre stood the island fortress of Snagov, the spires of the Chapel of the Annunciation emerging from behind high walls at the water's very edge.

I dismounted and unsheathed my sword - with a smile to ease Gregor's growing trepidation - and led my horse onto the ice. "No need to draw your arms," I told my uncertain companion. "Mine are sufficient to protect us." I nodded for him to precede me across the river to the great iron gate.

In my eyes I saw once more the moment of decision: Should he smite me now, and return to Basarab's army a hero? Should he hope for an opportunity inside Snagov's walls, and venture forth upon the ice? (It was my right as sovereign to require that someone else test the ice's strength.) Why had I drawn my sword? Was this merely another of the prince's eccentricities, or had I deduced his deception?

A flicker of fear again crossed his features. I was, after all, Dracula, the son of the Devil, the passionate fighter whose madness and boldness knew no limits. I had ridden at night into Mehmed's very camp and slaughtered a hundred sleeping Turks with the sword I now grasped. If he drew his weapon now and openly challenged me, would he be the survivor?

With the softest of sighs he swung down from his horse and led the creature onto the frozen lake. So we made our way toward sanctuary, the horses' hooves ringing hollowly against the ice, displacing small clouds of mist. At last we arrived at the great stone wall I had built during my reign, which had transformed the island monastic village into a more suitable fortress for guarding the treasure of the Wallachian realm. Ringing that wall were trees, their naked limbs clawing at the stones as if pleading for entry.

A cry came from the watchtower as the sentinel spotted us; I cupped my hands round my mouth and called a reply which echoed off the stone. We moved toward the high wooden gate, studded with pales, and waited on the ice uneasily, I maneuvering myself so that I stood behind Gregor. The indecisiveness, the tension, the guilt, could easily be read from the cant of the man's shoulders. We stood without speaking and watched the first snowflakes sail silently down, stinging my cheeks like cold tears.

At last the great gate creaked open on its rusting hinges and we were received by two armed guards, who immediately bowed low when they confirmed that their guest was, indeed, the Prince of Wallachia. I ordered one to take our horses to the stable and have food brought; the other I bade accompany us, ostensibly to build a fire. The three of us walked together on the ice-and-mud road past the high watchtower, the beautiful chapel, the great monastery, up towards the beautiful palace I had erected in better days. The thought evoked a flare of anger: Gregor did not deserve to set foot in this place built by the blood of loyal subjects, a sanctuary dear to my heart and which I would never again see after this night.

But I held my temper and walked together with my traitor into the palace's private chambers - which, being long unused, were so cold that our breaths still hung in the air as mist. I moved into my private dining-room, which looked onto a small cell with an Orthodox shrine to the Virgin Mary. The accompanying soldier, a strong young man, set at once to the task of building a fire.

With a flourish, I removed my cape, belt and sword, setting them all down on the floor near the hearth - and the soldier - and motioned for Gregor to do the same. I saw his swift secretive glance at my weapon, then at the soldier, then back at me; in his eyes shone the reluctance of the coward. Slay me he could, but at the cost of his own life.

"Gregor, my friend." I motioned for the now-tired man to sit across from me at the ancient dining table. I was cordial, conciliatory. "It is only right that you know the reason for our swift journey. I have need of… funds, and so I came here to avail myself of some of my treasure. There are few I can trust with such a task, even at the castle… and so I did not speak of it to you. We shall be returning shortly to Bucharest, but in the meantime, rest, and eat."

I saw the mercenary light in his eye which I had hoped to evoke. He could wait until the treasure was in our hands, and once he and I were alone in the Vlasia Forest…

After a time the fire grew, and the room began to warm. I bade the soldier stay with us and stand guard. A white-bearded monk with fewer teeth than I have fingers entered with a tray of food - a cold roasted chicken, a flask of wine, bread, cheese. He served us most capably, reaching out to refill our goblets with a hand so gnarled by age - blue veins standing out in bas relief beneath a parchment-thin layer of pale yellow skin - that I was astonished it did not tremble. Even more laudably, he showed no fear, no cringing before the great prince, only silent dignity. This I found agreeable, for I am usually tended by fawning fools, but his singular self-possession may well have been sparked by disdain for my heresy. (I had spent years under house arrest in Hungary; the only way to gain King Matthias' trust - and regain my throne - was to convert to Catholicism. It was a political move, nothing more - in Turkey I was forced to kneel upon prayer rugs facing Mecca and pray to Allah - but an unfortunate one, for it has earned me the contempt of my own people.)

Should I have chosen death instead?

No. There is nothing noble about death, even that of a martyr.
Yet the old monk feels I have betrayed God, and therefore deserve His punishment, just as Gregor deserves mine.

Perhaps the monk would be surprised to know that I indeed fear God. Fear Him because I know His heart is like mine - blackened by power, thrilling at the ability to dictate the hour and fashion of men's deaths; reveling in their suffering.

Nay - his heart is more evil then mine, and more pitiless. He strikes down young, old, man, woman, child, without regard for their loyalty, their wit, their circumstance. I spare the innocent and kill only those who betray me; I kill to instruct the survivors through spectacle.

God has no such qualms. He slays believer and infidel alike, and the degree of suffering He inflicts bears no relation to the victim's piety. Nor does He concern Himself with justice - He has permitted usurper after usurper to steal my rightful kingdom, and now that I have reclaimed it after years of arduous struggle, He will not help me maintain it. Thus I could never ally myself with Him, especially since He is too jealous to impart the immortality I seek.

Enough of God; I speak now of Gregor. He and I shared our Last Supper in silence, and when he had eaten to his satisfaction and pushed away from the table with a sigh, I told him:

"My friend. My heart is heavy of late, for I know that support for my reign is uncertain. The boiers have turned against me" - and when he began a supposedly innocent protest, I raised my hand. "Do not think I do not know it! And now that Stefan has withdrawn his forces, the situation is more precarious." This he could not disavow. After all, to spare them danger, I had not permitted my wife and sons to join me at my Bucharest court. I paused and, in a tone of utmost earnestness, asked, "Gregor. Will you pray for me? For your prince's safety and success? I know you are a man of faith, and I am deemed by some a heretic…" And here I paused to steal a sidewise glance at the grizzled monk, who stood in readiness to serve (albeit closer to the fire, to warm his old bones). But the brother's gaze was hooded, his expression unreadable; perhaps he was deaf, I thought, and had not heard. Or perhaps he was simply too wise a man to make open his contempt, knowing that I would not forgive it. Beseech God and the Virgin on my behalf."

Of course, Gregor could do no else. He nodded, and with solemnity, I rose from the table and led him to the monastic little cell, whose door lay ajar so that its interior was entirely visible from our dinner table. I crossed myself (in good Orthodox fashion, which I had no doubt the old monk noticed) and, stopping at the doorway, gestured for my aide to enter and kneel on the small rug in front of the solitary shrine to the Mother of Christ.

He sank down with a groan and creaking knees; like me, he is no longer young. "Pray for us," I said tenderly, and gestured to the young soldier by the fire to take up Gregor's own weapon and stand in my place. I could see my kneeling Judas' face in profile - how like my own it was! He might have been my brother; my own back-stabbing brother. I watched that sun-weathered face, with its sharp but delicate nose and chin, its thin, trembling lips beneath the dark drooping moustache. I savoured the charming slow dawn of terror in those large eyes, black as mine were green, as the soldier lifted the sword. Then I returned to my place at the dinner table - the tableau was entirely visible from my seat, according to my own design (it was not the first time I had made use of the cell, though I suspect it will be the last) - and lifted my glass to drink deep of sweet, stinging wine ere I spoke again.

"Pray, my friend. Pray for my long life…and death to those who would betray me."

He let go a wrenching sob and pressed his palms together in earnest supplication, turning on his knees to face me. The little rug moved with him, rippling. "My lord, I swear that I have not deceived you!"
I let a long, tortured moment pass for him before I replied, my voice soft, curious. "Did I accuse you?" His eyes widened; then he blinked, and pressed his quivering lips together. In truth, had he been able to think of a compelling reply, and had I trusted my magic any less, I might have spared him then. But I was certain of the vision that had come to me in Circle, and my own divinations. Even were I not, the look of stricken self-incrimination which descended at that instant upon Gregor's features would have convinced me. A single shining drop slid down his cheek.

"Oho!" I exulted. "Is this a tear?"

"My lord, I beg -."

"Turn!" I cried, gesturing for the soldier to brandish the sword. His cravenness so fuelled my rage that that it would no longer be submerged. "Turn, and pray to the Virgin! Pray that she might grant you mercy, and me victory over Basarab!"

He knit his hands together fervently and once more faced Mary's shrine; beneath his knees, the small rug bunched up further to reveal a seam in the wooden floor. Yet my would-be deceiver never noticed; his attention had become sincerely fixed on the icon of the Virgin Mother, and he began to babble, knuckles pressed to the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed shut.

"Have mercy! God and Holy Mother - have mercy! Grant my sovereign long life, and victory, and convince him that I have not betrayed him…"

"Yes," I whispered. "Perhaps God will be merciful to you - but He has never been thus to me, and so I will not bargain with Him."

"My Lord," he cried, still facing the shrine with his eyes closed so that I was uncertain whether he addressed God or me. "My Lord, I am innocent of any crime against you! What can I say, what can I do, to prove my perfect loyalty?"

"Die with bravery," said I. "Your life is already forfeit, Gregor. Make your peace, and quickly. I shall not die outside Bucharest as my father did, struck down by an assassin."

He raised his face towards Heaven, then opened his praying hands as one might a book and pressed them to his eyes, weeping. I studied his reaction to the revelation that all hope was lost: noted the electric agony, the utter desperation, reflected in each aspect of his body, his voice (for his sobs grew resoundingly loud and shrill). I have been my whole life a student of Death, staring into Its face in hopes that I might understand and be able to accept my own end. How many men have I killed in my life? A thousand? No, it must be many, many more. I know the face of Death; I watched more than a hundred Turks meet their slow deaths in the Forest of the Impaled alone. I have heard men's sobs and screams, and the slow sighing sound made by a body pulled down onto the stake by its own weight.

And in each instance I have looked into their eyes and tried to understand the Secret hidden there as they passed from life into the Abyss.

But as I contemplated Death - and came to see that God was not just, and that there was no meaning there, only indignity and suffering - I came to know that I could never accept it. I had been cheated of too much that was rightfully mine in this life; I had ruled my father's, my grandfather's, kingdom for only a handful of years before I was ousted unjustly. I am royalty by birthright; but I spent my whole youth as a Turkish prisoner, and eight of my middle years as a prisoner of the Hungarian king. My kingdom has been stolen from me twice, once by my own brother: if I relinquish it a third time, I shall have recompense - I who am shrewder, more cunning, more deserving of my people's adoration than Matthais, than Mehmed, than Radu or Basarab.

Death is surely closer to me now than at any other time. Yet God and the angels would not grant me my desire: immortality. There is only One other capable.

***

As Gregor wept and prayed in vain, the soldier in the doorway turned his hopeful young face towards me and motioned with his sword, his gaze a question. He will make a fine assassin, that one, for his eyes were bright with eagerness and yearning, much as mine.

I gave a single shake of my head; not yet. Instead, I rose and walked over to stand beside my cheerful young killer, taking care that my boots struck the floor solidly. As I'd planned, Gregor heard. His back tensed; I knew he expected Death to come up behind him, in the form of the sword gripped in the young soldier's hand. And though he dared not turn his head completely round to look straight at me - he had witnessed my sensitivity to the smallest presumption in these situations many times, and feared provoking a burst of rage - he inclined it slightly over his shoulder, and swiveled his eyes in an effort to look behind him.

Wild those eyes were, with more white in them than I had ever seen. I was reminded strongly of the bulging, frantic eyes of cattle at the slaughter.

"My lord, my lord, my lord, you kill an innocent man!"

"Indeed?" I asked, my voice once again calm. "Gregor…" And here I affected the utmost sincerity. "I am a hard man and cannot tolerate any degree of duplicity. I am cruel to those who betray me, but just to the loyal. Can you swear before God that you have acted with naught but total faithfulness towards me, your sovereign?"

"I swear it before God, my lord!"

I paused for a moment to watch his expression, and the wild swing there between hope and doom. After a time, I said, "Very well, my friend. These are dangerous times for me; I have no choice but to test the loyalty of those in my inner circle. I believe you."

Oh, the joy upon his face! And once again tears, but these were tinged with happy relief instead of fear.

"But," said I, for he had begun to struggle to his feet. At that word, he sank at once back down. "You have passed only narrowly. Pray now for my victory over all enemies - and thank God for your deliverance."
He began to do so, and his exultant smile broadened when I motioned for the soldier - now bitterly disappointed - to retreat back to the fireplace, to stand beside the grimly silent old monk. But I remained within the doorway.

And when I deemed the time right - and could no longer restrain my fury at Gregor's betrayal and his cowardice - I reached for a wooden lever set within the wall just outside the cell. With vehement effort,

I pulled.

The sliding sound of wood against wood. Arms flung into the air, a piteous cry of disappointment and fear.

And upon his face animal terror again, a sight rapid yet indelible in the swift second before he disappeared down into Hell.

Then the sharper screams of pain as I ran forward towards the gaping trapdoor to observe my handiwork.

This is how God feels when He looks on the faces of the dead: a sense of power and accomplishment far, far sweeter and more intoxicating than love.

Gregor had fallen into the shallow pit upon his knees and thus, kneeling, he would die. For the keenly sharp iron pales were fastened in the ground at regular intervals, to ensure death, and the pit so placed that he could not fall forward - only back, despite his flailing, onto the spikes. (This so I might better see his face.) One had caught his long dark hair and grazed the back of his skull, leaving his head tilted slightly forward; another emerged bloodied from his right breast. Yet others protruded from the crook of his right arm, from the center of his left palm (in Christlike fashion), while others sight unseen no doubt pierced his lower legs and held him fast.

His eyes were open wide, in blank astonishment which was slowly fading. I think he was not quite dead, and so I squatted on my haunches and called softly down:

"May God send your faithless soul straight to Hell. You shall die, and Basarab shall die, but I shall live forever."

And I bent forward, turning so that the two living men behind me could not see, and lifted up Gregor's limp right hand. Upon this I put my own ring.

Then I rose and sent the young soldier just outside the room, to guard us, and took the old monk aside. Him I gave a mission: that he should take whatever strong young brothers he needed, and take the body across the lake into the Vlasia Forest, and there behead it. As for the head, they would cut a hold in the ice and throw it into the freezing waters.

Fear was in the old man, too, after what he had seen; he listened in silence and uttered no protest, even though I was asking him to do the unthinkable - to leave a body without proper burial for the carrion birds in the forest.

And when I had sent him away to do his work, I called my eager young assassin into my chambers and said, "The old monk will return with some brothers to fetch the body for burial outside Snagov. When they return from across the water, I want you to be waiting for them in the watchtower; do not let them back inside, but meet them at the gate and kill them."

This he agreed to eagerly. Then I bade him send another trustworthy soldier to stand outside the door and guard my private chambers throughout the night, so that no one should be permitted in.

But first, I helped him remove Gregor's still bleeding warm body from its bed of stakes and wrap it in the traitor's cloak and the now-tattered rug, to spare the floor from stain. Then the soldier dragged Gregor by the heels out into the hallway, and there they remained to await the brothers.

As for me, I bolted the door behind them, as I required privacy in order to properly cast a Circle. Now that I had made my escape from Basarab and my Judas, it was time to make my escape from Death. For it was clear to me that my success as an earthly prince was not to be, and that if I remained as I was, my death was assured. Thus I sought another realm, one that was deathless yet still allowed me power over mortals.

And so I turned, thinking to go back to the small shrine where so many have met death, and fetch from another hidden trapdoor my magical tools, that I might cast a Circle and summon again the Dark Lord for the consummation of our bargain.

Yet as I turned, I espied before the fireplace a ragged servant child stirring the fire with a poker. The sight so startled me that I cried out: "You! Boy! How and when did you come in here?" For I wanted to know whether the child had had opportunity to overhear my plan to leave Gregor's decapitated body in the forest, then have the monks killed. From the child's size, he surely was no more than in his sixth year, and most likely understood little of what he had heard; but children are parrots, and I would not risk even the frailest chance of failure.

At my shout, the tiny creature did not so much as quiver, but continued tending the fire with preternatural calm. Infuriated, I strode up behind it, snatched up my sword, and drew it from its sheath, thinking to cleave that small body in two.

But in the instant ere I struck, the child turned to me and smiled.

Boy? Girl? I could not have said. I only knew in that instant that I gazed upon the most exquisitely beautiful creature I had ever seen. Its long, curling hair shone like gold in sunlight, its skin gleamed like polished nacre, its lips bloomed like the tenderest pink rose around the perfect pearls of its teeth. The wool cape round its frail shoulders was tattered almost to shreds, frayed, worn, and so smudged with grim that the fabric's original colour was impossible to guess. Yet the filth did not dim the wearer's glory, but served to enhance it by the contrast.

Surely there was nothing in this world lovelier or more delicate than this small creature. Yet it was not until

I gazed into its eyes - eyes bluer than sea or sky or sapphire, framed by fine golden lashes and pale downy brows - that I saw the infinite intelligence there, the wisdom and knowledge greater than any man could ever possess… and at the same time, an innocence deeper and more genuine than any human infant could possess. I thought, These are the eyes of the Christ.

My weapon clattered to the floor. Despite myself, I shuddered, but through sheer strength of will did not fall to my knees; pride would not permit me so soon to echo Gregor. But - how difficult to be honest - I was filled with awe and fear.

For I knew I looked upon the Dark Lord, come to me for the first time without my summoning Him in Circle. Always He had come at my urging; I had been the one in control of my fate, of my contract with Him. The Circle gave me power over Him, made me His lord, made Him subject to my command - so long as I was willing to make the appropriate sacrifice.

Now, it seemed, He was no longer mine to control. The thought provoked bitter horror.

"You are the Dark One," I told Him, though in truth I had never seen anything so bright and shining as this smiling little pauper. He had come to me many times in the form of darkness, as the featureless shadow of a man blacker than midnight; twice, he had come to me as a bearded man more ancient and wizened then the old monk, with eyes and innocent and wise as these.

Innocent as a dove, yet wise as a serpent…

"I am He," said the little beauty pleasantly. "I have read your intent and have saved you the need for a formal summons. What do you offer in exchange for my gift, O Prince?" He spoke with a soft, lisping child's voice, yet his words and demeanor were those of a sage.

"If you have read my intent, then you already know."

He laughed, sweet and high. "Let us affirm the contract by your stating it."

I paused. I had never had great regard for any of my family, because of my betrayal at the hands of my own father and brother. And I had no love for my second wife, the Hungarian noblewoman Ilona; she had been like my conversion to Catholicism, or the raid on Srebrenica, one part of a long-term plan to win King Matthias' favor and thus my freedom and kingdom. She had given me two sons: my namesake Vlad, for the moment heir to the Wallachian throne (though unfortunately not to my intelligence), and Mircea, who even in his youth clearly resembles my treacherous brother, Radu, in both appearance and feminine affectation.

But of all my family, I possessed - still possessed - some paternal interest in my eldest son, Mihnea, given me by my beloved dead Ana. He alone shares my shrewdness and ambition; were I to choose one person on earth I should least wish to sacrifice, it would be he.

Yet I was a keen and ambitious child, eager to learn from my father and fulfill my duties as his heir, and he betrayed me without hesitation to the Turks.

So it was I answered, "In return for immortality, I offer up the soul of my eldest son."

"Not enough," replied He sternly, to my astonishment. "Not enough; for immortality lasts forever, but my pleasure at receiving Mihnea's soul is temporary. We must have a continuing bargain. The soul of the eldest son of each generation. And you shall bear the responsibility for delivering it to me."
I paused only a heartbeat at the thought of such a responsibility's cost. "Very well. Each generation, I shall deliver into your power the eldest son. But at what moment shall I become immortal?"

"The change shall begin this night, once the sun has set, and be accomplished by the dawn. One warning: In the morning you must closet yourself away to rest undisturbed. You will no longer be a man, but an altogether different creature."

"How shall I be changed?"

The child smiled, but there was no contempt, no condescension, in His eyes. "That depends upon your own heart and mind. For each one is different. You shall become more powerful, but there will be conditions upon that power. There are always conditions. I leave you to discover them yourself."

"Conditions?" I savoured this new information, and experienced a sudden revelation which restored a shred of my former confidence that I should be able to control this entity, and thus my ultimate fate.

"And have you no conditions upon your own power?"

Another laugh, sweet and tinkling, then silence. The child regarded me with abrupt solemnity. "There remains only one thing to be done to complete our exchange."

As he spoke, the flesh upon my arms and nape prickled. This was the moment I had long awaited, the moment which had sustained me during these last bitter days of knowing my earthly kingdom and my life would soon be forfeit: the moment I stepped over the threshold into immortality.

"A kiss," the Dark One said. "Only a kiss." And He stepped from the hearth and rose on tiptoe, arms at His side, the pink petals of His lips pursed in anticipation.

I moved towards Him, at last understanding as I sank down why He had appeared as a child: that I should have to bow to Him to accept His gift. The thought rankled, as I have bowed to no one but my father and Matthias, and then only with reluctance, and then only with reluctance. It also filled me with foreboding, for it underscored the fact that the Dark Lord was no longer mine to control, and summon when I wished: I was now under His control.

But I could not accept death, and so I bowed and kissed Him. And at the moment my lips touched that infinitely tender and immortal flesh, I felt of surge of power, of exhilaration, move from him into me.
I stared into His eyes and saw them deepen from sky-blue to indigo, the colour of night. Dark and shining they were, and magnificent, eyes that made a man want to do nothing but stare into them for eternity. I could not resist. As I looked deep into those eyes, I saw in them the gaze of the Beloved, the gaze of the dead. The gaze of the only female I had permitted myself to love, my dead Ana; the seductive, beautiful, treacherous gaze of Radu; the shrewd, calculating gaze of my father, Vlad, and behind it, infinite Darkness…

So deep did I fall into that Darkness that when I came to myself some moments - or was it hours? - later, I opened my eyes to find myself kneeling before the hearth. The child had vanished, and the fire had gone out, leaving only ash and glowing embers. Yet I felt no chill; my limbs, my head, my chest, were atingle with strange sensation. Not the tingle of limbs gone numb, but rather an odd sense of internal movement, as though my body had been emptied of its contents, then refilled with humming bees. I felt strangely light. And when I rose to my feet, I did so easily, without the pains of age and creaking bones that have afflicted me these past years.

Even my vision was enhanced; the glow from the ashes in the fireplace seemed impossibly bright and kissed by rainbow colours. Indeed, as I gazed around the room, I saw each object more sharply and in more detail than I ever had as a youth; each was imbued with a startling depth of colour and texture. I turned slowly, taking in each sight with a child's sense of wonder and laughing aloud at the sheer pleasure of it. I could see every sparkling grain of sand that comprised each stone in the hearth, every hair-fine crack in the mortar.

Yet the light from the tapers (which were still burning, though half consumed and standing in pools of wax) dazzled my eyes so painfully that I blew out each but one. That meager light proved more than sufficient, for the colour and detail faded not at all, even though a swift glance through the window showed darkness and swirling snow. The sun had set, and the storm had come at last.

I hurried to the mirror, eager to inspect my face for changes - but alas! When I peered into the polished metal surface, my visage was paler and indistinct, fading away as one might imagine a ghost dissolves into night. I had feared such might happen, for I had heard tales from my nursemaid and other servants about the faces of the dead not reflecting in mirrors. Was the undisclosed cost of my bargain invisibility?
A discreet knock at the door: I called out and heard in reply the polite voice of my young assassin. The monks had returned from the forest and had been killed according to my instructions.

As a test to see whether I remained visible to mortals, I opened the door and peered out at the scraggly-bearded soldier. "Excellent," said I, expecting him to scream at my disembodied voice, or instead to walk past me and peer beyond me, searching for me inside the room.

At the very least, I expected him to see what I saw: a disappearing man. Yet he gazed directly at my face, and bowed, giving no sign of distress or amazement. "Very good, my lord," said he, and I told him to ready my horse and bring it to the palace, for I would be leaving the monastery shortly.

"But the snow has come, my lord. It is not safe to travel."

I laughed in disdain, then repeated my request and gave him leave to go. I no longer possess any fear of cold or snow or Basarab. I fear but one thing: the Dark Lord.

The horse stands ready now, but I am obliged to write the story of my transformation down first, for surely over the coming centuries I shall forget the circumstances and the wonder of it. One day soon the announcement shall be made that the Wallachian prince is dead, for it is only a matter of time before Gregor's headless body is discovered in the forest. I have no doubt that Basarab has laid waste to my army and my castle at Bucharest, but I have my victory. In a generation, he will be dead, whilst I shall live forever. I have sent a courier with a message for Ilona and my sons to meet me at our new estate in the Carpathians.

And now I ride north, to become Legend.