MY ears popped as the coach climbed up into the steep Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. I was on my way to Bran Castle to meet with the count who resided there and to study certain volumes said to be contained within the Castle library. I had written to Count Michael from Great Britain over two months ago, requesting permission to visit the fortress his ancestor built in the year 1212 to defend Romania from invading Turks. I tried not to dwell on the fact that the ancestor in question was none other than Vlad Tepes, known as Vlad the Impaler, who had been imprisoned in his own castle for a short period. Vlad’s atrocities were legend and 500 years later, his name still struck fear in people, which led to discussion of the dark secrets attributed to his family.
As the carriage rolled along, I distracted myself in marveling at the new-fangled padded seats that greatly eased the hardship of traveling by coach. I also noticed how much cooler the air was getting and drew my cape more closely around my shoulders to try to keep out the ever-present draft. As we passed an inn, a crudely lettered sign indicated we were within five kilometers of our destination. By my estimation, we had about two hours left of daylight and I desperately wanted to get there while I could see well enough to find my way about.
Before long, the coach stopped at the foot of a path leading up to Castle Bran. I got out of the carriage in the dimming light and asked the coachman why we had stopped.
“Beg your pardon, sir, but this is as far as I can go. It’s too hard on the horses to go up that steep of a road and I’d not be able to control our descent coming down. I am afraid you will have to walk from here.”
“How the devil am I supposed to get my trunk up there?”
“Well, sir, that I cannot say, but I have gone as far as I may.” With that, he unloaded my trunk and, without saying anything further, he turned the carriage and headed back the way we had come. He would no doubt stay at the inn we had passed, as it was getting too dark to risk the mountain road.
I looked up the incline and as it was obvious that I could not carry my trunk, I began to drag it. By the time I reached the peak, I was out of breath and near collapse. I could go no farther with my burden in the state I was in and therefore pushed the trunk off the path and into the concealment of the underbrush. I then walked the rest of the way to the castle door, very conscious now of the rapidly dropping temperature.
Upon reaching the entrance, I banged the heavy iron knocker three times and awaited a response. I had begun to wonder if anyone would answer when I heard a bolt being drawn back. The massive wooden door swung open, revealing an ancient servant, perhaps a butler of sorts.
“Hello. I am Christopher Landau and I believe Count Michael is expecting me.”
“Yes, sir. Please come in,” the ancient one bade. “Do you have any baggage, sir?”
“Yes, but after dragging it to the top of the hill, I did not have the remaining fortitude to bring it any farther. I concealed it at the side of the trail and will fetch it in the morning.”
“Nonsense, sir. Your trunk will be retrieved for you and placed in your room. Please come with me.”
As I followed the servant, I took the opportunity to gaze about the place. The interior was much as I expected from my visits to other old castles. Candles by the hundreds provided light, as well as the large fire in the massive central fireplace. The old one saw me to a sitting area in front of the hearth with couches and soft chairs.
“Please remain here, sir. I will inform the count that you have arrived.”
“Yes, thank you.”
The butler left and I looked more closely around the room. Many beautiful works of art hung on the walls and I admired the taste of the old count. Some of the paintings were portraits of people, who I presumed were ancestors. Others were the sort of landscapes popular at the moment in the Dutch school of art. On the far side of the cavernous room stood an ornate door that I hoped led into the library that all of Europe had heard rumors of. Count Michael was known to have one of the most extensive collections of Balkan history and cultural books in existence. I was taking courses I had hopes would lead to a teaching degree in history, and so I was pleased to receive the count’s positive response to my request. I walked over to the fire and attempted to drive away the chill that had set into my bones climbing up that steep hill.
“Good evening, Christopher. I hope your travel here wasn’t too harsh,” someone said at my back.
I turned to respond, my jaw dropping in surprise. Standing before me with a hand extended in welcome was a man who looked to be no more than 40 years old. He stood well over six feet tall and had glossy black hair that contrasted strikingly with his brilliant blue eyes.
“I am Count Michael. Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no! I beg your pardon, count, I was simply expecting…”
“A much older man with a cane and a shawl about his shoulders?” the count finished the sentence.
“Well, actually, yes. I am glad to meet you, Count Michael. I am of course Christopher Landau, and I apologize for my look of surprise.”
“I am quite used to it. I recall from your letter that you are here to wander through my library. Perhaps you would tell me what exactly you are looking for?”
“I am working on an advanced degree in history and I wish to write a thesis on the Ottoman Empire’s war with Romania and of course, your ancestor, Prince Vlad Tepes. The depth of your library here at Bran Castle is well known and so I took the chance of asking you for access to it. I am much in your debt for allowing me to intrude on your privacy and I promise I shall make myself scarce. You will hardly know I am here, count.”
“You are most welcome to use the library, but it is not necessary to become as a mouse. Visitors do not come here because of the history of this old castle, and I welcome the diversion of a fresh face and voice. Tell me, how old are you?”
“I celebrated my 22nd birthday last week. Indeed, the money I received as gifts allowed me to travel here.”
“How fortunate. I do not mean to be short, but dinner is in an hour and we can become better acquainted over our meal. I do hope you are hungry, but for now, Rupert will show you to your room where you can freshen up. If you would like to bathe, inform Rupert and he will see to it that a tub and hot water are brought.”
“Thank you, Count Michael. I look forward to seeing you again at dinner.”
“This way, sir,” Rupert said as the count made a slight bow. We climbed through the gloom of the circular staircase to the second floor and entered a broad corridor awash with light from many candelabra. The hallway was richly carpeted, the wall hung with more fine paintings and lined with tapestries to ward off the chill of stone walls. Rupert opened one of the carved wooden doors and stood aside to let me enter. I waited as he lit the candles inside and when I could see, I was quite pleased with the room’s size and furnishings.
In the center of the room, with the headboard against one wall, was a very large canopied bed. Two padded chairs upholstered in green brocade sat in front of the hearth where Rupert was poking at the fire. I walked to one of the three tall windows and peered down upon the castle grounds. The sun was now gone from the sky and darkness closed in like a fog. I could barely see the long path that led down to the main road.
Rupert answered a knock at the door and two footmen brought in my trunk. I thanked them as they left and turned to Rupert.
“Would you like me to unpack for you, sir?”
“Thank you, but I can manage. Shall I dress for dinner?”
“By all means, sir. The count is not overly formal, but he does observe the etiquette of the dining room. There is a clock on the mantle that is kept wound, so you will know what time it is always. Please come down to the main room when you are ready and you will be taken into the dining room from there.”
“Thank you Rupert; I will be down on time.”
As the elderly servant departed, I dragged my trunk into the sphere of warmth given off by the fire. A very old Persian carpet covered the floor, flecked with the black scars of burn marks where it neared the hearth but a comfort to sore feet. I put my things away in a dresser and armoire, choosing a shirt, pants and jacket that I hoped would be suitable for dinner.
As I took stock of myself in the looking glass over the dresser, I remembered how surprised I had been by Count Michael’s appearance. He was a very handsome man whose looks had fairly taken my breath away. A young stallion was the last thing I was prepared to find in Bran Castle and I wondered if I would be able to control my reactions to him. Yes, I preferred men in my bed; however, I was very inexperienced. Merely thinking of the count in that way made me blush and I resigned myself to a very frustrating time at Bran Castle.