“I’m beginning to hate that guy,” Elizabeth muttered. “If he ever existed.”
She spoke in English, so her informant, Maria, an almost entirely toothless old lady in black, merely grinned without a clue as to what she’d said.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said in Romanian, switching off the tape recorder on the shaded table between them. “You’ve been very helpful.” As she rose to her feet, Maria grinned again, adding to Elizabeth’s suspicion that she’d just been fed a farrago of nonsense, as much for the locals’ amusement as for her own. It was one of the challenges of her research, to pick out the “genuine” myths from the made-up-on-the-spot ones, and it wasn’t always easy.
The villagers who’d gathered curiously in the garden during the interview now fell back as Elizabeth stashed the recorder in her bag and turned to go.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she added to the younger woman who’d brought it, and this time Maria’s smile was completely genuine.
Elizabeth slung her bag over her shoulder and made her way along the shaded path toward the rickety garden gate. She’d get no further useful stuff here. The villagers would just vie with each other now to impress her. Or fool her. It wasn’t always clear which.
But although some of them stayed to chat to the old lady and her daughter, others walked toward the gate with her, as if eager to impart more nonsense. Elizabeth avoided eye contact, knowing she could be here for hours if she didn’t. And she was tired. It had been a long day, and despite the weeks she’d spent here in the summer heat, she still found it gruelling. She’d never imagined she’d miss the cold and rain of a Scottish summer.
She liked this charming garden, though, full of fruit trees and vegetables as well as large, brightly colored roses, and most of all, the maze of paths lined with vines that had been trained to form an almost impenetrable roof. The shadowed, tangled lattice effect in the sunlight was pretty and, more importantly, cool.
“Miss Silk? What makes you think the vampire Saloman didn’t exist?”
Damn. She’d met the speaker’s gaze before she realized it, drawn by sheer surprise because he spoke in excellent English. The other locals, as though accepting his victory, fell back and dispersed by other routes.
Elizabeth said drily, “Besides the word ‘vampire’, you mean?”
The man smiled. She’d noticed him before, while she talked to old Maria, watching her a little too closely for comfort. Although she didn’t doubt her ability to get rid of him – eventually – her internal alarm bell gave a warning tinkle. Perhaps around forty years old, he wore the traditional garb of most of the older villagers – long white shirt, belted in the middle, and dark trousers – and his remarkably steady eyes were of the same nut brown color as his sun-drenched skin. Only the mass of deeply etched lines around his eyes spoke of greater age, but then the sun did that to people.
“You want to hear about vampires, they’ll tell you,” he said, apologetically. “They always do.”
She allowed herself a rueful smile. “I’m not the first to ask these questions around here, am I?”
“No. We’ve had people writing books, people making films, people who want to meet vampires, people who want to be vampires…”
“I’m a little more serious than that,” Elizabeth interrupted. Her car was in sight, and she wanted nothing more than a cool bath and some dinner in her own room before an early night.
“Ah yes. You’re writing your doctoral thesis.” He held the gate open for her and she cast him a quick glance as she passed, checking for mockery. The shading vines cast an intricate pattern of shadows across his face – an interesting intelligent face, but not a comforting one. Something about him bothered her, both attracting and repelling. But then several men did that to her, including Richard, her PhD supervisor.
“I heard you tell Maria,” he added, obviously misunderstanding her suspicion. “What exactly are you writing about?”
She smiled and nodded a definite farewell. “Vampires, of course,” she said sweetly and passed through the gate. Away from the sheltering vines, the sun hit her like a wave
Annoyingly, he called after her. “So what’s your problem with Saloman?”
Well, she could probably bore him with that till he shoved off. Then she could drive away, still venting her frustration to fresh air. She halted and frowned back over her shoulder. “That he keeps cropping up in too many eras,” she all but snapped. “I have recorded stories of at least one Solomon before Christianity, several Salomans between the eleventh and the eighteenth centuries and one Sal at the beginning of the twentieth. Oh, and Maria’s Saloman in the nineteenth.” She snorted. “And everyone claims they’re the same man!”
“He’s a vampire,” her companion said reasonably. “He can exist for centuries.”
Elizabeth cast him a withering stare and in spite of herself walked back to him, while digging in her bag for the car keys. “I’m writing a doctoral thesis not a fairy tale. My interest is in the social conditions which inspired and fed the vampire superstitions, not in the gory details.”
“And what were they?” the man enquired.
“What?” Distracted, Elizabeth fumbled the keys, dropping them into the tardis-like recesses of her bag. She rummaged for them.
“The social conditions,” he said patiently.
Retrieving the keys, Elizabeth came up for air. She sighed. “Are you really interested in this?”
She shrugged. “My theory is that accusations of vampirism resemble accusations of witchcraft in western Europe, in so far as they were made against people who presented some kind of threat to their communities – either economic threats, like the single, unsupported women who made up the bulk of so-called witches, or more physical ones. I believe accusations of vampirism were made after death to justify killings which would otherwise have been unlawful. There may be elements of guilt and other factors in there too, but in basic terms, that’s what vampire legends come down to. People who threatened villages by stealing, pillaging, excessive taxation, military levies…well.” She broke off. “You get the idea. Anyway, mostly, it works. Mostly, the individual cases I’ve found support this idea. I can trace many such characters to legal documents and recordings of their deaths. But Saloman…”
She rattled the car keys against her palm in annoyance. “Saloman keeps cropping up, always as a vampire, and I can find no reason for the same personality to be inflicted on so many cases in so many different eras. Sometimes he’s a hero, saving children from Turkish janissary recruiters, single-handedly repelling invaders or bandits; other times he’s a villain destroying entire villages or tormenting individuals who’ve crossed him. But I can’t find the remotest trace in folk memory, let alone in documentation, of his birth, or anything that might corroborate this death…”
“Oh, he died.”
Elizabeth blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Saloman. He died. By a stake through the heart in 1697 to be precise, so I’m afraid Maria’s nineteenth century story was nonsense.” He smiled. He had an oddly engaging smile. “I’m sorry you wasted your time.”
“Oh I didn’t,” Elizabeth assured him, swinging the car keys from her fingers. “I knew she was spinning me a yarn to keep me happy and entertain her friends.”
It was his turn to blink in surprise, so she took pity on him. “What I find really interesting is that she picked on that name. She could have called him Max or John or Count bloody Dracula, but she didn’t. She called him Saloman. Why? I hate the bastard because he doesn’t fit into my theory and somehow I’ve got to find out how to make him, or change my theory. But he is fascinating.”
On impulse, she held out her hand. “Sorry. It’s been good talking to you. Goodbye.”
He took her hand with a slightly shy smile. At least it looked shy in the shadows of the vines around the gateway. It might have been merely baffled by her tirade. Despite the heat, his hand was cool and dry, its nails unexpectedly long and cared for.
“And to you,” he said politely. “My name is Dmitriu. And if you like, I’ll show you where to find Saloman’s remains.”
The village Dmitriu showed her on the map wasn’t far, although the roads were dreadful. Grasping the steering wheel tighter to control the beaten up old car as it bumped over a major pot-hole, she felt something sting her right palm.
As soon as she could, she took her right hand off the wheel, almost expecting to find a squashed bee, but there was nothing except a welling pin-prick of blood. Frowning, with one eye still on the atrocious road through the mountains, she brought her hand to her mouth and licked the wound.
“Ouch,” she muttered. There was definitely something stuck in there. She waited until a relatively smooth piece of road, then laid both hands together on the wheel and tried to pick out whatever was there. It came out with a pain sharp enough to make her wince. A thorn. A large rose thorn. She must have picked it up at Maria’s without noticing until she’d driven it further into her hand by gripping the wheel so tightly. Blood oozed from it sluggishly.
“All I need,” she muttered, licking it again before deciding to ignore it. A thorn would hardly kill her, and she wanted to press on. Although the sun was going down, she couldn’t resist the opportunity of finally finding some sort of context for the wretched Saloman. Dmitriu’s unexpected information had given her a new lease of life, banishing the lethargy she’d felt at Maria’s. Besides, this was it, Sighesciu…
Not the prettiest village in these mountains. Despite the unspoiled natural scenery that surrounded it, Sighesciu itself looked run-down and poor. Leaning forward to peer farther up the hill, Elizabeth glimpsed a bulldozer and a mechanical digger. No signs of the ruined castle Dmitriu had spoken of, though. Taking the turning that appeared to lead up the hill toward the bulldozer, she let her mind linger on the enigmatic Dmitriu.
She’d been relieved that he hadn’t suggested coming with her, had merely sent her to the car for her map while he sat in the shade of Maria’s vines to wait. There, he’d shown her the village and the hill and said that although he couldn’t come right now, he might wander up there later to see how she got on.
Elizabeth wasn’t quite sure how she felt about seeing him again. He was an intriguing character, apparently well educated despite his “peasant” style of dressing. She realized she’d no idea what he did for a living, although he clearly wasn’t a farmer with a manicure like that. Insatiably curious, she wanted to know more – so long as it was all kept as platonic as this afternoon. After all, she was still harboring unrequited feelings for Richard.
Her lips twisted into a smile, laughing at herself. Richard, her supervisor, found her an amusing curiosity, that was all. He admired her intellect, laughed at her eccentricities and disorganization, and went out with beautiful, glamorous women. Somewhere, Elizabeth was aware she used her attraction to Richard as a shield. If she was spoken for, even if only in her own mind, then she couldn’t be flustered or seduced by other men, men who might actually get through her prickles and hurt her. She was finished with all of that, and she was smart enough to understand that half the attraction of Richard was his unattainability. If there was such a word.
As she drew up to the top of the hill, she saw that the workmen were finishing up for the day. Several cast her curious glances as they took off their hard hats and meandered past her beaten up old car. She’d bought it very cheaply in Budapest, but though it didn’t look much, it had got her safely around many inaccessible and isolated villages in both Hungary and Romania and she was growing almost fond of it.
Emerging into the gathering dusk, she wondered if she’d left it too late after all. She wouldn’t be able to see so much if she only had torchlight to work by. She might have to come back in the morning anyway. As it was, she had a bit of a drive ahead of her to the hotel at Bistriţa…
Casting that difficulty to one side, she looked around for someone to talk to. One man among those streaming back down the hill, detached himself and called in Romanian, “Madam? Can I help you?”
“Thanks, I hope so! I was told there was a castle here?”
The man took off his hard hat and gestured around him. Elizabeth took in the piles of stone and rubble scattered across the site.
“We levelled all that was left today, but there was nothing much to see anyway. Tomorrow, we’ll take away all the rubbish so that we can begin building. Perhaps you’ve already reserved a house?”
“Oh no. I don’t live here. I’m just visiting.”
The man laughed at that, as though the very idea of anyone looking like her – a pale-skinned northerner with untidy, strawberry blond hair, dressed in rather worn old cropped jeans and a cheap sun-top, a cotton hat dangling down her back from a string around her neck – could possibly be Romanian.
“These are holiday homes,” he explained, “for foreigners who like our country.”
“It’s very beautiful country,” Elizabeth said with genuine appreciation. It was on the tip of her tongue to add that she couldn’t afford luxury housing for foreigners, when it came to her that he might look on her request more favorably if he thought her a potential customer. After all, he appeared to be some kind of foreman or even manager.
She tried a smile and hoped it didn’t look too guilty. “Would you mind if I stayed for a few minutes and looked around? Just to get a feel of the place and admire the views?”
He shrugged. “You’re welcome. There are no gates to lock. Take as long as you like. Just be careful. We still have some old foundations to fill in, and some of them are pretty deep.”
“I’ll be careful,” she assured him. “Thanks.”
She made to pass on, but he said anxiously, “Are you hurt?”
She blinked, following his frowning gaze to the hem of her top which now boasted a bright red, shapeless blood stain. There was another smear across the leg of her jeans where she’d wiped her bleeding palm.
“Oh no, it was just a rose thorn. I bleed easily, but it’ll stop in a minute.”
Satisfied, the man walked on, and Elizabeth began to pick her way over the rubble. Dmitriu had claimed there was a chapel here, and beneath it, a crypt. But neither was obvious.
Elizabeth rummaged in her bag for her flashlight, careful to hold it in her uninjured left hand, and shone the beam into the rubble, looking for any carvings in the fallen stone, any lettering that might give her a clue. But if there had ever been anything, it had been obliterated by time and bulldozers.
She shivered, as if someone walked over her grave – instead of the other way around. But she couldn’t quite laugh at herself. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like hackles, and she actually span round to see who was watching her.
No one. She was alone on the derelict site. Even the departing workmen had been more interested in their supper than in her.
What’s the matter with you, Silk? she jeered at herself. Vampires getting to you at last?
Of course not, it was just that the sun seemed to set really quickly here and this place did have an atmosphere. She liked atmospheres, and had learned by experience that they could be a useful guide. She preferred hard evidence, of course, but when that was lacking, sometimes you found something just by going with a hunch, a feeling.
Other times, you found nothing at all. Like now.
Giving up, she spun around to head back to the car. Her foot slipped and she flung out her right hand to save herself from falling. She winced as stones pressed into the thorn-hole in her palm, and when she dragged herself upright, the torch shone crazily across the tiny smears of blood on the stones. As another drip appeared, she thrust her palm at her mouth and followed the beam of the beam of the flashlight to its end – a gap in the ground into which gravel and more rubble was already falling. That must have been where her foot slipped.
Elizabeth crouched warily down beside it, away from the bulk of the falling ground, and shone her beam into the widening gap.
A room, like a crypt.
Excitement soared, drowning the last of her silly anxieties. She could make out rough carvings on the walls, perhaps angel-figures…
Moving carefully, Elizabeth reached out and gave the rubble an encouraging push before leaping back to admire the effects. A little irresponsible, perhaps, but how else was she supposed to get in? She doubted her little avalanche was capable of damaging anything.
When the ground stilled, she edged forward. All seemed secure on this side of the wide hole. She knelt, trying to gauge the distance to the ground of the crypt. She was sure it was a crypt. It smelled musty and damp. If she was fanciful, she’d say it smelled of death, although any human remains would surely be long past the rotting stage. Rats maybe. Which was not so nice a thought. But she caught no scurrying creatures in the light of her torch, and she thought she could lower herself down there quite easily – “dreep”, in the language of her childhood.
First, she rolled a fair sized boulder to the gap and let it fall in. She might need it later to stand on to get herself out. Then, positioning herself, she gripped the side of the hole and let her feet slide slowly through until she dangled full length. She let go and jumped the last foot or so to the ground.
It was an easy landing. Triumphant, she dragged the torch back out of her bag and shone it around the room. They were angels on the walls, worn with age but still remarkably fine for an out-of-the-way place like this. It made sense, she supposed. If this Saloman was important enough to have inspired so many legends, even after he’d been staked as a vampire, he would have been a rich, even a princely man.
The trouble was, there seemed to be no tomb. No markings on the wall to denote he was buried behind them, no tomb on the floor. Just angels carved into the wall, and broken stone steps which had once led up to the gap she’d almost fallen down, where the chapel used to be. Just as Dmitriu had described.
Except for the lack of a body, or any kind of inscription.
Bugger. He must have made it up too, just like Maria. He couldn’t possibly have known about this hidden room – it had obviously been completely covered for centuries and there was no evidence whatever that a chapel had ever stood above it.
Saloman remained elusive. But at least the angels were pretty.
Elizabeth laid down her bag and pulled her camera out of it and propped up the torch on it to shine upward. Walking around the room, she photographed each angel in turn, changing the angle of the torch as necessary. In the final corner, she stubbed her toe on something – rubble presumably, although her impatient glance could pick out nothing large enough. Ignoring it, she aimed the camera at the large angel above her head.
A shiver ran all the way up her spine to her neck, jerking the camera in her hand. She steadied it, irritated when a drop of blood from her hand distracted her.
“Whoever bled to death from a rose thorn?” she demanded, wiping her hand on her thigh again. Finally, she raised the camera and took the picture. And when she stepped back, she saw the sarcophagus right in front of her.
She blinked. “How the…?” Was the light really so poor that she’d missed that? Or her observation so erratic? She must be bloody tired.
Grabbing up the flashlight, she shone it full on the stone sarcophagus. It was the size of a large man, its lid carved with a human figure in sharp relief. Almost as if the corpse lay there looking at her.
As beautifully carved as the angels, it was a wonderful, detailed piece of art in its own right. She shone the torch from its booted legs upward over the long, open cloak which revealed an ornate but empty sword belt. The emptiness might have been explained by the broken sword which protruded from his stone chest. Gory, but tastefully done. So this must explain the vampire legends.
She’d need an expert to date the carvings, of course, but late seventeenth century seemed about right to her. Which meant she’d have to look for differences between the legends before and after Dmitriu’s date of 1697. There were a lot of those for so young a man. And she’d also need to re-analyze those stories set before his likely birth-date, perhaps around 1670.
In fact, she needed to speak to Dmitriu again and soon. She’d never really expected to find anything. Certainly nothing as beautiful as this…
She took one hasty snap before dropping the camera back in her bag. Fascinated, she gazed down at the likeness of the man she now believed to be the legendary Saloman. The still, stone face was unexpectedly youthful. No martial beard or ridiculous mustache like Vlad the Impaler’s. Just a young, handsome face with deep-set, open eyes.
Why weren’t his eyes closed? The irises and pupils of each were carefully delineated, might even have been colored under the centuries of dust. Christ, he even had eyelashes, long and thick enough to be envied by most women.
But there was nothing else remotely feminine about this face. Its nose was long, slightly hooked, giving an impression of arrogance and predatory inclinations. On either side were cheekbones to die for, high and hollowed, and beneath, a pair of perfect, sculpted lips, full enough to speak of sensuality, firm enough to denote power and determination, and a strong, slightly pointed chin. Long, thick hair lay in stone waves about his cloaked shoulders, and again Elizabeth could almost imagine that the dust covered black paint.
Curiously, the sculptor seemed to have imbued a lot of character into that dead, stone face, as if he’d known him well and liked him. And yet he’d also captured a look of ruthlessness, an uncomfortable hardness that sat oddly with the faint, dust-caked lines of humor around his eyes and mouth. Well, he wasn’t the first or the last bastard to have a sense of humor.
And let’s face it, if he was a likeable man and the true hero of some of the legends she’d listened to, why had he been killed in such a way? Where had the atrocity stories come from? His enemies? A mirror of Vlad the Impaler perhaps, only no one before Bram Stoker had made Dracula a vampire. The Saloman vampire stories were far older, and they came from natives.
Frowning, Elizabeth saw a splash of discoloration beside his mouth. Instinctively, she reached out and touched it. Wet, a drop of her blood.
“Oops,” she said guiltily. But the carved face was so beautiful that she let her fingers linger, brushing against the cold, dusty, stone lips. Another drop of blood landed there and she hastily tried to scrub it off with her thumb. All that achieved was another drip and rather grotesquely red lips on the carving, so she yanked her guilty hand back, and began to examine the rest of the sarcophagus.
It sat on a solid stone table, but it wasn’t just the lid, it the whole sarcophagus which was carved into the shape of a man. And she could find no hinges in the smooth stone. Perhaps the body was in the table underneath? Unless there were hinges or some kind of crack on the other side.
Leaning over the sarcophagus, she ran her fingers along the far side of it, but felt only the amazingly detailed outlines of muscled arm and hip and thigh, so lovingly carved that it felt ridiculously sensual just stroking them. She stretched farther so that her hair and jaw brushed against the cold stone of his face, and felt along the table instead. It too seemed to be one solid piece of stone. So where the hell was the body?
Something moved under her hair, almost like a lover’s breath on her skin. Startled, she jerked up her head, but before she could leap away, or even see what was happening, sharpness pierced her neck and clamped down hard.