by Angel A.

           The wind hung in the air, making the forest bitter, frigid, and unbearable to human travelers. The snow, mostly ice now, crunched underfoot. The sweat from his brow had caused his hair to freeze, blond icicles dangling in front of his eyes. He saw the cabin beyond the next knoll and he trudged further through the knee-deep snow piles that had gathered at the bottom of the hill. His red, numb hands still clutched at the hilt of his sword, the cold metal sticking to his fingertips.
           He reached the cabin, only to find the door also buried knee-deep in snow that had fallen from the roof. It had been like that for some time, for when he tried to cross the snow it fully supported his weight. Crouching so he did not hit his head on the edge of the roof, he walked up to the door. He pressed on it, first with his hands and then with his shoulder. It did not budge. He took a step back, hurled himself fully against it, and promptly fell deep into the frozen snow. He rose. He waded the final steps back to the door and found it ajar.
           Instinctively, he drew his sword. He fully expected the cabin to be empty, unless some vagrants had been snowed in there. He opened the door and entered, bringing with him a large portion of snow. Inside, the cabin was still. A fireplace on the wall opposite the door, one window to his right, a stool, a hay bunk to the left with a wool blanket, the comforts of the cabin seemed minimal but survivable.
           He placed his sword back in his belt and began scooping the snow back outside with his hands. He finally just slammed the door shut. He surveyed the fireplace, no wood near it but some half burnt logs in it. He retrieved his flints from his pouch. Once he had the fire lit, he pulled the stool near and draped the blanket over it. Then, he set to work stripping his wet cloak, and other wet garments, from his cold skin. Everything was wet.
           He stood naked by the fire for a moment, then caught a draft from the window and wrapped himself in the blanket. He placed his breeches on the stool and spread his other clothing on the floor. He sat down on the bunk and felt exhaustion creep over him. He could barely lift his legs to lie down. He thought of the peasant girl who had told him to come here.
           "There's a cabin, in the woods, northeast from where the stream breaks into the river. You will find it, my lord," she said. "You will be safe there."
           "You know who I am?" he replied.
           She nodded. "The fallen king, lord."
           "Why do you help me?"
           "Perhaps I have heard what has happened to those who don't."
           He wasn't sure whether to believe her, or to accuse her of having rebels or mercenaries in wait, but he was cold, tired and frantic and he saw no deceit in her eyes. He could usually sense when they lied. Especially, the wenches.
           As soon as he reclined his body, he fell into a troubled sleep. The recurring nightmare of childhood horrors danced through his mind once again. A lush sunset blocked by the battlements of the Turk castle. He and his brother spurred with wooden swords as the air around them grew dark and red-silver. A guard sets a heavy hand against each of their shoulders and leads them away into the fire-lit castle. The women from the harem are bathing in the central hall. They touch the boys as they go by, snickering about the two pale boys from the Carpathian mountains. The guard led them deeper into the castle. They entered into the bedroom of the prince--the heir to the Turkish throne. The prince nodded at the guard who left them and retreated. The prince in his nightshirt came to the boys, knelt first to Radu. Radu was the finer one, with big glowing eyes and pure peach skin and long, curly, and dark hair. The prince leaned down to the boy and kissed him rich on the lips. The prince approached him, and pointed those rubbery lips toward him, but unlike Radu, his quivering brother, he would not give in. He brought his wooden sword to the prince's throat.
           The voice of the prince rang straight through his heart like it had on that actual day.
           "You are a devious curmudgeon, Vlad Basarab. Good thing Radu is more... agreeable."
           He trembled as the prince stripped Radu of his clothes. Radu did nothing as the prince took the small boy into his arms, the prince's dark flesh against the boy's whiteness. The prince put Radu on the bed face down and massaged his thick hands into the boys flesh. He lifted off his night shirt and slithered on top...
           "My lord."
           The fire had died. The room was drastically losing warmth. He opened his eyes and found that the blanket had fallen to the floor. His limbs had already started turning purple. He reached out for the blanket and brushed his hand across soft, warm flesh. He tried to grab his sword. The fireplace swelled with light as flames began to burn again. He held his sword tightly as the silhouette, full and heavy with skirts, crept toward him. The fire burned widely, warmly and viciously until the cabin was filled with orange luminance.
           Through the glow, he could distinguish the black hair that flowed over her shoulders and down her bosom. Her face was masked by shadows. Her walk fell silent on the boards of the cabin floor. Even with the thick skirts, he could see her curves, the shape of her hips. Suddenly, he became very aware of his nakedness.
           "My lord," she repeated, her voice encompassing the cabin in a whisper.
           "So, this is how I meet my death?"
           "Death, my lord?" she laughed lightly. "The last thing you need to concern yourself with is death, my lord."
           She was close to him now. She reached for the sword. She crouched to the ground to safely take it from him without touching the blade. He released it. She placed it on the ground and put her warm hands against his bare knees.
           "You will make a fine one," she said.
           Then she drew her head back, and closed her eyes, she quivered slightly, clenched her teeth and relaxed. She smiled, and he knew the smile.
           "Yes, my lord."
           He kissed her. She tasted bitter but the feel of her was intoxicating.
           "Betha... but how?" he asked. "You are dead."
           "No, my lord."
           "Yes, I saw you jump from the castle ledge with my own eyes. I heard your screams as you fell to the river below."
           "I am not dead, my lord."
           She rose, stepped out of her skirts, and was left in her under layers.
           "I am not dead, my lord."
           "Perhaps I am. Perhaps we are standing at the gates of Hell. The suicide and the... the savage ruler... Isn't that what they call me now?"
           Betha took Vlad's hands and set them on her hips.
           "I am not dead, my lord."
           She finished removing her clothes. She surveyed Vlad, who was still sitting on the bed.
           "You are not dead, my lord," she said with a suggestive glance.
           She kissed him, her hair tickling his face and shoulders. He had never seen her so passionate before, so aggressive. Her kiss dazzled him, held him mesmerized. She curled up against him and touched his flesh, licked his skin as though savoring the very taste of him. He reached for her and they fell back onto the bed together. Her hair fell over his face again as she came nearer. She nuzzled against his neck and pressed her lips tight against him. Vlad felt suspended, as though he weren't on the bed at all anymore and Betha's touch was the only support keeping him from melting into the fabric of the universe. There was a pressure on his neck, a kneading of sorts. His body tingled as she sucked. Hot and cold swirled through him and at the same time he was so relaxed. Then, there came darkness.
           When he opened his eyes, he was lying on his back. Betha was pulling something off of the floor. With her eyes gleaming with red sparks, she stood over him. She lifted his sword and slashed his neck.
           "Betha," he moaned.
           "Trust me, my lord," she replied.
           She kissed his forehead, dressed and left. It was there that the mercenaries found him, covered with the sweat and excrement of death. As they took his body out of the cabin and into the snow, Vlad knew he was dead but also alive. He asked himself, is this what it's like to be dead? Has my soul just not left my body? He couldn't speak. He couldn't move.
           Betha returned at sunset that night to find a frozen body that scavengers had gnawed on all day. She leaned down to Vlad, bit her wrist and held it to his dead lips.
           "Drink, my lord."
           Immediately, he felt heat against his lips, warm and stinging like hot liquor. The taste was pure, just the flavor of warmth, and thickness, almost like milk but bringing life to the insides. He could feel his body come alive as he soaked it in, with each drop he grew stronger and warmer. Power surged through him as though he could reach to a nearby tree and start a fire merely by touching a branch. He felt wounds heal, skin grow thick, nerves dance with wild abandon. All he could do was lie in the snow and savor it.
           "Rise, my lord."
           The pleasure ended too soon. He opened his eyes and saw Betha with a loveliness he had never seen before. Her skin looked silver in the moonlight. She gave him clean clothes. She ushered him back into the cabin, where he dressed.
           "Am I dead?" he questioned.
           "No, my lord. You need not worry about death."
           "I am a vampire, as the legends say."
           "Yes, if you believe in legends, my lord."
           "And I shall never die?"
           "Not of natural causes," she replied.
           "And never age?"
           "You shall be handsome and young forever."
           "Then," he said with new life coming to his dead eyes, "there is a new empire to build. Let Wallachia fall. In time, the Turks will bow to me. The world will bow to me."

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