Moonlight glittered upon the frost shrouding the road. The clatter of horses echoed into the treetops, counterpointed by the rumble of carriage wheels. Steam rose from the beasts' flanks and billowed out their muzzles in ashen clouds.
Six men rode on horseback on either side of the carriage, their hands gripping sword hilts and eyes narrowed to survey the gloom beyond the light of the swinging lantern.
Already, Ștefan could smell their fear as they traipsed a land foreign to their eyes. His land. Their dread of what may lurk in the shadows sat sharp against the stench of horseflesh. Not quite heavy enough to taste, but close.
He smiled. That would change.
The last solid trees of a once wild forest lined the edge of the road. Scrub huddled in the shadows of these wooden giants. The occasional branch hung over the cobblestones in a half-hearted canopy.
Ștefan watched from one such bough, crouching on a wide branch and peering through the foliage. He'd waited hours, since sunset, for this carriage to appear. The armed escort. The garish gilding on the carriage. It had to be carrying that pompous young lord from across the land. No doubt the promised chest of jewels sat within.
They were almost before him now. He squeezed his sword hilt, the leather moulding beneath his palm, and eased the dagger from its sheath with his other hand. His fingers inched along the blade, readying to throw, the metal cold against his skin. Just a few more steps.
The horses halted despite the driver's whip and the men's spurs. One of the animals on the left reared, throwing his rider. A scream erupted from under the spindly legs as the horse trampled the man and then fled. The dying body, its limbs twisted in ways no man's were meant to go, twitched.
Ștefan shuddered as the whiff of flowing blood hit his senses like a blacksmith's hammer. He breathed deeply, relishing that tangy aroma and the sweet metallic tinge running through it. Each breath honed his focus, heightening the already deadly ability gifted to him.
Below, the men were regaining control of the horses. The beasts continued onward, their eyes wide and each high step hesitant.
Ștefan leapt onto the moving carriage roof. His dagger flew at the closest guard, downing the man before he could react. Sword unsheathed, he dodged the attacks of two others. A swipe in their direction and the tip of his blade bit flesh.
The scent of blood and fear was hot in the air. Hunger writhed through his veins. It played with his vision, turning the world into swirls of rainbow-hued figures. To one side, the orange and white ripples in the form of a horse pranced sideways as the animal and its rider plunged beside the carriage. The rider—his display of colours faded—had slumped in the saddle.
Movement on Ștefan's right forced him to the back of the roof. Armed men, their horses fighting to flee, pressed close. Swords longer than his sliced the air before him. He swung, deflecting and attacking in the same stroke. They sat just out of reach, harrying him. To what end? None of them would ever be capable of matching his strength or speed.
He smelt a presence behind him. The swish of a blade slammed into the wood at his heels. Ștefan spun and lunged for the iridescent glow. He wrapped an arm around the man's head and twisted. The head came free with a crunch.
He staggered back, the carriage wobbling and creaking under his feet as the harnessed horses bolted down the road. Sticky warmth bathed his hands. The man's head slipped from his fingers. That wasn't meant to happen. The neck should've merely snapped, not torn.
"Die, you dog!" a guard roared.
Stiffening, he glanced down at the tip of a blade sticking out of his chest. It grated against his ribs with each breath. He became dimly aware of the coolness pressing against his flesh, but no more.
"What ungodly magic is this?" snarled the guard behind him. The blade slid out, allowing Ștefan the freedom to face the man. "Strigoi!" the guard cried out, wheeling the horse away from the carriage. "There is a demon in our midst, men! Flee or die!"
Not wishing to wait for his fellow guards, the man turned his mount back the way they'd come. He spurred the horse and the pair fast disappeared into the night. The thud of hoofbeats and yelling filled the air as the remaining men followed the first one's lead.
Behind Ștefan came a muffled thud. Through the rainbow hues fading from his vision, he could make out the crumpled form of a headless body lying at the front of the carriage. Removing the remains of the driver from the rooftop seating, he groped about for the reins.
The horses swung into each other, caught between the desire to race on and the need to obey the steel in their mouths. Ștefan hauled on their reins in silent demand. The animals squealed their defiance before obeying the commanding tug of metal. They came to a halt with snorts and a clatter of shod hooves.
Ștefan listened for any telltale sounds of company over the nervous shuffle of the horses. His ears caught only the unnatural hum of a forest keeping too quiet. Frowning, he peered over the edge of the roof. The far door swung on its hinges and heavy curtains stirred in the chill breeze. No sign of the young lord. Had he fled whilst his men fought?
He jumped to the ground, sword at the ready. Still nothing. Inside the carriage, clashing against the velvet cushioning that lined the seats, sat a small ironbound chest. A smile tweaked his lips, stretching them tight over his fangs. He caressed the chest, the wood warm under his fingers. There would be more than enough gold to fulfil his end of the bargain. Ah, my dear Ruxandra, we will be together after all.
Ștefan clambered back into the driver's seat, the half-healed wound in his chest tugging at each movement. With a gentle slap of the reins on the horses' flanks, he urged the panting beasts into a trot. All he had to do was reach the castle before dawn and his dream of marrying Ruxandra would become real. It wasn't much further. Already he could see the towers of the only home he'd ever known, reaching up into the night sky like massive spears.
The rest of the castle soon came into sight as the trees ended and the road stood clear. To look upon those once graceful spires with fresh eyes, to see them somehow transformed into four stubby towers. When had his home become such a squat and ugly thing?
He guided the carriage onward, aiming for the illuminated stable yards that huddled on the right of the courtyard. The wind picked up as he neared, animal waste lending a rank tinge to the ordinary stench of the midden. He held his breath, the tear-inducing odour greater than memory recalled. When he was finally lord of this place, he'd demand such things be buried well away from the castle.
His stomach gave an unexpected grumble. He'd not eaten since the deal and the wound in his chest, fast repairing itself, sapped much of his energy. By all rights, he should've sought sustenance first, but he had to get the contract off Ruxandra's father before the man heard of what had transpired tonight. Then he would feed. Perhaps a stray goat would hold off the cravings. There was bound to be one wandering the valley slopes that nobody would miss. But first, the contract. Ruxandra would become his wife. He hadn't died to let her slip away now.