October's challenge for Write...Edit...Publish is to share something scary. Check out the link and submit your own scary story. So here is my short fiction submission of approximately 1000 words. Feel free to offer a full critique.
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My husband had been promising me a trip to Europe, but it never happened for one reason or another. He’s a history professor—you know, one of those guys who runs around campus in blue jeans and a camel-colored corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows. The coeds are crazy about him. I don’t mind as long as he is only crazy about me.
Finally, the trip to Europe happens. Fabulous. I love the shopping, the romantic old architecture, museums, the quaint villages in the countryside, the wonderful food. Mike takes it upon himself to educate me about the history of each of the countries we visit. I’m more into the moment, if you know what I mean. History is history. But Mike is so enthusiastic; I decide not to rain on his parade. He is especially looking forward to meeting up with an old college buddy who lives in Romania. Of course, I get the short lecture about Romanian history and Vlad the Impaler, son of the Dragon, aka Dracula. His friend Ali has arranged to meet us and take us on a tour of Poenari castle, Vlad’s old digs. If no one is tending the ticket booth, we will bring in our sleeping bags and camp there for a scary nighttime adventure.
I have to say the road from Bucharest to Poenari looks like any highway you’ve ever seen until we near our destination. Suddenly, it is like a step back in time—verdant rolling landscape; steep, craggy mountains; villagers plodding along the streets in horse-drawn carriages. I pull my camera out of my backpack as Mike and his friend Ali begin to recount the stories of Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian hero who drove back the invading Turks.
“So why would someone with a name like Ali venture near Poenari castle,” I ask as we begin our hike. “Mike tells me that Dracula impaled 20,000 Turks on a forest of spikes. Aren’t you the least bit superstitious?”
Ali wags his finger at me. He and Mike continue to chat about ol’ Vlad while a cool, gray mist settles in around us.
Mike tells me there are 1480 steps to reach the top of the mountain upon which the ruins of Poenari castle are perched. I lose track of the count as I puff up the stairs behind the guys. No one else is here but us.
Ali smiles back at me. “First, you must know that the father of Dracula was a member of the Order of the Dragon. He was a Christian crusader dedicated to fighting against Islam. His son followed in his footsteps.”
On about the 500th step, I learn that in 1442 Vlad Dracul, the father, was ousted from his throne of Wallachia by rivals in league with Hungary. To restore himself to his throne, he cut a deal with the Sultan by sending his two sons, Vlad and Radu, to the Ottoman court as hostages. It was at the Ottoman court that Dracula was educated and trained in warfare to be a puppet ruler for the Sultan—except he had no intention of being a puppet.
I soon weary of climbing up the hill and trying to untangle Dracula’s bloody story of intrigue and murder. Dracula killed his enemies and his own people. He killed often and he enjoyed impaling his victims and eating his dinner surrounded by rotting corpses. He liked dipping his bread in blood. That’s already more information than I can handle. The guy was a mass murderer.
When we finally reach the top, Mike and Ali are overjoyed to discover there is no one on duty in the ticket booth and so we cross over a small bridge and into the ruins of the castle. If you ask me, it’s a pile of rubble. “Earthquakes,” Ali says. I wonder about the evil that resided here so many centuries ago.
Before night falls, we find a place for our sleeping bags. Mike and Ali have a lantern, a thermos of coffee, and some biscuits and fruit. While Mike and Ali talk and laugh in hushed tones, I lie on my stomach and watch the flutter of bats overhead. I swear I hear the howl of a wolf, but they say I have an overactive imagination.
Mike winks at me. “See any ghosts yet?
“Nah.” In the dim light of the lantern, I absentmindedly scratch in the dirt with a twig. If you let your imagination go, you can feel the crushing weight of death in this place.
Something glimmers in the dirt and gravel. Just a tiny flash of reflected light.
“Do you know that Dracula’s first wife committed suicide when the castle was besieged by Dracula’s brother and a Turkish force?” Ali asks. “Dracula escaped, but he left his wife to fend for herself. She jumped off the tower for fear of the Turks.”
“Are you trying to cheer me up?” I reply. I dig a little deeper in the dirt and extract a lump of metal that I soon realize is a ring. My heart races and I hold my discovery close so no one can see it. It is two bands of gold intertwined to make a single band. A dark blue, oddly cut stone is mounted on the tiny band. I slide it on my pinky finger. A love ring. My heart feels sad.
I should share my discovery, but I can’t. There is something sacred about this ring. I slip it off my finger and place it in the zippered pocket of my pants.
Suddenly, Mike jumps up. His eyes are focused somewhere above my head. I look up. “Do you see that orb of light above her head?” He turns to Ali who is now on his knees working himself free of his sleeping bag. “We got to get this on camera or no one will believe us.”
I want to keep and protect this mysterious ring, but do I dare? An invisible hand grips my shoulder and I wonder if that is a 'yes' or a 'no.'