I started this story in – oh God – 2010 (now I feel really old), and I've never quite been satisfied with it. I've played with it so many times that it's so far from the original that I might as well just start again. Going to keep the old version up but all new chapters will be posted here. Hope everyone likes Strangers in the Night 2.0!
The clash of the swords echoed all the way up from the manor courtyard into Anna's room. On edge already, she started, and her needle stabbed straight into her thumb. Grimacing, she removed it with a quick tug, and watched a bead of blood well against her skin.
"Anna! For heaven's sake concentrate, girl!"
She gritted her teeth and said nothing, staring down at the stocking in her lap, and jumped again when a plump red hand slapped her across the face.
"Just look at that! You are not even trying. Jesu, I never know how you manage to get your clothes into such a state, but the very least you could do is learn –"
Anna let the scolding drift over her head as she rubbed her cheek and looked down at the uneven darn she was making. Well really, who cared if the stitches were wobbly, and the darn loose? As her nurse was always pointing out, she'd only tear her stockings again anyway, so why go to all that effort?
"– I try and try but nothing I say seems to get into that thick head of yours. Are you even listening to me?"
Anna nodded, fixing her eyes attentively on her nurse's face as though she had been concentrating on every word. Unfortunately, Petronela was well used to Anna's ways and delivered another stinging slap.
"Liar! Well, if you will not even listen you can forget about going downstairs to see your brother later. You'll stay here, my girl, until every stocking in that pile is as neat as the day it was bought."
Anna stared wide-eyed at the mending basket at their feet whose contents of black woollen stockings, all in no better state than the one in her hand, threatened to topple over its sides.
"But Nurse, please, you know Papa said I might see Velkan at his training later if –"
"I do not care a fig for what your father said. Until you can learn to take care of your clothing as a young lady should, you can stay in your room. Heaven knows why you want to waste your time seeing the men at their work anyway."
With a sinking heart Anna realised that Petronela really did mean it. It wasn't fair! Her brother was finally allowed to train at sword and rifle and musket with the men, but she was stuck up here darning stockings without even a quick visit to break up the boredom. She was about to voice another protest, but at a sharp look and a raised hand from Petronela she dropped her gaze again.
Fuming, Anna stabbed her needle in and out of heels and toes for the next hour, while the muffled sounds of swords and later, gunshots drifted through the crisp autumn air. This was ridiculous. Papa had promised she could come and see them; Anna had spent most of dinner time yesterday persuading him, but Petronela didn't pay Boris Valerious any mind. Anna had complained time and again of the long afternoons sewing in silence, being made to sit straight with no crossed legs, as a lady should, but Papa had always ruffled her hair and told her she'd become used to it in time. She held in a sigh. Anna could complain about her nurse until she was blue in the face, but the truth was that Papa had hardly any time to consider his daughter, and since Petronela knew that, she took advantage at every opportunity. She only called Anna 'Princess', as was her right, in front of the other servants.
Tears of frustration grew in Anna's eyes, but as she fought to stop them falling, she caught the most welcome sound in the world. A snore. A grin spread across Anna's face as she saw her nurse lying back in her chair, her mouth wide open, fast asleep. Anna put her mending aside and rose as softly as she could. She slipped across the floor on tiptoe, reached the door, and was outside it and skipping lithely down the stairs in barely a moment. The afternoon was suddenly full of possibility.
One could reach the courtyard where the men trained through the kitchens, and Anna ran past the servants busy preparing tonight's meal like a whirlwind. Mădălina, the round-cheeked cook, tried to catch at Anna's arm as she scurried past, but missed.
"If Petronela catches you down here, Princess, on your head be it, and not mine!"
Anna ignored her as she careened down a passage and came to a stumbling halt at the open courtyard doors. An icy jolt tore through her stomach at what she saw; her brother, dressed in brand new fighting gear, his face grim with concentration as he lifted his blade to parry their father's blow, while the village men looked on approvingly.
"Velkan!" The startled cry had left her mouth before she could stop it. Anna couldn't help herself. The boy who had played in the woods with her was gone, and already he looked more than half the soldier her father had promised to make him. She'd thought Velkan would be pleased to see her: entertained some wild hope that he might even invite her to join in, but her dream vanished as Boris Valerious took advantage of his son's distraction and brought his training sword clean across his son's chest. A killing blow. Velkan was 'out', and Boris had won.
"Anna? What the bloody hell are you doing here?" The first part of the sentence was deep and sure, but by the end Velkan's voice had cracked and suddenly grown high, and she saw him colour. Boris cuffed Velkan for swearing, and turned to her, his good eye darkening with anger. Anna's heart sank. She was really in trouble now.
Anna kicked at the patchwork quilt until it fell to the floor, and yanked straight her nightgown from where it had tangled about her legs. That was better. A full moon, and once again she couldn't sleep. Heaven knew why, when for once even Petronela's snores were gone. The servants went home to their families for the full moon, to better protect them in case of trouble. Anna tried not to picture them around the fire, barricaded into their little cottages as Valerious Manor was shut up now. The moon was almost up, and it wouldn't be long before the werewolves arrived, sent from Dracula's lair, wherever that was, to prey on forest game and any foolish enough to leave their homes on a night like this. So Anna lay and watched the shadows play across her ceiling, and thought about her brother.
Not so long ago, Anna had been as terrified as the villagers. On full moon nights she'd run to her brother's room, half-mad with fright at the howls that echoed from the streets of Vaseria, and still ground down by grief at the loss of her mother. She'd climb into his bed and found she could sleep a while with his comforting presence beside her, until the moon set and the werewolves made for Dracula's lair. And slowly, she had learned that while they were safely inside the manor, with her father standing by, there was nothing to fear.
And now here she was, tossing and turning once again and staring at the ceiling, and thinking once again of Velkan. She'd barely seen him since her ill-timed interruption in the courtyard yesterday, and every time she'd tried to talk to him since he'd ignored her. Anna had sat up in her bedroom with Petronela and the mending, seething and hurt.
A howl drifted up from the forest, miles distant, and Anna shivered, gathering her quilt tightly around her again. Here they were. She took a deep breath, thinking of her father, who would at this moment be sitting downstairs facing the barred front door, his silver revolver in his hand, lest they should break into the manor. It had never happened in living memory, but Boris was always prepared. Anna released her breath slowly, forcing herself to relax, but found she couldn't.
Truth be told, something else was bothering her about Velkan, and all this business with his training. Papa had always said his son would not start work until he was fourteen years old, and had stood by that until three weeks ago, when he'd suddenly changed his mind, and sent him to the courtyard two years early. There had been the attack.
In Anna's nine years she'd only glimpsed the vampires a handful of times through her window. They appeared like thieves in the night, snatching away anyone who had dared to venture outside, and vanishing as though they'd never been there. But, that overcast autumn day, she had been playing with Velkan in the market, a mad game of hide and seek in and out of the stalls, crouching under tables with the earthy smell of the produce for sale in her nose. Then there'd been a great beating of wings. She'd barely had time to look up when they'd appeared in the square, the brides' wings a whirl of colour as they landed beside the Count.
For a moment everyone had stopped and stared, astonished, then pandemonium had broken loose as the vampires had grabbed whoever happened to be closest. The brides had seemed delighted by the carnage they were creating, whooping with delight as they flew hither and thither. The gutters had run with blood, and Anna gagged as she remembered the cloying, metallic smell. She'd been hidden behind a stallholder's crates, but Velkan was caught out in the square. At first Anna had cowered where she was, sure her elder brother would come to himself and find cover, but as the seconds ticked by and he hadn't moved she'd realised she had to do something. Forcing herself up, she'd run over and tugged and tugged on his hand, sobbing with fear, but he wouldn't budge an inch. Finally, she'd dragged him bodily, using all her strength to get him behind the crate stack, and crouched beside him, peering through cracks in the roughly hewn wood, sure at any moment that they would be discovered.
The square was empty now but for the corpses of the unlucky ones, and Dracula had his arms around each of his women. They were speaking, but all Anna could make out was something about 'trying again' from Aleera's lips as she nuzzled her bright curls against the Count's shoulder. He held them for a long time, and Anna had felt so strange watching them standing so quiet, those who had caused such carnage but a few moments before. Then the Count had released them, and made a gesture towards the eastern mountains. The three stepped back, then spun in sickening circles and launched themselves into the air.
Anna had watched, hardly daring to breathe, as the trailing gowns and loud wingbeats had slowly faded away. Dracula had taken one last glance around him, a smile playing about his lips as he surveyed the scene, and looked about to follow his brides. Anna quietly sighed with relief, and then Velkan had shuddered convulsively, and as Anna had quailed, the crates had collapsed into the square with an echoing clatter.
Dracula spun around, and Anna, one hand on her brother's arm, looked straight up into his eyes. She'd known the two of them were finished, but as she'd realised this her fear had drained away, to be replaced by rage. How dare he attack by day, and harm unprepared villagers, when everyone knew vampires only came to them at night? Who did he think he was? She'd set her jaw and given him the Count the stubbornest glare she could muster, but the Count had just smiled.
"Well met, Princess Anna," he'd said, bowing as though she were any society lady, and then he'd sprung into the air and followed the brides.
Papa had been so relieved that the two of them were safe that he'd set them on his lap and held them to him for almost an hour before the servants persuaded him to let them be put to bed. But then when one of the villagers had told Papa how Velkan had broken their cover so foolishly, he'd decreed that her brother was to start his training right away.
And now here they were; Anna, who had been the one to keep her head that day, barred from learning to be a warrior, and it damn well stung to see her brother coming in every night and being able to stow his weapons in the armoury where she was not allowed to go; it hurt to hear him chattering nineteen to the dozen at the dinner table about the day's exploits, and more still when he refused to speak to her for ruining his sparring match. Why, any fool should have known to ignore a distraction like that, should have been so lost in the fight that he'd not even heard it – but Velkan had not.
Well, to hell with it. She would just go and tell him so. There was no one here to stop her this evening, and her brother's room was only across the gallery. She'd make him talk to her and hang the whipping if she were caught. Anna swung her legs out of bed and darted to the door, listening. Nothing. She tugged it back carefully, wincing in case the hinges creaked, but there was no sound. Velkan's door was across the gallery, shut tight.
Papa was downstairs in the entrance hall, some distance away, but sound carried in this house, so she'd need to be careful. Anna was considering how best to get across the gallery, when a cold breeze drifted around her legs, and she could feel the hairs rising. Now that was odd. All the doors and windows ought to be barred tonight!
Frowning, she went to the banister and peered over. Moonlight was spilling from the kitchen door across the Turkish rug downstairs. The breeze was coming from that way, so a window must be open somewhere too. Clutching the banister, Anna shifted from foot to foot, considering. She ought to find Papa and tell him, but then he'd know she'd been out of bed, and she'd never have a chance to speak to Velkan. But the kitchen door could not be seen from the entrance hall where Papa sat, and it would take her but a few moments to slip down, find the window, and shut it.
Anna went down the stairs on the balls of her feet, each movement carefully measured to be as noiseless as possible, even though her toes were numbing in the chilly air. She was at the bottom of the stairs before she knew it, and padding her way to the kitchens, her eyes darting about in case Papa had decided to move from his chair. Everything was still.
The long kitchen was bare, smelling strongly of dinner and the dogs, and it felt so strange bereft of its usual bustle of servants. She peered about her in the dim moonlight, and there it was. A shutter at the back was wide open. Shaking her head at the servants' carelessness, she padded across the carpet, reaching for it, when a crunch under her feet made her pause.
There was glass on the stone flags; the window was broken.
Anna bent, wincing, realising that she'd stepped into it, and her foot was bleeding. She sank down onto one of the benches, clutching her foot and silently cursing. How on earth was she to get back upstairs without leaving tell-tale bloodstains? The dog smell was growing stronger now, and Anna's heart suddenly dropped into her nipped toes. The dogs had been put in their kennels hours ago. And the window was broken, not left open. This was more than just carelessness. Anna made to rise, to go and fetch Papa after all, when a shadow rose across the window.
Oh God. Anna stumbled to her feet, her mouth opened in a silent scream. It was behind the great table, towering over her, steam rising from its nostrils in the cold night air. She could see the whites of its eyes in the moonlight, watching her as a cat might when it sees a mouse.
A werewolf had got inside.
Quaking, she took a step back, and another, and another, and the werewolf did not move. There was a trickling sound, her feet were damp, and Anna realised to her shame that she had wet herself. She whirled around, and threw herself across the kitchen as fast as she could, screaming for Boris. She could hear running footsteps from the entrance hall, and she was slamming the kitchen door behind her, and then there was a splintering sound as it was ripped from its frame, and something slammed into her head and she knew no more.
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Many heartfelt thanks to everyone who read and reviewed the first time round. Hope you enjoyed the latest version and I'd love to hear what you thought.
Seriously, reviews rock my socks. Please, everyone, let me know how you feel about this story!