(A "pre-quel" to Frank Langella's Dracula)
The girl had come to kill herself.
She stood perched at the cliff's edge, her tiny booted feet mere inches from oblivion. The Whitby churchyard at her back bore silent witness to the desperate act she was about to commit.
She raised her face to the fog-wreathed moon. As she gazed upward, the hood of her dark cloak fell back to reveal a small, heart-shaped face framed by long, straight, silky dark hair. The mist-diffused moonlight cast a soft glow on her upturned face and glistened on luminous sable eyes shining with half-shed tears.
'One step further ... only one step, and I will be with the angels ... and Mother.'
She fastened her dark eyes on the cold comfort of the moon, spread her cape-draped arms like a seagull ready to ride the air currents, and stepped forward. Her foot descended through the midnight mist as she began to fall ...
Cold, velvet-sheathed steel encircled her right wrist, and she yelped as an unseen presence yanked her roughly from the brink. A vise-like arm closed around her tiny waist and dragged her struggling form until she finally came to rest with a plop on the weathered stone bench by the cliff path.
Strong arms circled her from behind, holding her in place on the bench until her struggles ceased. For some strange reason, it did not even occur to her to scream. A deep, honey-rich masculine voice spoke in her right ear. "Do not be afraid. If I release you, will you promise not to run away?"
After a slight pause, she nodded her head and whispered, "Yes."
The restraining arms withdrew, and she heard a rustle of movement as the figure emerged from behind the bench and stepped into her line of sight.
The man was darkness incarnate. Dark hair swept back from a high forehead, dark compelling eyes, body draped in black foreign-cut clothing and wrapped in a loose black cape. Only his pale face and hands shone white in the moonlight, as did his perfectly-formed teeth as his lips drew back in an expression that was half smile, half snarl.
He studied her in silence as she cowered warily on the bench. She considered for a moment the idea that this might be one of her father's escaped lunatics, but the man exuded an aura of power and self-possession which quickly dispelled that thought. This was no crazed, gibbering madman, out of control and incapable of reason. As her eyes at last met his, she could see a keen intelligence burning in their depths.
Their eyes remained locked for a breathless moment while man and girl appraised one another, then the tension was abruptly shattered as the girl covered her face with her hands and began to weep uncontrollably. So lost was she in her paroxysm of grief, she hardly noticed the weight of his thigh against hers as he moved to sit beside her on the granite bench. She felt an arm come around her shoulders, and the brush of what might have been a hand -- or lips -- upon her hair. Without conscious thought, she turned and buried her face in the coarse fabric of his shirt.
He waited patiently while she wept, until her sobs gradually diminished into shuddering sighs, then ceased altogether. Finally regaining her senses, she pulled away from his unconfining embrace, embarrassed at having subjected a total stranger to such an uninhibited display of emotion. She swiped at her tears with the hem of her cloak. "Please forgive me, sir," she apologized with impeccable courtesy, as she had been taught to do. "I am distressed that you should find me here in such a state. I beg your pardon."
He seemed to find humor in her politely understated comment, for one corner of his full mouth tilted up in a wry smile. "Indeed, there is nothing to forgive. However, I confess I am curious as to the cause of your distress. Why should one of such tender years be so determined to end a life which has scarcely begun?"
She turned away, flushing in embarrassment, and refused to meet his eyes.
"Come," the honeyed warmth of his voice caressed her senses even as his elegant, square-fingered hand rose to trace the contour of her cheek, applying a firm but gentle pressure along the curve of her jaw line, compelling her to turn her face toward him. "You can tell me," he breathed.
Reluctantly, her gaze flicked up to meet his. The placid surface of his dark, nearly black eyes, as well as the languid drape of his body across the cold stone bench, belied a strange intensity which called to mind the image of a panther in repose. There was danger there, certainly, lurking just beneath the deceptively calm surface, but also something more -- an underlying nobility and honor that, inexplicably, made her feel safe in his presence, despite the warning signals tolling in her mind.
"At least allow me the privilege of knowing your name, child," he coaxed.
She flinched inwardly at the innocent endearment, and her spine stiffened with indignation. How she cringed at the condescension inherent in that seemingly innocuous word -- child! They all used it -- her father, her tutor, the asylum attendants, even the lunatics!
"Lucy," she bit out, perhaps a little too acidly. "My name is Lucy Seward." All fear was instantly forgotten.
He raised a dark eyebrow at the heat in her tone and the flash of fire in her young eyes. "Lucy," he repeated, his pleasant baritone savoring each syllable, his soft, barely noticeable European accent imbuing the simple name with a slightly exotic nuance. "Tell me ... Lucy. How old are you?"
She thrust her chin out defiantly, as if daring him to call her a "child" once more. "I will be ten next month."
The shadow of some incomprehensible emotion passed across his features -- a relaxing of the planes and angles of his face, a softening of the eyes, as if he no longer existed in the present, but in a place and time far removed from here and now. His lips soundlessly formed the words, 'So young ...'
A flash of a memory -- a small boy of nine cowered in a dark, dank cell of a room. Echoing footsteps approached the door, drawing nearer, filling the boy with terror. What type of degradation would they subject him to today? He had long since lost count of the days he had suffered at the mercy of his father's enemies.
Father! The word had become, to the boy, the foulest profanity. The man had been all too willing to sell him and his younger brother as hostages to cement the fragile truce between their two warring lands. He despised his father for this, as he despised his brother for his weakness in so readily acquiescing to the demands of their new "friends." But they would not break him -- no, he had to survive, and on his own terms, for one day he intended to pay them back in kind ... Thoughts of dark vengeance filled him, sustaining him, lending him strength in his moment of terror. He steeled himself and turned as the cell door groaned slowly open ...
Something she read in his face made Lucy reach out to him, and the touch of her small hand upon his own broke his fragile web of reverie. A coiled tension rippled through his lean frame, and he turned on her, lips drawn back in a half-snarl, but then he relaxed as he looked into sable-brown eyes brimming with sympathy. Her earnest gaze trapped and held his and for one poignant moment there existed between them an utter empathy, a perfect matching of soul and spirit, a dark bond of shared tragedy and pain. Her instincts told her that, whatever terrors, hurt and despair she had experienced, he had suffered that and worse.
Composure regained, he entreated her in a low voice, "Please, tell me. Why did you come here to kill yourself tonight?"
And she told him, calmly and in great detail, about herself, her psychiatrist father, and the mother she adored. She spoke of her earliest memories, her idyllic life spent with her mother in their modest, cozy home in London. Her father had spent the majority of his time tending his sanatorium at Billerbeck Hall, but Lucy would see him as frequently as his duties permitted. Although she loved her father dearly, her beautiful mother had been the center of her young life -- her constant, loving companion.
But this happy life soon changed with the onset of her mother's illness. "Consumption" some called it, using the old, outmoded name for the lung affliction, and, indeed, the wasting disease did gradually consume her. The girl had watched her mother's frail beauty wither under the ravages of the disease, her tenacious strength fading until she was but a pale ghost of the handsome, vivacious woman Lucy had known and loved.
Lucy's voice faltered and tears of anguish spilled from her eyes as she told of her mother's subsequent death, scarcely six months earlier. The physicians had not even permitted the girl to see her failing mother one last time before death claimed her -- she had only glimpsed, at last, her shrunken, badly-embalmed, garishly-painted corpse as it lay in its casket in the parlor of the lovely London home where they had shared such happy times. Her ensuing distress prevented her, by her father's expert judgment of her mental and emotional state, from attending the funeral. She had not even had that last opportunity to bid a final farewell to Reneé Victoria Beaumont Seward.
Shortly thereafter, her father sold the house in London, dismissed Violet -- who had served as both nanny and housekeeper and who, apart from her mother, had been Lucy's most cherished friend -- and decided they would reside full-time at Billerbeck Hall.
For a child of nine, it was a startling and disturbing change. The safe, sheltered environment she had hitherto known was suddenly replaced by one of lonely isolation, paternal indifference as her father lost himself in his work, and the terrifying, heart-rending screams of the mentally ill. The one bright spot since the move had been a visit from her father's friend and colleague, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing -- also a widower -- and his young daughter, Mina, who was nearly the same age as Lucy. Parted from all her London acquaintances, Mina was the closest thing to a friend Lucy had in the desolate Whitby environs, and she and Mina had maintained a faithful correspondence upon the Van Helsings' return to Amsterdam.
However, even the discovery of a new friend did little to relieve the gloom of a dismal existence where she felt unloved, unneeded, and so utterly alone. Her overwhelming sense of uselessness and isolation, and an overpowering yearning to be reunited with her adored mother, had driven her to the brink of the cliff that night.
"I feel as though I've become nothing but a burden to my father. I have no function whatsoever in his work or his world. We have nothing in common -- the only time we even see each other anymore is at breakfast and dinner. I am even denied the escape of sleep, for the cries of the poor mad creatures in the night fill me with terror and disturb my rest."
The girl raised shimmering eyes to the stranger's shadowed face, and breathed in a fervid whisper, "Oh, but you cannot understand what it is like -- night after night -- the screams ... They echo through the house, filling every corner, crowding me out, until there is no room left for me!" She clapped her tiny hands over her ears, as if trying to drown out the babbling of a thousand maddened voices, and her lower lip trembled. "At times, I feel there is no hope for me except to become as they -- a raving lunatic, for I am powerless as they are against the horrendous changes fate has so cruelly visited upon me." She again buried her face in her hands, leaning once more into his embrace as she cried.
After a moment, he pushed her gently away from him, leaned forward and grasped her chin, tilting her tear-stained face up to capture her gaze with his own. "Lucy, allow me to bestow upon you this advice." His eyes burned with a strange and intense light. "In my -- existence -- I have had many enemies. I do not speak merely of human adversaries, though there have been many. There exist also more insubstantial enemies which are to be feared more than the fleshly kind, because they are to be found within yourself. These foes are self-pity, cowardice, and despair. Those who allow themselves to succumb to these foes deserve the oblivion to which they eventually are consigned.
"Strength is all-important ... strength of mind, of spirit, and particularly of will. A strong will possesses the power to conquer anything which confronts it." His full mouth twisted in irony. "Even death ..."
He spoke with conviction, "You are not, as you say, powerless. You have the power within yourself to choose. You may choose death, which is the ultimate end. You may choose life, and all its various delights and sorrows." He paused, and seemed to lose himself in careful contemplation. "There is also a third choice, which can lead to the most exhilarating and, at the same time, the most excruciating existence of all -- and that is eternal life."
A maelstrom of conflicting emotions whirled in the glittering depths of her fever-bright eyes. She stared at him in rapt fascination and, for a moment, he felt himself a captive of those strangely intense, so very unchildlike eyes.
He drew her to his bosom, and held her there a long moment, enjoying the feel of her rich, warm life in his arms. Seldom was he afforded the luxury of embracing a human not wracked with mortal fear, or captive to the irresistible power of his will. He exerted no such power over her now, yet she stayed willingly within the circle of his arms, seeming to draw a measure of comfort and reassurance from his touch. He was ineffably moved by her display of innocent trust, affected in a way he thought had become impossible for him centuries ago.
"If you truly are determined to die, Lucy, I can give you death, but a death so sweet you would not even know your life was ebbing away." He ran his fingers through her long, silky hair. "If you wish, I can be your Angel of Death." He let her consider his words for a moment, his hand slipping down to rest against the side of her throat, feeling the pulse beating steadily beneath his palm.
The temptation to take her then and there suddenly flared to a fever pitch within him, and he released her, fairly shoving her away from him. He rose from the bench, taking a few rapid paces away from her, desperately needing to put distance between the two of them in order to regain his self-control.
When next he spoke, his seductive voice was hoarse with a passion that transcended mere physical desire or human love. "Yes, my Lucy, I can grant you death. But only you can grant yourself life."
He turned back to see that she had risen to her feet beside the bench, her eyes fixed on his tall, dark form, her expression reflecting a hunger, a desperation, a rapt attention to his every word. "As for the third choice ..." He knew she was not yet prepared to make this ultimate, irreversible decision, despite the tempting spark of curious interest he saw kindled in her eyes. "That is for the future, when you have grown to womanhood and experienced more of the riches life has to offer. Only then will you be able to fully appreciate the sacrifice you would have to make -- that I would ask you to make." An unchildlike intelligence shone in her face as she considered his words carefully, and he said, with sad reluctance, "At this time, Lucy, I am afraid you must choose life."
"And you?" she asked at last, face tilted up toward him, soft sable eyes meeting his with a questioning boldness. "If you are the Angel of Death, are you also the Angel of Eternal Life?"
He regarded her for a moment, returning her frank and steady gaze and seeing, with his unique ability, the woman she might become. "I could be ... for you."
He dropped to one knee as she ran willingly to him, flinging her diminutive body into his arms and throwing her own arms around his neck with a fierce strength surprising for a child so small. He stood and cradled her to his chest with exquisite tenderness.
"Please," she murmured into his shirtfront, "Take me with you." The muted screams from the asylum ebbed and waned in the all-encompassing night. She trembled in his arms, not with cold or fear but in an excess of emotion. The triphammer beating of her heart was a hypnotic rhythm to his ears, intoxicating his senses. He felt his resolve to spare her life slipping ...
"Lucy," he whispered into her hair, his voice softly chiding her. "You must be patient a while longer. My plans are not yet complete, and I must soon return to my homeland far away. But I swear, by my life's blood and the blood of my noble ancestors, that I will come back for you. Until that day, you must be a brave girl ..."
She raised her face from his chest, and looked up at him with solemn eyes. "And I swear, I shall wait for you. But ..." A disturbing thought struck her. "What if we move from this place, or Father sends me away to school ... How will you find me?"
He stroked her hair and gave her a smile which made her catch her breath. "Believe me -- I will know where to find you." He shifted her weight slightly in his arms and, bending low, breathed into her ear, "Until then, a parting gift -- but you have to trust me and not be afraid ..."
She closed her eyes, nodding as she responded, "Yes ... I trust you ..." And he knew she was utterly sincere. He paused the barest of moments, then lowered his face to hers, brushing a soft kiss across her brow, her temple, her cheek before descending to her neck. She seemed to instinctively know what he desired, and tilted her head back across his arm, allowing him access to the delicate white length of her throat. His lips sought the rapidly pulsing vein, then, as gently as possible, he bestowed his special kiss upon her.
A soft gasp escaped her lips as his teeth penetrated her soft flesh, and her small hands tightened spasmodically in the folds of his cloak, but then the gasp diminished into a gentle sigh and she relaxed in his embrace ...
A warm lethargy stole over her. Her ears filled with a strange sound that gradually became the sweet trill of a thousand voices raised in song. She felt as though she were floating, then flying, then soaring through the star-filled sky. A brilliant light broke on the horizon, rising higher and higher, drawing her inexorably toward it. She was aware of an overwhelming sense of peace and joy, and as she drew nearer, the blinding brilliance coalesced into a familiar form bathed in a golden halo of ethereal light, arms outstretched in welcome, a loving smile gracing the serene face.
"Mother?" Lucy murmured in awe.
"Lucy," a musical voice whispered to her consciousness. "Lucy, my love, it is too soon ... You must go back ..."
"But, Mother," she cried, "I want to go with you! I miss you so much!"
"Now, Lucy," the apparition chided, "It is not yet your time. You have your whole life ahead of you. And your father needs you now, more than ever. He may not always show it, but he does ... Now, hush ... When the time comes, I'll be here waiting for you. I love you, Lucy, and even if you cannot see me, I'll always be with you ... Always ..."
The image of her mother gradually dissolved, then burst into a sparkling rain of lights which became the twinkling of the stars in the night sky.
After a short while, he reluctantly pulled away from the dreaming child, his tongue lightly tracing the two small puncture marks before withdrawing completely. How sweet her young blood was to his jaded palate -- sweet and pure without the bitter tang of fear, nor the heady spice of desire. He sat and drew her onto his lap, her head resting against his shoulder, one small hand curled upon his chest. Any stranger passing at this unlikely hour might take them for a loving father and his sleeping daughter.
"Lucy," he murmured to the dozing child. "I am going to take you home now. But before I do, there are things you should remember ..." He felt her nod of affirmation against his chest.
"First, when I leave, you will have no clear recollection of what occurred here tonight. You may remember it as a dream -- nothing more. But when I return for you -- and be assured that I will return, for you are now a part of me and we shall ever remain linked, as long as blood flows in my veins, and in yours -- you will remember our bond and that I am yours and you are mine. You will be drawn to me and I to you, no matter how many years or miles pass between us.
"Secondly, there are those who will seek to tame you ... To make you conform to their beliefs -- who will attempt to shape you in their image, subjugate your will and spirit to convention and society's own restrictive ideas, who will try to possess you, body and spirit.
"This you must not permit.
"You are a special person, Lucy. It is your unique qualities -- your courage, your spirit, your individuality -- that makes you worthy of being my consort and companion ... My queen.
"And finally -- and this is very important -- whatever happens in future, particularly between you and me, must be of your own choosing." He stroked her head soothingly, the low rumble of his voice exerting a comforting influence over her. "Do you understand this?"
Once more he felt the nod of her head against his chest. "Yes," she murmured, snuggling closer to him. "My choosing ..."
He cradled her head to his breast and, drawing his cloak around them both, he rose and started walking through the churchyard, toward the towering structure of Billerbeck Hall. She was content to lay in his arms and let him carry her through the late night mist, until he brought her within sight of her front door.
He roused her sufficiently for her to stand on her own two feet, then dropped to one knee before her. Their eyes met and lingered for one last time. He stroked the side of her face with the back of his fingers, then, cupping her face in both his hands, he drew close and softly, tenderly kissed her cupid's bow mouth. One hand lingered against her cheek, then traveled down to lightly brush the two small marks on her throat with his thumb.
"'Til next we meet ... my dear Miss Seward." Then he passed his hand over her face -- a slow, elegant motion from brow to chin -- and her eyelids fluttered closed. He turned her away from him, pointing her toward her front door. He leaned across her shoulder to whisper into her ear something which made her smile, then, his palm flat against her back, he gave her a gentle push to start her moving toward the Hall.
He watched until she disappeared into the house, then turned and vanished into the night.
Lucy awoke to find herself standing inside the double doors of the front foyer, with no recollection of how she came to be there. She was surprised to find herself fully dressed, her shoes and the hem of her cloak damp -- and drowsier than she had been in a long time. For once, she was certain sleep would not elude her tonight.
She felt she had been dreaming, and that the dream had been a very pleasant one indeed. She tried to remember why she had arisen from her bed at such a late hour, and thought that it had something to do with her mother. However, whenever her thoughts strayed in this direction, instead of the soul-shattering pain she usually experienced at the recollection of her mother, all she felt was a calm, peaceful sense of joy.
A light still burned in her father's study, and she was drawn to it, until she stood upon the room's threshold, just outside the half-closed door. A sound she had never heard before made her peer around the doorjamb into the muted glow of the gaslit room.
She saw her father -- a stocky, prematurely balding man with a close-cropped beard -- sitting at his desk, his head bowed and resting in his hands. The sound she had heard was him softly sobbing. A locket which she recognized as her mother's stood open before him on the desk blotter. As she moved silently into the room to stand by his side, she saw the photographs contained in the locket -- on one side, her mother's sweet face, carefree and untouched by illness -- on the other, her father's visage as it appeared more than a decade earlier, surprisingly youthful and handsome.
At her light touch upon his shoulder, he quickly raised his head and turned to her with a gasp of surprise. His reddened eyes held hers for a long, painful moment, and then he gathered her into his arms in a crushing hug. Her arms stole around him, and she found herself murmuring, "It's all right, Father. Everything's going to be all right."
And she knew that it would be so.
He stood at the cliff's edge, staring off across the water. The mist had now dissipated, and the cold brilliance of the moon shone down on the water and, in the distance, St. Michel's Mount and the ruined stone house perched upon it.
Soon. Soon all his plans would come to pass, and he would return to this spot, to claim his new home, his new future, and his new queen ...
The group assembled in the parlor of Billerbeck Hall awaited their distinguished dinner guest. Conversation naturally had gravitated to the strange events of the past few days -- the wrecked ship, manned by a dead crew, and its lone survivor, whose arrival they now anticipated. Dr. John Seward sat in his accustomed leather chair, a snifter of brandy clutched in his hand. Jonathan Harker, Lucy's fiancee, impatient for his dinner, walked restlessly around the room, passing behind the settee where Mina Van Helsing sat.
Lucy looked with concern upon her cherished friend. Poor Mina. The excitement of the past few days has certainly taken a toll on her. She had never seen her friend, though always fragile, look so pale.
The conversation died as the parlor doors flew open, and the Sewards' manservant -- a small, bespectacled man -- appeared in the doorway, and all eyes turned toward him expectantly. "Count Dracula," he announced in a slightly confused voice, and stepped aside as a tall, dark, compelling man swept across the threshold, tossing his black cape at the servant with a natural, elegantly careless motion. The nervous little man scrambled to catch it.
Lucy's breath caught in her throat as she watched the darkly handsome man exchange brief pleasantries with her father and Jonathan before turning to Mina, who did not rise from the sofa but instead stared raptly at the new arrival. The young woman was sweetly flustered at the brief but intense attention he paid her, and dimpled prettily at the Count when he called her his savior. Lucy felt a sudden pang of inexplicable jealousy.
And then he turned to her, and Lucy saw his face clearly for the first time -- a face so familiar to her, one which she had seen so frequently in her dreams -- and she was immediately lost in the liquid velvet depths of his eyes. Time seemed to stand still for a long moment, though her pulse raced out of control as a strange excitement raged through her body. "Miss Seward," he purred, taking her hand and raising it to his lips in a courtly manner, his eyes gazing knowingly into hers.
Lucy's smile was slow and languorously sensuous, very unlike the small girl who had stood and wept at the cliff's edge, all those years ago. All thoughts of Jonathan flew immediately from her mind as a child's elated voice sang through her soul, He is here! He has come for me at last!
Her waiting was finally at an end, and the time of choosing had arrived ...