Willow squeezed her eyes tighter as though the simple action would somehow send her back to sleep and block out whoever was trying to wake her. However, the insistent voice would not go away and whoever was speaking even resorted to shaking her gently by the shoulder. With a small growling yawn Willow stretched on the hard seat beneath her as though it were a feather bed and peered hesitantly from one eye to see a the outline of a man standing in front of her. At first she thought it was Myles but the man's arms were bulky where Myles was like a rake. Her eyes jerked open and she pressed her entire body back against the seat in an effort to get as far away as possible from the man hunched over in front of her.
"What do you want, Mr Harris?" Willow asked quickly, as though the faster she managed to get the words out the faster he would be out of her sight.
For the past week of their journey she had managed quite successfully to either avoid Alex Harris or ensure that she had Myles with her. She made it a point to request a hotel room as far away from his as possible and never shared his carriage on trains. Myles alone was a particularly effective foil for any of Harris' antics as he had perfected his 'stay away' glare to the point where it scared small children.
"We've just arrived in Klausenburg, I think you'll be wanting to get off the train before it departs," he straightened up and moved back a pace, sensing her discomfort.
"Ah, thank you," Willow replied, wondering why Myles had not come to wake her instead of Alex Harris.
It was as though Alex had sensed her thoughts and he went on to add, "I wanted to have a moment with you alone..."
Willow immediately raised her eyebrows in fright. 'Alone' with Alex Harris was definitely the last place she wanted to be.
"No, no," Alex quickly waved his hands in front of him as though that were enough to dispel her fears, "I wanted to apologise to you...and as I don't make too many apologies I did not exactly want an audience."
"The fact that you don't make apologies often can hardly be put down to the fact that you seldom offend people," Willow retorted quickly, still pressed hard against the seat.
"Well forgive me for trying, Miss Rosenberg," Alex actually managed to appear offended as though he did not think that there was a grain of truth in Willow's observation, "I know I riled you up some and I aim to set things right between us."
"You riled me up?" Willow answered, thinking that this was quite possibly the worst apology she had ever received, "You plied me with drink and then tried to take advantage of me...I would say I have every right to be riled up!"
"It is partially your fault!" Alex retorted, pointing an accusatory finger at Willow.
"Mr Harris, your apology is not going at all well," Willow said coldly, her eyes narrowing as they stared at his finger.
Alex immediately lowered his finger and appeared flustered as he tried to put the little thoughts ticking over in his brain into comprehensible words, "Well, you're not making this any easier, what I was fixing to say was girls like you, they don't ordinarily give guys like me a second glance."
"What do you mean 'girls like me'?" Willow's eyes remained narrowed, her tone of voice suspicious.
"Nice girls!" Alex seemed pleased that he had found a way to sum her up, "You know, nice, well-mannered, beautiful gentlewomen...you see, I tend to attract the ones with big breasts, too much make up and no class whatsoever."
"That's understandable," Willow replied quickly, however she was mulling over the rest of his sentence in her mind and it brought slight warmth to her cheeks, "but I would hardly apply the rest of those descriptors to me...well, perhaps nice, but not well-mannered and certainly not beautiful."
"No, you are!" he insisted fervently.
Willow drew in a deep breath, rendered even more uncomfortable in the presence of Alexander Harris by his latest statement. Unused to being paid such compliments about her physical appearance she could not decide whether he was speaking the truth or it was merely another ruse to lure her into a sexual situation. She decided to stop cowering against the seat and straightened herself up, even leaning towards Alex Harris in order to prove to herself that she was capable of protecting her own honour.
"I thank you for your apology Mr Harris, just make sure you're very clear on the fact that I'm not interested in you in any way...not now, not tomorrow and nor any time before Hell freezes over," Willow kept her words low and firm, hoping that even if he did not pick up on the content, he would at least pick up on her tone...much like a dog, "Are we both reading the same page on this issue?"
Alex nodded, a small smile of relief crossing his face, "Why yes we are, Miss Rosenberg."
Alex turned at the sound of footsteps behind him and he bristled openly at the sight of Myles Cavendish. The young man hardly came up to his chin and yet he still stepped right up to face him, the fact that he had to look up at Alex did not detract from the force of his stare.
"Do you need any help here, Miss Rosenberg?" Myles asked, not breaking his stare.
"No thank you Myles," Willow could see Myles's small fists clenched at his side and she admired his pluck, if it did come to blows between the plucky little office boy and the field hardened guide, there would be no doubt as to who would come off second best, "Mr Harris and I were just resolving a few issues between us"
It was Myles's turn to raise his eyebrows as he looked towards Willow for confirmation, she nodded and he appeared appeased for the moment. He stepped around Alex Harris and moved to collect their luggage from the overhead racks.
"So, where are we meeting this guy?" Myles asked moments later as the trio stepped from the train and moved onto the platform, his voice was fairly oozing with curiosity.
"The rendezvous is scheduled for this evening, just after dusk," Willow removed a small piece of paper from the pocket of her jacket and glanced down at the instructions Lara had written regarding their contact, she turned to look at Myles, "but you will be staying at the hotel."
Myles's jaw dropped and his cheeks flushed red. Just before he was about to say something he quickly closed his mouth and bit his tongue. His disappointment however was manifested in the sullen slump of his shoulders and the fact that he was obviously dragging Willow's bag along the platform.
Willow ignored the young man's reaction and instead turned to Alex to seek his expertise, "Is that unusual, Mr Harris, a meeting after dark?"
"You'll soon learn that nothing is unusual around here," Alex replied, patting the bulge beneath his jacket where his revolver was concealed.
As Willow and Alex made their way out into the night just prior to the scheduled time to meet Faith's contact, Willow was surprised to find that the well lit streets of Klausenburg were actually far less intimidating than she had first imagined. Although she had not forgotten the harrowing narrow escape in Paris, she had to admit to herself the she felt confident with Alex Harris at her side. The man may have been a low down womanising scoundrel most of the time, but come time for business, he was oozing professionalism. She'd seen him add a small arsenal of weaponry to the revolver beneath his coat including a small collapsible crossbow loaded with silver bolts strapped to his back and several stakes tucked into the lining of his jacket.
Willow had just one small silver dagger tucked in her boot, she'd wanted to take the sword but realised it was rather wishful thinking given she did not have the slightest clue as to how to wield it, despite her surprising display with Giles in the practice room. She'd tried...spending time in front of the mirrors of various hotel rooms throughout their journey but she could not manage anything resembling competency. She supposed that if they did run into any trouble, she would have to rely on Alex to do anything involving stabbing with pointy things while she did the one thing she could manage with reasonable skill...running.
"So, you good friends with Faith?" Alex asked, eager to break up the monotony of hearing nothing but their boots sounding on the cobbles and the occasional clatter of a carriage.
Willow nodded, also relieved to have conversation to occupy her busy mind, "
"Faith and I, we've had our moments," Alex began enthusiastically, "Why there was this one time when she..."
"Don't try to insinuate anything Mr Harris, I'll know that you're lying," Willow knew Faith too well to believe anything that Alex Harris would claim had happened between the two of them.
Alex turned to face Willow as they walked with an affronted expression on his face, "I was meaning moments in terms of run-ins with demons, vampires the like...do you have to judge me so harshly after that one little misunderstanding between us?"
Willow raised her eyebrows, "I would hardly call it a 'little misunderstanding' but I apologise for jumping to conclusions. I just couldn't imagine your little routine working with Faith that's all."
"Hell no...that woman is scary!" Alex was quick to reply, "I'd sooner try to woo a Russian farmer's wife."
Willow grinned, "She is particularly intimidating yes...but I know what you mean, I've seen her in action and she is impressive to say the least...although there was this one time where I had to save her from the clutches of an Atramen demon."
"Now you're pulling my leg!" Alex replied in disbelief.
Willow drew herself up to her full height, "I would never! If not for my quick thinking in throwing that lamp Faith would have been rendered into a rather unpleasant pile of mushy stuff."
"Because Atramen are particularly vulnerable to fire," Alex nodded knowingly.
"Yes, they are," Willow was slightly impressed; she glanced at the nearest street sign and back to the small map in her hand, "I think we take a right here."
"You're right, stay close to me...and keep your eyes peeled in all directions...but don't look like you're keeping too much of a look out or you'll advertise the fact that you're nervous," Alex cautioned in a serious tone, "These streets we're now entering are home to dark magick practitioners and the like, who's stores you would not want to browse for souvenirs lest you pick up something that should not be touched."
Although his warning was well meant, it only served to make Willow even more nervous, her eyes darting left and right into every dark nook and cranny. Alex's rather cursory description of the area of Klausenburg they were entering did not even begin to describe their surroundings. The streets were far narrower here, the higher floors of the buildings seeming to jut out over the streets, giving the place a claustrophobic atmosphere with only a narrow strip of night sky visible above. The buildings themselves were ancient, stone with sharply tiled roofs and dark gables. Incomprehensible signs jutted out into the street, many were so faded that the image could no longer be discerned. Of the few that Willow could see, the image immediately put her off visiting...what looked like bodily organs on one and a baby's skull on another. Willow nudged closer to Alex, wondering if he would take it the wrong way if she held onto his jacket.
Unlike the well lit, reasonably recognisable areas of the city through which they had just passed, these darker, narrower streets were teeming with pedestrians and loiterers, as though it came alive after dark. Willow shivered when she realised that her assumption was in fact more than that, it was probably true. Many figures wore deep hooded cowls that shrouded their features in darkness. Many of those that did not featured some sort of facial disfigurement or other oddity that led Willow to stare in fascination.
They continued through the maze of narrow streets until they had passed entirely through the throng of people and into an even darker neighbourhood where they were the only things moving on two legs. Willow had to suppress a scream as a cat-sized rat ran over the toe of her boot. Almost every single building was boarded up and looked as though they had been that way for the last hundred years.
"Well, we're in the right place," Willow glanced up at a derelict house with scepticism written plainly on her face, "Do you think the address was recorded incorrectly?"
Alex gamely tried the door but it barely moved on its hinges despite his best efforts. He shifted to have one booted foot placed on the door frame for leverage and tried once more.
"Well, well, well," a low voice rumbled in the darkness behind the pair and they spun about to see a dark shape emerging from the shadows, "Now there's a sight I never would have thought I would be witnessing again."
Alex ceased his struggles with the door and turned, Willow was already facing the stranger. She found herself edging close to Alex as the cloaked figure approached. It was a tall, broad-shouldered man, striding towards then with a confident, proud swagger. His face was all strong angles and exceptionally pale. Willow was instantly reminded of the mysterious blonde woman who haunted her steps and she inched so close to Alex she was almost holding his hand. His hair was dark and close cropped, when he was close enough Willow could see that his eyes were almost black, they seemed to be stripping away all her defences. As his gaze pierced her soul Willow felt as though she had been struck by an invisible wall moving towards her. She stumbled slightly, overwhelmed by a succession of fleeting images, all too fast for her to see with any clarity. Thankfully Alex Harris, at her side, was staring too intently at their guest to notice her discomfort.
He came to a halt a scant metre away from Alex and Willow, a small smile curving his rather thin lips. Still looking directly at Willow, he cocked his head to one side as though sizing her up.
"You're looking lovely this evening, Miss..." he paused as though he were about to say something before re-thinking his words, "Miss Rosenberg...I have to say this evening light becomes you very nicely indeed."
"Thank you," Willow whispered, "How do you know..."
"Your name?" he interrupted brusquely, "Faith of course, she can't possibly know more than one red-haired woman named Willow...and your friend is?"
"Mr Harris," Alex replied for himself, "You have a message for us?"
He shook his head slowly, making a chiding sound as he did so, "Not for you...for Willow."
As he made to reach inside his coat pocket, Alex's hand immediately leapt inside his own jacket. Willow knew his fingers were wrapped around the hilt of his revolver. However, before he could draw it, the place stranger had withdrawn a small, folded piece of paper and was offering it to Willow.
With some hesitation, Willow reached out and accepted the paper. She was careful to avoid touching his fingers as she did so. The paper felt old and leathery to her touch as she unfolded it and looked at it in the dim light.
"It's a map," Willow whispered, glancing back up at their contact.
Her voice must have betrayed her surprise as he asked, "You were expecting information perhaps?"
"Perhaps...I wasn't sure what to expect," Willow glanced back down at the sketchily drawn lines that could have been almost anywhere in the world.
"This," he announced pointing down at the map, "This is all the information you need."
"All the information I need for what?"
Willow couldn't bring herself to look up at the man once more, just the sight of him made her flesh crawl for some unknown reason. He looked at her as though he knew her...and not as a long lost friend.
She did however study the map intently and was further unnerved by the thought that she had seen a winding path high above a river, much like the one that was depicted on the map. It was impossible, the map depicted no place in England and yet she had never before been to the continent. Eventually the map disturbed her to the point that she was forced to face the contact again. He was smiling at her.
"It's all the information you need to find what it is you've been searching for," was his cryptic answer to her question.
With the unsettling smile still fixed on his face, he turned to retrace his steps in the direction he had come. Apparently that was all the information he had to offer. Willow glanced back at the map, still unable to shake the feeling of intense familiarity that had her in its icy grip.
"Well that was odd," Alex commented as the man's back disappeared into the darkness ahead, he turned and stared at Willow with a thoughtful expression that almost made him look intelligent.
"How was it odd?" Willow's tone was furtive, as though she was worried of being accused of a crime she didn't commit, "I mean, how was it not supposed to be odd? He's a shady Eastern European informant and we're agents of the British Museum...it's not like these meetings are going to be normal. Although this was my first one so I don't have any prior experience to go by."
Alex patiently waited until Willow have finished her babble and replied quietly, "It was odd...it seemed as though he knew you from some other place...a long time ago."
If Alex scared himself with his own deep speculation, he scared Willow more. She was forced to readdress the emotions and images that had been dredged up at the sight of their informant. It scared her to think that Alex might in fact be right.
"You're being ridiculous Alex," Willow clutched the small piece of paper in her hand, "In what world would someone like me ever mingle with someone like him?"
"Err..." Alex paused, "Weren't we mingling just now?"
Willow rounded on him, "Don't try and get all dicey semantics on me, Mr Harris, I don't know that man...and I've never seen him before tonight, is that clear enough for you?"
"Yes," Alex squeaked, unnerved by the sudden appearance of Willow's sharp defences.
"Good," Willow nodded resolutely as though that were the end of the matter, she turned their combined attentions back to the task at hand, "Where to from here?"
"Well, I'd say we set about buying ourselves some horses in the morning and setting out...if you're set on following that there map?" Alex nodded towards the scrap of paper in Willow's hand.
Willow tucked it carefully in her pocket, "I am." Her confident expression then slowly morphed into one of trepidation, she swallowed awkwardly, "Did you say...horses?"
The fire had long since died down to a mere pile of smouldering embers, throwing only the dimmest of outlines around the blanketed forms huddled around it. In the darkness beyond the fire a single presence was watching from her perch on the branch of a large tree.
Tara had remained crouched in the same position she had held since settling on the branch almost four hours earlier when Willow's small party had made camp for the evening. Her only movement was that which was stirred by the gentle wind, the swaying of her hair about her face and the tail of her coat as it hung behind her. Although her pose appeared relaxed, settled back on her haunches with her arms resting lightly across her knees, her eyes were alert and focused on the camp, her ears attuned to every sound the forest made at night. She had watched the party eat and fold themselves into their blankets, all weary after a hard day's riding. Tara had smiled at Willow's vehement protestations that her horse had it in for her...some things never changed. While Willow and the boy were sleeping, their guide was supposed to be keeping watch but Tara had seen him fall asleep not long ago, his snores were now filling the small clearing and managing to irritate Tara who usually considered herself to be impervious to small irritants.
Even with her sharp vision, she could only make out Willow's blanketed form several metres away. She longed to move closer if just to watch her sleep. Tara knew she could move closer without awakening their idiot guide but she also knew that being in closer proximity to Willow would distract her from her vigil. She remained crouched on the branch, torturing herself with memories of watching Willow's face as she slept...memories long faded by the passage of time.
Dawn was still at least two hours away when Tara's ears pricked up; she cocked her head to one side and listened intently. Seconds later she dropped from the tree, her boots hitting the ground without a sound. No sooner had she landed, she was moving across the ground, not running but gliding. Her feet made no sound with each step despite the speed at which she moved. The black coat she wore fanned out behind her as she wove through trees, ducking branches and avoiding low bushes. She could see them now, three shadowy figures approaching the clearing. They moved confidently, not making any attempts to conceal their presence. All three faces turned to face Tara who burst through the trees to bar their path to the clearing. Simultaneously the three bared their fangs, vampires all.
"I knew I smelt dinner!" the nearest growled, his pale face flabby and waxen.
His companions moved to stand near him and one pushed past, a tall heavily built man who had been young at the time of turning. Long black hair framed his face with its sharp jaw line. The confident stance he struck betrayed him as a leader of sorts. As he approached Tara he opened his coat with a flick of his hand to reveal the hilt of a sword, his fingers closed around the hilt.
"Who are you?" he demanded with narrowed eyes.
"That is none of your concern," Tara assumed a casual posture, her arms loosely at her side, "What you should be concerned with is turning around."
"We've been hunting all night and I'm starving!" the third, a stocky woman lifted her fist and shook it at Tara as she moved towards her, "You step aside and we might spare you if your friends satisfy us."
The leader halted her movement with a curt movement of his hand, still keeping his gaze fixed on the strange woman standing so nonchalantly in front of them.
"I cannot allow you any closer, find your meal elsewhere!" Tara's voice was firmer, more threatening.
"I should think a better question should be what are you?" he sneered, his nose twitching as though he were trying to pick up a scent, "You are not of the blood and yet you are not human."
"Enough warnings have been given...I am on our lord's business and that is all you need to know!" Tara was growing impatient, even the scant information she revealed was far more than she intended, more than these lowlifes needed to know.
"You lie!" the long-haired vampire growled, in one swift movement he drew the blade he had been gripping since Tara's appearance.
There was no further warning as he plunged the sword into Tara's stomach with all the incredible strength of the undead.
Tara heard the blade slide into her gut with a dull rasping sound as it grazed skin and clothing. She glanced down to see it buried to the hilt and then up to see the vampire's face twisted into a cruel smile. He drew his foot upwards and placed it next to the sword, with one savage push he shoved her body backwards away from the sword and sent her spinning to the ground.
Tara hit the ground and immediately crumpled into a heap, a dark unmoving shape to the on-looking vampires. She could hear their furtive steps as they moved to encircle her.
"What if she was telling the truth!" Tara heard the flabby vampire whine, "What if she really is on...his business?"
"Cuza, you fat pig...she's not of the blood!" the woman snarled in response, "Now we'll have four instead of three!"
"I don't know," Cuza was obviously unconvinced by his companion's logic, "Why wasn't she terrified of us like most humans?"
They were still bickering amongst themselves when their 'meal' sprang directly to her feet. Tara adopted an aggressive posture, snarling fiercely to give all three vampires a clear view of her fangs.
"You fools, stay out of matters about which you know naught!" Tara hissed, thoroughly enjoying the sight of their shocked expressions.
She had absolutely no mercy for fools and darted forward, the female vampire did not even realise what was happening amidst the swirl of Tara's coat and hair until she was screaming and stumbling with her arms flailing wildly...her eyes had been ripped out.
The bloody eyeballs fell from Tara's fingers as she spun, to face the other vampires. Before they could recover from their horror at the sight of their blinded companion, Tara relieved the long-haired one of his sword with a quick darting movement of her hand. Her bloody fingers curled around the hilt before he even realised he was weapon-less. He glanced down at his empty hand, it was frozen as though he were still clutching the sword. With one last glance up at Tara's smiling face he spun on his heels and bolted from the scene in terror.
Tara glanced across to the fat vampire, Cuza, whose expression suggested that he too wanted nothing more than to flee. She shrugged as if leaving the decision up to him and then whirled in the direction of the running vampire. He had just passed into the trees but was clearly in view. Tara lunged forward, her left hand outstretched. A searing fireball burst from her palm and in seconds the figure in the distance was engulfed. He burned for a split second before exploding into nothing but burning embers.
Torn between the decision to run and become a conflagration himself, Cuza remained frozen to the same spot. He stared in horror at his companions, all that remained of one was a few burning twigs in the undergrowth and the other was still stumbling like a lunatic, tracks of blood from her eyeless sockets running down her face. As the terrible woman rounded on him he made a desperate attempt to defend himself with an attack of his own. His movements were clumsy, inhibited by his bulk and his fear. Tara easily avoided his swinging fists with mere steps, moving with a fluidity and effortlessness that made her almost impossible to touch. She did not feel the slightest remorse when she lifted the sword to shoulder level and brought it across in an arc. The sword sang as it severed Cuza's head, Tara's stroke barely faltering as the blade passed through flesh and bone. Both the head and body were nothing but dust before they could fall to the ground. What was left was scattered by the wind.
Tara turned her attention to the lone vampire remaining. Her frantic stumbling had ceased, replaced by a primal anger at the loss of her eyes. She had smelt Tara out and was facing in her direction, fingers extended like claws as she prepared to make a desperate strike. As Tara circled her, she kept moving to continue facing her even though she could not see.
"You kill your own kind!" she accused with a snarl, making a wild slash with her fingers that missed as Tara deftly stepped out of reach.
Tara darted forward, standing right beside the blinded vampire as she spoke into her ear, "I am not of your kind, demon!"
The vampire spun, visibly disturbed by Tara's proximity. She made another sweeping slash but only grazed Tara's coat as she moved out of reach. Before she could sense Tara again, she found vice-like fingers wrapped around her neck and in one swift movement she was jerked from the ground.
Tara lifted her prey with inhuman strength. Holding it at arm's length in front of her, she strode forward towards the nearest tree. No sooner had she slammed the struggling vampire back against the trunk, she burst into dust in her hand. More dust blew off the jagged branch upon which it had been impaled. Tara watched for a few moments and then turned her back, walking back towards the clearing where her charges hopefully still slept soundly, unaware of the dangers which had stalked them.
As she walked she lifted her hand and saw bloody coating her fingertips and running over her palm. Tara took a tentative lick but spat it out almost immediately, it tasted like mud.
When she returned to the clearing, Tara found the three humans still sleeping soundly. She glanced up at the tree branch above her head and a few moments later her misty self was reforming atop the branch once more. She settled again into her crouching position and saw out the reminder of the night in her silent vigil.
"Are you alright, Willow?"
Willow felt her whole body jerk in surprise as though she had suddenly been woken...except that she had never been asleep. The horrible beast beneath her danced in protest at her sudden and unwelcome movement, it snorted and pawed with its hooves and generally behaved like the devil incarnate. Willow squawked in an undignified fashion and tightened her already white-knuckled grip on the reins. The horse eventually settled back into a brisk walk (much too fast for Willow's liking of course).
She glanced across with a scowl to see that it had been Myles interrupting her reverie. The young man appeared not to notice that he had had almost been responsible for Willow falling to her death from the back of the great beast on which she rode, instead he smiled at her in his affable manner.
Willow was incapable of remaining mad with Myles and she returned a small smile.
"I...I didn't sleep very well last night," Willow managed after a moment's hesitation, certainly not about to tell Myles that her mind had been pre-occupied with thoughts of the pale man she and Alex had met the previous evening.
"Yes," Myles nodded with mock solemnity, "I've heard that one does not sleep well on the dirt with a root digging into your back."
Willow failed to pick up on the tone of Myles conversation and shook her head absently, "No, it wasn't that...I felt as though someone were watching us, all night I felt as though there were a pair of eyes firmly fixed on me...which is silly of me I know..."
"It's not that silly," Myles sympathised, "We are in the middle of nowhere with no one but him to keep us safe."
He nodded pointedly at Alex who was leading the way several horse-lengths ahead of Willow and Myles. The American turned his head slightly as if to indicate that he had heard Myles before resuming his attention on the map balanced on his saddle horn. Given that he was the only one that knew the country and Willow's inexperience with using maps in the field, he had been tasked with following the route inked out on the small piece of parchment. Throughout much of the journey Willow and Myles had to listen to the map being called various foul epithets as though it were a person in its own right...a particularly disagreeable, capricious person. Apparently it was not a straight forward map to follow.
Every additional day they spent on horseback was an additional day that Willow felt as though she were being pummelled by each jolt her animal made. Each evening she would dismount gratefully only to find her bow-legged stance had not improved. Willow soon realised that no matter how much time she spent on the back of a horse, she would never grow accustomed to it as a mode of transport.
The terrain gradually became more mountainous several days into their journey and the sense of déjà vu lurking at the back of Willow's brain came to the forefront. This particular morning had dawned ugly and grey with the distinct threat of rain hanging in the air. Gone was the dense forest on either side of the road, it was replaced by a high canopy of evergreen pines that lined a rocky route. It was a route that seemed to be leading them even higher. In the distance Willow could hear the rushing of a substantial amount water and she remembered the route on the map eventually joined a river.
When Alex took a fork in the path that led them away from the nearby river Willow did not hesitate in spurring her horse forwards, continuing up the path she knew to be leading them in the right direction. She surprised herself with her own decisiveness but knew that stranger things had happened to her over the past few months.
Just behind her, Myles paused at the fork and glanced at each of his two companions wondering which had taken the right route. Although Alex had the map, he had still not managed to forgive the American and distrusted him with all the passion he could muster.
"I say!" he called out to the lone figure disappearing around a bend, "I think you'll find you've gone the way."
With that confident assertion, he too spurred his horse in the same direction Willow had taken, falling in place just behind her. She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of his horses' steps and smiled gratefully.
"Do tell me you are going in the right direction, Willow," he asked with just a hint of trepidation in his voice, "Otherwise I'll look like a complete arse in front of that idiot."
"I can't make any promises, Myles old chap," Willow drew in a discreet breath, "But we're supposed to be going this way...I'm sure of it."
By the time Alex had turned around and made his way back to the path Willow and Myles had taken, he was some distance behind them. He was swearing profusely and trying to read the map as he rode.
"Where in the bloody hell do you two think you're going?" Alex yelled out after them but was resolutely ignored as the two figures disappeared ahead of him.
The promised rain had startled to fall later that afternoon, a soft blanket of moisture that managed to find its way beneath layers of clothes and directly into the rider's eyes despite the fact that they were all wearing broad brimmed hats. They rode on in some discomfort, a sullen Alex bringing up the rear of the party, quite sure that Willow was leading them all into disaster.
As Willow wiped her face yet again, unable to remove the stubborn film of moisture, a queasy sensation had begun to develop in her gut. If she had not been convinced earlier that they were going in the right direction then she certainly was now.
After another hour of riding along the steep narrow trail, with Willow keeping her gaze determinedly fixed ahead instead of staring down into the river below them, the rain ceased falling. Eventually the trail even moved away from the river and they were back beneath the pines. Willow's queasy sensation had escalated to the point where she felt she was going to vomit, that was until she broke out of the trees and emerged onto a vast plain. The uncomfortable feeling in her gut was instantly gone and she felt nothing but awe. Behind her Myles gaped and Alex Harris whistled as they too emerged from beneath the trees and onto the very edge of what was an extremely large expanse.
Having spent the greater part of a week riding along narrow trails beneath trees which blocked out the sky above, Willow suddenly felt as though she wanted to turn around and return to those confined spaces...what was laid out in front of her was just too overwhelming.
Willow, Myles and Alex were all struck speechless as they stared out over the wide expanse of the flat plain which stretched miles into the distance that was laid out before them. It was a sheltered valley, bordered by sharply rising rock faces on three sides and forest on the fourth. Save for several large trees, it was almost completely flat and bare...or at least it would have been if not for thousands upon thousands of dark lumps puncturing the surface at irregular intervals.
Willow dismounted, shortly followed suit by both Alex and Myles. While the two men remained holding the reins of their horses, she left her horse and hesitantly started towards the nearest lump. Although she had suspicions as to what the shapes lying in the dirt were, she continued walking; knowing that what she saw would almost certainly terrify her. It was as though she was compelled to venture further out onto the plain.
She stopped walking, gripped by an unexplainable mix of fear and excitement as she stood over what could most simply be explained as a dead body...a very, very long dead body. All trace of flesh was gone from the skeleton, its hollow eye sockets stared up at her mockingly. A cap-like helmet had fallen backwards from the hairless skull and lay in the dirt, the rest of the body was clad in severely rusted armour, partially chain mail and partially plate mail. A mace was still clutched in the bony fingers of its outstretched arm. The cause of the man's death was also plainly obvious; a rusted sword was driven straight through his chest.
Still looking at the impaled body, she stumbled past it and onwards to the next bodies. Willow drew her gaze away from the first and onto the next, a headless corpse, the skull lying a good metre away. As Willow continued onwards through the skeletons she saw just about every form of death imaginable. Skulls were crushed into barely recognisable lumps of bone, some with the instrument of death still embedded in them. Limbs had been hacked and severed rendering the bodies into several pieces. Some corpses were riddled with arrows, still protruding from the bodies as though they had been just embedded the day before.
All were in the same condition as the first, mere skeletons clad in rusty armour, some with tattered remnants of fabric that had once been clothes still clinging to the bones.
It was a pattern which was replicated over and over again across the entire area of the battlefield. It was a graveyard with no graves, a field of death and blood with the blood having long since worn away with the passage of time. Willow imagined it as it must have been; with so many men dying, the plain would have been running rivers of the stuff.
Willow heard Myles just at her back, his voice trembling with the power of the place.
"What in heck is this place?" Alex's tone was harsher in an attempt to conceal the fear he felt.
"It's Covasna," Willow replied in a breathless voice, a chill ran down her spine as she said the words.
"Covasna?" Myles and Alex asked as one combined voice, both managing to mangle its syllables into an almost unrecognisable word. .
"It cannot possible be anything else."
Willow was still in awe as she turned back to face Myles and Alex, Myles held the reins of her horse as well as his and had led the animals out onto the plain. Both horses were growing slightly skittish, prancing tentatively and pawing at the ground. Alex tied his animal to a nearby stump and had almost the same rapt expression on his face as Willow...although where she was seeing knowledge he was seeing booty for the taking.
"We are standing on the field where Vlad Tepes...Dracula to you uncultured types, fought his last battle. This was the last place any human actually saw him," Willow could hardly contain her excitement, for a scholar in her field, it was like standing on sacred ground, her voice was animated as she spoke, "For almost a decade his legendary bloodthirsty army ravaged the land...you know, impaling their victims and the like...no one could or would confront them until a German Prince from the Black Forest amassed his own army of brave men determined to put an end to the murdering horde led by the spawn of hell - the vampire Dracula. It was said that the prince had enlisted the aid of a powerful warlock to aid him in the fight. While the warlock's existence has never been confirmed, in 1476 the Prince and his army did face Vlad's army and manage to drive them back into the mountains were they harassed and harried them until Vlad, having had his fill of running, decided to make his stand at Covasna for reasons unknown to anyone but him. Eyewitness accounts have the battle lasting three days...three days of men hacking and slashing each other to pieces until the ground beneath their feet was turned to mud with the amount of blood spilled..."
"So the prince defeated Dracula," Myles nodded as though Willow's tale was immensely entertaining.
"Essentially yes," Willow conceded, "My scholarly opinion would be that the Prince's army eventually slew every single warrior in Dracula's army..."
"Your scholarly opinion?" Myles seized on Willow's words, "Is it not fact?"
Willow shrugged, "There are few accounts that survive, if there ever was am official history set down it was lost shortly afterwards, those we have are poorly written, contradictory...and it is very difficult to deduce exactly what happened, much of what did happen was eventually clouded in superstition and myth. Basically, it was popularly held that the reason Dracula's army remained undefeated was that it couldn't be defeated and no one would face him because they believed this to be true."
Alex let out a low whistle and Myles was riveted on Willow's every word, he had since dropped the reins of the horses and was listening intently. The animals had gratefully retreated to the edge of the field.
"Was there a reason why the army could not be defeated?" Myles asked eagerly, "I mean, even if they were all vampires they could still be killed with stakes...beheading, fire...and daylight..."
Myles paused, obviously trying to work out how vampires could fight throughout three whole days with combusting as they were prone to do in the face of the sun's rays.
"There's your problem, Myles," Willow quickly added in an authoritative tone, "His army weren't vampires at all...they were just men...evil, evil men but just men nevertheless. It was said they could not be killed so long as their captain lived...the Prince's army could wound them with ordinarily fatal blows and they would continue to fight, severed limbs grew back, men fought without heads...it's all the stuff of nightmares really."
Alex chuckled appreciatively, "Damn!"
"So someone had to kill this captain?" Myles was growing slightly pale.
"Legend has it the Prince did; he severed the captain's head after an epic duel. Once the captain dropped dead, Vlad Tepes fled the battlefield and his warriors were slaughtered with swords, arrows...in the normal fashion I suppose. The prince claimed the captain's head as a prize and took it back with him to Germany. I think that is where the stories and myths started, the Prince no doubt did keep the severed head of one of Vlad's generals, probably on display for his populace to see. One of the most stubborn legends throughout the literature has to do with the skull, it is purported that if the body of the captain were ever made whole, the army would arise renewed from the dust of the battlefield to resume its reign of terror and blood. Naturally it is believed that this is why Vlad has kept a low profile...he has been searching for the skull ever since."
"To resurrect his army?" Myles took a hasty step backwards from the nearest dead warrior and swallowed quickly, "There must be tens of thousands of soldiers here..."
"Probably closer to a hundred thousand," Willow remarked casually.
Myles squeaked, "So if Dracula ever finds the skull we're going to have a hundred thousand blood thirsty medieval soldiers running all over Europe!"
"Don't be ridiculous, the battle occurred of course, but the rest...the un-dead captain and the resurrection of the entire army, is all a load of piffle," Willow announced resolutely, she turned to see Myles still looking apprehensive and she continued, "You can't possibly resurrect an entire army, no one can...why, it's hard enough to resurrect...."
Willow found herself tongue tied, unable to finish the rest of her simple sentence. She found herself looking down at the back of her hand...at her own flesh and wondered if this really was the first body that had encased her soul...her essence.
"It's hard enough to resurrect just one person," she finished quietly.
"But Dracula's looking for the skull?" Alex ventured, interrupting Willow's thoughts.
"Well, he's obviously pretty damned incompetent if it has taken him over 400 years to not find it," Willow snorted mockingly, doing her best to forget the uncomfortable speculations playing havoc with her mind.
Myles squeaked again, "But you just said it was all a load of...piffle!"
"Please Myles, you're embarrassing me." Willow turned her back on the trembling young man and resumed staring out over the expanse in front of them, "Dracula, if he's even still out there after all this time, is just another vampire more concerned with avoiding agents like Faith than finding non-existent skulls, trust me, he's nothing to fear."
"Faith isn't here," Myles whispered.
"But Alex is," Willow reminded him of their guide's self-proclaimed prowess...even though she had yet to see him in action.
Her already shaky confidence in their guide was further eroded when she noticed that Alex was staring at the body at his feet as though trying to work out exactly what he could safely remove as a souvenir....or to cart away from the battlefield and sell. Willow almost hoped that there was some curse laid on the bodies so that if Alex did indeed remove their weapons or armour something awful would befall him. She sighed, knowing from her extensive readings on the subjects that curses always seemed to attach themselves to an entire party...regardless of exactly which individual was to blame.
"That's right, sonny boy," Alex momentarily drew his attention away from the souvenirs when he saw Willow's angry glare. Instead he reached out and tousled Myles hair in a patronising manner.
Myles scowled, his fear forgotten as he moved away from Alex. He squared his shoulders manfully, determined to show the same amount of backbone in front of the dead warriors as he had standing up to Alex in Willow's defence.
While both men were still glaring at each other, they had not noticed Willow moving out further onto the field of battle. She was digging around in her bag and triumphantly pulled out a pad of note paper and a well worn pencil.
"No, we've come all this way so I'm going to take a look around," Willow announced decisively, stepping directly over yet another skeleton, "I feel as though there are answers to be found here...and I love answers!"
Myles and Alex watched as the intrepid researcher set off into the heart of the battlefield with a dreamy expression on her face, writing pad in hand, already madly scribbling notes with her pencil. Both men wore identical expressions of disbelief mingled with apprehension. Disbelief at the sight of Willow marching off alone into one of the most depressing and horrifying places they could imagine and apprehension at the thought of actually having to follow her.
"You know, I would have never taken this job on if Croft was honest about one thing," Alex muttered.
"And what's that?" Myles asked still staring at Willow's back, his dislike of Alex momentarily forgotten.
"That Miss Rosenberg is as mad as a hatter."