When Justina Albescu received the summons from the prince of Wallachia himself to attend to his wife's medical needs, she did not wish to obey. Winter had already come to the quaint town of Targoviste, great lines of snow spreading across homesteads and the shining ice turning the trees into crystal chandeliers. Justina wanted to stay in the city and manage her small but prosperous medical clinic. She wanted to work nonstop into the cold hours of the night only to spend the rest of her waking hours dancing and drinking until four in the morn, a frigid blonde amongst the flame lit pubs. She even wanted to wake up next to some strapping young lad in a warm, soft bed. She most certainly did not want to travel several hours into the northern wilderness at the behest of prince Vlad Dracula.
Tales of prince Vlad's cunning and ruthlessness spread across the region like a miasma. There was much ado about satanic dark rituals in the wild forest surrounding Dracula's castle and there were even rumors of the prince inflicting the most heinous of tortures upon his victims. Justina was a woman of science, her medical tomes the holy bible and the only oath she ever kept was of the Hippocratic variety. Logic and reason flowed through her veins as veritably as blood but damned if the thought of traipsing through the dark, cold forest where evil supposedly dwelled didn't send a shiver down her spine.
She had received the summons one blistery winter night. It was delivered to her clinic by an emissary from Dracula's castle bearing a most wondrous gift – a cloak of swirling vermillion that dazzled like flames under the candlelight. It was one of the finest garments Justina had ever seen, lined with the softest of ebon sable fur and embroidered with a light gold brocade. A clasp of solid gold joined the cloak at the throat, and when closed formed the Order of Dracul crest: a fearsome dragons head devouring its own tail. A letter also came with the garment, addressed to her. She read the contents of the letter, her brow furrowing. Although sufficient payment was promised by the prince, she thought it was preposterous for her to put her life on hold and neglect the townspeople of Targoviste just to attend to one woman's needs in the deep northern forest.
"Madness," Justina muttered to herself. "Find some other bloody doctor, I shan't go anywhere." The letter trembled in her hands.
Three days later Justina was on the northern road to Dracula's castle.
She was nestled amongst cushions and furs inside of a horse drawn carriage. A lone driver directed the black satin horses' reigns and two outriders escorted the carriage. Once they were clear of the city the northern road sprawled before them like a vast tapestry of ice dimly lit by the skulking sun on the horizon. Justina pulled the hood of her vermillion cloak about her head to shy away from the clawing air as the horses dashed further north, the frozen forest looming on all sides now.
Justina had never been this far north, and she was taken aback by just how immense the silence of the forest was. She stared at the walls of snow covered pine trees, the dying rays from the setting sun scattering splinters of light through the tightly wound branches.
"Dracula's castle isn't too far off now," the driver said over the galloping of hooves. "We should be there by nightfall, lord willing."
Lord willing… Justina had the sinking feeling that not even the Lord could hear any prayers out here in the deep, frozen wilderness.
The sun had bled out into a fiery ember on the slate grey horizon when Justina spotted the many shapes soaring to and fro the icy trees. At first, she thought they were ravens, their ebon bodies seeming born of the encroaching darkness suggested so, but as she looked closer, she could see the sharp angle of their wingspan, follow the smooth path of their glide –
"Lots of bats congregate in these parts," the driver said. "We should be ok as long as we don't startle them."
Their motley caravan slowed to a crawl as the twilight air festered with dozens, perhaps hundreds of bats. Justina had never seen so many before, only occasionally glimpsing the odd one or two roosting in her cellar. She stared into the swarm with equal parts astonishment and revulsion, her skin crawling with gooseflesh, less from the cold and more at the thought of leathery wings beating against her bare face. The outriders were busy tying oil stained cloths to the ends of wooden clubs. A trio of quick, successive strikes from blades onto flint rocks caused the clubs to ignite into makeshift torches, their path forward illuminated under a sky now alive with the flapping of many wings.
"I don't think the light is doing a very good job of keeping them away," Justina said perhaps a bit too meekly.
"The light will do the trick, no sudden movements and we'll be through in no time."
Justina held herself tightly as even more bats encircled them. They seemed to be traveling beneath a canopy of squeaking and contorting shadows that was slowly yet surely getting closer. Even the horses were becoming agitated, their footing less steady and soft whinnying audible over the cacophony of wings.
"Steady…steady," the driver soothed, whether to the flustered horse or to himself Justina couldn't discern.
Without warning the frozen pines along the road exploded into a seething mass of winged shadows and bats, bats, and more bats than Justina thought possible descended upon them in a fury of darkness.
The scream that patiently awaited within Justina's throat was finally unleashed in all its bloodcurdling horror. The drivers warning now abandoned, she swung her heavy medical bag like a mad woman and was rewarded with impact after impact but there was just far too many of the winged hell spawn. The bats clung to her clothing, pummeled her face with leathery wings that felt every bit as grotesque as she imagined and – oh god…she could feel them clawing at her hair!
Not content to idle through the onslaught that enveloped them, the horses tore through the snow covered trail in a ferity of manic neighing and torrents of ice. Justina was thrown against her seat as the driver tried desperately to calm his panicked steed and failed. The outriders were having even less success with their horses as they waved their torches against the throng of bats. One of the outrider's horses veered to close to the tree line and for a split second Justina saw his dismal fate as his steed passed beneath a low hanging branch, taking the poor man off of his horse with a sickening crunch before her carriage rushed by in a haze of snow. The second outrider met an equally grisly end as his horses' legs collapsed under its own momentum, sending the rider crashing to the ground along with over 800 pounds of muscle crushing him beneath.
Justina held on to the carriage railing for dear life as the terrified driver and horse careened down the path. The bats were relentless, as if the night itself had come alive to stop her trek to Dracula's castle. She cursed the princes ailing wife for succumbing to illness in this god forsaken wilderness, she cursed Dracula himself for imploring her of all physicians to treat his wife, but most of all she cursed herself for traveling here in the first place to die cold and afraid, her bones picked clean by hundreds of hungry little mouths, the only thing left of her a solid gold crest of a dragon.
"Oh my God!" The driver screamed towards the unforgiven sky. There was a terrible clamor of crashing wood and Justina's world was turned upside down as she was thrown from the carriage and into a snow mound. The cold wind was knocked from her lungs, but the snow helped to break her fall. She sat up, badly shaken but unhurt…alive, and took in the new silence that had settled upon the forest.
The bats had retreated from their attack, but Justina could still feel their presence wafting through the darkened trees, lambent eyes watching from the shadows. The carriage lay on its side in a broken wreck, one wheel lazily spinning in the chilled air. Their horse was in far worse condition than the carriage, the poor thing writhed in pain so. The driver had mercifully survived the crash, his shoulders slumped as he stood over the crippled form of the once lithe horse.
Justina rose shakily to her feet and retrieved her medicine bag which was laying several feet away in the snow. The driver looked at her with crestfallen eyes and shook his head.
"Poor girls legs are broken," he said as he unsheathed a dagger from his cloak. "Best to put her down."
Justina wished to object but saw the futility in it. She couldn't bear to watch as he plunged his blade into the animal for a certain kill.
"Whatever shall we do now?" Justina said softly, her eyes fixated on the snow.
"Never fear m'lady…we're already here." Justina looked up and followed the drivers gaze beyond the tree line. Dracula's castle loomed ominously atop a tree covered ridge overlooking the forest. Snow and ice clung to the castles broken battlements and wickedly sharp steeples like a thick carapace and no light illuminated from the many tall windows. Justina wondered what secrets lay within the walls of the edifice, what horrors lurked in the many deep shadows of its corridors. She would not have to wait long to find out as they set out on foot to the grounds of Dracula's castle. It was then that Justina noticed the bats did not follow them on their path, the hundreds of molten eyes watching their every step in silence.