The moon shone high overhead against a clear night as the capital of the country lay in silent slumber after an evening of talking and merriment. The few residents who loitered around the gate to the city, peddlers of ill wares mostly, hardly expected any more visitors at so late an hour, but they were destined to be amazed.
The approach of horses drew their attention away from their mild conversations as the steeds suddenly rounded the bend of a sparsely used road. Three riders were upon their bare backs and the animals looked ready to collapse from fear and exhaustion. The horsemen, however, urged them still further and soon the newcomers had arrived at the gate.
“Halt” spoke the gate master as the wizened old gentleman stood before the visitors. The horses slowed to a standstill as he looked at the passengers, an older man and two young women, with curiosity. “What brings you to the capital?” he asked, as was his duty during this time of the meeting of county dignitaries.
“I am Sir Integra Hellsing” the woman with long, blond hair replied as she slid down off the horse. “I am here as a representative of my father’s estate during the meetings.”
“Aye, I remember yer father well” the guard returned as a toothless smile spread across his face. “An...interesting, shall we say, fellow in his prime” he commented with a short laugh. “Well put with the ladies, if I recall correctly.”
“What you recall is none of my concern, sir” Integra harshly answered as she held tight the reins to her horse which her maidservant was still seated upon. “We have had a long journey, and wish to go to our lodgings.”
“Oh, right you are” the old man hastily as he stepped to the side with a bow. “My apologies, your ladyship” he excused as the horses drew past. “And a curse upon yer house” he muttered as soon as they were out of ear shot.
The other occupants of the gate huddled about the keeper as soon as the visitors had withdrawn inside the capital, their curiosity peeked at the direction of their arrival and the state of their steeds.
“And what were they doing that way, I’d like to know” one of the older women commented as she chewed on a long tobacco pipe. “No one goes that way no more, not with its reputation.”
“Perhaps they got lost?” another, younger, woman suggested with a shrug.
“Perhaps” the old keeper agreed as he scratched his chin in puzzlement. “But from the looks on their faces, I’d say they found out why no one goes by that road no more.”
The remaining two riders, after leaving the view of the gate, dropped off their horses and followed their ladyship to the inn where they were to stay. Soon they arrived at the simple but comfortable house, one nestled amidst an older part of the capital next to the river. The dock was well within view of the balconies which dotted the second story of the wooden frame building, while the ground level was occupied by a popular tavern.
A horse stable lay opposite the inn, and their steps turned toward the low building. The business appeared closed for the night,t hus Integra led them to the stable master’s shack which lay against one side of the building and she knocked loudly upon the door. Movement was heard within as a few curses and the sound of rummaging came to their ears. Soon a light shone through a dreary and small window to the right, and the door cracked open to reveal a suspicious eye.
“Who’s knocking at this hour?” a man’s voice roughly questioned as he lifted the lantern to peer at his late night visitors.
“We have horses we wish to lodge in your stables” Integra informed in a firm tone. “We will pay you well for their keeping” she added as she brought forth a small bag of coins and jingled them in her hand.
The noise of riches peeked the man’s attention and the door opened wider with more enthusiasm. He stepped out of the shack and made a cursory attempt at a bow, but nearly fell over from lack of practice. The young ladyship seemed but slightly amused at his lame try at gallantry, but she was in little position to insult the stable master.
“Ah have just the right stalls for yer fine horses” he spoke in a respectful fashion as he took the reins from his customers.
“Excellent” Integra replied with little conviction as she pulled her riding gloves off her hand. “Place the horses under the name of Sir Integra Hellsing” she commanded as she turned to take her leave.
“Aye, yer ladyship” the horse master understood, but he coughed into his hand to gain her attention. “But might you want to pay in advance, yer ladyship?” he hinted as he held out his palm.
“I suppose” she agreed as she dropped a few coins from the purse into his outstretched hand.
“Thank ye kindly, yer ladyship!” the man gleefully spoke as he carefully bowed several times to show his gratitude.
With their horses enjoying their earned rest, the weary travelers left them in the care of the stable man and walked into the tavern. Merry-making was still high as the odor of strong alcohol hit their senses, which caused Seras to cover her nose with her hand.
Not more than a few heads turned to the newcomers, most with curiosity mixed with suspicion at their fine clothing, but Integra took little heed of their prying eyes. She walked to the counter behind which stood the proprietor of the establishment, and set her bag of coins upon the wood.
“I believe you have three rooms for me” she spoke as she turned to glare pointedly at any intruding gazes. The other occupants took the blunt hint and returned to their enjoyment. “Under the name of Sir Hellsing.”
“Oh, yes marm” the lodge owner spoke as he gave her a toothy grin and a nod. “We weren’t sure you were gonna make it, but here you are” he spoke as he finished cleaning the glass in his hand and gestured for a teenage boy to his side. “This here’s my son, Thomas” he introduced as he settled a burly arm upon the young lad’s shoulders. “He’ll take yer ladyship and her company to you rooms.” Then he looked about the company and looked past them toward the closed door. “Do you have any luggage with ye?”
“No, we haven’t” Integra replied with relative indifference as Seras then realized they had left their few possessions within the carriage abandoned at the castle. The warning glance from her ladyship, however, warned her not to speak a word. “We were expecting to buy some apparel within the city” she spoke as excuse.
“Very good then” the boy spoke with energy as he turned with friendly a wave of his hand toward a staircase to their left. “This way.”
The visitors followed their young charge up the few flights of stairs to the second story and down a long, straight hall. He instructed them each to their rooms and gave the visitors their respective keys, and with a respectful bow with a tip jingling in his pocket he left them to their own devices.
“To my room” Integra commanded as she unlocked her door and entered the spacious area.
Seras silently approved of the arrangements they had procured. The room consisted of a large, high bed with a canopy and a night stand to the right. A dresser and toiletries stood on the opposite side of the area while the wall before them held two large french doors which opened onto a balcony overlooking the city. The walls were paneled with heavy, dark wood and a lamp was lit upon a small table in the center. The servants, instructed by their master, seated themselves upon the two chairs which lay around the center table while she paced the room between themselves and the door.
“I doubt I must caution you both on speaking of our recent troubles” she surmised as a looked over toward her servants. “There would be few who would believe us, and most who would advocate the removal of my title on grounds of insanity.”
“But shouldn’t we at least tell the authorities about the others’ deaths?” Seras asked as she remembered their short-lived comrades.
“I am afraid they must remain forgotten” Integra replied with a shake of her head. “I am afraid the risk of mentioning them is too great. The officers may grow suspicious about their deaths, should we even state they were accidents.”
Seras slumped in her seat in understanding tinged with sadness, but she could not argue with her ladyship’s words. The authorities would suspect foul play, and little good would come of the announcement of their deaths. Certainly they could not bring the four back to life.
“Tomorrow we shall acquire new clothes and prepare for the first of these long government discussions” the Lady spoke with utter revile in her voice as she thought of the long meetings with the elderly men. “Seras, you will stay here during the evenings Walter and I are out, and shall stand guard over our new trunks.”
“Yes, Sir Integra” the servant replied with a nod of her head.
“Now, I believe a sound sleep is in order” their leader announced as her servants rose from their seats. “An early morning awaits us, and much to be done.”
Her companions bowed and spoke their farewells as they left her room and betook to their own quarters. Seras appeared to hurry down the hall to her own room, which lay at the far corner of the passage away from the stairs and on the right-hand side of the corridor. She eagerly opened her door to view her accommodations and was not disappointed by the same simple elegance which had adorned Integra’s room.
The only difference lay in the view off the balcony. While her master’s pointed to the city beyond their inn, hers showed the wonderful view of the traveling river which flowed past the horse stables. The young woman, excited by her room and hearing the familiar whinny of their horses from the stalls, decided sleep could wait for a few minutes.
Mindful of the cool night air, Seras grabbed an afghan which was folded neatly at the end of her bed and carefully wrapped the blanket around herself. With a restrained smile in case she should meet someone, she exited the room and locked the door behind herself, mindful of the key as she quietly stepped through the hall and down the stairs.
Seras was relieved to find the other occupants of the building had either departed or remained in a drunken sleep upon their chairs or the floor. She stepped between the drunken men and made her way outside into the cool night air. With a deep breath the young servant smiled brightly and turned her steps toward the stable.
The atmosphere was so different from the terrifying adventure they had experiences only a few hours before. The monster, ad their other companions, were gone and they were now to resume their journey’s purpose.
Seras shuddered, though, as memories surfaced of the horror of the lonely castle. She could hardly forget the terrible deaths, and the one moment alone with the monster whose name she had not learnt. All seemed but a dream, a nightmare of events which had occurred long ago.
However, one memory lingered on as vivid as if she had just lived the instance. The conversation which had come to pass between the monster and herself, and the image of the blood which had brushed against her lips.
“Enough of that, Seras” she spoke to herself with a shaken tone. “You’ve come out here to look at the night, remember?”
With those words she focused again on her short walk to the stables, and the air which bespoke of fresh running water and early morning dew. Her light steps toward the low building, though, were distracted as she noted the clear river which ran not far from where she stood.
With child-like curiosity Seras walked to the river’s edge and looked out upon the serene view. Lights from the buildings on the opposite shore danced upon the surface as small waves lapped against the bank. The young woman noted the stone steps which led down into the water, and surmised they must have been built long ago for the purpose of launching a boat.
The unbroken view of the river, however, was marred by a single boat which floated slowly toward where she stood. There was but a single occupant, a man by his clothes, who she could see held the oars to his boat but appeared not to be using them. His head lay at an unusual angle upon his shoulders, as if he were viewing the stars above himself, and the young woman stepped closer to glimpse this strange new person.
As the boat hit the steps, however, Seras covered her mouth to stifle her scream.
The man within the boat was nothing more than a corpse as his lifeless eyes were turned up toward the young woman. They glistened in the moon’s glow as two marks shone brightly upon his pale neck.
Two marks all too familiar to the young woman.