Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Welcome to The Secrets of Castle Drakon Book Blog Hop
 I am so delighted to have my work included in this Anthology. What an enormously talented collection of authors; I count myself so very fortunate to have been included.

The Secrets of Castle Drakon is a magnificent collection of 11 stories in the Thortsruck Press Anthology. With our publisher's blessing we're holding a blog-hop whereby if you follow my blog and go to the next blog due tomorrow, you will find the next short story. Only readers who follow every link will get to read the full novel for free.

Grab your coffee, put your feet up, and enjoy my story  THE DIRECTOR’S CUT


Suzanna Burke

Christopher Manning awoke. He shifted uncomfortably in his bed, feeling as always bereft in the early morning Los Angeles light.
The dream had come again as he knew it would, he hungered for it in his waking hours, and only felt truly content wrapped in the warm comfort offered by the place of his dreams; dreams that had infiltrated his sleeping hours for all his living memory. Dreams so real that he could smell the wildflowers and taste the Red-Deer cooked on a spit in a place so beautiful, that even he with all his talent could not adequately describe it.
He knew he would one day find it, this Castle, this wondrous place that seemed so real it flowed in his blood. He would find her, the woman, and with her and her alone his destiny would be fulfilled.

The audience rose as one, applauding wildly. The men were impossibly good looking in their tuxedos, only to be outshone by the women in gowns which defied gravity and lined the pockets of designers the world over.
These people lived in a world set far apart from the audience that the film would ultimately rely on for its success.
The press gallery was buzzing, already busy texting reviews, which, for the most part extolled the virtues of yet another triumph for Christopher Manning, the film’s director.
Christopher Manning himself never attended the red-carpet premiers. He knew well that before the film credits had rolled the red carpet would be taken up, to be cleaned and laid afresh for the next big opening. The futures of the people up on that giant screen would be shaped by public opinion, and the politically correct votes of the Academy come Oscar time.
 He preferred instead to slip silently into a small theatre somewhere in the United States when the hyperbole had died down, sitting amongst moviegoers that had nothing to do with the magical, mystical, bullshit of his everyday world.
 He would munch on popcorn, drink Coca Cola, and watch the faces of those around him as a pivotal scene played out on the huge screen. This was the real reaction, this was Mr. and Mrs. Average, the folks who paid to see his films without the hoopla of Hollywood or Cannes affecting their responses.
It was their opinion that would matter and show at the box office, because of, or perhaps in spite of, the reviews that accompanied any of his films.
It was their opinion that mattered to him.
Christopher Manning began his film career as an actor, and a very successful one at that. He had the charisma on the screen that translated into women’s fantasies and men’s wishful thinking.
 He stood six-feet-three inches tall, with olive skin, and deep blue eyes surrounded by lashes that many women in this crazy town would kill for. Add to that long curling dark hair, and you had a lethal combination that pronounced him a desirable male on anyone’s list.
Therefore it was a delightful surprise to many that Chris, (as he was known to his friends), was seemingly unaware of his devastating looks. He became uncomfortable if gushed over, and tended to surround himself with friends he had made long before he became an ‘overnight’ success. He laughed with them at that terminology, for his overnight success had taken a mere twelve years to achieve. Many of his friends had also had wonderful successes and he delighted with them in their celebrations.
The directors of his Oscar winning films claimed he was a joy to work with, listening and interpreting what was asked of him with great instinct. He translated the characters he played with such intensity on the screen that he was almost too real to watch.
Manning himself thrived on good direction, enjoying the interplay of emotional intensity that his favourite directors helped him achieve. He garnered two Academy awards as Best Actor before deciding that he wanted to be, needed to be, had to be, the one controlling the film’s ultimate outcome.
His directorial debut set the stage for all that followed. Cristopher Manning has the magic touch! screamed the Hollywood headlines. The New York Times stated that his first film as a director was a triumph of great artistic merit.
The actors raved about his direction.
He sat munching his popcorn and smiled.

In Hollywood he began to be called “Christ” in tones of reverence. He could do no wrong. He heard the label he’d been given and grimaced. Everyone knew how that other ‘Christ’ had fared.
The over-inflated and at times dangerous egos of some high-rollers in this town were waiting for his crucifixion. His concern was not unwarranted; he knew with infallible instinct that his time as the number one box office director and guaranteed money maker was limited to the foibles of an ego driven pack of savage wolves in human form.
Characteristically he shrugged it off.

The press were always announcing his interest in any woman he escorted … to anything. The ladies for the most part enjoyed the attention being seen with him garnered.
He only dated women in the business. They understood time constraints and were career driven. A few wanted more. He let them down as gently as he could. He had yet to experience love, or at least what he imagined love could be. For Christopher it would have to be all … or nothing. He shook himself physically; he seemed to be spending a lot of his time drifting off on a different plane of late. He needed a break. Perhaps it was time he began his search. He looked again at the birthmark on the palm of his right hand; people had commented for years that it bore striking resemblance to a dragon.
It did indeed.
His father had the same mark, yet none of his six brothers, his uncles, nor his paternal grandfather carried it. He had asked his father in one of their rare meetings if he knew if any other male members of the family tree that had it. His father said, ‘No!’ and that had ended the conversation.
They were a large family, Chris and his father both being the youngest of seven boys. Chris wondered if there was any significance to being the seventh son of the seventh son. He had heard how wonderfully close large families could be, and he envied those whom had that sense of belonging. Chris’s mother had died in childbirth with baby number eight, a girl. His father was never the same after her passing.
His memory of his mother was only vague, he could recall her smile, and he remembered a time when laughter had filled their crowded house. After her death it seemed his father died too. He drank himself to sleep and couldn’t bear to be with the children. None of the uncles or their wives wanted such a huge responsibility and as a consequence all the children were placed up for adoption.
Chris’s biological father only made contact when Christopher began his climb to success. He didn’t begrudge the money his father asked for. He didn’t mind the fact that his brothers all seemed to want a relationship with him after that first Oscar. Their particular human frailty of greed he didn’t share, but he understood it nonetheless.
Daniel and Laura Manning, his adoptive parents, were nice people. They had done their best to see he was cared for and well educated. The one thing they couldn’t give him was the only thing he had ever craved … unconditional love.

His only concern at the moment was finding the place, his place, the place of his dreams for so very long. The place where he would create the only movie he wanted to be remembered for.
The recurring dreams which had infiltrated his sleeping hours since he was a child had become so real that the place had a familiarity, comforting and potent. He no longer needed to sleep in order to see it clearly. He told no one that he could also smell it, and feel a distant wind stir his soul and his heart as it touched his subconscious every waking and sleeping hour.
Christopher convinced himself that he must in his early childhood have seen a picture of it somewhere which had stayed in his memory and played with his mind. The woman was so real to him he could smell her perfume, his skin felt her gentle touch, his mind heard her loving words.
He was writing the screenplay for his next project, deciding he would use the search for the location he’d seen in his dreams as the break he badly needed.
The story was unfolding as he wrote it, and he as yet had no clear fix on where it would take him. Several shining stars of the Hollywood firmament had expressed interest in working with him, and he had tentatively reached out to a few with his new project in mind.
He and the location scouts had already travelled through Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom seeking that location, with no joy. Tomorrow he would fly out to Paris and begin again.

Chris Manning was growing dejected. His search for the place in his dreams had proven unsuccessful so far, and the decision to stop searching and build the sets he wanted was looming. He knew that choice needed to be made and very soon.
 He had committed a great deal of his fortune to this enterprise and if the actors he wanted were to remain available he needed to begin shooting in the following two to three weeks.

Carpathian Mountains

The arrival of Christopher Manning with his team from Los Angeles didn’t appear to create even the slightest ripple in the small village. It was a pleasant and unusual sensation to be able to walk around freely without the constant and irritating presence of the paparazzi.
The population of the village was at best guess around 300, maybe less. His Romanian translators were amazed that there was no accommodation available, even when a huge amount of money was on offer to be housed locally.
They had been informed before coming here that these villager's were all descendants of the original inhabitants. The village itself part of Romanian folklore for generations, and its people superstitious and wary of newcomers.
 Even so it was a surprise to the crew to find that the local people were unwilling to assist them with any and all requests. In fact Chris Manning was taken aback by their refusal to even make eye contact with any of his small group.
His experiences thus far had yielded warmth and co-operation in every other location they had checked. This place had a marvellous feel to it nonetheless.
The small village square was quite a find; you needed to watch your step as the cobbled stones were worn from centuries of use. Chris wondered how many battles had been fought here, and how much blood had spilled and flowed on these ancient streets.
It was growing dark now, and he stood quietly in the deepening shadows watching the street lamps being lit, by hand; the ancient custom remained, although power was clearly available. The lights emanating from a few windows of the villager’s homes owed little to candle and firelight.
He had come here on a whim, the place was mentioned several times in conversations with historians he sought out on his arrival in Paris. He had been told he wouldn’t be made welcome, but that had only served to make him more curious. Perhaps it was that these simple folk were weary of questions from outsiders. After all this was Transylvania. The very name conjured images of fictitious vampires in the minds of most of the book reading, movie going, world.
Christopher’s good friend and the best damned cameraman in the business, Dave Walters said, “It’ll be growing dark soon, Chris. We best attempt the drive back. I really don’t want to be on that road again late at night.”
“You developing a nervous twitch, Dave?” Chris laughed after he said it. Everyone in the business knew that Dave had nerves of steel. A fact proven by some of the amazing shots he had put his life on the line to capture.
“Maybe,” was the surprising response.
“I was joking, buddy,” Chris said.
“I’m not. This place is giving me the chills. I’m serious. I’m glad there was nothing here we could use. C’mon, let’s head out.”
“Whoa, easy pal. I was told there is a castle not too far from the village. We’ll be back tomorrow to see if we can locate it on our own. This scenery alone is worthy of some footage, surely the artist in you can appreciate that?”
Dave grimaced at his friend and reluctantly agreed. “Yeah, it is really something isn’t it. Hell, we wouldn’t even need to create fog, it comes standard.” His mood lightened somewhat and he settled for his next best option. “Looks like that place at the edge of town is a pub of some sort, surely they wouldn’t refuse us service?”
“I don’t think they’re that rude,” Chris said. “But let’s check it out, I sure could use a beer.”
Dave went off to alert the other two members of the crew, and the four of them then headed to the building whose sign boasted an intricate painting of a golden dragon. Wine glasses and grapes were etched upon the doors. They could hear laughter coming from inside and entered, hoping it would continue.
The laughter stopped seconds after they walked in.
“I’m getting more than a little sense of inferiority about this attitude thing. I may as well get hung for a sheep as a lamb,” Chris said. He walked up to the bar. “Does anyone in here speak, English?”
“Is that what you are speaking?” asked the guy behind the bar.
Chris laughed aloud. “Well I am American so it’s more than a little bastardised.”
“You have that correct. What is it that you people want here?” The question offered no preamble.
“I’m searching for a location to make a film,” said Chris.
“That is why no one will help you, we have had enough of the ridiculous nonsense that passes as accuracy by some of you film people.”
“If you are referring to the spate of Dracula movies, rest assured that my film has nothing whatsoever to do with that subject matter.”
“Oh? Interesting.” The barman addressed the room at large in rapid Romanian, after which a few locals actually looked up from their drinks and directed their still suspicious glances at Chris Manning. “Okay, Mr. Manning. You have their attention. What is the subject matter of your film?”
“You know who I am? May I have your name?”
“I spent many years in your country, Mr. Manning. Your face and reputation are known to me. That is the only reason I answered when you asked if anyone spoke English. My name is Julian.”
“Thank you, Julian. I will tell you a little, however the making of this particular film is precious to me, so, I am unwilling to reveal too much. What do you want to know?”
“Only your assurance that your film is not Dracula driven.”
“You have my word on that.” Chris then extended his hand and it was taken into a firm grip. Before Julian released his hand he turned it palm up and studied it for a moment. Then he freed it with obvious reluctance. He muttered a word that Chris didn’t catch, and raised his arms to quiet the onlookers that were now focusing their complete attention on the strangers. He spoke to the crowd, in exchanges that were both rapid and brief. Try as he might Chris couldn’t gauge what the response would be.
When Julian had finished, the patrons gathered in a large group and the discussions became a little rowdy, with much use of hands, punctuated by what Chris assumed were snorts of disbelief.
An older man left the group and approached the bar, he spoke to Julian quietly for a few minutes, he then surprised Chris by walking across to where they were seated and extending his own gnarled hand to be shaken. Chris did so with enthusiasm and was not taken aback when his right palm was again scrutinised carefully. The old one smiled at him with real warmth,
He spoke a few words, “Master a revenit!” then quickly shook hands with the other three and hurried back to rejoin his countrymen, still grouped in a circle of sorts.
Chris looked at Penny hoping that she could translate, “Did you catch that?”
“Kind of, Chris, but it didn’t make sense to me, I think he said, The master has come home.” She shrugged apologetically.
Chris just nodded.
Julian walked over to them, “Well Mr. Manning, the elders have decided that we may at least show you the Castle. It may not be what you seek. If it is, and you decide to proceed, we will talk further. Is that agreeable to you?”
“Most definitely,” he replied.
“Good. Be here by 6.00 a.m tomorrow morning, you will of course want to see the Castle as the sun rises. Dress comfortably. I will escort you myself as there are only a few of us here in Dragoni that speak your language fluently. I doubt if even your interpreter would have a working knowledge of the local dialect.” That said and relayed to the still interested onlookers, Julian gave the visitors another look and said, “It is the male custom here to drink the local wine.” That said he gave the men a glass of white wine, and the females a shot of brandy, and left them alone to talk.
“Looks as if this location could be more trouble than it’s worth, Chris,” Dave said.
“Mm … maybe, but I still want a look at it.” He was clearly distracted. He turned away from Dave and addressed Julian, calling out from where they sat. “Julian, what it is called, your Castle?”
“Castle Drakon,” he smiled.

Sleep evaded Chris Manning again that night. It had been a long time since he had felt the adrenalin rush he was now experiencing. All his senses were on alert, the sounds around him both foreign and yet oddly familiar, almost comforting. They were a good twenty-five miles from the village, yet he still felt connected.
He walked quietly outside, careful not to disturb Dave snoring happily in the other single bed. He lifted his head and sniffed at the wind; a gentle wind that carried with it an odour that was oddly familiar, yet he couldn’t label it.
Not a sweet scent, but neither was it unpleasant, rather like flowers that were about to fall, almost spent, but clinging valiantly to their last moments of life. He captured the thought and chuckled to himself, well, we are waxing lyrical tonight. This air seems to invite such thoughts.
He couldn’t be certain where the next sound came from; it seemed to be all around him. It was a cry, anguished and not like any human sound he had ever heard. The wind picked up and with it the sound ebbed and flowed, he could feel it resonating within his mind and reverberating through his veins, then free-falling away to utter silence, leaving him melancholy and oddly depleted.
Shaking himself he checked the time, stunned to realise that he had been outside for over four hours. He had no time left to wonder about that. He needed to awaken Dave and the other two. They should leave in the next hour to be certain they met Julian by 06h00.
The others dressed quickly and clambered into the all-terrain vehicle they had hired at the outset of their search. No one spoke much on the road trip, each waking up at their own speed. The darkness was absolute, no moon could be seen, and trees they had seen clearly in daylight were for the moment invisible.
The sky had not yet begun to lighten when they pulled up outside the inn where Julian was waiting. He carried with him thermos flasks of good strong coffee, and a supply of deliciously fragrant and still warm bread. He greeted them with a smile and was introduced to the two crew he hadn’t yet met.
He climbed in and sat next to Chris Manning who was at the wheel, eager to begin.
“Good morning,” Chris said.
“Yes it is,” Julian responded with a grin.
“Thanks for the hospitality,” Chris said as he bit into the warm, sweet, bread.
“You are most welcome, Mr. Manning.”
“My father is Mr. Manning. I would be much more comfortable if you could call me Chris.”
“It is nice to be so certain of your parentage, Chris.”
“Did you do a degree in sarcasm, or does it flow naturally?”
Julian laughed heartily at that, and the men smiled at each other in mutual appreciation of another mind fast on the uptake. Any remaining tension dissipated, and Chris was able to relax and take in the surroundings that were slowly becoming more detailed in the ever brightening sky.
“How much further?” Dave asked from the back seat, directing the question at Julian.
It was Chris who responded, “Not far, two streams to cross first.” He seemed unaware of what he had said.
“What? How the hell do you know that?” asked Dave.
“Hmm? Oh … someone must have mentioned it when we were in Paris,” Chris replied vaguely.
“They were correct,” Julian said quietly.
“Oh … Cool.” Dave decided not to say more, for the moment.
They crossed the first stream and the road began climbing, so narrow in stretches that two vehicles would not be able to pass each other. Every few hundred yards a small patch of land had been cleared to enable a vehicle to pull to the side if necessary.
The second stream crossing was a wooden bridge that appeared to be original, the spray from the rapidly running water clouded the windscreen, and wipers were needed to clear Chris’s driving vision. As they crested the hill Chris stopped the car, and without a word clambered out and began walking quickly to the edge of a steep rocky ledge.
Julian and Dave exchanged glances, each of them curious, but for very different reasons.
“Chris, buddy, what are you doing?” called Dave.
“He cannot hear you,” Julian stated.
“Of course he can.” Dave walked quickly over to where his friend stood, and touched his arm, “Chris? Chris! What’s happening, buddy? Can you see it from here?”
Chris Manning didn’t respond, and Dave followed his gaze … “Dear God! Look at that light.” The cameraman in him took over and Dave hurried back to the vehicle returning at a run with his equipment. He had to capture this before it altered.
Castle Drakon had been built high on a bluff, the turrets perfectly positioned so that the first rays of sunlight entered the rear of the edifice and shone directly through, acting like torch beams and illuminating everything in a precious golden light. A cameraman’s dream shot, in any man’s language.
Dave was excited, and turned to Chris about to speak, then decided against it as he noted that his friend’s face was wet with tears.
Chris Manning was overcome with emotions he didn’t try to identify. The Castle was exactly as he had seen it in all his years of dreaming. He drew a shuddering breath, inhaling the fragrance of carpets of spring flowers that flowed like a colourful mosaic over every available surface. He recognised only a few, picking out fragrant orchids, clover, campanulas, hardy geraniums, daisies, and sweet scented thyme.
Julian joined them. He smiled at Dave who was measuring distances and moving rapidly now, in order to capture and time every shot from all possible angles.
He looked closely at Christopher who remained unaware of his presence, and whispered, “Bun Venit. Welcome home.”
Dave continued to film until the golden glow ended as the sun rose higher in a cobalt blue sky. He turned to head back to the vehicle, for the huge structure of Castle Drakon was still a good mile away. Looking around he couldn’t see Chris, but Julian was walking toward him with a satisfied smile on his face. “Where did he go, Julian?”
“He decided to walk the rest of the way. Let us continue, I will take us in.” He climbed behind the wheel.
The remaining distance was covered quickly and soon they were parking the vehicle outside the formidable gates that were structured to keep out invaders. Centuries may have passed, but the edifice looked remarkably intact.
“Has the castle been restored, Julian?” Dave asked as he readied his camera for more external shots.
“Some restoration, yes. The addition of generators and running water were at the behest of the previous owner. He did not stay long enough to complete his original plans.”
“Why did he leave, before he’d completed what he’d started?”
“He did not share his reasons for leaving.”
“So it was fairly recent?”
“I believe so. Given the age of Castle Drakon, anytime in the last century would be recent,” said Julian.
“Oh. Who owns it now?”
“The last owner was unable to sell it. I believe that members of his family are still attempting to do so.”
Dave lost focus on the conversation as he climbed from the car, camera at the ready. “It is magnificent.” It was a statement, not a question. Julian merely smiled at Dave’s disappearing back.
The other location scouts, Penny Daniels and Lisa Montez, hurried after Dave. No one had as yet asked where Chris Manning was. They had not passed him on the road, but were now so entranced by the Castle that the fact hadn’t registered.

Chris Manning was inside the gates. He didn’t question how he had known of the passageway, no bigger than the width of a man and cramped at best, behind the tangled vines that grew wild along the northern wall.
It wasn’t visible from the road. He entered the courtyard and strode to the gates, recognising that the pulley system was far too big to be operated by one man alone. Julian spoke from behind him, “We can manage it together.”
“How long since the gates were opened, Julian?”
“Not all that long, Chris. The villagers are welcome by the current owners to come regularly to tend the gardens and the vegetables. There is also livestock and game birds. The place is perfectly protected from animal and human foragers alike, and has fed the village on many harsh winters. In exchange the villagers ensure that the interior is kept clean and free of vermin.”
“Let’s get to it.”
Julian was right, the chain and pulley had been well lubricated with lard, and while not an easy task it was done in good time; with Dave and the two women cheering them on from the other side.
Dave didn’t ask how Chris had been on the inside of the gates, he simply assumed that Julian had found him and shown him another way in. Besides, he was caught up in the excitement of filming, he was lost in his own world of colour and light, and not bothered with much else.
Penelope and Lisa were recording notes every step of the way. They were good at what they did and their notes would be needed when the costs of filming in this location were factored into the overall dollar equation of making this movie.
Chris ached to go inside. Julian said, “Go on. We will find you.” Yet Chris knew he hadn’t spoken his need aloud.
Julian watched him go. He wanted Chris to be alone when he saw what awaited him within.
“Where’s he off to?” asked Dave
“Doing some exploring. Leave him for the moment Dave, I think it is important that he see it alone and uninterrupted for now.”
“Did he say that?”
“He did not have a need to.”
“He does have a wonderfully expressive face, doesn’t he?” Dave said, having had the pleasure of shooting both Chris’s Oscar winning acting ventures.
“His face is most expressive. I agree. You did a good job capturing that on film.”
“It was easy work, the camera loves him.”
“It would not be easy, as you say, to catch that exact moment. Why do you downplay your gift?”
“I do that, don’t I?”
“Yes. I have never understood talented, gifted, people who are insecure about accepting praise,” said Julian.
“Me either. I just know I do it.”
“Only you can alter that, my new friend.”
Dave couldn’t think of anything more to say. He gave Julian a friendly punch on the arm, and camera in hand headed down to the spot where blacksmiths had obviously worked over the centuries.

Chris walked slowly, his long fingers tracing the texture of the walls as he began to explore. He moved with quiet certainty, unerringly locating the kitchen and storage areas.
He was disappointed to note that a previous owner had modernised the kitchen. Gleaming ovens and refrigeration units jarred his senses … they just did not belong. He recognised the foolishness of the thought. These kitchens would prove invaluable when catering to the large film crew that would be needed to complete the movie he craved to make.
The great dining hall seemed original. Heavy tables gleamed with a sweetly scented polish, and individually carved chairs sat waiting to be occupied. Open fireplaces were situated around the room and large ornate candelabras were spaced evenly, both on and near the tables.
The walls were hung with richly woven tapestries and drapes, some concealing window openings only wide enough to take a man with arrows drawn. He moved more quickly now, his strides long and confident.
Chris began climbing a grand staircase that curved from the entrance to what must have been a throne room of sorts, the stairs ending their journey at a balcony two floors up. He gave the smaller bedrooms only a cursory glance, knowing that the master bedroom he sought was on another level.
A passageway led off to the right, flaming torches lit the walls to reveal more glorious tapestries, the colours rich and vibrant in hues of mulberry and gold. The passageway widened and led him straight to the master bedroom.
“Oh sweet Jesus, it’s real!” Chris was not aware he had spoken aloud.
The huge canopied bed took up an entire wall of the room, its deep blue curtains drawn and tied back. Brown bearskins were layered as a covering across the bed. The window openings were larger this high up and he hurried across to the one opposite to where a resting hide of red-deer lay on the floor. This would be where the master’s servant slept. The master’s dogs however would be afforded the luxury of sleeping on the great bed.
He looked down at the grounds layered into the hillside. Row upon row of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees were laid out below, the sweet scents wafting up on a current of soft spring air. He could hear but not see the sheep, and the cry of a rooster whom appeared to have overslept made him smile. He’d check the grounds later. He wanted to find the hallway, if it indeed existed.
Chris slowed his pace now, almost reluctant to continue.
What if it’s not here? What if it really was only my imagination? No … the rest is real, you’re standing in it, idiot.
Time to find out.
Walking to the end of the bed he drew back the heavy dark drapes behind the canopy to reveal an archway hidden behind them. He held his breath for a moment and forced himself to exhale slowly, feeling his pulse racing, keeping frantic pace with his heartbeat.
The darkness was absolute until his eyes adjusted. When his night vision kicked in he could just make out a blue glow shimmering ahead of him. He put his hands out to his sides and felt the touch of silk on the walls.
He fumbled for his lighter knowing that lanterns would be placed every few feet. Stopping, he raised his hands a little higher, finding the lantern unerringly despite the darkness. He flicked the lighter and raised the cover of the lantern, lighting it quickly, and then taking it from its space on the wall he continued on. Chris felt the climb in his legs, he was ascending now, markedly. He reminded himself to breathe, as if it no longer became an automatic function.
The climb ceased unexpectedly. The glow brighter now, even though it was shielded by yet another fall of heavy drapes. He drew them back.
Oh, God … it is real. Why am I bothering to utter the name of a deity I have no belief in?
The glow enveloped him with a pulse of its own; he was more alive than he had ever felt before, and sensations clamouring for his attention simultaneously began to overwhelm him. His hearing became more acute, his vision pierced the glow like a lance held in a steady hand, until the myriad of details burned themselves into his awaiting consciousness.
The ceiling, if that is what it was, appeared to be made of wafer thin glass, so fine that the sunlight vied for attention with the clear blue sky above. The long corridor was silk draped, silk over glass adding its own magic to the surreal experience.
Beckoning him forward was the shimmering detail of a golden dragon, waiting for him, urging him on. His newly enhanced hearing detected another sound, a voice soft and sweet was singing a melody he recognised but could not name.
He reached the end … and extended his hands to touch the dragon. He could not. Frustrated he tried again and yet again, each time thwarted by a barrier he could sense but could not see.
The voice was closer now, enveloping him in warmth and comfort. “Soon,” it said. “You are not yet ready. Patience. It will be soon.”

“Chris? Chris, wake up! What the hell are you doing?” Dave’s voice penetrated his mind and forced him to reluctantly open his eyes.
“What?” he asked in confusion.
“You were asleep!” Dave’s voice showed his amazement. “It’s only 08h30 in the morning buddy, and you were asleep.”
“I’m exhausted,” Chris said as he stretched his arms and yawned.
“How … I mean, sure … but this is a strange place to catch a catnap, buddy!”
Chris looked around him, realising that he was lying on a mound of sweet smelling hay, in what appeared to be a stable. “If the three-wise-men show up I’m in real trouble. Are we still in the Castle grounds?” he asked.
Dave laughed, “Yeah, what on earth made you lay down here?”
“I have no idea, pal. But it sure is comfortable.” Chris smiled up at his astonished friend and extended an arm for an assist up.
Dave complied, still gazing at his friend with unfeigned puzzlement. “This is so not you.” He almost mumbled the words.
Chris Manning laughed. “Yeah, I guess not. But you wanna know something, I can’t remember ever feeling this relaxed, and that’s a fact.”
“Apparently.” Dave returned his friend’s smile and they left the stable area together.
“Have you seen the gardens yet, Chris?”
“Only a glimpse, from up above.”
“They are amazing! There’s every imaginable type of vegetable, well no, probably not every type, but a huge selection. Plus fruit trees, and then there are the animals; sheep, cattle, game birds. Hell, buddy, you could live here indefinitely on what the grounds supply alone,” Dave said.
“Please don’t tell me the animals come in pairs. They don’t … do they?”
“What’s with the biblical humour? You been smokin’ and not sharing?”
“I wish. No, I appear to be experiencing a dose of being high on life. Kinda nice actually.”
“This place is really getting to you, isn’t it?” It wasn’t a question. More an affirmation of something Dave had already concluded.
“Doesn’t it get to you?” asked Chris.
“Sure, I mean I can appreciate the pure symmetry of it. Through the lens of a camera this location couldn’t be more perfect.”
“So…what’s the but?”
“I’m not certain. It just feels like I’m not as in sync with it as you appear to be. Kinda like I’m on the outside lookin’ in. While you’re on the inside lookin’ out.”
“Poetic, and a little unexpected from my friend the pragmatist.”
“Seems to be a lot of that goin’ round. Anyway, let’s find Julian. I need more of that coffee.” Dave headed off in the direction where he had last seen his new Romanian friend.
Chris remained where he was. He knew there were stables, he wanted to see the horses; he had always loved riding and the area surrounding the village and the castle would be just perfect to explore on horseback. He walked the grounds, marvelling anew at the thought and effort that had gone into the castle’s construction. He didn’t find horses however, and would need to ask Julian where they were.
He found both Julian and Dave in the Castle’s kitchen; Julian busy preparing what looked to be a mini-feast and Dave drinking yet another cup of the coffee, presumably fresh.
“Ah, Chris … what would you prefer, chicken or venison?” asked Julian without glancing away from his preparations.
“Venison, thanks Julian. Can I help?”
“Yes. The wine cellar has some wonderful selections, can you grab a couple of bottles to accompany our lunch.”
“Can do.”
“I’ll come with you, Chris,” Dave said. “I haven’t seen the cellars yet.”
“Fine.” Chris headed down a set of stone stairs at the rear of the food preparation area, lighting two lanterns as they approached the deepest section. He handed one to Dave and took the lead, noting the rapid drop in temperature as they descended.
On reaching the bottom they lit several more wall mounted lanterns and gazed around in awe at the size of the cellar they found.
“Awesome,” Dave said, waving his arm expansively.
“Yes. Awesome.” He walked down the closest row, feeling the chill through the fabric of his shirt. This place didn’t feel as comfortable as the remainder of the castle. His head began to pound. “Dave, can we make it quick, buddy? I don’t like it down here.” He loosened his shirt, finding breathing a little difficult, and was beginning to sweat despite the cold.
“Chris? Hell, what’s wrong? You look like shit?” Dave came over to him quickly.
“I don’t know … having some problems catching my breath. I need to go back.”
“Okay, let me just grab a few bottles and we’ll do just that.”
“Hurry, Dave.”
Dave grabbed four bottles from the nearest rack, he took his friend’s arm, and handed him the bottles whilst he managed a lantern. He extinguished the others, took back two of the bottles, and they began the climb back up the stone stairwell.
By the time they reached the kitchens Chris was feeling much better. His breathing was still a little rapid, but that suffocating sensation was gone. Julian took the bottles, glanced approvingly at the labels, and put them into the large refrigeration unit to chill further. He noted how pale Chris’s face was, but offered no comment.
“What happened down there, Chris?” asked Dave with concern.
“I’m not sure, but I think it may have been claustrophobia.”
“I didn’t know you were claustrophobic, buddy.”
“Neither did I, but I’m guessing that’s what it was … I was feeling panicky and had trouble breathing. I’ve never experienced that before.”
“Well, it’s good to know. Stay out of underground areas; does this happen on the subway back home?”
“I rarely ride the subway, last time was in New York, and can’t say it bothered me. I was more concerned about getting mugged.” Chris raised his shoulders in a shrug. “Go figure.”
Chris turned his attention to Julian. “Julian?”
“Are there more areas beneath the castle, aside from the wine cellars?”
Julian took his time responding, “Yes. But they need not concern you. There are burial chambers, unused for centuries, even the villagers do not go down there. Not from any superstition or fear, it is mainly precautionary; the walls may not be as stable that far underground.” Julian stated matter-of-factly.
He looked at both the men, Dave was nodding. “Makes sense.”
Chris looked at Julian, about to say more, and changed his mind, saying nothing.
“Lunch is ready, give me a hand and we will eat it outside. This weather is far too glorious to waste indoors. Dave, can you bring the wine? Chris, the platter of cheese and fruit, please. I’ll manage the venison and chicken platter. The ladies have set us up in a corner of the garden, shaded and perfect. I hope everyone is hungry.”
The men did as they were bid, and soon all of them were sitting on the sweet smelling grass, tucking in to the wonderful food Julian had readied for them.
Chris forgot about his difficulty in the wine cellar, the day was much too beautiful to allow any dark thoughts to linger for long. He ate his fill, and enjoyed three glasses of the dry white wine. He lay back resting his head on his arms, and uttered a contented sigh. “This is the way life should be every day. When I am king of the world, I’ll make it a royal decree.”
The others laughed on cue. “I’ll be your best friend. Kinda like an advisor. As long as the pay is good,” said Dave.
Julian didn’t offer a comment. He watched the interplay with interest. People tended to become a little more outspoken when lubricated by alcohol. The wine was strong. Its effects well known by the local people who indulged in it.
Lunch over and the grounds explored, Julian said he needed to head back to the village, it was past time to open his business. Chris was clearly reluctant to leave, but his innate good manners gave him no other course of action.
He was quiet on the drive back, his thoughts a little chaotic. He wanted the chance to speak to Julian alone.
Julian didn’t ask what he had thought of their morning’s exploration. Chris’s face told him much of what he needed to know.
Dave and the women exchanged opinions on the Castle, from the point of view of costs of shooting the film in this location.
Their enthusiasm for Castle Drakon was tempered by factoring in the costs of the venture. It would be hugely expensive, and time constraints with the weather could work against them. Julian offered to sit down with them later that evening and discuss what they could expect weather wise over the coming months.

The bar was crowded. There seemed to be more women in attendance than the day before, and more younger people.
Julian and two others were kept busy and it was nearly closing time before he had the opportunity to sit down with the film crew and respond to their questions. It was a lively conversation with the exception of Chris Manning, who asked nothing, and contributed little.
Dave kept trying to involve him in the discussions but he wasn’t paying attention. Dave’s concern at his friend’s uncharacteristic behaviour was increasing. Chris was normally totally focused on every aspect of his films. That was part of what made them so damned good. Nothing was overlooked and nothing was left to chance. Dave had never known Chris to be so uncommunicative. “You feeling okay, buddy?” he finally asked.
“I’m fine. A little tired, but otherwise it’s all good,” said Chris.
Dave wanted to ask if he was certain, but Chris stood and walked outside before he had the chance.
Probably in need of a cigarette, Dave thought. Despite the fact that his friends had tried everything to get him to give it up, Chris still smoked heavily. His nervous energy appeared to settle after a couple of drags.
Chris lit up his smoke, and walked away from the well lit entrance. He craved solitude, needing only to rewind the day in his head and think it through. The wind was a gentle caress on his skin, carrying on it the scents from the wildflowers that surrounded the village.
Julian found him sitting on a low stone wall, not too far from the inn, smoking another cigarette. “What did you want to ask me, Chris?”
“I won’t ask you how you seem to know my thoughts so well, Julian. It seems to be such a normal thing to do, here and now. I have a few questions that I didn’t want to ask in front of the others.”
“Such as?”
“The easiest one is, where will I find a mount? I want to explore the forests further down the mountain and horseback seems to be the logical way to do it. Plus I would need a guide.”
“I will arrange both for you, early tomorrow. Will that suit you?”
Chris breathed in the air, and nodded his confirmation.
“What else, Chris?”
“You’re gonna think I’m crazy.”
“I doubt that.”
“I think I’m crazy, I must be. I’m experiencing sensations and thoughts I’ve never had before.”
“Never is a long time. Ask me, and if I can respond I will. If not I will seek counsel from the elders. One way or another we can help you, my friend.”
“Okay … you asked for it. Today in the castle, I knew exactly where everything was. The entrance behind those incredible vines. The kitchens, which I hated by the way, too much modernisation, the dining hall, the bedrooms, all of them. The master bedroom … and …”
“And?” Julian sat forward and faced him, “And what, Chris?”
Chris looked into Julian’s eyes, “And the corridor, hidden by the drapes behind the canopied bed. I went in as though I was propelled by something I could only feel, but not see. Yet my vision was acute, as was my hearing. I heard a melody, a voice pure and sweet. I kept walking toward the blue light, at the end of the long passageway, as if …”
“Go on, Chris. As if?”
“As if I needed to be there. As if nothing and no one else mattered, just the light, the voice, and the emblem of a golden Dragon shielded by something I couldn’t penetrate.”
Julian drew in his breath, and held it. He didn’t respond immediately, and when he did his voice was thickened by unshed tears. “It will come. There is much I have to show you. It may help you come to terms with what you are experiencing. Tomorrow when you and your guide return, come here to the inn. I will be waiting, as will several of the elders.”
“Why not before I go exploring?”
“No. It must be when you return. No more questions for now. I will make room for you here tonight. You alone. The others can come back later tomorrow.”
“They aren’t gonna be happy about that.”
“No, they are not. But, Chris … it is important.”
“Very well. I’ll tell them.”
“Good, when you have done so, wait for me here. I will come for you when your room is ready.”

Chris went back inside the inn, which had almost emptied of other drinkers in his absence.
Dave and the women were deep in discussion and Dave’s ever present notebook was on the table. Dave looked up at him and gave him a smile, “Ready to hit the road, buddy?”
“You guys go ahead. I’m staying here tonight and going out early in the morning with a guide to explore a little further afield. Why don’t the three of you take a rest day, and collect me tomorrow night,” he said firmly, giving no room for argument.
Dave gave him a look that was clearly not happy, “Why … I mean why stay here tonight?”
“I don’t believe I need a reason, buddy. I choose to stay, and Julian has kindly offered to find me a room and a guide for early tomorrow morning. Is that cool?”
Dave’s expression said it clearly wasn’t cool, but he responded with a nod and a brief, “If that’s what the boss wants.”
Chris said, “It is.”
“Well, goodnight then. See you sometime tomorrow night. I’m sure Julian will drive you back.” Dave stood and the two women muttered their “Goodnights” and followed him out the door.
Chris waited a while, giving them time to head out in the car, and then he went back into the spring night and waited for Julian.
He didn’t have to wait long, Julian joined him and they shared a silent cigarette, then Chris followed Julian to the rear of the inn and up a short flight of stairs.
The room was large and so was the bed. The fire was unlit and not needed in the gentle spring evening. A wash basin and a jug of water were on a nightstand next to the bed, as was another bottle of wine and one glass.
“I suggest you drink it, Chris,” Julian said following Chris’s gaze. “It will help you sleep, without the dreams.”
“How did you know about … forget it. Nothing about today is quite as it seems. I get the feeling I have more to learn.”
“Yes, my friend. For now, just rest. You will sleep deeply and awaken refreshed and ready for more, I promise you that. I have electric power here, but it is such a harsh light, is it not?”
Accordingly Julian lit a candle on the nightstand, wished Chris a goodnight, and left him alone. Chris sat at the only open window, slowly drinking a glass of wine, and smoking another cigarette. He watched the smoke curl and drift out into the night; he discovered that he had no need of the candle as the room was clearly visible as the moonlight invaded every corner.
He poured another glass and drank it more quickly, savouring the buzz that began in his head and journeyed through his limbs; he was relaxed and enjoying the warm sensation of comfort that came with it. He replayed the day in no particular sequence, flashing images and sounds rapidly through his open and receptive mind, as if he had a fast forward button that he could control at will.
The stars were not available for viewing as the moonlight dominated the sky, and after emptying the bottle Julian had so thoughtfully provided, Chris stood and walked a little unsteadily to the bed, wondering if he would have a hangover come morning.
He waited for sleep to claim him and his last coherent thought was how different his world had become in a very short space of time.
He slept.

The sunlight awakened him, and he rose and walked to the window. The village square was alive with activity. The warmly soft breeze lifted his long hair and caressed his face as he watched the villagers manoeuvring horse drawn carts out of the square.
I must ask Julian where they’re heading.
He dressed quickly in the clothes he’d worn yesterday, anxious to begin exploring further afield. Responding to the firm knock on his door he found Julian standing there with an armful of clothing.
“I thought you would like a fresh change of clothes, we are much the same size, and I have included riding boots, you’ll need them to prevent the thorns of the forest imbedding in your legs.”
Chris took the proffered bundle with a brief, “Thanks, Julian.”
“Come down when you are ready, I’ll have coffee waiting. You slept well, yes?”
“Oh, hell yeah. I feel great. I half expected a hangover this morning, but I appear to have dodged one.”
“Good. I will see you downstairs shortly.”
Julian left the room and Chris undressed and dressed again, not surprised to find that everything fit perfectly, even the boots.
He put his own clothes on the bed and hurried downstairs.

Julian was waiting outside.
“I’ve packed lunch for the two of you. Your guide will be here soon. Tell me Chris, are you proficient with a rifle?”
Chris responded confidently, “Why, yes … as a matter of fact I am. My adoptive father had a farm and I learned to shoot at a very young age.”
“Good. I doubt you will need to use your skill, but it is spring and the animals have young to care for; that makes them potentially dangerous.”
“What type of animals?”
“The only ones you need to be mindful of are bears, and the grey wolf. This forest is their territory and they guard it well. The guide knows exactly what to look for and what to avoid. Please give me your promise to follow the instructions you will be given.”
“You have my word on that, my friend.”
“Good. Come, your guide will be here in a moment, let us share a cigarette.”
They sat quietly on the stone wall. Chris was almost quivering with anticipation, like a child awaiting Christmas morning.
Julian smiled. He had developed a real affection for his companion and hoped deep in his heart that this day would end well.

Chris wasn’t certain of what he would see in the forest, apart from the vegetation. Julian had spoken of bears and grey wolves, and Chris hoped that he would have the chance to see both in their natural habitat. That of course would depend entirely on his guide.
He heard the horses approaching and looked in the direction of the sound, startled at first by what he saw. His guide was a woman. A woman with long hair that flowed like liquid gold in the early morning light. He couldn’t make out the details of her face at this distance, but realised it didn’t matter a damn. That wonderful hair laid waiting in his memory, and he strove to locate and isolate where.
Julian stood and walked forward to greet her. She slid down from the bay she was riding and into Julian’s arms. He lifted and spun her around in a clear moment of affection.
“Chris?” he called.
Chris gave himself a shake and joined them.
“Chris, this is Iolanda. Your guide.” He said it with pride.
Iolanda extended her hand, “Well hi, Mr. Manning.”
“Hi yourself.” He was a little flustered by the accent. “You’re an American?”
She laughed, a warm inviting sound, “Not born, but raised, yes. I spend most of my time in The States. I come home, here, for the spring and some of summer every year if I can, Mr. Manning.”
“Chris likes to be informal, Iolanda. Mr. Manning does not suit him.”
“Fine by me. Chris it is. Were you expecting a male guide, Chris?” she asked.
“Yeah, yeah … I was.”
“Are you disappointed?”
“No … sorry … I guess it was a silly assumption on my part. Julian says you’re the best.”
Iolanda nodded her head, “Yes, I am.”
Chris laughed at that. He liked the fact that she was confident. “Can we get started?”
“Yes. I’ll take us to a quiet spot, you need to be aware of a few things before we reach the deep forest. Julian, you have the spray?” she asked.
“Of course. I have also packed refreshments for you both. Oh, and Chris knows how to handle the rifle.”
“Let’s hope we don’t need to use either his knowledge, or the spray.” She gave Julian a quick hug and turned her attention to Chris, “Mount up Chris, the day awaits.”
“Take care of yourselves. I’ll see you later in the day.” With that Julian headed back indoors, and Chris and Iolanda rode south, and out of the village.
They rode in companionable silence for quite a while, side by side, until Iolanda took the lead and they headed off the main dirt road and into a heavily treed area. Chris could hear water, fast flowing water if his hearing didn’t mistake it.
“Iolanda,” he spoke quietly, “A waterfall?”
“You have acute hearing, Chris. Yes, it is a waterfall. I can’t wait for you to see it. Not long now, we’ll talk more when we reach it, okay?”
They rode further into the woodland, the sounds of birds mingled with that of the water, and the sunlight was now filtered by the canopy above.
Chris halted for a moment, drinking in his surroundings with real pleasure. He couldn’t identify much of what he saw, except for heavily laden apple trees that appeared to be growing wild, and tangled growths of berries that splashed their deep mulberry and red colours onto an already laden colour palette all around.
Iolanda had dismounted and was waiting for him in a spot that grew thick with ferns. He joined her and looked for a place to tether his mount.
“Don’t tether your horse, Chris. He won’t go far, and has more chance of surviving any threat if he can run free.”
Chris didn’t question her. He laid the reins across the animal’s saddle and walked across to where she waited.
“How far to the falls?” he asked.
“Not far, we walk in from here.” They didn’t have far to walk and the sounds of the water grew clearer with every step. Iolanda ducked down suddenly and Chris followed close behind as the mass curtain of growth fell again behind them.
Iolanda stood to one side to give Chris an uninterrupted view ahead.
“Oh … oh, my…! How can anything be this perfect?” he didn’t expect an answer. He wouldn’t have heard it anyway; his only focus was on what he was seeing.
His companion looked at him and her eyes filled with tears. Chris’s expression was one of pure joy. Iolanda was happy to have been the one to show him. She had never before guided anyone here, it was her private place. She was uncertain why she had decided to show it to this man. The look on his face was perhaps the only answer she needed.
The waterfall was running full as the last of the snow on the high peaks had melted. The water gushed out and sprayed rainbows in the sunlight, bending trees at its edges with its force. The rocks gleamed with moss the colour of emeralds, and wild flowers clung valiantly in a profusion of gold and blue untouched nearby.
The falls were steep, and the water-hole below shimmered, crystal and pristine in waiting. Bird life Chris had never seen before dove into and behind the falls, crying songs of jubilation as they emerged with their prizes.
“They only feed on the blue moss behind the falls, nowhere else in the mountains, no other waterfall, just this one.” Iolanda had to raise her voice to be heard over the turbulent, pounding, water.
“It’s … magical,” Chris said.
“Yes … yes, that’s a great word for it. Magical …perfect.”
“Thank you, Iolanda. If I see nothing else today this alone would have been worth it.”
“You’re welcome, Chris. But I do have much more to show you, and we need to talk where we don’t need to shout. We won’t eat here, there’s another lovely spot further down. When you’ve had your fill, we’ll move on.”
“Don’t leave the decision to go up to me. We’ll still be here at Christmas if I get my way. Your call.”
“I know what you mean. I promise we’ll come again, before you return stateside. We should go, now.”
If I ever want to go back. Each day I’m spending here with these people makes even the thought of returning to the U.S abhorrent.
Chris stood albeit reluctantly, he looked around again, imprinting the scene on his memory to be savoured later.
“What’s next?” he asked.
“Something precious. If what I was told last night is true.”
“When did you get back?”
“Last night. Julian’s message was waiting for me when I arrived.”
“Oh, hell. I’m sorry. Julian didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask about my guide. You must be exhausted, it’s a long trip.”
“No, I’m rested enough. I would have come out here today anyway. It’s the one predictable thing I do when I wake on my first day back. Julian knows that.”
“Your private time? I’m so sorry I’ve invaded it.”
“No, Chris, you helped make it all the more special. It’s a real pleasure seeing the joy on your face. Now let’s go, I’m hungry and need to fill you in on a few things in a quieter spot, it’s not far, and I can almost taste the food Julian has prepared.”
“Yeah, he sure knows how to put food together.”
Chris wanted to ask about their relationship, but he knew it was none of his business, so he refrained, with difficulty.
The horses were exactly where they had left them. They mounted and Iolanda again took point. The slope was steep, but their mounts were sure footed and obviously familiar with the terrain.
It amazed Chris, who could see no markings indicating a trail of any description, yet Iolanda didn’t stop to gaze around her, she knew exactly what she was doing and where she was taking them. Chris was relaxed, casting his eyes around to soak in the surroundings. The horse stopped suddenly and Chris’s attention snapped back to the job at hand. He leaned forward and patted the animal’s neck. “Thanks, pal. I’ll pay more attention.”
Iolanda was not far ahead, the clearing was inviting and although the stream that ran below it was fast, it was gurgling over the rocks, not pounding into them like the waterfall.
Chris dismounted and he followed Iolanda’s lead, leaving the horse untethered again. He had to move a little more quickly to keep up with her and when she stopped he took in the view around him.
“Iolanda?” Chris called softly, reluctant to make a noise.
She turned and smiled at him, and he felt a jolt travel through his body.
She beckoned him closer, “No need to whisper, Chris. I’ll explain over lunch. See the rock platform just up ahead? We’ll stop there. Grab the spray and the rifle, I have the edibles.”
He nodded, returned to his horse, pocketed the spray inside his vest, grabbed the rifle and ammunition, and headed to the rock platform.
Iolanda’s voice … what was there about it that calmed him? It was familiar, yet he was fairly certain they had never met before this morning. The strangeness of the past few days, the things he had experienced were inexplicable, at least in the world he lived in.
“Pull up a rock and take a load off.” Iolanda said.
Chris complied, and perched himself on the edge of the outcrop next to her. “Why is it okay not to whisper?” he asked, still whispering.
Iolanda was busy laying out their lunch and readied two unbreakable cups of chilled white wine. She passed one to Chris, and sat facing him, “Brown bears startle easily, Chris. People make the mistake of remaining utterly quiet, and the bears don’t know they’re in the area, if they stay downwind of course. It’s far better to speak and act normally, and then the bears don’t get such a fright if they happen to catch sight of someone in their domain. It’s not unheard of for them to still become aggressive, but it’s usually caused by hunger in a non-productive spring, or if you get between them and their cubs.”
“Okay, that makes sense. What do you do if one does come across you and acts aggressive?”
“The one thing you must not do is run. Under no circumstances. The bear will chase you down. I can’t stress that strongly enough, Chris. The best you can do is wave your arms, stand tall, make a noise, and start to back very slowly away, don’t turn your back until the bear is no longer in your field of vision. If she still comes forward use the pepper spray, spray it for at least ten seconds to create a curtain, the problem with that is you need to be only about twenty five feet away from her to get the best possible outcome. Use the rifle if you have to, but you will need to get more than one shot into her to bring her down.”
 “I wouldn’t like to use the rifle, if she’s got cubs to take care of. So that would be my last choice. Why do you refer to the bear as a she? Why not a male?”
“It’s spring, Chris. Bears are a solitary mammals. The males come up here only once a year, to mate. You are only likely to see a female and her cubs in the spring. She would normally have one, perhaps two. I’ve heard that the female that frequents this part of the forest has finally given birth; the shepherds have seen her feeding at night with two cubs. If she is out of the den this morning the area below is where we are most likely to see her. I hope we’re lucky today, I’ve watched her for years now and this’ll be my first time seeing her with young.”
“You love this place, don’t you?” Chris said.
“Oh, yes. Yes I do.”
“How can you stand being away from here for so long?”
“I’ve made some good friends stateside, and I’ve a job where I have worked long and hard to gain status. Plus my mom lives there, and I see her frequently, but I admit, it doesn’t get any easier to stay away.”
“What do you do … job-wise I mean?” asked Chris.
“I’m an attorney.”
“It is, most of the time.”
“Iolanda, have we met before?”
“No, I doubt I’d forget meeting Christopher Manning. But I’ll admit that it surely feels like I know you. Déjà vu …?”
“Hm … Déjà vu.”
The wind was picking up a little. Chris and Iolanda chatted on whilst they ate, all the time watching the stream for any sign of the bear Iolanda spoke of.
Iolanda turned her head to look further upstream and as she did so the wind lifted her long hair away from her neck, Chris was startled by markings that seemed to be deep lacerations that ran from behind her ear and across her shoulder.
“Can I ask something very personal?” said Chris.
“Kind of depends on what it is, but go for it, no guarantee I’ll answer though.”
“The marks on your neck … was that a bear?”
“Take a closer look, Chris.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, I mean it’s okay, just take a closer look.” Iolanda moved nearer to him.
Chris inhaled her fragrance as she lifted her hair for him to see more closely.
“Touch it.”
Chris very gently traced his fingers over the marks and discovered they were not lacerations at all. “A birth mark?”
“Yes, unusual isn’t it? Everyone mistakes it for scarring, and it does look like claw marks. But I was born with it.”
“Anyone else in your family have it?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“My biological father has the same dragon shaped birthmark on his hand that I have,” Chris said as he showed it to her.
He was about to say more when he caught a flicker of movement below. He touched Iolanda’s hand and pointed downstream. The bear was standing deep in the stream with two very curious cubs attempting to join her, and almost succeeding as they went sliding on the moss covered rocks.
Iolanda didn’t try to hide her emotion at seeing the bear she had been watching all her life with her cubs, the tears ran freely down her face and she made no attempt to wipe them away.
Chris laughed in delight as he watched the cubs scrambling and pushing each other into the water under the watchful eye of their mother.
“She’s huge,” Chris said.
The bear stood erect momentarily and sniffed the air, and then went waist deep into the water obviously enjoying the sensation. The cubs stayed where they were, playing games that neither one would win.
Mother bear clambered out of the water and shook herself, again standing and sniffing the air around her.
“She’s edgy,” Iolanda said. “We’ll move on, Chris. Something is bothering the adult, I doubt it’s our presence, more likely a wolf, but we should go soon.”
Chris was disappointed but understood Iolanda’s caution. He helped her pack away the food and any scraps. The bear and her cubs were nowhere in sight when he looked again.
“Where next?” Chris asked.
“There’s a place, about half an hour further on, that the Red Deer frequent. Look out for trees where the bark has been rubbed off in patches, about waist height.”
“Half an hour further … I drank too much wine, nature calls,” Chris said.
“Keep me in sight.”
Chris nodded and headed off into the thickest stand of trees nearby.
He heard the sound of something moving through the undergrowth. He zipped his fly and stood still, listening, then finding, the direction it came from. He looked out to where Iolanda was waiting; she had mounted her horse and held the reins of his mount in her hands.
The noise came again, much closer now. Chris took a couple of steps and caught sight of the animal responsible. It was a bear cub. His mind raced, either the bear we were watching has three cubs, or there’s another adult nearby with her own cub. Shit, either way it’s not good.
“Iolanda!” he called.
She looked over to where Chris was slowly walking toward her.
“You, oka –?”
She didn’t get to finish her question as an adult bear now stood in the clearing. It stood erect and huffed, making clacking sounds with its teeth.
Iolanda’s horse reared in fright and Iolanda was thrown to the ground. She lay still. Both horses bolted.
Chris reached her, “Iolanda! Oh, fuck. Can you hear me, Iolanda?”
She opened her eyes, “Wha …”
“I’m going to pick you up. We are between the adult bear and her cub. Looks like she had three.”
Chris lifted her as gently and as quickly as he could, even so she cried out in pain and lost consciousness again. He knew his options were limited. Carrying Iolanda over his left shoulder and the spray in his right hand, he began to move backwards very slowly.
The cub was directly behind them now, and the adult bear in front of them huffed again, advancing a couple of steps and calling to her cub.
Chris knew he needed to get behind the cub. He needed the adult to be aware that her cub was in no danger from them.
Time seemed to freeze as he stepped back again and again, until he drew level with the cub and then just behind it. He kept going, watching the adult's every movement.
The cub had seen its mother now and ambled over to her. She shoved it behind her and stayed exactly where she was.
“Fuck. Go on bear, you’ve got what you wanted.”
Chris increased the distance between them, keeping visual contact as long as he could. Iolanda was drifting in and out of consciousness and moving with it. “I need you to stay still, Iolanda. I can’t put you down, I know you’re in pain, but that can’t be helped.”
Chris knew he had to find the horses, or at least one of them. He finally turned his back, and with his insides clenched in a ball of fear he hurried now, retracing the steps along the trail as best he could. He was tiring rapidly but didn’t stop. Iolanda had not made a sound in quite a while.
Both horses were feeding up ahead and Chris took a deep breath as he laid Iolanda across the saddle of his horse. He mounted and pulled her up into a sitting position in front of him. The other horse didn’t protest as he took its reins and headed back down the trail towards the dirt road that led to the village.
Iolanda moaned and he loosened his grip a little, mindful that she may have broken ribs. She had a gash on her forehead which was bleeding freely. He removed his shirt with difficulty and pressed it firmly against the wound. He hoped like hell that the smell of fresh blood wouldn’t lure anything else with deadly intent.
Chris was shaking with reaction as they reached the road to the village and he nudged his mount into a faster pace. He was surprised to see a large crowd in front of the inn, including Dave and the girls. Julian spotted them coming and ran forward to help.
“Be careful with her, Julian, I think she’s got some broken ribs. Where’s the nearest hospital?” Chris asked in a rush as he assisted Julian to move her.
Julian held Iolanda in his arms and Chris walked with them as Julian carried her into the inn.
Several women were gathered around a makeshift bed and Julian lowered Iolanda gently onto it. He turned to Chris who was now visibly shaking and very pale.
“Chris, there is no hospital close enough to be of any help. The women are accustomed to dealing with injuries. The bleeding from the wound will be stopped. Head wounds always bleed heavily, my friend. She should be fine.”
Manning’s legs gave out on him and someone put a chair under him and handed him a glass of liquid. He drank without tasting it, all his focus was on the woman who lied so still and quiet just a few feet away. It was only then he wondered how they had known to have a bed of sorts ready in the inn.
“Chris, buddy … you need to drink another few of these. You’re in shock. You can’t help her if you black out.”
Chris did as he was bid, tasting the whiskey this time. “Dave?”
“Fuck, man … I’ve never felt more helpless in my life.”
“No one’s asking any questions yet, buddy. Time for that later, okay?”
“She’s got to be alright.” Chris’s voice was agonised.
Dave looked over to where the women were working on the still unconscious girl, he still had no clue who she was as he and the other crew had only arrived moments before Chris had ridden up.
Julian joined them with a few bottles of wine. “She’ll be okay, Chris. Bruised ribs and concussion as far as the women can tell. She’s drifting in and out of consciousness, the elders have given her something to ease any pain and she should sleep for quite some time.”
“Aren’t you meant to keep her awake if she has concussion?” Chris asked with concern.
“Yes, that would be the normal course of action if a fractured skull couldn’t be ruled out. Trust me on this, Chris. The women know exactly what they are doing. Iolanda should awaken in a few hours with one nasty headache, which they will relieve. I think you need to have a few more drinks and grab some sleep as well, my friend.”
“I want to be awake when she comes around.”
“I promise I will wake you as soon as she does,” Julian said.
“Julian’s right, buddy. Grab forty winks, I’ll be here when you wake up. You look like hell,” said Dave.
“I’m certain that’s where we’ve just been, Dave.”
Chris turned to Julian, “Okay. I know you’ll wake me. Do you want me to bunk down where I slept last night?”
“Yes … and Chris, drink the wine. I know it will help.”
Dave and Julian helped him to stand, and then half carried him upstairs when his legs refused to co-operate.
They manoeuvred him across to the bed, and he sat there. The alcohol was helping a little; at least he’d stopped shaking.
“Sleep, my friend. We’ll talk further later. There is much we need to discuss.” With that remark Julian poured him a glass of wine, left the bottle, and went back downstairs.
Dave stood at the end of the bed for a moment not knowing what to say. He regretted his childish response to Chris when he’d said he was staying here the night before. He acknowledged reluctantly that he was unused to Chris seeking out other company. It was usually the two of them that hung out together, but that was no excuse. Chris was too shattered to be worried about anything that minor right now, so Dave just patted him awkwardly on the shoulder and left him in peace.

Chris extinguished his cigarette and sat on the edge of the bed.
He understood that he’d had a shock, he knew that it would pass … what he didn’t understand was why he felt so completely exhausted. It was an effort to move his limbs.
Maybe this comes with shock, this weird feeling of disassociation. If I can sleep … it should pass.
He pulled off the boots and what remained of the clothing he was wearing. His own clothes sat on a chair next to the bed, he knew he didn’t have the strength left to dress completely, but he managed his boxer shorts and then fell back onto the welcoming softness.
Sleep came quickly, and his breathing was steady.
She held out her hand to him and he took it, marvelling again at the silken softness of her touch. She didn’t speak, for there was no need. He knew her thoughts as she knew his. They walked together along the corridor with the blue light pulsing all around them, beckoning them, luring them further with its ancient promise of harmony and great joy.
The dragon emblem glowed its welcome. She turned to him and he kissed her sweet mouth, his hands tangled in her golden hair as they moulded together.
Together as they should be, together as they had been through all time. It was time to …
“Chris …Chris, come my friend, wake now. Iolanda is asking for you.”
The voice penetrated and the vision vanished. Chris sat up, disoriented and looking around him, seeking something familiar.
“Chris! Look at me. Yes, my friend. Ah … you are here. Dress yourself and come downstairs, she is awake and asking for you,” Julian said.
“Is she okay? I mean, really okay?”
“Yes, she has a gash on her forehead which needed stitching and her ribs are understandably sore, but otherwise she is fine. Come now, see for yourself.”
Chris attempted to stand, unsuccessfully, and sat abruptly back on the bed.
“I will help you dress. Then we go down together, yes?”
“Thanks, Julian. I still feel a little … um … odd.”
“That is to be expected. It will pass.” Julian handed Chris his shirt and helped him into it, and the jeans followed.
“Can you manage the stairs?”
“I think I’ll be okay, Julian. If you don’t mind going down just ahead of me.”
“Let us go.”
Chris could hear the chatter of the villagers as he came slowly down the stairs, so he wasn’t all that surprised to find the bar area had standing room only.
The room fell silent when he and Julian entered. He didn’t notice, his only focus was the golden-haired woman he’d met only that morning. His eyes sought and found Iolanda sitting propped up on pillows on the makeshift bed, which had been moved over to the large window.
He felt the eyes of the crowd follow him as he made his way to her. The villagers stood back to allow him access to where she was waiting.
Iolanda became aware of his presence and gave him that smile, the smile that permeated his being and left him breathless. “Chris, you are okay! I didn’t believe them. Even your friend Dave tried to tell me. Oh, Chris I’m so sorry, it’s my fault, I should’ve been paying more attention, I –”
Chris interrupted her, “What? No, nothing that happened is anyone’s fault Iolanda! Shit happens, you know, it just happens, no rhyme, no reason, it just does.” He perched himself on the edge of her bed and looked deep into her wonderful brown eyes, unaware of the fact that they had clutched each other’s hands as they spoke.
“Do you truly believe that, Chris?” she asked softly.
“When it’s convenient, I do.”
Iolanda laughed at his honesty and then dropped one of his hand, in order to hold her ribs. “Ouch, no more laughter, for at least today.” She then giggled. “Thank you for my life, Chris. Don’t protest, don’t tell me you did what any man would have done, please. I know differently.”
“What?” said Chris.
Julian had joined them and put his hand on Iolanda’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I told you he was well, did I not.” They were the words he spoke, but the message that passed between them said something entirely different.
“Oh, you haven’t had a chance to talk to anyone yet, Chris, have you?” she asked.
“I’m not certain I have much to say, I was there, I did what I did, and here we are. The main thing is you, I couldn’t have born it if anything had taken you.”
Iolanda lifted her hand and stroked his cheek, pushing his long hair back, “Nor I you.”
Chris savoured the moment and then looked at Julian. A smile of contentment was the last thing he expected to see on Julian’s face.
“Are you two just friends?” Chris asked hopefully, unable to stop himself.
“Oh, much more than just friends Chris,” said Iolanda.
Chris’s hope plummeted.
Iolanda continued, “Julian is my brother, Chris. And a damned bossy one at that.”
“Your brother! Well, that’s great, I mean, yeah … aw hell, I don’t know what I mean.” Chris felt the heat rise in his face.
“Oh my … you are blushing Christopher Manning,” said Iolanda with a great deal of satisfaction.
Julian was clearly enjoying himself; he doubled with laughter and wiped his eyes, “Do not hold the fact that she is related to me against her, Chris. I am not as bossy as she would have you believe.”
Chris’s smile was the one that reduced many women to blithering idiocy, and the best thing was, he had no idea.
“Chris, we need to talk. Just you and I. Let us leave Iolanda for a short while. Are you able to take a short journey by car? There is something you need to see,” Julian asked.
Iolanda nodded and squeezed Chris’s hand, “I’ll be right here, Chris.”
“Oh, yes. I promise.”
Chris was reluctant to leave her, yet he knew that this talk with Julian had waited long enough. He had questions, and he had the feeling that Julian could provide him with the answers. “When, Julian?”
“Now, my friend.”
Julian was pleased. He walked across to where Dave was sitting trying valiantly to understand the conversation being directed his way by a number of the villagers. “Dave, we’ll be back soon. Can you sit with Iolanda awhile, she is much easier to understand. Sometimes.”
Dave was only too happy to oblige.

Chris sat in the car waiting for Julian.
He knew that some of the questions he had would probably make him sound way on the southern end of normal.
Yeah, but what’s normal? And normal according to whose criteria?
He could only hope that Julian didn’t write him off as unsuitable for Iolanda as a result. Julian climbed in behind the wheel, assured himself that his passenger was comfortable, and they set off.
As soon as they crossed the first stream Chris knew where they were going. “The castle, Julian?”
“Yes, my friend. Can you wait to begin your questions until after we arrive? It is important.”
“Of course.”
Julian looked across at Chris, uncertain of how best to approach what needed to be said. Having made his decision, he had to await the most opportune moment to begin. He didn’t need to wait for long.
“Julian … this has to do with what we talked about before Iolanda and I met, hasn’t it?”
“Can we begin now?”
“We can if you so wish, my friend. Perhaps though it would be best to wait a few minutes more, when I can have access to show you things that may help you understand and come to terms with what you must.”
“Why not … I have waited for so very long already,” Chris said softly.
“You have already surmised much of what I need to tell you, have you not?”
“I think so, Julian. But this is all so far outside of anything I can explain rationally. I guess I need clarification, and if at all possible … a reason.”
Julian pulled the car up outside Castle Drakon. The late afternoon sun lit up the site to give it the warmth that the edifice needed to appear welcoming to some. It wasn’t needed for either of the men in the car. With unspoken agreement they both headed to the hidden entrance behind the vines.
Chris stopped once inside the grounds, “Julian, show me what you need to, then we can talk without skirting around anything that may be outside our comfort zones.”
“Very well, Chris. Can I ask you first, what your beliefs are? Specifically your religious beliefs.”
Chris thought about that question for a while before answering. “That has been on my mind a great deal, for a very long time, Julian. I have come to the conclusion that I have no religious affiliations, I do not believe in the God of the bible, and I have read just about every other book on most other systems of belief that there is. I believe in none of them completely. Are you shocked?”
“Relieved would be a more apt emotion.”
“I thought it may be.”
“Let us go inside,” said Julian
They walked side by side until they reached the kitchens. Julian stopped, “Chris, I have to ask you to trust me without question for a short while. Can you do that?”
“Julian … I trust very few people.” He looked at the man as he spoke, “The best I can offer is I’ll try, that will have to do I’m afraid.”
“That will suffice for now. You need to come with me down to the wine cellar and beyond.” He raised his hand to forestall, Chris’s objections. “I promise you there will be no panic attack this time, no sweating or shortness of breath.”
“You can promise me that?”
“Yes, Chris.”
“It’s a big ask, Julian. The last time scared the shit out of me, I couldn’t breathe … but I will try.”
“Thank you.” Julian waited for his friend to ready himself and when he had they quickly made their way to the kitchens.
Chris hesitated for a brief moment at the entrance to the wine cellar, and then drew in a sharp breath and continued after Julian. He felt the coolness through his shirt as he had before, but nothing else, although he waited for it, despite his best efforts not to. They reached the wine cellar, and … nothing … Chris started to relax a little.
Julian indicated another stairway leading down deeper beneath the castle.
“Didn’t you say it was unsafe to come down further because of the structure being unstable?” Chris asked.
“I did, my friend. I lied to keep Dave and yourself from entering this area.”
“No way on earth I would’ve ventured down here. But you’re probably right about Dave, he seems to be fearless.”
“None of us are really what we seem, Chris.”
Julian walked another few feet and stopped, he lit another lantern and handed it to Chris. “Open your mind to all possibilities, please, my friend. I will try to help you understand what you are about to see.”
The crypt was even colder than the wine cellar, so cold that their breath left a mist in the air. Julian walked across the room, lighting lanterns as he moved to them, until the place was well illuminated. He stopped. “This one will be difficult for you, Chris. Trust me, my friend.” Julian heaved back the heavy cover and motioned Chris forward.
Chris wanted to run like hell, but he didn’t. He walked over, braced himself, and looked down. Then he screamed. “No! It can’t be … we just left her.” Iolanda lay in the coffin, dressed in a white gown. A bandage around her beautiful neck. “No! No … no!” Chris repeated over and over sobbing the words.
Julian grabbed Chris’s shoulders and held him in a firm grip while he spoke. “Chris, it is NOT Iolanda! Listen to me. Listen to me, Chris! It is not her Chris, hear what I say … this is not Iolanda.”
“Not? Not her? I will kill you, Julian, if you are lying to me.”
“Yes, you would. I know that.”
“Then who is it? She looks exactly like Iolanda, even the bandage where the birthmark is.”
“She showed you that?”
“I need you to look at one more, Chris. Please, you have to see it, and then we will go back upstairs while I tell you more and answer your questions.”
Chris was so afraid that Julian had lied, yet something in Julian’s face convinced him.
“Chris, please … look, and quickly.”
Chris looked down, and kept looking. “It’s me. It’s me, Julian. But … I’m standing here, talking to you … aren’t I?”
“Yes, Chris. You are. You are very much alive, my friend.”
“Then how? Why is only my … his … face showing?”
Julian pulled the coffin lid shut. “Come away, back up to the kitchens, then we will talk. Come, Chris. You have seen all you needed to see here.”
Chris followed, saying nothing. He was bereft of speech. This is a day he wouldn’t ever forget.
Julian made the ascent quickly.
Chris sat down and took the glass of wine that Julian offered. They both remained silent and drank several glasses each. Chris lit a cigarette with a hand that still shook.
“What the fuck is in this stuff?” Chris asked holding up the wine.
“It is a calmative, very effective. We do not share the wine with strangers usually. But you have already gathered that you are not a stranger to us here, Chris.”
“Are you talking reincarnation, Julian?”
“Chris, to be truthful, I do not know if this fits into my understanding of reincarnation. Allow me tell you what I do know, and I’ll show you the written records for that time, although I will need to translate for you. You have trusted me thus far, I thank you for that.”
“Ah-huh, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to get the fuck out of here and see Iolanda for myself!”
Julian nodded in understanding, “Of course. This will not take long.”
“Go, on … I’ll try not to interrupt. One quick question, does she know?”
“She does now. But not before you went out this morning. We couldn’t interfere in what destiny had in store for either of you. It broke my heart to let her go with you, in case she did not come back, but I trusted in the man I could see. You did not let me down.”
“I’m listening, Julian.”
“The mark of the dragon that you were born with is, and has been for generations, the symbol of our village and Castle Drakon. For hundreds of years the masters of Castle Drakon all bore it, from birth. Three hundred years ago there was a plague, it decimated the village, and the castle was not spared. No children were born for many years, and the lineage faltered. The village recovered and the children came again. Yet not in the bloodline of the masters. The records talk of the old master taking a young girl from the village, she gave him twins, boys … both born with the mark. He had her murdered to silence her.
The elder child, by only a matter of minutes and subsequently the heir, was a monster. He was vain, selfish, and exceedingly cruel. For the first time in our centuries of co-operation with the masters the villagers began talking of open rebellion. Yet they did not rebel. Too many customs and years of servitude prevented them from doing so, but they were unhappy, and hungry, never a good combination.
The new master took whatever woman he wanted, he impregnated a few. Those that had his children bore him only girls. He killed both the mother and child at the birth. He wanted a son. He became crazed with that need. It drove him and he took more and more of our women in his attempt to fill it.
A golden haired daughter had been born to highly revered members of the village. The child was taken and hidden away to protect her. Legend spoke of her coming. It was decreed that this girl child would restore happiness and prosperity to the village, and they guarded her well. He found her. Yet he did not capture and rape her as he had the others. He married her.
The villagers hoped that she would bring about a change in the man she married. He was besotted at first and appeared to outsiders to be a loving husband. She was desperately unhappy, and when she fell pregnant she hoped against hope that he loved her enough to allow her to go if a girl child was born. If a girl child, she would take her and raise her in the village. If a boy, born with the mark of the dragon, she knew she was doomed to stay. She would have honoured that commitment.
The master made the promise to the elders, that should she birth a female they would be both free to leave.
She had a girl. The master seemed content to allow her the freedom he had promised. He begged her for one last day in her company. Her kind heart forced her to agree. She loved the mountains and the forest, so he suggested they take the little one and picnic by a mountain stream.
He returned alone. Like a crazed man he swore that a wolf had taken the baby! His wife, he said, had gone mad. In her grief she had run into the forest, he had searched for many hours but found no trace of her. The villagers organised a search party, unbeknownst to the master and against his express command. They found her, just alive. She told them that he had thrown the infant to the wolves, and then turned on her and hit her over the head with a rock, and dragged her into the forest. When they found her it was just moments too late to save her … her throat had been ripped opened by a bear. The villagers carried her home in secret and preserved her young body in age old vats of liquid, and then they embalmed her and took her, using the passageway, to rest for eternity in the ice cold crypt of the Castle.
They dragged the murderous bastard from his bed and buried him alive, with his arms and legs bound tightly and with only his face free. To ensure his death was long and agonising they gave him water and just occasionally food, just enough to ensure that he lay there in agony buried up to his neck for a long time before he died.
Iolanda is the first golden haired child to be born in the village since that time; she was born with the birthmark of the bear’s claw. Our family are superstitious, myself included. It was decided that the best way of life for her was not to remain in the village to be viewed as some sort of talisman, an oddity, but away from here. Our mother left her only home and took her to America. My sister blossomed and attained a wonderful education, but she simply cannot stay away. I miss her, Chris. I think you can probably fathom the rest. Questions?”
“Hell, I don’t know, Julian. Don’t get me wrong, I believe everything you have told me. But where the hell did I come from? My father has the mark, as do I. Why me, and not him?”
“He was born too early to be the one, Chris. You were not. If what we have been able to learn since Iolanda was born is correct, and we have no reason to suppose otherwise … the last master of Castle Drakon born with the mark had continued to rape and impregnate women during his only marriage. The golden haired one did not have a child until the second year of that marriage. Two of those women he raped in those two years escaped him before the birth of their babies. They fled with help from the elders. We have records that tell us one of them gave birth to another girl. We can find nothing whatsoever about the younger girl. I think we can safely gauge that she had a son.”
Chris sat silently, he was beyond being able to talk.
Everything that Julian had told him sounded like some drug induced nightmare, except for the fact that he did have the mark of the dragon on his hand he may have been able to convince himself that he was in that dream state again.
Julian watched the doubts flow across Chris’s face, and understood them. It was more than most people could deal with, but his gut instincts told him that his new friend was not most people.
“I think perhaps we should go back to the inn, Chris. You may feel utter confusion now, and that is not to be unexpected. Once you have an opportunity to speak to Iolanda alone, you may feel more … centred, is that the word?”
Chris stood and walked out to the courtyard; he felt ill. He didn’t make it much further before he retched violently. Julian was right, he needed to see her, touch her and talk with her, and then wait to see what, if anything, was to happen then.
The drive back was completed in silence. Chris gazed from the window but saw nothing. There was no crowd outside the inn this time and he was thankful for that. Dave was seated next to Iolanda when they went inside, deep in conversation, yet her eyes sought him out as he entered.
Dave vacated his spot with a concerned look when he saw Chris’s face. He wanted to say something but the words didn’t come. Julian called him over to the bar and they talked quietly together.
Chris sat next to her and she took his hand. “You’ve had one bastard of a day. I can’t get a grip on all of it yet. So much has happened,” she stroked his cheek with a butterfly's touch.
Chris took her hand and gently kissed her palm, “We need some time together without an audience. Are you able to make it upstairs? I’ll carry you.”
Iolanda smiled up at him and put her arms up to be lifted. Chris didn’t speak, he held her close to his heart and without a word to anyone else they went up the stairs. He laid her carefully on the bed and sat beside her. “Déjà vu didn’t even come close.”
Iolanda laughed, “You got that right. Chris can you hold me, until I fall asleep. I need to know you’re here beside me.”
He lay next to her and she snuggled into him. He stroked her hair gently and felt the tension leave his body as her breathing deepened. They had no need of wine to help them sleep; they curled together in perfect symmetry and slept the deep sleep that children know, the sleep that comes before the innocence is torn away.

The rumour mill in Hollywood was working overtime, Oscar time did that, it turned almost sane rational people into piranhas hungry for blood.
Christopher Manning’s latest film had been nominated for four major awards, and the fact that he had been absent from the U.S.A for several months had everybody wondering if this film would be his last as a director.
Those he did talk to kept silent as he was highly regarded by his friends and associates. The press had been having a field day at his expense, stories of illness, drug addiction, ad nauseum. They weren’t too worried about the fallout, as long as they reported from ‘sources close to the star’ and used the word ‘alleged’ with abandon, their collective asses couldn’t get sued.
Chris read the stories and laughed long and loud at some of the wonderfully creative lies. He was far too happy to allow any of it to get under his skin.
Dave Walters was beside himself with excitement, he had finally been nominated for Best Cinematographer. He was damned proud of the work he’d done on this one. If he didn’t win so be it, but he acknowledged finally that he was good at what he did. He and Chris had been in regular contact, and Chris had returned stateside for the final post-production and editing process.
The late afternoon April sun glared down on the red-carpet as the A lister’s strutted their stuff for the world’s press. The Academy Awards rated highly with the public and the carpet was lined with fans all screaming at anyone and everyone that wore a tuxedo or an evening gown. Photo opportunities were taken at risk of life and limb for the security people.
Ultimately, despite the glamor and pretence of these ceremonies, the votes that came in from the members of the academy reflected their true feelings about the categories they voted in. So despite the hoopla, to win one was prestigious.
Dave accepted his award with surprising grace. He held it aloft and thanked Chris Manning for the chance to have been part of a wonderful experience. Other major awards were handed out, and accepted, but the audience were waiting on the big two. Best Director and Best Film were the most hotly contended awards.
The five nominees for Best Director were read out, the envelope was handed to Ben Affleck to announce the winner, “And the winner is, Christopher Manning, for The Secrets of Castle Drakon.”
Chris never attended these things, so the audience waited for someone else to accept the award on his behalf. So they were delighted when Chris walked up and onto the stage, and they stood and applauded, loudly. “Thank you all, it was a privilege to work with some amazingly talented people. I have thanked them all privately, but you all know who they are. Dave buddy, I owe you a cellar full of our favourite stuff.” Chris held the award high, flashed his killer smile, and left the stage
Finally the nominees for Best Picture were announced, together with brief clips from the films. Ben Affleck slowly opened the envelope, and read the winner with great pleasure …
“And the winner is The Secrets of Castle Drakon, produced and directed by Christopher Manning.”
This time Chris Manning wasn’t alone when he accepted the award, he had with him a beautiful woman. The crowd grew quiet and waited for the acceptance speech. Chris was crying quite openly as he stood there, the woman put her fingers under his chin and smiled into his face. She whispered something to him that made him laugh.
Then still holding her hand, he stepped up to the microphone. “Ladies and gentleman, I thank you from the heart, to all of the marvellous people who helped bring this movie to fruition, both behind and in front of the cameras I say again, you helped me make my dream come true. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to the beautiful lady at my side, my lady, my life, my wife Iolanda. I don’t know if our little boy, Julian, is awake, but I have a sneaking suspicion his uncle and he may be watching. This film is part of our legacy to him and our love for his extended family. Oh, and what I was laughing at … Iolanda wants to go out for popcorn and Coca-cola. I love this woman.”
Chris took Iolanda’s hand and they remained on stage while the cast and crew joined them. They stood to one side for a moment and Chris gazed down at her, her beautiful hair was swept up, exposing her elegant neck and shoulders. He traced his fingers from behind her ear and down across her shoulder, her skin silky smooth and clear. The birthmark she had carried all her life had faded and disappeared on that night when they had first slept in each other’s arms.
Chris’s did not.
Julian sat in Chris’s Los Angeles apartment nursing his nephew. Pleased with the results of the telecast, and delighted that the baby had been named after him, he held the tiny hand in his own, tracing the outline of the birthmark. “Tomorrow little one, we all go home. You will love your home, not every little boy has his very own Castle to play in.”


I do hope you enjoyed my small contribution to this wonderful selection.
To read more you can see   Paul Rudd's Blog     posted yesterday highlighting his story in the anthology, titled SATAN'S BAND…. and tomorrow make sure you check out  Bev Allen's Blog /her short story A SOLEMN CURFEW

You can get the entire collection from Amazon.

Contributors: Jeff Blackmer, Richard Rhys Jones, Jillian Ward, Bev Allen, Elaina J Davidson, Suzanna Burke, Paul Rudd, Hannah Warren, Joanne Sexton, Tee Geering, and Poppet.

Castle Drakon is a mysterious place. A portal to offworld, a haven for the ancients, a receptacle for nightmares, and a residence where the weird and bizarre are the norm. In this anthology of eleven short stories you will experience a smorgasbord of phenomenal tales that will entertain and leave a lingering mulling over the profound and macabre.

Welcome to Castle Drakon, enter the sacrosanct halls at your own peril.

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