By: Ross Baxter
It was the best Christmas present ever. Buying himself a vacation trip to Europe to further research his family tree was perfect; not only was it a great break for him, it would also be appreciated by the rest of the clan back in the States. And taking the trip in December was the best way of avoiding Christmas shopping, which was a real bonus.
The downside was the flying. Peter Drolc gripped the tattered arms of his seat firmly as the tiny twin-engined plane banked sharply as it lined itself up to land at the small rural airport. His stomach tightened uncomfortably; he was no fan of flying and had never before been in such a small or old aircraft. But although dry-mouthed and soaked with sweat, he did not regret his decision to come all the way to Romania; it was simply the next part of the adventure which started when he began to trace his family history via the internet. If the hellish flight was the only downside to finding the next peace of his genealogical puzzle, then Peter was ready and willing.
He stared through the tiny cabin window and saw dark trees flash past as the ground rushed up to meet him. The heavy jolt of the tyres slamming into he rough tarmac almost made him vomit, but it gave him some relief knowing that the dreadful flight was almost at an end. Peering out of the rain streaked window he scanned the small cluster of airport buildings which huddled together at the far side of the runway, his enthusiasm slowly started to return. In the grey chill of the freezing December afternoon, the place looked neither welcoming nor pleasant, but to Peter this was the land of his ancestors. It was here that generations of Drolcs had lived before his great-great grandfather emigrated to the States in 1882, the desolate landscape being the cradle of his family line. The genealogy website had led him to this remote Romanian town and he aimed to maximise his two-week vacation tracing his family line back even further.
On exiting the cramped aircraft, it seemed that security and the usual formalities were constantly absent in the tiny terminal and, within minutes, he was outside looking for a taxi. A single car waited by the empty taxi line and Peter happily climbed in the back of the elderly Mercedes out of the heavy drizzle.
"Hi there," Peter started, wrinkling his nose at the heavy stench of tobacco which permeated the cab. "The Biled Hotel on Biserica Street, please."
The driver nodded, his dark eyes regarding him closely in the fogged rear-view mirror.
"Do you speak English?" Peter asked hopefully.
The grey-haired driver shook his head dismissively, his eyes returning to the road as the tired diesel engine coughed into life. Peter frowned with disappointment; his inability to speak or understand Romanian would probably make his research much harder, and he hoped the taxi-driver was an exception when it came to local English-language skills.
They drove in silence along a winding road which cut through thick pine forests, Peter having to wipe the heavy condensation from the rear windows every few minutes to see out. After half an hour, they entered the outskirts of the town of Biled, passing dismal streets lined with dilapidated dwellings of concrete and wood. Grim slab-sided sawmills dominated the far end of the town, grimy chimneys belching dark smoke skywards. Bright colours seemed completely absent from the town, which appeared to have been completely painted with a limited palette of grey and dull browns. The centre was little better, consisting of an empty central square faced with grim communist-era four and five story buildings of indistinct function, plus a few dilapidated shops. One of the buildings was the Hotel Biled. Peter quickly paid the uncommunicative cab driver and struggled to the entrance with his baggage.
Through the heavy double doorway was a small foyer, where a bored looking receptionist sat filing her fingernails. She looked up as he entered but did not smile.
"Hi there," smiled Peter. "I have a reservation for five nights."
"Name?" she asked in an uninterested monotone.
"Drolc," he replied, surprised that there was no computer in evidence on the desk and that she appeared to use a large ledger book instead. "Peter Drolc."
At the mention of his name, she looked up from the ancient tattered file and regarded him for a few seconds. He found the momentary silence disconcerting, returning her stare and wanting to say something. His eyes were drawn to hers; both were heavily bloodshot and dark, a stark contrast to the white pallor of her face.
"Yes," she murmured, "we have your reservation. You're in room forty-five, on the top floor."
"Hopefully it has a good view then?" he said light-heartedly, tearing his eyes away from hers.
"Yes," she answered in the same flat monotone. "You can see the sawmill chimneys and the yards of abattoir."
Peter smiled, thinking she was making a joke, but a glance at her icy visage told him she was serious.
"How far is the library from here?" he asked.
"It's one of the reasons for my visit," Peter explained. "I'm researching my family history; my ancestors lived in this area before they moved to the States in the Eighteen-eighties. The Romanian records for births and deaths are not available online and the only way I can get a look at them is to go through the documents held in the regional library."
"The library is only open on Thursdays and Fridays," she stated flatly, her face devoid of expression or any hint of interest.
Peter's heart missed a beat. "But it's only Monday afternoon."
The receptionist shrugged.
"I don't believe it," Peter muttered glumly. "What am I going to do for two and a half days now?"
"Why don't you visit Drolc Castle? That would seem a good place to start researching the Drolc family history," she offered sullenly.
"Drolc Castle?" Peter blurted in surprise. "I've never heard of Drolc Castle!"
The receptionist shrugged again.
"How far is it?" Peter asked, excitement rising.
"It's in the woods to the west. Taxis won't go there because of the state of the track, but it's only about an hour's walk."
Peter smiled and grabbed the keys to his room, ever eager to continue with the adventure. This really was the best Christmas present ever.
The track to the castle was rutted and littered with potholes, and Peter could understand why taxis wound not venture that far into the woods. In fact, from the prints in the mud it seemed very few vehicles came this way, but he was actually glad for the walk. The drizzle had stopped and he was happy to stretch his legs after the long flights from the States.
He actually found it hard to stop smiling; in the wildest dreams he had never expected to find a castle bearing his family name, and a string of exciting possibilities filled his head as he marched along. He had no idea what his reception would be like when he reached the place, but hoped the residents would be as pleased to see him as he would be to see them.
As he walked, he eagerly scanned the forest to try and get his first glimpse of the castle, but the thick pines effectively limited his vision. After nearly seventeen minutes, he started to get a little concerned, but as he followed the track on a sharp left bend, a building suddenly hove into view through the trees ahead. He stopped and peered, taking in the dark stone of its walls and black slated roofs, the rusting iron gates and overgrown grounds. It was not a big or imposing place; just three storeys and with no battlement or turrets. Still, this had to be the place. He mused that the use of the term 'castle' was perhaps a little optimistic, feeling 'mansion' would be a more apt description. But the lack of grandeur did not overly disappoint him; the stark rectangular residence still being far large and many hundreds of years older than his small condo in Illinois.
Glad to have finally arrived, he strode through the open iron gates and crunched across the weed-strewn gravel drive to the imposing copper-studded front door, ready to meet the owners and possibly greet his long lost relatives. He had been practicing how to introduce himself as he walked up from the dreary town, and his mouth was dry with anticipation. Closed shutters blocked most of the windows, giving the place a closed and foreboding feel. The door looked ancient, cracked wood visible beneath flaking paint and with a tarnish brass knocker at its centre. Peter gripped the cold pitted metal and banged the door three times, the heavy thuds resounding hollowly from the depths of the building. A minute passed with no sign of life so he tried again. This time the clattering of a key in a lock sounded from behind the door as the bass echoes of the knocking died away. Heavy bolts sliding gratingly sounded and then, after a short pause, the door opened just an inch and stopped.
"Hello?" Peter called, scanning the gap for a glimpse of inside.
"What do you want?" a heavily accented voice replied, feeble sounding and strangely androgynous.
"My name is Peter Drolc," he started. "I'm over from the States tracing my ancestry and I thought Drolc Castle would be a good place to start."
Another pause, then the thick door slowly inched creakingly open to reveal a hunger figure peering out of the darkness inside. Peter took a step backward, unprepared for the ugliness and bizarre appearance of the ancient crone. Rat-like features and a heavily lined and parchment pale face, with small black eyes that fixed on him unblinking under matted thin grey hair. She stood wrapped in a large filthy-looking blanket, stained and mouldering. Although stooped and bent with age, she appeared unnaturally tall, seeming to stare down at him like some primeval vulture. She opened the door wider and beckoned him inside with filthy skeletal fingers. Peter hesitated, filled with the sudden impulse to turn and run. He fought the feeling and instead managed an artificial smile.
Inside, the place was in darkness, with only thin glimmers of grey light filtering through the weathered cracks in the shutters. A heavy smell of damp and rot assailed his nostrils, so thick he felt he could almost taste it. He stopped just inside the threshold of the door, unwilling to go any further.
"Have you any lights?" he asked politely.
The figure reached towards the wall in the darkness and moments later light began to slowly fill the room from bare bulbs in web-covered light fittings on the ceiling. Peter saw a long hallway, with doors to each side and at the end. He stepped inside, noting the rotten floorboards warped with damp and flaking plaster crumbling from the bare and empty walls. With a wave for him to follow, the figure moved down the hallway, walking surprisingly quick for a person of her statue and obvious age.
"So, how long have you lived here?" Peter asked genially.
His question remained unanswered, the figure reaching the far door in silence and walking through into the next room. The room was in darkness and Peter again paused on the threshold, his feet splashing in a small puddle on the ruined floor. As if sensing his discomfort, the figure switched on the light, this time just a single bulb hanging from the mottled ceiling, which flickered weakly. He stepped into what may have been a kitchen at one time, but now seemed to be a jumble of broken crockery, scattered utensils and rusting appliances. At the centre of the room sat a stout rectangular wooden table, its surface stained beneath a clutter of detritus, most of which remained unidentifiable in the dim glow of the feeble light. Most worrying was the overpowering smell, which had changed from the clawing odour of decaying timbers to the rancid stench of rotting meat.
The figure turned, an attempt at a smile breaking across its rodent features. "I can't offer you much hospitality, I'm afraid."
"Don't worry," said Peter, vainly trying to smile back. "I'm just glad to be here to see where my family line started. It's amazing that there is actually a Drolc Castle."
At this the figure cackled. "There is no Drolc Castle."
"What do you mean?" asked Peter.
"It's just a ruse to get you here," the crone hissed.
"A ruse?" Peter repeated in confusion.
"We use genealogy websites to lure people here, to get them to visit us," explained the leering figure. "The name of this place changes to whatever the name of the person visiting is. If your name was Smith, then this would be Smith Castle."
Peter stared in disbelief at the blanket-wrapped crone, his anger rising. "Are you saying you're tricked me into coming all the way from the States to see this dump! What do you expect me to do, buy something?"
"No," the crone crowed. "You're here to feed us. You are our Christmas shopping!"
Peter felt a sickening blow on the back of his head from behind and tumbled down. Before he even hit the floor, he was assailed with searing pain from every side. The looming figure seemed to multiply, a swarm of tearing nails and biting teeth rending and despoiling his violated body.
As his life blood quickly drained, Peter realised that instead of starting here, this was where his family line actually ended.
About the author:
After thirty years at sea, Ross Baxter now concentrates on writing sci-fi and horror fiction. His varied work has been published in print by numerous publishing houses in the US and UK short-story anthologies. In December 2014, he won the HorrorNovelReview.com best creation short fiction prize. Married to a Norwegian with two Anglo-Viking kids, he now lives in Derby, England.