My wrists and ankles are bound to the chair by massive manacles of steel and silver. Scarlet runes glow ominously.
“Does it not look scrumptious, Ari?”
The long table spreads in front of me. I am at the place of honor, where the “pater familias”, the father, should sit. This isn’t normal. The dishes are not normal. They shimmer in the semi-darkness like red-hot embers.
“It… It sure does aunt Sara!”
“Does it now?” she replies with a smirk, “Well then, should we start?”
Her eyes are not the usual grey. They are as dark as the place between the stars and just as empty. My right hand is drawn forward to a fork by the manacle. I cannot resist. When I make contact, the cutlery flashes blue and my skin erupts in bloody blisters. I bite down screams of pain.
“Something the matter Ari? You are Ari, are you not?”
“Of course something is the matter darling.” Says uncle Roger as he takes a seat, soon followed by other members of the family. Black eyes everywhere.
A powerful hand grabs my hair and pulls my head back.
“Did you forget to say the Graces, sister? Surely, only a dirty slut who sold herself to the Devil to survive would forget to say them?”
“No! No, I was just waiting for everyone to be seated, as is proper!”
“Proper hmmm? Well since you are so proper dear sister, you may say them first.”
“But Achille, Papa should be the one to do it, no?”
Father enters the room. Each of his steps makes the ground tremble. He is so strong, strong enough to shatter my arms with a finger. On his collar stands a cross of the order of Gabriel, and in his hands, he holds wooden spikes and a silver maul. He takes the seat that faces mine, at the end of the table.
“Tut tut tut daughter. We awaited your return among us for so long. Just this once, you may take my place and do the rites. It is a great honor, one that only a wanton harlot would refuse. You agree, do you not?”
“O… Of course.”
“Very good. Since we are all here, you may begin.”
They all stare at me with hungry mouths just a bit too wide. The skin around their eyes cracks as the darkness spreads.
“B… Bless us, cough, O cough, O Lord, cough cough, and these Thy…”
My throat burns, clouds of ash and droplets of charred blood erupt with each word. I have to continue, oh no, they are standing up, no please….
I wake up to an unfamiliar sight: the canopy of a canvas tent.
I am in a metal box with the top opened. I do not remember how I got there.
I sit up and a simple cover of brown fabric falls from me. Under it, I am still wearing the traveled-stained dress I fell to torpor in.
I take in the sights. A single lamp shines with soft blue light on the vast interior. A chest and a tidied cot occupy one side, while another accommodates a copper tub filled to the brim with water. A chair next to it holds soap and a folded cloth.
“I’m outside, lass.”
I stand up. The box I am in looks suspiciously like a coffin, except that this one has a lock on the inside allowing its occupant to shut it tight and a symbolic quilt. That is quite thoughtful, and the effort makes me feel a bit better after this nightmare.
I step to the entrance and move my head out.
We stand in a clearing. Two torches illuminate a circle of grassy earth upon which stand tanning posts. Vast squares of black scaly skin are left to dry. Loth is in the process of dismantling the first one with an ease that speaks of experience.
Tanneries usually smell like a latrine’s latrines and I am quite surprised when my nose only picks up hints of chemicals and herbs.
“Good evening Loth.”
“Good evening Ariane, I drew ye a bath and ye can tell me if that dress fits.”
“Hold on, you skinned and tanned the alligator, made a dress and the coffin for me in one day?!”
“I would prefer the term sarcophagus” he replies with a laugh, “and aye. You were slumbering for more than sixteen hours ya know? Ye must have been exhausted.”
“I see, hum, well, I’ll talk to you later.”
I feel a bit wary at the thought of disrobing while only a layer of fabric separates me from a man. All my concerns melt as I step into the bath.
It feels so incredibly good to immerse myself in piping warm, clean water after more than a week on the road. I submerge my head for a full minute and enjoy the feeling of weightlessness that no lack of air can disturb.
I sit back up and grab a bar of soap. It is scented! Is that jasmine? I slather my hair and body.
“Ooooo so good!”
It feels so incredible. Beware, world, Ariane the squeaky-clean vampire Queen is about!
I hear Loth chuckle. He heard me! Gah!
I get out and dry myself on a deliciously clean towel just as the Thirst makes its presence known. I dig out my last set of relatively clean underwear and put on the dress.
It is a marvel. The cut is very simple and without any adornments but also comfortable and flexible. Dark green and brown cotton offer a natural camouflage and I can tell it has been reinforced at the sleeves. There are also, wonders of wonders, pockets! And it suits me!
I come out in a rush.
“Loth, this is incredible! How did you know my measurements?”
“I promise I did not touch ye Ariane, I just have, hum, quite a bit of experience with women.”
I would blush if I still could.
“Just hold on for a bit while I pack.”
“Oh, let me assist.”
While he gathers the skin, I take care of the tent and its contents.
“Thank ya. Now let’s get all this on me ride.”
I pick my bag and the chest and follow him. Across the clearing stands a huge metal box. I notice the enormous wheels stuck to it and realize that this is a carriage. If I had to transport all the jewels of India from one side of the continent to the other, I would place them in this.
What manner of beast could draw this monstrosity? Curious, I circle.
Loth smiles broadly and chuckles. His giant chest quakes with hilarity as I lay my eyes on a mastodon of a beast of burden.
Someone must have successfully cross-bred a bison with a blue whale! The shaggy quadruped is bigger than most carriages I have seen. A set of horns that could skewer a horse extend from its bovine skull.
“Hah, meet Asni. Impressive, isn’t he?”
“Ah don’t mind the size, he isn’t the biggest thing around. Instead, go closer.”
“Hum Loth, animals do not react well to my presence.”
“Asni is special. Come, come!”
We walk to the front of the animal. A shaggy mane covers its eyes. Only its jaw moves, busy masticating.
I am surprised to see that Asni has not reacted to my presence yet. I slowly bring a hand to its muzzle and pet him slowly. His pelt is surprisingly soft, and I find myself enjoying the experience. Loth stands in front of me proudly with its chest out. He places a hand in the small of his back and shows Asni with the other. He looks like a businessman unveiling his latest venture.
“Have ye ever had your mount flee after a werewolf’s howl, or panic at the sight of a giant magical hyena? Does the scent of blood make yer ride unreliable? Well, worry no more, Loth of Skoragg has the solution. This here majestic beast is the result of decades of effort and selective breeding into making the absolute dumbest animal possible.”
“That’s right, ladies and gentlemen! This here beast is simply too dim-witted to be afraid. With Asni, experience the boundless courage of abysmal stupidity as it rides into battle with a serene heart and an empty skull!”
I applaud and Loth bows perfectly.
“Let’s be on our way before…”
It starts as a whistle, then a trumpet, then whistle, then trumpet again and ends up with the sound of wet cloth flapping in the wind.
It lasted for almost ten seconds.
I stare at Loth, horrified.
“Aye, that’s a problem. Let’s move before we can smell it. That’s also why I never park him near an open flame.”
I am tempted to ask to ride in the back. I do admire the beast, but I am not inclined to be submitted to such cavernous bouts of flatulence. I know I do not have to breathe but this is simply a matter of principles!
We load everything in the back of his carriage in comfortable silence. I notice that his armor is stored in the center with free access. The interior looks defensible. This was designed on purpose to let him defend himself should the carriage be intercepted.
When we’re done, I sit next to him. He takes out a massive stick and slaps the beast’s rear with it. He places it back on the side and we wait.
Finally, the beast starts moving forward at a placid pace, pulling the moving fort as if it weighed nothing.
“Takes a few seconds for the signal to reach its brain. Ye got to anticipate when ye want to stop.”
I smile and let the movement distract me from the Thirst. I realize that our truce only lasts until midnight and if I want to consider staying with him, we need to have a talk. I decide to start with basic courtesy.
“I wanted to thank you for your care. You went beyond any reasonable expectations. I notice that you even cleaned my gun.”
“Ye’re welcome lass. Now we go to get yer reward and that blood. How long can ye go without feeding by the way? More than a day?”
“I figured ye were pretty young. Ye’re not a courtier are ye? Ye’re a fledgling.”
“How do you know so much about us?”
“I think I mentioned that I met one of you near Boston. He goes by Constantine, and he’s a scholar of sorts. We talked a lot and I got some good work done with his protection.”
“I see, and to answer your question, yes I am a fledgling.”
“How old are ye really? Ye don’t have to answer by the way. I just know that younger vampires have more needs, so I’ll know to adapt.”
I hesitate. There is no reason for me to share this with him. The less he knows, the less everything can go to the dogs if the deal falls through and I don’t manage to kill him.
Loth gives me a sad smile. For some reason, seeing the pain on his bushy face makes me uncomfortable. Between the ruddy nose and glorious beard, he looks like a favorite uncle or grandfather. It is a face designed for boisterous claims and roaring laughter, not for the raw hurt I see on it now.
“Ya know, I can see the cogs turning behind those sky-colored eyes of yers. I know we just met but I believe I have been nothing but true to my word. Even if we part ways, I will swear an oath to secrecy. Ye have nothing to fear from me.”
I believe him. I have spent so much time surrounded by the scum of the earth that I have forgotten that there are people out there whose sole purpose is not to make my life as miserable and brief as possible.
“I am twenty.”
“Oh, I thought that was less. Ye’re almost a courtier then.”
“Ye do know vampires measure their age from the day they rise again, aye?”
“Uuuh now that you mention it, I think my friend mentioned this the first day we met. Then I am six months old.”
It sounds wrong when I say it, as if who I was before did not matter, as if you could discard almost two decades of life experience on the ground that I was human when I had them.
Loth thinks on it for a while. He looks angry.
"That ain’t right lass, that ain’t right at all. Ye did not commit some sort of horrible crime, did ye?”
“Besides existing you mean? No. If you must know though, I have blood on my hands.”
“All vampires do. This ain’t right ta force someone so new ta flee away. A yearling should feel the need ta hunker down and nest for safety’s sake. If you felt compelled to take the road… I dare not imagine what ye went though.
I have no more questions, so just ya know, I want to invite ye to live with me. I’ll protect ye and in return, there are a few things I can use yer help with, ye being an immortal killing machine and all. I’ll compensate ye of course, and it will be exciting work, ye can rely on that. Oh, and no biting me. Ask your questions.”
“Before we start, I want to make it clear. I’m not performing any… Favor… For anyone.”
Loth suddenly turns terribly embarrassed, his nose becomes even redder than unusual.
“Hrm, again, I am so sorry for yesterday’s indiscretion. I assumed ye were much older and vampires have a bit of a reputation fer that… Please, forgive me. I have never taken a woman against her will and I shall never do so! Naturally, hrm, I will never expect anything of the sort. Please! Let us never speak of this again. Rest assured that I will never act in an untoward manner. My shame…”
“It’s alright, Loth” I reply, smiling “I believe you. I just needed to say it.”
“Hrm! Of course, of course.”
“I do not have any questions at the moment. Tell me, what do you propose?”
“Aye, it’s simple enough lass. I have a manor with a basement in the town of Higginsville, named after its founder, Philip Higgins. I met him ya know? A fine lad, a bit obsessed with garter belts and Rubenian…”
“Aye, I was saying. A manor. I’ll give ye a secure room and defend ye during the day. I’m one of the two towns doctors. They see me as a bit of an eccentric, a gentleman of science. Why, this one time, young Tim Letterson came to me and…”
“Sorry, as the town doctor I will ask for blood donations in lieu of payment, ye see? I’ll say it’s for experiments. So ye can just drink fresh from a chalice. Ye’ll need a few glasses per nights and ye’ll have ta hunt on occasion, but it should be fine. In return, I’ll need yer help for a few things like hunting dangerous beasts, exploring caves, killing the odd brigand band and werewolf. Oh, and helping me carry heavy stuff. I only ask that you don’t kill anyone from the town. Limit yerself to criminals and outcasts.”
I stare at Loth who is now focused on the trail. He is giving me time to think.
It sounds too good to be true. I could lay low in a remote town where no vampires would look for me, protected by a gentleman of repute who would defend and hide me out of his own free will. I could survive my most vulnerable years safely. I could build something. I could learn something. I could send letters to Jimena and Papa.
I could live, as opposed to surviving.
“This is a very generous offer.”
“Aye, it is.”
“Is there a catch?”
“No, there isn’t lass. Ye need to catch a break. I’ll be happy to help. I wish someone had done it for me when I needed it.”
“I won’t kill people if I don’t want to.”
“HAHAHA! Lass, far be it from me to force a vampire to kill, aye?”
“I won’t break my word for you.”
“And neither will I.”
I want it. I really want it now.
“If I want to leave I can, and you will let me go and swear an oath to secrecy.”
I want it.
“I want to try.”
“Then open your palm and we shake on it. Be aware that ye’re a creature of magic now. Ye can lie but ye can’t break an oath without breaking yerself.”
We slice our hands, him with a knife and I with a talon. We shake them without ceremony.
A powerful wave of magic washes over both of us. I feel Loth’s essence of mountain and steel and another one that smells of thorns and wet earth.
It is done.
I sit back into the chair and let the oath settle on me as the wound on my hand closes. This was strange and wonderful. This was an experience that I would never have thought possible a year ago. Perhaps, things do not have to be so bad.
Half an hour later, we reach the edge of the valley where we met the Choctaw men. Asni is strong but also slow. I do not mind.
We step down and walk to the statue, a totem apparently, and witness the approach of a strange procession.
Nashoba walks with the help of two scowling women. He looks cleaner and tidier than yesterday. Minco walks at their side with a furious glare, while Iskani trails the two groups with the awkward look of the man caught between two friends arguing.
They stop at ten paces and Iskani shuffles forward, greets us both with a bow and asks us how the hunt went.
Loth smiles and throws him a bag that smells of dead meat to me. The translator opens it and turns an interesting shade of green. Loth whispers in a sound that only I can hear.
“It’s the other eyeball.”
I school my expression so I do not laugh. The man brings the trophy to his chief who also grows noticeably paler. Yes, Minco, you are not impressing us very much with that tiny spear of yours.
Iskani grabs a satchel and hands it to Loth. My companion checks the contents then nods. It is right to make sure he receives his proper reward, even if it is of little value to him.
It is my turn. I extend my hand towards my supplicant. Nashoba tries to free himself from the grasp of the two women, but the left one holds him back and starts arguing with him and Minco.
My hand is still out.
They wouldn’t dare. They wouldn’t dare break their word with me. I would have to teach them the consequences of their actions. I would have to make the lesson very thorough.
I feel anger overcoming me, I feel the beast beneath the surface waking up.
The valley freezes. Even the wind dies down.
Loth’s measured and soft voice slithers through the fog over my mind.
“Ye’re not trying to renege on a deal with a pale one, are ya? Because that would be a bad idea.”
In the silence that follows, Nashoba frees himself from the paralyzed woman with the barest of touch.
Good, now I will kill only her.
My supplicant places his hand in mine. The other one brushes the skin of my wrist.
I look at him. With an innocent smile, he reaches into his pocket and takes out a pair of earrings. Today, his eyes are clear and focused.
The pieces of jewelry are made of copper and transparent stone engraved with strange drawings. No matter how much I concentrate on them they always appear out of focus.
Nashoba closes my hand over the offering and slowly comes closer. He grabs one of my shoulders and offers me his throat.
Mmmh, perhaps there is no need to slay anyone tonight. All is as it should be.
I hold him up as I feed.
This is unexpected. He is, of course, delicious, but there is something more. His power resonates within me. There is something familiar that echoes with the refuge I find myself in.
I stop long before I need to. I have taken my due, I do not need more.
I lick the wound close. The shaman smiles one last time. He walks to the two women who pick him up and leave in a hurry. They do not meet my eyes. The two men look at me, at each other and follow suit. I did not know people could go that fast without running.
Loth and I leave as well and settle on the steel carriage.
“Ye sure know how to leave an impression. Well done.”
“I’d say ye left a warning without hurting anyone and that’s the best outcome. I’d also say how you deal with oathbreakers is none of my business. Ye ready to go?”
“Yes, I am ready and eager.”
Loth pokes Asni.
“Good, now I wanted ta talk about yer lair. All good lairs need ta be hidden, protected and not worth the effort, as cousin Okri used ta say.”
“He is a locksmith?”
“Nah, a thief.”
The carriage moves slowly into the night.