The Vampiri; Eternal Part 1 Copyright (C) Sally Lundsten 2011
Kent. The South of England. 1685
"Where are we going? Wait for me!"
"Keep up! This way. Come, come quickly. I will leave you behind."
"That wouldn't be so bad, it's so early! What's going on, brother? Why do you need me? What is all this stuff for?"
"Questions, questions. Keep quiet, will you? I'll explain later, for now, we must make all haste."
The two skulking figures reached the courtyard archway at the base of the stone steps they had quietly but hastily descended, their footfalls mere shuffling sounds in the still morning air. They paused a moment, one in front of the other. Both were breathing hard, partly through running, something neither ever did, partly through fear and anticipation. Their breath hovered in the early morning air around them before being chilled and then disappearing into the light mist, becoming part of it.
The man in front suddenly left the other man and tip-toe ran, heading across the cobbled courtyard, the other quickly followed, hefting his burden higher onto his shoulder. One headed for the stables, the second for the cart house. The one making for the stables paused halfway across the open expanse, glancing sideways, and flapped at the raised hood of his red-brown monastic robe in order to see better, having realised his companion was not with him; that they had separated. He had thought they were both going for the stable.
"Brother Xavier," he whispered, "are we not riding?" He panted a little as he gestured towards the stables.
The older monk trotted lightly over to him, his soft shoes making gentle muffled slapping sounds against the stones, and he grabbed a handful of Tomas' robes, pulling him along with him as he headed back for the cart house once more. Tomas' hood fell in thick folds around his shoulders, and his bag slipped again as he stumbled along awkwardly half next to and half behind his companion. At least he could see where he was going now even though it was barely light yet.
"Tomas," Brother Xavier whispered back over his shoulder without actually turning back, "we cannot ride out. We will be too obvious racing away on horseback, caught within a couple of hours, perhaps not even as long as that. If we travel nonchalantly, appearing to be at ease and unhurriedly, anyone observing us would be fooled. And we need something to carry our possessions; it will be too much for the horses alone to manage."
The two men arrived at the double wooden doors of the storage room. Brother Xavier released Tomas' robe, Tomas looked nervously about the open space behind them, while Xavier carefully eased back the bolt. He screwed up his weather-beaten face, held his breath as he slid the latch excruciatingly slowly, gratefully expelling the breath when the expected squeak did not come from the bolt. He had rubbed a little fat on it and the door's hinges the previous night, but was still afraid it would make some noise.
He quickly looked about again before easing open the door, just enough for them to pass through for the time being, then he almost dragged the younger man in behind him. Safe inside the room, he peered out and around the gloomy courtyard yet again. The morning sun had not yet risen, and he hoped they had made it this far without notice.
It was still very early, and no-one was normally around yet; but, one could never be too sure. Sometimes a monk would consume a little too much mead and not make it to his room for sleep, instead making do with wherever he got to before he could not take another step. Though that was not an everyday occurrence, Xavier knew it would be just typical that today of all days someone would have made somewhere within the courtyard their slumber accommodation for the night. He recalled the occasion where he'd found a missing monk peacefully asleep in one of the store-rooms in the early hours and it was only when he nudged the sleeping form with his toe did he realise he'd been talking to, and trying to rouse, a sack of potatoes.
Now he pulled the door to, and ran both hands through his thick hair. His heart thumped, but he made an effort to relax his large tense shoulders, taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to quell his nerves. They had come this far, perhaps fortune would remain with them, yet. He hefted a hay fork, and side stepped to peer cautiously out of the grimy window, waiting for as long as he dared in case someone meant to let them think they had not been followed, and then surprise them. Satisfied they were indeed alone; he sighed and replaced the farm tool.
Brother Xavier checked the gloomy interior of the chamber for any snoozing forms, then began checking the carts and making his choice of the worst looking, most likely to be ignored one, while Tomas stood silhouetted by the window with a frown that Xavier could not see, his heavy bag now at his feet, absently smoothing down the wayward curls of his blond hair.
"Have you not prepared all that we need already, Brother?" He asked, speaking in hushed tones to the older monk. He moved away from the window and stood beside Xavier, the steadily increasing light of day chasing away the gloom within the room.
"No, I was not afforded the opportunity. But I have hidden a few of these for our purpose."
Tomas wrinkled his nose when Xavier dragged a bundle of what he realised were the smelliest rags to ever have assaulted his sense of smell to the cart and dumped them next to it. "Put these on, we will have to forego our robes for a while. Hide them near the bottom for when we need them"
"We're not really going to wear these, are we?" His fine, fair eyebrows momentarily disappearing up beneath the curls that caressed his forehead.
"We have to appear as though we have nothing of value. Dress yourself in what you need and throw the rest in the cart in a jumble."
He noticed Tomas' confused, disgusted expression and sighed. "I don't want anyone passing us and leaning over to grab something. These should cause them to give us a wide berth. And in London, children and beggars may try to do the same while we are busy watching our course. It will be bustling, young Tomas. Fair bustling."
Tomas nodded, flapping a hand in front of his face. His nose was positively stuck in its wrinkled position and his pale blue eyes were screwed half closed. His mouth warped in absolute revulsion.
"Oh, come now," Xavier laughed. "You've smelt worse. Get a move on, it's getting light as we stand here; we must wrap the wheels in grain sacks to dampen the noise across the courtyard as much as possible." The carts were all well maintained, and he gave up scrutinizing them, taking the one nearest the door for convenience.
"I thought we would take the two fastest horses?"
"We will." Xavier stopped and smiled at Tomas, his soft brown eyes appearing almost black in the gloom of the outbuilding. "They shall pull the cart for us." He moved back to the doors and opened one slightly, peering out once more.
"Throw a sheaf of hay on there, will you, please?" He waved a hand at the cart. "Make that two, three if there is sufficient room. Don't bury our things, though. We may need something and I don't wish to fight with the hay and become all scratched; I shall be dreadfully itchy for a week. Oh, and leave room for water for the animals."
Anything else? Tomas thought sullenly, but would never dare utter the words with the sarcasm he felt. His stomach rolled as the aroma from the rags enveloped him and he wanted to outside as quickly as possible.
The courtyard remained silent and empty. Chilly, too, at this early hour; in a couple of hours, the sun would rise and burn away the mist that presently shrouded everything in its eerie embrace. Xavier turned to his companion, watching him dress in the old garments with obvious distaste.
"Tomas," he sighed, "we must appear as poor travellers, not as people who are in a hurry to be somewhere else. Nor do we wish to appear as people trying to get away from somewhere in a hurry, for that matter."
Tomas finished with the ragged clothes and loaded the cart as per Xavier's request, wishing he'd performed the tasks in reverse, as the dreadful smell thickened the very air around them. Then the pair of them hastily wrapped the cartwheels with as many empty sacks as they thought necessary, securing them with twine, which Xavier had brought along with him. It was fiddly and awkward, but, finally, they felt they had done enough; after all, it was only supposed to be for muffling noises for a short distance. But if they all fell off within ten seconds it would be a waste of their time.
"Why did we not lay out a path of sacks, and gather them up afterwards?"
"That would take too long, and we can remain hidden in here while we work. What reason would we give for a carpet of sacks leading to the gate, should we be caught?"
Tomas shrugged, looking down at his slighter shorter friend. "We could have thought up a few excuses before if you had involved me sooner." What reason will we give if we are caught anyway? He thought to himself.
"Perhaps, but it is done now, let us waste no more time discussing matters, and be on our way, yes?"
There were many piles of grain sacks, and Xavier knew they would not be missed first; the missing cart would be obvious and the shortage of sacks not immediately apparent. It didn't matter if a few fell off; they simply had to make it out of the courtyard first. He would remove them again anyway, so as not leave a trail of them in their wake.
A couple of extra sacks would dampen the clip clop of the horse's hooves, until they were far enough to remove them for they would also slow them down if they became loose and started flapping about; a stumbling or fallen horse was not a good horse, and, aside from it slowing them the monks would not wish harm to the animals. He regretted that they could not have been more prepared the previous night, but the risk of being discovered was not one he had been prepared to chance.
Checking the courtyard again before pushing the two doors wide, he motioned for Tomas to help him pull the cart out. They would take the cart to the horses, rather than the reverse, as they wanted to make as little noise as possible.
"Help me with this." He instructed him, still whispering. "Take the other side; we'll hitch the horses nearer the gate. And keep to the stone, I don't wish to leave tracks in the damp grass." They crept outside, hauling the cart between them, periodically pausing to look and listen. It was not all that heavy, but the cobbles were moist and in a few places where they were uneven and protruding, it was difficult to maintain purchase on them while pulling it along, the sacks did not provide any sort of grip; instead, they made the going a little tougher.
Xavier did consider that it may have been easier to have hitched horses to the cart in the first place after all, or laid a path of sacks down, but wasn't about to admit this to the younger monk. They moved unhurriedly across the cobbles, making their way around the central grassy area, and gently set the cart down when they were close enough to the gate to still be able to manoeuvre the animals into position.
Xavier went to fetch the horses and Tomas followed to close the stable doors after them, but he neglected to fasten the latch properly; he was anxiously looking about the courtyard as he set it, and it did not occur to Xavier to check it before they departed, so neither realised that it was not locked. Perhaps, if it had been a windy day, Tomas would have paid more attention, and if he had not, then the door would have most likely banged and not only alerted the two absconding monks, but probably the whole monastery.
Tomas loaded water for themselves and the two Percherons once the cart was in place. They were an agile breed, mostly grey with black mottling, extremely clean limbed, powerful and docile. A favourite among those who could afford them, they were well muscled, and were employed for their intelligence and willingness to work. Tomas would have been horrified to learn that the French bred them to eat them.
A few minutes later, once they had silently negotiated the gate and crept past the gatehouse - even the horses had not made a sound - the two monks were on their way.
Tomas turned and looked back at the grand stone wall surrounding the entire structure behind which stood its cloister and chapter house, church and abbey, dormitory and library, kitchen and a refectory he would never again sit in for a meal; his home of nearly ten years. He could hardly believe how long he and Brother Xavier had been there, the time had flown by, and he watched until the blanket of early morning mist blurred and softened the edges, then swallowed the imposing stone structure behind them, outbuildings and all.
The place had been rebuilt since the Dissolution of the monasteries the previous century under King Henry VIII's rule, and Tomas wondered if he would ever set foot within its walls again. Both he and Xavier Barrientos were native Spaniards, but when Tomas was orphaned while still quite young, and there were no other relatives to adopt him, Xavier - well known and liked in the village - had taken him in. Then, when Tomas was seven, the pair moved to Italy, finally making their home in the Vatican City itself. Brother Xavier had informed Tomas many years previously that he and Pope Alexander had known each other for a considerable amount of time through their religion, they had been firm friends, not simply acquaintances, and the Pope had welcomed them both, insisting they make their home within the Holy City as soon as he knew they were in Rome. Xavier immediately took on the role of personal advisor, though he told Tomas that his friend already had men in positions of authority for the purpose of advising, and he suspected that perhaps Alexander had trusted only him, since many a discussion was held between the two of them before being put to the papal advisors, and not everything went further than the two friends.
Brother Xavier, his face naturally friendly, was now fifty four years old, his hair was grey and still as thick as in his youth, though traditionally cut. He was a little thicker round the middle with every passing year, and Tomas vowed that that would never happen to him.
Tomas was taller than his elder, his hair grew into a mess of dirty-blonde curls, which he willingly had cut because he thought they made him look a bit like a girl, and his pale blue eyes had a certain sadness about them, even when he smiled. On his next birthday, Tomas would be twenty one.
Staring intently now at the gate to his former home as they stole away, he expected dark figures to come galloping out of the gloom behind them, robes flapping, warm breath from the horses pluming then fading and, even after a few miles, he kept glancing nervously back, but they never came.
A few hours later, the monastery came to life far behind them. The two monks were not missed until evening prayers, as the inhabitants did not always take meals together. Someone went to the stables to feed the horses at sun-up, and, on finding the stable door open, and on further inspection two animals missing, assumed two horses had escaped somehow, but did not mention it until later, partly through fear of being blamed for not locking up properly the previous evening.
The missing cart would not have been noticed until the next market visit, but since the place was searched for the men after they were missed at prayers, they discovered it absent around the time the sun made its gloriously crimson decline toward the horizon. A cart, two horses and two brethren gone? Well it didn't take a genius to conclude the obvious, especially since the two horses, having 'escaped' the stables, apparently closed and fastened the main gate by the gatehouse behind them, before galloping off to their freedom.
The pair had made good their escape, it seemed, and began to relax as the miles increased beneath the cart wheels. Sometimes they found progress rather good, though they never pushed the horses hard; they did not want to exhaust them, other times, over the muddy and badly rutted parts of the road, the pace had to be a sensible for the safety of the horses, themselves and the wellbeing of the cart. If they lost the cart, they could still ride or walk. If they lost a horse, one alone could not pull a cart designed for two, and if they lost either man…
"I could not tell you of my intent," Brother Xavier explained a while later as they bumped steadily along. The sun rose at last, breaking through the clouds. "If we were caught before we could depart, you had to be completely innocent. I could have suffered my fate, but was not willing to involve you any further in the knowledge of my plan than I needed to. What you didn't know, you could not disclose. Even now, there is more to this, as you have guessed but been courteous not to enquire, and all will be revealed soon."
Tomas nodded and pursed his lips. His held his nose periodically; not yet accustomed to the stinky attire both men wore. He didn't actually believe he could possibly become accustomed to it, however.
"I just wish you could have refrained from your questions in the courtyard, though I appreciate your reserve at the time. Putting myself in your position, being woken up with a hand over my mouth and a packed bag thrown at me, I would have been both alarmed and curious, also."
"I understand, brother."
"You are the only one I can trust; there was no-one else."
"You could not have acted alone?"
"If such need should arise, you must continue the quest in my stead."
"But if we are both caught, neither of us can proceed."
"Then fate will decide for us."
Tomas eyed the older monk sideways. "You just wanted some company, didn't you?"
"Company?" Xavier cleared his throat and stared straight ahead. "Nonsense."
Tomas smiled to himself, and let the matter drop.
At lunchtime the pair stopped in a small market town and bought bread and cheese, and some liquid refreshment. They unhitched and tended the horses before settling under a tree by the river at the edge of the town.
Tomas chewed his food slowly, but Xavier, as usual, wolfed his as though he would never eat again.
"Why do you eat with such haste, brother?" Tomas asked him.
"You're not aware of it?"
"Not at all. Is it bothering you?"
Tomas laughed. "No, but you will suffer the wind later, my friend."
Xavier chuckled and finished his drink, then leaned back against the tree trunk, closing his eyes.
Tomas studied his friend's weathered face for a while. Where had the years gone? He thought about his time with Xavier, how the man had been like a father, a brother and a friend all at once, and he wasn't sure which of the three he was more of. He knew Xavier had not nodded off; his jaw was not yet slack. He wanted to ask what the purpose of their journey was before the snores came. What was so secret, even from him, that meant they'd had to sneak away so early, so quickly?
"Brother," he said softly. Xavier opened one eye. "What are we doing?"
The eye closed once more. "Well, I for one am getting some sleep. What are you doing?"
"That's not what I mean."
"I know. And I have already promised all will be revealed, so be patient."
"Can you tell me nothing?"
"Can, yes. Will? No. Get some rest if you need it, otherwise go for a stroll. Either way I wish to snooze. Please."
Tomas sighed and went to sit at the riverbank, casually tossing stones into the water. He knew Xavier would talk to him, but, as is normal when someone waves a carrot under your nose, he wanted answers now, and couldn't stop his mind from considering what possible reasons had them fleeing their home, or wondering what their destination would be. An hour later they were on their way again.
They stopped overnight at an inn in the northern part of Kent, then rose early and travelled into London on The Old Kent Road. They made their way west across Southwark, took a horse ferry over the somewhat smelly and detritus laden River Thames from Westminster to Lambeth, fed and watered the horses, and headed north with St. James' Park to their left, the river snaking upwards on their right. Tomas turned up his nose in disgust, and Xavier batted him on the arm, chuckling at his companion's discomfort.
Tomas had only ever been to London as a young boy, when Xavier had brought him to England on a boat from France; at that time merely passing through to reach the monastery he had called home up until the previous morning. The city, far noisier than he would ever have imagined, bore street sellers shouting their trade, riders on horses, gentlemen with armed escorts, children running around in boisterous groups, other carts like theirs trying to get through the bustle, and more than the occasional beggar badgering people for scraps or spare coins. Everyone jostling to get somewhere, and Tomas imagined how awful it must be at the height of summer; the thought of the waste covering the ground and the squash of unwashed bodies made him wrinkle his nose even more.
He had not counted on the stench; piles of horse dung littered the streets, filthy, often steaming, mounds of straw collected against walls and obstacles. Potty contents splattered the street on both sides. Xavier told him the residents threw it from the windows above them. Xavier smiled to himself as, from the corner of his eye, he saw Tomas look up at the higher levels of the buildings, and instinctively lean his way.
Though used to animal smells from those kept at the monastery, which they all tended daily, Tomas felt overwhelmed by the cloying fumes, and he wished for more movement of air in the narrow streets. The more he pulled faces, the more amused Xavier seemed to become.
They took frequent rests they during their entire journey for the benefit of the horses, rather than themselves, and occasionally, they would walk for the exercise, to keep the blood flowing properly and prevent stiffness in the joints. Not only that, but walking gave the monks a welcome break from the irregular movement of the cart as it negotiated the uneven road surface. In the city, a pile of decaying rags under an arch moved and grabbed Tomas by the ankle and he stumbled and cried out in shock. He shook his foot and the pile of rags called him something obscene, to Xavier's amusement. Tomas had to bend down and uncurl the cold bony fingers gripping his leg. Hours later he swore he could still feel the icy touch against his flesh.
By the end of the day, they gratefully stopped and spent another night at an inn eleven miles north of London in the little town of Idlestrey; modern day Elstree. They rose around five; the air of the countryside a welcome relief from the stink of London, and after making good, but casual progress, Brother Xavier and Friar Tomas arrived cart-weary at the edge of the village of St. Stephens, slightly south of St. Albans in Hartford Shire - latter day Hertfordshire - and pulled up outside the priory.
The latched gates at the foot of the driveway denied them entry to the grounds, so they stopped at the verge.
"Here we are, finally." Xavier scrunched his shoulder blades together and rotated his head, working out the kinks. He pushed his smelly hood back and ran his hands through his grey mop of hair, thinking back to a time when he had used a similar disguise as the material fell thickly around his shoulders.
Tomas looked at the priory, an expression of approval on his oval face. "It's certainly very appealing to one's eye." He commented, not only pushing back his hood, but quickly peeling the robe from his shoulders and flinging it over the back of the seat. He didn't dare sniff his shirt. Xavier had not let him know he could have, in fact, removed the aromatic garb a few miles further back.
Situated about a hundred yards to the rear of the house, the Norman church boasted a neat cemetery nestled up against the left side, gravestones of varying age and angle dotted the uneven grassed area.
Spring flowers sprinkled the graveyard haphazardly; those of the garden in front of the house looked somewhat more strategically placed, but not in any way formal. Statice was commonly grown, often being used as a remedy to treat dysentery and other common ailments, and the priory garden displayed large areas of these purple and white flowering plants, along with grape hyacinths and columbines of various height and colour, among many others; most of which familiar to Tomas.
A flagstone path wiggled its way to the front door, partially hidden beneath a rose covered wooden trellis style archway, and the roses were a way off from blooming yet.
"The original building has gone." Brother Xavier informed Tomas. "Well, some of the beams remain, but the wattle and daub mud and straw sides have been replaced with flint from Norfolk. That's east and north of here."
"I know where that is."
Xavier breathed a laugh. "'Course you do. You're a monk."
"Would it not have come from Berkshire? That is nearer."
"Perhaps, but Norfolk sounds more…exotic, don't you think?"
Tomas eyed his friend suspiciously, sensing he was being teased, but let it be.
Xavier eased himself to the ground, his legs a little wobbly at first, and stroked each horse in turn. As he rubbed the nose of one, and offered it some water from a pail from the back of the cart, he took a few deep breaths to help dispel the sleepiness that had begun to creep over him during the last few miles, and looked at Tomas, tending the other horse, having tethered the reins to the hitching post at the foot of the drive.
"I pray our welcome remains as warm as on previous occasions."
Tomas raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything. Xavier allowed the horses to finish drinking, and then the two men replaced the pails on the cart. Xavier patted the younger monk's arm reassuringly and smiled. "Smooth your hair down, you look like a ruffian."
Tomas stupidly looked up and Xavier laughed at him, shaking his head slightly. He turned and faced the cottage, and waved a hand by way of visual announcement.
"My cousin maintains the parish, as I am sure I've mentioned before now," he told Tomas. "I have not received word that he has moved on or passed away, so I have to assume that he is still here. We do not write often, but as children we were close friends, as well as cousins. He came to England as a young man as I did."
He began to walk toward the gate and then seemed to remember something, for he came back to Tomas, dreamily taking in the view around them. He rummaged around in the cart and pulled out their monastic robes. He shook the hay off and handed one to Tomas. The two of them changed out of the smelly rags as quickly as possible, undressing in the middle of the road being highly ungentlemanly, though positioning themselves carefully meant less opportunity for anyone to observe them.
The rolling hills with their abundance of cowslip and greater stitchwort bore a similarity to those of Kent, and Tomas felt a moment of home sickness as he took in the view. Across the road a small copse of midland and common hawthorn with one or two English elms bordered the verge, and he could see the beginnings of a carpet of nodding heads of bluebells around the bases of the trees. The unmistakable tap-tap of a woodpecker came from somewhere within the thicket. He inhaled slowly and deeply; the smell of the morning air an utter delight. Then his companion broke the spell.
"I should warn you," Xavier said quietly, his head low and close to Tomas, "he can talk the rump off a heifer." With a chuckle at Tomas' widening eyes, he turned back to the gate once more.
Brother Xavier's cousin, Peter, was indeed still the parishioner and welcomed the two men warmly, dismissing Xavier's apology for their unannounced intrusion with a huge smile and a flap of a thin, bony hand. Tall and thin, Peter had a long and narrow freckled face, thinning red hair and walked with a slight stoop, Tomas observed. His green eyes were bright and didn't seem to keep still for a second; Tomas wondered how the man did not make himself dizzy with all that jerky eye movement. It was making him dizzy just seeing it! A prominent nose drew the eye automatically, and big bushy eyebrows matching his hair colour didn't go unnoticed either.
Tomas followed behind as Peter enquired after Xavier's health, said it had been too long between visits, marvelled at how well he looked, and suggested a late breakfast immediately. A stable boy fetched the cart and horses, and took the two animals to food and shelter, and the three men settled by the small open fire in the parlour. Peter appeared genuinely pleased to see his younger cousin and asked many questions after they had eaten, all of which Xavier answered easily.
As time wore on, both guests became more desperate to cease the conversation and be allowed to wash away some of the smell from their disguise which Peter must surely have detected but had been too polite to mention perhaps. Either that, or his sense of smell had departed.
Tomas quickly grew tired of listening to the two older men reminiscing, and stifled a yawn. It didn't go unnoticed, and Peter suggested they both get some sleep, and apologised for how rude it had been of him not to offer rest sooner, he had been so thrilled with the company. He showed the pair to a guestroom, one in which Xavier had stayed on previous visits, promised them he would send up some hot water to the bathroom for them, and left them to it.
The room was not large, by any means, but adequate, boasting a bookcase - Tomas recognised many tomes on the stuffed shelves which had bowed slightly with the weight- there were two single cots, and a tiny table with a drawer between them beneath a central window. They disrobed in mutual silence, the clinging aroma from their tatty clothing irritating their noses, then both knelt and said prayers. After around five minutes, Tomas went to use the bathroom first, and on his return, Xavier appeared to be sleeping.
Tomas quietly lay down himself, then Xavier rose with a yawn, opened the door and padded softly across to the bathroom, discreetly looking to make sure Peter was not within earshot, and listening for sounds to indicate his cousin's whereabouts within the building. Muffled voices drifted up from below, and once back in the bedroom he took a book from the shelf and laid it on his bed, opening it somewhere in the middle.
Tomas had opened his eyes with a start when Xavier accidentally nudged his bed as he had taken the book from the shelf, and now he watched quietly from his supine position, the blanket pulled right up over his ear as he had expected to be going to sleep. He could not imagine what the older monk was up to; surely he felt tired, too? It looked as though he intended settling down with a book. He himself would not manage more than a few lines before sleep took him; perhaps Xavier was not tired after all.
Xavier rummaged in the robe he had laid at the foot of his bed, and retrieved something he hid behind his back as he turned. He knelt at Tomas' bedside and leaned in close. Tomas could smell the mint leaf residue Xavier had used on his teeth. Although already sensing his friend would speak quietly, he could hardly hear the words, even after removing the coverlet from over his ear.
"Tomas, for what you are about to witness, I must kill you." Xavier regarded him with a grave look, and Tomas recoiled, horrified. Xavier was going to murder him? For seeing him read a book? From the middle page? Ah, he realised, the something he took from his robe, the something now hidden from view…He was going to conceal that something in the book. So?
"But - but?"
Xavier reached up to him with one hand and Tomas nearly cried out. He should cry out! Why would his companion do this? No words came; his voice had abandoned him. Xavier smiled at him but, oddly, not in a cruel fashion as one might when about to end another's life. Tomas squeezed his eyes tightly, waiting, waiting, shaking his head, not believing this could be real...it was all happening too quickly, he didn't want to die, he was far too young, he could live somewhere far from Xavier, say he never met the man, anything...then Xavier ruffled his hair and laughed softly.
Tomas nearly passed out, his face white, and he exhaled noisily, opening his eyes wide.
"Only jesting." Xavier whispered, smiling.
Tomas remained speechless, blinking rapidly. Brother Xavier had been playing with him? He had not doubted that he had been about to die; he had previously seen monks die over ridiculously minor squabbles, but as the thoughts rushed through his mind in the microns of time it takes to think things, he wondered why he would die in a bed within a stranger's house.
No, there would be too many complications; how and when would Xavier have removed his body? The man was in his fifties, unfit. Granted, he could push a body down a flight of stairs, but moving it about? And even thinking of himself in the past tense was difficult. He had been 'jesting' with him? Well, he didn't find it funny, not funny at all, but still he could not find his voice to tell Xavier so.
"Tomas," Xavier barely whispered, both eyebrows up, "I actually need you to be aware of this concealment."
Tomas took a deep breath, visibly relaxed and nodded lamely, then hitched himself up onto one elbow. Xavier unconsciously leaned toward him again, and he pulled back automatically.
"I'm not going to hurt you, you daft oaf, relax. I need to get close so I can talk as quietly as possible."
Tomas nodded, a short, sharp bob of his head, and inched forward cautiously.
Xavier continued. "This document," he wiggled it in his right hand, "is extremely valuable. More valuable than all the gold in The Vatican."
The younger man's eyebrows shot up. Whatever could it be? A letter from Benedetto Odescalchi - Pope Innocent XI - to the new King, perhaps? James II who also held the title 'James VII of Scotland' had been crowned on 23rd April. Apparently a devout Roman Catholic, he'd already voiced his disdain for the protestant people. Perhaps the Pope meant to offer guidance. But if that were the case, what could possibly be their purpose here?
And why would Brother Xavier be in possession of it? How silly of me, he thought. He realised he had let his imagination run riot at the mention of the Vatican!
"Is it not from the Vatican?" Tomas asked warily, his curiosity growing.
"No," Xavier's deep set brown eyes glinted, "something profoundly more important."
"Something more important than, say, a document from the Pope?"
"Yes, Brother." Xavier nodded and smiled, showing perfectly aligned teeth, which Tomas only now actually noticed. "It is a script of great significance; the only one, I am aware, that exists. Tomorrow, we must scribe another copy and take it with us. We will make one more and hide the original here, and I need someone to know where the copies are hidden. The dark Lord seeks to destroy it as it will bring about his demise and humans cannot let that happen. Him finding it, that is, you understand."
Tomas listened in confused awe, his body frozen as his thoughts vied for attention. Humans? Why refer to us like that? Dark Lord? What Dark Lord? Oh no, no...Surely not? But that was nonsense…wasn't it? Local people were always making up stories to cover up the truth. They were killing each other on a regular basis, blaming supernatural beings for wanton murder.
You'd hear it all the time;
"It wasn't me", the guy found with blood covering him would plead, "it was a demon. I saw it, I was nearby when it happened and saw everything."
Yes, you were nearby, you were the one doing it, that's why you are covered in blood. "So where did the murderer go, then, if you were here and saw it happen?"
And the fellow with the bloodied clothes would randomly point and answer; "It flew that way".
Tomas frowned, slumped against his pillow, absently wiping a hand across his face. He closed his eyes a moment, trying to make sense of it…
…an old memory jabbed its toe in the backside of his mind. He reopened his eyes and shook his head slowly.
"No." He whispered. "It cannot be."
"You know of whom I speak." Brother Xavier nodded his head as the realisation showed in Tomas' eyes. He rose and retrieved the tome from his bed, showing Tomas the cover. "'Hamlet';" He read aloud. "'A play by William Shakespeare'. Remember the name, Tomas." He put the book back on top of the blankets. Unfolding the sheet of paper, he knelt close to Tomas once more, who sat up fully, his curiosity piqued.
"You recall the vampyres that came to the Vatican City when we lived in Rome?"
"I thought that was merely a rumour, folk trying to explain the plague?" Tomas knew alright, but was choosing his words carefully, unsure as to how much he should admit to remembering; even to Xavier.
"No, my dear boy, it was - is - completely real. As real as I sit here before you. They - the vampyres - wanted this scroll. At least," he muttered, looking at it now and pulling a face, "it was once a scroll. Not as easy to conceal as it is now. Anyway, ten years have now passed, and they were fooled into believing it had been transported to Vienna, then to Prague.
"In the meantime, another messenger reported that it had gone to the Wolf Lord in the Black Forest. The confusion and subterfuge proved successful. You were unaware at the time, deliberately so, but you and I transported it across the channel here to England. No-one suspected a poor man and his son, so we had safe passage across Europe."
Tomas nodded, remembering the long journey. "The smell?"
"Ah, the things we recall." Xavier chuckled quietly. "Of course we had to deter body searchers, just as we have done once more. If we smelled as bad as we looked, no-one would have any desire whatsoever to come anywhere near us, let alone touch us, to search us for anything of possible value. It took me weeks to get the smell of swine manure from my nostrils long after the residue had been cleansed away. I had actually concealed a pouch of gold under each armpit...but who would want to look there?"
Tomas smiled. Crafty old bugger. He had thought he'd embarrassed the Pope at the time, that Brother Xavier was taking him away to save him from terrible punishment, therefore he had remained absolutely silent the entire journey. And Xavier had let him continue to believe that right up until this moment. Xavier's ability to maintain secrecy for extended periods of time impressed him. He wondered if he had ever wanted to say something, and how difficult it had been, or perhaps it came naturally to him. No wonder pope Alexander had trusted him so implicitly.
Footsteps sounded on the hallway outside, beginning softly, becoming slightly louder, a board creaked - so; it still creaked, Xavier mused - the footsteps faded and the two monks heard a door close further along the landing. Both remained quiet until a few moments had passed.
"How to destroy a vampyre." Xavier whispered, continuing.
"Everyone knows that." Tomas whispered back.
Xavier's grey eyes gleamed. "To completely destroy one; for it never to rise again. Never to rejuvenate."
Tomas frowned, reciting what he'd learned. "Staking the heart with wood or silver, the body turns to dust. But retrieving the stake would allow the vampyre's mystical vitality to restore the body to the pre-slain condition. Especially if another vampyre aided it with his or her own ichor splashed onto those ashes."
"The pre-slain condition being that of a vampyre."
"Oh yes, not back to a human. So to completely destroy the creature, one had to expose them to sunlight and scatter the resulting ashes, or sever the head, then stake the heart and burn the two parts in separate places, then scatter the ashes - also separately."
"Precisely put, Tomas." Xavier praised the younger man. "Except that, and it is not widely known, but, vampyres can draw the ashes together and resurrect the fallen one. Usually an elder did this, being more powerful and all."
"No!" Tomas breathed, shaking his head. "Surely-" he faltered, realising that Xavier spoke the truth. He narrowed his eyes. "So…how-?"
Brother Xavier grinned and flapped the now folded scroll at him. "With this."
Tomas waited, blinked a couple of times. "That old thing I found years ago in the storeroom? Oh my."
"This," Xavier whispered, leaning even closer, "this old thing you found years ago in the storeroom; is the formula to slay the vampyres and their great Dark Lord. I received word from the Vatican that it is being sought, that soldiers were coming to the monastery to claim it and we must once again hide it."
A horrified look altered Tomas' face completely. "What of the brethren? Soldiers will destroy the place! They will burn it down!"
"Do not think I left them to their fate lightly; but I cannot risk this scroll falling into the wrong hands. I pray that God be with our companions."
"But how does anyone know where to look for it?"
"Evidently something has happened; either someone followed us, but the question then is why have so many years passed? Or else someone who should not have known we took it away with us, did in fact. And now they have spoken up; perhaps under duress, perhaps willingly for reward. Whatever the reason, we have our orders from the Holy City."
"I say we destroy it. Burn it. Be done with the accursed thing. Surely that is the best course of action?"
Xavier turned his gaze to the formula and rubbed the fingers of his free hand against his forehead.
Tomas laid a hand on his shoulder. "Destroy it, brother, please?"
Xavier lifted his eyes to meet Tomas'. "I cannot." He said simply.
"Then allow me to."
"My dear Tomas," Xavier sighed. "We must agree on its fate, or we must part company. I understand your reasoning, for I too, am fearful. But I must honour the trust given to me by the Pope and do his bidding. My old friend must have good reason for keeping such a thing as this, and that reason appears to have surfaced once again."
"I will follow you on one condition."
Xavier raised an eyebrow.
"We return to Italy on the morrow. Back to where this all started."
Hertfordshire, England. A Friday evening April 2030
Emily sat on the front door step as her elder sister emerged into the night, failing to see her.
"Going somewhere?" Emily called casually after her in her soft high voice.
Sophia turned sharply, scowling. "What are you doing? Spying on me?"
"If I were spying, I would have chosen an actual hiding place, wouldn't I?"
"Come with me if you have a problem." She spread her arms.
"I have no problem." Emily tucked a blond curl behind her ear. "I will not come with you, however, because I am not daft; I know what you're doing. And someone else might have a problem if you're found out."
"Whatever." Sophia flapped a hand at a smiling Emily, then she flitted down the driveway and disappeared from her sister's view.
Emily shook her head. Oh dear, she thought, you'd think she would give up after one year, never mind two centuries…or was it three..?
Sophia followed Jacen to the village as stealthily as she could. This time she would see precisely where he had been sneaking off to for the last few nights. And what on earth could be so important that he had headed out half an hour earlier tonight? And in such a hurry, too. What was he up to? Perhaps he had found a new hunting ground, but had neglected to share it; choosing instead to keep the prize for himself. That was unacceptable, indecent, and was once a punishable offence. You shared your hunting grounds, you didn't hide them.
She had come out alone on one of many hunting nights wandering ever nearer and nearer to Feldon Hall, and had spotted him through the trees after she had fed. She laid the dead animal gently against the base of the big old oak tree; nature would take over where she had finished. They always left their kills to appear as though they had died naturally, and she crouched by it for a moment savouring the taste of its blood before following her cousin.
She had seen the other members of the family here in these woods on countless occasions, and had not paid attention to them as it was perfectly normal for them to be there. But she had never allowed them to know of her presence there because she liked to watch Jacen, the object of her desire, and she simply liked looking at him whenever she could. He had made it clear she was not, and never would be, his object of desire, however, which tore at her heart all the more, but she simply couldn't help it. She couldn't stop herself from being near him whenever possible. And if he, or others of the family, did not know about her spying, he would not be upset, so she always observed him from a safe distance. If she saw her other cousin, Charles, she would move further away, for she certainly did not want him discovering her.
She had been following Jacen for a long time now, on and off over the years, but it occurred to her only recently that he strayed closer to the nearby village of Feldon with each passing night, and for the last three nights that she had been able to keep up with him, Charles spoiling more than one occasion, she'd seen him near the edge of the tree line, peering round a trunk at the buildings beyond. Three unoccupied houses and a public house lined the opposite side of the road. Sometimes Jacen stood further along, where the road curved away sharply into the village, lined with more buildings on either side. He stayed that way, looking forwards, for sometimes an hour, not moving, just standing and looking at something.
Sophia had not been able to get close enough to see precisely what had caught his attention, as he would have become aware of her proximity, and she would obviously not have a particularly good explanation as to why she was there, when her family had plenty of hunting ground around her own home. Jacen would know her reason for being there immediately.
She could come here during the day and stand in the same spots to try and ascertain his motive, but she could not risk any chance of being seen by the villagers. They had kept themselves secret from the community there all this time, and she didn't want to be the one who gave away their presence. Not only that, but the pub only opened at lunchtime and in the evening; she would be standing there seeing nothing.
Too long had he ignored her, too long had she wanted him, waited for him, changing her appearance and manner countless times, reinventing herself in order to find the one that would please him, make him want her as much as she wanted him. But to no avail, he remained utterly elusive, indifferent to both her subtle and not so subtle advances.
Perhaps she could exact some sort of revenge on him now, maybe tell the family of his snooping, the danger he was putting them in, then he might appreciate her more. Then again, he might hate her forever, and that simply wouldn't do. She could never live like that. Perhaps she ought to threaten him with it…that might work.
Tonight Sophia had waited until he had vanished beyond the perimeter wall of the mansion before taking up the same path through the trees for a few metres, then she veered to the right to take a parallel path. She could see him diagonally through the trees about four hundred metres away. Hopefully he would not have any idea she was behind him, and, by staying well back, he should not catch her scent. Once she caught him up, however, got close enough to spy more effectively, that would be more of a problem.
The night was cool and dry, and moonlight filtered down through the canopy of the woods when the clouds allowed it. An owl inhabited this wood, and she heard it now, heading off in search of food. Other animal noises travelled across the air to her, all perfectly normal, with no alarm in their nocturnal cries. She could make out the different scents of a fox somewhere nearby, and a badger further away. Vampires mostly tuned out smells unless they were tracking, or simply wanted to enjoy them.
Keeping her distance, and watching where she placed her feet for fear of him hearing any cracking of twigs and branches, Sophia suddenly realised that she'd lost sight of Jacen and momentarily panicked and found herself stuck right behind a large tree trunk. Though she took care where she trod, it wasn't always possible to be completely soundless, even as a vampire. Flitting and trying to keep tabs on Jacen might mean crashing into a tree and alerting him to her presence.
Where on earth had he gone? He'd only been ahead of her a moment ago…how had she lost him? Had he flitted away? Had he seen or heard her, maybe hiding behind a tree, ready for her to come past? She waited, slowing her breathing, trying to sniff him out on the steadily moving night air. Nothing. She daren't move, daren't step out from behind the trunk, but how else would she be able to look for him? She hoped that since she couldn't smell him, he had not smelled her.
Damn. Either he had made too much ground, or maybe he was in fact lying in wait for her; had realised she was tailing him. Damn. Surely she hadn't missed him, even gone right past him? She paused, peering nervously about through the semi-darkness, but could not find him. She contemplated climbing the tree, for that would allow her to remain unseen while she scanned the woods, then dismissed the thought.
To hell with it; if he had found her out, she would simply have to tell him the truth. Listening intently now, and scanning the surrounding woods as far she could see, she finally heard him again ahead of her. She cautiously peered around, then crept out from behind the large oak tree, and…saw him walking into a building! Sophia's eyes widened and her mouth hung open for a few beats. The pub, of all places. What was he up to? Their families never drank publicly, never mixed with humans so blatantly…what did he want there?
Since Sophia had been behind her tree at the time, she had not seen him surveying his surroundings before stepping across the road and approaching the entrance. She waited for the sound of the door to close, sneaked a quick peek in case it was a ruse, picked up her pace and waited at the edge of the woods. She made sure she was alone, listening for any approaching voices or footsteps, for someone could round the corner of the street at any time, and then she silently neared the structure in a blur. Now that a solid wall stood between them, Jacen should not be able to hear, smell or see her arrival.
And, through the window, she could spy on him. Was he really going to- to drink? She'd have to report this for certain. She would not be able to lie about this for him. I'll bribe him. Her thoughts raced as the possibilities arose and were dismissed, shelved for later, or elaborated on. Most thoughts centred round being used as ammunition against him.
She crept up to the window, knowing that, unless she pressed her face against the glass itself, no-one inside would see her peering in from the darkness outside. Still, she did not get too close; with enhanced senses, he only had to turn around by chance and see her.
She frowned, looking in from slightly to one side of the window, unable to believe her eyes as Jacen boldly walked to one end of the counter. He leaned over to talk to the bartender, a tall wiry man who looked to be in his fifties, with salt and pepper hair kept quite short at the back and sides, a mass of wiry curls covering the crown of his head beyond a high forehead. He peered over the top of his glasses, raising his thick eyebrows as the young man before him spoke, and though Sophia ought to have heard him, even if only barely, she heard nothing.
Her fine, fair eyebrows knitted together again, giving her normally soft features a rather harsh appearance. What was Jacen's business there? After a moment or two of blankly staring back at Jacen, the bartender simply nodded.
In the meantime, the smattering of customers had turned to stare, one or two beginning to rise from their seats; she saw Jacen in profile smiling at them, and the man, Sophia rightly guessed him to be the Landlord of the pub, raised a big hand and nodded at them, and they turned back to their seats and their conversations, ignoring the newcomer.
Then she saw it. His reason for coming here, for risking everything…to walk freely among them without restraint. Moving quickly, again in a blur, round the corner of the building to a side window, Sophia had a clear view down the length of the bar and saw a girl there with an empty glass in hand. She looked to be about her own age and she knew at once the purpose of Jacen's visit here.
Sophia sucked in a sharp breath as she angrily absorbed the visual information. She clenched her teeth and hissed through them. The girl on the other side of the glass looked roughly the same height and build as herself, and had long brown hair that curled slightly at the ends. She wore a pale blue long sleeved cotton top with three buttons at the scooped neck. Her trousers were black and of a casual style. Her black boots had a short heel and a fine silver chain with a miniature star hung round her neck. Sophia took all this in all in a matter of seconds, comparing the girl to herself, as women always do.
She had a nice face, a very nice face, in fact. Her blue-grey eyes being the most striking feature of her slightly oval face, she had good bone structure; a small straight nose, and not quite full lips. Sophia hated her immediately; felt heat rising from her chest, rapidly ascending her neck, burning her cheeks. Tears pricked and threatened, she fought them back lividly, hissing though her teeth a second time. She wanted to scream.
He was here for her.
The rage, that had been rapidly building as she took in every last detail of the human, finally surfaced and Sophia had to stop herself from charging round the building and knocking the door right off its hinges. Instead, she almost pulled the tiles off the window sill as her grip tightened on them. She discovered a loose one, ripped it out and threw it savagely into the woods behind her.
It clattered against a tree somewhere, but she barely noticed. She stayed there long enough to see the girl blankly staring at Jacen, frozen to the spot, the glass she was holding slipped from her grasp. Sophia had seen enough; she fled, a mixture of emotions coursing through her, unable to remain there a moment longer.
Absolutely rage boiled inside her, and a crushing sense of loss and sadness engulfed her as she comprehended the future without Jacen; how could she compete with that girl? She was so pretty! All these years she had known and loved him, and now these people, this girl, had moved here and all chance there may have been for Sophia was lost, she knew. Though she wanted nothing more than to get her revenge on him immediately, a stubborn, rational part of her conscience told her she would not yet mention this to anyone. She would have to wait.
She could, of course, simply inform both families right now what she had witnessed and send a whole heap of trouble his way. But she knew she would lose him forever if she did, that there would be no taking it back. And it was far more likely that she, Sophia, came off worse at the end. She stamped through the woods, breathing heavily, her heart hammering against her ribs.
Was it more upsetting to see him but not to have him, or never to see him again? Neither option was better than the other. She crashed through the undergrowth; small animals of the night scattering before her, each step becoming faster than the last one, if that were at all possible, as she sped away.
As she neared the far side of the trees, she slowed to walking, then stopped and threw her head back, drawing deep calming breaths; though they did not help to calm her, angry as she was. She remained that way for a few furious moments, staring up at the black sky through the tops of the trees, thinking fast and furiously. At last she came to the conclusion that she had to be sensible, bide her time and see how things played out. There may yet be a way to turn this whole thing to her advantage; a way to make him hers. But even as she thought it, she knew it was highly unlikely.
She closed her eyes briefly, looked back at the ground, bending to retrieve a fallen bough. She picked up her pace once more as she stormed back through the remainder of the woods. She dragged the huge bough right back to the estate, pausing only to throw it into the middle of the lake on the way, having made a slight deviation of the route to get there. It made a satisfying splash, and she turned and headed for her home a couple of miles beyond the Malcovic's mansion.
Damn her, whoever she was.
She spied Emily still seated at the front door step on her return and paused. Go past her or avoid her? The mood she was in she didn't want more sarcasm from her baby sister that would only serve to enrage her further. She skirted the grounds and took the back way in, hoping not to pass anyone else, either. Back in her room, she seethed nearly the entire night, unable to get what she'd seen out of her head.