“Siofra”: The First Two Chapters

This is a special sneak-preview of the first two chapters of the first book in The Sumaire Web, “Siofra”. If you like it, please consider purchasing it on www.amazon.com or www.smashwords.com . Save a tree. Buy an e-book!

Siofra

By Anna Rose

Siofra.  Copyright © 2012 by Anna Rose

Cover Art Copyright © 2011 Anna Rose

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With Deepest Thanks

Let’s face it.  Books don’t write themselves and trying to do everything yourself, from writing to research to editing really isn’t particularly wise or even feasible.  Having the best support system in the world makes all the difference.  So…

Katherine, Tammy, CM, NJAM, LRB and Alice, you each helped make this book possible in your own way. Thank you for putting up with me during the course of writing this novel as I looked for inspiration.  You all have graciously offered your beta’ing services, feedback and sometimes, just a big fat kick in the backside to get me writing again, at any hour of the day and night.  You rock!

Author’s Note

Readers beware.  This isn’t your standard modern vampire story.

I wanted to create something different from what is currently being offered on the paranormal fiction market, ss there seems to be an awful lot of the same kind of stuff out there right now.  When people have heard that I am writing a vampire novel, it is obvious that they envision impossibly beautiful, soulful monk-type male vampires and the heaving bosoms of the human women who discover what they are and fall madly in love with them.  Thus, the next thing I find myself doing is explaining that my writing and my protagonists are not like that.

I like fully fleshed out characters that are more than two dimensional creations.  My characters have lives (or unlives) during which they have experienced love, hate, tragedy, sadness, happiness and more.  When you write the same characters long enough, they are going to evolve, just as living real life people like you and me do.  In the best series, characters are not static.  As they experience the fate their creators put before them in each short story or novel in which they appear, they learn and grow.  Hopefully, this will make them into better people and thus more interesting characters to follow.

So, if you are looking for doomed love, slobbering romance or eternal teenagers in rut, you’re not going to find it here.  Not everyone out there is trying to find a mate, nor are they necessarily looking to be “saved” from their current existence.  They may enjoy who and what they are.  Why would they want that to change?

As a bit of a heads up, the sun is not an issue for my vampires.  Like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, my vampires are able to walk in the daylight.  If you doubt me, read it sometime – and we are talking the literary “Dracula”, not the old 1930’s theatrical version.  Murnau’s classic silent film, “Nosferatu” which starred German actor Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlock, introduced the idea of sunlight destroying vampires.

Oh, and contrary to what you currently see on the small(ish) screen, no self-respecting vampire is going to stay in the same place for ten years straight, much less forty or fifty years, or even keep the same name through the years, unless they’re a few pints short of a blood bank.  The next time I hear or see that “guess I have good genes” excuse for looking perpetually young, I am going to scream.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do very much enjoy reading authors such as Laurell K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, P.N. Elrod and the like.  I enjoy their characters and the stories they tell.  However, those are their stories, as mine are my own.  We all have our own ideas about what we want to write and the characters we use to tell those stories.  One thing we do seem to have in common is that we all appear to like to write strong female characters and do not have them swooning helplessly in a corner somewhere while their supernatural fanged hero comes along to rescue them.

In the end, I hope that you the reader will enjoy reading my stories as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

I do apologize for how long this “note” has become, but you may be able to tell that I feel strongly about the subject of vampires and the supernatural.

Chapter One

I held him close, looking for all the world like a mother…or even a lover. If it were not for certain rather glaringly obvious elements of this particularly touching scene, it might not generate further suspicion from passersby, thus I was glad that this was a fairly well abandoned area at this time of night. I absently stroked the man’s back and rocked back and forth, his head still clutched close to my chest as I hummed tunelessly; a deranged lullaby to accompany the poor bastard into his terminal sleep.

My meal had been fairly light tonight, as he had already lost a considerable amount of blood by the time I found him.  I had been drawn to him by the faint sound of his moans and the salty-sweet aroma of his blood that was carried on the faint breeze.  His murderer was already long gone, which was a shame, as I could have feasted on that one without being self-conscious about it in the least. I certainly would not be spending these, his last few moments on the earthly plane, waiting until he passed beyond the Veil.  What a shame, as I would have to settle for what was available.

These days, I do try to feed on the human stains of society as much as possible, but I have not always been so careful in my dining.  There was a time when my choices were so limited that I was unable to pick and choose who would make my unfortunate acquaintance.  Yes, my conscience would often prick me as I fed on a father, son, daughter or an innocent lover, after  bringing him to the very height of excitement, when the heart pounds and blood rushes throughout the body in anticipation of the release to come.

As I am unable to be quite so carefree in this part of the world, my appetite is rarely sated, but I would like to think that I am cleaning up the streets a bit during those times when I take the worst of the city’s criminals out of the picture.

It is very easy when first you wake to darkness, as it were, to loudly proclaim that you will only feed on the scum of the earth.  High ideals and all that are supposed to make us better people.   In practice, however, such nobility often finds itself being quietly swept under the rug as cruel necessity knocks us alongside our heads and points out that the grim reality of our existence is far harsher.

“Angels we may wish to be, but that we are actually demons is our only reality.  To love a vampire is to love a predator.  To love a human is to love your prey.  Neither situation will end well when the hunger rises and one is left with no choice,” I muttered the words under my breath.  I had been taught that litany by a vampire I met during my time in Colonial-era though pre-revolutionary America.  I had found it to be a painful truth.

Lub dub.

It was the hollow sound of the fluttering of his heart as it struggled to keep beating.  One of the sounds that had alerted me to his presence in the first place, much as a hunting shark in the ocean is drawn to the splashing sounds of a wounded creature’s distress.  A symbol of how hard the human race has fought to survive against the bleakest adversity, even when so-called common sense might say that it is a completely lost cause.  One cannot help but admire that kind of blind determination and stubborn tenacity.

But then, as has been said since even before I was an infant human child, beggars cannot be choosers; so there I was, feeding from some guy who smelled of clean skin, fresh clothes and some particularly nice smelling cologne that I am certain had not been cheap.  This clearly was no child of the streets, and for some reason, his senseless death offended me, even if it did mean I would finally be able to feed.

It certainly was not like it had been in the old days, when, if one were financially fortunate, (or at an established and well run Haven),  you could essentially visit the equivalent of a larder full of food, and safely close at hand, much like human farmers keep livestock.  Those humans had grown accustomed to periodic “milking” as it were, in exchange for good treatment and in the case of modern Havens, a well-endowed retirement plan.  Humans who served in Havens were often legacies, having been brought up in the culture, so they understood the need for complete discretion.  They also knew the particularly draconian penalty for revealing secrets, so they were much less likely to blindly do so, as it not only affected them but any living ancestor or child of theirs.

If one were not quite so fortunate, you could hunt your prey as needed and then leave the remains for the local carnivores, carrion birds and insects.  With few exceptions, that particular way of surviving was no longer open to the majority of vampires.  Such was the case with being an Old World creature existing in modern times.

Lub dub.

Now, much of the world is not what it once was, and it is entirely too easy to be found out if you are not careful.  Feeding has certain unchanging requirements and contrary to what one sees on television and in the movies, the advent of refrigeration has not been a particular boon for my kind.  For example, blood needs to be consumed while still fresh and hot from a living human body.  There are no other options.  The common media conceit of blood stored in wine bottles in the refrigerator just is not possible, no matter how poetic and romantic it might appear to be.

Once it leaves its natural human container, the blood has already begun to putrefy, and is thus useless for me and my kind, and if you did not already know, blood bank bags contain an additive solution to retard clotting.  It would indeed be nice to have that option, and when blood banks had first been created, many vampires had rushed to experiment, but very shortly thereafter found their bodies rather gruesomely rejecting what they had just ingested. Bagged blood might be perfect for sick humans in the hospital who are a pint or two low, but not for someone like me.  You have to know something about vampire biology (or would that be necrology, as we’re not actually alive?) to understand how awful it can be to ingest “dead”, otherwise adulterated or even nonhuman blood.  You would actually have to be fairly desperate or deranged even to contemplate drinking nonhuman blood, as animals do not register as a food source to vampiric senses.

It really is quite surprising that vampires have remained hidden for this long. Yes, we do occasionally make human connections and the very rare friendship, but those are scarce as hen’s teeth. I haven’t had a human I could truly call “friend” in perhaps the last hundred years, and the sum total I could boast for my entire existence as a vampire could be counted on the fingers of one hand with some left over for rude gestures. Vampire friendships are more actions of necessity, and tend to be more strong acquaintance than anything else.  Yes, we do share a common condition, but vampires tend instinctively to be fairly selfish creatures where other vampires are concerned and seem to stay in close quarters only as long as is absolutely necessary.  One such situation is when a vampire has brought a mortal over and that Maker keeps their Child under their guidance and protection.  In this relationship, the young one learns about what they are and the blessings and limitations it places upon them in a relatively safe atmosphere.  Finally, some long-term vampire partnerships that border on marriage do thrive, but I know of only two that still exist.

Lub dub.

As it is, the majority of my kind by necessity has become solitary and far-flung in an effort to avoid overtaxing a particular area.  In the unlikely event that we meet another of our kind, we are careful to ask permission to hunt, if we are in a position where we have no choice, as long-standing vampire custom of the past one hundred fifty years or so allows one vampire to kill another who poaches.  Once in a very great while, if and when one of my kind becomes thoughtless in their actions, one or two of us will come together to bring an end to the wildling before causing irreparable harm.  I had participated in two such adventures over the centuries.  It is not something that is at all easy to do.  You are still ending someone; even though it is ultimately for the greater good and the safety of all, both vampire and human.  Think of Jack the Ripper.

Yes, him.

The cutting was all about misdirection on his part, but he was attracting far too much attention.  Thus, the greater vampire community had been forced to come together in order to permanently resolve the situation.

You might be interested to know that contrary to popular belief, “Jack” was not a royal.  Well, at least, not a contemporary one for the time.  Moreover, I am not going to tell you to which royal House he belonged.  I doubt you would recognize the name, anyway.

Lub dub.

I do not often do any real hunting anymore, having become more of a scavenger in a part of the world that has grown much too scientifically and forensically sophisticated for me to be careless.  Thus, I have learned to avoid leaving evidence of my existence.  I am not always successful, and that has sometimes led to some rather interesting sounding cold cases, but that has the exception, rather than the rule.

This time, after using the remains of his shirt to carefully brush away as much gun powder residue from the area as I could (for the record, cordite tastes like crap), I placed my mouth over the puncture wound.   The man’s thoracic artery, damaged in the attack, was leaking large amounts of blood, so it was the natural place for me to feed.  I angled his body so the wound was lower than his legs, then sucked gently to avoid damaging the skin any more than was necessary, using gravity as much as possible to ease the flow of his blood.  Though it was not much, even with the use of simple physics, I eagerly swallowed what bubbled forth, being very careful not to allow my fangs to tear his skin.

He was too far gone for me to have bothered to get him any medical attention, the congealing blood that lined the gutter for several dozen feet before pouring into a storm drain mute witness to the futility of any such attempt.  I could hear the sound of vermin approaching, already attracted to the scene by the scent of all that exposed and now wasted blood.  To the rodents and the feral cats and dogs in the area, I just smelled like another predator, certainly not human, so beyond a natural wariness on their part, my presence would not be enough to keep them away.  Humans, they seem to have learned, would try to kill them, whereas another predator would be more interested in defending its share of the bounty so near to hand., but would not necessarily attempt to kill any challenges.

Once I had drunk all that I was able without resorting to obviously damaging the body, I was as you found me at the start of this narrative, cradling the man in my arms and watching over him as his heart made its final weak thumps and then subsided into the inevitability of his own death.  He had lost consciousness sometime before I would found him, so he might not even have known that someone was with him as he passed from this world into the next, but I could not justify leaving him before I knew him to be completely gone.  When the time came where everything that made this man the person he had been was gone, and the body nothing more than a lump of decomposing flesh, I could leave it to the elements and those who were still able to make use of what remained.

Lub…dub.

His heartbeat was becoming weaker, and I knew there was but little time left for him on this earth.  He should have died already from blood loss, but for some reason, he hung onto whatever remained of his life as tenaciously as a Jack Russell terrier does a rat.  Was his mind already gone from lack of oxygen?  Was his spirit floating overhead, watching all that transpired below him, and waiting for that fabled White Light to appear to guide him on his way?  I surely was not in any position to know.

I could see from looking at the exposed skin on his arms that life had not been easy for him, for one reason or another.  The scars of countless needle punctures marred the inside of his elbow and he had not been too healthy before the shooting that had ultimately ended his life.  Fortunately, my own condition kept me safe from anything he might have harbored, as there was not a living thing within me to nourish or otherwise nurture the vile microbes that currently plagued the human race.  I had tasted disease in his blood, not drug abuse, so the old needle marks were probably from whatever diagnosis and treatment he had gotten for it.  Perhaps that strength and tenacity that kept him alive now was what had helped him survive his illness, though I could taste that his illness was still in the process of killing him.

I could feel my body responding to what little moisture it had been able to absorb, so I knew there was a better chance that I could pass in human company without garnering unwanted attention. The longer I had gone without giving in to my growing hunger, the more my flesh had begun to dehydrate; however, I was currently in a place where random hunting and feeding was not at all a safe thing to do. Thus, I had had to conceal myself from human eyes for the past week or so, as my skin had begun to draw tightly over the bones of my face, giving it a skull-like appearance.  To be honest, my most recent feeding would not make me appear hale and hearty, but I certainly had less of a chance of frightening innocent passersby.  Those to whom I was to speak were lead to believe that I was seriously ill.  It just does not do to tell them “why, I’m a starving vampire!” when one’s health is asked after.  People tend to rush away all wild-eyed, believing you are a dangerous lunatic.

Lub dub.

Two weeks was really entirely too long for a vampire to go without feeding if one wanted to continue to blend in, and I knew it was time to find another place, preferably a less technologically blessed location than North America.  Maybe even one of the more violent countries in the world, where sudden death was far more common for a larger portion of the population and disappearances elicited little curiosity overall beyond immediate family members.  In fact, I preferred quieter world locations.

I mean, who would not?  However, probably since the time of the first vampire, my kind have always had a much easier time surviving during periods of violent civil disturbance.  Vampires still tend to gather in larger concentrations in places like the Middle East, where violence, sadly, seems to be a part of daily life.  Peace has a habit of leading to famine, in my not inconsequential lifetime.  I do appreciate and certainly understand the blessings it brings; however, vampires tend to do poorly when it occurs.

“Kathy…” the first thing I had heard him say since I arrived, a whisper so soft only I could hear him.  His face screwed up in a kind of pain I truly think had nothing to do with his injuries or the results of my feeding.  I saw sadness and regret so raw that I could almost feel it, myself.  I leaned in closer, in case he had something else to say, but my over four centuries of experience told me that I would be disappointed.

“Rest, child.  Your reward is waiting for you,” I told him, not knowing if he could even hear me.  Although he technically was older than I was, as he seemed about thirty mortal years old to my eternal nineteen, anyone currently living would forever be a child to me.  “Your Kathy wouldn’t want you to suffer, lad.”

Lub…dub

Perhaps he had heard me, after all and maybe I had been able to give him a measure of peace at the last, because I saw a satisfied smile flirt across his face.  I could feel his blood, what there was of it, seeping toward the most dehydrated parts of my body and felt gratitude for what he had given me because of his impending death.

“Thank you,” I murmured to him.

He had an interesting face, with features that, if taken alone, were not particularly attractive, but put them together and it made for a beautiful face.  I could see the crinkle of laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, how the edges of his mouth curved upward in the suggestion of a smile.  Even as death approached, good-natured mischief constantly showed within his expression. Unconsciously, I smiled back at him, though I knew his eyes were shut and he was unable to see me.

I slowly ran my hand down the slowly cooling flesh of his strong jawline, feeling the almost invisible stubble that was there, my thumb coming to rest on the indentation on his chin.  The cleft was not as strong as the one on a particularly popular mid to late twentieth century movie actor, but close enough for government work.  This had been someone who caught the eye when he passed by.

Despite his illness, this human had been well fed and showed none of the signs of exposure that so many of the homeless seemed to display.  A cursory examination of his teeth revealed all his natural teeth still resident and in excellent condition, with only a filling or two to indicate regular dental care.  There was every chance that someone would end up missing him in very short order.  Perhaps that someone would be this “Kathy” person to whom he had called out with one of his very last breaths.

Lub…dub

Not for the first time during moments such as this, I wondered if his parents were still alive, if he were married, if he had kids.  It is not as though I am the vampire version of the hooker with a heart of gold, famous in myth, song and other media.  I have to feed and have no desire to embrace the true death, so ending myself just is not in the cards.  I can and do wonder, though, about those upon whom I feed.  Were they someone who had already or might one day have made great discoveries or someone who would bring into the world someone who would accomplish great deeds…and did that really matter now?  What is done is done, and you cannot change the past, as much as you might like to do just that.

“Who are you and why were you in this alley?” I asked him.  “What was so important that you went to the dangerous part of town and got yourself killed?  Will your family miss you?  Do they know where you’ve gone?”

It has been so long now that I can barely remember my own family.  Yes, there are tiny bits and pieces of my childhood that will dance across the surface of my memory, but not unlike the will o’ the wisp, they are nearly impossible to grab hold of to examine more closely.  They are like snapshots in a photo album full of random photographs: moments caught without real context or framing.  I remember more of the few years before I was turned than I do my childhood. Of course, part of the reason for that was because of the disputes between Roman Catholic Ireland and Anglican Catholic England.

The lives of many of the people around me ultimately seem to be as fleeting as the life expectancy of a piece of flash paper to which a match has been applied.  I do not dare get too attached to any of them, as it hurts too much to watch them age and die, while I stay the same as I have been for the past several hundred years, except that now I am one of the palest Irish women you will probably ever see.

Lub…

Chapter Two

I was born sometime around the year 1620, but I do not have a specific date.  I believe I was somewhere around thirteen years old at the time.  I grew up somewhere east of Iveragh, near the eastern shore of Ireland.  Keep in mind that I only have recorded history to use as a timeline.  They were, as the Chinese have long reckoned such things, “interesting times”, so at least I have something to use as a rude measure of sorts.  By the way, that phrase does not mean anything good, but instead reminds one that things that are “interesting” enough to hit the history books generally involve bad situations. Why else would they be interesting to others?

I know that I was turned sometime just before the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when the good Roman Catholics of Ireland tried once again to wrest control of our country from the Protestant English.  Even in the twenty first century, things are still tense between certain groups of people.  Ah, religion has played a big hand in the shaping of our world, has it not?

I remember the nickname my mother gave me, Siofra, rather than my birth name.  Siofra is the Gaelic for “elf”. In my mother’s case, it was, perhaps, a reference to my frequently unladylike childhood antics and mischief.  Perhaps she considered me a changeling, but at this late date, I will never know.

“Siofra!  Get yourself down from that boulder, grab this crock and go help your brother with the milking!” was a common refrain in the evenings while I was growing up.  It was not that I deliberately shirked my chores, more that I loved watching the sun as it began to set and changed the colors in the sky.  I knew from stories my mother had told me that there were people who actually painted beautiful representations of both sunrises and sunsets, but had never seen such artwork, myself.

My current surname, Bothran, is a veiled reference to my favorite instrument, the bodhrán, a kind of drum.  At this point in time, I do not clearly remember the surname with which I was born, but it seems as though Ó Sé would be close.  Even with that vague information, however, I would not be so stupid as to keep exactly the same name through the centuries. I generally change it every decade or two.  Of course, these days, I never stay in one location for longer than a decade or so before moving on.

When I was a child, there was no such thing as an idyllic childhood for someone from my station in life.  There were no nurses, no governesses, and no afternoon tea.  You had two meals a day if you were lucky, but oftentimes you only had a morning meal and would eat again the next morning.

Children were expected to work from an early age, helping to support themselves and the entire family, and complaining about it would never have been tolerated.  I think it might even have been unthinkable, unlike with the whiny, lazy kids of today who cannot be bothered to clean their rooms without drama and angst, much less pick rock and weeds from a field full of turnips and cabbages.  When I was about three years old, I put to work picking rock out of my mother’s kitchen garden, as it was easy to discern a rock from something edible easily, even to a relative toddler.

I still chuckle a bit knowing that gardens do indeed sometimes seem to grow rocks in addition to actual food.  It never seemed as though we managed to pick all the rocks out of the kitchen garden or the field.  There were always more to throw onto the pile.  One day, you would have spent the hours between dawn and dusk moving inconvenient rocks from the field to the stone pile and the next morning, you would come back to the field to discover more had apparently magically sprouted overnight.  Father was convinced that the Fae were behind it, but try as he might, he was never able to catch them at their mischief.

 I do recall that when my chores for the day were finished, I could often be found in the branches of the tallest oak tree near our family’s farmhouse, an old building constructed of stone with a thatch roof.  I would clamber up into its welcoming branches at every opportunity, gathering acorns while I was up there, tucking them into the deep pockets of my apron, so often mended that it was more patch than apron, for safety.  Coming home with an apron full of acorns, or if the season was right, a double handful of elderberries, would often keep my mother from beating me quite so harshly for my tomboyish antics.

My parents had been Irish peasants who worked a few acres of land for a great lord, in exchange for a portion of the harvest and I was the pre-teen daughter who was sold off to that lord after a hard year that had yielded poor crops.  Rents were owed and there was no money and no produce to pay those rents, so I became the payment.  My family did not own the land, but my father had no skills that would have made him valuable in a village, so he was forced to make his own living any way he could.  His own father had tilled this same land in his day, so my father took up his own plow, rake and hoe and did the same when his father became too old to do it himself.

My paternal Grandfather and Grandmother were buried on a corner of the acreage in a plot surrounded by some of the very same stones that had been plucked from the fields over the years.  I still remember that my Grandfather would dandle me on his knee and sing bright cheerful songs in my ear.  He had died suddenly one day, not too long after my Grandmother passed.  It was as though the life had gone out of him when she died and he lost his will to live without her any longer.  I believe that theirs was a love match, rather than something that had been arranged between their parents, and while they were alive, things were happier in my whole family.  Some of that love I felt for him is still inside me, though I keep it bottled up tightly.

I remember having at least one brother, if not two.  I remember hearing the name Sean or Shane, but I am not sure which.  I do not believe that those were the names of two boys, which would mean that if I did have a second brother, I have no clue what he would have been called.

Sons who could assist their father in tilling the land were far more important to a peasant family than a mere female child who must be closely monitored to be sure she remained chaste until a suitable marriage contract could be arranged.  There were far too many daughters amongst the peasant families on the lands surrounding our allotment, so making such an arrangement, as poor as my family was, was very unlikely.  At my age, I was more a burden than a blessing, so I know he deeply resented my remaining at his table as just another mouth to feed.

“Send her to the Abbess,” he even suggested one night when the table had been nearly bare for the fourth time in a week.  When I was turned away at the gate because the Abbess required payment to take me into the convent, I had been bundled back home.  That was when my sleeping arrangements had changed to the point that I slept with the dogs.

My father had refused to part with anything he truly valued when the steward showed up to collect the delinquent annual rents, instead offering me up as a drudge for the lord’s house.  I am certain that he saw this as some Divinely granted opportunity to be rid of me.  The last memory I have of my parents is Mam’s face streaked with tears as I was torn from her grasp by my father and very nearly flung over the horse’s backside like a sack of potatoes.  As the steward yanked his nag’s head around to return to the lord’s manse, I saw my Da give me a piercing, unfriendly look, and then turn away to tend to his rusting scythe.  Apparently, my leaving was inconveniencing him and I remember having the fleeting impression that somehow, he saw all of this as being my fault, which was odd as he did not want me around anyway.

Once we were out of sight of my family’s small farm, the steward, whom I later learned was called Seth, stopped his horse and rather surprisingly to me, gently pulled me up to ride pillion behind him.  To my profound embarrassment, my stomach ventured an opinion of its currently empty state and broke the uneasy silence, to which the steward raised a questioning eyebrow.

The man said not a word, continuing to adjust his and my seats until I straddled the horse’s posterior in a much less precarious fashion.  He directed me to grab hold of his belt and hook my fingers into it from the top.  It gave me a much better sense of balance, so I did not argue.

Once he knew I was secure in my seat, he reached into his leather purse and pulled out a ragged cloth which, when untied, revealed a hunk of hard dark bread.  He broke the compact but very dense travel loaf into two pieces of a reasonably equal size and then handed some to me, before clucking to his horse and continuing our journey at an easy walk.  He had been kind enough to be sure I sat atop the bit of horse blanket which protruded from beneath the saddle, so my own rear end was saved from painful congress with the horse’s bony spine.

Being no fool and wanting to prevent further gastronomic conversation, I jammed the bread into my mouth and let my saliva moisten it a bit before I was finally able to choke it down with a mouthful of watered wine from his battered but still quite serviceable wineskin.  Food was food, and to waste it was insult to, if not the gods themselves, the cook who had prepared it.  I had learned to eat food that was barely this side of edible during the past couple seasons, as the best was generally saved for my father and brothers, who did the majority of the heavy work on our small holding.  These meager offerings were magnificent, compared to some meals I had been forced to eat or starve for stubbornness.  The bread was followed by a small piece of dried meat and another swallow from the skin.

There are times that I think I can recall what regular human food tastes like, but then I realize that so much time has gone by that I could not possibly remember that far back.  I seem to recall that that small bit of dark bread tasted like heaven itself to tastebuds accustomed to even plainer fare.  The dried meat itself was a treat, as it had been soaked in a wonderfully salty brine solution before being set out to dry in the heat of the day.  I remember teasing out every last bit of salt I could from its fibers before I finally swallowed it.  I know that the scent of cooked human food makes my stomach turn a bit now that I am a vampire, and so I avoid being near it if I can at all manage that.   That said, I do know that while I was still living, I certainly enjoyed it and that I had a particular fondness for the flavor and texture of meat, beef in particular, though I ate that rarely.

“You seem a strong girl.  No tears from you, I see,” Seth commented almost conversationally as we rode, reaching back and patting my leg with an encouraging tone in his voice.  “I am sure a place can be found for you at the manse.  I can promise you a full stomach every day and your own pallet on which to sleep.”

I know now that he was trying to be kind and set my heart at ease, but at the time, all I knew was that I was being ripped from the only life I had known and pressed into a life of service with only strangers to keep me company.  Sheer stubbornness on my part kept me from dissolving in tears at all of this.  I was not going to show fear in front of a stranger.

“I am not afraid of anything,” I lied, as much to myself as to him.  I am sure he knew it was a falsehood, but he did not remark on it, instead we rode the rest of the way in an uneasy silence.

Once at the manse, I do not recall ever being called by name by anyone other than the steward, and even that was my nickname.  Perhaps it was part of the process of completely separating me emotionally from my family and tying me to my new home and master.

I remember being called by epithets both crude and passing polite; however, I was a non-entity, little more than a drudge.  Unless one was family, one did not normally have close relationships in that household.  I am sure that Seth knew my given name.  I know that because he kept the household records, but even he generally called me “girl” or “child”.  He had introduced me to the other servants by name, but they, too, all quickly fell to using diminutives and easy nicknames when dealing with me.  I suppose it was easier for them to do so.

I spent most of my days scrubbing out whatever happened to need cleaning at any given time.  The one time I had been foolish enough to let myself be seen in the hall by the mistress of the manse, I had been beaten so badly that I could not rise from my pallet in the stable for a few days.  After that great mistake on my part, I remained below stairs as much as possible and kept to the shadows, learning to hide myself quickly whenever I heard voices or footsteps nearby.

In those days, you grew up young or you would end up dying young.  This was true for all layers of a society that betrothed infants and married daughters off shortly after they had their first period.  Childhood was not really “invented” until the late latter half of the 19th century in the United States.  I was not from the class where infant betrothal would be an issue; however, once I physically became a woman, there was every chance I would be married off to one of the other household servants and any children I might bear as a result becoming yet another commodity for the lord of the house.

Marrying for love was something else that really had not been invented yet, not that I was swooning over anyone on the master’s grounds or that any of them was courting me.  Of course, I was not doing anything to make myself more attractive, either.  I had one ragged gown that I wore all the time, even while sleeping, and at the time, bathing was a suspect thing.  Therefore, beyond periodically washing my face and pulling a comb through the knots in my hair and then once again tying it into a rude bun at the back of my head, there was not much to recommend me.  One of the stable boys had once attempted to rape me, but a swift knee to his nether regions quickly distracted him from his original purpose, and from that time on, I did my best to avoid being alone with him.

It was as the steward had promised.  I never hungered for long, as the kitchen always seemed to present more food than even the fat lord, his vast family and sycophants could ingest in one sitting.  Perhaps the steward had said something to the cook about my embarrassingly talkative stomach, but I never dared to ask.  Mistress Fairworth, the cook, who called me “Dearg” (Irish Gaelic for “red”) for the brassy splash of color on my head, constantly kept an enormous kettle of meat and vegetable porridge on a hook at the outside edge of the kitchen fire, to which she would add each day’s leftovers and then more water to keep it wet.  There were probably parts of that porridge that were at least a decade old, I am certain.  I had a large wooden bowlful twice a day, eating it with bread culled from the day’s baking.  It did not take me long to discover that Mistress Fairworth prided herself on the tasty comestibles she was able to provide not only to the lord and his family, but to all others who fed from her deep ladle.  Indeed, children and nursing mothers thrived on what she provided them.  Many households subsisted on what little meat they could get and coarse bread, but Mistress Fairworth somehow knew that vegetables were an important part of a healthy diet.

“People in my care usually keep their teeth well into their twenties,” she would boast to anyone who would listen.  I do not know if she was aware of scurvy and that it could lead to tooth loss, but her foresight was a boon to those for whom she cooked.  I have no idea how she could have come by that information, as she was a landlubber, born on the property on which we all lived, and never more than five miles away from it.

It was common during that time in history for people to lose several teeth in one way or another by the time they reached their mid-twenties, but that was not the case here under the care of Mistress Fairworth.  I was lucky to grow up with her feeding me, and to learn how to continue to feed myself later on, because I had a mouthful of very strong and healthy teeth by the time I met my untimely end.  I am also sure that her teaching me to clean my teeth at least once daily with the frayed end of a twig did not hurt, either.  I know my breath certainly stunk less than many of my peers’.

When I had arrived at the manse, Mistress Fairworth had taken one look at me and clucked her tongue in dismay.  She then set one of the fat old kitchen gardeners to combing the lice from my hair using an old fine-toothed bone comb she produced from out of her big wooden chest, and then popping the nits between her fingernails after having me stripped bare and then immersing me for a good scrubbing in one of the horse troughs.  The ragged shift and apron in which I had arrived was unceremoniously thrown on the midden fire without a second glance.  Its successor was the rough spun and very itchy brown woolen gown I now wore, which had been unearthed from one of the storage trunks the cook kept in some back room of the kitchen area.  I was permitted to leave her sight with an injunction to be careful with it, as I would not receive another for at least a year’s time.

Daily, I broke my fast just after the big black and red cock who ruled the kitchen yard crowed in the approach of the morning sun.  The sun’s colorful fingers would just be beginning to reach up into the sky in order to haul itself overhead for the day at that time, and it was a beautiful thing to watch from the vantage of the kitchen stoop.  Much later in the day, I would take my supper before I had my turn at scrubbing the evening meal’s pans and platters, thereafter retiring for the night.  Wisely, Mistress Fairworth had the servants’ meals scheduled out over the course of the day, so that she would not be overrun with nimble fingers attached to greedy stomachs and perhaps experience thievery of more choice bits of food while she was distracted doling out ladlefuls of thick porridge as her thick-witted and wall-eyed daughter Meg handed out the bread.  I considered myself lucky indeed that I could break my fast so shortly after I awoke, after having brought in the night’s eggs from the ever-obliging hens that the cock serviced so expertly.

Those who tended the manse while the rest of the house slept had their meals brought to them in a communal bucket in the middle of the night by the cook’s night assistant, who was simply called Frost. He would wait quietly as they gobbled their food, and then take the empty bucket back to the kitchen, scraped nearly clean by nimble fingers and stale bread crusts.

Frost was an oddly pale man with very light eyes, an acne-scarred face and a marked limp.  He was the one who set the dough to rising for the day’s bread before retiring to his pallet at the back of the pantry for the day.  On those rare occasions that we encountered one another while both of us were up and about; he would glance at me and give a short nod and a grunt before continuing onto whatever errand he might be about at that moment.  During my first few years at my new home, I do not believe we exchanged a single word between us.

I cannot say that I truly liked the man, but I had a reasonably comfortable familiarity with him that made him much less threatening than he might be to a young girl such as me.  He offered me no harm, and I returned that favor in word and deed.  Some of the kitchen staff would whisper about him when they thought no one else was listening, with some saying that his scarred face was the result of a deal with the Devil or some such nonsense, and others saying that he limped because one of his legs was hoofed.  Of course, I believed none of that.

My pallet, which was in a corner of the stable’s hayloft, was indeed my own.  When I was still living with my parents, once I reached a certain age, I was bundled off to the corner of the house where my mother cooked our meals, to share a rude pallet with the flea and louse-infested hounds and the one cat my father allowed us to keep as a mouser and ratter.  My father, mother and brothers shared the wide bed between them, even when my father took his nightly husbandly rights to screw my mother and maybe knock her around a bit.  I would close my eyes tightly and shove my fingers deep into my ears to try to keep from hearing what was going on so close to where I lay.  I was fortunate that I did not now have to share the loft space in my new situation with anyone else, though I had found a safe place up there to squirrel away any valuables I might collect along the way.

I built some alliances early on, in order to stay as safe as I could.  Being completely on one’s own was never safe.  Allies, be they made by love or necessity, could help keep you alive at that time in history.  Both Seth and Mistress Fairworth were my two human allies, but the nonhuman one I carefully cultivated was one of the most important of my young life, if not my first several decades on this planet.

One of the yard’s five guard dogs, a Wolfhound who was perhaps six months or so old, had taken a shine to me (the twice-daily leavings from my big wooden bowl sweetening the relationship, I am certain), shortly after I had been attacked by the stable boy.   As with all dogs, he was looking for as close to an “alpha” position as he could find, but the other four dogs had better relationships with the Houndsman, so when I extended the hand of friendship to the massive dog, he was quick to seize the opportunity.  At first, because Irish Wolfhounds were incredibly valuable and prized as the companions of the nobility, the Houndsman had tried keeping him from me.  Several escapes later on the part of the dog, and the man finally threw up his hands in defeat.  I do not know what the man told our master, but I was never punished for having the dog’s friendship.

 Of course, the dog was quick to keep the grounds safe, but when I was available and approachable, he never left my side.

Thus, each evening, before I went for my supper, I would give the dog the leavings from that morning, and the next morning, he would get my supper leavings, thus he appeared to make a point of sleeping at the foot of the ladder to the loft, in case he missed the food I had caused him to expect from me.  I would slip him the occasional leftover bone from the kitchen as well, to which he always responded with a toothy grin and tail wagging.  When he was unable to guard them himself, he would hide his prizes in random places, but he always seemed to be able to find what he had stashed away.

My largess ensured that the massive dog was always nearby and attentive.  His given name was Titus, but my secret name for him was Mathúin, which is the Gaelic for “bear”.   I would hear him growl sometimes at night, when I was about to go to sleep, and once or twice, I heard the sound of someone running away as Mathúin’s growl become a bloodcurdling roar and he raced out after whomever had tried to slip by him.  At least once, I heard a shriek of pain and shortly thereafter, Mathúin would trot back in and flop back down in his accustomed place to doze lightly.

Instead of frightening me, it made me feel protected and safe, and I would roll over and slip into sleep, knowing that Mathúin was watching over me.  In the morning, once he finished the remains of last night’s supper, he would walk with me to the trough, where I would wash out my bowl before entering the kitchen to break my fast for the day.  He had learned that sometimes I might give him the odd chunk of meat from my bowl while it was still warm, instead of making him wait all day long, along with a good scratch, before I officially started my own day.

My days and nights continued with little variation, except that as I got older and showed myself capable, Mistress Fairworth set me to positions that were more responsible.  I will be the first to admit that I did not miss scrubbing pots or picking rock and weeds.  Such chores were given to those who had shown no talent for much of anything else.  I was able to tend a stewpot or a spit without letting things burn, and had a decent hand for mending and embroidery, when necessary, so I ended up working inside the manse, rather than outside.

“You are a dab hand at embroidering the ladies’ kerchiefs, Dearg,” she told me more than once as I sat at her broad kitchen table. Mathúin would doze contentedly at my feet as I carefully decorated the lacy wisps of cloth that the manse’s noble ladies often carried to dab at their eyes and noses or to conceal sachets of pleasant smelling dried flowers and herbs.  “I wish I had that gift, myself.”

She would prattle on about this or that during those times, keeping busy by tidying her kitchen to her satisfaction or sometimes even sitting for a little while as we shared a bit of tea and Mathúin gnawed on a stale loaf of dark bread which had been soaked in tasty pot liquor.   I knew I was lucky and did my best not to jeopardize my good fortune.  I always found it to be curious that Mistress Fairworth did not show this kind of attention to her own Meg, but then that one was seventeen, already married and living with her husband, Gibbon, who tended the goats.  Their own living quarters took up a single small room off the stable.

Life was not easy as a servant, but it was not impossible, either.  We were blessed enough to have a reasonably generous lord who did not scrimp on food when it came to those who worked for him.  Servants in other houses often did with little more than a crust of bread and weak ale to sustain them from one day to the next.  Such was often the lot of those who served.  Many lords seemed to feel that as they already provided shelter and an honest living for those who eased their own lives, that little else was required in the way of board.

I had seen some of these unfortunates when they visited in the company of their own masters and mistresses.  Clucking disdainfully at their sharp features caused by lack of body fat, and in many cases infirm from long-term malnutrition, our Cook often took it upon herself to try to put a little more meat on their bones by slipping them an extra meat roll or ladleful of stew while they were in her demesnes.  I knew that the results of her efforts would be short-term at best, but I know it had to have been nice to have a belly full of something more than stale bread.  When she could, she would even contrive to give them a hunk of whatever cheese she had at hand, along with some dried meat, popped into their bag by one of the more nimble and sneaky children of the house as they departed.

If our lord had ever discovered her actions, she likely would have suffered a terrible beating; however, the rest of the servants looked after her as she looked after them.  In my time on the premises, one or two taken beatings that should by rights have gone to her, when they claimed they had been the ones to give the foodstuff to the unsuspecting visiting servant.  After those beatings, Mistress Fairworth had taken special care of those martyrs to the delicacies of her kitchen.

There came a time when I would substitute for Frost when he was taken ill or had been sent on some errand that took him away from the house.  He was not a young man, thus there were times when the common afflictions of old age made a higher claim on his abilities than he was able to counter in order to perform his duties.  He was quite fortunate that this lord allowed those who had outlived their usefulness to remain on the premises.  Many would have turned them out to die, once they were unable to perform.

Maybe some three years following my arrival in the lord’s kitchen, Seth, the steward, came to me with his eyes downcast and his hat in his hands.  He bore the sad news of the passing of my family by some sort of plague.

“As I do every year about this time, I went to collect the rents.  I hailed the house several times, but heard no sound from them.  It was then I saw the milch goat dead on the stoop.  Tied out as it was, it had eaten and drunk all it could reach.”

“My family is dead?  All of them?  Dead?”  I cried out.  “How can you be sure?”

“I took a very long fallen branch from the great tree and pushed the door open.  The smell from the inside of the house was something out of Hell, itself.  I’m so very sorry, lass.”  It seemed he could not bring himself to look at me.  For some reason, he seemed to feel a sense of guilt.  “I did not dare go closer.  I did not want to bring plague here to the rest of us.”

I curtly thanked him for his news, and then ran out the door and climbed up into my hayloft, where I digested the tragic news I had received.  What could have gone through the family so quickly that they had died without seeking help?  Had they all died there, or had any escaped?  I doubted that I would ever know.

There was nothing in this for which I could slight Seth.  He had done nothing wrong and had acted wisely.  Only a fool, who Seth most assuredly was not, would have investigated further.  He told me later, when I finally went to absolve him of any perceived guilt in the matter and asked about their final disposition.  Apparently, he had sent men to burn the cottage and its contents entirely, as even the chance of the plague being caught by some passerby who would infect others was too great to even consider salvaging the property.  Guards had accompanied the men in order to prevent incautious looting, for which foresight I thanked him.

I cannot say that I shed even a single tear at the news of my family’s passing.  There was shock, yes, but no grieving.  I found myself left alone for a few days in order to mourn, I suppose.  Mistress Fairworth had one of the spit boys, an orphan called Micah, bring me my meals along with special treats while I wandered the property.

When he found me in relatively distant locations, I shared my food with him in thanks.  When I did not reject his attempts at conversation, he told me of his experience losing his own parents.  His mother had died birthing a brother who was stillborn, and shortly thereafter, his father had abandoned him at the gate to the manse and disappeared, never to be seen again.  Mistress Fairworth had taken him in and raised him for the past five years.  I remember that I liked him and that he never behaved ill toward me.

During that time, I particularly enjoyed spending time at a particular livestock pond about a half mile from the manse.  Cattle and deer abounded, with the wildlife not seeming to mind our presence, either.  Ducks and geese also called it home, and when I visited, I would gather some of their precious and tasty eggs to bring back to Mistress Fairworth and the delights of her kitchen.  I enjoined the spit boy to keep the place a secret, to which he agreed.  I would like to believe he found it as magical as I did.

Mistress Fairworth began to let me have more time to myself and would give me snacks to take along with me.  She never pushed it on me, but rather would suggest that I go and take “a wee walk” and that she would take care of whatever it was I had to do.  I did not ask how she managed that, I simply took advantage of the opportunity to spend some time on my own.

During these adventures, I learned about things I otherwise might not have been able to learn.  For example, during one “wee walk”, I discovered a distant pasture on the property that housed some of the older horses who had been turned out to graze.  My innate curiosity got the best of me and I climbed over the fence and into the pasture to be closer to the big animals.  One in particular, a black mare with a graying muzzle, seemed particularly fond of the apples that Mistress Fairworth would slip into my lunches.  One day, I finally got up the nerve to climb onto her back after giving her a sliver of one.

Rather than reacting badly to my presence, she was downright amiable about things, and began to walk along the fence line.  During our time together that day, I slipped her a few more pieces of apple, so she did not protest my presence on her back.  On future visits, I remembered to bring a soft rope to slip over her nose to I had something with which to control her movements.  Over time, I learned to ride bareback fairly well, and the mare and I would run across the pasture with me sticking like a tick to her broad back.  I really believe that she enjoyed being useful once more instead of her boring existence grazing on a remote field.

I could not help but think about how nice it might be to own a horse of my own, but knew that I was not the kind of person who would ever to able to own much of anything.  I was a servant, and servants lived at the will of their masters, owning only what the master permitted them.  I rode every few days for a few months, until the master sold off the entire pastureful to a trader from a nearby town that was looking for animals the livery stable could rent out or sell.

I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to the friendly mare, but found myself hoping that her life was not too hard once she left her peaceful pasture.  Thinking about it now, it was yet another time in my life where I lost someone or something I cared about and could do nothing about it.

I found it curious that I felt little to nothing emotional about the passing of my family.  Perhaps it had to do with the fact that not once had any of them attempted to contact me in the time since my departure, even with the gift of a small token of their remembrance of me in either word or substance.  The steward, being an honorable man, would not have lied to pretend they had in his previous visits.  Therefore, for nearly three years now, my family, such as it was, had consisted of the steward, the kitchen staff and an aging wolfhound with selfish designs on the leavings of my two meals a day.  I knew that I would indeed feel something were I to lose one of them, even the least of them.

It is strange how families can show up in the oddest of circumstances, and with the most curious collection of members.  It is also obvious that at times, these patchwork families can be far better and have closer ties between one another than the one into which one is born. To this day, there are those who do not or simply cannot understand this concept of family.

As a vampire, I have found myself thrown into this kind of odd family dynamic several times in my very long existence.

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