Menw led us to a cave about half a mile from the road. Dismounting before he reached the entrance, he told us, “You can leave your horses here. They won’t stray and they will be quite safe.”
Ettori looked dubious, and tethered his horse to a nearby branch. “Will you set a watch?”
“We will also be quite safe, Ettori. Fear not. There is little time before dawn. Do what you need to, and seek shelter in the cave.”
I patted the neck of my horse, which it seemed to appreciate. “Thank you, friend.”
Menw had already disappeared into the cave and I saw no reason not to follow him. Ettori called to me. “Are you not going to tie up your mount?”
I smiled from within the darkness. “He won’t run away. Come on, you don’t want to be out here when the sun rises.”
Ettori ignored me and sat near the mouth of the cave, reading from his bible by waning moonlight. Each to their own. I had nothing to read, and other things to occupy my thoughts. Since setting out for the Prince’s court, I had little time to practice developing my arts. With no attention on me, here, in the dark was as good a time as any.
When I had wandered with the Old Man he had loaned me his gift of anonymity. He and I could pass through a crowd without anyone paying us the slightest attention. He could project impressions in the minds of onlookers making them think we looked like normal men, or women, peasants, merchants, soldiers or nobles. It was limited only to his imagination. I missed being able to walk into a crowd of mortals without them looking on me in disgust or fear. I miss talking to people without having to weigh every word. I remember the feeling as the Old Man’s arts hid us. It is hard to describe, but the best I can call it is a cloak. Wrapped within this cloak I felt safe, hidden. I held my gloved hand in front of my eyes and examined it. It felt naked, and exposed.
I looked through the darkness to Menw and Ettori. Menw was nowhere to be seen, presumably deeper into the cave. Ettori was focused on his bible. I tried to reach for that cloak, the safety of anonymity. It dwells within the blood of my kind, and of a select few others. I could sense it, lying dormant. Fingers of consciousness delved towards it, trying to grasp it. They couldn’t reach. It was as if the tips could only brush the surface. If I could just reach a little further…
“What are you doing?” Ettori was standing right in front of me. I hadn’t seen or heard him move.
“Nothing. I am doing nothing.”
“You’d best follow your own advice. Sun’s coming up, you need to get deeper into the cave.”
Really? That couldn’t be, unless…“How long was I sitting like that?”
“About an hour. Now hurry up.”
Ettori ventured deeper into the cave. An hour. How on earth could I lose an hour? It was something I would need to figure out later. I found sanctuary on a rock ledge out of direct line of sight of the cave entrance and allowed the overwhelming fatigue that is brought by the weight of the sun above to push all thought and consciousness from me.
The next thing I recall was waking the next night. Sensing movement, I ventured to the cave mouth. Menw was already there; with him, a stag. Ettori was close behind.
“Good, you’re both awake. You will be hungry. My friend here,” Menw indicated the stag, “agrees to let you feed. Take only what you need.”
As feeding from animals is nothing new for me, I approached the deer. I patted it on the neck. “Thank you for what you offer, friend.”
I sank fangs into its throat, and felt its blood rushing into my mouth. The beast within did not like it. The beast within doesn’t want animal blood. The beast within wants humans…or other vampires. The beast within will do as it is commanded, and consume what I allow it. I drank for a few moments, satisfying only the hunger pangs that come with waking. I ceased feeding, so as not to harm the animal. The bite wound healed over, as is normal when feeding with no intent to cause harm.
Ettori was nervous, or perhaps a little uncomfortable. He awkwardly approached the stag, opening his mouth and allowing his fangs to grow. He stopped just before biting, and looked at me. “You do this sort of thing all the time?”
“Not everyone is afforded the luxury of a congregation to snack on. Some of us make do. Nature provides.”
“It doesn’t seem natural.”
“More unnatural than feeding on a human? Come now Ettori. Our method of feeding doesn’t kill. Humans can’t say that.”
He considered for a moment. “Not always true. Some of our kind-“
“Ettori, for the love of God stop being a pedant and feed!”
“Mind your tongue!” He shook his head and sank his fangs into the stag that had patiently waited for us to stop bickering, withdrawing them about ten seconds later. Oddly enough, the stag remained steady on its feet. I would have suspected being fed upon by two of us would weaken it. Not to danger levels, but it would be less spry for a day or so. This creature was as solid as if it had not fed two. Or Three.
“Menw, are you not feeding?”
“No, Ethan. I attended to that when I awoke. Come now, we will want to reach Llandowi before all the townsfolk retire.”
Actually, some of the tricks the Old Man favoured in terms of interrogation or coercion usually involved appearing when we could be dismissed as dreams. However, I do not believe Menw’s skills lie in that direction.
As promised, our mounts had not strayed. I looked into the horse’s eyes. “It can’t be much fun for you bearing an unskilled rider as me. Thank you again.”
The beast snorted. “No armour is good.”
I snorted. “Yes, no amour is good. I think the name Atlas suits you.”
I clambered aboard the newly christened mount, Ettori shaking his head at my “ways”. The journey to Llandowi took us a couple of hours and was mercifully uneventful. When we arrived, Menw offered to cloak us. Part of me rebelled at the idea. I couldn’t help feeling that every time I borrowed the power from another, it set me back in my progress. However, given the unknown situation we could be entering, I raised no objection. We rode through open and unguarded gates with no remark.
“Do you two understand your task?”
I didn’t answer Menw straight away. My eyes were examining the nearby buildings for signs of recent repair work. They looked like one might expect. Huts and hovels made predominantly of wood, arranged in fairly straight rows. They had varying levels of dirt and moss on them indicating no consistent rebuilding effort that might indicate destruction, and rebuilding, on the scale of Nefynn.
“Look for clues about Brother Chax’s time here,” I said. “We’d do well to talk to the locals and determine what the rumour mill says, perhaps see if there are any town records and even check the church for clues.”
“Perhaps you need to stop looking inward for the answers, and look around you,” said Menw.
I looked at him blankly, and he responded by pointing. Just outside the area I had been checking was the ruin of a wooden church spire, with some evidence of scorching. “You think too much, Ethan. Mind your surroundings.”
The chastisement stung, however, conflict with my Elder was neither desirable nor prudent. And perhaps he was right. “Thank you Menw, I will try.”
Satisfied with my response he gave us our orders. “Ettori, you would be best suited to inspect the church. Find out whatever you can. Ethan. There must be a tavern or inn around here somewhere. Seek it out. Your suggestion about milling rumours has merit. I will take the horses and scout around town. We will meet at the church. Take no more than an hour.”
Ettori nodded. I was a bit apprehensive. I had no idea how well one scarred and hooded as I was would be received by humans. Now was as good a time as any to find out. Ettori and I dismounted, Menw fading from view and presumably riding off moments later.
“Good hunting,” I said to Ettori.
He gave me a curt nod and marched, down the middle of the street in a straight line towards the burned spire. I moved to the side, where shadows clung. I let my consciousness reach out for the arts of anonymity, taking care not to sink into a trance as I had done the night before. It was as if I could hook my fingertips into the cloak, and I could start teasing it towards me. There it is, just a little more…And then I heard a door bang. I glanced across the street to see a man leaving a large wooden building. A sign swung above the door, but the elements had worn away any writing. The man staggered somewhat, and I judged him to be in his cups. He waved in my general direction in that way that drunkards do when everyone is their friend. The cloak slipped away, and I forced a grin and waved back. At least I had found the tavern. I crossed the street and entered.
The tavern was quiet. No music. No chatter. Only the sound of liquid pouring as the Barkeep emptied the dregs of a tankard back into an ale barrel.
“Evening stranger, what can I-“ He paused, startled when his eyes caught up with his words. “God be merciful, what-“
“Don’t be alarmed,” I said, as soothingly as I could. I allowed my song to coat my words with its insidious calm. “The hood only covers scars. I was burned horribly as a child, and I prefer people not to see my deformity.”
“And they aren’t scared of a headsman’s hood?”
“I take your point, but done is done. Am I welcome here?”
The Barkeep, a stout man wearing a white shirt and apron, with brown mutton chops on the side of his face, a clean shaven chin and a bald pate, nodded; the act causing his face to redden and his breath to quicken. “Yes, yes, of course. Please.”
There was only one other patron, dozing on the bar. A drunk farmhand by the look of it. I took a seat beside him, opposite the Barkeep.
“You’re not from round here, are ye?”
“No, I am not.” He passed me a tankard of the house finest, retrieved from the aforementioned barrel, and I paid for my drink. “I am passing through on the way to Ellewyn.”
He nodded. “You’re still quite a way to go. You need lodgings?”
“No, thank you.” I waited until his back was turned and spilled some of the drink in the general direction of the sleeping man. My kind cannot normally consume anything other than blood. The sleeping farmhand grunted slightly at my spillage but made no comment. “I was just intending to stop for a rest before carrying on.”
“I was wondering if you could tell me something.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I couldn’t help but notice, when I came into town, you have a church spire that appears to have been damaged. Burned by the looks of it. I was curious what happened. And why it hasn’t been repaired yet.”
The Barkeep stopped abruptly. “We don’t like to talk about that. We don’t like to talk about that at all.”
“Bastards, all of them.” The drunk muttered the words and then returned to sleeping.
“Ok, what about we do a trade?”
The Barkeep perked up. “What sort of trade you have in mind?”
“A story for a story. I tell you a tale, and you tell me one. About the church. Don’t you like ghost stories? Maybe if you had some to share, folks would come to hear them?”
I let the words sink in, and waited for his mind to weigh up the reward versus telling town stuff to an outsider. He nodded. “I can do that trade, I think. Just, don’t tell anyone here I told you.”
“Not a living soul will hear it from my lips,” I said.
“Go on then.”
“Have you heard tell of the Old Man of the Woods?”
The barkeep shook his head. So I told him one of the various tales my sire and I had invented concerning the Old Man of the Woods. Humans are an inherently superstitious lot and their imaginations will rationalise unexplainable things if they are the same shape as a myth or legend.
The Old Man told me that the Old Man of the Woods legend was started by Nosferatu to create a link with the peasantry, whereby with minimal effort we could convince a primed individual to help us.
“The Old Man of the Woods is a spirit from times long gone. Some say he lived once, but now he is trapped here, walking mournfully across the land and years. Looking for something he has lost. Perhaps his love? He is seen only at night, or at the edge of vision, unless he wants to be seen. He appears as an aging beggar. He is a trickster, and a liar. But his word can trusted utterly. He offers gifts, in return for deeds. And he punishes those who don’t pay their debts.”
I leaned across the bar. “I believe that he seeks his love. He has lost her. I think she won’t let him find her, until he is worthy. So, he appears to villagers and townsfolk like yourself on a moonlit night. He appears when he is needed, and he shepherds those folk in need of it. He is wise, and he is powerful and woe betide that man that harms those under his protection! Do you know what I heard?”
The barkeep, utterly enthralled, shook his head vigorously. “No, what did you hear?”
“I heard tell of a cruel man, a merchant, who used his money to hire bullies to terrify his family and his village. A cruel man that enjoyed the fear and misery of others. But he caused in fear in those under The Old Man’s protection. He awoke one morning to find his thugs standing at his door. They were alive, but all their will was gone. And all they could do was repeat, in unison, one phrase over and over. ‘The Old Man comes’.”
“Did he? And what did he do?”
“He did indeed that very night. The cruel man awoke to see a beggar standing at the foot of his bed. He leapt to his feet, afraid but willing to fight. No one rightly knows exactly what happened after that. His neighbours heard screaming, and when people came running, running past the thugs still chanting, they found the hut empty. The cruel merchant was gone.”
“What happened to him?”
I shook my head. “Nobody knows. Nothing good.”
The barkeep slapped the bar. “By God, that was a fine tale! Any chance you might come back this way and tell it? I’d make it worth your while…”
“I make no promises, but perhaps this is possible. Now, you owe me a story. I trust you won’t renege on our agreement?”
“God, man, no! Not after hearing that!” He laughed for a time, and I joined him. It has been a long time since I laughed out loud. It is good to know that I still can. He calmed, and became serious. “Yes, Lad, I think you earned your story, right enough. Was about 5 years ago it happened. We had a priest back then, Father Damon was his name. Seemed like a right good sort, but devils come in all guises.”
The last phrase was said as a whisper, him leaning in making me do the same. “Devils?”
“Aye Lad, devils. They walk among us, looking like us. Anyone could be one. Jim, there,” he nudged the sleeping farmer, “He could be one. Or you.”
“Or you, good Sir. What better place to lure the innocent than as none other than the respected Barkeep of a renowned establishment.”
He looked confused as if trying to reconcile this. “Aye. Anyone could be a devil. But fortunately, there are those that walk the land that can spy out these devils. Expose them and then we can deal with them! A holy man came, called Brother Chax. And he helped us with Father Damon. Exposed him for what he was.”
I nodded. “It gladdens my heart that such men walk these lands. Pray tell, how did Brother Chax help you, exactly?”
“Well, he-,” The Barkeep looked confused again. “He…uh…he explained to us that what Father Damon was teaching us was wrong. Only teaching us bits oh the bible. But he was leaving stuff out. It were heresy, so it was. Brother Chax, he helped us understand this, and helped us understand that Father Damon was preaching only to serve his own dark ends. Chax explained it to us.”
I confess, I was confused. “What bits was he missing out?”
“He were only teaching stuff from the Old Testament. Chax explained it all. And we realised we’d been lied to.”
The Old Man taught me about the ways of other bloodlines of vampires. Some of them have the arts to compel the mind, to make it forget things or remember things differently. The Old Man cautioned me against such arts as they are clumsy and leave footprints should someone ask the right questions. A human mind rationalises and fills in blanks. The Barkeep’s insistence that Chax explained it all without supplying significant details was more than a footprint. It would be like tracking a wagon, six horses and an escort of men at arms. Ettori could manage that.
“This is very interesting. What happened to Father Damon? Did you run him out of town?”
“No! He were a demon, and we couldn’t suffer him to live. We locked him in his church, and burned it to the ground!”
“Bold move, burning a church.” He looked alarmed when I said that. I tried to reassure him. “I am sure God will understand. He wouldn’t want a demon living in his house. You did the right thing, I am sure.”
He looked slightly mollified. “Why was the church not repaired? And who ministers now?”
“Well, we didn’t tell anyone, you see. Brother Chax, he told us that the Church were infiltrated. More demons. We couldn’t trust anyone. So we didn’t tell anyone. We each take it in turns to minister. Those of us that can read. And let me tell you, if we catch one of them demons disguised as priests here again…well, we know what to do with them.”
Like for instance, Ettori. Who couldn’t be more obvious if he grew wings and started glowing.
“Thank you good Sir. Might I ask for your name, so I can recommend you to any I see on the roads?”
“Aye Lad, I’d be happy if you did. I’m Edmund, and I guess you could say I am the Mayor around here as well as the Inn Keeper.”
Rising quickly from my stool, I shook his hand. “Thank you Edmund. I hope to see you well again. I must go. “
I had to find Ettori before the bloody idiot said the wrong thing and got himself killed.
The Mycroft Journals is a serialised fiction, written in response to a roleplaying game I play in. It serves multiple purposes. It acts as a permanent reminder of what happened in the story (so, it helps us players), it acts as an advert for the game, and I think our Games Master has provided us with a compelling story, which other people should get to experience.
Featured artwork is by Barry Martin. Check out his page