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I had never seen Mariska panic. She paced from wardrobe to valise, packing my meager garments with care.
Having come to her with only the tattered shirt on my back, I never thought to ask where the remainder of my clothing had originated. I could probably have come to some conclusions on my own, but I chose not to dwell of it, then or now. I caught her arm as she passed. “Hold. I have to be able to close the bag, sweetheart– and the horse to carry it.”
She paused to stare at the case as if only seeing it for the first time, closed her eyes and shook her head. Continuing to fold the shirt in her hands, she sat on the bed next to me. “I only delay our conversation Thomas, which is wrong of me. But I will miss you so.”
“Then come with me.” I watched her eyes for a sign and saw only resolution. Whatever had been plaguing her mind since the general’s visit, she had come to a decision.
“I cannot Thomas, for more reasons than we have time for me to explain.” She took my hand in both of hers then, gazed deeply into my eyes. “I would beg a pledge from you, but be warned; the vow will be hard to keep.”
“Anything,” I answered without reservation or thought. She smiled.
“Do not make another.” She placed a finger on my lips. “It sounds simple, but as your life runs on, you will be tempted. Do not give in. Find love where you can. Human life is precious and fleeting, but by turning them you will almost certainly extinguish the very thing you love, their humanity. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t. I love you and you aren’t human and yet are more so than most people I have known. If you had not told me different, I would never have believed we were the same as those others. Surely there are more– can be more– like us?”
She caressed my cheek, a sad smile on her lips. “Oh, Thomas, you love me yes, but not in the way a man should love the woman of his heart. I understand because I feel the same. You are a strong, passionate man. You will find your true love, perhaps many times. I will give my heart to only one, but he has always been enough.” Her hand clutched the rosary around her neck.
“You talk as if I won’t be back. This mission will take at best, three months and most of that on the seas.”
I was to travel to Istanbul and find a certain gentleman in power and remove him. He was an Englishman selling British secrets to the Turks. My orders were to bring him over or to kill him. He was a spy, why would they want him a vampire? Dead he would no longer be a threat and the vow I was about to make to Mariska would hold.
“Just to be clear, these missions they send me on– no matter my orders– I should kill rather than turn them vampire?”
She squared her shoulders and her eyes met mine. “Yes, Thomas, that is exactly what I ask, but, if you find them other than you have been told and can save them, do so. You cannot trust your superiors as you well know. Can you promise me this?”
I sort of enjoyed the idea of disobeying that pompous ass of a general as well as making my own determination as to who was worthy to live or doomed to die. “I swear it.”
She breathed a heavy sigh, relief evident in her face. “Thank you Thomas.”
My chest tightened and eyes grew moist as I looked down at her.
“You have but eight hours of darkness remaining. You should leave now.” She brushed her lips on mine.
I crushed her to me, turned and walked to the door before the blood fell from my eyes. I paused on the threshold without turning, then blurted, “That ass was joshing about the rats?”
“Blood is life to us Thomas—any blood, from a living vessel. If a rat keeps you from revealing what you are or taking a human life, that is good, yes?”
I gave a curt nod, choking on my emotions. Without a word I walked into the night and the horse that waited. My lips drew back of their own accord and a hiss welled from my throat as the others approached. They backed away. I tied the valise behind the saddle, stuck my foot in the stirrup and mounted. My gaze wandered over them as they clung to the shadows. I recognized none of my army troop. Had they all died that night at the hands of these–things? Did none of them have the strength to withstand the change or had they refused when the offer was made? Perhaps, they had been the strong ones after all. I had no place in this existence for guilt, my decision had been made.
I nudged the horse forward, not daring a backward glance. The mare had a smooth ground covering trot and we made good time, stopping only briefly for her to water and me to wash the blood from my face. We should make twenty miles before I had to find cover for the day.
I was young enough to be excited by the adventure of travel to exotic locals, old enough not to let the thrill make me foolhardy. I heard other travelers from a distance, long before they were aware of me. The mare could pick her way through the underbrush of the forest with the silence and ease of an Indian pony. Our progress slowed some by the detour, but luckily traffic was light on the trails at night.
We made allowances for a couple of carpetbaggers, a small group of Negroes who for their own reasons needed to move in the darkness and steered clear of campsites.
When my mind began to cloud with the approach of dawn we meandered into the forest in search of shelter. At worst I could cover myself in the debris of the woodland floor, leaves and pine straw would serve. What of the horse? Tethered she would be prey to wolves and mountain lions. I wouldn’t rouse to defend her while the sun shone.
The smell of lime water drew me to a cave partially hidden beneath the overhanging boughs of a huge cedar. A quick check told me the opening was large enough for the mare. I scented the cave and found only faint traces of bear, nothing fresh. Trusting soul, she never balked as I lead her into the utter blackness of the cave and removed the pack and saddle. She found the pool on her own and drank deeply. When she had finished I put a scoop of corn and oats from my cache in the feed bag and slipped it over her muzzle.
Pulling the knife from my boot I stepped out of the cavern and cut what grasses and leafy twigs I thought would be palatable. I tucked my arms under the pile and carried the greenery into the cave. The dawn pulled at me, slowing my steps, sapping my strength. I removed the feed bag and offered the forage.
“That’s the best I can do.” I stroked her velvety ears as she ate. “I won’t tie you. There should be nothing to spook you but I don’t want you trapped should some big critter seek shelter. You’ll stay with me won’t you?” She blew softly and nuzzled my hand as if in assent. “Good girl.”
I tossed my bedroll down and stretched out, my head resting on the saddle as I had done hundreds of times… before Mariska. The sadness welled in me again and I pushed my thoughts aside. Someone stumbling upon me during the day, would think me dead. They might take the horse and saddle, rob me perhaps, but why bother a corpse? With that thought in mind and a quick prayer, the sun rose.
The instant night fell I woke– to the odor of fresh blood. My fangs extended and nose rose to scent the air for the source. The mare’s soft breathe blew across my face. The hand I reached out to stroke her came away warm, wet and sticky. I leapt to my feet.
“What happened? Where are you hurt?” I ran my hands over her face to her ears, and as if in answer to my question, she turned her shoulder to me. A jagged gash about three inches long tore along her flesh. Freshly done, the blood flowed freely. Need twisted in my gut.
I ran my fingertips along the wound then, brought them to my nose hesitantly. The aroma was different, less metallic. I slipped two fingers between my lips, flicking my tongue over and around them. The flavor was refreshing, cleaner somehow than human.
“Shhh girl, quiet.” I peered into her dark liquid eyes expecting fear and saw only trust. Leaning in, I placed my mouth on the wound, not drawing, merely lapping what flowed freely. When my hunger quieted, I continued to lave the cut until the flow ceased. The mare stood silent throughout, occasionally nuzzling my head.
I walked to the pool, removed and wet my kerchief to wash my face. A palm-full of the water in my mouth swished the horse hair away. It seemed a small price to pay for an easy meal. Mariska was right, blood was blood. I readied the feed bag, and once she was busily eating her grain, used the wet kerchief to wash away the blood on her skin. No need to draw predators to the scent.
The thought of a month at sea without the means to bathe sent me to the pool’s edge. The water was cold and hard from the lime. I hesitated only a moment, before shucking my clothes and climbing over the rim. Much deeper than it appeared, I floated on my back and gazed at the ceiling close above, adorned with a multitude of rocky spears of varying lengths. The longest was tipped in blood and a bit of fawnish hair. The mare must have been snagged while watering. Afraid my parts would be forever shriveled from the cold, I cut the bath short. After drying with my used shirt, I rinsed it in the pool, rung out the water and flapped it to release the wrinkles.
I dressed, then led the horse to the pool for a drink while I saddled her and tied on the packs, draping the damp shirt over her rump where her heat would help dry it. Although the wound was well forward of the girth I bent to check,finding the tear not only closed but healed.
I knew both from Mariska and first-hand experience, our saliva acted as both anti-coagulant and coagulant. Once our hunger was satisfied, something changed. As long as we maintained contact for a minute or two after feeding the blood would cease to flow.
Was only animal hide healed by our spit?
We left the hidden cave around 8:00, the moon just rising from behind the trees. I wanted to be at the Virginia coast before dawn and at Portsmouth by the next. Plenty of time for idle thoughts on the ride, as long as I kept my senses tuned for danger.
As the mare moved toward the trail, I wondered if I had discovered an ability Mariska was unaware of or if she had neglected that part of my training. The more I pondered the more I realized how little I actually knew. She taught me how to feed without killing or causing pain, and a rosewood stake, fire and beheading meant sure death. Only in those last seconds she had told me I could bleed animals. Were other things withheld? Had the omission been intentional?
A bit late to think of these things now, of all I didn’t know or understand. Time had ceased for me when in her presence. She had become my world. But, she had answered every question I had thought to ask, few though they might be. Why these sudden doubts?
I sighed into the night. I would have many questions to ask her when we met again. For now, I kept the mare turned northeast, traveling toward the smell of the sea.