“You’ve got to stop killing people.” Filcher ran a moist palm through his tangled hair. He pushed his frustration closer to the surface, hoping to show some real backbone but the sweat pooling in the pit of his collar bone betrayed his nerves. M didn’t notice; she’d closed her eyes and focused instead on the sound of the blood pumping erratically through his veins.
Slush. It sounded bad. She wondered if she should warn him about the health concerns of mead addiction.
A crowd of Hurdy Gurdy Troubadours surrounded her, posse-style. Watching for the slightest hint of fang, they prepared themselves for an intervention. Of course they all knew their idea of intervention meant heading for the hills and pushing strangers into M’s path, but they liked to pretend she didn’t scare the hell out of them. After three weeks together, they’d even sorta bonded; in as much as they could with a creature such as she. If any of the men realized just what would happen to M once she left the confines of family and rules, they might have thought twice about following her.
Today, she kept silent, even more silent than usual. “Do you understand the concept of fans?” Madoc The Barbarian asked in that superior fashion that made the others cringe. Sure, he was an attractive guy who knew a lot about music but did he have to be such an ass about it? Built like the barbarian he claimed to be, dark features aided in his pursuit of the opposite sex. With a personality that tiptoed across the line between stubborn caveman and charming schoolboy, no one thought more highly of him than himself.
“I think she really loves the fans.” Tipper giggled. The world swooned. He’d plied his slight body so full of experimental opiates, the troubadours could use his head for a wheel if they had need. Being a drug addict in 1666 wasn’t easy, but Tipper possessed both tenacity and inventiveness; in essence, he ate a lot of poop.
M opened her eyes. Ruby orbs spanned the musicians, a clue that she’d fed recently. The troubadours had yet to see any color but ruby. The first few minutes after a feed varied each time, something she just began getting used to. It had been exactly three weeks since she took her first
human life. She’d chosen an intellectual farmer as her meal, his blood thoughts centered around a new hoe he’d been designing so her thoughts too centered around agricultural tools as she waited for his blood to digest. Her skin had smelled vaguely of wet earth. Taking a life meant more than just murder to a vampire; it meant taking all their memories and seeing things through their perspective for a time. The farmer felt misunderstood. He’d planned on asking a lovely woman to marry him as soon as he claimed his fortune for the equipment design. M saw the woman’s face float in her mind. Her first victim’s blood memories became a permanent part of her. She cherished them because to her it was more than a man she murdered. The man’s death symbolized her own freedom. Independent from her Father’s overbearing rules, she became her own being and she couldn’t be happier.
“Are you listening?” Filcher used his most manly voice to try and penetrate M’s concentration.
“Not really.” She admitted. Her voice sounded funny; like she was faking an Italian accent.
“Something smells like bread.” Eugenius commented. “Baker.” M’s explanation caused Eugenius to flinch. “Meeshka?” Filcher chided.
She turned on him viciously, grabbed him by the throat and pinched her long fingernail on his jugular. “I told you never to call me that.”
Filcher paled instantly, as if she’d drained him. “Sorry!” All attempts at manliness evaporated when his voice emitted a high pitched, feminine squeak. His eyes welled, intensifying their blue to sharpness.
“Sorry for what?” Madoc balked. M’s movements remained unperceived by the rest of the troubadours. To them, it appeared Filcher pissed his pants for no reason.
“N..n..nothing.” He managed to stutter out.
“What is wrong with you?” Tipper asked, but really he was only talking to himself.
M came around, realizing what she’d done and leaned in to comfort Filcher by stroking his moist cheek. “I’ll tell you what. I promise I won’t kill anyone during the show, okay?” Who said the daughter of Count Nikolai Lackfi didn’t know how to compromise?
“Thank you.” Filcher nodded. The crowd pressed in on them, forcing Filcher to a quick recovery. “Are we ready to make some noise?” The resounding Whoop sounded more like a dog being beaten than Troubadour excitement, but Filcher took it as a good sign. The Roman Coliseum crowd
stared, ready to be entertained. The players knew the game; they’d come to see M. The beautiful half-breed had that perfect combination of pale skin, black hair and red eyes that said: “this will only hurt for a second.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Of course, only the lucky ones would know her secret and they certainly wouldn’t be telling anyone when she finished with them.
“This is nothing like I imagined.” Encouraged by the earlier smell of bread, Eugenius breathed deep the scent of Rome. He got a gullet full of the rankest stench ever, causing him to immediately cover his nose and pout. Being the over dramatic sort, he would continue to hold his arm to his nose for another ten minutes. Not six inches from his sensitive nose, emanating from his own armpit lay an equally rank odor that went unnoticed.
Eugenius, the Gittern player, was a man of principal. Quiet, reserved and steadfast in his devotion to friends he breathed a tender air into the troubadour’s. Dark hair, fair eyes and a pleasant countenance made him one of the more approachable players. But he worried like a man headed to the gallows and stank like a prison guard.
“Let’s get to work.” Madoc ordered. With massive mitts, he pulled a tiny, bundled of a man from around his
back and placed him on the ground. Rankle Phlegm-Knot’s dwarf status kept him a popular novelty for the band. People often toppled over each other to catch a glance of the oddly-shaped man. Rankle didn’t walk, weak legs kept him immobile. He also didn’t play an instrument unless you counted his little Jew Harp, which any child could play. The troubadours didn’t need him for that either, they relied upon his sparkling personality to entertain; that and his loud mouth. Between the dwarf and the vampire, the Hurdy Gurdy Troubadours never failed to keep a crowd rapt for hours.
Since traveling was an issue for Rankle, Madoc fashioned a back belt for his diminutive friend and selflessly carried him everywhere needed. The lumbering oaf still managed to irritate the others with a self- righteous attitude even when doing a kindness for another.
Drum, the Moorish drummer, stared ahead at the giant structure of the Coliseum, in awe. He’d never seen anything like it. Standing a foot taller and five shades darker than every member of the band, people usually stared at him with the same awe. Frankly, Drum adored the attention, especially from the ladies who came to pay tribute to his drumming skills after a show. Broads loved
a drummer. It was the very reason he learned the skill in the first place. The biggest tragedy of his life had been the gig at Castle Lackfi: playing to the same audience night after night for years. He, more than any other troubadour, felt truly thankful to M for breaking them out of the luxury of vampiric incarceration. Freedom and the open road were the only luxuries he craved.
As their clunky melodies cut through the plaza, each player eased into the performance. The men stroked strings and pulled bellows, standing sedentary. If it were just them, the crowds wouldn’t have stayed long. The music was nice, but watching five men stand still and sweat didn’t hold one’s attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Rankle barked. “We are the Hurdy Gurdy Troubadours!” Having only just arrived in town, the musicians were eager to make a little coin. Rankle’s main job would be to constantly remind people of that fact. M provided movement, with precision and class, as if she’d done it her whole life instead of only three weeks. Slow, rhythmic cuts through the air with lanky arms for one song; hyper movement for the next. She wooed the crowd with her talent; never having to rely on her natural ability to hypnotize.
When she tired of being the focal point, her best friend Sammy Monkey made his entrance. He scampered out from the caravan in a tiny velvet jacket to dance and squeak at the appropriate time. While the boys provided the background and M provided the sensuality, the monkey gave the people reason to dig into their pockets and fund them. Children begged parents for coins then offered them to the adorable, hairy thing. He took them so graciously, they’d never guess how much he despised children. Though fingers poked and prodded at him while he tumbled around; Monkey made no complaint. But, when the children became too many as always happened, he settled upon M’s shoulder, finally safe from their grubby hands.
As the sun disappeared from view, the night sauntered in and changed the tempo of the music. Hectic melodies turned flirtatious and the crowd encouraged the change. M felt the collective body heat of the crowd rise and knew it wouldn’t be long before she could feed again. She’d already chosen the man in the crowd, tender of age and eager. His eyes never left her. She’d teach him the sweet error of his ways.
Another caught her attention as well, a man of some wealth who watched the show with judgmental interest. He
stuck out like a sore nobleman; dressed in no less than four layers comprised of undershirt, frilly outer shirt, long vest and jacket. His face remained partially hidden by a remarkable hat full of feathers and ribbons. Resembling a statue with extraordinary posture both erect and proper, he could easily be made of stone. Etiquette and social mores shrouded him like armor.
When M left home, she left behind her notions of good impressions and socially acceptable behavior. Toying with someone so opposite her own mindset tickled her, so she sang directly at him, almost raping him with her glowing eyes. The lad who thought he’d gained her special attention deflated. The nobleman’s extravagant hat kept any emotion hidden, but the singer knew her own powers and felt sure she’d done her best to engage him sufficiently. She honed in on the sound of his heartbeat amidst all the chaos she heard it thumping erratically in his chest. She couldn’t help but feel satisfied; embracing her power outside the confines of Castle Lackfi was really starting to agree with her.
Filcher belted a song for the masses; words they barely understood mixed with his own suave character. The Portative organ, his weapon of choice, provided a soft
strange melody. A mix between an organ and a harp with bellows, the instrument truly defined the sound of the band. His fingers moved deftly while Filcher poured sweat like a farm worker; every sharp turn of the head splayed another passerby with a small souvenir of DNA. His voice charmed the growing horde.
Filcher’s wife, whose name he hoped to remember before the show ended, looked on with pride. He’d spotted her in the crowd after the first song when she pointed him out to her friends. He’d almost forgotten about her. It wasn’t his fault really, he had a lot of wives after all. Having taken the sacred vows to love, honor and cherish thirteen times, he couldn’t be expected to remember exactly where they all lived or even their names. Wives four through nine were all a little fuzzy, which was where this particular Italian wife fell. When he retired from music, he’d try and get them rounded up and living together in a communal property to make things easier. Of course then he’d be forced to tell them all about each other.
Long dark hair framed her hawkish face. Filcher recalled her family to be as equally dispossessed of good looks. She looked like her father; thick in the middle with a mustache. He remembered her being sure handed;
something that proved alluring in the bed chamber. Filcher smiled toward her and gave a wink during the serenade. Not the type to swoon; she grinned instead with giant teeth and Filcher, not a particularly attractive man himself, smiled back without grimace. His lack of attractiveness never bothered him or others, it was Filcher’s easy character that made him engaging. With the ability to befriend anyone from a lowly beggar to the wealthiest of nobles, the last thing anyone would call him was unappealing.
Sammy Monkey sat upon M’s shoulder for the duration of three songs awaiting his cue. When appropriate, he jumped down to collect her special instrument. She sang a haunting shanty about the life of a troubadour. Sammy dug around in her instrument bag and came back lugging the object. When the monkey presented it to M and she made a great show of strapping the instrument onto her chest: the crowd hushed. Built into a corset were two iron flagons that the singer meant to smash upon with spoons. Reminiscent of armor, the metal corset brought another weird element to the band with it’s unusual ting. Half way through the song, M offered her spoons to the crowd so they might play them and by the time the song ended, everyone in the front section had a go. The band and the monkey helped
finish her off and she, like a spent whore, collapsed onto the ground in a low, provocative bow. The crowd went wild. Coins flew like confetti through the square. It worked every time.
The Hurdy Gurdy Troubadours played for another hour before they finally finished. The Coliseum proved a fertile ground for the minstrels, especially with Sammy Monkey’s secret talent of pickpocketing. Sure, he liked being a member of a real band, but he enjoyed stealing much more.
When finally the players stopped their tirade and the crowd dissipated; the streets quieted to a normal evening pace. However, the unsettling fervor of the strange music didn’t leave the square when the noise stopped. The Hurdy Gurdy Troubadours introduced something so innovative and new to the people of Rome, they scarcely knew what happened. Grinding beats and erratic melody mixed with the strangest instruments played by both the erotic and the disgusting forever changed their notions of what music could be. It was exhausting for everyone, especially the troubadour’s who sought a quiet place to relax. Several overly-excited ladies tried to follow but were held firm by
Father’s, brother’s and sons for propriety’s sake, but they were followed by the strange nobleman.
“I have a bad feeling about this.” Hopkins stated, for the record. He usually started every new hunt with the same pessimistic attitude. He figured when things went array, which they almost always did, he’d not feel spoiled by any false expectations.
The two trackers and their bat guide took to horse shortly after Abel left. If they rode day and night it would still take them about a week to reach Italy. They had no idea if the musicians would still be in the same place by then; that’s what the bat was for.
“I know.” Sterne better understood the pitfalls of the business more than his brother. He’d been tracking his whole life. Since the first time he hunted with his Father at age 7, he’d begun learning. His Father provided the foundation of understanding nature and his own desire furthered him along. For Hopkins, tracking was just another in a long succession of jobs, one he’d been forced
to take when a string of unfortunate events dictated so. Big brother bailed him out again with an apprenticeship. Though every instinct in his head warned against it, Sterne took him on anyway; mostly because his Mother begged him to. Hopkins actually took to it pretty well, he’d proven himself time and again. If Sterne were being honest, he was glad to have him around, most times, but Hopkins possessed one major flaw. He took after Thomas with his propensity to find trouble.
“Why can’t we just hijack the bat and make him take us to Thomas?” When Hopkins grew excited over something, his voice raised to a booming level. He had his first good idea in months and wanted to be congratulated for it.
“That’s a great idea.”
“Right?” His grin took over his face in a lopsided sort of way. He wondered why Sterne didn’t outwardly express the same enthusiasm. “What?”
“Well, the bat’s listening. He heard everything you just said and will probably do his best to stay clear of you from this point on.”
Sure enough, the bat stared directly at Hopkins. He rode astride Sterne’s horse, clasping gently to the
creatures mane. When they locked eyes, Cudge shook his head in embarrassment. “You aren’t that smart, are you?”
“We can still nab him.” Hopkins wasn’t deterred in the slightest.
“Relax brother.” Sterne already had a better idea how to use the furry creature. “Maybe you can answer a few questions for us.”
“No.” Hopkins whined. He knew Sterne’s next move. He’d try and befriend the unnatural creature and then they’d be stuck together forever.
Sterne silenced him with a look. “Why is she with musicians?”
Cudge shrugged his wings. To Sterne the bat seemed unwilling to give out too much information, but the truth was, Cudge’s attentions stayed focus on the coming dawn. “Beats me.” He finally stated.
“What’s wrong?” Sterne questioned. “Is it something we should know?”
Cudge looked over the two brutes and wished for the fiftieth time that he’d not helped Meeshka leave that night three weeks prior. He could have gone right to Nikolai, before she had a chance to get too far, confessed the whole thing and saved himself. Since the day Meeshka was born
almost 250 years prior, he’d kept a protective eye on her. Cudge promised her Mother that he would and his bond with her was stronger than his loyalty to the Count. Nikolai knew that fact, which is why when Meeshka turned up missing, Cudge was the first creature he consulted. If only he were a better liar, his entire life might not have changed so drastically. If someone would have told him that he’d be riding astride a horse in Austria with humans in search of the Count’s daughter, well naturally, he would have told them to go fly by the sun. Yet, here he was and the sky reminded him of his own impending doom unless he found shelter soon. “The sun’s coming up soon.”
“It’s pitch black.” Hopkins scoffed.
“Yes, but soon, the sun will peek up over those hills.”
Hopkins wondered if he could accurately throw a knife at the bat while it rode so close to his brother. If he missed, there would be hell to pay. “How would you know?”
“My life depends on it.”
“So, you are a vampire too.” Sterne garnered the important information from the bat, unlike Hopkins who just resented everything he said.
“Vampire bat, yep.” “Same rules?”
“What are some of those rules?” Sterne tried to sound casual. The other jobs he’d done for Abel were nothing like hunting down one of their own. “It might be nice to know exactly what we’re up against.”
“I’ll tell you the rules.” Hopkins laughed in his usual annoying manner. “You can kill one with a stake to the heart, they don’t like garlic cause it makes them smoke and stuff, a crucifix should burn a hole right through their skin… oh, and the sun will explode them.”
Cudge burst out laughing.
“What?” Hopkins really didn’t like being laughed at, especially not by a thing he intended to kill.
“Where did you come up with that garbage?”
“Everyone knows that stuff.” Hopkins looked to Sterne for solidarity but he offered none. Sterne didn’t have the vaguest idea about vampires, except they scared the piss out of him and until recently, he didn’t believe they existed.
“I guess that’s why vampires live so long.” Cudge turned his attention to Sterne. “Do you share these ridiculous ideas? If that’s the case I may as well go home right now. You’ll never catch her.”
“I admit that I am completely ignorant on what makes vampires so… special.”
Hopkins grunted beside him. He disliked his brother’s honest nature, deeming it unwise to tell a servant to vampires of weakness. Surely he’d exploit it and they’d wind up in prison with their brother or worse.
But Cudge, being a more sophisticated sort, appreciated the honesty and began his explanation. “The only thing that can affect a full vampire is the sun.”
“Full vampire?” The idea turned Sterne’s stomach. He had a funny feeling they were in a whole lot more trouble than they even knew. “So, there is such a thing as a half- vampire?”
“Like a half-brother?” Hopkins picked the worst time to make a childish comparison.
Cudge was kind enough to keep his opinion to himself. “That’s correct.”
“What is Abel?” Sterne recalled meetings with the creature that occurred in daylight hours.
“He’s half; actually I think he might be a half a half. All servants at Castle Lackfi are only part. They were created to be the day time protectors of the full bloods.”
“That’s a dangerous creature.” Sterne devised. “Abel has all the power of a vampire without the weakness?”
“Well, no. Not exactly. Their abilities are limited.” “Abel was limited?” Sterne tried not to think on how
fearsome a creature he was. He focused on Meeshka instead, worried over her vampiric power and eager to learn exactly what it was when a thought came to him. “So that means that she can’t be in sunlight?”
Cudge shook his head. “Speaking of sunlight…” He felt himself flush warm. The sky around him brightened and he knew he had only minutes before he turned to a toasted bat snack. “I will tell you everything you need if you find me shelter.” He chastised himself for waiting so long to find safety.
Sterne looked around, realizing they were no where near a place that could be called shelter. He shrugged when the only suggestion that came to mind was to open his coat and offer the bat refuge inside the folds of it. The notion appalled Hopkins. Cudge flew in without a second thought. “Thank you.”
Cudge twitched around inside the jacket trying to find a comfortable position. It tickled. “Tell me about Meeshka.” He ordered when the movement stopped.
“She’s half.” The bat’s voice sounded far away and sleepy.
“Not just half, but half of one of the most powerful vampires in the entire clan. She may as well be pure bred. Capturing her will be quite a challenge.”
“How do you make a half a vampire?” “Her Mother was human.”
Sterne thought on that for a while. “You know this Meeshka?”
“Why did she run away? Was it really because of the wedding?”
“Partly. But, I think she wanted to know what it felt like to be human.” The first rays of sunshine spilled over the hill and Cudge sensed it. His body tensed, hoping the hiding spot provided enough protection. He felt the warmth of the sun hit Sterne’s coat, but it stopped there and he cuddled against the man with relief. He smelled masculine, normally a disgusting scent to Cudge’s delicate nose; he had a feeling he’d become intimately familiar with the smell in the coming days.
“Is it so different?” Sterne asked.
“Being a vampire?” Sterne had as yet to lay eyes upon Meeshka, but he understood her struggle to escape the ties of family. He toyed with the idea daily.
“There is nothing in your experience that I could compare it too. It’s violent and cruel, dark and sinister. It’s all the bad stories you’ve ever heard as a child rolled into one.” Cudge thought sugar-coating his answer might be a mistake if he were to prepare these men. Besides, Sterne proved himself a man of honesty thus far, Cudge wanted to honor it.
“There must be something good, somewhere.” Sterne puzzled over the thought of true, all-encompassing evil. Did such a thing really exist? “What about the half’s? They’re half human, so there is a light to the dark.”
Cudge laughed so hard that Sterne’s coat shook in little vibrating motions. Hopkins looked over with a sickened expression. “Gross.” He stated and pushed ahead with his horse.
“You think that humans are the light?” Cudge asked. “You have a lot of faith in some rather loathsome creatures.”
“I don’t know. People surprise me all the time.” Sterne responded. “Do you know a lot of humans?”
“Are they all loathsome, as you say?”
“Most.” Of course there was Valeria, Meeshka’s Mother. She above all other humans, Cudge held in the highest regard. Beautiful, gifted, resourceful and so compassionate, she shined like a beacon light. Cudge refused to speak of her. The tracker couldn’t possibly understand what the world lost when Count Nikolai killed her.