Some of the dialogue in the story is written in the dialect of the English/Scottish Border Country, and it may be impenetrable to some readers (especially Americans). I apologise for that, it can’t really be helped. A glossary would make reading the story too laborious, and there isn’t anything vital in the dialect passages; only some of the jokes. However if it does give you trouble then just skip this story and return to ‘The Cloak of Mist’, the next chapter of which will be coming soon.
1613. The Baltic States during the ‘Ingermanland War’ between Sweden and Russia. An English mercenary in the service of the Swedes discovers that becoming a vampire is less of a change than you might think. Rating probably R. 3,300 words.
I woke in darkness. Earth pressed upon me. I was buried beneath the soil. Terror filled me, and I forced up my arms, and clawed at the earth, and pushed myself upwards. Had I been buried alive? I remembered the girl, and her teeth in my throat, and my senses leaving me. My comrades must have thought me dead and I was entombed.
It took me a long time to free myself from the embrace of the cold earth. I feared that I would suffocate, and yet I felt no need to draw breath. I did not understand how I was surviving, yet was glad of it, and at last I forced my head up into the air. Still I needed no breath. I freed my hands, and then my arms, and pushed myself up from my grave.
It was night. There was light only from a few stars; and yet somehow I could see clearly, as well as if there had been a full moon, or better. The first thing I took notice of was the girl.
She stood watching me as I climbed from the earth, a cold smile upon her face. She no longer wore the garb of a tavern wench, but a rich brocade gown; the apparel of a gentlewoman.
“How! Ye! Did ye bury me, ye mazy bitch?” I growled at her. I realised as I spoke that there was something odd about my mouth. Dirt from the grave caught under my lips, I thought at first, but when I raised my fingers to clear it away I found that it was my teeth that were not as they had been. They were sharp, and pointed, and longer than before.
“I do not understand you,” she said in heavily accented English. “What language is that?”
“Lallands, pet,” I told her. Something strange was going on, and I was confused.
“Lowlands? Low Countries? You are then a Dutchman?”
I laughed. “Why nae, hinny, ah’m a true Englishman, a man o’ Tynedale in the Middle March,” I told her. Her puzzled frown showed that she could not follow my accent, and so I switched to High German. “I’m English. Now, lady, tell me what you have done to me, and tell me quick, or I shall cut off your pretty nose.”
Her smile returned, cold and cruel and sly. “You will not,” she said in the same tongue, a note of command in her tone.
I had started to slip one of my knives from under my jerkin, but my hand stopped its motion without my willing it.
She laughed. “You can not disobey your Sire.”
“Sire? What are you talking about?”
“I made you. I drained your blood and fed you mine. You are Undead, Englishman, as am I. A vampire.”
“Ye wit? Ah’m undeid, ye say? Ye bugger.” I rubbed my hands together to cleanse them of dirt and then felt my face. “Ah’ve got greet big teeth!” I exclaimed, alarmed. Hastily I felt higher up and heaved a sigh of relief. “Ah weel, at least ah divvent hev greet big googly eyes.”
She tutted in irritation. “Speak German. I thought I knew English, but I do not understand you. Or speak in Russian, or French, if you know those languages.”
“I speak both, mademoiselle,” I told her in French. “Also Swedish, and both High and Low German, and Danish, and some Polish and a smattering of the Livonian tongues. Now, mademoiselle, explain yourself. You are not the tavern wench I took you for, that is plain. What are you, and what have you done to me?” I paused as I realised that I was feeling pangs of ravenous hunger. “And why, if I am dead, am I so hungry?”
“I shall explain all after you have fed,” she promised, and then called out in Russian. “Maris! Your new grandson is hungry.”
“Patience, child,” a deep male voice answered, and a tall man came into view. He was elegantly clad, with lace trimmings to his sleeves, and a black cloak of some rich material. He was dragging a peasant maid along by the arm. Her mouth was secured by a gag and her eyes rolled wildly in fear. The maid’s bodice was cut low, and much of her breasts showed, but I found that my eyes were drawn to her throat. I realised that I was salivating.
“Ah think ah’m getting the idea, ye knaa, like,” I muttered. “Ah drink blude. That reet, pet?” The girl rolled her eyes and frowned, and so I repeated myself in French.
“Yes, you drink the blood of the living,” the man confirmed in the same language. “They are our cattle. Inferior beings fit only for our banquet tables. Take this one and drink. After this, however, you must find prey for yourself.” He pushed the maid towards me. She stumbled, and would have fallen, but I caught her and pulled her to me.
My fangs were in her throat almost before I realised what I was doing.
“Why aye ye bugger!” I exclaimed as I tossed aside the limp and drained corpse. “Ah must’ve been clammed as a lop. That was a canny bit drink, ye knaa.” I basked in the warm contented feeling that was spreading through my body, and experienced additional pleasure as I realised that my teeth were shrinking and my face returning to its previous shape. “The greet big teeth are just for havin’ a bit bait, then? Ah’m still a bonny lad.” As the blood reached all parts of my body I became aware of other hungers, and looked down at the girl’s body with annoyance. “Bugger. Ah canna fuck her noo she’s deid. Ye up for a bit shag, then, hinny?”
The vampire woman gazed at me with blank incomprehension and some measure of anger. “Speak some language that I can understand, Englishman.”
“I beg your pardon, mademoiselle,” I said in French. “I was merely expressing regrets that the demise of this young woman somewhat precludes fornication with her, and I find myself filled with lustful desires. Perhaps you would oblige?”
The man glowered at me and raised a hand as if to strike a blow. “Insolence!” he almost spluttered. “Be more respectful to your Sire.
“Peace, Maris,” she bade him. “He is but a fledgling, and does not yet know his place in this world.
“He had best learn quickly,” Maris sniffed. “What is your name, Englishman?”
“Jack Robson,” I answered him plainly.
“Robson?” the girl laughed. “Does that mean you are the son of a robber, a thief?”
She thought to mock me, but I merely bowed slightly and smiled back at her. “Aye, ye cud say thot. It’s a reet riding surname, a Reiver name, an’ we tak wit we wannit an’ allus hev done.” I reverted back to French. “May I know your name, mademoiselle?”
“I am Daina,” she answered. “This is Maris Smulyan; Boyar, vampire lord, and my Sire. Obey him.”
I had my own ideas about that, but made no comment. “And what do you want me to do? I assume you have not recruited me into the ranks of the Undead merely to enjoy my company.”
“We want rid of your Company of mercenaries,” Maris growled. “They wreak devastation throughout our homeland. Threaten our slaves and our food source. Twice they have wiped out entire villages!”
I shrugged. “Last year, during the Kalmar War, a Norwegian peasant girl led George Sinclair’s Free Company into a trap at Kringen and they were all massacred. Since then we take no chances. If anything looks in the least suspicious we kill everybody.”
“It cannot be allowed to continue,” the vampire Boyar said firmly. “They must die.”
“We’ll gan awa hyem if the Rooskies bring enough sojers heyor,” I replied in my own dialect, enjoying the frustrated annoyance on their faces, and then relented and gave an explanation in French. “The Swedes only want to force the Russians to split their forces. We harass the area until the Russians are forced to send a large force here to protect the populace; if that happens we will depart. Of course then the Swedes will have the advantage in the main campaign. So far there’s been only one regiment of dragoons found us, and that wasn’t enough to do any good.”
“I know. The survivors fled to my castle,” Maris revealed. “They did not know it was the stronghold of a vampire, of course, but when they found out they regarded me as the lesser peril.” He sniffed, seeming offended at the idea. “Even when we gave them immortality they still fear your former comrades.”
“Aye, wor lads are hard lads,” I grinned, but then adopted a serious expression and reverted to French. “So what are you going to do about them? If you plan to pick them off one by one, you might get a couple more but then they’ll come looking, in force, and yonder village will get burned to the ground for a start. Is your castle that little keep off to the north?”
“You have seen it?” Maris looked perturbed.
“Of course. We don’t move into an area without reconnaissance,” I told him. “We all grew up around castles just like that, what we call ‘Peel Towers’, and we know how to deal with them. I could take it with thirty men; and there are three hundred and forty in the Company.”
His expression grew more worried. “Why could you not have stayed in England?” he muttered.
“Because King James would have had us all hanged.”
“Would that he had done so,” Maris lamented. “No, I will not try to pick off so many men little by little. I shall act boldly. We attack the camp tonight. Your task is to clear the way from the inside. Pick off the sentries. Kill the commander if you can. Once the way is open I shall lead the attack.”
“With how many? I doubt if as many as thirty of the dragoons got away,” I pointed out. “You plan to take on the Black Company with thirty-odd men? We destroyed a hundred and fifty in ten minutes not a week ago. You’re mad. Dead sentries, surprise, it won’t be enough. You’ll be slaughtered. And you expect me to join you in such foolishness?”
“You have no choice,” he said smugly. “You are one of us now, the living dead. You are forgetting that. We are far stronger than puny humans. Faster, too. Bullets cannot kill us. Only a wooden shaft through the heart, or fire, or decapitation, can bring us to an end. Holy Water burns us, as do crosses, and daylight is also fatal, but those will not be factors tonight.”
“Ye divvent say,” I muttered. “All right. I’ll do my part.” I turned to the woman, Dania. “I shall expect to be rewarded in your bed.”
“If you do well,” she assented, with a coquettish smile, “I shall reward you with my favours.”
I didn’t trust her an inch.
It would not have been wise to try to creep up on the camp, even for me, so I walked up boldly. Hob’s Jock challenged me, and I gave the countersign.
“Why Jack, lad, ye’ve bin gan a lang time,” he greeted me, stepping out from behind a tree. “We’ve bin reet worried, ye knaa. Auld Tom wis thinkin’ ye’d cam a mischief.”
“Why nae, man, ah just met a bonny lass,” I explained. “Took a lang time ower it, ye knaa.”
“Aye, Jack, ye’re a canny lad,” he grinned. “Best awa an’ report, like.”
“Ah’ll dae that reet awa,” I promised, and went on into the camp. I sensed where someone was standing still out of sight covering Hob’s Jock, probably Willie o’ the Mill, but I did no more than nod in his direction.
I headed straight for the tent of Auld Tom Charlton, the Captain of our Company. He was asleep, but his man Lang Wattie was standing guard, and he roused the Captain at my word.
I went into the tent when Auld Tom called for me, and found him tucking his shirt into his breeches. “Ah’m nae ower fond o’ ye the noo, Jack O’ the Shadows,” he addressed me. “Ye’ve bin awa a neet an’ a day, an’ that’s nae like ye. Ah was thinkin’ on mebbe takin a hostage or twa the morrow, an’ askin’ a deal o’ pointed questions o’ yon villagers. We thocht ye wis deid, man.”
I drew back my lips in a mirthless grin. “Why, Captain,” I told him, my fingers inches from the hilt of one of my knives, “ah am deid.”
I whirled a match-cord over my head in the agreed signal. Hob’s Jock lay on his face under a bush, only his feet protruding. Auld Tom’s tent was dark and silent. I had belted on my dag, my heavy wheel-lock pistol, and had donned a sword too; I was ready to do some serious killing. The way was clear for the vampires to enter the camp.
They emerged from the trees and slipped past the sentry line without challenge. Maris the Boyar, Daina, and twenty-six others. A couple looked like serving men, but the others were obviously the remnants of the dragoon regiment we had defeated. Some of them had harquebuses, but most had only swords. They began to spread out towards the tents, somewhat nervously.
Daina gave me a cold smile and headed for a tent. Maris stopped to praise me. “You have done well,” he said.
“Aye, ah hev thot,” I acknowledged, and raised my voice in a shout. “Howay, lads, up an’ at them!”
The tents were thrown open and the Company poured out. Hob’s Jock rolled out from under his bush, a longbow in his hand. Lang Wattie stepped from the Captain’s tent, his bow already nocked, and loosed his shaft at Daina. I had asked that she be first to die, for I feared the power of command she had over me, and my request had been granted.
Each man of the Company grabbed a lance from the stacks beside the tents. We used them as pikes when we fought on foot, and we were all well practised in that skill. In seconds a forest of points faced the vampires and they wavered.
“You have betrayed us!” Maris snarled, and drew sword. “Die, then, for no mere fledgling can stand before a Master Vampire.”
I drew my dag, and Maris laughed. “No pistol can slay me,” he scoffed.
I laughed in my turn, and fired. His leg shattered under the impact of the heavy bullet and he fell screaming to the ground. “Ye’re nae gannin tae win ower me in a sword-fight if ye’re hoppin’,” I said gleefully. I put away the dag, drew my own sword, charged him and hacked off his head.
It was all over in a couple of minutes. The rest of Europe might have gone over entirely to the harquebus and the musket but we still kept our longbows, for night work at least, for they had no match-cord to give away our position in the dark. Those vampires that attacked died on the lance-points; those that fled disintegrated under a hail of arrows.
Auld Tom came over to join me, followed by Will o’ the Breeks and Lang Wattie. Will pulled his morion from his head and grinned at me. “Thot wis ower ower soon,” he lamented. “Ah nivvor got tae loose a shaft.”
“Ye’re a divvil, Will,” I grinned back.
“Aye, but nae as much a one as ye,” he riposted.
“Nae loot,” Auld Tom grumbled. “They’s aye turnit tae dust, clothes an’ aal.”
“Why, there’s a Peel Tower standin’ empty noo,” I pointed out. “There’ll be loot an’ tae spare there, ah’ll bet.”
“Aye,” Auld Tom nodded, his eyes lighting up. “We’ll gan ower in the morn.”
“Ah canna gan wi’ ye,” I grumbled. “Nae more sun for me, ye knaa.”
“Aal yer ain fault,” Auld Tom reminded me unsympathetically. “Ah aye said yor weakness for the bonny lassies’d get ye killit, an’ ah wis reet enough. That’ll larn ye.”
“Ah nivvor even got the shag,” I moaned. “Ah weel, there’s lassies in the village, an’ they shud be pleased tae reward the heroes wha freed them frae the rule o’ the vampires. Happen they’ll be willing enough tae part theor legs for us.”
Will and Lang Wattie laughed and punched me on the shoulder. “An’ if they divvent,” Lang Wattie suggested, “ye can allus eat them.”
Auld Tom looked at the piles of dust that had been Maris and Daina and shook his head. “Ah divvent knaa how they cud be sae stoopit as tae think ye’d just join them. Did they thinkit that we’d aye cast ye oot?”
“They thocht me nae mair fit for the company o’ gude Christian folk,” I replied. “They’d nivvor hord the auld Border sayin’.”
Auld Tom obliged with the first line, mimicking a Southern English accent for the purpose of quoting a long ago visitor to Liddesdale who had expressed surprise at finding no churches. “Are there then no Christians here?”
“Nae,” we chorused the punch line. “We’s aal Elliots an’ Armstrangs.” We were Robsons and Charltons, Storeys, Nixons, Dodds, Kerrs, Fenwicks and Milburns as well as Elliots and Armstrongs, but the principle was the same. Good Christian men were in very short supply in the Black Company.
The local vampires had assumed that my comrades would be horrified by my transformation into a bloodthirsty killer and that my only sanctuary thereby lay with them. They had overlooked the fact that our whole business was to kill people for money. Our people had been doing it for well over a century of unremitting war and feud. My own family had once hanged seven men of the Grahams merely because the sheep we’d stolen from them had turned out to be infected with sheep scab and it had spread to our own flocks. We were hard men, and ruthless. My new taste for drinking blood was merely a minor quirk in the eyes of the men of the Company, no more to be despised or feared than were Allun the Big Jessie’s gender preferences or Bangtail Rabbie’s farting; in fact in the latter case probably a lot less so.
There were certainly going to be disadvantages to my new condition, such as having to travel wrapped in tent-cloths on the back of a pack-horse when the Company moved by day, but all in all it could have been a lot worse. My primary job in the Company had always been to scout ahead and cut the throats of our enemies in the dark, and that was why they called me Jack O’ the Shadows; the only difference now was that I wouldn’t just let the blood soak into the ground and go to waste. There would be enough carnage ahead to keep any vampire satisfied.
Three years later …
“It’s peace,” Auld Tom announced to his assembled lieutenants, including me. “They’ve aye signed a treaty at Stolbova. Sweden’s won, though they divvent get quite aal they’d demanded, an’ there’s a canny bit pay-off for the Company.” There was a general cheer, although without excessive enthusiasm; it meant that we were unemployed. Auld Tom turned to me. “Ye’ll hev tae stop wi’ the blude-drinkin’ a whiles, lad. Can ye dae it?”
“Ah’ll get by on sheep an’ pigs until we find anower war,” I assured him. “Ah hear tell the Spanish an’ the Italians are fightin’. Mebbe there’s a place for us doon there. Ah hear tell the Italian lassies are reet bonny.”
“Still the same Jack,” he laughed. “Ye’ll nivvor larn. Ah weel, ye’ve done a gude job wi’ us these past three years. Ye’re a canny lad, Jack.”
“Aye,” I agreed, smiling back at him. “Deid canny.”