The Lost Vampire Journals Book 2
Copyright © Helen Allan, 2019
Hell West Press
ISBN: Paperback Edition: 9780648554677
All rights reserved.
The right of Helen Allan to be identified as the author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.
Books by Helen Allan
Hora E Sempre
Short Crust Pastry
To the woman who wants a rich man who will keep her in luxury... be careful what you wish for.
Books by Helen Allan
The Kept Series
The Sorrow Series
The Gypsy Blood series
The Vampire Knights Series
The Cassie’s Coven Series
The Hunted Series
For a full list of books visit: www.helenallan.com
Hora E Sempre
Now and Always
“Your heart is racing,” he murmurs, his eyes intent, “take a slow breath, Josephine.”
“I’m sorry,” I gulp and push the glass further away from me, “I have asthma, this wine must be reacting with me, perhaps I had better leave.”
“You don’t have asthma,” he says gently, reaching over to place one cool hand upon mine, “and I desire that you stay a little longer. After all, it will be our last meal…together,” he adds after a moment.
‘Oh fuck, he’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me. This is my last supper; he’s going to kill me.’
“Relax, Josephine, please,” he adds gently, “it is not my intent to scare you to death.”
‘No,; you are going to torture me to death.’
I wipe my shirt-front self-consciously, noting the milk stains with a grimace, as I stand at the ticket counter and wait for the woman to tell me what my options are.
As far as I can see I only have one; get as far away from Boston as I possibly can, as fast as I possibly can – like now.
Even as I wait, I’m conscious of the fact that night has fallen outside, and I am being hunted by a bloodthirsty vampire who plans to dispose of me in any number of terrifying ways. At least I think he’s a vampire; that or a psychotic maniac who believes he’s a vampire, although, he does rip people’s heads off with his bare hands, so I’m leaning towards real vampire. Either way, a man who kills for fun is planning to kill me. And I don’t even want to contemplate the kinds of methods he could devise.
I’m so frightened. I can’t even think of a destination.
“Uh, can you hurry it up a little, please?” I add the last word in a polite voice to the stern-looking woman behind the counter. I estimate she is mid-fifties and has had a gutful of rude travellers because she has a face that reads: ‘Barbara-stone-faced-bitch – fuck with me at your peril.’
I guess I should have noticed that sooner.
“What seems to be the rush?” she looks up, scrutinising me as though I’m a terrorist just waiting to board the plane and blow it to shit, or a drug mule; my arse packed with coke.
“I just really need to leave,” I say apologetically, aware that my hair is awry, my face flushed, my shirt stained, and that I have no baggage.
‘Shit, I do look like a drug mule,’
“I uh,” I allow a few tears to just creep out of the corners of my eyes, which frankly, isn’t a stretch of my acting skills at this point, given that my fear is now off the Richter scale. “I’ve just left my boyfriend. He’s, well, he will kill me if he catches me. I know a woman like you can’t possibly understand my position or how I’m feeling, but if I don’t get out of here now, as far away as I possibly can, I know he will find me - and I’m almost wetting my pants, I’m so scared.”
She places her pen down on the counter carefully and leans towards me.
“You don’t need to be scared,” she whispers conspiratorially, “I’ll get you on a plane. Just wait for the screen to load, and I’ll priority board you.”
“Thank you,” I breathe, “thank you so much.”
“We women need to stick together,” she says, her mouth a grim line.
After a few moments, me still hopping from foot to foot in nervous agitation, she looks up and smiles.
“Is London far enough?”
“It’s a start.”
She nods, and I bring out my wad of cash.
If she still has any concerns that I am running drugs, I know this will surely set off a chain of events that will see me bending over and getting friendly with a rubber glove – but she obviously hasn’t. She takes my money, issues me a ticket and directs me to a private waiting lounge.
“It’s for first-class, so just duck down in there, you have 30 minutes before your flight. When it’s due I’ll send someone for you, and you can slip straight on.”
“Thank you,” I smile and turn to go, but she calls out after me.
“Oh, and honey.”
I turn slowly.
“You enjoy yourself down there and have a couple of stiff drinks, OK? Everything is going to be alright.”
I smile my gratitude and, clutching my bag of books, my entire worldly possessions now, I scuttle off in the direction of the lounge.
As soon as I enter, I feel more relaxed.
The people around me are well-dressed, quiet, heads down in laptops or newspapers. If Margarita were here she would have said ‘whoo-eee, fancy,’ but she isn’t, she is dead. And since there is a chance I am going to wind up the same way very soon, I don’t have time to appreciate the sophisticated elegance of my surroundings – I need a drink.
I walk straight to the bar and do as the check-in lady commanded, order a stiff drink; whisky on the rocks. Downing that in two quick, hot swallows, I order another and, nursing it, head to a quiet, dimly lit corner where a squishy tan leather lounge is nestled near a potted palm and a small coffee table.
Sighing, I fold down into the chair, sip my drink and close my eyes for a second, taking a deep breath, before reaching into my bag and pulling out my mother’s well-worn recipe book. There is comfort in these pages, in the notes written in her tiny handwriting, in the recipes and the memories they invoke. I need to find something new to practise now that I’ve mastered the sauces. I wonder what I should concentrate on next to ensure I have a more complete understanding of French cuisine. But the words swim before my eyes; I can’t concentrate on tastes when I’m under the threat of being tasted myself, by a vampire.
Taking another deep breath, I put the recipe book back and withdraw the new journal James had given me; the vampire’s very first journal, stolen and spirited away from the UK by the possibly murdered, possibly not-yet-murdered, Lucy Bernshire.
I don’t want to read it – Blake was right about one thing, these books freaked me out, gave me nightmares, put shit into my head I really did not need in there. But knowledge is also power.
“Know thy enemy,” I whisper, opening the journal and hoping against all hope I find some magic bullet that will render my pursuer dead in the water and allow me to return to my nice, safe, ordinary life.
Journal 1, in the year of our Lord 1537
Given that Constance’s family has fallen on hard times, and my father no longer supports our betrothal, this night we wed in secret.
I start this journal as proof of my undying love and commitment to the one I adore, and as written legitimacy to her claim on my inheritance should I die during my forced departure from Ereston, to the court in London, where the plague runs riot.
I have written my will and testament and ensured that while I have little fluid funds, those I do have and are entitled to, will go to Constance. It is my intention that this wealth will allow my wife to thrive comfortably until the Estate comes into her possession and can produce compensation. This may take some time, given the lands are burdened with debt due to my father’s mismanagement and overspending.
In writing this will, in leaving my entitled property and possessions to my wife, I know I will go expressly against the resolve of my father. I know and have told my beloved, that should my death precede my father’s there is no chance he will allow my will to be honoured - but she accepts me regardless, in richer and poorer. I can only pray that I outlive him if even for a day, should this plague reach our house, as it has so many others.
As for my forced separation from my new wife. My own parents insist publicly to Constance’s mother and father, their ‘good friends,’ Mr and Mrs Ingleby that my going to court will expand my mind and allow Constance to reach maturity before marriage.
But in truth, since the Ingleby’s have lost their fortune, and now live in our lesser Manor house on the eastern edge of Ereston Estate, this is not so. My father and mother have appeared to be continual and particular supporters of the family, they have offered sustained companionship and aid to Constance and her mother and a small stipend to Mr Ingleby to allow him to continue his business operations and work himself out of debt – but behind closed doors they revile them for their mistakes.
They also now make motions to secure me, their heir, a more worthy wife, one of status and consequence, one with money.
“She is no longer befitting the heir to Ereston,” my droll and avaricious bitch of a stepmother intoned just a few days ago.
My father agreed.
“Your separation will cure you of your affection for her when you see what lovelies there are at court, what sophisticated and worthy young matches you can encounter, when your eyes are not blinded by puppy love.”
Both could not be more wrong.
I could not part from her, as decreed by Mother and Father, without our bond being secured. And although we have not consummated our marriage, lest a pregnancy ensue, we are bound in the eyes of God.
Our joining was performed and witnessed by our Catholic parish priest, illegally of course, since the King has changed our country’s religion. But Constance is, as I am at heart, Catholic, and so there was no contest as to whom would witness our troth.
Our secret nuptials were also, in truth, the priest’s opportunity to thwart my father, who has had the church’s paintings whitewashed, and stained glass windows smashed at the behest of the crown, and who, being a favourite of the King, has absorbed the surrounding land, cemetery and all, into Ereston.
Tomorrow I must leave for London. My heart is heavy, it feels as if I can hardly breathe with the pain of our separation, and I know, dear Constance feels it just as deeply.
I have told her I will record all my daily doings in this journal – keep my conversations and thoughts recorded for her and posterity and remain true and faithful to our marriage.
I must sleep now. The journey starts early and is long.
I close the book as my flight is announced and frown, it didn’t seem like I had waited long at all, or maybe I was so absorbed in what I was reading the time had flown.
He seems so young, so full of hope, so good at this time. Obviously, something terrible happens to turn him into the sarcastic and murderous creature he is now.
Whatever. It is my turn to head to London now, and I have a hell of a lot more to worry about than the fucking plague.
London is not far enough, not nearly far enough, but I can’t go to Paris – too obvious.
I bite my nails as I sit, hunched and dejected, in my plane seat and think through my options. I don’t have much money left, just a little over $1500 – so another long flight, say Bali, is out of the question.
Ideally, I’d head to France, to Rennes, the place my maternal grandparents hailed from before their move to the US. I’ve longed to see this place ever since I was a little girl.
But I think he would suspect France.
“Where? Where would he least expect me to go?” I whisper, thankful that the two seats next to me are empty.
The answer comes to me as I glance to the seat on my right and see the spine of the journal peeking out of my bag.
‘I would have to be the world’s biggest fucking idiot to walk right into the spider’s web – but he knows I’m not an idiot, he’s been watching me for months….at least I hope I’m not an idiot…am I?’
My nails are down to the quick, my fingers bleeding, by the time my decision is made.
When the plane lands and I clear customs, I walk quickly outside and hail a taxi.
“Ereston?” the driver snorts, “neva heard of it, Luv.”
“I think it is a very large estate, somewhere in the country…” I frown at my own idiocy as I see him chuckle.
“There are a few of em,” he chortles, “a few that’s for sure, owned by them what call themselves aristocrats; parasites the lot of em. Own most of the mother country they do, but where they all are, that’s not a question for a London cabby.”
“OK, um,” I realise the meter is running, and I have to take some time to gather my thoughts and settle my plans, not to mention research where the hell it is I am planning to run to. “I need somewhere to stay, somewhere cheap. But safe,” I add as an afterthought.
“Hotel or hostel?”
“Hostel, uh, somewhere near the main train line. I want to be able to head out to the country as soon as possible.” I don’t add that I also want a quick escape route.
“Gotcha,” he nods, pulling his little black cab out into the traffic.
I grit my teeth and clutch my bag to my chest as he drives. Every nerve seems on end, and I can’t even take the time to appreciate it when we pass Big Ben, although it had been on my bucket list for ages.
Finally, he pulls into a parking spot on a busy road and points to a large building with a big blue ‘International Youth Hostel’ sign on it.
Pulling out my wad of cash, I apologise for paying him in American dollars, but he doesn’t complain.
Stepping out of the safety of the vehicle, onto the sidewalk, I scurry up the wide rock stairs and into the front doors of the building as though the hounds of hell are sniffing me out and even a moment on the footpath could leave a scent – and for all I know they just might be.
Ensconced on the top bunk of an eight-bed shared room, I finally take a moment to try and calm down.
This is one of the cheapest, and frankly the most secure, beds in the hostel, given that there are seven others sleeping in the room. I don’t want to risk innocent lives, but at the very least I have seven potential witnesses should a crazed bloodsucker burst through the door and attempt to pop my head off.
Resting now, I open the journal, searching for a clue as to where the vampire’s grand estate is located.
England is, I’ve discovered, far bigger than I thought it was. Its little footprint on the world map is actually quite deceiving. A Google search has garnered me nothing and, given the hostel was being run by a revolving door of backpackers, no one on the desk could help me either. My only hope, at this point, jetlagged and upset as I am, is to hope the book can point me in the right direction.
I try to concentrate on the words before me, but I’m hungry. I’m too scared, though, to venture out to find food, and my tummy grumbles angrily.
I am afraid this will annoy dear Constance, but I have lost track of the dates, and have determined to simply write, ‘new entry’ from now on if I am to find the time to journal.
I am settled here now, in rooms near Oxford. They afford me a close enough proximity to the court, and remind me of happier times when I studied here as a younger man. But my heart still aches for home.
My days are spent in Father’s business, doing little more than acting as a figurehead. My nights, at my father’s behest, are spent at court, making friends in high places. I know Father is trying to secure me a position in the royal entourage, but I detest the very idea. I loathe this shaking of hands and patting of shoulders more than I can say. Such false representations of a man’s character surely run counter-productive to respectable associations. But Father says those of us endowed with riches must maintain them, and that business associations and good marriages are what enable us to do so.
He should know, my stepmother is the fourth ‘mother’ I have known, and each one has brought with them a significant dowry that has been advantageous, to say the least, to Father’s fortunes. Each one I have also been obliged to call ‘mother’ but none have ever been one to me.
No, the only warmth and love in my life, has come from Constance and her excellent parents.
I have written to her daily since arriving but have received only two letters in return. My man-servant assures me he is delivering everything to me as it arrives, but up until this morning I was beginning to suspect he was working with my mother to ensure I was deliberately estranged from my wife.
However, not two hours ago I received a missive from my darling, assuring me all was well, and that she had been particularly busy and so, unable to write.
I wonder what she is doing? I would have thought that running a smaller household along with her very capable mother would have freed her up to write to me. But she is still doing her father’s accounts, and I must believe that he is working harder than ever to restore the family fortunes.
Mother and Father are visiting. They say I am unable to return to Ereston for Christmas as work is being done to extend the house, and it is uninhabitable for a time.
I suspect they simply want me to stay away from Constance, and it angers me no end. But Mother insists a State Bedroom must be installed in the manor, and so the open entry hall, where the carriages once pulled up to allow guests to enter the home through the commanding front staircase, is to be covered and included inside the manor. An entirely new wing will house the new bedroom.
For myself, I cannot fathom how a manor with 90 rooms, 88 of which have fireplaces, could possibly need another wing. As Constance is now fully aware, some families live in homes with a mere handful of rooms and others, still, such as our tenants, share rooms with their livestock.
I told Father I see no reason whatsoever to build an entire wing on the off-chance the King and Queen will pass by – but apparently, it is something all the Lords are doing, despite the fact that in the past the king has always taken his bed on the road with him. It is, according to Mother, the new status symbol for all families of means to have a bed fit for a king available at all times – and she is determined we will not be left behind in displaying our status through such a room.
Father says the King will likely tour the realm once the queen has recovered from the imminent birth of their child, hoped by all to be a son – and when he does, nobles like he hope to host the pair and take the opportunity to press the monarch for favours.
But the expense of the bedroom is so great that Father says he may have to raise the rents to pay for the bed; a silk and timber monstrosity that will take up one-third of the new room.
“I cannot condone this, Father,” I remonstrated with him just today, “already our tenants feel strain from our lack of maintenance on their homes. With Winter coming, many will die if we continue to take from the land and give nothing in return.”
“That will be on your head,” Mother sniped. “We would not have to scrimp for this venture if you would marry a woman of substance.”
“I intend to marry the woman I have loved for many years, Mother, as you well know,” I replied. “I trust you are ensuring she and her mother are well looked after in my absence.”
“She is well-employed,” she sniffed.
I felt there was an inference there, one that had a dark undercurrent.
“Mother, should anything untoward happen to my beloved while I am away, you should know, I will never marry – and when Father dies, should you survive him, I will kick you out onto the street penniless.”
She slapped me then. As mothers are sometimes wont to do. And I probably deserved it.
But still, I will ensure I journey back to Ereston next Easter at the latest if I am to Christmas away from home. That is six months away, and no amount of work on the manor will deter me.
I close the journal, succumbing to my stomach’s rumbling insistence. There is nothing for it. I need to eat. I’d been unable to eat the food on the plane; my stomach had felt like a fist was gripping it, and I’d had nervous diarrhoea for much of the flight. Now though, I was hungry.
Pushing the book back into my bag firmly, I put the straps over my shoulder and head downstairs.
As I reach the front lobby, a young couple comes in, bicycles in hand, and lean them against the lobby wall. I can’t help but smile at how happy and carefree they look, how in love and in tune with each other. But my smile soon leaves my face when I glimpse through the frosted glass panels in the door and realise it is almost dark outside.
“Ugh,” I shake my head, “nope.”
Turning, downcast, I catch the eye of the young man behind the counter, who smirks and asks if he can help. His accent suggests Belgian, maybe Swedish, it’s hard to tell.
“I wanted to go out and get food. But not in the dark,” I shrug.
“You could order in,” he smiles.
“You have deliveries here?”
“It’s England, not the Antarctic,” he laughs, “here.”
He points me to a stack of fast-food flyers on the counter that I hadn’t noticed in my rush to book in, and I feel my face redden, and then pale.
I am hungry, but seeing the waning light outside, I realise I can’t risk it. I have to remain starving until daylight, because I am also utterly helpless and alone.
‘Get a grip, idiot. You are overtired and stressed to fuck out. Order a pizza and sleep. Like Dad used to say; everything will be better in the morning.’
Straightening my shoulders, I pull out my phone to dial for a pizza, just as it startles me by ringing. I close my eyes for a second when I see who it is; I was hoping not to have this conversation just yet.
Taking a deep breath, I move away from the front desk, plonk myself despondently down in one of the foyer chairs in the far corner, and answer.
“It’s not Blake.”
“I don’t understand; the caller identification said this was Blake’s number.”
“If by Blake you mean Officer Reynolds, then yes, this is his number. I’m calling using his phone.”
“Officer Reynolds is, how shall I put this, indisposed at the moment.”
“Fucking hell, James,” I hear my voice go up an octave, “what have you done?”
“Josephine for Christ’s sake, I haven’t done anything. I came to your apartment when I was released from jail, thank you for that by the way, and found your door unlocked. I came in because, and I freely admit this, I was going to steal back the journal I gave you, only I discovered your police officer friend.”
“When you say, discovered?” I feel a chill creeping up my spine, the back of my neck crawls.
“I’m afraid I am the bearer of bad tidings,” he sighs, “Officer Reynolds is dead.”
“Dead? Oh, my God! What happened? How?”
“Do you really want to know? Because I can paint a very ugly picture for you, standing as I am amid bits and pieces of him.”
“Oh, Jesus, oh fuck, oh fucking Jesus.”
“Even if he was real, he couldn’t help you. But I can, Josephine. Where are you?”
I look down at the phone, dropped at some point during the conversation into my lap, and put my face into my hands.
‘Dead? All my fault. Should have warned him…’
“Josephine? Are you still there? Tell me where you are. I can help you. I can protect you.”
I take my hands from my face, slowly, and shake my head.
“No, James, you can’t,” I whisper as I hang up and turn off my phone, speaking into the void. “No one can.”
I wait until my face has returned to its normal colour before dialling Margarita. I have tried every day since she disappeared, even though, deep down, part of me knows she is dead. Once again, I receive the usual message; ‘this phone is switched off or not in a mobile area.’
‘God, please don’t let her death have been terrible. Please don’t let her be in bits and pieces too.’
I sit for some time, staring at the phone in my lap, considering what to do, before deciding there was nothing to do, but to take stock of my situation, regroup my emotions and aim for the future, no matter how short that might be. I’m good at this, hadn’t I done it after Dad died? Me, only 17, still in school, no way to pay the mortgage, no relatives to go to – I’d regrouped. Had to sell the house, had to get a job, but I’d survived.
‘And I didn’t suffer all those years just to be eaten by a crazed vampire.’
Standing on shaky legs, I walk back to the counter and interrupt the young man who is busy flirting with another new arrival, a tall, tanned girl with beads in her plaits who looks like she has just arrived from some tropical, hedonistic beach world.
“Uh, can you call me a taxi, uh, please?”
“Sure, where do you want to go?”
“I, uh, I want to buy some clothes. Is anywhere open here at night where I can do that? And some food, but mainly, uh, clothes.”
“The Camden Markets are having a night festival, open till midnight,” the tall beach babe says, “I was planning on going, they have funky retro pre-loved gear, antiques, food stalls, so much.”
“Pre-loved,” I nod my head, “second-hand, you mean?”
“Yes,” I turn my eyes back to the man, “that is where I want to go.”
“Hey,” the girl smiles, a friendly, wide-eyed, never-heard-of-vampires-in-my-life-of-sunshine-and-surf, smile, “do you want to share a cab?”
I smile nervously at the maître de as he looks at me. I can tell he is feeling predisposed to like me at the moment, because I am dressed sexily in my little black dress, perfect make-up, squeezy second-hand heels, and I am giving him my full and undivided, breathy attention.
“My friend,” I put a heavy inflection on the word, “has made a reservation for a table for two and asked me to arrive separately.
“I see, Madam, and does your friend have a name?”
“I can’t say,” I whisper as I lean close to the counter, my cleavage more visible.
“I see,” he says conspiratorially, as he opens his heavy, leather-bound appointment book and scans the names before him. “Is it fair to say that your friend is someone who enjoys power and privilege?”
“It is,” I say quietly.
“Right this way please, Madam.”
I can’t believe my gamble paid off, but I try not to smile as I follow him to a small, private dining room with a roaring open fire. It features one table in the middle of the room, two chairs, white linen tablecloth, silver cutlery and crystal glasses, and is obviously perfect for the clandestine rendezvous so many high-powered men in London make with their lovers.
“Thank you,” I say quietly as he pulls out my chair, and I take a seat.
“Would Madam like a drink while she awaits her host?”
“Yes, champagne, please.”
He doesn’t ask me what type, so I have to assume he will serve the best, as he leaves momentarily, and I hear him giving instructions before returning with my waiter. As could be expected in the finest dining establishment in London, he will be mine, and only mine, for the duration of the evening.
“This is Amande,” the maître de says, introducing the man and watching as he pours my champagne into a crystal flute so delicate it sings as the bubbles rise, “and he will ensure you have everything you need.”
“Thank you,” I smile, leaning forward to ensure my cleavage is, once more, visible. I want him to think of me as a mistress, a lover, someone a man would risk his reputation and his marriage on. Someone who could give a man something his wife, children and respectable position could not – a little danger, a little spice, a lot of nice. If he notices he makes no show of it, but being a man, I am sure he did.
Once he has gone, I turn to Amande.
“My friend is running late; he phoned to tell me to order my meal, just in case he is held up longer than expected. May I see a menu please?”
“Of course, Madam. May I suggest the chef’s speciality?”
“No, thank you.”
I peruse the menu and smile. If I am going to die soon and let’s face it, there is a very, very good chance that is going to happen; I intend to go out with a stomach full of the finest and most expensive food money isn’t going to buy.
Even still, the prices make me gasp. I could buy ten dresses for the cost of one entrée here. They would be ten cheap dresses, sure, I mean I know a bargain when I see one, and I am watching my pennies. I can’t afford flashy clothes when I need to pay for travel and accommodation. But truth be told I wasn’t really one for expensive clothes anyway, not like Margarita. Thinking of my friend again makes me sad, and I shake my head a little and continue perusing the menu.
‘Where could she be? Could the vampire have killed her? Did he rip her apart first, to teach me a lesson? No, I just don’t think so. Would he have drunk her? No. She was not rich, not the country club type. He would not have targeted her for a meal. Where was she then? Could she actually be on honeymoon with her lover? But if so, why hadn’t she called me?’
My thoughts begin to whiz in every direction, from clothes to Margarita, to the strange Tudor life my pursuer led before becoming a vampire, back to clothes, back to the menu….
‘Jesus, get a grip. I’m thinking like a brain-damaged squirrel – Squirrel Nutkin, I’m that squirrel now.’
“Is everything alright, Madam?” my waiter asks, seeing me pause, menu in hand, to stare at the fire.
“Oh, yes, thank you, I was just thinking.”
I look up at him with sad eyes and receive a brief smile before returning my attention back to the menu.
The dishes are written in French and English, which I find a little gauche – I wonder if the English rich are not as well educated as the American rich if they need their French translated. I find dishes more attractive if they are written in their native language. Still, I was a bit of a food snob like that, which is probably why, I snort to myself, Margarita and I got on so well. She was a shoe snob, I was a food snob, between us we had gourmet tastes on a canteen budget.
Of course, if she could see the shoes I was wearing now, she would have a cow.
My feet are already aching in these heels, even though I am seated, but I hadn’t had as much ease finding footwear as I had clothing last night. I’d had to shop for both dressy clothes and day-to-day wear on a tight budget and a tight timeframe, given that I’d dashed out of my apartment back home with just the clothes on my back.
Consequently, the Camden markets last night had proven themselves to be worth their weight in gold. I had spent a total of seventy-five U.S dollars on my current outfit. It was designer, an old 1950’s label; a little black dress doesn’t date, the cut was great. The shoes are tight, but I don’t think you can go wrong with plain, black pumps, and the make-up was dime-store cheap. This outfit would service me in fine restaurants the world over. I’d also picked up a sleeping bag, some funky overalls and plain black joggers, a few T-shirts and a pair of old, faded jeans that fit perfectly. The bookstalls were mesmerising, so many wonderful tomes I wish I had time to read. Although I didn’t have the money for it or the room in my bag, I couldn’t resist a recipe book and ended up paying one pound for The Dairy Lover’s Cookbook which, I rationalised, might just save my life one day. I hadn’t managed to get any underwear, so I am going commando at the moment, but I will try to find a cheap shop tomorrow and rectify that.
The markets though, had provided everything else I had needed, including some much-needed mental clarity on my predicament. I’d wandered around the stalls and eaten a kebab and what the English call ‘chips’ in a paper bag, which were actually fat fries, and forced down two strawberry milkshakes before catching a taxi home before midnight. Strangely, the crowds, the noise, the cooking smells, and the interesting accents had soothed my rattled nerves and prevented me from worrying about anything other than retail therapy - until I returned to my room, that was.
Then, and only then, could I cry for Blake.
I’d spent much of today doing that, crying, cowering, biting my nails, before boldly dressing and following through on the plan I had pretty much come up with at the markets last night.
I will eat, drink, and be merry.
I will find my way to Ereston if I can. I will see if I can discover a way to avenge Blake and destroy this vampire before he can catch me.
“At the very least,” I told myself as I did my makeup, and sternly looked myself in the eye, “I will not give Lord Nicholas Montague the satisfaction of ruining my last few days or weeks on earth by turning me into a hysterical mess.”
I look up and smile at my waiter now, pointing to my first order of the evening. It seems to me the meals here are less adventurous than those in some of the Vegas restaurants. I can only hope that when I make it to Paris, which I am now determined I will do, that I can try more avant-garde meals.
“I think I will have the flamiche aux poireaux (leek flamiche) with an Alsace, for my main meal,” I begin.
“Madam will not take the sommelier’s recommendations?”
“Yes, the wine attendant.”
“You have a special attendant just to pair the wine and food?”
“We have five working the floor every evening,” he smiles.
‘Wow, I mean, I knew that was a job, but I’ve never had one attend me before.’
I try to compose myself and act nonchalant.
“How many people do you employ here?”
“Five sommelier’s and thirty wait staff work here every evening.”
“Can you tell me,” I ask, suddenly keen to find out as much as I can, “why do you write the menu in English and French?”
“It is what they do in English restaurants, it is expected,” he smiles, “but not in France. There the menus are in French only, naturally.”
“I thought so,” I smile and sigh, “I mean, I wouldn’t have expected anything less.”
“May I call the sommelier?”
I nod, and he walks out, returning momentarily with a short, bald man.
“If madam orders, I will make suggestions,” the sommelier smiles, all courtesy and kindness, just like the waiter. I wonder if they hire people with these personalities, or train them to be this way.
“I would like poulet valѐe d’auge (Normandy chicken),” I pause and look to the sommelier.
“Might I suggest an oaked chardonnay?” he offers.
“I’d also like the escalopes de foie gras aux pommes (escalopes of foie gras with apples).”
“And for dessert, crѐmets with strawberries.”
“A demi-sec champagne,” he nods, writing this down also, and seeing I have no comment, leaving.
I smile at Amande.
“I probably wouldn’t have thought of the demi-sec,” I smile, “but I think I would have chosen all the others properly.”
“Fine dining brings experience,” he nods.
I frown at this. It so closely echoed the horrible words of Madame Boufant during my most recent, and still freshly painful, failed interview at the culinary academy.
“Do you ever try the food here?” I ask, “so you know how best to describe it?’
“Of course,” he chuckles, “all the waiters taste the menu at the start of each week during our staff meetings – I would ensure I do so even if this were not part of our employment,” he adds as an afterthought.
“I am training to be a chef.”
“You are?” I know my voice has gone up an octave, “where?”
“At the PCI, The Paris Culinary Institute,” he quantifies.
“Then how come you are working as a waiter?”
“It is part of the training,” he smiles, “every would-be chef must learn the front of house roles and rituals; it is the only way a restaurant can run smoothly. If the chef is aware of the pressures and restraints of those serving his or her meals, he will run a calm restaurant – 12 months at front of house is mandatory before graduation as a chef.”
“Wow,” I shake my head, “I had no idea.”
I frown as I think over my failed attempt to enter the Boston academy. I have been so fixated on learning the recipes, getting the meals perfect, that I haven’t really studied any other aspects of life as a chef, or the expectations for chefs these days or even, really, the fine dining experience outside of what was on the plate – I have a lot to learn.
“Can you tell me,” I ask quickly, aware that I shouldn’t really be making conversation with my waiter, “after you learn the sauces, what do you concentrate on next, as part of your chef’s studies?”
“The pastries,” he smiles, “but just between you and I, they are easier than the sauces.”
“Pastries,” I murmur, “of course.”
Seeing my eyes drift back to the fire, Amande leaves to place my order.
Mentally I begin flicking through my mother’s books and thinking about practising my pastries. Some I was already good at, like shortcrust, but others, like choux, well, I might need a little more time with. I wish I had brought the recipe books with me, but I hadn’t, there was only one book I carried everywhere with me.
Sipping my champagne, I pull out the journal and once again begin my hunt for clues as to where Ereston is, and what weaknesses my pursuer might have. But at the same time, I’m thinking about pastry and what tips Mum might have left in her recipe book that would give me the edge in mine.
New Entry 1538
Father has secured me a position at court, damn him, and I must attend the new prince’s chambers like a common footman to assist with the child’s levѐe and curѐe, and occasionally with the King’s.
The death of the queen following the birth of Prince Edward has set the court in an uproar and, fortuitously for our family, depending on your point of view, enabled me to gain a foothold, as my father desires, in the royal household. I am to stay with the child during public functions and supervise the dressing and undressing as required.
When the prince is otherwise cared for, I attend the King, who outwardly mourns the queen, but secretly begins anew his attentions to a young former lady in waiting to a past wife. The girl is well connected though, and her uncle and father seek to see her on the throne, so hold her chastity tight. In the meantime, the King looks set to remarry politically within a short time, and I am ever hopeful that this court reshuffle will enable me to leave my unhappy position and return to Ereston.
Constance too is hopeful the fat king’s marriage will enable us to return to our faith and live as husband and wife. She wrote in her dear hand that she felt sure the Lord would introduce someone into the king’s life who would bring back the true faith to this land. But she and I were both mistaken, and it looks as though he is still guided by the disgusting spymaster, Thomas Cromwell. And as to any possible Catholic future with my new charge, I fear that will not occur, despite my wife’s hopes, as Edward VI is surrounded almost entirely by a retinue of protestant attendants. As ever, I outwardly hold to the new king’s faith, but inwardly revile the heresy.
I now nurse my wounded pride at my new role and the fact I have had to leave my lodgings in Oxford and move into court. To be essentially a nanny to a baby, no matter what false and ridiculous title it is given, is apparently a great privilege, but I see it as nothing but a trial.
I would have told Father so, only he was so excited at the prospect of our family fortunes reaching the stars through the favour of the King, should I garner his ear, that I did not bother trying to dissuade him. I did, however, warn him that my stay at the court would be no longer than the time it took for Constance to reach 21 and for me to return permanently to Ereston. I added that in a few short months, I intend to journey home for Easter, no matter his view on the matter.
“My boy, my boy,” he chuckled, “this court position is a great chance for mobility, and I intend, through you, to grasp this opportunity with both hands. You would do well to take up a mistress, or at the very least to frequent a clean whore and gain some manly experience before you think to wed.”
I shuddered at the thought. I had been with many whores, hadn’t my father given me one for my 15th birthday? Hadn’t I spent years studying at Oxford and living a life of hedonism as all young lords are wont to do? I am no virgin, but that life no longer draws me. I had promised before God that I would remain faithful to Constance, she who was as pure as the driven snow, and so I shall.
But mother was more adamant that women should be my top priority.
“You must find a wife here at court. I will hear no more mention of the church-mouse you left behind. Several very well-connected ladies have mentioned their daughters to me, and you will entertain them as I see fit while we are in town.”
I said nothing. She was wont to slap at any point; I could almost see her palm itching for an excuse. I have no intention of doing anything the disgusting woman says – were she to throw a thousand well-connected beauties my way it would make no difference – I am married, heart and soul, to Constance.
I pause my reading as my meal is served. I want to really enjoy the tastes and study how the dishes are made. So I slip the journal back into the bag at my feet – a new bag, black and beaded and quite pretty, certainly fitting for a restaurant of this calibre.
Much later, surfeit and happy, I look at my phone and realise time is slipping away from me. The dessert has yet to arrive, and I am anticipating it, but my plans are interrupted by low, angry voices, and I grimace and cast a worried glance at Amande as a portly, middle-aged man in a tuxedo and a much younger woman in a tight red dress enter the room.
“Who are you?” he demands, pointing to me where I sit, shocked.
I cast my eye quickly to the Maître de standing behind him, looking confused and worried. I am totally unprepared for being caught out – I’d never been yet. My brain is almost frozen with guilt, but then, as if a naughty devil sitting on my shoulder begins to whisper into my ear, the thought comes to me that since I am possibly going to be dead soon, and these people are total strangers whom I will never cross paths with again, I should brave it out and see how far I can push it.
“Who is she?” I hiss, standing suddenly and pointing at the woman.
“What? Who is she?” the woman says, looking not at me, but to her sugar daddy.
“I have no idea,” he says, his voice deep, angry.
“Oh, you three-timing bastard!” I cry. Tears, which, let’s face it are constantly near the surface now, easily conjured, “how could you?”
Amande hands me my beaded bag, wordlessly, as I spin to face him, my face awash with tears, before brushing past the three standing in the doorway, their faces stunned.
I run out of the dining room, through the main part of the restaurant, out the front door and, pausing to take off my heels, pelt down the road. Rounding a corner, now hidden from the restaurant, I put my hands to my knees to catch my breath and burst out laughing.
‘Oh, my God! I can’t believe I just did that. If only Margarita could see me now. I seriously deserve a fucking Academy Award.’
Hailing a taxi, I head back to the youth hostel shaking all over but feeling elated, and strangely stronger and less vulnerable than I have in a long, long time.
(Pastry for such recipes as tarts)
Ingredients: 1kg Butter, 750g icing sugar, 10 eggs, 2.3kg plain flour Method:
Make sure the eggs are at room temperature, weight them if they are free-range, they each must be 50g.
Combine butter and icing sugar and mix until creamy and white Mix in eggs one by one as they incorporate Add flour with a slow mix
Finish by hand and set in fridge overnight.
Note: If the eggs are too cold, the mixture will split. If this happens warm the side of the bowl with a blowtorch as you mix. This pastry must be refrigerated before use as it is soft and sticky.
“The only Ereston’s I know of are Ereston Mountain in Yorkshire and Ereston Village in Hampshire,” the wearied woman behind the tourist bureau counter intones for the second time.
“You’re absolutely sure?”
“Yes,” she says, looking me in the eye.
I know that if I was in the U.S, I would have received a mouthful by now, but English people are just so polite – even the police are polite, no guns, helpful manners.
‘Pity their vampires are murderous blood-thirsty cunts.’
“I apologise,” I shake my head as much to clear my thoughts as to make my point, “it’s just, I only have a short time in this country, and I want to be sure I am heading to the right place.”
“What will it be then? Mountain or village?”
“Alright then, here is the route you will take.”
She hands me a train timetable and draws a thick red whiteboard marker line along several routes; One scenic, one direct, marking the stop-off and interchange points with red crosses. It looked like the first leg, a two-hour train ride to Winchester, was going to be the easiest part, the rest would be by bus and maybe take a few days, depending on how often they ran from small village to small village.
“Thank you,” I smile, trying to mollify her. I’ve taken up more than an hour of her time with my questions, noting as the time wore on, that my accent really annoyed her.
“Have a nice day,” she says, no hint of sarcasm, and I frown and nod, picking up my luggage and walking out into the dull sunshine of an English morning.
I’d checked out of the youth hostel this morning. I’m determined to leave London behind and find the vampire’s manor. I can’t take any more time just reading the journal and hoping for clues. I need to get out of here and keep on the move. But finding the damn place is proving more difficult than I expected. Ereston is not a well-known Estate; even the village is barely a dot on the map.
‘Still,’ I shrug, hailing a cab to take me to the train station, ‘dot or major city, it is where I have to go.’
Nestled now in my train seat, one eye fixed on the mud-map the lady at the tourist bureau has drawn for me, one on the bottle of milk I am forcing myself to drink, the second for the day. I flip open the journal.
The King asked my advice this morning, as I helped him dress, about the Countess Elsbeth Deauforte, recently widowed for the third time and a renowned court beauty, and I confess I was at a loss as to what to advise him. The lady has, for some time, caused me consternation, and I was unsure how to warn the king away from her influence without seeming as though I was jealous – because nothing could be further from the truth.
“Well, my liege,” I said quietly as I buttoned up his doublet, “she is a powerful woman in court, and a beauty, there is no doubt of that.”
“She is that,” the king laughed.
“She is said to be 25 and recently widowed for the third time,” I added, “as, no doubt, you know. Although it is true, she looks no older than 14.”
“It appears you have caught her eye,” he said, smiling up at me, his eyes twinkling.
“Indeed, your highness,” I nodded, trying not to groan, “but I have left my heart in Ereston, as I have told you on many an occasion.”
“Methinks it is not your heart the woman desires,” the King snorted, slapping me on the back as he farted loudly.
“Why bring this up now then, my liege?” I asked, as though I was not really interested, when actually I was beginning to suspect an ulterior motive, one that only the lady herself was Machiavellian enough to have conceived.
“The lady requests my company in her bedchambers, or had her gentlewomen tell me this is so,” he said, frowning, “I thought you might advise how best to insist invitations such as this wither on the vine. As you know, I am courting a young and virtuous woman at this time, and I do not want more whispers to reach her ears.”
I knew full well, whom he meant. He is ‘courting’ Catherine Howard, a first cousin and former lady in waiting to his late and unfortunate wife Anne Boleyn. I believe he had been ‘courting’ her since she was nine and redoubled his efforts since the death of his late wife, Jane. Catherine is now only 15 and certainly not in line for a royal title – he hopes to win her as a mistress, but as yet is making no headway. Everyone knew that her powerful uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, was the only reason he had not forced himself upon the unfortunate wench to date.
“Sire,” I shook my finger at him, “I believe you are asking me to divert this woman’s attention away from the royal personage, but I must tell you, I have been receiving the same invitations for nigh-on six months, and insist as I do that she look elsewhere, it seems she will not.”
“Until now,” the King said, looking me in the eye, “do you think this is a ruse on the lady’s behalf, this invitation to me, in order to put more pressure on you?”
“Then I shall not ask you to divert her attention; plainly, you do not wish it so. No, we shall see if she will take the bait of one of my court dandies. Who do you suggest?”
I tipped my head to the side and considered his question, but no name came to mind immediately.
“I will think on it, my king. But now, we must to court, as much as we both wish it not so.”
He laughed then, and we left, but the conversation has left me disturbed.
Countess Elsbeth is a hot topic on the quills of my parents in all their letters of late, since Mother and she became friends while at court. Father writes that she, newly widowed, is one of the wealthiest women in England, and he pressures me constantly to make myself agreeable to her. He says the state bedroom has put a bigger dent into the Estate’s funds than he first anticipated, and that apart from raising the rents of the tenants, which he knows I am firmly against, he can see no other way of recharging the coffers than to have me marry the lady in question, forthwith.
For myself, I find her attractive in a strange and hypnotic way when speaking to her, but repulsive also, on some base level that I cannot fully describe. She has the age of a woman, as I told the king, and yet the countenance and guile of a young girl – she lacks all piety and openly flaunts her wealth and her lovers before all. As I wrote to Father, I do not believe she intends to wed for anything other than money herself if past actions are an indication of future resolve, and I am therefore of little use to her for marriage. And I have let it be known widely throughout the court that I do not dally with the maids, despite their many and sometimes overly enthusiastic overtures.
And yet she persists.
I have written to Constance of her, and she advised I would do well to keep my distance, as rumours have reached her ears, no doubt via my vile mother, that we are closer than mere acquaintances.
I have assured her of my fidelity and continued chastity, and I know her dear heart would never doubt my words or mistrust my deeds. But still, it pains me that such rumours are reaching her and that I have to means of redress other than via letters, where so much can be left open to interpretation. I hope that one day when she reads my true account in this journal and my recount of every conversation in its entirety, she will understand the veracity of my rebuttal against such insidious claims against my reputation.
I pause my reading for a second.
“Mmmm, methinks the lady doth protest too much,” I murmur, “if you ask me, Lord Montague, you are not telling all there is about this woman.”
I pull out my phone to google the name of the woman he is talking about. Sure enough, she is a real person, not that I doubted that now, I have accepted the fact the maniac chasing me is either a vampire or a history major.
The woman, Countess Elsbeth Deauforte, was as he said, a beauty. One of the few portraits online shows her as a young woman with dark-eyes, long blonde hair and porcelain skin. She is dressed in a rich, velvet gown that highlights a tiny waist any person could span with both hands. Google says she was married at twelve; she had her first child at thirteen and was widowed the same year. She almost died on the childbed and was rendered unable to have further children – and yet she had five more marriages after that, each one to more and more powerful and rich men, all of whom died before her. Apparently, she wielded a great deal of political power and was so rich she lent money to the crown.
I am intrigued by this woman, and rapidly falling down a rabbit hole of websites and information, when my research is interrupted by a message from James, once again via Blake’s phone, and I suddenly see red.
Closing the book firmly, I dial my dead boyfriend’s number.
“Josephine, you are still alive,” James says, as though he is genuinely surprised.
“Where are you?
“James, in case you haven’t worked this one out yet, I will spell it out for you – I am not fucking telling you where I am because I don’t fucking trust you – and stop using Blake’s phone, can’t you see it might upset me to see messages from a dead lover?”
“You barely knew him, Josephine, you’d been sleeping with him what? A fortnight? Please don’t play the broken heart card right now when there is so much at stake.”
I frown down at the phone in my hand.
“How do you know I’d only been seeing him a couple of weeks?
“Because I was watching you, obviously.”
“Watching me? For how long?”
“Josephine I was trying to protect you. I knew what you had would draw the vampire to you, and I wanted to save you if that happened.”
“For how long, James?”
“Since I started at the school.”
I feel my face drain of all colour and my next words come out squeaky, like I’ve sucked a helium balloon.
“You knew all along, and yet you let me walk around with a death sentence hanging over my head.”
“It wouldn’t have come to that.”
“Wait,” I gasp as a new revelation dawns upon me.
“That night, that night outside the restaurant, when I fell down. That was you chasing me, wasn’t it?”
“No, you stupid woman,” he sighs, “I was protecting you. The vampire was there, following you, I almost had him in my sights. I was ready to take him out and then inexplicably he picked up a piece of paper, read it, and left at the speed of light.”
“Oh, my fucking god! You were using me as bait!”
“I’m not proud of it, Josephine. I can only tell you that I was confident, am confident that I can kill this bastard. But the only way I can find him is to find you before he does and be sure I am ready for him when he comes – and he will come for you, Josephine, you have to believe me.”
“I wouldn’t believe you if you said your head was on fire and I saw the flames bursting out of your ears, you fucktard!
What? How could you not, after all I have told you.”
“Things don’t add up.”
“For Christ’s sake, Josephine, like what?”
“Like, James; you knew a vampire was chasing me that night on your street, but you left me standing outside your house in the dark. What was that? A second chance at him biting the cherry? Maybe he would come back and rip my head off after all?”
“No,” he sighs, as I picture him adjusting his glasses in agitation, “I didn’t want you to come inside and see all the weapons. I have a veritable cache of vampire-killing devices, and I’d left them all out in case I needed to dash home and get another or, hopefully, if my ruse had worked, had him follow me home where I could have dispatched him with ease. I knew if you saw them, you would think I was a crazed psycho-killer, which, funnily enough, was the conclusion you came to anyway.”
“Dispatched,” I say quietly, thinking through all he has said, shocked by the implications.
“I’m a vampire hunter, Josephine, surely you have worked that one out for yourself by now. Hunter is not my real surname.”
“You are a Lanesborough,” I murmur.
“Then he’s not coming for me,” I growl, “he’s coming for you.”
“He was,” he says, his voice no more than a whisper, “until you took both journals, Josephine. That puts you at the very top of his hit list, and believe me when I say; he won’t stop until he finds you.”
“You’ve said enough, James.”
“Just tell me, please, Josephine, let me help you. Tell me where you are.”
I feel the train slow, looking out the window I see a white sign with red and blue writing ‘Welcome to Winchester’ and my brain is spinning with options right now, but one of them I’m dead certain about – isn’t turning to James for help.
As I think this the speakers blare that we are just pulling in, and I quickly hang up, turn the phone off, and prepare to disembark.
So, let me get this straight,” I sigh, “there is a train that goes there, but it is a private train. So, the only way I can get there is to catch a bus from this tiny town to the next tiny town – but there is only one bus a week.”
I sigh and allow my head to fall into my hands, my elbows resting on the small shop counter.
‘Private train lines? Private trains? What the hell was wrong with this country?’
“What am I going to do here for a week?” I groan.
“There are some very nice walks around here,” the small Indian man behind the counter offers cheerfully.
“Thanks,” my words come out slightly muffled by my hands as I raise my head and give him an apologetic smile before leaving the shop, the bell over the door offering a farewell tinkle as it slams behind me.
My bag is heavy with clothes, books, snacks and the two cartons of milk I have just squeezed in, but I know I need to shoulder it and walk. Ereston is 40 miles away, as the crow flies. Hitchhiking seems my only option, although I haven’t seen a car in the entire time it has taken me to walk from the bus station to the main street.
The town is dead.
“And I will be too if I hang around any one place too long,” I murmur, taking note of the street signs and starting off towards my destination.
As I walk, a light rain begins to fall, just enough to dampen my mood further, make my hair heavy and my face slick. I hope I don’t catch a cold tramping in this dreary country as I concentrate on putting one foot ahead of the other and not tripping up on any of the rocks or little potholes on the side of the road. There is nowhere to shelter, I am essentially walking on a one-car-width road bisecting farmland, my only company the occasional sheep, and squished hedgehog road-kill, so there is nothing for it but to keep trudging until I reach Ereston.
I don’t know how long I’ve been walking, perhaps an hour, maybe two. It is past midday, and the countryside has changed to forest on one side of the road, open land on the other.
My feet are tired, so I decide to take a break, have something to eat, and read a little.
The King gave me an ultimatum, and though it breaks my heart to confess it is so, I have capitulated. I pray one day, when we are together, Constance will understand the necessity of my actions – and forgive them.
Last night he called me once again to his royal chambers, ostensibly to cuvѐe, but I knew the moment I entered all was not well.
“Nicholas, our ruse with Countess Elsbeth runs upon rocky shores,” he said as I unlaced his hose. She insists she will have no other and wishes you in her bed.”
“My liege ...”
“You will hear me out before speaking,” he commanded. “With and without I am besieged. The French become friendly with the Habsburgs, Rome seeks my blood, and I am called once again to marry against my heart. In all of this, you are aware, as I am sure your very astute father has made you so, that I have borrowed heavily to build my seaside fortifications to defend us should there come a Franco-German invasion.”
“Yes, my liege.”
“What you are perhaps unaware of, is that I have borrowed heavily from a certain very well-connected, rich and avaricious lady here at court.”
I could immediately see where this was heading, and my heart froze.
“It is my will that you entertain this lady as she so desires, for however long she so desireth it.”
“My king,” I fell to my knees before him, “I feared to bare my soul to you earlier, knowing that I might incur your wrath, but I am married – I have in secret wed the love of my life, and she awaits me at Ereston. I pray you find someone else to sacrifice to this monster.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Nicholas,” he snorted, “and get up before I use you as a footstool. This ‘monster’ is desired by men the length and breadth of Europe, and beyond I have no doubt. It will be no sacrifice to dip your wick for a while into her saucy cunt. And as for your marriage – I sanctioned no such union, and,” he held up his hand to forestall my apology, “will undertake never to do so should my will not be carried out.”
“Sire, please, anything else. Send me to the beaches to dig trenches for your fortifications, banish me from your court – please do not make me break the vows I took before God.”
“God!” Henry laughed, “a Catholic God, no doubt. Don’t think I am unaware you hold to your faith. No, Nicholas, you appeal to that which is not present in my breast. I believe in no such God – and I give you my final word now. Bed the slut, or I will behead you at dawn. Satisfy her, and you shall have your marriage license in due course.”
“This night? My liege?”
“This very night.”
“Wow,” I stop reading for a second, my eyes wide, “you really sound like you didn’t want to go there, Lord Montague,” I shake my head, “but I bet you do.” I cram another chocolate biscuit into my mouth, turning the page quickly to find out what went down.
I left the king’s rooms as ordered and made my way to Countess Elsbeth’s suites.
It pains me to write what ensued, and yet, it is part of my penance that my Constance should know every particular and that I should honestly and faithfully record all.
The lady laughed when she opened the door, dressed in high costume, she had obviously just returned from a ball and had yet to undress for the evening. She wore a blood-red gown with white lace inserts across her small, high bosom; tiny green velvet flowers punctured with rubies sparkled all over as she moved. In her hair, similar small velvet and jewelled flowers were scattered like bright stars in the morning sky. I looked to her gown, rather than into her dark eyes, because once before I had fallen victim to her gaze and felt strangely disengaged from my body – hence I had decided never to look full into those orbs again. But this night I knew I would have no escape. As I looked up and met her black eyes, I seemed to become drawn to her. I will not lie, her breath intoxicated me. I longed to run my hands across her creamy breasts where they swelled over the top of her gown, and all feelings of shame and guilt and regret fell away as she ordered her maidservants out and stepped back to allow me to enter.
Even as I write this, I wish to tear the quill from my hand in shame and beat my chest and write no more, and yet, I must.
When her maids had left the room, the lady turned her back to me and bade me drink the wine she had poured, before undoing her laces.
I gulped the wine with haste. It was not a taste I was familiar with, and yet not unpleasant. I turned then and unlaced her with firm hands, my desire for her growing with each moment. Her tinkling laugh, which I had once found so sinister, sounded like music to me as it echoed around the room.
“Long have I desired you in my bed, Nicholas Montague,” she said, as she turned to me, her gown falling from her shoulders and exposing her pale breasts.
I have no idea what overcame me, some devilish spell I would blame if I could. But I fear it was simply my own weakness, and I fell into her bosoms like a man starving and, lifting her into my arms verily threw her onto the bed, pushing her skirts aside.
But she stalled me with a commanding voice.
“I will Keep you, Nicholas Montague,” she said, her voice deep and unlike I had ever heard it before.
I nodded, my member throbbing with need for her, while at the same time part of me reviling myself for such depravity, and yet I was powerless to stop.
“Say the words,” she said, holding my face in her hands and staring into my eyes, “say you agree to be Kept.”
I was confused for a moment, her words seemed to hold some other meaning that I could not discern, yet I was so overcome with both my need for her and my warring desire to simply get this night over and done with, that I said the words.
She laughed then and wrapped her legs firmly around my torso and raised her hips as I entered her like a madman. The pleasure was such that I could not contain myself and she laughed all the harder and commanded me to release my seed, adding that we had all night for her pleasure, and she was in no hurry. I confess, at her command, I did so.
In my naivety, I thought perhaps my haste would work in my favour, that she would think me a ‘quick tip’ and have no further wish to bed me. But I was wrong. That night she had me perform such acts upon her person as no whore could ever devise, such wanton acts of debauchery and filth that even as I write this, my face suffuses with colour, for I feel both shame and a remembrance of desire, and the latter I hate myself for.
Later, just before dawn, she ordered me to rise and leave her chambers, and to return the following night.
“I will not do so, lady,” I murmured, frowning as I found my torn shirt and discarded breeches on the floor and pulled them on gingerly, the scratch marks on my back stinging painfully and a bite mark on my neck smarting. “The king asked me to pleasure you, and this I have done. But I did so with a heavy conscience and no desire on my own part, and do not wish to do so again.”
“Ah, Nicky. You will pleasure me for many, many years to come,” she laughed then, stretching naked on the bed, her legs spread for me to view every inch of her, “for you are Kept – you have sipped from me, and I from you – the pact is sealed.”
“I do not know what you mean, but you shall not have me, lady.”
“Indeed, I have, and I will,” she giggled, “do not pretend you do not want me as I want you.”
“I do not.”
“Nicky, Nicky,” she said, her eyes narrowing as she rose from the bed faster than any mortal should have been able to, “if it is riches you desire, as I know your dear mother and father most assuredly do, then riches you shall have. If it is pleasure you crave, then surely I have given you such as you have never experienced in your short life, and if it is status you yearn for, then this too I can give you aplenty.”
“I desire none of these things, lady,” I bowed low to her and stalked towards the door, but she was there before me, her back to it, her speed, once more, beyond measure.
“What is it then, that would see you turn your back on me? What do you want, Nicholas Montague?”
“I want to return to Ereston,” I said quietly, “to the woman I love.”
She looked at me then, her eyes narrowed, and for a second I confess, I was frightened of this small woman, such was the glint in her eye.
“Love,” she laughed harshly, “what foolishness is this? There is no love in the life of a Lord.”
“I am not a Lord,” I said, my hand reaching behind her to grasp the door handle, “my father still holds that title.”
“For the moment,” she smirked.
“I have no desire to hold the reins of an indebted estate at this point, lady,” I sneered as I said the last word, I confess, but I grew tired of this charade, “and I have no desire to bed you again. I wish to leave.”
She moved aside from the door then, and I left, but I felt her eyes on my back.
It is going on evening now.
I have undertaken my duties this day, and I am now holed up in my suite to record all that has occurred this past 24 hours. I confess I fear, with every tread down the hallway, that I will be summoned once more to that woman’s rooms. And it is this fear which compels me to write, to record faithfully for Constance every detail, that she should never fear that passion overtook my love for her, or that the evening was anything other than a trial.
“Huh,” I snort, “you just finished saying you got your rocks off in a major way, but now you say you didn’t enjoy it? I don’t know, Lord Montague, this sounds fishy to me.”
I’m about to read on; it is actually starting to become quite interesting, especially the bit about how a Kept was made, when I hear something.
Standing and shoving the journal back into my pack, I look behind me expectantly hoping to see a truck, or van coming up the road that can give me a lift, but there is nothing. The sound of the horns seem to be getting closer, but it appears to be coming from the nearby fields.
Squinting against the sun, I unexpectedly see a range of shapes silhouetted on the top of a distant hill. Shielding my face with my hand I can make out horses and riders, but I only have a second to glimpse the cavalcade as it pelts down the side of the hill towards me. It is only as they gain ground that I see, ahead of the riders, run hundreds of barking dogs. And just ahead of them, one reddish, sleek shape, like a small streak of blood, flowing along the grass.
“Fox,” I whisper.
I can see the creature is heading directly towards me, running for its life to reach the road and the woods beyond, but I can also see it is not going to make it – the dogs are close on its heels, baying for blood.
From where I stand it looks as though the whole world is against this one poor creature, that its resolve alone is keeping it running when it could be oh so easy to just turn and accept its fate. Hadn’t I felt the same way, ever since I was a small girl? Hadn’t I always kept going, no matter what hand fate dealt me, losing my mother at nine, my father and home at 17? I could have so easy fallen down and allowed the grief, loss and fear to consume me – but I had not then, and not now. And neither had this fox.
I am rooted to the spot, unsure how to help. If I make myself seen the fox might swerve and miss its opportunity to survive, but if I don’t move, the dogs will tear it apart before it reaches the road.
Seeing a dog nip the fox’s tail, and hearing a yelp of excitement, I am galvanised into action.
“Hey, over here,” I shout, raising my arms above my head, hoping to draw the attention of the dogs – but they are hellbent on their prey and will not be distracted. The fox, however, looks directly at me. Even from the thirty or more metres away that it is, I see its fear and fatigue, and I feel as though the fox has recognised in me that same look. I hold my breath as it runs so close past me that I can see the determined line of its jaw, the glint of relief in its eyes, and I know, that it knows, I am on its side.
As it passes by, I launch myself with a wild screech at the dogs closest behind it, hurling my two precious cartons of milk, causing some to swerve drastically and others to come to a screeching halt. Chaos ensues as dogs try to avoid my outflung arms, projectiles and screams. Horses and their riders pull up hard, dirt and clod and curses fly through the air – and the fox disappears into the trees.
“What the belly hell do you think you are playing at?” an older man in what looks like jodhpurs and a red tuxedo jacket asks me.
“Saving the fox,” I smile unapologetically.
“Fucking Americans,” a woman in a similar outfit spits, whirling her thoroughbred around harshly and racing back in the direction she had come.
The others clearly agree as they all, as one, call for their hounds, blow their horns and gallop off, back across the lush green paddocks.
“Wait,” I shout to their retreating backs, “I don’t suppose any of you will give me a lift to Ereston?”
The bulk of the riders ignore my call and continue, but one man turns and walks his horse back to me.
I don’t know much about horses, but this one is sleek, chestnut, and its black tail and mane are knotted in intricate little braids and rolls, it’s really beautiful, and I reach out to stroke its proud neck as its owner smirks down at me. The horse seems to me far more majestic than its rider, a man of maybe late teens, early twenties with the type of face that would be easy to forget and hard to describe, and a happy-go-lucky smile.
“C’mon then,” he says, extending one white-gloved hand.
“Daniel Parker at your service, m’lady,” he chuckles.
“Thank you. Josephine Baily, fox rescuer,” I add ruefully, “at yours.”
He laughs and shakes his head.
“Don’t worry, I’m not annoyed with you that the fox escaped, I never wanted to kill the damned thing anyway, I just came along for the ride. I’ll take you as far as the village.”
I collect my make-shift projectiles, including the two empty milk cartons, stuffing them all inside my bag, and hoist it over my shoulder.
“How shall I get up?”
He walks his horse to a small, crumbling, rock wall nearby and as I stand on it and place one foot in the stirrup as commanded, as he hoists me up onto the horse’s rump, behind the saddle.
“Wrap your arms around me, or you will slide off,” he says quietly, giving his horse a nudge to get moving, “it’s not going to be the most comfortable ride for you, I’m afraid.”
“Honestly, anything is better than walking at this point,” I laugh, doing as instructed.
As we set off in pursuit of the others at a fast walk, I turn my head to study the forest opposite. There is no sign of the fox. He or she will be long gone by now, but I know the look in its eyes will stay with me for a long, long time.
`I’ll get away too, Foxy Loxy,’ I vow, ‘I’ll make it too.’
The ride to Ereston was an education, one that, at one point almost stopped my heart in fear when I learned my saviour, Daniel, and his party of hunters were all staying at Ereston Estate.
“But,” I say breathlessly, my heart hammering like a drum inside my chest, “I understood Lord Montague was away from home.”
“Wouldn’t know,” Daniel quipped, “never met the man. In fact, don’t know anyone who has. No, our party stay there every year on the hunting route, just as other parties stay at my family’s estate in the next county– it’s a tradition when you are on the circuit.”
“So, it is like, an open house?”
“Well it is by invitation, naturally, hereditary tradition actually, invitation is the wrong word. My hunting party, for instance, is made up of the same families it would have been made up of hundreds of years ago, apart from the Russian with the new money and an American fashion designer. The Russian takes part in the hunt because he purchased one of the estates in Lincolnshire. The American who bought the estate in Derbyshire hosts us when we are in her country, keeping up with the tradition, but never takes part in the hunt or socialises in any way with us. Of course, this year there are more of us than usual because there is an election coming up. More than a few Lords have brought along people they wish to curry favour with, or gain funds from, big company execs, that kind of thing. Each one of them has brought their wife or girlfriend with them too.”
“And,” I push for information, as a plan begins to formulate, “you have the run of the house? So to speak.”
“I suppose so,” he laughs, “although the families usually have a private wing where guests fear to tread, and this estate is no different. In general, though, we spend most of our time outside on the hunt, dining in the great hall or drinking in the billiard rooms.”
“Of course,” I nod, chewing my lip. “So, there are plenty of staff there to look after you? I mean are these estates staffed all year round?”
“No,” he snorts, “few can afford that anymore, especially not these fly-in-fly-out absentee Lords. No, we are on a circuit, like I said, the staff are all villagers who have been employed for generations, they come and go as the parties are due on the calendar.”
“Are you the only hunting party that stays at Ereston?”
“Hunting, yes, but I understand there are royal circles that favour the grounds in Autumn and stay for a week here or there. Mostly though I would say Ereston is, like most estates now, served by a skeleton staff year-round and maintained for public visitation, but rarely lived in.”
‘Skeleton staff makes sense – given who, or what, they work for.’
“Hang on, so the public can come and go too?”
“Well they can’t stay,” he chuckles, “but all the grand homes are open to public tours – except when the royals are staying. It’s all damn boring business really. And just between you and me, this house gives me the creeps. I’d much rather have stayed at Eaton for the break, but my bloody mother insists I take part in the family traditions and my father hopes for a career in politics for me. He wants me to rub shoulders with the future leaders of our great nation – I suppose though, being a tourist you will be keen to see inside.”
“Absolutely,” I murmur, “but, ah, so this is why you participate in these hunts when you don’t want to even kill the fox? Family commitments?”
“Can’t see the point in murdering the poor old thing really,” he shrugs. “It’s never done any harm to me. If it was a man-eater that would be different, I’d see the sense in taking him out before he could get me; kill or be killed so to speak. But foxes, I don’t feel any animosity at all towards them.”
“No,” I muse, “I guess if they were vicious, it would be easier to justify taking their lives.”
I stay quiet for a long time after this, thinking.
By the time he drops me at the only Inn in Ereston, I have formulated an idea for how I will get into the manor and begin my search for whatever it is that will enable me to kill Nicholas Montague before he can kill me.
Because if there is one thing I do know about him; he is a man-eater.
Short Crust Pastry
(Pastry for such recipes as quiche)
Ingredients: 90g water, 250g plain flour, 125g cold diced butter, 5g salt.
Make sure the mix is the consistency of sand before adding water; don’t overmix once water is added or it will become too elastic.
Combine dry ingredients, mix and slowly add water.
Finish by kneading by hand.
Refrigerate for four hours before rolling.
Note: Refrigerate it as flat as possible, without rolling, don’t refrigerate in a ball.
The little black and white uniform I am wearing is tight, but otherwise it is neat and unobtrusive, and I look the part as I stroll down Ereston’s lengthy and wide main hall, the fifth in a line of twenty waiters carrying silver platters full of delicacies.
As I had hoped, staff were hard to come by in Ereston, and Daniel’s assertion that his party was larger than usual had helped immensely in enabling me to gain a position as a kitchen hand and waitress for the duration of their stay.
I now have work for the next two weeks, a comfy room in a cheap little B&B in the village, and a solid plan to save my arse. This is my third night working in this creepy manor, and I have no intention of staying any longer than I need to. The very walls seem to close in on me every time I’m here, and I’m as jumpy as a prawn hitting hot water – I want to get the hell out of this place.
Tonight, phase two of my plan kicks into gear; I’m on a mission to find the library where Lord Montague stores his journals – because I’m keen to return the two I have. I don’t believe, knowing what I know now, that I will find a way to kill him or be able to kill him. I have to be honest with myself – I’m no Buffy. Sure I have knife skills; but they revolve around sharpening away from my body until the blade sings, slicing with precision and speed with a smooth rocking motion and holding the knife loosely enough that it can be removed easily from my hand, ensuring I don’t get blisters or cut myself – skills that would hardly come in useful in a fight to the death. I need a new solution.
I haven’t finished the first journal yet, but I have photographed every page, and I can now read them on my phone. I’m hoping, secretly, not even really admitting it out loud, that if I return his journals, he might let me live. And either way, I have decided I want to see the land of my forefathers before I die. So regardless of whether it is obvious, and stupid, and reckless, I’m going to France as soon as I leave Ereston.
But first, the journals.
I walk in line, sedately, eyes down, and place the silver platters on the long dining room table as directed. If Daniel is here, I haven’t noticed, but then we have been told not to make eye contact with the guests and to remain silent at all times in the manor until we are back in the kitchens and servants’ area, then we can ask questions.
As we leave, I squat down, ostensibly to retie my shoelaces, and allow the others to pass me by in their quest for more dishes. The butler gives me a frown, but continues down the hallway with the rest of the staff, and I rise as soon as they are out of view and vault down a nearby, smaller hall, trying each doorknob as I walk until, eventually, I find the one that was unlocked when I came this way earlier.
It is being used by a hunting party guest, an open suitcase sits on the long brocade stool at the end of the large four-poster bed, and the fire is lit. Under the bed, I have my bag with the two journals, and I quickly draw it out and slip it over my shoulder.
Turning, I stick my head back out into the hall and, seeing it still empty, scarper back out, shutting the door quietly behind me.
I need to find the family wing, the areas out of bounds to guests, because I’m positive that is where the private library will be.
Walking as fast as I can without drawing suspicion if I am caught, I round the corner and head into another wing of this vast building. The portraits that line the walls seem as though their eyes are following me; some look like they are trying to warn me.
‘I’ll bet if some of you women could talk, you’d be saying ‘run – fucking run.’ I hear you, believe me, I hear you.’
As I reach the end of the corridor, I have to make a decision whether to turn left or right, at a junction. Both hallways that branch off in either direction look the same, but this area feels somehow scarier. The walls are no longer painted and hung with tapestries and paintings – these are plain stone walls, signifying this is a much older section of the manor.
I turn right, on impulse, and head at a brisk walk along the hall, again trying doors as I go. None are locked, but each one I glance into is either a bedroom or an empty sitting room, the furniture all covered in white sheets – like rooms full of stationary ghosts. No fires are lit in any of the rooms, and I am beginning to think I will never find the library and will have to turn around and try again another night, when I see a set of thick, timber double doors at the end of the hall.
The rock lintel above the door features a gargoyle similar to those on the entry gates at the end of the long, oak-lined drive that I passed under each evening on my way to the manor. Beneath the hideous gargoyle are the words: Mors Rapit Omnia.
“Bingo,” I breathe.
I’m just about to turn the big, metal handles on the doors when I hear a man call my name.
Daniel laughs as he holds the candle up to his face and widens his eyes.
“No,” I laugh. Although in truth, yes.
We are standing together in the private library of Lord Nicholas Montague, AKA Dracula, in front of rows and rows of journals which Daniel has just happily informed me are reputed to be covered in the skins of the enemies of the family – who wouldn’t be spooked?
The fact that the journals I have been lugging around all this time are covered in human skin is just one more reason why I want to get them the hell out of my bag and get the hell out of this place.
I squat down and pull the journals out of my pack, rising to peruse the shelves.
“What on earth are you doing now?” he laughs, “or shouldn’t I ask.”
“I was given two journals a while ago,” I murmur as I scan the shelves, “and I need to return them. I’ve travelled from the U.S to do it – I want to make sure I put them back exactly where they belong.”
“My, my,” he laughs again, “you are full of surprises and, as I said earlier when I agreed to sneak into this room with you, much more fun than the stuffy parliamentarians and their vacuous mistresses downstairs.”
I laugh, nervously.
I had almost had a heart attack when he surprised me in the hallway earlier. But it turns out he is ‘open to adventure’ in his words, ‘fucking stupid to get involved’ in mine.
Either way, here we are together, exploring by candlelight because putting the lights on might reveal someone was present where they should not be.
As I peruse the shelves, we hold a whispered conversation.
“If it is all so tedious and stuffy downstairs why on earth are you planning on following your father into politics?”
“Oh, I’m not,” he laughs, “I’m planning a future in renewable energy – totally enthused about it since I’ve seen how far advanced they are in Mexico, a place you might least expect it. I spent several months there last year, loved every minute, and the food, my God, I could live on the stuff – so much more flavour than our English stodge.”
I frown at the mention of Mexico. It is just too close to home for me at the moment; making me think of my missing-presumed-dead best friend.
“You still haven’t explained why you are here, though?”
“Oh, yes, well. I use every possible moment to push my energy barrow to these pollies.”
“Oh,” I turn briefly to smirk at him, “so you’re not actually going to go into politics yourself?”
“Not if I can help it,” he shakes his head and rolls his eyes, “but, I never say never. There may come a time when the only way progress can be made with the Greenhouse issue is if people like me do run this bloody country.”
“Well, I’ll keep my eye on the news in the future, for Prime Minister Parker,” I laugh, turning back to the task at hand.
Seeing the gaps in the journal order, I slide the first into its home and walk to the other end of the library to return the last. On the way I note that Lord Montague has kept up the journal tradition – there is one for every year of his very, very long life. I estimate he must be close to 500 years old and mentally tally a victim a week for that duration, but give up, the number is too great for my maths-challenged brain.
Returning to my bag, I pull out my phone and walk to the journals, carefully withdrawing number two.
“Now what are you doing?” he chuckles.
“I’m going to film this one, so I don’t have to lug a dead person around in my bag,” I mutter, opening the pages and preparing to photograph them rapidly, one after the other. I’m only a few dozen pages in, however, when the library door slams open and we both look up into the horrified eyes of the butler.
I stop beside the largest of the headstones, it is black and stands out a mile in the small cemetery.
Reading the words carved into the stone, I shake my head sadly and I trace the lettering with my fingers: Hora E Sempre.
I know what it means because I’d finished reading the vampire’s first diary last night after Daniel and I were kicked out of the library. I was sent packing; his reputation and status the only reason I had not been hauled up before the police. I had been fired though, so there was that.
Reading the last entries in the first journal had solidified something to me though, something that made me want to visit this grave before I catch a lift tomorrow and leave this place for good. Lord Montague was not always bad. At one time, he had loved deeply. I imagine what it might be like to be so wholly and completely loved, but I can’t. Except for my mother and father, I had never known a love like the one the man trying to kill me had once known. And given that he is planning to murder me, I guess I never will.
I pull out my phone to re-read his last entries.
One day until I return to Ereston for Easter, one day more of travel before I must look into Constance’s sweet face and reveal why I have not written for so long; my shame, my debauchery, my utter helplessness in the face of the will of the King of England.
And yet, my heart is glad to be free of the depravity of the court, the endless intrigues, the political and religious machinations that permeate the very air of that vile place. To be free to ride once more on horseback, to feel the air on my face, smell the sweat of my steed, the scent of the trees – my heart already feels lighter, despite all that I must reveal.
It is evening as I record this. I sit by the fire of a roadside inn and revel in the ability to think and write undisturbed, without the threat of a required visitation to the creature, Countess Elsbeth.
I know now that she is the very epitome of evil, a monster, but my warnings to the king and all who would listen have fallen on deaf ears, and I alone am left to pleasure a beast. No one will believe me when I say she kills, that she drinks the blood of her victims, that the bodies so regularly floating in the Thames are the people who were escorted to her suites weekly – never to be seen again.
I have no real proof of this, only I see whom her henchmen deliver by the secret stairwells, and it was by chance a few weeks ago that I passed a bloated corpse on the water’s edge and recognised the face. But since then, I have ridden daily by the river and witnessed this time and again. And I know she drinks blood – for nightly she sips mine. I have become more certain these past months, that she is something from Hades. I hope that when I return to Ereston, the Catholic priest who married Constance and I may be able to give me some help to combat such wickedness, some Godly relic or weapon that will render her powerless.
The king laughed at my claims.
“She is not a pious woman, of that we both agree,” he chuckled, “but Nicholas, your aversion to her, and to doing your duty, clouds your judgement. She is no monster.”
“But Sire, I have seen her drink people’s blood, suck from their necks – she bites me regularly, struggle as I might, her strength and speed is beyond reckoning. She is a succubus, a creature, the very devil itself.”
“The devil? If you wish to see a devil take a look at the portrait of the ugly bitch whom I am expected to marry next, and try to imagine bedding that! You are the lucky one, friend. Now be gone, I am too busy for your whining, and the lady awaits you.”
He was right, she was waiting, as she waited every evening – only this night I was determined not to succumb to her evil desires.
“I leave in the morning for Ereston,” I told her, standing in the doorway, “I do not plan to return.”
“Oh, you will return,” she laughed, turning from me and walking back into the room.
“I know not what creature you are,” I growled then, “but you have no hold over me.”
“Do I not?” she laughed. “Nicky, I have held you in the palm of my hand from the very first night you stayed with me. You drank my blood. I drank yours. You are mine to Keep, bound to me until I tire of you, which may be some time, or not, depending on my mood.”
“I did not drink from you, monster.”
“The wine, you fool, was laced with my magical blood – I offered it to you, and you drank from it willingly. Everywhere you go, I can track you, everything you feel, I know. Now you are angry, determined – but it will not always be so – you will learn to love me, they all do, you are mine for all eternity.”
“No magic is needed to know how I feel,” I spat, “I have told you that I despise you. Weeks you have used my body, weeks you have asked me what I want. Ever I have answered the same thing. I do not want you, and that will not change.”
“Have a safe trip, Nicky, sit awhile with your lady,” she smiled then, her face benign.
I turned on my heel and left. Somehow her last words were more ominous than her threats. If indeed I have drunk her blood, unknowingly, I pray the priest will know how to cleanse my body, and my soul of such wickedness.”
Constance, my heart, my soul, is dead.
I have been weeping, most profusely, for many days. Even now, my hand shakes and my tears fall as I record what has befallen. But my resolve to join her in the afterlife also grows, and it is that which prompts me to write, for I have struck a deal that will deliver me back into her arms before too long, I hope.
I arrived unannounced at her home, our lesser manor house, mid-afternoon five days ago, to the ringing of bells.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I dismounted, ungreeted in the stables, tethered my mount myself, as I have never had to do before, and approached the front door. No footsteps rushed down the hall to open the door. No little lap dogs rushed out barking to greet me. The house stood as though abandoned, apart from the peal of the bells, which I knew, could only mean that someone had died.
I immediately thought Mr Ingleby, Constance’s father, had passed. He was much stressed since his fortunes had collapsed. I imagined I must have missed the horse and rider sent to inform me, as I was on the road heading here.
Upon knocking at the door, I waited an interminable time before it was opened by none other than Constance’s mother, her hair shorn, her dress of mourning black.
“How did you know?”
“Know, my lady?”
“I did not write, we were told not to write,” she frowned, looking left and right behind me as though confused and suddenly frightened. “I did not write.”
“Pray, Mrs Ingleby,” I grasped her hands and stared earnestly into her face, she looked twenty years older than when I had left, just 18 months prior, “tell me what is afoot. Who are you mourning?”
Yet even as I asked it, I knew, on some deep, dark level, I knew.
“Why, Constance, my daughter,” she replied, “my dear daughter, Constance.”
She spun then, and hurried down the hall, turning sharp left into their small parlour, where the sound of bells was pealing.
I followed, my feet dragging like a man walking to the gallows, my breath trapped in my throat.
Entering the room, I saw her. My love, my life. Illuminated by candlelight, serenaded by the small bells being rung by a choir boy, standing as he had been paid to do, unobtrusively in the corner.
Laid out, her hands crossed over her still breasts, her face was thinner than I remembered and yet, just as beautiful. She was so tranquil, as though she had paused, mid-sentence, to concentrate on something, a tiny frown just noticeable on her otherwise smooth brow.
I fell then, to my knees, my grief erupting from my throat in a roar of agony, and I sobbed, I’m not ashamed to admit it, like a baby.
None came to comfort me. Her father sat where he had upon my entering the room, nearby her corpse, his hand stroking her hair. Her mother stood at her feet, staring down at her as though once again confused about who she was, or where she was.
Later, much later, I rose and staggered to my Constance. I pulled one of her hands from her breast, and held it to my face, and breathed in the scent of her palm. She had only died that morning, and was still pliable, soft; she still smelled as I remembered, of the rosemary and lavender she picked and pocketed as she walked the grounds, admiring the flowers. Only her hands were not smooth as they had once been, they were calloused, here and there blistered, her nails broken and skin, more tanned than I had ever seen it.
After some time, I replaced her hand and turned to her father, my voice coming out harsher than I intended, my throat thick with tears.
“Where is the priest?”
He made no reply.
“Mr Ingleby, where is the priest? Why is he not sprinkling holy water and praying over my beloved? Why does he not also keep vigil over her body, guarding her soul until it departs for Heaven? Why do I not hear the church bells?”
“Excuse me, Milord,” a small voice said from behind me.
I turned to see Molly, the Ingleby’s long-time cook and housekeeper, and one of the few who knew of my marriage. Her cheeks were red from crying; her small, aged fingers wrung her handkerchief in agitation.
“Molly, can you tell me what has happened? I fear I gain no sense from my grief-stricken parents in law.”
“Sir,” she bobbed, “come this way.”
She led me to the sitting room, small, cosy, a basket of kittens in the corner tussling over a ball of yarn, again reminding me of all the love in this house, of my dear Constance. I sat on her favourite stool, nearest the fire, almost unconsciously, as I waited for Molly to speak.
“Sir, forgive me, I must speak plainly. We was told not to bother you, not to write and advise of our trials. Please, your mother needs to know we did as we was bid.”
“You mean she knew Constance was ill, yet told you not to inform me?”
“Sir,” she nodded, twisting her handkerchief round and round in ever-increasing knots.
“How long? How long did my wife suffer?”
“She wasn’t strong, you know,” Molly shook her head, taking a seat near to me and speaking slowly, “all the work, the cooking and cleaning and milking and gardening… she was so very tired, worn thin as chemise linen, so to speak.”
“What work? I don’t understand, Molly. When I left, Constance and her mother were getting used to a smaller household, to fewer maids, but surely there was no cause for any additional labour.”
“Not here, Sir, no, at the big house. Both the dear girl and Mrs Ingelby were hired as servants by your mother. They’ve been workin day and night, slaving away, for months. I tried my best to lift the weight of this household, I don’t bother that they can’t pay me, I love em like me own, but I couldn’t do enough. It wasn’t enough,” she began sobbing and dabbing her eyes with her sodden handkerchief.
I drew in a harsh breath as I considered what I had been told. No wonder my darling’s soft hands, hands that had only known tapestries and art, fine linens and flowers, were covered in blisters and callouses.
“Servants, you say. And this started when?”
“Right after your mother found out about the weddin.”
“And how, pray tell,” I bury my face in my hands, my grief threatening to overwhelm me, “did this occur?”
“I don’t know, Sir. A lady came to stay at the Estate, a high-class lady of great wealth. A friend of your mother’s, visiting from London she said, and come to offer her advice. The next week our Catholic priest disappeared, and Constance and Mrs Ingelby were ordered to appear at the manor. When they came home, they was as white as ghosts. And the next day they started work.”
“And what of Mr Ingelby during all this? Had he nothing to say about this abominable state of affairs? Hadn’t he the wherewithal to travel to London and inform me of what was happening?”
“Begging your pardon, but your father, Lord Montague, threatened to turf us all out onto the streets if we bothered you and, well, Sir,” she blushed and looked down.
“Molly, tell me all, for nothing you say now can destroy me more than what I have already seen and heard.”
“Sir, we was told you was planning on marrying another, your mother’s friend said all the court knew you were sharing the bed of a countess. She informed Mrs Ingelby herself; said you no longer acknowledged your troth to Constance and had bound yourself to this new lady who would do your lineage proud.”
I let the tears flow once more then, for I could not deny that I had been sharing the bed of the countess, and Molly, dear Molly, patted me on the shoulder and brought me a mug of mulled wine. But nothing could console me, and I do believe I stayed several days in their home, sitting, as did her parents, by my beloved’s side, keeping vigil over her spotless soul.
When I finally surfaced, as cowardly as it may sound to some, I was resolved on my course of action.
I stayed for her funeral, I buried her well, the torches, much to my mother’s disgust, lit the five-mile laneway from her home to the graveyard from dusk to dawn. The church bells rang continuously for 48 hours – the king can hang for all I care that I followed our Catholic traditions.
The stone that covers my love’s tomb, I engraved with my own hand:
Hora E Sempre
Now and Always
And then I left.
I did not confront my mother over her murder of my beloved. I had no anger left in my body, only grief and a strong desire to end it all, finally, in death.
But I could not simply kill myself, for I wish to spend eternity with Constance, and the Church teaches that those who suicide go to Hell. I know my beloved would not wish that for me, despite my behaviour and actions over past months – she will forgive me when we meet again.
And so, I left after the funeral for the court, to defy the King and hope to have my head cut off.
But even in this, I was thwarted.
“I think not. You are too valuable to me to kill – you will continue to please the Countess,” he said.
“No, you fat murderous bastard,” I said blandly, “I will not – just chop my head off, for pities sake.”
He laughed then. His laughter as raucous and genuine as I have ever heard it.
“Ah Nicholas, I enjoy our chats so very much. Go now, the lady beckons.”
But I did not go to her, I went to the slums, to pick a fight in a dirty alehouse and get myself killed.
Once more, I was thwarted.
Oh, I was killed, that is certain, a dagger was thrust into my heart and my body thrown into the river.
But I awoke on the riverside whole and hearty.
The next night I went once more to the tavern, and during the ensuing brawl, I had my arm hacked off at the shoulder.
Once more, the following day, I awoke.
Finally, I realised the only solution was if the beast who had magicked me killed me herself, or if I could kill her and be free from her spell.
I hastened to her suite that very night, but despite my entreaties, she would offer no release.
“Ah Nicky, die? No. You are Kept. You live by my will and my word.”
“What have you done to me that I cannot be killed?”
“Oh, you can be killed,” she laughed, “but by my hand, only.”
“You will kill me,” I said qu