Breathe deeply and slowly; consider what you know. Eirik's advice came back at me as I gazed at the Priory under the silver light of the moon. I took a breath, then two, then three. I was where the Californians had gone, where the World War Two Home Guard unit had gone, a place where Fetch Priory was still real and still intact. Either I'd traveled back in time, or I was in some other, parallel reality. In either event, there must be a way back, else the others couldn't have returned.
The accounts I'd read didn't suggest I'd meet with any hostility at the Priory. But whatever was going on, that place seemed to be at the center of it. Since I was here, I might as well investigate. I ran my eyes over the grim silhouette, hearing Professor Rutherford's voice again as I mentally catalogued the outlines of the different shapes. Church, obviously. Gatehouse, Prior's lodging. Guest-house over there - it had been little more than a few tangled stones overgrown with weeds, when last I saw it, but now it stood sturdily whole, squat and solid within the outer walls.
Good. Abbeys and Priories customarily provided shelter to visitors. I could approach posing as an innocent traveler, assuming I didn't look too outlandish. I glanced down at my clothes. Black jeans, solid black boots and dark shirt. Chosen to be inconspicuous more out of habit than in the serious expectation of meeting trouble. The monks would probably not have seen anything exactly like them, but neither were they so outrageous as to attract comment, particularly if I pulled the shirt from my trousers and wore it hanging down over my belt, medieval-style.
Torches were flaming within the gatehouse as I approached, and I could feel the Beast stir restlessly within me at the sight, but I controlled the reaction easily. In truth, the torches were a feeble enough defense against a night already turning bitingly cold, even for February on the Yorkshire moors. Assuming it was still February here...wherever here was.
I saw a group of men gathered around an iron brazier just inside the entrance and called out to them. Their apparent leader, a burly fellow just a little shorter than I was, left the meager source of warmth with evident reluctance as he strode across to me. The first thing, which I noticed about him, to be brutally honest, was his stench. In addition to the stale human body odor wafting from his wool and leather garments, there was a strong whiff of manure about him. Suspicious looking brown stains streaked his coarse trousers and badly made boots. There was plenty of grime on his face and hands, too. Rough stubble spread across his face and his pepper-and-salt hair was long, lank and greasy. At least he seemed to have all his original teeth, although it was obvious that cleaning them was a foreign concept to him. But his dark eyes, flashing red and gold in the light of the torch he carried, were shrewd and highly intelligent.
For a moment, as he looked at me, his face seemed to register shock and disbelief. But I put it down to a trick of the torchlight, for a moment later his features were impassive again. Despite myself, I felt a faint thrill as he addressed me in what was unmistakably some variant of Middle English. Unfortunately, the last time I'd heard that was studying Chaucer at school and his pronunciation differed considerably from those memories. I shook my head and tried medieval vulgate Latin. Hopefully if he were a servant here he'd have picked up at least a smattering of that.
"Welcome, my lord. How may I help you? Are you lost? This is a bleak night to be abroad without your servants."
More than a smattering and I could follow the way he pronounced this language perfectly clearly. Good. From the way he was talking, he apparently thought I was a noble... probably the fact that my hair was clean or the quality of my clothes. In the firelight, the shirt did have a slight sheen to it than might have suggested silk to someone born in the Middle Ages.
"I became separated from my companions on the road." Keep it simple and stick to the truth as far as possible. "I saw this place and thought it might offer me shelter."
"All good Christian travelers are welcome here, my lord." I'm an agnostic, actually, but this didn't seem a good time to point that out. "I am Aelfric, a lay brother of this house. The brothers are at Compline at present, but I can take you to the guest lodgings."
Compline. So it was about 6.30 well after sunset - and well after the time I usually wake up. The question of why I hadn't awoken sooner was another small, nagging worry to add to my collection. The guesthouse was a large, impressive edifice, basically a rectangular box. A large central hall was surrounded on two sides by simple stone cells, similar to those used by the monks, but considerably larger. Aelfric got me settled in a large and uncomfortable wooden chair in this main hall, directly in front of the fireplace. Frankly, I'd have preferred to be someplace else, this fire was a lot larger and more menacing than the torches outside and the Beast became very restive at the sight of it. But I kept hold of my control and sat down, tense but calm, until my guide had left.
With Aelfric's departure, I found myself alone. Grateful for the excuse to get away from the naked flame in the hearth, I began to wander around the room, studying it in detail. If it was a fake, it was a very skillful fake; no details had been overlooked - including an all-too-authentic smell. Stale sweat was the most common, but it also included roasted fat and grease, the smell of the tallow candles burning at intervals on wall sconces and overlaying it all, the fresh rushes lying on the floor. The walls were painted with stained-glass window scenes of heaven and - in places - hell. The latter, presumably, being there pour encourager les autres. Very few people realize that churches and cathedrals - or castles - were painted in the Middle Ages. Oliver Cromwell's intolerant vandalism destroyed so much. But the walls of this chamber were a riot of form and color.
I was examining a rather lurid depiction of the expulsion of Caine from the garden when I became aware of a presence behind me. The black-robed newcomer had arrived without my noticing, which was odd. I'm usually very good at sensing people trying to sneak up on me. He was a small, soft-looking man, slightly pudgy, with thinning brown hair and watery blue eyes. There was nothing weak of diffident about his voice, however. Rich and deep, it dripped authority and self-assurance.
"Welcome, my lord. The Abbot would welcome a few words with you. I am Prior Alcuin. I am to escort you to him."
Not even a suggestion that I wouldn't comply with the Abbot's wishes. His house, his rules. Though the ring of authority in Alcuin's voice was such that I almost jumped to attention and saluted. Which may have been why it took me a second to register what he'd said. The Abbot would like a word with you. This was a Priory, not an Abbey. Alcuin should have been the highest churchman in residence, not a second-in-command. A second later, something else clicked in my head. Black robes... that was wrong. Fetch Priory was supposed to be a Cistercian foundation. Alcuin ought to have been wearing white robes made of un-dyed wool, not black.
He led me back into the courtyard, towards the church. Even in the moonlight I could see that the exterior of that, too, was painted, the statues of saints adorned with robes of such vivid color that not even the pale moonlight could fully bleach them. It was an impressive edifice. The Priory church had been largely dismantled for building stone during the dissolution and I'd only seen conjectural sketches of what it may have looked like. What I saw was considerably larger and more impressive than I'd been led to believe, rivaling the Priory's motherhouse, the great abbey of Fountains.
It was also an earlier design than I'd expected. Fountains had been built during the flowering of English Gothic architecture and its slender pillars and elegant pointed arches were superb examples of that style. The concept sketches of the Priory suggested that its design was a cut-down version of the Abbey, which founded it. But this church, although it had gothic elements, was done primarily in the Romanesque fashion favored by the Normans after the Conquest, all-broad, heavy pillars and low, rounded arches.
I was starting to form a theory, but it was pushed from my mind in an instant, as Alcuin pushed open the heavy oak door and led me inside the church. When I was about twelve, I'd been punched in the stomach one time at school. My attacker had sunk his fist right into my gut and all the breath had rushed out of me in a single, explosive whoosh. I just collapsed to the ground, sobbing for breath, quite incapable of moving.
It had been several years since I needed to draw breath, but approximately the same thing happened to me when I stepped into that church. Luckily, my shoulder hit the ground first and I rolled, so the impact of my head against the cold stone flagstones merely delivered a nasty knock instead of splitting my skull open. That was pure luck, though, I was utterly incapable of doing anything to save myself at that point. The last thing I noticed was that I couldn't hear Alcuin's voice raised in alarm, as I subconsciously but strongly expected. What was happening to me was no surprise to him. A trap... and I walked right into it. Then my awareness was sucked down into a pit of memories.
His name had been Otto, and he'd been about the worst example of the human species I'd ever met. Iain had told us that he'd fled Germany after his part in a series of rapes came to light - the youngest victim was barely thirteen. He'd hooked up with the local criminal element soon after he'd arrived in Scandinavia, becoming an enforcer for the worst of the local pimps. He kept the girls, often they were teenage runaways, in line by throwing acid into the faces of a few "examples." He'd knifed a man to death in a fight over beer money, small change. He should have been behind bars, but the poor sods who drank in that bar were all too terrified of him to go to the police. Oh, and he'd been a Sabbat ghoul, before Eirik had literally torn apart the pack he worked for. That was how we'd had the alleged pleasure of making his acquaintance.
"Probably not worth the effort," Eirik had said. "But you never know. He may actually have had orders to report back to another Sabbat contact if his masters were destroyed, maybe even remain in place as some sort of deep-cover spy. Young Marc is a busy lad, nowadays, we don't want to complicate his life with unnecessary loose ends."
So they'd investigated, lurking in Otto's hangouts disguised as bats, or in Eirik's case, possessing the bodies of rats and other vermin. Frustratingly, after two weeks they'd still seen no trace of Otto, who seemed to have heard that the Sabbat pack had been destroyed, and gone to ground. But they'd heard of a woman, Kristin, who wanted to escape from Otto's stable. She was older than most of his girls - in fact, she had a nine-year-old daughter, which was why she wanted to escape. Otto had started making remarks about introducing the girl to clients with "exotic tastes." Kristin was horrified and terrified in equal measure, and planned to run.
The woman, Eirik decided, could be a short cut to finding Otto, and so she was, but not the way they'd imagined. They'd gotten to her run-down apartment to find the German ghoul already there. He'd also heard that Kristin intended to run and had made an example of her. Through the spinning vortex of blackness, which was sucking me down against the flagstones of the church, the images came back with merciless clarity. Otto had tied Kristin to a chair while he... attended to the little girl. He'd threatened to cut the child's throat if Kristin looked away or refused to watch. He wanted to make sure that Kristin saw it all. Then he'd meted out his trademark punishment and thrown acid into Kristin's face.
He was laughing, gloating, very pleased with himself, when Eirik tore the door off its hinges, but he stopped laughing when he saw Eirik. I don't think he even noticed me. Eirik in a rage is terror incarnate and I have no illusions that I can come close to that. But for once, it wasn't Eirik he should have worried about.
The Beast seized control of me so fast that I had no time to beat it down or fight back. That... abomination... was the single worst thing, which I - a fucking vampire, mind you - had ever seen, and I wanted Otto's blood. I only have vague memories - leaping for Otto, extending my claws, ripping, tearing, and sinking my fangs into his jugular. He fought back savagely and he might have succeeded in beating me off if I'd been rational, but I swatted away his struggles as if he were a child. He died quickly, but not easily.
When I came to my senses, I had paw-pads in the palms of my hands and blood covering most of my body. Otto was a mangled mass of flesh and bone, barely recognizable as something, which had once been human. I would have vomited at the sight of him, if I hadn't been... well. Been something else that had once been human. I didn't regret his death. After all he'd done, I can only wish it had been longer and more painful. But deep down, I knew something had broken inside me, something I couldn't repair. I just sat there numbly as my sire walked in. I barely registered the fact that Kristin and her mother were no longer there.
"I got the child and her mother out. Iain's on his way here with a medical and cleanup team. They'll take care of them... and they'll take care of this." There was no condemnation in Eirik's golden eyes as he looked at me kneeling there in the ruin of Otto's body. In fact, there was a certain grim and terrible approval. Sometimes, my sire can seem almost human.
This wasn't one of those times.
"Their injuries were easy to fix," he continued, utterly unmoved by the carnage I'd caused. "A few draughts of my blood took care of it. Their minds... I'm afraid that will be more difficult. But I'll see to it that they have a chance." A gob of bloody spittle landed on Otto's ex-viscera. "This creature will never have any chances, ever again." He sighed. "There's a shower through there, lad. Go get cleaned up. Thanks to your commendable but premature thoroughness, I'll have to ask the gods to let me borrow Otto's spirit for a while, before they cast it into Niflheim. There are still a few questions I want answered."
This creature will never have any chances, ever again. Eirik's off-hand comment thundered in my mind as I lay there helplessly on the church floor. Did I regret his death? Did I feel guilt for it? In all honesty, no. Did I doubt, even for a moment, that he'd deserved to die like that? Not for a second. He was vile beyond what words can express. So did I think that killing him had left no stain on my soul? No. I knew only too well that it had. I felt the loss, inside me. Saying he deserved to die wasn't the same thing as saying I had the right to kill him. His death was a good thing... but my killing him was an evil thing. I couldn't escape that truth. I simply had to live with it.
The vortex released me. My limbs were mine to command again. For an instant, I was afraid that the Beast would take advantage of my weakness and surge to the surface... but the Beast was in hiding. I could feel it crawling into the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind, whimpering, terrified. I could feel a leaden, oppressive weight pushing against me, but it wasn't physical. It was a supernatural power, power of a type - and strength - I'd never faced before. Stabbing shocks of pain were pulsing from the paw-pads in my hands, causing my arms to twitch involuntarily. Alcuin gripped my twitching arm and hauled me to my feet with surprising strength.
"You seem to have been judged worthy, my lord."
I looked at him, much more carefully than I had before. This soft little man was anything but soft. Behind those watery eyes was a will as ferocious and ruthless as that of my ancient sire. "This was some kind of test?"
"No, my lord. This was some kind of judgment, a judgment of the state of your soul. Had you fallen from Grace, you would not have survived it."
Sometimes, even when you don't breathe, you need to take a deep breath.
"You know what I am?"
He shrugged. "A night-feeder, a creature supposedly born of the sin of the first murderer. But not fallen to evil or beyond redemption - though not wholly pure, either, or this sacred ground would cause no discomfort."
"So you don't intend..."
"... to destroy you? Perhaps while you sleep helplessly by day?" Alcuin shook his head and favored me with a slightly grim smile. "You have been... acquitted... of that fate by a far higher authority than ours, my lord." He gestured towards the altar. Another stab of pain shot through my arms, turning my answering smile into a grimace.
"My name is Damian, Father Prior. I think it would be more honest if you were to use it. Your lord," I matched his gesture towards the altar, "is not I."
Alcuin nodded once. "Very well, then - Damian." He gestured. "If you have the strength to walk, the Abbot is waiting."
Whether the Power that surrounded me was truly holy, as Alcuin evidently believed, or some kind of magic I'd never encountered before, I had no doubts as to its magnitude. I could feel it gripping me as I walked though the church towards the small door set into the side of the nave. This far, it seemed to whisper at me and no further. Had I tried anything the least bit aggressive towards Alcuin, I had no doubt that my existence would have been snuffed out like a candle.
The feeling lessened as we progressed down the cloister leading away from the church, but it didn't disappear entirely. It was a beautiful setting - this part of the monastery was more recent than the church itself and the delicate, gothic arches were open onto the gardens. There were roses growing somewhere nearby; the scent was a welcome relief after the assortment of foul stenches I'd had to endure since my - well, I suppose "arrival" would be as good a word as any.
What I'd thought of as the Prior's lodging - although apparently it was the Abbot's lodging - was directly ahead of is now. I could see that it was set in its own private garden, surrounded by a low wall. There wasn't a gate as such, just a path leading from the end of the cloister through a gap in the garden wall. There was a figure kneeling in a bed of earth to our left as we walked towards the main door of the house. He straightened up at our approach, casually brushing off the earth on his hands against the dusty black robes he wore.
Alcuin had pulled up short, and bowed slightly. "Father. This is our visitor. He calls himself Damian."
The Abbot - for it could be no other - nodded once in acknowledgment. He didn't rush to offer a welcome, instead looking me over with a calm, thoughtful scrutiny, which emboldened me to study him in turn. There was an odd intensity to his gaze, though, as if he were trying to convince himself that I was real. Maybe he didn't find the existence of "night-feeders" as easy to accept as his Prior. He was tall. I'd not realized it until this moment, but everyone I'd met so far in this place was as short, or shorter, than I was. That's quite unusual; I'm used to being one of the shorter members of any gathering, but I know that people of past ages averaged considerably shorter than the modern norm. Diet, mainly.
Not this man, though. He topped six-foot easily, although there wasn't a lot of flesh on his bones. His features were gaunt, with deep-set brown eyes and leathery skin. His hair, once dark (I couldn't tell whether it was naturally brown or black in the moonlight), was now heavily flecked with gray. A face that had seen a lot of hard living but had been tempered by it rather than battered into submission. I liked him instinctively, but my second instinctive reaction to him was fear.
"Damian." His voice was husky, almost like Louis Armstrong, but with a pronounced accent. Unmistakably French but distinctly different from the modern form I was familiar with. Norman-French, then. A noble. As he raised his head, I saw a vicious scar running down his throat, narrowly missing his Adam's apple. That would explain the huskiness of his voice.
"I am Abbot Ranulf." A Norman name, as I'd thought. "Why have you come here?"
Straight to the point. Okay, I could do that. "I came seeking knowledge, Father Abbot. This place..." I hesitated, unsure of how much the Abbot knew. The Prior had recognized me as a vampire, but I knew that the church was much more aware of us in the middle ages than it was now. I still didn't know if I'd traveled back in time - in which case I had to worry about all those weary old sci-fi clichés about changing history, on top of everything else - or...
"This place," the Abbot finished for me, "is a tiny world of its own, walled away from time for almost eight hundred years. And you came here when you heard of those two amiable but rather helpless young men whom we recently rescued from freezing to death on the moor."
Well, that settled two things. One, I hadn't actually traveled in time, and two, the Abbot understood what was happening here. More than I did, anyhow. "Yes, Father."
"And once you have this knowledge - what were you planning to do with it?"
I blinked. Do with it? Those sunken eyes bored into me for a second and then the Abbot's thin lips cracked into something close to a smile. "Absolutely nothing, I see. You wanted knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. Very well, then, night-feeder. I'm digging these beds ready for the spring planting. An eccentricity of mine to do it after dark, I know, but I find that the labor helps me to sleep. I often find it difficult to fall asleep," he added as an afterthought. "You may assist me and we will use the time to talk. My thanks, Alcuin," he added, gripping the Prior's shoulder in what seemed like genuine affection. "I think our young night-feeder and I will do well enough together. Get some sleep yourself."
The Prior nodded once, and strode away without a backward glance. Ranulf watched him leave for a second, a half-smile playing about his lips, and then gestured for me to follow him into the house.
The shovels were clumsy and badly made by modern standards, but effective enough. The Abbot set to work with a will on the hard-packed earth and I found myself hard-pressed to keep up with him. It was slightly humiliating, in a way, that my young, resilient, immortal body, a body with no need to breathe, struggled merely to match the vigor of an old man. We'd been working for about ten minutes before the Abbot's voice broke into my thoughts.
"You have questions, Damian. Ask them."
It was difficult to know where to begin.
"You follow the Benedictine Rule, Father?"
"And not the Cistercian one? And is this House an Abbey, rather than a Priory? Yes, and yes. To spare you the obvious question, when my brothers and I made our sacrifice and left the real world, His Holiness Pope Innocent ordered all record of our fate destroyed - save for those in the sealed archives beneath the Vatican in Rome. As far as the world you traveled from knows, the Abbey of Our Lady was a mere sub-House of our Cistercian brothers at Fountains. No one save his Holiness and a few of his closest confidantes knew the truth."
"When you and your brothers made your sacrifice? Odd, I thought, that I of all people should be shocked. It's not like immortality was an unfamiliar concept. But I'd been thinking of this place as some kind of lost city, a time capsule where generation upon generation followed the customs of their ancestors, sealed off from the outside world."
"Yes, child. My brothers and I. There is not a man dwelling here who has lived for less than eight centuries. Our faith and our Savior have held us here, unchanging, for all of these long centuries."
I leaned heavily against my shovel as the implications of that sunk in. Eight centuries locked away from the world. Why? What would make anyone choose to do that? The Abbot leaned on his shovel for a moment. It was the first sign of weakness I'd seen in him.
"Eight hundred years... we were uncertain when you arrived. But once you stepped onto the sacred ground of the church and survived...perhaps your arrival offers us hope of the ending. At last."
I blinked. "I can't see how." Surprise made me blurt the comment out without thinking. The Abbot heaved a deep sigh. "Walk with me."
We strode down the path towards the Abbot's house. I thought we were going to go inside, but the Abbot lifted his hand, halting me at the threshold. Then the arm lifted further, directing my attention to the stonework above the arched entranceway. It looked like a carving of a human face, but I couldn't make out the details. I was drawing breath to ask what he was trying to show me when a patch of drifting cloud parted, and the moon came out again. I stumbled back with a soft cry of shock.
The carved face above the doorway was my own.