Marc de Brabant


">

Images by Ulysses0302. Please do not use without permission

Clan: Gangrel

Nature: Caregiver

Demeanor: Traditionalist

Concept: Merchant Prince and Camarilla Archon

Generation: 10th

Embrace: 1216 AD, Venice (born 1196 A.D.)

Sect: Camarilla

Attributes

Physical Strength 2, Dexterity 4, Stamina 3

Social: Charisma 4, Manipulation 5, Appearance 3

Mental: Perception 5, Intelligence 4, Wits 4

Abilities

Talents: Alertness 4, Athletics 2, Awareness 3, Brawl 3, Empathy 4, Leadership 3, Streetwise 3, Subterfuge (Con) 5

Skills: Drive 1, Etiquette (Elysium) 4, Larceny 4, Performance (Acting) 4, Stealth 4

Knowledges: Academics 3, Finance 5, Investigation 4, Occult 3, Politics 5

Backgrounds: Allies 5, Contacts 5, Generation 3, Haven 4, Herd 4, Influence (Police, Journalism) 3, Mentor 4, Resources 5, Retainers (Iain Grendel, Isaacson Family) 5, Status 4

Merits: Early Riser, Eidetic Memory, Light Sleeper, Calm Heart, Elysium Regular, Open Road, Fae Affinity

Flaws: Vulnerability (Cold Iron)

Virtues: Conscience 4, Self-Control 4, Courage 4

Morality: Humanity 7

Willpower: 8

Disciplines: Animalism 5, Auspex 2, Celerity 2, Fortitude 5, Protean 5

Discipline Techniques: Fenris' Talons, Loki's Gift, Shattered Fog

Character History

An orphan raised by monks, Marc de Brabant was easy prey to the charismatic preachers who inspired the Children's Crusade. His faith destroyed and his dreams shattered, he found himself sold as a slave to a fat and greasy Venetian merchant, who swiftly discovered that Marc possessed an eidetic memory and used him as a sort of living ledger-book, never once considering that the boy might possess any useful intellectual gifts beyond perfect recall. A brutal and slightly sadistic man, the merchant used Marc as a near-literal whipping boy as well, someone to beat up in order to relieve his frustrations.

In addition to his other character flaws, Marc's master took great delight in cheating his customers whenever he could. Naturally, he tried it with Marc's sire, a Bristol merchant named Megan of Bristol. His scornful dismissal of her as a "mere woman" ended when he found himself an inch from death at the talons of an enraged Cainite.

Ironically, it was Marc who saved the Venetian's life. Megan discovered Marc's extraordinary memory while she was interrogating the man, and unlike the Venetian, was immediately curious about what other gifts he might possess. A long night of conversation discussing various aspects of Venetian trade convinced her that he'd make a perfect assistant, but she wasn't fool enough to believe that his loyalty could be either bought or commanded. Loyalty, she knew, could only be offered freely. She she gave the Venetian a straight choice: surrender his goods and chattel to Marc, and retire to a simple life in a monastary, or suffer a slow and agonizing death. When the Venetian made his understandable decision, she offered Marc a choice of his own: keep his former master's properties for his own, and become her ally, or allow her to absorb the Venetian's enterprises into her own, and become her partner.

Marc, fascinated by her in spite of himself, made the latter choice, and Megan Embraced him into Clan Gangrel in 1216. Megan, bound by her own code to honour the terms of the bargain she'd made, kept her word and allowed the Venetian to go free.

For centuries, Marc wandered Europe with his sire, his grand-sire, the Viking skald Eirik Haraldsson, and Megan's ghoul, a former knight called Iain Grendel who she saved from death during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. They build a vast trading empire spanning the Med basin (and eventually, India and the New World) together, administered by a Jewish family called the Isaacsons, descendants of an ancestor who they'd rescued from a massacre in York in 1190. When the Camarilla formed, Marc was one of its strongest advocates, albeit with an ulterior motive - he'd worked hard at maintaining his humanity and saw the Masquerade as a way to protect the kine from Cainite predation.

A master shapeshifter, Marc works as a spy and infiltrator, as well as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. As a respected elder, Marc is more or less a free agent; his missions are favours to other elders rather than tasks he's assigned. His personal priority is protecting human life; the Camarilla, however, thinks that he's a hardline extremist about protecting the Masquerade and opposing the Sabbat, mistaking the effect for the cause. A lot of his work involves infiltrating police and security agencies, or media organizations, to cover up the "little mistakes" of his fellow Kindred. He's fabulously wealthy, because he continues to maintain a huge and diversified international business empire, administered by the Isaacson family. He works hard to maintain his Humanity, using his status as an elder to avoid situations that would threaten it wherever possible.

Prologue

Take it from one who's learned the hard way, my friend: read the small print before you sign.

Where should I begin my story - in the ditch my mother left me in, maybe? I was a foundling child taken in by a small Benedictine Priory in northern France, at the very beginning of the thirteenth century. I was luckier than most such foundling children, for I was "adopted" by one of the monks. Old Brother Jerome had come late to the Benedictine Order. In his youth, he'd been a man-at-arms in the service of King Henry II of England, and had married and had children. He'd lost his wife and younger son to disease, and entered monastic orders seeking... something. Even after all this time, I'm still not sure what. A place to hide from the memories? Peace after a lifetime of struggle?

But I apparently reminded him of the son he'd lost, and he became like a father to me. I knew I could never aspire to be more than an agricultural labourer, base-born foundling that I was, but Brother Jerome taught me to read and write, and a little about keeping accounts, for the Priory was rich and had many tenants to manage. He would even allow me to sneak into the library and read the beautiful illuminated texts which were kept there. I was enchanted by those lovely books. They were my refuge, my escape from the boredom and drudgery of my life.

In 1212, that gentle, kind old man died. I didn't stop crying for two weeks. I have walked the Earth for almost eight centuries, but in all that time, there hasn't been a single waking night when I haven't prayed passionately for the peace of his soul, deep in my heart. Whenever Eirik rails against the Hvitachrist, as he calls our Saviour, I think of Brother Jerome, grinning mischievously at me as he connived at my latest indiscretion, and smile to myself.

I was, I suppose, at a "vulnerable age", although the Middle Ages had a far less sentimental view of childhood than this modern era. Brother Jerome had been the only real family I'd ever known, and his passing left a void in my spirit. I probably would have followed any leader, any cause, which captured my attention.

The cause which did capture my attention was that of a young shepherd called Stephen of Cloyes, who had, so he claimed, received a vision from Jesus. Stephen believed that our Saviour gave him letters for our King, Philip Augustus, urging him to a new Crusade.

Without Brother Jerome, there was nothing for me in the Priory anymore. And Stephen had an extraordinary quality about him... faith, fanaticism, madness, call it what you will. I was dazzled by his amazing charisma, his utter absence of doubt. If you read the histories today, many will tell you he was twelve years old. Such nonsense - some of our fellows were very young, and Stephen set me the task of aiding and comforting them after he discovered I had a knack for it. But Stephen himself was a man grown, fully six foot tall - a giant by peasant standards - though his youthful cheeks still bore no more than a few wisps of blonde stubble. Had he been born to a different class, his name would have gone down in history as one of the great leaders of our time. I followed him willingly, indeed eagerly, as we marched to the great Abbey of St. Denis in Paris.

Our reception at St. Denis wasn't quite what we'd expected. The nobility and clergy alike were horrified at the thought of an unwashed peasant mob abandoning their labors and roaming around the countryside, and we were ordered to disperse. None too gently - no few of our party were beaten or whipped for daring to defy the social order so dramatically.

Stephen was undeterred. Nothing ever seemed to shake his faith or make him question his belief - either in God, or himself. He led us, the few thousand that were left, through Vendome and on through Marseilles, where he told us that the sea would part before us, as the Red Sea had parted for Moses in Egypt.

Naturally, it didn't. Even that couldn't shake Stephen's faith. He told us simply that God would provide, if we would remain and have faith.

We remained, but perhaps our faith was lacking. If it was truly God who sent two slave-traders to us with an offer of free passage, then He must have a decidedly eccentric sense of humour.

We boarded seven ships. Two of them were lost in a storm, and Stephen, our guide and inspiration, was lost with them. The remainder made port in Bougie on the North African coast, and then in Alexandria, where those of us who's survived the cramped and unsanitary voyage were sold as slaves.

Free passage, we were offered. And free passage those bastards gave us. As I said - read the small print before you sign.

My new master was a fat and greasy Venetian merchant. I will not say his name; I have done my best, down through the centuries, to expunge any evidence that the hell-spawned bastard ever existed. He found out swiftly enough that I could read and write, and those things I didn't know about keeping accounts, he taught me in short order. As a slave, I could have no wealth, no ambition of my own, so he could use me to manage his ledger books without fearing that I could cheat him, as a free man might. I discovered a great gift for memorising lists and columns of figures, a talent I'd never needed or explored before. It wasn't long before I knew my master's business better than he knew it himself.

But that wasn't the reason he'd bought me. He bought me because he was a vicious and imaginative sadist who wanted a sexual toy. I'll spare you the details. It's not something that I enjoy remembering.

In the end, it was his greed and his stupidity which ended his power. It was his custom to cheat his business partners - indeed, it was something of a hobby for him to see how cleverly he could dupe them and how much he could steal from them.

Normally, he was very careful about his thievery, but when it came to Megan of Bristol, he got careless. Fool that he was, he didn't believe that a "mere" woman would have the wit to notice his deception or the strength to confront him about it if she did. He tried to rob her of half the value of her cargo.

He'd had too much to drink the night she came for him - ironically, to celebrate his success in cheating her. I always dreaded the nights when he drank. Those were the nights when he would devise new and inventive tortures to inflict on me. This night was no exception.

As I said, I've no wish to remember the details of what he did to me. I remember screaming in agony - partly because he liked to hear me scream, but mostly because the pain gave me no choice. And I remember the instant when the pain stopped, and the screaming was suddenly his.

His body thumped onto the bed beside me, breathing shallowly and rapidly, the eyes in his froglike face bulging even more than usual from terror. He was bleeding from wounds in his throat, and I wondered for an instant what had made them - until my sire-to-be, Megan of Bristol, settled herself on the bed beside us, and retracted her fangs. The terrible talons sprouting from her hands moved towards me, and I braced myself for death, but all she did was slice through the straps that bound me.

She wasn't ever much of a one for smiling, was Megan, but her voice was gentle and her expression was kind. With her usual straightforward directness, she told me that I need have no further fear of mistreatment from my master. He had cheated her, and would pay the price for it, but it was obvious that I was blameless. When she left this place, she would take me with her, and see me settled in honest employment, if that were my wish.

I started to laugh. Here I was, severed leather straps dangling from my wrists, in agony mere moments before, still aching with pain. There she was, calmly offering me salvation from hell as though it amounted to nothing more than the sale of a trinket.

She took no offence at my hysteria. Megan has always been fascinated by human nature - if not overmuch impressed by it - and she understood my reaction perfectly. She sat utterly motionless as my laughter subsided into great racking sobs. Even as a mortal, Eirik told me later, she'd had the habit of being still and quiet - as a vampire, with no need to breathe or blink, that stillness had become near absolute. Gradually, the compassion and understanding in her large blue eyes brought me halfway back to rationality.

"Yes", I gasped out. Then I looked fearfully over at my master, to see his reaction.

"You needn't worry about that fool", Megan told me briskly. "He fainted before he even heard my offer to you. A pity, because I want some answers from him".

I was emotionally burnt out by that point. So, quite calmly and matter-of-factly, I asked her what answers.

"I paid him for quality Byzantine silk. The crates he delivered had silk on the top, but rough linen underneath. I want to see if he bought more silk, and if not, what he did with the extra money I paid him".

"He bought more silk", I told her. "But he sold it two days ago and reinvested the profits in a cargo of Gascon wine he planned to sell in London. It's recorded in the third ledger book from the left, on shelf above the desk. Go to the eighteenth page from the back, about half-way down.

Her gaze sharpened. There was no sense of threat from her, but there was a heightening of interest and attention.

"How do you know that?"

"I also keep his accounts. This isn't the only way he uses me", I gestured at my naked body. I don't know why it didn't embarrass me to appear thus before a woman. Perhaps on some level, I could sense that the creature before me had passed beyond such human constraints as modesty.

"So his idiot warehouse manager told me", she said dryly. "After I broke his arm and threatened to do the same to his neck. That wasn't what I meant. How do you know the page, the position of the transaction?"

"I don't know. I just do. I remember what's in all the account books".

She raised her eyebrows. Rising from the bed, she strode over to the desk in two large, self-confident paces, giving me my first good look at her.

She was tall for a woman, a good two or three inches taller than I was myself, I judged. Her dress was plain black, unadorned with decoration, but evidently of excellent quality and well-fitted. She seemed to have a well-developed physique - not fat or bulky, but clearly more muscular than the female norm. She wore no wimple, and I could see her hair falling to just past her shoulders, loosely curled and black as coal.

Her face was attractive. Not delicately pretty, but broad, square-jawed and strong, with fine cheekbones and large eyes. Few women in that time wielded authority openly - the Church taught that submission was their natural behaviour - but only a fool could look at Megan and not see that she was accustomed to her orders being obeyed, instantly and without question. How could my master - my former master, I amended, shooting a glance at the recumbent bulk on the bed beside me - have been fool enough to think this woman weak or vulnerable?

She pulled a ledger book from the shelf. Her movements were beautiful to behold - graceful and economical, with no wasted gestures. She had the kind of understanding and control over her body which is often seen in dancers or soldiers.

As I cautiously sat up, wincing at the pain of the sudden movement, and began to dress, Megan started to ask me questions. What commodity was listed as the third item of the seventeenth page? What price had been paid for the oriental spices sold on the twelfth day of March last year? What had been given in trade for the three jewelled gold cups offered to the Genoese merchant this spring? I was accustomed to such questions, for my mas... my former master, had also marvelled at my curious memory. I answered her easily as I pulled on my clothes, and her expression grew more and more thoughtful.

Finally, she began to ask the questions my master never had. What mistakes had he made? Where might he have obtained better prices, better goods? Which trade agreements contained hidden pitfalls which he hadn't seen when they were made? I answered those questions as easily as I had the others. I'd had plenty of time to think about them.

She nodded approvingly at what I was saying. Occasionally, she would question me on a particular point, or argue against one of my suggestions. At first, I was fearful at answering back, and did so only in the most hesitant and diffident way possible. But I quickly saw that the more strongly I responded to her challenges, the more pleased she became, until after a couple of hours were past, we were engaged in an animated debate on the minutiae of Venetian trade. The whole situation was utterly surreal - to be rescued from sexual torture so that I could speak of trade with a supernatural monster! For I guessed, well enough, what she was. The next day, it seemed incredible to me that I could have ignored or disregarded her true nature as we spoke. Now, I recognise my reaction for what it was. I was in shock.

A groan from behind us cut off what we were saying, and we turned to gaze at my former master as he regained consciousness, with identical expressions of irritation at the interruption. Then each of us saw the other's face, and we started laughing. Not hysterical laughter, this time, but the genuine, easy laughter of friendship and comradeship. It was at that moment that Megan ceased to be a monster to me, and began to become the true friend she has been for all the centuries since.

It's as well that moment occurred, for Megan swiftly reminded me of her true, inhuman nature. Striding across to my former master (yes, I know it may seem irritating that I keep referring to him as such, but the name of that whoreson will not willingly pass my lips, ever again), she lifted his sweaty bulk into the air with one hand. Her eyes began to burn with crimson fire, and the terrifying fangs extended from her mouth once more. He had two choices, she told him. He could be sent on one of her ships, in chains, to a monastery in England where he would live out the remainder of his days. Or he could die, here and now. But if he chose the former option, there was a price. He would free me, formally adopt me as his son, and grant to me all his wealth and property.

I was as stunned by Megan's proposition as by his acceptance of it. Now, I know she used her supernatural power to cow the bestial portion of his spirit and bend him to her will, but then, the sight of that greedy slob surrendering all that was his - even in such extremity - was astounding.

She dropped him to the floor contemptuously as he stammered out her acceptance, crossed to the door, and flung it open. Outside I could see a tall man with swarthy skin and hair as black as Megan's own, and two men-at-arms. They wore no livery, but their clothing and weaponry were of the highest quality, like those of the personal guard of the Doge himself.

"Our cheating friend, here, Iain", Megan said crisply. "Is going to the warehouse, in your charge. He is to see no one else".

He nodded. "Yes, Madame". He gestured to the other two men, and my former master was hauled away like a sack of grain.

Megan closed the door. "So", she said conversationally. "All this is yours now".

I didn't believe it, of course. I thought she meant that I would be her puppet, the means through which she exercised control.

She evidently saw that, and shook her head. "No. All of this is really yours. I will ensure that that fool hands it over to you, and support you if the other merchants here in Venice try to take it from you. All I ask in exchange is that in any future dealings between us, you deal fairly and honestly with me. You may be sure that if you do so, you will receive the same treatment in return".

And the odd thing was, I did believe it then, as I believe it now. In her own way, Megan adheres to a code of honour as uncompromising as that of her sire. Perhaps that's why he chose her.

She settled herself into a chair. "You do, however, have a second option. I estimate that your new "father's" assets... . Her lips twisted in contempt at the mention of him. "... would increase my own resources by roughly a seventh. If you wish, you may choose to merge your new property with my own ventures. You would still be wealthy - wealthier, I suspect, than if you stood alone - but you would be my lieutenant, not a free agent and master of your own fate".

She leaned forward. "Understand this, Marc de Brabant. I expect loyalty. I demand it. I will show no mercy if you betray my trust, once I give it. But I am not such a fool as to imagine that loyalty may be purchased, or taken by force. It may only be given freely. So I offer you a free choice and a true alternative to alliance with me".

It was an easy choice for me to make, even so. I'd never had wealth. I didn't want wealth. I wanted not to be alone. I wanted more moments of laughter and friendship like the one we'd shared in this room, scant minutes past.

"I choose to be your lieutenant".

She looked at me hard for a second, then nodded once. "So be it".

***

My new responsibilities were in many ways identical to my old - keeping ledger books, tracking accounts - with one important difference. I had real power and was shown real respect. I was amazed when I saw Megan's ledgers. My master's... my own... property was barely an eighth of hers, not a seventh. But as vast and well managed as her enterprises were, I still saw scope for improvement. I was a mere babe compared to Megan, for she was, I discovered, far older than she looked, but she always listened respectfully to my suggestions. Some she agreed with and implemented - where she did not, she explained her reasons in detail, in the process giving me a first-rate practical education in managing a trading house.

For the first time since the children's crusade, I found myself in a position to support and nurture others. I'd somewhat resented the duty when Stephen of Cloyes had laid it upon me, and it rather surprised me to find that I enjoyed it now. Using my own money, I paid debts owed by widows who had lost their husbands, or sponsored the education of scholarly children from poor families. Before long, men from all levels of our organisation were approaching me with their troubles.

I tried to conceal what I was doing from Megan at first, but to my further surprise, she approved heartily. Word of what I was doing had spread, and honest men were queuing up to enter our service, knowing that their families would be protected if they themselves were to die. Dishonest ones appeared in droves too, of course, but I remembered the corrupt slave traders who'd sold me, and felt no qualms of conscience at having them thrown into the street.

My habits had become nocturnal, in deference to Megan's needs. I slept long into the day, and spent my nights in her large stone office, attached to her warehouse by the wharves. That office was typical of Megan - well appointed with heavy rugs and well-crafted wooden furniture, but spartan and not ostentatious. Megan appreciated quality, but never saw the point of flaunting her wealth.

It was during those long nights that we became true friends and comrades. We spoke of everything - politics, morality, honor, distant lands, magic. Megan answered my questions concerning her own nature with the same frank directness that she brought to any other topic, once I found the courage to ask her.

It was a couple of months after our first meeting that the door to her office swung open and a blonde giant walked in.

"Old vargr", Megan said, giving one of her rare smiles as she rose from her chair to embrace him. "It's good to see you safe back".

As she kissed his cheek, I realized that he wasn't a giant at all. In truth, Megan towered over him. Even I topped him by a couple on inches. It was just that he had such an aura of power, of invincibility, that it felt as though he ought to be a giant.

I rose to give him my chair as she led him towards the fire - a feeble and carefully controlled thing, for Megan had a primal fear of naked flame - but he waved me back down. "No need, lad, I can shift well enough for myself". The voice was a shock. It was in essence a light tenor, smooth, well-modulated and musical. Underneath it though, was a low feral rumble, like the purr of some great cat.

Suiting actions to words, the newcomer pulled another chair over to the fire as Megan resumed her own seat. He studied me with such frank curiosity that I felt emboldened to stare back.

At that time, his skin was still smooth and pale, his nails not yet claws. But his eyes were already the golden orbs of a wolf, and his hands showed the leathery pads of hardened skin in their palms. I felt no real menace from him, but I had no doubt that I was in the presence of a Power that could slay me in an instant if it chose.

"Marc de Brabant", Megan said formally. "Let me make known to you my sire, Eirik Harraldsson, called the Rune-Wise".

***

I was to come to know Eirik well, those next few weeks. He would often spend the evenings conferring with Megan, and I felt honored - and in all honesty, greatly intimidated - to be included in their counsels.

I had to observe them for some time before I worked out the complicated dynamic of their relationship. Megan was no servant, but she had entered into a bargain with her sire to devote a large measure of her resources and energies to his causes. She was as scrupulous in fulfilling that bargain as any other, and consequently it was Eirik who set our priorities - the resources we must gather and the trade and communication links that we must foster. But the means by which those priorities were met were wholly a matter for Megan, and Eirik would follow her instructions without question. If she told him that this vampire prince must be appeased, or that rival merchant must be reconnoitred, he moved at once to obey, trusting her judgement implicitly. And underlying this, there was a strong bond of genuine respect and affection between them, like a father and daughter who took pride in each others' achievements.

The conversation, when it came, was really no shock. I'd been expecting it for a long time, I think.

"Marc", Megan began. "Eirik and I are in agreement. Both of us wish you to join us. To become like us.

"Neither of us has any intention of forcing you. We offer you three choices.

"First, remain a mortal, age and die as other mortals. Second, drink of our blood, but decline the Embrace. As such, you shall enjoy immortality without giving up the sun, but you will remain, in some senses, a servant for all time.

"Or third, accept the Embrace and become a full member of our family".

The decision was easier than I'd ever imagined. Megan was offering me the one thing I wanted above all else. The one thing I'd lacked since Brother Jerome died.

Family.

***

Once again, I should have read the small print before I signed. My first nights as a vampire almost destroyed my soul.

It was Megan who would sire me, they explained. Eirik had used the magic of his runes to divine my destiny, and they foretold a terrible loss in my future were he to make me his childe. At the time, I believed what he was saying to be mere pagan superstition. More than a century would pass before I would come to understand what the runes had revealed. The Lord Lucian, the Sidhe who granted me my Glamour of humanity, explained that it was only the precise potency of my blood which made his gift to me possible. Had I been Eirik's childe, the power of my blood would have been too great for the Glamour to banish, even temporarily. Had I been any weaker, like my own childe, Stephen FitzHugh, the Glamour would have completely overcome my vampire nature and slain me, rather than merely placing that vampire nature in abeyance for a while. Of all the debts which I own Eirik, the greatest gift is that first piece of foresight which now allows me the occasional, glorious taste of humanity once again.

I didn't feel very human, those first terrible nights. I looked upon men, women, even children - good people who I knew, who I'd helped and laughed and cried with - and saw only food for my insatiable hunger. My body felt cold, but I could no longer take pleasure in the warmth of a flame - fire, once so cheerful and welcoming, was a terror to me now. I must have thought a hundred times of walking into the sunrise.

I had a foolish notion of revenge upon my master, and visited him in his cell a little while before he took ship for England. He whimpered like a child when he felt my fangs pierce his neck, and his body trembled against me as I drank. Yet after a few moments, I thrust him away in disgust. Though I might hate him, this act of vengeance seemed so petty, so meaningless now. And had I not chosen, of my own will, to become an even worse sort of monster than he?

It was Eirik's kindness which gave me the strength to survive.

You don't associate the word "kindness" with Eirik Harraldsson? Nor did I in the first months that I knew him. He seemed to me to be utterly ruthless, without regard for human life or human suffering.

And yet, and yet. Have you ever seen a common house cat nurture her kittens? Have you marvelled that a creature capable of such lethal cruelty can be so gentle, so caring? So it is with Eirik. Although in fairness to my grandsire, I have never known him to be cruel or sadistic. When he kills, he kills with such speed and skill that his victims have no chance to suffer.

Eirik Harraldsson protects his own. Though don't we all? How many kine would grieve more for a stranger than for a brother or parent? Perhaps Eirik is just more honest than most of us.

It was precisely because Eirik was so inhuman that his care for me gave him hope. It seemed to me to be proof that not even the worst of monsters is beyond the reach of our Lord. Though Eirik was fiercely pagan, yet still he believed in a higher purpose, a mission given to him by his dark gods to save and protect humanity from the evils which would prey on them. If such a creature could have honour, a code of morality, even compassion of a sort, then surely I could to.

We stayed a few more months in Venice, long enough for me to master the most basic gifts of our blood. Megan and Eirik were waiting for a consignment of unusual items from a woman they referred to as "the Serpent", another undead trader based in Alexandria. I could see Eirik getting more and more restless and the weeks crawled by and still no word came of his precious cargo. When it finally did arrive, he was like an arrow loosed from a bow, insisting that we sail for Norway at the first opportunity.

It was my first time aboard a ship since the slave-traders had tricked us, and I was surprised at how much that experience had marked me. It was as well that the three of us spent much of the voyage in voluntary torpor to reduce our feeding needs, for I almost fell into frenzy when first I boarded.

The night was crisp and clear as we approached the coast of Norway. I could see the breath of the crew misting as I came on deck, an unwelcome reminder of the coldness of my own dead body.

Eirik and Megan were already standing at the prow of the ship. Behind them, I could see the crew removing cloth-wrapped bundles from the Serpent's crates.

I stepped up beside them. Silently, Megan passed me a wineskin filled with blood, one of the last we'd brought with us from Venice. They had been provided by an ally of hers, a mortal magus of minor skill who knew a ritual to keep the vitae fresh and pure in any sealed container, regardless of how much time had passed.

At first glance, Eirik seemed to be stargazing, but I knew him well enough by now to interpret the slight tension in his pose. He was hunting for something. What could he be looking for...

He gave a grunt of satisfaction a few moments before I saw it. Five specs of sliver light heading across the water, straight for our ship. I called in the power of my blood, filling my eyes with a crimson glow to penetrate the darkness.

They seemed to be birds, but they glinted. I stepped back nervously as they swung around to land on the deck between us and the sailors.

Birds indeed. They were like eagles, each standing almost three feet tall, but they were made of silvery metal, with polished rubies where their eyes should be. I heard them whirring and ticking as they shifted from foot to foot, swinging their heads to survey us. My Beast stirred within me, urging me to treat these strange creatures as a threat to be destroyed - or fled from.

I started violently and almost snarled when Eirik's hand came down on my shoulder. "You needn't fret, lad", he told me, sounding amused. "These fine beasts are in service to a friend of ours".

A metal eagle turned its head in response to Eirik's voice. It stalked towards him with an imperious air, and as it got closer I saw there was something in its beak. What - oh, a parchment.

Quite casually, Eirik bent to retrieve the message which the bird dropped at his feet.

"Well?" Megan demanded after he'd read in silence for a few seconds.

"Welcome back", he told her. "We look forward to having you amongst us once again. Sven becomes unbearable when he lacks a chess partner worthy of his skill. The eagles will return the most precious portions of your cargo to the Covenant. They can understand simple instructions, but this time, old skald, don't confuse them with your clever wordplay. Last time it took me a month to get them working properly again. - Aline".

Megan chuckled. "Rather than tempt you, I'll tell them what to do, this time"

***

At first, I thought that the fortified settlement on the coast was the Covenant itself, but Megan swiftly disabused me.

"Not the Covenant, no", she explained. "The Covenant itself is many miles inland. This is the trading post which we use as our major shipping point for goods and supplies. From here, everything has to be shipped by horse- or ox-drawn cart to a river a few miles inland, and then onto the Covenant by barge. It's sometimes a little inconvenient, but it has its compensations. For one, the Covenant itself is almost impossible to attack. It's surrounded by mountains, with the river the only point of access. And where an enemy can fight his way past our guards...". She smiled, showing a hint of her fangs. . "A cabal of Cainites and mortal mages have other resources to call upon".

We rode upriver with the shipment on swift, dragon-prowed boats. Eirik called them drakkar, a name which had no particular significance for me. In this time, every child has heard tales of the Vikings, but in that long-ago age, there was no parade of movies and television to spread such images - and it had been several centuries since Europe had lived in fear of the terrible warriors of Scandinavia.

The Covenant of the Ice Lake wasn't quite what I'd been expecting. My imagination had conjured up pictures of the castles that dotted the landscape in my homeland of France, but the Covenant bore little resemblance to any castle I had seen - though it its way, it was more impressive than any of them.

Backed directly onto the shore of the lake from which it took its name, its lakeward side was guarded by watch-towers much like those I'd seen at the trading post, but larger and more impressive. Its land approaches were protected by an immense circle of earthworks, rising to more than thrice the height of a tall man, and topped with thick stone walls inscribed with runes. Within the compound, circles of timber buildings formed concentric rings around what looked like an enormous stone manor house.

"It took decades to build", Megan told me quietly as well stood together at the prow of the longship, sailing towards the gap between the watchtowers. We heard laughter and music drifting across the water as we drew closer, and I could see that the place was filled with activity, even in the middle of the night. That surprised me; in my peasant existence in France, I'd been used to rising and sleeping with the sun.

Megan shrugged when I mentioned this. "Magi tend to be indifferent to the cycle of day and night. When you can conjure light with a snap of your fingers, you have no reason to worry about expenditure on candles. And the Covenant has counted vampires amongst its allies from its earliest days".

We were welcomed cordially enough as we disembarked, but I could feel the tension in the air as we walked towards the stone building at the centre of the community. Laughter would die away or seem forced; conversation would stop or continue in quieter tones. Eirik and Megan didn't seem to notice, but the constant, subtle reminders of the loss of my humanity gnawed at me.

Fully half the interior of the central building was a single large room. As I entered, I felt a pang of homesickness so intense it rooted me to the spot. For the first time since Brother Jerome had cared for me, I stood in a library.

And what a library! I gazed around in awe. It was five times the size of the one at the Priory, and far better tended. Decorated with tapestries and statues of bizarre and fantastic beasts, dotted with heavy, elaborately carved furniture, and illuminated with strange white flames which somehow failed to trigger my vampire terror of fire, it was breathtaking. I longed to look through the books lining the long rows of shelves, to read of countless wonders and distant lands, to

"He shows an admirable amount of respect for a place of learning", a smooth, amused voice broke into my thoughts. "If perhaps a certain lack of eloquence"

Eirik gave one of his rasping, bestial chuckles. "He doesn't prattle like a posturing courtier, Robert, if that's what you mean. Unlike some others I could mention".

I dragged my eyes to the table in the centre of the room. Three figures sat at ease there in high-backed chairs, surrounded my books, maps and charts.

The one who'd spoken was a small, neat man, with long red hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He did, indeed, look like a courtier, with his finely tailored scarlet robes of silk and velvet.

The man next to him was much taller and considerably more muscular, although not fat. His hair and beard were shorter than those of the man Eirik had addressed as Robert, and shone gold in the strange white fires. He reached to pick up a drink, and I saw that he wore a metal glove

No. I could hear a strange whirring and clicking noise coming from within his hand, identical to the sounds which the metal birds had made. The metal wasn't a gauntlet. His entire hand had been replaced with metal.

High, musical laughter drifted from the third figure at the table, a slender, small-breasted woman with a heart-shaped face and hair that shone as pure white as the eerie flame. She turned to look at me, and winked. I was startled by her eyes; they were a pure, deep purple, and seemed to shine, almost like the eyes of a cat.

"Pay no attention to their squabbling, child. You must be the Marc de Brabant we have heard so much about".

That surprised me. I hadn't realised that Eirik or Megan had been in contact with the Covenant.

She rose from her chair and glided towards me, graceful and effortless as a swan. Her lips kissed my cheeks, soft and affectionate.

"Welcome to our community. I am Aline, Maga of House Verditus of the Order of Hermes. My companions are Sven Olafsson, bani Bonisagus..." she gestured towards the blonde man with the metal hand "... and Robert Tyrell, bani Tremere. I hope you find happiness here".

***

And I did.

The Covenant of the Ice Lake completed what Eirik and Megan had begun. It gave me a home, a family, a purpose. For seven years I scarcely set foot outside its walls, even when my sire and grandsire were away.

At first, it was only the three magi who accepted me. The covenfolk knew me for the creature of darkness that I was, and avoided me whenever they could. I tried to win their trust gradually, with small acts of kindness, but it was uphill work.

I met the brothers Olafsen almost three months after I arrived. Identical twins, they were the tallest men I'd ever seen - perhaps 6'5" in height - and quite thin, though their shoulders and arms boasted well-developed musculature. Unusually in a place where beards were the norm, they went clean-shaven.

Aki was the elder by several minutes, and it seemed that the habit of going first had stuck with them for the remainder of his life. He would speak for both of them, with his brother Thorgeir merely nodding in agreement for most of the time. The two shared a bond which went beyond what most brothers, or even most twins, ever achieve. It was as if they were two halves of the same being.

I awoke on the evening they arrived to find a large crowd of unfamiliar faces milling around inside the covenant's fortifications. Mostly men, though with a scattering of women and children, they seemed grim, confused, even a little frightened. Old Sigurd, the seneschal of the covenant, was moving amongst them with a team of the covenant's grog turb, handing out food and drink, herding them into some semblance of order. I saw Robert Tyrell standing to one side, talking to two identical blonde giants, and hurried over. Robert flashed me a quick smile as I approached. "Marc, come meet Aki and Thorgeir, the remaining members of our little group of mages. Aki, Thorgeir, this is Marc de Brabant, Megan's Get"

"Another blood-drinker?" Aki's teeth flashed white in the torchlight as he grinned at me. "Well, we could use your powers to help us defend out new arrivals".

I looked around. "Who are they?"

"Refugees", Robert told me grimly. "Their villages destroyed by Christian missionaries. They were forced to convert or die, but the Olafsen brothers here gave them a third option - flee to safety with us here. This is the bargain we struck when we established this Covenant - to protect unfortunates like these in exchange for Eirik's assistance. And we continue to fulfil our side of the bargain, as your grandsire faithfully performs his".

I looked around, mentally calculating the additional supplies that would be needed to feed this lot. It would take some doing - but I could do it. I turned back to Robert. "I'd best get some additional shipments organised, then"

The Olafsen's smiled down at me in approval. And in perfect unison.

More friends to add to my small but precious collection.

***

"How did you come to be here? This is a long way from your home"

Aline shrugged slightly "Aquitaine was never my home. It was simply the place where I grew up. The first and only real home I've ever had is here. As to how we came to be here..."

Her voice tailed off, and she stared out across the great ice lake before she resumed. "When the raiders sacked Semlin, they took more from Sven that just his hand. They took his faith. And Sven is one of those men who needs faith. He came here looking for something to replace his belief in the Christian God... looking for the old gods his ancestors worshipped. And I came here because of him"

Because she was in love with him. I'd figured that out within a few hours of meeting them both.

"Is that how you came to ally yourselves with Eirik? Because he believes in the pagan gods of the Norse?"

She laughed softly, ruefully. "Imagine the situation we found ourselves in when we came here. We were strangers in a strange land, with fewer than two score followers, no shelter, and no allies. Eirik was... is... the effective ruler of most of the villages and settlements in this area. Oh, he doesn't interfere in the day-to-day details of their lives, but he protects them, makes sure they have sufficient game to hunt, advises them on how to plant their crops, defends them from the occasional bandit or renegade Cainite. And they voluntarily offer a small tithe of their blood to him in exchange".