I am not one for instant decisions. I have, on occasions, been accused of being indecisive. I prefer to think that I take my time, weigh up the options and make an informed choice. Decisions are not always easy, and the options are not always clear-cut. My decision to take Maric’s oath was one such, and in the end, practicality won out over principles. Circumstances being what they are, it is not surprising that events conspired to prolong the delay between making the decision and implementing it, leaving more than ample time for self-doubt and second thoughts. I have learned lately that not only would I die for my friends; I would also kill for them. Now, it seems I am willing to compromise my principles for them. Practicality requires that I do this and I am nothing if not a practical man. Do the job in front of you, Father used to say. This is a job that needs doing.
I returned to the castle from the front line, there to rest my weary sword arm. I was unable to sleep, nor could I wash the stench of death and sluagh blood from me. I attempted to erase the images in my head with the sheer mundanity of the castle accounts before going to find Maric and complete the oath I had promised, but it was not to be.
Maric found me at my desk, cursing the paperwork and my lack of ability to concentrate. That was fair enough, as it was him that I wanted to see. We spoke briefly of the current situation and discussed the possibility of a covert expedition to try to reach the Sluagh Queen and/or Braeden. Aoibheann appeared from her room, distracting Maric somewhat, but also allowing him to get onto the subject of the vaults. He offered to let Aoibheann know the castle secrets as well, provided she took a drink to ensure her discretion. I am not sure if she quite understood because she replied that drink tends to lead to indiscretion, which, while true, was not quite what he meant.
Before we could clarify that matter, Valene emerged from the bedroom, looking somewhat more rested than she had been the previous time. Aoibheann got quite excited about the idea of making introductions, though I was sure that Valene and Maric had already met. We had a reasonably pleasant discussion and I got lots of hugs from Valene, which seemed to interest Maric somewhat. I asked her if there was any way we could reach the Sluagh Queen or Braeden, but she told me that, while she had been close to Braeden once, she was no longer sure she could reason with him. Any further discussion was interrupted by something unseen that suddenly bothered Valene. From the way she reacted, and what she said, I suspected that she had felt the presence of her mother. She cursed and said that she had to leave us for a while so she could deal with the matter. She warned Maric not to attack a woman that smelled of death, should she approach. And with that, she was gone into the Roads, presumable to seek out Nemaine and find out what she wanted.
I seconded her warning, but Maric was determined that he would defend Mysthaven at all costs. I advised him that caution was the best approach when dealing with Nemaine. She was effectively a goddess in her realm, and while unpleasant, was unlikely to initiate aggressive action. I did not have much chance to explain further because Galyanna turned up with news of a stranger, a new beast that was large, fierce and apparently intelligent. Since there was no possibility, at that moment, for Maric and I to have the privacy con conclude our business, I went out to check on Galyanna’s report and also to see what the situation was at the gate.
I returned some while later to find Ket’lyn at the door, asking for a visit with Maric. The head servant was happy for me to take over this particular conversation. We went upstairs and I called for wine. I assured her that any business regarding the village could be discussed with me as Maric’s steward. We had barely got started when Maric turned up. I made introductions and explained that she had questions about the village. He explained that the village was made up of many people from various places, many of them refugees. All were under his protection as Lord of Mysthaven, provided they abided by his rules. We discussed our mutual alliance with the demon isle and the possibility that Ket’lyn could help us with her healing skills. Aoibheann joined us, which gave Maric and I an opportunity to excuse ourselves to the lower rooms. We left them talking about gardening, for some reason.
Once we were alone, in the privacy of the first hidden area of the castle, Maric repeated his wish that I take his blood to seal my oath. He also explained in more detail what I should expect from drinking his blood – extra strength, being able to communicate telepathically, being able to know where each of us were and our general state of health. That and it allowing him to determine if my intentions were true. I reiterated my concerns and pre-conditions, which he accepted. He told me that he had been brought into a situation akin to slavery for the first 400 years of his vampire life, so fully understood my desire for freedom. He gave his word that he would not abuse my trust.
He offered me his wrist to drink from. I could not help but look at his hand and speculate on the stories it could tell, of all that it had experienced. I commented on how I was so young that my appearance was not inconsistent with the length of time I had lived, wondering if I would survive to see the age Gwyn knew. He said that there were many stories we could share over a glass of wine or two, but for now, I should strike and feed. I tried, but could not penetrate his skin, so he had to open the wound for me. I bent and took the blood from his wrist.
I have drunk animal blood, human blood, weretiger blood and lesser fae blood, but none of these compared to Maric’s, any more than a cheap wine compares to the finest brandy, and I have tasted some very fine brandies. In an instant, I recognised a kindred soul – his overwhelming sense of honour, his fierce desire to protect those who were his to protect, and the immense value he placed on freedom. Somehow, through the bond that we had made, I felt that he could sense the same things in me, as well as the strongest influences in my life, my father, and particularly, my mother. For all that his blood was very heady stuff, I had the self-control to only take a mouthful, as he had suggested. When I was done, I felt very light-headed and unsteady on my feet. That soon passed and I asked Maric if I could perhaps take a short rest, to try to adjust to this new situation. I could tell he was impatient to show me the other secrets, but he acquiesced, perhaps realising that what he had to show me would be better done when I had a clear head.
Rest was not forthcoming, indeed, I felt as though I had consumed far too much coffee, so I took myself down to the gates to work off some of the excess energy on the hapless sluagh who were still attacking the gate. For some reason, it seemed easier this time, which I wondered about until I remembered that Maric had said that my strength would be enhanced. When I returned, Maric took me back downstairs and showed me the method of accessing the vaults in the dungeons. Of that, I will not speak, lest that knowledge come into the hands of others, save that the key only works with his blood, or the blood of those who have fed from him.
The vaults contained much in the way of supplies, the intention being that the populace of the village could well shelter here and be provisioned for an extensive siege. I raised my eyebrows at the stack of coffins in one corner, commenting that it was well to be prepared or all eventualities. He told me that he would, so far as was possible, retrieve those who had died and bring them back, either to be vampires like him, or other forms of undead, if that was the only way to save them. I nodded at that and gave him a brief explanation as to the circumstance of my own embrace.
He also showed me his inner laboratory, where he conducted his more esoteric experiments in alchemy. I had to confess that I did not know much of alchemy, it being a discipline that had been superseded in my time by the sciences of chemistry and physics. He offered to teach me what he could, if I so desired, but at that moment, I could not think of any particular thing I needed to know, apart, possibly, for working out some means of killing the sluagh without harming others or the forest. This struck him as a good idea, and one worthy of further investigation, although he would likely need some sluagh to experiment upon. I told him that next time I returned to the fray, I would see if I could be a bit more surgical in my strikes and retrieve some parts for him to test. He spent some more time showing me where everything was, by which time I was genuinely tired and retired to rest. And this time, rest did happen.