The mayor looked at me, his eyes bloodshot and raw from tears, his face grizzled, his jowls heavy. Gone was that supercilious look that had so rankled me before. I did not think him capable of that now. Now was only the numb hopelessness of loss, a paper-thin mask that would too easily crumple to wet rags when the memory of his daughter struck him anew. I would have pitied him perhaps, if I were younger, and had seen less.
His teenage daughter lay fresh in her grave, victim of the monster that now plagued this town. They hadn’t believed me before. And why would they? They saw me as a chancer, a stranger, a wandering peddler. Tolerated at best, chased from their gates if they decided they didn’t like the cast of my face. They thought such a policy protected them. But the true monsters didn’t come as strangers in the daytime. They’d learn.
I had the mayor gather them together in his own front room, his red-eyed wife bringing jugs of ale and platters of cheese and bread for the crowd of prosperous and influential men who crowded her parlour. The mayor himself I ignored, he sat silent in his high-backed chair, staring out at nothing. He would be no help, and now he had called the elders of the town together I had no need of him.
I banged my flagon upon the table to get their attention. I fixed them with my eyes, a look into which I put as much as I could of the coldness bred from my unwanted knowledge. It may have worked to quieten them, or perhaps it was just curiosity.
“A girl is dead.” I said bluntly. I heard a stifled sob from the kitchen, but I ignored it. “There will be more.” I added. The room shifted, men shuffling their stance, awkward. They were comfortable with talk of grain prices and weather, not this.
“A creature stalks your streets. I told you this but you would not listen. Now you have seen its work. Do you need to see more before you will act?” I let my eyes rest upon them, one by one. A merchant was at the front, rich, colourful clothes, fat belly, piggy eyes. He thought highly of himself, I thought, but he was too comfortable to contemplate anything rash. Another was a landlord, renting property at swingeing prices to families of struggling paupers I imagined. He too would sit back and let others make decisions, criticising them from a comfortable chair. But then my eye alit on one, a taller man, well-dressed though sombre, straight-backed, attentive. I addressed my next words to him.
“You must act in your own defence. There is no one to save you.” I told him. “The Count’s castle is three day’s ride away, and the Count is off in the Duke’s wars. His son is feckless and will not leave his walls for tales of predators in the night.” I saw that the sombre man agreed, though he said nothing.
“I will tell you what you must do.” I let my eye leave the tall man, and looked around further, for another who might be capable of more than just fearful surrender to fate. Most were pathetic; weak-limbed, nervous, or just complacent, their eyes wide, blinking stupidly at my words, unable to wrap their thoughts around new ideas. But one, at the back, was a possibility. He wore a cloak, wrapped tight, but I could see it covered a breastplate. Who would wear a breastplate to a town meeting, I wondered. Only a man who believed in being prepared. I fixed him with my eyes as I said my next words.
“You have had wolves before, even bears from the high hills, during times of famine. And you have survived by customs passed down from your fathers, and their fathers before them. But now this town has been targeted by a creature you have never faced before. Perhaps some of you remember your fathers telling you of the customs to face this creature. But much of our ancestors’ advice has been lost. For this is a most ancient threat, and knowledge unused is often forgotten.” I noted the armoured man nodded, slowly. He was a man who knew the value of such things.
Another spoke up. A man of ruddy face, and old scars from the pox encrusting his thick cheeks and thicker nose. “What are you saying?” he demanded, using impatience as a cover for his fear. “Katherine died of consumption”.
“Katherine died because her blood was drained from her body.” I responded matter-of-factly. “You saw her body, don’t hide behind easy lies, for they won’t save you now.” I swept my eyes across the room, “they won’t save any of you now.” I told them. The pox-scarred man grew redder, and for a moment I thought I’d have to deal with some blustering outrage, but his neighbour elbowed him in his soft gut and he shut up. I’d have to buy that man a pint afterwards.
“There is only one creature that kills as Katherine was killed,” I told them. “You know this, you have heard of it as well as I have.” I could see they already knew, but like always, they needed someone else to say the word, their own narrow minds refusing to allow them to think of it themselves.
But this time I was surprised. “Vampire,” the tall man spoke out. I blinked and looked at him, my eyebrow raised. “We all know what we’re facing,” he continued, “even Gregor,” he glared at the man with the red face. “The only question is what we do about it.”
I nodded. He continued, addressing me. “I have heard that garlic hung from the lintel and doorposts sometimes has an effect.”
“I am afraid not,” I replied softly, “or at least, not enough to make enough of a difference. They do find it repellent, I understand, and when faced with a house stinking of garlic, and an identical one without, they may well prefer the clean one. But if all houses are hung equally, they can ignore it easily enough. A hungry vampire cares little for what his food smells like.”
“As you say,” the tall man replied calmly. He didn’t seem offended by my correction, but I was wary. Unlike the others he was a man of action and I needed him on my side. I gave him a deep nod of respect, indicating he had the floor to continue if he wished. He paused a second, then nodded back, “Continue,” he said. I did so.
“The only thing a vampire respects is boundaries,” I said. “A threshold is impassible, both private and public. It must receive an invitation from the owner or possessor of the holding before it can step across the boundary. To enter this town, for instance, one of you must have invited it in.” The room erupted in undirected muttering, as I had expected. They would all assume another had done it, no town was without its neighbourly dissensions, barely buried under the surface. I banged my flagon again for their attention as their whispers to their neighbours grew louder and more strident.
“It may have been done accidentally,” I said firmly, “or it may have been done by one already enthralled.” They gradually quieted. “The vampire is a dead thing, it cannot do much by itself. And so it relies on the aid of its thralls. That is its strength, and its weakness alike.”
“You say it has turned one of us traitor?” the man at the back spoke up, his voice like gravel. The room was dead silent as they all turned to face him. His eyes were upon mine, and I found myself swallowing, surprised by the dryness in my throat under his gaze.
I shook it off. “Yes,” I replied, simply. “Though in the early stages, they may not even know it themselves.” The man’s face was like carved stone. I noticed a scar across his cheek, deep and angry. One didn’t get a scar like that while farming, or selling corn.
“I have heard it said that a vampire enthrals the innocent; women and virgins,” the tall man spoke out. I hated to correct him again, so soon after I’d already done so, but it had to be done.
“It does,” I said, “though it does not restrict itself solely to those. If it suits it to do so, then even the strongest or most worldly of men can be taken. The size of a man’s arm is no defence against it, nor the size of any other part of him.” There were a suitable amount of sniggering at that, lightening the mood, and hopefully undercutting any offense I had caused the tall man by my repeated correction. I was pleased to see the hint of a smile even on his face.
“No,” I said addressing the room again, “Any man or woman can be taken by the Vampire’s embrace. It will lure a person in with visions and voices, ensnaring their mind with strange ideas, or fantasies of fame, fortune, or pleasures of the flesh. It may call to a man in the exact voice of one they know, or used to know, and they will be convinced of it and run out abandoning their safety to embrace their friend or their lost love. Or their dead child,” I added, coldly.
I continued, “It may present a vision to a man of the most beautiful girl they’ve ever seen, and they will throw off their protection in their helpless desire. And once they have crossed the safety of their threshold, then the Vampire can approach closer, to whisper more strongly into their ear, ensnaring their mind further, bewildering and confusing them until they are helpless and prostrate, lost in their dreams while the Vampire feeds on their blood and their soul.”
The room was silent as they took this in. How many believed all I’d said was anyone’s guess. I doubted any of them truly understood or accepted the danger they were in, not even the tall man and the man in armour. But if they got even a tenth of it, perhaps I could work with that.
“What use does the Vampire have for thralls, if it is capable of ensnaring men so easily?” the tall man asked.
“A good question,” I replied. “But it must be remembered that despite the Vampire’s tricks and the visions it might present itself as, it remains nothing more than a shade, an impression upon the world. Its true form is that of a corpse, dead and immobile. Its shade walks abroad, but it cannot overwhelm anyone by physical force. If a man is awake and aware, and does not allow himself to trust the visions placed upon his mind’s eye, then the Vampire can do little to him.
“If a man stays within the protection of his own walls and is careful whom he invites across his threshold, then the Vampire struggles to find prey, weakens, and fades. If a party of stout, careful, and wary townsmen discover its corpse then it will be helpless to prevent them destroying it with axe and fire.
“That is why it requires servants. To hide and defend its corpse, to overpower determined men, so that it can feed more easily upon those who are not ensnared by its glamour. Even to break into the homes of those who bar their gates, and drag its occupants out into the street so that the Vampire can feed without requiring its lures and baits. The more thralls a Vampire has captivated, then the more dangerous it becomes. Alone it is all but helpless and a determined adversary, but with its servants to do its bidding it is all but unstoppable.”
I had spoken too long, I realised. I could see they were struggling to take in my words, most of them had likely heard only the first few sentences, perhaps less.
I tried not to despair. Despite my hopeful words I knew even a lone Vampire was not as easy to destroy as I’d pretended to them. Closer to its own remains, its presence grew ever stronger. It could plunge you into darkness, bewilder and confuse you, crush your will and spirit. It could make you kill your companion, thinking it was the Vampire. It could twist a man around and cause his death without needing to raise a hand against him. I’d seen it before. It was weaker in the day, and weakest at noon, but even then, it could still befuddle the senses and break a man’s courage like a twig.
It would be a fiendishly difficult task, even if it was alone. And this Vampire was not alone; I knew that better than anyone.
I tried to steel my thoughts. This was not an impossible task, I told myself.