The sun gathered the last of its light beneath the cloak of the sky and slipped beneath the horizon. The moon was thin, the stars were far away. A bitter wind was blowing. I gathered my cloak about my shoulders and surveyed my men.
I had asked for volunteers, knowing that an unwilling companion was worse than none at all. Still I wondered if I should have pressed. I had only five, out of a town of over a hundred adult men. I knew some would be scared, some would be stupid, some just too lazy and complacent to lift a finger, right up to the point when the knife was buried in their own guts. Then they’d be the first to complain that no one had done anything earlier. I was hardly surprised I had few volunteers, but five? That was a problem.
Maybe they just needed more victims before they’d wake up. It was often the case. One death was never enough to shake people out of their stupor of normalcy. It usually took several. Sometimes the entire town needed to burn to the ground before any of them opened their eyes and considered doing anything. I hoped that wouldn’t be necessary.
“We patrol the town together,” I told them with a firm voice. The tall man was with me, I was pleased to see, and the armoured man as well. The tall man was named Frederick, and the armoured man was named Johanne.
Joining them was Robert, a young, scrawny type who, despite his youth, looked like someone who knew how to use a knife, most likely in the dark. Johanne had brought him along, so I was confident he’d be useful.
The other two were less promising. One was Walter, a thick-necked miller’s assistant, hairy-faced, and small-eyed. But his nose looked like a turnip, and his ears like cauliflowers. He was no stranger to brawling. His strength would be useless if it came with a rash temper however. I’d have to keep an eye on him to stop him dropping everything to chase phantoms into the dark like a dog spying a squirrel.
The fifth, and last was Jack, a weasel-faced little man who possessed a stout club, a long knife, a flask of cheap wine, and only one eye. I mistrusted him on sight and had no idea what he was doing here.
“Stick together”, I said again. “I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, and likely again before the night’s out. Any of you run off alone, you’re as good as dead. The creature will make you lose sight of us, even if we’re across the street from you. It’ll turn you around so whichever way you think you’re going, you’ll be walking further from us. It’ll terrify you with visions and noises until you’re too panicked to think, and you’ll break and run, just to get away. It’ll run you to ground, and then, when you’re too exhausted, confused, and terrified to fight or run, then it’ll feed.”
They never listened. Or not enough to make any difference. People either knew this in their bones or they didn’t. Most would split and run whatever you told them. They’d nod, and agree, and probably even genuinely think they understood. But then they’d vanish as soon as you turned your back on them. And it was the same the other way. If a man was the kind of man to stand his ground, then he’d do it no matter whether he was told to or not.
Nevertheless, I always told them.
The houses were locked, barred, windows boarded, as much as we’d been able to do in the few hours of light left to us after the meeting. As I had walked here, to the Mayor’s house, I had noticed about one in five houses still had no boards up on their windows, and of the rest, the majority only had boards up on the downstairs windows. It was early days, I thought. Yet still I had inwardly sighed when I saw it.
I’d told them to kill the dogs and the cats. The rats, we couldn’t destroy. And there’d be wolves in the forest as well. The Vampire did not just seduce the minds of men and women, he could stir up the animals as well. It could not snare their minds as it enthralled people, but it could certainly use them to cause some damage. I’d fought wolves before, a long time ago, when they came down from the mountains during the famine years. In normal times they were craven creatures, fleeing at the sight of a man. When desperate they were a terror, of bared teeth and fearsome visage. I still had nightmares about the starved, slinking black shapes inching closer as they circled, though that terrible winter was many years past.
We carried lanterns in our hand, swords at our hips, crossbows cradled in our arms. Such things would not touch the Vampire, but a bolt or blade would kill a thrall as easy as any man. As the last light faded, and the night dropped like a thick velvet curtain, our lanterns seemed dim and futile things.
I led them to the town gates, locked and barred. We walked the inside of the walls, a long circuit that took the best part of an hour. We saw nothing. At least the townspeople had listened well enough to my warnings to stay indoors. I’d half expected to see a drunk in a ditch or an amorous couple giggling behind a fence. Perhaps they could be saved after all.
We continued patrolling the streets, working inwards towards the church in the centre. We walked close to one other, our shoulders almost touching, almost stepping on the heels of the man in front. Jack sipped regularly from his flask, Johanne said nothing. Walter muttered to himself. Robert kept asking questions in an irritating whisper. Frederick answered in curt words or grunts, but the youth wasn’t getting the message. By the third hour my patience was wearing thin.
“Why don’t you shut your trap and keep your eyes open, kid” I growled. Robert startled, and then bristled, his pride touched.
“I can ask questions,” he bit out, “who made you the Duke, eh? Think you’re better than us.”
“Hold your tongue, boy,” Johanne spat. “Or I’ll hold it for you.” The youth shut up at that, but I could tell he was hurt. This wasn’t a good start. He would likely not return a second night, if he could help it. I needed to be gaining men, if we were going to achieve anything here, not losing them.
“My apologies, Robert,” I stopped the group, and turned to him. “It’s been a long day and tempers are frayed. Your questions are reasonable, but now is not the best time for them. Come to me in the light, and we shall talk and I’ll buy you a pint for it. For now, it is best to walk in silence, so that any sound of approach can be more easily heard.”
Robert looked barely mollified, but nodded back. I could do no more now. I hoped I had done enough to soothe him.
It was then we heard it, faint on the wind. A rustling, as of a dress over the soil. Our eyes snapped round, searching the gloom about our lanterns for its origin. Then Frederick clutched at my arm and pointed. There, at the end of the street, a shape in a white dress flitted between two houses, and disappeared. Someone was out of doors, a woman. Frederick started forward but I clutched at his arm myself, pulled him closer, gestured to the others to lean in also.
“Careful”, I said. “It could be the Vampire.” They nodded. I led them cautiously forward, we sneaked down between the buildings, following where we’d seen the figure vanish. At the back of the houses there was no sign. In the hesitant light of the lanterns I could barely see the ground. I ducked and tried to scan the earth for tracks. It was hard to tell fresh from old though, even in the daylight.
The others were close, but I noticed with a start that Robert was several paces away, peering over a fence into a paddock at the back of the house. I stepped towards him, hissing, “Robert, get back here.” He spun round, looked at the distance between us, barely more than five paces, and I could see he thought I was being unreasonable. He allowed his eyes to roll and shake his head disdainfully as he returned, dragging his heels. He wouldn’t be back tomorrow, I knew.
We left and continued our patrol after another minute of pointless milling around. It was largely futile, one patrol, it would do little to prevent the Vampire’s thralls from operating. We moved too slowly, too noisily, too obviously with our lanterns. It was easy to hide from us and wait until we passed. The town was too big for us to be everywhere at once. If I had more men, we could have formed two or three patrols, and covered more ground. But with five of us, and only two I trusted, I could not allow us to split up, not at such an early stage. No, this patrol was more for me to get a sense of who I had to work with. I didn’t expect us to actually find anything.
By the time the dawn light was starting to break on the horizon, we ended up outside the church. I thanked the men and told them they could get some sleep. Johanne asked me if I had somewhere to sleep, but I said I wasn’t tired, and I wanted to try and get some more recruits for the following night. He said he’d join me, but I could see the tiredness behind his eyes, despite the iron keeping it at bay. I told him he’d be more useful the next night if he was rested. He reluctantly obeyed.
“You should leave too,” I told Frederick, who was lingering. He didn’t respond immediately. I looked at him. He was worrying over something he wanted to say. I waited for him to spit it out. A man like him wouldn’t be pressed.
“How many Vampires have you hunted?” he asked me. This wasn’t what was worrying him, but a precursor. I let myself look like I was pondering the question.
“Depends,” I said. “There’s those I’ve hunted unsuccessfully, those ones I never saw, mayhap they never were, mayhap the killings were just a madman’s work. Then there’s the others.”
“How many have you killed,” he asked.
“Two,” I lied. He let the silence stretch.
“You found them, their corpses?” He asked.
“You want to know how I knew they were Vampires, that I wasn’t just digging up some poor dead soul and burning his corpse.”
“I suppose,” he replied. “Seems like the sort of thing that would be good to know.”
“I knew.” I said. “They’re unmistakable. You dig them up and they look like they died only an hour ago, their lips still wet, their eyes bright, like they’re sleeping. Only when you use the axe does the glamour slip away and you’re hit by the gravestench, and the true sight of it.”
He nodded. I wondered if he believed me. The truth was there was no way of telling. Not for sure. But you did what you had to do, and you hoped it was enough.
Whatever it was, the words or my tone of voice, Frederick at least seemed more settled. He nodded. He was tamping his pipe, taking too long over it. He had more to ask. I let him take his time.
Eventually he glanced aside at me and asked, “The others, the ones you never found.”
“Could this be one of those. I mean, no offence. But how sure are you that this is a Vampire?”
“I’m sure,” I said. “Trust me. There’s times when it’s not clear, could be either way. Then there’s times like this. A man acting out of character, sudden violent attack on a loved one, no memory of it afterwards. Could be a thrall, could be he just lost his mind. A mysterious wasting disease could be consumption, could be not. But a body drained of blood, no signs of forced entry, no mark of violence on her except those wounds on her neck. That’s clear. And not just that.”
“What?” He turned to me fully now. I had his interest.
“There were other signs on the road.” I told him. “I was attacked by a wolf pack just outside town, had to ride hard to escape them. Wolves don’t act like that, not unless they’re starving and desperate. And these were well fed. But my crossbow didn’t scare them, they didn’t flinch or even slow down. It was driving them. It didn’t want me to reach here. That’s when I knew I was on its trail.”
He nodded. The story was good, I’d spent some time thinking about how to make it believable. Not too much detail that could sound impossible, just enough that it was clearly unnatural. There was no reason for him not to believe me. He finally lit his pipe, began to smoke it as he gave me a companionable nod, and walked away. I had Frederick on side at least. I just wished I had some others.