Sons of Devils (Arising, #1)
This title is #1 of the Arising series.
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British scholar Frank Carew is in Wallachia to study the magic generator on nobleman Radu Vacarescu’s land. There, his party is attacked by bandits and his friends are killed. Pursued by a vampiric figure, he flees to Radu’s castle for help.
Unfortunately, this is precisely where the vampires came from. If allowed, they would feed unchecked and spread their undeath across the whole Earth, but Radu maintains a shaky control over them and keeps them penned in his tiny corner of the country.
As Frank recovers from his assault, Radu finds himself falling for the young man. But loving Frank and not wanting to lose him leaves Radu vulnerable to his demons’ demands. Can he bear to let them feed on the man he loves? Or must he give in to their blackmail and set them free to feast on his entire country?
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Wallachia - 1742
Stebbins was the first to die.
All day, the mountains had been growing closer. After the travellers ate a hasty luncheon in their shadow—long, whistling winds blowing down the valley of the Olt, cooling the ciorbă before it could be taken off the fire—the boatmen hustled them back onto the punt as if the ground underfoot had become poisonous.
Frank had grown to loathe the boat, his posterior aching from endless hours perched on his own travelling bag. Stebbins crowded so close on one side Frank could not move his elbows. Protheroe, on the other, continually joggled him as he tested the ever-increasing vril saturation with an etherometer of brass and crism. This device had to be bolted to the gunwale and folded out over the boat’s side, and then everyone had to hold still for a good minute while he took his readings, before he could make a note in his book and fold it back in again.
Recently, Protheroe had begun to squeak in surprise and delight every time he made an observation. “We must be getting close now, lads. We’re already at a concentration twice as high as the one under Glastonbury Tor. I don’t see how it can go up much higher without buckling the nature of reality wholesale.”
Protheroe’s obvious excitement went a long way towards soothing Frank’s guilt. Neither of his friends would be out here in the Wallachian wilderness but for loyalty to him. They had turned the escape of a criminal into a respectable theurgic expedition. Though they had done their best not to grumble about discomfort, he still felt terrible if they so much as frowned, and unfortunately, there had been a great deal to frown about. Not only cold nights on cold stones, strange food and stranger customs, but also a terrible run of bizarre accidents that had approached life-threatening levels. Misfortune had dogged their heels like a hunter from the very beginning.
This morning however, had started well. Stebbins—the naturalist—was smiling as he sketched the approaching mountains, and Protheroe was all but bouncing on his seat. “We should see it today. You have to be a member of the Royal Society to be permitted to study the vril accumulator in England, so I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see one active. I can’t wait.”
Frank grinned back at him, unwilling to dampen his enthusiasm, but the prospect of reaching their goal was not as appealing to him as it was to his friends. They would go home afterwards. He, who faced only a noose in England, would be left alone, revealed as the fugitive from justice that he was.
Confined to the boat, there was little to take his mind off it. As the linguist of the party, he had nothing to do except stare out at the slowly changing landscape and try to engage their native boatmen in conversation. Downriver, where the towns were more plentiful and the folk more welcoming to a travelling scholar, Frank had been able to refine his grasp of the Wallachian language until he’d found himself dreaming in it. In these less inhabited parts of the country, he had hoped to keep in practice by chatting with the bearers, but they had proved a tight-mouthed bunch.
One of the boatmen—Nicu, he of the extravagant moustaches, who never appeared without a dagger in his sash and a carbine over his shoulder, wicked eyed and wizened like a tree root—occasionally had muttered in the speech of the Romani, and Frank had tried endlessly to encourage him to pass some of it on, but his persistence seemed only to have driven Nicu into absolute silence.
So Frank had reclined awkwardly out of the way of Protheroe’s contraption and was trying to sleep despite the crick in his neck, when it happened. They had rounded a bend in the river between two hills. There came a crack and a flash, sharp as lightning, then Stebbins shrieked and flung himself into Frank’s lap.
“What on Earth?” Frank shoved him in the shoulder, half convinced his friend was simply bored and this was an overture to mock wrestling. But his hand slid in something warm and red. The scent of black powder on the wind was blessedly chemical in contrast with the slippery organic reek he could smell from Stebbins. As he was bending over to try to catch his friend’s shoulders, Stebbins convulsed on Frank’s knees twice, his face agonized. His mouth filled with blood and overflowed.
“Stebbins?” Frank cried, part of him wanting to recoil from the warm gout of blood now soaking into his trousers, part of him wanting to pull his friend close and protect him. Stebbins’s chest was unmoving against his own, his torn waistcoat turning crimson, beginning to drip. “William!”
Nicu’s hand landed between Frank’s shoulder blades and pushed him forward, off the seat. “Lie down. Lie in the boat. Do not get up.”
“What’s happening?” Frank laid Stebbins in as dignified a position as he could manage, checked his pulse, and refused to believe he could not find it.
A second shot slammed into the gunwale next to him, peppering him with splinters. In the bow, Apostol, one of their bearers, unslung his own rifle and fired back. At the stern, silent Mihai bent double to the boat’s pole, trying to speed past the attacker.
“Bandits, young sir.” Nicu gave a fierce and chilling grin. “The mountains are full of them. Stay down.”
Frank was not a maiden to be protected. He looked up, caught Protheroe’s matching determined expression. Oh God, let me not bring ruin on these, the best of all friends, as I have brought it on so many others. “We can help!”
“You have rifles? You can shoot?”
“Of course!” Protheroe exclaimed, dropping his notepad and pulling the long bag out from beneath the heaps of luggage. “An English gentleman is always proficient in firearms.”
Nicu gave them both a sceptical look, as if to say, And you have hidden this from us all this time because you expect us to steal them? To murder you in your sleep? It would have been troublesome if he had voiced the words, because the answer was yes, but instead he merely flinched out of the way of another bullet.
“Good. Then you will lie flat and return fire, and I will take up the second pole so that we may be through the ambush faster. Do not let them shoot me.”
Protheroe passed the first rifle to Frank, followed it up with a box of shot, a rammer and a powder horn. As Frank wriggled to get the gun loaded, Nicu joined Mihai at the stern. The boat sped up a little, though a trotting horse could still have outpaced it.
With the rifle primed, Frank propped himself on his elbows, stock pressed to his shoulder. He swarmed cautiously up until he could raise his head above the gunwale. Nothing to see but pinkish-brown rocks against a clear, blue sky, the lower ones topped with trees and shaggy about their crevasses with wind-blown plants that would have delighted Stebbins’s plant-hunting soul.
No, he was not going to think of Stebbins, going cold by his ankle.
One of the ledges of the foothills sprouted a dark blur as the hidden bandit stood up to shoot. Frank’s world twisted and chilled as he got a good look at the man’s face. Surely that wasn’t . . . Lewis? No. No, my father would not . . .
A flash of fire, a puff of white smoke, and then the bang of a report, and Frank—trained by years of hunting on his family’s country estate—had aimed and squeezed the trigger in return without a second thought.
The distant figure recoiled and dropped. A cry came down the wind, harsh and sharp as the cry of some strange bird. Apostol gave an approving laugh. “The scholars are not such children as we thought.”
Something froze solid in the pit of Frank’s stomach, as though his viscera had turned to stone, but he didn’t have time to consider the feeling. As the rock sides abruptly swarmed with motion, his mind felt clearer than it had ever done before. He could not return fire against a whole pack of bandits. What could he do instead? What would help? To spoil their aim. We need cover. Darkness.
Letting go of the rifle, he spread his hands and pulled at the shadows, as he had pulled at the sunlight in Gervaise’s room. The ability to manipulate light and darkness was the only piece of magic that had ever come spontaneously to him. It had once saved his life. Perhaps it would do so again.
Obedient to his summons, darkness flowed across the water and wrapped the boat in a thick smoke. Within it, the light turned to tar and the bright sky became dim as if seen through dark spectacles. But it did nothing to stop the thunder of a dozen carbines firing so close together one could not distinguish the shots.
“Frank!” Protheroe shouted, “Is that you? What are you doing, you idiot? I can’t see where to shoot.”
Frank cursed himself and rapidly rethought. If it was Lewis out there, then these bandits must have come for Frank alone. It meant they should be aiming at him only. And if they slew him, they might allow Protheroe and the boatmen to live. By concealing them all, he had put his friends at greater risk. Damn it.
He struggled with his talent. Spells, he could manage when the steps were written down and their unwinding clearly delineated on the following page. But this free-form sorcery? He didn’t know, on an intellectual level, how he’d summoned the darkness, didn’t know how to get rid of it. A small, cowardly part of him didn’t even want it to work—didn’t want to stand up and die in the hopes that that would make things better for others. Indeed, if he’d wanted that, he could have just stayed in England to be hanged.
Pushing the cowardice aside, he pictured himself letting go, letting the shadows bounce back into place as though on springs. It didn’t work. He tried again, mentally pushing them away. This time they went, slowly, reluctantly, leaving him visible and exposed, leaving Protheroe and the bearers equally so. What the hell was he doing? What was he doing? What could he do to make this right? Please don’t punish Protheroe for my sins. Please spare him from my curse. Please!
Around the boat, the river spiked up in spatters, and the timbers shivered and smashed. A swarm of bladed splinters slammed into Frank’s cheek, but he scarcely felt it, because one of the bullets had struck Protheroe’s gun, dinting the barrel just as Protheroe was returning fire.
Blocked, Protheroe’s rifle exploded, taking half of his face off and utterly destroying his hands. At the same time Mihai gave a soft huh that was almost laughter. With blood oozing from his chest, he fell slowly outward from the stern, still clinging to his pole. The river current caught him and washed both away. Numbed, Frank could not grasp the magnitude of this disaster for a moment. But the loss of one pole meant that it would take twice as long to get away.
Only three of them left: Frank and Apostol on their bellies in a boat filling up with blood, Nicu boldly upright in the stern, labouring with all his might at his own pole. Both Apostol and Nicu had begun to sing beneath their breath, the heathenish, eerie music of the orthodox liturgy, asking God for strength and protection and, if He didn’t feel inclined to grant the request, for forgiveness in the instant of death.
Frank had long been told it was his fault his mother had died in childbirth. His fault his father had grown cold and bitter. His fault his elder brother had died at sea. He was indisputably responsible for Gervaise’s death, and yet somehow he had always yearned to believe he was not a curse on his fellow man. When Nicu fell, shot through the temple as they passed under the deepest shade of the hemming boulders, he could no longer deny it. All of this was his fault. Better that he should die here, then, and save Apostol at least.
Leaping up, he grabbed Nicu’s pole before it, too, could be lost. He would stay upright, be at least as brave as the old Roma man who had fallen in his service.
Apostol came running from the bow, his almost skeletal face flapped about by long hair the colour of crow wings. “We must stop trying to get through! We must go back.”
“Yes,” said Frank. “Yes, absolutely.” He twisted the pole to turn the boat around. A part of him wanted to go forward at all costs. Not to give in. Not to give his father the satisfaction, but it was easy enough to ignore in favour of sensible flight.
“You go to the . . .” Apostol indicated the sheltered spot where he had lain amongst the baggage, and was shot twice as he gestured. A third shot grazed along Frank’s biceps like the press of a hot poker, but did not do him the courtesy of killing him too.
“No!” Frank protested as the last of his companions dropped and left him alone. He might have stood there longer, stupidly gaping, if the boat had not obeyed his last push and driven its nose into the rocks at the river’s edge. The grating shudder woke him up, forced him to take stock.
Seeing their victory all but complete, the bandits had begun to come down out of the cracks and crannies of the rocks to line the shore. They were so close he could read the malice in their grins, and everything in him revolted from the thought of letting such grimy, greasy-looking creatures get any closer.
Frank jammed the pole into the riverbed and pushed with all his strength. The boat was a brutal heavy thing, unwieldy and slow. If he could just get it facing with the current, let it be swept downstream, he could outrace them, get away, get back to somewhere more civilized, where he would be safe.
Then his right arm stopped working. His grip weakened and his hand fell limp to his side. The world seemed like a painted backdrop that wavered as a breeze passed behind it, and he shook his head, looked down, and found he had been shot in the juncture of chest and shoulder. The blood that welled out was making his shirt chill and damp. There was, for the moment, no pain at all.
He wrapped his left arm around the pole, pushed once more, and the blood came rushing up and past the embedded bullet as if pumped. His wound had begun to burn. His mouth was full of saliva, and he couldn’t swallow.
Then the current caught the boat, lifted it, and ground it again into the shore, smacking the bow hard on the rocks, making him lurch forward and stumble into the ankle-deep gore beneath the many corpses of his companions.
Jeering laughter broke out along the banks. Frank hauled his aching, ton-weighted head up to see hands clutching at the gunwales, pulling him in closer to the ugly, grinning crowd. Women stood behind the men, and the thought gave him a moment’s relief until he saw that their hands grasped sickles. There were blood stains all down their aprons and a matching red glint in their eyes.
Panicking, Frank dropped the pole and scrabbled for his rifle. It was unloaded, and there was no time to prime the pan and ram home a new shot. The bayonet he had for the weapon was still tucked away in its bag, leaving it no more deadly than a large stick. Still, he reversed it, and smashed it down on the grappling hands as if it were an axe.
The shoulder wound made him cold, shaky, and nauseous, camouflaging his terror from himself. He swiped at an attacker’s dirty face as, with a roar, the man leaped from the bank into the punt, clawing him with the tines of a rake, tearing the coat over his ribs and leaving long, shallow scores, as though from the nails of a giant.
Frank doubled over from the pain of it just as two more men jumped aboard. Outside, other bandits seized the boat’s sides and pulled the whole thing out of the water, grounding it. A hand curled around Frank’s shoulder wound and squeezed, and the merciful anaesthesia lifted like a theatre curtain and showed him agony. His own scream choked him as he was hauled out by many hands and thrown into a ring of thin outlaws with ravenous eyes.
He just had time to close his eyes, to think that finally, finally he was doing something that would please his father, and then all thought fled as they began to kick him. He curled in to keep his stomach and his face from the boots. Here, too, the wound was a mercy. He flapped in agony like a dying fish, but didn’t have the strength to futilely fight back and extend the torment. They beat him with staves, with threshing flails. The first man kicked him in the ribs—heat bursting in his rib cage, as though he’d swallowed coals—and he looked up, mouth open, eyes streaming, in time to see his own rifle butt poised above his forehead.
He tried to say “No!” but could only spit blood, and then someone laughed and the steel-capped rosewood came down. A giant hand tore the world in two, and him with it, and nothing else remained.
Pain. For a long time, pain was everything, a sky of stars against the darkness of the his mind, every agony one more blaze that told him there was something there, something that existed and felt, yet had no other thoughts or wishes or desires.
Then gradually other sensations joined the pain—cold all down one side, a moving cold that stroked him steadily, in contrast with the dry and burning cold of his other side. He became slowly aware that he was shaped like a man, that both sides had arms and legs, some of the bones of which were probably not broken.
There was a pinkness in front of him, and once he had identified eyelids, he opened them to find the sun shining on his face. Other things came more quickly now: the sliding cold was water flowing over his right arm and leg, which hung off the riverbank and waved like weeds in the shingle-bottomed pools at the river’s edge.
Words flooded into his head, welcome and reviving, proving to him that he was man, not animal. That pain in his chest? Broken ribs, perhaps. That taste in his mouth, and the thick fluid that clogged it? Blood.
He spat it out and with infinite caution drew both his arms and legs under him. Tried twice to push up to hands and knees and failed both times. The first time, he slumped down after, and agony exploded under his ribs like a—like a—blocked gun bursting in someone’s hands. He lay whining and weeping while he tried to remember who that someone was.
Once more he tried to rise, dripping tears and snot with each agonising inch, every part of him shaking. He got his knees under him, was able to lever his torso upright, though all it did was make his head split again and the brains run out through his ears. His stomach rebelled, but fortunately he only had to turn his head a little to vomit cleanly in the water and wipe his face after with a wet hand.
Now that he was upright, blood dripped into his eyes. He couldn’t raise his right hand at all, but he felt the wound above his eye with his left hand, and his clumsy touch greyed out the world around him for what seemed like hours. What could he remember about head injuries . . .
What could he remember about himself?
There was a dark, panicky shame in the pit of his belly. It lent him strength—fleeing from it helped drive him to his feet, helped him stand, swaying and sobbing, and lurch away from the water. What had he forgotten? Something important. Something vital had been carelessly lost.
When he looked down to see if he had literally dropped the thing he could no longer bring to mind, he found he had been stripped naked. The ground around him was scuffed with the marks of many feet, but nothing else. He had expected . . .
What had he expected? Bearers, perhaps. Equipment. People who would help him. A way home.
His soul chilled and began to wail with the blind devouring panic of a child. Outside he saw foothills and mountains beyond. Pine forest on the other side of the bank, on his side scrubland. An eagle in the sky above. Scrub bushes and stone, and strange clouds that flowed from the mountains along the river.
He recognised nothing. It was he who was lost, astray in a country he could not remember. And he didn’t even know his own name.
Turning downriver, he limped along the bank through tussocks of coarse grasses and purple mallow. At first, his mind kept returning to the blankness where his sense of self should be, tonguing the absence as he would the socket of a lost tooth. The memories cowered below the surface, but they would not come into shape. Dimly, he felt that help must be available downstream rather than up. He disliked the hills, yet the thought of going back where he had come from awoke a kind of sick hopelessness too.
He began to walk downstream regardless. The nebulous lack of hope troubled him less than the struggle to put one foot before the other. His breath burned in his throat, and his eyes stung with blood and sweat. Agony coiled about his chest, making his knees shake. Though at first whenever he was thirsty, he had stopped to drink from the river, as the day progressed he found it increasingly hard to stand back up. So he abandoned drinking, just stumbled forward with his tongue drying in his mouth.
He began to have periods where darkness bloomed behind his eyes even while he was walking. When these periods cleared he would find he had staggered four or five steps blind and insensible. It could only be a matter of hours before he collapsed and could not rise, and by that time the night would have fallen and the wolves come out from the wood. He would not live to see the morning.
A hedgerow covered in small white flowers stopped him. It was thorny, but he leaned on it anyway, with his eyes closed, sucking in air and luxuriating in the support. It was only when he had bent and picked up a stick that lay under it, something to prop his ailing limbs with, that his mind caught up with what he was seeing: The branches had been cut with billhooks, bent, and interlaced to form a sturdier barrier. This was the work of human hands, meant to keep the flocks inside and the predators out. He had finally come to somewhere inhabited.
Trying not to let his heart race or his breath pick up—it hurt too much—he scanned his world from horizon to horizon. And yes! There, streaky against the paling sky, a trail of grey-white smoke rose from a distant coppice.
“Ah!” he said, and was startled by his own voice—he had forgotten what it sounded like.
The goal gave him strength to find a dead patch in the hedge and scramble through, to go haltingly but unfailingly towards the fire. He wanted to shout for help, but couldn’t bring himself to take a deep enough breath. And when he saw the first human shape in the distance—a woman with a dark scarf around her hair and a long red skirt—he found he didn’t dare. He needed help, but he was afraid.
Something in him even now told him to run, told him the wolves were safer—or that he himself was a threat. Perhaps if he had been in less pain, he would have listened and skulked away. But it had to contend with so many other voices yammering for relief that he was able to grit his teeth and press on, through the coppice and out the other side.
The trees parted, and he came out of their shade into a hay meadow glorious with flowers. In its centre five wagons were drawn up in a circle about a small fire. Dusty ponies, picketed along the edge of the meadow, browsed the coarser weeds and occasionally strained towards the champagne-coloured grass in the field. In the distance, men were working around a small portable forge—turning a sheet of metal into a bulbous, cauldron-like shape.
The wagons seemed ordinary farm wagons, but they had been topped with arching structures of willow withies covered in tarpaulins. As he watched, a couple of naked toddlers tumbled out of one, and out of another came a woman with her flower-embroidered blouse tugged down so she could nurse her child.
It was a toddler who spotted him, bounding to his feet and pointing, though Frank had the strangest feeling that the others had seen him a long time ago and chosen to pretend they had not.
A grandmother by the fire, white plaits waist-length beneath her head covering, hushed the boy without glancing in Frank’s direction. But now the other toddler had seen him and was shouting, being backed up by an increasing chorus of the younger children.
Frank understood that they didn’t want to help him any more than he wanted to ask for help, but he carried on walking anyway, because he had no other choice. When he had staggered past some invisible boundary that marked the edge of their concerns, all the faces in the camp turned towards him together as if he had suddenly become real.
“Help me,” he choked around the hot sand in his throat. “Please.”
The nursing mother put her child into the older woman’s hands. Both of them wore wary expressions, closed up around private thoughts, but she still came and put a small, calloused hand under Frank’s elbow, held him up with almost a man’s strength, and helped him stagger the final hundred yards to the fire and fold himself down beside it, gasping, shivering, and weeping with relief.
For a long, quiet moment, he did nothing but sob. Someone passed him a glass of hot mint and sorrel tea, and he sipped and sniffled until the fit passed. When it did, the young woman took away his glass and tapped him on the head, making him look up smartly into the older woman’s gaze.
“Who did this?”
He shook his head, then swayed as the movement seemed to dislodge his brains and make the world swirl around him. “I don’t . . . Up in the hills, I think.”
“Who are you?”
The bald question shocked a word out of his mouth before he had time to think. “Frank,” he said, and smiled with brief joy at recovering his own name. Should there be a second with it? A family name? That, he couldn’t recall no matter how he tried. “I . . . They hit me in the head. It’s all . . . I can’t remember.”
“Hm.” She turned to an older girl, who was squatting on her heels under one of the wagons, and spouted something rapid-fire in a language he didn’t recognise. The girl gathered two friends and took off into the largest wagon, returning with a bedsheet, tweezers, a cake of hard soap, and a pot decorated with painted flowers. Her helpers carried more cloth, grey with use and age.
“He looks Saxon.” The younger woman had her hand in his hair, pulling the lengthy curls of it out as if to demonstrate her point. He saw with surprise that he had blond hair, the colour of freshly sawn oak. His bare body was milk pale, very different from his companions’ brown skin, black hair, and dark thoughtful eyes. “A villager? Or a visitor?”
“A foreigner,” said the old woman, drawing water from a barrel into a cauldron and setting it over the fire. “You heard his accent.” She pared a little of the soap on top and gave the remainder back to the child. He gathered it was a treasured thing and felt ashamed that it was being wasted on him.
“Speak some more, stranger, so that we can hear what you are.”
“I . . .” He could think of nothing to say. Even less when the younger woman laid hands on his skin, turning him to examine his injuries, tutting at what she saw. “Is it bad? It feels bad.”
“Here.” He hovered his hand over the worst pain. “They shot me here. I can feel the bullet, lodged inside—I think a few ribs are broken. Apart from that it’s mostly bruises and my head, up here where . . .” a flash of rifle butt descending, and he cringed, “he hit me with a gun. There were lots of them. And they were laughing.”
“Hm.” The old woman gave the hint of a smile. “That game, we know well. It is normally played with our men. Sometimes with our women too, though in those cases the injuries differ. So. It’s not so bad. You’ll live.” She pried apart the edges of his shoulder wound with dirty fingers, took hold of the shot with the tweezers in her other hand, and tugged, pulling it free. Frank bit through his lip at the pain, but managed not to cry out.
Then she wetted a cloth in the soapy water. “This will sting, but it will help the cuts not to fester, so you must bear it.” He felt fragile, as though too hard a breeze might shake him apart, but her matter-of-factness was oddly comforting, telling him that others had survived such things, that all was not yet lost. So he endured the cleaning and the bandaging without protest or flinching.
By this time the youths of the group had begun to return from every direction: girls from the riverbank, laden with herbs and the roots of reeds, boys from the fields with slingshots through their wide belts and rabbits dangling from their hands. There was a great deal of talk in that language he couldn’t follow, and more staring. If he tried to catch any one person’s eyes, he found their gaze slid away; not obviously enough to give offence, but implacably letting him know they were not interested in making friends.
“What are your names?” he asked, belatedly, as the young mother helped him into the clothes they’d brought for him: a big, baggy, once-white shirt and flimsy once-white trousers. “I should know who to thank.” He put together the scrupulous care with their soap and the fact that their young people had been out scavenging in hedgerows for their food, and guilt gnawed him again. They had so little, and he was making them give it to him. “I should know who to repay.”
“We are nobody.” The old woman smiled, wise and harsh. “We belong to Văcărescu. We are his slaves, and slaves have no need of names or payment. It is enough that we are permitted to live and to serve.”
Did she say this because she thought him some kind of spy? She thought that after receiving all this help, after they had saved his life, he would give them up to punishment? “I can carry no tales except of kindness,” he insisted. “To whom would I betray you? I have nowhere to go. I have no one to turn to. No family, no nation, barely a name.”
“I am Constanta.” The younger woman handed him a rabbit and a knife with which to skin and gut it. It made him feel included, forgiven, and he smiled at her as she picked up her infant, who was fretting beside her on the ground. She held the child in her lap while she stripped the reeds to get at the tubers in their roots. These were tipped into boiling water in another pot. “And this, our mother, is Lyuba who is married to—”
Lyuba cut her off in a flood of angry speech that made him lean in and pay attention to the rhythm. Something practiced in him stirred with interest, trying to pick out individual words, to listen for repetition and patterns. She saw him doing it and snapped her mouth shut, hard, giving him the first overtly hostile glare he’d had from these people. But he understood it better now—he was a master stumbled defenceless among slaves. Whatever he individually had done or not done, they must look at him and see the enemy.
“You will not be alone for long,” Lyuba said sternly. “You are not a person whose death is shrugged over like a dropped pot. They will come searching for you. When they do, you will tell Văcărescu that we are good servants and loyal. That is all the payment we wish or need. You will not give him cause to punish us, and you will not give him our names.”
“I swear it,” he said, holding his hand palm down, as though it rested on a book. “I have so much to thank you for, I will say nothing to harm you. I swear it.”
After this, he chopped meat for a while, in an ever increasing daze. He was just awake enough to eat a bowl of the resulting stew and to drink another cup of brackish tea before someone snorted at his obvious fatigue, and he was picked up, walked carefully across the camp, and put to bed in one of the wagons. The mattress was stuffed with straw, laid out over a bench of small cupboards, painted like the pot with vivacious flowers. He gazed idly at overlapping canvas that billowed slightly with passing breezes, and a moment later—or so it seemed—he opened his eyes to find everything around him had grown dim. The light of the campfire threw silhouettes of angry men against the bowed top of the wagon and there was shouting. Lyuba and Constanta were arguing with two or three men.
Had the fathers of the camp returned from their day’s labours around the forge? Gingerly, Frank peeled off the blankets that covered him, struggled to sit up. He felt better, more solid, more connected to himself, but at the same time he had stiffened, exchanging the hurts of injury for the hurts of healing. If this wasn’t the camp’s menfolk—if it was the forces of this master, Văcărescu, who they feared—Frank didn’t know what he could do to protect his saviours from intimidation and violence, but he could not simply lie here and allow it to happen.
As his feet hit the floor, a memory returned as though it was being bellowed in his ear. “You are a disgrace to my name and to all our ancestors! Yes, be gone with you. And Frank? I am not expecting you to return. Do you understand? You are no longer welcome in this house.”
He breathed in sharply. Seized up as the incautious movement struck through his rib cage like a sabre. His eyes prickled, and he pressed the heels of his palms to them to hold the tears in, devastated at the memory and still not sure why. Who had said that? What terrible thing had he done to deserve all this?
It didn’t matter. The voices were still wrangling outside. Now was not the time to worry about himself. He staggered the short distance to the door. Everything in him flinched away from more anger, more fighting, more pain, and he stood, panting with his hand on the curtain that stood between him and it. I can’t, I can’t, I just want to be left alone . . .
He pushed the fabric aside nevertheless and limped down the steps with as much pride as he could gather. If he was praying silently, Please God, please don’t let them hurt me, he hoped it didn’t show.
There was time for a breath of relief when he saw that the men who stood among the circle of seated figures around the fire were as dark skinned and dark haired as the women. Not the overlord’s men, then. Not a deputation with lances and the right to kill.
The argument cut off with his appearance, and all the faces turned to him.
He took a second, more cautious, deep breath, and resolved not to be selfish. “If you’re arguing about me, be assured that I meant it when I said that I do not wish to cause you any difficulties. Tell me what I must do.”
“We cannot keep you here.” The man who stepped into the firelight was ancient, his long hair and sweeping moustache pure white, his face lined with hard wear, but there was nothing infirm about him. “Not in the night. You are bleeding still. They will smell it and come for you. You will bring them to us, and we will be lost.”
Wolves, Frank thought. Or bears perhaps. He saw the children asleep by the fire, and bit down on his internal scream of But what about me? “Of course. I’ll . . . Which way? Maybe I can make it to the nearest town.”
Even Constanta smiled at this. He hoped with approval, but probably it was relief to have him gone, and at that thought his belly filled with a despair that seemed familiar.
The elder came to him and turned him by the shoulders, pointing him towards a gap in the hedge at the other side of the field. “Go there. You will find a path which slopes upwards through the orchards and out onto the foothills where the goats graze. When you come to the shrine at the crossroads, take the path which leads upwards. At the top of the hill you will see below you the bridge and the lights of Bircii village. They have stone walls to defend them. It may be that you can make it in time. With the help of God, it may be.”
Sons of Devils is an enthralling mystery and would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a dark narrative with
moments of humor.