Every few days Johnny managed to slip away to rest under the lake. Despite what he had told Lisa, it wasn’t that easy to find a way under the ever-expanding ice without drawing notice.
It made him tired. Tired and hungry. Constantly hungry. He stayed away from the town and its new developments, and restricted his hunting to the deep woods. If he couldn’t regenerate under the lake’s healing waters, then he needed blood, lots of blood, although animal blood just wasn’t the same. He found himself craving the family blood more and more. It became an effort of will to sit and watch TV every evening with Kenny, Lisa and even Crystal. Especially Crystal.
But it was worth it. Every day Crystal became stronger with his blood running through her veins. Still, he didn’t object when Lisa hesitantly informed him that they were going away to visit her parents—three hours away by car—for the solstice holiday.
The house was empty except for him. He wandered from room to room, touching the red hangings near the unlit fireplace, looking with interest at the decorated tree in one corner of the living room.He missed them. It was funny how quickly he had begun to think of them as his family, even the hunter. The house felt cold and dark without them.
He was almost tempted to go to Boston by himself and track down this Robert Brown. Tonight was the longest night, and he felt marginally better than he had in days. However, he didn’t trust himself among large groups of people without the steadying influence of Crystal’s blood.
Johnny could have gone with them, or followed them, to Lisa’s parents. But he feared that the children would be there—Crystal’s young cousins—who shared her blood and tempted him beyond his limits. Control. It was all about his control—or lack of it. He couldn’t remember ever being so close to losing it before.
In between one breath and the next, Johnny’s thoughts spiraled downwards. It was winter there, too, in his memories. He ran, clad in pitch-daubed linens covered with deerskin, but his legs and feet were bare. He didn’t feel the cold, none of them did, he or his cousins who shared his blood if not his appetite. There was a battle to be fought; blood had been offered and accepted. Johnny felt his hunger stir.
On the way they passed two other villages and silently their men filed in beside them. The time for yelling would come later, with the feasting. Both would put fear into the hearts of the enemy. Two more blood-drinkers like him joined their ranks, one from each village. They were all young, at least in appearance. Johnny was young in fact. The one who had fathered them all was absent this time.
These two blood-drinkers were Johnny’s true brothers, as he had brothers or sisters in every scattered village in the north, including the islands. Some said his father came from one of those islands and was driven here, to the highlands, by the savage Norsemen. Johnny couldn’t imagine anyone strong enough to drive his father away.
Johnny ran on tireless feet, thinking only of the blood feast he was about to receive. They were close. Around him, voices swelled as his cousins cried out in challenge. He added his voice to theirs, and the two groups clashed in the pre-dawn light.
The people they fought looked just like them, fought like them, yelled like them. But they weren’t blood. Johnny didn’t question the reasons these clansmen were enemies. He was a weapon to be wielded by his people. Johnny ran at a snarling boy no older than himself and easily sidestepped the crude downward thrust of the other’s heavy pike. He opened his mouth wide to reveal his sharp canines, and the boy gasped audibly right before Johnny tore his throat out. It was his right. It was his due. He and his brothers had been offered this feast. Johnny moved on to the next enemy, who had not noticed the fate of his companion in the press of bodies. Johnny twisted the man’s neck around, casually tossing his weapon aside, and bit down while the blood was still vital. He ignored the battle raging around him until a cousin shouted, “Eoin!”
Then, with a quick look, the lower half of his face covered in blood, Johnny spotted two of the family struggling with a giant of a man, bearded and stinking of pitch, who had already cut one of his cousins with an ax, and was about to cleave the other’s head in two. Johnny leapt up and placed both his palms on the bigger man’s chest, pushing backwards until the man fell heavily to the ground. The giant’s face showed his astonishment but it quickly turned to horror as he beheld Johnny’s flat, black eyes and his blood-soaked mouth.
Behind him, Johnny heard his cousins scramble to get up and clear the area. The uninjured one supported the one who had his leg gashed by the ax. They both knew what was coming.
Since one of his had shed blood, the offering was clear. This man was Johnny’s.
He took his time, and he made it painful to repay the family blood that had been spilled. By the time he was finished, his body was bathed in blood. His two brother blood-drinkers were similarly covered, from what he could see of them at the other end of the battlefield.
The enemy had finally realized that something was not right. Their screams of rage turned into something more primal, as Johnny and his brothers strode through their ranks leaving only mutilated bodies behind.
“Go,” one of the blood-drinkers directed the family. “We will finish this.”
Few of the family had died. Johnny noted that the cousin who had taken the ax blow now lay dead on the blood-soaked ground, and his anger rose. As the family gathered up their wounded and started for home, Johnny turned to face the surviving members of their enemy’s men. The sun was full in his face and he felt his skin peel despite all the blood he had taken. None of the enemy would return to their homes to spread tales of blood-drinkers among the clans. He grinned in anticipation.
Johnny groggily opened his eyes. The air smelled heavily of blood and other matter, but he was in a dark space. He had no recollection of how he had gotten there. From the pressure on his body he knew it was full daylight outside. He should have been back under the healing waters of his loch by now. What had happened?
“You lost control.”
Johnny’s head whipped around. His father sat beside him, stone still, in the dark. Neither of the other two blood-drinkers was present.
There was such a thing as too much blood. Johnny felt it now; it made him slow and unable to think clearly. Yet he still felt the desire for it. Slowly he sat up. His ruined clothes had been sliced away from his body, but he was still covered in dried blood. It crackled on his skin as he moved. “Where am I?”
“Underground. It’s been three days, Eoin. Your brothers brought you here after you stopped moving. They couldn’t wake you.”
“Where are they?” Johnny glanced around, but the dark space was too tiny to hold more than just the two of them.
“Home, under their waters. As you should be. Your mother is worried about you.”
His mother. She was old now, and although he was no longer her child but the village protector, she still cared for him. Johnny winced. She was his last tie to his human existence. “I don’t understand,” he murmured, lowering his eyes. The hunger, which should have been well sated by now, burned. “Why did I lose control?”
His father sighed. “You let your feelings get in the way,” he said. “Tell me, were you angry when you killed those men?”
“Of course! They killed Dannach.” He still remembered Dannach’s father. They had played together when they were little, before he was changed.
“You do not decide!” his father thundered. In the small space, the sounds echoed over and over. “You protect our people, and they protect you. They call you when they need you. Do not presume to judge their reasons or their enemies!” He sighed again. “Eoin, we walk a very fine line among the family. They worship us, and yet they fear us. Do not—ever—give them a reason to fear. Do you understand now?”
Johnny nodded slowly. He was one of them, and yet he wasn’t. A pang of regret rang through him. Was he destined to remain apart for the rest of his long existence? “I’m sorry,” he said.
His father threw a coarse yellow linen shirt at him. This one was not smeared with pitch or blood. He raised it over his head and knelt in the cramped space. The shirt came down to his knees. “When the sun sets, go home,” his father instructed him. “See your mother, then go to sleep. You need to rest.”
When his father pushed out of the narrow cave it was still broad daylight. The tiny sliver of sun which made its way past his father’s bulk burned Johnny, and he turned his face away from the light.
Johnny came to himself, shaking. He hadn’t thought about his mother in years. He had been at her side when she died. After that, it was easier for him to distance himself from his kin. His memories had kept him in Lisa’s house long past sunrise, he realized, as his arms and face burned in just the diffused light from the windows. Instead of facing the harsh sun, Johnny decided to rest for a while in his small attic space, at least until night. He closed his eyes, waiting for the dreams to overtake him again, but this time they didn’t. He fell asleep despite his ravening hunger.
“Johnny. Johnny! . . . . Eoin.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed open. Crystal knelt beside him, crying. She had slashed her palm and he felt the wetness drip all over his face. All at once his senses were assaulted with the fragrance of her blood and her tears, mixed together. Involuntarily, he latched onto her hand and sucked the moisture from it. It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, but he was no raw boy to lose control. This was his Crystal, his future, and she must be protected at all costs, even from himself. He pushed her away.
How had she found his hideaway? He had never told her about it. The hunger pounded in his ears, making it difficult to think. Crystal was not helping it any with her nearness. “Get out,” he managed, “I’m all right. Leave me alone.”
She sobbed, and threw herself at him. “No, you’re not!” she cried. “We looked for you and couldn’t find you.”
Johnny drew in a sharp breath. “Does your mother know where I am?” he asked quickly. “Does the hunter?”
Crystal shook her head. “Only me,” she said. “I could feel you. You need blood.”
She was right. He needed to drink blood, and then to sleep under the lake to regain his strength. How long had he been up here? “What day is it?” he asked.
“Wednesday,” she sniffed. “I had to wait until I got home from school to look for you again.”
Wednesday? The holidays were over? Crystal was back at school, so they must be over. No wonder he was hungry. Had the hunter already gone to Boston?
“I had a present for you too,” Crystal said, pulling a small, wrapped box around so he could see it. “I made it at Grandma’s house for you.”
It was a keychain with a small glass ornament at the end in the shape of a heart. “What’s this for?” he asked, pushing down his growing hunger. He had seen the wrapped boxes under Lisa’s decorated tree, but they had all disappeared when the three of them went to her mother’s house and he hadn’t thought about them after that.
Crystal blushed, and Johnny could smell the blood rising to her face. “I thought you could put some keys on it so you wouldn’t have to sneak in and out of the house anymore. Mom thought it was a good idea too.”
Johnny pushed himself up on his elbows, then fell back down. He was incredibly weak. He smiled. “Thank you,” he said. He wondered how the hunter felt about this obvious sign that he was now considered part of the household. “Has Kenny gone to Boston yet?” he asked. If he had, Johnny would be very very displeased.
“Not yet. Johnny, you need to take more blood.” Crystal moved closer, and produced the little knife she usually kept in her nightstand. Without waiting for Johnny’s reply, she cut the inside of her arm, a little above the elbow, and held it out so that her blood dripped into his mouth. The hunger roared, and Johnny couldn’t help himself. She had offered, and he was in dire need. He would be careful not to take too much. Just a little.
She cut herself again, on the other arm, while he was busy with the first one. He was able to lift himself up off the blankets now. When he realized what she had done, he quickly moved to cover the second wound with his mouth. He shouldn’t take so much, but she was already bleeding and his drinking would help to close the wound. He shuddered with emotion as he drank, careful not to cause her pain. He would never cause her pain. He—
Crystal was unnaturally still in his arms. Johnny set her down and her eyes rolled back in her head. Frantically, Johnny searched for her pulse and found it, faint and ragged. He gashed his own wrist and held it out to her, but she was too far gone to drink. His heart despaired. “No!” he shouted wildly, gathering her limp form up in his arms.
Lisa and Kenny both looked up at the shout. Kenny made it to the bottom of the stairs first, with Lisa right behind him. At the top stood Johnny, a look of anguish on his face, holding Crystal before him like an offering.