Black Water

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Chapter 16

Eoin came home with blood on his mouth in the early morning hours of a spring day, pleased with himself for having carried out the family’s wishes so swiftly. Even the stranger they had sent to accompany him had been impressed, as well he should be. Eoin had left the stranger to claim the glory for their short battle. He already had the blood. That was reward enough.

“Who’s this?”

One of Eoin’s cousins brought him to the chief’s house after having waited by the lake a night and a day to be noticed. He had thrown Eoin a shirt and a woolen wrap to put over it, and hurried him to the village to meet their esteemed guest. That same guest stared suspiciously at Eoin from under bushy red eyebrows, wondering, no doubt, why the chief had bothered to summon a boy to attend him. He had more important matters on his mind at the moment.

Eoin regarded the stranger curiously. He was dressed in fine clothes and had come on a horse instead of walking up the cattle road to the village. Eoin was surprised he had gotten here in one piece. Strangers were not generally well-tolerated in this area. He must be a lord of some sort.

“This is Eoin, the one I’ve promised you,” replied the chief, noting the stranger’s sour expression. “He’s more than he looks.”

The stranger eyed Eoin up and down. “He will give me my victory?” he asked incredulously. “I asked for men, fighters I can count on, not some stripling lad.”

The chief smiled into his beard. “And I’ll send some of my best henchmen along with Eoin.” He beckoned, and Eoin stood in front of the chief, his back to their guest. “Eoin, we need you. I’m sending you along with this man to do a small favor. You’re to consider him family.” The chief picked up a goblet and filled it with strong-smelling barley water from the table, which he offered to Eoin. It wasn’t the usual offering, and Eoin frowned. The chief then stood and, taking his small knife, made a knick in his palm. He held his hand in a tight fist and let a few drops of his blood mingle with the barley drink in Eoin’s cup. “Now you.” The chief motioned for the stranger to stand.

“What blasphemy is this?” the stranger said, but he stood up. Slowly, Eoin turned so that he was facing both his chief and the stranger. His eyes had taken on a black tinge.

“You ask us to shed our blood, then you must be willing to sacrifice yours as well,” the chief murmured. “It’s an ancient clan tradition. A drop of your blood for Eoin here and now, to seal the deal.”

The stranger shook his head. “It smacks of paganism, but what the hell?” He grinned, flashing strong white teeth. “What’s a little blood among family?” He stabbed the point of his own knife into his hand and dripped a little blood into Eoin’s cup. “There. Drink up, young Eoin.”

Eoin held the stranger’s gaze as he drained the cup, wincing slightly at the sweet burn of the barley water as it slid down his throat. “I accept,” he said as he laid the cup down on the table.

Later, the chief had taken Eoin aside and cautioned him to be careful around the stranger. He was to be considered family, but he was not privy to the secret that only Eoin’s chief and a few of his closest men knew—what Eoin really was. Only those with the strongest strains of the blood were entrusted with that secret, and as the years rolled by, those whose blood was closest to Eoin’s grew fewer and fewer.

All the men who accompanied the stranger out of their village were hand-picked because they were aware of what Eoin was. They were his protectors as much as he was theirs. Among them was the boy who had awakened Eoin from his slumber. Young Jack, as he was called, was very strong in the blood, stronger even than the chieftain, who knew about Eoin mainly because he was the chieftain and entitled to that information.

“Boys, they’re sending me boys,” muttered the red-bearded man from astride his tall horse. He stared down at Young Jack, who was clearly just a child. “And what am I supposed to do with you? Am I to give you a drop of my blood too?”

Young Jack stared up at him, too scandalized to be scared. “Of course not!” he said hotly. “I’m not—“ He hesitated, as he realized what he had almost said. He cast his eyes down. “I’m not allowed,” he said softly.

The man laughed, and rode on ahead. He had left his men camped about a mile outside the village as he rode in on his own to recruit fighters from among the smaller clans in the area. He had big plans, and part of those plans were to win the support of these people in the high country. He used the family card, which was true enough in a way. His ancestors were just as barbaric as these clansmen, and he had no doubt that far enough along the line he was related to these bloodthirsty savages. He needed a little bit of that savagery now, and if it took a drop of blood to gain it, then he was more than willing.

Eoin ran lightly alongside the gathered soldiers, among whom now numbered his own kin—his real kin. He had his doubts that this ‘Red John’ was really kin at all, but blood had been offered and accepted, and he would do his job. He remembered his father’s admonition to obey the family, and not to judge their reasons. Besides, it was fun to travel this far south. There were huge stone castles, even bigger than the occasional brochs that still dotted the landscape near his home, and more horses than he had ever seen. These men were armed better than his family’s usual enemies, also. Young Jack had pressed a sword into Eoin’s hand and whispered that he was to brandish it, on orders from their chief, if he was seen in battle. Eoin smiled grimly. He just wouldn’t be seen, then. The sword was a hindrance.

Scouts had come back to report enemies ahead, and Eoin shook off the sun lethargy and melted into the background, using trees as cover when he could, and otherwise staying to the shadows. He nodded to Red John as he passed the front of the line of horsemen. It was time for him to do what his chief had promised. Red John nodded back, bemused, and held up his hand when a soldier would have stopped Eoin from moving forward.

With a roar, Red John’s forces surged forward, the foot soldiers in front as always, and the horses fanning out to the sides. This was a bigger skirmish than many they had had over the past several days, and these enemies wore heavy armor. The two sides met with a deafening clash, and Eoin leapt into the fray unnoticed. He pulled down enemy soldiers from the back of their lines, never bothering to unsheath the sword he had been given. Instead, he savagely ripped off their headgear, if they had any, and went for the jugular. He remained unnoticed for quite some time, as all energy was focused on the front, and so was able to take down quite a few of the enemy. He was well satisfied with his ration of promised blood. When the battle surged around him, Eoin reluctantly pulled out his sword and began hacking away with it. Red John caught his eye, from astride his horse, and whistled appreciatively as he noticed the field of corpses surrounding Eoin. Eoin grinned back, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

That night, Eoin slipped away in the darkness with Young Jack. Red John had achieved his goal for the time being, and soon he would release the clansmen back to their homes. He promised this was only the beginning, and days of blood and glory lay ahead of them all. Eoin liked the part about the blood. But for now, he was finished, burned, and tired. He nodded to his kin, who would smooth things over with Red John, before he left, with Young Jack on his back. The boy had been a great help to him, and he was truly too little to be left alone among grown soldiers.

Eoin left Young Jack at the village and returned to his loch. “You know how to reach me,” he said to the boy. “Come get me next time there’s need.”

Young Jack nodded, and shyly offered his palm to Eoin. “Please, lord,” he said. “Will you have a sip first?”

Eoin was pleased, and knelt down to take the earnest offering. “Thank you, Young Jack.”

“I want to stay with you!” The child blurted out, then reddened.

Eoin considered. There was precedent. The child had the blood. And it would be nice to have a companion. He had been by himself now for nearly three hundred years. “Talk to the chief,” he said. The family had to approve any such change. Eoin was the last of his kind to be born, and he knew of only a few others who had been changed since then. “Find my father,” he said. The old blood-drinker would also have to approve of such a thing.

Eoin awakened not long after to find his father standing at the banks of the loch. It seemed that the family who still knew about them had agreed that Eoin was to have a keeper. News of his savagery in battle had filtered back, and the chief, for one, was uneasy that the family secret would be discovered. Their blood was precious, but diluted over the years. In today’s political climate, any difference could be a liability. Therefore, the family had decided to allow Young Jack to be changed so that he could help guide Eoin in these turbulent times.

“I shall exchange the first blood with Young Jack,” his father informed him. “After tonight, I will return every equinox to repeat the exchange until he is ready to come over to you. You can give him your blood if you choose, and if he chooses, at any time in between. It will only make him stronger. But be cautioned, for it will make you weaker as well. If you choose give him your blood, you will create a bond with him that only death will break.”

It took years for the change to be complete. In the meantime, Eoin’s clan joined in the battles for Scottish independence, although it was confusing to Eoin just who they were fighting for or against. Red John died shortly after Eoin had met him, and the leaders they followed now were foreign-sounding, although charismatic. They all claimed to be family. Eoin had no option but to go where he was told, to fight whomever he was set to fight, and to keep a low profile. He had Young Jack, who over time grew to look older than Eoin did, as his companion and advisor. Eoin enjoyed those years. He saw much of the country, and had more than enough blood to keep him satisfied.

Every Spring and Fall, his father would show up at the village and exchange blood with Young Jack, who soon became just plain Jack. When Jack was a young man, he had the final choice: to settle down and get married, or to leave it all behind and join Eoin under his loch. He would live on blood and promises, as an eternal servant and companion to Eoin. Jack never hesitated, and walked towards the loch with his eyes wide open. Eoin’s father stood there, under the harvest moon, and with only Eoin as witness, he took all that was left of Jack’s human blood. The young man’s body crumpled to the ground and Eoin felt a twinge of doubt. Had Jack survived? He looked dead.

His father turned to regard Eoin. “You’ll have to show him,” he said quietly. “The first time under the water is daunting. He’ll think he is drowning.”

Eoin knelt beside Jack’s still form and felt for a pulse. Jack still breathed. “Why is he unconscious? Should we give him blood?”

His father shook his head. “He is not the same as you or I,” he said. “The water will complete the change for him now. You must carry him into the water.”

Slowly, Eoin rose with Jack’s limp body in his arms. He walked into the water, and kept walking until he was up to his chest, with Jack floating helplessly in front of him. He stared at Jack’s slack face, with its mouth slightly open, for just a moment longer. Then he dove under the water, pulling Jack with him. The abrupt transition from air to water revived Jack somewhat, and his eyes shot open. He struggled briefly, holding his breath, but Eoin would not let him go. It was too late now, anyway. Jack didn’t have enough blood left to survive on the surface. He would either drown in the loch or survive to become a blood-drinker. There was no other choice now.

Eventually, Jack’s thrashing subsided and he opened his mouth and let the water flow in. Eoin, who had been watching for it, did the same, and let the lake waters envelop him. He felt the healing lethargy and hoped it was the same for Jack. Together, they drifted towards the bottom, and Eoin fell asleep.

Crystal, I know what I must do now, Johnny thought abruptly, before dreams overtook him again.

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