Johnny did not want to go back under the water. He wanted to stay with Crystal, with his family, as he had come to think of them. Dangerous thoughts, for them and for him. He was a vampire. All his returning memories showed him that it was foolhardy to trust anyone, especially family. His eyes darkened. Family had betrayed him, over and over. Why should he think it would be any different this time?
He stripped off the clothes he had so casually taken and threw them savagely into the bushes near the water’s edge. He wanted things to be different. With a last sigh, he slid into the frigid water and let it pull him down out of sight. Perhaps sleep was for the best, after all.
He remembered waking up aboard ship, ravenous and in pain. He couldn’t remember his name or how he had gotten there. He moaned, and an indistinct shape stirred in the darkness.
“Try not to move,” a voice whispered. The figure suddenly loomed over him. “I’ll get you something to drink in a little while. It’s almost light.”
“Where am I?” He didn’t want to ask ‘Who am I?’ although that question was uppermost in his mind.
“On a ship.” The figure gripped his shoulders, causing him to hiss in pain. “You must listen to me. No one knows who we are. My name is John Pryce. You are my nephew, Jonathan. We took passage on this ship to come to the New World.” He glanced through a rip in the canvas that separated their tiny bunk from the rest. “Thankfully, you awoke at full dark. The others think you are ill—that’s what I told them so they would keep their distance. Don’t worry. I won’t let you starve.”
He looked at the man, John Pryce, in confusion. As soon as the man said it, he felt as if his insides were twisting. “I’m hungry,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Wait,” John Pryce whispered back. He crawled silently back to his corner.
“I know. Not much longer now.”
A bell chimed and a few of the bodies in the darkened central area shifted in their sleep, but nobody woke up. A few minutes later a faint light appeared at the far end of the ’tween-deck, and John Pryce bolted into action.
“Young master,” he said plaintively to the boy who held the lantern aloft, checking on his human cargo as he did each chime of the ship’s bells. It was nearly morning, in the dead hours of night. “My nephew is deathly ill. Will you come see?”
Not waiting for an answer, and ignoring the fearful look on the young lad’s face, John Pryce grasped his arm and wove him through the sleeping passengers to where his charge lay unmoving, but watching with black, black eyes.
He threw his cloak across the boy’s shoulders, effectively shielding him—and his lantern—from view. “You must bend down. He cannot move.”
The boy knelt, more because of the pressure of John Pryce’s arm than because of any great desire to do so. “What’s wrong with him?” he whispered uneasily.
John Pryce pushed the boy’s head down until it was inches from his ‘nephew’s’ face. “Jonathan, this good soul will help you,” he said softly, adding, “He’s not an enemy.”
The cabin boy tried to turn around to look at the elder Pryce at those strange words, but just then a violent tug dragged him further down towards the sick youth on the lower bunk. He didn’t have time to be surprised.
“That’s enough.” A firm grip pulled the child away from Jonathan. “You’ll kill him.” John Pryce stared down at Jonathan with hard eyes, then he lifted the boy to him, still wrapped in his cloak, and bent his own head to the boy’s.
Jonathan growled low in his throat. That boy was his! No one else could touch his blood!
“It’s necessary,” John Pryce whispered, raising his head. “There aren’t enough for both of us.”
Jonathan peered into the gloom at the mass of bodies crammed into their small space. Why not, he wondered. But the coming dawn light dragged at him, and he closed his eyes, and dreamed of cool waters that soothed his burns and eased the ache of hunger in his throat that his little taste of blood had barely begun to touch.
-- - - - - - - - -
Uncle Robert showed up every weekend like clockwork. At least he was consistent, Kenny thought, wondering how they were going to handle it when Johnny eventually woke up from his extended sleep. According to Crystal’s sketchpad, the time should be soon. Already, buds were popping out on the flowering trees, and early spring flowers were beginning to poke through the dirt. Lisa was going to meet her father at the cottage to turn on the water in two weeks, so they planned on going down there next weekend to clean up the yard and air out the place a little. Kenny believed that that would be when Johnny would make his appearance. Now, to figure out a way to keep Uncle Robert out of the picture. . . .
“This is where you killed him?” Uncle Robert walked around the overgrown field in the back of Betty’s property, looking, no doubt, for evidence of the vampire execution. Kenny didn’t think he would find anything after nearly five years.
“My father checked the site after it happened and verified the vampire’s death.”
“I see.” They walked back to where Kenny had parked his car. “He was the last known vampire. The end of a very long era in our family history. I don’t think your father has anything to worry about. I’ll still keep track, but I think you were right—there’s no way for any of our blood to become full-fledged vampires without a full vampire to complete the change. It’s amazing that you came to the same conclusion.”
Kenny’s face reddened. “It makes sense,” he said, unwilling to go into it any further.
Uncle Robert paused by the car door. “I spent a lot of time in my youth in Scotland, trying to find my identity. I won’t bore you with what happened between your grandfather, your father, and me, but I needed to find out the truth for myself.”
“And did you?”
“Not as much as I would like—more than I let on to your father when we met in Boston. We come from a very old line, Ken. Older than the clans and names we bear now. ’Blood of my blood, blood of my enemies,” he murmured in the old language, making Kenny start with recognition. “It didn’t always mean what we’ve been taught.”
Kenny remembered Johnny had said nearly the same thing. “It didn’t?” he asked.
“A long time ago, when the vampires were our family’s secret weapons, we used those words to call them to our aid. Our ancestors who kept the secret would offer the vampire a sip of blood from the palm of their hands, a pledge and a promise. ‘Blood of our blood,’ our blood in exchange for the enemy’s blood. ‘Blood of our enemies.’ In those days, the vampires were not our enemies.”
A chill ran down Kenny’s spine. The ritual his uncle had just described was exactly what he, Lisa and Crystal had done with Johnny! “What does it mean?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.
“It means the vampire promised to protect our ancestors in exchange for their protection of him, because they were of the same blood.”
“So the vampire protected our ancestors? He didn’t kill them?”
“Not in those days. That happened much later, and it was our fault as much as it was the vampire’s. I’m sure your father told you what happened right before our ancestors came to this country. It was inevitable. The country was in chaos and it just got worse. The families who carried our blood were afraid the truth would come out, and that spurred the big purge, disguised as part of the unrest of the times. It didn’t stop with our small group’s leaving, either. When I went back to Scotland, I tried to trace back what had happened to other groups who carried the blood, but I couldn’t find any. By the middle of the 18th century, our blood had all but been eradicated from the old country.”
“All but—does that mean you found somebody over there? A vampire?”
Uncle Robert shook his head. “No vampires, I’m afraid. I talked to a lot of old men in remote villages who were glad to tell me about their traditions. Few of the younger generation want to carry on.” He glanced sideways at Kenny and smiled. “I wasn’t talking about you. Anyway, I gathered bits and pieces from the stories they told me. I don’t even think they realized what they were saying. So, does the old blood still exist in the hills? That’s a qualified ‘yes.’ Do they know they have it? I’d have to say probably not.”
Kenny started the engine and drove slowly towards town. He dropped Uncle Robert off at the house. “Are you coming back next weekend?” he asked, thinking of Johnny and the cottage. So the blood ritual meant that the vampire promised to protect them. Kenny slowly smiled.
“Probably,” his uncle replied. “I’ll call you.”
Kenny nodded, and drove off. He would find a way to keep Johnny’s secret from his uncle. It couldn’t be that hard—the damn vampire had been able to do it for three hundred years, more or less, already. The promise to protect went both ways.
-- - - - - - - - -
The voyage by sea seemed endless. John Pryce told Jonathan that he had slept through most of it already. They should reach port in a matter of days. It couldn’t be too soon for Jonathan. He was restless. His injuries had healed with time and blood and darkness, but John Pryce still would not let him leave his bunk.
The man would mingle among the other passengers and the crew, and occasionally bring him a person back for blood. “He’s not an enemy,” John would repeat, to Jonathan’s annoyance. Fine, so none of them were enemies. He realized John meant he was to be careful with his blood-taking—no visible wounds, no drinking to the point of satiation. He even understood it, being as they were all stuck together on this incredibly ripe-smelling ship. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the fact that John Pryce shared his victims. There were plenty of people on this ship, but John Pryce was very choosy about whom he would use.
“Come in, my beauty,” John Pryce said, as he swept the canvas curtain aside. Jonathan knew that was his cue to turn his back and close his eyes. Most of John Pryce’s victims were assignations he had arranged with fellow passengers or crew. There was little privacy in the ’tween-decks, so by mutual consent everybody respected the curtained dividers which separated living spaces, and ignored the sounds that sometimes came from behind them.
This time, it was a crew member who thought he was going to meet John Pryce for a sexual encounter away from prying eyes. They had carried on their ‘affair’ since the beginning of the voyage. The young man pretended Jonathan did not lie dying on the bunk below as he shed his coat and waited for his lover join him. As usual, John Pryce struck quickly and the man never knew what was happening. Jonathan got up, no longer an invalid, and took his share until his uncle made him stop. Scowling, he backed away. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
John Pryce mussed the crewman’s hair and buttoned his shirt sloppily before draping his arm around the man, who was starting to come around, so he could walk him back to the upper deck. Anyone who saw them would assume one or both of them was drunk. Jonathan rolled his eyes. “Do you have to do that?”
His uncle turned back and looked at him. “Yes, I do, if you want to survive,” he whispered harshly. He turned his back and helped his ‘lover’ out of their little cubicle. He came back later just as Jonathan had made up his mind to go out on his own and find some fresh air, among other things. “I know it’s hard,” John Pryce said quietly. “It won’t be much longer. I heard the crew talking.”
“I’ll just bet you did,” Jonathan muttered. He felt confused, alone, and most of all ravenously hungry. He couldn’t remember what had happened to him. “Why are we on this ship?” he demanded, as John Pryce stiffened in affront.
“There was nowhere else to go,” his uncle admitted. “You were so hurt, I was afraid to put you under the water for fear you’d drown for real. You needed blood, so much blood. I followed the people who were talking about leaving that place, starting a new life. Nobody who was there saw us. The ones who did are all dead—I saw to that. But still, we need to be careful in case someone recognizes us for what we are.”
Jonathan didn’t understand a word John Pryce said. “You killed the people who did this to me?” he asked. He had been badly burned, stabbed and left for dead. The burns were the worst of it. He had no recollection of any of it. “Good.” The rest of the babble about water and drowning he ignored, as it didn’t make any sense. He also planned to ignore the part about being careful. Who would recognize them? Didn’t John Pryce just say he had killed all the ones who had seen them? He smiled to himself as he turned his head towards the wall. Why should John Pryce be the only one to go above deck and have a little fun?
It hurt to move about when it was still daylight, but it was not impossible. Jonathan waited until he was sure his uncle was deeply asleep, then he threw back the covers and ventured outside for the first time since he had awakened aboard ship. He was very thin, almost emaciated, but then again, he wasn’t the only one on this ship who had suffered adversely from their long voyage. Several children had died, and not all of them because he and John Pryce had fed on them. He passed a young girl who looked every bit as skinny as he did. She smiled and bobbed her head in the small passageway between the makeshift sleeping quarters, and Jonathan felt his hunger surge. Her eyes widened as he brushed by her, and she backed swiftly away. Smart girl, not that he would have taken her blood right then and there. He was not stupid. He continued upstairs.
The air hit him even before the fading sunlight did. He breathed in deeply, only just realizing how foul the air belowdecks had been. Using his cloak as a cover, he made his way to the rail. Several other passengers were also taking in the late afternoon air. Soon, it would be time for them all to be confined to their cabins for the night. He realized the only way his uncle got around that ironclad rule was because of his trysts with the besotted crewman. Maybe he had been too quick to judge his uncle.
“Hello.” He stumbled across the little cabin boy John Pryce had brought him weeks ago. Would anyone miss this one little child? He needed more than just a taste. It was an ache in his gut, this constant hunger. “Remember me?”
The boy came closer, and Jonathan moved behind a coil of ropes, shadowed by a wall and away from prying eyes. He could feel the night coming down in layers, each one lessening his pain a little more. Soon it would be full dark. Already the deck was nearly deserted, except for the sailhands who continued their assigned duties. A little closer. . . .
“Eoin!” A voice shouted, startling Jonathan. He looked at the child, thinking that someone was calling him, but the boy didn’t react. Jonathan pulled him more fully into the darkened space.
“Eoin! Eoin! Jonathan, stop!” John Pryce skidded around the corner and grabbed the child, sending him sprawling into the better-lit deck. “Get out of here! Go!” He turned to glare at Jonathan. “What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear me call?”
Jonathan scowled. “You didn’t call me,” he said sullenly, and all at once John Pryce narrowed his eyes.
“I called Eoin,” he said. “You don’t remember Eoin, do you?”
“No, why should I?” Jonathan muttered. “Is he another one of your fancy boys? Why don’t you go find him and leave me alone!” Jonathan shrugged off the hand his uncle tried to put on his shoulder and stalked off, leaving John Pryce staring in amazement after him.
A sailor stopped him a short while later. “You shouldn’t be up here. All passengers need to be belowdecks after dark. It’s that way.” The man pointed behind him.
“Is that so?” Lightning quick, Jonathan grabbed the man by the throat and dragged him away from the rail. He wasn’t stupid enough to leave a mark, but he didn’t think the fishes would care anyway. He drained the man completely and threw his lifeless body overboard. Finally satisfied, he made his way back to his bunk and went to sleep. John Pryce wasn’t there when he eventually woke up, a day and a night later, and that suited him just fine.
Johnny stirred, swirling water around him. Young Jack, I’m sorry, he thought. I didn’t realize you were just trying to protect me, like you always did. You should have told me the truth.
Enough sleeping. Johnny came up out of the water and expelled the excess from his lungs, sucking in great gulps of air, warm air. It was finally spring. He swam to the little beach, startling a group of children playing in the sand. He was sorely tempted, but he didn’t touch them. Ignoring their scandalized giggles at his obvious state of undress, he shook water out of his hair and ran off through the trees. He had an extra set of clothes at the cottage, if Lisa hadn’t gotten rid of them.
The burn of the sun actually felt good. He really shouldn’t go to see them before he had taken in some blood, but he couldn’t wait. He had no doubt Crystal and her mother would be there. It was finally time to meet again. Letting himself in through an open window, Johnny got dressed silently in the back bedroom. He wished he could have had a nice shower first, but there would be time for things like that later on, back at Lisa’s house. He found himself looking forward to it.
Letting himself out through the same window, Johnny made his way around to the front of the cottage, where Crystal and her mother both raked the small lawn. Daffodils crowded the little area in front of the steps. Crystal threw down her rake. “Johnny!” she said, coming to hug him.
He held her loosely. She came up to his chest already. Another couple of years and she would catch up to him. His chest tightened, and he hugged her closer.
“Johnny.” Lisa came too, standing uncertainly behind her daughter, but her eyes were suspiciously wet. “Welcome home.”
A sound made him turn around, and his eyes widened to see Kenny coming around the corner of the cottage. He had expected Crystal and Lisa to be there. The hunter was a bit of a surprise. Johnny watched him cautiously.
“You’re back,” Kenny said, coming closer. “You look a little better. Good rest?” He crooked one eyebrow when Johnny didn’t reply. “I suppose you’re hungry. What is it you vampires drink again? Oh yeah, blood.”
Johnny stood frozen with shock, with Crystal still in his arms, as the hunter casually sliced his own palm with a pocket knife, then knelt on one knee and held his hand out.
“Here, drink. Blood of my blood,” he said in the old language, staring Johnny straight in the eyes so there would be no mistake. He knew what he was doing. “Then we have to talk.”