Phillip sighed and looked at his desk once more. He had gone through many documents detailing every aspect of the farm he had inherited from his cousin. There was still a lot to learn and a lot more to go through. So far, it had been almost a year and he had ended up learning quite a bit about the land, but it didn’t seem to be enough.
His cousin had been deeply in debt and although Phillip had somehow salvaged the farm from debtors and ruin, there was a lot left wanting. For one thing, that year’s harvest was bound to fail. The weather did not seem favourable enough for the crops that had been planted so that would be a loss. The labour was another thing. Phillip had been raised in the city and hadn’t had much to do with rural farm life.
However, when he came to visit his cousin once in a while, he’d found himself longing for the open fields and the fresh air. So, when he found out he had inherited the farm, he went over straight away and began tending to it. The one thing he found completely unacceptable, however, was the use of slaves. These people had been forcibly plucked from their homes and brought to a new land in harsh conditions only to be treated even more harshly.
He had not only heard the stories but seen them for himself and they had disgusted him. If it weren’t for one of those very slaves, Phillip himself may not have been alive. It was pure luck that he’d been in the care of such a warm and kind old lady at all. Most slaves wouldn't hesitate to put a knife in his back if they were in her position and he honestly couldn't blame them. She had nursed him to health the way she had known and when he was better, she had stepped back into her role of slave. She had succumbed to disease a few months later but Phillip had never forgotten. He owed her his life.
One of the first things that Phillip had done was to grant manumission all his newly acquired slaves. This had come as a rude shock to the foreman and the servants in the house. Still, nobody dared to oppose him as the master of the house. He had then gone through all the slave quarters and immediately begun making improvements. By the end of it, all the quarters were more habitable and had some ventilation and comfort. In the cold months, they would also keep out the chill and there was a stock of firewood kept especially for them.
In the end, many of the freed slaves remained on the farm and continued to help out, grateful for the opportunity to leave if they so wished. Life in their society was still difficult even for a freed slave. Many would end up dead or enslaved again and sent elsewhere. Those that managed to make a life would have it rough and be forced to fight every step of the way. Jobs and homes were not on offer for freed slaves either. While they stayed on Phillip’s farm however, they would have food, shelter and a wage. He was a fair man - nobody could dispute that.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. It was the maid coming in with a cup and teapot. She curtsied and gave him a small smile. Setting the tray down on the table beside him, she informed him that he had a visitor.
“Send them in,” he said looking back at his papers. He wasn’t really expecting anyone. His list of friends was short – which of them could it be, he wondered? He didn’t have long to wait to find out.
“Phillip! My favourite recluse! How goes the farm life?” asked Lucas sauntering in with arms wide open in a grandiose gesture. Phillip smiled. Lucas was one of his oldest friends and comrades in arms. They had survived a lot together.
“I’m as well as can be,” said Phillip, rising to greet his friend, “and the farm life is calm and peaceful as you would expect. I am curious though, what would roust you from your own farmlands up North and bring you all this way? Was it getting too cold for your warm blood?”
“Har, har.” Lucas made a face at Phillip and walked over to the brandy decanter. “My lovely cousin has invited me down to Larenby for the summer. I thought I should pop in on my old friend and see if he might like to join me.”
Pouring himself a rather generous glass, Lucas sat on the settee by the window instantly making himself right at home. Phillip shook his head and poured himself some tea.
“I wonder if Marie got bigger,” he mused stirring the green liquid. Tea like this was hard to come by. If he didn’t know some of the traders who travelled to the Orient, he might have had to go without his favourite brew.
Lucas made a face at the cup Phillip was holding then clicked his tongue and looked away, “I never did understand your obsession with that tea.”
“You would understand if you tried some,” replied Phillip with a laugh.
“I have, I still don’t get it. Good old brandy for me. You should ditch that and have some with me.”
“Next time, said Phillip sitting in the armchair next to the settee, “and I’ll wager I can drink you under the table.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” said Lucas with a laugh, then he raised his glass to his friend in salute and downed the brandy. “Although to answer your question, she must have. Her brother too. It’s been a long while since we saw them last – was it ten years ago?”
“Has it been that long already?” asked Phillip. He looked around the room. Ten years prior, he had still been travelling the continent with Lucas discovering worlds they had never known and gotten into all kinds of trouble – side by side as the best of friends. The pair had formed an unlikely bond in Boarding School and then they had been drafted together in the war. That was when Phillip had discovered something extraordinary about his friend.
Lucas was a vampire.
“What mischief do you think they’ve been up to since we left them? As I recall, you were the master conspirator in getting them in trouble.”
“And you, my conveniently forgetful friend, were my trusty co-conspirator.”
That earned Lucas a smile. The last time they were all together, they had gone splashing around in the lake near Larenby Park in the summer. Lucas’s cousin had been fit to be tied when she found out her children had been out in the sunshine. It was only after Lucas had offered a somewhat doctored explanation that she had cooled down but she’d never really forgiven him for the scare she’d gotten.
“Remember when we took Marie and Terrance out onto the moor and then the horses went loose? I don’t think we’ve ever had a race that long in a while. Excellent horses those. Then again, Paul has always been a great horseman. It’s a wonder they don’t turn skittish around him.”
“Do you think Lavinia will let us near the kids this time? I wonder if she can keep them around her skirts for very long.”
Lucas laughed at that.
“I wonder if you’ll be able to catch up with them once they gain their freedom. I mean, it will be up to their uncle Lucas to help them with getting into all sorts of trouble.”
“And I suppose I must go along with it,” said Phillip in mock frustration. “To answer your question, I would really love to go but I should be caring for my plantation. The planting’s about to begin and I should be here for it.”
“Aw, come on. You know you can trust Elias to take care of it for you. He’s the best foreman this side of the ocean. I guarantee it.”
Phillip had to agree. So far, Elias had been fair and kind to all the slaves - a wonderful replacement after the last foreman, upset with Phillips manumission policies, had quit and gone to find work elsewhere. A few servants had followed but honestly, he wasn’t missed.
Elias, was different. He always got his work done in record time and Phillip found that he had little need to oversee everything. The books were always in order and nothing amiss while he was in charge whereas Phillip had noticed a few dubious transactions in his cousin's books of accounts, managed by the previous foreman. He was respectful and honest, not to mention hardworking.
Gradually giving him power, Phillip had assimilated him onto the plantation and now, while he was away, Elias took over the running of the place. Of course, it helped that Elias was entirely loyal to Phillip – otherwise, he might have returned to find himself destitute if it came down to it.
“You know… I don’t know if I want to take a family man away from his wife when she’s so near to the birth. Planting time is really busy.” Now it was Lucas’s turn to laugh.
“I think he’ll manage well enough. That’s his seventh child you know. New parents are a whole other thing. If my sister had her way, I would have been forced down that road a long time ago. And I tell you, vampire children are a hundred times worse than human ones.”
Phillip laughed but said no more. He’d been content to be on his own for a long time. Lately though, he’d begun to wonder about having a companion; someone to share his life with. Lucas was close enough as a friend, but that was not the kind of companionship he felt he needed. He felt it was maybe time to take a wife. It had been long enough anyway.
“Uh-oh… you’re getting that look in your eyes,” said Lucas with a smile, “and as your friend, I’ll be more than happy to push your head into the marital noose, but you shouldn’t angle to drag me down with you. I warn you. I bite.”
That got a proper smile out of him. Lucas was content with what he was. All he really wanted was a good friend and a family. That he could live in luxury for the next few hundred years was a bonus too. Lucas’s family had come into wealth a few hundred years back and, being vampires born, had divided it among their progeny. Keeping vampire money among vampires was just their way.
Phillip had come into money when his cousin had passed away quite suddenly from an illness. Although his plantation had been badly managed and a lot of his funds embezzled, Phillip had never been afraid of hard work. He had managed to turn the whole situation around and now the plantation was thriving and turning over a decent profit. He would be rich well into his twilight years if it came down to it.
That caused him to frown a little. He had always been concerned about his future life. At some point, he would have to walk away from all that he had created and lead a new life. That was the way of things. That was what made his search for a wife that much harder; because Phillip himself was a vampire too.
Most of the slaves that left after he’d set them free had done so because of the rumours about his being a vampire and their superstitious nature. Not many had wanted to be around him and “his kind.” This he understood well. Coming from a culture where spirits and creatures of myth were considered evil and against the deities they worshipped, he could see why they would hesitate. People tended to reject what they did not understand and he was honestly as mythical as it could possibly get.
It had taken him a while to get used to it himself. It had been a tough existence for the first few months but once the idea settled and he had realised that not so much had changed, he learned to live with it… as well as the looks he got when people started whispering.
Some people called them devils and others called them monsters. Others described them as fierce beings with no souls. Perhaps all were true but he could not be certain. And none of that took away from the fact that he and his kind were not looked upon kindly. How could he blame them when it had taken him so long to accept it.
“So,” said Lucas, drawing Phillip out of his thoughts “will I have the pleasure of your company this time?” Phillip sighed. There was little use in arguing about it. Lucas would have his back no matter what.
Whatever he said, Phillip was glad to be around others for a while. He was quite looking forward to this visit. Maybe he would even join Lucas as he tried to get Terrance and Marie in and out of all sorts of mischief – much to Lavinia’s horror.
He chuckled imagining the look on her face. Lavinia was a lovely woman and Paul was a lucky man to have found her. Headstrong and kind, she was the first to have accepted Phillip into the family, then she had coaxed Paul along with it too.
Being a member of the Council, Paul had had his reservations about allowing a shared-blood vampire into the fold. Still, seeing as there was no harm done in the end, he grudgingly accepted the fact and they had an unspoken agreement to keep out of each other’s way.
Aside from that, this promised to be a lovely visit.
There were always whispers, everywhere Zahra went. When she was strong enough to rise on her own and make her way down to the kitchens for food, she heard them. They stopped as soon as she entered the room but she only heard snatches here and there of conversation among the maids and nurses in the building. It turned out that Percy had brought her to a sort of underground hospital. Free citizens usually came for treatment of foreign or embarrassing diseases and slaves could be treated here for free as well.
As soon as she’d shown some interest in healing, Tess had taken up the task of teaching her a few things here and there. This always put Zahra within the vicinity of the gossiping maids. She’d never really understood anything about the conversation beyond “Masters and mistresses” and “strange deaths” but they all seemed to have something to do with her and she couldn’t even begin to discern what they meant.
Her heart heavy from the thought that she may never again set foot on her beloved homeland or see or speak to her Hadi was enough to quell her curiosity anyway. The first few days, Tess had let her grieve. It was not uncommon for slaves to come out of their shells after being shown a bit of kindness. In the end, they were all human, she said as she’d tended Zahra’s wounds one night. It hadn’t taken Tess very long to realise that Zahra understood the foreign language quite well so she spoke to her often, having learned it herself.
“This is a difficult time for many reasons, but the truth is, life is always hard. Harder for you and I who have no more claim to a home of our own,” she’d said gently rubbing a salve into Zahra’s back. Zahra had looked sadly into the bowl of porridge in her hands and said nothing. Because she’d been starved for so long, she hadn’t been put back on solid food for another few days.
“But if you do well and use that brilliant mind of yours, child, you’ll get a lot farther than a lot of us ever could.” Zahra managed a small smile at that. Tess had patted her shoulder once and risen to pack up her medicines.
“I don’t usually talk to the other girls – too quiet, too stupid or too meek. But something tells me you’re a fighter. You remind me of someone I knew once,” she said with a wistful smile. Then after a moment, she’d left Zahra to her thoughts, still sad and despondent, but a little bit encouraged by her kindness. Tess reminded Zahra of Maude and she once again said a prayer for the old woman who had watched over her and kept her safe for well over a year.
She and Maude would not meet again, she knew. It seemed that she was destined to lose everyone she loved. She’d managed to slowly work her way out of some of her grief after that as her strength slowly returned.
Her back had healed nicely too and rather quickly given the severity of her wounds. After Tess had deemed her fit enough, she had chanced a look at her back in a mirror and been in complete shock for all of ten minutes. She had stared at the scars that marked her skin; symbols of the life she had been destined to live probably from the day she was born. These were the cruel gifts she got from this strange land. These were memories that could not be undone, wounds whose infliction could not be reversed.
Her puckered skin had healed and scabbed and the scars that were left were healing well but she would walk with them forever.
She had covered them up hastily afterwards, afraid someone would see, then she laughed. The sight that had greeted Tess the day they met would have been a million times worse – oozing and bloody, barely medicated and partially scabbed over. She must have looked a sight!
Then she began to cry. This would never have happened in her homeland. She would have been married to Hadi and her skin would have remained flawless, unmarred and beautiful. She had received scars on her hands and legs from working in the fields for long hours, from all the backbreaking they’d had to do, from wounds inflicted by the master or mistress…
She looked down at her fingers now. It was a miracle she’d managed to survive it all. She was now fed and clothed and sheltered and those were all blessings she could count. What lay ahead of her was the biggest mystery. Nobody talked about it, not even the very friendly maids. They all clammed up as soon as she brought up the topic so she stopped asking. That bothered her. Why wouldn't they tell her?
As she walked down one of the hallways headed back to her room for the evening, she heard another whispered conversation on the other side of an open door. The nurses and maids usually sat together in that room folding linens and arranging things for the next day. Zahra didn’t have this task since she wasn’t going to be staying very long, another night if Percy came a day late. It was rude, she’d been told, to eavesdrop on conversations, but she couldn’t help pausing when she heard the words “special clientele” again.
“You know who they are, Mary?”
“Of course,” came the young nurse’s voice from within the room, “I know lots of things that I’m not supposed to. I just learned to keep some things to myself.”
“Do tell us! I’m dying with curiosity.”
“Yes please. Come on Mary. If you know anything about them, tell us. I’ve always wondered who they were and how special they could possibly be.”
“Well alright. But if any of you breathe a word of this to her I’ll deny knowing anything, understood?”
It seemed that the listeners were all in agreement. Zahra cocked her head closer to the door to listen.
“My mam was out one night some years ago. She worked in a plantation next to one owned by these ‘special clients’. She’d not seen much of them but had caught glimpses of them when they came over to join her masters for picnics and such. They were always so pale, as if they’d never spent a day in sunlight. They were always well covered and in the hot months, they didn’t leave their houses.
“So, on this one night, ma was heading to the outbuilding when she heard a terrible scream from nearby. Fearing it to be some animal attacking someone, she rushed in the opposite direction. Because it was so dark and ma’s never really had a good sense of direction, she didn’t realise she’d turned right around and headed towards the sound. And that’s when she found it.”
The room was dead silent as Mary paused in her narrative. Zahra’s heart began to beat erratically. She felt as if the shadows might come out and grab her – a feeling she hadn’t really felt since she was a child being taunted by her brother and cousins about ogres and spirits that lived in the darkness.
She clutched her arm and leaned closer waiting for the rest of the story.
“What was it Mary, what did she find?”
“One of the children of the neighbouring house was standing over what looked like a body. Ma stopped in her tracks unsure of what she truly saw because as soon as she blinked, the child was gone and all that was left was a body.”
There was a shocked gasp and then more silence and sputtering.
“What does that mean?” stammered one of the maids. Zahra thought she sounded like she felt.
“I don’t mean to say anything,” said Mary in an even tone, “I’m only saying what I learned from Ma. If you’re clever, you keep well away from the devil and their kind. You don’t speak of them and you don’t look for them. We all have trouble enough running this place without inviting that sort of ill…”
The crackling fire was all the sound that was left after Mary spoke. Zahra leaned back against the wall trying to make sense of what she’d just heard. What she spoke of was impossible. Monsters didn’t really exist. They were all stories and myths and legends. There were a few times a strange death in the village was credited to an evil spirit. Before the raiding slavers had been identified as culprits, Zahra’s fellow countrymen were thought to have been taken by monsters or have angered some god or other and brought shame and destruction to their villages and their people.
Deciding that she’d heard enough, Zahra walked quietly away from the door. Tess, from her spot in the shadows watched and shook her head with a slight smile. Scary tales wouldn’t faze that one. She was a fighter, as Tess had correctly surmised the day she’d been dragged there, and not much would stop her. She looked the way Zahra had gone then turned to walk back into the shadows. Perhaps there was more in store for her after all. If Tess could give Zahra some protection, make sure that she made it, perhaps she may yet absolve herself of some past sins before she had to pay for them…