Near Caer yn ar-Fon, 577
Peredur coughed up blood.
Moans hung in the autumn air as women picked carefully between the tangled embraces at their feet. He could only watch them pass. A spear pinned him to the ground as the sun made ready to set without him.
His lips fought to form the name of his beloved. Tanwen.
"No..." forced its way out as a sigh, sending more blood to bubble up. The sticky smell filled his nostrils. This wasn't happening. Not to him.
A voice beside him prayed in sobs for deliverance. Another voice whispered to be forgiven. 'God,' Peredur longed to scream out. But not to beg.
A grimy face loomed over him, searching for signs of life. Peredur lay in outrage as the ragged man frisked him for valuables. He heard the snick of his own knife leaving its sheath at his ankle. His body jerked as every last bit of silver ornament was cut from his clothing.
A grasp of his hand - only to have the rings pulled from his fingers - gave Peredur the strength he needed. He grabbed the vulture's wrist as if it would prevent the last of his breath from passing through clenched teeth.
"Holy Mother!" blurted the man, drawing back. "Save me!"
The man wrested himself free, taking with him the ring once given Peredur by his father.
"God," Peredur whispered, choking horribly on blood. He knocked his head backward into the ground. The battle against this latest band of Irish raiders had been Peredur's final grab at loot for his wedding coffer. On his return, he was to formally ask for Tanwen's hand.
Whispered prayers surrounded him, unrelenting and pathetic. He would ram those prayers down all their throats if he had a chance. His life had amounted to nothing but this monumental joke; his fury smoldered as the horizon lit to an impossible red.
A row of birds perched on a limb along the forest's edge, staring down at the littered battlefield.
God! I curse you!
Peredur flailed his hand against the mud, his legs stiffening. The image of Tanwen rose in his mind as if gesturing to stop him from forming those words. But he would not be stopped.
I curse you for this day!
An irresistible dragging sensation upon his soul made him thrash to hold on.
"I curse you, God!" he rasped.
A figure appeared just as Peredur's body seized with a powerful shudder.
No battlefield scavenger, he stood tall and powerful, a black silhouette against the blue of nightfall. Kneeling beside Peredur with easy grace, he gazed down upon him like a carrion bird.
"Peredur of Gwenedd," he said.
He should be terrified. He should be begging at long last - begging for mercy. On the brink of hell, the only thing Peredur could muster was the gob of blood he spat in disgust.
What do you want of me? Peredur's lips no longer formed words.
Barely flinching, the stranger wiped an elegant hand along his soiled cheek. Peredur watched as the man licked the blood from his fingers as one would lick honey.
I offer you another chance at life, the being said, though the words merely rumbled in Peredur's head.
Peredur started to smile but had no strength to finish it.
Do you want another life? the voice persisted. I can give you a new life.
Another life? He just wanted his old one back again, to hold Tanwen in these useless arms. If he said yes, would Tanwen be returned to him? That's all he wanted - Tanwen, to feel her embrace one more time.
I want her... Peredur's thoughts were barely thoughts anymore.
Do you want another life? the voice repeated.
Another life? the voice persisted.
He could barely hang on to the word...yes...
Something sharp pressed hard on his neck. Peredur's blood surged away as though ripped from his veins.
His vision swam, then cleared enough to behold a figure bent close as though in a lover's embrace. The thing's teeth were at his neck. New pain blossomed where the fiend bit deeply.
So he was in Hell. This must be the very first of an eternity of torments.
Tanwen. All I wanted was one last glimpse of your eyes looking into my own. For that I cursed God. And for that I am damned.
The being cupped Peredur's head in an iron grasp. He was like an infant, held in his father's battle-worn hand. The figure looked down and Peredur saw two pale eyes gleaming from the shadowy face.
"Peredur." Such a voice.
Though Peredur lay at the mercy of a fiend here in this first hour in Hell, he couldn't remember ever having felt so contented.
"Do you want another life?" the demon whispered, so enticing.
Am I not claimed by death?
"You can still be spared."
A tongue licked his throat up to his ear, sending a shiver to erupt over his skin. Who are you? Peredur asked.
"I can yet send you to God," the stranger said.
The night lost some of the clarity that the demon's bite had bestowed. Stars seemed to buzz around Peredur like flies. He must be finally slipping away.
The demon's face drew close, ghastly and pale. The creature's eyes took on a lurid glow that cast fear like a rock into Peredur's gut.
I have come for you, Peredur, the demon said. I was sent to call you to the Brotherhood.
Peredur heard the horrible sucking noises coming from the wound in his chest. Who sent you? His wheezing body could not go on much longer. There would be nothing for this stranger to gather up for his brethren.
When you cursed Our Father in Heaven, you yourself called me here.
Will you turn me into a demon? The fiend stretched its body to lie beside Peredur.
All I ask is whether you desire another life, it whispered in his ear.
Chills swept over him, and Peredur shut his eyes against an unbearable tugging on his soul. Would I have cursed Him if I had not wanted to live? Peredur turned his head away from the being, but it read his thoughts. There was no escaping it.
The demon curled itself around Peredur like a man about to take a woman. Iron hands bent Peredur's head to the side, exposing his neck. Terror burst through Peredur as it had never done on any battlefield - not even this day's.
For a brief instant Peredur saw impossibly long pointed teeth between the demon's lips. Then his mouth opened wide in a silent cry of horrified shock as the fiend clamped its teeth down deeply into Peredur's flesh. His life force gushed from his body, convulsing him like one demented while a sound like sea birds hung in the air overhead.
Near Yn Wyddfid
The path before her shimmered, as tears balanced on her lashes, refusing to fall. Fighting for breath, she discovered her feet had carried her to a spot on the crag overlooking the bay. Dampness hung heavily on the breeze, beading on her hair and woolen robe. She felt awash in tears, inside and out.
They finally seeped in an unbroken stream from her eyes. She might have thought her heart broken, if she had a heart left to break. Sea birds glided between the rocky coast and the surf, crying out her anguish with their shrieks.
Why had she loved such a proud man? Peredur never listened when she'd told him he was all she needed. He kept leaving her to fight the raiding Irish. To win a name for himself, he'd said, so her father would agree to a match.
Where did that leave her? Betrothed to a corpse.
Sobs punched their way through her chest at last. Tanwen curled into herself, clutching tight with arms that could not stop the mourning. She heard painful cries and wondered where they came from, even as her throat ached and tears spilled down over her jaw and chin.
This couldn't be real. He was too powerful, too swift, too expert a fighter to go down to a spear. Even so, she couldn't see anything except his green eyes staring through her, felt nothing but the whisper of his breath on her neck as they embraced.
The man was mistaken. Peredur was alive somewhere. He couldn't be gone.
Then why was she tottering on rocks slick with mist? Why did she want the pain in her chest to stop squeezing? Why hadn't Peredur arrived at her father's door, as promised, to ask for her hand?
Wiping a sleeve across her face, Tanwen emerged from the darkness of shock to feel a presence behind her. Expecting her brother, sent to fetch her back, Tanwen turned to behold Cavan, the son of the village wise woman.
His pale gray eyes gazed upon her as though he knew what lay screaming in her heart. She almost went to him, but stood there, shaking her head, her tears starting anew. "It can't be! It can't be true!"
They stood for a moment before Cavan gestured to a large boulder behind them. "Come and sit with me awhile."
Tanwen moved as though she were a carved wooden figure in her baby sister's hand. Cavan helped her to sit.
"It's true, Tanwen." Something in his tone made her look up. Cavan turned a small object over in his hand. Her gaze came to rest on the silver ring he held in his fingers. The ring which Peredur's father had given him.
She looked up into Cavan's eyes. "Where did you get that?" she demanded.
Something lurked behind his gaze, something he fought against and blinked away. "A peddler sold it to my mam yesterday. When she held it in her hand, she saw it all before her. Everything that happened. She asked him where he got it and he gave her a story. It didn't matter. She knew."
Tanwen stared at Peredur's ring and fought the urge to grab it out of his hand. Cavan must have sensed how she felt. He held it out and dropped it into her outstretched palm.
As soon as the metal touched her skin she saw the ring being slipped from Peredur's cold hand. The reality ripped a gasp from her throat. The ring nearly tumbled onto the scraggly brush at her feet.
This time Cavan wrapped his solid hands around hers, ensuring her grip with his own. Tanwen sagged until her forehead touched her wrists. If Cavan were not here she would pass out. The crying started again. This time she could not listen to it as though it came from someone else. She would not be holding her beloved's ring if he still lived.
She'd yet to pledge her fidelity to Peredur before the village, but she'd said it often in her heart. God knew her pledge to be true. He knew that today she became a widow
Peredur drifted toward consciousness. His first night in the mead hall as a youth had been easier than this. He blinked the fuzziness away.
Peredur saw several men concealed by shadow. Watching him.
Suddenly the images of the battle he'd just fought reared up in his mind. Peredur started and made to rise.
"Take it slow." He knew that voice somehow.
Peredur looked across the murky space to the man who had spoken to him in his mind. He was a huge muscular fighter. Peredur still could not place him.
Then he remembered. This was no man. This was a fiend sent by the devil to fetch Peredur into Hell. He pulled himself into a crouch, recalling with a catch in his breath that he should not be able to move like this. His hand groped for the hole in his chest.
A glance confirmed it. His patched tunic showed where the spear had pierced his body. Yet now he lived. His bludgeoned shoulder now worked. His father's ring was missing from his right hand.
"Will you tell us your name, Brother?" the fiend asked.
"Why do you call me that?"
"You have been called to join with us. Tonight you will become the newest member of our Brotherhood."
Peredur looked carefully at the other figures. Clearly they were all warriors of some sort. All were fit, strong, experienced. They regarded him with the same appraising glance he gave them.
"Who do you serve?" Peredur wondered aloud.
The men looked at each other. Peredur stood, feeling the strength in his legs when he knew there should be none. He faced the one who had come to him as he lay dying.
"We serve the Brotherhood," the demon said finally.
"Fighting monks, are you?" Peredur scoffed.
A few derisive laughs met his challenge. Peredur stole a glance or two at rocky walls that could only place them in a cavern. No entrance was visible in the unfamiliar light - its source he could not make out.
"You are safe," the fiend assured. "No one will find us here."
"Who would be looking for us?" Peredur asked in a tone laced with warning.
"All men look for us after a time."
"Why?" Peredur felt an ominous foreboding that emanated from almost exactly where the spear once jutted from his chest.
"Let us say that those who are hunted, rightly fear the hunters."
The memory of this demon's tongue along his cheek sent shudders through Peredur. "These hunted men," Peredur began, his voice cracking, "what are they accused of?"
"It is not for the brethren to bring criminals to justice. Though we doubtless encounter some, all the same." The fiend nodded to one of the others. Two of this strange brotherhood departed, while the others exchanged knowing glances. Then all that remained gazed upon Peredur.
"Why was I chosen?" he whispered.
"For the same reason we all were." The demon smiled with a look that was nearly kindness.
The missing brethren returned with a third person in tow. A young fellow not much beyond boyhood, the youth appeared dazed and unsure of his surroundings. Eyes which did not truly see seemed to train their inward gaze upon Peredur.
The demon moved imperiously toward the young man. No one could refuse such authority. The boy stood expectant, if wary. Taking his hand as if the youth were a woman and the fiend a dance partner, the demon paraded him back and forth for a few moments, whispering something to him as well. The fiend stepped back, still holding the youth's hand.
The boy stood as if awaiting orders. The others all stood with barely concealed anticipation, looking to the newcomer for the next move in this chilling ceremony.
Peredur shook his head, no. The demon nudged the youth forward.
Unable to prevent himself from advancing, Peredur took up his role as though he knew what should happen. He recoiled from the ideas that crept through his mind.
The brethren moved imperceptibly forward, surrounding Peredur and this lamb offered up. With their approach, a horrible chill crept further along his spine.
"No," Peredur whispered, shaking his head against it. "Please."
The demon looked directly at Peredur. When his own blood had smothered him on the battlefield and he could bear it no longer, this fiend had bored the same eerie gaze directly into Peredur's frenzied brain.
The demon now pressed on the boy's shoulder, urging him to sink to his knees. Something began to pulsate in Peredur's veins. A desire he could not place moved through him - compelled him to step toward the boy.
The slightly distant gaze in those young eyes unnerved Peredur much more than if terror had washed across that fresh face. Something very near to panic grew stronger and higher in Peredur's chest. Still, he moved closer.
The demon tipped the boy's head back, exposed a neck that strained at the unnatural angle. A rush of ecstasy burst through the dread that had built up inside Peredur. All of a sudden he knew what he was being asked to do.
With a sinking heart, Peredur looked to the demon for confirmation. The reassurance in the fiend's face sent tremors coursing all through Peredur's body. He heard the near-moans of anticipation in the brethren surrounding him.
Go on, he heard in his mind. Take him. Enjoy your first.
He knew he smelled saliva, though until this moment that humble substance hadn't demanded any notice. Some of it was his, most belonged to the others in the cavern. He was suddenly privy to the various states of mind of the six other members of the brethren.
Peredur gazed down at the kneeling youth. What disturbed most was not the sudden ability to feel the pulsations of the boy's every heartbeat. Peredur could now smell and hear the boy's blood as it surged with life just a few membranes away from him.
He closed his eyes, trying for one last desperate moment to fight this all-consuming desire to unite with that blood. He remembered his own blood in his mouth as he coughed it up at the mercy of the spear.
Peredur's eyes opened to look down on the slightly bewildered smile of the boy.
There was no cry at all when Peredur sank his teeth into the boy's neck and tasted the red joy at last.
Power burst into every part of him as he swallowed deeply and drank again. He felt submerged in bliss. Nothing in his old life compared to this. Nothing.
A wounded moan finally escaped the boy's throat. Peredur pressed his mouth further against the boy's soft yielding flesh. A short struggle ensued. Very short.
Peredur surfaced from the depths of that first taste. Satiated and dripping with contentment, he found the other brethren circling close, closer than they'd been so far. Again he smelled their saliva and knew their terrible hunger. He stepped aside, releasing the boy who drooped and crumpled forward onto the floor of the cavern.
Within a heartbeat the six descended on the youth, still full of luscious pulsating riches. A single cry of pure terror pierced the night. Then all was still, save for feeding sounds of the brethren.
Peredur swayed and sat heavily. He felt dizzy with unaccustomed strength and satiation. He watched as the others devoured the unfortunate until he was nothing but a shell. One of the brothers dragged the source of their feast out of the cave.
The rest turned to regard Peredur, their eyes alight with gratitude. And something else. A hunger, still - for more.
The demon, in all his terrible splendor, strode forward to stand before Peredur. His face lit with a sinister smile. Raising a hand to indicate the newest member, the fiend said to the six, "Behold your brother."
He swept his hand wide to include the others. "Behold these, your brothers. They have given freely of their blood to waken you from the sleep that transformed you. You have taken your first life and shared that freely with your brothers. Now..." The demon stepped closer, moving smoothly behind Peredur.
"The final step in your rebirth," the demon said. Iron hands placed themselves upon each of Peredur's shoulders. "The brethren will taste of your essence and share with you this final act of Becoming."
He wondered, too late, what this essence could be that he must share. The demon pulled him to his feet in a smooth motion, as if Peredur weighed no more than an afterthought. The others closed in. The demon's grip tightened, pulling Peredur's arms behind him.
"I asked if you wanted another life," the fiend whispered in Peredur's ear. Two of the brethren knelt and sliced open his leggings, while the demon helped to pull his tunic off. Sharp nails dragged across Peredur's flesh. He bucked and twisted, but the demon and brethren held him fast. Mouths descended on the beading lacerations, licking up the precious blood.
A groan escaped him. The power so newly won from the feast flowed out of him and into the others, racking his body with weakening shudders. Each of the brethren sighed or moaned his pleasure, like kings sipping the blood from Peredur as from jewelled goblets. His energy ebbed so completely he sagged forward, hanging from the demon's grasp.
The brethren raised him in the air. They turned him about in a slow arc, kneeling as one before the demon. Peredur was displayed and presented like a stag before a feast.
The fiend stepped forward into Peredur's field of vision. Such a being. Power emanated from him in his every gesture. He smiled upon Peredur.
"Before I take your gift of brotherhood to myself," he said, "I bow to your offering and receive it with humble thanks." He swept forward in an elegant reverence. Raising his arms like a druidic priest, the demon cast his eyes to heaven. "You gave Yourself freely, offering to us what You held most dearly. You asked in return that we love one another as You loved us."
Was this demon addressing the Roman God? Did he have no fear? Perhaps there was nothing to fear when the worst had already happened.
Pure crystalline dread took hold of Peredur now. He fought to get his breath. Dangling in the grip of these beings, offered up to this demon with the blood of that boy still sweet on his lips, Peredur feared for what remained of his soul.
The fiend knelt before Peredur, who hung now in the brethren's grip so that he faced the cavern floor and regarded the bowed head of the demon.
"In our hour of death," continued the demon, "when we most needed Your Presence to guide us Home, each of us cursed You instead." The dread in Peredur's gut grew worse. The brethren holding him in their grasp shuddered - as if they felt it, too.
Without warning, Peredur saw in his mind's eye a series of battlefield deaths, each one featuring a member of the Brotherhood:
One fell to a battleaxe hurled from such a distance the fighter hadn't seen it coming.
One was thrown from a tower and impaled on a tree.
One slipped from a ship's wreckage within sight of the shore - unable to cling with numbed hands any longer.
One writhed in the grip of poisoned wine, served by an ambitious captain on the eve of battle.
One shook with fever caused by festering wounds and was left for dead by his own retreating force.
And the last, Peredur saw the death of the demon himself.
The demon had secretly loved the daughter of his king. He'd been unable to keep one look of longing from others' notice - and for that he'd been forced to watch her submit to cruel punishment. Then he was sent to the battlefield stripped of shield and blade with the knowledge she would be married to another. The curses that man had flung toward God!
Peredur's own surely paled in comparison.
He looked down now upon this demon, upon his bowed head, and Peredur was filled with a curious compassion for this Brother. Those slow deaths were injustices for fighting men such as these. As shocked as he was by the curses he'd heard in his mind when he witnessed their demises, he could blame none of them.
The kneeling fiend continued, "We humbly beseech Thee, oh God, to accept this new member into Your Brotherhood with our petition for forgiveness."
"Forgive us, oh God," the others intoned.
The demon raised his head and looked directly into Peredur's face. The suffering, the longing Peredur saw there took his breath away.
Spreading arms wide to encompass them all, the fiend said, "Now you have seen us in our hour of damnation." Peredur realized the demon no longer addressed the Roman God, but Peredur himself.
"God, in His mystery, did not banish us to reside in the fires of Hell. We are instead compelled to walk amongst the living, though we no longer live as mortals. And as you can clearly see, we are not dead."
Peredur felt a ripple of unrest run through those who held him.
"You have shared your blood freely with the Brotherhood," the demon continued, "as they have shared with you. In this way you are welcomed to this life."
Peredur wondered just how freely he'd shared, when it was the brethren themselves who'd cut into his thighs and torso, helping themselves to his blood. Then he recalled the delirious joy that had filled him as he'd sunk his teeth into that poor boy's neck. Now the thought of it made him hunger for more.
The memories of each warrior's death swiftly pummeled him again. His body twisted as they buffeted his consciousness. Worst of all was the image of that woman writhing under her mistreatment in the tormented memory of the one who knelt before him. Peredur and the demon locked gazes.
Inhaling sharply, Peredur saw the lovers' reunion in his mind. The demon had joined with her after his transformation. Somehow Peredur knew that revelation was true.
The fiend nodded. If Peredur shared his blood with this last of the brethren, he would one day hold Tanwen in his arms. For that he would gladly face this between-worlds' purgatory. For Tanwen he would face anything.
"Peredur of Gwenydd." Solemnly, the demon at his feet addressed him. "Do you give freely of your blood? In so doing, you will seal your fate to that of this Brotherhood."
He felt the stirring amongst the others - a profound anticipation. "I asked once before," Peredur insisted. "I must know. Who do you serve?"
"The Brotherhood," they answered in one confident voice.
"You merely serve yourselves?" Peredur persisted.
"The Brotherhood serves Him Who made us." The demon gazed patiently at Peredur.
"To what purpose?"
"Who can say what purpose God sets down for us?" the fiend said.
Peredur looked again into those pale eyes that returned his gaze openly. What other option did he have?
"I can yet release you from this life," the fiend said, as though he'd just read Peredur's thoughts.
"None must join the Brotherhood who do not wish it."
"If I don't join with you?" Peredur asked.
"Instead of merging your blood with mine," the demon explained, "I would devour you as we did the boy."
The only thing that seemed real to him was the borrowed memory of this demon and his wronged beloved. To reunite with Tanwen was all that mattered. He would give himself to this demon and pay whatever price was required of him.
Peredur took a deep breath. "I give myself freely."
A sigh of joy escaped each one who held him. Peredur raised his head and saw an irresistible smile creep over the lips of the demon. An expression of gratitude filled his eyes before they began to glow in a hellish way.
Peredur felt their tightening grip upon him. He tried to still himself but couldn't stop from rearing back against the others as the demon lay on the cavern floor directly beneath him. Peredur hung suspended over the fiend, whose gaze bored deeply into Peredur's own. In a swift movement the demon drew a sharp nail across Peredur's chest.
The cut bit. Peredur felt a wave of disorientation and moaned. His blood dripped quickly onto the waiting lips of the demon. Peredur kept his eyes open even as his head swooned. The demon closed his, threw his head back as if in rapture and bared his teeth. They gleamed white between the glossiness of Peredur's blood.
He writhed in their hands as the brethren growled their approval. The demon put his fingertips gently against Peredur's wound, tracing it. Then, taking a small white amulet from where it was concealed beneath his tunic, the demon pressed it against the wound, smearing it with blood. Opening his mouth wide, he collected the blood and swallowed, laughing throatily. He looked up once more - this time into Peredur's very soul.
He knew that the demon saw Tanwen; that the broad bloody grin was for her. Peredur's feet touched the ground as the brethren finally lowered and released him.
He sank to his knees, breathing heavily.
The demon raised himself to kneel as well. He took Peredur's face in his hands. "Welcome, Brother. I am Melnak."
Peredur tried to speak but could not find the words. Finally he managed, "What have I become?"
"Vampire," Melnak replied, voice thick with emotion. "You are now a vampire. Welcome to our Brotherhood."
... continued ...