As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time. so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…
(You can find Kariss in Legacy of Ghosts. Her story takes place in Iceland and bounces back and forth between 1784 (during the Mist Hardships) and the early 1820′s)
“Who are you, again?”
Kariss ground her teeth. “I’m your granddaughter, Pala, Kariss’s daughter, remember?”
The old woman nodded and Kariss relaxed a little. How she wished she could tell her the truth.
Truth was a word that meant dark shadows and screams in the night. It wasn’t the thing her mother needed right now.
Her mother coughed, the signal she had something to say. Slowly, she worked her voice up and croaked out, “Kariss was a good girl. Did you know that? She was always a good girl. Until she disappeared.” The old woman squinted and peered through the gloom. “Where were you when she disappeared.”
“I wasn’t born yet.” Another lie. “That’s when she met my father. I’ve told you that, Grandmother.”
“Hum. Maybe you have. I don’t think so well these days.” She coughed again, long and ragged. “Where is your grandfather? Where is Vagn?”
The cold wind rattled the house and Kariss shivered, more from habit than from cold. The cold didn’t bother her anymore, not since the darkness had taken her. The darkness stole many things from her, including the sun. If only it had taken her heart with it. Then, she wouldn’t have to hide in the shadows and watch her mother die.
“It was during the Móðuharðindin, that’s when she left. Have I told you about that? The livestock died. Everything died. Kolli died, and Kariss disappeared. Her brothers looked for her, but they’re gone now. Where did they go?”
“Manitoba,” Kariss answered. That was what the weathered letter next to the bed said. It seemed that everyone had gone to Manitoba.
“Yes, yes. That’s right. My sons have made lives in another place, except for Styrr and Athan. The famine took them. Athan was Kariss’s twin, did you know?”
His name brought with it a pair of laughing blue eyes and a head of curly brown hair. A crooked smile beamed at her from the memories and her chest tightened painfully. “Yes.”
“He was killed by a man who wanted his food, but he didn’t have any. I can’t remember his name now. It was so long ago. That man’s wife died and I always thought that drove him insane. Athan was a good boy and he knew it. There was no bad blood between them. It was the loss and the hunger. It makes people do things.”
Kariss nodded wordlessly. She’d imagined his death a hundred times, and each was worse than the one before.
“I named them after the Kappas. You don’t know them, they left, went home or somewhere better. They stayed with Fjola that summer. They had such lovely names.” She broke off into a cough. “They’re gone now. Everyone is gone now. So many have left. There will be nothing left. Even Kariss has left.”
“I’m here, Grandmother.” She took her mother’s withered hand in hers and squeezed it softly. The return pressure was light and fluttery, like a butterfly. So weak.
“Your hand’s cold, child! Cold like the wind.” She closed her tired eyes and murmured softly, “Cold.”
She touched her mother’s withered cheek, so different from her memories. In her memories her mother was stern and firm with bright, flashing eyes and a temper to match. It was only when Kariss’s father kissed her that she softened. And then she would smack him and tell him to behave. “We have enough children!” she’d say and point to whichever was nearby. “Do you want another one like that one?”
Watching her parents had been like peering into her own future, only instead of Vagn it would Kolli. Kolli would come home and she would point to one of the children and say, “Do you want another one like that one?”
No. She didn’t want that. Or she thought she didn’t.
No one knew where Andrei came from. He breezed into town just as the Mist Hardships were at their worst. He was exotic and intoxicating, and he stole much of Kolli’s attention. Then came the news that Kolli and six others were killed in an accident.
When Athan told her, her knees gave out. He picked her up and cradled her while she cried. Her words were thick with misery. “Not Kolli. No, not Kolli.”
“He wasn’t the only one,” her brother reminded her gently.
The others didn’t matter. Why didn’t Athan understand that? “Not Kolli.”
Athan carried her to the house. Her mother met them at the door. Her face said she’d already heard. She laid a rough hand on Kariss’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Kariss cried harder. What did sorry do? It didn’t bring her future back to life!
The moon was full when he came to her. She heard his whisper in the mist and rose, half fearful and half hopeful. The grass was cold under her feet. The night sang its symphony in her ears. She covered her nose to hide from the thick air.
And there he was.
She ran to him, but stopped short. It was him, but it wasn’t. He was wrong. His eyes were too bright, his hair too shiny, his skin too smooth. She took a step back, suddenly afraid. He smiled.
His teeth were too white; too sharp.
She screamed. He caught her in his arms and hauled her away from the house. He whispered soothing words and they seeped into her brain. Andrei was in the hollow just beyond the hill. He stood ringed in old flowers and silvery moon light. He held out his arms in welcome.
The word whispered through her brain and she trembled. She felt him run through her mind like white lightning. He withdrew and her trembling legs folded on themselves. She landed on her knees in the withered grass.
“She is worthy.”
Kolli hurried to her and she flinched away. Terror shook her lips as she whispered, “You’re dead. They said you were dead.”
“No, Kariss. Andrei saved me, and he can save you, too.” He took her hands in his. “If you accept it and swear yourself to him he can give you ever lasting life. You will never grow sick, or old, or hungry. It’s true freedom.”
It was a beautiful word, but it was a lie. There was no freedom. It was only enslavement of another kind; enslavement to the darkness, to Andrei’s whims, to blood.
A tear slipped from her eye and she caught it on her finger tips. The old riddle came to mind, one her brother had asked her: I was born in your eyes, live on your cheeks, and die on your lips. What am I?
What am I?
The answer to that question was one word; one horrible word that she refused to think about. If she could only shut it out perhaps it would go away. Maybe it would all go away. Only, it wouldn’t.
There was a sound; a footfall. Soft and muted in the snow. She stiffened and sniffed the air. The familiar smells of home were there. Under them was something else equally familiar. Musky, heady.
He is here.
She stood quickly. Her mother stirred in her sleep, as if she sensed the intrusion, but she didn’t wake. Kariss fixed her blankets with trembling hands, then hurried to the door. She flung her cloak over her shoulders as she plunged out into the night.
The sky spread above, strewn in crystal clear diamonds. The salty tang of the ocean filled her nose. In days gone by the cold would have stung her cheeks. Now it only caressed them like the cool hands of a lover.
He was suddenly in front of her. His pale face gleamed in the moonlight and his angry eyes glittered with the light of a thousand stars. The same eyes she’d seen on that long ago night under the full moon.
Her breath caught and his name came to her lips like a worried sigh, “Kolli. You found me.”
“Of course I found you. I knew where you’d be.” He reached for her. At the last second the caress turned into a slap that made her ears ring. “What did Andrei tell you? It’s one of the rules, you can never go back! Someone might recognize you!”
She stumbled back, hand to her face. “Some rules are meant to be broken, Kolli. She’s my mother, and she is dying all alone!”
“As did my mother, and my sisters and your brothers and countless others. We gave them up when we accepted his blood. That was the price we paid for this freedom.”
“What freedom?” she asked bitterly. “To wander the nights eternal while all we once knew withers? What freedom is that?”
“The freedom of life.” He caught her and pulled her to him. She resisted, her spine straight, but the familiar warmth of his arms softened her. “We are alive, Kariss. Alive and together.” He nuzzled her neck and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Unless you anger him. I’m – I’m sorry for being harsh, but what would I do if he punished you? What if he…” he choked off, but she knew the rest.
What if he took back the life he’d given?
She found no words, only stood wrapped in his arms and the cold wind.
He let her go and took her hand. His eyes searched the landscape around them and a faint smile played on his lips. “Do you remember when we were young?” He prodded the snow with his boot. “Do you remember how we used to wait for the first snowfall? And when it came, like a blanket to cover the world, how we used to run through it? Do you remember how we used to make angels? And then the spring would come and melt it all away.”
“Yes, I remember.”
He breathed deeply, as though inhaling the memory. “What will you do now? Will you share it with her?”
Both the question and answer made her stomach clench. “No. She’s too old and frail. Her mind is gone. I doubt even the blood would bring it back.”
“I am sorry.”
And she knew he was. If she closed her eyes and concentrated on the tiny pulse of him in her mind, she could feel his sorrow, like an aching tooth. He was sorry for her and for himself, and so was she.
He let go of her hand and stepped back. “Take tonight but no more. You’ve been here a week already and we can’t risk any more. Tomorrow when the sun sets we must leave. Andrei is waiting.”
“Did he send you after me?”
“He didn’t need to, but yes. Our blood debt is unpaid. Until it is, he owns us. You know that as well as I.”
He turned away and started up the hill. After a handful of steps he stopped and turned back. “Only tonight, Kariss. Tomorrow we have to go back.”
Though she nodded, it wasn’t in agreement.
The house should have seemed warm, but it didn’t. Andrei’s blood had taken that, too. She sat next to her mother’s bed and watched her sleep.
She remembered the rest of that long ago night. Intoxicated with his blood, she’d run back to the house. Her feet failed her and she dropped. Fire sliced through her. The pain would pass and she would run again, as if hell’s demons followed her.
And maybe they had.
She banged into the house. The door left open, moonlight spilled in behind her as she stumbled to her mother’s bed. Mother could make it all right. She could take away the burning pain, the terrors screaming in her brain. She could save her.
She fell on her knees next to the bed. Under her heavy gaze, her mother stirred in her sleep and muttered, “Vagn, tend the fire.”
Nonsense from her dreams.
Kolli’s footsteps were soft. He stopped behind Kariss and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Come. Pack your things so we can go. Andrei is impatient. Everything will be better now. You’ll see. We’ll be happy.”
Happy. Kolli had been wrong. It had been so long since she’d felt happy that she’d forgotten how.
She stared through the darkness and listened to the winter wind howl. It was a lullaby for the damned and she knew the words by heart. She knew the empty, aching darkness it screamed about.
Her mother coughed and she turned her eyes to her. She watched her chest rise and fall and listened to the heavy, labored breaths. How many more would there be? A hundred? Half a dozen?
The rasping breaths were torture. The sluggish heart beats were agony. It could go for days, for nights, for weeks. She could linger, slowly decaying, while Kariss sat at her side, forever young, forever whole, forever safe.
How much more could she stand?
She brushed her mother’s gray hair from her face and she woke. She fixed Kariss with a pair of watery blue eyes and asked weakly, “Who are you?”
A single tear slipped down her cheek. She met the blurry eyes and focused on them; focused on the feeble mind behind them. “Sleep. Sleep and dream of better days. Dream of your husband and your children when life was sunny.”
Her mother’s eyelids sagged, and then dropped. Kariss bit her lip until she tasted her own blood. This was not the mother of her memories. Gone was the stern face, the flashing eyes, the quick temper. This was a feeble woman waiting for the angel of death to take her away. If he refused, then so be it. She would play his role.
She leaned over the sleeping woman and breathed in her leathery, sick bed scent. Gently, she turned her mother’s head to one side, exposing her wrinkled neck. Her lips hovered over the pulsing vein.
“Goodnight, Mamma. Sleep and be free.”
Her mother’s eyes went wide. Her whole body jerked, suddenly animated. Kariss pressed her down into the bed and drank. The hot blood filled her mouth. She swallowed it, mouthful after mouthful. Her mother’s feeble limbs waved once, twice, then fell still, too weak to fight, and still Kariss drank. She reached for her mother’s memories, buried under layers of too much hardship. She sorted through them, sifting, seeking. And there it was.
The sun shone. The snow sparkled. A bird called, loud and harsh. She stared through eyes that weren’t her own; her mother’s eyes. She looked at the assorted children that peppered the wintery landscape. They ran and laughed. They fell and rolled and made angels in the snow. They were all good children, or as good as they could be. All too thin and too loud, as children were want to be. She didn’t have much in the world but she had them and Vagn and so she was happy.
Happy. That feeling Kariss had forgotten.
The scene faded. Kariss fought to hold it, but it ebbed away with her mother’s life. The old woman fell still on the bed and there was only blackness inside her head. Black and cold like the winter night.
Kariss pulled away and wiped tears and blood from her face. The old woman stared back at her with wide, glassy eyes. The wound on her neck bled and scarlet blossomed on the pillow.
She swept from the house and into the night. As if he’d known what she’d do, Kolli stood nearby, waiting. She stopped next to him and he took her hand. His eyes moved to the stars and he said softly, “Aren’t they beautiful? I remember when we used to lay in the grass and try to count them. It seems so long ago, yet nothing has changed.”
Her voice was wet with tears. “You’re wrong Kolli. Everything has changed.”
“No, Kariss. it’s only we who have changed.”
In that moment she understood the truth. You can never go back. It wasn’t a rule meant to protect yourself from discovery, but to protect your heart. You could travel to the places of your childhood and drink in the faces of those you’d once loved, but it could never be the same. It wasn’t that they had changed, but that you had changed. So long as you stayed away, you could tell yourself that you were the same, but when you stood face to face with the past, you’d find only the dark, ugly truth and all the illusions would melt away, like her forgotten happiness and the lost angels in the snow.
I have no idea what happened to Kolli later. He’s an example of a side character spawned by a side character. I could write this stuff forever in a tangled web of random characters. Oh well, it guarantees me something to do
Next up is Kateesha, though I don’t know what she’s going to be doing. Maybe another origin story. Or maybe she and what’s-his-name will murder that coven and get kicked out of the executioners and Jorick will hunt them down. I dunno.
- Claudius now on Smashwords! (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)
- Vampire Morsels: Jesslynn (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)
- Vampire Morsels: Herrick (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)