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 Claudius in Shades of Gray. This particular story takes place in France in the early 1500’s.)
The blood pounded through his head like white hot noise and he screamed. He fell to his knees, though he didn’t feel it. He was numb to everything but the pain that seared through his veins. Cold hands grabbed him. They held him down to stop him from thrashing. He kicked and fought, but the hands were too strong.
Then darkness came.
The black swirled around him but gave no comfort. It was like the dark inside a furnace; too hot and too dry. There was no escape. He choked on the air, or was it his own throat? Something flashed behind his eyelids. It was an image and, though he recognized the face, the colors were too bright. He tried to call to her, but no sound came. There was only the dry, hot rasping of the damned.
How long it lasted, he couldn’t tell. As the agony sliced through him he forgot everything; his hopes, his dreams, his past, even his own name. There was only one thing that he could remember and that was the too bright face with eyes that shied away from him.
Then, it was over.
He blinked and tried to focus on the face bent over him. It wasn’t her, but it was a woman just the same. Francoise had dark hair and creamy skin, full lips colored in blood and long, pointed teeth. He gurgled; an attempt at speech, and she smiled at his efforts.
“So you have survived, le petit Claude.”
With that greeting his memories suddenly slammed into his skull in a heated rush. He could see her; dark and coquettish. She batted her eyes like a virgin, but took him in the stables like a common whore.
He didn’t love her, and she knew it, but she didn’t care. He was a game for her, a new toy to play with. That suited him fine. Her offerings were sweet enough. Then, they got sweeter. She showed him her immortality and let him taste it. It was a prize like no other, one that would give him everything he deserved. He craved it like he craved the girl in his pain smeared visions and now that he had the one he would soon have the other.
Francoise watched him with keen interest. When she’d met him she had called him young. He told her he was sixteen and she laughed and said he was just a babe, but she could see the revenge that burned in his heart and it intrigued her. She said that she could taste his hate; hate for the one who had sired him, but turned him away. Other noblemen claimed their bastards, and without an heir there was no reason for him not to. So desperate for a child was he that he laid claim to his only niece, but refused to foster the one who shared his blood. Or so he said. Claude suspected it was not a daughter, rather a future bride he raised in those stone halls, and that was something he would not allow. The Écuyer would never touch her.
He sat up slowly and the world tilted. He caught himself on a rough hewn stall. The smell of horses filled his nose, suddenly too strong and too organic. His stomach lurched and his tongue burned. He needed a drink.
With great effort he climbed to his feet and propped himself up. “I thirst.”
Her smile grew. “Yes, you must feed, but first you must be able to walk.” She took his arm and helped him take an uncertain step. “Yes. Yes. Come, now.”
They stopped at the opened door and he stared at the world beyond with new eyes. People bustled about their business in the late evening hours, some to bed, some to the taverns, and others to appointments of a more carnal nature. His legs felt stronger and he started forward, but Francoise held him back and shook her head. “I shall find you one, mon enfant.”
He scowled and pulled his arm free. “I am no child of yours. I will do it alone.”
She laughed but let him go. He could feel her eyes on him as he stumbled into the street, and her scrutiny straightened his spine. The strength returned to his legs only to leech out again in an instant. He grabbed the wall of a nearby building to keep from falling in the mud. He heard her silvery laughter but he refused to succumb.
The ally was dark but a man stood at the end of it, no doubt a thief waiting for some unlucky prey. Claude stalked towards him, his every sense alive as if for the first time, but the man only offered a too friendly greeting. He did not know it was his death that approached.
It was over quickly. The man’s knife flashed and then his scream shook the night. The blade clattered to the ground, and Claude tore through his throat. Blood sprayed his face and shirt and filled his mouth. He gulped down mouthfuls of crimson. The burning agony in his throat eased, and the thirst was silenced. But there wasn’t enough.
The blood stopped coming and he stared down at the limp body in his arms with a mixture of disappointment and confusion. Francoise was suddenly next to him. She took the corpse and cast it aside. “Come,” she said softly. “We must quit this place before an alarm is given.” She tugged the dark cloak from around her shoulders and used it to mop his face. He flinched away at first, but settled and let her clean him. “You are hardly in a fit state to be seen and not accused of murder.”
Murder. The word rang through his mind and he looked at the corpse on the ground. He’d never killed a man before but, if he wanted his due he would have to kill many more. None would he enjoy so much as him.
Oblivious to his thoughts, Francoise threw her ruined garment aside and pulled his cloak closed over his shirt. “We are stronger than they are, but we are vulnerable to the sunlight. Never forget that. Besides, tonight you are weak, mon enfant. Your full strength will not find you until tomorrow’s sun sets.”
He sneered at the new endearment, but let it go. There would be time to deal with it later.
As dawn approached, Francoise finished the letter with a flourish. “I am coming,” she read back. “I will take what is mine and neither you, nor all the demons in hell, can stop me.” Claude nodded and she held the quill towards him, but he pushed it aside roughly. There had been no time in his previous life for things such as writing. He could do no more than make his mark, and more was needed here. His cheeks flamed in anger and shame and he determined that he would learn. He had all the time in the world now, and he would learn everything. He would put them to shame.
Without comment she dipped the quill into the pot of blood again and signed his name to the end. “Are you sure that you wish to give him warning? Would it not be better to sneak upon him on the ‘morrow?”
“No,” he rasped. His throat was tight and hot again. “He will have the rest of this night and all the day to panic and then to posture and boast to himself. He will not run, but hide away like a rat in his hole. When we come upon him tomorrow I want to watch the confidence in his eyes melt into terror. I want to feel his fear.” He broke into a wide, sharp smile.
Francoise’s eyes gleamed as she surveyed him. “And that is why I so enjoy you, mon enfant.” She glanced to the darkness and shouted, “Henri! Send a messenger to the castle!”
Claude woke the next night, the weakness and trembling gone from his limbs. Francoise was right; his full strength had only now come to him. He marveled at the things he could see in the shadows and at how the darkness, which he knew to be complete, seemed only to be early evening gloom to his new eyes.
He rose and found the others in the next room. He counted the pale faces. There were five, including himself and Francoise. The other three were her friends, if friends they could be called. They were more like a wild pack of dogs that hunted together for safety.
Francoise laid out the night’s plans. Claude listened in silence. He had spoken more than once to her of this after he’d discovered her secret and he knew it by heart. They would storm the castle on the hill. They would kill the soldiers and he, he would murder the Eucyer with his own hands and then take the pale beauty for his bride.
Francoise finished and asked them, “Do you understand?”
Henri, the vampire nearest to her, snickered. “We bring the girl alive and kill everyone else. What could be simpler?”
His too casual attitude infuriated Claude. This was the epoch of his entire life, not some moment of amusement. “No!!” he shouted and swiveled towards Henri with burning eyes. “You will kill only who you’re told – and you will not touch the Écuyer. He is mine.”
The others drew back at his fury, but rather than acknowledge their discomfort they looked to Francoise as if to ask, “Why should we follow him?” A dark smile curved her lips and she nodded, leaving them to grumble their assent.
With that settled, she met Claude’s eyes and smiled. “Do not fear, you will have your wish tonight as I promised, mon enfant.”
The night wrapped around them like a cloak, and they moved through it swiftly. Claude smiled to himself as the air rushed past his face and through his long, blonde hair. He could smell the men on the wind. Though, to his inexperienced nose they were just blood, Francoise could read much more.
“There are at least six of them,” she whispered to her companions. “But they will be no trouble.”
The two at the gatehouse fell to Francoise companions, and another ran for the keep. Francoise, Claude and Henri chased him. It was the latter who snapped his neck and ripped into his veins. Claude pushed past, Francoise on his heels, and took the steps of the keep two at a time. It was a small château-fort, and the keep was little more than a tower with a winding stair. How could He think it would protect them?
Two more guards stood on the stairs. Claude grabbed one by his shoulder and ripped through his neck with his fangs. His blood was hot, and for a moment he could have been lost to it. The memory of his quest pulled him back and he flung the gurgling man down the stairs. Francoise barely dodged out of the way. Though her eyes flamed, her voice was calm, “Remember, you are not alone. Do not be careless or your allies may turn on you.”
He dismissed the lesson and left the other guard for her. He heard the man scream, but he didn’t look back to see what happened. He was too close.
Two final guards stood before the wooden door at the top of the stairs. They brandished swords and one of them shouted to the occupant of the locked room, “A demon is here, my lord! All blood and fangs! God save us!”
Claude laughed at the description and wordlessly grabbed the first of the guards. He fought back, and his sword cut into Claude’s side. He roared at the surprise pain, and then grabbed the man by the arm and flung him down the stairs. His armor clanged and his bones crunched as he rolled out of sight to where Francoise waited.
The other dropped his weapon and cowered against the door, making the sign of the cross and jibbering. “Please, do not kill me. God, protect me! Please!”
“There is no God,” Claude sneered. Then he grabbed the discarded sword and slammed the blade into the man’s face. The guard screamed and raised his hands to his ruined head, as though trying to hold the blood in. It poured between his fingers, regardless, and he gurgled on it.
Claude left him on the floor in his agony and stepped over him. The wooden door was bolted from within. He raised his foot to kick through it, but stopped. No, he wanted to savor the fear. Gently he rapped on it and purred, “I’ve come. Did you get my message?”
The Écuyer swore loudly and shouted to his guards, “How can he be here? Kill him!”
“I must apologize,” Claude answered and carefully combed back the loose hair from his face with a bloody hand. “I’m afraid they cannot answer you.”
The Écuyer cried something unintelligible, then dropped his voice so that Claude had to strain to hear, “Go. Hide in the back.”
He was talking to her. He was telling her to hide. It would do no good.
Claude broke the door in with a single kick. He marveled at his new strength, but knew there was no time to be amazed. That would come later. After he had killed Him.
And there he was. He stood in the center of the room, his sword raised. He was dressed in all his glory, as if his finery would make him more intimidating, but his shaking hands and terrified eyes ruined the illusion.
“What do you want?” he demanded, though his voice trembled. “Be gone or-”
“Or what?” Claude strolled into the room, the dying guard’s sword still in his hand. “You’ll set the dogs on me, perhaps? Or have your men run me off in another shower of stones?” His smiled grew. “Or perhaps you’ll kill me this time, is that your plan? Be done with me once and for all?”
“I should have done so,” he snapped back, his voice gruff even as he retreated a step. “The sisters at the abbey should have strangled the breath from you when you were born.”
“You should have done it yourself,” Claude answered. The amusement in his eyes flickered and died. “It would have been the only contribution you made, beyond bedding my mother.”
The man opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. Claude willed him to speak; willed him to say something, anything, but no words came. Where was his superiority now? It had fled with the lives of his soldiers, and that knowledge only swelled Claude’s fury.
He lunged at him, slashing the sword wildly. In his untrained hands it was nothing more than a sharp club that was easily deflected. It bounced across the room, but the metallic clangs did not give the Écuyer any comfort. There was no light of victory in his eyes; only fear. Claude had wanted that fear. He’d wanted to taste it, savor it, breathe it in. But he’d wanted to watch as the old man’s eyes shifted from gloating certainty into terror. He wanted to break him – but he was already broken.
Claude roared a wordless oath and threw himself at the man. The noble man dodged, but his mortal reflexes were too slow and the pair crashed to the floor noisily. Over the clang and crash Claude could hear a sharp sob from the room beyond. His attention flew to the door that he knew she was listening at. The Écuyer saw the shift and took advantage of it to break loose and roll away. He jerked to his knees and summoned that last ounce of courage Claude had been waiting for.
“You won’t have her!”
Claude snatched up the man’s discarded sword and walked towards him. “Yes,” he said with certainty. “I will. I will have this castle, I will have the land and I will have her. I will have everything that should have been mine. Everything I was entitled to. Everything you denied me!” He pointed the sword like an accusing finger. “You left me to be raised an orphan. You claim her as a daughter and deny the one who shares your blood! A better man than I would hate her, but,” A strange smile flickered over his lips. “I do not hate her. I will take her, and your life will be her dowry!”
The Ecuyer rose clumsily to his feet. His mouth worked with fury, though words seemed hard for him to locate. Claude didn’t wait. He lunged at him with the sword, but then cast it aside at the last moment and grabbed him by fistfuls of his hair; the fine blonde locks so like his own. The nobleman cried out in surprise and tried to pry his hands loose, but Claude wrenched him to one side too quickly, and the Eucyer lost his footing. He’d have fallen to the floor, but Claude caught him. He held the struggling man in his arms and stared down at the face, the pitiless face of the man he despised. His hatred and fury rose like black bile in the back of his throat and, with a savage howl, he lost himself to his anger. Like a mad creature he set upon the nobleman with flashing, rending fangs; ripping and tearing at his neck, his face, even the hands he tried to shield himself with. His blood was hot; hot and bitter and it burned, but Claude wanted more. He latched his mouth around the man’s bleeding neck and drank the life from him, gulp after gulp.
And then, it was over.
Claude was seated on the floor and the torn, bloody Eucyer lay across his lap. Claude stared at the ruined face and the glassy, blue eyes and suddenly he didn’t recognize him anymore. This wasn’t his father, the lofty lord in his mighty castle, it was just a slab of dead meat that smelled of blood and piss and wine. The odors were overpowering. They choked him and, in disgust, he flung the body aside and backed away until his back met the stone wall.
The reality of the universe slotted itself into place inside his mind. His eyes drifted to the motionless body. What was it now but a corpse, like so many others? And before, what was it then? A man? A weak creature who cowered in his crumbling castle, on his tiny hill in his little county, counting his coins and jealously guarding his niece as though she were his wife. And to what end were all those struggles? What had it gained him but a shabby, dreary little world veneered with the false delights of court and riddled with the worms of fear and weakness. Fear was all he’d known, the only thing any of them knew. They knew the deaths their futures held, and they feared it.
Claude was no longer one of them. Francoise’s blood had lifted him above their petty existence and away from their mad scramble for one more breath. He would have all the breaths that he could desire, all the life he could ever crave, and it would be at their expense. And why shouldn’t it? They were now the weak and he was the strong. He was the lord in the castle, only, unlike the feeble, fleshy thing that came before, he was a true lord. Better in every way than they were.
Francoise was suddenly in the room. She looked approvingly at the body, and her dark eyes shifted to her pupil. “And does your revenge taste sweet, mon petit Claude?”
He jerked to his feet and straightened his clothing. “Don’t ever call me that name again!” His cold, gray eyes landed on her and with his new clarity he saw her for what she was, as well. An immortal, yes, but not deserving of it. She was a simple whore, like so many others, and she would feast on humanity until she grew too swollen and slow and then, in the shadows, her death would find her.
“From this moment on I am Claudius.” His eyes flamed and a smile flickered over his lips. Yes, a fitting name. The name of long ago emperors. As they were above the masses, so now was he. And like they, he would rule.
Francoise laughed softly. “If it pleases you, then so be it. But where is your prize?”
He didn’t deign to answer her, only strode to that final, locked door. He kicked it in, no longer childishly amazed by his own strength, and stepped inside. Against the far wall, before the narrow window, stood a young girl of fourteen or fifteen. Her large blue eyes were wide with terror and her long blonde hair, pale like the moonlight that wrapped around her, fell loose past her shoulders. Her thin frame trembled in the night breeze, covered only by a thin white shift.
“Father?” she whispered, though she already knew the answer.
“He was no father of yours,” Claudius answered. Though his words were harsh his tone was soft, as though he spoke to a fairy that might flee if he was too loud. Something subtle shifted in his eyes and he stepped towards her, but stopped just out of reach. “Arowenia.” He held out his bloody hand to her. “Come with me. I can give you youth eternal, and life everlasting. You need never fade or whither, but always be beautiful. You will want for nothing. Come.”
She swallowed hard and her luminescent eyes skipped from him to the window and the drop beyond. She looked back and forth more than once, as if to decide which death was the crueler. Tears dripped down her pale cheeks and, as her shoulders sagged in defeat, she looked back to him.
Without a word she had surrendered and Claudius scooped her up in his arms and, equally silent, carried her through the bloody rooms and down the steep, spiraling stare into the darkness beyond. At last, he had lain claim to what was rightfully his, but it was only the beginning.
Thanks God. now I can edit Arowenia to upload to Smashwords and get on with life.
Next up is Elsa (who, if you’ve read the first book, is the one who turned Patrick’s brother, Michael)
- Arowenia – Blogophilia 47.3 (ramblingsfromthedarkness.wordpress.com)
- Vampire Morsels: Arowenia (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)