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 Jesslynn in Shades of Gray. Her story takes place on a plantation in Virginia in January, 1820)
Jesslynn peered through the window. Outside, the world was still and silent like an empty room. Snowflakes dropped from the sky and the dawn’s feeble beams tried to slice through the mantle of clouds.
By contrast, morning was well under way inside. Warm smells drifted from the kitchen where the slaves had already been at work for two hours. Breakfast would be ready soon and Jesslynn turned her thoughts to her family; or what was left of it.
A baby’s wail broke through the house, shrill and unhealthy. The sound tore at her heart and she closed her eyes against despair. She could hear Nan’s quick steps as she hurried to fetch the child and bring him down. Jesslynn straightened her spine and readied her face. The fruit of her womb might be weak, but she was strong.
A dark, wrinkled woman appeared with a squirming bundle in her arms. Without a word, Jesslynn took the baby and dismissed the slave. She turned dark eyes on her son and cooed to him softly. His small face was screwed up in misery but instead of bright red, his skin was pale like linen. Her chest tightened. She had seen that color before. It was the color of death.
Her eyes stole to the window and the family cemetery beyond. There were eight markers. The newest belonged to her mother-in-law, dead six months and good riddance. Next to her was Oren’s father, Jesslynn’s father-in-law. He’d been dead before she ever married into the family. It was the other stones that caused her heart to skip. They belonged her children. Though she’d born eight, only two survived infancy; Alexander, who would be five in June, and Tristan, the baby in her arms. At six months it was uncertain whether he would live to see his first birthday.
She looked from the stones to the naked vine that wound around the cemetery’s fence; roses that her husband and their neighbor, Jorick Smit, had planted. When she thought of Jorick, she shivered. They’d planted those flowers in the dark. At first she’d thought it some old world superstition, but then she’d taken stock of him and paid attention. Her conclusion was drawn quickly; he was touched by demons. Demons that kept him from aging, growing weak, getting sick.
She looked down at the child in her arms and made up her mind.
Her husband stood in the snow, bundled up against the January wind. Strands of tawny blonde hair escaped his ponytail to blow in his face. He stared at her. A mixture of horror and disbelief shown in his amber eyes.
“What you say is…” he broke off and shook his head.
“Is what? A sin? I am tired of righteousness if the bones of our children is all it rewards us with.”
“No. Impossible. I’ve told you before that it is your overwrought imagination. Jorick is not an agent of demons, nor a warlock, nor a wizard. He is as human as you or I.”
“Have you ever seen him in the sunlight?”
“Perhaps. I don’t remember.”
She narrowed her eyes shrewdly. “No, you haven’t, and neither have I. Neither have his slaves, or anyone else you care to name. I’ve asked them, Oren. You must go now, before the sun can set, and catch him up. Reveal the truth of his secret deeds, for honest people don’t hide their deeds, as he does. The mark of the devil is on him. I feel in my heart that he is not human. You see that he does not age nor grow weak, nor sicken? He remains unchanged – not his hair, not his face, though it has been six years since he took the plantation from his uncle – if uncle the man was to him!”
“There are others who don’t sicken. Perhaps Jorick is blessed with a strong constitution?”
“No! You know as well as I! You have remarked on it before. You try always to pass it off as some casual observation, made in jest, though we know that is a falsehood, for you can sense the truth of the matter. It’s in his eyes, in the way his skin seems to gleam, in the way he moves and the way he talks; how he never opens his mouth all the way, as if he is afraid some secret will leak out. Don’t deny these proofs, my husband! You know them to be true!”
Oren’s shoulders sagged. “Yes,” he said softly. “You are right. There has always been something about him. But to suggest that he has a pact with the devil?” Oren closed his eyes against the idea. “If you are right and I catch him in some secret rite, then what?”
“You must demand he share the secret!” She broke off from adding “before it’s too late”, though it was on her face.
“What if he refuses?”
She caught Oren’s hands and gazed hard into his eyes. “Then you must make him!”
“Must I think of everything?” She threw his hands away and turned her back on him to stare at the small, snowy cemetery. When she spoke again, her voice was calm, but not warm. “You owe this to your children and their future, Oren. You will find a way. You will make Jorick share this gift and you will bring it to us.”
Though his words were what she wanted to hear, his uncomfortable tone was not. “You’d better.” When he made no reply she turned back to him. After glancing both ways to be sure they were unobserved, she brushed a quick kiss across his cheek. “Go now. The overseer can handle the slaves. Safe journey, my husband.”
It was early afternoon when Oren left. By dinner he had not returned. Jesslynn hid her fears behind a mask of stern indifference, though she couldn’t feign an appetite. Oren’s sister Torina sat at the far end of the table. As she ate, she chattered about the plans for her new dress. When no one answered her, she eventually fell into a pouty silence.
Alexander finished his meal and folded his hands primly in his lap. “Mother, where has Father gone?”
She fought to keep the apprehension from her voice. “To call on Mr. Smit.”
Torina cooed delightedly. “Will Mr. Smit be joining us this evening?”
Jesslynn cringed inside. Torina was as vapid and useless as her mother had been. “I can’t say.”
“I do hope so!” Torina patted her hair and bent to examine her reflection in a silver server. “I’m quite taken with him.”
“I’m sure.” The words were out before Jesslynn could stop them, but they made little difference. Torina had been in and out of six engagements. Perhaps Jorick Smit would be next. If they were lucky, Torina would actually make it to the altar this time.
Alexander looked at his empty plate. “May I be excused, Mother?”
“Yes. Go to your room and study your French lesson. You have yet to give me a sentence for the day.”
The small boy looked on the point of arguing, but wisely snapped his mouth shut. With an exaggerated sigh, he climbed off the chair and scampered out of the room.
Torina blotted her lips with a napkin and dropped it on the table. “You’re too strict with him sometimes, and others too lenient.” Her nose wrinkled. “Children are such a bothersome trial. I can not understand why you and my brother insist on having them one after another.”
Jesslynn’s face went hard. “I imagine you would feel that way as you have no prospects for a husband or a home of your own with which to birth a child in.”
Torina’s eyes flamed, but her voice was honey, “You have misheard, dear sister. The trouble is that the prospects are too numerous. But that is bound to happen to a woman who has been blessed with the beauty and temperament to attract men.” She looked suddenly sorrowful. “Oh! I must apologize. Of course you would know nothing about the trials and tribulations of beauty and warmth. I imagine that’s why you accepted the first hand that was offered to you.”
Jesslynn ground her teeth. “Better to take the first than to grow old a spinster.”
Torina batted her eyes. “Perhaps that was a concern for you. However, it’s something I doubt I need to fear.” She swept up from the table in a swish of long skirts. “When Oren returns, tell him I’d like to speak with him about some important matters.” Then she disappeared from the room.
Jesslynn glared after her. When Oren returned, Torina would be the last person he’d see!
Only he didn’t return. Not that night, or the next morning. The day dragged past, cold and grey, and still there was no sign of him. As the sun set, Jesslynn’s uneasiness turned to fear, and she sent a rider to fetch her brother.
She met him at the door. Fabian shook the snow from his boots and studied her. “What is so urgent that I must be called away from my dinner?”
“It’s Oren.” She laid a hand to his elbow and steered him towards the parlor. “Come, I’ll tell you everything.”
They stood in front of the fireplace and the story tumbled out in hushed tones. When it was over, Fabian sulked. “You believe that Jorick Smit is an agent of the devil, and yet you expect me to go to his house, alone, and seek out your husband? If he caught Jorick in some unholy ritual then no doubt he is dead.”
The word was one she’d imagined before; heavy and dark it dropped like lead through her thoughts. She tried to ignore it. “Do you expect me to go? A woman, traveling alone in the dark?”
“You could send a slave?”
“And have them learn the secret?” She grabbed his hands. “Do this for me, Fabian, and if he has been successful I will share with you! Think of it, to never grow sick or frail!”
Fabian whined, “What if Jorick has killed him? Would you loose a husband and a brother both?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Then be smarter than Oren. Be quicker and quieter! Go and look, only. If you do not see him, return to me and we will discover some plan together.”
Fabian argued for half an hour more, then gave in. Jesslynn watched him go, and paced the floor while he was gone. When he returned, she ran to the door, to find him alone.
Fabian pulled off his winter gear, scowling. “The slaves said that Oren and Mr. Smit left just after dark and have not yet returned. They say that your husband was alive and well when last they saw him, though Jorick was unusually grim and severe.”
Jesslynn clutched his arm. “Perhaps he has taken him to see the source of his secret?”
“Perhaps.” Fabian shook her off. “And now that I have run your errand I’m hungry. You took me from my meal, so I expect you to provide me with another one.”
“Yes, yes,” she gestured him towards the kitchen, her thoughts elsewhere.
Despite the word of the slaves, Oren did not return. Fabian ate and drank. At midnight he helped himself to the guest bedroom. It was three days later when he finally went home, and Oren was still missing. Jesslynn sent messengers with questions. The slaves said the same thing: Jorick and Oren had gone but not returned.
She feared the worst.
After one week she forced her brother to accompany her. After sunset, they ventured to the Smit plantation. The dark young woman who answered the door tried to keep them out. Jesslynn barged past her. With Fabian at her heels, she swept from room to room, but found only shadows. The beds were untouched, and the drawing room was cold.
The slave woman followed their inspection, wringing her hands and begging them to hurry and go. “If the master comes back he won’t be pleased!”
They were in the master bedroom when Jesslynn spun on her heel to face her, “When will he be back? Tonight?”
The fear in the young woman’s eyes doubled and she looked away. “I don’t rightly know, Ma’am. Maybe tonight, maybe a month. The Master is often away on errands.”
The slave woman took a step back, her hands twisting in her apron. Different fears warred on her face, and her voice dropped low, “He ain’t right, Mistress. He ain’t… he ain’t right. You best to go ‘for he comes back. He has an awful mean temper. He don’t like no one to peer into his business, Ma’am.”
“I do not fear him.” She swept her eyes around the room; from the heavy wardrobe to the four poster bed hung in garish, red curtains. “What errands does he leave on?”
“I don’t know, Ma’am. He gets a letter, then most times he orders the horse to be made ready and he and the messenger go. No warnin’.”
“What do these letters say?”
The woman’s eyes got bigger. “I don’t rightly know, Ma’am. I can’t read, and even if I could he burns them.”
Jesslynn grunted in dissatisfaction. “And did he receive such a letter this time?”
“No, ma’am. Not this time. Like I told the Master there,” she nodded to Fabian. “Master Cotterill came and they spent the night locked away. The next night they left as soon as it was dark and they ain’t been back since.” Her voice turned pleading. “Please, Ma’am. Please go home quick. Go home and forget what I told you.”
“I told you,” Fabian said peevishly. “This was a wasted trip.”
Jesslynn stepped close to the slave, her eyes narrowed and her voice hard to cover her own fear. “The moment they return you are to send a messenger to me, do you understand? No matter the time of day or night. Otherwise, I will be forced to mention that you’ve gossiped about your master’s business behind his back. As he values his privacy, I’m sure he will be most grieved to hear of it!”
The woman squealed. Jesslynn grabbed up her skirts and swirled from the room with the command, “Come, Fabian.”
Fabian helped her into the carriage and then climbed in next to her. At a word, the driver took up the reigns with a “Yawh.”
Fabian seemed amused. “Will you really betray her to Mr. Smit and his temper, I wonder?”
“Perhaps.” Jesslynn stared at nothing, her expression cold. I am strong. I am fierce. I am resolute. I am strong.
“Really? How unlike you. You’re too soft with your own and I can’t imagine you jeopardizing another’s.”
She dismissed his concern. “Mr. Smit is softer. A fearful slave would never have spoken to us unless spoken to, and certainly would not have betrayed such confidences.”
Fabian leaned back in the seat. “Or perhaps he’s crueler and she’s more afraid of him and what he might do if he knows you’ve been there. She may have told you so that you’d leave before he arrived and found you in his chambers.” A wry smile twisted his lips. “I can’t imagine that your husband would appreciate such a visit, either.”
“Then he should have come home!” The veneer slipped away and her terrors shown on her face. “What if he never returns? What will I do?”
Fabian shrugged. “Remarry. You’d be a wealthy widow. Mr. Smit is unwed-”
The slap was loud. Fabian put a hand to his stinging cheek and scowled.
“Don’t ever suggest such a filthy thing, again. If Oren is gone, it is his doing. I would no more marry the instrument of my husband’s destruction than I would throw my child to wolves! I am not Torina! I do not hand my affection to the highest bidder!”
Fabian smirked and relaxed back into the seat. “She only does so for a short while, usually an hour at a time.”
She should have slapped him again for his crude remark. Instead, she grunted her agreement.
“Is Father coming home?”
Jesslynn caught her breath and tucked the blanket under Alexander’s chin. “Of course. I told you, he and Mr. Smit have gone to Charleston on business. They’ll be home soon.” She pressed a kiss to her son’s cheek and inhaled his sweet, innocent scent. How much longer can I continue this charade?
She closed the door and found Torina in the hallway, frivolously dressed in her new skirt and matching shirt waist. “You expect us to believe that story?”
“Yes.” Jesslynn answered coldly and made to move past her. Torina caught her arm and held her back.
“He always tells me when he’s going somewhere and asks if I want him to bring anything back. He wouldn’t go without speaking to me first and telling me goodbye. Why would this time be any different?”
Jesslynn jerked away and glared, her lip curled in fury. “How should I know! Perhaps because you’re his sister and not his wife! Now get out of my way!”
Shocked, Torina stepped back, and Jesslynn stormed by her, anger pulsing in her veins. She’d had enough of her, of Fabian, of all of them!
She changed into her night dress and shut herself in her room, Tristan in the bed next to her. She picked up her embroidery and worked without really seeing it. Inside, her mind clicked away, making plans. If Jorick returned without Oren she would confront him. She would take Fabian and five of the most able bodied field slaves. She’d demand answers, and she would get them!
Tristan cried; a soft, mewling whimper. She scooped him up and cradled him close to her. He was so pale and so weak. She tried to nurse him, but he refused to drink, only made those soft, sickening noises. She clutched him tightly. “Damn it! Where are you Oren? Why haven’t you come home? Why haven’t you brought the secret? Where are you?”
The dog barked. She stood and crossed to the window. Torina stood before the porch in the arms of a man. Jesslynn couldn’t see his face and she didn’t want to. She made a noise of disgust and moved back to the bed. We will never be free of the harlot!
She heard a raised voice; the man. She glanced towards the window, but from her vantage point she could only see darkness. It’s no matter. Let them fight.
And then Torina screamed.
Jesslynn laid Tristan aside and hurried back to the window. She drew aside the curtain to see Torina struggling with-
She dropped the curtain and stepped back. She didn’t want to know who he was. Let him do as he pleased with her. It was something she gave away for free to other men. Let this man take his share, too. Let her scream. Let her lay in the cold, bruising grass and know misery for once in her selfish, pampered, spoiled life. Let her suffer.
Jesslynn climbed back into bed and pulled her baby to her. Torina screamed again and again and Jesslynn closed her eyes tightly against the sound. Tristan cried for her, though Jesslynn shooshed and soothed him.
A door banged. Feet ran across the floor. The house slaves were awake. She heard the front door open and she heard Nan cry, “Lordy! What have you done? What-” her words were choked off in a terrified cry.
Jesslynn squeezed her eyelids tighter. Where was Oren? He was the Master of the house! He should handle this! He should – but he was gone. Gone and useless! And what use was he when he was there? He was a body, at least. A body who could stand at the door with a rifle. Now someone else must hold the rifle and she must stand behind them.
She tucked the blankets into a hurried nest, lest Tristan roll away, and dressed quickly. There were more footsteps, scurrying, hurrying, running to the scene in the front of the house. She could see light flare; a torch. One of the slaves shouted, and then the gun went off.
Tristan wailed and Alexander was suddenly there, his eyes wide in his terrified face. “What is it?”
She pulled him into a hug and squeezed him tight. Her son. Her only son that would survive. Reluctantly, she released him. “I don’t know yet. Stay here with your brother and stay quiet.”
He nodded, and she took a last look at them before she hurried out the door.
The house was dark, and she had no candle. She stubbed her toe on a heavy sideboard and banged her knee into a low stool. There was no time to stop. She could hear someone shouting outside. She could hear Torina screaming again.
Two of the kitchen girls stood on the porch in their nightdresses, their eyes wide and their terrified fingers pointing away into the shadows near the carriage house. One of them held a torch. The flickering flame threw harsh, stark shadows. Henry stood on the bottom step, the rifle to his shoulder. The barrel shook in time with his hands. At his feet, red against the snow, was a splash of blood. It trailed away into the darkness, mingled with drag marks, disappearing towards the carriage house.
Jesslynn made the sign of the cross. The devil had come for Torina at last. For one wild moment she thought again to leave her, but there had been Nan. The slave woman had been good to her and to her children. She didn’t deserve to suffer for Torina’s sins.
“What are you waiting for?” Jesslynn demanded. She grabbed the torch from the trembling slave and marched forward. The women wailed, and Henry hurried after her, the gun up.
The night was cold. The stars were tiny and brittle, like bits of broken glass. The snow was frosted over and crunched under her feet. The heavy silence was broken by soft, guttural noises and something that sounded wet and sloppy. The doors of the carriage house were open and the closer Jesslynn drew, the louder it grew.
And then she saw it.
A man lay near the doors, his body broken and crumpled. It was Torina’s lover. Blood stained the snow around him. Just inside the carriage house crouched Torina. Her hair had fallen around her face like a shower of flames. Her dress was torn and bloody. A gaping wound on her neck bled freely. More horrifying, she held an unconscious Nan in her arms. Her mouth was fastened around the old woman’s neck. The torchlight shone in her green eyes and Jesslynn bit back a scream at what she saw there; lust, hunger and madness.
“Do not enter!”
It was Oren.
She pulled to a stop, the torch held high. Slowly, Oren stepped from inside the shadowy building. He was dressed as she’d last seen him, only without his coat or hat. His long blonde hair flapped free in the wind. Blood ran down his chin and stained his shirt and hands.
“God save us!” Jesslynn made the sign of the cross and moved back. Oren stared at her, the expression on his face a mixture of sorrow and fear. He took a step towards her and she backed away. The torch shook in her hands and slipped from her fingers. The flame burned for a minute, throwing long, black shadows, and then it sputtered and died.
She heard the gun go off behind her, but she didn’t stop. The two girls were still on the porch. She’d nearly reached them when he called to her, “Jesslynn.”
The girl’s shocked expressions made her stop. She looked over her shoulder and then looked away quickly. His face was clean and his shirt was gone. He stood half naked in the snow, his tawny hair whipping around his face.
“Go inside,” she ordered the girls. “Alexander and Tristan are in the master bedroom. Go to them and stay until I come for you.”
They babbled incoherently and fled into the safety of the house. She could hear Oren’s footsteps crunching through the snow, moving towards her. She couldn’t bring herself to face him.
At last he stood behind her. She could feel him there, so close that his hot breath warmed the back of her neck. The proximity tightened her spine and her shoulders like a fist. She couldn’t move.
“Jesslynn.” Her name was more a breath than a word. Softly, he touched her cheek. His warm fingers trailed down her neck to her shoulder and she shivered. “You wanted the gift, Jesslynn, and I’ve brought it.” His voice turned brittle. “Look at me, wife. This is what you wanted. Look at it.”
Almost against her will she turned and stared into his face. It was different. He was different. His golden eyes seemed to glitter with an intensity they’d never held before and when he opened his mouth she saw the fangs.
“God preserve us!” She fell back. “What have you done? What have you become? What have you done?”
He closed the gap between them and cradled her face in his hand, forcing her to look at him. “I did as you asked. You wanted his secret and here it is. Do you still want it?”
A twig snapped. She looked over his shoulder to see Torina hovering in the shadows. She wiped the blood from her face with a gory hand and swayed on her feet. A maniacal smile spread over her face and long, shiny fangs glittered in her mouth.
Whether gift or curse, he had given it to his sister first.
In that moment she hated Torina more than she had ever hated anyone.
“You shared it with her?”
There was regret in his voice. “I had no choice. I – I couldn’t stop. The man – his blood. I hurried to come home to you. I did not drink first. She did not know me. She screamed. I – I did not mean to bite her. But then… I couldn’t let her die. She is my sister. There was no choice.”
No choice. No choice but to save his sister. She buried her fears behind her fury. “Will it save our son?”
Oren hesitated. “Yes. But Jorick said we must not use it on the children, not until they’re grown. Once they drink they will never age, never grow.”
He nodded uncertainly and she focused again on Torina. The redhead stumbled backwards and fell to the ground on her knees. Her eyes squeezed shut and she held herself as if trying to stop her insides from spilling out into the snow. A high, horrible sound issued from her lips.
“It is the change,” he said softly. “There is pain. It comes and goes, then disappears in a day.”
Torina threw her head back and howled. She fell onto her back and writhed, her arms around her mid section. Her bloody hands left red, wet spots on her new dress. Blood. Pain. The mark of the devil.
And then she pictured Tristan.
“Yes,” she whispered, her voice almost inaudible. “Yes. Give it to me.”
Oren crushed her to him. She could feel his heart pounding against her, the warmth of his hard body, the texture of his hands as he pulled her head to one side, exposing her throat. He brought his lips to her neck. His breath was hot. He hovered, lips brushing her skin, and then, he bit.
Jesslynn held back a scream. She would not howl like Torina. She would not draw attention.
I am strong. I am fierce. I am resolute.
I will save my children.
Like me, they will be strong.
You can also find the whole crew in the short story Alexander.
- Torina (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)
- Interview with Oren (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)
- Jorick (joleenenaylor.wordpress.com)