Chapter Two: Day Dreamer
Thank you so much for your patience with this update! The holiday lead-up was intense and I fell behind, future chapters will come much quicker!
For my cub.
Full work summary: Cast out of his village and freezing to death in the snow, Sparrow finds himself rescued by a mysterious and beautiful woman, living in a grand house in the mountains. As he falls under the spell of his strange host, he finds himself brought into a dark world that presents a destiny he never could have imagined. Submission to a vampire is only the beginning.
Previously: Sparrow woke in a manor with memories of being driven from his village and rescued on the snowy mountainside. He dined with his host, the beautiful Vestalia, and they dined on more than the food.
Chapter summary: Captain Lerae Sandu finds her men have met with violent tragedy. Sparrow explores the manor, meets another resident, and stumbles across Vestalia's bedroom. He's surprised to find her still in bed, and even more so when she invites him to join her.
"What should I do, if I meet a vampire?"
"Oh, Little Bird, you should never meet a vampire. Good boys like you should be asleep in their beds by the time the vampire is walking the earth. They are creatures of night. They can only live in darkness. They are burned by sunlight."
"Some say because it is the light of God. But others say the vampire is older than Him. At least, as we know Him. So they say instead that the sun is for the living. The vampire, as a defiler of life, as a mockery of it, is denied sunlight and punished for any attempt to take it."
"So, if those creatures can't come out while we're awake, why are people so scared of them?"
"Because at least the waking can run. What can the sleeping do?"
"How do we protect ourselves?"
"I'm afraid we don't, Little Bird. We look to others to protect us."
A huge fist hammered on the door, rattling the iron hinges and booming in the stone walls.
"OPEN UP! NOW!"
Lerae Sandu scrambled to wrap a thick, woolen blanket around her shoulders, the cold biting her through her nightdress. She rushed to the front door and wrenched it open with a clunk and a creak. She was faced by a young man with a weather-beaten face and wild, worried eyes. Behind him, the grey-gold sliver of dawn winked behind the domed cap of the church spire.
"What is it, Luca?" she asked sharply.
Luca sniffed and shivered, drawing harried breaths. "Come, please. It's Mihai."
Sandu's heart thumped. The cold sank behind her ribs. She nodded and moved quickly, tugging on her boots and coat and following Luca out into the square.
A small huddle of Skarpo townsfolk were murmuring nervously by the well. Their boots splashed in the thin lace of melted snow on the cobbles, echoing in the stone chasm. Through them, Sandu could just glimpse a stocky, brown horse, laden with... was that a body? Her stomach kicked. She strode forward. She'd sent her patrol out days ago. It should have been a simple journey.
"Alright, out of the way, out of the way," she commanded, using her height and her broad shoulders to plough through the gathering.
People crossed themselves and muttered her name with a note of relief, as she passed them. But she didn't meet their eyes, her gaze fixed fiercely forward. The crowd parted. Her body lurched at the sight. She'd sent five men. Two had returned. And one was slung on his belly across the horse, still as rock and hidden by a rough, black cloak. His boots dangled limply under the hem. The scent of congealed blood curdled in Sandu's nose. Leaning against the well post were the two remaining members of the patrol party, one burly and sombre-faced, supporting the weight of the other, who looked ghastly pale and barely conscious, his eyes rolling under fluttering lids.
"Mihail! Andrei!" Sandu swept forward and clamped the men between her large hands, grasping a shoulder each and feeling them lean into her. "What happened?"
The wounded Andrei gurgled. Mihail looked at her grimly. "Help me get him inside."
She nodded. She went to the collapsed man's other side and lifted his arm around her shoulder. "Who's under the cloak?" she whispered, her throat clogging.
Mihail's frost blue eyes threaded bloodshot. "David," he rasped.
Any answer would have pierced her. David's name, said so quietly, like a mourning prayer, ached in her ears. She hugged Andrei closer and nodded again. She barked at the jibbering townsfolk to move, snapping at Luca to see to the horse and the body. She and Mihail steered Andrei back to her house.
They burst through the door, her voice rising and sharpening, as they broke out of earshot of the frightened folk. "Hold him up." She slipped from Andrei and raced around the room, opening the curtains, lighting candles, lighting the stove in the kitchen and boiling water. She moved like an automaton: no emotion, no fear, only intention, only skill. She had felt it in the weak, uneven beat of Andrei's heart against her. His time was running out.
She cast the clutter off her large, sturdy dining table, tankards and knives, paper and quills raining onto the floorboards in a hail of noise. She swept back to Mihail and they hauled Andrei to lie out on it. As his back thudded onto the hard surface, he let out a thick groan of pain. Sandu tore open his dense layers of clothing. His torso was wrapped in grubby, drenched bandages, ruddy brown with dried and freshly seeping blood. She heard Mihail gulp. She ignored him and sliced open the bandages with a keen pair of scissors. The rising, pale light washed over a deep, gleaming gash across Andrei's gut, the viscera snarling through it in a dark red smear. The reek of blood redoubled and heated.
Sandu hissed and swallowed a lurch of nausea. "God's Teeth!"
Andrei babbled senselessly and desperately under his breath, tongue lolling, only the whites of his eyes visible.
"Can you save him?" Mihail asked levelly, thunking a brown, glass bottle onto the table.
"That's my job, isn't it?" she said flatly.
Mihail grimaced. His glistening eyes fell to Andrei's face.
Sandu shrugged off her coat and rolled up the sleeves of her nightdress. She snatched up the bottle and uncorked it, the clean scent of spirits cutting through the stench. She sloshed the plum liquid over the wound, blocking out Andrei's whine. She pressed her hand to the gauge in his flesh to stem the flow. It squelched sickeningly, hot blood trickled over her fingers.
"It was a beast." Mihail murmured.
She looked at the ragged edges of the wound. "I assumed."
His hand clutched her bicep, sending a jolt into her squared shoulders. She shot her eyes to his gaunt face. "No, Captain," he whispered, "a beast."
She held his gaze, Andrei's pulse thrumming on her fingertips, spilling crimson. She broke sternly from Mihail's eyes. "Bring me the hot water and the implements in the drawer under the bookshelf."
He nodded and marched to obey.
He turned back.
Her lips tightened. "Fetch the priest."
Morning kissed Sparrow's eyelids, stroking him awake, like a caressing lover. He eased his eyes open. Light no longer felt like needles. It leaked through the opening of the heavy drapes around his bed and nestled around him with a new softness. He stretched and yawned like a cat. Every ache and sting seemed to have left his body. He felt replenished, weightless. The memory of last night's supper slowly returned. His face and his stomach rushed hot. Did that really happen?
He found himself eager to rise, to find his host again - a puppy in a new house, riddled with nervous excitement. He laughed at himself and ran his fingers through his hair. This time yesterday he was in a deep sleep, escaping death. He was an exile. He was alone. But somehow, he wasn't mourning. He was a snowflake, fallen to the ground and finding that he didn't melt. What did you do if you didn't die when you were supposed to? Well, keep on living, he supposed.
He slipped from the bed with a spring in his step. The fire was roaring away, grumbling contentedly around a stack of fresh, chewy logs. Laid over one of the plush armchairs was a fresh shirt, britches, undergarments, and a fine, dove grey coat and waistcoat with gleaming, brass buttons. A pair of polished, brown, leather boots stood at the foot of the chair. Sparrow gazed at the clothes, going to them. They smelled of lavender and tissue paper. He tentatively ran his hand over the weave of the coat. It was wool, but it was so delicately made it looked like silk, as smooth to the touch as glass.
"Goodness..." he breathed.
He washed and dressed, the new clothes fitting to him as if they were sculpted and sewn around his body. He slid the waistcoat on with incredible care, fastening the buttons with his fingertips, terrified of spoiling the finery. He looked at the coat. He slid it on, settling into its shape. He went to the mirror. He looked strange, dressed like this. But he liked it. The coat tapered to his frame, swishing around the tops of the snug boots, making him look taller, emphasising his willowy figure and the lightness of his eyes. It gave him an almost sylph-like quality. The weave straightened his stance, instructing him in decorum.
The fire rumbled warmer. Sparrow slid the coat off and laid it reverently back on the chair. He went back to the washstand and began to comb his hair. It fell in knotted coils around his narrow shoulders, a colour between honey and dandelions about to turn to seed. The sunlight ran long, shining fingers through it. Someone had tied the curtains back. Sparrow glanced to the hearth. The gargoyle was missing. He raised an eyebrow and shook his head in continued wonder. He went back to his hair. The comb whispered through it rhythmically, untangling the mess as easily as whipping butter. Sparrow's mind wandered with the lulling, scuffing sound of the comb to the scrape of cutlery on china, then the drag of lips on skin.
He clenched between his legs and shook himself. He put down the comb. He looked at himself again, his hair pouring around his face and softening his cheekbones. He thought about Vestalia's elegant grandeur, her elaborate coiffure and pristine fingernails and the gush of black velvet around her breasts. He nibbled his tongue. He caught up his locks and deftly braided them over one shoulder, spiralling smaller braids around the thick, central one. It was a style he'd been taught by his friend's grandmother when she'd got tired of him coming to her house "looking like he'd just been dropped by an eagle carrying him by his hair." Sadness nudged him. He chased it away at the thought of Vestalia smiling at the braid.
His door clicked.
He spun around, heart racing, wondering if it was her. The gargoyle bobbed into the room, wings humming, carrying a copper tray bearing a plate of small pastries and a steaming teapot.
Sparrow beamed, stomach growling. "Good morning!"
The gargoyle binked slowly and set the tray down on the low table by the fire.
"Thank you?" Sparrow ventured, trying to catch the gargoyle's attention.
"You are welcome," it croaked monotonously, and set itself back into its slot in the mantel, going utterly still.
Sparrow flapped his hand in front of its face. Nothing. It really was just an appliance, but he still desperately wanted to know how it worked.
He didn't sit to eat. He wandered restlessly about the room, leaving a trail of pastry crumbs, peering at the engravings in the woodwork and the sheen of pattern in the damask wallpaper. He found he was surrounded by beasties. Bats and rats and wolves and ravens and lynx. And creatures not of this earth. Fanged demons, skeletal horses, leering masks, fauns with contorted grins blowing pipes. And, of course, ever looming over him, the swooping, bat-winged woman painted on the ceiling. Sparrow eyed her with a mix of wariness and new enjoyment. His eyes fell on her dark nipples, redder in the sunlight.
He took another crunching mouthful of sugar and went to the window. The snow was thinning on the mountains. Rich, evergreen forests emerged from the white, cascading over the landscape in a dark, vast ocean that flowed over the undulations of the range, then poured down into the Skarpo Valley, and drained into the horizon. Sparrow thought of the creatures swimming in those surging underworlds of hunger and nightmare. He'd loved the stories of them as a child. His guardian had always said, it's best to turn these things into stories, or else we'd never sleep.
The trees came right to the edge of the manor's crooked complex of neat, knotwork hedges, glistening with frost, spreading to a thick, stone wall and an iron gate wound with black roses. Sparrow had never slept so close to the edge of the forest before. But then, he'd never had such solid walls between him and the elements. His mind cycled constantly between feelings of safety and unsafety. Thankfully for him, his curiosity was always stronger than both. He gulped down the fragrant tea and skipped off to explore the house. And find Vestalia.
Finding Vestalia proved to be much more difficult than expected. The manor was labyrinthine, leading him in dizzying paths. He began to feel that he was wandering a route being dreamed up by the moment, as if he was inside someone else's head. The red-carpeted corridors wove and looped like a network of arteries, the staircases were caged in dark banisters, the walls were hung with pictures in heavy frames, and the ceilings vaulted with arching beams, encasing the arterial corridors in a skeleton. Sparrow gazed about him, make-believing he had been swallowed by some huge dragon.
It took a little build of courage to start exploring rooms. Vestalia's charisma oozed from the walls, making him feel like a trespasser. He jumped any time his boots creaked. He always knocked carefully before entering, but found each room empty, save for the occasional gargoyle dusting the picture frames or sweeping the floors. And the paintings. They were all in the same impressive realism of the one on Sparrow's ceiling. Hungry-eyed, palid people drank from goblets filled with ruby wine, danced with bears, and rode wolves made of starlight.
For such a startlingly large house, nearly all the rooms were fairly snug, all lit by mumbling fires in gaping hearths. It made the whole house warm, turning the views of thawing snow out of the windows into fantasy paintings. It couldn't possibly be that cold anywhere in the world. Sparrow had never been this warm. It wasn't the itchy heat of blankets or the burning sweat of bonfires. It was an embracing, relaxing, invigorating warmth that permeated his body and the tea-and-wine air of the manor. The house seemed constantly ready to receive. Half the rooms he found seemed to be sitting rooms of some kind, all clean and neat and cosy.
He wandered deeper into the bowels of the house. The carpets and wood phased into stone, his crisp-soled, new boots clacking like hooves on the flags. The smell of baking bread wended down a narrow corridor. Sparrow picked up his feet and followed it, emerging into a kitchen larger than his old cottage. The walls were washed white, soaring high into a ceiling with wooden rafters carved with cornucopias. A huge, pot-bellied cauldron hung over the embers of a soot-stained hearth even more immense than those upstairs, large enough for Sparrow to sleep in comfortably. Copper pans tinkled on the walls and bundles of drying herbs filled the room with a mouth-watering, fresh, tingling scent. Fat fruit and vegetables were piled in a heap on the large, wooden table, littered with score marks. Braces of chickens and rabbits were strung up from one beam. One wall was completely covered with shelves of bottles and jars - jams and oils and sauces and salts that glittered like treasure. The homey, tempting smell of bread drifted lazily from a brick oven set into one corner, the wooden shovel sticking out of the mouth, like a mocking tongue. Sunlight flowed in from high, arching windows, gilding the food and flashing on the pans and knives. Sparrow stared in wonder. It wasn't long since breakfast, but his appetite ran riot among the delicious sights and smells of the kitchen.
A thunking noise caught his attention. He looked over and saw another gargoyle entering from a door opposite him. Sparrow snatched a glimpse of a stack of white-gold wheels of cheese over its shoulder, and guessed that room must be the larder. This gargoyle was much bigger than the others, almost Sparrow's height, its wings folded to its hunched, broad back. It lumbered to the table, carrying a hefty salami, which it slammed onto the table. The air filled with moreish salt, as it began to slice it thinly. It seemed either unaware of or unimpeded by Sparrow's staring.
"Excuse me," Sparrow piped up.
The gargoyle raised its squint to him. "Yes, Sir?" Its voice was like grinding granite.
"Where do you get all this so high up?" Sparrow asked, his gaze roving around the heap of vegetables.
"There is a market in the town of Skarpo at the bottom of the mountain," the gargoyle replied, going back to slicing, "But much is grown in the hothouses."
Sparrow raised his eyebrows. He remembered Vestalia speaking of a hothouse, but in his tranced state it had slipped his mind. Now he rushed with eagerness. "Where is it?"
The gargoyle looked up.
"Hothouses," the gargoyle corrected him.
Sparrow smiled, his excitement rising. The gargoyle pointed to the kitchen door behind Sparrow, then to its right. Sparrow nodded in thanks and hurried from the kitchen. The only thing that could pull him from the baking bread was the thought of seeing something like this. A trader passing through his village had once told him of the great hothouses in the sparkling capitals of Europe. These mystical bubbles enclosing whole continents, rainbows in crystals, bringing the tropics to life in the depths of winter. It was to Sparrow the most marvellous kind of magic he could imagine. He'd spent days afterwards lost in daydreams about living in one of these captured, enchanted isles, perfectly preserved, fawned over by the feathered and bejewelled nobles of those countries.
He tripped to the end of the stone corridor and out of a heavy, wooden door at the end. He stepped into the knot gardens. The interlace of dark, waxy green was sprinkled with crushed diamonds, the snow lingering on the tips of leaves and in patches on the cropped grass. Cobalt blue bellflowers sprouted in clusters in the centres of the hedge knots, jostling prettily in a refreshing, cool breeze. It sent a shocked shiver up Sparrow's spine after the heat of the house. He hugged his body and rubbed his arms through his shirt. He looked about him, the sweeping, turquoise sky piercing and pure.
He turned and gaped up at the manor, seeing it from the outside for the first time. Its draconic look intensified. It was a towering building of grey stone, cloaked in a dense, thriving creeper. Its windows were large, arched and dark, the sunlight glancing off them and singing over the heart-shaped leaves fringing them. The roof was tiled in fanning, black tiles, spreading at the bottom and crowning at the peak, like folded, scaly wings. Stern-faced, hulking gargoyles crouched and perched and leered on ledges and guttering, giving the house the look of an underworld rookery. A forest of chimneys pumped pale smoke into the cloudless expanse above. Sparrow thought of his squat, stone hovel and its two rooms. He thought of the timber church, barely more than a barn. This house seemed to him to have been built by giants. Even after exploring it all morning, he couldn't fathom its size. A very great lady must live here.