Summary: Darla wanders 18th century Ireland looking to make a new Childe when she discovers a young couple in love.
Disclaimer: Joss owns all.
Author's Notes: Feedback welcome on ligeia(at)telstra.com
Part One: Darla.
County Galway, Ireland, 1752.
Darla was bored... again. When Darla was bored she became dangerous. Right now she was very very bored.
It was early evening just three days before Christmas and Kelly's Fine Millinery was filled with customers making their final selections before the formal balls and succession of visits obligatory to the season. Salesgirls and seamstresses bustled among the customers, ladies and girls eager to choose from the selection of hats and bonnets recently arrived from London and Paris or to pick up one of Vera Kelly's own splendid creations. Mrs Kelly, the owner, attended personally to a few favoured customers.
'Mrs McLoughlin,' she said, smiling at the impeccably dressed elderly lady seated in front of one of the mirrored vanities, 'that bonnet with the blue velvet trim looks a picture on you.' Mrs Kelly stood behind the older lady's chair, adjusting slightly the tilt of the hat, dropping the ribbons forward over Mrs McLoughlin's shoulders, ready to be tied under her chin. Molly McLoughlin appraised the results, smoothing a few greying curls back up under the brim.
'It is a fine bonnet, Vera. Quite lovely. It will match my new outfit perfectly.' Vera Kelly had made hats for Molly McLoughlin for over thirty years and the two women were on familiar terms.
'Will you be wearing it Christmas Eve?' inquired Vera, opening up a large round hatbox ready to pack the bonnet in tissue paper for Mrs McLoughlin to take with her.
'Yes. It is not too extravagant for Mass, do you think?' Molly asked.
'Not at all,' replied Vera, 'it is quite suitable for church I think. Will your daughter Moira and her husband be coming over from London for the holidays?'
Molly untied and removed the blue bonnet, placing it in the hatbox. Vera placed the lid on top and began tying it up with white twine, quartering the strings to make carrying the bulky package easier.
'Unfortunately, no. They are still in Italy and have decided to remain there now until after her baby is born. I am afraid I will be alone over Christmas again this year.' Molly's son-in-law was a secretary to the British ambassador posted in Rome. He and Molly's only daughter had spent the past two years there and Moira had inconveniently fallen pregnant just months before their intended return home. It was now considered that she was too far along in her pregnancy to travel so they had decided to remain in Rome until a few weeks following the birth.
'What a shame,' sympathised Vera. 'Still, it will be lovely for you to be able to visit them in the Spring!'
'To add to my troubles, I've had to dismiss my maid for...' Mrs McLoughlin leaned closer to Vera so as not to be overheard, 'for "dallying" with the lads.' She made a moue of disapproval. 'I also suspected her of fiddling the household accounts so decided it best to let her go immediately, all things considered. I will not be able to engage a new housemaid now until after Christmas, so the house will be completely empty.'
'Oh, how inconvenient!' Vera tutted. 'Still, better to be rid of her if that is the case.'
'My thoughts exactly,' agreed Molly.
Darla stood close by, seemingly engrossed in trying on a pretty yellow woven raffia bonnet trimmed with artificial daisies and bluebells, but actually listening to the exchange with interest. Mrs McLoughlin was combing and re-pinning her wavy grey hair back in place, ready to put on her own small black bonnet which lay on the table-top, several fancy hatpins spread out around it. Putting down the raffia hat, Darla walked casually past the vanity where Molly sat. As Mrs McLoughlin turned briefly to watch Vera walk away towards the shop counter to write up a receipt for her purchase Darla coolly placed a hand over one of the hatpins, sliding it off the tabletop and quickly popping it into the small velvet purse hanging from her wrist. She walked out of the milliner's shop into the street, merging with the now-thinning crowd of Christmas shoppers navigating the icy footpaths.
Back in the shop Mrs McLoughlin discovered her favourite diamond-studded hatpin missing and was becoming quite distraught. Vera Kelly tried to soothe her as two of the shopgirls rummaged around on the floor under and around the vanity, looking for the lost pin.
'Oh, dear, oh, dear!' Molly sighed. 'That diamond pin was a wedding gift from my mother! It is very precious to me! You must find it!'
'I am sure it will turn up,' Vera said, wringing her hands. 'We shall have a thorough search for it once the shop is closed. It may have rolled off the vanity and been kicked into a corner.' She paused, placing a calming hand on Molly's arm. 'Or perhaps someone has picked it up by accident and will return it as soon as they realise their mistake.' Mrs McLoughlin was unconvinced, but not wanting to make a scene, thanked Vera, picked up her other purchases and left.
A couple of nights later Mrs McLoughlin was roused from her fireside sewing by the sound of the doorbell being rung. Putting down the blackwork sampler she was stitching for Moira's baby, she walked down the long hallway to the oak door. Before lifting the lock she parted the brocade curtain at the window by the door. Molly was an old lady living alone and was scrupulous about taking precautions especially now that her only servant, the dismissed housemaid, had already left the house.
Standing on the stoop was a pretty blonde girl of about twenty or so, well dressed and apparently alone. Molly opened the door sufficiently to speak with the unexpected visitor.
'Good evening,' she said. 'May I help you, young lady?'
'Actually,' replied the girl, 'I think I may be able to help you.'
Mrs McLoughlin looked puzzled. 'And how would that be, child?' she inquired.
Opening up a velvet drawstring purse the young woman removed a small object which she held out on a dainty gloved hand for Mrs McLoughlin to inspect. It was a large silver hatpin with a diamond-studded fox-head at one end.
'My pin!' exclaimed Molly. 'I was sure I had lost it forever!' She looked up at the girl's gently smiling face. 'How ever did you find it?'
'It was in the box with a hat I bought at Kelly's the milliners two days ago,' she replied. 'When I took it back to the shop they said you had lost it so I offered to return it to you myself. I live not far from here.'
'How very kind!' Molly smiled. 'What is your name, child?'
'Darla,' replied the girl.
'Please come in won't you? It is far too cold for you to be standing outside on a night like this. I will make tea and thank you properly.'
Mrs McLoughlin opened the door wider and Darla stepped over the threshold into the hallway. When the old woman turned around to shut the door again and replace the heavy latch Darla picked up a cut-crystal vase from hall table. As Mrs McLoughlin turned back to face Darla the vampire stepped forward, bringing the sharp edge of the vase's base down hard on the other woman's temple, knocking her face-down onto the floor where she lay groaning. Blood immediately began flow from the laceration, forming a widening pool on the polished wooden floorboards.
Molly, dazed, raised herself up a little and tried to crawl past her attacker. Darla grasped the back of the old woman's dress, easily lifting most of her torso up off the floor and started dragging her across the parquetry, leaving a smear of blood in her wake. Molly grasped Darla's wrists in her own thin hands and tried to get her feet back under her but became entangled in her many layers of under-skirts, her legs moving mechanically but uselessly like the clockwork toys Darla had seen in Dresden during her last stay in Germany.
Once in the sitting room, Darla took a few moments to take in the layout of the adjoining rooms. Picking up the old woman easily, she carried her upstairs to the bedroom, laying the frail body on the patchwork comforter of the canopied bed. Lowering her pale lips to the woman's throat, Darla began to drink.
The old lady looked feeble but was holding on to life, obviously deep in shock but still twitching and whimpering. Well, Darla thought, she might just be good for another feeding.
Darla adjusted her dress and hair before going back out into the chill night to look around her new surroundings.
Darla had wandered alone for several years past, a situation that did not especially please her. She had had servants before and sometimes travelled with other vampires, had even created a Childe or two but human servants were unreliable and short-lived. Darla's ill temper meant their tenure was usually terminated swiftly and bloodily; Darla did not handle displeasure well. As for her vampire offspring - young ones were often impetuous and difficult to control and brought unwanted attention. Vampires do not become old by bringing attention to themselves, Darla knew. Most newly created vampires lasted only a few months, less if they were abandoned by their Sire after 'Becoming', their bloodlust overcoming any sense of fear, lending an illusion of power and invincibility, which frankly, they did not have. Some had become a liability and those she had killed herself.
Darla walked the streets unsure of what to do next. She never really enjoyed life above, preferring the quiet security of the underworld of caves, mines and, occasionally, sewers which she sometimes shared with her own Sire, The Master. Every vampire is forever drawn to the One who 'Sires' them, their 'Becoming' re-birthing them into the Unlife, but Darla often wandered off for years at a time seeking the temporary diversions of the human world, sampling the flavours and sights of each new era but always returning eventually to the sheltered intransigence of her life below. Right now what she needed was entertainment, some new game to distract her for a while.
On this Christmas Eve the streets were filled with couples and families out visiting, shopping or attending church together. Darla spoke briefly to a young mother with two small children in tow, all happily bundled against the cold. She held out her hand, gloved in soft white kid, touching the face of the little girl, wondering what it would have been like to create a child in the normal way.
A burst of cheerful conversation and laughter drew Darla's attention. The congregation of worshippers from the small Catholic church across the street spilled out onto the footpath, icy breath and rosy cheeks testifying to the bracing frostiness of the evening. The black-clad priest stood just outside the arched doorway as his parishioners filed past, grasping hands with this one or that, smiling warmly at others. Forming little clusters, people chatted briefly as took leave of each other, hurrying to waiting carriages if they were well-off, walking briskly if not.
Darla's gaze settled on a young couple, obviously together, the tall young man holding his pretty little companion, an auburn-haired beauty of about eighteen years, possessively around her tiny waist as he guided her to an elegant but unpretentious black carriage. Holding her hand as she stepped up into the brocade-upholstered interior, he closed and latched the door once she was comfortably seated inside. Her delicate face momentarily appeared again at the carriage window as she leaned out to place a furtive kiss on the lips of her young man. He chastely kissed her gloved hand then looked up to speak to the driver who whipped up the matched pair of black geldings.
As the coach circled around him, the young man turned towards Darla, watching as the vehicle moved away. There was something in his expression, an intensity, at once rare and familiar, which fascinated Darla. He continued to stare after the coach until it was out of sight then, smiling to himself, began walking in the opposite direction. On an impulse, Darla followed.
Part Two: Ariel.
Back at the house, Darla found that the old woman had passed away while she had been out. Oh, well, she thought, no great loss. Old blood tasted thin, like bird's blood; not very satisfying. The town was so full of other life, hearty and vigorous. And all wrapped up for Christmas., Darla chuckled.
After disposing of the body in the marginally less hard-packed soil of the vegetable garden, Darla went back upstairs to move her few personal things into the main bedroom. Her luggage had been delivered from her previous lodgings earlier that evening. Removing several new dresses from the larger of two trunks she pulled out a cloth bag containing various bits and pieces she had assembled over the years. Amongst the eclectic collection was a small book of the Catholic catechism, its leather cover battered and torn, the pages thick and ragged with use. She smiled to herself as she recalled the night she acquired the little volume.
Darla often took some small trifle from her kills, sometimes cash or jewellery to sell, sometimes an item to keep for a while if it amused her. The prostitute she had fed on that night had cried piteously, clutching the tattered tome to her breast as Darla drained the life from her. The woman had grabbed the book, around which was wrapped a cheap set of rosary beads, from the bedside table in her struggles; a final attempt perhaps to gain a little credit towards the salvation of her soul in the last moments before meeting her Maker. The little book and beads had fallen from her lifeless hands onto the floor. The tuppeny whore had almost no personal items worth taking but for some reason, perhaps just out of spite, Darla had kicked aside the rosary but picked up the little book.
Voices raised in a joyous hymn then hushed for the final solemn prayer were followed by the assorted sounds of the little church's largest congregation of the year pouring out of the double doors and on to the street. Darla stepped out of the shadows into the flow of departing faithful, searching the crowd for the young couple she had observed the night before.
After a few minutes Darla caught sight of her quarry. This time the girl was on the arm of an elderly man, probably her father, while her beau was with a slightly younger couple and another young girl of about thirteen years, evidently his parents and sister. The two groups talked for a while then moved off in opposite directions, the young lovers turning to steal a last glance at each other as they headed for their respective coaches.
Darla moved quickly towards the young woman and her aged father who was shuffling a little unsteadily through the still-milling crowd. As the girl helped her father into their coach Darla appeared suddenly beside her, bumping into her and dropping the tattered little catechism to the ground. The girl turned around, apologising for the blunder and bent down to retrieve the book.
'Not at all,' Darla said, flashing a radiant smile. 'It was entirely my own fault for not looking where I was going. I am new to the area and am afraid I was a little confused. I am visiting a sick relative in Newbury Street and am uncertain which direction to take home.'
Observing Darla's fine clothing, the younger woman noted the unexpected contrast with the scratched and faded old book. Accepting the volume with a shy smile, Darla pretended embarrassment.
'It is rather shabby, I know, and I really should replace it,' she giggled, rasing a smile from the other girl, 'but it has sentimental value.' Holding out her hand to the young woman she said, 'My name is Darla... Darla Masters.'
'I am Ariel Connor.' The girl had the most unusual green eyes; a deep forest green edged in black. 'Are you related to Judge Masters? He has quite a large family around here.'
'Why, yes,' Darla answered, 'I am one of the Masters children.' She smiled again, delighted by the irony. 'Indeed, I am.'
'Would you like to share our carriage?' Ariel offered. 'We are going past Newbury Street.'
Darla graciously consented and by the time she alighted outside her new residence had received and accepted an invitation to dinner in two evening's time.
Over the next few weeks Ariel and Darla became fast friends. Ariel's mother had died when the girl was just six years old. As she had no brothers or sisters, or indeed any close family in the area, Ariel was starved for lively young company. Darla explained that she had been travelling on the Continent but had recently returned to care for a sick aunt whom she cared for during the day, leaving her with a nurse at night. Ariel was especially fascinated by Darla's descriptions of her travels, never having been overseas herself but expressed a hope to do so during her honeymoon.
Ariel had become engaged the previous summer to Liam, the dark, handsome young man Darla had seen outside the church. They were to be married the following spring, right after Ariel's eighteenth birthday. The girls spent most evenings together at cards, laughing and chatting, trying on new garments for Ariel's trousseau, playing the piano and singing. Ariel felt like she had gained a sister as well as a friend.
Towards the end of January Ariel fell ill. Darla, her constant friend, came every evening to sit with her, gossiping and reading, sometimes quietly singing the ailing girl to sleep. This was much appreciated by Ariel's elderly father who was himself in rather poor health and did not trust the servants to care for his daughter properly. Darla was compassionate and attentive, holding Ariel's hand, cooling her fevered brow and brushing her long auburn hair. She even insisted on bathing Ariel herself rather than allowing one of the ladies' maids to do it. Even so, Ariel grew progressively worse.
A procession of doctors proved unable to determine the cause of Ariel's consumption-like symptoms. Although she was pale and feverish, weakening further with each day spent abed, her lungs were clear and her heart remained strong.
Darla took Ariel's hot hand in hers, smoothing the girl's flushed and fevered brow with her own chill touch.
'Your hands are so cool, Darla,' whispered Ariel. 'So soothing.'
Darla's fingertips moved slowly across the overblown roses of Ariel's burning cheek, brushing away a lock of sweat-darkened hair from the afflicted girl's throat. Suddenly, Darla jerked her hand away as a jolt of searing pain lanced through her fingers and along her forearm.
Ariel's emerald eyes looked into the deep blue of Darla's, concerned. 'What is wrong, Darla?'
Darla reached slowly towards the front of Ariel's nightgown, carefully parting the lace at the neck of the garment which was unbuttoned for the sick girl's comfort, to reveal a small golden cross. It was studded with rubies and tiny pearls and hung from a fine gold chain resting against the slight curve of Ariel's alabaster breast.
'What... is that? .' Darla said, trying to keep the disgust she felt at the sight of the foul object from reflecting in her voice.
'Did it prick you?' asked Ariel weakly.
'It is nothing,' Darla said flatly, resting her throbbing left hand in her lap. 'Just a scratch.'
Ariel reached up to touch the cross, the veins of her hand blue and distended. 'Is it not lovely? Liam gave it to me on our engagement day.' The stricken girl smiled, momentarily strengthened by the thought of her fiancé. 'He said the rubies represent the blood which Christ bled for us and the pearls are his tears shed for our sins. The gold reminds us of the golden crowns which the redeemed will wear in heaven.' Ariel paused. 'He does not really believe in it himself but he respects my own devotion to God. I am hoping, after we are married, that Liam will be more receptive to God's promise of redemption and eternal life.'
'Perhaps I should remove it,' Darla suggested, reaching cautiously behind Ariel's neck to unclasp the chain without touching the cross again. 'I will place it here, where you can see it.' Darla draped the chain over a silver candlestick on the small table beside the bed, hanging the cross where Ariel could still view it from her bed. 'We would not want you to cut yourself, now would we?'
Despite the constant attentions of a succession of doctors, some of whom had been brought from as far away as Dublin, just three weeks into her illness Ariel died in her sleep. Darla was not seen at the house again.
While preparing the body for burial, the nuns from the local hospice noticed several small scars on Ariel's body. There were tiny bruises and traces of more recent wounds behind her knees, in her armpits and under her hair at the back of the neck.
Part Three: Liam.
Liam had been away on business for his father when Ariel first became sick. By the time he had returned Ariel was deathly ill. He came by as often as he could, sitting with her for hours at a time, often riding home in near darkness. She spoke to him often of her friend Miss Masters but the young lady never seemed to be there when Liam was present.
During her illness Ariel encouraged Liam visit the church, asking him to light candles and pray for her. This he did, knowing it eased her mind but it gave him no comfort. Above the altar hung a huge crucifix, the suffering Christ looking out over the congregation. Liam found it difficult to imagine that there was a Divinity that concerned itself with the lives of men but as Ariel's condition deteriorated he began to pray in earnest for the first time in his life.
Each day as he rode to the Connor's home Liam passed by the little stone church where he had spent so many hours stealing glances across the aisle at his lovely Ariel. He stopped in on each leg of the journey, feeling close to her there. Kneeling beneath the agonised figure of Jesus, who had suffered so much in his passion, Liam finally implored him to show pity and make Ariel well again. Lighting the candles, he gazed into the downcast eyes of the Virgin, asking her, as woman of infinite compassion, to intercede on his behalf, granting him the only thing for which he had ever genuinely prayed - the life of his love.
When Ariel died, Liam was inconsolable.
Liam had known Ariel for most of her short life as she was daughter of his father's partner in merchant shipping, Patrick Connor, whose estate they visited regularly when the older man was still active in the business. Liam remembered her as a freckled, gawky twelve-year-old; a funny, tomboyish girl who loved horse riding as much as he did. Although there was an eight year age difference Ariel had always been delightful company. Wise beyond her years, she had never let Liam take himself too seriously. Even back then she was the only person who could make him laugh, cheering him out of the black moods to which he often fell prey.
Having no female relations nearby, Ariel's father had sent her away for four years to stay with her cousin Lydia Andrews who lived in London. Almost two years ago, at the age of sixteen, Ariel had returned home ready to make her debut into local society. Liam remembered that night vividly, seeing her again for the first time after her return at a ball given by her father to introduce her as the new hostess of the house.
As the orchestra struck up an appropriate tune Ariel descended the grand staircase to the ballroom below. All eyes turned to regard her graceful entrance; she seemed almost to glide down the stairs. In contrast to the pastel coloured multi-layered broad skirts of the other ladies, their bodices blossoming with rows of lace, bows and ribbons, Ariel's simple off-the-shoulder emerald-green Empire-style Parisian gown drew gasps of surprise from the women and murmurs of approval from the men. Her long auburn hair was done up in curls and plaits in the Grecian style so popular in the London salons that season. Her only jewellery was a delicate diamond and amethyst necklace and matching drop earrings.
Liam stepped forward, bowing formally, his left hand behind his back at the waist, the other outstretched to conduct Ariel to her first turn around the dance floor. Her green eyes sparkled, marvellously complemented by the colour of her gown, her skin a perfect ivory with just a few girlish freckles still showing. Liam was enchanted and, to the dismay of many of the other young men, they danced together almost all night.
Midway through the evening, her cheeks flushed a glorious pink from the exertions, Ariel whispered quietly, 'This has been a wonderful night but I am afraid I have had my fill of parties in London.' She looked steadily into Liam's dark brown eyes, a mischievous smile on her lips. 'I would much rather be out riding across the valley or along the banks of the Shannon as we used to do when I was a child!'
By the end of the evening Liam was completely besotted.
Throughout the following summer Liam and Ariel were almost inseparable. They spent the warm days riding over the extensive Connor property, Ariel especially enthusiastic, horse riding not having been considered a suitable pursuit for a young lady during her years in London. They picnicked beside the little brook to the north of the mansion, walked the wooded areas of the estate, sometimes just sitting under the ancient oaks listening to the sounds of the little lives in the forest around them. Often they did not arrive home until well after dark.
Patrick Connor's grumbled protests on this issue were quickly soothed away by his daughter's playful kisses and sweet laughter. She was a sensible girl, he knew, and a pious one. Liam, however, was another matter, being well known throughout the county for his wild ways but Connor was certain the boy would never debase the two families' long-standing alliance by dishonouring his daughter. Even so, both households were relieved and delighted when a formal union between the two young people was finally announced.
Liam felt overwhelmed. He had never expected the intensity of the emotions that he felt for Ariel. The combination of respect and passion that he felt for her was a thing outside of his experience with women up until now. She had even convinced him to start attending church with her, something Liam had not done since he was fourteen and had able to stand up to his father on the subject. But for Ariel, he went. He could refuse her nothing.
Part Four: A Descent into Hell.
The day was overcast as the black-draped hearse and attendant carriages arrived, followed by a group of solemn funeral attendants on foot. The horse-drawn cortege ended at the stone church where Liam had prayed so fervently and so fruitlessly. Six pallbearers supported the mahogany coffin draped with a silk cloth and covered in Arum lilies and white roses, carrying their piteous burden down the aisle to place it on a velvet-padded catafalque in front of the altar. The choir began to sing as the men turned and solemnly filed out.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see. .
Liam stood impassively in the one of the front pews, his hands clasped in front of him, his face unreadable. Finally, he tore his eyes from the bitter sight, bowing his head, though not in prayer. 'My heart must be in that box,' he reasoned. 'It surely is no longer within me.'
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed. .
Raising his eyes he gazed expressionlessly at the tortured and bloodied countenance of the crucified figure of paint and plaster suspended, life-sized, from the wooden cross above the altar where the Mass was being conducted. 'How fitting,' he thought. 'How like the false faith it represents.' He looked up at the stained glass windows that lined the church on two sides, the twelve scenes showing the Stations of the Cross strangely darkened by the lack of sunlight from outside. 'You and your damned religion!' he seethed inside. 'All form but no real substance; only the semblance of hope! In the end just broken promises and broken hearts!'
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home. .
Liam had almost not come to the church today. Only his mother's tearful entreaties had convinced him to set foot again in the place which held such a painful confusion of memories. He swore this time would be the last.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures. .
He looked over at Ariel's distraught father, the old man barely remaining on his feet despite the support of friends on either side, each of whom held onto one of his arms. The old gentleman seemed to have shrunken in on himself in the days since Ariel passed away. What was left for him now? No wife, no child. How was this God's merciful love?
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace. .
And for Liam himself? What now? All his plans were bound up in his expectation of a life with Ariel; all his hopes and desires invested in a future that now could not be. Ariel's virtue and beauty had swept away his former life of self-indulgence and defiance. Right now, he was unable to think even beyond the end of this day, let alone imagine what he might be doing a week, a month, a year from now.
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun. .
The Mass was only part-way through but Liam could stand it no longer. As the hymn ended and the rest of the assembly took their seats, Liam turned and stalked out of the chapel.
Out in the churchyard Liam stood by the low stone wall that separated the cemetery section from the woods behind, drinking whisky from a silver flask. From there he could see the caretaker seated on a gravestone, smoking a pipe, having just finished removing the last few spadefuls of earth from what was to be Ariel's final cold resting place. After a few puffs of the thick blue smoke the man walked over to Liam and spoke. 'Can I offer you a pipe, friend?'
Liam shook his head. The fellow leaned against the rock wall next to Liam. After several minutes he spoke again. 'Looks like rain, young sir.'
Liam looked up at the sky as though he had not noticed the lowering thunderheads before. 'Aye,' he said. More minutes passed. Hymns could be heard, faintly, from the church nearby. Looking at the man, Liam said, 'Do you believe in God?'
The man puffed his pipe a time or two as though considering. 'Aye, I reckon I would have to say I do.'
Finally, Liam asked the question for which he knew there was no answer. 'Then why do you think He sees fit to destroy what little beauty there is in the world?'
Another pause as the caretaker tapped out the remains of the spent tobacco against the wall. 'I reckon no one can know the reason for that, sir.' He stood up and started to walk away, then stopped and turned back to face Liam. 'Me old Mam used to have a saying. "Sometimes God reaches down and plucks the petals from his roses". Maybe that is all there is to it.' He turned again and walked off, picking up his shovel on the way.
Liam hung his head and cried.
One of the black-chased carriages waiting on the road beside the graveyard was not empty. In it sat a woman dressed in black, gloved and heavily veiled. A slight smile played unseen across her pretty face as she watched Liam's anguish grow.
'This is an obscenity!' Liam roughly pulled away from his father who had placed a restraining hand on his arm after his son had interrupted the graveside service with his outburst. He could stand it no longer; listening to the platitudes and empty, comfortless words that seemed so trivial compared to the sight of Ariel's coffin being lowered by black cords into the lifeless dirt.
Storms threatened but no rain fell, the weather matching Liam's mood completely. He walked the long dusty road from town heading towards home. His parents' coach eventually caught up with him but he refused to get in. A mile or so from his father's modest property was an inn, the 'Highwayman's Rest'. Liam went inside for a whisky, hoping a drink or two would take the edge of his grief for a while.
He did not make it home that night.
Over the next few weeks Liam returned to his old wild ways with a vengeance. Drinking, gambling, fighting and whoring became the round of his days and nights. What little time he spent at home was devoted to fighting with his father over money or lashing out at his mother if she dared mention faith or religion. Only his young sister Cathie, who adored him, remained untouched by his foul temper - so long as she kept out of the firing line. In his new world of pain the only emotion he could rouse within himself was the desire to cause pain to others.
Darla had ensured that she never met Liam while Ariel was alive but she was never very far away from him now. She watched Liam's dissolution with relish, waiting for the time when he would reach his lowest point before moving in for the kill - and the creation of her new Childe.
It had been days since Liam had been home and he was broke once again. At a local tavern he drank whisky followed by pints of Guinness with the crew of an English merchantman, the 'Robert Locksley', who were recently returned from a voyage to the Pacific Islands and had put into port to offload some cargo before heading round the coast to Portsmouth. Most of the local Irishmen refused to drink with the detested English but Liam had no such reservations. Flush with pay from months at sea, he allowed them to buy him drinks all night.
Next morning Liam awoke on the floor of the room he kept at a boarding house in town. How he got there he did not recall but he obviously had not had the capacity to get himself onto the bed. His last coherent memory was of drinking at a waterfront establishment that was so vile and repugnant that the proprietor had not even bothered to give it a name. What the patrons called the place was too vulgar to repeat.
Heaving himself up into a sitting position Liam felt a dull throbbing pain in his right shoulder. Getting to his feet he steadied himself for a moment then shuffled over to a small looking-glass tacked to the plaster wall above the sideboard which held his shaving implements.
His white linen shirt was unbuttoned, grimy and stained with unidentifiable substances. The back felt stiff and sticky, tearing wetly and painfully as Liam pulled it off his wounded skin. Looking over his shoulder into the mirror he saw a huge bloodied patch, partly scabbed over, with what looked like extensive bruising underneath. Dipping a washing flannel into the large bowl of cold water on the sideboard he began easing the viscous gore from the area he could reach. Slowly he began to distinguish a pattern under the red smear. Not a bruise then, he realised, but a tattoo.
As the design became clearer the events of the previous evening began to flood back.
As Liam sat at the bar drinking the finest Irish whisky that English coin could buy, the idea had been put to him. His drinking companion, Bertie, a nineteen year old Able Seaman from the 'Robert Locksley' had patiently listened again as Liam recounted his tale of lost love; a familiar refrain from evenings past. Upturning his empty glass on the scarred timber of the bar, Liam turned to Bertie. 'Another dead sailor!' he laughed.
Bertie grinned and motioned the barkeep for another round. As their glasses were refilled, Liam slipped off the ring he wore on his right hand, holding it close to his rapidly blearing eyes as they filled with tears.
'She ga' this to me, Bertie! My Ariel did, when we were engaged!'
'Tis a pretty thing, right enough,' Bertie replied, taking the white gold band and squinting at the unfamiliar design. 'Wha's it mean?'
'Gol'smith over in Claddagh made it speshly, 'long with a little gold cross for me sweet love. Said the crown is for loyalty, the heart for love and two clasped hands for friendship.' Liam sighed deeply. 'S'all I have left of her now.'
Bertie stared intently, if a little unsteadily, at Liam. 'You should have somethin' more... permanent...' he offered, nodding sagely and patting Liam on the shoulder. 'You know... to remember her by.' He unbuttoned both of his cuffs and rolled back the grubby white linen shirtsleeves to reveal a dark blue design tattooed on each forearm. 'Many of the lads who put to sea these days have 'em.' One arm sported a three-masted sailing ship cresting the waves; the other bore a bleeding red heart over a Celtic cross. 'If a fellow goes overboard, you know, an' drowns,' here he crossed himself, 'or dies in some heathen place, he will have somethin'... religious... as it were, on 'im, for the comfort of his soul, like, when he meets 'is Maker.' Bertie straightened his sleeves again and re-buttoned his cuffs. 'A cross an' beads can be lost but this... well, it's permanent.'
Liam shook his head. 'I don' believe all that superstitious nonsense,' he said gruffly. 'An' I'll not have any of that so-called "holy" shite marked on me, neither!'
'Well, it don' have to be religious,' suggested Bertie. 'You can have any sort of thing. Anything at all.' He slapped Liam on the back. 'Our ship's chaplain is a master tattooist. Learned it in the Feejee Isles, he did.' Sliding off his stool at the bar, Bertie grasped Liam by the arm. 'Come on, mate! I'll get us a bottle o' rum to warm us on our way.'
Liam was surprised to find the merchantman bustling with activity at this late hour. Sailors tramped up and down the gangplank by lamplight, hauling barrels, sacks of grain and bolts of cloth aboard to be stowed away below decks. As the two of them made their way up the sagging boards Bertie explained that the ship was due to sail at the turn of the morning tide.
Up on deck Liam sat down heavily on a huge coil of rope while Bertie spoke to the Quartermaster. Returning to Liam, Bertie said, 'The Chaplain will be back on board directly.' The walk from the tavern had cleared Liam's head somewhat and it was beginning to throb. Taking out a wad of tobacco he began to pack a pipe.
Through the sweet blue smoke that filled the air around him, Liam saw a huge sweaty sailor, about fifty years of age and covered with filth and grime, make his way up the gangplank, a large sack of grain slung over each shoulder. Swinging the hessian bags down on top of a pile of others on the deck, the man strode over to where Bertie and Liam sat. Picking up a wooden bucket from beside the coiled ropes, he upended it over his head, pouring the salty water over himself, sluicing off the sweat, dirt and chaff dust, snorting as he rubbed his sinewy hand over his face and through his close-cropped hair.
As the muck washed from the man's tanned skin, an extensive tattoo became visible; an enormous crucifix of a bleeding Christ with Mary and Peter kneeling at the base. Noticing Liam's obvious surprise, the giant lifted his arms and turned around. The tattoo continued around his sides to an even larger scene across his broad back - the Roman soldier Longinus with his spear pointed into the dirt and head bowed. On banners above and below the main design was written in Old English lettering the scripture 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do.'
As Liam stared up at the powerful six foot five frame of the now-grinning sailor, Bertie turned to him. 'Liam, meet Father Eusebius.'
The Chaplain's private quarters below deck was tiny. The six by eight foot cabin was intended only to accommodate the priest and one of his seafaring flock. Bertie perched on the bunk while Liam and Father Eusebius took the two chairs directly under the hurricane lantern suspended from the low timber ceiling.
After hearing Liam's story Father Eusebius spoke, his soft resonant Welsh accent at odds with his rugged frame. 'Bertie told you, I hope, that I do only Christian images?'
Liam glanced over his shoulder at the younger man. 'I thought you might make an exception,' Bertie piped up, 'under the circumstances.'
The older man grunted in reply. Turning back to face Liam, he said, 'What did you say the gal's name was?'
'Ariel,' Liam replied.
'Ariel, eh? A pretty name, that is.' Taking a sheet of thick parchment from a small escritoire behind him and a sliver of charcoal for drawing, Father Eusebius began to sketch as he talked with Liam. 'Do you know the meaning of it?'
Liam thought for a moment. 'I know Ariel was a figure in one of Mr Shakespeare's plays; a spirit of the air who did the bidding of an old magician on an island.'
'Aye. "The Tempest". I know it,' the priest sketched with confident, broad strokes of the charcoal. 'What else?'
Liam shook his head slowly. 'I do not know.'
'The name "Ariel" means "Lion of God",' Father Eusebius looked steadily at Liam. 'Like St Mark.' Liam dropped his gaze but the priest continued. 'You do not want a religious picture. I know that,' he said, not unkindly, 'but you know I will do only sacred designs. I have in mind a picture from a holy book which I think might be acceptable to us both.' He offered the rough drawing for Liam to see. 'Let us see if this will do as a compromise.'
Liam stared at the design for a few moments, then nodded slowly.
From beneath the bunk-bed the priest dragged a large brass-bound oaken chest. Opening the heavy lid, he removed a long wallet tied with a thong and a small bottle of dark blue ink which he placed on a small side table. Untied, the rolled leather wallet contained a selection of tattooing implements, wood or ivory-handled tools ending in clusters of thin, sharp needles. Some looked like tiny brushes while others ended in a single tine.
'I know that picture,' Liam said at last. 'I have seen it somewhere before.'
'Take off your weskit and shirt,' said Father Eusebius, 'then turn your chair so your back is to me.' He reached overhead to turn up the flame in the hurricane lamp, illuminating the area in a bright yellow light.
'Have you been to Trinity College up in Dublin?' he asked as he motioned Bertie to hand him the opened bottle of rum.
'Aye. I studied there for a year,' Liam replied. 'Well, nine months really. Until they kicked me out.'
Father Eusebius offered Liam the bottle. 'Here, take some of this. You are three sheets to the wind already, I see, but this will dull the pain a little.'
Liam was not feeling much of anything by this stage but took a decent pull at the fiery liquor anyway. Father Eusebius took back the two-pint bottle and tipped a splash of rum onto Liam's shoulder over the area to be tattooed. Selecting from the toolkit an instrument of five very thin needles bound to a handle of bamboo and ivory, he poured a little of the rum over the needles before taking a hefty swig himself. He dipped the needles into the tiny bottle of ink.
'I did my theology studies there over thirty years ago,' said the priest. 'The design is from one of your own Irish treasures - the Book of Kells. I trust you know of it.'
'I saw it in the library. It was kept in a glass case and the custodian turned a single page each day.' Liam grunted as Father Eusebius began to puncture the skin of his shoulder, over and over, as he transferred the design, freehand, to Liam's back.
'Quite so,' the old man said. 'The manuscript is so beautifully illuminated, the designs of such intricate delicacy and perfect proportions that it was believed for centuries that the book could have been written only by angels.'
As he worked on the tattoo, the winged lion of St Mark over a large letter 'A', Father Eusebius smoked several pipes and drank freely from the bottle of rum but his hand remained steady throughout the three hours it took to complete the design. When it was done he refused to take any payment, saying it was bad luck to accept money for what he considered was part of his calling. He did, however, willingly accept the rest of the bottle of rum.
Several days later:
The crunch of his fist on the other man's teeth and snap of furniture breaking beneath them as both men tumbled to the floor of the tavern was satisfyingly real. Liam had felt little enough in the days since leaving his father's home for the last time and drunken fights at the 'Highwayman's Rest' provided some small outlet for his increasingly vile temper. Whether he gave pain or received it mattered not at all. Anger, hate and aggression masked other emotions that he was unable to face and he had them in abundance.
Hauling himself up from the dusty floor he again caught sight of the pretty blonde woman who sat so calmly by as he and the other high-spirited lads prepared to wade back into the fray. She was looking at him, smiling a wry little smile. Momentarily he wondered what an obviously well-bred young lady was doing frequenting a low establishment like the 'Rest'. As a punch caught him sharply across the jaw his mind returned to the business at hand.
In the early hours, after Liam and the other unruly lads had finally been ejected from the tavern, he wandered a little unsteadily along a deserted alleyway leading back to his room at the boarding house. No doubt he would raise the ire of the landlady once again by beating at the door to be let in at this hour.
Somewhere close behind him Liam heard a carriage draw up then a quiet command and the snort of horses when it started up again, as though someone had alighted. The sound of soft footfalls caused him to turn around. In the shadowed archway he could just make out a petite figure in yellow silk. It was the pretty golden-haired woman who had watched him with such unruffled amusement at the tavern earlier that evening.
What is it you want from me, my lovely, he thought, smiling at the possibilities that raced through his whisky-addled mind. Occasionally, wealthy young women ventured out of their gilded mansions to seek diversions not available at home and Liam was more than willing to oblige.
Darla walked slowly towards Liam, that same knowing smile playing on her lips. Without a word she stepped up close, placing her small hands against his waistcoat then moving them up across his broad shoulders, running cool fingers over his neck and cheeks, drawing his face down towards hers. Liam wrapped his arms around her but, as he lowered his lips to hers, she turned her face aside whispering 'I could show you things you have never seen.'
A sudden pain made him gasp as Darla's sharp teeth penetrated his jugular. His hot blood flooded onto her mouth as a warm numbness began to spread throughout him, following the tracery of his veins backwards from the place where her lips lay against his skin. Slowly, as his blood drained from him, he began to feel a calmness flow over him, a stillness in his mind and heart that he had not experienced since Ariel's death. As he surrendered to the solace of this woman's strange embrace Liam sank to his knees on the dirty cobblestones, a travesty of the prayer he had been unable to offer up inside that little church not so long ago.
Stepping back a little, Darla drew a sharp fingernail across the milk white skin above her breast. With the other hand she guided Liam's mouth to the thread of rich red blood that welled up from the thin wound. Licking the last few drops of his blood from her own lips she leaned close, resting her newly-warmed cheek on his dark hair and whispered, 'Drink!'
Part Five: Angelus.
Liam's funeral was small, just half-dozen or so mourners, all relatives. Long after the others had gone his father stood alone by the grave thinking about the harsh words that had passed between them in their last hours together and the things left unspoken.
The simple headstone said 'Beloved son'. He wished now he had said the words.
Evening fell. The cemetery caretakers left, pulling a barrow of tools away to be stored for the night, as Darla arrived at the gravesite. Her dark blue cloak and dress of palest blue echoed the pallid moonlight shining down from the deeper indigo of the night sky.
Presently the soil piled atop the freshly filled grave stirred. A hand emerged, then a lace cuff followed by the black sleeve of his funeral suit, as Liam struggled from the grave. Darla did not attempt to help. He must do this himself, she thought. Finally, his clothes and hair matted with dirt, Liam stood before her, swaying slightly.
'Welcome to my world.' Darla smiled. 'It hurts, I know, but not for long. Birth is always painful.'
Liam tried to gather his wits. He was disoriented and a little woozy as though he had drunk too much good Irish whisky. 'I could feel them above me as I slept in the earth,' he said at last, marvelling at his new sharpened senses, 'their heartbeats, their blood coursing through their veins.'
'Yes!' Darla was pleased. This stage was critical. Sometimes a Childe could not cope with the change, the 'Becoming', and it was necessary to end it immediately. Liam seemed to be adapting beautifully.
'Was it a dream?' he asked.
'A dream for you; soon, their nightmare.' Darla turned as someone approached in the darkness.
One of the gravediggers had returned, cutting back across the cemetery on his way home to tea. It was the man Liam had spoken with on the day of Ariel's funeral but he did not seem to recognise Liam now.
'What have you done!' the man cried, catching sight of the disturbed ground. 'Grave robbers!'
Darla looked at Liam. 'You know what to do.'
Advancing towards the older man Liam felt a sudden, subtle change. His senses, already heightened, seemed to expand to take in every nuance of the night around him, every sound, breeze and scent, including the hot, coppery smell of the blood pumping through the caretaker's rapidly beating heart. Staring fearfully into Liam's transformed countenance the old man started to mumble the Lord's Prayer, the only result being to anger Liam who rushed forward, biting him hard on the neck. The old man offered almost no resistance as the blood was quickly drained, aided by the force of his panicked heartbeat. Liam looked back at Darla who smiled gentle, wordless encouragement. Liam continued to feed until the man's body fell, lifeless, to the ground.
'It all makes sense now, does it not?' Darla observed.
Darla was well pleased. Liam had showed no hesitation at all. He was a natural. 'You can do anything, have anyone in the village. Who will it be?' She hoped he would guess what was required of him now.
'Any one?' he replied, smiling wolfishly. 'I thought I would take the village!'
Darla sighed, content, and thought, 'He is going to be better than I had hoped!'
Several nights later found the little village living in fear of the darkness. Almost every household had experienced sudden deaths in the night. No family had been left untouched. Wild rumours circulated and unexpected eruptions of violence broke out among the villagers as ancient, primitive fears surfaced in the face of an epidemic of unexplained fatalities.
Liam's father had finally given in to the influence of the superstitious fears infecting the rest of the village and all the doors and windows had been hung with flowering garlic and wolfsbane. He was boarding up the last of the windows when he heard a shockingly familiar voice behind him.
'You are no different to the rest of them, are you father?'
The old man turned, stunned by the vision of his dead son standing once again in the room where those last unforgiving words, now so utterly regretted, had been spoken. The cruel image of his son continued to address him.
'Cowering in their houses, boarding up the windows, smearing that foul herb in the doorways.' As his father began to back away, Liam circled around him, touching small, once familiar items. 'You would think something evil and vile and,' he seemed to search for an appropriate term, 'monstrous had taken to terrorising the village and everyone in it.'
Pointing angrily, the old man shouted, 'Begone, unclean thing! A demon cannot enter a home where it is not welcome! He must be invited!'
Liam grinned. 'That is true, but I was invited.' His eyes flickered briefly towards the hall, beyond which the front door now swung open.
His father turned, uttering a small gasp as he saw Cathie, crumpled like a broken doll, lying by the unbolted door.
'She thought I returned to her,' Liam grinned evilly, '- an angel.' I like the sound of that, he thought.
'Murderer!' The older man lunged at Liam with the hammer but was easily turned aside. Feeling Liam's unnatural strength, he began to feel real fear at last. Backing up against the wall, he silently prayed that his wife would remain all night with the sick neighbour she was visiting. He had forbidden her to attempt to return home after night fell but she had argued with him that God would protect her as she was going about His work.
'Strange.' Liam continued. 'Somehow you seemed taller when I was alive.'
'Lord, bind this demon now!'
'To think I ever let such a tiny, trembling thing make me feel the way you did.' Even under these dreadful circumstances, knowing the thing which spoke to him was no longer his son, the words pierced the old man's heart. If only he had tried harder to reconcile with Liam while he was alive, he might now not be facing this demon which possessed the likeness and memories of his own child.
Crossing himself, he cried, 'Deliver me through thy protection, Father!'
'You told me I was not a man,' Liam continued menacingly. 'You told me I was nothing and I believed you! You said I would never amount to anything. Well, you were wrong.' Standing now just inches from his father Liam's face changed, assuming the form of the demon within. 'You see, father, I have made something of myself after all.'
Grasping his father's chin in one hand, he turned the old man's head and bit deeply into the flesh.
Part Six: Angels of Death.
Darla was delighted with her new Childe. He was strong, intelligent and cunning - a predator set loose among mankind, not merely a parasite. He revelled in his newfound power, displaying the natural easy arrogance of a born hunter, a superior being. His only flaw was his desire for luxury. To Darla the world above, the human world, was a hunting ground; she preferred to live in the cool, silent spaces under the earth. Angelus loved the bustle and confusion of the crowded upper world, stalking among his prey, playing at being one of them, constantly testing his own boundaries and limits. Was this merely the exuberance of the demon made flesh? Or was this the final, subtle attempt by the human soul which still existed deep within to tempt the invading demon to self-destruction?
In a little church on the outskirts of Dublin, Darla knelt to take the communion wafer, holding out her tiny pink tongue to receive the Host. The young priest gulped hard, trying to keep his mind on the ritual, his eyes returning again to regard her piously downcast eyes, the black lashes brushing the milky skin of her cheek. Mentally, he berated himself for having lascivious thoughts and tried to keep his hands from trembling as he made the sign of the cross above her golden head.
She swallowed the wafer then turned her unfathomable blue eyes upwards to the youthful priest's brown ones. Speaking softly, she asked him, 'If one has no soul, can one still sin?'
Puzzled, he replied, 'I am afraid I do not quite understand the question.'
Holding up her hand for him to assist her to her feet, Darla grasped it tightly enough to make him gasp in surprise. 'Perhaps I can state it a little more clearly,' she said sweetly, lunging forward to tear out his throat.
As she finished drinking, Angelus came out of a back room dragging a young nun by the hair, ignoring her cries and struggles. 'There were only three but I saved you the best one,' he smirked.
'Thanks lover, but I am already full'. Darla ran a finger through the last drops of blood oozing from the priest's neck, daintily licking it from her fingertip.
Angelus looked at the little novice, her face streaked with tears, lips moving in whispered prayer. 'I do so hate to waste food,' he sniggered, casually snapping her neck and dropping the limp body to the mosaic tiled floor. The nun's face still displayed the anguish of her final moments; her arms fell to her sides, outstretched and palms upwards, mirroring the posture and face of the crucified figure above the altar.
Angelus, laughing wildly, leapt up on the altar, kicking aside the trappings of this hateful hypocrisy, scattering the candles which set alight the altar cloth and curtains nearby. Darla, considering this a wonderful jest, seized smaller tapers from in front of the statue of the Virgin, tossing them among the pews.
As they walked hand in hand into the night, the church blazing furiously behind them, Darla looked contentedly at Angelus and thought, 'This one may be something special'.
- Finis -
Author's notes: For readers interested in the history of 'haute couture', Empire-style dresses didn't appear until about fifty years after this story is set.
The word 'tattoo' was first used in the English language following the voyages of Capt James Cook to Tahiti around 1769.
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