Limousin, France, 1249: In one night, Damien La Croix loses his life and his soul, as he willingly choses Undeath rather than perish of the Plague. Once risen as a vampire, he takes his betrothed into the dark with him, but something goes wrong and Antoinette perishes. Now, Damien begins a solitary walk through the corridors of time searching for that one person to take his beloved’s place. Through Mankind’s long centuries, many women and one man cross his path, respond to his enticements, and are forced to make the choice. None survive to becomes his companion in the darkness, and so many are lost, now even Damien begins to ask himself the question: Is there no one for me to love…in spite of what I am? …for when the Night Man Cometh, Death is never far behind...
May 21, 1249
Hail, Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee...Holy Mother, Pray for us now and at the time of our deaths... Even as he muttered the prayer, Damian cursed himself as a hypocrite and a liar.
The priests teach Man is a Sinner from his first breath, cursed by our Primal Parents and born into willful disobedience against the Lord, and therefore should welcome death and its reward of heaven with open arms. Damian suffered the double guilt of his disbelief and of keeping that doubt secret.
To him, Death was the end, not the beginning, and he was sorely afraid he would be confronting that ending very soon. It was a reasonable fear, he told himself. Everyone feared death, though some might accept it more readily than others. He tried to rationalize his terror…his life was too valuable; his death would leave the Domaine de la Croix without an heir, but that was a mere shading of the truth. Damian didn’t care who died as long as it wasn’t himself. As far as he was concerned, Heaven was a lie fed to ignorant peasants to hide a stark reality discovered only too late; that death was Oblivion...a fall into bottomless darkness with no resurrection in sight, a snuffing of breath, heartbeat, and thought. Damian didn’t want that oblivion, he wanted to continue his existence...to be with his Antoinette...to live and love with her...not become food for some hungry worm waiting even now to grub in his grave.
He was a child of his Time, pampered and spoiled, accustomed to getting what he wanted. And at this particular moment, what he wished most was to live to enjoy the woman he loved. Nevertheless, in this instance, what he desired was being cruelly withheld. This time, Damian wasn’t going to get his way.
His traitorous mouth continued to pray as he’d been taught, spewing out words more and more desperate... Sweet Jesu, don’t let us die...protect us from this scourge...I call upon St. Jude Libraeus, Saint of the Impossible, Patron of Desperate Situations, have mercy and bring about this miracle, I beg you...St Christopher, have mercy, I invoke your protection against this plague...Dear Lord, Holy Savior help me!
Desperation and panic mingled with unmanly tears, streaming down his clean-shaven cheeks.
St.Damian, Patron of Physicians and my namesake, steal the power from this plague, prevent it from infecting us so my Antoinette and I may survive...oh God, I don’t want to die...!
For over a year, the Great Mortality had been in France—a year and fifteen days, to be exact—and in Limousin less than a month. If ever a Scourge from God had been placed upon Mankind, this was it. Nevertheless, no one dared question. All accepted it as something deserved, for being human if for no other reason. Sinners condemned by the mere fact of their existence to suffer and die. And be swept away into nothingness. If Damian’s doubts had previously hovered secretly in his mind, the falling of this pestilence upon the people of Limousin—his people—confirmed them with a vengeance.
Doctors attempted treatment and he asked himself, Why? If we are already condemned, why bother? Why go through such useless motions?
And if a few survived? Did that mean those were so saintly as to be allowed to live or were they simply now doubly-condemned, and the dead to be envied as destined for that much-touted salvation? He was well aware such thoughts were heretical and could consign him to flames much worse than the plague fires should he dare speak them aloud, so he held his own counsel and his ever-growing anger.
Who would he speak them to, anyway? His friend Armand? His betrothed Antoinette? Neither was allowed near his father’s estate, just as he was forbidden theirs. Some nonsense about isolation making one safer. He doubted that. If the pestilence is miasma borne on the wind as the physicians think, how can hiding ourselves away protect us? The wind was everywhere; even if a man climbed the highest peak or sank himself into the deepest well, that ebbing and flowing stream of air would find him.
All seclusion did was prevent his having the solace of friendship or love.
His desperate supplication ended, he got to his feet. Now for something more important. Going to his Antoinette. Crossing himself once more, he returned his rosary to his belt-purse and started down the aisle to the entrance, only to stop as the doors swung open. A body blocked his path, a bulky silhouette against the late evening sun.
“Pere Gervais?” Damian put up a hand to shade his eyes from the direct glare. Under its shield, he could make out the priest’s features...eyes reddened, face pale and streaked...with tears? Thinking the Father was manifesting some new phase of the plague, he took a step backward as Gervais came toward him. Damn it, if he’s infected, I’ll kill him before I let him touch me. Priest or not.
“Damian...my son...” The words were muffled by a filled throat, so low he barely heard. One hand extended. Clutching something inside.
A folded piece of vellum. A letter.
“W-what is it?” Damian’s own hand went to his side, remembering too late he’d left his sword and belt-dagger hanging from his saddle, obeying the priest’s command not to bring weapons into the Lord’s House. He stepped back, holding up his hands, warding him away.
The priest stopped. Lowering the upraised hand, he took a deep breath and collected himself.
“I’m sorry, my son. Truly I am.” A tear trickled down his cheek, making a new track across the others.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve just come from Chateau de Chevigny...”
“Non.” If the priest was called, that meant only one thing.
Gervais said nothing else, just held out the letter. As Damian snatched it from him, he let his hand drop to his side. Like a dead thing, like those in the Chateau would soon be. He stood without speaking, watching the young man rip away the seal and unfold the single sheet. Closed his own eyes as Damian’s frantic ones scanned the words placing a death sentence on all his hopes.
Damian, ma cher. I am stricken. In spite of your prayers, the Scourge is visited upon me. My maman has already been taken and I fear I will be next. As I breathe my last, I will think of you and of the life we might have had. I pray we meet again in Heaven.
Toujours je t’aime,
“It can’t be. I saw her just yesterday.” He didn’t add it had been through the bars of the Chateau’s gates. He waved the sheet. “This letter is a lie!”
“’Tis no lie, my Lord.” Gervais dared come close enough to place a hopefully calming hand on his shoulder. “I was called to the Chateau early this morning. I-I gave Lady Antoinette her Last Rites and she, in turn, asked me to deliver that letter to you.”
With the swiftness the Plague carried away its victims, it had become the custom to call in the priest as soon as symptoms manifest. Silently, he accepted Gervais’ words. His Antoinette was going to die. Instead of coming a blushing bride to his marriage bed, she would be consigned—a rotting, blood-weeping corpse—to the plague fires.
“Lies.” Nevertheless, he said again, as if repeating it would make it so. “Just as everything else is a lie...even the Scriptures we’ve been taught all our lives.”
“Lord Damian!” Gervais staggered as if he’d been struck. Clutching the rosary at his belt, he sucked in the strength to speak. “Listen to yourself. You speak blasphemy.” He looked upward, clasping the length of beads. “Father, forgive him. ’Tis his grief speaking.”
“Grief? Aye, I’ve grief. A great one. I’m losing the woman I love, damn it! And I can’t even tell her goodbye. I have to receive her last words in a letter.” He spoke the word as if it also held pestilence. He wouldn’t even be allowed to attend the funeral, for there would be none, only the plague-wagon, coming with its tolling bell. Come to carry his Antoinette to the fire.
“She’ll be placed in the de Chevigny crypt. She won’t be burned.” He hadn’t realized he spoke the words aloud until Gervais said that.
“It doesn’t matter. She’ll still be dead. Dead—and not my wife!” Damian flung the letter to the ground. Looking around wildly, he allowed tears to flow. Grief mixed with his anger. Crying because God had failed him, tears for someone lost before she’s gained. “Why is it happening, Father? I prayed...most devoutly...every day since the Plague came to la Croix. Why didn’t the Heavenly Father answer my prayers?”
He began to sob in earnest, hands pressed to his face.
“Perhaps... ” Gervais seemed at a loss for words. He left that single one fade into silence.
“Perhaps...what?” Damian’s expression startled the priest. Briefly, he appeared furious rather than grief-stricken. “Perhaps God was too busy? Perhaps he doesn’t care? Perhaps he doesn’t really exist?” He spat the words. “Why not tell the truth for once, Father?” He was ranting now, fury building with each word. “That all this—” Waving his arms to take in the now-empty pews. “—is a farce...a falsehood to make us accept dying without a struggle. Those of us fool enough to believe such deceits!”
The priest didn’t answer.
Because there isn’t an answer and he knows it. Damian dropped his hands, looking at the guilty missive, lying where he’d thrown it. He lifted his foot, crushing the paper against the floor with his boot-heel. He wanted to destroy it all, smash and grind to dust every stone of this monument to the lies fed to them all their lives. Damian began to shake, the fury inside struggling to force itself free.
“My Lord, please.” Gervais was still attempting consolation, reaching out to touch a trembling shoulder. “Come. Perhaps Confession will salve your doubts, or...let us talk...”
“Confession? Aye, I’ll confess!” Damian jerked away from the priest’s grasp. Clasping his hands together, he held them out, gripped so tight their tremor was visible. “Father, don’t forgive me for I have knowingly sinned...and I...don’t...care!” His words were a sarcastic twisting of those he’d spoken devoutly so many times. “I’ve long questioned everything and doubt it all. That doubt makes me now ignore the Matins and the Angelus...and I haven’t believed in that garbage you spout to us for a long, long time either!”
His hand clenched into a fist, raising it with such a violent movement the priest shrank back.
“Do you know why I really come here to pray each day? Would you like to know a real truth? My prayers for our survival are a test to God. If we are saved, I’ll believe, if not...” He laughed, and the sound was so bitter, Pere Gervais felt his own heart breaking. Damian raised the fist higher, looking upward as if he’d threaten Heaven. “Well, we aren’t saved, are we?” The fury took over. He rushed toward the priest who scrambled aside. “We aren’t saved! And never will be!”
Next to the door stood the baptismal fount, placed there until needed at the pulpit, so heavy it took two men to carry it. With the strength of the furious, he seized it, flinging it aside. It crashed against the wall, the marble basin cracking, leaving the carved wooden base in splinters. Water splashed, trickling across the floor.
“God’s been tested and found wanting!” He whirled, singling out something else to destroy. A pew was lifted, heaved toward a window. The precious stained glass shattered outward in a spray of colored fragments, the broken bench lodged within the frame. Other furniture was upended, thrown against the wall, smashed against pillars holding up the roof. Fragments of wood-dust floated to the floor.
Damian ran down the aisle toward the altar.
“No! My Lord, please. Don’t do more desecration.” Gervais caught his arm, was dragged by his fury, sandaled feet skidding on the stone floor. “Don’t condemn yourself even more.”
He was slung aside, sprawling against the base of a still-standing pew as Damian’s arm swept a row of candles onto the floor. Melted wax splashed and sputtered. Flames guttered, dimmed, then rose as fire leaped from one fallen candle to another.
What have I done? For the briefest moment, Damian stared at the destruction. Then, he didn’t care. To the sound of Pere Gervais’ cries for help as the flames spread to the tapestries and the wooden images behind the altar, he turned and ran for the door.
His horse was tied to a hitching-ring set to one side and attached to a picket driven into the earth. Untying the reins, he flung himself into the saddle, jerking the animal’s head toward Chateau de Chevigny.
~ * ~
The plague wagon lumbered by, pulled by two slow-moving oxen. Its masked and hooded driver didn’t look up, just tugged on the bridle of the nearest animal, moving it along. It didn’t hurry; the cart crept with the rhythmic slowness of a funeral cortege, though nowhere near as solemn or regal—plodding hooves keeping time to the ringing of the bell the attendant dully swung back and forth as he followed the wagon.
Bodies were piled high, heaved in without regard for how they landed or even if actually dead. In an attempt to contain the pestilence, a heavily-waxed cloth had been tossed over the unwieldy pile of corpses and fastened to the cart’s sides by lengths of rope. The reek of corruption, of pus and blood, vomit and rot—and decaying bodies—seeped from under its edges.
Some of the corpses had been dead for days before being discovered, the last of their households and having no one to bring them out for the wagoneer to gather. Others were tossed from windows, retrieved from the dirt and thrown onto the ever-growing pile. Only a few were carried out by family members and given up with tears and wails of grief.
Pulling his horse to a dust-stirring halt, Damian slid from its back and stopped. Even in his fury, he didn’t dare cross the path of a plague-wagon. Standing with head bowed, one hand clasped to nose and mouth to prevent inhaling death-laden air as the cart passed, his other hand raised to make the Sign of the Cross before he caught himself. No, no more of that foolishness.
A wagon wheel struck a rock, wobbling. The canvas lifted, then settled again. A body shifted, one arm falling out of the cart to swung inches above the road, fingers stiffly curved as if clawing at the dirt. Its skin was speckled and splotched, swollen with open sores from which yellow ichors still leaked. A few drops struck the soil, spattering a little puff of dust. Did he hear a faint moan, see a slight tremor of that wasted arm hanging through the staves?
And this will happen to my Antoinette! He didn’t believe she’d be placed in the family vault. It was Law now. All bodies were burned.
Antoinette, cherie, mon amour...
~ * ~
As Damian had told Pere Gervais, his last sight of his beloved had been two days before. It had been three weeks since Damian was allowed admittance to the chateau. Every day, he came to the gate, standing like a beggar waiting to be given the alms that were a sight of his Antoinette. Every day for twenty-one days he’d ridden to the church to beg God and the Holy Mother to protect them, then to the chateau to speak with her.
She always met him at the gates where they talked but never touched. This time, she stopped a good ten yards away, hands clasped to her bosom.
“Go away, Damian. The Mayor has ordered our gates locked to all but the physician.”
“The Mayor? Antoinette, the mayor died weeks ago. How can a dead man give orders?”
“The Council then...someone...I don’t know! You see the guards.” Her voice rose in a desperate shrill as she waved a hand at the two armed soldiers standing to each side of the gate. She was shouting to make herself heard across the distance. At that moment, the wind—that death-carrying air—swirled around her, then dipped, ruffling the edges of her wimple, fluttering the half-sleeves draped around her elbows. There was a sudden brilliant flash; sun reflecting off the band of her betrothal ring. Damian had chosen it himself, presenting it to Antoinette only three weeks before.
“I’m not leaving, Antoinette.” With his fist, he beat the gate’s stone pylon. “I came here to see you and I will, if I have to climb these walls!”
At that, one of the guards raised his lance and Antoinette gave a short quick cry, “Please, my love. Don’t endanger yourself any more than you already have.”
“My Lady?” Marie—Antoinette’s old nurse, now her chaperon—stood a few feet away, giving her a modicum of privacy, if being in the open yelling into the wind could be considered private. Now she plucked at the blue wool sleeve. “We must go. Your father will miss you.”
“Don’t,” Damian begged. He leaned against the gate, wrapping a hand around one of the upright iron shafts. It felt hard and cold to his skin, grains of rust from years of rain and weather flaked onto his palm. “Stay and talk to me. If this is the only way I may see you...”
Marie continued to tug Antoinette’s arm, turning her inexorably away. She allowed the old woman to lead her down the footpath toward the chateau. After walking a few feet, she broke away and turned back. Pressing her fingers to her lips, she hurled a kiss into the air, then whirled and began to run, leaving the old woman shuffling after her.
Damian was certain he felt the kiss strike his cheek. Please God the wind brings none of the pestilence with it! He watched until Antoinette reached the chateau’s looming bulk and disappeared inside. Continuing to lean his forehead against the roughness of the iron pickets, he pressed against the cold metal, letting it abrade his skin until the sun slid behind the trees and shadows lengthened.
At last, one of the guards spoke. “My Lord, you should go.”
Only then did he turn away, walking back to where he’d tied his horse to the low-hanging branch of a yew tree. Yew, symbol of darkness and death. He shivered, hoping it wasn’t one more sign.
The horse raised its head, nickering and snorting slightly. Why are the animals not affected? Some had died but it was mostly because their owners succumbed and there was no one to feed them. Starvation, not plague, killed animals. Why does it only strike their masters?
Does God favor a dumb animal over an intelligent man because he knows it won’t question Him?