My life only really began on the night it ended.
I was barely twenty years old. It was 1066. Far away from my native Saxony, Harold of Normandy was preparing a great invasion of the land that would one day be known as England. I was busy with another war, the war against the Wendt.
My father, Ordulf II, Duke of Saxony, had been warring against the Wendt all of his life. My brother Magnus and I, like any good nobleman’ sons, were war-captains. Our presence on the borderlands, leading raids and managing the lands there on father’s behalf, free him to deal with the politics being his station required. I enjoyed discussing the politics of the land, and of the greater Empire with my father, but more than anything else I loved war.
In the planning of raids, the leading of men and the giving and taking of blows I felt alive. Magnus was the better leader – the soldiers loved him and he was to be the next Duke – but I was the clever one, and good with a sword too! I was proud of my skill and felt my father’s pride. Many of us believed at the time that the true test of a nobleman’s worth lay in his prowess at waging war. We were raised to think that way.
I know differently now what it is to be a man, and a monster.
It was raining in the morning, my last day as a man – a soaking sopping rain that penetrated to the bone. I was moving a column of soldiers forward to one of our border forts. Beside me was Bernhard, a Norse warrior, a mentor and a friend. He was originally my mother’s bodyguard, escorting her as she travelled from the court of her father, King Magnus of Norway and Denmark, to Saxony. I asked my mother once if it was for him I was named; her only answer was an evasive smile. Bernhard had stayed on after mother and father wed. He had taught my brother and I how to fight, how to lead. He was gruff, a hard teacher, and eventually a good friend. I miss him still.
Our hundred strong column slogged through the misty rain, most walking and a few of us on horseback. We came to a river crossing. My scouts, sent on ahead, waved us across. The path was clear. Taking the lead, I steered my horse indo the cold water.
The scouts stood looking back at us, not looking out as they should have been. I made to move my horse ahead, to go and speak with the scouts to redress their sloppiness. I never saw the ambush until it happened.
Without warning, my ‘scouts’ – Wendts in disguise – turned through their bows on us as we crossed the river. From both sides, bursting out from the water, Wendt warriors with their bodies covered in grease to protect them from the cold, sprang to attack us. More Wendt warriors ran from cover to cut my soldiers down.
My horse was killed straight away, a spear thrust into its chest. The blood streamed out, splashing the face of the nearby Wendt warrior-chief. My broadsword in my hand, I threw myself from my dying mount straight at the giant warrior-chief.
I knocked him back into the stream, my blade scouring his bare painted chest. The wound was a minor one. To my left and right, Wendt spearman came at me. I fought fiercely, parrying this way and that in savage strokes to deflect their thrusts. In front of me the giant rose his axe.
I was quicker, thrusting my blade deep into his chest. He roared in pain, cursing me in his devil-tongue. Again, more spear thrusts kept me from finishing the giant off. I was pinked under an arm from a lucky strike. The wound troubled me little, but what I saw in front of me shocked my young red-misted eyes.
The giant, who had staggered backward from my blow, came at me gain. As I parried his axe, I saw the wound on his chest close before my very eyes. What Devil’s work was this? Again, my blade found his bare hide, and again, as I fended off the spearman to my flanks, I watched the wound I had inflicted close, as if the Devil himself healed the harm I had done.
I have never taken defeat easy, not even in the face of witchcraft, and I recall clearly even now my rage. My men were dying around me. The ambush had been well planned and well executed, but I saw the loss of my men as my fault. Only a handful of us would escape with our lives. I hoped I could be one, and that I might take a few of the men with me. But more than anything, I wanted to kill this abomination in front of me.
I threw caution to the wind. I rained a series of blows upon the giant war-chief. His skill was no match for mine. My sword cut deeply, and more than once. A vicious backswing cut the jawbone clean from his face! He fell, down into the cold waters.
But in my rage I left myself open to the spearman to my flanks. Luck, that Blessed Lady who watches over me even now, cursed and loved me in the same breath. One warrior struck before the other, his spear piercing the mail I wore and tearing into my chest. I sank down with the mortal wound. Above my head as I fell, the other warrior’s spear found his ally’s chest, and I was joined in oblivion by the unlucky Wendt.
Death was coming for me. I only laughed at what I had just seen – better to die with a smile on your face than a frown.
My blood mixed with the cold waters of the river, and darkness came to my eyes.
I awoke. It was dark. I was not dead – surprised, to be sure, but not dead.
I lay on the bank of the river. I felt… empty. I felt weak and could hardly move. My strength had gone with my blood, and the cold made me numb.
There were bodies around me, some half a dozen of the dying and dead – casualties of both sides of the ambush. I would not die alone, and took some comfort in that. My time would not be long, and I began to wonder what father and mother would say when they heard, if indeed they heard anything. I did not know if any of us had escaped the Wendt ambush.
I heard a sound on the shore. I saw movement, a man walked slowly among the wounded. I watched him, summoning the strength to speak. Was he friend or foe?
The man wore a fur cloak, but was dressed like a traveller from the south, not a Wendt, and a well-dressed traveller at that. He seemed familiar. I called to him. He turned, his hand dropping to a strange short sword he wore at his right hip. As he stepped closer he crossed into the moonlight and I saw his face.
He was handsome, regal almost. He was from the south. He had an Italian look to his face. He seemed to smile at me in recognition.
“Help me,” I called.
“I could try, son of Ordulf” he answered in a smooth voice without trace of an accent. “But from the look of your wound, you are beyond help.”
“You know me?” I gasped. He nodded in reply and stepped closer. He was pale and I saw no steam from his breath in that cold night. “Then you know I’m too good looking to die.” I coughed as spoke my jest.
“You laugh at Death, son of Ordulf?” He crouched down beside me. “Does it not scare you?”
“Everyone dies, Stranger. Why be scared?”
The stranger nodded, as if impressed.
“But I do not die tonight,” I continued in my painful whisper. “Help me.”
The stranger shook his head. He bent closer, looking at the hole in my side.
“I cannot heal this wound,” he said. “But I can ease your passing.”
“Death is never easy, Stranger. Besides… not passing,” I whispered. “Not dying. Too pretty. Live forever.”
“And what would you do with Forever, son of Ordulf, it you had it?” The stranger was quite close now. “How would you spend forever?”
I paused, but still said the first thing that came into my mind.
“Kill the bastard who did this, who killed my men.”
The stranger nodded.
“But there is more to life than revenge and war, is there not?”
I was lying dying by the midnight cold waters of a river. My men had been killed. I had watched a Wendt live through wounds that would have slain a horse and heal them before my eyes. Now, some strange Southerner wanted to talk philosophy. I figured I might as well give him an answer. It seemed as good a way as any to die.
“Yes,” I replied. Time seemed to slow and he seemed to understand my whispered answers clearly enough. “More to life. Women. Wine. Family. Keep family safe. Make them strong. Keep them safe. Find a woman. Love her. Life, Stranger, just life; that is enough reason to live.”
The Stranger nodded, satisfied.
“I can give you life,” he said, “but only of a sort, and at a cost.”
The sincerity I saw in his eyes brought home the truth of where I was and what was happening. I was dying, soon to be food for worms. I did not want to die.
“Save me,” I whispered. I was weak in my fear and in the cold. I wanted my salvation.
“I can make you a hunter in the night,” the stranger told me. I didn’t really understand. “You will hunt men, as men hunt game. You will turn from the sun, live only at night. I can give you half a life, but you will live.”
I nodded. I had no strength for talk.
The stranger repositioned himself, crouching closer to my head. And then he opened his mouth wide. He had fangs! Sharp fangs with which he bent down to pierce my flesh. The shock powered my numb limbs. I would not let some fiend take me! My hand went for the dagger in my belt. I drew and struck weakly at him, at the monster this stranger had become.
He faded into mist. My blow, weak as it was, passed right through the cloud of mist that was suddenly in the place of the stranger. If I had had the strength to run, I would have run horror-struck into the night.
Just as suddenly, the mist turned back into the stranger. More Devil-magic! And again, his mouth opened wide to reveal fangs, fangs coming closer! There was nothing I could do. I prayed God to deliver me as the monster bent to tear the flesh of my throat. But no pain came with the bite and instead I felt a wondrous bliss. As what little blood in me was drained away into the mouth of the monster, my conscious mind slipped slowly into a warm pool of blissful rest.
Death, when it came to me, came with a lover’s kiss of oblivion.
I awoke. It was dark. I was not dead – surprised, to be sure for a second time, but not dead.
I was still by the river. The stranger stood several metres away, his strange short sword in his hand and some tied-up rabbits at his feet.
I felt… strange. Something was very different. I felt like I was on fire, like a fever raged inside of me, giving rise to a great thirst.
“Welcome back, son of Duke Ordulf,” the stranger said. I stared back at him. After a moment he asked, “Can you hear me?”
“How do you feel?”
“Hungry. No… Thirsty.” My words were spoken slowly, as if speaking with wool in my mouth.
The stranger nodded. He picked up a rabbit. It did not struggle in his hand. He threw it to me. I caught it.
“Drink its blood,” the stranger said.
Drink its blood? I did not understand. But I was hungry. I could feel my hunger and thirst build with the animal so close. I snapped the rabbit’s neck and went to draw my dagger to cut it up. My dagger had gone.
“Drink its blood,” the stranger said again.
For lack of a better plan in this strange time and place, I did as he instructed. I raised the rabbit to my mouth and sunk my fangs into it.
Fangs? I had fangs? Since when did I have fangs?
A reflexive feeding mechanism took over. I sucked the blood from the rabbit like it was a ripe fruit on a hot summer’s day. The blood tasted … bland and poor, but it eased my hunger and thirst. When I dropped the rabbit, now a husk, the stranger threw me another.
“Do not kill it this time,” he said. “Trust me.”
I did as he said, sinking my fangs straight into the rabbits throat. The warm pulsing blood tasted good. Again I drained it dry. Three more rabbits replaced it before my hunger and thirst faded. I lowered the last rabbit from my face and licked my lips. I looked at the stranger. His sword was back into wrong-sided scabbard.
“What am I, stranger? Why do I drink blood? And why do I like it?”
“You have died, son of Ordulf,” he replied. “I drank all the blood from you and stilled your heart. I then gave you some of my blood and made you like me, one of the walking dead. You are a Cainite now, one of the Children of Caine, or the Gangrel clan.”
His words were strange.
“I don’t know what that means,” I said.
“You will in time. I will teach about this new life, or unlife, in time.”
His words pierced the veil of my clouded perceptions, and I knew what was different.
“I have no heartbeat! I do not breath!”
Out of mental reflex I breathed quickly and deep. It did nothing.
“I told you, son of Ordulf,” the stranger replied with a smile. “You are dead. Accept it.”
“And I told you, Stranger,” I said with a smile of my own. “I am too pretty to die.”
He laughed at that, a warm and genuine laugh at my antics. I liked the sound of his laugh. I did not know what was happening to me, or what lay ahead, but I had confidence that this man would be there to help me, that I had found a friend.
“I am Lucien, of Rome,” he said to me, a note of formality in his voice.
“And I am Lord Bernhard Billung,” I replied.
“I know, son of Ordulf. Come. There is much I have to teach you this night.”
We moved away from the riverbank, travelling in silence. After close to an hour, the smell of cooking fires and the sound of Wendt voices came to me on the breeze. The Wendt camp! Lucien gestured for us to halt in a hollow, still some distance from the Wendt.
“You will take your revenge tonight, on the one who led the ambush. He and his camp are here. I will put them in your power.”
“You can do that?” I asked. “How?”
“You will see,” he casually replied. “And in time, I will teach you how. Would you like this?”
He nodded, satisfied.
“There are things you must learn before we begin,” he began. I sat on my heels and listened, eager to learn. “The Blood that is in you now has great power. It can make you stronger, faster, more resilient to damage, and it can be used to heal your wounds.”
“The giant,” I said with sudden realisation. Lucien nodded at me as I spoke. “The leader of the Wendts, a giant warrior, healed the mortal wounds I gave him even as we fought.”
Yes,” Lucien said. “The giant is a ‘ghoul’ a man who drinks the blood of a Cainite. I have watched his war-band. They are my enemies too.”
I saw the pieces come together to make a picture.
“There are other Cainites, aren’t there Lucien,” I said. He nodded as I spoke. “They are your enemies. They feed on the men, not on animals.”
“Yes,” Lucien said nodding. “But feeding on men does not make them my enemies. We too, feed on humans.” Humans, he said, as if I were no longer one. “The one who rules over the Wendts is my enemy, just as the Wendts are yours.” Lucien’s voice grew heavy with hate as he spoke. “The Savage is the enemy of all civilisation. He is a scourge, a weed that must be removed from the garden.”
I let the silence build. I got the feeling Lucien was a bad man to see angry. In the silence, another piece of the puzzle came to me.
“You knew who I was before I said anything.” He nodded. “And you knew about this war-band, about the war-campaign.” Again he nodded. My next few words were an accusation. “Did you know of the ambush?”
He shook his head.
“I did not know. And besides, it was in the day. I could not have helped. The light of the sun burns me, as it will burn you from now on.”
“Sunlight will burn me?”
“Yes, Bernhard,” Lucien replied. “This is the half-life I told you of – feeding on blood, forever banished from the light of day, living a thousand years, unchanging, long after your loved ones have died.”
“Come again? Unchanging? A thousand years?”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “You will never age, Bernahrd. If you don’t get careless and get yourself killed, you will live forever in the half-life.”
Like any young man, I saw nothing wrong with immortality, and grinned at the concept.
“I like the sound of that. Not what about these other things you said – strength and healing?”
Lucien drew his sword. I took a step back.
“Relax,” he said. “I am going to cut you now. You won’t bleed, at least not much, but it will hurt. I tell you this so you don’t attack me. Do you understand?”
I nodded and held out my left arm. Lucien’s sword, razor-sharp, sliced my arm open to the bone. The blood pooled in the wound, but did not flow. There was no heartbeat to push the blood through my body. I stared at my wound.
“Now listen,” Lucien instructed. “I want you to think about healing the wound.”
“Just imagine the wound closing up. Picture the blood flowing to the wound and knitting the skin and flesh back together.”
It sounded silly, but too many strange things had happened for me to start questioning now. I did what Lucien said. It worked! It seemed as natural to me as breathing had. The wound closed before my eyes, just like the giant Wendt war-chief. Lucien saw the smile on my face.
“Good. Now I want you to do the same thing, channel the blood in your body. But this time, I want you to concentrate on making yourself stronger, more powerful.” I nodded and concentrated hard. “It helps to move,” Lucien said. “It helps to do something that needs you to be strong. The strength is in you it’s a part of the Blood, you just have to learn to use it.”
I did this for a while, but had no luck. I tried exercises, some athletics to work my muscles. Nothing happened.
“It’s fine,” Lucien said. “It doesn’t matter. The important thing is you can heal. Let’s just stick with that.”
“Okay. So what happened now?”
Lucien had a look on his face like a fox about to steal eggs from chickens.
“Now we hunt!”