BY VERA BURRIS
Copyright is held by the author.
THE FUTURE saint stood on the deck of the small boat, arms folded, glaring across the Channel to the British shore.
On the Gallic coast from which he’d launched, it had looked as though the sea burned, the grey expanse glowing in shades of orange and red, in competition with the sunset.
Now teetering through choppy waves, the craft drew near to the port of Raphinus, and Paul scowled at the fires on the cliffs above the beach, the blasphemous Baal fires.
“They say most of the fire ritual has been discarded, Master,” said the young follower who stood with him. “Villagers join with the observers in drink and food and it is very congenial.” His shy, hopeful smile would have melted the anger of most people, but not the rule giver for the new religion.
“Hmph!” Paul grunted, biting his lower lip until blood tinged his long white beard. “Revelry, gluttony, undoubtedly lust, the larcenous milling through the crowd to steal purses. This is what you say is better?”
The young attendant gulped. Paul’s certitude often made him feel wrong and small. This was not an incident to record for the Faithful.
“I will include it in sinful practices that our hosts must prohibit,” Paul said. He grasped the rail before him as the boat bumped against the pier for him to disembark. He sneered at the activities on the cliffs as he climbed in his hosts’ carriage. “Sinful.”
The remnants of the Druids still heated and hammered tin from local mines into a giant disc, polishing it to mirror quality. Four burly young men carried it to the top of the hill and angled it between the scorching summer sun and a mulberry bush dried for the purpose. One determined ray penetrated the hole bore into the centre of the disc to bear down on the tinder bush and black beech tree fungus until it smoldered and smoked and sparked with the young men’s breath.
In lieu of sacrifice and droning cants of old, elders lit torches from the sun’s gift of flame and ignited piles of wood lining the rocky ledge, summoning all.
It wasn’t the reenactment of Sodom and Gomorrah that Paul suggested, but ale flowed like water and none went hungry. Some couples stole away into the tall grass of surrounding leas, and anyone foolish enough to carry a purse probably lost it. Mostly though, raw-boned youth bunched together, furtively eyeing maidens wearing robes that revealed a glimpse of ankle, or were, perhaps, tighter than usual to display young curves. It was, as it had ever been, a precursor to mating.
Raum walked among the crowd, towering and red-haired, smiling at the girls with a directness that made them blush. The chieftain’s nephew had recently come to the area from their Gaelic homeland. Maidens of bridal age tittered about the handsome new resident over their butter churns and sewing, but few had spoken to him.
Through the screen of smoke and flickering flames Raum saw the girl he sought. She was ripe, at least a year into her maidenhood, but still laughing with a bevy of virginal beauties. Raum noted the sparkle in her smile and pretty flush in her cheeks and base of her throat. Maple-coloured hair gleamed in the firelight, and plump red lips hinted at recent moistening.
He threaded his way through the revelers. His eyes and throat burned from the smoke, making him so thirsty, but he shunned the drink frequently offered to him. He hurried to the maiden before she disappeared in the raucous throng.
“I am Raum,” he said, bowing before her, capturing her scent of field flowers and tree bark, tell-tale sign of Druids.
Her colour brightened, bringing subtle freckles into relief as she gave him a demure smile. She bounced on her toes in a pert curtsy. “I am Wilyn.”
A red sash criss-crossed over the chest of her drab robe, emphasizing her breasts in the Roman style, then wrapped around her waspish waist. Raum, however, limited his stare to her fire-lit face and the long line of her neck. She was ideal, but was she willing? “Angus needs you.”
Clapping, music and laughter surrounded them, but the couple eyed each other, his words heavy between them. A lump of nerves gathered just above the hollow of Wilyn’s throat, then slid down with her swallow and solemn nod.
Raum turned on his heel and walked away from the fire, conscious of her panting and scurrying behind to keep up with his long stride. A charming vixen, she was.
“What do I do? Will it hurt?” she asked when they cleared the area of the fires. The black night made it necessary to walk closer, arms brushing against each other, with only the lantern moon to guide them to the old chieftain.
Always a hardy man, Angus separated himself from the comforts of the community that he and his army had defended for years. At first, he’d used any man or woman, but now seemed to prefer young girls. The community he protected willingly accommodated him.
“You’ll sit quietly until he’s ready for you,” Raum said. “I’ll give you an unguent to numb you from the pain, and something to drink just before. It will help ease your mind, though if it’s done too soon, it would change the taste.”
Wilyn lifted her chin as they approached the sub pellibus, a tent of Roman design that translated to “under pelts”. Bear and wolf furs thrown over the wooden frame in winter insulated the enclosure. In the current season between Lammas and Mabon, furs gave way to less heavy deer and cow hides that sheltered but didn’t stifle.
Angus’s guards stood around the tent, bare-chested and powerful. Wilyn moved closer to her escort, apparently seeing him as less threatening than the other men. Raum placed a protective hand on her arm and guided her past the leering guards, into the tent.
The close quarters carried the scent of the stag skins enveloping them. A small fire blazed in the centre.
“I see you found another one. What would he do without you?” Angus’s thin, greying wife snorted. She threw a handful of herbs into the fire — lavender and chamomile to help make Wilyn drowsy — and stalked out, scowling at the young couple.
Raum seated the maiden on a small stool and produced a pouch from inside his tunic. “Your arm.”
Wilyn pushed up her right sleeve and held out her arm for him to dab with crushed lemon drop and nettles. “And if I should change my mind?”
“Then I will force him to stop,” Raum assured her as he massaged her rosy flesh. Her skin was smooth and supple, the vein a small prominent ridge in her wrist. He held her brown eyes with his own. “Do you think you will change your mind?”
“No,” she shrugged. “I understand it is a great honor to be chosen.”
“Raum,” came a demanding voice from behind a cloth screen.
“It’s time.” Raum led Wilyn behind the curtain.
Angus lay on his cot, his head bald and misshapen from decades of battle, blue eyes beady between heavy lids and bulbous cheeks, his skin ruddy. Raum frowned at his uncle’s frank appraisal of the young woman. Angus came from the rape and pillage tradition. His stare was predatory, demeaning.
“I won’t let him hurt you,” Raum promised Wilyn, quivering at his side.
He gave her a sip from a wooden cup of mead, then pulled out a keen knife from a sheath on his belt. He raised Wilyn’s arm to the level of the blade, punctured the vein and nudged her to sit on the edge of the cot.
Wilyn hissed as blood bubbled to the surface. Against her pale skin, it resembled the first red crocus gathered in snowdrifts. Licking his lips, Angus grabbed the arm. With a guttural exhale, he clamped his mouth on it, slurping her blood down his greedy throat. Raum studied her as the bright eyes muddied and her complexion lost its bloom. When Angus tried to caress her, Raum pushed his hands away.
“That’s enough,” he growled. She swayed and rested her teetering head on his shoulder with a puppyish sigh.
He picked her up from the cot and carried her to a warm bed of furs close to the fire. She whimpered, soft and weak, as he wrapped cloths around her wound and gave her the cup of mead to finish. “Drink, then sleep. I’ll take you home in the morning.”
Her depleted body shook and recoiled as Angus bounded from behind the curtain and out the tent.
“Feelin’ good enough to pound the slag.” Ribald laughter from him and his guards followed.
Raum rolled his eyes. “Fear not, Wilyn. No one will touch you. You’re my charge.”
She curled on her side, nursing her arm, and slept, placing her trust in the handsome young man from the distant land.
In the morning Raum sat in the same spot to greet her with a wide smile when she fluttered her eyes awake. “Godne mergen. I hope you’re hungry.”
She rubbed the side of her neck, her nostrils flaring as she sniffed the roasted rabbit. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry. Where is everyone?”
“Angus sent his men to clean up from the fires. He’s gone to the port to see who arrived on a vessel last night. This mutton might be rare. It was a big doe.”
Wilyn’s white teeth bit into the reddish meat. Bloody juice glistened around her mouth like signs of a deep kiss. She smacked her lips with hungry gusto. “Best I’ve ever had. I believe I like it rare.”
He grinned as he handed her a rag to wipe her hands and mouth. “I do too. Are you strong enough to leave? They’ll return soon.”
She pushed back her tangled brunette tresses and rose to her feet. “Yes, I’m ready. My mother will wonder where I am.”
Raum chuckled at the groaning impatience for her parent. They strolled through the trampled grass toward the Druid enclave.
The smell of burnt wood mixed with the salt of the sea and dewy vegetation for a scent both musky and bracing, a natural aphrodisiac. In the distance, the surf was a whoosh. Gulls flew high, while colourful jays and wrens in the meadow sang loud morning songs. Over it all was the sound of Wilyn’s fast panting.
“Is this walk too much for you?” Raum turned toward her and cradled her. “You must still be drained. I’ll carry you.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed as she was lifted into his arms. “Are all maids carried back after…that?”
He lowered his eyes to her upturned face. The tent aroma of deer hide, chamomile and lavender no longer clung to her. Her scent again was field flowers, tree bark and the unmistakable smell of excitement, hot blood. “I don’t know. You’re the only one I’ve escorted the day after.”
“Oh.” It wasn’t so much an exclamation, but an unasked question, a challenge for him to say more.
Raum lifted a corner of his mouth in a half smile, taking the bait. “Are you promised to anyone?”
“No,” she answered more quickly than her mother would have approved of. “That is, I don’t think I am. I was, but John went away and hasn’t come home.”
She hid her eyes beneath thick, sable lashes. Raum pulled her body closer to his own. “What happened?”
Wilyn shrugged. “I don’t know. He hasn’t been seen in weeks, not long before your arrival.”
“Are you disappointed? Worried?”
She lowered her voice when she answered. “He was never my choice, except that he would take me from here.”
Raum grinned again. “I see. You hoped for more than life in the trees?”
Wilyn sidled her eyes to him, not responding, save for fingertips drawing soft patterns on the back of his neck and her heart beating against his chest. “And what of you? Did you leave maidens weeping when you left? Have you had adventures with women on your trek here to your uncle?”
He snickered. “It has been a long time since I’ve been close to a woman.”
“I don’t believe that. You’re too young for it to have been long.”
Raum didn’t answer, spotting his uncle talking to sailors at the wharf.
The whoosh of the surf became a crash as they passed the cliffs where Angus’s men buried debris from the previous night’s revelry.
“I can walk from here,” said Wilyn when they reached the treeline.
He righted her on her feet. “Shall I come with you? I can explain where you’ve been.”
Wilyn shook her head and held up her arm. “I have this for proof.”
Her eyes had reclaimed their sparkle, like sunlight through dark honey. It was remarkable after what had happened to her hours ago. She had a strong and resilient constitution. He’d been right that she was ideal.
“You’ve recovered well,” he said with a bow. “I believe you will be fine now. I believe you will always be fine. Good day to you, Wilyn.”
“Good day to you, Raum.” She turned away from him toward the grove of beech trees and her mother’s hut.
“I’ll see you soon,” he called after her. She threw him a knowing smile.
The early morning sun warmed his skin, and the tide grew to a roar in his ears as he headed for the coast. He pulled up the hood of his tunic.
“Just another prophet,” chuckled Angus when he met him on the cliff path from the beach. “He’s been under house arrest for two years. Thinks he’s going to convert the nobles, but Pudens and Claudia will never abandon their Roman gods.”
Raum frowned as he walked back across the lea with the older man. Angus was a fierce fighter, but never thought beyond the next punch or stab.
Pudens, a Roman officer, and his wife, daughter of the British Isles, were ambitious and smart. In Rome they probably wouldn’t forsake the multiple gods worshipped by the elite, but in Kent, would they embrace the monotheist trend? If the nobles did follow a strict tenet, would they force it on the people? Raum liked Raphinus because of the lack of common beliefs — the dwindling influence of the Druids and the reliance on the amoral Angus that had the community proffering their daughters, rather than shielding them from him. What might it mean if that should change?
“They’re already Christians!” Angus shouted a few days later, again bed-ridden and complaining of ailments he believed only a maiden’s blood could cure. His outrage might have been a third body in the tent, so strong it was. “He’s been under house arrest in their home in Rome!”
Raum nodded. He had already confirmed Paul’s confinement at Pudens’ and Claudia’s Palatium Brittanica and that they had returned earlier to prepare for his visit.
“They’ve issued new rules for everyone, spluttered Angus. Do you know what one of them is?”
“What?” Raum asked, pouting Angus wine, though of course, he already knew what would most upset the aging chieftain.
“Eating blood is a sin. The villagers won’t give it to me anymore,” the warrior finished on a near whimper. “I don’t think I’ve told you before, Nephew, that I used to drink the blood of soldiers I’d defeated.”
Raum rolled his eyes with his back turned to the older man. It wasn’t a rare practice for victors to take from their conquered, believing it imbibed them with the strength of their fallen enemies.
It was hoped, in fact, that banning exsanguination would discourage war and conquest, so Christians would live peacefully.
“We thought it made us stronger,” Angus continued, “but I couldn’t have known how it felt to taste a maiden, to touch the soft limb and bite through it to reach the sweet blood.”
The addict wailed as Raum gave him the wine. “They make me young again, Raum. What will I do without them?”
A hooded mass traveled to Kent the next day to hear the prophet. The Druid elders hoped to meet with Paul to convince him that their rituals derived from the same Hebrew source as his own, thus avoiding harsh judgment.
Raum joined them but, scanning the group, he saw no maple-coloured hair and didn’t smell that enticing combination of flora and hot blood. He shook the dirt from his sandals. He hated walking long distances with pebbles and earth mounding under his toes. He hated the direct sun penetrating his robe to sear his skin, like the mulberry tinder, but it was important to see the prophet.
“You must repent,” came the voice rising over the sound of the crowd. “You must remove evil from your lives.”
Raum looked forward to the gates of the town where Paul stood. Their eyes met over the distance. Paul’s gaze pierced him like the ray of sun through the mirrored disc.
Raum dropped his eyes from the prophet and inched toward the back of the group. He wasn’t leaving because of Paul, he told himself, but If Wilyn wasn’t there, it was a good time to talk to her alone, and he had much to say to the maiden.
He melted from the pilgrimage and hastened back to Raphinus, finding her in the meadow.
She was a sylph in the high grass in a blue-green gown, her golden-brown hair blowing in the wind, bonny and timeless.
“Good day to you,” he said, bending his tall frame in a suitor’s bow.
Her eyes were the brown in the wet centre of a sunflower, her smile bolder than that from their first meeting. “Good day, Raum. I wondered when you would seek me again. I thought, perhaps, another maiden had caught your eye.”
“My eyes see only you,” he assured her, as her unique scent reached his nose. “I followed the crowd to Kent but flew away when I didn’t find you with them.”
“I’m supposed to be there, but I dropped behind while my mother gossiped and I came back here. It’s much too fine a day for sermons, don’t you think?’ She spread her arms and twirled, seeming to know the beauty of the day enhanced her own.
He grinned. “It’s pleasing to hear you say that. Angus needs you again.”
“And what will I receive if I go with you?” she asked with a teasing tilt to her head. “Consuming blood is prohibited now, as is giving it. I should be rewarded for defying the prophet and royal couple.”
Her calculating nature, her willingness to break the rules if it benefitted her pleased Raum. “Yes, you should. What if I could find your betrothed, and offer something else as well?”
He took her arm, telling her all, as he led her to Angus.
“Gwaed Gariad!” “Blood lover!” screamed the crowd gathered around the tent. Their torches burned like miniature Baal fires or the pits of Hell to which they would send their old protector. “You must die!”
“I’ve done nothing!” Angus shouted in response, brandishing his sword against the mob that included his own guards and wife.
“My Wilyn was bitten last night,” cried a chubby woman with faded chestnut hair and eyes. “Her neck shows teeth marks. She had those bites when she was first here, before Paul came. You ate her blood again.” She pointed a stubby finger. “Sinner!”
“No, not like that,” Angus protested, swinging his sword wildly as the horde advanced. “I only had a small drink from her arm. That’s all my nephew permitted.”
“Liar,” they chanted. “Sinner!” His lieutenant drove a dagger between his ribs. The weakened fighter crumpled as the crowd cheered, blood spurting from the wound and reddening his clothes.
Angus clapped a hand to the side of his body, dying eyes roaming the faces of those for whom he’d many times risked his life. With his last breath, he brought his fingers to his mouth to lick his own blood.
“He must never rise again,” screamed the crowd. His guard ripped a bough from the tent frame and broke it over his knee, leaving the ends sharp and jagged. The lieutenant used a rock to pound the stake into Angus’s body, pinning him to the earth. The mob tossed their torches onto the tent, setting it and the Gwaed Gariad ablaze.
Raum sat in vigil over Wilyn, awaiting her death. When her heart beat its last, he leaned over and opened his mouth wide, clamping his teeth down on her neck. Her blood warmed his throat. Her body begged for his touch, for renewal.
All the desire he’d felt since first seeing her, all she’d confirmed with her reaction to him, her eagerness for his offerings — there was no more suppressing it. His arms encircled her as he lapped and kissed her throat, willing her to respond as she had when she’d exacted promises from him, before lowering her collar.
Pressed against her, he knew the moment of her revival in a slight jolt of her lithe body and a contented sigh, as her arms snaked around his neck. “Was it better than that first night while I slept?” she whispered in a silken tone that would lure man, woman or child.
“Yes,” he said, licking the trickle of fluid from the puncture. “And better than yesterday, after Angus nursed.”
She rolled her eyes. The feral glint that only he had seen before was more obvious. “Angus could learn from you. It’s laughable now to think of you as his nephew.”
Raum snickered. “I’m old enough to be his grandfather’s grandfather, but he believed me because he wanted to be strong and young again.”
“And believed that drinking blood could do it,” she said with a sensuous smile.
He pulled her to her feet and draped her long black cloak over her shoulders. “That’s only for you and me, my dear. It was a fateful day when I met your John and allowed him to speak of his comely betrothed, with a fierce spirit he looked forward to beating down. I’ve kept him for you close by while training the old man. John will be your first bite.”
She ran her tongue over her lips, and the scent of her hot, excited blood overwhelmed that of tree bark and field flowers.
He cradled her face in his hands. “You’ll always be this beautiful. I’ve searched for you for ages. You’re mine for eternity.”
She lifted her fiery chestnut eyes to him. “And you’re mine, along with your world of adventure and luxury and the power to give men such as John what they deserve.”
The setting sun dropped from view in the open doorway, the moon blinked to life in an opposite window and Raum nodded.
He lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her as few maidens were ever kissed before marriage. She slid her lips over his and opened her mouth to accept his tongue, even nipping it with her newly sharp teeth. She was ideal, not for the old chieftain or the young brute, but for him. “Now, we must hurry. They’ll return soon from killing Angus.”
“Yes, my love.”
They ran from the hovel and bounded through the grove of beech trees, more fleet than the animals who scurried from their path. Arms outstretched like wings, they leapt from the cliffs, leaving the community raging and the righteous fire burning behind them.
From his boat to return to Gaul, the future saint scowled at the fire from the cliffs. The people of Raphinus and Kent were already back to their sinful ways. “I shall send a strongly-worded epistle to them.”
He looked up as a pair of large, bat-like creatures soared overhead. Their screech might have been laughter.
Vera Burris lives in an empty nest in Central Kentucky with my husband. She studied journalism and worked as a reporter before becoming a state employee, from which she is blessedly retired. She has has self-published two novels under a nom de plume — another biblical historical fiction and a YA murder mystery.