We are defined by the things we fear. This symbol, these two planks of wood, it confounds me. Suffuses me with mortal dread. But fear is in the mind. Like pain, it can be controlled. If I can face my fear, it cannot master me.
The Master: Nightmares
Belgium, 18th June 1815
There were gates. After what felt like an eternity of tramping through the sliding, sticky mud, the rain sheeting down to blind and confuse him, the night filled with restless shifting, the chink of metal against leather, sharp laughter and distant shouts – the noises of a great, unseen army all around him – there were gates, rough wood planks, pale against the darker brick. And then a challenge.
‘Halt! Who goes there?’
It was the unmistakable accent of Wapping, the words no different to the ones he had heard used a hundred times before, yet something about the urgency, the sheer, bloody reality of them here outside a farm building in Belgium left John in no doubt that if he answered wrong he would be met by a threshing machine of musket balls, tearing into his wet, cold flesh.
And a voice the other side of the gate muttered ‘It’s young Windy, must ’a decided to come an’ piss down the Crapauds’ musket barrels after all.’
‘Gawd help us.’
Then there was a thumping scrape and the gates juddered and shook and one gate swung open a narrow crack. John edged inside – the group of men behind the gate re-slinging their muskets as they saw his face, then turning away, slamming the gates shut and dropping a heavy bar in place.
Corporal Graham looked at him with the sneer he normally reserved for a man found with a missing flint at parade. ‘Morning, Mr Price.’
Morning? Yes, he supposed it must be past midnight. These men looked tired. And yet behind the tiredness was an ease, a confidence in who they were and what they could do, even the ones who had been Johnny Newcomes a few weeks ago, as green to the regiment as John himself.
‘I lost my horse,’ John said and then cursed himself as Graham’s look of contempt deepened. It was a foolish thing to have said, no business of the man’s that the horse had slipped and staggered in the confounded mud, vanishing into the darkness before he could recover from the fall.
‘We’ll be sure to bring it in – if it turns up,’ Graham said.
‘Well I don’t think it is very likely to do so.’
‘Don’t you, Mr Price?’ On Graham’s cheeks were the dark smears of powder burns, and when he shifted his hold, hefting his musket a little more comfortably, John noticed a round hole on the edge of Graham’s sleeve, burned black about the edges.
John pulled himself together. ‘Where is the Lieutenant-Colonel, corporal?’ He must report at once, face the inevitable and then try to concentrate on what needed to be done.
‘Couldn’t rightly say, Mr Price. He’s all over – seeing to the defences.’
Oh God, vital work for which they would have needed every man – every officer especially.
‘You could try the chat-oo, sir,’ the man behind Graham suggested.
‘Thank you…’ John peered, and the face did seem vaguely familiar, but the man’s name escaped him. ‘Yes, thank you. I will.’
‘That way, sir,’ the man said, pointing out into the dark and wet of what looked like a farmyard.
There was just enough light seeping out from various doors and windows to show him barns and open fronted sheds, and some small square building in the middle of the yard that looked like a dovecot. It could have been any farm back home, except for the figures in red coats along the wall, and the toc-toc as they chipped at the ancient bricks with picks and farm implements. Making loopholes.
The biggest building must be the château, and, resisting the urge to skulk around the edge, clinging to the walls like a timid cat, he set off with what he hoped was a purposeful stride, acutely aware that the men must be looking at the black streaks all down one side of his uniform, where his horse had thrown him in the mud. And yet he felt too clean. There were no powder burns on his face, no spatters of blood.
Behind him, one of the men muttered something, and another laughed, in that low way that you had to pretend not to hear.
All around the rain gushed down, great torrents sheeting out of the black sky, soaking into his already soaked clothes, drumming on his cap, a cold trickle descending down his neck. He felt cut off, isolated from the men around the edges of the farmyard, alone as he tramped across the mud.
A doorway loomed out of the darkness and he was struck by the absurd conundrum of whether or not to knock. He pushed it open onto a room filled with the flickering yellow light of a fire and two men, stooped over papers on a table, who turned to look at the disturbance.
‘Sir!’ John snapped to attention.
There was an awkward silence, as Lieutenant-Colonel MacDonnell straightened up. ‘Ah, yes, John. You’re… here.’
Beside him, Harry Gooch was studying the ceiling.
The firelight played on the walls, casting dancing shadows that meant warmth and comfort, but John was too cold and wet to feel it.
MacDonnell clasped his hands behind his back. ‘So you found us – well… that shows a proper spirit.’ John felt a rush of relief. ‘Now, plenty to do, so—’
A door behind MacDonnell banged open and a third officer swept into the room. He was pulling his gloves off, riding crop tucked under one arm, the green plume of his cap scattering drops of water. ‘One really needs to be part fish out there. Still, the men are in good spirits, I confide.’
John felt as if his stomach had flipped up into his throat.
‘Of course,’ MacDonnell said. ‘We had a storm as bad as this the night before Salamanca – the men know it for a good omen. And look who’s made it through to join us, Wyndham.’ MacDonnell indicated John and Lieutenant-Colonel Wyndham paused and slapped his gloves down on the table, then shifted his aristocratic head a fraction to observe John.
‘Thought you’d deserted.’
John stared at Wyndham in absolute horror. ‘Indeed not, sir! I-I never received the orders, sir. When I woke up the regiment seemed to have left without me, so I wasn’t sure what to do, and then my horse cast a shoe, and then—’ He had the whole sorry tale ready, but Wyndham was staring at him with cold contempt, and MacDonnell was clearing his throat and frowning and Harry Gooch was staring at the ceiling even more intently, and John choked the explanations down.
If he’d been Gooch he would have made some joke, got them all laughing at the ludicrousness of it all, been welcomed back into the fold and slapped on the back, a joke for the mess to tell about how young Wyndham-Price had nearly missed the big battle but scrambled through somehow in the nick of time.
‘Have you familiarised yourself with the position?’ MacDonnell asked at last.
‘N-not yet, sir.’
Wyndham was shaking his head with a little sneer.
‘Very well. Lieutenant-Colonel Wyndham’s company is posted in the buildings,’ MacDonnell said. ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Dashwood’s – Light Company of the Third Guards – is in the garden and grounds. Light companies of the First Guards are in the orchard to the east. I have overall command.
‘Your section is responsible for the château itself and buildings around the southern courtyard, Price.’ Wyndham said. ‘Those of your section that are left, that is – you lost one man killed and one injured yesterday. Place called Quatre Bras. But I’m sure you can read the details in the Gazette, at your leisure.’ He stared coldly at John for a moment. He didn’t say all the things John had been expecting. Nothing about being a disgrace to the family, about how he’d only been taken on to please his mother, no mention of an enquiry or court martial – all the things that John had been prepared for, with his excuses ready. His cousin picked up his cap again and prepared to go out once more into the night. ‘Find your sergeant, and your men. And attend to your duty, sir. Attend to your duty.’
The place was cold. Plain white walls, a dirt floor, and that sense of the cold leaking into his flesh, his bones, that was so much colder than the simple chill of a wet June night. He shivered, and shucked his shoulders, and told himself that chapels were always like that – for everyone. Nothing special or strange here, just the usual effect of a room nobody lived in. But he didn’t turn round and look at it on the wall.
He took a careful swig from his bottle. It was almost empty. Soon it would run out, and then what would he do?
There were footsteps in the little vestibule beyond the door. The clump of thick, military boots against the tiles, but this was slower, much more hesitant than most of the treads that had been going back and forth all night. Then the door was opened. Angelus bowed his head, steepling his fingers together, feeling his muscles tense and tingle at the approach of prey. The candle on the little altar guttered and flickered.
‘Oh, excuse me, father. That is to say – pardonné moi. Je… just going to…’ An English accent and well spoken – an officer. Angelus turned his head very slightly, careful to keep his eyes lowered. A young English officer, dark hair over a narrow white face, and the fear and anticipation rolling off him in waves of scent as strong as rose petals. It was odd to be in the presence of so much fear and to know that he had nothing at all to do with causing it.
‘You are not disturbing me, my son.’ He let the Irish show through clearly in his voice. There were plenty of Irish priests scattered throughout France and Belgium.
‘Oh, you speak English. Um, well if you’ll just excuse me, I need to check the windows – that is I must establish the field of… the… If there are any obstructions to the… But it can wait.’
‘This is a house of God, my son,’ Angelus said, gently reproving.
‘Yes, but there must be no blind spots, nowhere that can’t be seen.’
‘God sees everything.’ Angelus settled back a little on his heels. It was so easy to tease and play this young fool. He wondered briefly what Darla would think of the fellow. Not much probably. Were she here, she would yawn and remark that he was loosing his touch, it was so very vulgar to be waiting around a battleground, like the pathetic, ragged vampires who flocked to the tail of the armies to scavenge amongst the wounded after dark. She had called him a kite – devoid of skill or ambition. She was probably back in Brussels by now, spreading panic and confusion amongst the refugees as the fled the city in anticipation of defeat. Playing her torments with a light hand and a cruel twist. She probably hadn’t given him another moment’s thought since she’d left him. Well he would show her just what skill he had. He would play this boy until he wept. He must play. If he played he would keep his mind off it.
The young man was bristling. ‘I apologise for disturbing your prayer, father, but you really should have left with the other civilians. And this… this room is in my section, you understand. I am obliged to ascertain if there is a clear field of fire.’ The man headed towards the little window, sending the rich incense of his scent smothering over Angelus in a dense, confusing cloud.
Angelus felt his features twitch, knew that his eyes must be flickering yellow. He pretended to take a step backwards to give the man room, twisting his boot as if it had turned against some unevenness in the floor, and he stumbled.
The young man’s arm shot out, catching his elbow. ‘I do beg your pardon.’
Angelus lifted his eyes to thank him, to let him see the merest disturbing glimmer of the demon in them, and past the young man’s face there was a glimpse of ancient grey wood, carved into the shape of a pierced hand. He jerked his head away, turning his back as his muscles convulsed with fear, flinging his hands up to bat uselessly at the air. As if he could flick away that stare.
‘Father, are you unwell?’ The man sounded nervous. ‘Are you… are you drunk?’
Angelus made himself hold still, drove the fear away – the sick terror in his belly and his heart – as he had a hundred times already. He had his back to it, and if he could not see it, then it could do no harm. He shook his head, keeping his eyes lowered as he fought to control his face. The man beside him was breathing heavily. Angelus could hear his heartbeat, drumming and pounding beneath the rise and fall of the scarlet coat. He was looking down at the bottle set on the ground beside where Angelus had been standing. This man could be dangerous to him. The sergeant who had blundered in before had been easy enough to deal with – an Irishman himself, pleased to find a fellow countryman, and with far too much awe of the priesthood to cause a fuss. But this young officer would be different. He would wish to deal with the problem of the awkward civilian, was doubtless already calculating whether he could spare the men to escort this priest away. And if something happened to an officer, he would be missed.
‘Father, I am sorry, but you really should have left. This is no place for a priest. The battle will not start for several hours, perhaps you could—’
‘The way is blocked.’ It was meant to be just a remark, just a passing sentence on the way to his next taunt, but the words sounded tight in his throat.
‘Yes, yes I suppose the roads are impassable. The mud is dreadful – I came that way not an hour ago.’ The young man’s lip suddenly trembled. ‘I lost my horse.’
Angelus looked more closely. The side of the man’s coat was caked in mud, and the spatters on his legs rose well above both knees, whilst the shirt was as much wet with perspiration as with rain.
‘I thought you all arrived at night-fall.’
‘I got… separated.’
‘Then we have both been left behind.’
‘Yes.’ The word was filled with bitterness.
Left behind. After he’d discovered she had gone he’d tried to forget about her, had thrown himself into exploring the little château, looking for a suitable vantage point to watch the battle and wait, only to wander in here – and then he had turned around.
The young man had turned slightly and Angelus could see his eyes lift as he noticed it, saw the flicker of interest. He was English, perhaps he had never seen one before.
‘What is your name?’ Angelus asked.
‘My name? Price. Th-that is Wyndham-Price, Captain Wyndham-Price.’
‘What do you feel, Mr Wyndham-Price, when you look at… that?’
‘Feel? Well it is quite striking, I suppose. But I am no Roman Catholic, sir.’
‘You feel no awe, no dread, no… anger?’
‘No, naturally not.’ The words were what any young Englishman would say, but Wyndham-Price lifted his eyes again, uncertainly. There was something there, he could feel it. And if this stupid, mud-spattered boy could feel it then surely it was perfectly understandable that Angelus could feel it. Wyndham-Price stared up at the thing, his brown, intelligent eyes occasionally glancing at Angelus, as if curious about Angelus himself. Angelus kept his back to it, watching the guttering, flickering candle instead.
‘Trapped.’ He hadn’t meant to say the word, but it had come out, and it was true. It was right over the door – right above the door. How could he ever walk out under that?
Then Wyndham-Price abruptly sat down on the rough wooden bench set against one wall, his head hanging, the belts and trappings of his sword tangling against his legs.
‘I feel trapped, too.’ He looked at Angelus warily. ‘Father, I am no Catholic, but if I tell you something, will you keep it to yourself? As if it were a confession?’
Angelus hesitated. ‘Why would you choose to speak to me?’ He should play this game. What sort of a man was he if he could not seize such an opportunity when it arose? Yet he could not concentrate his mind, not with that thing looking down on him.
‘Because I have no one else I can tell,’ Wyndham-Price said.
Very slowly, Angelus moved past him and sat down, putting Wyndham-Price between himself and the horror. ‘I cannot give you absolution.’
‘I do not want it!’ Wyndham-Price said bleakly. And then, staring down at his sword and playing a little with the knot, he said ‘I… I am worried about tomorrow. That is… You must understand I am my mother’s only son. My father died some years ago, much of her family will not speak to her because of her marriage, she has nobody except me. And if something happens to me, then…’ He looked at Angelus pleadingly.
It was a lie. Angelus had spent sixty years learning how to lie well enough that he could tell a falsehood from another man.
‘Many mothers have lost their sons.’
Wyndham-Price glanced at the thing again. ‘But she—’
‘We cannot cast our lives according to the wishes of our women,’ Angelus said angrily. He paused, clenching his fists, forcing the rage away. Seeking for the tone he wanted. ‘So why are you here? You could have stayed in Brussels. Sold your commission or whatever it is you people do. Gone home to your estates and your dogs and your mother.’ Light, cruel, with just enough sincerity to make the young fool stay and keep talking.
Wyndham-Price grimaced. ‘Hardly fine estates. We had to mortgage the last of the land to buy my commission. I never wanted to be a soldier, but it has always been the way for Mother’s family. Mustn’t…’ He looked away, his mouth set in a thin, tight line.
What was this man really afraid of, that he was willing to blurt things out to a stranger yet not admit to himself?
‘Have you ever been in a battle? Ever been wounded?’
Wyndham-Price shook his head. ‘There was a battle, yesterday, but I was not there. Everyone else was, but not me.’
‘And you stayed behind for your mother’s sake – to protect her from worrying?’
‘No!’ Wyndham-Price leapt to his feet. ‘I am no coward! They left without me.’ His voice was quavering with tension. ‘I was quartered away from the other officers, and someone must have neglected to inform me of the order to move. I am blameless, quite blameless.’
‘Ah. I see. So it is only your mother you are thinking of.’ Angelus sneered, the irony not escaping him even as he tried to play. ‘Do you know what a ball feels like when it tears into your flesh?’ he said quickly, with enough venom that Wyndham-Price merely shook his head dumbly. ‘It feels like nothing at first, like a hot wind, like you’ve been knocked backwards by a blow you can’t even feel. And then there is the pain. White hot lead, boring into your flesh. And you can feel the tissues pop, pushing away from it, blood vessels bursting, bone shattering, a hole growing inside you for a fraction of a second that lasts a lifetime, and there is nothing can be done to stop it. Then you are on the ground, the blood is leaking from your body, and you scream and scream but you cannot scream the pain away.’ He wished he could bite this young idiot. Tear a hole the size of a man’s hand in that shapely calf, or rip the flesh from the bones of his forearm. He glared at Wyndham-Price. ‘Now that is something to be afraid of.’
Wyndham-Price swallowed, his eyes fixed wide on Angelus. ‘Father…’
‘They left without you, that may be true enough. But you were not sorry when you discovered it. For one moment you thought you would stay. Just stay.’
‘Yes,’ Wyndham-Price whispered. He would not meet Angelus’s eye. ‘I am afraid of the wounds, the pain, who would not be, but it is more than that. What if I am a coward, father? What if I show it? Am seen to be afraid in front of my men.’ Wyndham-Price closed his eyes. ‘What happens if, when the test comes, I am afraid?’
‘You are afraid?’ Angelus said with scorn. ‘Of course you are. You are human – you can be killed by any musket ball or sword thrust. Even if you survive the battle you will grow sick or suffer an accident, or wither away from old age. You are human, your entire life is nothing but a brief interlude before death. Death is your natural state.’
Angelus clenched his fists and lifted his eyes, and there it was – arms outstretched, head tilted to one side, the gaze from those dreadful grey eyes looking straight into him, level, sorrowful, infinitely compassionate.
He could feel his stomach curdle and clench, the skin on his face begin to warm as if it were already blistering. Then he flicked his eyes away, staring straight ahead at the plain whitewash of the wall opposite. ‘I am sixty years old.’ He ignored Wyndham-Price’s mutter of incredulity. ‘I cannot be afraid. I have seen things – done things – that would make your blood sour in your veins. She wants me to become a master. Do you realise what that means? Find minions, take a territory, be the strongest, the cruellest, the bravest. And here I am, trapped in this pocket handkerchief of a chapel. You think you are afraid, with your little life, worried that you have to live with yourself for twenty or thirty more years, or a few hours, or whatever it may be. What about eternity?’ He glared at Wyndham-Price. ‘Can you live with yourself for eternity if you think you are a coward?’
‘I…’ Wyndham-Price was staring at him as if he thought him a lunatic, and the thought occurred to Angelus that he had just told this human more than he had told anyone alive for sixty years.
But he couldn’t kill Wyndham-Price.
‘But surely, father, as a priest you must understand that—’
‘No!’ His shout cracked in the little space like a musket shot. How dare he, this mewling, grimy boy, with his weak knees and his stutter and his doting mother – how dare he compare his human fears to Angelus’s. Wyndham-Price would walk out soon. Back to his duty and his men, walking straight under the thing above the door and not blinking an eye, with not a tooth-mark upon him.
With a growl, Angelus swept the bottle from under the bench and swung it up, tipping its contents down his throat, the rich, red wine spilling and gushing, trickling down his neck, making him cough and wretch, but then he stood up straight.
Never again was a human going to make him feel like this. He was going to be a master vampire. He would find a territory and take it and hold it, and fools like Wyndham-Price would fill his larder and be tossed to his minions for an evening’s entertainment. Not for Darla, not because she was tired of the wandering life and wanted power and the comforts of a territory, not because she had taunted him and called him a kite. He would do this thing and he would do it for himself.
He raised his hand and jabbed one finger at the crucifix. ‘This, this is nothing. Fear is nothing. If I do not show it, then it does not exist. That is all we have to do – not show the fear.’ And he dropped the bottle, hearing it thud and roll slowly across the floor away from him as he strode towards the door. ‘I am Angelus,’ he said. ‘And I am not afraid!’
As he approached he could feel the buzzing, the hot anger pressing at him, like a hail of shot, howling and shrieking, tearing at his skin. But as he set his hand on the door he knew that was all, and as he pulled the door open, nothing happened.
Behind him he heard Wyndham-Price clear his throat. ‘Thank you, father.’
What on earth was the young fool thanking him for? He hadn’t done anything.
The fire had left little intact. Amidst the blackened remains of what had once been the fine château, the bodies of the slain lay contorted as they had fallen, whilst the wounded groaned most piteously amongst them. Small groups of men moved through the ruins, searching for what food they could find, and gathering in a great cluster about the well, which to judge from the jostling and complaints was already beginning to run dry.
John moved carefully through the yard to his destination – the little building that still stood miraculously intact amidst all the destruction. As he approached, what remained of the charred door opened and two officers came out, both with a look of puzzlement and one was saying to the other, ‘The peasants will call it a miracle, of course.’
‘Oh, naturally. Rather remarkable though, don’t you think?’
John stood aside for them and they nodded congenially to him before heading off across the courtyard. John pushed the door back gently and walked in.
The chapel smelt of the burning that had been everywhere, and pushed up against the walls were the remains of the benches and furniture his men had piled up so they could reach the windows to fire. The glass was shattered. But the single candle still remained on the altar, burned out, and he turned to look at the marvel that everyone was talking about.
Above the burned and blackened door the great crucifix still hung, gazing down upon the little chapel. The fire that had swept through the rest of the château had licked under the door, reaching up the wall to brush at the feet of the crucifix itself. And then it had stopped.
Father Angelus was not there of course. It was ridiculous to think that he might have been, yet a small part of John had expected to find him – gazing up at the miracle perhaps, with the courage that his faith in the suffering of Christ and his mother had restored.
Still, such superstitious nonsense was for the peasants and the papists. John reached up to the sore graze across his temple where a musket-ball had nearly taken his life, and very briefly wondered if the father would even recognise him. Did he have that look now? The look that all the men bore – of a man who has seen things and done things and knows what he is capable of.
John shook his head at his own fancifulness and walked out of the little chapel. Corporal Graham and a few men of his own company, who were just coming up, snapped to attention and saluted, then stood aside to let him past.
‘Sort out that rabble by the well, will you, corporal.’
‘Very good, sir.’ Corporal Graham saluted again and ran off to attend to the crowd.
And Captain Wyndham-Price went back to his duty.