Alec often used the word “brother” to remind Vlad where their stories started but there was no blood between them. Well… not in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, it was Vlad’s father who had cursed them both with immortality – just as he had done with hundreds of others through the years. A few drops of poisoned blood didn’t make anyone siblings, though.
Oddly enough, until the moment Vlad ended the former abbot’s life (or, rather, thought he had ended it,) he had looked up to the other man as more than a brother. Alec had been more of a parent to Vlad than his own damned father could have been. True, Alec was overly strict. And some of the other monks did sometimes whispered that the abbot singled Vlad out for punishments that ran to the overenthusiastic… but not all human parents were good parents. And Alec was all Vlad had.
The abbot made his dislike of the woman perfectly clear from the moment she forced her way into the heart of the monastery, demanding food for her village during a particularly bad drought. Vlad – who waited patiently, head down and hands folded in the folds of his plain robe, behind the man who had raised him – was instantly impressed. Not only did the woman care enough about the people of her village to attempt to feed them all, she appeared willing to take on the whole church to do so.
He dared a quick glance at the woman. His reaction was both instant and physical.
The monastery sometimes played host to travellers in need of shelter. They even welcomed the occasional nun for extended periods of time. There was also the charitable work that sometimes brough ill or infirm women to their door. It wasn’t as though Vlad had never seen a woman… he’d just never seen a woman like her before.
The woman’s beauty was staggering. She had blonde waves that fell past her shoulders, sun-kissed skin, and full lips that made strange, unfamiliar feelings rise within Vlad. He didn’t realize he’d gasped out loud until Alec turned to glare at him. Clamping down on a groan of annoyance, Vlad lowered his head again, letting the cowl shield his face. He knew that look. Those narrowed eyes, the hard line of the abbot’s lips could mean only one thing. Another punishment was coming Vlad’s way.
Well, if he was going to be punished anyway…
Vlad looked up under the edge of his hood to watch as the woman squared off with the abbot. Though Father Alec was at least a head taller, she somehow managed to stare him down. Her expression was fierce as she argued her case.
“The food is from God, is it not?”
Father Alec waved a hand. “It is,” he conceded, “but that does not-”
She didn’t give the abbot a chance to launch into scripture. “If the food is from God, it should be used to feed His children. You must know they are starving.”
“The monastery cannot feed everyone during these difficult times.”
Vlad felt a wave of shame as the abbot again refused to provide aid. Their stores were, as they always were, full. The brothers would see this drought through with little to no inconvenience. The same could not be said for the woman’s village. From their vantage point atop the hill overlooking the valley, the withered fields were plain to see. How could Father Alec be so heartless?
“God will provide,” the abbot insisted, “in His own time.”
Father Alec had made up his mind and, as the monks under his care knew, the abbot’s will was unwavering. He wouldn’t change his mind, no matter how well-founded the woman’s argument was. Vlad felt a wave of pity for her. Perhaps there was something he could do… some way he could help…
The sound of Father Alec clearing his throat separated Vlad from his musings. He automatically dropped his gaze again.
“Please see our guest out,” Father Alec said. His tone suggested that it was not the first time the command had been given.
Wonderful, Vlad thought grumpily. That will be another few lashes.
“Of course, Father.” He motioned toward the massive archway that lead away from the monastery.
“And, Brother Vlad?”
He met Alec’s hard gaze.
“When you have finished that, join me in my study. We will pray together.”
Vlad choked back a sigh. Prayer. Alec’s prayers tended to be very physical. His God was not a kind god, demanding penance for many transgressions – many of which Vlad failed to see but Alec insisted had been committed. He would be in no hurry to finish his task.
“Of course, Father. This way, please, miss.”
He began to lead the woman toward the gate but stopped after only a few yards to look back over his shoulder. The abbot was busy talking to another monk. Good. Vlad quickly ducked into the shadow created by a stairwell, urging the woman to follow him.
“Quickly,” he said in a hushed, urgent tone.
She hesitated, looking from Father Alec to the gate. Her hesitation lasted only a moment. The woman followed Vlad into the semi-darkness.
Vlad found he was shocked and frustrated by the woman’s easy compliance – until he remembered that, unlike his fellow monks, she didn’t know what he was. It seemed she trusted Vlad completely because he was a man of the cloth, not knowing how deep his unholiness, his corruption ran. She couldn’t know that his father was the living – or… at least walking – embodiment of evil. And, Vlad, the only known human offspring of the monster known as Vlad the Impaler, was born with that evil dwelling deep within, hiding, waiting for a moment of weakness.
As Father Alec reminded him on a daily basis. Sometimes… Vlad wasn’t all that convinced that he was evil. He wasn’t even sure he believed in the whole original sin thing that they were supposed to be atoning for. What Vlad did know, however, was that the monastery had taken him in when his own horrified mother abandoned him and, for that, Vlad tried his best to live a godly life.
He doubted whether luring an innocent woman into a dark, isolated tunnel fit into that life, but he felt an irrepressible urge to help her.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said as she followed him through the shadowy doorway.
The woman gave no indication of being afraid. If he had been the monster Alec saw when he looked at him, Vlad would have had ample opportunity to do any number of nefarious things to her.
“I’m not,” she insisted. It sounded like she meant it.
Vlad shook his head. For reasons he didn’t understand, he liked the fact that she wasn’t afraid of him. For reasons he’d had beaten into him – literally and figuratively, he secretly wished she would be.
There were unlit torches mounted along the walls, but Vlad didn’t reach for them. He didn’t want to draw the attention of anyone in the courtyard. Instead, he kept one hand close to the cold stone and followed the path mostly by memory. The woman gasped as she tripped over an uneven stone, instinctively grabbing Vlad’s robe to catch herself.
“Sorry.” Her apology sounded breathless. She immediately released his robe.
Vlad turned to his companion. “It is I who should apologize,” he said. “Would it be… appropriate for me to assist you?” He asked because he honestly didn’t know. Relationships of any kind were forbidden for the monks of his order, but Vlad was unsure of how far that went. Holding a woman’s hand to lead her safely through a dark tunnel had to be permitted.
She hesitated a only moment before taking the hand Vlad offered. An unexpected thrill ran through him at the feel of her coarse palm against his. Just the touch was enough to tell Vlad that she spent her days hard at work. He was momentarily ashamed that his own were so soft. The lay brothers who made the monastery their home saw to the menial chores so that Vlad and his brothers could devote themselves to study. It had never occurred to him until that moment how unfair the arrangement was.
The woman seemed to give herself a shake. She closed her fingers around Vlad’s.
“Theresa,” she said as she followed him down the dark corridor.
Vlad threw a confused look over his shoulder but could see nothing more than a silhouette. “I beg your pardon?”
“My name is Theresa.”
Something odd clicked into place inside Vlad. It was as though Vlad had always known that name, as if it had been part of him once but he’d been missing it for a long time. Now that it was home again, the name completed him. He was so overcome by the emotion triggered by the sound of her name that he forgot to respond.
“Uh… Vlad?” Theresa asked as the silence stretched on.
“Where are you taking me?”
Vlad smiled into the darkness. “To the answer to your prayers.”