Chapter 1: Apothecary and Vampire Wares
In front of a sturdy, heavily fortified building on the main street of the village of Vallaya swung a wooden sign inscribed with the words “Apothecary and Vampire Wares.” If one were to step inside this store, one would find on a set of shelves in the back behind the counter and behind Andrei, the austere shop owner, the typical contents of an apothecary’s shop: the herbs, balms, ointments and oils that usually represented the entirety of an apothecary’s stock. But in this shop there was an additional set of shelves, which held the so named “vampire wares.” It was mostly upon this single line of products—unique to the region and to this shop—that Andrei’s business thrived.
Though it had an uninviting storefront and was located in a tiny, secluded village, the store was almost constantly occupied with customers. Customers, who included great dignitaries and nobles, came from all parts of the three principalities recently united by the conquests of Gabor Viteazu—Ardeal (in which Vallaya was located), Moldava and Valahia—even into foreign kingdoms, as far as the Austrian lands and the Ottoman Empire.
Stored in a series of containers—stoppered vials, ceramic bowls and cloth-lined wooden boxes—filled with assorted powders, gels and dried foodstuffs, the vampire wares consisted of a range of products, each of which served a specific purpose. One set of boxes, filled with a dry white powder, were purported to promote strong bones and were quite popular with the aged and deformed who could appreciably feel the new strength and improved posture that the powder conferred. Another—a glass vial filled with a dark, reddish syrup—was supposedly good for the lungs and had many adherents, who swore that it made them feel more youthful and alive. With the spectacular effectiveness of these wares, the only thing that the customers could ask for was that Andrei provide more of these wonderful medicines, even though they were so expensive.
The expense was primarily due to the difficulty of acquiring the raw materials, a task for which Andrei depended entirely upon an aged hunter named Vasile. Vasile worked at night, and on this night, like nearly every night, he spent most of his time waiting. He waited now on a branch many palms above the ground on a tree deep in the forest, almost a league from Vallaya. He waited for his prey, the only prey that concerned him, the vampire prey.
Vasile had a thick, beard, that’s upper edges crept up his cheeks towards his eyes and was sprinkled with white hair and black. His skin was rugged and chapped with bags beneath his eyes and furrows in his forehead. Wrinkles were pinched all around his eyes as he squinted into the dark trying to grasp any glimpse he could of movement. In his hands a crossbow stood ready, and another was cocked and hanging at his side. A bow and a quiver of arrows were on his shoulder as a secondary weapon, and a dagger was in a sheath around his waist.
After a long wait, sitting in the frigid night while his warm breath breathed wet vapor into the cold air, he saw movement in the distance. It’d been two days since he’d seen any vampires, and he was immediately spurred into an excited readiness. He would only have a few moments to identify the object, aim and fire, especially if it were a vampire, since they were skittish creatures that fled quickly and didn’t linger.
As it approached somewhat closer, expanding from a tiny streak of shadow across the night to an identifiable shape, Vasile could see, squinting into the starlight-lit forest, that it was upright. This eliminated any possibility that it was an animal and meant it was either human or vampire. As the shape grew clearer and he could distinguish the movement of its appendages and the details of its shape, it became apparent that the thing sprinted with strength and agility that surpassed a human, almost floating over the soft forest floor as it ran. Definitely a vampire. No human moved with such grace and speed. His assessment complete, he took quick but careful aim and shot.
The tiny crossbow bolt struck flesh, piercing through the upper thigh, exactly where Vasile had aimed, and the injured vampire stumbled. Vasile’s next shot had to follow quickly in succession and hit just as true if he were to fell his prey. Vasile, picking up the second crossbow, again took quick but careful aim and shot. Another hit, as aimed, in the other leg, and the vampire again stumbled, tumbling forward onto the leaf-covered turf. While the vampire pulled himself to his feet, Vasile grabbed the longbow from over his shoulder, drawing his first arrow, putting it in place and aiming. Vasile wasn’t as skilled with the longbow. Accordingly, he aimed for the torso. The vampire was only just raising himself from the ground, and his target area was larger, making this shot considerably easier than the previous. He still had to take careful aim and fire his shot before the vampire had a chance to accelerate to a full run. His arrow slid through the air and pierced the vampire’s side, stabbing through the skin and poking out through the back. With this last shot the vampire toppled onto the ground and didn’t attempt to rise again.
Vasile waited a few moments to see if the vampire would attempt to stand before he lowered himself from the tree. He approached the vampire with bow and arrow drawn. This was the most dangerous point, since the vampire was most likely still alive and still capable of surviving if it could kill its predator. If the vampire still had the strength to lunge at Vasile and attack—not at all unlikely if it were one of the older, stronger vampires who might require as many as a dozen arrows to kill—Vasile would have to put an arrow through it in that fraction of a second before it reached him.
The creature that he saw by the faint starlight was a pale dark-cloaked young male with the hair and eyes of an albino. He was fit and slim, flawless and healthy-looking and clearly a younger vampire. The vampire’s trembling, bloodstained hand was reaching out to pull one of the bolts from his thigh while he breathed in panicked, shallow breaths.
Standing at a safe distance, both to reduce the risk of the vampire unexpectedly attacking him and to reduce the risk of infection, Vasile took careful aim, pointing his spearpoint at the vampire’s pale, taut neck. The Vampire heard Vasile’s almost soundless footsteps as he delicately stepped between the dry leaves, and he turned in terrified anger to look at the old man with arrow drawn. The vampire began to push himself off the ground for one last desperate lunge when Vasile launched his arrow through the neck, piercing the soft skin and poking through the back. The vampire collapsed, and his breath came to a stop in one last forceful groan.
Vasile still waited at a moderate distance with another arrow already loaded and drawn. After a long, tense wait, during which no sign of breath or movement appeared, Vasile relaxed. He dropped the bow, put the arrow back in his quiver and opened his bag. He first pulled out a bird-shaped mask, which would cover his whole face. The mask had two glass eyes and a long nose, within which a vinegar-soaked sponge and a handful of herbs were placed at the tip. The pungent smell was there to shield his nose from the vampire’s infectious odor. It was important to wear the mask when one approached close to a vampire, though too cumbersome to wear when one was hunting.
Vasile removed a rope with two hooks from his bag. Approaching the vampire, he placed each of the two large, metal hooks under the armpits of the vampire. He then loaded the two spent crossbows in case of attack, and hung them from his shoulders. Lastly, grabbing the rope that connected the hooks, he began to drag the weighty vampire corpse over the ground behind him. It felt like towing a millstone through the mud. Thus began the long march through the night to Vallaya.
Attached to the back of Andrei’s shop was a large building, including several rooms that Andrei used as his living quarters and one large room that served as his workroom. The forest, which encompassed most of the land that wasn’t otherwise cleared for roads and farmland, jutted up against the rear of this building. As the first signs of dusk were creeping over the horizon, Vasile arrived at the back door of this workshop.
Andrei woke from his sleep when he heard the sound of Vasile pounding on his door. Andrei leaped from his bed and dressed himself in his cloak, gloves, bird-shaped mask and hat. Once ready, he opened the back door of his shop to Vasile.
Vasile entered through the back of Andrei’s shop into this workroom, occupied by a few large cauldrons, an oven and bellows, and several huge working tables. The walls of the room were lined with shelves upon shelves of containers and jars, along with many tools hanging in their places.
As Vasile entered, Andrei placed a ramp leading up and into the largest of the cauldrons, which was already filled with an alcoholic solution. Vasile dragged the vampire up the ramp and dropped him into the cauldron. Andrei lit a fire within a large stove under the cauldron, which would slowly heat the vampire corpse for many hours. With the vampire in the cauldron, Vasile could now take off his cloak, his hat, his mask and his gloves. He dumped them into a smaller pot, which Andrei would subsequently boil to clean off any possible infection.
After all this, Vasile sat down to take a rest on a bench, rubbing his legs and moving around his arms and shoulders to try and drive away the soreness.
“It’s been a few days since you’ve had a catch,” Andrei commented while building and tending the fire beneath the cauldron.
“Yeah,” Vasile assented soberly, “I’m no longer able to take down the older vampires like I used to. I had one in my sights just two nights ago, but I could only get one arrow in him. They’re too swift and I’m just not as fast as I used to be.”
“Perhaps you need an assistant, or an apprentice,” Andrei suggested.
“Perhaps,” Vasile agreed in a deep, quiet voice, “Also, I don’t see as many vampires as I used to.”
“Why is that?” Andrei asked, “You think they’re moving elsewhere?”
“No,” Vasile said, massaging his legs and rotating his shoulders, “Vampires can’t just pick up and move; Dark places are hard to come by. Besides, all of the nearby towns have reported declines in attacks. It must be more than a month since the last attack. Not even livestock are being attacked. I can’t explain it.”
“Perhaps they’re in decline,” Andrei suggested, “Perhaps their numbers are finally dwindling.”
Vasile shook his head, “I thought that too, but I just can’t see any reason why they’d be in decline. For hundreds of years they’ve been overrunning these woods and now, for no reason, just to start disappearing. It makes no sense.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s good for the villagers,” Andrei said as he poked at the fire, “Though it means fewer vampire wares on the shelves.”
As the light of dawn arose, Vaile slept and Vallaya began to come alive. People emerged from their homes and walked the streets, shops opened, and fields filled with laborers.
The village of Vallaya consisted of a single dirt road connecting Terem to the northwest and Urzichen to the south. Along this main road stood Andrei’s apothecary shop, Cornel’s smithy, the town’s modest church and a few other shops and houses. Behind the church extended the farmland that the tenant serfs of Vallaya tended and survived upon. Many lugars of land had long ago been reclaimed from the forest to create the rolling planes of farmland that stretched out to the east of the main street. The land was divvied up into several smaller tenant plots near the village, while the great noble estates of the counts and princes who lorded over these lands were located far into the distance over the horizon. In the opposite direction, behind Andrei’s shop, the unremitting forest extended unceasingly to the west.
Out of this forest, five cloaked figures entered the village. The five figures wore heavy, black cloaks that dragged along the ground. Their hands underneath were covered in leather gloves, and their heads were completely covered by black hoods that only afforded a small opening in the front through which to see. They moved in a V, like a flock of geese, with one figure in front and the two pairs flanking and behind the leader on either side.
The five figures stopped on the main street in front of the church, and once the villagers noticed them they gathered around, keeping their distance in fear. Cornel, the blacksmith, stopped his unending hammering and walked out onto the main street wearing his leather apron and carrying a hammer in hand. Josif, a serf, middle-aged and grey, stood at the front of the crowd with his staff in hand.
The leader of the cloaked figures, with a feminine voice, announced to the villagers, “We have come to see Magistrate Lucian. Could you please take us to him?” But she did so in such a hissing voice that the femininity of it was eclipsed by its harsh tone.
There was nervous muttering in the crowd, but someone did go to fetch Lucian, who was seated in an office connected to the church. The crowd waited in tense silence, looking at the hooded figures with suspicion and fear.
Josif alone was willing to act, and after a few moments of hesitation, he launched an attack upon the lead figure. With his staff raised and shouting, he aimed to crack his staff upon the hooded figure’s head. The figure stood in mute silence as he ran towards her, waiting until the last moment to move. When she raised her hand and parried the staff, Josif stumbled, his staff ultimately striking the ground. The dark figure pushed him such that he landed a few feet away and rolled onto the dirt.
“We came here to talk!” the female figure boomed and the villagers recoiled further. Josif pulled himself up and dusted himself off, smarting more from the embarrassment than from any wound.
Lucian emerged from the church, wearing a fine jacket, breaches and a trim gray wig, with ponytail hanging behind. Though he was well into his forties, he had the look and vigor of a man half his age, with a boyish, clean-shaven face and small, blue eyes.
Lucian looked at the five figures standing motionlessly in front of the small crowd that had gathered and addressed the lead figure: “It’s Asha, isn’t it?” She nodded and he said, “Let’s get you inside then. Right this way.” As the five figures approached he shouted at the crowd, “Make way. They are here at my invitation.”
Andrei stepped out of his shop to see the five cloaked vampires walking towards the crowd, which parted as they approached. Andrei’s wiry figure was dressed in a modest robe that covered over the shirt and loose breaches he wore underneath. His thin gray hair was cropped close against his skull and he bore a trim mustache and beard on his face. He had the look of modest, even stingy affluence, but also of relaxed comfort and ease.
Andrei watched the five vampires walking into the church with Lucian leading the way. He pondered the situation for a moment, before he decided to close up shop and see if could horn in on whatever meeting Lucian was engaged in with those vampires.
Andrei always disliked closing his shop during business hours and it was with some discomfort that he locked the front door, pushing it shut while the sign “Apothecary and Vampire Wares” swung back and forth. He told Cornel that he would be back in some fifteen or so minutes if anyone came by. Then he walked over to the church.
Andrei entered the great double doors at the front of the church, which opened into the narthex. He could see the nave, which was now empty, through the next set of doors. It was a large room with iconography—of Jesus and Mary and many saints—covering the walls and an altar and candles in the front. There were a few private offices to the side of the narthex, and Andrei passed through a door leading to a side hall, whereat he knocked on the first of these doors.
The door opened and the round, red-cheeked face of Beniamin, Lucian’s secretary, peaked through. He wore a brown, ostentatiously curly wig and always bore a pleasant smile.
“Yes?” he asked inquisitively.
“I have come to ask of Magistrate Lucian, if I could kindly insist, that I be permitted to enter. I think I have a right to listen in on whatever discussions you’re engaged in with these vampires, as a citizen of this village and an interested party.”
Beniamin opened the door a bit more and turned to reveal Lucian seated in the dark looking at Andrei. Lucian spoke up in his well-measured tone: “This is only a preliminary meeting, Andrei. We will be sure and apprise you of the content of our conference once we have finished. Be assured that you will be the first person to whom I will speak.”
“We have nothing to hide,” Asha shouted out in her snake-like voice, “Bring in whomever you wish. They can listen so long as they don’t speak.”
Beniamin shrugged his shoulder cheerfully and said to Andrei, almost apologetically, “Could you please close that door before you come in,” pointing to the door connecting the main church from the side hall where the offices were located, “We have to be careful of the light.”
After closing the door, Andrei stepped into the office and immediately asked, “Are you sure it’s safe in here? We’re not going to get infected?” Both Lucian and Asha nodded, but Andrei, still shrank into a corner as far as possible away from the vampires.
Lucian occupied a spacious office, containing an elegant wood desk, upon which Lucian would do his writing, and an entire bookshelf of finely bound books. In one corner a globe served as decoration, along with some oil paintings framed on the walls. But the whole costly interior was plunged into near blackness as soon as Beniamin closed the doors.
A single candle sat on Lucian’s desk and only the faintest traces of light leaked underneath the door. There was a window, but the curtains were closed, such that only an outline of light also leaked in around the edges.
Only in this darkness could the five vampires expose their skin. They pulled back their hoods, revealing their heads, which were entirely wrapped in a thin piece of black cloth. After removing the cloth, five stunning, pale faces were revealed, two females and three males.
All of the faces were young looking, flawless, sharp and colorless. They weren’t beautiful in the way that Andrei normally thought. The females in particular lacked the round, pink skin and soft feature that Andrei associated with his ideal of womanly beauty. Still, the females were, both of them, gorgeous—like a whiter, more angular version of a youthful belle in full bloom. The males as well, though carved out of the same mold as a Greek god, were leaner, more muscular and more severe than those deific ideals.
When Andrei saw them expose their faces, he recoiled instinctively and rose to leave the room.
Asha understood what Andrei was afraid of and said vehemently, “There is no risk of infection. If you want to listen, you’ll sit down.”
Andrei felt naked without the bird-shaped mask to protect him and swallowed uncomfortably, believing he was picking up the faint whiff of Asha’s aroma as he put his hand around his nose.
Lucian turned to Asha and continued, “We have come to discuss a truce between the vampires of our coven and the surrounding villages,” rehashing what had been said for Andrei’s sake.
Asha began to lay out the conditions of the truce that she wished to initiate between the vampires and the villagers: “We will cease all our attacks and kidnapping, hereon and in perpetuity, and in exchange you will cease to kill us.” Then she looked directly at Andrei and added, “And cease to eat us.”
“I think that’s something all of the other villages can agree on. Most of our attacks are motivated by self-defense. If you ended any and all attacks on us, I don’t see any reason why we should continue hostilities,” Magistrate Lucian said, speaking judiciously.
“Except your ‘vampire wares,’” Asha added, “Which ought to be destroyed and the whole shop where they’re sold to be burnt to the ground.”
“Keep trying,” Andrei said, “You haven’t failed enough times? Maybe this time when you try to destroy it you’ll succeed.”
“Did I say you could speak, maggot?” Asha screeched, standing from her chair and approaching Andrei, “Your blood is probably as black as ash and tastes of venom, but I would drink it gladly if it might bring you just one moment closer to your death!”
“Please!” Lucian shouted, interjecting himself between them and urging Asha to sit back down.
“Andrei you were told to be quiet during these proceedings. I don’t want to hear any more from you,” Lucian said. Turning back to Asha, who had returned to her seat, he said, “I’m sorry. Let’s continue. Can I first ask, are all of the vampires in your group behind you?”
“The coven obeys me,” Asha said, “They disobey at their peril.”
“But what if one of them were to disobey? Then what?” Lucian asked, “What if one of them were to break this truce?”
“I would punish him severely,” Asha said with relish.
“I don’t know if that’s enough for us,” Lucian said cautiously, “We’d have more confidence if the offender were handed over to us, so we can be sure that punishment is being meted out? Is that acceptable?”
“Would you extend the same courtesy to us?” Asha asked, “Would you give us all your condemned criminals? Not just those who violate this truce, but all condemned to die?”
“That seems fair. I can discuss it with the other villages,” Lucian nodded, “And might I ask upon what food you vampires will subsist absent humans?”
“We will raise livestock,” Asha said.
Andrei nodded, looking at his two human companions. Directing his question to all present in the room, he asked, “Any other provisions you want to suggest?”
“We just want a truce. All other provisions are inessential. I suggest you gather the surrounding villages and see if they’ll buy into it before we waste any more time,” Asha said.
“I think they will,” Lucian said, smiling, “But I’ll get right on it. I think this will be something that will be mutually beneficial and very long-lasting.”
Lucian stood up and extended a hand to shake with Asha. She looked at it and didn’t move, saying, “I don’t think we should touch. I don’t want to infect you.”
“Right,” Lucian said, withdrawing his hand in embarrassment, “Beniamin will let you out.”
Beniamin, who had been hastily taking notes on a sheet of paper the whole time, his nose close to the paper to try and see what he was writing in the dark, now dropped his pen and sprang to his feet, leading the vampires, whose heads were now covered, out of the room.
After the vampires had left, Lucian opened up the curtains, flooding the room with light. He turned to look at Andrei and said with a small laugh, “You ought to be careful about Asha. She normally wouldn’t hesitate to kill you. Any different circumstances and you’d be dead. For a second there, I wasn’t sure if she could restrain herself.”
There was a knock on the door, and it was Beniamin, whom Andrei admitted into the room.
“What do you think of this truce?” Lucian asked.
“I don’t like it,” Andrei admitted.
“Of course you don’t,” Beniamin merrily chuckled, “Just as the bees wouldn’t like it if you took away their flowers.”
“I admit it might be good for the village. If the vampires don’t break the truce, that is. But I don’t trust them,” Andrei said, settling back into his chair and rubbing his beard with one hand, “There’s no reason for this truce. It comes out of nowhere. Why this? Why now? I think we need to know what’s going on with them before we agree to a truce.”
“You don’t trust them because we’ve always been at war. They’ve never had a chance to prove their trustworthiness. If we give them a chance, I think they will show their true worth, and they will show that they are human. They are as much human as we are. And they can cooperate, especially for something that will benefit them and us alike. They’re doing this because they, like us, are tired of fighting, tired of all the death. They want a new life,” Lucian pontificated, in his usual politician’s voice.
“They depend on us for food,” Andrei disagreed, “They are not going to give us up.”
“They will live on other meat and other blood. They can eat cattle and sheep like us,” Lucian said.
“We’ll have vampire shepherds then?” Beniamin laughed, “Leading their sheep to pasture in their black cloaks? That’ll be a sight to see.”
“I have to be returning to my shop,” Andrei told Lucian and Beniamin. He left the town hall and approached the door to his store to unlock it. A customer was already waiting in front, an oldish woman, who hunched forward over a cane.
“My apologies,” he said deferentially to her as he opened the door and let her in. “I just had to discuss some very serious political matters with Magistrate Lucian. I hope you weren’t waiting long. What can I do for you?”
After Andrei closed up shop for good that day, he retired to his workroom, where he had to commence the long work of processing the vampire that Vasile had brought him early that morning.
After dressing again in his cloak, gloves, mask and hat, he entered the workroom and began. He smothered the fire and fished out the body with a hook, dragging it out and dropping it onto a large worktable. The wooden worktable was a human-sized, rectangular surface, pocked with knife marks and stained dark with blood. Around the edges were grooves that captured the flow of any liquids and channeled them to a reservoir at one end of table.
Andrei put on his red-stained apron, pulled out his great knives and began to butcher the vampire’s flesh, separating out the various parts, pulling out the panoply of organs, peeling off the skin, and pulling out the bones and cartilage.
Each of these parts would have to be separately treated, some ground, some dried, some dissolved, and so on. From these parts came the various medicines he carried: for the kidney medicine, he would remove the vampire’s kidney and grind it, wrap it in a sheath of skin and dry it; for the bone medicine, he would dry the vampire’s bones and grind them into powder; for the skin medicine, he would chop up the vampire’s skin and dissolve it in alcohol; and for the numerous other parts of the body, he would do myriad other preparations. Over time he had refined a number of techniques for making the vampire’s parts both preservable and consumable. They allowed him to store the medicines on his shelves until his ready customers came, and allowed the customers to ingest the beneficial materials without spoilage.
While Andrei worked, Vasile entered, rested and ready to begin the evening’s hunt. Andrei had Vasile’s cloak, gloves and hat, all sanitized, cleaned, and ready to be worn.
Vasile sat down on a chair, pulled his boots onto his feet, strapped a backup knife to the outside of one boot, placed another knife on his belt, loaded his two crossbows and slung them over his back, added yet more crossbow bolts to a pouch in his belt, filled his quiver with what arrows he could carry, and strung his bow.
As he armed himself and dressed for the chilly evening, Vasile said, “You know, I am the only vampire hunter, and I’m getting old.”
“I know too well,” Andrei lamented.
“I say it because you mentioned earlier that I should get an apprentice,” Vasile said in his deep and quiet voice.
“I would never think a solitary lion like you would consent to an apprentice,” Andrei said.
“I think I should. I can then retire once he’s ready, finally take a chance to spend that money I’ve been saving. I want you to spread the word that I’m interested in an apprentice,” Vasile said, “Preferably someone who can shoot and that won’t get killed.”
“I can do that,” Andrei said nodding, “Are you sure?’
“Yes,” Vasile said, as he lifted his bag on his shoulders with his quiver and bow. He then waved goodbye and stepped out into the night.