Plantation, South Carolina, 1836
The woman arched forward in an attempt to escape the claws that tore at her insides, stifling her moan into the rolled up cloth between her teeth. She saw the fire in the hearth leap up, licking at the wood with its fiery tongue—in the same manner as the pain scorched her womb—splitting her in two. She could not bear this, she thought. No, that was not true. She would bear this, she must. What she could not bear—was what must happen after.
When her contraction had subsided, the aged witch, who worked over her, brought cool water to her lips—before following it with a hot liquid that smelled of something strong. Simmone tasted the bitter herbs in the drink, and nodded her thanks to the old crone, who was her grandmother.
“You do well,” the old woman told her. “It won't be long now, granddaughter.”
Tears sprung to Simmone's eyes. For nine months she had carried her daughter under her heart, but now her time had come—and with it—a time when she must also let her go. She didn't know how she was going to say goodbye to her baby girl. And she knew that she had no choice—not if she wanted her to live.
“I am so sorry. You know this must be, child,” her grandmother told her, touching a cool cloth to her head. “The master will never allow you to keep the child. He has always killed the half-breeds who have sprung forth from his hips,” she said bitterly.
“He'll never believe that she has died on her own,” Simmone whispered her greatest fear out loud, not for the first time. Once spoken, her words seemed to take on a life of their own, squeezing her throat with her terror.
“He must!” the old woman admonished, picking up her sage to smudge the little shack yet again. A child of the Goddess cannot be allowed to be killed—or raised as his half-breed—even if he had been inclined to do so.” She came back to the bed. She must not be raised a slave,” she reminded in a quiet, gentle voice.
Simmone nodded. Her grandmother was a healer; a well known and respected woman who was both wise—and kind. As hard as it was for Simmone to say goodbye to her daughter—she knew that what her grandmother said was the truth. She must not live in a world of make-believe, pretending that the worse would not happen. She must be strong. For she could not allow harm to come to her daughter—even though that meant that she would likely never see her little girl again. She took a sip of the bitter brew her grandmother held to her lips and swallowed the hot liquid on a sob.
She gasped as another contraction hit her then, and put the rag back between her teeth. She dared not scream. She dared not even moan—in case one of their master's spies was to hear her and report them.
When the contraction had passed, Simmone fell back, staring at the fire burning in the broken bricks of what was left for fire within the hearth. She knew that it would not go well for her. He would not believe their daughter had died. And he would not take her rebellion lightly. But she did not care what happened to her—as long as her daughter was protected from her father's intention to bring her harm.
Her grandmother had arranged for the babe to be taken deep into the deep South—to the bayou. She was to be taken to her grandmother's people, where she would be safely transported to a place where she was to become the daughter of a powerful family. Simmone was not told how far away her daughter would be taken. She knew that the child's father might whip the answers from her. She could not be told, for she could not tell—what she did not know.
Simmone knew the story of her grandmother's people well, and she knew that the home, where they would take her babe, would provide what she could not give to her.
She had brought her daughter into this life—and now it was up to family she did not know—to save her.
She arched her back, just as she had begun to doze, another contraction ripping through her insides, threatening to rip her apart. She managed to get the rag between her teeth, waving at her grandmother as a much stronger sensation gripped her. Fear consumed her.
Her grandmother came to help her to get down onto the dirt floor—and turn over to lean over the bed, showing her how to grab the ropes she had provided for her to strain against. Simmone lost all connection with reality and time as she bellowed muffled pants and choked off screams into the rag. Neither of them paid attention to the fact that she was not overly loud, yet neither was she silent, as they labored to bring the babe safely into the world.
When her daughter sprung forth in a rush of fluid, the old woman gently cleaned her. Though she was healthy and strong, the babe did not cry, as if she knew to do so would place her own life in peril.
“You are the daughter of the Goddess,” her grandmother whispered gently in near her. “You have the power of the ravens.” She touched her brow again with the cool cloth. “You are protected by her power. For you—are the witch of the vampire.”
She touched the mark on the baby's neck, looking up at Simmone. The babe's mother leaned forward and kissed her daughter's forehead.
“One day a daughter will spring forth from the loin of your loins,” she whispered. “The Goddess will come forth, once more, to take her place in a world who has all but forgotten Her. A mighty nation awaits Her, and She will take her place amongst them. The time is at hand for the love of the Goddess to heal our great Mother Earth—and free her children from those who would rule her children with fear.”
She fed her daughter and watched as she suckled hungrily for what would be the first and last meal she would ever receive from the breast of her mother. When the babe slept, her tummy warm and full, Simmone watched as her grandmother bundled up her new borne babe and put her in a basket. Simmone sobbed as she placed a final kiss upon her daughter's brow. She watched as her grandmother went to the door to call out to someone who waited. There was no more time left to lose—and they were both well aware of the danger that had permeated the air with every breath, these past hours.
When she was gone, Simmone sank into a dark pit of despair, even as she feverently prayed for her daughter's safe passage. The hours slipped by. And though she was mostly unaware of their passing in her grief, the part of her, which remained aware, bitterly resented every moment that was lost to her—of what she could have spent with her babe—while being keenly aware that every moment that passed also took her little girl to safety.
It was nearly dawn when they woke to a heavy fist, banging on the door. The men did not wait for permission to enter, but pushed the old witch aside as they stormed the interior of the small hut. They gave not a care as they drug Simmone from her bed.
They did not stop until they had drug her before her master. By then, she was too weak from blood-loss and grief to care that she was about to be beaten to death. When she told him the babe had died, he demanded to see the babe's body. And when she refused to produce it, he had her strapped to the post, he was so fond of using for meting out his punishments, and he had her whipped.
It was well into the late afternoon before he finally realized that she might actually be dying and had her returned her to her grandmother's care—demanding that the old witch save her life.
It was then the crone had known—in spite of his cruelty—somewhere in his icy veins, there was a speck of something in him—that also loved her granddaughter.
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,.
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
Nameless here forevermore.
Edgar Allen Poe
Present Day, South Carolina
I need you….
Ravyn pondered the voicemail message that her sister had left her, too stunned to fully comprehend her sister's words for several long moments. She stared out the window. A raven landed on the branch of a nearby tree and looked directly at her. She frowned at it—then turned away. Her father was dead.
She went still. She couldn't imagine it. No. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't picture how someone like that could really be dead. He was—too full of life—too full of piss—much too ornery to die. He had tormented her—scared her—made her life hell. She just could not believe it—would not believe it. She didn't stop to wonder why. Some people were just too mean to die.
Not that she would miss him. She never would, she told herself. She would just as soon say good riddance. Yeah, she thought, that was it. She would say that for sure. But she couldn't be so lucky—could she? She frowned at such a thought. Now, where had that come from?
But her sister was another story. Her sister had dearly loved their father. And her sister was telling her that she needed her. What did that mean? They were not particularly close. No. That was not true. They were close. She just didn’t want to think about that. And the last thing on earth Ravyn wanted to do—was return home. But she had to go—didn't she? She couldn't turn her back on her sister?
No. She really couldn't—would never think to do so. Whatever else they were—or were not—they were blood. Even if they only shared that devil spawn for a father, she thought.
She was taken back at her own vehemence. She didn't really mean that—did she? After all, he was her father. One couldn't truly hate their own father, could they?
She didn't like the resounding silence that followed that question. She didn't like the lack of emotion she felt at the idea of her own father's death either. And yet, there it was. She was appalled that she could be thinking the things that she was thinking. She stopped—took stalk of what she was feeling—shook her head. Nothing. She felt—nothing.
How very sad.
She stared down at her phone. She had deliberately not answered her phone when she saw the area code, too taken back by the idea of who could possibly be calling her from that area—too afraid it was him..... Tears sprung to her eyes, and she was even more appalled by the realization that they were not tears of grief—but tears of frustration—and of fear. She turned away in disgust and headed for the bedroom. A Donnelly never ran away from what they feared.
She began packing her cloths, yanking things from her closet. She had no idea how long she would be staying, so she would bring several changes of clothes. She stopped when she realized how bad her hands were shaking, sinking to the bed. And only then did she give way to her tears. She sobbed into her pillow. Got up, got some tissue from the bathroom, and promptly fell upon the bed to continue having a good cry. Finally, exhausted, she fell asleep.
When she woke, the sun was down. She got up, went to her drawer, and pulled out a box of pictures, thumbing through them until she found the one she was looking for. It was ragged at the edges, an old photo of her and her sister, sitting on a large, old horse.
The horse, though mellow as an old horse could be, had jumped the creek that day when the girl who was watching over the two sisters had led him across. It hadn't been very wide. In fact, the girl had stepped across expecting him to simply step across too. But he had not, of course. He must have considered it too much effort, or perhaps he felt a wave of youthful vigor. Whatever it was that had gotten into him, he and chosen instead to give it a good jump, giving the two young girls on his back a good scare.
Ravyn smiled. As terrified as she had been, it had also been invigorating. She didn't think that her sister had found it so. But out of the two, her sister had been the one to love spending time with the horses, becoming an excellent horseback rider. Not that Ravyn didn't love riding, she did. She'd just spent as much time off the plantation as she had on it.
The plantation, the very word left a sour note, had been in her father's family for generations. Perhaps this was also a reason why Ravyn detested the place. The very idea that her father's family had kept slaves appalled her. And the idea that she was supposed to go back there, to spend any length of time there, made her stomach churn.
She couldn't go back.
She had to go back.
Frustrated, she finished packing, even though it was still the middle of the night.
The house was quiet when Ravyn arrived, but she had expected that it would be. When she had finally worked up the courage to call her sister back, she had been told to come on in when she arrived. Her sister would tell her no more over the phone—only asked that she come, straight away.
She could hear the old grandfather clock's loud ticking, just as she remembered, as it sat just inside the large living area. The house was more of a mansion than a house. Several smaller houses, which held those that her father had employed, sat down in the lower fields. She knew many of the workers. She knew they would be excited to see that she had returned home.
Home. Now, there was a thought. When had she ever thought of this place as home?
Ravyn walked to the large windows overlooking a gently sloping hill. It wouldn't be long before the sun would set. It was dead of winter. And as it had been so many times in her youth, the ravens were sitting in the trees, and the crows were playing in the snow.
She watched their antics for several moments, then stepped out the glass sliding door onto the deck. Before she knew what she was about, she had walked down the stairs toward the hard wood trees, watching the crows playing as she walked as they strutted around in the snow, one stealing what the other one had.
She could not remember ever having seen so many ravens and crows at one time. The crows continued to play in the snow as the sun sank from the horizon, burning the sky around it—and even as they played—the ravens watched. She'd come to know that the ravens were much more solitary than their cousins, preferring to stay off to themselves.
She shivered. She did so every time she saw them. Perhaps she did so because her mother had named her Ravyn with her last dying breath. Perhaps she got these goose-bumps because the birds always managed to find her in the dead of winter—no matter where she went.
She was both awed by the ravens and by the crows—even while she was scared of them. She would watch them for hours, take pictures of them—paint them. It was a morbid obsession, she knew. But she just could not figure out what it was about them that bothered her so much.
It was at though they called to her.
She shook off such dark thoughts, turning to retrace her steps back to the house, and froze. The ravens and the crows took off in a flurry of black wings at the same moment that she spotted him, cawing their warning at his intrusion.
A shiver ran up her spine. It wasn't that he looked particularly threatening—but he did look dangerous, she thought. Yes. He had gained a dangerous look about him.
Dangerous—but not threatening?
Dangerous—but not threatening?
Didn't they mean the same thing?—and did that not make his presence, here, more ominous?
she argued with herself, strangling on the breath that had become trapped in her throat.
She realized that he had been the reason that she had feared coming home. She had spotted him, twice, before. The second time, she had left her home for good, though she had only been eighteen at the time.
The ravens chose that moment to flutter their dark wings around her. Later, she would think how very odd and reassuring this had been—but for now, she didn't take her eyes off the man.
His coat was long and black. His hair was the same. It hung like a curtain around his shoulders, with blue-black sheen. His skin, she realized, was so pale, he appeared almost painted.
How very odd—she thought—that she found this all so familiar. She froze. She had found him familiar even then. Was that not the real reason why she had run?—and why she had half expected him to call her?—and demand that she return?
She snorted at the thought. Imagine that—expecting an apparition to call her on the phone!
He didn't move, except to give a dark look at the ravens which continue to swoop and fly around her. He stared at her—like he was considering something. Then he turned. His coat swirled around him, and she realized that it had a kind of cape-like quality to the cut—but then she forgot all about that as he melted into the gathering darkness of the night. Ravyn squinted, trying to catch some glimpse of where he'd gone—yet he had simply disappeared.
She turned, then, to see the ravens have flown away too. Her heart hammered in her chest. She ran all the way back the house—vowing to never be caught out after dark again. Once in the house, she turned the lock with fumbling fingers, sinking to the floor with great gasping breaths.
She turned in the dim light jumped up, and on shaking legs, turned on every light in her area of the lower floor. When that didn't help, she turned on the TV and pulled the drapes—but nothing made her feel safe.
She would never feel safe again.
She turned, facing the door. Whatever had just happened out there had not been natural. She snorted at the thought. Whatever had been out there?! She drug in a shaking breath, her fingers trembling so bad she had to fold them under her arms stop them. Her knees buckle, and she sank to the floor for the second time.
It was then that she let herself remember the stories she always pushed away to the farthest reaches of her mind, remembering the stories her granny had told her—the stories she dismissed as fantasy—and if not that—than superstitious nonsense. They had seemed like the stuff of fairy tales. As she had grown older, she had begun trying to reason out the world that her granny spun around her—from the world everyone else lived in. And then—he had first appeared.
She had been about eighteen years old. She had chalked it up to her very overactive imagination, and though she'd been thoroughly shook up for a few weeks, she'd managed to pass it off.
It was when he'd shown up for the second time that her whole world had seemed to flip on its ear—and that was when she had left her home for good. At least that had been her intention.
She looked around the room, unable to believe she had let anything bring her back here. She had vowed that day to never return again. She just couldn't take the chance. She didn't want to think—that he might really exist.
His existence was not normal!
Acknowledging that he existed threatened all that she had so carefully constructed about her world.
All of the stories her granny had told her came rushing back to her in their jumble, twisted lines, and she knew—whatever had been out there was part of the stories her granny had told her about her people—his people. What her granny called Ambrogio. The humans called them—vampire.