He had always been a light sleeper - any noise out of place while his eyes were shut was processed within his mind and instantaneously evaluated. Non-threatening sounds faded into a dull buzz, and dangerous noises spurred an immediate, adrenaline-pumped response.
So he knew there was no threat as he blinked and quickly pushed himself out of his bedroll, leaving the few blankets discarded on the ground. The flames had died down, the camp now barely illuminated by only a few smoldering embers and the eldritch light of a three-quarters moon. He swiftly circled the fire pit, and knelt by the slight, twisting form that was now thrashing violently and brokenly crying out in horror.
"Carl," the man breathed, and then he repeated the other's name again, a little louder. "Carl!"
The friar started into wakefulness, sitting up straight and breathing hard. Gabriel Van Helsing could see the sheen of sweat on his brow. Carl's auburn hair was disheveled and damp, his friar's robes twisted and wrinkled. The two men were dressed in stained and travel-worn clothing; it had been a week since he had brought Anna to the sea and given her body to the flames, and they were returning to Rome by horse. Although it might have been faster to gain passage on a ship, both the friar and the hunter - though the latter would be loathe to admit it - were in need of rest and healing. Carl was still drained and shaky from the abuse he had received at the hands of Igor, while the toll taken on Van Helsing from his transformation manifested itself in the haggard pallor of his face and weariness of his movements. Both were still mourning the loss of Anna Valerious, and the grief was slow to fade.
The friar raised hands to his face and quickly wiped his cheeks, and Van Helsing moved to stir up the fire, pretending not to notice. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly, turning around.
Carl's blue eyes were turbulent with emotion, and he hesitantly shook his head. "I - it was -"
Van Helsing was silent, allowing the other man to try to put his sadness into words. It worried him to see Carl, his verbose and eloquent friend, at a loss for words. The young friar hid his strong, rebellious spirit behind his genius and humor, and to see him so obviously adrift, lost in a sea of grief, prompted Van Helsing to turn more towards him, showing by his open body language a willingness to talk.
This small movement was all it seemingly took to have words streaming from Carl. "I was back in the tower, when we went to find the antidote, and the bride was there - the one in pink, who brought us the proposition for the trade. Aleera," he venomously spat the name. Van Helsing nodded, eyes never leaving the younger man's face. Carl had told him of what had taken place in the tower, in the grief-laden twilight as the pyre had burned to ash and bone. "She appeared out of nowhere, after Igor closed the portcullis, and we were trapped, and Anna pushed the glass container with the antidote onto the floor. It shattered, and there was acid, everywhere.
"But in my dream. . . " Carl choked, his face twisted in a valiant effort to defy tears. His eyes squeezed shut, and he flinched as Gabriel laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. The motion told Van Helsing all he needed to know. After all, was there no greater horror than watching one friend, all unwitting, kill another?
The pause lay heavy between them, and the fire cracked loudly in the silence, sending up a small shower of sparks. After a long moment Carl took a deep breath, and another. After a few moments, he regained his equanimity. He had been able, for most part, to work past the grief of the sudden, untimely death of a close friend at another's hands. He was still plagued by nightmares, but neither man believed that those would ever truly go away.
Van Helsing inhaled deeply, and heaved his breath out soundlessly. "It's about three hours till dawn," he said, voice muted in the hush of night. "I'll take this watch. Go back to sleep, Carl."
The friar nodded, and curled within his blankets. He was asleep within minutes, and Van Helsing was worried. It was a sign of his friend's exhaustion that he hadn't protested, insisted on taking his watch. Gabriel himself was bone-weary. It seemed like an effort just to breathe, and to force his mind away from the few revelations he had gained on this trip was almost more than he was capable of. He had been awake most of the night, and had only just fallen asleep when Carl's nightmares had disturbed his slumber.
Giving up on any chance of rest, although he knew the danger in being unprepared to repulse an enemy attack, Gabriel pulled his jacket, salvaged from Castle Dracula, over his shoulders and sat with his back to the fire, so not to destroy his night vision.
The last three hours till the rising of the sun were uneventful. The day barely dawned, the sun laboriously pulling itself over the horizon to be thwarted by the heavy clouds foretelling more dreary weather. The two men were nearly out of the western edge of the Carpathian Mountains, making their way further west and south into Italy, back to the Vatican City in Rome.
Rising slowly, too tired to give the impression of strength that he had tried to project these last days to reassure Carl, Gabriel cleaned up his portion of the campsite. He efficiently, though slowly, rolled up his blankets, and groomed his dark horse. He woke Carl, and the friar started to cook breakfast, as Van Helsing finished grooming and saddling the horses and clearing all evidence of their campsite.
"We're about seven days journey from Rome," Van Helsing murmured quietly, standing from the spot where he'd broken his morning fast.
Carl glanced at him, chewing and swallowing the last of his bacon. "I'd thought we were only four," he replied, the question hovering in his tone. He stood and quickly wiped his pan with a rag after wrapping up the last of the food.
"There's no need to push the horses," Gabriel responded slowly, "And we're going to be avoiding the major cities." He smothered the fire with dirt, stamping down on the last of the embers, ash flying around his boots.
"We need to resupply," Carl pointed out, looking at the two loaves of bread remaining of their stores as he packed the pan away in his worn saddlebags. "A city or village -"
"I'm the most wanted man in Europe," Gabriel cut in without bitterness. "And right now, in our condition, we'd end up jailed and executed before Rome knew we were caught."
Wincing, Carl had to concede the point. There were definite disadvantages to traveling with Van Helsing. There was the fact that he was a wanted man, added to his barely-adequate cooking skills, his dry humor and irritating teasing. But the man did know how to be serious, and he was caring and kind, despite his awesome and lethal talents. In short, he was one of the best men Carl had ever known, and a good friend.
But now, the dark-haired head was bent with weariness, all his lethargic motions a disturbing change from the crisp, economical movements of the man who expelled his anger and unease vocally and violently. Damn-it-all, something was wrong, and it had taken Carl almost a week to see it. Cursing himself for his lack of care for his friend, who had done little else but look after him, Carl mounted his horse and quickly followed Van Helsing, who had mounted up and begun without noticing that he was lagging. He was none too late, for barely had his horse begun to move when Van Helsing pulled his steed to a stop and glanced behind him, searching for the wayward friar.
Gabriel waited until Carl caught up, and then the two began to ride together, at a steady trot, westward. The comfortable silence between them held until midday, when a river appeared directly in their path.
Dismounting, Van Helsing looked over the river and then glanced at Carl. Clearing his throat to remove the hoarseness of disuse from his voice, he said, "I think it's near time for a midday meal."
Carl grinned, relieved at the attempt at normalcy. "I was wondering when you'd get around to that. You know, this river looks deep enough to bathe."
Gabriel raised a brow at him, and said nothing.
"Bathe," Carl repeated, his irritation shining through. "It is not just something done by the clergy. We all manage it. Well, most of us, anyway. You apparently have no idea what it's like to be clean," he teased gently, wrinkling his nose.
Van Helsing grinned. "If you want to suffer through my cooking, you can go first," he offered.
Carl was off his horse, had the animal secured to a tree and was off to the river, shedding clothes right and left, in under a minute. Gabriel laughed softly, shrugging his own coat off after he secured his horse and checked Carl's.
Instead of starting a fire immediately, he scouted the area in a hundred-meter perimeter. As he circled back to where he'd left Carl, he could hear the friar singing in a wavering, but energetic tenor. To his amusement, the song was not a hymn or praise to the Lord, but a mild tavern drinking song.
Walking to his saddlebags, he reached out to open the top flap, in search of kindling, steel and flint, when he caught sight of the miniscule winged serpent on the silver ring adorning his right hand.
". . . and the return of my ring."
"Do you ever wonder why you have such . . . horrible nightmares?"
"It must be such a burden, such a curse, to be the Left Hand of God . . ."
Van Helsing blinked, took a deep breath, and made a mistake. The instant he closed his eyes, his mind was overrun with images from terrific battles in the past. So much blood - and the screams of men dying all around him reverberated through his head. Anguish such as he'd never felt before, and hoped never to feel again, poured through him in a torrent that washed away all other feeling, taking consciousness with it.
When Carl exited the river, he was whistling cheerfully. He dried himself off with his old robes, wrapping them around himself on his way back to his horse, with its saddlebag and fresh set of clothing. He looked around the prospective campsite, and saw no fire, and smelled no food being cooked - or burned, rather. Slightly irritated, he pushed his way roughly through the foliage toward the horses, which were stirring uneasily.
When he saw the crumpled, dark-clothed form lying mere inches from the restless, stamping hooves of the horses, he froze.
The next instant, disregarding everything else, he burst into action, racing frantically across the glade, dropping his robe and sprinting the last few feet in the nude as the garment threatened to impede his progress. Carl threw himself onto his knees next to Van Helsing, scrabbling in the dirt to get near his friend.
The other man's face was pale and ashen, his entire body trembling faintly. As Carl watched, he could see Van Helsing's chest move as the other gasped in shallow breaths.
Reaching out, he gently slapped the other man's face. The coldness of his skin in the heat of the day made Carl's worry ratchet even higher.
He felt for a pulse, and raked his fingers through Gabriel's hair, searching for a bump or a cut - something that would indicate an attack. There was no sign of any wound, nothing to indicate an assault. Unsure of what he was doing, Carl grasped Van Helsing's shoulders and roughly shook him, calling his name. "Van Helsing, Van Helsing! Gabriel!"
At the sound of his given name, the other man tensed, and a low, pain-filled groan leaked from his throat.
"Gabriel! Gabriel, wake up!" cried Carl, disturbed by the tortured sound. He tried to keep his voice even, as the other man's body tensed, muscles strained to the breaking point. He began to mumble, beneath his breath, his voice growing slightly louder as he shouted within his mind.
With a start, Carl realized that he was speaking in Ancient Latin, and from his knowledge of Church Latin, which was slightly different, he began to translate.
" - Form up the left flank, the line must not break! We must hold them off . . . No! The left-"
The language changed abruptly, and Carl could not recognize it. The sound of the words altered once more, and he guessed the language shifted again. Four more times at least Gabriel changed tongues, the string of sound becoming ever more faint, until it drifted off and Gabriel was left, his lips moving, barely breathing, his skin cold and his mind in torment.
Carl was becoming ever more panicked, and was nearly sobbing with fear, when Gabriel's mouth stopped moving. His eyes slowly slid open, and he blinked. Carl gasped with relief.
"Van Helsing! Are you all right? What happened? Dammit, you scared me!" The last just slipped out - he'd had no intention of letting the other know just how frightened he'd been. Ignoring his questions, Gabriel blinked up at him, a frown beginning to form on his brow.
"Carl?" he asked, keeping his eyes firmly locked on the friar's.
"Yes?" the other bent over him, anxious features intent upon him.
"Where are your clothes?"
There was a strangled squawk of embarrassment and fury, and Carl's face disappeared from his vision. Wincing, Gabriel pushed himself gingerly into a sitting position, and grinned slightly at the friar who was wrapping himself in his dirty robe, which had been lying nearly halfway across the small meadow.
Carl glared at him, and Gabriel turned his back on the exasperated friar, using his horse's saddle to pull himself upright.
Blackness danced in his vision, and all noise coalesced into a buzz, fading out into deafness, before returning full force. He blinked, and saw Carl steadying him on the right. "Are you sure you should be standing just yet?" he asked. "I mean, after all, you just fainted."
Van Helsing treated Carl to a glare of his own. "I did not faint," he replied.
"No, of course not. You just felt like taking a midday nap," the friar retorted snidely. "Inspecting your eyelids, I assume?"
Gabriel ignored him, releasing the horse's saddle, and took a few steps, staggering slightly.
"Are you sure you should be doing that?" Carl repeated, worry apparent under the teasing tone.
"No," Van Helsing growled.
"But I suppose you're going to anyway," Carl responded.
Not deigning to reply, Van Helsing took three more steps, reached out to a tree, and slumped at its base, propping himself up against the trunk. Carl was there immediately, easing him down.
"Thank you," said Gabriel, and he ran a critical eye over his friend. The young friar was pale with worry, his face drawn into anxious lined and his eyes probing for injury. "I'm fine. Go get dressed."
Acknowledging the practicality of that statement, Carl moved the two yards to the horses, retrieved his clothes, and dressed in record time. Unlike the werewolf bite, Carl knew almost nothing about regular injuries, and had no references with him to ascertain the cause behind the frightening incident of a few minutes ago. Therefore, he was back at Van Helsing's side within moments.
Gabriel, for his part, leant his head against the tree and closed his eyes, absently running his fingers over the ring on his hand. He pulled the item off, and then stared at it.
"Have you ever had an episode like that before?" asked Carl, unwittingly startling the hunter. Gabriel had unsheathed one of his spinning blades before he registered that the threat was just Carl. "Jumpy, are we?"
"No," Van Helsing responded to both questions. "Nothing like that's ever happened before, that I can remember." He momentarily examined the blade before re-sheathing it inside the holster up his sleeve.
"Speaking of which, what do you remember? I was surprised when you began speaking in Latin, but at least I could understand it. When you switched, I had no idea what you were saying."
"I - what?" asked Gabriel, his face a portrait of surprise.
"You were speaking in tongues," said Carl. Gabriel made a face at how that statement sounded, and Carl rolled his eyes. "And what is that?" the friar continued, reaching over to pluck the ring from where it rested in Van Helsing's palm.
"Dracula's," said Van Helsing. He was slightly surprised that Carl hadn't seen him wearing it before.
"Spoils of battle?" said the friar with a disgusted look on his face.
"No. At least, I don't think so. I only have his word that it was his, anyway," Gabriel replied thoughtfully.
Carl was turning it over in his hand, examining the odd piece, when he heard Van Helsing's statement. "Care to elaborate?"
"It was one of the few things I had when the Church found me four years ago," Van Helsing said quietly. "Dracula saw it, recognized it. He was missing his right ring finger, and claimed I had taken the ring from him."
"But he was a vampire. They can heal anything, even a removed limb. The only way for him to be missing a finger is if he lost it before he was murdered in 1462. And that means -" Carl broke off, his eyes widening as the implications sank in. "It means that if his finger was cut off and his ring taken before he was killed - and you have the ring -" Carl broke off, forming his own conclusions. "But that was in 1462," he said at last.
"You asked," Van Helsing replied, circumventing the unasked question. "Besides, that train of logic proves nothing. It could have been given or sold to me." He rubbed a hand over his face and pushed himself to his feet.
"Wait, what are you doing? Where are you going?"
Van Helsing rummaged through the saddlebags of his gelding, taking clean clothes and grasping a bar of soap. He raised a brow, glancing over his shoulder and replied, "I'm going to bathe."
Mouth opening and closing in frustration, Carl stared at the hunter's retreating back. Closing his jaw with a snap, he gathered kindling and tinder, collecting the flint and steel. Within moments he had constructed a fire ring and was working to start a fire. With the ease of practice, he soon had flames licking gently over the dried grass and bark. He built up the fire and began to prepare the cooking utensils.
At the river, Van Helsing stripped and slipped into the water. He had few scars, testimony of his skill as a hunter. The werewolf bite had healed without a mark. The curse of lycanthropy brought with it impressive healing powers that had made short work of the painful wound, despite the brevity of his time as a werewolf.
In four years, most of his scars were faded and barely noticeable - some had completely disappeared. Sometimes he wondered if he should heal this completely, for he knew that others kept their own scars all their lives, but he dismissed such thoughts as folly, and did not mention this oddity to anyone.
Banishing all thought from his mind, he quickly and thoroughly scrubbed, removing grime and dirt of the road from his skin. Would that blood could be cleansed so easily, he thought, before climbing out and drying himself with grass. He squeezed the water from his hair, and pulled on his clean clothing. Then, he used a small scrap of soap to wash his garments. Holding the dripping clothes, he returned to the horses and draped the clothes over tree limbs to dry.
Van Helsing glanced at the fire, which he could see burning merrily, and Carl, who was carefully dropping seasoning into a bubbling pot. Shaking his head, a small smile gracing his full lips, Van Helsing untied the horses from the tree limbs and picketed them in the meadow to graze.
He returned to the fire, dropping the saddlebags near a conveniently-placed log. Sitting, he removed his weapons and began to work. First, his rotating blades were cleaned, the spin mechanism oiled and cared for. Next, his guns were all checked, the chambers and barrels cleaned and loaded. An assortment of small knives were cleaned, honed, and secreted about his person. Lastly, he attended his crossbow, oiling the moving parts, replacing the string, and reloading the canister of arrows. When he set the final weapon aside, he counted the supplies remaining in the traveling armory. There was just enough to see them safely home, he decided.
He looked up. Carl was holding a bowl right in front of his nose. "Do you want it? Otherwise, I'm hungry," Carl said.
"When are you not?" Van Helsing asked, taking the bowl. He picked up his spoon and lifted a bite to his lips. His hand froze an inch from his mouth. "What's in it?" he asked, hoping his voice sounded casual. "Or do I really want to know?" he muttered under his breath.
"Fresh watercress, ramsoms, some tubers and wild carrots and onions, a few leeks - nothing deadly, unlike that stuff you cooked up and tried to feed me last week."
"It wasn't deadly. If I wanted you dead, there's other ways of doing it," Van Helsing joked, returning the friendly jibe.
"Not with your skills, I should imagine," Carl shot back. The amicable banter lasted through the meal, which extended into the afternoon.
After clearing away the cooking utensils, Van Helsing noted the low position of the sun. "Camp here tonight," he said simply, and Carl nodded after glancing at the length of the shadows.
"I'll take first watch," Carl offered, and Van Helsing raised a brow in surprise. Carl was returning to the pattern of life, taking on a share of the burden once more. A sign of healing? Van Helsing hoped so.
Gratefully, he rolled himself into his blankets as the sun went down, turning in early as exhaustion pulled at him, drowning him within the pitch-dark realm of sleep.
"Have you ever wondered why you have such . . . horrible nightmares? Images of horrific battles of ages past?"
"We have such - history, Gabriel."
"We could be friends . . . partners . . . brothers in arms!"
"Did I mention . . . it was you who murdered me?"
"You're being used, Gabriel . . . "
"Such a burden, such a curse . . ."
" . . . the return of my ring . . ."
" . . . to be the Left Hand of God."
Van Helsing slowly crawled his way to awareness, dazed and confused. He heard a low, tortured moan softly push past his lips, and recognized anguish in the barely audible sound. The sound of his name shocked him into wakefulness, and he shifted, his eyes snapping open. The misery within him was ripping him apart - but he did not know why.
Carl's unhappy features once again were hanging over him, and Van Helsing sat up. "What's wrong?"
"You were having a nightmare," said Carl.
Van Helsing glanced around the camp. "Is that all?"
Carl's face expressed a measure of surprise. To Van Helsing, no night was uninterrupted by demons within his sleep. Lately, the dreams had become more and more vicious, from what he could tell. Van Helsing was solitary in his suffering, unassuming, and humble. His nightmares, which Carl suspected were enough to make any ordinary man wake screaming in terror, woke the hunter every night. But the waking was strange - a slow, tortured struggle into wakefulness, rather than a noisy return to consciousness. Almost as if the memories themselves strove to bury him within their depths, refusing to release him.
Carl was concerned. The deep shadows beneath Van Helsing's eyes had been created in the last two weeks, during their journey to bury Anna, and the trip towards Rome - home, for Carl. Not Van Helsing. And the hunter said nothing about them. He slept lightly as a cat when on duty, but when he turned his watch over to Carl, the friar witnessed the cycle every night.
First, Van Helsing was pulled into deep sleep, his body limp and unresponsive even to pain (as Carl found out much to his chagrin one night after tripping over the hunter - Van Helsing still didn't know about that little accident). His breathing would become so deep and silent that Carl had had trouble discerning the rise and fall of his chest. Within an hour, the struggling began. A frown twisted itself onto the dark features, and Van Helsing's limbs moved slowly and sluggishly, as weights rather than functioning arms and legs. It would not be long after that when, exhausted, he would blink open his eyes.
Staring at the hunter, who was completely lucid although lacking in energy, Carl was worried.
"Yes," he responded to Van Helsing's earlier question, aware that the other man's sharp gaze had noted the friar's anxious study of his features.
Van Helsing raised a hand and rubbed at his face. He was thoroughly exhausted - he couldn't remember ever being so drained. And the unhappiness that poured through him was more than just overwhelming - it was not all coming from him. He could feel that something was causing it, some creature, and he was disconcerted by this knowledge.
Grunting, Gabriel freed himself from his blankets and carefully stood. He glanced at the sky, which was already lightening. "We should get ready to go," he murmured softly.
(Ok, been wanting to post this for awhile, just to see the general reactions. What do you think?)