Disclaimer: I don't own any of the VHD characters, places, etc.
Chapter 1: Meetings
They were coming across the wastelands, heading towards him. D could see them from beneath the brim of his hat, wavering smudges against an endless gold backdrop. He had smelled them before he'd see them, a mixture of animal and human sweat drifting sluggishly across the parched earth. It was a small caravan of humans, a family. A man with rough features and a scruffy jaw sat at the front of a battered old wagon, the reins held in his hands loosely as the oxen plodded forward. He was young, nothing particularly to look at, but D could tell how sharp his eyes were from here.
A wave of nausea overpowered him and he looked down, gritting his teeth to fight against either passing out or vomiting. His airways were constricting, threatening to close up entirely. If he hadn't been so bent on getting across the wasteland so fast he wouldn't be here now. Then again, he had been almost openly fleeing from a group of hunters tailing him. The world was changing.
"Oh look Minnie! There's a man there by one of the old sky roads!" shouted a child's voice distantly. D wanted to look up but concentrated instead on deep, easy breathing. If he wasn't careful his chest would seize up. The shade was helping. Maybe he could get by.
"He looks sick, Minnie," another, even younger voice whined, as if concerned. D gathered up his patience, hoping against hope that they would leave him. He'd be finished if they reacted with hostility to him. By this time he could hear the grinding of the wheels along the destroyed earth and the plod of a yoke of oxen. One lowed. He heard more hooves then there should be for just one yoke, which was all he had been able to make out before.
"Traveler," he was hailed. D closed his eyes, resolving. It was a woman's voice, the timbre authoritative and decisive. He thought it strange that the man had not called out to him if anyone was to respond. His horse, lathering at the mouth beside him, wheezed something like a whicker and shifted. Slowly, he forced the muscles in his neck to lift his head, one vertebra at a time.
An old nag's legs came into view, almost cantering towards him, and he caught the curling of bare toes through the stirrups. He followed a pair of exposed legs up to the knee before he saw a dirty, wrinkled blue dress, abused by the sun and worn too hard here in the wastes. He couldn't see her face until she passed into the shadows of the highway, where he first noticed the varying shades of autumn in her hair ranging from red, to gold, to earthy brown. Her startlingly blue eyes were fixed on him as she reined to a halt, fully able to see his face now.
He watched as she studied him intently, her eyes detailing the sharp angles of his elfish features and the noble lines of his jaw and nose. Meanwhile, he traced her feminine features framed by matted, sweaty hair. There was something cheerful about her, and he found her fascination with him odd. There was no fear, only an all consuming curiosity.
"The wasteland is a demanding mistress," she said, as a smile slowly spread itself back across her face. She put her hands on the saddle horn and pushed herself over onto one stirrup, swinging her leg over and then down onto the earth. She landed with a rough grace, and he pegged her for a farm girl. "You look parched. Have a drink on me." She pulled a water skin from the saddlebags and held it out to him, all that hair tumbling halfway into her face. She smelled a bit sour, but D couldn't fault her for that in this heat. There were no inns along the way to stop and bathe in.
Over her shoulder he saw the caravan had stopped, the plain man with sharp eyes standing now, his hand hovering around a pistol at his hip. There was another man, this one handsome with luxuriant blond curls, approaching already. He, like the woman before him, looked more fascinated then frightened. D drew a deep breath against his tight chest.
"Your kindness is unnecessary," he said softly, as loud as he could muster. She seemed to blur a bit out of focus as she stood up and pulled the cork out of the water skin.
"That's what makes it kindness. Go on and drink." She offered the skin again, and D's natural urge for survival took him. He was so thirsty. He accepted silently and took a restrained drink. "Take as much as you need," she urged him, a smile playing on her face. He could hear the blond coming up on them as the warm water seeped down his throat, refreshing despite its temperature. "There's water for your horse as well."
D looked towards her and saw her standing with her hands on the horse's muzzle. She stroked it and crooned the way farm girls tended to do with animals. The horse, tired as it was in spite of the cybernetic augmentations that made it superior to a regular animal, seemed to sigh wearily and drop his head into her arms. She chuckled, stroking his jaws and hugging his weary face. He snorted into her dress, looking like he wished he could just lean against her and pass out.
"I think he'd like a drink," she persuaded.
"There won't be enough for you," D stated more then asked. She smiled.
"We'll have enough to get by with. Jaiming Trading Post isn't so far from here if Drayden is any judge. We'll be there tomorrow evening," she assured him. "And you? Where is it you're heading?" She turned to face him as the augmented horse put his head over her shoulder, commanding she keep up with the gently caress on his nose. His glazed eyes looked like they couldn't see anything, but the touch was enough to calm him.
"Jaiming is right on the way. Why don't you ride with us?" she suggested. Half of D really wanted to take her up on the offer, but he knew better. For them to ride into town showing him any degree of kindness would jeopardize their well being. Times were changing, becoming even less forgiving of his kind. The water was an incalculable gesture on her part anyway, and he knew she knew what he was. "You're hardly well, and this beast will die long before you get there if you don't let me give him some water. Won't you, poor thing?" she turned to the horse, who grumbled something and stomped a hoof. His tongue flickered out as he chewed on his bit. "You see? You're outvoted."
"You're a Dhampire, aren't you?" asked the blonde that had finally arrived. D turned to look at him.
"Mind your tongue," the woman chided, a touch of iron in her voice. The blond glanced at her as he fished into the pocket of his trousers. The sleeves of his dirty shirt were rolled back, and he wore no shoes either. His suspenders looked a bit threadbare.
"I've heard this can help with Heat Sickness. It is Heat Sickness, isn't it?" he asked, his large brown eyes fastened on D with an inquisitive severity D had never come across. He stared back into the handsome, sun burnt face. In his extended palm was a small pouched smelling faintly of herbs. The woman came up now, peering at it. Slowly, D reached out and lifted the pouch.
"Heat Sickness?" she asked, looking at her brother. "What's that?"
"I understand that Dhampires suffer from it after prolonged or intense exposure to the sun," the boy explained. He wasn't so much a boy as he was a young man. "Hard to breath, exhaustion, faintness," he looked back at D, who felt himself suddenly trying to cover up his weakness. "I've heard those herbs help."
"Now where did you learn about that?" the woman asked. The young man was careful to avoid her eyes as he stood up.
"I'll get the girls to make room in the wagon. He should ride with us at least as far as Jaiming," he told her, still not looking back at her. He swung around and marched back towards the caravan. There were two small girls out now, standing in the sunlight together and watching intensely. They were both standing beside a second yoke of oxen tied behind the wagon.
"There you have it. Doctor's orders," the woman said after a moment, when the blonde was halfway to the wagon. The sharp-eyed man asked him something and looked to be on his guard at the response. His eyes turned to D and the woman. "What's in the pouch?" she pressed, leaning towards him a little.
"Ground Belhan leaves and Sartin roots," he answered, immediately recognizing the smell and texture of the two precious herbs.
"Victor's always been resourceful," she said thoughtfully. "Will you listen to him and ride with us as far as Jaiming?" D looked past her again at the wagon. The sharp-eyed man was staring him down disdainfully as the two small girls had vanished. Victor's legs were hanging out of the wagon. "Don't worry about Drayden. Come on."
"May I?" D held up the water bottle and herbs, asking to combine them. She nodded as she took the reins of his horse and went to collect those of her own. D emptied the entire packet into the water skin meanwhile and took another drink. He could taste the bittersweet herbs on his tongue, and while relief was not immediate, he felt better knowing it was coming.
Painfully he put his palm down flat against the ground and then proceeded to push himself up. His muscles unbent slowly and he followed after her and stepped out into the sunlight leading both of their horses. The augmented mount walked with his head low, pained by his overworked muscles but hanging on. It was a good mount, one of the best he'd ever ridden.
Passing out into the sunlight was like having hot coals dumped down his back. D almost cringed, but narrowed his eyes instead. He walked as gracefully as he could though, following the red head back to her small caravan. She crossed the burning sands barefoot without thinking about it. D didn't know how she could stand it.
They walked for a small eternity, moving slowly closer to sanctuary. He felt his lungs constricting the longer they were out, and took another drink of the warmed water. It sloshed down his throat and he hoped the herbs would take affect quickly.
"We made you a space!" chimed one of the small girls, the elder of the two. She had a beak for a nose and lanky black hair. She waved him emphatically out of the sunlight. Her sister, some years younger, jumped up and down beside her.
"Come in! Come in!" the younger insisted, still too shy to come out from behind the elder.
"Allow me to introduce my younger sisters. Carlotta is there with the dark hair and Rosemary has the brown curls. We call them Carla and Rosy. They're full of energy but they don't bite," the red head explained. Victor was coming around from the other side of the wagon with a small bucket of water. He planted it in the sand before the eager horse, which immediately threw his snout into it and slurped water as if he'd never tasted anything so sweet. D couldn't blame the beast. He'd been ridden hard with very few breaks.
"Running from something?" spoke a second man's voice. D realized it was Drayden who stood staring him down, his eyes cold and hard.
"Aren't we all?" the red head shot back, her voice laced with an admonishment. Except for that subtle edge, there was no indication of her irritation, just a smile stuck to her face as cheerily as a freshly white washed cottage looked on a bright day. "This is Drayden, my elder brother. You've already met Victor, and my name is Minerva."
"D," he provided before she had lifted her head from the slight bow. She was not a product of finishing school by any stretch, but her country manners were quaint and amusing.
"An appropriate name," she nodded, putting her hand onto the horn of her old nag and hoisting herself up. She reached between her legs and pulled her dress through, before seating herself. "So mysterious. Carla, Rosy, make sure you don't bother our guest too much."
"Minnie! Can't we braid his hair?" Carla protested.
"No such thing,"
"Braids! Braids!" Rosy insisted determinedly, now looking at D fiercely.
"You haven't finished with Victor," Minerva shook her head. "Our guest needs a little rest."
"Rosy, Carla, I have a riddle for you," Victor smiled, appearing beside D. He climbed in and crawled towards the girls. "What has many eyes but can never see?" he asked, looking between them. Carla and Rosy stood before him ponderously.
"Are you getting in?" Minerva asked. D looked back at her and saw her tethering his cybernetic horse's reins to her saddle horn. "Doctor's orders, you know," she winked. D looked back inside, and saw both young girls had their fists buried in the lush curls that were Victor's hair. He deemed it safe to enter, and leapt lightly into the wagon. Although the interior was cramped and stifling, it felt as if he had just tumbled out of a fireplace. His whole body relaxed, and he propped himself quietly against some of the crates, out of the harsh line of sunlight.
"Don't try anything funny, Dhampire," Drayden rumbled gruffly, his sharp eye sliding back towards D.
"He's fine," Victor said sternly. D just kept quiet, wishing not to cause strife. He felt uncomfortable, but physically he was grateful for the lift. The herbs were beginning to take affect. His eye swung out over the vast desert and was surprised when it landed on Minerva. She was piling her hair up on top of her head, already sweating again. Heat wavered up around her. She looked very dark, blackened by the desert heat. Something about her seemed out of place. He couldn't put his finger on it.
His horse trudged along side of her, his eyes pricked towards her. Minerva had fallen several yards behind them and looked to be talking to it. The oxen plodding directly behind the cart lowed, and he studied their weary dark eyes. He turned his attention again to Victor, who was busy telling the two younger girls a story about a bridge guarded by a troll. They listened intently, their small fingers matting and braiding his hair. Drayden drove silently up front.
- Many Years Ago -
"Can we give you a lift?" asked the girl with a dark braid and blue eyes. "You don't look like you should be wandering around in the dark." Her smile was cheerful. He had watched the headlights of her truck as they cut down the old dirt road, but he hadn't expected a young woman to be along for the ride this late. She extended a rough hand to him, still smiling. He put his palm against hers and swung up. She scuttled up a few bails of hay and called for them to start moving. "Where you headed?" she asked, sliding back down and landing with a rough thump as the old truck started moving again.
"Just to the Inn," he answered, folding one leg up. She made herself comfortable, tucking both hands behind her head.
"No problem. We'll drop you off first class," she smiled, winking. "It's no good to be out on your own these days. You've heard all the stories about those spooks wandering around out here, haven't you?" He chuckled. "Yeah, they're pretty silly. I'd be more afraid of Communist supporters around here then Vampires and Werewolves," she agreed.
"What if I was a Communist?"
"A lot of good it would do you in that getup. You look like gentry," she laughed, her shoulders shaking. She was in coveralls, faded and smeared with grease. Old sweat still hung about her. She couldn't have been old enough to see the fall of the Wall, he reflected. "Did your car break down or something?"
"My horse was lamed," the man replied.
"Ah, that explains the gunshot," she nodded, swinging her eyes up towards the sky. They seemed to detail the smattered stars. "You must come from old money to have a horse. 'Course, you must be crazy to go around in the dark too. Can't you hear the wolves?" she sat up and cupped her hands around her mouth, letting out a long, high howl. She closed her eyes and repeated it, as a chorus of wolves echoed up to join her. The man smiled, amused as she dissolved into laughter, flopping back against her hay. Straw clung to her hair and clothing, while moonlight gleamed off of her eyes. "Better watch out or they'll come to get you!"
"Cut it out!" shouted a man's voice, thumping the side of the truck. "Don't want no wolves!"
"See? The wolves are out to terrorize us all, now that the Soviets have fallen," she cackled. "So, were you just out to see the sights?" she waved a hand over the desolate landscape.
"Beautiful moon tonight," he replied. She lifted her chin and exposed her throat to look up. She had delicate lines sweeping down her neck, and although it was darkened from the sun, she had pretty skin.
"Well, he'll keep the way lit. And maybe the guys up top will get good sleep and decide to spare the world from nuclear fallout another day," she sighed and shifted, lowering her chin so she could look back the way they'd come.
"Have you no faith?" the man asked sarcastically.
"Do you?" she countered.
"All the more reason to enjoy the moon."
"Ah, it looks like he's winking," she pointed at the moon, and he followed the line of her finger. When he looked back, she was chewing on a piece of straw, her eyes closed as she contemplated the cool breeze sliding past them. His heavy coat was just enough to keep out the spring chill, along with the fine riding boots and starched pants. He leaned back and made himself a bit more comfortable.
"I could see you riding a horse," she said suddenly, out of nowhere. He looked over at her. "Yeah, you have the right face for it. You look like a prince. I don't look it, but I'm a princess."
"Are you?" he humored her, catching the glimmer in her eyes.
"Yup. Kiss me and I'll turn into a wolf!" she leaped up, cupping her hands and howling up at the moon. She let out a long note, followed by shorter yips and another high note. "Come on, you winking womanizer! Come give the princess of the wolves a kiss!" she harangued the man in the moon, laughing. "He only kisses the pretty girls in the West," she smiled at him. "Or the handsome princes you find in the woods after their horses have been lamed."
"Cut it out!" a heavy hand banged on the side of the truck. She laughed, hands on her hips as she stood in defiance.
"Can't you hear my subjects?" she motioned over the suddenly very alive plains, filled with the howls of wolves. "But we're all slaves to the moon, really. Maybe we just envy him for his beauty. Come to think of it, you've got a face that might make him jealous."
She leaned in towards him, keeping them several inches apart. He smiled, indulging her curiosity as she was fascinated by his alabaster skin and the sleek, inky dark hair feathering around his shoulders in thick, straight swathes. His feline-gold eyes threw the moonlight back at her, playing off them and making them seemingly endless.
"Huh," she plunked down, looking away too slow for him to miss the heat of a blush. "Pretty enough to turn the moon pea-green," she shot him a smile. "If I had a face like that, I wouldn't be wrokin' this job, that's for sure." Self consciously, she scuttled back into the hay, burrowing like a termite.
"Raised by wolves, just as Romulus and Remus?" he asked her playfully, and she made a face.
"Certainly, can't you see my fangs?" she bore her teeth at him in the moonlight.
"Not yet," he replied. "Come closer."
"I'm not sure I could control myself with that pretty face of yours. They're awfully sharp fangs," she laughed, snagging another straw and chewing on it.
"Shall I show you mine?" he smiled, and she stared at him intently, gauging his words.
"No. Yours are probably real," she shook her head, her voice significantly quieter.
"You said yourself there was nothing but Communists to worry about out here," he goaded, extending one long fingered hand towards her. He watched her eyes follow his milky-white fingertips and her visibly restrain herself from recoiling. The wind around them was suddenly colder.
"You're scaring me," she said, her muscles resistant. He took his other hand and lightly curled the fingers around her elbow. With the slightest effort, he was able to unbend her arm and pull her towards him. She skidded onto her hands and knees, sliding across the truck towards him. "Please stop."
"A princess of the wolves has nothing to fear," he told her, forcing her to expose her wrist. The skin was lightly tanned, but he could see the veins beneath. Pulling back his lips, he bent closer and set both fangs down lightly on her skin.
"Stop!" she shouted, her free hand moving to strike him. He released her elbow and threw her off balance by wrapping his freed arm around her torso, twisting with his shoulders, and proceeding to pin her other arm to his side. Her damp forehead was against his cheek and neck now.
His fangs punctured the skin and slid down into the veins and tendons beneath. He pressed them just deep enough to coax a little blood upwards. Her fingers shook as he took a sip, and he restrained himself from gorging on her heady blood. Yes, she would do. He smoothed her fingers down against his cheek, covering the trembling tips with his much larger hand.
"Let me introduce you to the wolves," he said, standing and bringing her with him. He pulled her fingers from his face and placed them down where his heart should have thumped softly. A strangled sob escaped her, and he tightened his arm around her to support the weakness of her terrified knees. There was shifting and tearing along his back, before two heavy black wings opened wide, the joints cracking as they stretched loose the long dormancy. Like webbed spider legs, they folded back down around the man an woman. She tightened her fingers over the material of his coat and wrapped an arm around his back. He could feel her heartbeat throbbing madly against his chest.
The hay around them kicked up as he spread his wings and lifted them into the air with three powerful wing strokes. The truck rocked and toppled onto one side. He felt her worm and look back at the truck, but he held her fast. As they left it and the ground behind, she looked back ahead.
From the depths of her chest, a long, agonized cry burst free. As it echoed against the open fields, he couldn't help but smile. Now she sounded like a wolf.