An hour passed, and then another, and another. Time flowed slowly, slower than either of them could have ever imagined. For both it was agonizing.
Alfred was slowly freezing, the nerves on his flesh shutting down and giving way to a numbing pain that gradually shifted to warmth with time. It was a bad sign, that he knew, and he very much wanted to be out of the cold. He just couldn't move fast enough. His legs were too weary, too weak to carry him away from the place that had practically ruined his life.
Being of the unnatural, Herbert wasn't so much bothered by the cold, but he was aware of Alfred's deteriorating health. He worried for him, but tried not to allow his weary mind to dwell on it. There wasn't much he could do to keep the young man warm, and he was, after all, only mortal. There was a distinct possibility that he wouldn't make it. What then?
It was a heart wrenching thought, and gave him all the more reason to cherish each step they took together. Any moment could be Alfred's last. Herbert's hands clenched together a little in a silent anger. Stupid, pig-headed humans. If he'd have just sat still and let him feed on him back at the castle he wouldn't have to worry about freezing to death right now! Yeah, okay, so it was selfish of him. What of it? Didn't Herbert deserve to be happy? Didn't he deserve a mate like his father had?
Herbert heaved a small huff. Despite Alfred's brief glance his way, neither said a word as they continued to trudge along into the night.
It was late, long past midnight, and a good way into the wee hours of the morning. The village was even closer now, and fast approaching despite Alfred's slow speed. Seeing the buildings did put a spring in his step though, which naturally ignited Herbert's continuous fears for him. What if the man fell again? What if he really hurt himself?
"I do wish you'd take it easy," he murmured, his gray gaze glaring at his feet as they made tracks in the snow.
"Well, I'm just-"
"The village isn't going anywhere, you know. The houses aren't about to grow legs and walk away."
"But there are-"
"Why are you giving me a hard time, Alfred? Just do as I say and ease up, would you!"
Herbert cut the man a small glare. Alfred quickly shut his mouth and slowed his pace, though he continued to gaze yearningly at the lit windows increasingly nearby. Herbert could sense his disappointment, and once more he heaved a breath of frustration. It wasn't his fault that he could smell the man's blood, or that he could tell how his heart beat was weakening. Stupid, stubborn human.
On the subject of humans, they were surprisingly plentiful, despite the time of night. The tavern seemed the fullest, but there were plenty of people going to and from the church at the edge of town as well. It was a large, old fashioned building open all hours of the day to house the souls who needed housing, who had no where else to go. Then there were the deaths, and the funerals, sermons held for missing persons. For Chagal and for Magda. There was an unmistakable dreariness that had overtaken the villagers. Alcohol was thick in the air. So was smoke.
"What a depressing scene," Alfred remarked upon passing through the gates of town. The wasted passersby sloshing along the wet cobblestone path gazed at them, only half aware, bloodshot, drunk, but distressed. "I've never seen such a miserable lot."
Herbert stepped nearer to Alfred, despite the man's flinching. He whispered to him, "They recognize me."
Drunk or not, the people on the road parted when they walked near. Only a few dared come nearer, and even they would flee when they realized that the young man who had come through the village the day before with the insane professor was really in cohorts with the evil menage they knew from legend who walked beside him.
"Do they?" Alfred whispered back. "How long has it been since you've been out here?"
"Decades, but my figure isn't one easily forgotten."
"Decades?" Alfred cast a slightly disgruntled look toward Herbert. "You've been locked up in that dreary old castle for that long?"
"It is dangerous to come out here," Herbert said warily, not liking the dirty looks they were being given as their voices grew louder. "There's a reason we keep a servant." Herbert winced slightly as he imagined Koukol's mangled corpse. He hadn't returned after chasing Sarah and Abronsius into the woods. "Ours is an old clan. They know our faces. So we'd send Koukol out to get things we'd need for the castle. Father is the only one who ventures out on a regular basis. He forbade me from coming myself because I scare the villagers."
It was no laughing matter, but Alfred could not help but release a meager, frightened giggle. "It's . . . no wonder," he managed to say, glancing to Herbert and finding himself greeted with an irritable expression. "Well, you are somewhat . . . forward in your advances."
"You think I'm unaware?" Herbert grumbled, folding his arms over. "And can you blame me for being a little bit desperate? I mean, the last time I had a good fuck must have been fifty years ago! Folks like me are a little bit hard tome come by, darling!"
Alfred repressed the urge to hide his head in his hands. His cheeks, however, a rosy red, did stand out against his pale face. "I— I don't need to know that!"
"But you're a man, Alfred, you must understand," Herbert insisted. "That fire you felt when you looked at Sarah, that's—" Herbert somehow managed to stop himself before he could utter, 'that's how I feel when I look at you.' He wasn't stupid. He didn't want to ruin things right now. Not when he had some strange form of friendship budding there.
"That's a wonderful feeling," Herbert declared instead. "You men who like women have it lucky. Men like me tend to have to live lonely."
Herbert shrugged listlessly, very much at odds with his usual demeanor, and stared toward the tavern. "I suppose this is your stop, then."
Alfred settled himself stationary beside Herbert and gazed through the half open doorway at the tavern. He was trying to focus on the warmth inside, but he couldn't shake the melancholy he'd heard in Herbert's voice. He wasn't even sure why he cared. Something about it just didn't sit right with him.
"I do need to warm up," Alfred replied, sniffling in the frigid air. Whether this was his final destination or not was unclear to him. He'd still need to find some way out of town if he was to go home. If his parents even wanted him back. He'd kind of left in shame. It wasn't like vampire hunting assistance was a highly respectable job. "So I suppose it's as good a start as any." Alfred gave Herbert a long glance, then started toward the doors. "Are you going to come in?"
Herbert, mildly touched by the invitation and glowing a little inside, was hesitant. "I'm not sure that's a great idea."
"But aren't you cold? Come, I insist." Alfred doubled back a little and wrapped his hand around Herbert's slender wrist.
"A—Alfred, these people don't take k-kindly to my people," Herbert stammered as he was pulled along. His bursting heart was the only thing keeping him from pulling away and fleeing from the forsaken place. "This isn't- a- good- i- dea!"
At that moment the two spilled into the tavern, Herbert still being led along by Alfred as though he were a leashed puppy. The people inside, mostly drunk, of course, quieted down to a painful silence as they analyzed the interlopers. Word on the street had claimed that a Krolock had been sighted, but they hadn't believed such a thing until they saw it with their own eyes. A Krolock in town, in their tavern! It was an outrage!
But, according to human nature, and the general cowardice of the intoxicated, the drunkards merely stood up and stumbled away, some running, some tiptoeing, as though they would then not be seen, toward places to hide, far, far away from the evil vampire.
Alfred laughed meagerly at the display, if only because he was feeling somewhat renewed by the heat of the building. He released Herbert's wrist and closed shut the door behind him.
"This feels mildly familiar," he murmured, turning back around and scrutinizing the empty tables, as well as the ones occupied underneath by trembling patrons. "Suppose it could have gone worse, eh?"
"You're an idiot," Herbert agreed, stuffing his hands in his pockets and glancing around uneasily. There was garlic all over the place. It stunk to high heavens. "You're lucky I love you, or else I'd bark at you a little for endangering us like that."
"Okay so it was a little hasty, but at least it's warm, and they don't seem like they're going to bother us. Look at them trembling down there. They're harmless."
Alfred refrained from removing his coat, and made his way toward the hearth, where he pulled out two chairs, and sat down in the one nearest the flames. "Wont' you join me?"
"There's going to be someone who owns this place," Herbert said uneasily as he made his way to the table Alfred had selected. Reluctantly he took a seat, though he continued to glance around, as though expecting to be staked at any moment. "And I'll bet you that someone will be armed and dangerous. This isn't a safe place for me."
A woman's voice snorted from afar. Alfred and Herbert's heads both snapped toward the counter where Rebecca, the old, fat widow stood, her arms hugging at the other, a watery look to her eyes.
"Knew you were trouble," she hissed, though she made no move to cause harm to either of her guests. "My husband, dead. My maid, dead. Turned. Made into monsters. Like him." She pointed at Herbert. "You've got a lot of nerve showing up here after the things you've done."
"You're taking things awfully well," Herbert murmured. He even managed a pleasant smile, as though such an expression might somehow pacify her further.
"He was always a conniving little cheat," she said, blinking back tears. "Only good ever come of him was my daughter. And now she's gone too. Another life taken by the Count."
"With all due respect, Ma'am, the girl did go to him of her own free will," Herbert said.
"Respect. Hah! An irony coming from a wretch like you."
"Yet you have not attacked me."
Rebecca shrugged once more, then pushed herself off the counter and made to draw up two glasses of ale.
"Sarah seems happy," Alfred told her as she approached their table, the drinks in hand. Herbert eyed the one she placed before him warily. Had she managed to poison it while her back had been turned? Would taking a sip end his un-life?
"I wouldn't have left her there if I didn't believe it with all my heart," Alfred insisted, eagerly taking up the tankard and drinking deeply. It was a little fiery in his mouth, but it went down smooth and warmed his belly.
"Would it have hurt to leave him behind too?" she retorted.
Herbert glowered a moment, then threw caution to the wind and swallowed a mouthful of the drink as well. It had been a long time since he'd touched human stuff. It tasted weird. He wasn't sure he liked it. He drank another swallow anyway.
"He's my guide," Alfred responded timidly. "If it weren't for him I'd have frozen to death out there."
"Or have been pulled apart by werewolves," Herbert said with the slightest of smirks.
"D-don't remind me . . ." It would have been a grisly death indeed.
"There's been some nightmarish howling in the woods," Rebecca said idly. "Some suspect lycans. With the vampire activity around here lately I wouldn't be surprised. It's probably just a matter of time before they attack and steal some other young maiden too."
"A werewolf wouldn't do that," Herbert insisted. "They're far too savage to care much for a woman's beauty. They're probably just . . . hungry."
Alfred stared at Herbert. He set his tankard down. "What? What are you thinking?"
"The lot of you were running out into their territory," Herbert said softly. His gray eyes appeared somewhat unfocused. "Sarah came back. Your professor did not. Could be they've tasted human flesh, and now they want more."
The drunks moaned in fear. Rebecca rolled her eyes, but appeared visibly distraught herself. At least the vampires only bothered them now and again. They were remotely civilized. A pack of lycans could very well mutilate the entire village.
"Suppose I should get up to the church then and send some prayers while I still can, if our time on this Earth is as limited as you suggest." Rebecca gazed hard at Herbert. She'd only seen the man a few times in her entire life. Each time she was struck by the same thought. "You look so much like your mother."
Rebecca had never met the woman, but her portrait in the church bore an uncanny resemblance to the young count. Herbert could only smile meekly and offer, "Yes, I get that a lot." She had died long ago, of course, when he was quite young. He had never seen her portrait, however, because he could not enter the church. Such a mention of the thing was always a bit hard for him. It may have been nearly four centuries, but sometimes he still missed her.
"Whelp, I best be going." Rebecca turned her gaze away from the vampire. She was chilled just by the fact that she'd been so close. She gazed at the drunks under the table, stomped her foot hard, and bellowed, "Hurry up please, it's time! Don't worry about your blasted money. Out with the lot of you. Get. Go!"
The drunks stumbled to their feet and happily went.
Alfred looked uneasy. He shivered too, thoughts of the cold returning to him. He didn't much want to go out there. He opened his mouth to beseech the woman, but she beat him to the punch.
"Watch the place for me. You can stay in your old rooms. The old man rented them for a few anyways. Who am I to reject a patron."
Alfred's lips twitched between a smile and a frown. He didn't like the dejected tone to her words, but there wasn't much he could say except to murmur a slight, "Thank you."
Rebecca said nothing in reply. She merely hobbled over to the door and shrugged into her coat. A moment later she was gone, vanished into the frigid night.
"What a nice lady," Herbert mused.
"I feel terrible for the trouble we've caused," Alfred said pitifully. He downed the rest of his ale. "If the professor and I had never come along, maybe they'd be all right. Maybe Sarah would be gone, but her family wouldn't be so, you know, broken." Alfred was silent a moment. "Good God, the professor. This trip was doomed from the very start, I just knew it!"
Herbert observed Alfred with a very particular eye. He'd picked up on the fact that Alfred seemed quite a bit more loose with his language since he'd had that tiny little drink. Herbert's gaze shifted briefly to his own, which he had only half finished, then to the keg on the wall. His mind ticked away, click-click-click, as he considered if it was worth getting the man drunk and bedding him. It would certainly lift his spirits a little, but . . .
When night came again, Alfred would find out what happened, and he would hate him, and after the way he'd responded to nearly being turned, and how he'd come so far from that, being hated by the one he loved wasn't something Herbert was willing to risk. He stood briskly, grabbed up the two tankards, and dumped his down the basin.
"Go upstairs, my love, you need to rest," Herbert said, still keeping his back to him. "I'll put out the fire and join you shortly.
Alfred did not want to leave the warmth of the fireside, but a small yawn, and the thoughts of a bed and blankets enticed him to stand and groggily make his way toward the stairs. His legs felt like jelly, a mix of muscle fatigue and a dangerous threat of frostbite.
"But . . . but what about the werewolves?" he murmured.
"Don't worry about the werewolves, Alfred. I'll protect you."
Alfred smiled, a little buzzed. "Okay! See you in bed!"
Herbert somehow managed to keep a straight face until Alfred had begun to stumble up the stairs. When the man was gone, Herbert put a hand to his face and released the small, half-laugh-half-cry he'd been repressing.
"Alfred," he whispered to himself, "you are so lucky I love you, you stupid, stubborn little tease . . ."
Herbert filled a bucket with water from the basin and brought it to the fireplace. His thoughts drifted to home, and to his father. The count would worry when he discovered he wasn't there. There was a possibility that he'd come out looking for him, but it was a possibility that he would have to risk. He'd promised he'd protect Alfred from the werewolves, and he wasn't about to go back on his promise. He doused the flames, then made for the stairs post haste to join Alfred "in bed".