i well remember the winter....

    the wolves came across the ice that lay thick upon the river that year...
    the men of the village played a deadly game of hide-and-seek with them, searching them out during the day and lying in wait for them at night.  So no one really noticed when fevers began to crop up among some of the hunters.  They'd been out in the freezing blowing cold wind all night.
     Then they began to die...
     Old Olaf was first to go, five short days after he'd been taken to his bed.  Then his son, Small Olaf, twenty-two and strong enough to throw an ox.  He lasted all of seven days.   I remember seeing him at Sunday moot, then burying him when came the next Sunday.
     And then we knew we had the plague.
     The dead were first buried with sincerity, with prayers and long followed formulae.  That changed into throwing the dead (and Gods save my soul, some that were only nearly so) into shallow holes gouged out of the hard Cornwall soil.  At the end, there were no burials, no prayers, no ritual.  The dead lay and rot where they fell.  Most of the townsfolk had the good grace to die within the confines of their own huts.
     And then I was alone, with the wolves and the dead.
     Who the hell am I? you ask.
     I am Gwenhyfar Pagantius Awrvyr, though nowadays I go by Gwen Arthur. My sire was Marcus Areaurilus, Marcus sired by Cappadocius, Cappadocius sired by Ashur, Ashur sired by Caine.
      I am that which is called by some Kindred, and by others Demon.

 I am the damned.

     I was born, as all clay is, in the region of Clas Meridden known as Caern Weig.  Today, it is called Cornwall, but it is a dark and foreboding place by any name.  The natives of those islands have always referred to that place as "Land's End", and I cannot think of a better description.  Not that it is unlovely; on the contrary, it is a place of great savage beauty and charm.  It is fitting, then, that I should begin my tale at this place, where the land meets sea and sky, and the eternal sea batters rock cliffs to white sand.
     I was a fine, healthy babe, or so my mum told me, pinkly red and a lusty lunged screamer.  My childhood was without incedent, or at least none I can now recall.  The usual things happened at their usual times, and I shall not bore you here with details best left to dry history texts.  Suffice to say, I grew to a sturdy, if not quite beautiful, lass.  Some have said I was 'handsome', an adjective best applied to men and horses in my opinion.
     My father had some small amount of status, being a fine blacksmith, and my mother had a way with the animals he shod, so together they made a comfortable living.  I helped with things when I could, which my mother made sure was often, and I learned to shear and spin and weave, and cook and clean, and all the other things that went into making a young girl into something vaguely useful.  I had the usual dreams of what lay "out there", beyond the horizon, thoughts of adventures and treasures and kings and rogues.
     In other words, I was perfectly normal, in every way.
     And, as was expected of me, I wed at the mortal age of 16, not too early, but not too late, and undertook me to learn to run my husband's household.
     Connaer MacKeown was a handsome lad, no doubt of it. When he took me in marriage half the girls in town suffered from broken heartedness (or so they said, enviously, to me as I marketed or washed our things at the spring).  And he was kind, for I made many mistakes those first few years.  Not harsh mistakes, but the simple ones that earned many a girl a boxed ear or blackened eye.  The cream spilled by a nervous cow, or the burned rabbit I'd forgotten while spinning and cooking at the same time.   But Connaer just smiled, brushed his big callused fingers through my hair and chuckled, "Silly little girl, you're too beautiful to be angry at."
     And we had fun, and laughter, and all the things I'd planned on having in my life.  Only one thing marred our happiness...
     I bore no child.
     I watched my friends, girls two or three years younger than me, grow plump and gravid, with a little one clinging to an apron, another in their arms and a third in their swollen belly, and oh, how I envied them.  Connaer said it was all right, that the time would come, but I felt his disappointment as the seasons passed and his old cradle sat empty in the small bedroom of our cottage.
     Then came the winter that the river froze.   Not even the village elders could remember the last time the water had stopped like this.  We chopped through the ice to fish, and found it to be almost a foot thick in places.  So it looked as though times would be hard, but we accepted it.  We had our stores put aside, and there were more bucks and rabbits than usual...
     It was only later that I realized the small prey had run toward the village in hopes of leaving behind the predators sniffing at their heels.  They had not succeeded.
     We saw the first of the wolves about the middle of Rowan-moon, what is now called November.  I remember hearing the howling, at first far, far away, drifting over the hills like a dream.  Then it began to advance, nightly, so by the end of Rowan, going down into the deepest part of the wintertime, the howling was close, and loud, and desperate.  And hungry.  Always hungry.
     More than one night, as I lay shivering in our bed, Connaer would wrap his big, strong arms tightly about me, and bury his face in my hair, and breathe his warmth onto the back of my neck.  "I'll protect you, little girl," he'd say, and I knew he meant it, that the wolves would never get to me...
     For as long as he lived...
     He promised me he would love me for as long as he lived...
     Ah, so long ago, but the old wounds are the ones that hurt the worst, are they not?
     And so the men went out, and they hunted the wolves, and they ran the wolves away, and they found deer, and anything else that was slowed by the cold, and they brought it back for the women to cook.  And it seemed we would make it through this winter, that come the springtime it would be a subject for bragging and boasting, and within twenty years time become one of those events used to gauge all others like it.
     Then, one of our neighbors, an older man, Olaf Donnel, came down sick.  Our healer thought it a chill, mayhap the augue, brought on by physical exertion outside in the dead cold of winter night.  He bled him some, ordered him to stay inside for some time, and shared a wineskin with him before sending him home to his family.  He went to bed that night complaining that he was not so old yet that he had to be treated like a suckling infant.
     The next morning, he could barely speak for coughing.
     The day after that, his skin grew taut and pale, and he sweated like a man in an oven.
     In five short days he went from living man to dead one, and nobody the wiser that it was not the augue.
     Then his son began to weaken, and those of us who were privy to the menfolk's talk learned a new word.

     Four or five families, among them the healer's, packed their things and moved, quickly, quietly in the night.  I know not whether they made it beyond the hills, past the wolves.  I will probably never know.
     The rest of us went on in blissful ignorance of the winds of death sweeping through our village.
     Within five days, the full horror of what had befallen us was apparent.   Even now, I cannot remember those days without a shudder.  The moans of the dying, the hysterical screaming of mothers burying their children, one after another, the look of grim determination on the faces of those who were not sickened yet.  I hurried about town, scarf wrapped tightly about my face, helping Connaer and some of the other men with the nearly non-existent defenses against the wolves.  We kept a large fire burning in the town center, knowing the beasts feared fire.
     I remember the morning Connear woke with the cough.  I was paralyzed with fear.  I sat still, staring at his strong broad back as he rasped for air.  I brought him water, daubed his face with my apron.  I still bear the scars from my nails, digging into the palms of my hands.  I still see his strong face as he turned to me, the fear, the shock of it shining clearly in his eyes.   Then he took my small hand in his and pulled me to him.   It was the last time I ever wept as a mortal.
     He was a strong man, my Connaer, and he lasted nine days.  At first, he had the strength to keep the bon-fire going, to show me how to fuel the flames, how to bank the coals and tend it in the evening.
      The fifth day, he briefly felt better. My heart soared with the bitter dregs of false hope, but the sixth day he was much, much worse.
     The seventh day, I was awakened by a horrible scratching, burning ache in my own throat.  I sat up quickly, foam coursing from my mouth as I coughed and pulled for breath.
     I was glad when, in the morning, I spotted the telltale swelling bruises around my throat.  I would be joining my husband, as well I should.
     I lay in bed with him all that day, growing weaker and more fevered. Twice he tried to rouse me into rising, into eating something, but I smiled weakly and held him closer.  I had no need to eat, no thirst.  I would be with him, this world to the next.
     That day merged into the next, in a dull purple twilight of fever.  I knew I had not the strength to last as long as he had, and thought it a blessing.
     I dreamed strange dreams then, hanging in the limbo between life and death.  Images from my childhood, my marriage, my life, all mixed together and merged with other, alien thoughts.
     Then I heard the Other.  The voice was strong and powerful, and I knew it was not in my head, but coming from without.  It spoke of other places, other things, other lives to be experienced.
     It was dark and dangerous, and I knew it not to be the voice of my Gods.
     It was the whisper of the Abyss.

     I awoke into the darkness with the violence of a swimmer coming up from the depths, gasping for breath and clawing at the surface.  I was aware of the charnel smell of death all around me, the stifling closeness of the dead and the scrabbling of the grave beetles in my clothing and hair.
    I put my hands out to find my husband, my Connaer, and encountered instead splintery wood to each of my sides.  My heart leapt into my throat as I realized I was confined in a coffin, grave clothes wrapped about me.  The darkness grew solid around me, hard as a black crystal with me trapped in the center of it.
     I fought the shroud, then, and tore into the wood itself with flailing hands.  Then, I became aware of a ... voice, more like a whisper in my head than a spoken word, telling me to be calm, to embrace the darkness, to relish this rest before my rebirth.  I knew not then what it meant, and it was many years before I learned it was the mind speech of my Sire, re-creating his own embrace at the hands of Cappadocius himself.   At the time, I only knew myself sick, sick unto death, perhaps wildly feverish, perhaps damned to that warm place the black robed priests spoke of.
     Or perhaps sane, and being offered a chance to live yet again.
     I seized it with both hands, reaching out with my mind, calling to this unseen presence for help and guidance.
     "What do you want?  What shall become of me?" I demanded, frightened.  I felt, or sensed, the one to whom I spoke react with surprise.  He later told me I had been the only childer to ever answer him back.
     "Rest, my little dairy-maiden.  Rest and think on this:
     "What is it that is, and changes all it touches, yet is cold as the grave in which you now lie?  Tell me the answer to this, little farm girl, and you shall live forever.  I shall return to speak with you again."
     I lay and felt the presence retreat from me.  I pounded on the lid of the coffin, but by now had realized there would be reinforcements to the lid and hinges.  This was not an accidental interment, this was purposeful, and had been done before, by the look of the claw marks on the lid of the box.
     I looked up in wonder.  It was pitch-dark inside the casket, yet I could see the scratches clearly.  I held a hand before my face.  I could see it plain as well.  My nails were shredded from the wood and there were several splinters beneath them.  I chewed them out with my teeth, forcing my mind to go over the events I could remember.  I knew panic would avail me no further, so turned to reason.
     Where my mind went, I cannot tell now any more than I could tell then.  It seemed I went back, to my earliest childhood, to my marriage, to my dying and then to somewhere alien, a place of wonder and magic... but it is so long ago, I cannot say.  I only know that I dreamed, and perhaps the dream goes on still, for that was the end of my life, and the beginning of incredible things, both grand and horrible.
     And when it seemed that centuries, nay, millennia, had passed, again came the voice, whispering in my ear.
     "Little one, do you dream still?  Can you tell me the answer to my question?"
     And I, I who was once Gwenhyfar Pagantius Awrvyr, wife to Connaer MacKeown of Caern Weig, I answered the voice back and became that which I am today.
     The answer was simple then, and is simple now.
     "Death," was all I said.

     And such is the story of my becoming, my embrace as the vulgar now call it, though my Sire would have blanched to hear such a term used for it, he having been a man of honor and dignity to his dying night.
     And perhaps someday I shall commit to paper the story of how I found myself orphaned by the predations of the Giovanni bastards, and ultimately how I came to be in the illustrious company of the manus nigerum, but those are tales for another night.  The hour grows early, and I must be off for Peru in the evening.  A cache of mummies awaits me, and perhaps one or two more of our kind will await rediscovery.   Amazing how so many of us have survived what the Giovanni thought was a deathblow.  We will bide our time, though, and wait until the stars are right for our endeavors.

     After all, time is all we have, and we have all of it.