The streets were laden with filth and bodies. Muck clung to the soles of his boots. Drake wished he were anywhere other than London, but his family needed him to wade through the left behind bits of death to ensure their survival and he would not disappoint them. The servants were all busy packing up the house for the move. He was the eldest and therefore it was his responsibility. The slanted winter sun tried to beat down on him with its ineffectual beams, but his skin stayed cool.
His life was nothing; their name was everything.
His father had etched that phrase into his skin for years before he gave in to the words. His responsibility as eldest was to ensure that the family carried on. What was expected, he would accomplish. There were supplies the family required that could not be found in the country. He did not dally, but took the most direct path to everything that he needed.
He followed the lane taking notice of the flickering lamplight and the smoke smudges that pointed towards the heavens. The waning sunlight fell upon the dirt and dissolved. The bodies piled outside of the houses filled the air with decay. Gagging, he pulled the linen of his shirt over his face and continued. He regretted not bringing his carriage as the stench became overwhelming. Those that were still healthy assaulted him as he walked.
“‘elp sir, my daughter, husband, me mother is sick sir, please sir.” They grabbed at him with their dirty hands, clutching at his green velvet surcoat, begged him for help he could not give. A tiny child of no more than three years of age sat dejected in the mud of the road. His heart went out to her as she mumbled to herself. Her hair was matted and mud colored. He made his way over to her and bent down so that he was looking her in the eyes. She reached out and touched his face as if to convince herself he was real. So many people must have just walked right by her.
“Where are your parents child?” He asked, his voice gentle as he took her hand in his.
“Dead sir,” she stuttered out. “The sickness took ‘em.”
His heart splintered. “What’s your name?”
“My mum calls me Maggie.”
“Well hello Maggie, I’m Drake. Are you hungry?” Her answering nod was weak and a cough wracked her tiny frame.
He pulled her up and into his arms. She wound her clammy dirt-covered limbs around him and nuzzled into his neck, shivering until his body heat warmed her. Walking to the nearest pub, he entered sitting her down at a bench and ordering a warm bowl of stew to fill her belly. He sat listening to the rumors that run rampant through the city. Rumors of the dead risen again. Bodies drained of blood and left in the streets to rot along with the plague-ridden corpses.
“Are you gonna be my papa now?” She asked, breaking him out of his trance, her eyes wide and hopeful.
He felt helpless. He couldn’t take the child home with him, no matter how much he wished to; his mother would have a conniption. He could imagine her face when he carried in the dirty waif.
“I cannot, but I promise to find someone to care for you.” Maggie’s smile disappeared and a piece inside of him broke off, but didn’t know what else to do. So he simply let her eat her fill and asked her to show him the way to her home. She could barely keep her eyes open as they walked through the darkened lanes and she weakly lifted her hand to point the way.
The single room was dark and dingy. Maggie was fast asleep the moment he laid her on the pile of straw. Gathering the wood from the pile outside the door, he built a fire and watched her sleep. Kneeling down next to her, he brushed her hair away from her forehead. She was burning up and he didn’t want to leave her, but he needed to find someone to take her in. He decided then he would stop by his friend Gregory’s home and see if any of the servants there could care for the child. It was all he could do for her.
There was nothing to be done about the rest of the sick and dying, he knew it, but that didn’t change the guilt he felt as he went about gathering the necessities for his family. They were fleeing to the Yorkshire countryside. Many of the gentry were leaving the poor to the plague in the hope of avoiding the death that ran rampant through the streets of London.
He had the last of the supplies delivered to the house and had only the stop at Gregory’s. In addition to finding a home for Maggie, he needed to say goodbye to his friend. He had asked him to join them in the country, but his elderly mother refused to leave, and so Gregory was staying.
He approached the brightly lit house at odds with the dreariness that hung over London. Unusually, there was no answer to his knock and he turned the handle, calling into the foyer.
“Gregory?” His voice echoed.
“In here Drake,” came the answer from the far end of the house.
Drake wound his way through the halls to find his friend bent over his ailing mother, mopping at her forehead with a damp cloth. She had obviously taken a turn for the worse.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Drake asked with concern. Gregory had suffered a series of tragedies that had robbed him of all his family save his mother.
“I don’t expect it to be long now.”
Drake laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Again, he felt helpless. It was a feeling he disliked. He studied the once fierce woman lying before him.
“When did she take ill?”
“’Twas this time yesterday thought it doesn’t seem to be the plague that most others succumb to.”
“Well, thank the heavens for that.” He paused and then asked again, “Is there anything I can retrieve for you? Have you called for the doctor?”
“He won’t come.”
There wasn’t anything else to be said. There were too many sick these days and an old woman, no matter her station in life, would never be a priority. He started to tell him how sorry he was, but there were no words that would ease the hurt his friend was experiencing. Instead, he squeezed the shoulder he held and backed away.
“I could stay with her if you need a moment or two for yourself.” Gregory simply shook his weary head. Drake turned and stared out the window at the dark. “I’ll stay an extra day. If she rallies, bring her. The country air will do her good. And if she doesn’t…” He let the words dangle in the air. There was no reason to press the matter. It was enough that he made the offer. He had no need to run off to the country. It would harm nothing to wait. “I know this is a terrible time, but I found a child alone in the streets today whose parents have both perished. Is there any possibility that one of your servants might be willing to take her in?”
Gregory waved his hand absently. “Check with Agnes in the kitchens.”
He nodded and found his way downstairs. It took only a moment to find the plump, elderly woman and speak with her. She knew a barren woman who would be happy to take in the child. He gave her directions to the house, if it could be called that, and thanked her before heading back out into the damp cold night.
He arrived back at his house shortly after and the rooms were in an uproar. His mother was directing the chaos like a military general. She hadn’t stepped foot out of the house in weeks, fearful.
“Oh Drake, thank goodness your back. Did you get everything?”
“Of course,” was his only response. He was short-tempered and tried to escape the room, but it was a fruitless attempt.
“Go to your father’s study. There are papers buried somewhere in there. Of course he is doing nothing to help, worthless man.” It was an old complaint, one that never failed to surface at times of crisis, which, for his mother, was quite often. It wasn’t that his father was lazy, just wasn’t near as worried as his mother was and thought she was being ridiculous. But, it was useless to argue with his mother, so he set himself to the task.
It took the better part of the evening, but when he finished and laid himself down in his room, the candlelight flickering on the side table, he found that he could not sleep, worried for the mother of his friend and the child Maggie. The sun was over the horizon before his brain deigned to give him rest.
His rest was fitful and he awoke covered in sweat. His body ached and when he tried to rise from the bed, he could barely lift himself. He fell back exhausted. The door opened and his manservant entered and approached the bed to prepare him for the day. When the poor man caught sight of him, he backed away quickly, crossing himself as he did. He touched his hand to his forehead and pushed back his straggly black hair that clung to the sides of his face. From far off he heard his mother’s cry. She barged into the room and scurried to his side, hand covering her mouth.
“Oh my…” She paused and he thought for a moment that she was going to play the doting mother. “We’ll need to leave immediately. There’s no way we can stay now. I’ll have the servants follow with the rest of the necessities.”
“Mother.” His voice was scratchy and tentative. Never in his life had he been tentative. He tried to reach for her, but his arm fell ineffective to his side. Head pounding he could hear every slamming door, every thump of footstep scurrying through the household. His door remained closed and he could not stand to open it and call for help. Surely, his little sister would come to help him, to call the doctor, anything. But with every throbbing of his veins, he remained alone.
He passed again into unconsciousness and when he awoke, the house was silent. Every inch of his body ached and burned, slick with sweat. The sheets were heavy against his skin, but he was too weak to move them. The fabric pressed into his joints and he could feel the bones as if they scraped against one another. He was desperate to stay absolutely still, but even the act of breathing caused pain. Someone must have been in his room because when he turned his head, neck protesting with every movement, he saw a mug on the table next to the bed. He reached out for it and was almost unable to grasp it in his hand as he brought the cool water to his cracked lips, drizzling the liquid down his parched throat. He burrowed it down into the pile of pillows next to his head and passed once again into oblivion.
The sun rose and fell as he drifted between worlds. Touching his skin, he felt boils oozing down his arms and neck, and he imagined the rest of his body as well. His clothes were stuck fast, but it didn’t matter because he couldn’t have removed them even if he wanted. The hours passed with only the retching of his blood to keep him company. The deep red color stained his previously white sheets. He was covered in gore and sick and knew then that he was dying.
Images began to ripple through his mind. His first glimpse of his sister Sarah wrapped up in blankets and cradled in his mother’s arms. Coming home muddy after wrestling along the banks of the river with Gregory and his mother’s subsequent scolding. Running rampant with him through the lanes of town ‘til the lamps were lit and then skulking in through the back door knowing we had wandered farther than we should have. Walking his sister down a set of dusty white marble stairs when she was presented to society. Lying under the beech tree, side by side with Gregory when they planned to see the world. All the flickers were of Sarah or Gregory. He had always wished that his best friend would marry his sister and then he could stay in the family forever.
He had no idea how much time had passed, but he knew that the end was near when his sight went black and his body cold. He could not move, not even to breathe. He wasn’t even sure if he was still breathing, but he didn’t even have oblivion to relieve him of his pain. Thinking of the family that abandoned him, of Gregory and his poor dying mother, of the child Maggie and his hopes that she would be learn to be happy in her new home.
Then there was nothing. He couldn’t hear, see, think, breathe, or move. His body held immobile and frozen.
A change occurred. He could sense something deep in his veins. A burning, rushing sensation, but he was still held inert. His hearing returned. Heard the scuttling of the rats in the scullery below stairs. The call of a hawk on the wind. The drip of the well in the yard behind the house. The crackling low burn of a fire in the house next door. Still he could not move. His sight returned. Even in the darkness, he could make out the etching of his initials in the cold fireplace across the room. The threads of the heavy brocade curtains hung around his bed. The individual splinters of wood in the door. He tried to move his fingers, but they were still frozen in a clenched fist. His sense of smell returned. A wind brought him the scent of unwashed bodies. The scent of the leftover droplets of rain on the leaves. The smell of a simmering stew that turned his stomach.
The sounds of his house changed and he could hear the front door open and close. The wood scraped against the stone. Something tangy and metallic wafted up to him. A flicker of life came into the tips of his feet. Slowly feeling came back into his still cold limbs. The tang warmed internally and his sense hyper-activated.
“Drake?” Gregory called from the first floor.
He was still unable to speak, but his mouth watered. What was happening to him? He could hear Gregory climbing the stairs.
“Drake?” He called again.
A pit opened up in his stomach and he was starving. He could smell Gregory and he had no idea why. He smelled of woodsmoke and a roasting spit. His steps were coming closer overwhelming every other sound. Gregory stopped outside his bedroom door. Drake wished he could call out and tell him to run, but he hadn’t quite regained control of himself, which changed the moment the door opened and Gregory stepped into the room.
In an instant, he was in motion. Gregory didn’t even have time to gasp before Drake was on him. His hand curved into Gregory’s shoulders dragging him closer. Gregory fought against him, but Drake’s strength had tripled and he didn’t stand a chance. His canines sharpened and lengthened into fangs until they pressed against his lip, forcing his mouth to spread into a gaping maw of need. Gregory thrashed about, freeing himself temporarily before Drake grabbed him and threw him against the side table, smashing it to bits.
Drake pounced and him and his fangs tore into his best friend’s jugular. That it was Gregory did not matter to him as he drained him of every drip of the bloody nectar flowing down his throat, quenching the parched dry desert of his thirst. Gregory pleaded, but he couldn’t hear him, or at least his pleas fell aside like a swatted fly. His body warmed as Gregory’s cooled.
Slowly Drake came back to himself and he looked at the rag doll that was his friend. Their two bodies still tangled, Drake fell to the floor, scrabbling backwards. He hunkered there, terrified to confirm what his senses screamed at him. That he had killed his best friend. Finally, he lurched forward, grabbing at Gregory’s cold body. He searched for a pulse, but there was none to be found.
“Dear God, what have I done?” His heart did not thud against his chest, nor did he take in huge gulps of air, but only mimicked the panic he felt, unable to think. He shoved his hands through his hair and the long, dirty, matted locks tangled between his fingers. The pain of it was necessary. Gregory lay splayed across the floor at his feet and he turned as if he were going to be sick, there was nothing but a heaving spasm in his stomach. The guilt of his deed fell heavy upon him. He had drained every drop of blood from his best friend’s body.
He shoved back against the bed. He knew what he needed to do although the thought lay distasteful on his tongue. But he had never shirked his duty before and he would not now. He crawled over to the man he had known since they were boys and scooped up his limp body in his arms. He carried him out of the room, down the stairs, and kicked open the back door. He laid his friend in the dewy grass and grabbed a shovel that leaned against the back of the house. He began digging under the large beech tree that created a cocoon of serenity.
He picked up his dear friend and placed him in the cold earth saying under his breath, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
He re-covered him and with every shovel of dirt, Drake buried his heart. He stood silent under the branches of the bare tree as the moon arched across the sky. He had no idea what to do, what he was, or where he should go. He only knew he could not stay.
He wandered in a daze through the house, collecting a few bits that he would need for his travels. Collecting his dagger and sword, he sheathed them and took one last glance around the only home he had ever known. The rooms looked foreign to him. Opening the front door, he stepped out into the darkness, leaving behind his small world, determined to seek his death anyway he could.