Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(5)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(5)
Author: Anne Rice

"Those lead to old burial places that you don't need to go to," he said, ¡°but you need to know of this place now. And remember it."

When we came back up into the chapel, he put the trapdoor right, laid down the ring, relaid the marble tile, and the whole was quite invisible.

Fra Diamonte pretended not to have seen. My mother was asleep and so were the children. We all fell asleep before dawn in the chapel.

My father walked out in the courtyard at sunup, when the cocks were crowing all over the villages inside the walls, and he stretched and looked up at the sky and then shrugged his shoulders.

Two of my uncles ran at him, demanding to know what Signore from where dared to propose a siege against us and when we were supposed to have this battle.

"No, no, no, you've got it all wrong," my father said. "We're not going to war. You go back to bed."

But he had no sooner spoken these words than a ripping scream brought us all around, and through the opening courtyard gates there came one of the village girls, one of our near and dear girls, shrieking the terrible words: "He's gone, the baby's gone, they've taken him."

The rest of the day was a relentless search for this missing child. But no one could find him. And it was soon discovered that one other child had also vanished without a trace. He had been a half-wit, rather beloved because he caused no harm, but so addle-brained he couldn't even much walk. And everyone was ashamed to say that they did not even know how long that half-wit had been missing. By dusk, I thought I would go mad if I didn't get to see my father alone, if I couldn't push my way into the locked chambers where he sat with his uncles and the priests arguing and fighting. Finally, I hammered so loudly on the door and kicked so much that he let me in.

The meeting was about to break up and he drew me down by himself, and he said with wild eyes:

"Do you see what they've done? They took the very tribute they demanded of me. They took it! I refused it and they took it."

"But what tribute? You mean the children?"

He was wild-eyed. He rubbed his unshaven face, and he crashed his fist down on his desk, and then he pushed over all his writing things.

"Who do they think they are that they come to me by night and demand that I tender to them those infants unwanted by anyone?"

"Father, what is this? You must tell me."

"Vittorio, you will tomorrow be off to Florence, at the first light, and with the letters I mean to write tonight. I need more than country priests to fight this. Now get ready for the journey."

He looked up quite suddenly. He appeared to listen, and then to look about. I could see the light was gone from the windows. We ourselves were just dim figures, and he had thrown the candelabra down. I picked it up.

I watched him sidelong as I took one of the candles and lighted it by the torch at the door and brought it back, and then lighted the other candles. He listened, still and alert, and then without making a sound he rose to his feet, his fists on the desk, seemingly uncaring of the light that the candles threw on his shocked and wary face.

"What do you hear, my Lord?" I said, using the formal address for him without so much as realizing it.

"Evil," he whispered. "Malignant things such as God only suffers to live because of our sins. Arm yourself well. Bring your mother, your brother and your sister to the chapel, and hurry. The soldiers have their orders."

"Shall I have some supper brought there as well, just bread and beer, perhaps?" I asked.

He nodded as though that were scarcely a concern.

Within less than an hour we were all gathered inside the chapel, the entire family, which included then five uncles and four aunts, and with us were two nurses and Fra Diamonte.

The little altar was decked out as if for Mass, with the finest embroidered altar cloth and the thickest golden candlesticks with blazing candles. The Image of Our Crucified Christ shone in the light, an ancient colorless and thin wooden carving that had hung on the wall there since the time of St. Francis, when the great saint was supposed to have stopped at our castle two centuries ago.

It was a na**d Christ, common in those times, and a figure of tortured sacrifice, nothing as robust and sensual as those crucifixes made these days, and it stood out powerfully in contrast to the parade of freshly painted saints on the walls in their brilliant scarlet and gold finery.

We sat on plain brown benches brought in for us, nobody speaking a word, for Fra Diamonte had that morning said Mass and bestowed into the Tabernacle the Body and Blood of Our Lord in the form of the Sacred Host, and the chapel was now, as it were, put to its full purpose as the House of God.

We did eat the bread, and drink a little bit of the beer near the front doors, but we kept quiet.

Only my father repeatedly went out, walking boldly into the torch-lighted courtyard and calling up to his soldiers in the towers and on the walls, and even sometimes being gone to climb up and see for himself that all was well under his protection.

My uncles were all armed. My aunts said their rosaries fervently. Fra Diamonte was confused, and my mother seemed pale to death and sick, perhaps from the baby in her womb, and she clung to my sister and brother, who were by this time pretty frankly frightened.

It seemed we would pass the night without incident.

It couldn't have been two hours before dawn when I was awakened from a shallow slumber by a horrid scream.

At once my father was on his feet, and so were my uncles, drawing out their swords as best they could with their knotted old fingers.

Screams rose all around in the night, and there came the alarms from the soldiers and the loud riotous clanging of old bells from every tower.

My father grabbed me by the arm. "Vittorio, come," he said, and at once, pulling up the handle of the trapdoor, he threw it back and thrust into my hand a great candle from the altar.

"Take your mother, your aunts, your sister and your brother down, now, and do not come out, no matter what you hear! Do not come out. Lock the trapdoor above you and stay there! Do as I tell you!"

At once I obeyed, snatching up Matteo and Bartola and forcing them down the stone steps in front of me.

My uncles had rushed through the doors into the courtyard, shouting their ancient war cries, and my aunts stumbled and fainted and clutched to the altar and would not be moved, and my mother clung to my father.

My father was in a very paroxysm. I reached out for my eldest aunt, but she was in a dead faint before the altar, and my father thundered back to me, forced me into the crypt and shut the door.

I had no choice but to latch the trapdoor as he had shown me how to do, and to turn with the flickering candle in my hand and face the terrified Bartola and Matteo. "Go down all the way," I cried, "all the way."

They nearly fell, trying to move backward down the steep narrow steps that were by no means easy to descend, their faces turned towards me.

"What is it, Vittorio, why do they want to hurt us?" Bartola asked.

"I want to fight them," Matteo said, "Vittorio, give me your dagger. You have a sword. It's not fair."

"Shhh, be quiet, do as our father said. Do you think it pleases me that I can't be out there with the men? Quiet!"

I choked back my tears. My mother was up there! My aunts!

The air was cold and damp, but it felt good. I broke out in a sweat, and my arm ached from holding the big golden candlestick. Finally we sank down in a huddle, the three of us at the far end of the chamber, and it felt soothing to me to touch the cold stone.

But in the interval of our collective silence I could hear through the heavy floor howls from above, terrible cries of fear and panic, and rushing feet, and even the high chilling whinnies of the horses. It sounded as if horses had come crashing into the chapel itself over our heads, which was not at all impossible.

I rose to my feet and rushed to the two other doors of the crypt, those which led to the burial chambers or whatever they were, I didn't care! I moved the latch on one, and could see nothing but a low passage, not even tall enough for me, and barely wide enough for my shoulders.

I turned back, holding the only light, and saw the children rigid with fear, gazing up at the ceiling as the murderous cries continued.

"I smell fire," Bartola whispered suddenly, her face wet at once with tears. "Do you smell it, Vittorio? I hear it." I did hear it and I did smell it.

"Both of you make the Sign of the Cross; pray now,¡± I said, "and trust in me. We will get out of here."

But the clamor of the battle went on, the cries did not die out, and then suddenly, so suddenly it was as wondrous and frightful as the noise itself, there fell a silence.

A silence fell over all, and it was too complete to spell victory. Bartola and Matteo clung to me, on either side.

Above, there was a clatter. The chapel doors were being thrown back, and then quite suddenly the trapdoor was yanked up and open, and in the glimmer of firelight beyond I saw a dark slender long-haired figure. In the gust my candle went out.

Except for the infernal flicker above and beyond, we were committed unmercifully to total darkness.

Once again distinctly, I saw the outline of this figure, a tall, stately female with great long locks and a waist small enough for both my hands as she appeared to fly down the stairs soundlessly towards me.

How in the name of Heaven could this be, this woman?

Before I could think to pull my sword on a female assailant or make sense of anything at all, I felt her tender br**sts brushed against my chest, and the cool of her skin as she seemed to be throwing her arms about me.

There was a moment of inexplicable and strangely sensuous confusion when the perfume of her tresses and her gown rose in my nostrils, and I fancied I saw the glistening whites of her eyes as she looked at me. I heard Bartola scream, and then Matteo also. I was knocked to the floor. The fire blazed bright above.

The figure had them both, both struggling screaming children in one seemingly fragile arm, and stopping, apparently to look at me, a raised sword in her other hand, she raced up the stairway into the firelight.

I pulled my sword with both hands, rushed after her, up and out into the chapel, and saw that she had somehow by the most evil power all but reached the door, an impossible feat, her charges wailing and crying out for me, "Vittorio, Vittorio!"

All the upper windows of the chapels were full of fire, and so was the rose window above the crucifix.

I could not believe what I beheld, this young woman, who was stealing from me my sister and brother.

"Stop in the name of God!" I shouted at her. "Coward, thief in the night."

I ran after her, but to my utter astonishment she did stop, still, and turned to look at me again, and this time I saw her full in all her refined beauty. Her face was a perfect oval with great benign gray eyes, her skin like the finest Chinese white enamel. She had red lips, too perfect even for a painter to make by choice, and her long ashen blond hair was gray like her eyes in the light of the fire, sweeping down her back in a pampered swaying mass. Her gown, though stained dark with what must have been blood, was the same wine-red color I had seen in the apparel of the evil visitor of the night before.

With the most curious and then poignant face, she merely stared at me. Her right hand held her sword upraised, but she didn't move, and then she released from the powerful grip of her left arm my struggling brother and sister. Both tumbled sobbing to the floor.

"Demon. Strega!" I roared. I leapt over them and advanced on her, swinging the sword.

But she dodged so swiftly that I didn't even see it. I couldn't believe that she was so far from me, standing now with the sword down, staring at me still and at the sobbing children.

Suddenly her head turned. There was a whistling cry, and then another and another. Through the door of the chapel, seeming to leap from the fires of Hell itself, there came another red-clad figure, hooded in velvet and wearing gold-trimmed boots, and as I swung my sword at him, he threw me aside and, in one instant, cut off the head of Bartola and then severed the head of the screaming Matteo.

I went mad. I howled. He turned on me. But from the female there came a sudden firm negation.

"Leave him alone," she cried in a voice that was both sweet and clear, and then off he went, this murderer, this hooded fiend in his gold-trimmed boots, calling back to her.

"Come on, now, have you lost your wits? Look at the sky. Come, Ursula." She didn't move. She stared at me as before.

I sobbed and cursed and, grabbing my sword, ran at her again, and this time saw my blade descend to cut off her right arm, right below the elbow. The white limb, small and seemingly fragile like all of her parts, fell to the paved floor with her heavy sword. Blood spurted from her.

She did no more than look at it. And then at me with the same poignant, disconsolate and near heartbroken face.

I lifted my sword again. "Strega!" I cried, clenching my teeth, trying to see through my tears. "Strega!"

But in another feat of evil, she had moved back, far away from me, as if pulled by an invisible force, and in her left hand she now held her right, which still clutched her sword as if it were not severed. She replaced the limb I had cut off. I watched her. I watched her put the limb in place and turn it and adjust it until it was as it should be, and then before my astonished eyes, I saw the wound I had made utterly seal up in her white skin.

Then the loose bell sleeve of her rich velvet gown fell down again around her wrist.

In a twinkling she was outside the chapel, only a silhouette now against the distant fires burning in the tower windows. I heard her whisper: "Vittorio." Then she vanished. I knew it was vain to go after her! Yet still I ran out and swung my sword around in a great circle, crying out in rage and bitterness and mad menace at all the world, my eyes now blinded with tears, and my throat full to choking.

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