“What Is the Meaning of Life?”

My first two answers were “A Monty Python movie” and “42.” Neither of those where what the speaker had in mind, so I kept my trap firmly shut. I can act like a grown-up, on occasion. If there are a sufficiently large number of witnesses.

Then me being me, I ran through three of the catechism answers that I remembered (none of which apply to the church where I currently sing. Of course.) Personally, I’d argue that meaning is personal, not collective. The speaker went along the chosen topic and my mind wandered off into the weeds, then over the river, through the woods, down the primrose path, past the Slough of Despond, and drifted back toward the official topic when the phrase, “What were his last words,” came along.

And again, my mind wandered, this time to Randall Thompson’s “Last Words of David.” David’s last words were a command and testament, in the sense of testifying about something. “He that ruleth over men must be just; ruling in the fear of G-d” That’s the charge, the command. And if the ruler is just? “He shall be as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even as a morning without clouds when the tender grass riseth out of the earth after rain.” The obedient man will be blessed and will prosper. During the middle ages, someone’s last words were very, very important and people gathered to hear them.* Often, final disposition of property happened at that point, and the individual was thought to be closer to the divine, and so might offer a warning or revelation. If the person was dying in public (i.e.executed), then it was anticipated that he or she’d have a speech, sometimes humorous, sometimes dramatic, occasionally a confession “Yes, I was terrible and I deserve this and don’t do what I did.” And of course we have modern jokes about “Here, hold my beer!” or “What could possibly go wro—” and so on.

Death used to be a community matter, too important to happen in solitude, if possible. The meaning of life used to be a community matter as well, although I suspect the majority of people wouldn’t phrase it like that. Having relatives in the church yard meant that you belonged to the place. Going back much farther, having relatives in the chamber tombs and mounds surrounding Stonehenge also meant that you and your people belonged. The ancestors watched as the transition from life to death concluded for the individual, and the community feasted to honor the dead and the living. Life was family continuity, blood-kin or faith-kin, and the meaning of most people’s lives was to ensure that another generation or two had property and a good model to build upon.

What is the meaning of life? What is a good life [insert Conan quote and all it’s myriad variations here]? No idea, but a lot of other people have ideas about it, some I agree with, some I boggle at, some that make me want to take a long shower after I apply automatic weapons fire to the idea.

*No, it was not good for public health when infectious disease was involved. But germ theory hadn’t been invented yet.


What’s that Sound? Why Did it Stop?

A comment on Wednesday’s post reminded me of a recent experience. Humans lack the super hearing of things like bats, felines, and prey animals. Some of us, for various reasons, lack even the quality of hearing we were born with – exposure to loud noises, illness, age, all of the above. I can tell the amount of background noise I ignore by how loud I have to turn up my car radio in order to understand the words. The louder the day at work, the louder the car. If there’s no heater/AC blower on at home? Much quieter music. Retreating to a quiet environment can help re-sensitize us, to a point, but it can’t undo damage.

Sounds that shouldn’t be there, and that then stop, set off all my alarms. Sounds that should be present, and then stop, also mean possible trouble. “Why did the birds just go silent?”are famous last-words-before-the-fight and used often in novels and movies. I’ve become more than a little wary over the past year or so as strangers have become more common around RedQuarters, and small crimes increased. And attempted big crime. I listen more at night, especially if I have a window partly open.* I know what sounds I should hear, which dogs go off at random and which alert to someone in the alley or on the sidewalk.

It was around two in the morning, and Nature had called, so I got up. I opened the window a whisker bit, and planned to close it again once I finished what I needed to do. As I came back to the bedroom, something rustled and crunched, as if it walked through the leaves and so on outside the house. Then the sound stopped. I stopped moving and listened harder. Go for the gun before peering out the small gap in the curtain? Was it the fox, or a cat, or a person? Based on *coughcough* years of past experience, the odds are that a cat, fox, opossum, or other nocturnal, four-footed creature made the sound. That’s usually the case. But trouble has been growing in the city, and I couldn’t rule out a possible human intruder. So I listened very hard, peered as best I could through the gap in the curtains without allowing myself to be seen, and waited.

Nothing. The nothing stretched longer and longer. Had the person also frozen, waiting as well? Did he know I was listening? Or had the animal moved through the area of leaves and now trotted up the block, oblivious to the concerned human peering into the darkness? Still I waited.

After five minutes, the sound had not resumed. I risked closing the window (and possibly alerting a watcher to my presence) and went to bed. Where I lay for several more minutes, listening, wondering, waiting.

I’ve been stalked by four-footed predators in the past, once by a bobcat, once by something I did not go plunging into the tall grass (two meters tall) and brush to identify. Likewise by two-footed. The four-footed have not yet hurt me. The same cannot be said for the two-footed (assault with bruises, nothing more serious). Was it an overactive imagination, paranoia, or experience that kept me up that night? Or all of the above?

Sound, then the sound stopped, save for the pounding of my heart in my ears as I listened hard for what might be Out There.

*Not when I go to sleep, no. I fear those days are past when it was safe to leave a window open a tiny bit for fresh air during the night.

Odd-Shaped Niches

I was visiting friends in their new-to-them house. They’d already done a number of needed updates and improvements. All older houses need something, especially when the former owner has lived there for a handful of decades or so. One of my friends opened the pantry door and said, “Eventually we’ll shift some of this around. And there’s this.”

A waist-high, narrow, nondescript door covered something just beside the pantry door’s hinges and frame. My friend opened the little door and revealed a shallow space that would be almost invisible unless someone really looked for it.

“Shotgun cubby,” another friend stated. “A relative had one.”

The idea makes perfect sense. These houses were in the country back when they were built, and coyotes, rabid skunks, and other things posed a serious problem. As did the possibility of two-footed predators. Those who needed to know where the shotgun was would know. Other people would be distracted by the canned goods and other pantry things, and given the dimmer indoors light back then, would probably never see the shotgun cubby’s door. It’s a great concept, because what woman wouldn’t retreat toward the kitchen, a place she knew well? And intruders would probably assume that she’d go to the bedroom and the shotgun or pistol there, but the kitchen? Mostly harmless.

I’ve been in a few other houses like that, where an oddly shaped or located door reveals an excellent idea. I’d love to have a shotgun cubby, or handgun drawer, in my office. Lockable would also be good, although at the moment that’s not as great a concern as before (no small people who open things they shouldn’t.) Or it held a certain size of canned goods, one that’s not made now. I saw one kitchen that had a hundred small pegs, like cup-holders but too many of them. The home-owner, the great-granddaughter of the man who built the house, smiled and said, “Canning rings.” When not needed, the rings hung on the pegs. If you looked closely, there were differences in the distance between the rings, top to bottom, for quart and gallon sizes. As cans got used, the rings went on the pegs so they weren’t lost. Brilliant!

RedQuarters has a small door in a hallway by my office. A nondescript square with trim that matches the rest of the molding in that part of the house opens to reveal plumbing. It’s an access hatch for cleaning out a trap and checking fittings. Someone decided they didn’t want to ruin the wall and so made a nice little door instead of leaving the wall plain.

Use Names and Magic Workers

“I don’t want them getting my home address, so to speak,” to paraphrase several characters in the Familiars and Familiars Generations series. Using a real name, one that is linked to a person directly, is considered a Bad Idea. Names have power. Thus magic workers and some key nulls take on use names. These are not fixed, as several characters in the Familiars and Familiars Generations stories show.

Some go farther, changing their names completely if they no longer fit. This happens twice this far in the series – Arthur and Jude. André/Garry is another possible case, although he does not legally change his name to André Lestrang. For one, the paperwork mess with the military would be epic. For two, his family would start asking questions he’d prefer not to answer. And having an everyday name as well as his on-duty name and use name is another buffer and deflection. Arthur changed his name to one that was not related to his original “outside the clan” name after he and the others fled to the Riverton clan. His old name no longer fit, at least in his mind. Arthur was different, and so what if it didn’t “match” a Hispanic last name? “Pisicagheara,” claw of the cat, also better fit his way of fighting and personality. He’s the concealed blade, the weapon hiding in plain sight. The younger Hunters, well behind his back, came to call him the Dark One for his style of dress and his personality. Well behind his back, in whispers, with a look-out posted.*

Jude is estranged from his family, so to speak. He truly is dead to them, blood price paid, and so keeping the family name doesn’t make sense. Jude – the patron saint of hopeless causes – fit him better, or so he felt. He still does. His last name, Tainuit, is a long-disused name meaning “solitary” or “outside.” His use name as a Hunter died with Karol, his old self, so he uses “Tenebriu” meaning “one in shadow.” His Familiar’s name, “Pasaru” translates “bird.” It has no specific use as a name per se, so it provides further deflection. “Shoim” in the clan’s speech can refer to a type of hawk (not a harrier), which should have been a CLUE. It was for Arthur. Jude wasn’t in any condition to realize how odd that was, and by now, Shoim just refers to his Familiar. (At the rate things are going, Shoim may become one one of the words Jude uses when, oh, he drops a carton of eggs or when Martha’s car dies at a bad moment.)

Thomas Arthur “Art” uses “Letters” as an inside joke. Arts and Letters often refers to a subdivision of a university, as in “College of Arts and Letters.” Mike grabbed “Red” because it was short, fit his coloring, and easy to recall. However, Rich managed to point out that it was also blatantly obvious and tied to him. So Mike uses “Defender,” something which caused both Arthur and his brother to raise their eyebrows in the lead up to the Terrible Hunt. No, Mike doesn’t know anything about the Hunter clans aside from what André and Lelia have told him. Morgana’s use name was also an inside joke, requiring someone to have the Arthurian word of Morgana Le Fey and the Lady of the Lake in mind. Deborah’s use name translates “flat-leaf parsley.”

*He probably knows anyway, since he’s Arthur. He’s the intelligence officer for a reason. But of course he’d never let the youngsters know that he knows. Because he’s Arthur.

Desert Island Stuff

It’s one of those questions that interviewers toss in every so often, usually when interviewing a cultural figure. “If you were trapped on a desert island, what music/book/painting would you want to have?” I was thinking about that, because I loaded a new-to-me recording onto this computer, and found myself listening over and over to a few songs. It is an album by the a capella group Voces8. Mostly a capella – no piano or organ or orchestra, just an occasional cello and saxophone. I put Morten Lauridsen’s “Magnum Mysterium” and Bruckner’s “Os Justi” on loop as I wrote a scene.

If I were stuck with a limited amount of music and books, also known as “being in the real world for most of human existence,” I’d want the Mozart Requiem, Gjiello’s “Luminous Night of the Soul” and Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux,” along with Lauridsen’s “Sure on this Shining Night” and Bach’s B-minor mass. In other words, things that lift the soul, or at least lift my soul, and speak of eternity. And that I can’t sing that well on my own. Maybe Avantasia’s “Raven Child,” just because it so shaped how Arthur’s character ended up developing. Maybe.

Purely instrumental? Ralph Vaughn-Williams “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and some medieval and Renaissance compositions. I’m not sure about which classical compositions make my “desert island list,” because there are a lot to choose from, and I’ve not had (or not taken) the time in years just to sit and listen to instrumental classical music. My selection for that used to be the Brahms German Requiem. Which is vocal as well as instrumental, so it doesn’t count.

Books? King James translation of the Bible. The Blue Sword. Wilson’s The Thirty Years War. One or two other great histories, perhaps. Rudyard Kipling’s Complete Poetry. Novels? I’m not sure. I’d have to go digging in my list. An art book of great works of Western art would also be good.

Doesn’t Everyone? Apparently Not.

I had dinner (largest meal of the day, generally noonish) with a friend of the family who is in the skilled trades. “Jerry,” as I’ll call him, is in very, very high demand because he’s so good, and his crews are so good. He’s been going non-stop since April, and was filling me in on some of the more challenging recent work, of which he is quite proud. He should be, since twice he has had to persuade a builder and a home-owner that plumbing cannot, yet, defy the laws of physics. You might be able to get away with skirting around some of code if you live outside a municipality, but gravity is universal. We were also commiserating about code requirements developed in one part of the country and then imposed on places where it is at best a non-improvement and at worst a three-pill migraine. [See “Why a large Phillips-head screwdriver was kept near the hot water heater enclosure at Festung Kleinrot for use during fire marshal inspection season.”]*

So, from “water and stuff just can’t flow that way, even with a pump which you can’t use in a house anyway,” talk moved to “times I couldn’t save them.” Also known as “when remodeling goes very, very wrong.” You know, like when a home owner decides to re-do a house into an open floor plan and starts removing a dividing wall between the living room and kitchen, and notices that the ceiling is cracking. Assistant plumber saw the cracks, the removed section of dividing wall, gulped, and raced to his boss, while calling quietly “Guys, get out of the building now.” Boss plumber saw the cracks, gulped, and warned home owner that removing a load-bearing wall was a Bad Idea. Jerry’s not a general contractor or structural engineer, but he’s seen so much of the good, the bad, and the “Oh Lord, I don’t want to know what he was thinking” that he can predict some problems and explain others, even if they don’t involve pipes and flushing.

So I tossed in the “you can’t just add a second story onto the house” misadventure I’d watched unfold, along with the Mike Holmes episode (only got to see part one, so I never knew if they salvaged the house) that started with “we wanted to widen the staircase and modernize the plumbing” and ended with evacuating the shell of the building because load-supporting and wall-holding joists and beams had been cut through, among other nightmares.

Now, I find this fascinating. As we were leaving the cafe, Jerry observed, “You know, most people outside the trade aren’t interested in structure and construction.” He’d enjoyed talking about it, since it wasn’t his problem most of the time (aside from the occasional “but why can’t water flow uphill?” moment). I hadn’t thought about it, because I like it, and enjoy learning from other people’s disasters and rescues. Why things work has always interested me.

But I’m Odd, and fortunate that DadRed was into carpentry and cabinet making, which also meant learning about building trades. From there came “This Old House,” “The Woodwright’s Shop” and eventually Mike Holmes stuff. Clamps, varnishes, cabinet carcasses, pocket screws and rabets, planes and corner levels, “racking” and “orange peel,” all these are terms I know about. I learned basic power tool use (still do not trust table saws) and hand tools as well, and why DadRed never did varnishing indoors. Only in the driveway, or on the back patio, well away from the house. I can look at a house interior and spot details that might or might not be worrisome. It also means that while in castles and old European buildings, DadRed and I are studying the woodwork and furniture instead of listening to the guide. Or confusing the guide mightily by occasionally calling out, “Bun feet again!”**

*The New and Improved Code required that the Heater part of the HVAC not pull air from inside the building. However, the New and Improved air intake didn’t draw enough air to keep the blower motor from overheating and trying to catch fire. So, when rumor of an inspection circulated, the New and Improved Code-mandated blocking panels over the old air intake were screwed into place for the Fire Marshall’s benefit. Once he departed or when the heater was needed, the panels were once again removed and stored.

**Dad and I started noting that all the old furniture in Poland had bun feet instead of claw feet. Which we speculated about, then started looking for. It became a bit of a game to see if we could spot Polish-made furniture with other-than-bun feet.

Looking Up after Looking Down?

On Wednesday’s post, Louraine P. observed that people will always wonder about “what’s out there,” and will get curious. I’m . . . of two minds on this. First, I agree that yes, someone will always push to learn more, even if they can’t see something. In some cases, especially if they can’t see something. But second, I am observing less and less curiosity among younger people, meaning thirty and below.

I don’t know if it is because younger people have gotten used to “I’ll ask the internet” if they have a question, so they don’t ask questions. Or perhaps because they have been overloaded with “this is the Truth” only to be told a while later “No, no, this is the Truth and that never was true,” or because they are carefully protected from “out there” and they are sincerely worried that the unknown is all danger and hazard. Or a bit of yes. I’ve met a few teenagers who were so sheltered that I almost boggled. One or two of those became curious about “what’s out there?” The others rejected intellectual discomfort.

Many of the younger people (35 and below, give or take) seem to walk with their heads down literally or metaphorically, intent on a device in hand or in pocket, eyes on the ground. Now, older people can be inattentive, and I’m always surprised by the people who never see the hawks, or who are startled when I come huffing and puffing beside them as I walk. The screen has captured their attention, be it selecting music or reading and answering texts or browsing social media or watching a video. Granted, many on-line things are designed to keep people locked onto the screen. That’s a problem for others to sort out. My concern is that “what’s out there” turns into “look online and then move on” more more and more people.

One thing that impressed me when the great conjunction happened in the winter of 2020 was how many people were out in their yards, looking up at the sky, and talking to other people about the stars. It helped that two of our regional weather forecasters are astronomers, and they’d been happily geeking out about the conjunction for a week, so everyone knew it was coming, where to look, and why it was a Big Deal*. But it wasn’t teenagers out looking. It was 30+ for the most part, and younger kids.

I’m pretty sure that LP is right, that some people are always going to be curious about “What’s out there?” even if they never get to see stars before they are older teens. But what’s the effect of so many younger people living head-down for so long? I suspect that older people fussed when printing presses made books inexpensive. And I know that older people fussed that really cheap “penny dreadful” mass-market thrillers hit the newsstands in the late 1800s, because they were morally unsound and were rotting the brains of young people, and encouraged violence, and so on. Some things never change. That the same “corrupting trash” also pulled kids into wanting to learn more about the American West, and encouraged travel and exploration, well, no one could see that in the 1890s.

Are smart-phones and screens the same, and just a temporary blip that we will chuckle about later? Or is there something different that will keep people from wondering about the world and what lies beyond us? I have no idea.

*I know. They happen fairly often but they are not as visible as that one was. I remember several professional astronomers and so on mildly scolding people for getting so excited. Which strikes me as exactly the opposite of what you do if you want to encourage a Sense-o-Wonder!

Things No Longer Advertised

Or at least not on TV. Perfume, unless Macy’s is sponsoring the commercial. Doan’s Pills (who knew folding fitted sheets could be so painful, if not dangerous?) Ex-Lax (OK, but it’s descendants are advertised, far too often during meal times, in my opinion.). Calgon water softener (“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”). My first exposure to Edgar Allan Poe was through a commercial that used the cadences of “The Raven” to sell Roto-Rooter’s services. And I can still sing the jingle of the Runza Huts fast-food chain, although it’s been three decades since I lived in a place that had a Runza hut.

Perfume seems to have faded from public interest, at least the broad general public. I remember very romantic commercials with a woman standing above a wind-swept, cloudy sea-shore remembering her far-away lover, and he remembers her by her perfume. “Promise her everything, but give her Arpége.” That one aired during the classic movies on Saturday afternoon and evening, things like The Three Musketeers, or The Man in the Iron Mask, and so on.

Doan’s Pills ads were on during weekday afternoon shows, when women were likely to be at home with kids, doing chores, and so on. The Calgon water softener ad – it would make your whites whiter and all clothes cleaner! – aired then as well. Doan’s Pills were specifically for back ache, something that appeared to be caused by doing battle with a full-sized fitted sheet, according to the graphics on the commercial. I tended to hide under the fitted sheet, pretending to be a ghost or something until I wrestled it onto the bed, so I never had a back ache that required the use of the pills.

The commercials weren’t any better than they are today, although I’m not sure they were much worse. I don’t remember as many for prescription medications, or for financial products (retirement funds and so on). Car commercials, Coca-Cola™, dog food, Meow Mix™ cat food and Purina products (the miniature chuckwagon leading the dog to the food dish, anyone?), Schlitz, Pabst, and Busch beers, and Coors (this was in the Midwest). And local businesses and so on. IBM, too, although it was for office machines and copiers, not computers until after Apple exploded onto the scene, with Dell, Gateway, and others not long after.

þæt wæs grim cyning: Anglo-Saxon Literature

“That was a grim king.”

The phrase is from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor” or as I learned it, “Deor’s Lament.” It is one of the complete (or so it appears) Anglo-Saxon poems we have, and describes mythological and historical figures who have bad times. The refrain is enigmatic to put it mildly. One translation I read (grew up with) was “That passed away – This also may.” Another is “That was overcome, so may this be.” Did the poet mean “I might survive these hard times,” or “May I overcome these hard times” in the sense of a prayer of sorts? The original word leaves it unclear. “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.”

Other poems, often borrowed by people like J. R. R. Tolkien (“The Wanderer”), are equally cheerful and encouraging. However, when you look at things like the Exeter Book fo Riddles, you get a different view of the Angles and Saxons. Ribald double-entendres, witty word-play, bad puns, and other things abound.

One of the most famous riddles is number (modern listing) 25:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt; nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra, nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah, stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.

Or, in modern English:

I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
a help to neighbours; I harm none
of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.

OK, now, before your minds finish going where I suspect they will go, the answers (the collection lacks a list at the back) might be an onion, a leek, or mustard, but the onion is the probable solution.

We don’t have much Old English humor that survived down the ages, or much of anything at all, really, compared to other languages. The Church saved some things, especially if they were religious (“The Dream of the Rood,” and “Caedmon’s Hymn”) or government (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). Otherwise we are fortunate to have Beowulf, The Wanderer, and a few others.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? [#]Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune!Alas for the bright cup!
Eala byrnwiga!Alas for the mailed warrior!


If you think you might know those words, well, Tolkien caught the sense.

In the novels, the lines are spoken by Aragorn, but the way the movie was done, and where they were used, they fit Theoden very well. “Theoden,” by the way, means “prince” with the implication of one with a fate.* Now is that fate a wyrd or “fated to be a prince?” Again, the sense is ambiguous.


*According to some sources. Linguists seem to be arguing over that.

Saturday Snippet: Old Loves, Old Enemies

This started pestering me on Monday, when I needed to be working on other things. I think it will end up becoming part of a novella I’ve been threatening to write, the one that will take the premise of the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula and eliminate the massive theological mess invoked to explain why Vlad III becomes Dracula. So this is dark, and strange, and not what I needed to be working on. Y’all are warned. The year is 1529.

The glow on the south-western horizon brought no warmth. She fancied she could still smell the roasting and boiling mutton, the stench of perfumes gone stale, the fug of an advancing army four months in the field. Her hands ached to draw a bow, to grip a dagger or heavy staff or scythe or anything to use against the Turkish horde below the hills. Her half-clenched hands throbbed, warning of the coming north wind and storm. She should seek shelter. Instead she glowered south and snarled silently. She’d done what she could, while she could. One more weapon remained to her, perhaps.

The wind went calm. The night fell still and grew darker, aside from the glow of thousands of fires. The air was too soundless, a terrified stillness. She turned with slow steps.

A half-heard flapping sound, and darkness intensified. A blot, soot on the night, shrank and grew solid. The faint flapping and whistling faded into silence. Red eyes looked out on the night from a gaunt, angular face. Silver now streaked his coal black hair and touched his tidy black beard. He walked with slow, heavy steps toward her. He wore a cloak a hundred years out of fashion. The flowing black and green suited him. That green had once graced a Turkish banner. She smiled again at the sight and memory. Then she bowed and backed clear of his path.

“Our old enemy.” His voice both chilled and warmed her. He did not bother to conceal the faint echo, the icy hardness in his voice.

“No, my lord. They choose not to learn. The sultan swears that this time their god will grant victory.”

A derisive snort greeted her words. “Over confident, as always. And late. The land and waters conspire against them.”

She smiled, a wild cat’s smile. “Indeed, my lord.”

He folded his arms as he regarded the distant—not far enough for her!—fires. “They take advantage of division and chaos.” He paused and looked to her. “Again.”

She nodded. “Again. Age weakens my voice and it no longer reaches the halls of power.” Once it had. Now? She belonged to the old, dead past, or so the so-called overlords claimed.

“And sex.”

She inclined her head toward him in agreement. “And sex, my lord.” No longer could she play the male as once she had. Those days had passed with youth and marriage.

Long fingernails like claws, or an eagle’s talons, lifted her chin, forcing her to meet half-human, crimson eyes. “Do you regret, my little Kat?”

His touch woke all the fear, desire, wild emotions as heady as distilled spirits. “No. Not the years in your court and not the years after.” She’d disguised herself as a male to stand in for brothers her mother could not risk. Her skill with bow and scouting had drawn his eye. He’d seen through her garb but said nothing, not until later. She’d given him her maidenhead, even knowing what he was, what bargain he’d made. Three sweet, hard years they’d shared before parting. “My husband asked for no more than more sons and a well-kept household. Both I gave to him.” Three sons yet lived, and a daughter. For now.

“Ah.” The hand moved, ran down shoulder and arm to take her hand. He drew her close and embraced her, monster and man and lover and liege. “I too do not regret.”

He released her. “What know you?” His gesture took in the army below them.

“I scouted, as best I now can, my lord.” The Turks respected neither sex nor age nor anything save force. And him, perhaps. “A single row of sentries, few to guard the pickets, and no heavy guns. A rumor says that the high rivers keep them from bringing the largest cannon up yet, rivers and mud together.”

He chuckled, a cold, inhuman sound, and the hell-fire in his eyes flared. “They will regret their ease with the night.” He reached, and took her chin in his hands once more. “If you will keep your word.”

“I will, my lord.” She dared to put a hint of chiding into her tone. “That is why I asked for your presence, why I am here.” Death held no fear. She’d seen hell and heaven, both at his side. The village priest had denied her absolution when she’d told him of her intention to scout the Turks, saying that she committed self-murder by venturing to test the Turkish defenses. If it damned her, so be it. What he’d say now she could well guess.  She smiled and said, “I keep my vows, my lord.”

He smiled as well, baring fangs the color of his ivory chess men. “You do. And I will keep mine, my little wild Kat.”

She reached up, eyes still on his, and undid her headscarf and veil, baring her head and throat. “Send them to hell, my night treasure, so that they may meet the god they worship.”

He laughed and pulled her close once again. She tipped her head back, baring her throat. Pain swept over her as his jaws closed, fangs piercing the skin and crushing her windpipe. She could not breathe. Her body tried to fight, but she held it still. Numbness replaced pain. Her children would live.


Vlad held her as her legs buckled, then lowered her gently to the dew-damp ground, still feeding, still drawing her life into himself, life willingly and freely given. Her blood, so hot and sweet, rich with age and memory, filled him as she died. So long, so long since he’d tasted a life willingly—no, gladly, joyfully—given! The monster howled with delight. Its strength grew as Ekaterina’s heart stopped and the last morsel of her blood graced his tongue.

When he finished, only a shell remained of his little Kat. She’d been wild, brave, had laughed when others fled in fear. She’d accepted him as he was, the only woman to do so since he’d made his bargain. That the others had assumed her to be a man had amused both of them and had become a game for two of their three years together. He laid her out on the grass and stones and folded her hands. He caressed her face, still strong and lovely, and her war and work-scarred fingers. “Your absence I will regret, little Kat.” He covered her face with her veil, as was proper, then stood. He would mourn and pray for her later.

“Come,” he called to the men waiting in the trees. The soldiers emerged, wary of him but eager for a fight. The Dragon’s Son found her memories in his and studied them. “The Turks grow lazy and careless. They need a reminder about Wallachian nights. I will deal with the sentries closest to us now, then pay a visit to their commander.” He smiled.

“Yes, my lord!” Petru gave orders. Vlad drew the monster to the surface, faced the enemy army, and changed. The demon howled with delight, full fed and eager for war.

Two nights later, after Father Johann finished saying the evening prayers in the small village church, Prince Vlad approached the altar. The priest turned and gasped, then grabbed the crucifix off the altar and held it out. “Be gone in the name of the Lord!”

Vlad crossed himself and kissed the base of the proffered crucifix. “Blessed be the name of the Lord our God,” he replied. He straightened. “Why did you deny Ekaterina Ceaucescu burial in holy ground?” He did not snarl. Yet.

The priests pale eyes went wide and he backed away, still clutching the cross. “Be- because she died unshriven, died of self-murder, an unrepentant sinner.” The man gulped, then blurted, “Like you.”

Vlad removed the cross from the man’s hand before he dropped it and did insult to the image of Christ. Then he lifted the cowering figure by his shoulders, claws sunk into wool and unwashed flesh. “I see. And you denied her absolution when she sought it, before carrying out my orders. She died so that others, including you, might live.” He set the man down as the priest soiled himself. “Perhaps your understanding of God’s will is different from mine.”

“Get thee behind me, Satan!” Fr. Johann squeaked. “Even you can quote scripture, father of Lies! I banish thee in the name of God.”

Vlad lifted his lips in a sneer, baring his teeth as he did. The priest scrambled back toward the sacristy door, face white with terror. “I was banished a century and more ago, Father. Perhaps.” He backed away from the altar, genuflected and crossed himself once more, then departed.

Petru and two others waited outside, with the horses. Vlad mounted with easy grace. The stallion sidled, but settled quickly. His current form did not disturb horses, only men. “Fr. Johann refuses to change his mind. We will continue as planned. Have the Turks moved?” He nudged the stallion into a quick walk.

Petru nodded and caught up, riding at his left hand. “Yes, my lord. They broke camp just after dawn today and flee to the south and east. It seems they fear another night of pestilence.” He grinned and patted the Turkish dagger now gracing his belt. “The climate of Wallachia does not agree with them, especially the night air.”

Vlad grinned in turn. “Good.”  The grin faded as they rode back to his castle. Ekaterina would lie beside Maria, his wife, and his sons. Father Radu had been far more understanding than the young village priest was. Perhaps, God willing, one day the Turks and Magyars would leave his lands and he could join them in death.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved