The Blackening Process

Part One

C.J. Carter-Stephenson

Originally published in Bloodlust Variations (Bonito Books, 2012)

I shall begin by telling you something of my early years, since I feel they have a direct bearing on what came later. I was born in the town of St. Albans in 1451. It was a time of great uncertainty, with the land in utter turmoil. Henry VI was proving himself to be a thoroughly inept king, and as a result, the plight of the peasants was the worst it had been for a long time. I was born a peasant, and if things had worked out differently, I might well have died one too.

My father was a blacksmith and my first memory is of being left alone in his workshop. I can remember amusing myself playing in the dirt with a pile of horseshoes and clambering over the enormous anvil. After a while, however, these games lost their appeal and I began to look around for some other form of diversion. It was then I became enthralled by the fiery lustre given off by a bar of metal that my father had left in the fire to heat. I gazed at the piece of metal, thinking it to be some kind of magical artefact, before finally stretching my hand out towards it inquisitively. The pain that lanced through my body when I touched it brought tears to my eyes, but it also left me with a feeling of immense satisfaction, such as I had never felt before. I was so taken by this strange sensation, I could not keep from touching the burning bar again and again. When my father returned, my hand was a throbbing mass of blisters. It was this sensual experience that taught me how exalted hurting myself made me feel.

The next thing I can call to mind is the Duke of York sacking St. Albans. I was barely four years old when it happened, but it is etched into my memory as clearly as anything else I have ever experienced (save perhaps when I became a vampyre, which I shall come to by and by). The King arrived at St. Albans, intent on crushing the army which the Duke of York was amassing in a village nearby. As you can probably imagine, his presence caused considerable excitement amongst the villagers. They lined the streets to cheer the royal procession and were still celebrating long after they would normally have been in bed. Only my father apprehended the ominous implications of the King's arrival. He forbade my mother and I from taking part in the revelry and charged us with avoiding anyone connected with the king at all costs.

The following day, we arose at dawn. When we had broken our fast, my father went down to the forge to begin work, while my mother set about the domestic chores. In those days children were required to work alongside their parents almost as soon as they could walk and I was no exception. On this particular occasion, I had been entrusted with sweeping the floor. As I toiled away diligently, I tried to alleviate my boredom by listening to the clanging of my father's hammer drifting up from below. The abrupt cessation of that familiar sound should have set alarm bells ringing in my ears, but it did not, and it was only when my father burst into the room, still dripping with sweat from the heat of the furnace, that I began to perceive there was something amiss. "Carla!" he shouted fearfully. "Fighting has broken out in the village between the king and the Duke of York. I think it will be safer for us to seek refuge at the abbey until it is all over than to remain here." He caught me up in one of his strong arms and grabbed my mother by the hand.

We hurried downstairs to the forge, where my father took the precaution of arming himself with an axe that he had just finished making for a local forester. When he had hung the axe from a loop in his broad leather belt, he pushed aside the curtain that closed the forge off from the open front of the shop and we dashed out into the street.

All around us people were running to and fro in a frenzy of consternation. They knew all too well that nobody would think twice about running their sword through a peasant in the heat of battle. In truth, the good people of Saint Albans were about as important to the feuding nobles as cattle fodder. My father led us quickly towards the abbey, passing numerous minor skirmishes without raising an eyebrow. He had seen fighting before and knew well what it looked like. What he did not expect was to find the marketplace was the centre of the conflict. The opposing forces flooded the streets that should have granted us passage to the abbey and frustrated any hope of reaching it. My father was not about to let such a small obstacle prevent him from safeguarding his family, however. He conducted us swiftly to a nearby inn, reasoning that such a building must be more soundly constructed than his own rickety abode.

When we hastened inside, we discovered we were not the only ones to have availed ourselves of the security of the inn; a number of our fellow villagers had come up with the same idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say there were more villagers in the common room than there were guests. Most of the interlopers had known each other their whole lives, but the atmosphere was as taut as a drawn bowstring. Some of them were seated at the sturdy oak tables, listening intently to the sounds of combat from outside, whilst others paced the rush-laden floor nervously - a tall man in a brown woollen cloak, a pair of young boys, covered from head to toe in mud, a beautiful woman with flowing golden hair, and too many others to mention. My father scanned the room for the innkeeper, who was leaning against one wall, playing with his greasy black moustache anxiously. He studied the portly little man for a moment. The fellow appeared to be utterly absorbed in watching a group of chattering women, who had gathered around one of the villagers for some reason. As we drew near, I was able to discern that the focus of their attention had been mortally wounded by an arrow. One of the women was ineffectually attempting to staunch his bleeding chest with a wad of cloth. The rest were discussing whether or not it would be advantageous to remove the offending shaft.

My father put me down and went over to speak to the innkeeper about something. I looked around for my mother; she seemed to have forgotten about me in her rush to assist the wounded man and was already hard at work endeavouring to make him more comfortable. I wandered over to watch. The sight of a man literally bleeding to death should have sickened my infantile mind, but it did not. On the contrary, I found it to be a decidedly agreeable experience. The glimpse I was given of his wound excited me in ways I will not waste my time trying to describe and his agonized groans were music to my ears. Death is the most sensual experience a mortal ever has and it was almost as if I was sharing in this man's death in some small way.

I stood there watching the women attempt to avert what I somehow knew to be the inevitable conclusion of the episode with ecstatic fascination, until my father pulled me away. My disappointment at being prevented from watching the man die was so great I actually began to cry. My father must have assumed my tears were born out of horror at the things I had already seen, since he put his arm around me and told me to try not to think about it. I resisted the urge to shake off his embrace and resume my observation of the captivating scene, though I will not claim that it was easy.

Sweeping me up into his arms, my father carried me over to the tall stone fireplace that dominated the wall furthest from the entrance to the inn. The gaping hearth was virtually obsolete at that time of the year and all that remained of the last blaze were a few ashes. My father instructed me to conceal myself in a small recess behind the mantel at one side. I ducked into the fireplace obediently and stowed myself in the dismal little niche. There was barely enough room to move; it was almost like being shut up in a coffin and buried alive. A musty smell hung in the air, the stone was caked with soot and it was so stuffy I felt as though I was going to suffocate. The particles of dust that continually molested my nostrils made it difficult to suppress the need to sneeze. I doubt very much I could have done it for long, had it not been for the distraction of a crack in the mantel, which I noticed while surveying my dingy surroundings. Through this tiny hole I could see everything that was happening in the common room.

My father was talking urgently to the innkeeper and gesturing in my direction every so often. The wounded villager had apparently expired, judging by the disconsolate weeping coming from the women around him. A few of the men had gone over to comfort them, but the majority had not moved. All of a sudden, the door of the inn flew open and an elderly man in bloodstained plate armour burst into the room. He was closely followed by a group of soldiers, whose livery identified him as the Duke of Somerset. One of the soldiers pulled the door quickly shut and shot the bolt across. The duke, who had wrenched off his helmet to reveal a shaggy mane of white hair and was now leaning against the wall while he caught his breath, looked around him distastefully. "You there!" he said to my father rudely. "Barricade the door."

It was odd to see my broad-shouldered father rushing to obey this weasel of a man. I suppose even though he towered over everyone in the room, he was so dutiful he would have stood on one foot and sung a nursery rhyme if the duke had told him to. Of course, the broadsword in the duke's gauntleted hand and the array of weaponry with which his men were equipped provided strong incentive for obedience.

While my father busied himself dragging a table in front of the door, the duke strutted across the room to find out the cause of the commotion near the dead villager. He struck me as the kind of person who would have had the wailing women executed for crying over the death of somebody so unimportant, had it not been for the presence of my mother. She was an uncommonly beautiful woman, with shimmering auburn hair that fell about her shoulders in a cascade of ringlets and flashing green eyes the colour of jade. The duke stood looking at her for a moment - she was kneeling on the floor with her head resting against the dead man's bloody chest - then approached and laid his hand gently on her head. She looked up, as he began to address her in a surprisingly tender voice, "It is such a shame to see one so pretty stricken with grief over something so trivial. What is the death of one peasant? Just look around you; there are plenty more."

"This unfortunate man was an individual and special in the eyes of God," retorted my mother tearfully.

"Seek not to console yourself with religion," said the callous duke. "God cares nothing for the likes of you. Peasants do not go to heaven. Still, if it is any consolation, there is much pleasure to be had here on earth. Come with me after the battle and I will show you what I mean." He winked at his men, who laughed raucously.

My mother stood up slowly, looked at him, and then slapped his face. "I am a married woman!" she exclaimed. "Kindly keep your impure thoughts to yourself you licentious old man."

"You cannot speak to me like that!" roared the duke. "I ought to have you executed for your impudence. If I decide to take you to my bed, then nothing will stop me from doing so, so you might as well resolve yourself to enjoy it." He tore my mother's dress from her shoulders and began to stroke her breast. "You see," he continued, "this is merely a taste of things to come. I can instruct you in pleasures that will eclipse anything you have hitherto felt."

My father, who had now noticed the liberties the duke was taking with his wife, stormed across the room towards them. "Take your hands off her!" he bawled.

The duke looked at him defiantly and continued to caress my mother's exposed breast. My father was so incensed by this cantankerous display of indecency that he planted a fist in the duke's face, sending him sprawling to the floor.

"Seize him!" screamed the duke, trying to ignore the blood gushing from his crushed nose. Several of the soldiers flung themselves at my father, knocking him over.

I watched the flailing limbs and tumbling bodies with something approaching dispassion. Do not misunderstand me - I wanted my father to emerge victorious, but it was more out of loyalty than love. He was a hard man and had kept me on a tight rein for the entirety of my short life. I was beaten severely for the smallest misdemeanours; is it any wonder then that something within me was not averse to seeing the man responsible receive the same treatment?

My father stood little chance against the armed soldiers, who soon overcame him. They left him in a bloody heap on the ground. In the meantime, the duke had managed to struggle to his feet. He hefted his sword threateningly and approached my father. "For that display of arrogance," he snarled, "I will see you dead." He was on the verge of saying something else, when he stopped himself, apparently considering some new idea. Then, turning towards my mother, he went on angrily, "But first, you shall watch me realize my designs on the woman you sought to protect. For by ancient feudal law, the peasantry are subject to the nobility in every respect."

The duke gestured to his men, who proceeded to drag my mother over to a table and pull off the rest of her clothes. Oblivious to her struggling, they laid her on the table, holding her arms and legs so the duke would be able to climb on top of her with as little resistance as possible. The duke leant his sword against the wall, unbuckled part of his armour and loosened his breeches. My father, who had succeeded in pulling himself up into a sitting position, groaned as the duke strode casually towards his wife. I could almost feel the hatred in his eyes as he watched, but he was too weak to do anything.

The duke would assuredly have made himself master of my mother's person, had she not somehow contrived to wrench one of her legs free and kick him in the groin as he prepared to clamber up onto the table. He staggered backwards with a look of absolute agony on his withered old face. Some of the peasants in the common room sniggered, but their amusement was short-lived. The duke snatched a crossbow from one of his men and hobbled back over to the table. My mother thrashed about, trying desperately to escape the soldiers, but to no avail. "Let me go," she pleaded. "What have I ever done to deserve this?"

The duke positioned his crossbow over her temple, before answering coldly, "Save it for Satan!" She was dead as soon as he pulled the trigger.

Silence fell over everyone present. Even the battle-hardened soldiers were stunned to silence by their master's ruthless deed. The group of men who had been restraining my mother dropped her lifeless limbs and stepped away with downcast eyes. The duke looked imperiously around, then stalked across to one of his speechless men and handed him the crossbow roughly. "What are you gaping at?" he demanded. "You," he said, gesturing at another of the soldiers, "bring forth the peasant who dared to raise his hand to the Duke of Somerset."

My father was hoisted to his feet and conveyed over to where the duke stood. The duke addressed him authoritatively, "I had intended to kill you, but in the light of what has happened, I have changed my mind. There has been enough death; I shall content myself with relieving you of the hand which struck me." My father gave no indication of having heard this little speech. The soldiers let him fall to his knees and placed his hand on the table next to my mother's naked body. My father made no attempt to move it, so they did not bother fixing it into position.

The duke went to collect his sword and then returned to the table. "Do you have nothing to say to me now that I have generously deigned to spare your life?" he asked as he raised his sword above his head.

"I died when you killed my wife," replied my father desolately. His gaze was fixed on my mother's corpse.

"She was your wife?" the duke enquired, lowering his sword slightly.

"She was," my father affirmed caustically, though his eyes never moved.

"Oh," said the duke, raising his sword high again and bringing it down with such force that the blow sufficed to completely sever my father's hand from his wrist. My father let out a frightful scream and dropped to the floor unconscious. The blood spilled out from his terrible wound like a river of crimson, forming a wide puddle by his side.

At that moment, a loud pounding commenced on the door of the inn. One of the duke's men ran over to a window and looked out. "York's army has surrounded us!" he exclaimed. The duke put his armour into order hastily, just as the table in front of the door was propelled forward by the door itself bursting open in a shower of splinters.

The hefty soldiers responsible stood in the shattered doorway triumphantly - at least until the duke's men filled them with crossbow bolts. The duke stepped over their corpses unconcernedly in order to speak to the forces amassed against him. "You shall never take me alive," he declared, shaking his sword at them in defiance. "I live only to serve my king and I defy the treacherous dogs who have seen fit to question his wisdom."

"Nobody here doubts the king's wisdom," came a voice from outside. "It is his counsellors we object to."

The duke sneered and said derisively, "You only object to me, because I do not advise in your favour." He stepped away from the doorway. As he did so, a crash of breaking glass rang out through the common room. The soldier who was by the window screamed out in pain and stumbled backwards, clutching at an arrow, which had just pierced his throat. The duke averted his eyes as the man crumbled to the floor, choking to death on his own blood.

"If you do not surrender, then you are next," said one of the duke's enemies outside.

"I will never surrender!" shouted the duke. He beckoned for his men to gather around him and said, "They are weaker on the left. If we attack them there, then we may be able to break through. They outnumber us, but we have right on our side. If we are destined to die this day, then let it be serving our king." He donned his helmet and levelled his sword at the open doorway. This motion sent the group charging out to meet the opposing army.

The consequent clashing of steel that reverberated through the inn brought my father back to his senses. He lay on the ground groaning, until he succeeded in attracting the attention of a couple of the villagers. They helped him to his feet, proclaiming all the while how sorry they were for not assisting him when he really needed it. My father did not appear to notice their apologies and bade them support him for a moment. They nodded and helped him to hook an arm around each of their waists. The three of them then made their way over to the doorway. The two villagers probably assumed my father wanted to watch the battle, but I knew better. The poor man was insane with grief. For one thing, his wife was dead, and for another, the loss of his hand had rendered him incapable of performing those tasks which his profession required. His rage and despair had so obscured his reason he had forgotten all about me; he felt that all he had left to live for was revenge. Summoning up all the strength left in his heavily muscled body, he shook off the villagers and pulled free the axe, which still hung from his belt. Before anyone could stop him, he was running out the door, crying maniacally for the Duke of Somerset's blood. I did not actually see what happened next, but from what I can gather, my father dealt the duke such a blow with the axe it breached his helmet and rent his head in twain. Once he had accomplished this, I am told my father fell to the floor exhausted and the duke's men hacked him to pieces.

When the fighting was over, a number of the villagers went to inform the Duke of York what had happened in the inn. The rest busied themselves with covering up the three corpses and laying them out next to one another on a table. When they had done this, they began helping the innkeeper to clean up the mess which the Duke of Somerset's intrusion had generated. They were so absorbed in what they were doing they did not notice a tall handsome man in shining silver armour enter the inn. The newcomer had thick black hair, which hung almost to his shoulders and youthful eyes that sparkled with energy and vigour. He walked up to the innkeeper and placed a genial hand on his shoulder. The innkeeper, who had been engaged in sweeping up the broken glass scattered across the common room floor, looked up in surprise. There was a frown on his greasy face that suggested he was just in the right mood to berate whichever member of his staff had dared to interrupt him in the pursuit of his duties. When he saw the man before him, this angry expression melted easily away and he gasped, "My lord."

"Richard of York sent me to ascertain what has occurred here," the man announced.

The innkeeper nodded and informed him of the events which I have just described. He even went so far as to apprise the stranger of my own presence behind the mantel of the fireplace. The benevolent young man was so struck by my unfortunate situation that when he had heard everything the innkeeper had to tell, he immediately strolled up to the fireplace and began trying to coax me out. It was his manner, rather than his words that won me over in the end. There was something about him that inspired me with such a sense of security and well-being I quickly became convinced I could trust him. I crept out from the hearth and he welcomed me into his arms. I felt like he was the only friend I had left in the world and so decided to make him my confidante. "He killed them," I said flatly.

He answered me in a gentle voice, "Under the circumstances, I am sure that the Duke of York will look after you."

Continues in...

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The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this book extract has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.