“Silas led Erik and his group off the road to Watson Farm and onto a goat path through the woods. The young man from Bradford’s Mill knew the farm and the area around it very well, and he said this path would come out of the woods behind the springhouse. The path was barely wide enough for a horse; Erik had Silas come up and ride with him at the front of the line. They rode as quietly as possible, ducking frequently to avoid low limbs and pushing branches aside as they passed through the ranks of oak, maple and walnut. Erik looked around at some of the big old trees. There was still at least three hours of light, but it was already twilight in the woods. This was not the Iserwood, or the Great Northern Forest, but there were some oaks here that had weathered centuries, giants almost as old as Midhbar itself. The Westerings rode in silence, each of them thinking about what lay just ahead.
The trail began turning right and south, and the group saw light up ahead through an opening in the trees. Silas indicated they should all be quiet. He got down from Erik’s grey mare, and Erik followed. Erik motioned for Nestor to come but for all the others to stay behind. They followed Silas the last fifty yards over the hard-packed soil of the goat path to where it exited the woods behind the springhouse. The three men crouched as they came to the edge of the trees, then lay down on their stomachs to look out at Watson Farm.
The springhouse was only twenty yards in front of them, a low, rectangular wooden building with a shingled roof. It sat on the edge of several acres of flat, open land, a green meadow surrounded by the forest with Watson Farm in the middle. They were facing the northern end of the Great Barn, with its wide thatched roof and pale grey walls of brick and limestone. Thirty yards right and east of the barn was the farmhouse, a large, two-story stone and timber house with a gabled slate roof. A stream flowed out of the springhouse on the side opposite the woods, a small, silver trickle that ran behind the Great Barn to the right, and flowed into the river a few miles away. A small limestone aqueduct carried springwater down the gentle slope of the hill directly to the back of the farmhouse. It looked much as Erik remembered from when he, Collie, and young Torvald saw it ten years before, passing through on their way to settle in Westering.
There were a few chickens scratching in the yard, and some cows and goats grazing on the other side of the field. As Tom and Silas had said, there was no smoke from the chimneys, no sound of voices or human activity, no sign of people alive to be seen. The small, unglazed window on the back of the springhouse was covered with some kind of thick cloth. Doubtless the others were, too, and the vampires were keeping as far away from them as possible until sundown.
Erik’s pale blue eyes swept across the farm once more, then he nodded and crawled backwards a few feet before rolling to a crouch and moving back down the path.
“I don’t see any reason to change the plan,” he said to Nestor, who was brushing leaves from his dark green tunic. Silas looked at both of them as they reached the rest of the group, waiting with their horses in a clearing made by a large fallen tree beside the path.
“Take the springhouse first,” Erik explained.
Silas looked puzzled. “How do you know there are vampires in there?”
“It’s a long story, my friend,” Nestor volunteered, “for another time, but we have a trustworthy source.”
Silas raised his eyebrows, but went on. “They’ll be away from the windows,” he suggested. “You could slip by without them knowing?”
“Yes,” Erik agreed. He had never liked explaining his plans, but he wasn’t a captain anymore, and it wasn’t fair to ask these men to follow him without question. He was known to have helped defend against the vampire attacks in the spring, but otherwise he was foremost the owner of the White Hart. And, according to rumor, Erik had served in the King’s Rangers, was stronger than a grizzly, could break windows with a sneeze, could turn into a bear (and was discharged from service because he’d killed men while in bear-form), had sailed to the Seawall, and owed a large wergild to the dwarves.
“We could slip by the springhouse, but never leave your back exposed, if you can help it,” Erik said, looking from Silas to the rest of the men. “Two other reasons. I want to know what those vampires are doing in there,” Erik said. “And I want to know what kind of vampires we’re dealing with.”
Erik wondered what Silas would make of this, but he nodded knowingly. “We’ve heard what’s been happening in Westering, and other stories from the Hill Country and parts up around Hollow Mountain. You never know what to believe, of course,” he shrugged, “especially with folks like Tom seeing outlaws and worse under every bush,” he smiled and looked around at the other men, “but you take it all together, and it seems something strange is afoot in the kingdom.”
“At Watson Farm, without a doubt,” Erik said. “I’d say we have less than two hours of sunlight left, so let’s get going.” All the men looked at him, their hands resting on their sword belts. “The north end of the barn is facing us, and the shutters are closed. No vampire who values its eyes is going to be peeking. Add to that the trees between the barn and the springhouse, there’s not much chance we’ll be seen. So, Nestor and I are going right in the front door of the springhouse.”
“What about us, Erik?” Toby asked, the disappointment in his voice was clear.
“There are windows on the other three sides of the springhouse, and it’s your job to cover them. A cornered vampire might decide to go through a window and make a break for the woods.” Erik looked at each of the Westerings. “You’ll be there to make sure it doesn’t make it.” Toby and the other young men looked pleased to hear this. “So, Toby and Reginald, east and west windows, Henrik south, Isaac, Inigo and Silas will back you up.” The young men nodded and stood up straighter.
“Questions?” Three seconds passed quietly, and then Nestor cleared his throat. Everyone looked at him, a head taller than anyone else there. “For those who have never seen a vampire up close,” he began, “some idea of what to expect might help.” Erik nodded, and Nestor continued. “Depending on how long they have been vampires, they might look like a fresh corpse, or they may look barely human — pale, bald, long nails, and very dirty,” Nestor thought of Salah and almost smiled. “They also smell very bad, which is one thing that surprised me.”
Though no one had accepted Erik’s offer to field questions, now Henrik inquired, “Are they all very strong?”
Nestor shook his head, “Not all. It depends on the power of the evil spirit that possessed them at their death, after their own spirits had fled. Most are no hardier than when they were living men and women, but some are stronger than they look, so don’t judge solely on their appearance. They are all very savage and they disregard damage to their host bodies. If their hosts are destroyed, the evil spirit will flee and look for another host, someone weak and close to death already.”
Reginald was nervously scratching his thin, blond beard. “So you can’t become a vampire from being bitten, or even just scratched?”
“No,” Nestor said, “Unless you are near death, they cannot possess you.” He held up his left arm, and showed them all the long pink scar, standing in sharp relief to his dark skin. “This came from a vampire four weeks ago, and I hope you have noticed I am in good health.” The men laughed and nodded. All of them seemed relieved by Nestor’s calm, confident manner as much as what he said. Nestor was every bit as valuable as Lieutenant Hoffman. It gave men steel to know that their leader was brave, strong, and good with a sword. In this way, Erik led by example, but this alone didn’t forge the bonds that turned a group of very different men into brothers-at-arms. All of this was one reason why, after leaving the Rangers, Erik enjoyed his partnership with Collie so much — it was simple.
Now, however, Erik was glad Nestor had thought to prepare the group for what they were about to face. The three young men obviously felt more comfortable talking to Nestor than to him. Henrik, the oldest of the three, was only a few years older than Torvald, as his son had pointed out when he begged his father once more to let him come along. Erik had tried to explain why he was willing to let these three, also with no experience, join the rescue at all. “They’re all second sons, and they have to make their own way in the world. I was in the same position, and I know how important it is to get that chance.” Torvald seemed to understand this, but said sullenly, “I just don’t want you to think I’m a coward.” Erik put one hand on Torvald’s shoulder, and then under his chin, lifting it. “I know you’re not a coward, son. Do you think Collie a coward for staying here with you?” Torvald said, “Collie’s already done his part.” Erik nodded, “Yes, and now he’s doing his part again, looking after you.”
The rumors — no doubt started by the Cozens — about Erik’s compensation notwithstanding, he never would have left Westering if Collie hadn’t stayed behind to protect Torvald in his absence. On the day that Erik left a bawling four-year old Torvald in Collie’s arms before he rode off to avenge Helene, Collie had sworn to protect Torvald with his own life. Erik had no doubt Collie meant what he said, and he could hardly ask for a more formidable guardian.
Erik re-buckled his sword belt, an old habit, and said, “If Nestor and I do our jobs right in the springhouse, you won’t be seeing any vampires yet.” No one spoke, and he added, “Sorry. More in the barn, don’t worry.” That got a chuckle from the group.
Erik decided they would go armed with swords only, Nestor with his hammer, and Silas with his pike, but no shields or helmets in order to move quickly and quietly. After tying up the horses at the bend in the path, the group moved to the edge of the forest and gathered there, with Erik and Nestor at the front. Erik looked back at each man to be sure they were ready, and make sure none of the younger men was about to lose his nerve. They looked nervous, but they’d be fools if they weren’t. Erik unsheathed Black Molly, nodded to Nestor, and set out for the springhouse at a quick, but cautious pace. They were soon at the back wall of the house. Erik pressed his back up against the smooth stone to the right of the window, Nestor to the left. They waited for the rest of the men, who were only a few steps behind them, to catch up.
Reginald and Toby continued to the east and west windows. Henrik crouched down under the window between Erik and Nestor, while Inigo and Silas hung back fifty feet, behind some recently planted blueberry bushes. Henrik was holding his short sword at an angle across his body, with a relaxed grip, just as Erik had shown the younger men when the group stopped on the King’s Road to water the horses. Erik shook his head; there had been no time for proper training, and he just hoped no one hurt themselves. Erik looked over at Nestor; both of them rolled away from the wall and went around the corners of the springhouse to the front, past Reginald and Toby, guarding their respective windows on the way to the door. The front of the springhouse was no more than twenty feet wide, with a double wooden door in the middle and two wide stone steps leading up to it. Erik and Nestor stopped on either side of the doors. Erik listened, but he heard no sounds from inside the building, other than some buzzing, as if there were bees or flies trapped inside. His concentration was broken by a prickling on the back of his neck. He slapped reflexively, and his hand came away with a smear of blood and the crushed body of an insect he’d never seen before — long, thin, black legs like eyelashes with white bands. Erik was puzzled, but he wiped his hand on the leather jerkin he wore over his mail shirt and made eye contact with Nestor.
There was no lock on the door, just a simple horizontal slide on the right, Nestor’s side. Silas had told Erik how the door worked, and he planned in advance so that Nestor would be on the side to open the door, making Erik the first one inside. Nestor held Khawlah in his left hand, put his right hand on the slide, and waited. When Erik nodded, Nestor pulled the slide back quietly, and then yanked the door open wide. It took an effort for Erik to stifle his normal battle cry as he rushed inside, but he was immediately glad he’d kept his mouth shut. A cloud of black flies and more of the long-legged flying things swarmed toward him and out into the light. Erik swore under his breath and squinted into the darkness of the springhouse, where he glimpsed two pale forms slumped against the ground on either side of the sacred springs. As the insects began biting and stinging Erik’s face, neck and arms, Nestor came around to stand beside him. “Are they dead?”
“Looks that way,” Erik said, squinting and swatting the air in front of his face with his left hand. “Where did this swarm come from?” Nestor said, coughing and slapping his bald head.
“Close the doors!” Erik said, and both men jumped the two steps down to the ground and swung the doors shut again. Much of the cloud had dispersed, but plenty of insects remained to bite and harass the two men. “Back of the house!” Erik snarled and followed Nestor around the east side, picking up Toby along the way and meeting the other men at the back.
Some of the black, buzzing swarm had followed them, and soon everyone was slapping any exposed skin and cursing. “What are these little devils?” Nestor said. “They’re drawing blood!” Henrik said, and sheathed his sword awkwardly so that he could use both hands to defend himself. Inigo was using a lot of the words sailors are known for, and then he pointed to Erik and Nestor’s feet. “There’s something on your legs!”
Both men found several more insects crawling on their leggings, or the bare skin underneath — small, jumping specks that bit and were impossible to catch, and dark, flat-bodied things, shaped like fat watermelon seeds with six hooked legs. One of the latter had attached itself to the skin on Erik’s calf; he pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed it into a grey paste. The other Westerings quickly checked themselves, hopping and whirling as quietly as they could in a comical dance, until Erik motioned that they should all go back to the woods.
When the men reached the path, many of the insects were still following them. Nestor went to his saddlebags, drew out a round, green glass bottle and pulled out the cork. “Jess gave me this tea-tree oil to help stop wounds from festering, but she also uses it to keep gnats away when she’s in her garden. I’ve never used it myself, but I’m ready to try!” Nestor poured a little of the thin, yellowish oil onto his hand and rubbed it over his arms, legs and his bald head. The oil’s strong smell didn’t stop any of the other Westerings from lining up for their share. By the time Erik, who waited for the others to go ahead of him, had applied the oil to his neck and arms, the strong, camphorous smell had driven away all but a few of the vermin.
“Many thanks to you and Jess!,” Erik said, handing the bottle back to Nestor. “Now we know what the vampires were doing with the springs.”
“You mean the vampires did that?” It dawned on Henrik even as he said it.
Nestor’s normally tranquil face was a mask of disgust. “They have turned the wholesome power of the springs into something to breed this foulness.”
“It’s like Egypt, back on Earth,” Isaac said, and everyone stared at him in surprise. The stoic, compact man had hardly said a dozen words all afternoon. “The plagues of biting gnats and flies. Those things in the springhouse, they tormented our ancestors on Earth. Lord willing, they never existed here in Midhbar — until now.” Like many, Isaac believed that the Three were agents of the one, true God, and so he never used the plural Lords.
“How are they doing it?” Inigo was the first to ask. “How can vampires do this?” Everyone looked to Nestor and Erik for answers.
“To do something like that,” Erik pointed back toward the springhouse, “overnight? I can only imagine it took magic.”
This idea didn’t sit well with anyone. “But how can vampires do magic?” Reginald said.
“We know the vamps have done a lot of things lately they never did before,” Toby began, “but magic? Most of them can barely talk!”
“It does seem very unlikely,” Nestor agreed, swatting a stray insect.
“I agree,” Erik said, “They couldn’t do this without help.”
“You mean, a wizard helping a vampire?” Henrik said.
“Not all wizards want to help people,” Erik said gruffly, “but it’s not only wizards who can do magic, either.” He swiped at his neck, unable to shake the feeling something was still crawling on him. “I don’t know how they did it, or why the two vampires in the springhouse are dead, but finding out will have to wait.” Erik looked back toward the barn. “We’ve got more pressing matters right now.” The men all nodded soberly, and wiped their hands clean on their jerkins and leggings. Erik put his hand on Black Molly’s hilt. “It’s time to do what we came here for. It’s time to take the barn.”