Preface: Dear Reader, I feel that I should begin with a few prefatory remarks: about ten years ago, I first encountered the writings of the great (and sorely neglected) American fantasist Clark Ashton Smith and about eight years ago, I composed this vampire tale in honor of his tales of Averoigne — fine tales of dark fantasy and Gothic horror which few authors have matched, let alone rivaled. I offer these perfunctory remarks as at once a dedication and an apology — a dedication to the great Smith and an apology for any clumsiness on my part.
As I continue work on my current tale The Cost of a Rose, I hope that you enjoy this serialized tale of cruelty and vampirism — I shall upload it daily throughout this week.
Sir Jean-Claire de Vair has grown very old and his memory is not as it once was. Often his mind will wander and he will speak of years gone by as though they are not of the past but the present. Customarily when he is in these moods, I myself am abroad hunting and, as I do not return until dusk is nearing, I hear of his rambles from my wife Elaine who spends the day tending to both him and our young son.
It was typical of my sort of ill-starred luck that upon the thirteenth day of October, Elaine chose to visit her aunt in Vyones and left me to look after the old man. Fortunately, he was silent for the most part, dining upon his meager portions of porridge with no attempt at conversation. But as the long shadows of evening drew nigh, his tongue began to wax suddenly voluble. I could barely catch any of what he said for he spoke in a low tone as though conversing with himself. However, I did discern one name that he reiterated more than once. I began to wonder whether he was not speaking of a past leman of his youth or something of that nature. At last, I asked, “Sir Jean-Claire, who is this Clotaire that you speak of?”
He blinked at me as though he had not realized that he was speaking aloud and I was surprised at the look of sudden intelligence in the old man’s eyes. Then, in a sorrowful voice: “My daughter has not spoken to you of him?”
“She would not – no, she would not.” He smiled and I thought I caught a hint of sorrow beneath his bearded lips. “Francois, you have been very good to both me and my daughter. What is your opinion of this old man before you? Do you believe him thoroughly spent and useless – a sick, dying fool of no use to the world any longer?”
I spoke gently. “Sir, you were a great knight in your time and your knowledge of how best to combat the forces of darkness never failed you. They say that there was never daemon nor spirit that ever successfully resisted—”
“Then they lie!” I stared, shaken, at the quivering old man as he gazed back up at me with eyes that were shadowed with shame. “There was one such spirit who defied me – yes, and defeated me. And may God forgive me, but I am half glad of it; and in the end I still wonder if I truly did all that could be done against him or if I, like so many others, was ultimately seduced by his wiles.”
“But who was this daemon, sir?”
He looked at me with eyes full of a terrible, guilty fear. Then, in the faintest of whispers, he replied, “Clotaire…”
Few in Averoigne, even a cloistered huntsman such as you, Francois, can have avoided hearing of the reign of the Marquis de Conflans who dwelt within his stronghold close by Ximes so many decades ago. His citadel was much like a small city unto itself, for his serfs would till the land close about the castle and merchants would dwell within the walls of his castle, selling their wares to both courtiers and lord alike. For he had made a great profit off of his part in the Crusades and thus had risen from a lowly soldier to a great lord in little less than a few years of military glory.
There was one who dwelt within those walls and who had served within the Crusades alongside the Marquis de Conflans. This man, however, had suffered as grievously as the Marquis had prospered, having both lost his fortune and fallen prey to a lingering, malignant illness which, though not apparently contagious, had left him shunned by all. The Marquis, out of a sense of obligation more than anything else, allowed the unfortunate man to remain within the walls of his Chateau Conflans, but only within the lower regions of the castle where none but the dungeon-confined dwelt. In spite of all of this, those who met him invariably accounted him a mild-eyed, kindly soul bearing little more than a melancholic resignation against his harsh fate. He was called Clotaire de la Croix – Clotaire of the Cross.
It was said that the dubious mercy which the Marquis had granted him was only due to the fact that during one the many battles they had fought together, Clotaire had saved the Marquis’s life from certain death at the hands of the enemy. For the Marquis was a harsh lord and given over to all manner of cruelties against those who disobeyed his edicts – certainly not one usually inclined towards mercy. He defended his severity with the simple reminder that justice may only be kept when it is enforced with as little reserve as possible. His torture chamber and dungeons were often as crowded as his castle market and, ironically, he appointed the gentle Clotaire as the torture chamber’s primary overseer – against the unfortunate man’s will, of course. This was fortunate to his prisoners however, I expect; and I also imagine that there was quite a bit of pig’s blood spilt upon those racks during the evening, save when additional guards were appointed to overlook a particularly egregious convict’s execution.
The passage of time began to wreak unpleasant changes in the Marquis. His sense of justice steadily diminished and yet his peculiar appetite for vengeful punishment did not desist in the least. Both his wife Jocette and Clotaire attempted to curb his cruelty, but to no avail – and, indeed, so frequent were the Marquis’ outrages perpetrated against those who defied him, that it was not considered wise to protest too loudly against even the most callous of his policies.
Now it came to pass that one of Jocette’s chambermaids, a young woman named Katriane, caught the eye of the Marquis. When she resisted his advances, he inevitably fell into a rage and sentenced her to torture and death, thus delivering her into the hands of Clotaire de la Croix. As the sentencing and execution were to be fulfilled in secret so that no word might escape of the matter to the Marquis’ wife, there were no guards present. Clotaire alone was to administer to the girl.
She was brought down and bound to one of the iron tables frequently used within such chambers and left to await her punishment. Clotaire arrived, perhaps with a dagger hidden within his cloak – hoping to slay her swiftly, as was his custom, and then carefully mutilate her features so as to allay any of the Marquis’ suspicions. Yet the story goes that upon beholding her exceeding loveliness, the recluse was moved to more than pity and she in turn also fell as deeply in love with him, for in spite of the leprous paleness which suffering had cast upon him, he was by all accounts not an uncomely gentleman. He concealed her in a remote cell within the dungeon and the two lovers planned to secretly depart together from the castle as soon as possible.
To conceal anything for long within a castle – even such a large citadel as the Chateau Conflans was – is a vain hope, however. Their plan was soon found out and the Marquis grew still more incensed, declaring himself as having been betrayed by a foul ingrate to whom he had shown a great measure of leniency and mercy. Katriane was cast into the deepest of the dungeon’s oubliettes and Clotaire was condemned to the rack as payment for his treachery. The very guards, indeed, who had observed his merciful dealings with the Marquis’ prisoners were those who presided over his torture – and they, of course, were not prepared to show him the same sort of lenience.
Yet though he observed the pallid anguish of his former friend, the Marquis’ sense of justice was still not satisfied. Even as the screws turned every minute or so in order to stretch still more the ravaged tendons, the castle’s bishop was summoned. The priest looked down upon the prisoner and marveled at how strangely silent he was in the midst of his torments. Then, at the Marquis’ prompting, he asked the prisoner if he had repented of the crime. The Marquis drew closer to hear the inevitable words of agonized regret and supplication.
Clotaire’s voice was as broken and distant as though it issued already from the lips of a spirit rather than a living man, but his reply was audible to all – one of soft yet eternal defiance against his tormentor. Then, again at the Marquis’ prompting, the Archbishop spoke and his tongue was not soft in the least but heavy and cruel, pronouncing a harsh and terrible curse in the sight of God upon the unrepentant prisoner. He declared that his soul in death would not escape torment but would die the second and far more fearful death of which the Scriptures spoke so dreadfully of. In an unholy, incorruptible form would the dead man’s soul rise forth and – against even his own will – bring to damnation those whom he loved.
It is said that the sufferer’s face grew grey at these words of spiritual condemnation and that tears of despair lightly bedewed those cheeks that had paled so often at the torment of others. Then, he was taken from the rack and the Marquis, at last satisfied, had him dispatched swiftly with the sword. Several weeks later Katriane, still imprisoned within the oubliette, fell victim to a sudden, wasting illness and died a short while after. The two of them were buried in unmarked, unconsecrated ground and there the tale ends.
I myself was a child when these events – which seemed to my mind more to be taken as legendry – took place, living many miles away from the Chateau Conflans in the cathedral city of Vyones. I had heard, as all others had, of the splendours of the Chateau but had never guessed to venture there. Even as I grew to manhood and achieved a certain renown as a vanquisher of evil in its many guises, both natural and supernatural, I still had not the slightest expectation that I would ever behold that citadel, magnificent though it undoubtedly was.
It was in my forty-fourth year that I opened the door of my home to find a man with a pinched, narrow face garbed in violet robes, identifying himself as Jacques, and bearing a scroll. It was a summons from the Marquis de Conflans himself demanding my urgent presence due to a matter of the gravest importance. I pressed Jacques for details, but he was either reluctant or ignorant and refused to divulge anything further. Yet I saw within the man’s quick temper and hatred of delay that there was a fear which drove him as harshly as I guessed his master the Marquis did. Though, unsurprisingly, I felt no great wish to aid this tyrant, I had sworn an oath to remain embattled to all forms of evil and to help in particular those who called upon my assistance. Thus, albeit with an unwilling heart, I accompanied him and, as I did not know how long I would be gone, I brought my daughter Elaine, who was then in her twenty-first year, with me.
It was a long journey from Vyones to the Marquis’ chateau close by Ximes and by the time we wended our way through the shadowed forests of Averoigne, my heart would have been gladdened at the sight of even a hovel. However, in spite of my fatigue, I could hardly prevent myself from gazing in well nigh astonishment at our journey’s destination.
For the Chateau Conflans, that citadel of shining prowess that had stood stalwart for so many decades, stood before me like the face of a stranger – like a mocking refutation of the portrait which had forever been in my mind’s eye. Ivy-clad were those walls and dank and green with moss they were. The waters of the lapping moat that surrounded it were thick and black like those of a marsh and seemed to breed a foul mold that crept up the stones of the castle like the black, streaking prints of some taloned beast. A drifting, white mist also issued from the sodden, rain-damp ground upon which we trod, cladding us in a thick wetness that rose wraith-like about us. There seemed to have fallen upon the land an encroaching, rotting sickness that caused the very trees that we passed to take on the shapes of immense, hulking skeletons.
At last, we came to the edge of that dank tarn of a moat and the drawbridge slowly lowered for us. After we had passed into the castle’s courtyard and dismounted, Jacques informed us that he would take our palfreys to the stables and then conduct us into the Marquis de Conflans’ presence.
I had hoped that the inhabitants of the castle at the very least would prove to be slightly more congenial than its exterior. The people who passed us by within the courtyard, however, were not the friendly merchants and farmers who usually dwell within the walls of an Averoigne castle. Rather, they gazed upon Elaine and me with expressions as blank as an unwritten parchment, their hair clinging to their skull-like foreheads as though drenched with the dew of that swirling mist that hung all about. Indeed, when I passed a hand across my own brow, I found that my fingers were wet as though with a feverish perspiration.
At last Jacques returned and led us beneath a stone archway and through a door into the inside of the castle. After ascending several flights of a steep, spiral stairway lit only with a few torches, we at last reached an oaken door at the very top which, when opened, revealed a dim bedchamber. There, upon an immense canopy bed bloated with cushions and framed by four tall candles at each bedpost, I beheld a thin, shrunken figure lying there.
“Monseigneur,” Jacques said in a low voice. “Sir Jean-Claire de Vair has come from Vyones as you have requested.”
A yellow hand hanging limply by the side of the bed gestured feebly for us to draw nearer. Jacques stepped back while I came closer to the lord of the chateau.
“Sir de Vair.” The voice rattled forth from between those dry lips with the sound of a worm creeping through withered, autumn leaves. “I have heard much of you.”
“And I of you,” I replied.
A low chuckle escaped him the shriveled lips as they drew back to form a skull’s grin. “And does my chateau exceed your expectations?”
“Marquis, it would do me good to first know why you brought me here.”
A look of satisfaction spread across the old man’s appalling visage. With a jolt I was reminded of the tales of the Marquis’ various outrages perpetrated against his enemies and shuddered in spite of myself. Unheeding, the Marquis spoke: “It is as I feared. Though I have not been out of this room for twenty years, monsieur, I have long suspected that a change has been worked upon this chateau – yes, and upon the men who dwell within it. Before I sickened, de Vair, I knew the ignorant rustics and merchants who crowded my courtyards and held fairs within my grounds. They were not the pockmarked, lisping gnomes that enter my room and tell me that I do not have many more days to live.” The Marquis, seeing my discomfort, added, “Do not feel any embarrassment on account of that man,” his yellowed eyes flickered towards Jacques. “He knows what I think of him.”
“Monsieur, I believe that you have misunderstood where my talents lie,” I told him. “I cannot make for you a new court.”
“I do not wish for you to give me a court – I wish for you to give me health!” His excited state caused his breathing to grow all the more laboured and dreadful to listen to. “Save me from the tortures which I must endure every night – from this sickness. You must. If you do, limitless wealth and lands shall be yours, I promise you.”
I stood amazed for a full minute. When I finally found voice to speak, my tone was one of abject astonishment. “Marquis de Conflans, I am truly flattered by your faith in my abilities, but I am no physic! I fear I can do nothing for you.”
“Fool!” the Marquis snarled, almost rising from his bed, his face a working, wrinkled mask of fury. “Do you think that it is mere old age and fever that keeps me in this state? Stay a night in this room and you shall see – you shall see!”
Jacques led us out and silently showed us the quarters in which we were to stay, one floor lower than that of the Marquis’ bedchamber. “Do you believe it wise for me to stay a night with the Marquis to see how he fares?” I asked.
“If you believe that you can stand such close proximity with the damned swine, then by all means,” the messenger said, adding a few choice words in reference to the Marquis – surely the longest sentence I had ever heard the man utter during our acquaintance.
To be continued…