Nearly four years had passed since Godrik tasked me with killing the neighboring leader, Kaspar. Four years, and I was not even remotely closer to a solution. With the single-minded focus that seemed to reveal itself as the first of my true immortal powers, I threw myself into mastering Godrik’s intensive lessons. When he asked me to shadow a target, I became a ghost. When he taught me a new martial art, I became a sensei. He gave me books and I transformed into a scholar. No skill was beneath me, no craft too dispensable. I wanted everything he had to offer.
I grew so doggedly insistent about my education that Godrik complained. He then tested my resolve by refusing to teach me anything. Within a week I became so despondent and restless that my skin crawled. He immediately declared this too to be a weakness and reversed course entirely. There would be more pointless nights than I could ever imagine, he had said. So he taught me yoga and meditation. He taught me songs in an ethereal voice he had apparently hid from everyone, even himself, and he gave me an odd harp-like instrument which I played quite poorly. “Good gods!” he winced, covering his ears. He pled for divine intervention that I never attempt the wretched thing again. And so he taught me the value of laughter. There was so very much laughter.
We settled into a fine rhythm and the seasons morphed around us unobtrusively. As I progressed, Godrik had me set my own schedule, ever mindful that we lived at the measured pace of a breed for whom there is nothing but time. Some nights we practiced escaping from all manner of complicated knots and silver chains – usually somewhere impractical, like the midst of a freezing rapid. Other times we held belching contests with elaborate rules and regulations that, despite my rampant cheating and in spite his smaller stature, Godrik inevitably won.
Regardless, I never let the ultimate goal wander too far from my mind. When he finally deemed me ready, I began to track and spy upon other blood drinkers in the German countryside at a careful distance, reporting every detail back to my maker. What I learned was chilling: the likelihood of realizing Godrik’s challenge was even more unrealistic than when I began.
I refused, however, to be discouraged.
One evening I returned from a reconnaissance mission. “See anything interesting?” Godrik asked.
“What does ‘being released’ mean?”
Godrik did not move, save for an odd twitch in his left eye. “Where did you hear that?”
From Johan, I explained. Johan was one of the younger members of the Mainz clan and hence someone I felt safest trailing. He had been talking about it with a nest mate. It was rare to find them isolated out in the city and I had lingered to catch as much of their conversation as possible.
“It is a maker’s power,” Godrik responded.
“Like when you undo a command?”
“He was crying and carrying on. Shouldn’t he have been relieved?”
Godrik shrugged. “Depends.”
Being commanded was always stressful, even when the command was necessary and right. Compulsions felt urgent and dire; having them lifted was heavenly, like an ejaculation in one’s mind.
In the rippling nuances of our blood bond, I knew he was leaving something unsaid. “Tell me what it means,” I demanded.
He met my gaze directly, unflinching. “It means, young one, that Johann was not happy to be released by his maker. It means his maker undid her power to command him. He is no longer bound to her, nor her to him. Hence the expression. Now are you satisfied?”
My blood ran cold.
Godrik clenched his jaw. His eye twitched again. “You are too young for this conversation.”
The earth felt off kilter, as thought I might slide off if I didn’t hang on.
“Why would…why…” I couldn’t even form the words. My hands, unbeknownst to me, had clamped down on my maker’s wrists. He carefully twisted out of my crushing hold and pulled my shaking fists to his chest.
“What’s this? You are never afraid, my child.”
“Johann can’t be more than 50,” I whispered.
“It is a little young, but not unheard of.”
“But…Amleth! Amleth is not released. He’s almost 300!”
“Yes. And that is between Tarquin and him.”
His calm only unnerved me more. Fear yielded to anger.
“No,” I declared.
“You do not do that. Ever.”
He looked away. “We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“The fuck we will!” I screamed and pushed him away. “I will burn that bridge if you even go near it!” I shoved him again for good measure. He allowed it and it enraged me more. I screamed like a banshee, doubling over from the effort. The rage came from a place I didn’t know existed.
I kept screaming.
“Stop!” he ordered.
“Master your emotions!”
I refused. Not about this. Never about this. In undeath I was still a child, and like a child, I had naively discovered the horrible truth that one day I would grow up. One day, I would lose my maker.
“What happened to ‘father, brother, son?!’ Ditching me wasn’t part of the deal!”
“It is not that simple.”
“Clarify for me, master!”
A growl ripped out of him, primal and deadly, aimed directly at the title he so loathed.
“You just, what, choose that you’re done playing maker and poof, you absolve yourself?”
Now he that was the one bellowing at the top of his lungs with denials.
“It’s your power!” I accused.
“And do I abuse my power over you?!”
“It’s a choice!”
“And the choice of release might be yours!” he screamed back. “You might beg me for it! Where is my choice in that!?” He had a crazed look in his eyes.
I charged at him and he overpowered me easily, pinning me down. I was panting and struggling like a maniac. He wouldn’t let me go and he was determined not to use a command to get me to calm down.
“You’re just teaching me well so that your conscience is clear when you leave me!” I wailed.
“No!” The fragile chords of his pubescent voice box had gone hoarse.
“Bullshit! You’re a fucking liar!” I screamed. He despised being sworn at and he smacked me, hard. So I said it again and he smacked me even harder. The logic in my brain completely disintegrated. I spat in his face. In a single movement, he rolled us both and kicked me halfway across our clearing. I had no time to fold myself properly for the landing and my body hit the ground not with a thud, but with a loud snap. My leg had taken the brunt of the fall beneath my torso and broken.
Godrik was at me instantly, thrusting a wrist at my mouth. I stubbornly turned my head, refusing the power of his blood.
“Drink!” He begged, cradling me in his arms. “Please drink! Please!”
Without his blood, the leg took nearly half an hour to mend. Even so, we were still both a wreck of blood and dirt and tears. We sat in the grass, stunned.
“I wish you had not learned of this so soon,” Godrik admitted.
“When were you planning on telling me?”
“I….” He shook his head and his shoulders slumped. “I had no plan.”
“Not going to spring it on me as a surprise 50th birthday gift, then?” I asked bitterly.
He refused to dignify the jab with a response.
“Hey, I know what you can get me for my fifth birthday.”
“Must you make everything a joke? We do not celebrate birthdays like ridiculous mortals, Eirikr.”
“I’m as serious as the grave. If you wanted to give me to something, something second only to turning me, then you will promise never to release me.”
Godrik pinched his eyes to hide the tears that welled up. “I cannot make that promise, no matter how much I wish to.”
The hurt was unbearable. “You choose not to.”
He looked at me then, a shattered little boy with the haunting stare of an ancient. “I cannot,” he said and his voice cracked. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob. I held him and shushed him and cried alongside him. We mourned for the mere possibility of each other’s absence. The idea that such a thing could come to pass was unfathomable.
The threat of dawn rushing toward the horizon found us in marginally better shape. “Can we please not ever do this again?” I wondered aloud.
Godrik gave a joyless huff of a laugh that did not touch his eyes.
“Look at us. We’ve never fought like this. This is insane.”
“Madness,” he agreed.
“I cannot even believe that I -”
” – I know.”
“Forgive me -”
” – it is forgotten.”
“I crossed a hard line.”
“Several. As did I. I am truly sorry that I hurt you. I forgot my strength.”
I snorted. The bad fall had been entirely my fault. “Aim for something softer, next time.”
“I love you.”
He rubbed at the dried blood on his cheeks and sniffled. “I love you, too.”
“I know you won’t make false promises, but can you do me a favor at least?”
He looked at me warily.
“Let’s not talk about this for a hundred years.”
“A hundred years?”
“Every century, you’ll ask ‘Still feel the same, Eirikr?’ And every century, I’ll say ‘yep.’ And that is all that ever need be said on the matter.”
Godrik smiled weakly. “I like that.”
“It is a deal, then.”
“Deal,” he replied and laid back in the grass.
I knew he doubted me. I knew that he had wept again in the morning hours while I slept at his side, thinking that one day, in the worst version of our future, he would ask and I would not say yes. But I would always say yes. And I would prove him a fool for ever doubting. We would never cross that bridge.
When the leaves began to curl upon themselves and the air took on the sweet chill of autumn, I wrapped a birthday gift in a scrap of cloth. It was the fifth year since I had awoken from death transformed. As much as I enjoyed rituals, Godrik had no idea when he had been turned or even his exact age. He rounded up or down by centuries, depending on his mood. After some reflection, I decided to celebrate my maker on my own turning day. He had given me everything. My role in the event had been limited strictly to not dying the day I’d gotten myself fatally stabbed.
There was so much to be thankful for it was difficult to know where to begin. An apology seemed like a sensible place to start. As much as I had avoided thinking about it, our horrid argument lingered in my thoughts. I needed Godrik to know that my trust in him was absolute. It had been too hard at the time to recognize Godrik’s fear through my own. How ironic that we only ever seemed to argue about how much we wanted each other’s companionship.
Godrik was occupied with a pile of twine. He was twisting it into rope and every few twists he embedded a sharp silver stud. That would certainly to be a tricky bastard to deal with when the time came. I looked forward to the challenge. For now, I took the small cloth bundle from my rucksack and set it down beside him. He barely took his eyes off the his weaving.
“What’s that?” he asked, pausing to tighten the cords down into a hard loop.
“A gift for you.”
“Oh?” he murmured. I loomed over him with crossed arms. Sighing, he laid his treacherous project aside. He opened it and found an iron key. “Well, what is it to?”
I managed to school my features. “Kaspar’s treasury.”
Godrik took off his work gloves and pinched his brow in exasperation. “Did it not occur to you that it will be missed? How long have you had it? It must go back immediately.”
“No one will miss it. It is our copy.”
He picked up the hefty key to inspect it. The bit was exceptionally elaborate. “How on earth, Eirikr?”
“Clay, of course. I made a mold of it while the head guard had his fangs and prick stuck in some girl. The blacksmith only finished forging the duplicate last week.”
“What do you propose to do with it?”
“Nothing. It is yours now.”
Godrik was taken aback. “I do not ask nor do I want tribute from you. That is not why I made you.”
“I know. But I am too young to know what to do with access to this kind of money, so it’s yours. Do with it what you will.”
“It is useless. What do you suggest I do? Stroll out of Kaspar’s fortress with a sack over my shoulder and wink at the gatekeepers on my way out?”
I settled down beside him. “Always a skeptic. Don’t you want to know the best part?”
He grunted noncommittally.
“All of Kaspar’s coffers use the same lock.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I swear to Freya, it is the truth. Every chest of gold that goes into Kaspar’s vault uses a lock opened by that key. All you need to do is intercept the taxes rolling in from his subjects. You needn’t go anywhere near his city.”
Godrik looked more closely at the duplicate in his hands and cursed in his ancient tongue. He then began laughing uncontrollably. “You clever child!” He pulled me into a rough hug and kissed my temple. “Is this your way of saying I ought to have given you a birthday gift? Guilting me with presents of your own?”
“Hardly,” I scoffed, though the fact that he had not forgotten secretly pleased me. I thought to say more – about how much he deserved for his patience with me, for how generous he had been with his wisdom, but the words were clumsy in my mouth. Suddenly the gesture felt foolish.
“Very well. If you’re going to pout, come on.” Godrik pulled on his cloak and gestured for me to follow.
It was my turn to be taken by surprise. “Maker?”
He merely raised an eyebrow and made his way down the footpath to the village.
On the outskirts of town, Godrik led me to a muddy spring. Shepherds had used it to water their livestock.
“Go on. Jump in, birthday boy.”
“Goddy, it’s foul!”
“Get in the water already,” he huffed and waded in. He pawed his way through overgrown cattail reeds toward what appeared to be a reinforced stone embankment. Then he disappeared.
Still grumbling, I plunged underneath the murky surface. A hand grabbed me and pulled me forward. I felt my way blindly and discovered we were swimming through some sort of tunnel. We swam for a distance until the ceiling sharply inclined. The tunnel opened into a low, vaulted chamber.
“Where are we?” I spun around the cavernous room. Despite being underground, the water was fresher here. It smelled of warm rain.
“Nearly there.” Godrik crouched through a narrow opening to the left and shimmied up a vertical passageway there. He shot up the shoot like a frog, using only his toes and fingers as leverage. My shoulders were too broad to pass comfortably and I only fit by angling one arm over my head and scraping the other. The passage ended abruptly and Godrik helped me to my feet. He pushed a rectangular marble covering back over the hole we had climbed through.
“Did we just crawl through a latrine?” I asked, eyeing a suspiciously round aperture in the stone box.
“All roads lead to Rome – even the shitty ones,” he quipped. Without missing a beat, he shook the water from his head like a dog then padded out of the room up a staircase.
On the ground floor, my maker lit several candle stubs and stuck them into the shallow alcoves built into the curved walls. In the light, I recognized the building. “This is one of the guardhouses in the old Roman wall!” The floor was littered with potsherds, metal scraps, and a few pieces of broken furniture. There were no windows.
“It’s not much, but…happy birthday, Eirikr. You have made great strides these few years.”
I touched the stone, appreciating its solid construction.
“I know you’ve wanted to explore it.”
“Yes,” I agreed. I skipped up to the second floor and continued to the third, where I found a series of narrow windows on the uppermost level. Centuries before, there had been a wood deck that wound around the exterior of the tower, affording its occupants a lookout. The decking had long since rotted away. Regardless, the view was still impressive. The main ‘entry’ was located on the third floor as well, reachable from outside only by ladder and still barred from within by a metal-reinforced door.
“What do you think?” Godrik called after me. I began to relate my observations about the architecture.
“I meant about staying here?”
I rushed back downstairs. “No!”
“No?” he said, a gleam in his eyes.
“No, Godrik. Don’t tease. What!?”
He couldn’t suppress his mischievous smile. Kicking a musty piece of fabric aside, he revealed a small chest tucked in the shadows of a corner. Inside lay hundreds of gold ingots, jeweled rings, and exquisitely wrought torc necklaces.
“Since you have proven that you can restrain yourself around money, and cash flow is no longer a concern thanks to you, perhaps you could use some of this to spruce the place up.”
I stared at the hoard, dumbfounded. Amleth had sent the chest to us years ago! Godrik had claimed it was full of books and I had thought nothing of it when it promptly disappeared.
I braced myself against the wall, needing a moment to digest the windfall. “Maker, I don’t know what to say.”
He squeezed my shoulder. “Welcome home.”
I had to sit down. The place was a wreck and it was absolutely perfect. All I could see were possibilities. “Hullooo house!” I called through cupped hands. The walls were so thick the sound absorbed rather than echoed. We would be incredibly well protected here. The faint trickling sound of moving water below the building was pleasant – a reminder of the sea.
Godrik gathered some of the broken wood scraps scattered on the floor and made a small fire to dry our clothes. He was already lecturing me about the dangers of living in plain sight. “You are ready for the risk,” he asserted. One had the distinct sense he had just upped the stakes of our lifestyle twofold.
“I will not disappoint you,” I swore.
Godrik leaned against the wall, watching me. I had stripped down to my loincloth and he, a stranger to underwear, had tied his cloak around his waist like a sarong. The flickering light in the secluded tower deepened the dips and shadows of his sculpted torso. He looked like a god of the underworld.
“Are you happy, my prince?” he asked.
A sly smile escaped his lips. He rummaged around in the chest of jewels, pulling out a thin gold crown. It was engraved with Celtic knots and set with small round stones and he examined it thoughtfully. Sauntering over to me, he placed the coronet upon my head and caressed my cheeks with his thumbs.
“What about you? Do you like your gift?”
He touched the key that he had strung onto his necklace. “Aye. Very much.”
“What will you do with it?” I wondered.
His eyebrows raised. “I will rob Kaspar and his people blind.”
He broke into a vicious grin. “You will watch how quickly they turn on each other. Soon my prince shall have his throne.”
A/N: Please review!