I did not recognize it at the time, could not, I believe, in my then state of mind, but I had reached a stage of rebirth in my life, a recreation, even. I now think of this as the third age of my existence. The first had been my childhood, which ended with my first transformation and my first act of murder. After this catalyst, I gained a new life amongst the Christians; I exchanged one family for a new one, and had taken a new name as commemoration. I had been born again, in the parlance of our Lord, but had suffered a second fall from grace when I killed Kethryn. Like Cain cast out from Eden, I had lost all, save the mark of corruption I bore in my flesh. Thus ended the second age of my life.
Now I was about to embark upon the third. From the lowest point of my existence, I would grow again as a sapling from a stump. This growth would be slow, so much so that I would not feel aware of it as it happened. But happen it would. Reborn, by the Grace of God. Again.
As before, I would gain a new family.
I returned to the village of the Marmorca, as had been predicted by my escort, to a hero’s welcome. Though I had not requested my freedom as a condition of my defeat of the vrykolakas, even so it was obvious, to me and to everyone, that I was no longer a slave, nor never would be again. More than that, I had achieved a position of prominence among the clan.
I knew, from that first morning when I sensed his jealous, murderous eyes on me, that I had gained a mortal enemy in Valsalvas the Chieftain, a rivalry that, now birthed, would end in either his death or mine. This did not worry me. I accepted it as inevitable. I would deal with it when the time came.
A new family to replace my old one. A brother—I will not say that Valsalvas embodied a Cain to my Abel, for I was as wicked, no, more wicked than he. A Cain to my Cain, then. Murderer against murderer.
I had gained more, though, than a brother, and more than one brother. Of the two men, the two Christians with whom I had been chained, the younger of the pair had elected to flee the Marmorcan village, seeking some way to return to his former homeland. I do not know what became of him. I never saw him again.
The second man I saw as soon as I and my escort—no longer captors—returned to the village that morning. The man came running to meet me on his skinny legs, grabbed me in an embrace, then dropped to his knees and, prostrating himself, kissed my sandals.
“My lord!” he cried. “You have returned!”
“Get up off your knees, fool!” I said. “I’m not your emperor!”
“I owe you my life,” he said. “I will be loyal to you for the rest of my days!”
As he refused to get up on his own, I grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. “Do you think so little of the freedom that I gained for you,” I said, “that you’re so quick to put yourself once more into slavery?”
“When one offers his servitude of his own free will, out of gratitude, it is not slavery,” Oran—I later learned his name—said to me. “Our Lord called His servants not servants, but friends.”
“I don’t need either friends or servants,” I said.
“All men need friends,” he told me, following after me. I had earned the man’s loyalty, whether I desired it or not, a second brother, Abel to my Cain. In time I would come to value Oran. At that moment he irritated me.
I remember how Valsalvas squinted at me when I came before him. The sun had climbed halfway up the sky and there were few clouds to shield its brightness, but I did not think, and do not now, that it was for this reason that Valsalvas’ eyes were mere serpentine slits when he looked at me.
“The demon is destroyed?” he said, scowling.
“It will never trouble you again,” I said. I sensed how much he hated me. Doubtless he would have tried to kill me, then and there, had he not also feared me.
“We lost that fool, Dyntiros, last month in a storm,” Valsalvas said. “I suppose you can have his hut and his woman.” With those words he turned away, it decided that I would now live among the Marmorca as one of them.
Within the day, I had settled in. Elsora, the widow of Dyntiros, whom I had gained along with his house and livestock, accepted me as her new master with none of the enthusiasm of Oran but without protest. Her unattractive face displayed a sad resignation that made me pity her.
“You don’t have to stay here,” I told her.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she replied. “I will stay and serve you.”
“Do as you please.”
I felt sorry for her, yes, but I did not feel guilty. I knew I would not treat her with cruelty, and that was the most I had to offer her. I could not bring her dead husband back to her nor, as I learned in time, did she in truth desire him back, for he had been a harsh man and she had never loved him. I do not know that she ever loved me, but I believe she did, with time. I never loved her as a wife, as she was ugly and old enough to have given birth to me, but I did come to care for her. A sister, then, for my new family. A sister who took care of my things and cooked for me. As the Lord decreed, she cooked quite well.
I gained a third brother that day. He came to where I sat drinking, from a hollowed-out gourd, the bitter wine brewed by the Marmorca—in time I would develop a taste for it—in front of the dead man’s hut. My hut, by then. Dalmontenes, as he introduced himself, appeared not much older than me, though I would learn that he, too, had seen much in the way of violence and hardship in his young life. He stood about my height, a tall man, with thick brown hair and beard, a hirsute bull of a man, wearing a leather skirt and boots, no shirt; he walked right up to me without any of the trepidation displayed by many if not most of the people in the village.
“Know anything about sailing?” he asked me.
I swallowed a bitter mouthful with a gulp. “No,” I replied.
“We’ll have to teach you, then,” he said.
“And why is that?”
Dalmontenes gave me a lopsided grin. Half his face, I noticed, the left side, did not work as well as the right.
“Took a heavy knock to the head when I was a boy,” he’d explain later. “Took me awhile after that to get that side of my body moving again.”
But that day of my return to the village, the day after my fight with the vrykolakas, he only wanted to talk about sailing.
“You’re not suited for feeding goats and tilling crops,” he said to me, “or skulking around as a common bandit. No, the sea suits you better.”
“You think so?”
“I have a nose for it,” he said. “I own a ship. Not too big, but she’s as mean as an underfed whore! I’m in need of a new mate, and you’ll do fine.”
“You wouldn’t be afraid of going to sea with a werewolf?” I asked him.
“I want you for that very reason!” he said. “I can hear them now, the stories they’ll tell! Dalmontenes and the Sea Wolf! Ha! Those Roman cowards will surrender without so much as drawing a sword! We’ll put a wolf’s head on our flag, and when we unfurl it…!”
“The beast has no concept of allies or enemies,” I said. “It would as soon devour its captain as the next man.”
He laughed. “We’ll make sure to have you back on land by the time of the full moon,” he said, “or else we’ll lock you in the hold. And if we keep that wolf of yours well fed on a diet of Romans and Egyptians, maybe it will be content to sleep off its full stomach below deck instead of snacking on the crew!”
Going to sea suited me as much at the time as doing anything else, so I agreed with a shrug. I no longer felt in control of my destiny, or anything else.
“Any good with a sword?” Dalmontenes asked.
“I grew up reared by Christians,” I said. “I never held a sword.”
“I’ll get you one,” Dalmontenes said, “and teach you to use it. When you’re lacking your teeth and claws, a sword will serve just fine for spilling blood.”
Dalmontenes kept his promise. I learned seamanship and swordplay from him, and a great many other things.
I gained one other family member on that day. In truth, I had won her even before that. The little slave girl, Samaethea, found me that night, where I again sat resting outside my new residence, the smells of smoke and my supper wafting over from where Elsora stooped over the cooking pot. Elsora never looked up as Samaethea approached. “I wanted to thank you,” she said.
“For what?” I said. “I failed to win your freedom for you.”
“My sister,” she said, “you saved her. She would have gone to the demon if not for you, if you hadn’t killed it.”
“I did that more for myself than any other,” I said.
“Even so, you have earned my gratitude, my lord.”
“Reprobus,” I corrected her. “I am nobody’s lord.”
“If you were mine,” she said, fixing me with an intense look, “I would love and serve you till my dying breath.” Then, as if ashamed by what she had said, the realization of it, she dropped her eyes. But those eyes had already worked a spell upon me. “Good night,” she said, turning away. I watched the growing night swallow her.
I could not deny my attraction to her. Her beauty, combined with her vulnerability: these made for a potent cocktail. I determined then and there that I would free Samaethea. Perhaps then, being free, she would, like Elsora, choose to stay with me. No. No need for self-deception here. I knew that she would.
To free Samaethea, however, would mean killing Valsalvas. Well, what of it? I had destroyed a vrykolakas, had I not? Easier still to kill a man.
As it turned out, Valsalvas would prove a far greater threat than I had reckoned.