Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve – Jynx

Cracow. Christmas Eve. 1981. Winter had set into the city with its customary vigour, the white Christmas had actually arrived in mid-November and the ice on the streets that night had kept most people indoors, celebrating the season in traditional Polish style. Few would have seen the young woman hurrying home half an hour before midnight. Still fewer would have wondered why she was still out. And the dead man in the back alley, fingers clutching at his frozen throat where the marks of a fine garrotte were ice-branded into the cold flesh – well, he would tell no stories.

The grey apartment block that she entered, gloved fingers fumbling with the icy bunch of keys, might have given a clue to her identity, standing as it did with all the other student housing for the Jagiellonian University – but her face, visible at last as she stripped off the scarf muffling throat and mouth, was not that of one of the carefree teenagers currently in the University bar and probably by now on their fifth vodka. Young, yes, in her twenties, but any innocence that the face had ever possessed was long gone. Her pale face, showing little colour even from the cold wind, had an immobility to its planes that suggested the carven marble of a knight on a tombstone, her eyes were a strange luminous grey-green, disconcerting in their unblinking gaze. A wealth of brown hair tumbled down her back almost to her hips, falling into disarray as the hat was removed and hung on the peg in the dingy hallway. A face with character, even beautiful in its way, but cold, as a frozen lake may be both beautiful and deadly. The softness and laughter that should have given life to the picture were absent, it would be hard to imagine her smiling. And yet she had smiled that night – the last sight that one man would ever see.

The door which she entered, high on the fourth floor of the building bore an impressive array of locks, a well-planned defensive wall, though against who – or what – was less certain. And, as she closed the door behind her, two bolts could be seen, and a heavy chain. Yet the strongest of defenses have one major flaw. They presuppose that the enemy is not already within the gates.

As she drew the last bolt, some sixth sense warned her. Perhaps a movement, half seen from the corner of her eye had betrayed the attacker – yet, as she spun around, one hand automatically raising to block a blow, the other reaching for the knife in the cuff of her boot, she was already too late. Strong hands caught her wrists from behind, pinioning them, holding her at arm’s length to ward against the vicious kick that she had instinctively struck back with. The unseen man only laughed, and dragging her backwards into the room, pushed her down into a chair half facing the window, but still himself behind her.

She was showing no resistance now – the almost relaxed state of her body belied by the anger in her eyes. Her reflection in the dark window had shown her that her assailant – only partly visible in the shadows – held a long knife in his hand. There are ways to disarm the wielder of a knife – but few that can be safely used when the attacker is behind, and the victim’s wrists are pinioned. The woman seemed to have accepted this for now and was waiting, perhaps for her attacker to make a mistake.

Which at present he seemed to have no intention of doing. His first act had been to transfer both of her wrists into the grip of one hand, freeing him a hand to draw a cord from his pocket, which he had used to bind her arms to the chair. This done, for the first time he moved in front of her, perhaps to look fully at his captive.

Her eyes, furious, betraying nothing of the fear she must be feeling, met his. He smiles, a strange, sad smile that gave his white, angular face the appearance of animation for a second. He had dark hair pulled severely back into a tail at the nape of his neck and dark clothes that seemed too lightweight for the Polish winter and oddly archaic in style.

She was the first to speak. “So you’ve caught up with me at last. Why all the theatrics? Couldn’t you have just put a bullet in me in the street and left it at that? Or did your ‘masters’ decide that was too good for me?” She put a wealth of scorn into the word “masters”, almost as though taunting the man into a reaction.

“My masters?” He seemed puzzled for a moment, then he laughed. “Oh no, my dear Bronia” – the woman gave a start as he named her – “I’m not one of your opponents. The GRU would doubtless love to know of your whereabouts – but I’m not one of them. No, call me a watcher. An admirer of yours in my way.” He paused. “Since your artistry appears to be in the same field as my own.”

He passed in front of her, studying her intently. “But first I have to disarm you. I have far too high an opinion of your abilities to leave you with any weapons, even bound as you are.”

He bent and removed the knife from her boot cuff, another from the sleeve of the velvet shirt she wore, a third from the waistband of the leather jeans. Casting them to the floor near the door, he reached over to the dressing table, picking up a small pair of scissors. Her eyes had widened slightly but she made no sound, neither plea nor protest.

Standing behind her again, he picked up a strand of her long hair, fingering it delicately. “Oh yes, Bronia, I know where your other weapons live.” Taking the scissors he started to slowly cut away the hair around her left ear, intent upon the task, but his voice continuing. As the dark hair was cut away, her eyes seemed even larger, framed by the slightly uneven short locks. She refused to look at the hair that had been cut off, treating it with an icy disdain as she gazed straight ahead of her, defying him to get a reaction from her.

“Bronia Elizabeth Radziwill.” He made music of the words, slowly laying the locks of hair aside one by one as he shingled them away. “A proud Polish name and an old one. Borne by a young woman of unusual talents, strong convictions, and a total disregard for her own life.” She did make some inarticulate protest at that, he laughed again. The scissors had touched on something metallic in her hair, he slid them closer to her scalp, sheared the lock away and showed it to her – the long strand of razor-sharp wire a silver glint amongst the mingled browns and coppers. “How many of these do you carry?”

“And why should I tell you?” The words were icy.

He chuckled softly and returned to his task. “True enough. I’d have had to cut the rest anyway even if you had told me. I wouldn’t trust you.” Another lock was carefully clipped off and laid aside. He went on talking in the same quiet tones, his eyes never leaving her.

“They call you the Dark Angel in some circles – despite the official disbelief in a heaven or a hell in those same groups. The common people think you’re a heroine. You’ve single-handedly sent over a dozen of their most hated secret police back to their denied Maker… or perhaps to somewhere hotter. You’ve killed with a total recklessness that has amazed me – and perhaps because of that recklessness you’re still alive. Oh, and also because once I’ve slipped behind you on the way home and taken out the man who had seen you – and would have told stories. Bronia Radziwill, you’ve owed me a debt for a long time. Tonight I’m here to collect it.”

She raised her chin at that, an odd gesture of defiance – or refusal. “I owe you a debt? For saving a life that I place no value on? And just what might that payment be?”

He considered this for a while, moving around her to cut the hair on the other side of her head. The short crop that was emerging had further increased the resemblance to the knight’s marble – and had in no way detracted from her looks. If anything it had enhanced it. Her reflection in the dark window would have told her that if she had chosen to look – but she had never turned that way since the first glance. An unusual lack of reaction for a woman. A second and third piece of twined wire were cut away from her head. He looked, found a comb, and started to trim the remaining hair carefully to an even shape, shorn close to her head to a level halfway up her ears, a ripple of soft locks above that, curling slightly like those of a child now the weight of hair was gone. He set the scissors down and surveyed his handiwork. “If I’ve deprived you of one place to hold weapons, I’ve improved your looks doing it. Most women would be happy with the exchange. I suspect you won’t be. As for the payment – well, the usual bargain is blood for blood, is it not? I won’t take your life from you. The only thing I’ll take is the memories of what I am about to do to you.”

For the first time his face was in full light and his lips parted – and the strange development of the canines was clear. In that second she knew who – or what – was with her – and then his teeth closed on her bared throat.

The Kiss – as it is sometimes called, is supposed to drain the will of the victim. That much seems to be true in every story about vampires. Bound, helpless, she should have had no chance of resisting. Yet in the second the teeth pierced, and the strange lethargy crept over her body, the reactions of her body were too strong to overrule. Her head turned – and her own teeth bit deep into the wrist of the creature holding her.

And in that second of blood – dark, silver, inhuman – knowledge flowed out of him and into her. His own cry of anguish was age-old – and the restraint that he had showed was gone. He tore into her throat as though trying to pull her heart out of her, mortally wounding her, the blood of her life draining out of her, into himself. Then he pulled away, terrible grief on his face.

“Why?” he cried to her. “Why did you do that? I had no wish to kill you!”

A rictus smile crossed her face. She was still alive – though could not possibly be for long. “Radek Jacynski,” she managed to say, his dark blood on her lips. “Born on the year of our Lord 1192, born again into darkness in the year 1239, and all this time you’ve walked Polish earth. How many have you killed? Why should my death be anything more to you than any one of those thousands?”

“Because some people walk the earth and the earth is greater for them.” The words were dragged unbidden from him. He ripped the bonds away from her – they were of no use now. A dark tear was in his eye as he reached down to cradle her body in his arms. And then something else passed across his face – a moment of indecision – or decision.

“Bronia, listen to me.” His voice was urgent. “I can’t save your life – when you forced me to frenzy you prevented that. And you know that already. You know all about me. So you know what I can still do.”

Her head was weakly shaking in negation but he pressed on. “You’ve killed and killed these last years, trying to take a vengeance for what was done. You’ve always known that nothing you could do would bring your friend back. So the killing became a way to court death – the death that escaped you time after time. I cannot return your friend – or your life to you. You know that – I can’t lie to you now. But I can give you a family, a cause to fight for, a reason to go on. And a new world out there in the darkness that you could never have dreamed of. Bronia Elizabeth Radziwill – if you deny me now then I will let you go. And I myself will go into the sunrise tomorrow morning. So if I hold your life here – you also hold mine. Such as it is, that of a creature already damned perhaps it has no value. But it is yours. The debt is cancelled. Choose.”

He had put everything in him into that final plea. Hoping against hope, he watched her turn her head and fasten her teeth again in his wrist – and the dark gift passed with the blood as he lowered his head again to her pale throat, the blood drawing out of her, passing through his ancient veins, returning to her body again. One circle, joined, and the bells pealed for Midnight Mass in the city’s churches – a celebration of a birth that seemed to overlap the rebirth occurring here.

At last he raised his head and licked away the blood from her neck, the skin closing over the vein, then dropped a soft kiss on it, before moving his wrist away from her mouth and helping her to her feet. She stood motionless for a moment, and for the first time surveyed her own reflection in the room’s single mirror, examining her own teeth, then running a hand over the cropped hair.

“That’ll never grow again,” he said from behind her. “By all the laws now – you are dead. The hair is the other thing I can’t give back to you. Do you consider the bargain fair?”

She spun around to face him, laughing softly. “I think it’s fair. For what you took, you have offered a return. If you sheared away the place where my weapons were hidden, you gave me back a weapon more deadly. How I looked was never that important to me anyway.”

“You’re beautiful, Bronia. Far more beautiful that you’ve ever been. The long tresses had nothing to do with it. Your mirror ought to have told you that.”

“I thought that vampires weren’t meant to have reflections,” she said, examining the debated reflection a final time and then turning away from the mirror to face Radek.

He offered her his hand, raising her fingers to his lips and kissing them lightly. “There’s many other things you’ve been told about vampires that aren’t true. You’ll learn them. For now – come out into the night with me. There are others to meet. Your new world to see. And a first hunt. We have a long way to go before dawn.”

When the police broke into the apartment a few days later – no clear picture could ever be put together of what had taken place. The door had been left locked. The furniture had not been disturbed. No blood was visible. The only mystery was the shorn brown hair on the floor, and an odd note on the bed, which was later confirmed to be in Bronia Radziwill’s handwriting. One single sentence. “Let the unjust now fear the darkness.”

 

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