The overnight train to Glasgow was packed with vacationers, mail workers, and traveling salesmen alike. Families, with their children and their encumbering luggage, had the left half of the carriage. Despite not being part of a family, I landed in their midst—the last seat available. Excited young voices peppered the air with shouts and too many questions to count. By the time of our departure, my preternatural ears begged for a reprieve from the incessant buzz of activity. To my relief, most quieted down after the initial excitement. Most, but not all.
We left Euston railway station behind, our train hurtling along the tracks to the intermittent tune of quick chortles and bellows followed by two long whistles. Long after the warning sounds had stopped, the young boy next to me still tapped the rhythm on his knees and between us on the seat, elbow hitting random parts of me with every imaginary pull of a no less imaginary cord. Pointed glances at his parents had no effect, engrossed in their reading as they were.
The extra charge of ten shillings for a sleeping berth became more appealing by the second. What on Earth had possessed me to take the train when I could have made the journey on foot in the same amount of time and with a lot less hassle? Wanderlust and a fascination with the technological marvel did not make good advisers.
With no help forthcoming from the youngster’s progenitors, I took matters into my own hands. “Young man, please refrain from elbowing me.”
My words sailed over the child’s head but earned me the undivided attention of his mother. The sound that escaped her throat, when I caught the boy’s arm on the fly before it collided with my side again, was akin to that of a bear’s warning growl. When three yanks on his arm to free it proved fruitless, the boy shifted his awareness my way.
“Do you know how a steam engine works?” I asked him when his lips quivered.
Diversion sometimes yields better results than a frontal assault. More so with little ones who don’t fully comprehend the reach of their actions. I let him have his arm back and nodded when he crossed it with the other.
“No, I don’t. Do you?”
“Thomas, you should not speak with strangers,” the mother said, her words snappy as she glared at me.
“Elizabeth dear, the gentleman is entitled to a pain-free ride, and knowledge will not hurt the boy.” The father did not even look up from his newspaper as he spoke.
The woman’s eyes lost their ice, but her voice remained clipped. “I apologize on behalf of my son, Sir.”
“Would it not be better if Thomas apologized for himself, dear?”
I left them to their disagreement and brought my gaze to the window. The full moon’s glow lent a crisp edge to the fields. Had I had more space, I might have opened my travel bag to sketch the farmlands while the silver sentinel stood guard overhead. Thank God the city’s one-million gas street lamps were behind us. Now, there was an invention I could have done without—too harsh for my eyes, and they made hiding in the shadows difficult. Not to mention potential gas leaks causing explosions. Fire did not agree with most people, but with my kind even less.
“Sir?” A hesitant tug on my sleeve brought my attention back to the murmurs of conversations. The young lad worried his lower lip, but his honest gaze did not shy away when I turned to him. I smiled in encouragement and was rewarded with a smile in return. “I apologize for elbowing you.”
“Thank you, young man. Your courteousness is much appreciated. Don’t get me wrong; sharp elbows are useful in certain circumstances.”
The mischievous twinkle in his eyes spoke volumes until his mother’s scoff wiped it. “Do you truly know how a steam engine works, Sir?”
“I do. It was explained to me recently. Would you like to find out?”
Recently is a subjective term when you’re six hundred. But the first public steam railway was only sixty years old, and my fascination had brought me to meet with one of the inventors. And what is knowledge worth if we do not share it?
“Very well... Inside the boiler, there’s a firebox filled with coal and surrounded by water. The firebox heats the coal to high temperatures. What happens when water boils?”
The lad’s enthusiastic clap brought his elbow close to my side again as the answer came to him. “It makes steam!”
“Precisely. The steam in the boiler then travels into cylinders where it activates pistons connected to rods attached to the wheels.” My hands sped over a piece of paper as I drew a diagram, and Thomas reproduced the lines in the air, eyes squinting as he tried to understand. “The steam makes these pistons move. See how they’re attached to the rods here? Their oscillation moves the rods.”
“And that makes the wheels turn?”
“Correct. Now you know how it works.”
“Thank you, Sir. Do you think I can be a train driver someday?”
While he slid the paper with my diagram in his coat pocket, his mother nipped his dream in the bud. “You most certainly will not.”
“What your mother is trying to say is that you might one day invent another sort of engine instead. Aim high, Son. Now, get some sleep.”
I refrained from commenting on their dismissal of train drivers. The last thing I needed after the long week I’d had was to fight my way off a moving train and reveal my nature.
The boy was asleep, perhaps even dreaming of new inventions, when I alighted at Carlisle’s railway station six hours later. One glance at the clock sent me flying east out of town as fast as I dared on such a moonlit night. My old friend Matteo and I planned to hike along the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall, and I wanted to beat him to our meeting point.
I hadn't visited the region since the Archbishop of Glasgow uttered his curse on the Reivers of the borderlands in 1525. Time flies when you’re busy hunting demons and learning new art techniques around the world. It went much slower when you locked yourself away from civilization for a century. At least, all that knowledge gave me something to do while I brooded and indulged in self-pity.
Much of the wall was gone. Not that I’d ever seen it in its prime; even before I was born, its stones were used to build roads, castles, churches, and farms. It was that notion which had spurred me to contact Matteo and invite him to undertake the journey with me. How long would the conservation efforts of the past century last? How much time before the wall became a distant memory in the mind of Man? We wanted to play our part in preserving it before it was too late. Art was our medium of choice, though we were also open to purchasing land to protect what was left, as other amateur historians had.
I ran the fifteen-mile trek in half an hour and was glad to find I’d arrived first—Matteo owed me a round or three at the inn. He wasn’t far behind, however. I could sense him to my left, at my back as I sat amidst the remnants of an ancient signal tower.
“Still attempting to sneak up on your old Sire after all this time, Matt?”
“Ha, you can’t blame me for trying. It is good to see you again, Liam. Try not to disappear for a hundred years next time, yes?”
“I didn’t disappear; I stowed away on a ship to Nova Scotia.”
“Without telling anyone.”
“The guards at the Estate knew where I went They had orders not to tell anyone unless it was an emergency.”
“One hundred and twenty years, Liam. I thought you dead, damn you. And why did you wait five years to write to me after you returned?”
“I’m not your mam, Matteo. Are we going to argue over this until the sun rises, or are you ready to start? By the way, you owe me a drink.”
“I’ll buy you five if you stop being so obtuse and consider I might have been worried about you.” His hands went up in surrender when I refused to answer—smart man. “Alright, alright, have it your way. Have you got all your supplies?”
I nudged the travel bag at my feet. “Paper, charcoal, pastels, wax, quill pens, graphite sticks, vinegar, half a dozen eggs, pigments, honey, acacia gum, ink, and,” I said, eyebrow raised as I leveled my eyes with his, “even paint tubes.”
As expected, he met my last words with a sneer and one of the upturned hand gestures for which he was infamous. What a relief to see that some things remained unchanged.
“Tubetti? Allora, sei troppo pigro per fare le tue tinte?*”
“Of course, I will also make some paints myself. Why do you think I brought the pigments and binding mediums? Are you testing my Italian?”
Above us, the stars blinked at each other, and I let their silent music draw me into the immensity. The moon bathed the rolling hills in a diffuse silver glow. I have always preferred its serenity to the exuberance of the sun. There is a mysterious beauty to a moonlit sky and the imperturbable way it asserts itself on the land through the darkness. I always found peace in the aura of stillness surrounding it.
Before I could close my eyes to indulge in its harmony, Matteo’s voice broke the hold of the sky on me. “Have you even spoken it at all in the past hundred years?”
“Not as such, but it’s like getting back on a horse. Andiamo prima che sorga il sole.**”
“It won’t be rising for two more hours. I’ve already scouted the area and found a suitable place to spend the day out of the sun, besides.”
The view from the top of the hill kept me rooted on the spot despite the race against the rising of the sun. A blanket of soft moss yielded to my touch on the cold stones, and my eyes followed the sinuous stonework. The jagged line of the fragmented wall meandered along the hills as far as the eyes could see—and mine could see far, indeed. On either side, bushes took roots, and ivy’s green tentacles clutched the smallest cracks in the ruins for a stronger footing as it branched out. Amidst the encroaching land, long stretches of stone ruins stood their ground as the last vestiges of the distant past. Time held its breath.
“Liam, my friend, if you keep staring at it, you’ll never paint it. Andiamo!”
“There’s always tomorrow. I’ve just spent a full year in the capital. Let me feast my eyes, will you?”
In the valley, the river followed its course, at first running away from the wall before returning to find a break in its defenses and cross over to the north. A thick cover of lush green grass in the fields and new leaves mushrooming on the trees announced the progression of Spring’s imprint on the land. Already, a spattering of wildflowers peaked through the blades of grass in a timid array of pastel colors. The air, with its crisp undertones, smelled of impending frost. Could they survive it? Time would tell but, one way or another, nature would endure and return with bolder colors the following month.
Before joining Matteo, I took the time to commit the quiet scene to my sketch pad for posterity.
(*Tubetti? Allora, sei troppo pigro per fare le tue tinte? --> Tubes? Are you too lazy to make your own paints, then?)
(** Andiamo prima che sorga il sole. --> Let's go before the sun rises.)
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Italian vampire painters cum demon hunters? Cool
Haha, yeah. Well... only Matteo is Italian. Liam learned the language in Venice and Florence in the 1500s when he went to learn new painting techniques there. ^^; Liam's the demon hunter. He's been hunting vamps and demons since they killed his brother. Matteo's not much of a fighter. They're both artists though. ^^;
This was amazing! So vivid, your descriptions are very real and your word choice is great. Your characters are well fleshed out, and I liked how you revealed they were not mortal men, but different beings, a little at a time. Fun read, keep it up!
Thanks very much! I'm glad you liked it. :) And it's good to hear I managed the descriptions. I usually have a hard time painting scenery, so this was good exercise. :)