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Origins (Chapter 12)

I'm not sure if it was the fresh air or the flowers Emily had brought me, but I slept soundly that night. The next morning I woke up to bright sunlight in my chambers and, for the first time since Rosalyn's death, didn't bother to drink the concoction Cordelia had left on my nightstand. The smell of cinnamon and eggs floated up from the kitchen, and I heard the snort of the horses as Alfred hitched them outside. For a second, I felt a thrill of possibility and the nascent bud of happiness.

"Stefan!" my father boomed on the other side of the door, rapping three times with his walking stick or riding crop. Just like that, I remembered all that had transpired in the past week, and my malaise returned.

I remained silent, hoping he'd simply go away. But instead he swung the door open. He was wearing his riding breeches and carried his black riding crop, a smile on his face and a sprig of a violet flower in his lapel. It was neither pretty nor fragrant; in fact, it looked like one of the herbs Cordelia grew down by the servants' quarters.

"We're going riding," Father announced as he swung open the shutters. I shaded my eyes against the glare. Was the world always so bright? "This chamber needs to be cleaned and you, my boy, need sun."

"But I should really attend to my studies," I said, gesturing limply to the volume of Macbeth open on my desk.

Father took the book and closed it with a definitive clap. "I need to speak to you and Damon, away from any prying ears." He glanced suspiciously around the chambers. I followed his gaze but saw nothing except for a collection of dirty dishes that Cordelia hadn't yet cleared.

As if on cue, Damon strode into the room, wearing a pair of mustard-colored breeches and his gray Confederate coat. "Father!" Damon rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you're on about that demon nonsense again."

"It's not nonsense!" Father roared. "Stefan, I'll see you and your brother at the stable," he said, turning on his heel and striding out. Damon shook his head, then followed him, leaving me to change.

I put on my full riding costume–a gray waistcoat and brown breeches–and sighed, not sure I had enough strength to ride or to endure another marathon bickering session between my father and brother. When I opened the door, I found Damon standing at the bottom of the curved staircase, waiting.

"Feeling better, brother?" Damon asked as we walked out the door and across the lawn together.

I nodded, even as I noticed the spot under the willow tree where I'd found Rosalyn. The grass willow tree where I'd found Rosalyn. The grass was long and bright green, and squirrels were darting around the tree's gnarled trunk. Sparrows chirped, and the drooping branches of the weeping willow looked lush and full of promise. There was no sign that anything had been amiss.

I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the stable, inhaling the familiar, loved scent of well- oiled leather and sawdust. "Hi, girl," I whispered into Mezzanotte's velvety ear. She whinnied in appreciation. Her coat seemed silky-smooth, even more so than the last time I'd brushed it. "Sorry I haven't come to visit you, but it looks like my brother's taken good care of you."

"Actually, Katherine's taken a shine to her. Which is too bad for her own horses." Damon smiled fondly as he jerked his chin to two coal- black mares in the corner. Indeed, they were stamping their feet and staring at the ground dejectedly, as if to express just how ignored and lonely they were.

"Y ou've been spending quite a bit of time with Katherine," I said finally. It was a statement, not a question. Of course he had been. Damon always had an ease around women. I knew he knew women, especially after his year in the Confederate army. He'd told me stories about some of the women he'd met in cities like Atlanta and Lexington that had made me blush. Did he know Katherine? "I have been," Damon said, swinging his leg over the back of his horse, Jake. He didn't elaborate.

"Ready, boys?" Father called, his horse impatiently stamping its feet. I nodded and fell into stride behind Damon and Father as we headed to the Wickery Bridge, all the way on the other end of the property.

We crossed the bridge and continued on into the forest. I blinked in relief. The sunlight had been too bright. I much preferred the dark shadows of the trees. The woods were cool, with wet leaves covering the forest floor, even though there hadn't been a rainstorm recently. The leaves were so thick, you could see only slight patches of blue sky, and occasionally I'd hear the rustle of a raccoon or badger in the underbrush. I tried not to think of the animal noises as coming from the beast that had attacked Rosalyn.

We continued riding into the forest until we reached the clearing. Father abruptly stopped and hitched his horse to a birch tree. I obediently hitched Mezzanotte to a tree and glanced around. The clearing was marked by a collection of rocks set up in a rough circle, above which the trees parted to provide a natural window to the sky. I hadn't been there in ages, not since before Damon went away. When we were boys, we used to play illicit card games here with the other fellows in town. Everyone knew the clearing was the place boys came to gamble, girls came to gossip, and everyone came to spill their secrets. If Father really meant to keep our conversation quiet, he'd have been better off taking us to the tavern to talk.

"We're in trouble," Father said without preamble, glancing up at the sky. I followed his gaze, expecting to see a fast-moving summer storm. Instead, the sky was spotless and blue. I found no solace in this beautiful day. I was still haunted by Rosalyn's lifeless eyes.

"We're not, Father," Damon said thickly. "Y ou know who's in trouble? All of the soldiers fighting this godforsaken war for this cause you've made me try to believe in. The problem is the war and your incessant need to find conflict everywhere you turn." Damon angrily stomped his feet, reminding me so much of Mezzanotte that I stifled the urge to laugh.

"I will not have you talk back to me!" Father said, shaking his fist at Damon. I glanced back and forth at the two of them, as though I were watching a tennis match. Damon towered over Father's sloping shoulders, and for the first time I realized that Father was getting old.

Damon put his hands on his hips. "Then talk. Let's hear what you have to say."

I expected Father to shout, but instead he crossed to one of the rocks, his knees creaking as he bent to sit. "Y want to know why I left Italy?

ou I left it for you. For my future children. I knew I wanted my sons to grow and marry and have children on land I owned and land I loved. And I do love this land, and I will not watch it be destroyed by demons," Father said, flinging his hands wildly. I stepped back, and Mezzanotte whinnied a long, plaintive note. "Demons," he repeated, as if to prove his point.

"Demons?" Damon snorted. "More like big dogs. Don't you see it's talk like this that will make you lose everything? Y say you want a good life

ou for us, but you're always deciding how we'll live that life. Y made me go to war and made Stefan

ou get engaged, and now you're making us believe your fairy tales," Damon yelled in frustration.

I glanced at Father guiltily. I didn't want him to know I hadn't loved Rosalyn. But Father didn't look at me. He was too busy glowering at Damon.

"All I wanted was for my boys to have the best. I know what we're facing, and I do not have time for your schoolboy arguments. I am not telling tales right now." Father glanced back at me, and I forced myself to look into his dark eyes. "Please understand. There are demons who walk among us. They existed in the old country, too. They walked the same earth, talked like humans. But they wouldn't drink like humans."

"Well, if they don't drink wine, that would be a blessing, wouldn't it?" Damon asked sarcastically. blessing, wouldn't it?" Damon asked sarcastically. I stiffened. I remembered all the times after Mother had died that Father would drink too much wine or whiskey, lock himself in the study, then mumble late into the night about ghosts or demons.

"Damon!" Father said, his voice even sharper than my brother's. "I will ignore your impudence. But I will not have you ignore me. Listen to me, Stefan." Father turned toward me. "What you saw happen to your young Rosalyn wasn't natural. It wasn't one of Damon's coyotes," Father said, practically spitting out the word. "It was un vampiro. They were in the old country, and now they're here," Father said, screwing up his florid face. "And they are doing harm. They're feeding on us. And we need to stop it."

"What do you mean?" I asked nervously, any trace of exhaustion or dizziness gone. All I felt was fear. I thought back to Rosalyn, but this time, instead of remembering her eyes, I remembered the blood on her throat, having flowed from the two precise circles on the side of her neck. I touched my own neck, feeling the pulse of blood beneath my skin. The rush below my fingers sped up as I felt my heart skip a beat. Could Father be … right?

"Father means that he's been spending too much time listening to the church ladies tell their tales. Father, this is a story that would be told to scare a child. And not a very clever one. Everything you're saying is nonsense." Damon shook his head and angrily stood from his perch on the tree stump. "I will not sit around and be told ghost stories." With that, he turned on his gold- buttoned boot and swung his foot up over Jake's back, gazing down at Father, as if daring him to say one more thing.

"Mark my words," Father said, taking a step closer to me. "Vampires are among us. They look like us and can live among us, but they are not who we are. They drink blood. It is their elixir of life. They do not have souls, and they never die. They are forever immortal."

The word immortal made me suck in my breath. The wind changed, and the leaves began rustling. I shivered. "Vampires," I repeated slowly. I'd heard the word once before, when Damon and I were schoolchildren and used to gather on the Wickery Bridge, trying to scare our friends. One boy had told us of seeing a figure kneeling down in the woods, feasting on the neck of a deer. The boy told us he had screamed and the figure had turned to him with hellred eyes, blood dripping from long, sharp teeth. A vampire, he said with conviction, glancing around the circle to see if he'd impressed any of us. But because he'd been pale and scrawny and not any good at shooting, we'd laughed and mocked him mercilessly. He and his family had moved to Richmond the next year.

"Well, I'd take vampires over an insane father," Damon said, kicking Jake's flanks and riding off into the sunset. I turned toward Father, expecting an angry tirade. But Father simply shook his head.

"Do you believe me, son?" he asked.

I nodded, even though I wasn't sure what I believed. All I knew was that somehow, in the past week, the whole world had changed, and I wasn't sure where I fit in anymore.

"Good." Father nodded as we rode out of the forest and onto the bridge. "We must be careful. It seems the war has awakened the vampires. It's as if they can smell blood."

The word blood echoed in my mind as we directed our horses to walk away from the cemetery and toward the shortcut through the fields that would lead to the pond. In the distance, I could see the sun reflecting on the pond's surface. No one would ever imagine this verdant, rolling land as being a place where demons walked. Demons, if they existed at all, belonged in the old country, amid the decrepit churches and castles Father had grown up with. All the words Father said were familiar, but they sounded so strange in the place where he was saying them.

Father glanced around as if to make sure no one was hiding in the bushes near the bridge. The horses were walking alongside the graveyard now, the headstones bright and imposing in the now, the headstones bright and imposing in the warm summer light. "Blood is what they feed on. It gives them power."

"But then …," I said, as the information whirled in my brain. "If they are immortal, then how are we to …"

"Kill them?" Father asked, finishing my thought. He pulled the reins on his horse. "There are methods. I've been learning. I've heard there's a priest in Richmond who can try to exorcise them, but then people in town know … some things," he finished. "Jonathan Gilbert and Sheriff Forbes and I have discussed some preliminary measures." "If there's anything I can do …," I offered finally, unsure what to say.

"Of course," Father said brusquely. "I expect you to be part of our committee. For starters, I've been talking to Cordelia. She knows her herbs, and she says there's a plant called vervain." Father's hand fluttered to the flower on his lapel. "We will come up with a plan. And we will prevail. Because while they may have immortality, we have God on our side. It is kill or be killed. Do you understand me, boy? This is the war you're being drafted to fight."

I nodded, feeling the full weight of the responsibility on my shoulders. Maybe this was what I was meant to be doing: not getting married or going off to war, but fighting an unnatural evil. I met Father's gaze. "I'll do whatever you want," I said. "Anything." The last thing I saw before I galloped back to the stable was the huge grin on Father's face. "I knew you would, son. Y are a true Salvatore."

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