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Origins (Chapter 19)

I galloped through the woods, kicking Mezzanotte to jump over logs, to dash through underbrush, anything to make sure I didn't lose sight of Katherine and Anna. How could I have trusted Katherine? How could I have thought I loved her? I should have killed her when I had the chance. If I didn't catch up to them, Anna's blood would be on my hands, too. Just as Rosalyn's was.

We reached an uprooted tree and Mezzanotte reared up, sending me tumbling backward onto the forest floor. I felt a sharp stab as my temple cracked against a stone. The wind was knocked out of me, and I fought for breath, knowing it was only a matter of time before Katherine would kill Anna and then finish me off.

I felt gentle, ice-cold hands lifting me up to a sitting position.

"No …," I gasped. The act of breathing hurt. My breeches were ripped, and I had a large gash on my knee. Blood flowed freely from my temple.

Katherine knelt beside me, using the sleeve of her dress to stave off the bleeding. I noticed her licking her lips, then mashing them firmly together. "Y ou're hurt," she said softly, continuing to apply pressure to my wound. I pushed myself away from her, but Katherine clasped my shoulder, holding me in place.

"Don't worry. Remember. Y have my heart,"

ou Katherine said, holding my gaze with hers. Wordlessly, I nodded. If death was to come, I hoped it would come quickly. Sure enough, Katherine bared her teeth, and I closed my eyes, waiting for the agonizing ecstasy of her teeth against my neck.

But nothing came. Instead, I felt her cold skin near my mouth.

"Drink," Katherine commanded, and I saw a thin gash in her delicate white skin. Blood was trickling from the cut as though through a brook after a rainstorm. I was repulsed and tried to turn my head away, but Katherine held on to the back of my neck. "Trust me. It will help."

Slowly, fearfully, I allowed my lips to touch the liquid. Immediately I felt warmth run down my throat. I continued to drink until Katherine pulled her arm away.

"That's enough," she murmured, holding her palm over the wound. "Now, how do you feel?" She sat back on her heels and surveyed me.

How did I feel? I touched my leg, my temple. Everything felt smooth. Healed.

"Y did that," I said incredulously.

ou

"I did." Katherine stood up and brushed her hands together. I noticed her wound, too, was now completely healed. "Now tell me why I had to heal you. What are you doing in the forest? Y know

ou it's not safe," she said, concern belying her chiding tone.

"Y …. Anna," I murmured, feeling sluggish

ou and sleepy, as one might feel after a long, wine- infused dinner. I blinked at my surroundings. Mezzanotte was hitched to a tree, and Anna was sitting on a branch, hugging her knees to her chest and watching us. Instead of terror, Anna's face was full of confusion as she looked from me, to Katherine, then back to me.

"Stefan, Anna is one of my friends," Katherine said simply.

"Does Stefan … know?" Anna asked curiously, whispering as if I wasn't standing three feet from her.

"We can trust him," Katherine said, nodding definitively.

I cleared my throat, and both girls looked at me.

"What are you doing?" I asked finally.

"Meeting," Katherine said, gesturing to the clearing.

"Stefan Salvatore," a throaty voice said. I whirled around and saw a third figure emerge from the shadows. Almost without thinking, I held up the vervain from my breast pocket, which looked as useless as a daisy clutched in my hand.

"Stefan Salvatore," I heard again. I glanced wildly between Anna and Katherine, but their facial expressions were impossible to read. An owl hooted, and I pressed my fist into my mouth to keep from screaming.

"It's okay, Mama. He knows," Anna called to the shadows.

Mama. So that meant Pearl was also a vampire. But how could she be? She was the apothecary, the one who was supposed to heal the sick, not tear out human throats with her teeth. Then again, Katherine had healed me, and she hadn't torn out my throat.

Pearl emerged from between the trees, her gaze tightening on me. "How do we know he's safe?" she asked suspiciously, in a voice that was much more ominous than the polite tone she used at her apothecary.

"He is," Katherine said, smiling sweetly as she gently touched my arm. I shivered and clutched the vervain, Cordelia's words echoing in my head. This herb could stop the devil. But what if we'd all gotten it wrong, and vampires like Katherine weren't devils but angels? What then?

"Drop the vervain," Katherine said. I looked into her large, cat-like eyes and dropped the plant to the forest floor. Immediately, Katherine used the tip of her boot to cover it with pine needles and leaves.

"Stefan, you look as though you've seen a ghost," Katherine laughed, turning toward me. But her laughter wasn't mean. Instead, it sounded melodic and musical and slightly sad. I collapsed onto a gnarled tree root. I noticed my leg was shaking and held my hands firmly against my knee, which was now completely smooth, as if the fall had never happened. Katherine took the motion as an invitation for her to perch on my knee. She sat and looked down on me, running her hands through my hair.

"Now, Katherine, he doesn't look like he's seen a ghost. He's seen vampires. Three of them." I glanced up at Pearl as if I were an obedient schoolboy and she were my schoolmarm. She sat down on a nearby rock slab, and Anna perched next to her, suddenly looking much younger than her fourteen years. But, of course, if Anna was a vampire, then that meant she wasn't fourteen at all. My brain spun, and I felt a momentary wave of dizziness. Katherine patted the back of my neck, and I began to breathe easier.

"Okay, Stefan," Pearl said as she rested her chin on her steepled fingers and gazed at me. "First of all, I need you to remember that Anna and I are your neighbors, and your friends. Can you remember that?"

I was transfixed by her gaze. Pearl then smiled a curious half smile. "Good," she exhaled.

I nodded dumbly, too overwhelmed to think, let alone speak. "We were living in South Carolina right after the war," Pearl began.

"After the war?" I asked, before I could stop myself.

Anna giggled, and Pearl cracked a tiny sliver of a smile. "The War of Independence," Pearl explained briefly. "We were lucky during the war. All safe, all sound, all a family." Her voice caught in her throat, and she closed her eyes for a moment before continuing. "My husband ran a small apothecary when a wave of consumption hit town. Everyone was affected–my husband, my two sons, my baby daughter. Within a week, they were dead."

I didn't know what to say. Could I say I was sorry for something that had happened so long ago?

"And then Anna began coughing. And I knew I couldn't lose her, too. My heart would break, but it was more than that," Pearl said, shaking her head as if caught in her own world. "I knew my soul and my spirit would break. And then I met Katherine."

I glanced toward Katherine. She looked so young, so innocent. I glanced away before she could look at me.

"Katherine was different," Pearl said. "She arrived in town mysteriously, without relatives, but she immediately became part of society."

I nodded, wondering who, then, was killed in the Atlanta fire that brought Katherine to Mystic Falls. But I didn't ask, waiting for Pearl to continue her story.

She cleared her throat. "Still, there was something about her that was unusual. All the ladies and I talked about it. She was beautiful, of course, but there was something else. Something otherworldly. Some called her an angel. But then she never got sick, not during the cold seasons, and not when the consumption began in town. There were certain herbs she wouldn't touch in the apothecary. Charleston was a small town then. People talked."

Pearl reached for her daughter's hand. "Anna would have died," Pearl continued. "That's what the doctor said. I was desperate for a cure, wracked with grief and feeling so helpless. Here I was, a woman surrounded by medicine, unable to help my daughter live." Pearl shook her head in disgust.

"So what happened?" I asked.

"I asked Katherine one day if she knew of anything that could be done. And as soon as I asked, I knew she did. There was something in her eyes that changed. But she still took a few minutes of silence before she responded and then–"

"Pearl brought Anna to my chambers one night," Katherine interjected.

"She saved me," Anna said in a soft voice. "She saved me," Anna said in a soft voice. "Mother too."

"And that's how we ended up here. We couldn't stay in Charleston forever, never growing old," Pearl explained. "Of course, soon we'll have to move again. That's the way it goes. We're gypsies, navigating between Richmond and Atlanta and all the towns in between. And now we have another war to deal with. Seeing so much history really proves to us that some things never do change," Pearl said, smiling ruefully. "But there are worse ways to pass the time."

"I like it here," Anna admitted. "That's why I'm scared we'll be sent away." She said that last part as a whisper, and something about her tone made me achingly sad.

I thought of the meeting I'd attended that afternoon. If Father had his way, they wouldn't be sent away, they'd be killed.

"The attacks?" I asked finally. It had been the one question that had been nagging at me ever since Katherine's confession. Because if she didn't do it, then who … ?

Pearl shook her head. "Remember, we're your neighbors and friends. It wasn't us. We never would behave like that."

"Never," Anna parroted, shaking her head fearfully, as though she were being accused.

"But some of our tribe have," Pearl said darkly.

Katherine's eyes hardened. "But it's not just we or the other vampires who are causing trouble. Of course, that's who everyone blames, but no one seems to remember that there's a war going on with untold bloodshed. All people care about are vampires." Hearing Damon's words in Katherine's mouth was like a bucket of cold water in my face, a reminder that I wasn't the only person in Katherine's universe.

"Who are the other vampires?" I asked gruffly.

"It's our community, and we will take care of it," Pearl said firmly. She stood up, then walked across the clearing, her feet crunching on the ground until she stood above me. "Stefan, I've told you the story and now here are the facts: We need blood to live. But we don't need it from humans," Pearl said, as if she were explaining to one of her customers how an herb worked. "We can get it from animals. But, like humans, some of us don't have self-control, and some of us attack people. It's really not that much different from a rogue soldier, is it?"

I suddenly had an image of one of the soldiers we'd just played poker with. Were any of them vampires, too?

"And remember, Stefan, we only know some. There could be more. We're not as uncommon as you may think," Katherine said.

"And now, because of these vampires we don't even know, we're all being hunted," Pearl said, tears filling her eyes. "That's why we're meeting here tonight. We need to discuss what to do and come up with a plan. Just this afternoon, Honoria Fells brought a vervain concoction to the apothecary. How that woman even knows about vervain, I have no idea. Suddenly, I feel like I'm an animal about to be trapped. People have glanced at our necks, and I know they're wondering about our necklaces, piecing together the fact that all three of us always wear them…." Pearl trailed off as she raised her hands to the sky, as if in an exasperated prayer.

Quickly, I glanced at each of the women and realized that Anna and Pearl were wearing ornate cameos like the one Katherine wore.

"The necklace?" I asked, clutching my own throat as if I, too, had a mysterious blue gem there.

"Lapis lazuli. It allows us to walk in daylight. Those of our kind cannot, usually. But these gems protect us. They've allowed us to live normally and, perhaps, even allowed us to stay more in touch with our human side than we would have otherwise," Pearl said thoughtfully. "Y don't know

ou what it's like, Stefan." Pearl's matter-of-fact voice dissolved into sobs. "It's good to know that we have friends we can trust."

I took out my handkerchief from my breast pocket and handed it to her, unsure what else I could do. She dabbed her eyes and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that you have to know about this, Stefan. I knew from the last time that war changes things, but I never thought … it's too soon to have to move again."

"I'll protect you," I heard myself saying, in a voice that didn't quite sound like mine.

"But … but … how?" Pearl asked. Far off in the distance, a branch broke, and all four of us jumped. Pearl glanced around. "How?" she said again, finally, when all was still.

"My father's leading a charge in a few weeks." I felt a tiny pinprick of betrayal as I said it.

"Giuseppe Salvatore." Pearl gasped in disbelief. "But how did he know?"

I shook my head. "It's Father and Jonathan Gilbert and Honoria Fells and Mayor Lockwood and Sheriff Forbes. They seem to know about vampires from books. Father has an old volume in his study, and together they came up with the idea to lead a siege."

"Then he'll do it. Giuseppe Salvatore is not a man to have his opinions easily swayed," Pearl stated.

"No, ma'am." I realized how funny it was to call a vampire ma'am. But who was I to say what was normal and what wasn't? Once again, my mind drifted to my brother and his words, his casual laughter when it came to Katherine's true nature. Maybe it wasn't that Katherine was evil, or uncommon at all. Maybe the only thing that was uncommon was the fact that Father was fixated on eradicating the vampires.

"Stefan, I promise that nothing I've said to you was a lie," Pearl said. "And I know that we will do everything in our power to ensure that no more animals or humans are killed as long as we're here. But you simply must do what you can. For us. Because Anna and I have come too far and gone through too much to simply be killed by our neighbors."

"Y won't be," I said, with more conviction

ou than I ever had in my life. "I'm not sure what I'll do yet, but I will protect you. I promise." I was making the promise to the three of them, but was looking only at Katherine. She nodded, a tiny spark igniting in her eyes.

"Good," Pearl said, reaching out her hand to help a sleepy-eyed Anna to her feet. "Now, we've been here in the forest too long. The less we're seen together, the better. And, Stefan, we trust you," she said, just the tiniest hint of a warning in her otherwise rich voice.

"Of course," I said, grabbing Katherine's hand as Anna and Pearl walked out of the clearing. I wasn't worried about them. Because they worked at the apothecary, they could get away with walking in the middle of the night; they could easily tell anyone who saw them that they were searching for herbs and mushrooms. searching for herbs and mushrooms.

But I was scared for Katherine. Her hands felt so small, and her eyes looked so frightened. She was depending on me, a thought that filled me with equal amounts of pride and dread.

"Oh, Stefan," Katherine said as she flung her arms around my neck. "I know everything will be fine as long as we're together." She grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the forest floor. And then, lying with Katherine amid the pine needles and the damp earth and the smell of her skin, I wasn't frightened anymore.

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