Maeve Flannery hummed softly as she leaned over the wood-burning stove. Briskly stirring the ingredients in the cast-iron stewpot, she sniffed appreciatively. Ahhh…and ain’t it a totally delicious aroma? Probably taste even better than it smells or my name’s not Maeve Margaret Donovan Flannery.
“How much longer, darlin’?” Husband Seamus pounded the tabletop, his meaty fist clamped around his spoon. “’Tis starvin’ I am, for that wonderful stew you’ve made.”
They were all seated around the table in the kitchen—Seamus; their eldest son, Sean; his brothers, Ossian, Padraig, and Liam, their daughter, Deirdre, and darling baby Denis in his highchair near his mother’s place at the end of the table.
“Be patient, luv.” Reaching for a pair of quilted potholders hanging on the wall, she wrapped them around the handles of the pot and lifted it off the stovetop, glancing casually out the window as she turned. “All things come to him what waits, y’know—”
The pot fell to the floor, spilling its contents and splashing scalding liquid onto Seamus’ leg—thankfully protected by the thick fustian of his trousers—and covering the surface of one hobnailed work boot. Generally, Maeve would be dismayed at the mess; today, she began to shriek hysterically, a little too much of a reaction as far as Seamus was concerned.
“Maeve, acushla, what is it?” Immediately he was on his feet, skirting the steaming mass of potatoes, onions, and parsley staining the kitchen floor, “Sure, you’ve never been this clumsy before.”
When she didn’t answer but continued to scream, he caught her by the shoulders, giving her a rough shake. Sean had gotten up also, starting toward his mother, but when his father continued to shake her, he hesitated as if uncertain what to do. Though his father was quick to discipline his children, he’d never raised a hand in cruelty to anyone, especially not their Ma. The violence the boy now saw frightened him almost as much as did Maeve’s continuing screams.
Behind Sean, the other children looked at each other in panic and the baby, hearing his mother’s cries, began to shriek at the top of his lungs. For a moment, there was total chaos, Maeve’s and the child’s wailing in awful counter-point to each other.
With a strangled whimper, the mother quieted first. Pressing her face against the bosom of Seamus’ shirt, she began to sob, softer and more controlled this time while he stood there, helplessly patting her shoulder. At last, she managed to get enough breath to gasp, “Th’ manor house! There’s someone in th’ manor. I saw a light!”
“There’s someone at th’ manor?” Seamus’ expression changed to disbelief. “An’ that’s what all this caterwaulin’s about? Th’ place’s been empty for a century now. I imagine ’tis been sold, for taxes or somethin’, is all. An’ now th’ new owner’s come t’ claim th’ auld wreck. Probably some rich American who’ll be shippin’ it home, stone by stone. I hear they like to do things like that.”
He managed to be casual about the whole thing. It was nothing to him if the Yanks wanted to buy all of Balleywalegh and cart it away, providing they paid the inhabitants a good and fair price.
“No,” Maeve protested weakly. Raising her head, she pointed a trembling finger out the kitchen window. “’Tis that Foreigner. H-he’s come back! L-look for yourself!”
Slowly, her husband turned, staring toward the dark silhouette visible to any house in the valley. For a moment, he didn’t move, just stood looking at the one bright point of light in a tower window. It seemed to stare back at him like a single, gleaming eye.
At last, he nodded. “Well, there’s someone there, an’ that’s a true fact.”
That produced an even greater rush of tears from Maeve
“Here, now.” He guided his wife around the rapidly congealing mess on the floor and away from the window. She lifted the still-shrieking child from his chair and began to comfort him, briefly distracting herself by this mundane little task as Seamus pushed her into her chair, dropping down beside her.
He waited patiently while she patted and bounced the baby. Once Denis subsided into murmurs of non-panicked sleep, he said, “I swear I’ve never truly understood why everyone’s so frightened of th’ auld place. Sure now, ’tis only an empty hulk o’ stone an’ mortar.”
He waved a hand at the window and the visible silhouette. Maeve’s eyes followed the gesture. With a shudder, she looked back at him. “You don’t understand—”
“That’s the truth. I’ve lived here twenty-two years, now, darlin’, an’ in all that time, I’ve ne’er heard anyone speak at all about that place without crossin’ hisself, an’ even then no more than a few words. Remember when Fergus O’Halloran’s sheep strayed into that upper meadow? He wouldn’t go after ’em without havin’ Old Father Ryan bless him first! An’ is that a way for a grown man to act?” He paused as if expecting a laughing agreement. When his wife avoided his eyes and said nothing, he went on with an angry snort, “In the name o’ Heaven, what is it about th’ place makin’ you so afraid?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” Maeve whimpered. “You bein’ a stranger here an’ all—”
“Stranger?” Seamus blurted the single word. “After all this time an’ seven wee ones I’m still a stranger, am I?”
“Da?” Unable to keep silent any longer, Sean spoke up, timidly. “Da, I know.”
“I’d think— Hm? What’s that ya say, lad?” Seamus looked at his son.
“I know why they fear th’ place. We all do.” He gestured at his brothers and Deirdre, who nodded confirmation.
“So even m’little ones know but your beloved husband you’ve kept iggorant?” Seamus turned to face his son while Maeve got very busy rocking the sleeping baby. “Well? Tell your da!”
The children looked at each other, relieved their father wasn’t angry at them for knowing something he didn’t.
“’Tis—” Sean hesitated, not from fear, but the fact that he realized the absurdity of what he was about to say. “They say th’ owner o’ the manor was a vampire, Da. A dearg-due.”
He gave the word the old Celtic pronunciation…drag-dul.
Seamus didn’t answer, just stared at him.
“An’ that’s why it has such an odd name. Casa Ascuns… ’Tis called after his own foreign tongue…Hungarian or Romanian or some such. He—” He stopped as his father began to laugh.
“Well, now. If he was a foreigner, he couldn’t be a dearg-due, could he? Since that’s our own home-grown vampire! Lord love ya, lad! Do you believe it, then?”
Sean made denying noises. Who’d want to admit believing in things that go bump in the night? Wasn’t he of a more modern generation? After all, this was Nineteen and Twenty-nine.
Seamus brushed aside his protests, letting the silence fall again. When the quiet was heavy in the room with the only sound the sleeping infant’s soft breathing, he stood up, pulling his wife with him. “Come, Maeve. Th’ little one’s asleep. Put him in his wee crib an’ let’s get this mess cleaned up. Then—”
A brisk pounding on the door stopped whatever else he would’ve said.
“Shall I get that, Da?” For the first time ever, Sean didn’t leap from his seat and dash to the door to fling it open in welcome. Seamus couldn’t believe his eldest was so afraid of a sudden.
“O’ course.” His answer was brusque to keep from showing the fast-growing fury he was feeling at the whole town. How the Hell could they keep somethin’ like this hidden from me? You’d think after this long, I’d be accepted enough to be let in on all Balleywalegh’s secrets, no matter how ridiculous or frightenin’. “Don’t keep whoever’s out there waitin’. ’Tain’t polite.”
So Sean went to the door, unlocked and opened it to reveal Conor Leary’s middle boy standing there, torch in hand and looking very young and very scared.
“Hello, Eoghan, an’ what’re you doin’ out this time o’ night alone?” Seamus greeted the boy in his usual cheery way. “Not thinkin’ o’ runnin’ away from home, are you?”
“Nah, Mr. Flannery.” Briefly, the child looked as if he’d like to do just that, however. “M’ da sent me t’ tell ya there’s a meetin’ tonight at Town Hall. Right now, in fact. An’ you’re to be there.”
“Well, then, I’d better get m’self on th’ way.” Seamus didn’t have to ask what it was about; he was pretty certain he knew. How it was going to turn out, also, unless he could inject some level-headedness into the whole proceedings. “Tell ya what, lad. I’ll walk ya back home, an’ then I’ll head on over.”
He noted Eoghan didn’t bluster or protest he was old enough to take himself home but stood there waiting while he bade Maeve and the children goodbye.
“Conor’s callin’ a town meetin’.” He told his wife, glancing out the window again. The light in the tower was still gleaming, bright and steady. “Lord, I hope some dim-witted clot isn’t stormin’up there with his hunting rifle cocked. Sean!”
“Help your maither while I’m gone. To clean the floor an’ find somethin’ else to feed th’ children.”
Seamus turned and walked out into the night, beckoning for Eoghan to follow him, and—to show his lack of fear—not even taking a lantern with him to light his way.
“An’ somethin’ needs to be done.” Conor Leary nodded briskly, emphasizing each word. “Straightaway.”
“Like what?” Seamus asked.
“Like, getting’ our birdin’ rifles, an’ goin’ to th’ manor an’—”
“An’ givin’ th’ poor sod a heart attack? Think on what you’re sayin’, man.”
“What should we do then? Ring th’ bell an’ invite ’em to th’ Fall Fellowship?”
“That might not be such a bad idea. Haven’t you heard that ol’ sayin’ you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?”
“Meanin’ what? I’m thinkin’ dearg-dues don’t care much for ither honey or vinegar.”
“Meanin’ if th’ new tenant o’ th’ manor is what you say,” Seamus still wouldn’t allow himself to speak that one word and chose to ignore Conor’s reference. “An’ you go tearin’ up there with gun a-blazin’ like somethin’ from one o’ them Yank Westerns, he’ll be warned. But if we walk in peaceful-like…an’ if, by some coincidence, he’s just as human as you or I… No harm done. We’re just bein’ a welcomin’ party.”
“You really think that’s th’ way we should handle it?”
“Think on it, Conor. I know ’tis.”
“Seamus is right.” For the first time, Father Ryan, with his usual quiet voice of reason, spoke up. “Show a kind hand, allow it to be struck away before becomin’ defensive.”
“Right then. So we’ll do it.” Conor hesitated, then said just what Seamus had hoped he wouldn’t. “Tomorrow. During daylight.”