Origins (Chapter 17)

September 8, 1864

She is not who she seems. Should I be surprised? Terrified? Hurt? It's as if everything I know, everything I've been taught, everything I've believed in my past seventeen years is wrong.

I can still feel where she kissed me, where her fingers grasped my hands. I still yearn for her, and yet the voice of reason is screaming in my ears: You cannot love a vampire!

If I had one of her daisies, I could pluck the leaves and let the flower choose for me. I love her … I love her not … I … I love her.

I do. No matter the consequences.

Is this what following your heart is? I wish there was a map or a compass to help me find my way. But she has my heart, and that above all else is my North Star … and that will have to be enough.

After I slipped away from the carriage house back to my own chambers, I somehow managed to sleep for a few hours. When I awoke, I wondered if everything was all a dream. But then I shifted my head on the pillow and saw a neat puddle of dried, crimson blood and touched my fingers to my throat. I felt a wound there, and though it didn't hurt, it brought back the very real incidents of the previous evening.

I felt exhausted and confused and exalted all at once. My limbs were enervated, my brain abuzz. It was as if I had a fever, but inside I felt a sort of calm I'd never felt before.

I dressed for the day, taking extra care to wash the wound with a damp cloth and bandage it, then buttoned my linen shirt as high as it would go. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. I tried to see if there was anything different, if there was some glint in my eye that acknowledged my newfound worldliness. But my face looked just as it had yesterday.

I crept down the back stairs toward the study. Father's schedule was like clockwork, and he always spent the mornings surveying and visiting the fields with Robert.

Once I closed myself in the cool, dark room, I ran my fingers along the leather-bound spines on each shelf, feeling comforted by their smoothness. I just hoped that somewhere, in the stacks and shelves of books on every subject, there would be a volume that would answer some of my questions. I remembered Katherine reading The Mysteries of Mystic Falls and noticed the volume was no longer in the study, or at least not in plain view.

I walked aimlessly from shelf to shelf, for the first time feeling overwhelmed by the number of books in Father's study. Where could I possibly find information on vampires? Father had volumes of plays, fiction, atlases, and two full shelves of Bibles, some in English, some in Italian, and some in Latin. I traced my hands against the gilt- lettered, leather spines of each book, hoping that somehow I'd find something.

Finally, my fingertips landed on a thin, tattered volume with Demonios written in flaking silver on the spine. Demonio … demon … This was what I was looking for. I opened the book, but it was written in an ancient Italian dialect that I couldn't make heads nor tails of, despite my extensive tutoring in Latin and Italian.

Still, I carried the book with me to the club chair and settled in. Trying to decipher the book was an action I could understand, something easier than trying to eat breakfast while pretending everything was normal. I ran my fingers along the words, reading out loud as if I were a schoolboy, making sure I didn't miss a mention of the word vampiro. Finally, I found it, but the sentences surrounding it were nothing but gibberish to me. I sighed in frustration.

Just then, the door to the study creaked open.

"Who's there?" I called loudly.

"Stefan!" My father's ruddy face registered surprise. "I was looking for you."

"Oh?" I asked, my hand flying to my neck, as if Father could see the bandage beneath the fabric. But all I felt was the smooth linen of my shirt. My secret was safe.

Father looked at me strangely. He walked toward me, taking the book off my lap. "Y and I

ou think alike," he said, a strange smile curving onto his face.

"We do?" My heart fluttered in my chest like a hummingbird's wings, and I was sure Father could hear my breath catching in short, shallow gasps in my throat. I felt sure he could read my thoughts, sure he knew about Katherine and me. And if he knew about Katherine, he'd kill her and …

I couldn't bear to think of the rest.

Father smiled again. "We do. I know you took our conversation about vampires to heart, and I appreciate you taking this scourge seriously. Of course, I know you have your own motivations in avenging the death of your young Rosalyn," Father said, making the sign of the cross over his chest. I stared at a thin spot on the Oriental rug, where the fabric was so faded, I could see the stained wooden floor below. I couldn't look up at Father and let my face betray my secret, betray Katherine's secret.

"Be assured, son, that Rosalyn did not die in vain. She died for Mystic Falls, and she will be remembered as we rid our town of this curse. And you, of course, will be an integral part of the plan." Father gestured toward the book I still held. "Unlike your good-for-nothing brother. What good is all his new military knowledge if he can't put it to use to defend his family, his land?" Father asked rhetorically. "Just today he went off on a ride with some of his soldier friends. Even after I told him I expected him here this morning to accompany us to our meeting at Jonathan's house."

But I wasn't paying attention anymore. All I cared about was that he didn't know about Katherine. My breathing slowed. "There wasn't very much information that I could understand in this book. I don't think it's very useful," I said, as if all I'd been doing this morning was indulging in a scholarly interest in vampires.

"That's just as well," Father said dismissively, as he carelessly placed the book back on the shelf. "I feel that together we have a good store of knowledge."

"Together?" I parroted.

Father waved his hand impatiently. "Y and I

ou Father waved his hand impatiently. "Y and I

ou and the Founders. We've set up a council to deal with this. We're heading to a meeting right now. Y ou're coming."

"I am?" I asked.

Father glanced at me in annoyance. I knew I sounded like a simpleton, but there was simply too much information swimming in my mind to even begin to understand it all.

"Y And I'm taking Cordelia as well. She has

es. a good knowledge of herbs and demons. The meeting is at Jonathan Gilbert's house." Father nodded, as if the subject was closed.

I nodded as well, even though I was surprised. Jonathan Gilbert was a university teacher and sometimes inventor who Father not so privately called a crackpot. But now Father said his name with reverence. For the thousandth time that day, I realized this truly was a different world.

"Alfred is hitching up the carriage, but I will drive it. Do not tell anyone where we're going. I've already sworn Cordelia to secrecy," Father said as he strode out of the room. After a second, I followed him, but not before I slipped Demonios into my back pocket.

I sat next to Father in the front seat of the carriage, while Cordelia sat in the back, hidden from sight lest she arouse suspicion. It was strange to be out in the morning, especially without a footman to drive us, and I caught the curious stares of Mr. Vickery as we passed by the Blue Ridge Estate next door. I waved, until I felt Father's hand on my arm, a subtle warning not to attract attention to ourselves.

Father began talking once we entered the barren stretch of dirt road that separated the plantation road from town. "I don't understand your brother. Do you? What man doesn't respect his father? If I didn't know better, I'd think he was consorting with one of them," Father said, spitting on the dirt road.

"Why would you think that?" I asked uncomfortably, a trickle of sweat running down my spine. I ran my finger beneath my collar, recoiling when I felt the gauze bandage of my neck. It was damp, but from sweat or blood I could not tell.

My thoughts were a tangle. Was I betraying Katherine by attending this meeting? Was I betraying Father by keeping Katherine's secret? Who was evil or good? Nothing seemed clear.

"I think that because they have that kind of power," Father said, using the whip on Blaze as if to prove the point. Blaze whinnied before shifting into a fast trot.

I looked back at Cordelia, but she was impassively staring straight ahead.

"They can take over a mind before a man realizes anything is amiss. They compel them to submit fully to their charms and whims. Just a glance can make a man do whatever a vampire desires. And by the time a man does know he's being controlled, it's too late."

"Really?" I asked skeptically. I thought back to last night. Had Katherine done that to me? But no. Even when I was frightened, I'd been myself. And all my feelings had been mine. Maybe vampires could do that, but Katherine certainly hadn't done it to me.

Father chuckled. "Well, not all the time. One hopes that a man is strong enough to withstand that type of influence. And I certainly have raised my sons to be strong. Still, I wonder what could possibly have gotten into Damon's head."

"I'm sure he's fine," I said, suddenly very nervous at the idea that Damon might have figured out Katherine's secret. "I think he's simply not sure what he wants."

"I don't care what he wants," Father said. "What he needs to remember is that he's my son and I will not be disobeyed. These are dangerous times, much more so than Damon realizes. And he needs to understand that if he is not with us, people might construe that his sympathies lie elsewhere."

"I think he just doesn't believe in vampires," I said, a sick feeling forming in the pit of my stomach.

"Shhh!" Father whispered, waving his hand toward me to quiet me down. The horses were clip-clopping into town, just past the saloon, where Jeremiah Black was already nearly passed out by the door, a half bottle of whiskey at his feet.

Somehow, I didn't think Jeremiah Black was listening or even seeing what was going on, but I nodded, pleased that the silence gave me a chance to sort through my thoughts.

I glanced over to my right, where Pearl and her daughter were sitting on the iron bench outside the apothecary, fanning themselves. I waved to them, but, seeing Father's warning glance, thought better about calling out to say hello.

I closed my mouth and sat silently until we reached the other end of town, where Jonathan Gilbert lived in an ill-kept mansion that had once belonged to his father. Father often made fun of the fact that the house was falling apart, but today he said nothing as Alfred opened the door of the carriage.

"Cordelia," Father called tersely, allowing her to walk up the rickety steps of the Gilbert mansion first as we followed suit.

Before we could ring the bell, Jonathan himself opened the door. "Good to see you, Giuseppe, Stefan. And you must be Cordelia. I've heard much about your knowledge of native herbs," he said, offering his hand to her.

Jonathan led us through the labyrinthine hallways and toward a tiny door next to the grand staircase. Jonathan opened it and gestured for us to head inside. We took turns ducking down to enter a tunnel that was about ten feet long, with a flimsy ladder at the other end. Wordlessly we climbed the ladder and emerged into a tiny, windowless space that immediately made me feel claustrophobic. Two candles burned in tarnished candleholders on a water-stained table, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could make out Honoria Fells sitting gingerly on a rocker in the corner. Mayor Lockwood and Sheriff Forbes shared an old wooden bench.

"Gentlemen," Honoria said, standing up and welcoming us as if we were just stopping in for tea. "And I'm afraid I haven't made your acquaintance, Mrs…." Honoria glanced suspiciously at Cordelia.

"Cordelia," Cordelia murmured, glancing from one face to another, as if this was the last place she wanted to be.

My father coughed uncomfortably. "She treated Stefan during his spells after his …"

"After his fianc�e got her throat ripped out?" Mayor Lockwood said gruffly.

"Mayor!" Honoria said, clapping her hand to her mouth.

As Jonathan ducked back out into the hall, I settled on a straight-backed chair as far away from the group as possible. I felt out of place, though probably not as out of place as Cordelia, who was now awkwardly sitting on a wooden chair next to Honoria's rocker.

"Now, then!" Jonathan Gilbert said, coming back to the room, his arms laden with tools and papers and objects I couldn't even begin to identify. He sat on a moth-eaten velvet armchair at the head of the table and looked around. "Let's begin."

"Fire," Father said simply.

A shiver of fear ran up my spine. Fire was how Katherine's parents had perished. Was that because they were vampires, too? Had Katherine been the only one to escape?

"Fire?" Mayor Lockwood repeated.

"It's been recorded, many times in Italy, that fire kills them, as does beheading or a stake in the heart. And, of course, there are herbs that can protect us." Father nodded to Cordelia.

"Vervain," Cordelia confirmed.

"Vervain," Honoria said dreamily. "How pretty."

Cordelia snorted. "It ain't nothing but a herb. But if you wear it, then you have protection from the devil. Some say it can also work a bit to nurse those who've been around them back to health. But it's poison to them devils you call vampires."

"I want some!" Honoria said greedily, holding out her hand eagerly.

"I don't have any with me," Cordelia said.

"Y don't?" Father looked at her sharply.

ou "It's all gone from the garden. I used it for Mr. Stefan's remedies; then when I went to pick it this morning, it was all gone. Was probably the children who took it," Cordelia said indignantly, but she glanced straight at me. I looked away, reassuring myself that if she had known about Katherine's true nature, she would have told my father by now.

"Well, then, where do I get some?" Honoria asked.

"It's probably right under your nose," Cordelia said.

"What?" asked Honoria sharply, as if she'd been insulted.

"It grows everywhere. Except our garden," Cordelia said darkly.

"Well," Father said, glancing at the two women, anxious to diffuse the situation. "After this meeting, Cordelia may escort Miss Honoria to her garden to find vervain."

"Now, wait just a damn minute," Mayor Lockwood said, pounding his beefy fist on the table. "Y lost me at the woman talk. Y mean to

ou ou tell me that if I wear a lilac sprig, then the demons will leave me alone?" He snorted.

"Vervain, not lilac," Cordelia explained. "It keeps evil away."

"Y es," Father said sagely. "And everyone in town must wear it. See to it, Mayor Lockwood. That way, not only will our citizens be protected, but anyone who does not wear it will be exposed as a vampire and can then be burned," Father said, his voice so smooth and matter-of-fact that it took every ounce of self-control for me not to stand up, rush down the shaky ladder, find Katherine, and run away with her.

But if I did that, and if Katherine was as dangerous as the Founders thought … I felt like a trapped animal, unable to find any escape. Was I trapped with the enemy right now, or was the enemy back at Veritas? I knew that, beneath my shirt collar, the wound on my neck was beginning to ooze specks of blood, and it would only be a matter of time before they soaked through the fabric and stood out as a visible reminder of my betrayal.

Mayor Lockwood shifted uneasily, causing the chair to creak. I jumped. "Now, if the herb works, that's one thing. But we're in the middle of a war. We've got a lot of Confederate government officials passing through Mystic Falls on their way to Richmond, and if word gets out that instead of aiding the cause we're fighting storybook creatures with flowers …" He shook his head. "We cannot issue an edict that everyone wear vervain."

"Oh, really? Then how do we know you're not a vampire?" Father demanded.

"Father!" I interjected. Someone had to bring a voice of reason into the discussion. "Mayor Lockwood is right. We need to think calmly. Rationally."

"Y son has a good head on his shoulders,"

our Mayor Lockwood said grudgingly.

"A better head than yours," Father mumbled.

"Well … we can discuss vervain later. Honoria, you'll be in charge of making sure that we have a ready supply, and we can strongly encourage those we love to wear it. But for now, I want to discuss other ways we can find the vampires that walk among us," Jonathan Gilbert said excitedly, unfolding large sheets of paper onto the table. Mayor Lockwood put his bifocals on his nose and peered at the papers, which had complicated mechanical drawings on them.

"This here looks like a compass," Mayor Lockwood said finally, pointing to a complicated drawing.

"It is! But instead of finding north, it finds vampires," Jonathan said, barely containing his excitement. "I'm working on the prototype. It just needs a bit more fine-tuning. It's able to detect blood. The blood of others," he said meaningfully.

"Can I see that, Mr. Jonathan?" Cordelia asked.

Jonathan looked up, surprised, but handed her the papers. She shook her head.

"No," she said. "The prototype." "Oh, ah, well, it's very rough," Jonathan said as he fumbled in his back pocket and pulled out a shiny metal object that looked more like a child's trinket than a tool for finding victims.

Cordelia turned the compass slowly in her hands. "It works?"

"Well …"–Jonathan shrugged–"it will work."

"Here's what I propose," Father said, leaning back on his chair. "We arm ourselves with vervain. We work day and night to get the compass to work. And we make a plan. We set up a siege, and by month's end our town will be clear." Father crossed his arms in satisfaction. One by one, every member of the group, including Cordelia, nodded their heads.

I shifted on the wooden chair, holding my hand against my neck. The attic was hot and sticky, and flies were buzzing in the rafters, as if it were the middle of July rather than the middle of September. I desperately needed a glass of water, and I felt like the room was going to collapse in on me. I needed to see Katherine again, to remind myself that she wasn't a monster. My breathing became shallow, and I felt that if I stayed here, I would say something I didn't mean.

"I think I'm feeling faint," I heard myself say, even though the words rang false even to my ears. Father looked at me sharply. I could tell he didn't believe me, but Honoria clucked out sympathetic noises.

Father cleared his throat. "I'll see my boy out," he announced to the room before following me down the rickety ladder.

"Stefan," Father said, grabbing my shoulder just as I opened the door that would lead back to a world I understood.

"What?" I gasped.

"Remember. Not a word of this to anyone. Even Damon. Not until he comes to his senses. Except I think his senses may be taken with our Katherine," Father muttered, half to himself as he let go of my arm. I stiffened at the mention of Katherine's name, but when I turned around, Father's back was toward me as he headed into the house.

I walked back through town, wishing I'd ridden Mezzanotte instead of coming in the carriage. Now I had no choice but to walk home. I turned to my left, deciding to cut through the forest. I simply couldn't interact with any more humans today.