Origins (Chapter 18)

That night, Damon invited me to play cards with some of his soldier friends, who were camped out for the moment in Leestown, twenty miles away.

"I may not agree with them, but damn, can they play a good hand and drink a good pint," Damon said.

I'd found myself agreeing, eager to avoid Father and any questions about vampires. But by the time twilight rolled around and I hadn't seen any sign of Katherine or Emily, I wished that I hadn't agreed to accompany Damon. My mind was still jumbled, and I wanted a night with Katherine to reassure me that my desire was leading me in the right direction. I loved her, but the practical, sensible side of me was having trouble disobeying Father.

"Ready?" Damon asked, clad in his Confederate uniform, when he stopped by my bedroom at twilight.

I nodded. It was too late to say no.

"Good." He grinned and clattered down the stairs. I glanced wistfully out the window toward the carriage house, then followed him.

"We're going out to the camp," Damon yelled as we passed by Father's study.

"Wait!" Father emerged from the study into the living room, several long branches filled with tiny, lilac-like purple flowers in his arms. Vervain. "Wear this," he commanded, tucking a sprig into each of our breast pockets.

"Y shouldn't have, Father," Damon said

ou tersely, as he plucked the sprig out of his pocket and shoved it into his breeches pocket.

"I've given you latitude, son, and given you a roof. Now all I ask is that you do this," Father said, slamming his meaty fist into his palm so hard, I saw him wince. Thankfully, Damon, usually so quick to pounce at any sign of weakness, didn't notice.

"Fine, Father." Damon shrugged easily and spread his arms as if in defeat. "I would be honored to wear your flower for you."

Father's eyes flickered with rage, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he simply broke off another sprig and tucked it into Damon's coat pocket.

"Thank you," I mumbled as I accepted my own branch. My statement of thanks was less for the flower and more for Father showing mercy on Damon.

"Be careful, boys," Father said, before retreating to his study.

Damon rolled his eyes as we walked outside.

"Y shouldn't be so hard on him," I mumbled,

ou shivering in the night air. The summer-like day had become a chilly fall evening, but the mist that had been everywhere last night had lifted, giving us a been everywhere last night had lifted, giving us a crystal-clear view of the moon.

"Why not? He's hard on us." Damon snorted as he led the way to the stable. Mezzanotte and Jake were already bridled and stamping their hooves impatiently. "I had Alfred get everything ready. Thought we'd need a quick getaway."

Damon swung his leg over Jake's back, then galloped him down the path and turned in the direction opposite of town. We rode in silence for at least a half hour. With just the sound of the hooves and the sight of the moon peeking through the dense foliage, it felt like we were riding into a dream.

Finally, we began to hear sounds of flutes playing and laughter and the occasional gunshot. Damon directed us up over a hill toward a clearing. Tents were set up all over, and a piper played in the corner. Men were walking around, and dogs were stationed at the entrance. It was as if we'd arrived at a mysterious, hidden party.

"Hello, sir?" Two Confederate soldiers came up to us, their rifles pointed toward us. Mezzanotte took a few steps back and whinnied nervously.

"Soldier Damon Salvatore, sir! Here on leave from General Groom's camp down in Atlanta."

Immediately, the two soldiers relaxed their rifles and tipped their hats at us.

"Sorry 'bout that, soldier. We're gearin' up for battle, and we're losing our men like flies, before they even hit the battlefield," the taller soldier said, stepping up to pat Jake.

"Y and not because of typhus," the other,

es, smaller, mustachioed soldier said, obviously pleased to share this information with us.

"Killings?" Damon asked tersely.

"How'd you know?" the first guard asked, stroking his rifle. I glanced at the ground, unsure what to do. I felt that Damon was getting us into a dangerous situation, but I didn't know what I could do to fix it.

"My brother and I are coming from Mystic Falls," Damon said, jerking his thumb back as if to prove that was the direction we came from. "The next town over, past the forest. We've had some of our own trouble. People are saying it's some type of animal."

"Not unless it's an animal that only goes for the throat and leaves the rest of the body untouched," the mustachioed soldier said knowledgeably, his tiny eyes flicking back and forth between us.

"Hmm," Damon said, sounding suddenly uninterested. But then he changed the subject. "Any good games of poker going on tonight?"

"Right there in that clearing by the oak trees." The small soldier pointed a little ways off into the distance.

"Have a good evening, then. I thank you for your help," Damon said with exaggerated politeness. We walked in the direction the soldier pointed, until Damon stopped abruptly at a small circle of soldiers, huddled around a fire and playing cards.

"Hello! Soldier Damon Salvatore on leave from General Groom's boys," Damon said confidently as he slid off his horse and glanced around the faces lit up by the campfire. "This is my brother, Stefan. Can we be dealt in?"

One ginger-haired soldier glanced at an older, grand-fatherly type whose arm was in a sling. He shrugged and gestured for us to sit on one of the logs set up around the fire. "Don't see why not."

Adrenaline seeped through my veins as we settled down and took our hands. Mine was good: two aces and a king. I immediately threw in some rumpled notes from my pocket, making a bet with myself. If I won money, then everything would be fine with Katherine. And if I didn't, then … well, I didn't want to think about it.

"All in," I said confidently.

After we settled the game, I wasn't surprised to emerge as the victor. I smiled as I took the pile of money and carefully put it in my pocket. I grinned in relief, finally feeling sure in my love for Katherine. I imagined what Katherine would say. Smart Stefan, maybe. Savvy Stefan. Or maybe she'd simply laugh, showing her white teeth, and allow me to take her into my arms and twirl her around and around the room…. We played several more hands after that, during which I lost the money I had won, but I didn't care. The first hand had been the test, and now my heart and mind felt remarkably light.

"What are you thinking?" Damon asked, taking a flask from his pocket. He held it toward me, and I took a long swig.

The whiskey burned going down my throat, but I still craved more. It didn't seem that any of the other soldiers were up for another hand. The five we were playing with had drifted off to chew tobacco, drink more whiskey, or tearfully talk about their sweethearts back home.

"Come on, brother, you can tell me," Damon encouraged. He took the flask, swigged from it, then passed it back toward me.

I took another, deeper drink and paused. Should I tell him? Any hesitation I had earlier had disappeared. After all, he was my brother. "Well, I was thinking about how different Katherine is than any other girl I've met …," I began evasively. I knew I was treading into dangerous territory, but part of me was dying to know whether Damon also knew Katherine's secret. I took another sip of whiskey and coughed.

"How's she different?" Damon asked, a smile curving on his lips.

"Well, I mean she's not," I said, sobering up as I frantically tried to backtrack. "I just meant that I noticed that she is–" noticed that she is–"

"That she's a vampire?" Damon interrupted.

My breath caught in my throat, and I blinked. I glanced around nervously. People were drinking, laughing, counting their winnings.

But Damon was simply sitting there, the same smile on his lips. I couldn't understand how he was smiling. And then a new, darker thought appeared in my mind. How did Damon know that Katherine was who she was? Had she told him? And had it been the same way, in the misty predawn, in bed? I shuddered.

"So she's a vampire. What of it? She's still Katherine." Damon turned to look at me, urgency in his dark-brown eyes. "And you won't say anything to Father. He's half crazy as it is," Damon said as he scuffed his boot against the ground.

"How did you find out?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.

Suddenly, a shot was fired.

"Soldier down!" a uniformed boy who looked to be about fourteen yelled as he charged from tent to tent. "Soldier down! Attack! Out into the woods!"

Damon's face paled. "I need to help. Y little

ou, brother, go home."

"Are you sure?" I asked, feeling torn and suddenly frightened.

Damon nodded tersely. "If Father asks, I drank too much at the saloon and am sleeping it off somewhere." Another shot was fired, and Damon took off into the woods, blending into the sea of soldiers.

"Go!" Damon yelled. I ran in the opposite direction to the now-abandoned camp and dug my heels into Mezzanotte, whispering in her velvety ears and imploring her to go faster.

Mezzanotte rode through the forest faster than she ever had before; once across the Wickery Bridge, she turned, as if she knew exactly how to head home. But then she reared and whinnied. I held on with my thighs and saw a shadowy figure with golden-brown hair, arm-in-arm with another girl.

I stiffened. No women would be out after dark unaccompanied by a man in the best of circumstances, but definitely not in these times. Not with the vampire attacks.

The face turned, and in the reflection on the water I saw a pale, pointed face. Katherine. She was escorting little Anna from the apothecary. All I could see were the dark vines of Anna's curls, bouncing over her shoulders.

"Katherine!" I yelled from the horse, with a strength I did not know I possessed. Now, instead of wanting to hold her, I wanted to use my arms to restrain her, to make her stop carrying out the awful thing she was about to do. I felt bile rise in my throat as I imagined finding a jagged branch and ramming it into her chest. Katherine didn't turn around. She held Anna's shoulders tighter and led her into the forest. I kicked Mezzanotte hard on the flanks, the wind whipping against my face as I desperately tried to catch up with them.