Issue 3 [Late Spring 1996]
by Katherine Roberts
A six year old can survive on cats: two
or three, if one drinks carefully. But at that age I was
wasteful and kept so many of them in my tower, there was
barely room for me to sleep. I used to hunt them nightly
through the forests that surround our castle and bring
them home in handfuls, dangling by their tails and spitting
furiously. Papa indulged me, though he gave dire warnings
about the danger of scratches, and I grew used to hearing
my family discussing my ‘problems’ when they
thought I was not listening.
‘She’s a strange one, that Kryssa,’
Grandpa was fond of saying. ‘Always off on her own.
She’ll come to a bad end.’
This used to make me giggle. Even at six, I knew that
none of my family would ever end. Papa was five hundred
years old; Grandpa more than a thousand; my eldest sister
nearing two hundred. Ending was a great joke - would that
I had known. But I was very young, and only just beginning
to experience that disquieting hunger even a menagerie
such as mine could not soothe. Grandpa was first to notice.
He had a word with Papa, then with my sisters, who argued
among themselves for the privilege of escorting me on
my first flight. It was Viellah who came to my room one
evening, before the sky was truly dark, and sat on the
window seat, swinging her bare legs, curling vines around
the fingers of one hand and fending off cats with the
other. Her hair, black as mine, glittered with diamonds
that outshone the early stars. She seemed nervous.
‘Don’t poke that one around,’ I grumbled
as she tipped a long-haired tabby off her lap. ‘She’s
pregnant. Due to kitten any day now.’
‘Ugh! I don’t want it breeding all over me.’
Viellah screwed up her pretty nose. ‘Don’t
know what you see in the scrawny beasts.’
‘They’re beautiful.’ I reached down
to stroke those around my feet, made defensive by her
‘But no longer satisfying, huh?’ she said,
sly. Her dark eyes glittered at me through her fringe.
‘I know where we can find something truly beautiful
tonight. How about it, Krys? Do you want to come?’
I sat very still, all my hair standing on end. The breeze
that rustled the creepers around my window came in and
stroked my skin, almost like Papa sometimes did. I shivered.
My sister giggled. ‘Better than cats. Better than
a kitten, even. Come and see!’ And she did a backward
flip out of my window, her hair flying like crows’
wings for a moment before she fell.
‘Vi!’ I craned out after her, and saw her
laughing on her back in the moonlit grass, several hundred
feet below. There were diamonds everywhere.
‘Come on, Krys! Jump!’
I shook my head, not liking the look of the fence posts
only steps away from where Viellah had landed. ‘You’re
nuts, Vi!’ I called down into further floods of
By the time I had run down the spiral tower stairs, my
sister was already on her feet and dancing into the forest,
her bare feet white on the dark path. I followed her for
an hour or so, unquestioning, but when she started scraping
leaves off the shell of a gleaming silver pod, I balked,
‘Where are we going?’
Viellah covered me with the broken blooms of bind flowers.
Their petals clung sticky gold in my hair. ‘Don’t
ask so many questions. Just get in.’
‘In, I said.’ Her long fingernails dug into
my elbow, threatening to draw blood.
‘Vi, please...’ I stared at her hand in real
‘Oh, don’t worry so! Grandpa said you were
ready to fly tonight, and I’ll look after you. Or-’
Her look turned sly again. ‘-do you want to be a
We were inside the pod before I knew it, and the cushioned
canopy clicked shut over my head. Rich red silk kissed
my flesh, reminding me so forcibly of bed that I was nearly
asleep before Viellah pressed for takeoff. Just as well.
The sensation of flight unnerved me to panic proportions.
I struggled against the confining cushions until my sister
held me tight, laying her hot, comforting body on top
‘Silly,’ she murmured. ‘Silly, Krys,
silly. It’s all right. We’re only flying.
It’ll be worth it, my darling. Just relax a little.’
Gradually my fear subsided, so that I was able to look
out at the moon floating past the windows of our pod.
I began to enjoy the glitter of the stars. Then came the
landing in thick woodland, close to a cluster of strange,
squat houses with darkened windows. No candles, no sign
of life other than owls hunting through the trees. A ghost
town, I decided, wondering why we had come.
But my sister knew better. ‘Shh,’ she cautioned.
‘Asleep? During the night? What sort of people sleep
‘Mortals,’ Viellah whispered back. ‘People
who end after a mere hundred years, sometimes sooner.’
‘Why should they want to do that?’
She giggled at the expression on my face. ‘They
‘They are silly. But you’ll like them. Come.’
She took my hand and led me to the nearest house, where
I felt the heat of many bodies. My blood rose rapidly.
‘Steady,’ Viellah said. ‘I’ll
show you the best way this time, then you can fly as often
as you like.’ For all her big sisterly knowledge,
her hand was just as unsteady as mine. I could hear her
We tiptoed through ankle-deep herbs strewn on the floor
to stop smells, then slid under a curtained archway into
a small room packed with mortal children, shoulder to
shoulder on the floor. Their dirty limbs were entwined
in sleep under scanty furs. I stared at them in horror:
so close together, and with their flesh exposed to the
moonlight. Then I felt the excitement rise again. They
Viellah let go of me so that she could crawl forward.
But then she stopped with a little cry and clamped one
hand over her mouth. I, tense enough to scream, jumped
into the nearest shadow. ‘Vi? Vi? What’s wrong?’
The way the children shifted in their dreams scared me.
But my sister just pinched her nose with her fingers,
shaking with suppressed laughter. ‘Wild garlic!’
She indicated the white flowers by her knees, which I
noticed were wreathed in a deliberate pattern around the
sleeping children. ‘Phew!’ Still pinching
her nose, she scraped a passage clear and beckoned to
me. ‘Sorry about the smell, Krys. My fault. I’ve
been here before, see, and they try to stop me sometimes.’
I’d heard about garlic from Papa. Like most of the
rumours about us, it isn’t true. A nasty stink,
yes, and it thins the blood if you eat enough of it, but
garlic’s hardly life threatening, wild or otherwise.
I wondered how the children slept with so much of it in
the room, though mortals are said to have an underdeveloped
sense of smell, and I suppose they might have simply passed
‘Try this one, Krys.’ Viellah was already
satisfied, and she seemed anxious that I should be too.
I eyed the child in her arms. He was tiny, plump, sucking
his thumb. A light dusting of gold curls covered his head.
‘No more than a few months old,’ said my sister
proudly. ‘Should be sweet enough for you.’
She laid the child against my breast.
My heart banged. A wild throbbing weakened my legs so
that I was forced to kneel in order to finish my meal.
Sweet he was, and rich; so much richer than my cats that
I wondered what I had been missing. My veins sang, my
head turned light. I felt as if I owned the world.
‘Krys! Krys, come on, let it go now.’ Viellah’s
hands tried to pluck the child from me, but I cuddled
him close, crooning to him. She giggled. ‘Look at
you! A proper mortal mother.’
I blinked at her. The child’s heart was fluttering
faintly, and he smiled in his sleep. ‘Such strange
hair,’ I murmured, stroking it. ‘So bright.’
‘You can come again tomorrow, if you want.’
My sister firmly took the child away and laid him back
on his fur. ‘Though it’s best if you don’t
visit one place too often. I’ve a weakness for this
town, hence the garlic. Even mortals can get wise if we’re
‘I want to take them all back with me.’ I
grasped for the sweet, sleeping children, but Viellah
dragged me away with another laugh.
‘What are you doing, Krys? Stop it! They’re
not cats. You can’t just steal people’s children.’
‘You just can’t. Come on, we have to go now.’
She kicked the pile of garlic flowers across the gap in
the circle, forcing me back with my hands over my nose.
‘Children! Whatever next?’ she teased as we
ran to our pod. ‘Wait ‘til I tell Papa.’
‘He’ll let me keep some,’ I said sulkily.
‘He won’t! He hates them.’
‘Why did he make seventeen of us, then?’
Viellah snorted. ‘Why do you think he made only
This reminded me of something I had overheard Papa and
Grandpa discussing, and curiosity overcame my sulk. ‘Is
it true, Vi? About mortal women, I mean. That they breed
My sister laughed. ‘It’s true. Though thankfully
they don’t lay large litters. One at a time, usually.’
I was silent in the red cocoon as Viellah drove a wild
dance between the stars. The child’s sweet blood
lingered on my lips and the memory of his tiny, fragile
body made my heart ache in a way I was sure my sister
would not understand.
I quickly learned to drink from children with the same
efficiency as I drank from my cats, learned also to keep
silent about those strange feelings that came over me
from time to time, when I held a mortal child to my breast
- though Viellah never missed an opportunity to tease
me about the way I had wanted to add the babies to my
menagerie. I mastered all the tricks - how to avoid detection,
how to tell when it was safe to visit a mortal community,
when to fly quietly by - and for a while I was happy.
Yet as the years passed, I grew dissatisfied, even as
I had grown so with my cats, and began to return from
my flights irritable and aching inside. Papa watched me
with a strange look in his eye. My sisters, giggling,
told me to be patient. Grandpa whispered behind my back.
Then, on my hundredth birthday, Papa made me a present
of a mortal man.
Even Grandpa was sentimental when my sisters helped me
dress for the occasion. I remember him springing up my
tower with a bowl of rubies in his strong hands, bursting
in on us just as Viellah was drying my hair.
‘Perfect timing!’ he cried. ‘Here, girl
- weave these into that black curtain, and we’ll
see if we can’t make little Kryssa dazzle a bit.’
He poured the rubies into my lap, where they pooled like
fire against the purple silk of my dress. I was nervous,
but such a gift could not go unremarked.
‘Thank you, Grandpa,’ I whispered, running
my fingers through the stones, watching them burn in the
torchlight. Viellah picked one, threaded it on a cord,
and began to plait it into my hair.
‘Don’t tremble so,’ she murmured as
she worked. ‘You’ll enjoy it. Papa’ll
have picked a good one for you. He won’t suspect
‘What was your first one like, Vi?’ I asked.
She stared at the creeper, where one of my cats stalked
a branch, its tail shivering for balance. ‘Wonderful,’
she said. ‘Remember your first taste of a child?
Well, better than that. Just - wonderful.’
So I came to my first man in style, with gold against
my flesh and rubies in my hair. Papa set the pod down
on the other side of the hill and I walked the last bit,
slowly, letting the night breezes caress my skin, stopping
at every lake and pool to admire my reflection in the
darkness there. Yes, I could see myself. Or at least I
could see moon-pale flesh shimmering with gold, and the
pinpricks of red stars surrounding me: Grandpa’s
rubies blurred with the millions of worlds above. That
was how the mortal man would see me, though not if he
looked in the pool. There he might see darkness and be
His house was a grand affair of white walls covered with
roses, lit by cunning lamps hung in strings across the
gardens. Fountains arched high over my head, gold and
green against the lamps, and servants met me at the door
with a cup of wine. I let them lead me to his fireside,
where I sat sipping the wine and ignoring their curious
glances until the one I had been waiting for stepped into
the room. I stood, alight with anticipation, and stared
at his golden hair. A cat came and rubbed my legs, but
I hardly noticed its small heat.
The man stared back at me with eyes luminous as moon-daisies.
He whispered, ‘They told me you were beautiful,
Kryssa, but never that you were a goddess.’
Then he took my hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed
Viellah was wrong. He was nothing like my first taste
of a child. He was like nothing I had ever imagined. Papa
had said he was a Lord of his people, and told me to call
him Arian, yet I never spoke his name that night. I could
not speak at all. It took all of my will to force my eyes
from the delicate veins of his wrist. I did not know what
to expect, but felt certain there should be more to this
than drinking from a cat or a child, so I held myself
still and waited.
My patience was rewarded. Gently, Arian laid me on the
rug before the fire and peeled my dress from my flesh
until I was clothed only in gold and rubies. His neck
pulsed close to my lips. Blood throbbed in every one of
his veins - hot, so hot. I pressed my tongue to his throat,
yet still I held back, reluctant to end the song he was
making in my body.
‘Kryssa!’ he cried, arching over me, and I
felt a sudden, stabbing pain. I struggled away from him
then and stared in horror at the rug.
Fear freed my tongue. ‘Blood! You made me bleed!’
His arms tried to hold me, but I stuffed my dress between
my legs and fled, cold, back through the night to where
Papa waited in the pod.
Viellah laughed and laughed when she found out that I
had run away without even taking a sip. ‘You were
supposed to make him bleed!’ she cried, doubled
over with mirth. ‘Enjoying it, were you?’
And she mimed the thrusting dance we had performed before
‘Leave me alone.’ I blushed. ‘I’m
never going to try a man again!’
‘I think you will,’ she said, still laughing.
‘Now you’ve had a taste.’
She was right. I took a few more children, supped continuously
on my cats, but always when I lay down to sleep I remembered
Arian’s lips on my body like the fire of the rubies
in my hair, and the ache inside me became all the fiercer.
So I returned, alone, to his white house and crept into
his bedroom to surprise him in his dreams. Perhaps he
thought I was a dream, I do not know. Maybe that was why
he loved me so freely night after night and made no complaint
when I bit him. Maybe that was why it was many years before
anyone suspected my true nature. I only know that I was
happy as I had never been before, and both Papa and Grandpa
were pleased, though they would have had a fit if they
thought I was seeing the same man every night. Which is
why I kept the love Arian and I shared secret, even from
Arian would never have hurt me of course, but I had not
counted on the jealousy of a mortal girl whose family
was trying for a match with the handsome, rich Lord. They
set a trap for me which I, vibrant with excitement, did
not see until it was too late.
They chose a beautiful summer’s night with moonlight
on the white stone, stars in the fountains, flower scents
heady in the air. Arian had filled the bed with rose petals,
in which we rolled until they were crushed to a pulp.
They waited for me to bite him so that I would be weak
and languorous, then sprang upon me from all sides with
ropes woven of garlic stalks and silver crosses to blind
my eyes. Hands made rough with fear lifted me naked from
my lover, then held me by sheer force against the wall,
while Arian struggled up from his bed and stared about
him in confusion.
‘Look!’ said one of my captors, swinging his
cross. A mortal priest. ‘We’ll prove it to
you.’ So saying, he held a mirror to my eyes.
I saw a terrified girl, bound and shivering, with rubies
in her hair. Arian saw darkness and staggered away from
me, one hand on his neck where I had supped.
‘It’s not true...’ he choked out, staring
at me. ‘Kryssa - tell me it’s not true!’
‘You know what must be done,’ said the priest
with a sharp gesture.
Almost before I realised what they intended, someone came
running up carrying a wooden stake and set the point to
‘Arian!’ I screamed as they drove the wood
deep. Blood spurted out unchecked; more than the scratch
of a cat, more than a woman’s first taste of love,
more blood than I had ever shed before. ‘Arian!’
I struggled to free my hands so that I could stop the
flow, but my wrists were held tight behind me in coils
of garlic rope. I was more frightened than I had ever
been in my life. For the first time, I thought seriously
of ending. Then, as my captors watched me curiously, I
began to cry. ‘All right,’ the priest said
when my struggles had quietened. ‘This may take
some time. We’ll put her in the aviary.’ His
lips curled righteously. ‘In God’s light,
so she can’t escape.’
Oh, he knew how to torture me, that mortal priest! He
ordered me locked in an ornamental cage of crossed silver,
which they hung high above the rose garden, leaving me
bound and bleeding inside. I could not see Arian among
the faces that watched as the sun rose, and I still do
not know if he witnessed my terror of the great light
and heat that filled the sky. I screwed my eyes shut and
tried to hide under my hair, whimpering when the rays
touched my skin. So hot - so hot - it burned me. Yet I
could do little more than curl up against the silver bars
in pain and fear while my blood, of which Papa had always
warned me to be so careful, dripped onto the grass, where
it splashed the flowers ruby-red...
© 1996 Katherine