You may remember Leah Wilde, the daughter of Hannah and Nate, from Stephen Lloyd Jones’s debut novel, The String Diaries. If you don’t, no matter—all you need to know is that Leah’s tribe of supernaturally long-lived people is dying out, and she won’t stand for it. In a desperate bid against extinction, Leah brings together long-standing enemies, but her heroic actions have marked her as the most hunted young woman in the world. In the passage below from Written in the Blood, Leah learns more about the forces that threaten her.
Leah Wilde arrived in Oxford, squeezing her hired Mercedes into a tight parking space outside a terraced row of town houses a few minutes’ walk from Balliol College.
It had been raining back in London, but the clouds had receded as she drove west, and now a red sun set fires blazing across the limestone façades of the buildings.
Professor Emeritus Patrick Beckett lived in a converted first-floor apartment in one of the Victorian houses along the terrace. Leah found his name beneath a bell and rang it. Moments later a device on the door clacked and its lock released. She let herself into a hallway that probably hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in thirty years.
An uneven floor of red and white tile was home to a collection of strangled umbrellas and a console table overflowing with curling telephone directories. To the left a staircase, covered by a frayed grey carpet, rose at a steep angle. Bolted to the wall beside it hung a newly installed stairlift, its red vinyl seat and smooth metal track a jarring counterpoint to the rest of the decor. Leah followed the stairs up and to the right, where she encountered a yellowing front door.
‘It’s open!’ The voice – high-pitched and wavering, hallmark of the very old – was the most cheerful Leah had heard in weeks. ‘I’m in the snug! Second door on the right! If you see a sheepish-looking cat out there you can throttle him for me. Wretched thing just peed on my foot.’
Leah pushed open the door into a hallway so piled with books that she had to shuffle through it sideways to avoid knocking over any of the stacks. It felt both incredibly claustrophobic and wonderfully homely all at once, although the smell, a cocktail of moth balls, cooked porridge oats, rancid cat litter and old books, made her nose wrinkle. A ginger cat stalked towards her, tail held high and eyes averted, as if offended by the accusation it had just endured.
She found the door to the snug, opened it, and from within heard a stack of papers collapse and fan out across the floor.
‘Don’t worry about that!’ cried the voice. ‘Come in, come in!’
Leah slid around the door, which had wedged itself rigid over the toppled pile, and entered the strangest little room she had ever seen. Precariously balanced stacks of reading material rose like papery stalagmites from the carpet. Old maps hung from the walls, along with a collection of what looked like English Civil War weaponry. A rusting unicycle leaned in one corner, next to a set of dust-caked juggling balls and skittles. A black and white television perched on a table, an old VHS player balanced on top. The mantelpiece held a Gurkha knife, a Newton’s cradle, a sepia photograph of a fierce-looking woman and a row of Japanese puzzle boxes.
Patrick Beckett sat in an easy chair by the window, his feet propped up on a cowhide pouffe. Despite the ramshackle state of his apartment, the old professor was dressed smartly, in tweed blazer and open-necked shirt. In fact, Leah noted, the only element of his attire that seemed incongruous was the pair of bright pink leg warmers covering his trousers from ankle to knee.
Beckett looked painfully thin, but she did not believe age had done that to him. From what her grandfather had told her of the man, the professor had always displayed a bird-like intensity, mind flitting from subject to subject, body as restless as his thoughts. On the way here, she had calculated that he must be in his late eighties by now; she wouldn’t have guessed it by looking at him.
Beckett followed the direction of her gaze, appearing to notice his woollen accoutrements for the first time. His mouth fell open. ‘Ah. Aha! Probably looks a bit daft, come to think of it. But they’re just the ticket. Better than throwing away money on gas, wouldn’t you say? These old buildings, the heat just escapes through the walls. Sorry about the mess. If I’d known you were coming, I would have tidied up a bit.’
He raised eyebrows like two glorious white hamsters clinging to his forehead. ‘Actually, I did know you were coming. It’s Leah, isn’t it? Leah Wilde, that’s right. My word, I can see Charles in your face as clear as Jupiter.’ Beckett frowned, scratched his head. ‘You’re a good deal prettier, I should add – nothing masculine about you at all, that’s not what I meant. I’m very pleased to meet you. Can I ask, did you happen to bring along . . .’
Grinning, Leah unzipped her bag, pulling out the supplies he had requested over the phone. ‘One pork pie,’ she said. ‘Yes, I checked, and the pastry’s crisp, not soft, just as you specified. One bottle of HP sauce. Four cans of Courage bitter.’
Beckett’s eyes shone. ‘Fine work, Leah. Tremendous. Look, I’d get up, but if you wouldn’t mind.’
‘Where’s your kitchen?’
‘Right, yes. Back through there on the left, you’ll see it. And I hate to ask, but when you pop the pie on a plate, could you quarter it? Help yourself to anything you find in the fridge. I think there’s some milk somewhere. Check the date on it first.’
By the time Leah had cut up Beckett’s pie, poured a beer and made herself a cup of tea using the milk she had brought rather than the carton of what resembled cottage cheese lurking inside his fridge, dusk had surrendered to night.
Beckett wasn’t exaggerating about the house. When the wind blew, a draught whispered through his apartment, lifting the curtains she had closed against the darkness. At his urging, she lit a single plate on the gas fire and switched on a lamp in one corner. Sinking into a sofa thick with cat hair, Leah warmed her hands around her mug of tea as Beckett busied himself with pie and beer.
‘So,’ he said, spraying crumbs into his lap, ‘Now that you’re here, maybe you can help solve a mystery that’s been puzzling me for the better part of thirty years.’
‘If I can.’
‘All those years Charles and I were friends, good friends at that, and then one day . . . just gone. Completely disappeared. His wife, too. And his daughter – your mother, I mean. I always thought, for years and years, that he’d get in touch. But I never saw him again, never heard from him. Police couldn’t work out what happened. Or if they did, they certainly never told me.’ The old academic looked up. ‘Is he dead?’
‘Patrick, I’m afraid my grandfather passed away fifteen years ago.’
Beckett put his pie down on his plate and bowed his head. When, after perhaps a minute, he raised it once more, she saw that his eyes were wet with tears.
That he could display such grief at the news of her grandfather’s passing – someone he had not seen in decades – moved her so unexpectedly that she felt a fierce wash of love for him.
‘I suppose I should have expected it,’ Beckett said. ‘But how dreadfully sad, all the same. Your grandfather was an extraordinary man; cantankerous at times, but extraordinary nevertheless. The world’s lost a rare intellect in Charles Meredith. Still, fifteen years ago, you say? It doesn’t explain why he left, or where he lived out his remaining years.’
‘No, it doesn’t. But I doubt you’d believe the answer if I told you.’
‘Ha! You’d be surprised what a man of eighty-seven will believe, given half the chance.’
‘Maybe that’s true. I’m afraid I still can’t tell you, though. Not yet.’
He stared at her, his filmy eyes almost as colourless as rainwater. ‘But you do want something from me, don’t you? That’s why you’re here.’
‘I wanted to meet you, Patrick. My grandfather always talked about you, and there are very few people left who have memories of him. But you’re right – there was something else. You and Charles, you shared a passion for mythology. Folk tales.’
Beckett raised a cautioning finger. ‘The terms aren’t interchangeable.’
‘But you know what I mean.’
He peered at her. ‘Go on.’
‘Years ago, you shared a particular passion, an enthusiasm for an obscure piece of Hungarian mythology, centred around a race of people called the—’
‘Hosszú életek,’ the old man breathed, and when his eyes drifted from her face and stared into the fire, a smile tugged at his lips.
Leah shivered. ‘You remember.’
‘How could I forget? Your grandfather came to me about them, well, it must have been almost fifty years ago. Ha! I don’t remember what got him started, but he asked my advice and I pointed him in the direction of a few sources – stories and the like – that I’d collected during my travels. Then, of course, all those years later, he published that paper on them. By gods, it was the most incredible thing. It read more like a history than anything else.’ He brushed crumbs from the sleeve of his blazer. ‘Still gives me goosebumps to think of it.’
‘Once something snared his interest, it consumed him until he mastered it.’
‘Indeed it did.’ Beckett took a long draught from his beer, and settled lower in his chair. ‘I suppose, deep down, I always knew that he’d passed on, but I’m so sorry to hear you confirm it.’
For a while, neither of them spoke, listening to the wind as it twisted through Oxford’s streets.
‘I’m interested in another story,’ Leah said. ‘This one perhaps even older.’
‘My mind isn’t what it was. But if I can help, I most assuredly will.’
‘It’s a related story, I think, which is why I thought of you. Another myth; or folktale, perhaps. The name I’ve heard used is lélek tolvajok.’
‘Ah . . .’ Beckett’s eyes closed and his breath spooled out. He was silent for so long that Leah began to think he had drifted off, but then he sat up straight in his chair. ‘The tolvajok. You’re quite right, of course. An even older race, judging from the sources that remain.’
‘But originating from the same part of the world?’
‘Indeed.’ His eyes were bright again, alert. ‘You can trace the roots of both back to that area of Central Europe we call the Carpathian Basin – or sometimes the Pannonian Basin. Of course, the Pannonian really only refers to the area of lowland that remained after the old Pannonian Sea drained out of the Iron Gates. But for our purposes, there’s no need to retreat five million years to the Pliocene period.’
The professor nodded, carrying on as if he hadn’t heard her. ‘The tolvajok may be ancient, but they’re not millions of years old. No modern complex life-form can claim a residency that long. By complex, I don’t mean in structure. Yes, certain species of jellyfish have been with us for half a billion years or more. And just look at the coelacanth, thought to have been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous. That is, until a fisherman caught one in his nets off the coast of South Africa. I’m talking about complex in terms of brain structure, although again that’s a misnomer, considering what we’re discussing. But I’m getting distracted. Where was I?’
‘The tolvajok. And their origins.’
Beckett lurched forward, licking his lips. ‘Of course I was. Damned mind is going. I’ve been trying those Sudoku puzzles, you know. Waste of time. Anyway, we should start, as always, with the etymology. Lélek tolvajok is a Hungarian term. It translates, I believe, into something along the lines of spirit thief, or perhaps thieves, in the plural. But it’s not the most common name for them, I must say. I’m pretty sure the Slavic alternatives are more prevalent. The Czechs called them the zloděj těl. The Ukrainian term is xmapi. In the older languages, the direct translations often describe a virus, an infection of the mind.’
‘Yes, although that’s not a very helpful description. An infection doesn’t suggest sentience.’
Leah felt the skin on her scalp contracting. ‘A sentient infection?’
‘Of the mind, indeed,’ Beckett continued. ‘Or so the stories go. You might be surprised to learn that the tolvajok are the precursor to many of the world’s darker folktales and superstitions. Vampirism, lycanthropy . . . you name it; before the birth of those relatively modern-day creations – throughout the Pannonian Basin at least – you had the tolvajok. A living entity, which, exactly like any other parasite, required a physical host in which to live.’
‘But you’re saying . . .’ She frowned. ‘In contrast to other parasites, this one had no body of its own?’
‘Correct. We’re talking about an awareness; pure consciousness, if you like. If it helps, think of our interpretation of the soul. Do you believe you have a soul? Whether you do or you don’t, it’s a device that features regularly in mythology. The only difference, here, is that whereas we generally consider our souls tethered to a single body during our physical existence, the tolvajok have no such restrictions. They simply need a host. And when one host starts to die, they go on to take another.’
‘But how could something like that exist?’
Beckett shrugged. ‘You’re talking to a retired philologist, not a scientist. It’s the creation and distribution of the myth that interests me. But since you ask, let me ask you. What, after all, do we really know of consciousness? Historically, it’s been more the preserve of philosophy than science.’
‘What else can you tell me?’
‘Lots, probably. If I could remember any of it. I think I wrote a paper on them once. Should be around here, somewhere. You’re welcome to take it if you wish.’ Beckett broke off, and seemed to see the chaos of his snug clearly for the first time. He scratched his head. ‘Well, maybe not. Let me see what else I recall. Ah, yes. There’s a quite detailed passage about the tolvajok in Gesta Hungarorum. And there’s also a Latin text – can’t think of its name – held by the Charles University in Prague. It describes them quite extensively. Other than that, the references are fairly obscure.’ Beckett’s eyes flicked over to her and he grinned. ‘One thing I can tell you is that you have a blessedly slim chance of ever encountering one. Supposedly the lélek tolvajok died out some time after the hosszú életek cull.’
‘Why was that?’
‘Because the tolvajok were dependent on them.’
‘Well, the texts diversify somewhat on the exact reasoning but, generally speaking, when the tolvaj seized a host, the effect on the victim’s physical body – as well as mind – was enormous. The longer the union, the more exacting the toll. Imagine an engine constantly running above its limit. The body uses up all its reserves, ages incredibly fast, and when the tolvaj moves on, what it leaves behind is effectively waste material.’
‘I don’t see the link to the hosszú életek.’
‘All parasites harm their hosts in some way or other,’ he told her. ‘But the ideal relationship, if you can call any of this ideal, occurs when the parasite avoids killing its host, or at least avoids it for as long as possible. A body that ages incredibly fast is of limited use to anyone, so for the tolvajok, a person blessed with greater longevity—’
‘Such as a hosszú élet . . .’
Beckett nodded. ‘Exactly. They represent a far more compelling solution. Even so, as far as I remember it, a tolvaj needed to seize a hosszú élet at an early enough age if it were to take full advantage of the longevity on offer. Take one too late, and their body aged just as quickly as a simavér host. Perhaps it’s something to do with the way the brain matures. Anyway, when the hosszú életek went into decline, it’s said the tolvajok died out.’
Leah frowned. ‘Or they were forced to become less fastidious in their choice of host.’
‘Possibly, although according to the literature, the seizing of a new host was thought to cost the tolvajok dearly, too. Ultimately, if they switched too often they’d simply . . .’ He opened his fingers, scattering imaginary dust. ‘Drift away.’
The old academic paused, and then he glanced down at the veins mapping the backs of his hands, as if his words had led him, suddenly, to consider his own mortality. Outside, another gust of wind sent a tremor through the curtains. Leah thought of the dark landscape beyond the glass; of all those lives being lived unaware of the threats that walked among them.
‘There was a fragment I came across once,’ Beckett said, rousing himself. ‘A very old text, late fourteenth century. Forty years or so after the Black Death swept through Europe. The original had been lost – this was a fifteenth-century copy, transcribed by a monk living in some monastery in northern Italy.
‘For most of its length it narrates the day-to-day investigations of a party of witch-hunters linked to the Dominican Order, which is of interest, anyway, considering this was a few hundred years before the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. According to the fragment, one day the group’s inquisitor led them to an old ruin where, unwittingly, they stumbled across a nest of incredibly old lélek tolvajok. Roused from sleep, the tolvajok fell upon them, seizing new hosts from the party’s members. The inquisitor was the only one who managed to get away.’
Leah felt her stomach tighten as she listened to Beckett’s voice.
‘The explanation,’ he continued, ‘was that when times were tough – after an epidemic of plague and so forth – the tolvajok went into hibernation, drastically reducing the toll inflicted on their hosts, until new donors could be found.’
Beckett raised his eyebrows. ‘When I said earlier they probably all died out around the time of the cull, maybe I was being premature. Perhaps a few are out there still. Hibernating. Waiting for the right time to wake up and claim their inheritance.’
‘How do you kill them?’ she asked.
‘I have no idea.’
Her tea had begun to cool. She took a sip. ‘Thank you, Patrick. You’ve been incredibly helpful.’
‘I’ve enjoyed it immensely. You really do look a lot like Charles, you know. There is one other thing.’
He hesitated, a faint pinkish tinge appearing on his cheeks. His eyes fell to his lap before they found her face once more. ‘It’ll sound like a question from a senile old man.’
‘OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
She smiled encouragingly.
Beckett licked his lips. ‘Did he find them? Charles, I mean?’
‘I can’t believe I’m asking you this. But . . . the hosszú életek. Is that why he disappeared? Did he find them?’
Rocked by what Beckett had asked, Leah considered him. There was no way she should reveal the truth. It was dangerous not just for her. She heard the clock ticking on the mantelpiece, and wondered how many years the academic had left, sitting here alone surrounded by his old texts, his myths and his cats.
dAbandoning her usual caution, she said, ‘He did better than that, Professor. He married one.’
Beckett’s chest swelled. A moment later his mouth dropped open. ‘But that means . . . if you’re his granddaughter, that means . . .’
‘Yes.’ She nodded. ‘It means you’re talking to one.’