The Dead London Chronicles: Vol III, August 2016
Catherine Curzon and Willow Winsham
Copyright 2016 Catherine Curzon and Willow Winsham
On her return to where Alice lay, sleeping serenely, Mary found herself met by the doctor who looked in turn a little more satisfied with the progress of his patient. In fact, so pleased was he by Alice’s peaceful slumber that he told, no, politely commanded Mary that the day was hers to use as she saw fit, that her mistress would sleep, he would watch her and the maid who cared for her mistress every waking moment must take some time to just be. No amount of arguing would shift him from his path and she found herself kindly but definitely dismissed for the day, in a house full of vampires, duchesses and half dressed footmen.
She thought again of the footman’s suggestion that she go exploring, that she should venture out into the wilderness beyond. It did indeed look tempting, now that the danger with her mistress was past, the snow falling lightly as, wrapped tightly in her cloak, she set out into the white.
Wherever those so-called hellfire caves were if they were there at all, Mary could hardly imagine beneath the still-falling slow but she was a creature of instinct, and a little whiteout brought no fear to her. She would find her way back here blindfolded if she needed to, and the air was fresh, the sky blue despite the snowfall. Indeed, once out of the baffling house, her good senses returned immediately, and she strode with purpose, not feeling the cold greatly as she made her way away from the house.
There were no prints in the freshly fallen snow, no suggestion that anyone but she trod here and she felt wonderfully intrepid as she went, wishing that the footman with the jet black eyes could see her now. What he was she couldn’t know, but he was neither vampire nor wolf nor, she suspected, quite human, with those eyes and that knack of being there.
In fact, so intent was she on not thinking of him that she stopped suddenly at a sight in the snow, a single hoof print and then, a few feet further on another and another, into the trees ahead. Mary turned and looked behind her yet there were only her own shoe prints, this one-hoofed creature, if creature it was, seemingly appearing from nowhere.
Perhaps the devil had also fancied a walk that morning.
Mary refused to feel nervous, quite certain that if she were to meet him she would simply smile and walk on, though why only one print was showing was beyond her. What, after all, would he look like if not a storybook monster, and London was full of those these days. Anyway, if he hopped about on one leg, he was hardly likely to be game for the chase.
She followed the prints into the trees, glad despite herself that the foliage was not thick, watching as they tramped up trunk and down bark, along boughs and onto the ground. If nothing else, he was nimble. She paused briefly, thinking she saw something, but it was only a deer, stopping to regard her before breaking cover and running across her path and away.
The devil was no deer, of that she was sure, though the animal could no doubt give the best a run for their money. And then, somewhere, she heard that whistle. The naked - no - near naked footman who she had left in the kitchen with his tea and cake, was somewhere in these trees, though he was no one- hoofed devil, that much she knew.
“I know,” she called upwards, “That you’re up there!”
“Did you follow my hoof print?” His reply came from above, playful and mischievous.
“I followed something,” she responded cautiously, “But I don’t believe for one minute—”
High in the trees above came the sound of movement and then she saw him, climbing swiftly down to occupy a heavy bough just ten feet or so above her head, no longer half naked but now clad in a simple black cloak, boots on his usually bare feet. The footman greeted her with a smile and asked, “Climb up?”
“What are you doing up there?” she peered up, “What game are you playing?”
“I am playing the game called being in the house with all those dukes is boring, so let’s go and climb a tree,” was his response. “Did you get a day off?”
“I did,” she frowned, “Were you listening in?”
“Not much happens that I don’t know about.” He scooped up some snow, sprinkling it onto her head. “Can you climb trees?”
“I can,” Mary squinted up, “Give me one good reason why I should?”
“To prove that a lady’s maid isn’t all needlework and tiny little cups of tea?”
“There is nothing tiny,” she was already shrugging off the cloak, knowing she would not be able to climb with it, “About my cups.”
“Madam, I am too much of a gentleman to comment!”
That did it, and without further comment of her own, Mary reached for the nearest branch, pulling herself upwards with little thought for anything other than proving to this whatever-he-was that she was up to the task.
“You are like a monkey!” He laughed at the observation, even as he added, “And I take back what I said about lady’s maids!”
“So you should,” she told him firmly, climbing up further towards him, “Now tell me about these footprints.”
Quite unexpectedly the footman reached down a hand seized Mary’s wrist, lifting her effortlessly the last few feet until she was able to settle on the bough beside him, looking out over the wood and through the snow to the opulent house beyond. With a frown he looked down to the now unsullied ground, where only Mary’s prints remained and asked, “Hoof prints?”
“Right there—” she pointed, exclaiming, “How did you do that?”
That he was not anything approaching normal was now more than clear, and she regarded him closely, searching for the answer.
“Maybe,” he held out his hand, a richly appointed silver brandy flask somehow held in the palm, “I am magic.”
“What,” she held her breath then, “Are you?”
“The man,” he smiled, “Who looks after the household.”
He had, she realised, been telling her all along, the key to his identity in those oft repeated words that she had not understood until now. “You’re—”
“Sitting up a tree?”
“You’re the Devil!”
In reply his eyes opened wide, comically so, and he whispered, “Then where are my horns?”
“You—” Mary rounded on him furiously then, “How could you play with me like that!”
“Have some brandy and smile; you are far prettier when you smile.”
At that she lunged at him furiously, telling him hotly, “I am no man’s sport, Sir, whether he be the devil himself!”
Mishael de Chastelaine, the supposed devil himself, reacted too late to save himself from falling clean from the tree, though his arm snatched around Mary’s waist and took her with him as he fell, the time seeming to slow in the moments before they hit the snow-covered ground. The breath was knocked from her and it took a moment to realise that she was lying fully atop the master of not only the house but, if rumours were to be believed, the entire underworld as well. He lifted his head, that ridiculously, stupidly handsome head, and pecked a kiss to her lips as though he had every right to do so, as though he were not infuriating, insufferable and not at all as handsome as he thought he was.
“Why,” she demanded after a moment to gather herself, “did you just do that?”
“Because you make me feel very devilish,” he grinned, “Wolfish one might say.”
That was when her hand snapped out, catching him across the face before she had even fully registered her intention. “Well!” The exclamation was ridiculous in its shock, and he fell back onto the snow, eyes closed. “Oh bloody hell!”
Only I, Mary realised, could knock out the devil. And be kissed by the devil, or the footman or whatever he was. The man who looks after the household… Of course he was the devil, because life had ceased to be normal when they walked into his house, the house where it snowed in summer and the walls were never where you had left them.
“Wake up,” she leaned over him, tapping his face, “For goodness sake, wake up!” That handsome face remained unmoving, slumped against the snow. “Wake up!” The next tap was more of a slap, as she told him, “A maid can’t floor the Devil!”
Instead of a reply he gave a long, pained sigh, lips parting slightly, the lips that had been against hers, however briefly, the memory distracting her for a moment before she murmured more gently, "I didn't mean -- please wake up."
“You have murdered me,” he whispered, one eye opening. “Killed me dead.”
“Murdered the Devil?” she raised an eyebrow at that, “I don’t think so! Unless,” she added, peering closer, “You aren’t really the Devil after all….”
“Dead, or the Devil?”
His reply, as though it was utterly normal, was to peck another kiss to her lips, murmuring softly, “The latter…”
“Then what is the Devil,” she found herself drawn to those eyes again, the ones that watched her so closely, “Doing kissing maids?”
“Enjoying himself,” Mishael de Chastelaine’s voice was smooth as velvet, full of mischief, “You have very kissable lips…”
“And they are not,” Mary was, she realised, still lying atop him, “Yours to kiss, sir!”
“Then you kiss me instead?”
“And lose my soul?” She should probably be more scared, but her emotions were currently moving between intrigued and annoyed and back again at rapid speed.
“Or your heart?”
“That,” she fixed him with a look, “Is not for losing.”
“One kiss,” Mishael’s hand stole into her hair, “Will do you no harm.”
“One,” she decided, the whole matter best over and done with as she bent closer to press her lips to his. Once there however it was not quite as simple as she had thought to pull away again, his lips soft and enticing beneath hers.
If those lips were to part, Mary assured herself, she would stop him, would end the kiss yet even as she felt them part, coaxing hers to do the same, she remained in the devil’s embrace. She lost track of how long they remained that way, the kiss lengthening as she remarked detachedly to herself that kissing the devil was a more pleasurable experience than she would have thought. His hand was soft against her back, tangled in the hair she didn’t remember unpinning, the other caressing her waist gently.
“That,” she murmured when she finally had to break for air, “Is not fair.”
“Nice is different to fair…”
“I should not,” she was suddenly overwhelmingly aware, “Be here with you like this.” What her mistress would have to say she could well imagine, what she herself should be thinking should alone be enough to have her scrambling to her feet.
“You should!” He leapt up, reaching for her hand. “We fit together so well.”
“I fit with no one.” Mary shook her head, “I need to get back.”
“Will we see each other again?”
“We’ll be leaving once the snow clears,” she half answered the question, brushing down her dress. “I need to get back to my mistress.”
“Can I call on you in London?”
His words were unexpected and she frowned. “Surely the Devil has more important things to do than call on maids?”
In reply, Mishael blushed, that sculptor’s idea of handsome taking on a look of bashfulness that she was sure must be anything but genuine.
“It is not the job that intrigues, it is the lady.” The smile that followed that was somehow too guileless and he bowed low, telling Mary, “You have made me a happy man today, Miss Lambert; it is too rare nowadays.”
“Well,” she had nothing she could say in face of that, feeling her own cheeks colour and hating the fact, “At least I have been of service.” With that she turned, intent upon following her prints back through the snow.
Through the thirty six hours that had passed since he brought Alice home from the village, Faulkner had not left the side of the woman who had been his first – only - love. Sitting beside her bed, sometimes with her maid in attendance, sometimes her perfumed stepdaughter, he tended the fever until it broke, watched as the sweat on her forehead no longer glistened, heard the gentle rhythm of her peacefully slumbering breath.
Of the other visitors to the house, including his closest friend’s newly-arrived party, he saw nothing and of the violent attacks in the land beyond, he knew nothing, focused only on this most important of patients. Frail, painfully thin, drawn and sad the woman in the bed was not the vibrant girl he had once known and he wondered at what her life had been to bring her to this, yet that golden hair, those blue eyes were not diminished by her ill health and her beauty, sparkling and peerless, had not been stolen from her.
Faulkner wondered now, as the darkness deepened and the night set in, whether they might somehow renew the friendship they had lost. He would put aside the stinging mockery of her last letter, would pretend he had never loved her more than life itself and would call her friend if she would but allow it.
And then, perhaps, she would confide in him the truth behind the dark bruises that bloomed on her skin… if it was as he suspected, he could not promise such kindness to the husband he already somehow knew was responsible for steeling the joy from Alice Tyhurst’s life. A murmur shook him from his reverie, those blue eyes flickering open to meet his. “Robert…”
“Good evening,” the doctor leaned forward in his chair at the head of the bed, touching her hand softly. “You have rested, finally.”
“I thought….” she was trying to focus with effort, “I thought you were a dream….”
“No,” the word was a breath and he curled his fingers around her own, protective and comforting. For a moment Faulkner was silent and then he told Alice, “I have been beside you since you fell ill, and will stay beside you until you are well.”
His words had not, he realised immediately, brought the reassurance he had hoped to convey, a flicker of something he couldn’t quite read across her face as she murmured, “Thank you for your care.”
“We are friends, Alice, whatever-”
Faulkner’s words were silenced by the sound of hammering on the front door of the house that seemed to echo throughout every inch of the building, a man yelling in furious German for the door to be opened now, that they are coming. The very air seemed to darken with the unexpected drama of his arrival and somewhere dogs barked frantically, horses whinnying in the stables loud enough for it to be heard here in the bedroom.
The Scot squeezed Alice’s hand, silently promising her that she was safe as, outside, the air was filled momentarily with something like the sound of fabric, no, wings flapping, though the doctor could hardly think of what sort of creature might make such a sound. On instinct he was on his feet and at the window in seconds, pulling the shutters closed and pushing the bolts into place.
Whatever was happening, whatever this was, Faulkner knew, nothing would touch Alice again.
“What is it?” He heard the fear in her voice, saw her wince as she tried to sit up.
“It’s all right,” yet it wasn’t, voices raised in alarm inside the house too and he thought of the gun in his own room, already sure he would not leave Alice in order to retrieve it. From without the hammering on the door sounded again and then abruptly ceased as it was opened, the newly arrived visitor no doubt glad for sanctuary.
“Help me up….” Alice demanded, “Something is coming….”
“No,” he returned to her, “Stay here, you’re safe.”
“None of us,” came the chilling murmur, “Is safe. Robert—”
“With me, you are,” he told her, knowing it to be true. “Believe me.”
“I am not,” the sudden burst of fire from her surprised him, a flicker of the girl he had once known, “Lying here while goodness knows what is going on—”
As Faulkner opened his mouth to speak there came an almighty clap of thunder from above, a blast of arctic cold air billowing down the chimney and causing the flames in the grate to gutter, the candles in the room to flicker. He found her hand in his again in response, glad now for her unexpected return to wakefulness as he held up his hand for silence, listening to a skittering, clawing something that seemed to be in the chimney.
He felt her holding her breath, hand tightening in his, a quiet whisper following of “Help me stand…”
Instead, he impetuously pressed a kiss to her hand before releasing it and then, with his finger held to his lips, Faulkner approached the fireplace. The flames were too low, easy enough to avoid or even extinguish for whoever, whatever was in the chimney and for a man of his extravagant height he moved with an unexpected lightness, silently taking the poker from the hearth. For a moment he cast a glance back at Alice, seeing not the fretful, frightened woman he had met at breakfast in what seemed like another world, but something more determined in those blue eyes entirely. It was with that thought that he dropped to one knee and thrust the poker with all his strength into the chimney in the direction of that scuttling, scraping invader.
He felt the weapon make contact with something, tearing through flesh and glancing off bone as whatever it was let out an inhuman shriek that seemed to rattle the windows. Then there was no weight, nothing on the poker at all and he withdrew it and stood, stepping swiftly back as a shower of jet black ash plummeted into the flames, which burst into dramatic life once more. Whatever had been in that chimney, Faulkner knew, it was not human at all.
Despite his previous words Alice had pushed herself to sit fully, legs carefully moving so her feet could find the floor, a frustrated sound as her body protested. He needed the guns, he knew, yet he also knew that he couldn’t leave her here alone, that whatever that was would not be alone either.
“Help me,” the words were almost an order, “We will go together.”
“I took a liberty in kissing your hand,” Faulkner was a model of politeness, though there was a slight gleam in his eyes as he crossed to the bed and took her elbow, “I hope you will not hold it against me before we have successfully seen tomorrow’s dawn.”
“I need something,” he knew instinctively from her expression that she did not mind, had not minded, “From my bag…..”
“You don’t-” Faulkner shook his head. “Where is it?”
She gestured and at her direction he helped her towards it, where she murmured thanks before beginning to rummage. “Could you pass me my dressing gown?”
“I am so terribly sorry,” that seemed to pull him up, remembering that she was a woman in her nightgown, that he really should have offered to find her maid or – no, one could hardly find the maid when creatures from a nightmare were coming down the chimneys. Instead, Faulkner retrieved the dressing gown, even as he said, “What are you looking for?”
Alice paused to accept the gown, allowing him to help when the movement jarred her back without answering his question, something slipped into the pocket a moment later. “Lets go.”
“Take this,” he held out the rather lethal-looking fire poker and admitted, “I have a blade.”
“I will try,” she took the poker, “Not to slow us down.”
Faulkner fell silent then, opening the door and peering out into the hallway, where the candles still burned bright. The house was filled with the sounds of panic, with screams and noise and for a moment he wondered at the fate of Dan, even he knew that if anyone would ride out such drama with a beer and a laugh, it was the one-time resurrectionist. Instead the doctor concentrated on Alice, on getting them both safely to his room and the hard-to-explain arsenal of weapons contained therein.
Walking must surely pain her but she made no complaint, only asking, “What is your plan?”
“I have a gun in my room,” Faulkner winced at the understatement, “Some guns, and a rifle; my plan is to get us there, get us armed and keep us alive until dawn. Beyond that, I have yet to decide.”
“Do you think guns will work against whatever this is?” the question was a shrewd one, the matter something he had not allowed himself to contemplate.
“I think in these terms… A bullet might not kill it, but take the top of its head off, and it can’t bite you anyway.”
“If it comes to running,” there was a ghost of a smile on her lips then, “I think they’ll win.”
“It would hardly be proper for me to carry you—” even as he spoke a window at the far end of the hallway smashed inwards with that sounds of beating wings and a moment later Faulkner had slung Alice over his shoulder and was running along the corridor, calling, “I apologise, Miss Tyhurst, it won’t be for long!”
“Go faster—” there was fear in her voice then, and he picked up his pace, even as he apologised again for the discomfort it must surely bring her. What was chasing them she couldn’t see, it seemed to be engulfed in blackness, shadows swirling around something, some creature that must be nightmarish, that was gaining on them, the shadows stretching before it. “Robert—-”
The candles behind went out as that thing passed them, the wings beating, the flames at the wicks ahead guttering low and he told himself that they would outrun whatever it was, that it was no match for them. It was this thought that spurred the doctor on towards his own room, to block out the sounds of terror from below, the howl of the creature in pursuit, the sulphurous smell that engulfed them and the knowledge of its proximity as the candles ahead began to splutter and die. He felt Alice clinging to him, sensed her urging him on, and the thought that he couldn’t let any harm come to her, not now that he had found her again, kept him focused, keeping him going onwards towards at least semi safety.
“Close your eyes!” Faulkner didn’t know why he told her that, why he didn’t want her to see what ever was following yet it seemed important, somehow. A well-placed kick opened the door to his room and he threw himself through it, the same foot kicking it closed as they landed in a tumbled heap on the rug. He helped her back to her feet as soon as he could, needing to see her face, that she was safe, fear evident in her eyes as she clung to him a moment more.
“It’s all right,” the doctor promised, his hand flicking out to turn the key in the door as a worrying silence filled the hallway outside. “We’re all right.”
If she disagreed she didn’t voice it, staying close, eyes closing briefly as if to gather herself. For a second Faulkner watched and then he took her face in his hands to whisper, “Did I hurt you?”
Her eyes opened again then, and he found himself caught by them as she whispered in turn, “No more than could be helped.”
“Your room,” he managed the hint of a smile, bright blue eyes gleaming for a second, “Is much grander than mine.”
“You should ask,” she told him seriously, “To swap.”
“I’ve slept on the floor of an Ottoman slaughterhouse, Miss Tyhurst,” was the doctor’s honest reply, “And a less grand room means a smaller fireplace… one less thing we have to worry about defending.”
“What were those things?” She was still studying his face, though what she was searching for he couldn’t fathom, “What do they want?”
“I don’t know,” he murmured, meeting her gaze as his words died away.
A memory then, strong and vivid, of the last time they had been this close, the look in her eyes, he was sure, very much the same as now, though it couldn’t possibly be so. Alice would not look at him now, after the years had robbed him of his fire, his youth, and see anything other than the society doctor, the establishment pillar. There was nothing other than that to see now.
Even as he thought that her hand ghosted against his cheek, a murmured apology following a moment later. Without even meaning to he reached up and caught that same hand, prolonging the touch he had so missed, had longed for… had tried and failed to forget.
“If we’re going to die here tonight,” her words were soft, no hint of fear, “I want you to know I am sorry.”
“We are not,” of that he was certain, he had survived too much to die in a genteel bedroom in the British countryside, “And I am sorry, Alice, for everything…”
“Shh….” she was trembling, his hold on her tightening instinctively, to protect her, to keep her close. He would never lose her again after tonight, Faulkner knew, would not let this most precious friend slip away.
“When it started to snow,” her words seemed to weave a spell around them, “I thought of you.”
“And I of you,” he admitted, remembering the first flakes that fell, how he had travelled to the inn and heard her voice so clearly he thought she was there in the room though she had not yet left the house.
“That girl…” So many snowstorms had engulfed him since then, so many lands, so many dangers and always with her voice, her face… that scent of roses in the air. She was always there.
“I thought she was dead,” came the murmured admission, “I have been dead…”
“And yet here we are… alive; together.”
“Together…” If he closed his eyes he would be back on that cliff top, heat and promise between them despite the snow, though her frame was painfully thin now, weak and bruised through years of god only knew what treatment.
“Would it be a dreadful imposition if—” He fell silent, finishing the question as a thought that she could never hear… I kiss you? he couldn’t ask that, what sort of a man asked that? She had made a fool of him, abandoned him, laughed at him, been the only woman he had ever allowed himself to love. And now she was here again, and he could not stand the thought of losing her again.
Even as his thoughts raged her lips touched his, soft, hesitant, as if she had sensed his unspoken words after all. In that moment his worries were banished, doubts silenced and he kissed her in return, the years melting away yet it was over too soon, the need for breath breaking his lips from hers, apology stilling at the look in her eyes as she whispered, “Robert….”
It was reckless and possibly stupid, the doctor knew even as he brought his lips to hers, heart thundering in his breast, the feel of her kiss ridiculously, wonderfully familiar even after all these years. This kiss was more heated, Alice’s hand in his, her slight frame sinking against him, soft in his arms. They would not die tonight, not now, not after this, Faulkner knew, there was too much still to live for. Finally they broke again, her forehead pressed to his, those blue eyes closed before they opened again to meet his.
“I should probably barricade the door…” he murmured, almost amusing himself at how prosaic he could be. “And you should rest…”
“You’re not strong…” Faulkner scooped her into his arms, her weight inconsequential as he carried her to the bed and laid her atop the covers, “Rest; I’ll secure the room.”
“Be careful,” she caught his hand, “Don’t take any risks.”
“I am too reliable for that,” the doctor replied with a smile, squeezing her hand in turn before going to shutter the windows, even as the sounds of gunshots could be heard downstairs. Moving more quickly, he banked up the fire in the grate and then, feeling absurdly showy, shifted a heavy dresser in front of the door with rather less effort than it might have taken when he was that boy all those years ago. He could feel her gaze on him, those eyes that so captivated him even after all this years watching his every movement.
This room was safe, Faulkner knew, easy to escape from should they need to go through the window thanks to an orangery that extended below, yet easy too to defend. Better here than the glass-sided ballroom or the drawing rooms with their enormous windows and vast fireplaces. Please, he asked silently, please let Daniel Miller be somewhere as safe as this.
“I think,” her words echoed his own thoughts, “We are as safe as we can be….”
“Your stepdaughter-” Faulkner suddenly realised, eyes widening as he turned back to Alice, sure she must think him rather thoughtless.
“Will not lack for people to defend her,” came the quiet reply, and he realised in that moment how little love there was lost between the two women.
“Your maid was walking with our host earlier,” he said, simply to safe her any awkwardness, little that happened in the house escaping the watchful doctor. “I believe she will be well cared for.”
“I had not thought,” she looked abashed at that, “If anything were to happen to Mary—”
“In the company of the man who claims to be the devil?” He shook his head, allowing himself a smile as he opened the dresser and took out a small wooden trunk, “You need not worry for her safety, even if Mr de Chastelaine is more ringmaster than Beelzebub.”
He felt rather than saw her nod, felt too the sudden wave of weariness as she sank back against the pillows. All they had to do was survive until dawn… it would be easy.
Anything, he wanted to say, though he simply asked, “Would I?”
“Come here?” the words were a whisper, those eyes fixed on him once more. “Just be near me.”
“Of course,” Faulkner nodded, bringing the wooden gun case and setting it down beside the bed before he sat beside Alice, somewhere between formality and intimacy. As another gunshot sounded outside he took her hand, studying her face closely and seeing that girl she had been still in her eyes, even through the fog of sadness that had descended there. “I’ll wager you did not expect life as a royal physician to be so eventful.”
“There is a lot more to you than a royal physician,” she told him with certainty, fingers twining with his.
A little espionage, the occasional acquisition of an old master… nothing too eyebrow raising, he was certain, even as he replied, “I do tend the occasional politician and bluestocking too, it’s true.”
The ghost of a smile, before she shifted a little closer, the move barely noticeable as she lay her head against his shoulder. For a moment Faulkner’s eyes closed and then he tilted his head slightly to let it rest against Alice’s hair, savouring her closeness.
“I am sorry,” her words were soft, “For whatever it was that I did all those years ago….”
“Shh…” Her hand tightened on his and she fell silent, the room still enough that he could hear her breathing, each breath in and out as she could surely hear his. “I missed you,” he whispered, quite unintentionally, “Every day.”
He felt her tense, heard the edge to her voice as she told him, “You know there was no need to.”
“I couldn’t turn my feelings off,” he replied, a slight edge to his own words, the rest of the sentence hardly needing to be voiced.
“You made a very good show of doing so!”
“I made no show,” the doctor told her, thinking this a very rum affair given the tone, the content of her last letter. “What show there was, Alice, came from you!”
“How can you say that?" her cheeks, so pale moments before, were now flushed, "I waited for you-- waited and waited, and you did not come!"
“Did not come?” Faulkner lifted his head, turning to look at her askance. “Come where precisely? I sent you letters, you never replied… I visited your husband’s house in the city you had me sent away! We shall not dwell on the letter you sent that advent, Alice, let no more be said.”
“There were no letters!” Anguish and outrage filled the air, “Only my own. From you, there was nothing, not one word, Robert!”
He fell silent, the one thing he knew for certain being that this woman would not lie; the thought of the alternative was too painful to countenance even as he asked carefully, “You received no word from me? I wrote every week from the day you left for London to when I received your dismissal those months later; pages and pages of silly notes, I-” proposed, he swallowed that word though, “There were letters, Alice.”
“I asked you to help me – to meet me—” those blue eyes were awash with confusion then, denial and anger just beneath the surface, “I waited Robert, and I heard nothing.”
“No,” Faulkner shook his head, searching her gaze, “Alice, I heard nothing from you; I was desperate when I read of your betrothal… did you not receive my offer of marriage?”
“Your—” something seemed to crumble within her at that, words trailing off as she gave a tiny shake of her head.
“The letter you sent… you asked me to let you move on with your life… I only did as you asked…” his own voice was a whisper.
“I wrote no such letter!”
“The writing was yours,” he closed his eyes for a moment, well aware that there were people in his own sphere who could mimic any writing, any signature. “From the moment your father passed away, I believe you and I were played false…”
“Are you telling me,” the hurt and hope in her voice was almost painful, “That you did not ignore my letters?”
“I received only one, and I believe now that it was sent by another,” the thought was too horrendous, the years lost to them too painful. “If I had known you needed me, I would have been there.”
“I don’t understand—”
“I wrote to you, you to me,” the explanation was simple, devastatingly so and the doctor’s usually placid blood boiled with it. “Our letters were intercepted and someone, perhaps your husband, perhaps not, took it upon themselves to reject me on your behalf. That is all there is to understand.”
“No—” he could see in her eyes though that she knew it to be true, the realisation that things could have been so very different, the betrayal and misery written clear across her face.
“It’s all right,” the words were firmer, the facade of the society doctor shoved aside in favour of something a little more dramatic and he drew Alice into his arms, a hug hardly something Robert Faulkner was used to even as he shared one with her. He felt her cling to him, and at that he held her yet closer, hushing the whispered apology that was now even more unnecessary.
What this meant for them he hardly knew, could not say, but he thought of those years of danger, of seeking the next job, the next risk just to be anywhere but near her, risking death, chancing it, daring it to find him. He might never have known, Faulkner realised starkly, might have gone to the grave believing she had thrown him away. And yet she had not, far from it, instead asking for him, for his help, though for what he could only too clearly guess at given her sorry state.
“If you still want my help,” his voice was clear, confident, “I am yours to command, Alice; there will be no more falls.” He felt her tense at that, felt the protest well within her, saw any words die on her lips as she lifted her head enough to meet his gaze. Perhaps they should not have kissed, perhaps they should, but when his lips had met hers he barely recognised himself, hardly knew what had become of that dour doctor or the dedicated government man, hardly cared for anything other than the woman in his arms, the girl he had lost.
“I would have said yes,” Alice whispered, “I would have said yes, Robert…” He silenced her with a gentle hush, hardly knowing what the future might bring but sure they would never lose one another again, whether as friends or something more. “What must you think of me… I should have known…”
“In my heart I knew you wouldn’t have written that letter, I’m so sorry…” he felt like a failure, a feeling he was hardly used to, he realised. “I let you down, Alice, I won’t again…”
What happened then, Faulkner wasn’t sure afterwards but the shutters of the room were suddenly in splinters and he pushed Alice back against the covers as something, some amorphous shadow of a thing, sent him sprawling back onto the floor. He had the impression of teeth, of that sulphurous smell, of the sense that he couldn’t get his breath, couldn’t do anything but be engulfed by the blackness that seemed darker than any night. Even in that drowning, overwhelming darkness though he knew that he must fight, that even if he died here and now, she would not, that he would keep this… thing occupied until Alice was safe from the room.
There was a moment when he thought that everything was over, Alice’s face flashing before him, and then suddenly there was a loud pop and the thing, whatever it had been, was gone, showing him once more in that thick, filthy dust. Coughing he turned enough to see Alice on her knees, brandishing the poker and looking greatly surprised that she had succeeded in slaying whatever had been trying to kill him. “Oh goodness….”
Faulkner blinked away the ash that had settled with the destruction of the creature, shaking it from his hair as he went to sit , still trying to find the air to breath again. It seemed to have taken all the strength he possessed in that short fight, his muscles complaining as he pushed himself to reach for her hand. The poker dropped to the floor again, Alice’s fingers twining tightly with his own, her free hand stroking over his hair, voice filled with concern as she asked how he was.
“Surviving,” he sank against her despite the bravery of his tone, whispering, “You saved me…”
“It just—-” her voice was as shaky as he suspected his own was, “Exploded.” She was holding him now and he didn’t pull away, wondering in that moment just what it was that this house was facing.
Whatever it was, wherever it came from, he knew that it could not be allowed to defeat them, that he had fought and won too many battles to die here, especially now he had Alice in his arms again. For a few seconds he let himself rest in her arms, let his breath slow and his limbs regain their strength and then, carefully, Faulkner rose to his feet, bringing Alice with him.
“We are fortunate to be in Catholic country,” he told her cryptically as he stooped to scoop up the gun box and then he nodded to the faintest outline of a doorway in the pale blue wall. “We might be a little snug, but would madam consent to join me in a priest hole?”
“People will talk,” there was a glimmer then of the humour he had once known so well.
“People,” Faulkner winked as he gathered blankets and pillows, sure they could at least be comfortable, “Will always talk, Miss Tyhurst. The trick is knowing when to listen.”
In the minutes before the world went a little haywire, Daniel Miller was a happy, if decidedly naked man. It had taken somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds for him to desert the room he had very properly been shown to and make his way to Lucile’s quarters and straight into her arms. There should probably have been introductions to be made to fellow guests, formal business to be attended to but instead the couple had been happy to flout such society and were already tucked up in the enormous, flamboyant bed that was Lucile’s billet, their embraces heated and their kisses fierce.
“We should hide here,” his companion decided between kisses, “All party.”
“Debauching each other,” Dan decided, hands roaming opportunely.
“All night?” he heard the challenge in her tone.
“At least.” The next few moments were lost in further kisses, the night spent in a barn and the unexpected trip into the village all but forgotten at the promise before them.
“Debauch me, Miss Wyatt,” Dan teased mischievously. “give it all you’ve got.”
“You wouldn’t be able to manage all I’ve got….”
“I’d give it a good try…” Dan moved over Lucile, dipping his mouth to dot kisses on the cool skin of her pale neck, desire for her sending a surge of heat through him, “Very, very hard.”
“You are making a joke,” she decided, kissing him hard, “But a very true one.”
He returned the kiss, savouring the feel of her body as they moved together, the familiar softness of her skin. Tonight wasn’t a night for fierce heat, but for languorous hours of lovemaking. She was, he noticed, in agreement, hands roaming, mouth enticing against his.
She still enchanted him, still left him hungry for her even now their bodies were familiar, their tastes known to one another. He knew how to elicit the sweet sounds from Lucile that made him burn for her, exactly what drove her to the heights of pleasure and she took him there in turn, left him wanting her more with every encounter.
“No more playwrights and poodles….” Lucile murmured against his lips, the faintest scrape of her teeth as she moved to his jaw. That drew a gasp of anticipation, the sharpness of her fangs just hinted at in the touch. Another hint of pressure and he wondered if she would, if she would go that one step further, crossing where they had not yet gone. How it would be he didn’t know, yet didn’t the poets write of its decadent eroticism, of the bewitching ardour of it? Heart pounding, Dan whispered Lucile’s name, the pace of his movements slow and deep.
She took the encouragement and he felt the welcoming sting as her teeth grazed harder, eyes closing in delicious anticipation. Suddenly though she stopped, tensing. With a frown he opened his eyes again, about to ask her what the matter was.
The words, if words there were, were silenced by an explosion of smashing glass, the room plunged into total darkness for a moment as one of the dark, engulfing creatures that had pursued Alice and Faulkner tumbled down onto the rug, the fire flickering for a few seconds before the flames leaped suddenly higher in its wake. Whatever was hidden in that dense flurry of black let out a scream likely to pierce an eardrum, howling its fury.
A shriek from Lucile was followed by a loud hiss as she recovered herself, amorousness forgotten now as she told Dan, “Don’t touch it!”
“What is it?” He hardly dared move, yet could hardly be more vulnerable, the thing on the rug not a thing of physical depth and solidity, but an amorphous shadow, moving to fast to see yet not moving at all, the sound of wings where no wings could be glimpsed.
“Deadly.” Lucile’s response did little to cheer him, and he sincerely doubted that the thing, whatever it was, would be vanquished by being smothered in a pillow.
“Hope it doesn’t blush easily…” Dan whispered as he moved slowly onto the bed, sensing that it was watching him, that somewhere in the darkness they were being scrutinised.
“If you can get to the window,” Lucile whispered back, stock still beside him, “Run.”
“You go,” Dan took a deep breath, slowly reaching to gather a blanket, well aware of just how vulnerable they were. He moved to kiss Lucile, long and deep and then, as the creature rose, the shadow stretching and lengthening, the scream sounding, Dan let out a bellow to Lucile to run.
He launched straight at the beast, smothering it in the blanket and forcing it into the fire. It shifted and undulated in the blanket, wings beating unseen but the fabric caught the flame and Dan stumbled back onto the rug as the hellish thing, in an explosion of sulphur, exploded into dust. Reeling, choking, he was vaguely aware of hands helping him back towards the bed, Lucile’s presence as he tried to make sense of what had just happened. There was no sense in it though, nor in the shakiness of his limbs as he collapsed into her arms as still air elsewhere erupted into muffled screams and sounds of attack. “I told you,” Dan’s voice was a gasp, hoarse and trembling, “To run.”
“You should know by now,” came the reproachful response, even as gentle hands stroked his hair, “That I am not one to be told.” Dan managed a smile, savouring this return, however brief, to contentment as the world outside seemed to be collapsing. “You need to get out,” Lucile was telling him then, “Whatever is down there is not good.”
“Me?” She made it sound horribly… singular and he lifted his head, kissing her deeply before he said, “We need to get out; throw some clothes on…” For a moment he thought of Faulkner, wondering if he was safe, yet if he knew one thing, it was that the doctor was a man who could take care of himself and anyone who was lucky enough to be in in the vicinity of the man he thought of as a brother.
Eschewing stays and petticoats Lucile located her chemise, dress following a moment later, her expression more serious than he had ever seen it.
“Now get yourself safe,” Dressed if more than a touch dishevelled, Dan drew his lover into his arms, kissing her even as his mind reeled, mentally mapping what little he knew of the house. He wouldn’t tell her that he had no intention of leaving, of course, that he would stay here and help those innocent souls who likely had less experience at dealing with this sort of drama than he. “And I’ll see you when we’ve sent these things back to hell.”
“I am not leaving you,” Lucile’s tone was one that would not be argued with, “Who knows what trouble you would end up in.”
“Then you make me one promise,” he pulled open the dresser, throwing various pistols onto the bed before he let a rather hungry look sweep over her figure, “Leave your stays behind more often.” With a wink, Dan threw Lucile a pistol, “And don’t shoot anyone Scottish.”
“I know,” she assured him, and he paused to reflect how, even in this crisis, she looked very good with a gun in her hand, “How to handle a weapon.”
“Then let’s go,” he told her with a kiss. “And save the day.”
“I think,” Grace observed the towering snow structure that was taking shape on the wintery lawn, “That this will be the largest snowman ever made.” A perhaps too-innocent smile played over her lips then as she added, “If only we could reach the top to make it even higher…”
Renaud stood back, regarding the sculpture with a shrewdly narrowed eye, sharp white fangs chewing thoughtfully at the inside of his lip for a moment. He would remember he had fangs one day, he told himself as he gave a wince of discomfort, and stop chewing his lip in moments of thoughtfulness.
“Perhaps you might hop onto my shoulder for a little more height,” the playwright said eventually, returning his hands to the luxuriant fur muff he carried for a second. He might no longer feel the cold, after all, but he was still a gentleman of fashion and he looked to the little girl with a beaming smile, taking in her own matching garment, as well as the fur coat the poodle at her side wore.
“Perhaps I might,” she agreed, before adding solemnly, “Or there might be another way…”
Renaud frowned, the look of mischief that glittered in his young friend’s eyes wonderfully familiar and he asked, “Another?”
The girl gave a solemn nod, and then, as he watched, she seemed to grow taller, her head higher than it had been a moment before. It was only then that he realised that it was not that she had grown but that her feet were leaving the ground, until she hovered there with a triumphant grin on her face, looking down at him from at least a head higher than himself.
“Choux!” Renaud gave an excited clap, voice tinkling with laughter. “You are a butterfly!”
“Would you like to try?”
“Is the world round?” Renaud gives a little clap of excitement, “How does one do it? Tell!”
“You have to think it,” Grace told him, a smile breaking over her face, “You have to feel it.”
Renaud was good at feeling things, he knew; after all, he was not only gorgeous, but a man with an instinct for rouge and fashion, for gemstones and perfume and knowing exactly how to put a look together. Then there was his celebrated farces, doling out generous helpings of bawdy comedy to every class whether English or French. For a stunning Frenchman with a flare for words and fashion, flying should be easy. He was an artiste, after all.
Grace was watching him expectantly, even as she warned, “It will take practice….”
“Not for me!” He scooped up Sabine and placed her gently inside the fur muff, closing his eyes and merrily waiting to ascend.
“Your feet,” came the laughed response a moment later, “Are supposed to be off the ground!”
Renaud opened one hazel eye and peered down at his feet, seeing the patent leather shoes with their enormous silver and sapphire buckles set well and truly on the snow. Undaunted he closed his eyes again and pictured himself flying, soaring in fact. He heard the sound of Grace very studiously saying nothing, no doubt in awe of his quick and easy mastering of the technique that took others ages.
“See, choux,” Renaud announced, opening both eyes and unable to stop his ill-chosen words before they tumbled from his lips, “Some of us are just born talented!”
“Very talented indeed,” Grace told him with a laugh, “At being on the ground!”
“Oh, this is too much!”
“You are not thinking properly,” the girl took pity on him then, lowering herself a little and reaching out a hand to him. “I will help you.”
In return he reached up and took her cool, small hand, the enormous sapphire on Renaud’s own finger catching the moonlight for a second that he found most wonderfully distracting.
“Concentrate,” Grace chided, “Look at me.”
“This was a gift from her Late Majesty,” the Frenchman sighed, mind dancing happily back to those heady days at the Petit Trianon. “Did I ever tell you of the time she and I and Polastron—” The look on the little girl’s solemn face was enough to silence even the flamboyant playwright and he decided, “Perhaps I did tell you…”
“Do you want to fly?”
“But, choux, we were herding sheep! Little royal sheep, and Sab—” he waved his free hand, “Flying, oui, of course!”
“Hold my hand,” she instructed, tone brooking no argument, “And look at me. Think of nothing but being in the air.” This time he did as he was told, watching her with all the seriousness he could muster, which was never very much nowadays. “Now,” she instructed, hand tightening as she slowly began to rise, “Come with me.”
She would not be able to lift him, the thought was ridiculous; she was a girl of eight or nine, he a full grown man carrying a poodle and a considerable weight in silk, lace and jewellery. For a moment Renaud almost laughed, almost scrubbed her hair affectionately and told her it would come in time and then the moment was lost because his feet were no longer on the ground, but hovering a little above it. Her gaze never left his, blue and intense and burning into his as she reminded him, “Feel it.”
“Mistress Sabine must not fall—” he clutched the poodle close to his chest, torn between wonder and fear.
Another deep breath and, with the dog safe in her fur cocoon and Grace’s gaze matching his own, Renaud finally allowed himself to concentrate, to forget gossip and jewels and rouge and think only of the slow, careful ascent. They were, he realised, nearly as high as the snowman’s head now, and still rising, the ground growing further away with each moment.
“Oh choux,” he whispered, a tumble of excitable French following as he wondered again at this finest of friends.
“This,” she assured him, “This is nothing!”
“I am but a novice!”
“Shall we go higher?”
Her grip tightened, impossibly strong for one so young, and then the snowman was far below them, Grace guiding him effortlessly upwards. She truly was magical, Renaud knew, the angel sent to him to learn of this strange, wonderful world in which he found himself.
“If we wanted to,” she was telling him, “We could land on the roof!”
“Take me there!”
There was a tug and then he was not just rising but flying of sorts through the air, though with less grace than his clearly more experienced companion. Of course, he knew that everything Fabien Renaud did had some measure of grace, so he was not a total loss. The yellow silk, fur muff and cloak would look wonderful from the ground, at least. Even as he had the thought he felt himself dip a little, jolting him to focus, to concentrate as the roof drew closer. He did not notice the darkening clouds above, nor hear the ominous rumble of thunder, let alone see the shapes that moved in those dark clouds, silhouettes on the moon.
“How did you like it?” Grace asked eagerly as they landed, the roof smooth and snow-covered beneath their feet.
“You are truly a marvel, little choux – you fly as well as inspire playwrights!”
The girl opened her mouth to reply, but instead frowned, fingers digging into his hand so tightly he almost cried out. Instead though he followed her gaze, eyes narrowing at the strange shapes in the night, black against black, moving fast. A moment later the head of that nightmarish tempest burst through the storm clouds, screaming shapes of amorphous darkness hurling themselves at the windows of the house below as the air filled with the sounds of wings, leather beating on leather.
“We need to go,” the girl declared, “Now.”
Renaud, however, was frozen in place, eyes wide, a hundred memories of the Terror flooding over him, wrenching fear growing in his breast.
“Go…” the word was a whisper, confused and a little lost. “Where could we go?”
“Anywhere,” came the hushed answer, “We can fly right out of here—”
“What of our friends? Mr Hogan—”
“She will take care of him,” Grace shook her head impatiently, “There is nothing we can do.”
“He would not leave us to.. I do not know what this is, choux, but he would not.”
“Then he is a fool,” the blue eyes were ice cold then, the girl before him seeming so much older than her slight years, “We must run, we have no choice.”
“I am terrified,” voicing the fear might, he hoped, push it aside but it did no such thing, the sickness in his stomach growing, “But I did not run in France, and I cannot run now. You take yourself and Sabi to safety, little choux, and I will see what a dandified playwright can do to help a strapping innkeeper and his girl!”
“You cannot go in there alone,” Grace protested, “I will not hear of it!”
“I will not be alone,” his cheer sounded forced even to Renaud, “I will have my perfume to keep me company!”
“I cannot leave you,” the blue eyes blazed with determination then, “You will not come out of there if I do!”
“And I will not let you join me,” Renaud pressed a kiss to Grace’s hair, bundling the dog into her arms gently as he looked across the roof, keenly seeking out the slopes and plateaus where there would be a hatch into the house below.
He felt rather than saw her follow, the constant presence that he was not sure he could do without now, even as he wondered what lay ahead, what terrors had come to this place so unexpectedly. Whatever they were though he would weather them, for the friend who had never blinked an eye when Renaud went from consumptive to vampire, who had risked life and limb to see them safely in that barn just one evening earlier. No doubt he was quite able to look after himself, but a little gorgeous help never hurt anyone.
“Don’t,” came the soft warning, “Let them touch you.”
“In this silk? They had better not even try!”
“You aren’t thinking of going down the chimney then?” Grace’s tone was almost teasing.
“It is not Christmas,” Renaud flinched at a gunshot from below, “So not tonight!”
“Don’t,” all humour was gone then, “Do anything stupid. Please.”
“You would not let me, choux,” Renaud paused at the outline of a hatch in the roof. “You are my guardian angel, after all.”
“I’m no angel,” came the denial, “But I will make sure you are safe.”
The story continues in Volume IV, available September 2016 or online at deadlondonchronicles.blogspot.co.uk.
Step back in time for volume III of an 18th century world where highwaymen roamed the roads, artists faded in obscure unhappiness, silk-clad poodles held London society enraptured and viscounts couldn't feel their own thumbs. Here be monsters, magic and lonely doctors with a penchant for the work of the old masters, not to mention a cavalcade of rogues, royals and revelry. These are The Dead London Chronicles. The threads of the tapestry are still being woven, and what the Chronicles contain, we can only guess. The story updates weekly on its own dedicated website or here in collected monthly editions, written by Catherine Curzon and Willow Winsham.