Published by Evernight Teen ® at Shakespir
Copyright© 2016 Nicky Peacock
Cover Artist: Sour Cherry Designs
Editor: JS Cook
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For everyone who fights to be who they want to be…whether they win or lose in the end.
Battle of the Undead: prequel
Copyright © 2016
“Zut!” I yell, grabbing my head as it bounces off the carriage ceiling.
My new governess, Mistress Black, raises an eyebrow at me. “Lucinda, it is unladylike to swear.”
“Not even in French?”
“Especially not in French!” She has a wild look in her eyes that I don’t trust, although to be fair her eyes are the least of my worries. I am back in my home country after spending three years in France, and despite still not being completely fluent in the language, I have picked up an impressive array of curse words. Ms. Black had met me at the docks. I fear she had taken one look at my curvy figure and unruly blond hair and thought me totally unworthy of her time, let alone her words. We’d spent the last three hours bobbing along in my father’s carriage in prolonged periods of worrisome silence. Every conversation I had begun she had abruptly ended with a sly comment or a wave of her gloved hand. I should be happy that I’m back home—Lord knows I didn’t want to go to school overseas—but I’d grown to love the place and the people, oh and the food. The flavors and smells of sweet breads, buttery pastries and fondant filled fanciful cakes, all of them just as delicious in appearance as in taste… I’d really like to indulge with some of my raisin pastries right now, the ones I’d secreted in my purse but I dare not incur the wrath of Mistress. Black, who is still failing to hide her disappointment that I’m not some well-mannered debutant waif.
“I smell cakes,” she says, sniffing the air.
I casually wrap my pastries up tighter, resigning myself that I’ll have to wait until we are at Father’s house before I can safely undress them and let my senses melt into their sweet, buttery loveliness…no, I’m having one now. I point to a random tree out of the carriage window. Mistress Black’s intense gaze follows my finger. Quickly I bend and eat part of the pastry. It crumbles into my mouth and I hide my chewing by lifting my purse slightly, to shield me from Mistress Black’s withering stare. Oh, I hope the kitchen staff remember me and let me bake some more when I get home.
The carriage stumbles over a rocky part of road and my purse leaps out of my hand. Mistress Black sees everything.
“Lucinda Delacourt! Your father is going to be bitterly disappointed in you.”
I don’t even bother finishing my mouthful of food. “That’s nothing new to me.”
Mistress Black’s face turns from indignant self-righteousness to absolute horror. She bends down and picks up my purse and thrusts it back into my hand. I drop it to my side to fully expose my now open-mouthed chewing. With each movement, I stretch my jaw wide, making sure she can smell the sugared raisins while I finish the rest of my delicious pastry.
Another hour crawls by and I begin to recognize the scenery slipping past the window. The smells of the countryside are now all around us, a pungent mix of animals and flowers. I take in a deep breath and smile. I’m home.
“My, my, what a horrible smell!” Mistress Black pulls out a handkerchief and a small bottle of oil. She drips the oil onto the material. It’s lavender; she plunges her long thin nose into it, like a pig at a trough, and breathes deeply. I smile. I love the smell of lavender and it only adds to my scent sensation of coming home.
As we near the house, my eyes are drawn to our nearest neighbor, Ravenglass Manor. The once majestic gothic building is now partly marred by black soot and half of its walls are spilling their bricks across its burnt landscape.
“What happened at Ravenglass?” I ask.
“Ladies do not gossip.”
“Of course we do, it’s all we do.” Mistress Black stares at me. “This is my home, I need to know. I used to spend time with Christian Ravenglass when I was a little girl, please.”
“Well, only because it is something you should never mention again.”
“What do you mean? The Ravenglass family are our friends, Christian fights for the White Rose just like my family…”
“Not any more. Christian is a traitor. Ravenglass was burned for it.”
“Burned by whom?”
Thomas Delacourt is a terrible man; he is cold and devious and I do not trust him, but he is the only parent I have left.
He’s not waiting at the front of the house for my arrival, but there are five footman and several maids ready to greet me. I climb out of the carriage and brush off the pastry crumbs from my dress. Mistress Black thrusts her bag at the nearest servant and strides off into the house.
I look at the welcome party. I remember Mistress Leighton the cook. I’m so happy to see she’s still here that I lurch forward and embrace her. The tight lacing on my cotehardie digs into me, but I don’t care. She looks around us for a moment, then hugs me back.
“Welcome home, poppet,” she whispers.
Gordons, whom I also remember, grins at me. He was just a footman when I left, but he now wears the livery of head butler. I’m not silly enough to hug him, but I do shake his hand vigorously, which makes the maids laugh
“Jolly good to see you, Lady Lucinda. You look beautiful, and you smell like,” he leans forward and sniffs me, “pastry.”
I blush and reach into my purse to retrieve what are left of my pastries. I hand them to Mistress Leighton.
“I baked them before I left.”
Mistress Leighton quickly hides the cakes in her apron, “We have a lot of catching up to do,” she says with a wink.
I rush into my childhood home, but instead of the resurrection of warm memories, I find it familiar yet cold. The fire in the great hall isn’t lit and it’s much darker than I remember. My homecoming is less than spectacular and part of me wants nothing more than to climb into that carriage and trundle off back to France. But I know that I can’t.
Gordons coughs. I hadn’t even heard him approach.
“Your father wishes to see you now, Lady Lucinda.”
I quickly check my reflection in the hall mirror: my hair is sticking out at unfavorable angles, and there’s a spot of jam still clinging to my bottom lip; has that been there since the coach? I lick it off, then smooth down my hair as best I can.
There are only thirty steps between the hall and my father’s study. I count them off in my head, just like I used to do when I was little. When I reach the door I knock. There is no answer. I knock again. No answer. I know father is inside. His study is his lair; he only ever ventures between it, his bedroom, and the dining room. I open the door and walk in.
Father is sitting behind his desk. He’s thinner in the face than what I remember, not as broad. There is also a speckle of grey dusting his dark hair. He must feel my eyes on him, as he looks up at me.
“You just barge in here, not even a knock?” he yells.
“I knocked twice, father.”
“Talking back. God’s bones what did I pay those fancy French tutors for?”
There is no way for me to win this argument. I’m not sure what I had expected, that three years of absence would have mellowed him? That he would have charged over to me and given me a hug, promising me that I’d never leave his side again? I’m a fool.
The silence between us has now stretched so far it’s about to snap. So I curtsy.
His nose twitches. “Go to your room. We’ll speak at dinner.”
I keep my eyes to the floor as I back out of his study. When the door shuts behind me I release a breath I was holding. I run up the stairs to my old room, slam the door behind me and fall onto my bed. I scratch at my overgown till I loosen its grip on my torso. I hadn’t realized how tired I was till I drop into a deep sleep.
I wake up late for dinner and have to quickly change dresses in a bid to appear organized. My maid hasn’t come up and it’s not until I rush down the stairs and bump into her that I discover that my old room is not my current room at all. I was sleeping in a completely different bedroom, how embarrassing.
I rush into the dining room like the wind on a stormy night, gaining a withering look from Mistress. Black who is seated at the table along with my father and a strange man.
“And this is Lucinda,” my father says pointing at me. The man next to him gets up and smiles at me. He bows slightly and takes my hand in a sweaty grip. He drags his moist lips over my palm in what I assume is a romantic gesture. I look over at father, who doesn’t seem to care.
“This is Lord Appleby. He has a large estate in Dorset.”
“Dorset? My, that’s quite some way away.” I try to smile at him, but fail miserably.
“Yes, you’ll love it there.” Lord Appleby sits back down to the right of my father and Ms. Black physically moves me to the seat across from him.
Lord Appleby is painfully thin with almost black eyes and a complexion liked a cooked frog. I imagine him putting his arms around me, and I shiver; it would be like being enclosed by a sallow fleshy girdle. The dinner slowly marches through seven courses, every one of my favorites from Mistress. Leighton’s repertoire, but each plate is tainted by the obvious conclusion to my homecoming: my father has sold me and didn’t even have the decency to tell me beforehand. I’m to become Lady Lucinda Appleby, the sixteen year old wife to a forty year old man who eats with his mouth open and, as he’d gotten drunker through the evening, and has become more and more leery, regardless of Mistress Black or my father’s presence.
The moment I finish chewing the last piece of the cheese and bread I stand up.
“I’m tired from my journey, so I will bid you goodnight, father, Lord Appleby, Ms. Black.” I nod to each of them and turn to leave.
“Wait,” my father says, “Lord Appleby would like a turn around the garden with you.”
I glance toward the window. It must be at least ten o’clock and is pitch black outside.
“Now?” I ask.
My father narrows his eyes at me.
“Oh please, yes. I so love a garden at night.” Lord Appleby jumps to his feet and moves to my side. He’s protecting me. Have I misjudged him? I take his arm and we head into the garden.
Outside, the chill of the night air pinches at my bare arms. I look at Lord Appleby in his lovely warm cloak, but he makes no move to offer it to me in any kind of gentlemanly gesture.
“And these are the white roses,” I say. “My father planted them for my mother.” I linger at the small patch of buds that I remembered as being much bigger, fuller, and more fragrant.
“Ah yes, we are all white roses here,” he says with an exaggerated wink. He’s referring to the House of York. A war has been raging for quite some time between the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, each backing a different king for the throne of England.
We make strained small talk for a while longer as we walk farther away from the lights of the house. Suddenly he stops and grabs my elbow, spinning me round so my body is flush against his.
“I do hope you are amenable to this arrangement, Lucinda,” he says.
I try to pull back, but he’s stronger than he looks and holds me firm. “Please let me go.”
I look up into his eyes and see a slight madness there, a malevolence that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Let me go!” I say again.
“Just a kiss,” he whispers and lowers his lips to mine.
I pull my head back so that he lands his kiss on my chest. I’m unsure as to whether that is worse than his mouth on mine. His grip on me tightens and he begins to slobber rough kisses over my collarbone, while his hand frantically pulls up my petticoats ripping into them as he does. I scream, but no one comes. I struggle and pull back as far as I can from him, falling halfway out his grasp. A wild look crosses his face and he raises up a hand and slaps my cheek. The blow makes me stagger backward, out of his clutches. He stares at me for a moment. I kick him in the crotch. He doubles over with a strained groan. I run.
My ripped skirts wrap themselves about my pumping legs. I lose my balance once or twice, but instead of falling, use my momentum to keep pushing forward. I’ve now run so far away from the lights of the house that the landscape is coal black around me, smothering most of my senses. I hear Appleby though: he’s yelling into the night for me. I’m not sure what he’s saying, but I doubt it can be anything good. I push on into the black. Suddenly I see a small light. As I barrel towards it, I recognize the dark, half-fallen building before me. I’ve run all the way to Ravenglass. I stop for a moment to catch my breath and consider my dwindling options. I remember Christian from when I was small. He was about ten years older than me, a frail boy with sad eyes and a good heart. Regardless of why my father tried to burn down his house, Christian will aid me tonight. In fact, he might even relish the idea of having Delacourt’s only child coming to him for assistance. Traitor or not, he’s all I have.
I go to sprint toward the front door, but my muscles tense up. I fall over and find myself face down in the mud. I roll over and for a moment stare up at the stars littering the sky. Appleby is still yelling, so can’t be too far away, but the odds of him finding me in the dark are slim. For now, I’m just as safe here as in the walls of Ravenglass. I take a breath and although I mean to thoroughly think through my precarious position, I’m instead hypnotized by the vast midnight sky with its sprinkle of beautiful white lights. I wonder how far away the stars actually are and if they’d burn me if I tried to touch one…
Appleby’s voice breaks my trance and I scramble back up to my feet and run the distance to the gates of Ravenglass. Appleby’s near, but he would never enter another lord’s house without an invitation, even if that house is burned and scarred, and its owner is no longer a York supporter, but a Lancaster.
The gates are large and hard to push, so I have to put my back to the bars and use my weight to open them enough to slip through. Rust stains have probably joined the party on my robe that is being hosted by grass, mud and the saliva of a horrid man.
I rush toward the only light coming from the house. I open the main doors and my senses are gripped by the smell. It’s an odd mixture of decay and cinder. I look for servants, my resilient stride now more of a shuffle. But I find none. I approach the glow slowly as if I am coaxing a wild animal to me; it is coming from the main hall. I open the doors and peek in. The light blooms from a giant fireplace, its wiggling flames making strange shadows on the walls.
As my eyes adjust, I see a tallish man dressed in a black robe. He has tied a sword to a jutting candlestick and tethered it in such a way that it would be lethal if you were to step into it, which it looks like he’s about to do.
“Don’t!” I yell and rush forward to grab the man’s arm.
At my touch he spins round and I fall back, but instead of hitting the floor, I’m suddenly cradled in his arms. I stare up at the man, who must be Christian, although I would never have recognized him, but for the sadness in his eyes, that is still there.
“Christian?” I say.
The man looks me over and I realize that I must appear in a horrific state of disarray.
“I’m sorry for barging in on you,” I whisper.
“It’s all right milady. Are you in need of assistance?” Christian carefully lifts me up and places me on a nearby couch. I worry slightly that I’ll cover it in mud, so I try to gather my skirts in one place to avoid the embarrassment.
“You are hurt.” Christian bends and lifts my ankle, which appears swollen and slightly bloody. I must have caught it; that was why I fell.
“I was running so fast. I didn’t even feel it.” Although now I can see it, pain begins to flood my body.
Christian tenderly places my ankle on a nearby footstool. He seems lost in thought for a moment. He goes to say something, then stops himself.
“It’s me, Lucinda. Do you remember me?”
It’s painfully obvious that he doesn’t recognize me at all, or has never even given me a second thought in the time we’ve been apart.
“What happened, Lucinda?”
I open my mouth to start the tale of Appleby’s advances, but find I’m blushing instead. Tears are gathering in my eyes and I fear that if I utter any other words at all I’ll simply burst into an unattractive lump of delirium
Christian is staring at me. He sniffs the air, then looks angry. He whispers something under his breath then leaves the room.
I’m about to run for the door when he reemerges with a bowl of water and a piece of cloth. He pulls up another stool beside me, and begins to clean the mud and tears off my face. His touch is so tender I start to cry. He doesn’t even flinch at my unseemly emotion, instead he seems to concentrate harder on cleaning. The water he’s brought is warm and smells vaguely sweet.
With a soft touch, he pulls my foot onto his lap and unlaces my shoe. He peels away my ripped socks and soaks my whole foot in the bowl. I feel instantly better. With slow movements, he washes my foot and I watch in awe, as the water in the bowl turns dark and bloody as he gently cleans the wound.
I’m very aware that neither of us has spoken for a long time, so I gulp and say, “Thank you.”
“You’re Delacourt’s daughter? Did he… do this to you?”
“No.” I answer too quickly, but in a way he actually did.
“Then who hurt you?”
“Lord Appleby. My father promised me to him. He…” I can’t even finish the sentence.
“I’ll kill him.” Christian’s sad eyes flash almost red in the dim light.
“You may get the chance. He followed me here.” I look around as if somehow Appleby has slithered his way into the room without us noticing.
“He’s here?” Christian carefully places the bowl on a stool and leaves my foot soaking. He straightens my ripped skirts and takes off his cloak, which he drapes over my shoulders. In all the action, I’d forgotten to be cold.
“I’m going to look for him. Please stay here, milady. I won’t hurt you and you are welcome to rest by the fire.”
I nod, but it had never crossed my mind that Christian would hurt me.
I must have fallen asleep because when I wake daylight is forcing its way into the room, making it appear much less magical and much sparser. In the room is only the couch I’m lying on, a few stools and the fireplace. The sword has now been removed and I seem to be swaddled in a massive amount of blankets. I stretch and a twinge of pain reminds me of my injured foot. I look down to see it bandaged and resting on a cushion.
Christian is nowhere to be seen, so I shrug off the blankets and pull his slim black cloak across my bodice, which I now notice was also slightly ripped. My breasts are quite large for my age and I’m surprised that one hasn’t come tumbling out in my haste. The cloak covers everything perfectly, so I button it up and hop toward the door.
“Hello?” I call, but there is no answer.
I clutch the walls and hobble down the corridors. I remember this house from when I was a little girl. It had been brimming with fineries, paintings and solid-looking furniture. Now there is nothing, just vast spaces and telltale dirty frame marks on the walls, where paintings have been taken.
“Hello?” I yell louder. I hear a slight noise up the stairs, so struggle up them. The nearer I get, the more I detect a kind of groaning shuffle. As I get to the top of the staircase, I find it’s coming from a bedroom. I hop toward the door. I know that it’s wrong to go into someone else’s bedroom unannounced, but Christian could be in trouble. Maybe he sustained a wound in the war and is in pain? I knock on the door and it creaks open. I push it open further and find another sparse room, only this one has two people in it.
In the middle of the floor is Lord Appleby. He is the one groaning. He is covered in blood and, when he sees me in the doorway, he reaches a hand to me for help. Bending over him is Christian.
When he looks up at me, the emotion in his eyes is a mixture of shame and sadness, but I cannot keep my eyes on his. Instead my attention is drawn to his mouth, which is smothered in blood. He is drinking Lord Appleby.
“Lucinda, I can explain!” he says, wiping his mouth on a handkerchief.
Lord Appleby flexes his fingers at me, silently asking for help. Help he won’t get from me.
“You don’t need to explain anything. Just make sure he’s dead when you’re finished,” I say and I leave the room, closing the door behind me. I go back down to the great hall and wait for Christian to finish his breakfast.
I’d heard stories of monsters that drink blood, vampires. The stories had always intrigued me and, in France there was plenty of talk about Count Dracula in Carpathia being one. How else could he, a lowly knight with a tiny army be defeating the mighty Turks; he must be either chosen by God or a bloodthirsty supernatural fiend.
I don’t have to wait long before Christian rushes into the room.
“I’m so sorry you had to see that, Lucinda. I thought you would sleep longer. I caught him out on my grounds and…”
“You ate him.” I finish his excuse with the obvious truth.
“I would never harm you though, you must believe that.”
“Of course I do, I was practically a lamb for the slaughter for you last night, and all you did was help me. I trust you, Christian.”
As I say that last sentence he falls to his knees before me, “I have yet another confession,” he says.
“You mean there is something else other than you becoming a vampire?”
“You’ll hate me now,” he whispers and looks away.
I can’t possibly imagine why I would hate Christian. If that was going to happen it would have surely been when I saw him fang deep in my horrible fiancé’s neck.
“You can tell me anything, Christian,” I say.
“That’s the problem.” He reaches over and gently takes my hands. He’s warmer than last night and flushed with fresh blood and embarrassment “I’m not Christian.”
I rip my hands from his. “What? Yes you are, you’re in his house!”
“I can understand the confusion. But I didn’t actually introduce myself as Christian.”
“What confusion? I’ve been calling you Christian since we met. Why haven’t you corrected me?”
I stand up and wobble a little. He swiftly stands up and steadies me. “Please, I do know Christian. I served with him. We fought for the White Rose together.”
I can’t help myself. I slap him hard across the face. He doesn’t even seem to feel it but my hand is stinging like I’d shoved it into a stove. Fortunately my anger conceals my pain.
“So, just to be clear, you’re fine with the fact I’m a vampire, but not that I didn’t correct you about my name?”
I slap him again.
“Please, Lucinda you’re going to hurt yourself.” He puts an arm about my shoulders and sits me back down.
“Did you kill Christian?” I ask.
“No, well, not really.”
“Is he a vampire now too?”
“Yes. It’s a long story.” He waves me off like I should accept his answers. If I were still standing up, I would have kneed him in the groin.
“Shorten it,” I say.
“Well, it was at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Christian and I met during the battle. He was charged with keeping Edward, Prince of Wales safe.”
“But the prince died at Tewkesbury.”
“I know. The other lords blamed Christian for it. Called him a traitor. They thought he’d made a deal with the Red Rose.”
“No, Christian Ravenglass is an honorable man. He was just not very battle savvy. After the battle, the other lords beat Christian to within an inch of his life, then hanged him as a traitor. I got to him just in time, nursed him back to health. When he was well again he pleaded with me to turn him into a vampire.”
“So where is he now?”
“With my friend Tolliver. As you probably gathered last night, I’m less than enthusiastic about my immortal life. I thought Christian deserved a sire with more spirit left. He told me about this place, that his home had been burned and looted. I came to assess the damage and well, you know…”
“End it all,” I whisper. He looks so sad, and I’ll probably go to hell for this, but beautiful too. Like a really dangerous dark angel. We stare at one another for a moment, until I realize that I have no idea who this man actually is.
“What’s your name?”
“Nicholas,” he said, scooping up my hand to gently kiss it, “Nicholas Lord, at your service, milady.”
Nicholas got rid of Appleby’s body. I didn’t ask where and how. He then helped me back to my house. All the while he chatted about his life, yet somehow managed to give very little away. I asked him how old he actually was, and he turned strangely coy.
“Old enough to know not to answer that,” he said.
Nicholas left me at the front door, his vampire speed making his departure a blur. So now I knew a few truths about the vampire myth: they are immortal save for a chop to the neck, they can easily move around in daylight, they are very fast, they drink blood and they are the most noble of all the men I’ve ever met.
Mistress Leighton opens the door and all but sucks me into her arms.
“Oh, my darling,” she gushes, “We were so worried about you. The maids said that you didn’t go to bed last night. Where the devil were you?”
“The devil indeed,” I whisper, then realize that that probably came out very suspicious.
I am quickly taken to my room, bathed and tended to. I don’t mention what had happened with Appleby, or that I ran to Ravenglass. The less I say, he less lies I have to lay to cloak the truth. Also, I’d rather not be accused of seducing a lord, then having my vampire lover kill him! How quickly everyone turned on poor Christian, and for a simple mistake. I was sure that, with facts like these I would be locked up in the Tower of London within the hour.
My father had gone to a neighbor’s estate, obviously unconcerned over my absence, so I spend the day in the kitchen with Mistress. Leighton. We make bread and cakes and I also decide to experiment a little with a spiced black pudding recipe—after all, the chief ingredient is blood.
While we bake, Mistress Leighton fills me in on the whole Ravenglass traitor story. Apparently everyone thought that Christian was dead, and with no living heirs the estate was going to be divided between my father and the neighbor he was currently breaking bread with. How convenient!
“I’d love to see Ravenglass again though,” I say to her.
“Oh dear, it was burnt. Not much left to see.”
“But still, Christian was a good friend to me growing up, regardless of what he did and what he is now.”
“Well, he’s a dead traitor now.” Mistress Leighton looks confused.
“Yes, of course, that’s what I meant.”
“Well, I tell you what, why don’t we ride out there this afternoon together? With your help all the baking has been done early.”
“I’d much prefer to go alone, if that’s acceptable” I smile sweetly at her and I see her resolve crumble.
“Course it is, poppet. I’ll ask for a horse to be saddled.”
Within the hour, I am riding back toward Ravenglass, dressed in a beautiful gown of red velvet and clutching a basket of goodies. Oh dear, I’ve heard a frightening folk song that starts something like this…
He must have seen me approaching, as Nicholas meets me at the front gate.
“You came back!” he exclaims as he takes the reins from my hands and walks my horse into the courtyard.
“Of course, I wanted to give you something. A present for helping me last night.”
“There’s no need. Your presence is more than enough, milady.”
Helping me off the horse, I feel his tight yet tender grip on my hips. I blush when he sees me trying to hide my face.
“You look beautiful,” he breathes.
“Even when I’m blushing?”
“Especially when you’re blushing.”
With an elaborate yank, I pull the blood sausage from the basket and point it at Nicholas as if it were a sword.
He raises a delicate eyebrow then sniffs it. His eyes light up.
“Blood sausage,” I say, “I thought that it might have been a while since you had any solid food.”
He stares at me for a moment and I fear that I’ll make him cry. I see a sorrowful smile slip onto his lips so I put a hand to his mouth.
“Take it,” I urge, thrusting the sausage into his hands.
He takes a bite and chews. He has an expression that I think I must make every time I eat a cake. It’s a cross between sin and love.
I watch him devour the whole thing then lick his fingers.
“Should I make more?” I ask, my mind already whirring with new spices and different types of blood to make a variety for him.
“You have no idea how wonderful you are,” he says.
I laugh and let him lead me into the house. I don’t tell him that I have five more sausages in my basket. It will be my leaving gift.
Once inside he sweeps me back into his arms and swiftly places me in front of the fire. This time he sits beside me and we talk. He asks me about my father, about France and about Lord Appleby. I tell him everything and he takes it all in as if he is a locked chest of my secrets. As sunset throws an eerie orange light through Ravenglass, I tell him that I have to go.
“Tell me you’ll come back,” Nicholas says, kissing my hand.
I look at his lips. They’re plump and soft and make a perfect Cupid’s bow. I see a slight sparkle of teeth behind them, danger clearly kept behind beauty. I take the hand he isn’t still holding and caress his cheek. It’s cold, but soft, and I can’t stop thinking what it would be like to kiss him. To hold my lips to his and see what happens next…but ladies are not supposed to do that sort of thing.
I turn to the window and see that the sun has almost set and we are still clutched together. I need to leave. I turn and pick up my basket and push it into his arms.
“Of course I’ll be back. I have to pick up my basket,” I whisper and quickly dust a kiss over his cheek.
I ride back to the house in a sort of daze. I feel like I’m the protagonist in a legendary romantic saga sung by a handsome bard; every harmonious note he sings bringing me closer to my destiny, a destiny filled with great things, great love.
“Where have you been? You’re father’s been looking for you!” Mistress Black yells at me the moment I get through the doors. Bothered by my absence, but not enough to go out and find me himself, story of my life.
“I was riding,” I say coldly.
“Well, you had best change and get into his study,” she seethes at me, pushing me to the staircase. I look down at my red velvet dress, which is splattered by mud and smells vaguely of blood and Nicholas.
“If it’s urgent I’d best go now,” I say offhand, and I push past her. She recoils somewhat at my touch and goes to yell at me more, but stops herself before her rant really starts. I’m too old for a governess. Something has changed since I arrived here, and I think she senses that too.
My father is behind his desk again. I briefly wonder if he still has legs. He pins me under a suspicious stare and gets straight to the point: “Lord Appleby is missing.”
“Oh?” I say.
“He hasn’t been seen since he went after you last night.”
“Well, I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. He has a fiancée to think about now.” I smile as sweetly as I can, yet imagine the dry husk of Appleby floating down the canal toward the nearest town. Being pecked by cheeky birds and sucked on by curious fish.
“Where did you go?” He will not desist.. He wants answers that I can’t give him without endangering Nicholas’s secret.
“I thought I saw a rabbit,” I say, holding his gaze.
I notice then that father has more wrinkles than I remember. His complexion is a little more yellowish now and there are bald patches starting to spread over his head and beard. His arms are not as muscular as I remember and, if he ever removes himself from behind the desk, I’m sure I’ll see he is shorter than I recall, too. He’s not as nearly as imposing as he used to be.
I curtsy and leave the room.
“I’m not finished speaking with you!” he shouts after me.
“I’m tired, Father. Let me know when you find Lord Appleby,” I absently say back as I leave.
The father I remember would have charged after me, and demand I apologize for my abrupt exit. But he doesn’t. Instead I hear a slow rumble of curses wafting from the study as I walk away.
“Strange what happened to Lord Appleby, don’t you think, mistress?” Martha, my maid, is bathing me. It feels a little odd. At the French Court we bathed ourselves. I’m very much out of the habit of a stranger soaping me up like a hog for a spit roast.
“Yes, strange indeed. I can finish this, Martha. Can you light the fire in my room, please? I’m so cold tonight.”
“’Of course, my mistress.”
I soak for only a few moments more then get up and dry myself off. I pull on a lace white night gown before Martha can try to dress me too. I sit in front of the dressing table and brush out my hair. It’s thick and long, so it snags at every stroke, making me wince.
“I can do that,” Martha says, taking the brush from my hands.
It’s rather nice having my hair brushed, so I let her. I close my eyes and remember my mother. She died when I was ten years old, some sort of fever. I’d like to say that my father changed after her death, became more distant without the love of his life by his side, but in truth he remained the same power-mad brute he always was, just with the added burden of a daughter to care for. I had nurses and nannies and then finally was shipped off to France. I still miss my mother. She would read with me and paint with me and indulge my baking. She would always smell like sugar and roses.
“Are you well, my mistress?” Martha asks.
I open my eyes and realize I’m crying. “Of course,” I whisper.
Martha is about my age, but she looks at me with an odd wisdom. “They’ll find Lord Appleby, don’t you worry yourself,” she says. Not that wise, then!
Martha leaves and I move to the bed to pull back the sheets. A draft attacks my legs and I notice that the thick curtains are wriggling. I walk across the room to pull them tighter, glad that I have a fire tonight. But when I turn back to my bed it’s covered in white rose petals that still flutter and shiver. The smell is amazing.
“Do you like them?”
Startled, I turn round to see Nicholas. He steps out from behind the curtain, a white fur in his hands.
“They’re beautiful, thank you,” I say.
He pulls the fur around me. It’s massive and I can’t think what animal it’s come from.
“I realize that being in a lady’s room is inappropriate, but it’s a cold night and I wanted to make sure that you are warm, and safe.”
I’m going to hell. The thoughts that are prancing through my mind are like gleeful devils leaving a flaming sin in their wake.
He grins at me. “Oh, no, I forgot your basket.”
“I guess I’ll have to ride to Ravenglass tomorrow to retrieve it,” I say, looking coy.
“I count the minutes, milady.” He bows and is gone.
Warm and safe, I have the most wonderful dreams.
I wake to the morning sun fighting its way through my curtains. The fire had died in the night, but my new white fur was more than I needed. As I roll onto my back, I smell the rose petals and smile.
I dress before Martha can do the job for me. I choose a pretty emerald day dress that matches my eyes. I leave my hair loose and wild.
I charge toward the stables to mount my horse and run straight into my father. He does still have legs.
“Where do you think you are going this early, daughter”
“I want to get a ride in before the start of the day.” Not a complete lie.
“Lord Appleby is still missing. And there’s talk of a…”
“Of a what?” Please don’t say vampire.
“Something unsavory is walking these hills, Lucinda. The village has had others go missing. I don’t want you out there on your own.”
“I said no!” he yells as he clutches my horse by its mane and pulls it away from me making the poor animal neigh loudly and cower away from us.
“Why, what lord have you sold me to now?” The moment the words leave my mouth, I regret them.
Father turns an indescribable shade of maroon. “And what would you know about the absence of your first fiancé?” he seethes.
I haven’t a lie convincing enough to distract him with. I choose silence. Another thing to regret.
“Answer me!” The maroon color has now alters to bright red, and a small evil part of me hopes his heart fails him here and now, dying on the floor of the stables amongst the hay and shit while I half-heartedly run for help.
“If he hasn’t turned up yet, I’m guessing he won’t turn up at all.” Oh, this conversation is going south at a considerable gallop.
“Get back in the house!”
I take the opportunity to escape past him, but he jerks his hand out and grips my arm, pulling me too close to him. “If I find you had anything to do with Lord Appleby’s disappearance, you’ll be close behind him.” He whispers his threat as he stares violently into my eyes. Any last drop of love I had for my father evaporates into hatred.
I pull my arm free from his grip and march to the house. It’s not till I get back into the safety of my room that my limbs start to shake and I have to sit down.
The day lingers on, all the while I’m wondering if Nicholas thinks I’ve abandoned him and if that imagined rejection will lead him to strap up another sword. My plan is to wait until nightfall and slip away from the house while my father is working in his study. I just pray that I’m not too late and that Nicholas’s immortal black mood hasn’t swung a blade.
When the bright full moon is straddling the sky, I dress in breeches and a shirt, and climb the ivy down and out of my window. I wrap myself in my white fur and run toward the stables. My horse isn’t saddled, but I don’t care. I swing up onto her bare back and drive her out into the night toward Ravenglass.
Even from a distance, I can see a light glowing in the main hall, a golden invitation.
I hitch my horse and run into the house, barreling into the Hall, afraid of what I might find.
When I burst through the doors, I find Nicholas sitting cross-legged before the fire, casually reading a book.
“Are you well?” I ask.
He smiles at me, “Of course. You’re terribly late though.”
I step forward to throw myself into his arms, but he meets me halfway. Shamefully I begin to cry. He stokes my hair and whispers, “My, whatever happened? If I’d have thought you were in trouble I’d have come over to Delacourt’s house.”
“Father knows I did something to Appleby.”
“Pish, he knows nothing, less than that in fact, as you didn’t do anything to Appleby. I did it all.”
“I didn’t help him.”
“He didn’t deserve your help. And even if you had wanted to, I could have easily overpowered you.” Nicholas grabs me round the waist and hoists me into the air, then lets me gently fall onto the couch, pinning me under him. “See, you are completely at my mercy.”
I chuckle and pull my arms about his neck. I want him to kiss me, to play the next note of this bard’s love story. Instead he looks serious and lets me up.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I’ve lived a long time, Lucinda. I thought I’d never find you, so it has never bothered me before now.”
“What hasn’t bothered you? That I’m human and you’re a vampire? Does that really make a difference?”
“Not that you’re human. I’m old enough to turn you, if that is what you want of course.” He looks hopeful.
I hadn’t even really thought about it, but being a vampire would probably be amazing. Yes I would have a limited diet, but I’d get to live forever, see everything. I could travel to every country in the world and learn to cook like a native. I could officially tell my father to stuff his rules up his own crevice and get away from here, far away before he makes another deal for my hand with another slimy Lord Appleby.
“Yes,” I say, “I’d love to be a vampire, as long as I’m with you.”
“That is wonderful to hear,” he whispers and moves forward to hold my hands, “but the Elders have a rule about female vampires. I’d have to appeal to them first.”
“They rule all vampires. We abide by their laws to ensure our safety.”
Would I be swapping one overbearing father for a group of eternal overbearing fathers?
“But, I have served them well. I’m sure they will agree,” Nicholas continues.
“Will I be strong?” I ask.
“Very strong.” He pulls me closer, looping my arms around his neck.
“Will I be fast?” I whisper.
“Incredibly fast.” His lips are almost touching mine.
“Will I be deadly?” I breathe.
“Beyond deadly.” His mouth covers mine and my mind stops working properly.
I don’t go back to father’s house. I’m far too afraid that, if he gets another grip on me, he might never let me go. I feel bad not saying goodbye to Mistress Leighton and Gordons but I can’t take the risk. I don’t go back for belongings either. All I have are the clothes on my back and Nicholas, and it is all I need. We leave Ravenglass within the hour. We travel on foot, running through the dark countryside like I did on the first night we met. We move together, fingers entwined like merry schoolchildren. We reach the town and Nicholas books us a room at the local pub, then passage on a coach heading for London. I am to meet Christian and Tolliver and another of Nicholas’s blood drinking brethren, a Frenchman called Philippe.
I’m sure we are receiving a score of disapproving looks, but I don’t notice them. Wrapped in my vampire’s arms I am safe and oddly warm. There are many kisses, but nothing else. Nicholas proposes to me that night and we decide to wait until we are married before we truly share a bed. Once the Elders agree to my turning, I am to be a vampire bride; living out the plot of a bard’s best song is fast turning out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.
I had always thought London was a big city, but with so many people squashed into its streets, it seems positively tiny. We arrive early in the morning and make our way to a tavern called the Dead Hare.
“It’s a vampire haven,” explains Nicholas, “we’re meeting them there.”
The Dead Hare is surprisingly luxurious, not your average rowdy tavern that smells of overcooked vegetables and cheap ale It is populated by men who all lay protecting arms about their female companions; there are even a few children playing in a corner. Nicholas catches me staring at them. “We don’t drink from children, it’s forbidden. But most still want a family. They’ll have been adopted by a vampire here.”
The children are laughing and dressed in expensive outfits. They look chubby and happy.
“Where do they adopt them from?” I ask.
“I’m afraid it’s from the less fortunate people who have too many babies to feed. They sell their youngest to anyone with a coin.”
“I can believe that. But they’re the lucky ones, aren’t they?” I nod toward the children.
“Strangely, yes they are. They’ll grow up and the boys will be given the opportunity to be turned. The girls will be married, if they choose to be. Their sons will be…”
“I get it. The Elders don’t like ladies.” I wave my arms around and realize that I kind of raised my voice.
“They will adore you.” Nicholas hugs me and I wonder if someday I’ll be allowed to sire my own child, and what that would feel like, to share this dark gift with another.
As we move further into the tavern, my eyes are drawn to a familiar face, “Christian!” I yell.
I throw myself into his open arms. I see a brief flash of fang as he tries to bite me.
The two other vampires quickly restrain him and one throws me an angry glance.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry,” I say.
After a slight struggle, Christian sits down and looks up at me, “It is I who should say sorry. I’m only here because I said that I could control my appetite. You are just too delectable, Lucinda Delacourt.”
“You should take him home, Tolliver.” Nicholas pulls me behind him and stares daggers at my old friend.
Christian rolls his eyes. He’s just as I remember him, only a little bit broader and ever so slightly undead.
“He’s simply stating the obvious, mes amis.” The third vampire sweeps me out from behind Nicholas. He kisses my hand. “Bonjour mademoiselle, vous etes belle.”
“Merci beaucoup,” I reply.
“Vous parlez francais?”
“Mais, bien sur.”
“I’m your humble servant, Philippe.” He bows.
I’m glad the French stops there as we are nearing my vocabulary limit on it.
“That’s enough of that,” Nicholas says, stepping between us.
As much as I’m enjoying the attention, Nicholas’s face is beginning to contort to anger, so I step back and let him help me into my seat. He lays an arm across the back of my chair and a brief round of pleasantries begin. I use this time to study the other vampires a little further. Christian looks good. Being a vampire suits him; his black hair spills a little over his broad shoulders and his rich dark eyes are keen and deep. Will being a vampire make me more becoming? Will it change me that much? Would my father recognize me if I choose to go back home?
Philippe is watching me. His gaze is soft and he has the effortlessly easy air that many a Frenchman has. I instantly like him. He includes me in their conversations and is attentive to my needs. He is the one that orders me a rich thick beef broth that tastes like it’s been cooked by God himself. Tolliver is more serious. He is holding Christian’s wrist beneath the table and when his eyes fall on me they are analytical and cold, especially when he sees me dunking bread into the broth.
We’re coming to the end of our strange social engagement when a young boy barrels up to us.
“Message for Nicholas Lord,” he says thrusting out a fold of parchment.
“Not a moment’s peace,” Philippe laments.
Nicholas takes the parchment and gives the boy a coin. He unfolds the message and begins to read. I notice his lips moving as he does. If we had been alone I’d have kissed him.
When he’s finished, he hands the letter to Tolliver who struggles to read it with just the one free hand.
“The Elders need us. There’s a problem at the Tower.”
“The Tower of London?” I ask.
“Yes, something about the boy princes,” Nicholas says, seeming distant.
“When are we needed?” Philippe asks.
“Now, we should leave now.” Nicholas gets up and holds a hand out to me.
“You can’t take Lucinda with you,” Christian says.
“Well, I’m not leaving her here with you. And besides, I want to talk to the Elders about her anyway. Now is a good time, when they actually need help.”
“I’ll take Christian back to the house and meet you at the Tower,” Tolliver declares.
A wind flaps my hair and cloak. I close my eyes against it, and when I open them I see that Tolliver and Christian are gone. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
“Should we not re-dress your lovely lady?” Philippe asks, eyeing my breeches.
“Actually, probably for the best. We can put a cap on her and claim she’s a page.”
“I am standing right here!” I put my hands on my hips.
“I thought you were taught by the finest French tutors at court,” Nicholas says with a devilish laugh. “Weren’t you taught women are sought for their beauty, not their voices?” He chuckles as I slap his arm.
“Court in France! We have so much to talk about!” Philippe takes my hand and walks me to the door, “So tell me,” he says, “are you all finished with your French education?”
“Not even close” I say.
The Tower of London is a formidable stack of stones splattered by the blood of both the guilty and the innocent. Part jail and part courthouse, if walls could talk this place would scream in horror thanks to the events it’s witnessed through the centuries. It’s a fortress designed to both protect and imprison. You can’t simply walk onto the Tower’s ground, not unless you work there, so we edge along the bank of the Thames to the watery entrance reserved for the condemned. Prisoners too high profile to walk through the front doors are ferried through a sunken gate, as if they were crossing the River Styx.
Night has crept in around us and it’s a new moon, making everything that much darker. I stand between Nicholas and Philippe; Tolliver lingers by the water. He seems lost in his own reflection, like Narcissus. I’ve yet to see him smile and part of me wants to tell him a bawdy joke just to see if I can elicit one from him. Nicholas holds my hand tightly and when I tug at it, he looks down at me.
“Everything is going to be okay, darling,” he whispers, then leans down to kiss the top of my head.
Philippe smiles at us as then stoops down by the water’s edge and pulls a rope that releases a large red rowboat. “You know,” he says, “there’s a rumor that they’re going to start calling this entrance Traitors’ Gate; put heads on spikes to decorate the gateway.”
“That’s gruesome, Philippe.” Tolliver comes away from the river and shoulder bumps his French friend.
I’m unsure why I laugh at them. Perhaps it just feels good to be included as part of their group, or perhaps I’m just nervous. Soon we’re all laughing together and Philippe begins regaling us about the logistics of the last hanging he attended on Tower Hill. “Of course, being a vampire he didn’t die; just swung there strangely, blushing and waiting for someone to figure it out and cut him down!”
It enters my eye line, just for a second, its oil slick feathers beating the cold English air, its sharp beak dripping bloody gore…
“Lucinda, watch out!” Nicholas yells at me and pushes me back out of its trajectory.
He of course had seen the raven before it had begun its descent. Before I’d even realized what was going on, Nicholas had drawn his sword and sliced it in two. An unholy screech escapes its beak, and I can smell a foulness lifting from its exposed, shiny innards as its two halves writhe on the ground at my feet.
“What in the name of God is going on here?” Philippe pokes his sword at the twitching bird corpse, “it still looks alive…” Half of the bird judders forward and attacks the blade. He shakes it off and completely decapitates the thing. It now looks like black paste scraped across the path.
“Are you okay, Lucinda?” Nicholas asks me. He puts his arm around my shoulders and it’s only then that I realize I’m shaking. I link my arms around his waist and pull him to me, breathing in the smell of him. Tolliver gives me a distasteful look and Philippe looks away and down at the twitching mess at our feet.
He narrows his eyes at it. “Did it come from the Tower?”
“Must have, but what the hell happened to it?” Tolliver asks.
A strong wind whips at my fur cloak and suddenly there is another man in front of me. He is dressed in a Tower Guard’s uniform and has long golden hair to his shoulders and the small ghost of a beard. His eyes are frightfully dark and fixed completely on me. When I do not look away from him, he grins, showing me scarlet stained teeth. There are wet bloodstains creeping over the uniform. I cower a little into Nicholas.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asks, staring a hole through Nicholas.
“I wanted the Elders to meet my fiancée, Lucinda Delacourte,” he replies.
I let go of Nicholas and curtsey as best I can in breeches.
“You wish to make a female vampire?”
“I do, I think that Lucinda has the right temperament and…”
The strange man’s grin widens. “She is comely, and I do like a woman in man’s clothes. Scandalous.” He holds out a hand to me and I hesitate to take it. Something tells me he is not like the others, or as we used to say at school, the hat and boots don’t quite match. I decide to smile and edge backward behind Nicholas and Philippe.
“She’s smart too. I like her. But you still cannot make a female vampire.”
“But, Elder please…” A soft begging tone is creeping into Nicholas’s words.
“Might I have a brief word?” Philippe says. He maneuvers the Elder away from us and I cannot hear what they are saying, but I’m assuming Nicholas does.
“What’s going on?” I whisper to him.
“Philippe is telling the Elder that I need you, that without you I would have ended my own life.”
“Will that work?”
“I often find that the truth is always best the tactic.”
A sudden thought grips me. If the Elders don’t agree to me being turned, Nicholas might try to do something silly again. As a human I will inevitably die, so will he kill himself right along with me? I look up at him and am about to ask when Philippe re-joins us.
“The Elder has agreed to Lucinda being turned on one condition,” he says.
“Name it,” Nicholas replied.
“She must go into the Tower with us.”
“I’ve never been in the Tower of London. It might be fun,” I say.
“You should probably ask what’s going on here first, before agreeing.” Tolliver kicks a piece of raven over to my foot. He makes a good point, albeit a disgusting one.
The Elder swiftly moves to stand before us. “My brothers and I have just returned from the battle of Camporto. Our enemies there have been vanquished, but one had already been captured by the English knights and taken here to be interrogated. He is being kept here in the Tower.”
“You want us to go in and get to him?” Nicholas asks.
“Not exactly. He’s not the one we wish you to recover. The two young princes, Edward and Richard, are being kept in the Tower.”
“What has happened here?” Tolliver asks, “Why are the princes in danger?”
“The new prisoner is an enchanter by the name of St. John Swan.”
“An enchanter?” I ask before I can keep my question to myself.
“A warlock,” Philippe replies.
I shiver again, stroking the fur of my cloak.
Nicholas suddenly pulls me behind him and launches himself at the Elder, who simply moves out of his way with little effort.
Tolliver grabs Nicholas and holds him back. “You would send in a human girl against an enchanter!” Nicholas yells.
“She must prove herself, brother,” Tolliver whispers.
“We will all go into the Tower, we’ll find the princes, and our job will be done.” Philippe slips his hand in mine as he says it.
“Perhaps not as easy as you think.” The Elder stares at the diced Raven on the ground.
“Has St. John cast a spell on the Tower?” I ask.
“It would seem that he has infected the prisoners within the Tower with the Reverent affliction. If the princes are still alive, they are to be brought to me.” The Elder then throws me an oddly bored expression and disappears into the night.
The thought of those two little boys surrounded by monsters is almost too much to bear. Even without vampire companions, I’d have still ventured in to find them. “Let’s get started!” I say and turn to get on the boat that will take us into the Tower’s grounds.
Nicholas shakes his head. “I’m not letting you go in there.”
“I can deal with warlocks and revenants,” I say.
“Do you even know what revenants are?”
“Zombies, the living dead,” Tolliver adds.
“Well, I’ve managed to survive vampires, Lord Hands McGrabby and my father, so this should be a ball. Let’s go and get it over with.”
“If this St. John has just turned prisoners, then they should still all be locked up. One would presume that the human guards have all been spirited away to safety by the other Elders.” Philippe’s reasoning softens the look on Nicholas’s face.
“I’ll be okay.” I reach up and caress Nicholas’s cheek. I see in his eyes that he hasn’t quite decided my true fate yet, and in honesty, the decision belongs only to him.
“We will take care of her, brother,” Tolliver says.
“All right, but we get the boys, and we get out. The Elders can clean up their own damn zombie mess. The deal was that she was to go in, nothing else.” Nicholas quickly catches my lips with his. They are cold and soft and feel wonderful. A surge of bravery rises in me and I break our kiss to whisper in his ear, “I will be strong, fast and deadly.”
He pulls me into a hard embrace and I feel his hands beneath my cloak caressing the skin of my back.
“He’ll make her regardless of the Elders, won’t he?” Tolliver asks Philippe.
“And we will stand by them both regardless.”
The boat ride into the Tower is surprisingly long, even with Philippe and Tolliver rowing, but the closer we get, the more I can smell the foulest of odors. It’s a mixture of curdled milk and rotted pig meat.
“What is that stench?”
“The revenants would not be rotten so quickly. I think it must be the animals,” Philippe answers me.
“The Tower has a menagerie of exotic animals, gifts from foreign kingdoms.” Tolliver points toward the Tower’s courtyard.
“Are they loose?” I ask, suddenly imagining having to fight lions and zombies at once like some supernatural gladiator waiting for a thumbs-down from the gods.
“They weren’t, but there’s no telling now,” Tolliver replies, not looking at me, but staring into the distance.
We fall into a comfortable silence listening to the water smack the side of our boat and soon, as we get closer, we hear the cries of myriad unknown dangers.
“Can animals be revenants?” I ask.
“No, darling, magic shouldn’t work on them,” Nicholas whispers to me, pulling me closer to him so I’m all but sat on his lap.
I’m just starting to enjoy the moonlight boat ride in the arms of my soon-to-be husband when we clunk into the tiny dock. Philippe jumps out and offers me his hand, which I take. He helps me off the boat and surprisingly does the same for both Nicholas and Philippe. The man is a true gentleman and I find I’m growing even fonder of him. Tolliver has still retained his original mood, but even as I think this he reaches inside his cloak and produces a small sword, which he hands to me.
“She won’t need it,” Nicholas says.
“Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.” Tolliver flips the sword so that the handle is pointed at me. I gently take it from him. “Thank you,” I say. He smiles a little at me for a moment, then I’m pretty sure he remembers that I really don’t belong with them, and that I especially don’t belong here, and then the smile is gone.
Our walk toward the main Tower is slow and deliberate. We kill an undead raven here and there, although the vampires beat me to all of them with their super-speed and senses.
I try to think of all this as some sort of game, so I attempt to ignore the cries emanating from the Tower. I’m sure that it isn’t unusual for them to echo about England’s most notorious prison, but the pitch of the cries is somehow different: more guttural, less human.
“Everything is going to be okay.” Nicholas squeezes my hand. The vampires’ stride quickens as they approach the wooden door to the main tower, encrusted with giant spikes. They push it open and an even more horrendous smell smacks my face so hard I stumble backwards.
“That is the smell of revenants,” Tolliver explains.
“Wonderful,” I say, lifting my fur cloak to my nose in an attempt to block out some of the stench.
The guards have obviously evacuated their stations as there are only a few candles still burning. Shadows and darkness melt into one another, making the scenery around me like a black blanket smothering my senses. I cling tighter to Nicholas’s arm as we walk further in.
For a reason that I cannot fathom, it feels colder inside the Tower than outside. My hand, although gloved, feels numb around my sword’s handle—so much so, I have to tap the blade to my leg as we walk to reassure myself that it’s still there.
“All the prisoners must still be locked up,” Tolliver says, but his tone is more of a question than a statement.
“Where would the princes imprisoned?” I ask.
“The top of the Tower. They are not actually prisoners,” Nicholas replies.
“Really, is that what you think, brother?” Even in the near darkness I see Tolliver’s face contort in disbelief.
Nicholas grunts and walks a little faster, slightly dragging me behind him.
We seem to walk forever, then finally reach the first room of the Tower. It is lightly furnished in red and purple velvet. There’s a carpet runner on the floor beneath our feet and thick curtains over the small windows. I let go of Nicholas’s hand and move toward a window. I open the curtain and breathe in fresh air. Looking out of the window, I see that we are much higher up than I thought. I back away and turn to see all three vampires looking at me.
“Let her out, Nicholas. We can lower her out of one of these windows, then pick her up on the way back. No one needs to know,” Philippe says.
“Good idea, let’s do it.” Nicholas grabs a nearby curtain and yanks it down. He then makes a strange noose out of it and approaches me.
I put up my hands and back away from him. “You’re not doing that. I said I’d help save the little princes, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Please, just let me…”
“No, Nicholas. Those young boys are probably frightened out of their minds. Vampires shouldn’t add to their nightmare tonight. I’m going to get them out of here.”
He drops the curtain and smiles at me. “I love you, you know.”
I never imagined any man saying that to me, and it takes everything I’ve got not to run into his arms and kiss him till the sun comes up.
“Okay, let’s get this romance on the road, there might not be any princes left to rescue if we don’t get moving.” Tolliver kicks the abandoned curtain out of the way and strides off through a door.
Nicholas offers his hand, which I eagerly take again, and we follow Tolliver deeper into the dark, foul-smelling bowels of the Tower.
The vampires hear it before me. I know they do, because Nicholas’s hand tenses around mine. I hear it minutes later and it makes my stomach turn.
The groans that we had heard coming into the Tower’s grounds were nothing compared to this. Cages line the next corridor and inside each one we pass is a confined, tightly pressed mob of the undead, reaching and screaming to get at our flesh. Some push so hard at the bars that the zombie closest to them is sieved through the iron posts into a twitching pile of splintered bones, squashed flesh and putrid innards. And still those piles are trying to find a way to get to us. Tolliver has now fully taken the lead and is chopping off parts here and there. Philippe is gently slipping his rapier through ears and eye sockets. Nicholas wraps me in his arms, shuffling me forward from behind. At least they are all still caged. If they had been free, I’m not sure I would have survived this zombie gauntlet to get to the top of the Tower.
Finally, we reach a steep, narrow staircase that leads to the princes’ prison. We open the door and scan the room. It is a decadent cell, but a cell nonetheless. It is also empty.
“Where could they have gone?” Tolliver asks.
I move into the center of the room and look around. There’s only one door, the one we used, so either they got out on their own and are somewhere lost in the Tower, or they are still here… I look at the two beds, still immaculately made, with long, thick woolen blankets draped over them. I tiptoe toward the nearest one and lift the edge up. A frightened little face stares back at me. “It’s okay, we’re here to rescue you,” I say.
I’m not sure he’s really understood in what I’ve said, since he doesn’t move or speak. I reach under the bed, gently take his arm and slide him out. “There, that’s better isn’t it? We can see each other properly now.”
As I say this, another little boy crawls out from under the other bed and jumps into my arms. He hugs me so hard I stop breathing. “It’s okay,” I whisper to him, “we’re going to get you out of here.”
“I know,” the little boy in my arms whispers back to me. “I saw you in my head, you’re Lucinda and that is Nicholas, Tolliver and Philippe. They’re vampires.” My eyes widen.
Tolliver claps his hands together. “Edward has the gift. That’s why they were locked up.”
“Would the English monarchy be so cruel to a child?” Philippe asks.
“Yes, if they think that unexplained visions of the future might be considered the Devil’s work. The War of the Roses has made the lineage of the King uncertain, and they could lose support if their lords thought their family was touched by Lucifer,” Tolliver says.
Nicholas nods in agreement and all three vampires bend down to shake hands with the little boy. His younger brother, Richard, still almost catatonic, curls into my body. He now has a thumb lodged in his mouth and his stare is lost somewhere in the middle distance. “Will he be all right?” I ask Nicholas.
“Yes, we just need to get him out of here.”
Nicholas tries to hoist the boy into his arms, but he squirms and lets out a short, sharp wail. I quickly shift him back into my own arms, allowing his surprisingly hefty weight to settle on my hip. Richard puts his face into my shoulder and begins to chew on my fur cloak.
“I’m sorry about my brother. I tried to tell him that we’ll be okay, but he doesn’t always listen to me.” Edward reaches up and pats his brother’s back.
I wrap my arms around Richard to stop him from falling, although I think it might be a fruitless gesture as his legs are python tight around my body.
“Let’s go,” says Tolliver taking Edward’s hand in his.
Just as we begin to move out of the room, an ominous grinding metal sound echoes up the stairs.
“He’s letting the zombies out now,” says Edward.
We quickly close the door, trapping ourselves in the boys’ room. Philippe drags a nearby chest of drawers in front of it and Nicholas grabs a tapestry chaise longue to push on top of that, barricading us in.
“There’s no other way out,” Tolliver says, looking round.
“There’s the window,” I yell. I move toward it, albeit slower due to my child baggage. I push the heavy curtains aside and stare out of the hole that claims to be a window. We’re far too high up to jump and below are now a clump of undead prisoners. Some are pushing themselves onto the stones of the tower, trying to grip on, while others are feasting on the remains of one of the Tower’s lions. I put my hand up to be sure that Richard has his face turned away. I can’t stop staring at the scene below; even if I could the sounds are enough to make you vomit, insistent groaning coupled with sloppy slurping and skin being ripped asunder. As I watch, Nicholas edges beside me to see what I’m looking at. He murmurs something in a language I’ve never heard before and starts to pull me away. As I’m gently guided backward I see the half-eaten lion twitch and stumble to its feet. Didn’t Nicholas say that the animals wouldn’t be affected?
The zombies then lose interest with their meal and all of them start to clamber up the Tower’s wall. I tense my body, stopping Nicholas’s efforts to get me further back in the room. Now there are more of them, they can climb onto one another’s backs and pull themselves further up the wall. Some reach up and grab onto jutting stones. They start to pull themselves up, creeping up to the open window of the Tower.
A loud bang makes me jump and I turn to see the door shiver and one of the drawers from the chest clatter to the floor.
“Can we go out the window?” Tolliver asks.
“They’re climbing the walls,” I whisper.
“What do we do?” Philippe asks as he places his back against the now jumping furniture blockade.
Nicholas turns to me. He looks worried. A look I’ve never seen before.
“We can fight them,” I say. “We can funnel them through the door with the furniture. With your strength and speed, we should be able to quickly dispatch them as they stumble in. They may be dangerous, but they’re not as dangerous as vampires.”
All eyes are on me. Nicholas smiles.
“I think I kind of love her too,” Philippe says with a grin.
I take both boys to the back of the room and cover them in a blanket to shield their eyes. Philippe begins unstacking the barricade and Nicholas and Tolliver place the furniture either side of the doorframe, making a kind of makeshift corridor. They then lift one of the wooden bed frames and place it in front of me and the boys. As they move to their positions, I catch Nicholas’s hand and pull him to me. I angle my face upward and gently catch his bottom lip in my mouth. He puts his palms on my cheeks and holds me to him. I close my eyes and wonder if this is our last kiss and if vampires are allowed into Heaven, or even if I will be if things go horribly wrong.
“We will have a wonderful eternity together,” Nicholas whispers to me.
I open my eyes and a thousand things I want to say crush together into my mouth and nothing comes out, so I lift his hands and place a chaste kiss on each of his palms, hoping our love will make his sword true.
“That’s enough of that, let’s focus!” Tolliver yells at us.
Nicholas turns from me and all the vampires unsheathe their swords. I sit on the floor with the boys and wait…
The wood of the door seems to bulge, then suddenly splinter in two. Zombie prisoners fall through into a heap at the vampires’ feet. With fast strikes, they begin beheading the foul creatures. Part of me wants to close my eyes till it’s over, to hide under the blanket with the princes, but the more dominant part of me demands I watch every tumbling head, every slash and slice, because it’s that side of me that knows I was born to be a vampire.
I have an arm hugging each of the boys, so if a zombie were to make it through the line, I’d have to move quickly to stop it. Realizing this error, I get to my feet and stand in front of them, sword out and ready to spill some dead blood. As I take my arm from Edward’s narrow shoulders, he grips my hand and looks sad.
“It’ll be okay,” I say to him, but his eyes are glassy and unfocused.
“He’s getting a vision,” whispers Richard.
I really want to know what he’s seeing, even if I’m unsure as to whether to believe it or not. As far as I know their scheming uncle has tricked Edward into thinking he has visions as an excuse to get rid of his royal competition.
I pull the boys into one another’s arms and stand up in front of them. Just as I do, a zombie lunges past Tolliver and falls toward me. Its head lolls back exposing red and yellow teeth. I poke out with my sword, hoping to skewer it through the eyeball, but misjudge the angle and instead scrape its ear clean off. The momentum of the motion pulls me forward into its waiting arms. I grab its shoulders and steady myself. I quickly drive a knee into the zombie’s groin, which of course does very little other than to anger it. A string of violent vowels drip from its mouth along with a trail of pinkish saliva. I flip my sword back up and thrust again. This time it buries itself in the zombie’s mouth.
“Zut!” I yell and move the blade’s grip in my hand so I can fall to my knees and thrust it up through the top of the zombie’s mouth and into its brain. Finally it falls down. I hear clapping. When I look up I see Tolliver holding back Nicholas and Philippe, poised to strike.
“See, brother, she can handle herself,” Tolliver says, letting Nicholas go.
I really want to slap Tolliver. I suspect he let that zombie by him deliberately. They had obviously dispatched the others beforehand, as there is now a pile of quivering, rotting limbs in front of the door.
My sword, although small and slim, begins to feel heavy in my hand so I put it back in my belt. Tears are gathering in the corners of my eyes and I turn toward the princes to avoid the vampires seeing them. Edward launches himself forward and hugs me, closely followed by his brother. “It’s okay,” I whisper.
“Those are not all the prisoners and we still have St. John to deal with,” Tolliver says as he steps beside me and hoists Edward into his arms. I go to pick up Richard but Philippe beats me to it.
“Lucinda,” Nicholas says, but I ignore him. Whatever fight I had in me is now diluted. I’m not a vampire yet, and trying to act like one will probably get me killed. I can’t let my love see this. I flash him a quick smile and stride out of the room, kicking a few undead heads as I do.
As we carefully make our way out of the Tower, Nicholas grabs my hand and pulls me behind him. I don’t have the energy to complain so I fall in line, sandwiched in the middle of our small group. We pick up the pace and make it to a great hall that connects the guards’ barracks with the royal prison.
It’s colder now, or maybe I’m colder. I really can’t tell. I’ve never felt like this before, so overwhelmed and breakable…. A roar bounces off the stone walls and bounding shadows seem to suddenly surround us.
“Well isn’t this interesting,” says a man whose bulk now blocks our exit. I look around at the shadows, my eyes focusing on what they are. It’s a pride of lions, but their eyes are red and their teeth are enlarged and extended. They prowl around us in a circle, forcing our group to clump together in an easier target.
“You must be St. John,” Nicholas says.
The enchanter inches forward and takes a bow. He’s not an attractive man. His skin is scabby and sallow and his eyes are an unnerving shade of light blue. He’s wearing a thick purple cape and is covered in jewelry.
“Gotten into the Crown Jewels, I see,” Philippe states, staring at the nearest lion.
St. John chuckles and actually blushes. “Well, it would be a waste not to.”
A lion nips at my heel, making me jump.
“What do we have here? A female vampire? My, I thought that was illegal. You know you’ve picked the wrong side, dear,” he says shuffling a little toward me. “We worship our women, not like this undead lot.” He points at Nicholas, who snarls back.
“We are not your revenants. We are not undead,” growls Tolliver.
“Ah, but you forget, a good enchanter can feel the tug of all death.” He raises his hands and a strange green mist starts to tumble from his palms.
“No!” Philippe yells. He turns to me quickly and hands me Richard. Toliver puts down Edward who grabs my hand and starts to pull me away from the vampires.
“What’s happening?” I whisper.
In a flash, Philippe, Tolliver and Nicholas pull out their swords and swipe them out toward their nearest friend. The blades stop inches before their throats. They stand in a sort of three-man triangle, each ready to chop the other’s head off. The thin green mist lingers around them, not hiding their pained expressions.
“No!” I yell.
“Don’t worry dear, we’ll dispatch these brutes, then you and I can play our own games. I’ve always wanted a female vampire under my control. There are so few of you. You’re quite a treasure, much more so than mere baubles.” He shrugs off the Crown Jewels and steps over them toward me. He thinks I’m a vampire, that he can control me. He’s dead wrong.
Edward lets go of my hand. “Now,” he shouts, “you must act now!”
I push the princes aside and kick out at the nearest lion. It yelps as my foot connects with its jaw. Teeth fly out of its mouth like a sharp cascade. It shakes off my initial blow and launches at me, claws extended. I step back and raise my sword. Its chest is pierced instantly, but its weight takes me off balance and I lose my grip on the blade. The big cat falls back, my sword still in its chest.
“My, my, you are spirited!” St. John starts to send his green mist toward me. I look down at the lion, who is trying to bite the sword out from its chest. I kneel down and grab the blade’s handle. I yank it out and the cat looks almost relived.
“Lucinda!” Nicholas pushes out. They are fighting the enchanter’s influence, but now their swords are beginning to draw blood on each of their necks.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see another lion has stalked toward my back and is poised to leap on me. I twirl round and thrust my sword forward and take off the end of its nose. It lets out an unholy cry and backs away.
The green mist is all around me now. St. John has realized that I’m not a vampire. He looks surprised, with a measure of annoyance. I push forward, sword in hand, and run at him. He stumbles backward away from me and falls over the discarded pile of jewelry.
“Don’t!” he pleads with me, hands up. But the gesture is hollow. There’s still green mist oozing out of them. He’s going to have the vampires kill one another any minute…
I’ve never killed anyone before. The thought of actually taking someone’s life had never seriously crossed my mind, so when the blade slips through his layers of clothing and fat and skewers his heart, I immediately vomit. Rich red blood erupts out of chest and his eyes go even paler. I don’t want to see him die, so I turn away to make sure Nicholas and my friends are safe. As I do, a flash of gold bowls me over. I feel the lion’s weight on my chest and smell its rancid breath. It ducks its head out of my eye line then slumps like a piece of meat off me to the ground. St. John Swan is dead, and his undead pride is now just rotting corpses.
“Lucinda!” I hear Nicholas shout my name and I try to get up. Warm blood is pooling around me, and my hands slip in it, propelling me back down. Pain shoots through my body.
“Don’t move!” I see him above me. His hands go to my throat, and I realize it is my blood that is gathering around me. I try to speak, to ask what has happened, but all I can do is gurgle.
“I need to do it now, Philippe. Hold her neck!”
“The lion bit her. She’s infected, brother. If you put your symbol on her and raise her as a vampire with an enchanter’s spell still in her veins, who knows what unholy creature you’ll create,” Tolliver says.
It’s so odd. I feel no physical pain, no sensation, nothing. I stare up at Nicholas and the look on his face breaks my heart; this, I feel.
“I’m so sorry.” Nicholas pulls me into his strong embrace, cradling me against his chest. My blood has stained my white fur cloak and is now smothered around his pale face as he kisses me over and over.
“Don’t let her die in this place,” Philippe whispers from behind us.
Nicholas gathers me up in his arms and carries me out of the Tower and into the fresh night air. He lays me gently onto the ground and tucks my cloak around me. I look up at him, but find my eyes wandering to the bright night sky above us. The stars tonight have never seemed so close; so near. I feel that, if I had the strength, I could pluck them from the sky like shiny plums from a tree. And give them to my love to remember me by.
Nicholas nestles his head in the crook of my neck and sobs. I try to bring my hand up to stroke his hair, but the strength I need is lost to me, flowing out of my body with my blood.
“The Elders are coming. Leave her; we have to get the princes to safety. We can tell the Elders that we found them dead, eaten by revenants.” Toliver pulls at Nicholas’s shoulder, but he shrugs him off.
“I can’t leave her,” Nicholas whispers.
I can no longer feel his arms around me or his tears tumbling onto my skin. My whole body is numb, my limbs no longer responding to my thoughts. I wish they did. I want to kiss him one last time, tell him that this wasn’t his fault and urge him to live enough for the both of us. But I can’t.
A small hand enters my line of sight, Edward. “Nicholas, you will meet her again,” he says. Nicholas stares at the little boy.
“I’ll hold my Lucinda again? Make her a vampire?” he asks.
“Yes. She will be a great champion, but she won’t be called Lucinda. Her name will be Brianna.”
The stars are so bright that now their light is all I see.
Other Books by Nicky Peacock:
Evernight Teen ®
Only time will tell who the traitors really areâ€¦ Sixteen-year-old Lucinda is getting the home-coming from hell. England is in the grip of the War of the Roses and her tyrant father has promised her hand to a vile man three times her age. In need of aid, she seeks sanctuary with an old childhood friend only to find him accused of treachery and harboring a supernatural secret. All too soon Lucinda is caught in a fight thatâ€™s not her own but, to be with the man she loves, sheâ€™ll gladly take up arms. When you stand at Traitorsâ€™ Gate, keep the vampires close, and the zombies as far away as possible!