I wake to the sound of men arguing. Two of the voices, I recognize. The third only sounds vaguely familiar. I should probably open my eyes and find out what’s going on, but my head hurts something fierce. It feels like I drank an entire barrel of cheap ale, and now I’m suffering the consequences.
“You couldn’t have kept that information to yourself?” Henri snarls. It’s almost enough to tempt my eyes open; I’ve never heard him so upset.
“She blew up a bullet,” says the unknown man. “I wasn’t about to keep such a useful weapon secret.”
A low, ominous growl. “She’s a woman, not a weapon.”
“She’s both,” the baron chimes in. “And she saw the vampire.”
My ears must be playing tricks on me. There’s no way he just said what I think he said.
“You don’t know that,” Henri argues. “Its glamour might have worked on her.”
A scoff. The unknown man clearly disagrees. “You saw the way she looked at it, Henri. You smelled her fear spike, just as I did. She saw through its glamour. She saw through my glamour too. Face it, friend; she’s not human.”
The words echo what Henri said to me right before I lost consciousness. I try to tell myself they can’t be true, that none of this is real, and I definitely didn’t see the things I think I did. I probably hit my head on a rock when Henri shoved me down, and this is all some horrible hallucination brought on by a damaged mind.
“We can’t let her go now,” the baron says.
“She doesn’t want to stay here,” Henri bites out.
“What she wants no longer matters,” the baron tells him. If I weren’t so out of it, I would laugh. Since when has what I wanted ever mattered to him? “She knows too much. She’s seen too much. Hell, you’ve probably told her too much.”
“I’ve told her almost nothing,” Henri says. “Unlike you, I’ve been trying to protect her.”
The baron’s voice softens. “The mating instincts are strong when they first hit.”
Wait, what? Mating instincts?
I crack my eyes open. Torchlight spears into them, and I groan and slam them shut again. God, that hurt, but at least that brief glimpse was enough to tell me where I am: lying in the back of a hay-strewn cart.
“She’s awake,” the baron says. “Get her up so she can play her part, and we can all go home.”
“She’s in no state to play a part,” Henri snaps, and I feel a wash of warm energy roll over me as he approaches.
“I have to agree with him there,” says the third man.
I risk another glance, fighting through the pain to see Rufus, the blacksmith, standing beside the baron at the edge of the cart bed. His handsome face is marred by scratches, clothing askew like he pulled it on quickly. Odd.
A shiver runs through me as something he said a moment ago snags in the back of my mind. I saw through his glamour? How? When? And why does he know everything that just happened? He wasn’t there. The only people were Henri, me, the republican troops, that man-thing (vampire?), and the shadowy monster that…
Oh. Oh, no. No, no, no.
His face is all scratched up with what looks like claw marks. Like he went rolling through the undergrowth, spitting and fighting. He was the monster, wasn’t he?
No. He couldn’t have been. That’s impossible.
Henri blocks Rufus from sight as he steps close and leans over me, brushing hair back from my face with gentle fingers. His gloves are gone, and the skin-to-skin contact does wonders to soothe some of my pain and mounting panic.
“Whahappen?” I slur. My throat is parched and scratchy, and speaking hurts.
A small line of concern forms between Henri’s brows. “You fainted. What do you remember?”
Everything. Though I really wish I didn’t. I remember the monster (Rufus?) tearing out a gunman’s throat, the vampire and monster fighting, and then me possibly saving Henri from the other republican troop, though how I managed to destroy a bullet mid-air is beyond me. It’s not like I planned for that to happen; it was sheer terror driving me on. And who knows, maybe I did nothing, and the bullet was just defective and this is all some horrible coincidence.
Then why do you feel like you just expended half of your life force to keep Henri alive? an insidious voice ghosts through my mind.
Henri must see my answer in my eyes because his lips flatten into a hard line, and he shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he says, tucking my hair behind my ear. The gesture is tender, caring, and my traitorous heart picks up in response. “This is my fault. I was supposed to keep you from seeing anything you shouldn’t, but there were more men than we expected, and they were led by the creature you saw. He came straight for us for some reason.” He pauses, dark gaze roaming over my face, expression contemplative. A wayward lock of hair falls forward, and even in my depleted state, my fingers itch to brush it back. Does he think I’m the reason? “I’ve only ever wanted to keep you safe,” he says with solemnity.
I nod, even though it sets my head pounding again. That statement explains so much about the past month, but especially his odd personality shifts early on as he simultaneously tried to keep me at arm’s length while battling his attraction to me.
The baron slides into view beside his son. He’s grinning ear-to-ear, looking pleased with himself for some reason, smug and triumphant. I’ve never wanted to punch someone so much in my life. “Ah, there’s my future daughter-in-law.”
Henry jerks away from me and lets out a warning growl, turning his now mutinous gaze on his father. Behind them, Rufus makes a choking noise that sounds like he’s holding back laughter.
The baron ignores them both. “Can you sit?” he asks me, reaching out to grab my wrists and haul me upright before I can answer.
I sway, the forest spinning around me. I feel like I might sick up, so I twist my arms in the baron’s grip and cling to him with all the strength I have. He’s not getting away from me now. If I’m puking, it’s going to be all over this bastard.
“Steady,” he says, unaware of the danger I pose to his clothes. “You’ve done well tonight, but we need your aid for one last thing.”
Henri looms behind him, furious in the torchlight. “Look at her, Father. Does she seem capable of anything in this state?”
The baron merely shrugs, grinning widely. “Easily resolved if Rufus is right and she’s not fully human.”
Henri’s eyes flash wide, and he takes a step forward, “Don’t you dare.”
I have just enough time to see the baron’s smile turn dark, a calculated gleam in his eyes, before power punches into me, stronger than anything I’ve felt before. It sears into my wrists and fingers where the baron and I are joined and races up my arms like lightning streaking through a storm-ravaged sky. I throw my head back and scream when it slams into my heart. My whole body jerks off the cart, limbs spasming, spine bowing backward. My hair floats out around me like I’ve been submerged underwater.
I’m dying. The baron is killing me. He must have seen the hatred in my eyes and decided I was too big a threat to let live. After all, if I really did blow that bullet up, couldn’t I do the same thing to his head if I ever mastered my ability?
The torrent of power snaps, and I fall boneless back to the cart as Henri drags his father away from me. He’s yelling. Rufus is yelling, too, gripping the baron’s other arm. A high-pitched whining fills my ears, and I can’t hear their words, only see their mouths working as they bellow. More figures stream into my line of sight. With their cloaks gone, they’re no longer wraiths, just men, albeit huge and intimidating ones. A scuffle breaks out in the middle of them, and then Henri and the baron are pulled apart and dragged away from each other. Henri’s face is contorted, teeth bared. He looks utterly ferocious – he’s never reminded me more of his father than at this moment. I shift my gaze to the baron. Of course, he’s laughing.
I push myself up to sitting, shocked by how easy it is. A moment ago, I felt like I was dying. A moment before that, I felt like I’d been run over by a carriage. Now I’m oddly invigorated, if a little jittery, like I got a good night’s sleep and drank several cups of strong coffee upon waking.
The baron points to me just as the buzzing starts to fade from my ears. “Look at her.”
My earlier musings about the mythical hydra come roaring back when the men fall still and turn to me as one. I wave at them, cracking what must be a deranged grin – I feel slightly out of my mind at the moment; too many things have happened tonight, and half of them don’t feel real.
Rufus laughs, one arm still slung over the baron’s chest in restraint. Across from them, Henri looks as concerned as he probably should be. The other men wear expressions ranging from surprise to curiosity. I try to ignore them, but with so many gathered close, their power is beginning to build again, like it did on the road. The last thing I need right now is to find out what any of them truly thinks of me.
God, I hope they’re loyal enough to the Bisclavrets to keep their mouths shut about tonight. But then, do I even need to worry? From the way their energy is washing over me, they’re all like Henri and Rufus and the baron – all monsters? – so keeping bizarre secrets, especially from humans, must be second nature to them.
Henri pulls free from the men holding him. “I’m fine,” he says, striding toward me. His large hands cup my face. Dark eyes fill my vision as he looks me over. A crease forms between his brows as he starts to frown, and before I can think better of it, I reach up and smooth it away. Behind him, the men begin to disperse, taking their crackling energy with them as they return to whatever tasks they were performing before all the ruckus.
Henri smooths the hair back from my face again and leans closer, dropping his voice. “Are you all right?”
I nod as much as his grip will let me. “Physically? Yes, though I’d rather not go through whatever that was again.”
He exhales, sounding both relieved and resigned, and presses his forehead to mine. “I’m sorry.”
I grip his wrists, squeezing. “I know. But enough of that for now. Your father obviously means for me to carry out my task. I want to see to it and get back to the chateau before whatever he just did to me fades and I fall into some sort of coma. Everything else can wait until later.”
He pulls back enough to stare down at me. God, he’s beautiful in the torchlight. That raven dark hair and sun-kissed skin. Did I ever really stand a chance against him? Was my dream all those months ago just a warning that resistance was futile?
“Why are you so calm about this?” he asks.
I let out a watery laugh. “Oh, I’m not. But what would resistance do? Better we announce the engagement your father plans for us on our own terms than let him make up some horrid tale about catching us in flagrante that will ruin our reputations.”
The baron swaggers into sight behind his son. “That’s the spirit.”
Henri’s eyes flash pure amber, and his hands tighten on me a fraction before he catches himself and releases me. The look on his face when he turns to his father is mutinous. I can only imagine the discussions these two are going to have in the coming days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
The baron stops beside Henri, seemingly immune to the anger radiating off his son and me. He looks me over quickly and quirks a brow. “Ready now?”
I remind myself that snapping at him will earn me no favors, but the urge is so strong I nearly choke resisting it. “I am.”
He offers me his arm. “Good woman.”
I take it and scoot off the cart, pausing a second when my feet hit the dirt, thinking I might sway again, but I don’t. I still feel fine. No, better than fine. I feel like I could run all the way back to the chateau without breaking a sweat. Like I might finally be able to best Henri in one of our sparring matches. What the hell did the baron do to me?
Later, I tell myself. All of my questions can wait, and I have a feeling I have a much better chance of getting straight answers out of his son anyway. I’m stuck with them now if the baron gets his way; surely there’s no reason to keep secrets for me anymore.
The baron turns us, and I get my first look at the scene spread out over the road. The cart I was lying in is in the back of a long line. The rest of our men are split between checking the other carts and carriages and hauling bodies into the trees. I think our enemies are all dead at first, my stomach twisting at the sight, but then I see that some are bound, wrists and ankles tied, blindfolds over their eyes. One or two struggle against the restraints while others make low, pain-filled sounds as if they’re just regaining consciousness.
Relief courses through me. I may have a lot of anger toward the republican government, but I recognize that not all their soldiers are like the sans culottes. These men are my fellow countrymen, and some might have joined the army under duress or hoping to better themselves, not because they support the atrocities committed by the senate.
A towering man passes by us carrying an armful of rifles. He nods at the baron and strides to a nearby cart, where it looks like our troops are stockpiling small weapons and ammunition.
Henri appears on my other side, face set in grim lines. His father shifts direction, heading into the trees, and I wonder what he’s about. Why don’t we just pull the blindfold off one of the conscious men in the road?
“We have their human captain trussed up to a tree not too far away,” the baron says as if he heard my silent musings.
“Their human captain? Do they know about the…” God, am I really about to say this? “The vampire?”
“They don’t. I assume you heard Rufus mention its glamour?” He waits for me to nod before continuing. “To them, he appears human. They have no idea that they’re helping him and his kind fight a second war hidden beneath the civil one that’s seemingly broken out here.”
I frown. What on earth is he talking about? A second war?
Henri steps closer to my side. “I’ll take her on from here.”
The baron releases my arm without argument. “See that she performs her duty well. He should be spooked enough by what Armand did that he’s ready to believe in ghosts.” With that final parting comment, he turns and leaves us.
Henri pulls me to a stop, and I notice my cloak and mask tucked beneath an arm. “Here,” he says, handing them over. “I’ll accompany you as close as I can, but you’ll need to go the rest of the distance on your own.”
I glance around us at the heavy shadows and looming trees. “And the vampire?”
Henri shakes his head. “Gone. He fled when Rufus started getting the upper hand.” That confirms it then. Rufus was the monster. “Don’t worry, I’ll circle back behind the man so he doesn’t see me and keep you in my sight at all times.”
I pull my cloak from his outstretched hand and pull it on. Even with the baron’s magic crackling through me, my vision is tunneling. Vampires and monsters and wars within wars. I should have stayed behind in Morcenx. I should have returned to my father and sisters, lived out my life in pleasant obscurity in the woods, married some strapping young village man, and bore him a handful of babes. It might not be an exciting life, but it’s a life. At the rate I’m going, I’m not sure how much longer I have left on this earth. The danger around me seems to be rising at an exponential rate.
“What should I say to the captive?” I ask, fighting to stay rational instead of giving into the scream that threatens.
Henri lets out a heavy breath and rakes his fingers through his hair. “I honestly don’t give a damn. Taking part in this farce is the last thing on my mind right now.” He shakes his head as if trying to clear it. “That’s not very supportive, is it?”
I don’t bother answering. He knows it isn’t.
“Here,” he says, indicating I turn so he can tie on my mask. I put my back to him and hold the mask in place as he gets to work with the straps. “We want him to think these woods cursed, so maybe say something about how you’re the spirit of all the women the republicans have wronged. I’m sure some part of him must harbor guilt for his actions or the behavior of some of his fellow soldiers.”
“Perhaps,” I say, thinking of the sans cullotes we encountered and how they were more monstrous than Rufus in his other form. If this captain is like them, there won’t be any room for guilt or regret in his barbarous heart. “And thank you. That’s good advice.”
He finishes tying off the mask and rests his hands on my shoulders, thumbs stroking up the back of my neck. “I’m sorry I’m not more helpful right now. Tonight has thrown me.”
I lean back into his touch, trying to absorb as much of his calming energy as I can. The way his fingers slide over my skin reminds me of the night of my surgery and the way I focused on this same touch to get me through the worst pain of my life. “You’re helpful,” I tell him, reaching up to grip his hands. “This is helpful.” His words, yes, but more than them, his touch.
I feel a warm gust of breath over the back of my neck and then what might be lips on the crown of my head.
“I’m sorry, Isabelle,” he whispers into my hair.
I squeeze his hands and let go. “I know. You don’t have to keep apologizing. I don’t blame you for any of this.” I blame his father. “Let’s just get through the rest of tonight, and then we can think about panicking.”
He rumbles out a laugh and releases me. I turn, and he points between the two nearest trees. “He’s through there, about a hundred paces. Just walk straight, and you should reach him.”
I nod and turn my gaze back to Henri. “You’ll be with me?”
He lifts a hand and straightens my mask, almost unconsciously, like he can’t stop touching me, like it’s just an excuse to prolong our contact. “Yes. I’ll keep you within my sight the entire time, and should anything threaten you, I’ll be by your side before you can even think to call for help.” He reaches into his cloak and withdraws a pistol. “But just in case I’m too slow and your bullet-exploding powers fail you.” Moonlight glints off his toothy smile.
I take the gun from him, happy to have its weight in my hand. My alleged magic is too fickle to be trusted, and part of me wonders if the vampire is still out here, looking for revenge. What if it shows up only to go after Henri instead of me? What if there are two of them? With the pistol in my hand, I feel like I have at least some slight chance against one, though that might be a false sense of security since I know nothing about their abilities and powers besides what myths and legends have taught me.
My God. Vampires are real. Monsters are real. And I’m standing right beside one.
“Ready?” Henri asks, oblivious to my internal struggle.
I take a deep breath and nod before striding away from him. Might as well get this over with. The sooner I do, the sooner I can barricade myself within my bedroom back in the chateau and let myself have a good, long hysterical fit over all of this.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.