“I can’t,” I whispered, my steps slowing to a stop.
The morning was damp and murky: fitting weather for a funeral. Clouds hung low above the cemetery, casting a sickly pallor on the scene spread out in front of us. Overhead, the reaching branches of the trees were rendered dark and skeletal in this strange world of grays.
Henry stopped beside me, but the mist continued to advance, creeping in around us, its ghoulish, grasping tendrils snaking their way upward to claw at the exposed skin of my arms. With a shiver, I forced my gaze away, to the grassy knoll that rose from the fog bank just ahead. At its apex stood our peers, swathed in black. Women leaned in to hug each other, men stepped forward to shake each other’s hands. The shifting of so much fabric sounded neck-rufflingly similar to feathers. It was fitting. From where I stood, they seemed for all the world a murder of crows descended to feast upon the carcass of our loved one, pecking and squabbling over whatever tender morsels remained.
They hadn’t come to say goodbye, they’d come for the spectacle, and already they threw glances our way as they leaned in to whisper to their neighbors.
“We must,” Henry said, steel in his voice. Gone was the warmth and the gentleness; what remained was a hint of the creature I’d watched him morph into as he’d vented his rage on my father.
I thought of balking, like an insolent child. Perhaps I could throw myself down on the ground and fake some sort of fit. I didn’t want to do this. What was the point? We’d already said our goodbyes to John while he lay in state in the front parlor of our house. Why submit ourselves to this circus? Why subject ourselves to the sneers and mockeries of these gossip-mongering degenerates?
A lone figure emerged from the flock, the flame of my twin’s hair unmistakable even in the gloom. He looked furious: jaw set, brows narrowed, shoulders stiff with outrage.
“I’m so goddamn sorry, Kit,” he said when he reached us.
The hug he pulled me into made my ribs groan in protest.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him, breaking free. “Shouldn’t you be up north?” Father was supposed to be buried today too.
Marcus shook his head. “No. Let the priest entomb him alone. It’s a fitting end for that bastard.” He glanced past me, toward Henry, and his expression turned wary. “I know it’s a devil of a thing to say, but thank you for killing him.”
Henry nodded, expression blank.
Marcus threw a disgusted look over his shoulder, back at the crowd, and then shook his head. “Ignore them, Kit. None of them matter. This time next week, we’ll have you settled in Hampshire and you can finally be free of it all.”
I held the words close to my heart, hoping that they might see me through the coming hour.
Marcus wound his arm through mine, and together, the three of us joined the crowd. They descended upon us with ravenous glee the moment we neared.
“I am so sorry for your loss.”
“What a scoundrel your father proved to be.”
“Such a deplorable man.”
“John was a peer among peers.”
“And all because of some lewd cartoon.”
The last was spoken with a sideways glance at Henry.
My head began to spin, and what little breakfast I’d taken threatened to escape my stomach. I kept it down with monumental effort, though a large part of me wanted to deposit it on more than one pair of shoes. If I responded rationally to anyone during the clamor, I couldn’t recall my words.
“Your husband’s memory will live on with us.”
“No one believes those horrible sheets that were circulated.”
“What a terrible thing to have done.”
The crowd parted, and the Duke of Glover came forward with slow, arthritic steps. “I am so sorry for your loss, Your Grace. I considered your husband to be a close friend and ally, someone to be relied upon in parliament once I passed. I fear for this country because of his absence.”
He was one of the few who spoke with believable sincerity, and I clasped his hands in thanks. The elderly man was assisted by his heir, who echoed his father’s regards before they found their seats. I was sad to see them go.
Nearby, people gossiped, as if the mist somehow dampened their words or they no longer feared me hearing them.
“One can’t help but wonder what could have caused such hatred in her father. Even if the caricature proved true, such a response…”
“Perhaps it was spurred on by an old grudge. The duke did steal Lady Katherine away from a beneficial betrothal.”
“But a match with a duke was much better than one to Aberdine, surely.”
“Of course, but you knew her father. His pride was paramount. I doubt he ever forgave the duke for ruining his plans.”
“Can you imagine?”
On and on it went until I felt I might scream. Finally, blessedly, the priest appeared and we were called to our seats. Marcus was on my left, Henry on my right, the men shielding me from those seated nearby. Henry’s arm was corded with strain beneath my fingers. He’d heard the gossip too. John’s mother, the aging dowager duchess, sat on his other side, sobbing noisily into her black kerchief, careless of who saw. I’d spent so much time consoling her the past few days that I hadn’t had time to cry myself.
“Well done,” Marcus told me, uncaring that his voice carried. He looked around as he spoke his next words, daring those in the crowd to meet his gaze. “Have you ever seen such a ravenous horde?”
No one chose to engage him, and many looked away from his scrutiny, their guilt apparent in the slight flush of their cheeks, the clench of their jaws. I had never been so thankful to Marcus for simply being himself, for having the fire and the wherewithal to call out our peers on their lack of tact. I might have done so myself – I was past caring what anyone thought of me – but between my exhaustion and my grief, anger felt out of reach.
The priest stepped up to the small podium near the head of the grave I had been desperately trying to ignore. The last of the whispers fell away, and now only the sound of the sighing breeze moved through the crowd.
Here was his final resting place. This squat, cold hill that seemed too small and too simple to hold the man he had been. I now understood why some cultures built megaliths to memorialize great men and women.
The coffin was made of highly polished oak, strong and durable. I found myself disappointed in its appearance, for its lid was unadorned, plain, so different than the man I’d loved. It should have reflected his beauty and complexity. In my mind I made it so, imagining a work of art laid out in front of me, adorned with the delicate scrollwork that only a master woodcarver could achieve, lavished with gold gilt, embedded with the jeweled tones of his eyes: amber, ocher, and topaz.
I hated the idea of his body being buried beneath the cold, unforgiving earth. Never again would I coax those shy dimples from him, never again would Henry goad him, never again would we make love.
We had been defeated. Our enemy had bested us by sending a rabid dog to do their dirty work. And I would spend the rest of my life hunting them down.
Beside me, Henry still hadn’t looked at the coffin. He sat stiff as a board and stared over the heads of those who sat opposite us. His jaw was set in a hard line, his posture too formal to be accidental. If my pain was torturous, I could only imagine the depths of his loss. John had left us alone together in this world, and we’d found our dynamic drastically altered without him. In the past days it had been impossible to bridge the void left in his absence, and I knew that our relationship would never again be as it was before.
In one afternoon, I’d lost both of the men I loved.
Tears threatened. I pushed them aside and straightened in my seat. Later, when I was all alone in my bedroom, not here in front of these scavengers.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the priest spoke, his sonorous voice belying his thin frame. The crowd fell silent as he swept his dark gaze over it, and when it landed on me, I understood why. There was something cold and unflinching about his regard. Having it fixated on me caused goose bumps to rise from my flesh. “We are gathered here today to bury a man who I’m sure you all know and respect, the Duke of Hampshire. Before I begin the sermon, I would like to open with a verse from Corinthians.”
I readied myself against another tide of tears, expecting the popular passage on love. I could never have expected the audacity of what he chose instead.
“Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God?” he read, his voice reverberating around those gathered, sounding oddly amplified in the still air. “Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery.”
Here his eyes rested on me once more. Whispers swept through the crowd. I dug my fingers into Henry’s arm in an attempt to stifle the flush that bloomed across my cheeks.
His gaze moved to Marcus next. “Or are male prostitutes.”
My brother’s hands turned to fists in his lap.
And then it was Henry’s turn to bear the priest’s vile regard. “Or practice homosexuality.”
Henry pulled his gaze from the surrounding woods and stared at the old man. His profile displayed the anger that had been simmering just beneath the surface since John’s murder, frighteningly close to boiling over now.
The priest must have noticed, for he looked away and cast his insults on the crowd. “Or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people – none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God. I can only hope that the Duke of Hampshire did the same in the final moments before he passed, for if he didn’t, then we can be sure that his immortal soul now burns in the fires of hell.”
My composure snapped. Gone was my exhaustion. I must have been damned too, because an unholy fervor fueled me now. Every injustice I’d suffered since receiving that first note came roaring back, transforming my insides into a bottomless well of rage.
I pushed from my seat. “You listen to me, you bastard!”
I was not alone in standing. Marcus and Henry had surged to their feet beside me.
So had my mother-in-law, and even though tears still streamed from her eyes, her voice was loud and steady. “You know nothing of him! How dare you preach to us about sin when you yourself have no love in your heart or forgiveness for sinners. Is that not too a sin?”
The crowd ate it up. Frantic whispers filled the air. One or two among them let out nervous laughter. Across from me, people turned in their seats, their eyes wide, their voices like the ceaseless cawing of the carrion eaters I’d compared them to. It only served to further enflame me.
“And you!” I shouted, rounding on them. I opened my mouth to continue, but the words were lost amongst a chorus of screams.
Men stared at me in horror. Women shrieked. Chairs toppled backwards as people scrambled to flee. I frowned at the chaos in confusion. And then the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Something in my periphery was…wrong. They weren’t staring at me; they were staring at something beside me.
A low, warning growl, came from my right, too guttural to have slipped from human lips. I turned toward it, though every instinct inside me screamed to flee instead.
The sound came from Henry. While I’d been chastising the crowd, he had…swelled. There was no other word for what was happening right in front of my eyes. Muscles bulged. He gained several inches of new height even as I watched. What little I could see of his flesh darkened to a mottled brown, and when he growled again, it was through serrated teeth.
Instinct won out. I staggered away from him. He dropped clawed hands to the ground, legs bunching beneath him as he readied himself to lunge into the crowd.
People were screaming now, some fleeing in earnest, others frozen in their fear.
Marcus crowed with laughter on my other side. “You reap what you sow!” he shouted. His voice was two octaves higher than normal, inflection rising to a crescendo.
I turned, expecting to find him, only for my gaze to land on a second monster, this one covered from head to toe in flaming red fur. But the green eyes that met mine were still human, still the eyes of my twin. He winked at me and sprung forward on powerful hind legs. He let out a yip of glee as he plunged into the crowd of panicking aristocrats.
The ruffling sound of feathers filled my ears again. Only when one floated down in front of my face did I realize that it was actually feathers. The black trappings and ribbons of my peers had turned into plumage. Several took flight as they fled from my brother.
I backed away. My heel caught on an upended chair and I went pinwheeling down, landing hard on the dew-slicked grass. The first scream ripped through my throat as Henry caught a flailing countess out of the air and dragged her back to the ground.
“Kit,” someone called.
I screamed again as Henry turned his blood-soaked muzzle to me and smiled, his incisors so long that they overshot his lower lip.
I opened my eyes.
Wait. Hadn’t my eyes already been open?
But now instead of a funeral hill, I stared up into semi-darkness.
Henry suddenly came into sight.
I tried to flee. Unfortunately, I was in a chair, and it tipped over sideways in my haste to get away. I landed hard on the floor, injured ribs shrieking in protest. Panic had a hold of me, and even though it pained me, I scrabbled away on all fours.
Henry stood stock still by the toppled chair.
My back hit the wall, and I stopped. “You were…you were a monster.”
Hurt marred his features. He pulled his gaze from me, staring down at the floor beneath his feet. His shoulders heaved. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“No. In my dream,” I said, because, belatedly, I realized it wasn’t real. It was a nightmare. “John. Oh, god, John. Is he…?”
“No,” he said, jerking his head to the right.
I glanced in that direction, finally breaking free from my dream. We were in John’s bedroom. From down here on the floor, all I could see was the edge of his mattress. I used the wall to stand. John lay in the middle of the bed, deathly pale and unmoving.
“Are you sure he isn’t…” I couldn’t say it.
“He lives,” Henry told me.
I must have fallen asleep during my vigil. My last memories were of saying goodbye to the surgeon before he left us, with the dire warning that the next two days were the most critical.
The bullet had gone clean through John’s shoulder, somehow missing his major arteries. Infection was the worry now, because there was no way to know if the surgeon had found all of the small pieces of cloth that had been pulled into the wound by the passage of the shot.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Henry only nodded.
I pushed away from the wall and went to him.
He held himself stiffly, shying away when I reached out. “Don’t.”
I let my hands fall to my sides. “Why?”
“What I did to your father…”
“Was horrible,” I said. I wasn’t going to lie to him. Not about this.
He flinched like I’d slapped him.
“He deserved worse, Henry. My only regret is that the fire burned hot enough to kill him so quickly. Better it had been banked. Then he would have suffered longer. But I comfort myself knowing that at least he was in agony as he died.”
He sucked in a harsh breath. “Kit.”
“I mean it.” I curled my hands into fists. “After everything he did to me, to my mother, to John, to Marcus, and to God knows how many other people, he deserved that kind of death.”
Henry shook his head and closed his eyes. “No one deserves that kind of death. I barely even remember what I did.”
I frowned at that. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to explain it. The same thing happened in the last battle of the rebellion.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “They called me the Beast of Castlebar.”
Ah. So here was why even McNaught feared him. Henry had the rage of a berserker. The kind that turned you into a creature that went blind with anger, more animal than man. My unconscious mind had recognized it first, and so he had appeared as a literal monster in my nightmare.
I closed the distance between us and wrapped my arms around his waist. He stood stiffly within my embrace and didn’t return it.
“I love you,” I told him.
“You’re not afraid of me now?” he asked, voice soft.
“But when you woke up…”
“I woke from a dream in which John was dead and you and Marcus had turned into monsters that tore into a crowd of our peers. The dream still had ahold of me. I’m sorry for the way I acted. Never in my right mind would I run from you.”
“Maybe you should,” he said, voice grim.
I pulled away enough to look up at him. “No.” I willed him to look down, to meet my eyes, but he stared over my head, silent. “Henry, look at me.”
Like it pained him, he brought his gaze slowly down to mine.
“You love me,” I told him. “And I know you’ll never hurt me like you have others.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because I trust you.”
“Maybe you shou-”
“If you tell me not to trust you, I will scream, goddamn it. I think I know my own mind.”
His expression softened. “I’m sorry. Of course you do. I just…” He sighed. “What if you only think you know your own mind because you don’t know me in full?”
I gazed up at him. “Please tell me you haven’t been lying to me.”
He shook his head. “Not exactly.”
I let go of him and stepped back. “Explain.”
“I’ve been so careful around you.”
“You had reason.”
He nodded. “At first, yes. But even recently. The habits I formed during those years are proving hard to break.”
“I keep away from you when I’m angry. I guard my tongue.”
“And you were careful with me and John when we were intimate. Even after I asked you not to be.”
“You’re not going to break me, Henry.”
He looked away again, toward John. “You don’t know that.”
I grabbed him by the chin and forced his head back around. “Yes. I do. A man your size tried his damndest to break me. For years. When I was nothing but a child. He couldn’t. And now he’s dead thanks to you. There is no way that you could succeed where he failed.”
Something in his expression was caged, like part of him wanted to believe me but was being kept from doing so by some baser instinct.
I released his chin and stared up at him in challenge. “And I am going to get stronger. Faster. Harder to break. I need you, Henry. So does John. He’s going to pull through this, he’s going to wake up, and when he does, he’ll be furious. He’ll want you by his side. So will I. God only knows what we would do in search of vengeance without you dragging us back from the cliffs of madness.”
“You won’t need me to drag you back.”
I arched a brow at him. “Did you forget a minute ago when I told you the only regret I have about my father’s death is that you didn’t make him suffer longer?”
That gave him pause.
I barreled on. “You can’t scare me away. You won’t hurt me. And nothing that you or anyone else could do will ever break me.”
Henry, still holding himself rigid, nodded. I could tell from the look on his face that it would take time for him to fully believe me, and not because he didn’t trust the words I spoke, but because he would need that time to get out of his own way, to unlearn the habits he had adopted when I entered his life. I looked forward to the day that he did, but until then, I would be patient, and I would prove to him through actions and words that I spoke true. Not even if he really did morph into some monstrous creature would I flee from him. No, I would stand shoulder to shoulder with the beast he had become and face down our enemies at his side.
A small sound came from the bed.
Henry and I rushed over.
John was still asleep, though it was too fitful to be true rest. His face was pale, expression pinched in pain.
“Has he woken up yet?” I asked.
“He will,” I said. “He will wake up, make some snide comment, and all will be well again.”
But he didn’t. Not that night and not the next day.
The one after that, the fever set in.
Copyright © 2020 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.