Night had fallen. General Lafayette was sleeping. Henry and Isak as well. Jeremy found sleep eluded him, as did any kind of peace. He nodded to the sentry at the edge of the camp. The man returned the gesture with a salute. It made Jeremy smile. The general’s men respected him. They knew who he was and what he stood for.
It was a shame those he loved could not share in that knowledge. At least Robert had known before he died. But his father still thought him a shallow, careless lad and that hurt….
Both his father and him.
Jeremy sighed and shook his head to free his eyes of the unruly wave of dark blond hair that skirted them. He stopped by the sentry, acknowledging the man’s need to exchange a few words. Sentry duty was not only boring, but incredibly lonely at times.
“How goes it, Pauley?” he asked the red-haired freckle-faced youth from Marcus Hook.
“Fine, sir. If you don’t mind keeping watch over squirrels and sparrows, that is,” Pauley added with a grin.
“Too dull for you, eh?”
The young man shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind some adventure. I hear you were at Brandywine, sir. Did you see the General rallying the men?”
Jeremy smiled. That moment was already legend: Lafayette, his boot filling with blood, standing on the field, chastising and urging the unruly American troops to return to the fray. “No,” he answered softly, “I was in the field. I met the General after the battle was over.”
“I hear you saved his life, Captain, you and the others.”
Jeremy shrugged. “We helped, but I am sure the General would have found a way out on his own.”
“You’re too modest, sir.”
Jeremy laughed. “That is something I am not often accused of, Pauley. So am I the only soul you have seen tonight?”
Pauley nodded. An affirmative. Then he said, “No, sir.”
A frown wrinkled Jeremy’s brow. “Well, which is it?”
“Yes, or no? You seemed to indicate both by your action and words.”
“Did I?” Pauley seemed confused. “I haven’t seen anyone, it’s just….”
“Yes?” Jeremy’s interest was peaked. “Go on.”
“Well, I seem to remember a man – blond, youngish though I can’t say how young or old. Well dressed. But it must have been another day.” Pauley lifted his hat and scratched his forehead. “No one else has come this way.”
“You’re certain of that?”
This time a negative shake of head, but the words, “Yes, Sir.”
Jeremy studied the lad a moment. “Very well. I’m going for a walk, Pauley. Don’t take a shot at me when I return, all right?”
The sentry seemed uneasy. “It’s not my place, but is that wise, Captain? With what’s been going on around Chester?”
“I’ll be fine. I won’t go far.” Jeremy clapped his hand on the youth’s shoulder. “And I will have you to rescue me if I do get in trouble. Right?”
Jeremy left the sentry behind and entered the woods. By Pauley’s description the man he hadn’t seen could easily have been Nicholas Knighton. Nicholas had retired early – as soon as the sun set – but when Jeremy had taken a turn past his tent later in the evening, his bed had been empty.
Jeremy wasn’t certain what that meant.
Jeremy wasn’t certain about much of anything where Professor Nicholas Knighton was concerned.
He had made some casual inquiries around the camp and no one in the General’s unit who came from Massachusetts had ever heard of the man. And one of them had recently attended Harvard. And yet, why would Henry lie? And even if Henry was lying, what would make Isak back him up? What would compel his two closest friends to lie to him for a complete stranger?
It made no sense.
And now there was the General and his tale of meeting Knighton when he was a boy. A boy too young to remember the meeting – and yet he did. Jeremy sighed as he turned a bend and entered a densely wooded area. All of the pieces to the puzzle were there, but none of them fit. It was as if there was no answer.
At least none he could accept.
Jeremy’s mother had been a deeply religious woman and, though he remembered her but a little, he could recall some of the things she had told him late at night, when he lay in his bed at prayers. His mother had believed that spirits walked among men, angels and demons who fought battles with one another over men’s souls.
He wondered which Nicholas Knighton was – angel or demon? And wondered further, if he would ever know.
Jeremy bent, lowering his tall frame so he would not strike his head on a low-lying willow branch. A narrow stream ran close to the willow’s roots and, on its other side, a glade opened into the night. At its center two figures stood. Jeremy paused, drawing a breath, and holding it against the discovery as he crouched down.
One was Nicholas Knighton. And the other –
General Lucien LaCroix.
It appeared the two men were in deep dispute. He could not make out their words, but could tell they were arguing. After a minute Nicholas threw one hand out in a cutting gesture. The well-dressed blond shook his head with violence and began to turn away.
LaCroix caught him by the elbow and, twisting his arm behind his back, drove him to his knees. And then the snowy haired man laughed – and the sound of that vile evil pleasure rode the rising breeze to chill Jeremy’s heart.
So he had been right. Knighton was not to be trusted. Nicholas was in this with LaCroix. It was a game just as the boyish blond had said – but a deadly game that threatened not only the Cause but the Marquis’ life. Jeremy did not know how Henry had been fooled, or why Isak had enlisted his aid, but he knew now that he had to do everything he could to free them from Nicholas Knighton’s spell –
Before it was too late.
Jeremy rose to his feet, determined to go, but as did he heard LaCroix’s savage laughter ring out again – accompanied by a cry of pain. Turning back he looked, but the glade was empty. He was alone.
Or so he thought.
A second later a hand closed on his arm; the grip that of a well-muscled man. Jeremy pivoted to find the mysterious beauty, Jeanette. She was looking up at him, her expressive blue eyes gleaming black in the moonlight.
“You must learn to be more careful, mon jeune ami,” she said. “The wood is a very dangerous place to wander so late in the night.”
“Where did you come from?” He was certain she had not been there a moment before.
“Why, from the air itself,” she laughed. “You conjured me with your desires, did you not? Were you not thinking of me?”
Jeremy shook his head. His gaze returned to the empty glade. “Where are the others?”
“Others?” she asked innocently.
“Nicholas. And General LaCroix.”
“Nichola?” Jeanette shook her dark head. “You are mistaken. He would not have been out here with LaCroix.”
Jeremy lifted her fingers, freeing his arm. “He was here. I saw him. There, in the glade. The two of them were arguing.”
Janette pouted. “Oh well, then maybe it was Nichola. They do not get along very well.”
“How long have you known Knighton?” he asked her.
Jeanette was staring at him. He watched her eyes move to his throat and then saw her lick her lips. “I do not wish to talk of Nichola. What do you say we talk about you – and me?”
Jeremy took a step back. Jeanette seemed transformed. Her eyes had grown enormous and they shone like a mountain cat’s at midnight, red as blood.
“Who are you?” he asked, backing further away. “What are you?”
“Let us pray you will never have to find out,” a man’s voice growled from close behind him. “Jeanette, this one is not for you.”
As a hand fell on his shoulder, Jeremy pivoted. For a second he thought he saw Nicholas Knighton and he, like Jeanette Du Charme, was transformed. Nicholas’ eyes glowed a feral red. Sharp white teeth protruded over his lower lip, dripping blood.
“You should not have followed me,” Nicholas snarled. “Now, things must change.”
Jeremy felt Knighton’s hand go to his throat, and then he knew no more.
When Elizabeth arrived in the camp, she found Jeremy missing. And she found the others had no idea he was gone. She roused Henry first and then Isak, and then the three of them went to the General’s tent where they found Lafayette, sitting, deep in thought. In spite of Sergeant Boggs remonstrations, sleep had eluded the Frenchman and he was sitting, alone, pondering all that had transpired.
When she told him Jeremy had disappeared Lafayette became agitated, and despite Sergeant Boggs words to the contrary, insisted on joining the hunt.
They canvassed the camp, seeking their missing comrade, only to find Jeremy was not the only man unaccounted for. Nicholas Knighton was gone as well. And if Lafayette was concerned about Jeremy, then Henry and Isak were more than concerned about the professor – in fact they were desperate. It was almost as if, without Knighton’s presence, neither one of them knew what to do.
They had left the camp then, she and the General and Sergeant Boggs heading one direction, and Henry and Isak taking another. The pair were still acting strangely and it pained Elizabeth to admit that she was happy to see them go. Near the path that led into the woods, back the way she had come, Lafayette agreed to Sergeant Boggs’ request that he be allowed to scout ahead first.
That left the two of them alone.
Elizabeth sat heavily on a nearby boulder, weary beyond words. She glanced up at the sky that was lightening toward morning. Soon the sun’s pale fingers would pull away the veil of darkness and a new day would begin.
What would it hold for them all?
“Miss Coates. Elizabeth,” a soft voice spoke, intruding on her thoughts.
“General,” she said in reply as she turned toward him. She had never seen Lafayette look so weary – or so worried. Before Boggs had left, she had seen the two of them speaking to Pauley. “Did the sentry have any word?” she asked.
Lafayette pursed his lips and thought a moment, as if uncertain of how much information he should surrender. Finally he said, “Pauley saw Jeremy leave the camp.”
“He saw him!” She leapt to her feet. “And you didn’t tell me? When?”
“Around two in the morning. Jeremy said he intended to take a walk.”
“A walk?” Elizabeth frowned. That seemed odd.
“Oui. It does not seem like Jeremy to tempt fate so.” The General shrugged. “But we cannot know what was in his mind.”
“And the other man – Nicholas, wasn’t it?” When Elizabeth spoke the stranger’s name something stirred in her, but she forced it down and buried it beneath her fear for the man she loved. “Any word of him?”
He shook his head. “He has vanished, how do you say it? Into thin air?”
“Do you think….” Elizabeth paused to swallow over that fear. “Do you think General LaCroix has Jeremy?”
Lafayette drew closer and placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “We can only pray God would not be so unjust, Elizabeth. That Almighty’s agents – as well as the agents of evil – are afoot this night. And that there is an angel of mercy looking over Jeremy and keeping him from harm.”
She looked up at him. Lafayette was a kind man, and yet one made of steel when the need arose. She had not spent that much time in the Frenchman’s presence, but understood now what Jeremy saw in him. He smiled at her and then turned so the moonlight struck his bandaged throat.
Elizabeth gasped, and her hand went to her own.
“What is it, Miss Coates?” Lafayette asked, turning back.
Her fingers brushed the scarf that bound her neck. She couldn’t remember tying it there, but knew she was not to take it off. “You’re injured,” she replied, covering her own confusion. “Can you tell me what happened?”
The General remained silent for some time, so long in fact she thought he would not answer. Then Lafayette admitted quietly, “I do not know.” His dark eyes narrowed as he looked at her and really saw her for the first time. His finger went to the scarf. As she pulled back, he asked her, “You as well?”
Elizabeth was taken with a chill that had nothing to do with the crisp morning air. She couldn’t reply, but nodded, terrified.
“Mon Dieu!” Lafayette exclaimed, reaching for the crucifix he bore. “What is happening?”
Jeremy awoke to the sound of raised voices. One male, the other, female. He lay there, barely half-awake, listening. Trying to make sense of their words.
“What were you thinking, Nichola? Meeting in the open with LaCroix? Have you gone mad?”
“I thought, perhaps, I could reason with him.”
“Reason? He knows no reason. LaCroix needs no reason. He does what he wants. Takes what he wants. You are no child, Nichola, you know better!”
“I know. I know. I thought – well, I had hoped this time it would be different.”
“It will never be different because you and LaCroix, you cannot change. He wants you and you do not want him, or what he offers. It is an insult, Nichola, he will never forgive. And LaCroix will spend every moment of the eternity left us in making your life hell!”
“I am already in Hell, Janette. You know that.” Knighton paused and then he continued, his voice slightly amused. “I thought LaCroix claimed to ‘love’ me.”
“As a father loves a disobedient child. Always hoping he will repent and return.”
Jeremy frowned. His eyes were so heavy he couldn’t open them and he really wanted to – he wanted to look. It seemed Jeanette had moved and, impossibly, her voice now came from directly above him.
“Janette, come back!” Nicholas called. “We are not done yet.”
“Oh, but we are.” She was closer now, as if she had returned as he requested. “Nichola, you know I have to tell him you have the boy here.”
“No! You cannot do that. LaCroix will kill him. Give me two days, Janette. One at the very least!”
“They all die anyway. What do you care?” She paused. “Nichola, I asked you, what do you care?”
Jeremy waited. He heard footsteps – soft, almost imperceptible – and then a familiar voice spoke from close by.
“I care,” Nicholas Knighton said.
And Jeremy slept again.
The next time he awoke, he was more alert. Jeremy shifted and sat up. It seemed he was alone and that he was not restrained in any way. Rising shakily to his feet, he looked around. He was in some kind of a natural grotto. There was no entrance or exit he could see, except for a round opening in the ceiling some twenty or thirty feet above his head through which a single brilliant beam of morning light fell. It cut through the false night to paint a circle of light on the stone floor. Jeremy couldn’t understand how he had come to be at its bottom without breaking his neck.
Exploring his cage, he prowled the darkness. In it he found a small table set with food and drink, and a few books – most of which were in French. He stopped to pick one up and fingered the fine calfskin binding.
“You’ll find Vaughn a bit dull,” a soft voice remarked. “I would try the Voltaire. He has more wit.”
Jeremy recognized the voice. “And you have more guile. You have shown your true colors, Professor Knighton,” he said as he dropped the book and turned toward the dark that had spoken “or whoever you are.”
“You think me a traitor then?”
Jeremy slammed his hand down on the table. “What else am I to think, sir? And why do you not come out of the shadows? Are you ashamed to face me?”
“Ashamed? Yes, I am ashamed. But not for the reason you think.” The soft footsteps sounded again. Jeremy took a step back as Nicholas Knighton appeared almost directly before him. “I am not working with LaCroix, or the British, if that is what you mean. I am not working with anyone. I came here, to Chester, to escape – but find that in attempting to save myself, I have condemned two good men. You and your General.”
Jeremy’s look was skeptical. “Condemned, how?”
“I have brought you to LaCroix’s attention and that is never a good thing.” Nicholas Knighton crossed to the table, careful to skirt the circle of light. “For that I am truly ashamed.”
Jeremy frowned. He tried to recall the vision he had had of Knighton and LaCroix in the glade, but it – and all that happened after – was a blur. “Who are you?” he demanded. “And who is he? LaCroix, I mean.”
Knighton fell silent. When he looked up, a dozen heartbeats later, his cool blue eyes blazed. “I asked you before, Jeremy, if you were a man of faith. If you believed in God….”
“And the devil. Yes. I remember.”
“Now I ask you, do you believe in eternal life?”
Jeremy wondered what his game was, but he answered him anyway. “Aye,” he said. One day he and his brother Robert would meet again. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you believe that it can happen here? Here. Now?”
He studied the other man. Knighton was serious. “No,” Jeremy answered. “Eternal life is the reward of Heaven – ”
“Or the curse of Hell!” Knighton growled. Nicholas stared into his eyes for nearly a minute and then deliberately stepped toward the shaft of white light he had been so careful to avoid. He paused before it and looked at him. “I am Hell’s creature, Jeremy Larkin, doomed to walk the night for eternity. Doomed forever to pay for a choice I made some five hundred and fifty years ago. A wrong choice. A selfish and vile choice which I regret to this very day!”
“Five hundred years….” Jeremy scoffed, “Surely you jest, Sir.”
Nicholas shook his head. His eyes teared for a moment before he regained control. “Henry will have told you that I have an illness. Is that right?”
“You cannot tolerate lengthy exposure to the sun. Aye.”
“It is not an illness. It is a curse. I am unclean, and those who are unclean cannot stand the pure rays of the sun for it exposes them in all their wickedness.” Knighton lifted his arm and rolled back the sleeve, exposing the pale white flesh beneath. “Behold! And believe!”
With that Nicholas thrust his arm into the shaft of light. At first nothing happened and then his skin began to redden, as if it had been placed in the furnace of a smithy’s forge. It blistered and hissed, and then began to smoke. Jeremy shouted in alarm and jumped forward, gripping his arm and pulling it back. As they fell into the darkness, he heard Nicholas moan. The man was obviously in pain. Tears streaked his pallid face and he was shaking uncontrollably.
“Good God, Sir!” Jeremy declared. “What have you done? And how? How could light – ”
“Watch,” Nicholas declared, his tone and demeanor fatalistic. “Watch and learn.”
Jeremy had been staring in horror at the man’s charred flesh. At the exposed bone and truncated fingers. Now he marveled as Nicholas’ hand healed before his eyes, growing new fingers, turning from black to an intense salmon pink before fading to a pallid white once more.
Jeremy shook his head and backed away. “I don’t understand….”
“Yes, you do,” Nicholas Knighton insisted, rolling down his sleeve. “You, Jeremy Larkin, are what is known as a ‘resistor’. You cannot be influenced, nor can you be made to forget. After what you saw in the glade, there was nothing left but tell you the truth. I feel it would have come to this even if it had not been so.”
“You….” Jeremy stumbled back. “You are a….”
“A vampire. One of the walking dead, and that knowledge Jeremy carries a heavy price. Now that you know I must decide if I can trust you.”
“And if you cannot?”
Knighton smiled, that disarming smile, only this time it was laced with threat. “You’re dead.”