He shouldn’t have been able to remember as Daniel said. He had only been a babe in a cradle, but for years that night had haunted his dreams. Lafayette shifted in his sleep and moaned as the vision came again. The light of the full moon spilling through the heavy brocade curtains that lined the open window of the ancient manor house, his mother leaning over his cradle and then standing, the steady breeze that wafted through the room lifting her hair as she stepped into the pale argent light, making it billow behind her like a golden-red sail; the sound of an intake of breath and its release, and then a man, standing there, holding her by the shoulders.
The stranger was tall and silver-haired, well into his forties, a powerful man dressed in a suit of moonstruck black. He towered over his petite mother, Julie, dwarfing her, swallowing her whole in his shadow. Lafayette remembered wailing as a frightened child is wont to when it senses the impending loss of the one who is its life, and then he felt a calming hand and looked up into another face – a man, blond and ageless. The newcomer smiled at him briefly and then was gone.
Words. There were words he could not understand then. Words that now rang crystal clear – ‘You will not take her. I will not allow it.’ And another voice. ‘One day you will regret this. Nichola. One day, another will pay.’ He heard a fierce sort of growling, like the wild beasts in the wood tearing at one another’s throats, and then…silence.
A moment later his mother sat in the chair beside the cradle. The blond man was there, holding her hand. Speaking to her softly and telling her she would be all right. Looking at him and saying, ‘Everything will be all right. LaCroix will not trouble you again’
Lafayette woke with a start and sucked in the fresh air as though he were a swimmer suddenly released from the hold of the depths. He trembled as he looked up at the sandy-haired man who had placed a hand on his shoulder, calling him back to the present reality they inhabited.
“Sorry to wake you, sir. It’s almost morning. Time to move on.” Daniel Boggs frowned. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you look terrible. Bad dream?”
He nodded and answered with a sheepish smile. “Oui.”
“It’s only been a few hours. If you need more rest – ”
Lafayette shook himself. He tossed off his blanket and rose to his feet. “No. I am fine. ‘Fit as a fiddle’ as you Americans say.”
Sergeant Boggs was not convinced. “You want to talk about it?”
“This dream. It seems to have left you a bit shaken. Sir.”
Lafayette turned his face toward the horizon where a bloated moon slipped behind a jagged line of deep purple trees. “Can you not feel it, Daniel? There is something in the air. Something unnatural….”
His sergeant was silent for a moment. “If you say so, sir.”
Lafayette laughed at his expression and placed his hand on his sergeant’s shoulder. “I count on you to keep me grounded, Daniel,” he said with a smile. “You are right. There is nothing to fear in Chester but what we have faced before – a ruthless Redcoat who is willing and able to do anything to end the Rebellion and keep America from becoming the free nation she is meant to be. The name of this man who is hunting the rebel leaders is LaCroix, but he is said to be in his forties. The one I remember would be sixty-five at the very least. It has to be another man.”
“Perhaps his son?”
He bent to retrieve his blanket. “Perhaps. The age would be about right. I do know that the LaCroix I remember was a terrifying creature.”
Daniel shook his head. “Begging your pardon, sir, but you can’t really remember him. You were less than two.”
The vision was so real that it was almost impossible to admit that truth. Still, he knew his sergeant was right. “Oui,” he said softly.
Boggs looked at him. “Do your really think this man is – a vampire?”
Lafayette laughed, dismissing the notion. “Of course not. Such things do not exist.”
“I am glad to hear you say it. You had me worried for a moment.” Sergeant Boggs turned and headed for his own bedding. “Now we had best get a move on.”
Lafayette nodded, but as he did his hand went into the breast pocket of his coat. When it emerged, a fine gilded crucifix hung from his fingers. He carried it with him always, even when travel did not allow his prayer book and other religious articles. The beaded chain that held the gracious body of the son of God broken on the cross was made of blood-red beads and about two feet long. Glancing over his shoulder to make certain Daniel did not notice, he started to slip it over his head, but then paused as something shifted in the woods, just beyond the edge of his sight. Absentmindedly he nodded as he heard his sergeant say he was going to the stream to fill their canteens.
Then, placing the crucifix back in his pocket, he went to investigate.
Samuel Larkin rose wearily to his feet, his linen handkerchief firmly planted over his mouth and nose. The girl had not been dead long, but already the scent of death was strong. Already her youthful flesh so recently pink and plump had grown gray and sagged on her bones. He could hear the townspeople murmuring, muttering – arguing – all about him. ‘It must have been a wolf,’ he heard one man say, ‘look at her throat.’ ‘But where’s the blood?’ another asked. A third pointed out the double marks on the victim’s throat and insisted someone go for the minister. The second man answered that the minister would not come.
The act, he said, and the place were unholy.
Samuel searched the faces in the crowd. They were men he knew for the most part – wise, level-headed men. Barristers. Merchants. Physicians. This heinous crime had reduced them to the level of unschooled peasants. They whispered. They pointed.
They muttered curses and prayers.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he said, clearing his throat, “we must not let our imaginations run away with us. We do not want a repeat of what happened in Salem. A man has done this, not some unnatural beast.”
“A man, Mayor Larkin? What kind of a man? What sort of a man kills by ripping out his victim’s throat and leaving nary a drop of blood? Lift her! Look beneath!” The speaker, who was a well-known shopkeeper, shuddered. “The ground is dry.”
Samuel looked down at the girl again. She had been lovely. A bonny lass, once full of life, now lifeless. He thought he had seen her coming out of one of the taverns just a day or two before. She was raven-haired, buxom, and to most men, bewitching.
“Does anyone know her?” he asked.
There was a general murmur. Several acknowledged passing her in the street. No one claimed to know her name or where she came from.
He nodded. “I agree, she is not of our town. Perhaps she was working at the inn in hopes of bettering herself. We will have to ask the tavern-keeper and see if we can locate her kin. They must be told.”
One of the men, the one in fact who had proclaimed the spot ‘unholy’ approached him. Master Huw Gryffdd was Welsh. As a young man he had lived in Wales, but chose to stay and make the colonies as his home after coming to the country to fight in the Seven Years War. Huw was a cantankerous, outspoken man, but one of good heart.
“Samuel Larkin,” he began, his words rising and falling with the Welshman’s lilt, “you know as well as I do that something has happened this night which will spell disaster for the young men and women of Chester if an end is not put to it – and soon.”
The mayor shook his head. “We are men of a modern age, Huw. Surely you cannot believe –”
Huw Gryffdd drew close to him. He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. “I can see it in your eyes, Samuel. You know. You believe.”
When he had been a young man, that summer that he had met Jean, murders very similar to this one had occurred in the countryside surrounding his home town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. There was a man living there who had emigrated from Austria. He told them of a plague that had swept their mountain village, carrying off their young people.
And that some of them had come back, risen as ghoulish shadows, from the dead.
Samuel shuddered with the memory as he placed his hand on Huw’s shoulder. “My friend, let us not jump to conclusions and start a panic in the town. This is only one death. Perhaps it is other than it seems.”
The Welshman looked at him. “Perhaps. But I would mind that young scallywag son of yours, it is no longer safe for the young people of Chester to be about at night.”
Samuel Larkin’s young scallywag was not unaware of his danger, though he believed it to come from a different quarter. He and his companions had watched the Redcoats enter the Coates’ farmhouse, and then slipped out of the barn and into the night. They made their way in haste, taking aim for the general’s camp, though Jeremy was still uneasy with the presence of a stranger among them. Nicholas Knighton moved with the sure and certain grace of a beast familiar with the woods. While they often halted, forced to clamber with difficulty over fallen trees and tumbles of rock, the professor almost flew, unimpeded by anything in his path. Often Jeremy would find him watching them from his advanced position, waiting for them to catch up. Knighton’s eyes were bright and blue, but from their depths he sensed something disturbing.
The same thing he had seen in Janette Du Charme’s eyes.
A sinister kind of hunger.
A desperate kind of need.
Jeremy halted, panting. They had just finished a sprint across an open field and stood now within the shadowy embrace of the wood that masked the entrance to the general’s camp. They could be no more than three-quarters of an hour away from the sentry point. It was time to decide whether or not he could trust this man. Henry was busy checking over his supplies, making certain none of them had been affected by the morning dew, and Isak was bent over a nearby stream refilling their canteens.
He and Knighton were alone.
“Nicholas?” he called, drawing the other man’s attention. “Will you walk with me?”
The professor looked preoccupied. His eyes were on the horizon where the sun was just beginning to show, its dull glow painting the wheat field a fiery red in their wake. “Jeremy. My friend. How can I help you?”
“By giving me what I ask for.” He tried not to make it harsh, but his words sounded so to his own ears.
Nicholas heard it too. “And that would be?”
“The truth. Who are you? What do you want with us?”
Jeremy shook his head. “Henry repeated words given him. The same words Isak must have heard. I don’t know how you have done it, but they appear to be mesmerized.”
“Bewitched, you mean?” Knighton laughed. “So you think me a sorcerer?”
“I don’t know what I think you. But I will not take you to Lafayette’s camp until I am certain you do not mean the general harm.”
“Harm? Gilbert.” The blond man shook his head. “I love the boy like a son.”
Jeremy thought that odd. “You said you knew his father? How?”
“I fought with Michel in Prussia, as I said. And brought word to his grieving widow of his death.”
“You hardly seem old enough, sir,” Jeremy countered.
Knighton smiled – that disarming smile. “Jeremy, I am far older than you think.”
“Even so. What proof have I that you do not mean the general harm? That you are not the right hand of this man, LaCroix? Perhaps the other deaths of the rebel leaders have been a smokescreen to hide the British’s main intent – the death of Lafayette.”
Knighton seemed truly distressed. “What can I say to make you believe me? If I describe your general’s home to the last degree, you will not know the truth of what I say. If I tell you how beautiful Julie du Motier was, how the light struck fire in her hair, you have no portrait to compare my words to. You will have to take me to your general to know how true are the words I speak.”
Jeremy frowned. He was right.
Nicholas Knighton was silent for a moment. Then he held his hands out before him. “Bind me. Make me your prisoner. I will enter your generals camp under guard and prove my faith to you.”
“Jeremy, what is this?”
Jeremy pivoted to find Henry fuming. His friend had come upon them silently. “Henry, the professor and I were just…talking.”
“It sounds like more than that. What is this talk of prisoners?”
“Henry, there is no reason to grow angry. I simply seek to make certain there is no threat to Lafayette.”
As Isak joined them, all but shouting, Jeremy suddenly felt the threat might not be to the general – but to him.
“Will you not let this go, Jeremy?” the black man growled. “Maybe it is you we should tie up and silence. The professor is for our Cause. Don’t give us reason to doubt that you are!”
Even as he stumbled back, stung by his friend’s accusations, Nicholas Knighton inserted himself between them. Jeremy watched as he glanced at the growing light in the sky again and then, dismissing whatever it was that troubled him, turned his attention to the angry pair. “Peace. Jeremy means me no harm. What he asks is reasonable. LaCroix is deceitful and would think nothing of planting a spy in your midst. How can he know I am not that man?”
“He should know,” Henry snarled. “He should trust us.”
“Trust is a dangerous thing, hard won and easily lost.” Knighton locked eyes with first Henry, and then Isak. “You will not be angry with Jeremy. It does not please me.”
The pair whimpered like unweaned pups. “Forgive us,” Isak muttered.
“Yes,” Henry agreed. “And Jeremy, accept my humble apologies.”
The whole scene was like something out of a dream. Jeremy nodded absently as his gaze returned to the stranger among them. Professor Knighton was watching him.
“Please, Jeremy,” he pleaded in a normal voice. “Trust me. I am here to help. The offer still stands. I will go forward in chains.”
This time there was no attempt to influence him, just an earnest plea. Jeremy pursed his lips and thought about it. Then he shook his head. “Your word is good enough for me, Nicholas.
“Now let’s go and see the general.”
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, paused suddenly uncertain. He shook himself, seeking to chase the cloud from his mind. Somewhere in the distance he could hear someone calling his name, or at least calling for the ‘general’. He remembered that was what they sometimes called him here, in this strange land. He glanced at the sky and saw the sun had risen, heralding a new day. Shivering with the last of the night’s chill he stepped from the shadows into an open field, relishing the light, seeking to warm himself, and almost immediately felt better. Abruptly he realized it was his sergeant who called him. Daniel Boggs sounded worried.
Turning, he answered the call. “Daniel, mon ami, I am here.”
Exasperated and exhausted, the sandy-haired man in frontiersman’s garb broke through the trees perhaps two minutes later. Daniel stood in the shadows. “Sir! Thank God!” he proclaimed. “What happened?”
Lafayette frowned. “Happened?”
Daniel’s worried look was edged with a righteous anger. “I went to fill the canteens and when I returned, you were gone. I assumed you had seen something.”
The young Frenchman blinked. Yes, he remembered the camp. But he didn’t remember leaving it. And yet, here he was, in the middle of the wood – alone.
Had he seen something?
Or felt something….
“Daniel, I’m sorry. I don’t recall….”
“Sir, come out of the light. You shouldn’t be standing in the open.”
Lafayette nodded, acknowledging his aide’s wisdom. Stepping out of the light, he shuddered as he reentered the shadow realm of the trees. “I don’t know how I came to be here.”
His sergeant was frowning. “Sir, are you all right?”
“I don’t know.”
Daniel Boggs approached him. He placed his hand on his forehead and the frown deepened. “You’re feverish. Good God, sir! You’re wounded!”
Lafayette followed his sergeant’s horrified stare. Daniel’s gaze was riveted on his throat. He raised his hand and placed it against his skin and for the first time became aware of the blood trailing down from it onto his linen shirt and chest. As Daniel continued to question him, Lafayette stared at his bloody fingers and tried to remember what had happened. But all he could recall was being in the camp, and then, being here.
That and the scent of bergamot.
LaCroix gripped her arm unexpectedly and twisted Jeanette’s slender form toward him. He wagged his finger in her face and hissed. “For shame, Jeanette! I thought you only appreciated blonds.”
“A fellow Frenchman,” she answered with a defiant toss of her head. “A taste of home.”
“Who is he?” he growled. “And why does he continue to live?”
She pulled her hand away from him and rolled back the glove to reveal an angry burn. “The sun. He was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. Almost as if he knew how to escape me.”
“Interesting.” LaCroix leaned around the tree that masked them from the pair’s eyes. “What did your ‘taste’ teach you of him?”
Jeanette hesitated. When a vampire drank the blood of a mortal, their memories, their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and despairs flooded through them. She knew well who the slender young Frenchman was, and knew as well how much LaCroix longed to destroy his noble spirit.
Out of petty revenge.
“I did not drink enough,” she answered quickly.
“Jeanette. Jeanette. How many centuries will it take for you to understand that you cannot fool me. Or deny me!” LaCroix caught her burnt wrist in his fingers and dug them into the wound. Then he dragged her backward and dangled her perilously close to a patch of sunlight puddled on the forest floor. Thrusting her injured hand into it, he demanded, “Now, tell me who he is!”
“An American general,” she gasped as her fingers began to smoke from exposure to the sun’s pure rays.
“Wrong! You said he was French.”
“Oui. Oui! LaCroix, mercy!”
LaCroix laughed. “Mercy? But of course.” He drew her arm back and then thrust the maimed and blackened stump before her eyes. “Next time it will be your head. Who is he?”
Jeanette wanted to spit in his face. There were times she hated him. But other times she remembered LaCroix was the one who had made her what she was – beautiful forever.
“What were you doing in the woods?” LaCroix asked, suddenly changing tactics. “When I found you at the Larkin’s house, I suspected you were after the boy. Did you come to the woods seeking him?”
She nodded. It was half the truth. She had been seeking Nichola and suspected he was with Jeremy Larkin. Samuel had spoken his own truth when he said his son was not Captain Yankee Doodle, but she suspected the young man with the eyes of his father’s youth was much more than he appeared. Most likely Jeremy was following in his brother’s footsteps. His hatred of the British soldiers who had accompanied her to supper had been clear enough.
She had sought Jeremy Larkin and through him, Nichola, but had instead found the young general and his aide, far from home. At first hunger had made her call him, and then as she broke his skin with her nails and licked his blood, curiosity when she heard him speak.
And then horror as she realized who he was.
“Jeanette, I told you that you must leave the Larkin boy alone. He would be missed.” LaCroix twisted her wounded arm. “As would an American French-speaking general.” He brought his face close to hers. “It’s him, isn’t it? Michel du Motier’s boy?”
“No! No, it is not,” she shouted.
“Your concern betrays you, my dear. I remember well the look you gave his father when we visited the French court. And the daggers you shot with those ice-blue eyes at his beautiful young wife. And now – like father, like the son?” LaCroix growled. “You know he is mine!”
Not anymore she thought. Now she had a tie to him. She could warn the young Gilbert. Direct him.
Perhaps save his life.
Jeanette lowered her head. “Of course, LaCroix. Whatever you say.” Her eyes flicked to the horizon and the rising sun. “But should we not retire? You know the daylight is bad for my complexion.”
LaCroix kissed her hand. Once black as coal, it had regenerated and was pink and plump as if it glowed with life –
Instead of its pretense.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that, now would we?” LaCroix glanced over his shoulder and sneered as the young Frenchman leaned into his sergeant’s strength and was led away from the open field, back toward their camp. “While the cats away, the mice will have their day.”
“And return to hunt another night.”