Samuel Larkin stirred in his chair by the fire. He stretched and moaned and glanced out the window opposite. Night had fallen. The moon was high and still Jeremy had not come home. He had gone looking for his son, unnerved by the dreams he had had, as well as a feeling of impending doom, but once at the edge of town had not known which avenue to pursue. A search of the woods would prove nearly impossible. And Jeremy might have gone to one of the other nearby towns as he often did. He had a notion of going to the Coates farm, but by then it had grown dark and with the strange happenings in the countryside, he thought it best to return home and wait.
Samuel rose from his chair and crossed to the window and looked out on his quiet sleepy town. It was very early morning, perhaps no later than two, and few moved about but the town crier, the hog reeves and lamplighters. He could hear the wheels of a wagon rolling across the stones, no doubt carrying goods to one of the local merchants to be unloaded by dawn’s light, and the ever present tramp of the boots of the British soldiers who occupied their town. Since this man, LaCroix, had come, it seemed the patrols had doubled. Or at least the sound of their presence had. At times he thought he heard them but when he looked, saw nothing. The town it seemed at times was patrolled by shadow soldiers – as if the British now used magic to magnify their threat.
Listening now, he heard it again. The steady tread of booted feet. The harshly shouted orders. Samuel blinked and wiped his eyes and returned to his chair to get his glasses, determined to know whether these Redcoats were real or yet another set of ghosts. Returning to the window he saw a group of soldiers, perhaps twenty in number, passing by. At their head was a tall figure in a scarlet coat whose short white hair blazed a silver-white in the moonlight.
“General LaCroix!” he exclaimed. Samuel Larkin recognized the man from his brief visit to the house. He adjusted his glasses and crossed to a different window and continued to note their progress. Evidently they were headed to the town hall. Samuel noted they had a prisoner – a tall lean man who walked at the center of the throng dressed not in red, but in somber browns. The young man’s head hung down as though he had been beaten and he walked haltingly. It took Samuel some moments to recognize him, and when he did he could not believe his eyes.
It was Robert’s general!
“My God,” he whispered, and then his surprise turned to horror as he noted Lafayette was not alone. A small slender shadow walked at his side. Female. Dark haired as well.
But where was Jeremy? Samuel shifted from side to side, searching, but there was no sign of his son. Why would the Redcoats have John Coates’ girl? Could Elizabeth be in league with the rebels? Was that possible? And if she was, did that mean that Jeremy – that his only living son was somehow mixed up in the dangerous Rebel Cause as Jeanette de Chevalier had suggested?
Samuel blinked. He took his glasses off and pinched the skin between his eyes, fending off a headache. But when had she suggested it? He did not recall the topic coming up at the supper table the night she and the British officers attended. But there it was, at the back of his mind – the thought that his youngest son might be a Rebel.
Samuel shook himself and reached for his cloak. He was old. His memory was not what it had been. Still, it seemed – of late – that there had been too many dreams.
Some of what he remembered had to be real.
Jeanette de Chevalier held the answers.
He didn’t know how, but he had to find her – and then he had to save that young man. If Major General Lafayette of the Continental Army died at the Redcoat’s hands, Robert would never forgive him.
It called him.
The scent of life for him.
That of death for another.
Nicholas closed his eyes and summoned every ounce of strength that remained in him and rose to his feet. The two dead rabbits Janette had dutifully drained dry to her disgust at LaCroix’s command, lay discarded near by. It never ceased to amaze him. How something could be warm one minute and cold the next. How that spark of life that burned so brightly, was so easily extinguished. No matter how many times he killed, he felt its loss each time – and felt it keenly. The rows of raised earth that marked the graves of those he had feasted on haunted the path he walked as surely as their ghostly faces and condemning voices did his dreams.
Pushing off the wall Nicholas stumbled forward toward the thing that called him. Toward a heart pounding hard, toward the scent of the approach of death. Toward the sweet bouquet of a life pouring out, wetting the cold hard ground. The moon’s pallid light filled the entry of the cave promising him protection, strengthening him as its rays brushed his weakened form, claiming him as one of its own. He paused in the cave mouth, one hand to the rough wall, and looked out.
And then he understood.
He could hear LaCroix laughing even now.
“No! By all that is Holy. By all that counts me accursed. LaCroix, no!” He raised impotent fists to the sky. Jeremy Larkin’s prone form lay on the wet grass before him. A gash in his side spoke of betrayal – a subject Nicholas knew all too well.
He would either drink his friend’s blood.
Or he would die.
“No….” Nicholas whimpered, falling to his knees. “No. I will not.”
“Jeremy?” He rose to his feet and started toward the injured man, but stopped as the need for his blood resounded through him, all but overcoming his determination not to feast. Nicholas felt the thing that lived within him rise and knew his eyes had turned a sickly green. He heard the vampire’s voice issue from his throat, its feral tone harsh even to his own ears. And felt the ivory tips of the vampire’s teeth press into the tender skin of his lower lip. “How did this happen? Who did this to you?” he asked.
Jeremy was silent for some time. Then with effort he shifted and looked at him. His words were laced with a deep sorrow. “It was Elizabeth.”
“No,” Nicholas countered, “it was LaCroix.”
Jeremy shuddered. He shook his head. “Not LaCroix. Jeanette.”
Nicholas closed his eyes. How weary he grew of the eternal game they played! Janette did not mean to cause him pain, but she had through countless centuries. She was not strong enough. She could not defy LaCroix. But stupidly believing that one day it might be so, he continued to trust her when he knew he should not.
And to love her when she betrayed him.
“How are you hurt?” he asked. “Is the wound mortal?”
“I don’t know.” Jeremy paused, as if gathering the strength to continue. “But it might as well be so. We are in the middle of the wood. The blood flow is copious.” He hesitated, and then added quietly, “How can you stand the sight of it?”
Nicholas growled, and turned away from the pounding, pressing need. “I cannot.”
“Then use me. Gain strength. Go after LaCroix and stop him! Save my friends,” Jeremy gasped, exhausted, feverish.
“It is the last thing I can do for them,” he said.
The irony was that Nicholas might have saved his life, if he dared go closer to the wounded man. But then LaCroix knew that knowledge would bring him pain as well. In the five centuries he had lived, he had had training as a doctor. Hospitals were easy places for them to dwell – who knew whether a man died and from what cause but his doctor? But now those skills which he had honed to save men, were useless in the face of his own ever pressing and overpowering need.
“No, Jeremy. I would die first.”
“Then we both die. What good is there in that?” Jeremy’s voice was weakening as he slipped toward unconsciousness. “The general will die and…Elizabeth. The Cause, Nicholas, the Cause. My brother will have died in vain. Please….”
Nicholas turned back and stared at him. In a way, when they feasted, the one they took became a part of them – their hopes, their dreams, their memories joining with them in the blood. In that way this young man – selfless, noble, strong – would live on. He staggered closer to him, ever more aware of the precious blood flowing through Jeremy’s fingers, falling, wasted to the ground.
As he hesitated at Jeremy’s side, their eyes met. “Do you know what you ask of me?” Nicholas snarled. “Do you really know?”
Jeremy nodded weakly. “Will I become like you?”
“Not unless you desire it. You would have to be ‘brought across’. Every ounce of blood would be drained until barely an ounce remained. You die, and in the last moment struggle back to this eternally damned life. Is that what you want, Jeremy? To be like me?” He opened his mouth and bared his sharp elongated teeth. “To be a beast, cursed for eternity?”
“No. Death holds no fear for me.” Jeremy’s eyes were glazed. In another moment he would be unconscious. He smiled and raised a hand. “Robert is here. He says it is not my time. But there is…no…other way….”
Nicholas knelt beside him and caught Jeremy’s hand in his own. He crouched, feeling the life pulse through his veins. He fought the demons that controlled him, but they were strong – stronger than him. Baring his teeth, he growled and bent his head to the young man’s wrist.
Something stopped him. A sound. The wind.
A spirit wind.
Looking up Nicholas saw a shadow against the trees – a tall young man, blond as he. The shade’s pale blue eyes, cool as a breath of spring, fell on him with pity. With compassion and not condemnation. No, he said. Wait.
Tears flooded Nicholas’ eyes. If he waited, he would die. His own strength was at an end. If he did not feast the sun which would dawn soon in the eastern sky would find him and it would mean his end.
Just as he desired.
Dropping Jeremy’s all but lifeless hand onto his chest, Nicholas rocked back on his feet. He looked up to find the ghost of Robert Larkin gone.
Then he fell to the earth senseless and lay there gratefully awaiting his end.
A knock on the door of the house they occupied made Janette du Charme jump. She cursed and rolled her eyes and headed for it. Some dutiful soldier, no doubt, come to give LaCroix yet another report about some boring drill or their oh-so-efficient search of the local mill where they routed ten rats and a mustard colored cat! She had had about enough of this boring provincial town and the particular game LaCroix was playing. She had hoped to save Michel du Motier’s son – and the mayor’s handsome boy – but when one played with a master they had to accept their losses with grace and move on.
“Coming!” she called, her tone irritated, as the insistent knock came again. “What is it that is so important it cannot wait – ” Janette drew a breath as the door opened on an old and familiar face. “Samuel! Mayor Larkin. What can I do for you?” She glanced at the sky. It was lightening toward day. There were only a few hours left before she must sleep. “You are abroad very early.”
He pushed past her and entered without her asking. Quite a breech of etiquette for a man from a parochial town. “Where is my son?” Samuel demanded.
“Your son?” Janette raised both her plucked eyebrows and her voice in a pretense of ignorance. “Jeremy, was it?” She shook her head. “I have not seen him since the other night – ”
He gripped her arms. Hard. Samuel’s hands were shaking. “Jean, where is my son!”
“I do not know!” she answered, breaking away. Then Janette stopped and met his terrified gaze. “You called me ‘Jean’, not Jeanette.”
“Aye. For Jean you are. My Jean.” Samuel Larkin was trembling. “I know not what kind of a creature you are, Jean, but I know now that I was wrong to defend you. You and that man – LaCroix – you are the ones who killed those children so long ago in England. And now I fear you have killed my son.”
“I have not. I did not touch him,” she insisted.
“Then Jeremy is alive?”
Janette bit her lip. “I do not know,” she answered honestly for once. “He was alive when I left him.”
“Jean, where is he? I must go to him. Will you take me?” When she said nothing, he added softly, “For what we almost had, once upon a time?”
Janette gazed into his eyes. They were as blue as she remembered and though the skin that cradled them was wrinkled and spotted with age, the mind – the soul that burned behind them was the same. She took his hands in hers and pressed them tightly. “For what you did for me – once upon a time. But I can promise nothing more than to take you where I left him. I do not know if it is your son, or his corpse you will find.”
Samuel grew pale. His aged form stiffened and he pulled away. “Was he with…one of your kind?”
“Oui.” Then she added quickly, “But if there is hope to be found, it is in the fact that Jeremy was left with Nichola. He is the only of our ‘kind’ who would die rather than kill to live. LaCroix does not know him as I do.” Janette reached for her hat as Samuel caught her cloak from a peg and tossed it about her shoulders. “It is my hope that it is not Nichola’s ashes we find beside your living son.”
“Does your friend’s life depend on my son’s death then?” Samuel asked, his voice hushed with a dreadful awe and terror of the unknown.
Janette linked her arm through his and drew him toward the door.
“Who knows?” she tossed off as they exited the room and stepped into the dying night. “Perhaps we shall see if there is a God after all.”
Jeremy came to consciousness once to the sound of hushed voices speaking in desperate tones. He felt himself shifted and lifted by a pair of powerful arms, but the pain was so great when his wounded side was stretched that he blacked out and slept again.
Sometime later he opened his eyes. The sight that greeted them puzzled him. He was not outside as he remembered, but lay within a great wooden structure. The smells and sounds that penetrated the fog he lay in made him realize he was in a barn. And if those had not been enough, the curious sheep that bleated at him and nudged his shoulder confirmed it.
His hand went automatically to his side. He found his shirt had been removed and the wound bandaged. Inspecting the linen strips he saw the job had been done professionally. When he tried to sit up a hand firmly pressed him back and a familiar voice told him ‘no’.
“Nicholas?” Jeremy sank back into the straw that was his bed. Nicholas Knighton sat on an upturned bucket close by his side. “You’re alive!”
“We are both alive.” Nicholas’ grin was weak and somewhat wistful.
“Ah, I see you are awake at last,” a new voice said. “You gave us quite a scare, my friend.”
He knew it. It was familiar. Blessedly so. “Henry!” Jeremy exclaimed. The he looked around. “And Isak? Is he here as well?”
Henry nodded as he knelt by his side. “Aye. Keeping watch. You were lucky we found you when we did. Your companion as well.”
Nicholas inclined his head. “I have already tendered my gracious thanks to Master Abington and his friend. They saved my life.”
Jeremy’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Master Abington and his friend? But Henry is your – ”
“Henry is the finest physician this side of Boston!” Nicholas declared with a quick shake of his head, meant only for Jeremy’s eyes. “He understood my ‘condition’ and treated it expertly. I am well now. As are you.”
If Jeremy had thought his head hurt before, it was pounding now. Henry laid his hand on his forehead and waited a moment. Then he shook his head. “There is still fever. I will see if the farmer has some ice. Will you watch him for me, Master Knighton?”
“Surely,” Nicholas answered with a grin. When Henry was out of earshot he sobered quickly. “After they brought me what I needed, I released them,” he explained.
“From my power. They do not remember anything but what I have told them to remember. Neither know of my real existence. Of what I am.”
Jeremy nodded. It was for the best. “And the general and Elizabeth? Where are they?”
Nicholas’ frown frightened him. “Do you remember nothing?” the other man asked.
“There is nothing.” Jeremy closed his eyes, trying to see. He seemed to remember something – a sense of betrayal, of horrified surprise. “Wait – yes! La Croix. He was there. And that woman. The one my father thought he knew.”
Jeremy’s hand went to his wound. His blue eyes widened in horror. “Elizabeth, she stabbed me!”
“At Janette’s prompting. She could not help herself. Do not blame her.” Nicholas fell silent for a moment. “If you would blame anyone for the horrors that have visited your quaint town, blame me. When I sought to escape LaCroix’s yoke by coming here, I did not consider who else I might saddle with it.”
“Is Elizabeth all right? Where is she?” A sinking feeling gripped his stomach. “Where is the general?”
“LaCroix has them both, and, by that, the British. I am sorry, Jeremy.”
He tried to rise, but just as he did, Henry reentered the stall where they had laid him with a pale loaded with chips of ice. “Whoa! Whoa, Jeremy. You are not fit to be on your feet.”
“But Lafayette! The Redcoats have him!”
Henry nodded sadly. “I know. Master Knighton has explained all that transpired. It was brave of you, Jeremy, to step between a bayoneted musket and the general, but foolish. You might have been killed. And what would we do without you?”
Behind Henry’s back Nicholas smiled. What kind of power was this, Jeremy wondered, to be able to rewrite a man’s mind? To strike out all he had known like ink taken to parchment, and to write in its place what you wished?
“I have to do something,” he protested. “I cannot lie here while Lafayette is tortured and humiliated. While he is executed! We must free him!”
Nicholas rose to his feet. “Jeremy, this is between General LaCroix and myself. You will do nothing but sacrifice your life in vain if you try to face him. I told you when first we met that I had unique knowledge of him. This began with me, and it will end with me.”
Henry nodded in agreement as he filled a cloth bag with the chips and laid it on Jeremy’s head. Then he rose to fetch his feet, saying he had need of some herbs to make a tea. “I will send Isak in to watch him,” he assured Nicholas. Then he turned back to him, “You are to stay where you are, Jeremy. That is an order!”
Nicholas watched until Henry disappeared out the door and then turned to look at him. “They found us in the wood. I sent them to bring me food and then freed them both, but left one suggestion in their mind. You are not to follow me, Jeremy. If you try, Henry and Isak will stop you. Now, I must rest.” He glanced out the open door and sighed. “Ah, to see the sun again without fear. To walk beneath it. That would be Heaven….”
“But the general….”
“Is safe for now. LaCroix must rest as well, though he is less susceptible to the sunlight than either Janette or myself. Still, your general should be safe until the night descends.”
“Can he kill you?” Jeremy asked. “LaCroix, I mean. Can you kill him?”
“He can destroy me. But if in five hundred years he has not, I do not think he will choose to do so now this night. Can I destroy him?” Nicholas shrugged. “I will know when it happens.”
“Let me come with you.”
“No. I value your life too greatly, my friend. I promise you, Jeremy, I will not let your general die – not so long as there is a breath in this ancient body to stop it.”
“So long as she is useful, she is safe.” Nicholas moved into the deepening shadows that masked the back half of the interior of the barn. “And so long as LaCroix does not grow hungry.”
They were being held in the same cell where Major Zanker had placed them not long ago, in the lower level of the town hall. Elizabeth suppressed a shudder when she spied the black boots shining in the lamplight outside the barred window. The sight struck her with fear – not for herself, but for her cellmate, Lafayette.
She knew from experience there was no way out.
Crossing back to the general’s side, she sat beside him and leaned her head on the cold stone wall. He stirred and looked at her, his expression chagrinned.
“What? What is it?” she asked.
“I do not remember coming here.” He rose and took her place at the window. “Not at all. We are in Chester?”
“Yes. That’s the yard where they built the scaffold. Where you confronted Major Zanker.”
“Zanker? Oh, oui. This man, LaCroix, he is like him. No?”
“Oui.” She smiled at his startled expression. “Don’t hope for more. That’s the limit of my French.”
He laughed as she had hoped he would, but sobered all too quickly. “Do you remember how we came to be here, Elizabeth?”
His question made her shiver. Something about the answer filled her with shame, but she couldn’t remember what it was. “No. The last thing I remember was approaching your camp. Jenkins, I think, was on sentry duty. There is nothing after that.”
“I remember being with Daniel. And then in the camp. There was a man. He knew my father. But it is the same with me – there is nothing more.” Lafayette crossed back to her side. “And now here we sit, the prisoners of the British! What sorcery is this?”
“Do you speak of Nicholas Knighton?” she asked.
He seemed surprised, but nodded. “Oui.”
“It all started with his arrival in Chester, the events that have led us here.” She rose to stand beside him. With a sigh she let out her deepest fear. “And where is Jeremy?”
“Most likely being eaten by the worms by now,” a sinister voice proclaimed.
They both jumped and Lafayette took a defensive stance before her. On the other side of the bars was the monster called ‘Lucien LaCroix’. The white haired man pointed at the general and ordered the British soldier beside him, “That one. Bring him to my chamber.”
“Sir!” the soldier replied.
Elizabeth slipped her hand in his. Lafayette glanced at her and smiled an encouraging smile. She knew that they would torture him, seeking to learn all he knew of the Rebellion. They would question him about his Excellency, George Washington, and about battle plans, and when he did not tell them what they wanted to hear, they would kill him. Most likely in public in the most humiliating way they could.
“I wish I could do something,” she whispered even as the cell door creaked open.
“Pray for me. That is the only power any of us have left.”
Pray! Elizabeth fished in her pocket and sighed with relief as her fingers closed about the warm metal chain and the golden cross secreted there. She slipped the crucifix into his fingers and whispered at his startled look.
“I have kept it in trust. It has always been yours, as is the need. Keep it close!”
Even as she spoke rough hands took hold of him and drew him away from her. Elizabeth ran to the cell door and caught the bars with her fingers as it clanged shut and Lafayette was led up the stair. When the wooden door at the top of the stair slammed shut, it was as if all of the light and air in the jail had been cut off. She couldn’t breath. She felt weak. Dizzy and confused.
Elizabeth turned to the window and freedom beyond and then fell to the cell floor senseless.