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The next morning my first thoughts were also of riding.
I ran a brush through my hair, rinsed my mouth out, and threw on close-fitting pair of black leggings. They were the nearest thing to riding breeches that I had with me. Running shoes would make it impossible to keep my heels down in the stirrups, so on went my loafers instead. Not exactly proper footwear, but they’d do. A long-sleeved T-shirt and a fleece pullover completed my ensemble. Dragging my hair back into a ponytail, I returned to the bedroom.
Matthew lifted his eyebrow as I rocketed into the room, his arm barring me from going any farther. He was leaning against the wide archway that led to the stairs, well groomed as always, wearing dark gray breeches and a black sweater. “Let’s ride in the afternoon.”
I’d been expecting this. Dinner with Ysabeau had been tense at best, and afterward my sleep had been punctuated with nightmares. Matthew had climbed the stairs to check on me several times.
“I’m fine. Exercise and fresh air will be the best thing in the world for me.” When I tried to get past him again, he stopped me with only a dark look.
“If you so much as sway in the saddle, I’m bringing you home. Understood?”
Downstairs, I headed for the dining room, but Matthew pulled me in the other direction. “Let’s eat in the kitchens,” he said quietly. No formal breakfast with Ysabeau staring at me over Le Monde. That was welcome news.
We ate in what were ostensibly the housekeeper’s rooms, in front of a blazing fire at a table set for two—though I would be the only one eating Marthe’s excellent, abundant food. A huge pot of tea sat on the scarred, round wooden table, wrapped in a linen towel to keep it hot. Marthe glanced at me with concern, tutting at my dark circles and pale skin.
When my fork slowed, Matthew reached for a pyramid of boxes crowned with a black-velvet-covered helmet. “For you,” he said, putting them on the table.
The helmet was self-explanatory. It was shaped like a high-crowned baseball hat, with a fold of black grosgrain ribbon at the nape. Despite its velvet covering and ribbon, the helmet was sturdy and made expressly to keep soft human skulls from cracking if they met with the ground. I hated them, but it was a wise precaution.
“Thank you,” I said. “What’s in the boxes?”
“Open them and see.”
The first box held a pair of black breeches with suede patches inside the knees to grip the saddle. They would be far more pleasant to ride in than my thin, slippery leggings and looked like they would fit, too. Matthew must have been making more phone calls and relaying approximate measurements while I napped. I smiled at him in gratitude.
The box also held a black padded vest with a long tail and stiff metal supports sewn into the seams. It looked and would no doubt feel like a turtle’s shell—uncomfortable and unwieldy.
“This isn’t necessary.” I held it up, frowning.
“It is if you’re going riding.” His voice didn’t show the slightest hint of emotion. “You tell me you’re experienced. If so, you won’t have a problem adjusting to its weight.”
My color rose and my fingertips gave a warning tingle. Matthew watched me with interest, and Marthe came to the door and gave a sniff. I breathed in and out until the tingling stopped.
“You wear a seat belt in my car,” Matthew said evenly. “You’ll wear a vest on my horse.”
We stared at each other in a standoff of wills. The thought of the fresh air defeated me, and Marthe’s eyes glittered with amusement. No doubt our negotiations were as much fun to watch as were the volleys between Matthew and Ysabeau.
I pulled the final box toward me in silent concession. It was long and heavy, and there was a sharp tang of leather when the lid lifted.
Boots. Knee-length, black boots. I’d never shown horses and had limited resources, so I had never owned a proper pair of riding boots. These were beautiful, with their curved calves and supple leather. My fingers touched their shining surfaces.
“Thank you,” I breathed, delighted with his surprise.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll fit,” Matthew said, his eyes soft.
“Come, girl,” Marthe said cheerfully from the door. “You change.”
She barely got me into the laundry room before I’d kicked off my loafers and peeled the leggings from my body. She took the worn Lycra and cotton from me while I wriggled into the breeches.
“There was a time when women didn’t ride like men,” Marthe said, looking at the muscles in my legs and shaking her head.
Matthew was on his phone when I returned, sending out instructions to all the other people in his world who required his management. He looked up with approval.
“Those will be more comfortable.” He stood and picked up the boots. “There’s no jack in here. You’ll have to wear your other shoes to the stables.”
“No, I want to put them on now,” I said, fingers outstretched.
“Sit down, then.” He shook his head at my impatience. “You’ll never get them on the first time without help.” Matthew picked up my chair with me in it and turned it so he had more room to maneuver. He held out the right boot, and I stuck my foot in as far as the ankle. He was right. No amount of tugging was going to get my foot around the stiff bend. He stood over my foot, grasping the heel and toe of the boot and wriggling it gently as I pulled the leather in the other direction. After several minutes of struggle, my foot worked its way into the shank. Matthew gave the sole a final, firm push, and the boot snuggled against my bones.
Once both boots were on, I held my legs out to admire. Matthew tugged and patted, sliding his cold fingers around the top rim to make sure my blood could circulate. I stood, my legs feeling unusually long, took a few stiff-ankled steps, and did a little twirl.
“Thank you.” I threw my arms around his neck, the toes of my boots grazing the floor. “I love them.”
Matthew carried my vest and hat to the stables, much as he had carried my computer and yoga mat in Oxford. The stable doors were flung open, and there were sounds of activity.
“Georges?” Matthew called. A small, wiry man of indeterminate age—though not a vampire—came around the corner, carrying a bridle and a curry comb. When we passed Balthasar’s stall, the stallion stomped angrily and tossed his head. You promised, he seemed to say. Inside my pocket was a tiny apple that I’d wheedled from Marthe.
“Here you go, baby,” I said, holding it out on a flat palm. Matthew watched warily as Balthasar extended his neck and reached with delicate lips to pick the fruit from my hand. Once it was in his mouth, he looked at his owner triumphantly.
“Yes, I see that you are behaving like a prince,” Matthew said drily, “but that doesn’t mean you won’t behave like a devil at the first opportunity.” Balthasar’s hooves struck the ground in annoyance.
We passed by the tack room. In addition to the regular saddles, bridles, and reins, there were freestanding wooden frames that held something like a small armchair with odd supports on one side.
“What are they?”
“Sidesaddles,” Matthew said, kicking off his shoes and stepping into a tall pair of well-worn boots. His foot slid down easily with a simple stamp on the heel and a tug at the top. “Ysabeau prefers them.”
In the paddock Dahr and Rakasa turned their heads and looked with interest while Georges and Matthew began a detailed discussion of all the natural obstacles we might encounter. I held my palm out to Dahr, sorry that there were no more apples in my pocket. The gelding looked disappointed, too, once he picked up the sweet scent.
“Next time,” I promised. Ducking under his neck, I arrived at Rakasa’s side. “Hello, beauty.”
Rakasa picked up her right front foot and cocked her head toward me. I ran my hands over her neck and shoulders, getting her used to my scent and touch, and gave the saddle a tug, checking the tightness of the girth strap and making sure the blanket underneath was smooth. She reached around and gave me an inquiring smell and a snuffle, nosing at my pullover where the apple had been. She tossed her head in indignation.
“You, too,” I promised her with a laugh, placing my left hand firmly on her rump. “Let’s have a look.”
Horses like having their feet touched about as much as most witches like being dunked in water—which is to say not much. But, out of habit and superstition, I’d never ridden a horse without first checking to make sure that nothing was lodged in their soft hooves.
When I straightened, the two men were watching me closely. Georges said something that indicated I would do. Matthew nodded thoughtfully, holding out my vest and hat. The vest was snug and hard—but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. The hat interfered with my ponytail, and I slid the elastic band lower to accommodate it before snapping the chin band together. Matthew was at my back in the time it took me to grab the reins and lift my foot to Rakasa’s stirrup.
“Will you never wait until I help you?” he growled into my ear.
“I can get onto a horse myself,” I said hotly.
“But you don’t need to.” Matthew’s hands cupped my shin, lifting me effortlessly into the saddle. After that, he checked my stirrup length, rechecked the girth strap, and finally went to his own horse. He swung into the saddle with a practiced air that suggested he’d been on horseback for hundreds of years. Once there, he looked like a king.
Rakasa started to dance in impatience, and I pushed my heels down. She stopped, looking puzzled. “Quiet,” I whispered. She nodded her head and stared forward, her ears working back and forth.
“Take her around the paddock while I check my saddle,” Matthew said casually, swinging his left knee onto Dahr’s shoulder and fiddling with his stirrup leather. My eyes narrowed. His stirrups needed no adjustment. He was checking out my riding skills.
I walked Rakasa halfway around the paddock, to feel her gait. The Andalusian really did dance, delicately picking up her feet and putting them down firmly in a beautiful, rocking movement. When I pressed both heels into her sides, Rakasa’s dancing walk turned into an equally rollicking, smooth trot. We passed Matthew, who had given up all pretense of adjusting his saddle. Georges leaned against the fence, smiling broadly.
Beautiful girl, I breathed silently. Her left ear shot back, and she picked up the pace slightly. My calf pressed into her flank, just behind the stirrup, and she broke into a canter, her feet reaching out into the air and her neck arched. How angry would Matthew be if we jumped the paddock fence?
Angry, I was sure.
Rakasa rounded the corner, and I slowed her to a trot. “Well?” I demanded.
Georges nodded and opened the paddock gate.
“You have a good seat,” Matthew said, eyeing my backside. “Good hands, too. You’ll be all right. By the way,” he continued in a conversational tone, leaning toward me and dropping his voice, “if you’d jumped the fence back there, today’s outing would have been over.”
Once we’d cleared the gardens and passed through the old gate, the trees thickened, and Matthew scanned the forest. A few feet into the woods, he began to relax, having accounted for every creature within and discovered that none of them were of the two-legged variety.
Matthew kicked Dahr into a trot, and Rakasa obediently waited for me to kick her as well. I did, amazed all over again at how smoothly she moved.
“What kind of horse is Dahr?” I asked, noticing his equally smooth gait.
“I suppose you’d call him a destrier,” Matthew explained. That was the mount that carried knights to the Crusades. “He was bred for speed and agility.”
“I thought destriers were enormous warhorses.” Dahr was bigger than Rakasa, but not much.
“They were large for the time. But they weren’t big enough to carry any of the men in this family into battle, not once we had armor on our backs, and weapons. We trained on horses like Dahr and rode them for pleasure, but we fought on Percherons like Balthasar.”
I stared between Rakasa’s ears, working up the courage to broach another subject. “May I ask you something about your mother?”
“Of course,” Matthew said, twisting in his saddle. He put one fist on his hip and held his horse’s reins lightly in the other hand. I now knew with absolute certainty how a medieval knight looked on horseback.
“Why does she hate witches so much? Vampires and witches are traditional enemies, but Ysabeau’s dislike of me goes beyond that. It seems personal.”
“I suppose you want a better answer than that you smell like spring.”
“Yes, I want the real reason.”
“She’s jealous.” Matthew patted Dahr’s shoulder.
“What on earth is she jealous of ?”
“Let’s see. Your power—especially a witch’s ability to see the future. Your ability to bear children and pass that power to a new generation. And the ease with which you die, I suppose,” he said, his voice reflective.
“Ysabeau had you and Louisa for children.”
“Yes, Ysabeau made both of us. But it’s not quite the same as bearing a child, I think.”
“Why does she envy a witch’s second sight?”
“That has to do with how Ysabeau was made. Her maker didn’t ask permission first.” Matthew’s face darkened. “He wanted her for a wife, and he just took her and turned her into a vampire. She had a reputation as a seer and was young enough to still hope for children. When she became a vampire, both of those abilities were gone. She’s never quite gotten over it, and witches are a constant reminder of the life she lost.”
“Why does she envy that witches die so easily?”
“Because she misses my father.” He abruptly stopped talking, and it was clear I’d pressed him enough.
The trees thinned, and Rakasa’s ears shot back and forth impatiently.
“Go ahead,” he said with resignation, gesturing at the open field before us.
Rakasa leaped forward at the touch of my heels, catching the bit in her teeth. She slowed climbing the hill, and once on the crest she pranced and tossed her head, clearly enjoying the fact that Dahr was standing at the bottom while she was on top. I circled her into a fast figure eight, changing her leads on the fly to keep her from stumbling as she went around corners.
Dahr took off—not at a canter but a gallop—his black tail streaming out behind him and his hooves striking the earth with unbelievable speed. I gasped and pulled lightly on Rakasa’s reins to make her stop. So that was the point of destriers. They could go from zero to sixty like a finely tuned sports car. Matthew made no effort to slow his horse as he approached, but Dahr stopped on a dime about six feet away from us, his sides bowed out slightly with the exertion.
“Show-off ! You won’t let me jump a fence and you put on that display?” I teased.
“Dahr doesn’t get enough exercise either. This is exactly what he needs.” Matthew grinned and patted his horse on the shoulder. “Are you interested in a race? We’ll give you a head start, of course,” he said with a courtly bow.
“You’re on. Where to?”
Matthew pointed to a solitary tree on the top of the ridge and watched me, alert for the first indication of movement. He’d picked something that you could shoot past without running into anything. Maybe Rakasa wasn’t as good at abrupt stops as Dahr was.
There was no way I was going to surprise a vampire and no way my horse—for all her smooth gait—was going to beat Dahr up the ridge. Still, I was eager to see how well she would perform. I leaned forward and patted Rakasa on the neck, resting my chin for just a moment on her warm flesh and closing my eyes.
Fly, I encouraged her silently.
Rakasa shot forward as if she’d been slapped on the rump, and my instincts took over.
I lifted myself out of the saddle to make it easier for her to carry my weight, tying a loose knot in the reins. When her speed stabilized, I lowered myself into the saddle, clutching her warm body between my legs. My feet kicked free from the unnecessary stirrups, and my fingers wove through her mane. Matthew and Dahr thundered behind us. It was like my dream, the one where dogs and horses were chasing me. My left hand curled as if holding something, and I bent low along Rakasa’s neck, eyes closed.
Fly, I repeated, but the voice in my head no longer sounded like my own. Rakasa responded with still more speed.
I felt the tree grow closer. Matthew swore in Occitan, and Rakasa swerved to the left at the last minute, slowing to a canter and then a trot. There was a tug on her reins. My eyes shot open in alarm.
“Do you always ride unfamiliar horses at top speed, with your eyes closed, no reins, and no stirrups?” Matthew’s voice was coldly furious. “You row with your eyes closed—I’ve seen you. And you walk with them closed, too. I always suspected that magic was involved. You must use your power to ride as well. Otherwise you’d be dead. And for what it’s worth, I believe you’re telling Rakasa what to do with your mind and not with your hands and legs.”
I wondered if what he said was true. Matthew made an impatient sound and dismounted by swinging his right leg high over Dahr’s head, kicking his left foot out of the stirrup, and sliding down the horse’s side facing front.
“Get down from there,” he said roughly, grabbing Rakasa’s loose reins.
Dismounting the traditional way, I swung my right leg over Rakasa’s rump. When my back was to him, Matthew reached up and scooped me off the horse. Now I knew why he preferred to face front. It kept you from being grabbed from behind and hauled off your mount. He turned me around and crushed me to his chest.
“Dieu,” he whispered into my hair. “Don’t do anything like that again, please.”
“You told me not to worry about what I was doing. It’s why you brought me to France,” I said, confused by his reaction.
“I’m sorry,” he said earnestly. “I’m trying not to interfere. But it’s difficult to watch you using powers you don’t understand—especially when you’re not aware you’re doing it.”
Matthew left me to tend to the horses, tying their reins so that they wouldn’t step on them but giving them the freedom to nibble the sparse fall grass. When he returned, his face was somber.
“There’s something I need to show you.” He led me to the tree, and we sat underneath it. I folded my legs carefully to the side so that my boots didn’t cut into my legs. Matthew simply dropped, his knees on the ground and his feet curled under his thighs.
He reached into the pocket of his breeches and drew out a piece of paper with black and gray bars on a white background. It had been folded and refolded several times.
It was a DNA report. “Mine?”
“When?” My fingers traced the bars along the page.
“Marcus brought the results to New College. I didn’t want to share them with you so soon after you were reminded of your parents’ death.” He hesitated. “Was I right to wait?”
When I nodded, Matthew looked relieved. “What does it say?” I asked.
“We don’t understand everything,” he replied slowly. “But Marcus and Miriam did identify markers in your DNA that we’ve seen before.”
Miriam’s tiny, precise handwriting marched down the left side of the page, and the bars, some circled with red pen, marched down the right. “This is the genetic marker for precognition,” Matthew continued, pointing to the first circled smudge. His finger began slowly moving down the page. “This one is for flight. This helps witches find things that are lost.”
Matthew kept reeling off powers and abilities one at a time until my head spun.
“This one is for talking with the dead, this is transmogrification, this is telekinesis, this is spell casting, this one is charms, this one is curses. And you’ve got mind reading, telepathy, and empathy—they’re next to one another.”
“This can’t be right.” I’d never heard of a witch with more than one or two powers. Matthew had already reached a dozen.
“I think the findings are right, Diana. These powers may never manifest, but you’ve inherited the genetic predisposition for them.” He flipped the page. There were more red circles and more careful annotations by Miriam. “Here are the elemental markers. Earth is present in almost all witches, and some have either earth and air or earth and water. You’ve got all three, which we’ve never seen before. And you’ve also got fire. Fire is very, very rare.” Matthew pointed to the four smudges.
“What are elemental markers?” My feet were feeling uncomfortably breezy, and my fingers were tingling.
“Indications that you have the genetic predisposition to control one or more of the elements. They explain why you could raise a witchwind. Based on this, you could command witchfire and what’s called witchwater as well.”
“What does earth do?”
“Herbal magic, the power to affect growing things—the basics. Combined with spell casting, cursing, and charms—or any one of them, really—it means you have not only powerful magical abilities but an innate talent for witchcraft.”
My aunt was good with spells. Emily wasn’t but could fly for short distances and see the future. These were classic differences among witches—dividing those who used witchcraft, like Sarah, from those who used magic. It all boiled down to whether words shaped your power or whether you just had it and could wield it as you liked. I buried my face in my hands. The prospect of seeing the future as my mother could had been scary enough. Control of the elements? Talking with the dead?
“There is a long list of powers on that sheet. We’ve only seen—what?—four or five of them?” It was terrifying.
“I suspect we’ve seen more than that—like the way you move with your eyes closed, your ability to communicate with Rakasa, and your sparkly fingers. We just don’t have names for them yet.”
“Please tell me that’s all.”
Matthew hesitated. “Not quite.” He flipped to another page. “We can’t yet identify these markers. In most cases we have to correlate accounts of a witch’s activities—some of them centuries old—with DNA evidence. It can be hard to match them up.”
“Do the tests explain why my magic is emerging now?”
“We don’t need a test for that. Your magic is behaving as if it’s waking after a long sleep. All that inactivity has made it restless, and now it wants to have its way. Blood will out,” Matthew said lightly. He rocked gracefully to his feet and lifted me up. “You’ll catch cold sitting on the ground, and I’ll have a hell of a time explaining myself to Marthe if you get sick.” He whistled to the horses. They strolled in our direction, still munching on their unexpected treat.
We rode for another hour, exploring the woods and fields around Sept-Tours. Matthew pointed out the best place to hunt rabbits and where his father had taught him to shoot a crossbow without taking out his own eye. When we turned back to the stables, my worries over the test results had been replaced with a pleasant feeling of exhaustion.
“My muscles will be sore tomorrow,” I said, groaning. “I haven’t been on a horse for years.”
“Nobody would have guessed that from the way that you rode today,” he said. We passed out of the forest and entered the château’s stone gate. “You’re a good rider, Diana, but you mustn’t go out by yourself. It’s too easy to lose your way.”
Matthew wasn’t worried I’d get lost. He was worried I’d be found.
His long fingers relaxed on the reins. He’d been clutching them for the past five minutes. This vampire was used to giving orders that were obeyed instantly. He wasn’t accustomed to making requests and negotiating agreements. And his usual quick temper was nowhere in evidence.
Sidling Rakasa closer to Dahr, I reached over and raised Matthew’s palm to my mouth. My lips were warm against his hard, cold flesh.
His pupils dilated in surprise.
I let go and, clucking Rakasa forward, headed into the stables.
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