فصل 37

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فصل 37

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Chapter 37

Over the next several days, Matthew’s tiny army learned the first requirement of war: allies must not kill each other.

Difficult as it was for my aunts to accept vampires into their house, it was the vampires who had the real trouble adjusting. It wasn’t just the ghosts and the cat. More than nuts would have to be kept in the house if vampires and warmbloods were to live in such close quarters. The very next day Marcus and Miriam had a conversation with Matthew in the driveway, then left in the Range Rover. Several hours later they returned bearing a small refrigerator marked with a red cross and enough blood and medical supplies to outfit an army field hospital. At Matthew’s request, Sarah selected a corner of the stillroom to serve as the blood bank.

“It’s just a precaution,” Matthew assured her.

“In case Miriam gets the munchies?” Sarah picked up a bag of O-negative blood.

“I ate before I left England,” Miriam said primly, her tiny bare feet slipping quietly over the stone floors as she put items away.

The deliveries also included a blister pack of birth-control pills inside a hideous yellow plastic case with a flower molded into the lid. Matthew presented them to me at bedtime.

“You can start them now or wait a few days until your period starts.”

“How do you know when my period is going to start?” I’d finished my last cycle the day before Mabon—the day before I’d met Matthew.

“I know when you’re planning on jumping a paddock fence. You can imagine how easy it is for me to know when you’re about to bleed.”

“Can you be around me while I’m menstruating?” I held the case gingerly as if it might explode.

Matthew looked surprised, then chuckled. “Dieu, Diana. There wouldn’t be a woman alive if I couldn’t.” He shook his head. “It’s not the same thing.”

I started the pills that night.

As we adjusted to the close quarters, new patterns of activity developed in the house—many of them around me. I was never alone and never more than ten feet away from the nearest vampire. It was perfect pack behavior. The vampires were closing ranks around me.

My day was divided into zones of activity punctuated by meals, which Matthew insisted I needed at regular intervals to fully recover from La Pierre. He joined me in yoga between breakfast and lunch, and after lunch Sarah and Em tried to teach me how to use my magic and perform spells. When I was tearing my hair out with frustration, Matthew would whisk me off for a long walk before dinner. We lingered around the table in the family room after the warmbloods had eaten, talking about current events and old movies. Marcus unearthed a chessboard, and he and his father often played together while Em and I cleaned up.

Sarah, Marcus, and Miriam shared a fondness for film noir, which now dominated the house’s TV-viewing schedule. Sarah had discovered this happy coincidence when, during one of her habitual bouts of insomnia, she went downstairs in the middle of the night and found Miriam and Marcus watching Out of the Past. The three also shared a love of Scrabble and popcorn. By the time the rest of the house awoke, they’d transformed the family room into a cinema and everything had been swept off the coffee table save a game board, a cracked bowl full of lettered tiles, and two battered dictionaries.

Miriam proved to be a genius at remembering archaic seven-letter words.

“‘Smoored’!” Sarah was exclaiming one morning when I came downstairs. “What the hell kind of word is ‘smoored’? If you mean those campfire desserts with marshmallows and graham crackers, you’ve spelled it wrong.”

“It means ‘smothered,’” Miriam explained. “It’s what we did to fires to keep them banked overnight. We smoored them. Look it up if you don’t believe me.”

Sarah grumbled and retreated to the kitchen for coffee.

“Who’s winning?” I inquired.

“You need to ask?” The vampire smiled with satisfaction.

When not playing Scrabble or watching old movies, Miriam held classes covering Vampires 101. In the space of a few afternoons, she managed to teach Em the importance of names, pack behavior, possessive rituals, preternatural senses, and dining habits. Lately talk had turned to more advanced topics, such as how to slay a vampire.

“No, not even slicing our necks open is foolproof, Em,” Miriam told her patiently. The two were sitting in the family room while I made tea in the kitchen. “You want to cause as much blood loss as possible. Go for the groin as well.”

Matthew shook his head at the exchange and took the opportunity (since everyone else was otherwise engaged) to pin me behind the refrigerator door. My shirt was askew and my hair tumbling around my ears when our son came into the room with an armload of wood.

“Did you lose something behind the refrigerator, Matthew?” Marcus’s face was the picture of innocence.

“No,” Matthew purred. He buried his face in my hair so he could drink in the scent of my arousal. I swatted ineffectually at his shoulders, but he just held me tighter.

“Thanks for replenishing the firewood, Marcus,” I said breathlessly.

“Should I go get more?” One blond eyebrow arched up in perfect imitation of his father.

“Good idea. It will be cold tonight.” I twisted my head to reason with Matthew, but he mistook it as an invitation to kiss me again. Marcus and the wood supply faded into inconsequence.

When not lying in wait in dark corners, Matthew joined Sarah and Marcus in the most unholy trio of potion brewers since Shakespeare put three witches around a cauldron. The vapor Sarah and Matthew brewed up for the picture of the chemical wedding hadn’t revealed anything, but this didn’t deter them. They occupied the stillroom at all hours, consulting the Bishop grimoire and making strange concoctions that smelled bad, exploded, or both. On one occasion Em and I investigated a loud bang followed by the sound of rolling thunder.

“What are you three up to?” Em asked, hands on hips. Sarah’s face was covered in gray soot, and debris was falling down the chimney.

“Nothing,” Sarah grumbled. “I was trying to cleave the air and the spell got bent out of shape, that’s all.”

“Cleaving?” I looked at the mess, astonished.

Matthew and Marcus nodded solemnly.

“You’d better clean up this room before dinner, Sarah Bishop, or I’ll show you cleaving!” Em sputtered.

Of course, not all encounters between residents were happy ones. Marcus and Matthew walked together at sunrise, leaving me to the tender care of Miriam, Sarah, and the teapot. They never went far. They were always visible from the kitchen window, their heads bent together in conversation. One morning Marcus turned on his heel and stormed back to the house, leaving his father alone in the old apple orchard.

“Diana,” he growled in greeting before streaking through the family room and straight out the front door. “I’m too damn young for this!” he shouted as he left.

His engine revved—Marcus preferred sports cars to SUVs—and the tires bit into the gravel when he reversed and pulled out of the driveway.

“What’s Marcus upset about?” I asked when Matthew returned, kissing his cold cheek as he reached for the paper.

“Business,” he said shortly, kissing me back.

“You didn’t make him seneschal?” Miriam asked incredulously.

Matthew flipped the paper open. “You must have a very high opinion of me, Miriam, if you think the brotherhood has functioned for all these years without a seneschal. That position is already occupied.”

“What’s a seneschal?” I put two slices of bread in the beat-up toaster. It had six slots, but only two of them worked with any reliability.

“My second in command,” Matthew said briefly.

“If he’s not the seneschal, why has Marcus sped out of here?” Miriam pressed.

“I appointed him marshal,” Matthew said, scanning the headlines.

“He’s the least likely marshal I’ve ever seen,” she said severely. “He’s a physician, for God’s sake. Why not Baldwin?”

Matthew looked up from his paper and cocked his eyebrow at her. “Baldwin?”

“Okay, not Baldwin,” Miriam hastily replied. “There must be someone else.”

“Had I two thousand knights to choose from as I once did, there might be someone else. But there are only eight knights under my command at present—one of whom is the ninth knight and not required to fight—a handful of sergeants, and a few squires. Someone has to be marshal. I was Philippe’s marshal. Now it’s Marcus’s turn.” The terminology was so antiquated it invited giggles, but the serious look on Miriam’s face kept me quiet.

“Have you told him he’s to start raising banners?” Miriam and Matthew continued to speak a language of war I didn’t understand.

“What’s a marshal?” The toast sprang out and winged its way to the kitchen island when my stomach rumbled.

“Matthew’s chief military officer.” Miriam eyed the refrigerator door, which was opening without visible assistance.

“Here.” Matthew neatly caught the butter as it passed over his shoulder and then handed it to me with a smile, his face serene in spite of his colleague’s pestering. Matthew, though a vampire, was self-evidently a morning person.

“The banners, Matthew. Are you raising an army?”

“Of course I am, Miriam. You’re the one who keeps bringing up war. If it breaks out, you don’t imagine that Marcus, Baldwin, and I are going to fight the Congregation by ourselves?” Matthew shook his head. “You know better than that.”

“What about Fernando? Surely he’s still alive and well.”

Matthew put his paper down and glowered. “I’m not going to discuss my strategy with you. Stop interfering and leave Marcus to me.”

Now it was Miriam’s turn to bolt. She pressed her lips tightly together and stalked out the back door, headed for the woods.

I ate my toast in silence, and Matthew returned to his paper. After a few minutes, he put it down again and made a sound of exasperation.

“Out with it, Diana. I can smell you thinking, and it’s impossible for me to concentrate.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I said around a mouthful of toast. “A vast military machine is swinging into action, the precise nature of which I don’t understand. And you’re unlikely to explain it to me, because it’s some sort of brotherhood secret.”

“Dieu.” Matthew ran his fingers through his hair until it stood on end. “Miriam causes more trouble than any creature I’ve ever known, with the exception of Domenico Michele and my sister Louisa. If you want to know about the Knights, I’ll tell you.”

Two hours later my head was spinning with information about the brotherhood. Matthew had sketched out an organizational flowchart on the back of my DNA reports. It was awesome in its complexity—and it didn’t include the military side. That part of the operation was outlined on some ancient Harvard University letterhead left by my parents that we pulled out of the sideboard. I looked over Marcus’s many new responsibilities.

“No wonder he’s overwhelmed,” I murmured, tracing the lines that connected Marcus to Matthew above him and to seven master knights below, and then to the troops of vampires each would be expected to gather.

“He’ll adjust.” Matthew’s cold hands kneaded the tight muscles in my back, his fingers lingering on the star between my shoulder blades. “Marcus will have Baldwin and the other knights to rely upon. He can handle the responsibility, or I wouldn’t have asked him.”

Maybe, but he would never be the same after taking on this job for Matthew. Every new challenge would chip away a piece of his easygoing charm. It was painful to imagine the vampire Marcus would become.

“What about this Fernando? Will he help Marcus?”

Matthew’s face grew secretive. “Fernando was my first choice for marshal, but he turned me down. It was he who recommended Marcus.”

“Why?” From the way Miriam spoke, the vampire was a respected warrior.

“Marcus reminds Fernando of Philippe. If there is war, we’ll need someone with my father’s charm to convince the vampires to fight not only witches but other vampires, too.” Matthew nodded thoughtfully, his eyes on the rough outlines of his empire. “Yes, Fernando will help him. And keep him from making too many mistakes.”

When we returned to the kitchen—Matthew in search of his newspaper and me in pursuit of an early lunch—Sarah and Em were just back from the grocery store. They unpacked boxes of microwave popcorn as well as tins of mixed nuts and every berry available in October in upstate New York. I picked up a bag of cranberries.

“There you are.” Sarah’s eyes gleamed. “Time for your lessons.”

“I need more tea first, and something to eat,” I protested, pouring the cranberries from one hand to the other in their plastic bag. “No magic on an empty stomach.”

“Give me those,” Em said, grabbing the bag. “You’re squashing them, and they’re Marcus’s favorite.”

“You can eat later.” Sarah pushed me in the direction of the stillroom. “Stop being such a baby and get moving.”

I turned out to be as hopeless at spells now as when I was a teenager. Unable to remember how they started, and given my mind’s tendency to wander, I garbled the order of the words with disastrous results.

Sarah set a candle on the stillroom’s wide table. “Light it,” she commanded, turning back to the indescribably stained grimoire.

It was a simple trick that even a teenage witch could manage. When the spell emerged from my mouth, however, either the candle smoked without the wick’s catching light or something else burst into flames instead. This time I set a bunch of lavender on fire.

“You can’t just say the words, Diana,” Sarah lectured once she’d extinguished the flames. “You have to concentrate. Do it again.”

I did it again—over and over. Once the candle wick sputtered with a tentative flame.

“This isn’t working.” My hands were tingling, the nails blue, and I was ready to scream in frustration.

“You can command witch fire and you can’t light a candle.”

“My arms move in a way that reminds you of someone who could command witchfire. That’s not the same thing, and learning about magic is more important than this stuff,” I said, gesturing at the grimoire.

“Magic is not the only answer,” Sarah said tartly. “It’s like using a chain-saw to cut bread. Sometimes a knife will do.”

“You don’t have a high opinion of magic, but I have a fair amount of it in me, and it wants to come out. Someone has to teach me how to control it.”

“I can’t.” Sarah’s voice was tinged with regret. “I wasn’t born with the ability to summon witchfire or command witchwater. But I can damn well see to it that you can learn to light a candle with one of the simplest spells ever devised.”

Sarah was right. But it took so long to master the craft, and spells would be no help if I started to spout water again.

While I returned to my candle and mumbled words, Sarah looked through the grimoire for a new challenge.

“This is a good one,” she said, pointing to a page mottled with brown, green, and red residues. “It’s a modified apparition spell that creates what’s called an echo—an exact duplicate of someone’s spoken words in another location. Very useful. Let’s do that next.”

“No, let’s take a break.” Turning away, I picked up my foot to take a step.

The apple orchard was around me when I set it down again.

In the house Sarah was shouting. “Diana? Where are you?”

Matthew rocketed out the door and down the porch steps. His sharp eyes found me easily, and he was at my side in a few rapid strides.

“What is this about?” His hand was on my elbow so that I couldn’t disappear again.

“I needed to get away from Sarah. When I put my foot down, here I was. The same thing happened on the driveway the other night.”

“You needed an apple, too? Walking into the kitchen wouldn’t have been sufficient?” The corner of Matthew’s mouth twitched in amusement.

“No,” I said shortly.

“Too much all at once, ma lionne?”

“I’m not good at witchcraft. It’s too . . .”

“Precise?” he finished.

“It takes too much patience,” I confessed.

“Witchcraft and spells may not be your weapons of choice,” he said softly, brushing my tense jaw with the back of his hand, “but you will learn to use them.” The note of command was slight, but it was there. “Let’s find you something to eat. That always makes you more agreeable.”

“Are you managing me?” I asked darkly.

“You’ve just now noticed?” He chuckled. “It’s been my full-time job for weeks.”

Matthew continued to do so throughout the afternoon, retelling stories he’d gleaned from the paper about lost cats up trees, fire-department chili cook-offs, and impending Halloween events. By the time I’d devoured a bowl of leftovers, the food and his mindless chatter had done their work, and it was possible to face Sarah and the Bishop grimoire again. Back in the stillroom, Matthew’s words came back to me whenever I threatened to abandon Sarah’s detailed instructions, refocusing my attempts to conjure fire, voices, or whatever else she required.

After hours of spell casting—none of which had gone particularly well—he knocked on the stillroom door and announced it was time for our walk. In the mudroom I flung on a thick sweater, slid into my sneakers, and flew out the door. Matthew joined me at a more leisurely pace, sniffing the air appreciatively and watching the play of light on the fields around the house.

Darkness fell quickly in late October, and twilight was now my favorite time of day. Matthew might be a morning person, but his natural self-protectiveness diminished at sunset. He seemed to relax into the lengthening shadows, the fading light softening his strong bones and rendering his pale skin a touch less otherworldly.

He grabbed my hand, and we walked in companionable silence, happy to be near each other and away from our families. At the edge of the forest, Matthew sped up and I deliberately hung back, wanting to stay outdoors as long as possible.

“Come on,” he said, frustrated at having to match my slow steps.

“No!” My steps became smaller and slower. “We’re just a normal couple taking a walk before dinner.”

“We’re the least normal couple in the state of New York,” Matthew said with a smile. “And this pace won’t even make you break a sweat.”

“What do you have in mind?” It had become clear during our previous walks that the wolflike part of Matthew enjoyed romping in the woods like an oversize puppy. He was always coming up with new ways to play with my power so that learning how to use it wouldn’t seem like a chore. The dull, dutiful stuff he left to Sarah.

“Tag.” He shot me a mischievous look that was impossible to resist and took off in an explosion of speed and strength. “Catch me.”

I laughed and darted behind, my feet rising from the ground and my mind trying to capture a clear image of reaching his broad shoulders and touching them. My speed increased as the vision became more precise, but my agility left a lot to be desired. Simultaneously using the powers of flight and precognition at high speed made me trip over a shrub. Before I tumbled to the ground, Matthew had scooped me up.

“You smell like fresh air and wood smoke,” he said, nuzzling my hair.

There was an anomaly in the forest, felt rather than seen. It was a bending of the fading light, a sense of momentum, an aura of dark intention. My head swiveled over my shoulder.

“Someone’s here,” I said.

The wind was blowing away from us. Matthew raised his head, trying to pick up the scent. He identified it with a sharp intake of breath.

“Vampire,” he said quietly, grabbing my hand and standing. He pushed me against the trunk of a white oak.

“Friend or foe?” I asked shakily.

“Leave. Now.” Matthew had his phone out, pushing the single number on speed dial that connected him to Marcus. He swore at the voice-mail recording. “Someone is tracking us, Marcus. Get here—fast.” He disconnected and pushed another button that brought up a text-message screen.

The wind changed, and the skin around his mouth tightened.

“Christ, no.” His fingers flew over the keys, typing in two words before he flung the phone into the nearby bushes.

“SOS. Juliette.”

He turned, grabbing my shoulders. “Do whatever you did in the stillroom. Pick up your feet and go back to the house. Immediately. I’m not asking you, Diana, I’m telling you.”

My feet were frozen and refused to obey him. “I don’t know how. I can’t.”

“You will.” Matthew pushed me against the tree, his arms on either side and his back to the forest. “Gerbert introduced me to this vampire a long time ago, and she isn’t to be trusted or underestimated. We spent time together in France in the eighteenth century, and in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. I’ll explain everything later. Now, go.”

“I’m not leaving without you.” My voice was stubborn. “Who is Juliette?”

“I am Juliette Durand.” The melodious voice, accented with hints of French and something else, came from above. We both looked up. “What trouble you two have caused.”

A stunning vampire was perched on a thick branch of a nearby maple. Her skin was the color of milk with a splash of coffee, and her hair shone in a blend of brown and copper. Clad in the colors of autumn—brown, green, and gold—she looked like an extension of the tree. Wide hazel eyes sat atop slanted cheekbones, and her bones implied a delicacy that I knew misrepresented her strength.

“I’ve been watching you—listening, too. Your scents are all tangled up together.” She made a quiet sound of reproof.

I didn’t see her leave the branch, but Matthew did. He’d angled his body so that he would be in front of me when she landed. He faced her, lips curled in warning.

Juliette ignored him. “I have to study her.” She tilted her head to the right and lifted her chin a touch, staring at me intently.

I frowned.

She frowned back.

Matthew shivered.

I glanced at him in concern, and Juliette’s eyes followed mine.

She was imitating my every move. Her chin was jutting out at precisely the same angle as mine, her head was held at exactly the same incline. It was like looking into a mirror.

Panic flooded my system, filling my mouth with bitterness. I swallowed hard, and the vampire swallowed, too. Her nostrils flared, and she laughed, sharp and hard as diamonds.

“How have you resisted her, Matthew?” She took a long, slow breath. “The smell of her should drive you mad with hunger. Do you remember that frightened young woman we stalked in Rome? She smelled rather like this one, I think.”

Matthew remained silent, his eyes fixed on the vampire.

Juliette took a few steps to the right, forcing him to adjust his position. “You’re expecting Marcus,” she observed sadly. “I’m afraid he’s not coming. So handsome. I would have liked to see him again. The last time we met, he was so young and impressionable. It took us weeks to sort out the mess he’d made in New Orleans, didn’t it?”

An abyss opened before me. Had she killed Marcus? Sarah and Em?

“He’s on the phone,” she continued. “Gerbert wanted to be sure that your son understood the risk he’s taking. The Congregation’s anger is directed only at the two of you—now. But if you persist, others will pay the price as well.”

Marcus wasn’t dead. Despite the relief, my blood ran cold at the expression on her face.

There was still no response from Matthew.

“Why so quiet, my love?” Juliette’s warm voice belied the deadness of her eyes. “You should be glad to see me. I’m everything you want. Gerbert made sure of that.”

He still didn’t answer.

“Ah. You’re silent because I’ve surprised you,” Juliette said, her tone strangely fractured between music and malice. “You’ve surprised me, too. A witch?”

She feinted left, and Matthew swiveled to meet her. She somersaulted through the empty space where his head had been and landed at my side, fingers around my throat. I froze.

“I don’t understand why he wants you so much.” Juliette’s voice was petulant. “What it is that you do? What did Gerbert fail to teach me?”

“Juliette, let her be.” Matthew couldn’t risk a move in my direction for fear she’d snap my neck, but his legs were rigid with the effort to stay still.

“Patience, Matthew,” she said, bending her head.

I closed my eyes, expecting to feel teeth.

Instead cold lips pressed against mine. Juliette’s kiss was weirdly impersonal as she teased my mouth with her tongue, trying to get me to respond. When I didn’t, she made a sound of frustration.

“That should have helped me understand, but it didn’t.” Juliette flung me at Matthew but kept hold of one wrist, her razor-sharp nails poised above my veins. “Kiss her. I have to know how she’s done it.”

“Why not leave this alone, Juliette?” Matthew caught me in his cool grip.

“I must learn from my mistakes—Gerbert’s been saying so since you abandoned me in New York.” Juliette focused on Matthew with an avidity that made my flesh crawl.

“That was more than a hundred years ago. If you haven’t learned your mistake by now, you’re not going to.” Though Matthew’s anger was not directed at me, its power made me recoil nonetheless. He was simmering with it, the rage coming from him in waves.

Juliette’s nails cut into my arm. “Kiss her, Matthew, or I will make her bleed.”

Cupping my face with one careful, gentle hand, he struggled to push up the corners of his mouth into a smile. “It will be all right, mon coeur.” Matthew’s pupils were dots in a sea of gray-green. One thumb stroked my jaw as he bent nearer, his lips nearly touching mine. His kiss was slow and tender, a testament of feeling. Juliette stared at us coldly, drinking in the details. She crept closer as Matthew drew away from me.

“Ah.” Her voice was blank and bitter. “You like the way she responds when you touch her. But I can’t feel anymore.”

I’d seen Ysabeau’s anger and Baldwin’s ruthlessness. I’d felt Domenico’s desperation and smelled the unmistakable scent of evil that hung around Gerbert. But Juliette was different. Something fundamental was broken within her.

She released my arm and sprang out of Matthew’s reach. His hands squeezed my elbows, and his cold fingers touched my hips. With an infinitesimal push, Matthew gave me another silent command to leave.

But I had no intention of leaving my husband alone with a psychotic vampire. Deep within, something stirred. Though neither witchwind nor witchwater would be enough to kill Juliette, they might distract her long enough for us to get away—but both refused my unspoken commands. And any spells I had learned over the past few days, no matter how imperfectly, had flown from my mind.

“Don’t worry,” Juliette said softly to Matthew, her eyes bright. “It will be over very quickly. I would like to linger, of course, so that we could remember what we once were to each other. But none of my touches will drive her from your mind. Therefore I must kill you and take your witch to face Gerbert and the Congregation.”

“Let Diana go.” Matthew raised his hands in truce. “This is between us, Juliette.”

She shook her head, setting her heavy, burnished hair swaying. “I’m Gerbert’s instrument, Matthew. When he made me, he left no room for my desires. I didn’t want to learn philosophy or mathematics. But Gerbert insisted, so that I could please you. And I did please you, didn’t I?” Juliette’s attention was fixed on Matthew, and her voice was as rough as the fault lines in her broken mind.

“Yes, you pleased me.”

“I thought so. But Gerbert already owned me.” Juliette’s eyes turned to me. They were brilliant, suggesting she had fed recently. “He will possess you, too, Diana, in ways you cannot imagine. In ways only I know. You’ll be his, then, and lost to everyone else.”

“No.” Matthew lunged at Juliette, but she darted past.

“This is no time for games, Matthew,” said Juliette.

She moved quickly—too quickly for my eyes to see—then pulled slowly away from him with a look of triumph. There was a ripping sound, and blood welled darkly at his throat.

“That will do for a start,” she said with satisfaction.

There was a roaring in my head. Matthew stepped between me and Juliette. Even my imperfect warmblood nose could smell the metallic tang of his blood. It was soaking into his sweater, spreading in a dark stain across his chest.

“Don’t do this, Juliette. If you ever loved me, you’ll let her go. She doesn’t deserve Gerbert.”

Juliette answered in a blur of brown leather and muscle. Her leg swung high, and there was a crack as her foot connected with Matthew’s abdomen. He bent over like a felled tree.

“I didn’t deserve Gerbert either.” There was a hysterical edge to Juliette’s voice. “But I deserved you. You belong to me, Matthew.”

My hands felt heavy, and I knew without looking that they held a bow and arrow. I backed away from the two vampires, raising my arms.

“Run!” Matthew shouted.

“No,” I said in a voice that was not my own, squinting down the line of my left arm. Juliette was close to Matthew, but I could release the arrow without touching him. When my right hand flexed, Juliette would be dead. Still, I hesitated, never having killed anyone before

That moment was all Juliette needed. Her fingers punched through Matthew’s chest, nails tearing through fabric and flesh as if both were paper. He gasped at the pain, and Juliette roared in victory.

All hesitation gone, my right hand tightened and opened. A ball of fire arced from the extended tips of my left fingers. Juliette heard the explosion of flame and smelled the sulfur in the air. She turned, her nails withdrawing from the hole in Matthew’s chest. Disbelief showed in her eyes before the spitting ball of black, gold, and red enveloped her. Her hair caught fire first, and she reeled in panic. But I had anticipated her, and another ball of flame was waiting. She stepped right into it.

Matthew dropped to his knees, his hands pressing the blood-soaked sweater into the spot where she had punctured the skin over his heart. Screaming, Juliette reached out, trying to draw him into the inferno.

At a flick of my wrist and a word to the wind, she was picked up and carried several feet from where Matthew was collapsing into the earth. She fell onto her back, her body alight.

I wanted to run to him but continued to watch Juliette as her vampire bones and flesh resisted the flames. Her hair was gone and her skin was black and leathery, but even then she wasn’t dead. Her mouth kept moving, calling Matthew’s name.

My hands remained raised, ready for her to defy the odds. She lumbered to her feet once, and I released another bolt. It hit her in the middle of the chest, went through her rib cage, and came out the other side, shattering the tough skin as it passed and turning her ribs and lungs to coal. Her mouth twisted into a rictus of horror. She was beyond recovery now, no matter the strength of her vampire blood.

I rushed to Matthew’s side and dropped to the ground. He could no longer keep himself upright and was lying on his back, knees bent. There was blood everywhere, pulsing out of the hole in his chest in deep purple waves and flowing more evenly from his neck, so dark it was like pitch.

“What should I do?” I frantically pressed my fingers against his throat. His white hands were still locked around the wound in his chest, but the strength was leaching out of them with each passing moment.

“Will you hold me?” he whispered.

My back to the oak tree, I pulled him between my legs.

“I’m cold,” he said with dull amazement. “How strange.”

“You can’t leave me,” I said fiercely. “I won’t have it.”

“There’s nothing to be done about that now. Death has me in his grip.” Matthew was talking in a way that had not been heard in a thousand years, his fading voice rising and falling in an ancient cadence.

“No.” I fought back my tears. “You have to fight, Matthew.”

“I have fought, Diana. And you are safe. Marcus will have you away from here before the Congregation knows what has happened.”

“I won’t go anywhere without you.”

“You must.” He struggled in my arms, shifting so that he could see my face.

“I can’t lose you, Matthew. Please hold on until Marcus gets here.” The chain inside me swayed, its links loosening one by one. I tried to resist by keeping him tight against my heart.

“Hush,” he said softly, raising a bloody finger to touch my lips. They tingled and went numb as his freezing blood came into contact with my skin. “Marcus and Baldwin know what to do. They will see you safe to Ysabeau. Without me the Congregation will find it harder to act against you. The vampires and witches will not like it, but you are a de Clermont now, with my family’s protection as well as that of the Knights of Lazarus.”

“Stay with me, Matthew.” I bent my head and pressed my lips against his, willing him to keep breathing. He did—barely—but his eyelids had closed.

“From birth I have searched for you,” Matthew whispered with a smile, his accent strongly French. “Since finding you I have been able to hold you in my arms, have heard your heart beat against mine. It would have been a terrible thing to die without knowing what it feels like to truly love.” Tiny shudders swept over him from head to toe and then subsided.

“Matthew!” I cried, but he could no longer respond. “Marcus!” I screamed into the trees, praying to the goddess all the while. By the time his son reached us, I’d already thought several times that Matthew was dead.

“Holy God,” Marcus said, taking in Juliette’s charred body and Matthew’s bloody form.

“The bleeding won’t stop,” I said. “Where is it all coming from?”

“I need to examine him to know, Diana.” Marcus took a tentative step toward me.

Tightening my arms around my husband, I felt my eyes turn cold. The wind began to rise where I sat.

“I’m not asking you to let go of him,” Marcus said, instinctively understanding the problem, “but I have to look at his chest.”

He crouched next to us and tore gently at his father’s black sweater. With a horrible rending noise, the fabric gave way. A long gash crossed from Matthew’s jugular vein to his heart. Next to the heart was a deep gouge where Juliette had tried to punch through to the aorta.

“The jugular is nearly severed, and the aorta has been damaged. Not even Matthew’s blood can work fast enough to heal him in both places.” Marcus spoke quietly, but he didn’t need to speak at all. Juliette had given Matthew a death blow.

My aunts were here now, Sarah puffing slightly. Miriam appeared, white-faced, behind them. After only a glance, she turned on her heel, dashing back to the house.

“It’s my fault.” I sobbed, rocking Matthew like a child. “I had a clear shot, but I hesitated. I’ve never killed anyone before. She wouldn’t have reached his heart if I’d acted sooner.”

“Diana, baby,” Sarah whispered. “It’s not your fault. You did what you could. You’re going to have to let him go.”

I made a keening sound, and my hair rose up around my face. “No!” Fear bloomed in the eyes of vampire and witch as the forest grew quiet.

“Get away from her, Marcus!” shouted Em. He jumped backward just in time.

I’d become someone—something—who didn’t care about these creatures, or that they were trying to help. It had been a mistake to hesitate before. Now the part of me that had killed Juliette was intent on only one thing: a knife. My right arm shot out toward my aunt.

Sarah always had two blades on her, one dull and black-handled, the other sharp and white-handled. At my call the white blade cut through her belt and flew at me point first. Sarah put up a hand to call it back, and I imagined a wall of blackness and fire between me and the surprised faces of my family. The white-handled knife sliced easily through the blackness and floated gently down near my bent right knee. Matthew’s head lolled as I released him just enough to grasp the hilt.

Turning his face gently toward mine, I kissed his mouth long and hard. His eyes fluttered open. He looked so tired, and his skin was gray.

“Don’t worry, my love. I’m going to fix it.” I raised the knife.

Two women were standing inside the barrier of flames. One was young and wore a loose tunic, with sandals on her feet and a quiver of arrows slung across her shoulders. The strap was tangled up in her hair, which was dark and thick. The other was the old lady from the keeping room, her full skirt swaying.

“Help me,” I begged.

There will be a price, the young huntress said.

“I will pay it.”

Don’t make a promise to the goddess lightly, daughter, the old woman murmured with a shake of her head. You’ll have to keep it.

“Take anything—take anyone. But leave me him.”

The huntress considered my offer and nodded. He is yours.

My eyes were on the two women as I raised the knife. Twisting Matthew closer to my body so that he couldn’t see, I reached across and slashed the inside of my left elbow, the sharp blade cutting easily through fabric and flesh. My blood flowed, a trickle at first, then faster. I dropped the knife and tightened my left arm until it was in front of his mouth.

“Drink,” I said, steadying his head. Matthew’s eyelids flickered again, and his nostrils flared. He recognized the scent of my blood and struggled to get away. My arms were heavy and strong as oak branches, connected to the tree at my back. I drew my open, bleeding elbow a fraction closer to his mouth. “Drink.”

The power of the tree and the earth flowed through my veins, an unexpected offering of life to a vampire on the verge of death. I smiled in gratitude at the huntress and the ghost of the old woman, nourishing Matthew with my body. I was the mother now, the third aspect of the goddess along with the maiden and the crone. With the goddess’s help, my blood would heal him.

Finally Matthew succumbed to the instinct to survive. His mouth fastened onto the soft skin of my inner arm, teeth sharp. His tongue lightly probed the ragged incision, pulling the gash in my skin wider. He drew long and hard against my veins. I felt a short, sharp burst of terror.

His skin began to lose some of its pallor, but venous blood would not be enough to heal him completely. I was hoping that a taste of me would drive him beyond his normal range of control so that he would take the next step, but I felt for the white-handled knife just in case.

Giving the huntress and the witch one last look, I returned my attention to my husband. Another shock of power ran into my body as I settled more firmly against the tree.

While he fed, I began to kiss him. My hair fell around his face, mixing my familiar scent with that of his blood and mine. He turned his eyes to me, pale green and distant, as if he weren’t sure of my identity. I kissed him again, tasting my own blood on his tongue.

In two fast, smooth moves that I couldn’t have stopped even had I wanted to, Matthew grabbed the hair at the nape of my neck. He tilted my head back and to the side, then lowered his mouth to my throat. There was no terror then, just surrender.

“Diana,” he said with complete satisfaction.

So this is how it happens, I thought. This is where the legends come from.

My spent, used blood had given him the strength to want something fresh and vital. Matthew’s sharp upper teeth cut into his lower lip, and a bead formed there. His lips brushed my neck, sensuous and swift. I shivered, unexpectedly aroused at his touch. My skin went numb as his blood touched my flesh. He held my head firmly, his hands once again strong.

No mistakes, I prayed.

There were tiny pricks along my carotid arteries. My eyes opened wide in surprise when the first drawing pressure told me Matthew had reached the blood he sought.

Sarah turned away, unable to watch. Marcus reached for Em, and she went to him without hesitation, crying into his shoulder.

I pressed Matthew’s body into mine, encouraging him to drink more deeply. His relish when he did so was evident. How he’d hungered for me, and how strong he’d been to resist.

Matthew settled into the rhythms of his feeding, pulling on my blood in waves.

Matthew, listen to me. Thanks to Gerbert, I knew that my blood would carry messages to him. My only worry was that they would be fleeting, and my power to communicate would be swallowed up.

He startled against my throat, then resumed his feeding.

I love you.

He gave another start of surprise.

This was my gift. I am inside you, giving you life.

Matthew shook his head as if to dislodge an annoying insect and kept drinking.

I am inside you, giving you life. It was harder to think, harder to see through the fire. I focused on Em and Sarah, tried to tell them with my eyes not to worry. I looked for Marcus, too, but couldn’t move my eyes enough to find him.

I am inside you, giving you life. I repeated the mantra until it was no longer possible.

There was a slow pulsing, the sound of my heart starting to die.

Dying was nothing at all like I’d expected it to be.

There was a moment of bone-deep quiet.

A sense of parting and regret.

Then nothing.

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