Authors: Linda Lael Miller
Tags: #linda lael miller, #vampires, #vampire romance, #Regency, #time without end, #steamy romance, #time travel
“Well, he won’t come out in the daylight, for one thing. And for another, he refuses to be photographed— ask our publicity people if you don’t believe me.”
Daisy thought of the program she’d brought. The text was accompanied by drawings and paintings, but there had been no photographs.
“I believe you,” she said, wondering if she should go and get Grover a glass of water or a paper bag to breathe into. He looked really upset.
Grover wrenched a wad of tissues from a box in the top drawer of his fancy desk and daubed at his face with them. “Murder,” he muttered to himself. “Oh, Christ—” Daisy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes,” Grover burst out, after a moment of consideration. “Even the people closest to Valerian have no idea how he performs his tricks. He has never revealed even the smallest detail.”
Daisy was irritated and not a little disappointed. “Of course he doesn’t. He’s a magician—everyone knows how carefully they guard their secrets.” She stood. “If you’ll just give me Valerian’s home address,” she said, nodding toward Grover’s computer, “I’ll be on my way.” “We don’t have one,” Grover said.
“What about a Social Security number?” Daisy pressed. Grover spread his hands again. ‘Too personal. I don’t have to give that out unless you can show me a warrant.”
Daisy bit back a nasty remark. Grover was right. “At least get one of your security people to let me into the backstage area, then,” she said. Maybe Valerian was in his dressing room meditating or practicing his levitation or something like that. Or perhaps he was onstage, rehearsing.
“All right,” Grover agreed at length and with the utmost reluctance. “Come on. I’ll let you in myself.”
Dunnett’s Head, 1348
Today, I thought when I felt a shred of cold sunlight touch my face, I am going to die. I was in such pain, both physical and emotional, that I could not help thinking death would be a mercy.
Then Brenna stirred beside me, in the stale straw, and I remembered all that had transpired the night before, with rising horror as well as desperate love. She had come to me, washed my wounds, and finally lain with me.
We had both been virgins, and for me at least, the experience had been one of almost unbearable bliss. Before Brenna, I had known only the usual furtive satisfactions a lad discovers on his own. Now, having entered her sweet body, moved upon her supple softness in that ancient rhythm, and cried out as she rendered my seed from me, I was a man. And I was more aware than ever that life is precious, poignantly so.
“Valerian?” She raised herself, rumpled and mussed, her lovely hair filled with straw. That same skimpy light that had awakened me, infiltrating that dark hole through some chink in the dungeon wall, played over her face. “I love you. And if you die today, you must wait for me on the other side. I’ll soon follow.”
I felt tears fill my eyes. The pain of my wounds was nothing to that of loving her, of knowing that an irrevocable parting lay ahead. I cupped her face in my hand, and brushed the pad of my thumb over the lips I had kissed so thoroughly, so hungrily, during the night.
“No, Lady Brenna,” I said hoarsely. “You must live.”
She shook her head wildly, but I stilled the motion with my hand.
“Listen to me,” I growled as we heard an outer door opening, far off in the distance. We both knew that the day had arrived, they were coming for me, and I would soon mount the scaffold. “You must hide, over there in the shadows, until they’ve taken me out. Don’t move until you’re certain they’ve all gone. Return to your chambers when you think it safe, make yourself pretty, and pretend you’ve never heard of the bootmaker’s son—”
She was sobbing by then, incapable, I think, of responding.
“I will find a way to be with you,” I vowed, and I meant it with all my youthful soul. “I will curl up in a comer of your heart, and all you’ll have to do to find me is turn your thoughts inward. Please, Brenna. Give me this one gift—a living heart to hide in.”
Brenna was silent, and the voices grew nearer. Finally she nodded and hid herself in a pile of straw, off in a comer of the cell.
Two of the baron’s men arrived to collect me only a moment later. They were murmuring to each other in fearful tones, and I could not make out what they were saying.
Finally they reached the cell door.
“Come along, then, bootmaker’s son,” said Tom, the largest of the two. He’d often come to my father’s shop; they’d been friends, in a manner of speaking, and Tom, like the rest of the men in the village, had enjoyed watching my mother as she went about her daily tasks.
‘The baron says you’re to be set free. Or at least that’s what his manservant told us he said.”
Brenna moved, rustling the straw slightly, but I made a surreptitious gesturing, bidding her to be silent. There would be no freedom, and no mercy, for either of us if her father learned what we had done, lying together in the straw.
I stood, painfully, for though my wounds were superficial, they burned like fire. I felt as if I’d been trampled by war horses and then set ablaze, but beneath it all was a thrumming sense of satiation. Brenna had done that with her lovemaking.
“If this is a jest,” I said, “it is a cruel one.”
Tom opened the cell door, never noticing, it would seem, that the lock wasn’t engaged. “It’s no jest,” he replied. “The baron fell ill two hours ago. Black as a Moor and spewing blood, he is. And there are others, too.”
I shivered, despite the wild relief I felt. “What others?” “Your mother for one,” Tom said. “You’d best go home and look after your family. Both Noah and Seraphina are both off their heads with fever, according to that brother of yours.”
Alarm mingled with the ineffably sweet knowledge that I was going to live. I would find a way to be with Brenna forever—after the events of the night before, we were certainly bonded, in God’s eyes as well as our own hearts—and we would both put Dunnett’s Head behind us.
In the meantime, though, I had to go to my parents.
I made my way back to the shop as rapidly as I could, while the sunrise spilled a golden glow to light my way. The village was unnaturally quiet, even for such an early hour, and rife with a hideously putrid stench. There were no dogs barking in the streets, no housewives throwing pots of slop from windows and doorways, no fishermen going down to the sea.
It was eerie.
When I reached the shop, I entered by the back way, peering first into the little room Krispin and I had always shared. I had never expected to see it again, and, humble as it was, my heart lifted at the sight of my pallet, my blankets, my spare tunic and leggings.
There was no sign of my brother, so I went on to my parents’ chamber. It was a squalid cell, barely larger than the one Krispin and I shared, and when I stepped over the threshold I was struck by a smell so much viler than the one pervading the village that it sent me stumbling backward a few steps.
“Mother?” I said, speaking to the shadows.
I heard a moan from within, and knew it for my father’s cry, not my mother’s. I squared my shoulders and forced myself to take a step inside. “Father?”
“No—” he said hoarsely. “Don’t—come any closer. We—it’s plague. Save yourself. Save—Krispin.”
Yet again I wept. And for once in my life I obeyed Noah Lazarus, the bootmaker. “What of my mother?” “Dead,” my father answered. “For your own sake, and hers, you must not look upon her. Please. Flee this— place—”
I turned, unable to bear the stink any longer. My father could not be saved; I knew that. I would find Krispin, if I could, and Brenna, I decided, groping numbly through a welter of disjointed thoughts. We would take horses from the baron’s stables and ride away to a new place—London, perhaps.
I stumbled back into the street and encountered Mistress Jane, the cooper’s wife. Her face was contorted with grief. “God have mercy on us!” she cried, seeing me and, at the same time,
seeing me. “My Will, and my babies—all dead—”
I wanted to offer the poor woman some comfort, but there was nothing I could say that would alter the grim realities in any way. I took her shoulders gently in my hands. “Have you seen my brother?” I asked.
She looked at me without recognition. “All dead,” she said again. “Little Mary, and Sam, and my Will, too. All dead, with their skin all black—”
I embraced her for a moment, on impulse, and went on.
All through the village, it was the same. Death raged in every hut and croft, and among the living there was naught but chaos. I didn’t find Krispin, though I searched everywhere, and once I stopped, enthralled, to watch two rats rise onto their hind legs in the path and twirl, in a horrible and .graceless pirouette, before toppling over in death. Blood spilled, thick, from their muzzles.
Finally I returned to the keep—the shock of all I’d seen waking instilled a new prudence in me—and I entered through a servant’s gate in a rear wall. After a considerable exploration of the place, I found Brenna in her father’s room, kneeling beside his bed and holding his hand.
He was blackened, like a statue burned in a fire, his flesh grotesquely swollen, as if his skin would split like a sausage. He stared sightlessly at the beams high overhead. He, like so many others, was dead, and the stench was overwhelming, causing my empty stomach to pitch and my eyes to water.
I hesitated a few moments, then took hold of Brenna’s shoulders and raised her gently to her feet. “He’s gone,” I whispered, and she turned and burrowed into my embrace, burying her face in my tunic and weeping.
I held her until the storm had passed, and spoke to her only when her sobs had turned to soft, heartrending sniffles. “We must take ourselves from this place,” I told her. “By some miracle, we’ve been spared, but if we linger, the plague will surely find us.”
She nodded against my chest.
“We’ll need horses and food and coin.”
Brenna drew back and looked up into my no-doubt bruised and dirty face. “Let’s go, Valerian. Now. Let’s go and never look back.”
I kissed her then. It was just a light, moist touch of our two mouths, but how I treasure the memory of that innocent contact. I hadn’t learned, even then, how infinitely precious, and how profound, the simplest expression of affection can be.
“I’ll fetch some food from the larder,” Brenna said when we drew apart. “And my father won’t be needing his purse.” She glanced woefully back at the body lying on the bed. A light flickered in her weary eyes; perhaps it was hope for our future. “Hurry, Valerian. I’ll wait for you at the servants’ gate.”
I nodded and hurried out.
At noon Brenna and I sat on a knoll east of the village, our horses nibbling at the sweet grass, saying our own silent goodbyes to the only home we’d ever known. We watched, dry-eyed, beyond horror, while the lucky ones carried corpses into the square and hurled them into a great, roaring fire. Later, I supposed, thinking of my mother and father, already beginning to accept the fact that my brother’s body was surely there among those others as well, the charred skeletons would be properly buried. Prayers would be said, and absolutions granted, and heaven would enfold them all.
“What of Challes?” I asked, hours later, as Brenna and I rode slowly along the inland road, passing no one. It was the first time either of us had spoken since we’d watched the bodies bum. “Did you see him?”
Brenna, who wore a cloak over a plain kirtle, shook her head. “No. He is probably dead, like Father. I wonder if Moll fell sick.”
I knew Moll was her lady’s maid, and that she had loved the woman devoutly. Moll, I suspected, had overlooked much mischief in her time at the keep. “It won’t serve us to look back,” I said quietly, reaching across to squeeze her hand where it grasped her mare’s reins. “We have each other.”
She looked at me with wide eyes, eyes void of innocence and girlhood fancy, and haunted by inconceivable horror. “Yes.”
I reached out, grasped the mare’s bridle—I was riding one of her father’s geldings—and stopped both horses there in the middle of the road. “I love you, Lady Brenna,” I said. It was all I had to give her—a few words, a fragile assurance. We both knew how easily fate could part us—the roads were dangerous in those days, and there was no guarantee that one or both of us would not fall ill with the pestilence at any moment.
Tears pooled along Brenna’s lower lashes. “And I love you,” she said. “It’s enough.”
I nodded, and we rode on, but there were clouds gathering on the horizon, and I had a feeling of foreboding. I tried to shake it off, telling myself the events of the day just past were reason aplenty for my gloom.
I was only partially right.
That night Brenna and I slept in an abandoned crofter’s cottage, with straw for a bed. We made love, as much to give each other solace and consolation as to appease any physical need, and this second time my thrusts were pleasurable for Brenna. She strained beneath me, offering herself, crying out in her delight, and finally arched like a supple bow, quivering, her eyes sightless, her fingers clawing at my bare back.
I groaned, transported, and spilled myself into her. Soon afterward we tumbled headlong into sleep. It was raining when we awakened, and Brenna seemed uneasy, distracted.