Fortitude by Lorraine Jean
My Dearest Hortense,
Recent events have taken a strange and disturbing turn. This very afternoon the girls and I will remove to Shelburne House, leaving my husband and stepson here. I shall carry a letter to Sidwell requesting his presence in London, where the men of the family expect to make a stand against an enemy that threatens Archie. What Sid will say when he learns that he is to help defend a younger brother for whom he appears to lack even a modicum of brotherly affection, I will not venture to guess. Nor will I say that the household is in a tumult, although that would not be far from the truth. All I will say is that I would dearly love to be a little bird, safely watching the house from atop the nearest tall tree.
What is this about an enemy? you say. Please bear with me, for I can give you no simple explanation. First of all, Archie has recovered his memory of the events surrounding his death last month in Portsmouth. He attributes both events - the recovery and the death - to a man we have discovered camped practically outside our front door, where he has set up a pavilion in the park and is posing as an artist. The better to watch us, perhaps? This would be troubling enough in and of itself, but it becomes more so as one listens to Archie describe him, not as a man but as a creature with unnatural abilities and appetites.
I held a lengthy discussion with him regarding this person. By rights his father should have assumed this responsibility, but Emlyn dismissed his account out of hand and left the room without probing further. Archie maintains that the man, whom he knows as a Frenchman named Alcide Dufaux, is a monster he calls a vampire. I have never heard the term before. I will endeavor to explain it to you as Archie told it to me. Basically, the vampire is a dead man whose spirit has not left his body. Because of this, he is able to move among the living as if he were still alive. This ability comes at a price, for in order to continue his existence, he must repeatedly replenish his dead blood with the blood of the living. He does this by cutting his victim and drinking the blood that flows from the wound. He will then either drain his victim completely, thus ensuring his victim's death, or else he will take only a small amount, in which case his victim recovers with no memory of the encounter. If, however, his intention is to make a new vampire, he will drain his victim to the point of near-death, and then revive him by giving him his own tainted blood to drink.
The state of being a vampire is not without its advantages, among them great physical strength and freedom from ailments; the power to make oneself both invisible and incorporeal and so to pass through walls; the ability to travel great distances in the blink of an eye; and not least, the ability to influence the minds of ordinary mortals. There are some drawbacks. The vampire must avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, he cannot abide open water, and the touch of silver burns him. Archie tells me that in his own brief experience as a vampire, he was able both to touch silver and to go aboard ship without coming to harm. He is not sure why this should be, only that it is an aberration that seemed to mystify Dufaux as well. My guess, which comes more from what I want to believe than what in fact may be, is that Archie was never transformed into a vampire in the first place.
It is so unlike Archie to make wild allegations that I do not know what to make of it all. In the short time I have known him, he has shown himself over and over to be clear-thinking, conscientious, and above all, truthful. He will tell the small social lie, as will we all, to avoid hurting someone's feelings, but I have seen him either keep silent or else sacrifice his own dignity rather than tell a deliberate untruth. All of which begs the question: If he is not lying, can he be imagining these things? Archie does not strike me as being an excessively fanciful young man. Sensitive and intuitive, yes, but not given to flights of bizarre fantasy such as this.
Has Archie finally reached the point where his sanity has been compromised? One should not be surprised, given all that he has endured. The poor boy attracts trouble the way a lady's hems collect dust. He finally, albeit reluctantly, revealed to his father and me the ordeals he suffered during his imprisonment in France and Spain. That one person should have endured so much and returned to tell the tale is amazing in itself. That Archie could relate such exceedingly painful experiences so matter-of-factly and so quietly, makes the effect doubly devastating. But have they affected his mind? In asking him questions, listening to him speak and watching his face and hands as he does so, I do not detect any signs of madness. He gives the impression of being damaged, but sane withal. Still, one must wonder.
On the other hand, we have Doctor Tregaryn's medical opinion that Archie was bled to excess. Tregaryn put it down to incompetence on the part of the physician who attended Archie in Portsmouth. If the man was something other than a physician, however, it all makes a horrible sort of sense. And what of the notion that the vampire nourishes his victim with his own tainted blood? Before we had any talk of vampires, Archie discussed with his father his suspicion that he had been poisoned. Again, the vampire would appear to provide a convenient answer to a puzzle that continues to plague us.
All this is assuming, of course, that one even accepts the existence of vampires in the scheme of creation. The church has always operated under the assumption that demons walk among us, ready to ensnare the unwary. I should like to question a churchman to see what he truly believes. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to do so at Shelburne, for I shall make a point of going to church to pray for absent members of the family.
You will be wondering how Dufaux came to our attention. On Thursday evening we attended a party at Lord Treviston's London home. (He is one of our West Country neighbors, if you recall.) There, Dufaux made a point of placing himself in Archie's way, in effect challenging him to remember him. Archie said nothing about it until the next day after he and the girls encountered Dufaux in the park. Archie then went out in the middle of the night and confronted the man, who was standing across the road watching the house, if you can imagine. Though Archie will neither confirm nor deny it, they must have fought, for I found him in the morning with his clothes awry and traces of dirt and leaves on his clothing and in his hair that he could not have acquired except in a tussle. Had it been something else, such as a fit, I believe Archie would have told me.
On Saturday Emlyn paid Treviston a call to see if he could find out more about Dufaux. After all, if Treviston knew Dufaux well enough to invite him to a social affair at his home, then perhaps the Frenchman was not the monster Archie argued him to be. If only my husband had consented to let Archie accompany him, for I fear he did not ask the questions that I should wish to have had answered. His report that Treviston claims no knowledge of the man who calls himself Alcide Dufaux troubles me. The only way Dufaux might have entered the house, according to Treviston, was as another guest's escort, yet Archie insists Dufaux was quite alone when he approached him. Is it possible that he simply attached himself to a legitimate arrival and entered as a member of their party? Treviston's servants would not have questioned him, I think, so long as he looked and comported himself as if he belonged there. It is a frightening prospect.
I wish I did not have to leave. Archie will need all the support he can muster. I do not doubt he has the courage to face this demon. I believe he would fight him alone, if necessary, to defend those who are dear to him. But he will need to be strong physically, and therein lies the challenge. Despite diligent attention to Doctor Tregaryn's instructions, he seems almost as weak now as on the day he came home nearly a month ago. Dufaux taunted him last night with the revelation that he will never recover, that the vampire's tainted blood will work against him until he dies. You have no idea how this worries me. I fear Archie will lose heart and choose an early death rather than live a life filled with sickness and pain.
Much as I would like to stay, my husband argues that London will be no place for us if Dufaux should mount a violent attack in order to repossess Archie. And all issues of safety aside, Lavinia and Laetitia will be happier at Shelburne House for the time being. They took offense at Archie's tale of vampires, reading it as an insult to their intelligence, and have made a show of snubbing him ever since. I do not believe their relationship with their stepbrother has been irreparably damaged. A period of separation should ease them out of their girlish snit. And Archie, poor dear, has too much on his mind right now to worry what they think of him.
You must come to me at Shelburne House, dearest Hortense. We shall have Sidwell's young ones underfoot to distract us from events in London, but even so I shall have Archie very much on my mind. I shall need someone with whom I can exchange ideas and opinions, someone who will not dismiss my fears as womanish and who will help me to put things in their proper perspective. And when all is over, God willing, you shall have the opportunity to meet your nephew and see for yourself what a fine young man he is. Do come at once, my dear Sister.
I remain as ever,
your loving Frances
“We shall be very dull in the country,” Lavinia complained when the Kennedy carriage was still some miles from Shelburne Park. “No one to see but country bumpkins, nothing to do but write letters and wait upon the answers. We might as well be banished to Scotland.”
Lady Frances hid a smile. “You might well have been banished to Scotland, if your stepfather's ancestor had not come south when he did. As a younger son he had to make his fortune the best way he could, as a soldier, and was rewarded for exemplary service to the crown with land and a title here in England.”
“Sir Emlyn's barbarian ancestor,” Lavinia grinned. “I had forgotten about him.”
Beside her, Laetitia looked anything but amused. “Mama, are we being punished because we were horrid to Archie?”
Much as Lady Frances would have liked to answer this in the affirmative, it would not have been strictly true. She said, “No, dear. We have left London because Mr. Dufaux poses a threat to the family. The men will deal with it, and then we shall be free to come home.”
“He did not seem threatening. Quite the opposite. Other than putting himself forward in the matter of the commission, he was rather polite.”
“Perhaps,” said Lavinia, “but he did look at Archie strangely. I marked it at the time but forgot to mention it later, when we were all together.”
“Strange in what way, dear?” Lady Frances said.
“It was not at all the sort of look a man gives another man. If Mr. Dufaux had looked at me in that way, I should have feared for my virtue. Archie looked ready to faint at any moment.”
“I noticed that, too,” said Letty. “Any time men look at each other that way, there are sure to be pistols cocked or swords drawn at the end of it. Although,” she added disingenuously, “I did not think of it at the time.”
“And how would you know what makes men cock pistols and draw swords, Letty?” Lady Frances asked with equal parts of amusement and alarm. Precocity in either of her daughters always caused her disquiet, for who knew where it might lead.
“She has been reading novels,” said Lavinia. “I saw her myself, in the library, when I went to get a book.”
Letty stuck her tongue out at her sister. “And pray tell Mama why you have suddenly developed a passion for reading, Vinia.” She continued before Lavinia could defend herself, “My sister, who never reads if she can find something more agreeable to do, has suddenly discovered that by cradling a book in her lap she can sit and watch Archie for hours. She has even watched him sleep.”
“And what are you doing in the library, my disagreeable little mouse, if not the very same thing?”
“I am reading, as you would see if you were paying attention to anything but Archie. You do not even bother to turn the pages.”
“I take it, from the turn this conversation has taken, that Lavinia is not the only one suffering from an infatuation with her stepbrother,” Lady Frances said. “You do realize, both of you, that he views you as sisters and not as the sort of young ladies to whom he might form an attachment?”
“Yes, Mama,” they chorused, although from the looks on their faces they believed it their duty to make him see the error in his judgment.
“And you might do well to remember that Archie has other matters to attend to right now, and cannot be distracted by any sort of flirtation, however delightful he might find it otherwise.”
“Does Mr. Dufaux really mean Archie harm, Mama?”
“Yes, Lavinia. We believe he does.”
“But that story about vampires, Mama. It is the kind of superstition that keeps country folk in thrall. Why did Archie tell us such a thing?”
“Perhaps because he believes it, Lavinia.”
“How could he? He is not simple, is he?”
“No, of course he isn't. I am beginning to wonder, though, if Mr. Dufaux does not exert some influence upon Archie's mind. It may be that because of Archie's illness he is particularly suggestible in that way.”
“If Mr. Dufaux is not a vampire,” Letty said, “but only a man, then what does he want with Archie?”
“If we knew that, Letty, we would know better how to deal with him. As it is, your stepfather did not want to take any chances that innocent people might be hurt, and so we are to stay in the country until the matter is settled.”
Sidwell Kennedy must have had spies on the road, for he came out to greet them as if he had had prior knowledge of their imminent arrival. He helped them down from the carriage, then looked inside as if to make sure there was no one else. He then turned his attention to Lady Frances.
“Greetings, Stepmother, young ladies.”
Lady Frances gave him her hand, while Lavinia and Laetitia dropped proper curtsies.
“Sidwell,” said Lady Frances. She waited until he released her hand, which he did not hold overlong, and reached into her reticule for Sir Emlyn's letter. “Your father sends you this. I think you should read it forthwith.”
“All in good time, Stepmother.” Never one to do as requested until it suited him to do so, he pocketed the letter. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit? From the amount of baggage atop the carriage, it would seem you plan to stay a while.”
“Very perceptive of you, Sidwell. Yes, we shall be here for some small while. All is explained, I believe, in the letter.”
“Father is not with you.”
“No. Nor is your brother Archie.” Lady Frances waited to see what effect Archie's name would have on his older brother.
“Still around, is he? Navy won't have him back? I won't say I'm surprised. I always knew he'd amount to nothing. Damned inconsiderate of him to come home. And dashed inconvenient for the old man, I'll warrant.”
Lady Frances looked Sidwell over from head to toe. If anything, he appeared even more dissolute than he had over the Christmas holiday. Not that he wasn't well dressed. Sid always saw to it that he was impeccably turned out, regardless of whether or not anyone would see him. But his red hair looked thinner, exposing more of his shiny, freckled scalp; he had bags under both eyes; one eyelid drooped; the lower half of his face had developed pronounced jowls; and his midsection bulged unbecomingly for a man of only thirty. All in all, he looked more like Archie's uncle than his brother.
“The driver has orders to wait so that he may convey you back to London,” she informed him, losing patience. If he would not read the letter, she would relay the heart of its message herself. “Your father requires your presence posthaste.”
“Does he?” Sidwell seemed genuinely surprised. “Whatever for?”
Laetitia looked as if she would tell him but Lady Frances hushed her with a glance. “It is all in the letter.”
“Yes, yes, damn it. You have made your point, Stepmother. I will read the blasted letter. As soon as we get you settled. Come, ladies.”
He ushered them into the house, his manner no more courteous than his words. Lady Frances imagined him a peasant herding a flock of goats and had to hold back a smile. Then she spied her stepdaughter-in-law coming toward her and let her smile shine forth. Agatha Crumfold Kennedy enfolded her in a warm embrace.
“Lady Frances! It is so good to see you!” Agatha turned and embraced each of the girls in turn. So diminutive in size was she that she might have been the child and the two girls the grown women. “And Lavinia and Laetitia. How is everyone? I had no idea you were coming, but I am so pleased to see you all. Come in, come in. What is the news from London? We are starved for information here, as well as starved for company. As you can no doubt tell. Oh, I am so delighted to see you again!”
As soon as Agatha paused for breath Lady Frances said, “Where are Thomas and Alice? I am eager to see how my grandchildren have grown since December last.”
“They have had their dinner in the nursery and are abed now.” She glanced at her husband before continuing, “It is probably not wise to disturb them, for they would never go back to sleep. You know how children are. You shall see them in the morning, I promise.”
“Damn him!” Sidwell erupted behind them. “Damn him to hell!”
All four ladies turned to stare. Sidwell, his face almost the same rusty red hue as his hair, held his father's letter open in one hand and glared back at them.
“He expects me to come to the aid of that puling bag of misery otherwise known as my brother, Archie. Right now, if you please. Drop everything, he says, and come at once. There is an enemy at the gates and we must stand together and fight him. An enemy! By all that's holy! Duncan is the soldier in the family, not I. Wouldn't you know that lucky dog is safely away fighting Frogs at this very moment. Well, I won't go. You will write him a note from me, Agatha, and give it to the driver to take back with him. I will not be at his beck and call for my brother's sake. He's not worth the effort.”
“But - but Archie needs you!” Letty cried into the astonished silence that followed in the wake of Sidwell's outburst.
“Archie needs to be put out of his misery,” Sidwell growled. “I should be happy to execute him myself, if that would help.”
“Sidwell, dearest, you don't mean that,” his wife said.
“Don't I? You never met the little brat. He has fits, Agatha. He's utterly useless. He should have stayed dead the first time around. The sooner he pops off for good the better.”
“That's horrid!” Lavinia leapt to Archie's defense. “Archie is worth two of you. No, I take that back. He is worth ten of you. If you were the one in trouble, Archie would not hesitate to help you. He would not fear to help anyone. He is the best brother anyone could have.”
Sidwell advanced toward her and stopped menacingly within arm's length. He measured out his words one at a time. “Then - you - shall - get - right - back - in - the - carriage - and - go - to - him - yourself.”
“She shall do nothing of the sort.” Lady Frances stepped between Sidwell and her daughter, leaving Sid no choice but to back off. “We cannot force you to do anything, of course,” she said icily, “but I would remind you that, whatever your feelings toward your brother, you owe your father a debt of obedience. He has summoned you. A dutiful son attends to his father's wishes.”
“A dutiful son, eh?” Sidwell shot back, uncowed. “A dutiful son attends to his father's business. And my father's business is the running of this estate. Horses and dogs, my dear Stepmother, that's where my father's interests lie. Baby brothers in distress run a distant third.”
“I see. How your father will see it, I cannot say. I expect he will be bitterly disappointed in you.”
“He'll get over it. Agatha,” he snarled at his wife, “make our guests comfortable. I have business to attend to.”
“Will he really defy Step-papa?” Laetitia asked no one in particular after Sidwell had gone.
Agatha said shakily, “He certainly means to, as of this moment. But perhaps, in the morning, he will have thought better of it …” Her voice trailed off.
“He will be no help at all if he goes to London in this frame of mind,” Lady Frances observed “Better he stay here, out of their way.”
“Is there some kind of trouble at home, Lady Frances?”
“Yes, my dear Agatha. There is. The man who almost succeeded in killing Archie in Portsmouth is back, presumably to finish the job. He is a strong and wily opponent. Emlyn and Archie will have their hands full.”
“I am truly sorry to hear that, Lady Frances. You probably expect me to share my husband's low opinion of his brother, seeing as I have never met him and have only Sid's word as to his character. But I know my husband, and how he takes against people, sometimes for little or no reason. And I see how quick your girls are to defend Archie, and imagine they would not do so were he not someone who is easy to like. He and Sid must be opposites of one another.” She sighed, her eyes moist. “I think I should like Archie very much.”
“I know you would, Agatha,” said Lavinia. “He is kind and brave and very handsome, nothing at all like Sidwell.” She colored as she realized the insult, but did not retract her words.
Agatha laughed. “You are right. That sounds nothing like Sid at all. More's the pity.”
Sir Emlyn left his post by the window at the sound of his son's footfall. It said much for the vitality of the ladies of the household, that in their absence even a step as light as Archie's echoed. The lad looked haggard but determined. He no doubt intended to go down fighting. Father and son met in the center of the room.
“Time to change the guard,” Emlyn said lightly. “Nothing to report on my watch.”
“Will my brother come, do you think?”
“Possibly. Or not. When did filial duty ever carry any weight with Sid?”
It was laughable, really. The one son who most needed the sort of discipline the services could instill was the one son who had never tasted it. If he had it to do all over again, Emlyn would enlist Sidwell in the Navy and keep Archie at home, and let their respective positions in the line of inheritance be damned.
“So we are on our own.”
“It may come to that. Will that be a problem for you?”
“Father, I would face Dufaux alone. You know that. I would prefer not to involve more of the family in this than I absolutely have to. You could have gone to Shelburne with the others.”
“And leave you by yourself to face a man who has vowed to kill you? What kind of father would I be if I deserted you now? No, don't answer that, Archie,” Emlyn said upon seeing the struggle for a diplomatic answer crease his son's brow. “Shall I bring you something from the kitchen to ease your time on watch?”
“No, thank you, Father. Standing watch is no hardship. I am well used to it.”
He would be at that, Emlyn considered, watching Archie take his place by the window, legs apart for balance (prepared lest the house begin to pitch and tilt?) and hands held lightly behind his back. The uniform and the queue might be gone, but Archie was still very much the naval officer, inured to duty. It was enough to fill a father's heart with pride - and break it in the bargain.
“Archie,” he said from the doorway, and waited for the lad to turn around.
“Yes, Sir?” Archie did not take his eyes from the street.
“Should you have a weapon to hand? In case something develops suddenly.”
“It might be a good idea.”
“What will you have? A pistol? A sword? Both?”
Archie stared at a point in the window glass as if he could see his father reflected there. Perhaps he could, for Emlyn found himself watching his son's thoughtful expression in the same glass pane.
“Have you anything made of silver?”
“Made of silver?”
“Dufaux cannot abide the touch of silver. I thought - at least if my weapon were silver, he would not as quickly wrest it from my hand.”
“There are some antique swords in the armory. They're kept polished but their blades have not been honed for many years.”
“It's not the blade that matters, Father. It's the composition. I should like to have one, if it's not too much trouble.”
“Consider it done. Anything else?”
“I think that will be all. Thank you, Father.”
“You're welcome, Archie.” Emlyn paused a moment longer, watching his youngest son. From whence came this reserve of quiet strength? He would not have thought Archie had it in him, and yet he must have had it all along or it would not be in evidence now. Did it come from his experiences in battle and prison, or did it spring from childhood adversity? Upon what anvil had his backbone been forged into steel?
A short time later Emlyn reentered the salon carrying a small arsenal of antique swords, dirks, and targes, all wrapped in a length of Kennedy tartan. As he deposited the bundle into the center of the carpet, Archie turned at the clamor and then started to laugh.
“What on earth is that?”
“Show some respect for your highland ancestors, laddie. After all, I raided the armory of some significant pieces of family history for you. Would you be wanting a breastplate? Because if you do, I'll have to go back for it. This is all I could carry.”
“Too constricting, I think. Will you be wearing the plaid?”
“I'm not sure I know how to wind it. This branch of the family has been in England for so long, I would have had few occasions to wear it, even if the Proscription Act had not outlawed Highland dress. You were a small child when the act was repealed, but it was in effect through most of my early life. Because of it I know my ancestral dress only from family portraits.”
“I'm sorry. Would it be disrespectful to fly it as an ensign from the rooftop?”
“It's too big. And too dark to be visible when night falls.”
“I know - hang it from the top of the stairs to the hall below. We can rally beneath it.”
Sir Emlyn scooped up the fabric and offered it to a beaming Archie. “Will you do the honors?”
“Certain sure!” Archie started for the hall, calling back over his shoulder, “Watch the street!”
His father smiled. It was good to see a sparkle in the lad's eyes again. A few minutes later, the predominantly black and dark blue plaid hung from the stair rail under Biddle's bemused gaze. Archie ran back down to admire his handiwork.
“It's a bit crooked. I had nothing to tie it with.”
“It looks fine, Archie. Come and select your weapons.”
Archie hefted a particularly long, heavy sword and almost dropped it. He set it down again with care. The effort had drawn a sheen of sweat to his face.
“Aye,” Emlyn said, “the claymore's an awkward weapon when you're not used to it. You'll be better off with something lighter. Try this.” He handed his son a shorter sword, followed by a small ceremonial dagger with a bone handle. “And you'll not go amiss with a sgian dubh in the top of your boot.”
Sir Emlyn stashed the rest of the weapons behind a couch, then went to a side table and poured two brandies. He carried both to the window, where Archie had again taken up his post.
“Avise la fin,” he said by way of a toast, then translated: “Consider the end. It's the clan motto, Archie, and a thought well worth pondering in view of what we face.”
“Avise la fin,” Archie saluted him in return.
“I'll leave you to your watch.”
“Father?” Archie called him back. “I never offered you my felicitations on your marriage. She's a wonderful woman. I like her very much.”
“Thank you, Archie. The feeling is more than mutual, you know. Frances positively dotes on you.”
Archie blushed to the roots of his hair. “I cannot imagine why.”
“I can,” Emlyn said, reflecting that his son's bashful reaction was no doubt part of his allure. “I think I can safely say that had Frances met you first, she would not have given me a second look.”
“You cannot mean that, Father. I am much too young to attract her notice.”
“Thank you for that, Archie. Another man would have said Frances was too old.” Emlyn smiled to set his son at ease. “I'm beginning to think I misjudged you yet again, Son. Your true talents would appear to lie in the area of diplomacy. I'll let you practice your skills on Sid, but then I think we might consider a career for you in the foreign service. Especially considering the effect you have on women.”
“My - my effect on women, Sir?”
“Oh, come now, Archie. It may not be something you do consciously, but you cannot fail to have noticed. It's not just Frances, you know. There are Lavinia and Laetitia, who, if I can believe the reports that have reached my ears, have been falling all over themselves trying to attract your notice since the day you walked in the door. As have the female staff. Not to mention that actress from Loughlander's party. What was her name? Cobbler? Compton?”
“Cobham,” Archie said faintly. “Kitty Cobham. What do you mean, exactly?”
“I mean, Archie, that women are drawn to you. No matter their age or social standing. Strong, intelligent women, as well as impressionable chits. Like bees to nectar. A diplomat could make good use of such a talent in gathering information. Think about it.”
Archie's “Yes, Sir” was all but inaudible as he turned back to the window.
Dividing the day into watches had probably been a waste of time, in Archie's opinion, for since they had begun his father hardly seemed to leave the room for more than a few minutes at a time. Did he fear that Archie could not handle Dufaux should the vampire make an appearance while Sir Emlyn was elsewhere engaged? Or was it simply that his father had no experience of military service and did not understand the concept of being on watch? Sooner or later one of them would have to sleep, or they would both be useless when the enemy struck. Archie sighed. Perhaps he should suggest to Sir Emlyn that they make up a bed on the couch.
Darkness fell without bringing Sidwell, of no surprise to either Archie or his father. There was still the chance that Sid had deemed it too late to start on the journey today and would come tomorrow. In that case, Dufaux could make his journey entirely unnecessary.
Archie still couldn't understand why Dufaux had announced his intention to return. Why give Archie the opportunity either to arm himself or to flee? Did Dufaux find the chase more exhilarating this way? Should he take it as a fair warning, a case of the vampire's giving him a fighting chance, or as a serious threat? In his brief association with the vampire, Archie could not remember him giving any victim an opportunity to defend himself. He was far more likely to pounce upon his prey, catching him unawares. By warning Archie beforehand, he could only mean to undermine Archie's confidence, to ensure that Archie would worry himself into a state where he was too paralyzed to act. After all, what sort of preparation could Dufaux possibly make before he struck? None was required. Archie knew that from experience.
Shortly after eleven, Archie took his father aside. “Father, if Dufaux means to strike tonight, I believe that he will come between midnight and the hours of one or two. Neither of us has slept. Let me continue to watch for him while you try to nap for an hour or so. One of us needs to be fresh to confront him.”
“Then it is you who should be rested for the confrontation. You know him, after all. Let me watch first, and I will call you as soon as something happens.”
Archie considered this, then agreed. “Very well. Dufaux may try to create some sort of diversion to draw us outside where he can more easily attack us. Make sure Biddle knows not to admit anyone to the house. Do not open any door or window for any reason.”
“Understood. Get some sleep, son.”
It seemed only moments later when Sir Emlyn gently shook Archie awake.
“Archie. There's a disturbance outside. I think it may be him.”
Archie threw off the blanket that entangled him and went to the window. When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he said, “Where? I don't see him.”
His father motioned for silence. “Listen.”
A few seconds later Archie heard a scratching on the other side of the window frame. Looking out in all directions, he still saw nothing. The sound intensified.
“Where is he, Archie? And how is he making that noise?”
He had made himself invisible. That was the obvious answer, but one his father would vehemently reject. Archie stared at the center of the glass. He saw nothing, but if he could make the vampire think he could see him …
His ploy met with an answering boom that rattled the entire window in its frame, as if a heavy body had hurled itself at the glass. Sir Emlyn moved closer to Archie.
“Can he break it, do you think?”
Before Archie could answer, a louder retort shattered the glass. Both men shielded their faces from shards carried in on a storm force wind. Archie felt the point of one shard pierce his skin above his collar. Almost immediately, blood trickled hot and sticky down his neck. Panicked, he pulled the piece of glass out of his flesh and cast it away from him. He fumbled for a handkerchief. Dufaux had not yet shown himself, but he would not be far away, and he would be drawn irresistibly to the blood.
“Here. Take mine. It's clean.” Sir Emlyn had to shout over the roar of the whirlwind. He pressed his own handkerchief into Archie's hand, ignoring blood that oozed from numerous small cuts all over his own face and hands.
Archie did not have time to use it. An unseen force parted him from his father, shoving both men to opposite sides of the room. Archie bowled into a small table, upsetting it and scattering its contents across the floor. The sudden reek as of a distillery told him that the table had held the brandy decanter and glasses. More broken glass to crunch underfoot. He struggled to his feet, blinded by the necessity to shut his eyes against the wind that continued to swirl around his head, where it buffeted him with tiny, irritating particles of dust, dirt and glass, as well as pebbles and leaves that must have been sucked into the maelstrom from the street. This was not an attack to retake him - this was punishment. Punishment for rejecting Dufaux and his life-in-death; punishment for reaching toward light and life.
“Very good, Mr. Kennedy,” the vampire's voice rasped inside his head. “You begin to understand.”
“Show yourself,” Archie answered aloud, although he could barely hear his own voice above the wind that howled unabated. “I will not speak to you unless you show yourself.”
“Use your powers, Mr. Kennedy. Oh, you still have them, have no fear of that. My blood is in you yet, and with it all that you learned from suckling at my wrist. Come forth, Mr. Kennedy, and fight me vampire-to-vampire, if you dare.”
“Never. I am not a vampire. I am human and alive. I will not be like you again.”
“Not even to save the people who mean everything to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Mr. Kennedy, that if you refuse me, I will take your family. One-by-one, to the death. No life-in-death for them. Only black, bloody extinction. Until you are the last of your kind left standing. That is my bargain.”
A number of retorts rose to Archie's lips, all of them feeble in the face of Dufaux's latest threat. How could he bear to lose the family he had only just found and that was already so dear to him? And how could he bear the alternative - to lose himself to eternal damnation as a creature like Dufaux? Either choice would be untenable.
“Untenable, perhaps,” the voice continued in his mind. Archie could have sworn he heard a smile of triumph in it. “Regrettably, they are the only choices you have. You must choose, Mr. Kennedy. Their lives - or your own.”
His father, Lady Frances, Lavinia, Laetitia. He could not sacrifice them. He could not. And Dufaux must know that or he would not have issued the ultimatum.
“You are mine, Mr. Kennedy. You know it. You cannot refuse me. I have you as surely as if I had never lost you. Mine.”
Would it be possible to fight him? Could he and his father combine their strength to vanquish this beast? They had certainly started off on the wrong foot, for Archie had arisen from sleep without arming himself. Not one of the weapons his father had brought up from the armory lay within reach - unless his father could lay hold of one. But how would he get it to Archie?
“It will not happen, Mr. Kennedy. Come. Let us cement our relationship. I will stop the flow of blood from your wound.”
The vampire materialized six feet away from him. He looked taller than Archie remembered him. Broader across the shoulders. Infinitely more imposing. Archie suddenly felt very insignificant.
“Come. I am offering you immortality. You cannot refuse my gift.”
Dufaux's gray eyes sparked like clashing swords, the command in them impossible to deny. Against their power Archie had no will of his own. Archie stepped toward him.
From across the room, Sir Emlyn watched the impossible become real. Where initially there had been a raging wind so fierce it had flung him aside like a child's rag doll, there now stood a tall man clad in black. When and how had he entered? Had he come in through the broken window while the whirlwind made them shield their eyes? He could see only the man's back and just beyond it, Archie's anguished expression. The man spoke, though Emlyn could not make out the words.
Whatever was said, Archie advanced slowly in response. Why did he not fight? Where was his sword? Why did he not pull his sgian dubh? Blood soaking his collar, he moved as if in a dream. The man grabbed him and still he did not fight. Then the man did something incomprehensible. Was he kissing Archie? Emlyn shifted his position to see better. No, not on the lips. Lower. God help him - he was lapping the blood off Archie's neck. Archie must have fainted, for only the assailant's grip seemed to keep him on his feet.
If Archie was unable to act, his father was fettered neither physically nor emotionally. He reached for a weapon. But not any weapon. Only the claymore would do. This man - this assassin - had broken into his home and assaulted his son. There was only one way to deal with him.
Raising the heavy sword above his head he charged across the room. An ancient battle cry rose in his throat but he bit back on it, unwilling to alert the assailant to his purpose. The claymore was not a weapon of stealth - its size and the amount of room needed to swing it mitigated against its use in anything but battle on an open field - but that did not deter Emlyn. Dire circumstances necessitated dire acts. He swung the weapon in a huge arc, letting the claymore's weight and momentum carry it to its objective. He felt the momentary resistance of flesh and bone, then the claymore cleaved the assailant's right shoulder, followed a diagonal path downward and made its exit just above the man's left hip.
A wound of that nature should have let loose a fountain of blood. So why was it that the only blood in evidence was Archie's blood on the man's lips? Why did the assailant not fall to the ground? Instead, he turned and glared at Emlyn with eyes that glowed as red as coals in the fire. Then, as if slowly becoming aware of what had happened, he let Archie fall to the floor and pressed his hands to his shoulder and side, examining his own hurts. Why did he not fall? The man's trunk had been cleanly severed from his lower limbs, and yet, as Emlyn watched they appeared to re-join before his very eyes. No. Such a thing was not humanly possible. What was it Archie had said . . .?
Could this indeed be a fiend from hell? A dead man who preyed upon the living? What good would a sword of mere silver do against a creature such as this? Emlyn felt the first quivers of doubt and stepped back from the man he had wounded. He wanted to go to his son but the man stood between them. The man looked at him curiously with eyes that flickered as the eerie red light in them was slowly extinguished.
“A sword of silver?” The man echoed Emlyn's thoughts.
“Good Scottish silver. In the family for centuries. It has vanquished many foes.” His fraying nerves made him babble but he didn't care. He had to get to Archie.
“Go to him,” the man said. “I need to - withdraw for a time. Tell him - tell him that I will be back. Most assuredly, I will be back.”
The man's voice faded first, then his body, until he had vanished into the very air around them. The maelstrom did not return. Instead, a deathly calm pervaded the room. Emlyn did not trust such a calm. It too much resembled the eye of a storm.
Shaking off his lethargy he made his way to Archie. The lad was unconscious. The cut on his neck which had bled so profusely appeared as a faint scar that faded even as he examined it. If not for his blood-soaked collar, Emlyn would have questioned whether he had been cut at all. Whatever had happened here tonight - and Emlyn was not at all sure what that was - it did not belong to this world. The vampire, for Emlyn now acknowledged that this was no ordinary man and as such needed to be referred to in different terms, would doubtless spend the next few hours nursing his wounds. Archie likewise looked as if he would not awaken for some time. Emlyn roused the household, ordered his carriage brought round and bags packed for himself and for Archie. By the time the vampire returned for Archie, they would be safely ensconced at Shelburne House.
Archie opened his eyes upon a familiar but totally unexpected face.
“Lady Frances? What are you doing here? Why did you not stay at Shelburne House? It's not safe here. We have had a visit from Dufaux tonight.”
“Calm yourself, Archie. We are at Shelburne House. You and your father arrived a short time ago.”
“Shelburne House!” Archie bolted upright on the couch where he lay, scattering several small cushions onto the floor. It was true. Behind his stepmother he recognized the appointments of the great hall at his father's country seat, which Sidwell had not changed appreciably during his tenure. Moreover, the light streaming through the mullioned windows attested that it was no longer night but full morning. “But why? Where is my father?”
“Conferring with your brother at this very moment. Lie down, Archie. You've had a nasty experience, to hear your father tell it. You are still feverish.”
“If I am feverish it is because of the danger he has placed you in by coming here. You don't know what Dufaux is capable of. He will stop at nothing. Nothing.” A strange face appeared over his stepmother's shoulder. Archie paused and looked at her. She was small, but not a child. Childlike and womanly at once, she gazed upon him kindly through warm brown eyes still heavy with sleep.
“Archie, I believe you have not met your sister-in-law,” Lady Frances introduced them. “Agatha Kennedy, nee Crumfold. Agatha, this is Sid's youngest brother, Archie.”
“Welcome to my home, Archie. I have been looking forward to meeting you.”
“Agatha,” he blushed. “I - I am sorry to intrude in such a way. It was not my intention to bring alarm and danger into your home.”
“Do not trouble yourself, Archie. I am happy to help you in any way I can. If I can provide a safe haven, all the better.”
“Somehow, I fear my brother will not share that opinion,” Archie said, as the sound of a long-unheard but well-remembered masculine voice, raised in anger, reached them from the passage.
“Perhaps not right away, but he will come around.”
“You sound sure of him.”
“We have been married six years. I think I know his temper by now.” She smiled, then added, “As well as how to get around it.”
“Then you have accomplished in six years what I could not do in sixteen, for I was never able to avoid his temper when I was at home.”
“Let us say that a woman has ways to get around a man's temper that another man cannot possibly employ.”
Agatha gazed at him in a way that recalled to him what his father had said the day before. It must be true. He and his sister-in-law had known each other for only a few minutes and already Agatha seemed drawn to him. Archie blinked and looked again. No. He had not imagined it. She continued to gaze at him in exactly the same way. Almost in the way Lady Frances looked at him.
“I think a change of clothing is in order,” his stepmother interjected. “Then I will see what we can do to get that blood stain out.”
Later, having bathed and changed his clothes, Archie joined the rest of the family for breakfast. His brother Sidwell, presiding at the head of the table despite his father's presence, looked him over but did not rise in greeting. Archie decided to break the ice.
“Sidwell. I'm sorry to barge in like this. It's awfully decent of you to help out.”
“Decency has nothing to do with it,” Sidwell snapped. “You're here. There's a madman coming after you, putting the rest of us at considerable risk. What do you plan to do about it?”
“In all fairness,” Sir Emlyn interposed, “it was I who brought him here. And I am still the head of this family. We stand as a family or we fall as a family. You will not leave your brother to face this monster on his own.”
“No. It appears I no longer have that option, thanks to the two of you. You might have had the courtesy to avoid involving the ladies.”
“As one of the ladies involved,” said Lady Frances, “I would like to make it clear that I am glad to help in any way I can. We of the fair sex are not completely helpless, you know, Sidwell. We may not have the knowledge of weaponry that you have, nor the physical strength, nor again the warlike disposition, but you must admit that the sting of a bee can be just as effective in its way as the horns of a bull are in theirs.”
“Well put, Mama,” Lavinia added her voice. “And the more bees there are, the greater the effect. We shall positively swarm over the nasty Mr. Dufaux.”
Archie felt his stomach drop. While he was relieved that his stepsisters were no longer angry with him, their support now could only act to their detriment.
“I wish you ladies would stay out of this altogether,” he said. “Much as I appreciate your willingness to help, Mr. Dufaux is not an ordinary adversary. He will not hesitate to harm anyone who gets in his way, age or sex notwithstanding. Please, do not make me shoulder the guilt for any injury that comes to you. I could not bear it.”
Sidwell glared down the table at him, even though Archie had said nothing he could possibly find objectionable. Perhaps, Archie reflected, Sid simply could not bear the idea of finding himself in agreement with anything Archie had to say.
“I am glad to hear you say it,” said Sidwell. “For I shall certainly hold you responsible if your madman harms so much as a hair on the head of any one of the ladies here.”
“Enough!” Sir Emlyn barked. “I will hear no more of blame, nor of your unwillingness to present a united front. You are a Kennedy, damn it! Act like one. Dufaux will be back. If not tonight, then tomorrow night. We will fight him with all the ammunition at our disposal, whether that means actual firepower or a woman's wiles. He cannot possibly fight every one of us at once. That is our strength and his weakness. We must capitalize upon it.”
“He will not hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way, Father,” Archie said quietly. “Perhaps we should just let him have what he wants.”
“No, Archie. That is out of the question. You will not sacrifice yourself and that's final.”
Further conversation on the topic being discouraged, they finished the meal in monastic silence.
After breakfast, Archie asked for the key to the family crypt. As all eyes snapped to him in surprise, he explained, “I have not had a chance to pay my respects since Mother died.”
“Sidwell,” said Sir Emlyn, “why don't you accompany your brother? I am sure you will have things to discuss between you that you cannot say with the rest of us around.”
“As you wish, Father.” Sidwell gave Archie an unfathomable look and led the way.
They had not gone far from the house before Sidwell turned on Archie.
“Listen here, Little Brother. I don't know what sort of game you're playing, but if you have something this Dufaux fellow wants, give it to him. Before you injure the rest of us. Is that understood?”
“I understand perfectly, Sid.”
“That's Sidwell, Sir, to you.”
“Come off it, Sid. I'm not one of the stable boys, to quake at every word you say. And the last I looked, Lord Shelburne was alive and well and enjoying his breakfast. Sir, indeed.”
“So, the pup has learned to growl, has he? And has he also acquired the teeth with which to bite?”
“What are you saying, Sid? That you want to fight me? Perhaps you should at that. Get it out of your system so we can get on with the more important matters at hand.”
In answer, Sidwell took a swing at him. Archie saw it coming and raised his own arm to deflect Sid's fist before it could connect. The force of the blow he absorbed surprised him. Even more surprising, considering his loss of blood last night and the fact that Sid was taller, broader, and outweighed him by more than fifty pounds, it did not throw him off his feet.
Undeterred, his brother lashed out again. This time Archie grabbed Sid's wrist and spun him around, wrenching the arm up behind his brother's back. If this was an example of the vampiric strength that Dufaux claimed still resided in him, heaven should not begrudge Archie's taking advantage of it in a good cause.
“All right! All right!” Sidwell cried. “You've made your point. Now let me go.”
“Only if you promise to belay this foolishness. I know you hate me. I don't know why, only that it seems to be the way of things. I can accept that. What I will not accept is your setting yourself up as lord and master over all, not while Father is head of this family. When he is laid to rest in the family crypt, then you may cast me out. Not a moment sooner.”
“I said all right,” Sidwell barked. Then, calming himself, he added more quietly, “All right, Archie. Satisfied?”
“For now.” Archie let his brother go. They eyed one another warily, each alert for treachery. Archie knew it was not finished between them, but a temporary truce would suffice for the time being.
“If you will hear me,” Archie continued, “I would like to explain to you what sort of adversary we face.”
They resumed walking down the lawn toward the grove where the Kennedy mausoleum stood. Unfortunately, their altercation had taken place in full view of the house. What must the family be thinking of him now? Brawling in broad daylight, as if he and Sid were children. At least he was still standing. That should count for something.
“Father told me something about it this morning, while the ladies were busy cooing over you.”
“How much did he tell you?”
“Only that your adversary is a Frenchman named Dufaux. That he entered the house through a broken window and attacked you. Father says he struck him what should have been a mortal blow with a claymore, but the man escaped amid threats that he would return to finish you off. Nice fellow, from the sound of it.”
Hearing a touch of sarcasm in his brother's voice, Archie did not take umbrage at the word nice. “That is a somewhat restrained account of what happened. I suspect Father does not entirely understand what he saw.”
“As you no doubt do. And I suppose you plan to enlighten me.”
“There is an element of the supernatural in it that you will find hard to digest. Dufaux is not human.”
Sidwell glared at Archie. “What do you mean, not human?”
“He's a dead man, Sid. He lived and died two or three centuries ago.”
“So you were attacked by a ghost. I should have known there'd be phantoms in it. You always were bedeviled.”
“Not a ghost. A vampire. A creature that extends its life past death by feeding upon the living.”
Sidwell's sneer turned into an expression of disgust. “How do you mean, feeding?”
“The vampire drinks blood, Sid. He drains his victims. If he then gives his victim his own blood to drink, his victim becomes a creature like him.”
“You're right, Archie. I find this hard to digest. You are being pursued by a blood-sucking fiend. Why, if one might ask?”
“I don't know that he has a reason. Just that he wants me. If I refuse him, he'll kill the rest of you, one-by-one, probably in such a way that I shall never be free of the images - or the guilt. I thought at first I could fight him, but I discovered last night that I cannot. Not without sacrificing all that is human in me.” Archie stopped short of explaining how he had been transformed once before. It was probably too much for Sid to absorb in one session.
They left the sun-drenched lawn for the shade of the oak grove. Archie's ears picked up the trickle of the brook that ran through the woods. He had never heard it from this distance before, which was odd, because his hearing should have been less acute now, after the cannon fire of repeated naval battles had dulled it, than it had been in childhood. Maybe there were fewer birds in the woods than there used to be. Their sounds would have masked that of the running water.
His brother, undistracted by what must be the everyday sounds of the estate, continued the conversation. “What you seem to be saying, Archie, is that you have given up on fighting him. Do I take it that you are ready to give this vampire creature what he wants?”
Was that what Archie had said? He hardly knew his own mind any more. “Father said I was not to sacrifice myself. But when the alternative is to sacrifice everyone else, how can I obey him?”
“You know where I stand,” Sidwell said. “There are women and children here. They should be your first consideration.”
Sidwell withdrew a large iron key from his pocket as the mausoleum came into view. Unlike some of the aboveground tombs that the landed gentry constructed to house their dead, the Kennedy crypt was a modest affair. A passerby who did not know its function would take it for a gardener's hut, or else a small, disused chapel, overgrown with vines and moss. It had rough stone sides, a pitched slate roof, and a small single window placed high at the gable end opposite the door, which was made of thick planks reinforced by a closely spaced grid of iron bands. The surrounding vegetation had been allowed to encroach upon it in the years since Mairi Kennedy's death. Archie wondered if Sid had come here since.
He waited in silence while his brother turned the heavy key in the even heavier lock. In a way it seemed a waste of effort to lock the place when it lay so far off the beaten track. Who would even try to breach it? Brigands looking for a place to stash stolen goods would find it uncomfortably close to human habitation. A solitary traveler seeking shelter for the night might try the door, but would he be tempted to stay once he saw what lay beyond? Or was the lock intended to keep in such beings as had no business roaming among the living? In that case, Archie wanted to tell his brother, no lock had been devised that could confine them.
For all that the place looked abandoned, it had obviously been kept in some repair, for the hinges did not protest when Sidwell swung the door open. The brothers stood in the doorway until their eyes became accustomed to the dimness within, then they entered. Inside, all was as Archie remembered it. One large tomb in the center held a stone effigy of Gideon MacLeod Kennedy, the first of their clan to lay claim to English soil, while plaques along the walls displayed the names of family members deceased since. Archie went directly to the walls to look for his mother's name. It should be the last name inscribed, for no one had died in the intervening years, so far as he knew. The sight of his own name just above his mother's brought him up short.
Sidwell, noting his reaction, sidled up beside him and purred, “That was erected when you were lost at sea and presumed dead. By the time we learned otherwise, Mother had taken her place here and Father deemed it best to leave the inscription alone. There was a time when I was a frequent visitor to this place,” he added. “Seeing your name there gave me a good deal of satisfaction.”
Archie hoped his feelings did not show in his face. Whether true or not, Sid's words had been intended to wound, and they had found their mark.
Leaving Archie to his thoughts, Sidwell moved away. He said, from somewhere behind Archie's right shoulder, “It's funny, is it not? When I was a child I never thought to ask where the bodies were actually interred. Did you know there is a crypt below us? When there is to be a burial, they push back Sir Gideon's slab to reveal a flight of stairs. It's rather fascinating. Would you care to see it?”
“No, thank you, Sid.”
“Ah, well. If you change your mind, you have only to press on Sir Gideon's breastplate to release the locking mechanism. You'll see where. It's obvious once you know where to look.”
The change in his brother's tone made Archie turn. He was just in time to see the door swing shut and to hear the key turn in the lock from the outside. Then darkness fell.
For the rest of the morning, Sidwell kept questions at bay by making himself unavailable for questioning. It was not difficult. The family expected him to return to the house, so he went to the stables instead. By the time they sent someone to the stables to look for him, he had ridden out to oversee the horses in the paddocks. From there he made his way to the kennels, and so eventually back to the house in time for luncheon, where he noted with satisfaction that everyone expected Archie to join them from moment to moment.
“Well, if he hasn't the courtesy to appear on time, I suggest we begin without him,” he said at last when the waiting had become obvious and uncomfortable.
“When did you last see him?” Lady Frances inquired as the soup was served.
“Hours ago, dear Stepmother. We parted company at the crypt. He said he wanted to walk. I, of course, had estate business to see to, so I left him to it.”
“I hope nothing has happened to him,” Lavinia said. “When I walked with him last week, we had barely left the house before he required my support. He has not been well.”
“I'm sure he knows his own strength, Lavinia,” he sternly told his stepsister. “Perhaps he sat down to rest and fell asleep.”
“If he has not appeared by the time we finish here,” Lady Frances said, “I suggest we go look for him. It is not like him to stay away like this. I fear that something has befallen him.”
Sidwell turned the conversation to more mundane matters and the meal progressed without further mention of the missing Archie. Once or twice the girls exchanged looks. Fine. Let them. After luncheon, if they still intended to look for their stepbrother, he would send them off in a direction guaranteed to bring them nowhere near the crypt. They could search to their hearts' content all afternoon, the devil take them.
His father would be harder to put off. Although Sir Emlyn forbore asking him questions during the meal, it was obvious from the look on his face that he would require some direct answers afterwards. As it happened, he did not even wait until the others had left the dining room, but rose first and asked Sidwell to follow him to the library.
“Where is he?” Sir Emlyn asked when they were alone.
“I told you, Father. I left him at the crypt. He wanted a walk in the woods. I presumed he meant to think over his course of action regarding Dufaux without anyone's interference, and so I honored his wish for solitude.”
“Bollocks, Sid. You think yourself a fine liar, and you may fool some people, but I am your father, remember. I saw the two of you tussle on the lawn. What have you done with him?”
“If you saw us tussle on the lawn, as you put it, then you also must have noticed that I did not best my brother. He is well able to take care of himself. Stop pampering him. Wherever he has chosen to run to ground for the day, he is well.”
“I don't believe you. Archie knows better than any of us what we may face tonight. He would not hide away when he knows we need to plan our offense -”
“Offense, is it?” Sidwell interrupted. “What happened to defense? Isn't that what we must plan?”
“With so many of us here, we have no reason not to take the initiative and defeat this creature on our own terms.”
“Obviously my brother does not agree. Perhaps that is why he has chosen to absent himself from your discussion.”
Sir Emlyn shook his head ominously. “I fear that choice had little to do with it. I fear that Dufaux may already be out there, and that Archie may have fallen into his hands.”
Archie's eyes soon adjusted to the low light now available to him. As long as daylight held, he would see well enough. But if no one had come for him by the time the sun set, would the moon provide adequate illumination? The window was set too high up for him to see anything outside but the branches of the nearest tall trees. Even had it been large enough for him to squeeze through, he would have had no way to climb up to it. After making a few circuits of the interior space to make sure he was not missing an obvious extra door or passage, Archie lowered himself to the slate floor. There was nothing else to sit on except Sir Gideon's tomb, and Sir Gideon - or more properly his effigy - already occupied it.
What did his brother hope to gain by imprisoning Archie here? Sooner or later the rest of the family would look for him, and one of the first places they would look would be the last place anyone had seen him. Provided Sidwell did not send them all on a wild goose chase in some other part of the park, one or the other of them should turn up long before sunset.
Then there was the question of why Sid had brought the access to the lower crypt to his attention. Had he tampered with the release mechanism so that anyone going down the stairs would be trapped within? No. Archie rejected that idea out of hand. Sid had no advance knowledge that Archie was coming to Shelburne or, more to the point, that Archie would want to visit his mother's grave. He would have had no time and no reason to set a booby trap. Was he instead offering Archie a means of escape? There could conceivably be another exit from the crypt up into the woods, perhaps for the convenience of workmen who could prepare a grave in time of need without intruding upon the grieving family above. It was something to keep in mind in case no one came to release him.
Or perhaps the ever-devious Sid planned to hold him until Dufaux's arrival, hoping to trade Archie for his family's safety. How long would it take Sid to realize that Archie would go willingly in order to spare the others? If this had been his father's doing, rather than his brother's, Archie would have deduced that Sir Emlyn meant to lure Dufaux to a place where they could contain the vampire. Of course his father would not know that the vampire could not be contained, at least not by stone walls and an iron-barred door. Archie doubted that even the sacred nature of the place would seriously impede the creature's progress.
Last night Dufaux had insisted that Archie retained his vampire powers. At first Archie had dismissed the claim as a ploy intended to tantalize and lure him to Dufaux's side. The vampire must have guessed that Archie's scruples would not let him test that claim, for if he put any of those powers to use, he would be accepting the creature's nature as his own. Even if it meant that these stone walls and iron-barred door could not hold Archie, either, he could not in conscience use those powers and hope to keep his fragile hold on his humanity. Nor would he, unless it became necessary to employ the powers of evil in order to defeat evil.
“Hello, Archie. It's been a long time.”
The familiar voice, so totally unexpected and yet so appropriate to the gloom, startled Archie so badly that he jerked back and struck his head against the wall.
“Simpson,” he breathed, trying to gather his scattered senses.
“Jack's missed you, boy.”
“Why is it I only have to think of evil - and your foul stench fills the air?”
The apparition solidified even as he looked at it, too vivid to be a dream. Archie intentionally scraped his fingernails on the slate beside him. The resulting shiver of aversion told him he was not dreaming.
“We have unfinished business, you and I,” Simpson said. As in life, the ghostly Simpson's voice dripped with menace even as a smile played around the corners of his mouth. Taunting, always taunting, turning even the most innocuous statements into threats. Twisting words in the way he would twist a knife, so as to cause the greatest hurt without appearing to do any harm at all.
“I'm finished with you, Jack,” Archie replied. The weary finality in his own tone surprised him. Pray Simpson did not detect that surprise, or it would take away whatever small advantage Archie had gained from it.
“You think so? Or is it only that you see poor Jack as the lesser of the two evils you'll face this day?”
Archie stared at him but did not answer.
“I envy you, Archie. Oh, I didn't always. After all, who would envy a boy so weak he would let Jack Simpson have his way with him? My God, but you were pathetic then. So trusting. So easily hurt. And so pretty I couldn't help myself. Your fault, you see, Archie?” Simpson paused to chuckle. The sound echoed as if the room were full of Simpsons all chortling together. It was all Archie could do to keep from stopping his ears.
“But Dufaux,” Simpson resumed. “Now there's a man I should like to have met while I lived. I would have struck a bargain with him that would have made the angels cry. Just think, Archie. If I had met him first, you would be submitting to me this day. My blood would be coursing through your body, and yours in mine. Picture it, Archie. You and me. Yoked together for all eternity.”
“I would die by my own hand before I stooped so low.”
“Then I would yet see you in hell. Suicides being damned out of hand, as it were.”
“Go away, Jack. You're wasting your time here.”
“So you say. But your eyes betray you. Admit it, Archie. You feel a twinge of the old anxiety. I still have the power to hurt you.”
Using the wall for support, Archie inched up from the floor. Much as he hated to show Simpson even that momentary weakness, he could not remain where he sat and expect to be taken seriously.
“You have no power at all, here. This is hallowed ground. Sir Gideon and his descendents will not suffer you to befoul their resting place.”
“You think not? Then have a care, Archie, for you have one foot in the fires already, by my reckoning. See if your Kennedy ancestors don't already think you half a vampire's spawn.”
Simpson's hateful laughter filled the small space. It rebounded off the ceiling, the floor, the walls, Gideon's tomb, bombarding Archie from every direction. Archie covered his ears but he could still hear it. Though he closed his eyes he could see Simpson standing there, larger than he had ever appeared in life and imbued with the easy arrogance of one who knows that he can do anything he pleases and get away with it.
Sidwell busied himself at the books in the estate office after luncheon. The ladies, he knew, were organizing a search party to look for Archie. So far, not one of them had thought to apply to him for the key, so even if they found Archie they would not be able to release him. That they exhibited so little sense in planning did not bode well for any upcoming struggle against the creature. Thank goodness it would not come to that.
A knock at the door interrupted his reverie. He was about to call out permission to enter when the door opened without it. Lady Frances stood in the doorway.
“Sidwell, a word if you please.”
“Of course, Stepmother. What can I do for you?”
“The key to the crypt. I believe you have it.”
“Alas, Stepmother, I do not. As I recall, I left it with Archie. He wanted it, he said, so he could return for a few moments of private meditation later.”
Lady Frances gave him a glare that would have made a schoolboy wet himself with guilty knowledge, but Sidwell held his ground.
“I do not believe you, Sidwell.”
“I assure you, Stepmother, you have no reason to doubt me.”
Her look said plainly what she thought of that statement. How inconvenient that she should have appointed herself Archie's champion. If only she had sent Agatha instead, his mousy little wife would have accepted his boldest lie at face value and carried it back to the others as documented fact. Sidwell gave silent thanks that this woman had not had the raising of him, instead of the lovely but weak Mairi Kennedy, or he might have turned out a different man altogether. More like Archie, no doubt. Perish the thought.
Lady Frances turned to go. As she was pulling the door closed behind her, she said, “I wonder if Archie will concur with that statement.”
Sidwell watched the door shut without further comment. The woman was resourceful enough, it probably would not take her long to locate the under gardener whose duties included preparing the crypt for burials and who held the second key. With luck the man would not have the key on his person and would have to go fetch it. Sidwell should remove it now, before Lady Frances caught up with him. Every moment they delayed in finding Archie brought them a moment closer to Dufaux's coming. He could not afford to shorten that time by even a minute.
Archie crossed to the table tomb, his eyes searching the four corners of the crypt for any sign of Simpson. The apparition had disappeared for now. There was no telling how long it would stay away.
“I must be damned already, if only the shades of the damned visit me,” he said aloud. A sudden sense of desolation descended upon him. Hot tears sprang to his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
He felt a presence in the room but paid it no mind. Friendly or unfriendly, it would seek him out soon enough.
“Do you believe I could ignore such a plea?”
He knew that voice. Knew it but dared not believe he had heard it. Through his tears he focused on Sir Gideon's effigy, blocking out all else in the small room.
He uttered a sound more like a strangled cry than a proper word, and cursed the singular cruelty of fate that allowed his mother's softly accented, gentle voice to reach him while it prevented her loving arms from enfolding him. If only he could wrap himself in that voice and wear it as protection against the coming night . . .
“Archie, who was that man? The one who just left. What was he to you?”
“Jack Simpson, my tormentor from Justinian.”
“You never mentioned him in your letters.”
“How could I? He used me abominably.”
“And returns to torment you still.”
“Yes.” Archie wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Although his heart ached no less, he did not want his mother to see him in tears like a little child.
“I see your brother is up to his old tricks. He has locked you in, hasn't he?”
“Sid is only doing what he does best. Which is looking after Sidwell.”
“And who is looking after Archie?”
Archie shrugged. “I am, I guess. Although Father seems to have come around.”
“And Lady Frances.”
He heard no criticism in her tone; nonetheless he asked, “You don't mind, do you, Mother?”
“Mind? How can I mind that she looks after my son as I would myself? I do believe she does a better job of it than I ever managed.”
“She has been uncommonly kind. More than I deserve.”
“I disagree. You are deserving of every drop of kindness that has been poured into your cup and more besides. Never doubt your worth, Archie. And never believe that you deserve the mistreatment that is so often your lot in life.”
“Have you been talking to Mykel?”
“Mykel? Who is he?”
“Never mind. It doesn't matter.” Archie finally turned around to face her. She looked older than he remembered, but her beauty - the serene beauty of the portrait in the morning room - had not diminished. In spite of everything, he had to smile. “Mother, perhaps I should not ask you this, but are you able to see the future? Do you know - will I come through this trouble as someone it would not shame you to acknowledge?”
“I wish I could answer in the affirmative, Archie. The simple truth is that it is not given to me to know. All I can say is that I trust your judgment. You will make the right choice.”
“But how do I know what is right? If I fight Dufaux, he may kill innocent people. If I go to him in order to spare them, I damn myself. Either way I lose something precious and irreplaceable.”
“I do not envy you the decision. Just remember that it is not yours to make alone. There are others involved, and they will make their own choices, whether they will stand with you or no.”
“Thank you, Mother. I think I have my answer.”
As soon as Lady Frances approached a gardener about the maintenance of the crypt, it took no time at all to secure a key. All the gardeners and under gardeners had access to it, the man assured her, and led her to the precise shelf in the glass house where it resided when not in use. If, as now, the key was gone, all knew where to lay hands on the spare key at the back of the drawer in the main potting bench. That Sidwell had omitted to mention the existence of an extra key did little to elevate him in his stepmother's estimation.
Her daughters, accepting Sidwell's story that Archie had gone for a walk, had set off across the gardens along with their stepsister-in-law. Emlyn, while keeping to himself the tenor of his conversation with Sidwell, had gone to the stables, though whether to search for Archie there or to saddle a mount and pursue the search farther afield she could not be certain. Sid's complete lack of interest in helping them look only reinforced her notion that he not only knew where his brother could be found, but also believed he was in no danger of moving from that place. And that place could only be the crypt.
Let those who worried about soiled hems and shoes keep to the more circuitous groomed path; Lady Frances struck out across the lawns in the most direct route to the Kennedy mausoleum. She set a furious pace, arriving flushed with the heat of exertion and struggling for breath. When she had composed herself sufficiently that her hand no longer trembled as she tried to fit the key to the lock, she set to work to free her stepson.
The door, though well-oiled, was heavy. Surely if Archie were inside and aware that the door was opening, he would push from his side the more quickly to break free. Provided he was conscious and Sid had not bound and gagged him, that is. It occurred to her that Archie would not know who was on the outside. For all he knew, Sid could be returning with murder on his mind. Or worse, he might be anticipating Dufaux and preparing to attack his hapless rescuer.
“Archie? Archie, are you in there? It's Lady Frances. I'm coming in.”
She found him standing by Sir Gideon's tomb, shielding his eyes from the brightness that flooded through the doorway.
“It's all right, Archie. I'm alone. I've come to let you out of here.”
Obviously still dazzled by the light, he remained where he stood. Lady Frances went to him. She put an arm around him and led him toward the door.
“Come. It's all right. I won't let you stumble.”
But he did stumble over the threshold as the full light of day struck him. Lady Frances thought it wise to let him sit on a nearby bench for a few minutes until his eyes adjusted to the change. She re-locked the mausoleum, then returned to sit by his side.
“I will be, shortly.” He squinted and continued to shield his eyes. By now his pupils should be mere pinpricks in a brilliant field of blue, but the sunlight had not perceptibly reduced their size. He looked dazed. “Thank you for coming.”
“You're most welcome. Heaven knows, Archie, I have tried to get to know your brother. I have even tried to like him. But this action was so unworthy, so cowardly, that I fear I shall not be able to forgive him. Did he say why he was shutting you in like this?”
“No. He gave me no warning. Just went out the door and locked it behind him.”
“Could he have any purpose other than sheer meanness, do you think?”
“He did tell me earlier to consider that there are women and children here, and that I should give Dufaux what he wants. I gather he meant to keep me there until he could tell Dufaux where to find me.”
“Thereby averting any conflict and saving his own skin.”
Archie shrugged. “I don't suppose he relishes the thought of a pitched battle on his tenderly manicured grounds, or worse, in the house itself. Much better to give up an inconvenient little brother.”
Hearing something in his tone, and concerned about his ability to hold up until Dufaux appeared, Lady Frances said, “What is it, Archie? You look as if you've seen a ghost.”
He grimaced. “Two ghosts, actually. Each with its own ideas of my chances with Dufaux. I think my warring conscience must have conjured them, as each side tried to convince the other.”
“You will do the right thing, Archie.” Lady Frances gave him a quick hug. “I know you will.”
“That's what my mother said.”
He glanced at her shyly. “She likes you. She says you're doing a better job of looking after me than she ever could.”
“Did she really?” She looked into his eyes, gratified to see that they had returned to normal. The expression in them was, as always, totally honest. And why not? If he could be possessed by a vampire, why should he not also be granted visions of his dead mother? “That is high praise indeed, Archie. I am honored.”
“We had better go back to the house, don't you think?”
“What about your brother?”
“I can think of a few places in the house where he might try to imprison me, but I don't believe he'll try a second time. It would be too obvious.”
“Let us hope you're right.”
Fortitude by Lorraine Jean