Note: If you're seeing this text centered on the page, your browser may be too old. FictionPress has some wonky auto-html generation going, and I noticed that older browsers (including IE8) display the story as Centered rather than as Left-Justified (as it's supposed to be). If this is so, just upgrade your browser; it's painless, and FictionPress sure isn't going to put the word out to do so. :S
by Davey Jones
The girl stopped struggling through the waist-deep snow, panting, her breath failing to fog in the deep cold of the darkness that surrounded her. She turned her eyes back along the path she'd made through the snow. Tall trees wrapped her in a darkness more solid than the ebony black of the daylight sky. Distantly, so dimly, her inhumanly-sharp sight showed her dark shapes clustered on the absolute gray of the night-lit snow-filled valley.
She flinched as a voice, inhuman, high-pitched and hissing, echoed across the valley. She could not make out the words it spoke. She did not want to. Whatever the thing was it was not human, and in this land where night had long years ago replaced the brightest day, inhuman beings were never good things to meet.
She covered her ears and closed her eyes, huddling down into the snow, narrowly avoiding a terrified scream of her own as the creature's voice of pure elemental fury again echoed across the valley. The voice died down. She blinked away tears of fright and focused on the distant confrontation.
She heard the creature go strangely silent in mid-bellow. She was not certain—she could not be, not at this distance and in this light, even with her eyesight—but she thought she saw the glitter of silver-tipped projectiles whirling and spinning through the clouds of shadow that had pursued her companion.
She hoped he would last long enough in the fight to insure her escape.
Her eyes picked out the darkness-upon-darkness illusion that showed where the Hunt was rearing up into the sky, multiple streams of hate-filled destruction that curved back toward the tiny white figure of the only human being in the valley.
She swallowed hard. She tried to scream a warning to the man, and realized before she tried that her high, soft voice wouldn't carry two hundred yards, let alone two miles—and there were still other things, less-ethereal but equally-deadly, that might be close enough to be curious about her.
She turned and resolutely pushed her way deeper into the forest. The farther from the edge she got the thicker the trees were, and the thinner the perpetual coat of snow on the ground.
With one hand she clutched tightly at a white blanket that was knotted around her, giving her some cover; her clothing was universally solid black, and blended with the snow not at all. Behind her with her other hand she pulled on a massive limb, broken from one of the pines earlier on in her flight. Where she went she left a person-sized trail in the snow, difficult to miss for the sloppiest observer. A Hunt would not usually venture far into a forest, seeing no need—people, the primary prey of Hunts, did not live in forests, and thus there was no reason to search for them there—but if it happened to glide over and detect her trail through a break in the tree cover, whatever passed in those alien minds for curiosity might be aroused, and she then could be tracked. So she pulled the heavy branch behind her as she limped and struggled. The branch swept the surface of the snow, collapsing the sides of her trail, smoothing them out. Did one know exactly what to look for one could still track her—but it took someone who even knew there was someone here in the first place to have such thoughts.
Only the fact that the snow did indeed thin out the deeper she went into the forest, the higher up the narrow ridge, enabled her to struggle her way through the snow for the hour she managed. She was small, child-sized, and she limped, heavily favoring a leg that had been broken less than a day before. She had not taken sustenance for the better part of a day, and she was weak from that need as well.
When she stumbled into the dark clearing she was less surprised than she was relieved. A quick glance up showed that most of the tree cover was intact; from where she was she could not actually see the night-colored sky that had replaced in the last day the cloudy dimness of a normal day. The clearing itself was perhaps two hundred feet across. There were a handful of single trees growing in that space, but most of the ground was covered with a dusting of snow and thick mats of pine needles, years' worth to look at them. There was an opening at the right, a place where no trees grew, and it had the look of a road that had been cleared once. That gap, too, was snow- and bush-clogged.
At the other side of the clearing was a large, ramshackle log cabin. It looked weathered, beaten down and abandoned for several years now—likely during the Day Of Night, when so many homes had become forever empty.
The sound of the wind in the pines was soft and steady, but she heard something else. The sound of animals moving about. She froze; any animals she was likely to meet in this world any more were otherworldly predators, and they could destroy her as quickly as a stake or holy water.
She relaxed slightly as one of the sounds abruptly cleared, and the rooster's soft crowing whispered through the night.
She left her makeshift rake at the edge of the clearing and slowly, painfully limped her way to the house. She sat on the bottom step for a few minutes, catching her breath and allowing her leg a chance to throb to a rest.
The back of the house was a duplicate to the front; the logs that made up the house were thick, and securely chinked. There were places where boards had fallen down—which she would have thought of as camouflage, as the rest of the house was logs—and handfuls of pine needles and a couple of broken wooden crates added to the image that this was a place long empty. The windows were blacked out, but she thought nothing of this. As she circled back to the front, she absently noted that all of the other windows were dark, too.
She supposed the only reason that the house hadn't actually been torn to pieces during The Day was because the owners had been out or absent, and nothing had found cause to assault it.
Slowly, she pulled her way up the front steps onto the small porch. She unhesitatingly turned the front door handle—and jerked her hand back, startled, when she found the door locked. She was puzzled now, and more than a little concerned; since The Day, there were few houses whose owners bothered to lock their doors, and little reason for even those few to do so.
Even as she stood there, paralyzed with indecision, she heard movement inside, the shuffling of what sounded like booted feet. A small dark spot on the door showed a glimmer of light, light that was extinguished as something covered it on the inside. She took a step back. She was surprised to see that it was an eye looking at her—an eye whose owner seemed as surprised as she.
The light went out. From behind the door came the sound of locks flipping and chains rattling. The door opened silently and a soft, golden glow illuminated her. A man stepped into the dim light. Tall and skinny he was, wearing a logging shirt and faded overalls. His long hair and neatly-combed beard were both light gray, as were the thick eyebrows over the pale blue, dark-shadowed eyes she could see through the coke-bottle lenses. His skin was unwrinkled, unusual considering the age his hair said he was, and the usual pale of a man who didn't get much sunlight—which was the sad norm any more. Her skin was paler still, but not by much.
The man looked past her at the clearing, leaning out to carefully inspect every visible corner of it. He looked sharply up at the sky that was invisible behind the tree cover, so suspiciously that the girl found herself echoing the movement. None of this was as she had expected it to be. She had yet to find her tongue, to ask who the man was, or to introduce herself, or to ask for sanctuary. The man's presence was power, and his manner unnerved her.
Then the man seemed to reach a decision. He stepped aside and held his hand out to Lilu. She hesitated. The man was human, and he'd survived the depredations of the creatures of the darkness, so in theory he should be able to help her stay alive until she could find or summon other help, now that her most recent protector was dead.
She didn't know him, though, and thus felt no reason to trust him overmuch.
He seemed to sense some of her indecision, and the reasons behind it. "You're welcome here, child," he told her, his smile comforting, his voice the friendly gravel of someone who had matured into an ease with the world. "If you're more comfortable on the porch I'll fetch you some blankets. Otherwise, come on in and sit at the fire, and tell me who you are, and how you come here."
She was surprised to find herself inside a moment later, barely hearing it as the man closed and locked the door behind her. A fire burned in a stone fireplace—a softly-burring vent led into the floor—and candles set around the room gave it a cheery glow. There was a stove in the small kitchen in the far corner of the place and a fire burned there as well, two pots of water steaming gently on top of it. She glanced at the windows in this room and nodded at the sight of the black paint that covered the glass. The walls were the same logs that made up the outside, but she noticed that all the chinking had been expertly smoothed and maintained. The building gave off no light, no heat, no sound, and no reason for the creatures of darkness to suspect that a survivor of The Day made his home here.
The man's eyes twinkled as he watched her inspect the place, her attention returning to the warm, crackling fire. "Vented," he told her, and there was laughter in his tone. He was obviously proud of this, and he had reason to be; most of the homesteads she knew of had to take immense precautions if they wanted to use their fireplaces and heaters. "Out in the forest. Small animals nest at the outlet." He bustled past her. "Take your coat off, young lady," he told her, moving to the stove. "Take a chair by the fire. You look half-frozen. Warm yourself." Lilu followed this instruction, limping to the fireplace, her hands outstretched to soak in the warmth. She undid her cloak but didn't yet remove it, satisfied to be warming it and herself. Faint tendrils of steam rose from the coat, and she knew that in this pleasant, dry warmth her cloak would be dry within an hour. She found two overstuffed chairs parked within heating range of the fire, and gratefully lowered herself into the one of them that didn't look as though it was being used. She gasped in a mixture of discomfort and relief as she stretched her broken leg out, and fell silent once it was less-uncomfortable. "I'm Ward," the man told her. "Phillip Ward. This is my place."
Courtesy required that she introduce herself in return. "I am Lilu Demarais," she told him. She pulled her long gloves off, draping them on the arms of the chair, and held her pale fingers up to the fire.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Lilu Demarais," he told her with a ready smile. She hesitantly smiled back. "Twelve?" he asked her, looking her up and down as he puttered at the stove. "Thirteen?"
"Fourteen," she sighed, realizing what he was asking her, and answering with the age she appeared to be. "Nearly fifteen."
He frowned. "Good Lord, child," he said. "Where's your family? Where are you out of? What are you doing out alone on a day like this? For that matter, why are you here? My house is far enough up the slope that no one comes here by accident. Your parents—won't they be worried sick?" He stirred two mugs, then turned and joined her at the fireplace, holding one drink out to her. She took it doubtfully. "Tea," he reassured her. "Best thing in the world to warm your insides while the fire warms your outsides."
"Where did you—" she started to ask automatically, and stopped, embarrassed to be caught in nosiness. Tea was one of so many things that, for all practical purposes, didn't exist any more.
He chuckled. "I have a store. I seldom have visitors, so I don't go through it so quickly." He held his cup up to her in a silent toast and took a sip of his own.
"Thank you," she whispered, keeping her mouth shut as much as possible. The fangs that marked her as a vampire would be a dead giveaway if they showed. The first sip was good; she'd been thirsty. She felt the warmth of the liquid trickling down into her. The taste was spicy and strong, different from the tea that the farmers of her home, Ravensfork, managed to grow. She took another sip, and another, feeling her hands begin to tremble with reaction now that she was, however briefly, out of danger. "I—I am on my own now," she finally answered him truthfully.
"As am I," he told her proudly. "I've kept my place running and flourishing since the day the world went dark." He motioned grandly with his mug. "This whole forest, actually." He clucked his tongue. "'On my own' can mean many things, child," he told her comfortingly. "Can I get word to your parents or guardians that you are safe, at least?"
"No, sir," she told him, carefully making her voice and manner that of an adolescent. She seldom dealt directly with strangers any more, but she'd found that pretending to be only what she appeared to be had often helped her out of difficult situations—and had usually helped the strangers around her be more at ease with her. "My parents... I have been truly alone for several years now." She sighed and sipped at her tea.
"Why are you out today, then, when things are so much worse than usual?" he asked her again. "You must have lived somewhere safe for the past few years. Why would you leave safety to be out in this?"
"We—we needed certain... certain plants," she told him.
"Healing?" he asked her sharply. "Medicinal?"
She nodded to him, her dark eyes never leaving the fire. "Among those with whom I live, I am—am well-versed in healing, and in medical knowledge. I planted them myself," she answered without actually lying. "I searched and found a place where they would grow. I went out last night to gather them and to take them back home." She sipped her tea again, and it didn't take close examination to see her small hands shaking again. "There were others with me. They— There were many more Hunts out and about last night and this day. I became separated from those who sought to defend me." She fell silent, lost in the depths of the fire. "I fear they are all dead now. The last, just hours ago. He—I watched a Hunt take him, I—" She choked and fell silent. She wasn't pretending the grief she felt, or the fear for her own safety—or the shame in her heart. The death toll just kept rising from her foolishness and stubborn pride. She could have abandoned the crop, planting again when the time was right. She could have worked with Pat or Granny to find some other way of growing the plants, closer to home. She could have been less cocky and less self-confident in her belief in the invulnerability of her own stock of spells.
But knowing these things in no way brought back to life those who had perished because of her arrogance.
And yet, while she lived—such life as she lived—hope lived as well. She took another long sip of her tea.
"No one left," Ward said sympathetically. "That's tragic."
"Yes, sir," she said, her tone indicating that she agreed completely.
"These plants, these things you would have made into medicines," he continued, seeing that her attention wasn't on him, "did you keep them? Would they make a difference if we got you and them back to your home?"
Now a tear rolled down her cold cheek as she stared into the fire. "No," she whispered. "That is perhaps the hardest thing to bear. So many lives lost... so many... and the plants I sought... Jamie—the man who was the last to protect me—he was carrying them when the Dark took him." She sighed, and it was half a sob. "All for nothing."
Ward sipped at his own drink, letting her sit in silence with her thoughts for a moment. Then he smiled, and that smile touched his voice. "Can't help the outside world right now, and it's no replacement for lost friends and family, but I've biscuits and venison chops on the stove. Won't take but a moment to prepare more. If you've been out in the darkness that long you must be starving; there's little enough to you as it is." He chuckled to take any sting from his words.
"No, thank you," she told him, finishing her tea. "I am not hungry. Your hospitality and the warm drink were all I needed. I am so cold, and—and so frightened." She handed him the empty cup and he accepted it silently. "How long have you been here, sir?" she asked him. In part it was polite curiosity—he was obviously proud of his place—and in part caution—she wanted to know whether he was the original owner or if he'd taken it by force from someone else.
He sighed. "The world went dark for a day," he told her. "You might not be old enough to remember when it happened, although you've certainly grown up in the aftereffects. The world went dark, and has never been the same since.
"Before that? I wandered these hills when I could, content to see what I could see, content to try and learn God's will. I built this cabin, a piece at a time, each time I came up here to wander." Lilu nodded; that explained what looked like a half-cleared road into these woods. "I worked. Oh, yes. I worked in Boston. I worked with the movement of money and the production of factories, and I was very good at it, but I was never happy." He took a sip of his own tea. "That's why I'd walk these hills whenever I could. That's why I'd bring up wood, and nails and tools, and work on this house.
"I didn't expect the Day of Darkness. No one did, I think. It was by the grace of God alone that I was prepared. I was up here to walk the woods and to find the solitude and peace I needed, and to search for the purpose that had always eluded me. And the sky went black. I remember it to this day. Like a curtain of ink it flowed across, horizon to horizon, from East to West, like the light of the rising sun.
"And there were no clouds that day, but neither could I see the stars, or the full moon. Darkness, everywhere."
"Were you frightened?" she asked him gently. She remembered the events he was describing—from a very different vantage point—and having lived through the same horror she wanted to know that she wasn't alone.
"I was terrified," he told her matter-of-factly. "No light in the sky. I'd never had electricity pulled up here. I had a generator for some of my tools, but at first I didn't want to turn it on. Something—something told me that to draw light to myself would be to draw attention to myself, and that this wouldn't be a good thing.
"And I was right.
"On the radio, I listened. I listened until I wept, and I listened until I cursed, and I listened until I could do nothing but pray. I listened as the world died around me, and I wondered why God had spared me.
"At first, I thought that God had not spared me, but had left me, for having never found his purpose for me. I wept and cursed and prayed and eventually—eventually I realized that God had spared me. He had spared me so that I might yet find my purpose." He sighed happily and finished his mug of tea. "And I finally did, too."
It was warm, and quiet, the crackling of the fire like a soft, long-forgotten lullaby. Lilu caught herself drowsing, and made a half-hearted attempt to straighten up. It was easier by far to simply lean her dark head against the tall back of the chair. She hadn't expected to get the man's life story, and it didn't help that she was rapidly warming up after the freezing cold outside—and it was still daytime, her normal resting time, in spite of what it appeared to be. Nevertheless, she was trying to be polite and pay attention. "And what purpose is that, sir?" she asked him softly.
"This little forest," he told her, and she perked up a little at the hearing of this; it wasn't insubstantial personal history any more. "I keep it safe. There are things out there, creatures from the lowest levels of Lucifer's Hell, and God has given the Devil dominion over the Earth for a time, to teach the wicked the error of their ways and the virtuous that they were right all along."
This was by no means the first time she'd heard this interpretation of the events of The Day. There were many churches in the Arkham Enclave who preached this very view. She shivered in spite of herself. She knew better. Much better. "You keep the forest safe?" she asked him. She looked out past the door, and it was easy to tell that she was thinking of the man who had just sacrificed himself to save her. If he had been able to make it to these woods...
"I know that the Hunts, as people call them, are out there," Ward told her. "They are out there often, and there are things as bad or worse out there as well. Daytime is the only safe time to be outside, and even that is dangerous beyond belief if you are not prepared. One of these days... yes, one of these days, free men like myself, like those of faith in the Enclave... we will reclaim the Earth from the Devil's hordes. Then the world will be returned to us, and we will know that we finally found our true purpose in God's eyes." He laughed happily, slapping one knee as if at some delighted jest. "And I will be praised for having preserved this one small portion of God's world intact and untouched. I've done it since the day the world went dark. I'll do it as long as necessary."
He looked at her, at the sad fourteen-year-old girl she appeared to be. His eyes softened. "And you out there alone in it all." She nodded absently, her attention still out there where Jamie had died for her.
"All dead," he said again, and his voice seemed to come from a very long way away. The fire crackled, bright and warm. Lilu, terror and grief finally exhausted, felt herself moving from drowsy to sleepy. "And if all your protectors died, no one will miss you either, will they, little one?" These words brought on a prickle of alarm, but it was short-lived. She just couldn't get excited right now; the warmth and silence were conspiring to bring on sleep—perhaps even the torpor she so needed that would last the rest of the daylight hours.
Something deep inside her said that this would be a bad thing right now.
"God sent you here for a reason, little one," Ward told her gently. She felt his calloused fingers brush the bangs from her forehead, gently stroke the last tear from her cheek. His rough lips brushed her forehead.
The last thing she heard was his voice, soft and warm and honey-sweet. "You'll help me. Just like all the others."
She started and jumped and the world had changed around her.
There was light against eyelids now, pale and weak, the dim, persistent illumination that had been passing for daytime during the last two days and the more subtle brightness of the snowscape that covered these New England hills. She felt bouncing and pounding, and the cold of the snow-filled wind in her face. She heard a quick, sharp breeze and panting, rapid footsteps. Then she heard the man Ward's voice. "Go, go!" he urged someone on.
Her head hurt abominably. So did her leg. Her stomach was cramping and twisting, and she avoided throwing up only through sheer force of will. Her arms and other leg felt twisted and pressured. She tried to move, and found that she couldn't.
Startled, she opened her eyes. She blinked tears from them, quickly resolving the vision into just what she'd suspected it would be. She was out in the middle of the valley—from the looks of it, the same valley in which Jamie had died. Whatever she was in jostled her, and she cracked her head on something sharp. She frowned and tried to sit up, and found that she couldn't do that, either. She used her chin to shift her hood from her face. She felt her churning stomach twist even more with fright. Her body was solidly wrapped in quarter-inch rope. She had the naturally-greater strength of a vampire, but she was weak, and tired, and hurting, and her body was that of an adolescent girl; this rope would have strained even a vampire as old and powerful as Simon. She looked around her frantically. Her eyes widened. She was tied up in the bottom of a dog sled.
"Sir!" she coughed, and swallowed the bile in her mouth, and tried again. "Sir! What are you doing?"
There was a shocked gasp from above and behind her. Then Ward's head, covered in his own cold-weather wraps, leaned into view. His eyes blinked fuzzily behind his thick glasses. "Oh, God save you, you shouldn't be awake!"
She flinched—obviously he'd spoken truly of his faith in the Almighty—and frowned up at him, and it wasn't the polite frown of a confused young girl. "What," she repeated with more force, "are you doing?"
"You should be fading fast," he continued along his previous lines, as though he hadn't even heard her question. "You should be hearing God's voice by now."
"What. Are. You. Doing?" Lilu put every bit of her command voice into effect. Weak minds, she could affect. A singularly-focused mind, regardless of the intelligence behind it, was an effective barrier to her vampiric empathy. Ward's mind seemed this way; his focus—insane as he was beginning to sound—was too strong for her to penetrate.
"You're helping me," he told her, nothing but sympathy and good-will in his voice.
She swallowed again and took stock of her body.
Her fingers and toes were tingling, but that was fading as time passed. Once, back in the early part of her fortieth year, a young man she'd watched grow up and had learned to trust—to love—had betrayed her, poisoning her and leaving her to die. As a vampire she was proof against poisons, but her fingers and toes—and stomach—had felt like this for some time as her body had thrown off the foreign substance.
She'd never bothered to let her heart heal after that.
Her shin still ached with a dull, throbbing fire, but that was now something she was growing accustomed to. During her sixty-seventh year, while working on her physics degree at university, acquaintances she had made had taken her out for an afternoon of motorcycle riding. There had been a wet spot on the old road and the classmate with whom she'd been riding had been less expert than he'd believed. She had wound up with a broken collarbone. She remembered how long the dull, aching pain had lasted—long days even with her healing torpor—so her shin was nothing new; just inconvenient.
Her clothing was all present and in-place. Two years earlier, on her first visit to the Enclave, she had been curious and had wandered off to explore; she hadn't been to Arkham since The Day, and had thought herself safe in the wan daylight. Several men, with dark, dirty clothing and darker, dirtier intent had dragged her into a filthy back room off a trash-filled alley. She remembered the feeling of helplessness and terror as they'd pulled her clothing from her and pawed her in much the same way as had the revenant who had blooded her over a century earlier. In Arkham, the Bane Christina had been following her, and had summarily dealt with all of the men who would have assaulted her. Now, as either of those other two shameful times, she had not been violated, and she was grateful to God for that mercy.
Her hands were tied in front of her, separately, with lighter cord. The man hadn't bothered to put her gloves back on her, and her fingers were not only tingling from the effects of the poison but were rapidly approaching the point of being completely frozen. She worked them back and forth, fist and hand, struggling to get enough circulation back that she could cast a spell if, as was becoming apparent, it became necessary. "In what way can I help you when I am bound and helpless?" she asked him.
"That's how people help me, little one," he told her soothingly, his attention still more on the snowscape ahead than on her immobilized form. Indeed, in spite of the cold and the discomfort and her growing fright, she felt consciousness struggling to depart, and she knew that her vampiric system might have thrown off most of the substance with which she'd been drugged—but it was still fighting the battle. "I bring you—all of you—out here, to this forest, this other forest," he told her, pointing to the one that had, when she had passed out, been close to three miles distant, on the other side of the valley. "I bring you here, and I leave you here for the Dark. The Dark find their prey right here, and they believe that this forest is the one where people live." He seemed genuinely distressed as he continued. "The poison was quick-acting, painless, and slow to finish. The tea was poisoned." Lilu blinked hard, struggling to focus her eyes. Whatever poison the man had used on her it was dynamite, and she was confident now that if she lost consciousness again, she would not regain it in time to save herself.
There were still very few ways to permanently destroy a vampire, but the Hunts were capable of it.
"You should have been more dead than alive when I left you for the Dark," the man continued urgently. "The Dark search for the life force, and their prey has to be alive or they won't take it. You should have been so far gone that you never would have felt it as the Dark fed upon you, and your death would have served a greater purpose, drawing attention to this side of the valley and away from mine. My forest would be preserved." His voice strengthened as he remembered his holy purpose. "My forest will be preserved."
Then he seemed to remember her where she lay. His eyes narrowed with purpose. "Don't worry," he assured her, "I won't let you suffer. Your sacrifice is necessary, but your suffering isn't." He cracked a whip and the pounding of the sled increased as the dogs took flight.
The sleigh reached the distant forest after another five minutes of bumpy riding. Ward stopped it, set down a hitch for the dogs, and immediately crunched his way through the deep snow to unhook the bungee cords with which the girl had been secured.
At this point Lilu realized that she had absolutely nothing left to lose. She was going to die, very horribly and very soon, if she did nothing—and she struggled to work her cold, stiff hands into the gestures they needed to form. She hoped for something as simple as loosening Ward's knots; if she could get the ropes loose, she could free herself, or cast a much larger, more powerful spell—or both. Flight was not an option, not with her broken leg, but she could cast a spell to immobilize the man, leaving him for the Hunts when they inevitably emerged. She knew absolutely nothing of driving a dogsled—over a century's experience had not included that dubious skill—but she felt certain that if she could calm herself, and still the painful, distracting churning of her guts, she could establish empathic control over the dogs' animal minds, and steer them by remote control. Ward's cabin, back across the valley, would do for a hiding place until she could heal or figure out some way to safely call for help.
Ward heaved her out of the sled and dropped her in the snow, disrupting the attempt she'd been making. She didn't believe in cursing, but what she thought about Ward at that point in time wasn't very nice. She started again, slowly, painfully, deliberately.
Her dark eyes widened as the man pulled a six-foot-long weighted walking stick—the tip looked like it had been dipped in some molten metal—from the sled. He crunched around to stand over her, hefting the staff the whole time. He looked mournful as an old hound. "You have to be alive, when the Dark come to find you," he told her sadly, "but you don't have to experience the horror of dying beneath them."
"No! Ward, do not—!" She screamed as her world exploded in brilliant shards of bright crimson agony beneath the impact of the weighted end of the stick. She lost control her spell, concentration flickering away, doing good to maintain her hold on consciousness. At this point she could think of little but the vision-blurring pain and the blood flowing down her face and the plea for mercy she was babbling. There was another star-bright blow of agony and then she couldn't think at all, couldn't do anything but experience it and pray dimly and agonizingly for it to end.
Darkness didn't take her. Something in her wouldn't allow her to just surrender to the encroaching darkness.
"Little one, Lilu, give up," the man's words drifted to her from an infinite distance, kindness—kindness!—in his voice. She blinked tears and blood from her eyes, barely able to even think for the blind pitiless torture of the pains on her head and the blood running down her face and into her hair. Ward hefted his staff again and Lilu choked, unable to draw breath to scream—
—and the stick yanked itself into the sky, very nearly taking the startled Ward with it. "What sorcery is this?" he cried angrily.
Lilu blearily focused her eyes to see her prayer answered—a pale man-shape rocketed across the valley, aimed at the two of them. "Jamie!" she wailed and subsided into choked coughing.
Ward picked up on that approach as well. He yanked a hunting bow from his sled and nocked an arrow with the speed of a professional hunter. The solid-wood shaft bulleted at the approaching form.
Few people could see an arrow approaching with anything like enough time to react. Jamie certainly couldn't, but his reflexes had been honed by years of training with his father-in-law, a professional crime-fighter. His conscious mind hadn't registered the arrow before his subconscious was twisting him away. The barbed arrow made a long, bloody score down his unbound arm. He grunted, barely aware of the missile's impact, but didn't slow down. "Ward!" he screamed, "Stop, you stupid bastard! She's not a bad guy!"
Ward might have been clinically insane, but he was no slacker with weapons. He had another wicked arrow nocked within a second. "Kinnison?" he said, frowning, obviously never having seen Jamie flying—or having considered that he could. Before he could release his arrow three of Jamie's, pacing him like an honor guard, thudded into the human. Ward staggered, one arrow each buried in the pectoral muscles, the third deep within his belly, the silver tips of all three poking from his back. He dropped his own bow and arrow. His long body crashed to the snow, and he began to moan, struggling weakly. His fingers clutched spasmodically at the arrows, at the dark sky, at the hysterical Lilu lying so close to him, and at the pale form radiating fury that drifted swiftly over him.
Jamie circled the scene quickly, various items of metal on Ward and the dogsled twitching in a macabre imitation of life as his attention focused on them, determining what might be his next weapon. Ward stayed down—any of those arrows would've been life-threatening, and three of them guaranteed the man's death if his wounds went untreated—moaning softly, the arrows practically pinning him to the ground. Twice he moaned Jamie's name. Jamie ignored him. The dogs shifted nervously, silently; they were no threat.
Lilu cried noisily, terror and anguish and relief combining into a whirlwind of uncontrollable emotion. Blood and tears made a mess on her face. She coughed and heaved and was abruptly very, very sick onto the pristine snow as her body worked to expel the poison it had been fed.
Jamie slowed, stopped. There appeared to be no more menace for the moment.
He set down next to the girl, avoiding the mess. "Crap," he uttered. The man Ward had tied good, solid knots, several of them, and the ropes were all thick. "Sorry," he told her, struggling to draw the knife on his hip with his less-injured hand. "This is going to take a minute."
"Non, non, non!" she cried, struggling just to get his attention. "Flee! We must flee! Please, Jamie, he was waiting for the Hunt to come and take me as sacrifice—" The words were driven from her as he jerked her into the air, holding her tightly, ignoring the mess on both of them. He yelled and kicked at the dogs. When he immaterially pulled the anchor stake from the snow, the lead dog took off and the team rapidly picked up speed. The Dark didn't bother animals, and he had to hope that the straps would give way before the dogs ran into one of the less-ethereal menaces out here that did enjoy terrestrial meat. Ward's body rose from the ground, the man's moaning increasing in volume as his agony grew, and jerked bizarrely until Jamie's arrows shook themselves free of it.
For long seconds the mutant hung there, the sobbing girl in the grip of his good arm, listening to Ward moaning for mercy, for release from his pain. "I thought I knew you," he muttered, anger and disgust in his voice. He hawked and spat on the man.
Then the cold wind hit him and his passenger like a hammer as he turned and jetted back in the direction from which the dogsled tracks had come. He wasted no time on concealment now; his goal was to be firmly out of sight, away from the war zone before the battle could erupt.
Lilu blinked tears from one eye, looking up at her savior, and gasped in miserable shock. He was more injured than she was, massive bruising on his face and exposed shoulder, more cuts and lacerations and torn, stained clothing indicating that he'd already been in a major fight.
Jamie didn't slow them until they were within the edges of Ward's forest. He drifted another hundred yards back before they were concealed from sight of the spot they'd just fled.
Then he slid them back toward the valley, slowly, cautiously, and found a stand of three trees behind which the two could float unseen and watch what happened out there at that distant site of imminent death.
At the top of the ridge across the way there was a gray-silver shimmering, as though something not quite seen was sliding like a slow river down the slope, following the course of the land, into nooks and crannies and bounded by the fjord-like valley walls.
Slowly, patiently, that flow of nearly-unseen turned in the direction of the dark, weakly-struggling spot in the snow.
Lilu turned her face into Jamie's shoulder, her noisy, coughing sobs gradually fading to a quiet, gentle crying. Jamie, grim-eyed, kept watching until the Hunt swirled up and flowed off in another direction. In the near-darkness he could still make out a darker spot there in the snow, but it was spread out much wider, and Jamie knew that this was just the parts that the Dark hadn't wanted. He kept watching until the Hunt had disappeared completely from sight. "There," he finally said grimly, "went someone who picked the wrong sacrifice."
It took him long, long seconds to relax, but he knew he had to, and quickly; Lilu needed him. "Hey," he finally said to the crying girl, "hey. Easy. It's okay. I've got you now. You're all right." He gave her an awkward hug, laying his cheek against her dark hair. "It's okay, it's okay. I've got you. I've got you. It's okay."
He turned and drifted back deeper into the forest. The dogsled trail was still clear here; wherever they wound up in the next few minutes he was going to have to come out here and smooth out as much of it as he could. The winds were stronger and the snow intermittent out in the valley; within a few hours the trail would be nonexistent. And the Hunt that had taken Ward would assume that he was the only one on the sled. Jamie didn't expect them back—not soon, anyway—but caution was never misplaced in this world.
Their drifting speed was better than walking speed would have been. Within ten minutes he reached the clearing with the cabin. "So this is where you lived," he said to Ward's memory. His voice started with disgust, all aimed at the man who had made this his home, but quickly turned to a kind of amazed satisfaction. The place was better-looking than he'd figured it would be; certainly larger than his own, and from the looks of things, more of a going concern, ragtag as the cabin seemed. This was good. They were going to need resources, and soon.
Lilu was motionless in his arms, as much from reaction as from terrified exhaustion. He shook her gently to focus her attention on him. "Is there anyone besides that murderer in the house?" he asked. She shook her head, lip trembling, even after several quiet minutes still on the verge of hysteria.
The door handle yielded to his magnetic manipulation, and the door shut quietly behind them as he drifted over to the couch. He muttered an apology as he let her down. She gasped as her injured leg took her weight and collapsed onto the sofa. Jamie took the time to get his backpack off before pulling out his leatherman. He knelt with difficulty, and began worrying at the knots that held the girl. One, two, then the last of them gave way. He unwrapped her hastily, then coiled the ropes, unwilling to waste perfectly good resources. He slowed and stopped as she curled up on the couch, her weeping beginning again. He hesitated. She didn't like him, and he wasn't certain about her.
Then he was kneeling beside her. "Shhh," he told her. "C'mon. You don't use a couch when your traveling buddy's here." He awkwardly pulled her around to him and held her close as her hysteria finally worked its way out. A century of life had been filled with momentous events and adventure galore, but little of it could match the events of the last day or so in this woman's life. She was tired and hurting and frightened and lonely, and all Jamie could do was hold her close, give her someone to cling to, and let her know that she wasn't alone. He made no sound as her slender arms tightened around his wounded form with inhuman strength.
It took a great many minutes for her terror to work its way out; she'd had a lot saved up. Eventually, though, muffled screams gave way to racking sobs that gradually turned into quiet sniffling and finally hiccups. He kept his arm around her, holding her close, stroking her hair and murmuring reassurance to her, and in the end, she was still.
When she stiffened beneath his arm, he figured the old Lilu was back. He let her pull away without comment. She wouldn't look at him. Her face was blotched and red from crying, and messy with dried blood and vomit. He lightly touched the bruises, sucking in his breath at them, but also noting that, only about a half-hour out, they were closing and healing. "Hang on," he told her.
On the stove was a pot of gently-steaming water; he assumed Ward had intended it for tea or soup. He found a rag on the counter and wetted it down. He put his arm around the girl and, more carrying than steadying, helped her back to the easy chairs at the fire. He got her cloak undone, dumping it on the floor, and helped her sit down. He knelt beside her. He took a moment to remove her boots and socks, setting them up next to the fire to dry. She flinched from the first touch of the wet rag, but held still after that as he washed the blood and mess from her forehead and face. "There," he told her quietly after a moment's work, "maybe you'll feel a little better now." She nodded silently, still miserable, too worn out to really experience it. "I know it's a stupid question, but—how do you feel?"
She sighed tremblingly. "My head hurts," she told him softly. "My leg hurts. I am nauseous from the remainder of the poison he gave me. I am cold, but I am warming before the fire." She leaned back in the chair, head propped up on one padded side. Her voice hovered on the brink of tears as she continued. "I am more frightened than ever in my life, and I am so weary that I have no strength to feel any of this." Her dark eyes closed, and slowly opened, and focused, and she took note of his own condition. "What—what happened to you?"
He painfully levered his way to his feet and staggered over to the other chair. He took the time to unzip and remove his boots, leaning his head back and closing his eyes for a moment of sheer bliss. He talked to her without opening his eyes.
"There was that manlike thing," he told her. "That's the first one of those I've ever seen."
"They are called Miseries," the girl informed him quietly. "They are rare, but they are not unheard-of, and in many ways they are more dangerous than the Dark."
Jamie waved his hand in tired acceptance of her words. "I think she was just expecting a human. She didn't take very long to deal with. Miseries don't handle my arrows any better than the average Hunt does." Lilu said nothing, dark eyes unblinking. She could tell how weary he was just from his bearing. "Weird thing about it? Once I killed her, she disintegrated."
"Many of the creatures of the darkness do," she pointed out.
"Yeah, but that's where the weird comes in. She disintegrated into goo, and for just a little bit—twenty seconds? Thirty?—there was a woman there, a human being. She was dead too, but... I dunno. It's like that thing, that Misery, was a shell around a regular woman." He managed to open his eyes and look at her. "Know anything about that?"
She shook her head; she truly didn't. "What then?" she asked him. "You are more injured than you were when you left me."
"This 'Kamena' gal had a pet Hunt with her," Jamie continued. "Three days ago I had thirty of my special arrows. Thirty. I'm down to three now." He coughed tiredly. "I can't fight another Hunt with just three arrows. That's not enough to keep 'em busy. They can get through my guard. I can't do that again." He motioned weakly at his torn body. "That's how all this happened."
"Did you defeat them?" she asked him quietly.
He nodded. "Barely. But they trashed me doing it. If I hadn't had to come find you I'd be lying out there frozen in the snow."
"I see," she whispered, wondering at his words.
"I came back to where I'd left you," he told her. "I tried to find you, but your tracks disappeared after about twenty yards."
"I am sorry," she told him, shifting to bring her feet closer to the fire. "I was frightened, and I thought you dead beneath the Hunt. I fled into the forest and I remembered what you had showed me about covering my trail."
"Good girl," he told her with a weak thumbs-up. "We'll turn you into a survivalist yet."
"I hardly think so," she responded coldly, her tone making it clear what she thought of anyone who had to live so rudely and crudely off the land. He sighed at the return of the standard snarky Lilu.
She held her head up, worked her neck and shoulders and legs. Just sitting still for a few minutes had helped greatly; her head no longer ached so much, and her stomach was settling down nicely as her body neutralized what of the poison it had not violently rid itself of. She was certain that with a good day's rest—preferably torpor—she would appear normal again. Her leg still ached, but there was no short-term help for that.
Her dark eyes darted to the rags on the floor, steaming gently before the fire. Then she looked at him as he snuggled tiredly into the firm, non-moving chair. He'd seen to her comfort without thought of his own.
She hated being indebted to strangers.
Jamie opened his eyes as the girl levered herself to her feet. "Hang on," he told her, bracing his arms on the chair, "I'll give you a hand. What'cha need?"
"Non," she told him. "Remain seated. Rest. I am not going far." Leaning on chairs and tables, she clumsily made her way to a small room in which she had glimpsed a tub. Sure enough, there was a medicine cabinet with a small mirror in which she failed to see herself and a toilet. She was surprised in spite of herself; during what little conscious time she had spent with Ward she had wound up classing him as a lunatic, and lunatics seldom did this well at designing things.
She returned to the main room a moment later clutching a first-aid box. She felt her strength returning with every passing moment, so it was with little difficulty that she dragged her chair over to face Jamie's. He opened his eyes to watch as she pawed through the supplies. "Honestly," she said disgustedly, "there is no order whatsoever to these supplies. The man probably stole them from all of his 'victims' who stopped in."
"Tell me what happened here," he asked her. With the wet rag she efficiently went about cleaning his wounds and getting blood rinsed from him, but she told him what had transpired—wandering alone through the forest, and finding the cabin, and the man's friendly greeting that had covered a dark heart and darker intentions.
He perked up when she told him what Ward had done. "Poison?" he echoed. She nodded, turning his head to better reach his other cheek. "You handling that okay? Do we need to find you something for it?"
"I do not know what kind of poison it is," she told him, "which I assure you makes it very difficult to neutralize. But my body is immune to such things." She sighed. "My body expelled most of it back at—back there. You cannot kill a vampire with poison." She went on to tell him of awakening on the dogsled and of Ward's attempt to 'nearly' kill her.
"How did you find me?" she finally asked him.
"After your tracks disappeared," he told her, "I figured I wasn't going to find you without some luck. Give me a couple of days and I could've tracked you, yeah, but I wasn't sure how long you'd last out here alone."
"Not that long, I fear," she admitted.
"I chanced going high, hoping maybe I'd see some other sign of you." He focused a dark eye on her. "You made pretty good time for a gimp!"
Her eyes went to half-mast as she began stowing her medical supplies. "I shall take that as a compliment."
"Anyway," he continued, "I didn't see you, and I wasn't finding any sign that you'd passed the way I was looking. I didn't see any tracks, no uroth or anything, so I didn't figure you'd been snapped up. But I was starting to have trouble concentrating." He breathed deeply, eyes closed. "I knew if I set down to rest I wouldn't get up, and you'd be lost out there on your own." She sighed, angrily blinking at the sting in her eyes. "I went high one last time. About then I heard what sounded like a scream, way out across the valley. I looked, and saw two people. It was the only lead I'd had so far, so I headed in that direction.
"Saw him hitting you," he ground out. "Fastest I've ever gone. He shot me. I shot him. I mostly dodged him. He didn't dodge me." He fell silent.
"Your actions and words," she told him slowly, "indicated that you knew this man Ward."
He nodded. "We'd met a couple of times. Down at the Foxfire place. He was one of their regulars too. We weren't friends, but we figured if we lived in the same area, we might have to help each other out some time. I didn't know where his place was, and he didn't know where mine was." He swallowed. "One of the Foxfire guys had disappeared on trip up to his place. They'd gone out looking for him, but never found him. Ward helped. Or maybe that should be 'helped.' If he was always on the lookout for someone to drag out there for a sacrifice, I've got a hunch that's what happened to the Foxfire guy."
"According to him, it is what happened to a number of people in the last few years," she informed him.
His lips thinned. "That few people left in the world, and he had to kill more of 'em." Sfhe cocked her head; she wouldn't have expected that observation from this man. He sighed heavily. Then he forced his eyes open, meeting hers. His fingers trembled as they came up and gently touched the bruises on her forehead. "What about these?" he asked her. "Do I need to put something on them?"
She shook her head. "They are healing rapidly simply sitting where it is still and warm. And they are much easier to deal with than the broken leg. Medicine would be a waste." She fell silent and looked down at her hands where they rested on the medicine box.
He let the silence run as long as he could before he decided that one of them was going to have to say it out loud, and that it behooved him, as her protector, to do so. "You need blood, don't you?" She nodded, still not looking up. He looked into the fire, his thoughts racing. He still wasn't a hundred percent sure that she wouldn't attack him if she got desperate enough—in spite of her words and those of her companions—but he knew he had to get her back to Ravensfork intact, and if that meant finding a source of blood for her, then so be it.
He painfully eased himself up and staggered to the back door. She watched him until he put his hand on the handle. "Where are you going?" He didn't answer. She continued to stare at the back door as it shut behind him. For once she had no idea what was running through his head.
Two minutes later he was back. He lumbered over to her and helped her to her feet. He more carried her than supported her; all she had to do was step occasionally with her uninjured leg, her bare feet brushing the steps on the way down to the yard.
Behind the house was a pair of smaller buildings. In one were a number of spirited chickens, all loudly protesting how long it had been since they'd been fed. In the other were seven pigs, from medium-sized to a huge sow. None of them seemed uncomfortable in the presence of people. "Will any of these do?" he asked her. She nodded quietly, pointing to the pigs. He steadied her while he tied her long skirts up around her knees, and lifted her over the fencing into the pen. "Call me when you're done."
Outside, he looked the place over. Ward's house was as raggedy-looking on the outside as his own had been, but the inside definitely showed that the man had liked living comfortably. From what Lilu had told him the man had built the place himself. Jamie felt more embarrassed than anything else; he'd simply hung around the double-wide, making no effort to improve it or do anything positive with it. Ward might have been technically insane, but he'd been more responsible and creative than Jamie had been.
He traced the chimney redirect, and when it disappeared into the ground he followed it with his extended senses to a large clump of bushes and shrubs an eighth of a mile away. He didn't approach it; a handful of rabbits was living comfortably there. He grinned, for the first time in days. At least someone was profiting from all of this.
Back at the house he observed that the pump pipes were well-insulated, and wondered what the chances were that he could heat some water for washing. "What are you looking for?" Lilu's quiet voice asked him from the silence.
He jumped. "Geez!" He caught his breath. "You should've called me," he told her. "I'd've come and gotten you."
His eyes silently searched her face, but saw nothing. She could feel his look. "I cleaned up before I came back, sir." He nodded tiredly, accepting the courtesy for what it was.
Back inside her got her sitting in her chair again, and went back to the kitchen. He thumped around for a moment until he found a large old pot. He drew water to fill it and set it on the stove burner that was already hot. There was a pile of wood next to the stove; he stoked the burner. "What are you doing?" Lilu asked curiously.
"I'm beaten up and messed up," he reminded her. "Less bloody thanks to you, but still a mess. As long as this place is warm—that's a nice fireplace—I'm thinking I'd like to wash off. There's a tub in there. I figure on using it. I'll need hot water to do it." She nodded; this was certainly unobjectionable. "Besides," he added, "Ward had tea. Figure I'll make me some. Want a mug?"
Normal food wasn't necessary for Lilu—and the last mug of tea she'd drunk had led to all manner of unhappy occurrences—but she recognized that he was trying hard to fit her into his world. "Certainly." She looked calmly at him. "I prefer mine without poison, please."
He waggled his eyebrows at her. "Nah," he responded. "You already told me it'd be wasting perfectly good poison." The lowering of her eyelids told him that the joke had run its course. "I'm going to use some of those venison pieces and a couple of biscuits from his cold box for dinner," he told her. "Want some?"
She managed a thin smile, the psychologist in her taking note that he relaxed even at that much of an expression. "No, thank you. Poisonless tea will do."
He came and sat down in the other comfy chair to eat his makeshift meal biscuits. She was content to toast her feet and hands before the fire. Neither felt driven to make conversation.
By the time he finished eating, the water on the stove was boiling. The tub had a hand pump beside it; he used it to draw water for the bath. "One-third boiling, two-thirds well water, oughta be warm enough to clean but cool enough to survive." He put a couple of rags in the tub, and painfully started getting out of his clothing.
Lilu clambered from her chair and stumped over to him. When she helped him peel the blood-crusted suit from his shoulders and back he made a nonverbal sound of protest, clutching the clothing to him. "I can get it!"
She smiled, unseen, at the color his ears turned. "I have seen naked men before, sir, and you are no more or less impressive than any of them were." She was businesslike getting his snowsuit pulled off.
He clung to his underwear. "I'll get those!" She allowed him that small dignity. Her hand under his arm, supporting him as he sat down in the tub, was surprisingly strong; it was easy to forget that this petite, girlish vampire was stronger than he was. Once he was seated, she pulled up a stool and began washing his back, paying attention to the cuts, scrapes, gouges and bruises. He flinched occasionally, but remained quiet. She could feel him relax as she worked. Once she was done with his back and arms, she allowed him to finish the rest of the job himself.
"I guess I'm as done as I'm going to get," he said after about fifteen minutes. She held a towel up for him as he stood. He wrapped it around himself and stepped out of the tub. He helped her up, and assisted her back to her fireplace chair. He stopped by his battered backpack, pulling out a pair of gym shorts, and disappeared into the bathroom.
When he emerged, dry and dressed, she waved him over. She spent the next couple of minutes replacing the bandages on the worst of his wounds. "Did you pack a sewing kit?" she asked him as she worked.
She felt him shiver. "No, I left that at the house," he told her. "And from the sound of your voice, I'm probably glad I did."
Her fingers were light as they brushed the deepest wounds on his back. "Three of these are large enough that they should be stitched," she told him calmly. "You run the risk of pulling them open again, and thus of infection."
"No novocaine," he pointed out. "No thanks."
"As you wish," she told him, the tone of her voice indicating what she thought of people who ignored professional medical advice. "Go to the sink, please." She limped into the bathroom and drew some of the bathwater out. She bent him over the sink, poured lukewarm water on his head, and handed him a thin bar of soap.
It took him only a moment to lather and scrub at his hair, and she used the remainder of the bathwater to rinse it. He dried his hair and turned a dark eye on her. "This was all the difference in the world," he told her. "Want me to heat some more water for you?"
She looked from the pot to the stove to the tub. "I would dearly love to be clean," she told him, "but I do not know—"
He solved her spiritual dilemma by hauling the big pot back to the pump. A moment's work filled it, and he set it back on the stove burner. He pulled out a smaller pot, filled it, and set it on a back burner; he wanted it warm rather than hot. He went to the tub and pulled the stopper. When it was empty he began pumping water back into it. "I'll give him this," he said admiringly, "he built this place so he could live comfortably. A pump in the kitchen and one in the bathroom." He grinned. "Looks like one on the toilet tank, too." She nodded, unsmiling.
In another ten minutes the water on the stove was boiling. He lugged the water into the bathroom, dumping it into the near-freezing well water. He stirred it around. "Closer to hot than warm. How d'you prefer it?"
"That sounds fine," she told him. She levered herself up from her chair, and he was there, hands under her arms, helping her into the bathroom. He set her down on the little stool and knelt in front of her. Pushing her skirts out of the way, he carefully unfastened the splints and removed them. He looked at it critically. "I know I'm not a doctor," he told her, "but it doesn't look like it's healing very fast. Looking at you handle those bruises, I thought vampires healed like lightning."
"I am a doctor," she said quietly, "and no, it is not. Simple things, such as cuts and bruises, heal very quickly, yes," she told him. "Burns can take longer, as there is deeper damage to the flesh, but even those can be healed within a few days, given proper rest and a good supply of—" She broke off and looked away.
"Blood," he said. She nodded, looking emotionlessly back at him. "Look. We're stuck with each other for a while. Yeah, you drinking blood bothers me. But it's not something you have to tiptoe around with me. Hopefully whichever of those animals you took will help you."
She nodded, dark eyes searching his face for any sign of lies or treachery. Her lips thinned. "I took blood from the largest, the sow," she told him. "I did not drain her, but stopped so that she would recover within a few days." She felt him relax at this. "And yes, it helped. But knitting bone takes more energy, more rest and more blood, than other injuries. Were we back home, where I had resources and a steady supply of blood, I might be healed within a week. Under conditions like this, it could take two or three. Nearly as long as it might take you."
His eyebrow went up as he caught up to her dialogue. "A doctor?" His tone made it clear what he thought of that assertion. "Okay. I mean, yeah. Good girl on the pig." He splashed the water in the tub. "Call me if you need a hand," he told her.
He made it to the door before he heard her whimper.
She'd managed to undo her dress, buttons and belt, but when she'd tried to stand up she'd found that her leg wouldn't support her. Jamie hesitated. He knew perfectly well that she was stubborn enough to try and handle this without assistance, and that she was going to make her leg worse by doing so. And she'd been good enough to aid him a moment ago.
She jumped when he came up behind her. "Here," he told her, "let me help you."
"No!" she told him firmly. "I do not wish to have you—" She broke off. She sighed angrily. she'd admitted to being a doctor. She knew perfectly well she would hurt herself worse with her pride. She huffed. "Very well. But keep your hands to yourself, sir."
He held her up while she got out of her stockings and underwear. She leaned on him and let her dress and slip slide to the floor. He was gentle and impersonal as he set her in the tub, and he worked a thin board up under her injured leg to keep it straight. He avoided joking or teasing, knowing how uncomfortable this was making her just because of how uncomfortable it was making him.
He sat down on the little stool and worked at scrubbing her back and shoulders for her as she'd done for him. At first she was stiff as a board, but she gradually realized that he meant her no harm or disrespect, and she relaxed beneath his ministrations.
"I've been thinking," he told her, seeking to engage her in distracting conversation. "I'm banged all the heck up. I could use some rest before we keep on. You're healing, but not very quickly, and you've been going without as much rest or blood as you need."
"Do you have a solution to these problems?" she responded, a touch of disdain in her voice, lifting one arm so that he could work on it.
"Yeah, actually," he said, a touch of acid in his own response. His free hand gestured at the bathing room and the house just beyond it. "This place. Ward. Apparently he lived here safely since The Day. Figure if he can stay here four years, we can stay a couple of days."
"But I need to return to Ravensfork," Lilu protested firmly, looking at him over her shoulder. "I thought you understood—"
"I do," he told her, "I know. But with you crippled and me hurting too much to concentrate, I just don't see it happening. Not right this instant. It's daytime now. After you're cleaned up, we'll re-bind that leg and then you rest. We'll switch off at night. I'll rest, you find something to occupy you." She opened her mouth to protest further and he bulled over her. "No. I'm serious. This has been a train wreck since we met, and the train's just now slowing down. Let's take a little time and give things a chance to run a little smoother, okay?"
She was silent. She didn't agree with his assessment or suggestion—he could tell this—but it occurred to her that she could argue better with him when they had both rested. She nodded jerky agreement.
He finished with her back and shoulders. "Okay," he told her, handing her the rag and rising to his feet, "you finish up. Soak as long as you like. There's no hurry. I've got some stuff to do anyway. Call me when you're ready to get out." She nodded curtly and held very still until he'd shut the bathroom door behind him.
She looked angrily at the rag in her hands, and began to slowly bathe herself. She was angry that her return to her home was now going to be delayed, and she was angry that he had made this decision without consulting her first. She could have suggested a half-dozen ways for the two of them to be back on the trail almost immediately, most of which involved minimal discomfort or inconvenience to him, and she was tempted to do so as soon as she was clean.
But she was smart enough as well to realize that they had made it less than a third of the way to her home from his wrecked one, and he had been badly-injured in the process—completely as a result of having to protect her. He'd said off-handedly that, had he been alone, he could have been at Ravensfork hours ago. She had no reason to disbelieve him.
She had been studying his humanoid, bane-like paranormal physiology as well, and had been carefully noting things he apparently never had—such as his increased need for sustenance during long-term use of his powers. He had put his dizziness and weakness down to his injuries, and indeed she wondered how he'd remained conscious at all with the two deepest ones—but she knew as well what could happen to athletes or diabetics who incorrectly handled their bodies' needs. The physician in her decided to monitor his food intake—primarily as a research project, to give herself something to do; Lilu hated forced inactivity—and partially to insure that she made it home intact.
The thought occurred to her—as it had occurred to her several other times in the past half-day—that if she were to cast a spell to let her companions at Ravensfork know where she was, they could in all probability have people here within a few hours, enough people to get her home in speed and safety.
But she was now quite confident that the Dark—some or all of the creatures from that strange otherwhere that had been so horrible to see—could sense sorcery. Or her sorcery, in any case. At the Homestead, she and her fellow sorceresses, Patricia and Granny, practiced their magics behind layer after layer of wards and cloaks and shields, and this was the only thing that had preserved Ravensfork's anonymity in this nightmare world. As much as she hated the idea of delay—or of being stuck in this small house with this psychotic vampire-hater—she was forced to admit that laying over for a day or two probably would be the best thing all around.
Once she had admitted this to herself she found herself relaxing. Still slowly sponging herself off, she took the time to look around the small room. This bathing chamber looked as though it had been a later addition to the log cabin itself. The walls were solid and thick, the better to keep the cold out and the warmth within. The toilet was a clever one; the water tank was gravity-fed, and had a hand pump alongside it, even as Jamie had pointed out, to refill the top tank when such was needed. She blinked, then smiled in tired disbelief; it had been four endless years since civilization had collapsed, but there was a half-used roll of toilet paper hanging beside the toilet.
It was close to a half-hour later before she decided that she was done. The near-hot water had cooled to lukewarm, and she could think of no other dirt or grime that required her attention. "Sir," she called out. There was no response. "Sir!" she called again, the silence of the place getting to her. She could easily envision him having stepped out of the house into an ambush of the Dark, or a wandering uroth or a pack of slarachnids or any of the myriad menaces that haunted this new, dark world. With a broken leg she'd have little chance of easy survival, and knowing that she would simply lie there, growing weaker and weaker but never actually dying—this terrified her. "Jamie!" she screamed.
There was a bam on the door and Jamie stumbled in, rubbing at his forehead. "Ow. Lilu? You okay?" She could hear him fighting the irritation out of his voice; she knew he'd heard the fear in hers. "I'm right here. It's okay."
"I thought perhaps something had happened to you," she stammered, "and I—I—" She stuttered to a halt, fright giving way to anger. "You could have answered me sooner!"
He raised an eyebrow at her. "I shall strive to do better, Madame," he told her sarcastically.
She laid the washrag to the side, hands held to her chest. "I am through now," she told him.
He snapped his fingers. "Pull the plug," he told her. "Let the water out. Be right back." He disappeared into the kitchen. Curiously, she did so, shivering as the water dropped, leaving her sitting in the cool breezes. He came back a moment later, one of the gently-steaming pots trailing him like a faithful balloon. "Lean over," he ordered. She frowned, but did as he'd told her to.
She gasped at the warm water that he poured on her head. She trembled as he gathered the rest of her long dark hair and thoroughly wetted it as well. He handed her the soap, and she slowly lathered her hair. "While you were washing you," he told her, "I washed everything else. Eventually we'll be completely clean again."
"This is good," she told him from under a pile of thick, dark, wet hair. "I am ready to rinse now." She gasped again as the water poured over her, and she worked her fingers in her hair to make sure all the soap was out.
"Okay," he told her. "Stand up so we can finish."
"My leg will not support me," she reminded him with some irritation.
"I know," he told her. "Give me credit for thinking it through. Stand on your good leg. Lean on me with both arms." He helped her up out of the water, and she leaned heavily on him. He grinned at her embarrassed glare. "I've bathed babies. Next to that, you're nothing." The smaller second pot tipped itself over her, and the rest of the warm water washed the remainder of the soap from her long hair and small body.
He picked up the big, thick towel he'd brought along, wrapped it around her, and lifted her out of the tub. She held the towel tightly around herself as he carried her into the living room. "Get yourself dried off," he told her, setting her down on the couch and dropping another towel onto her sopping-wet head. "I'll get splint stuff." She toweled her hair industriously; by the time he returned her normally-immaculate ebony mane was ruffled and flyaway. She puffed strands away from her face as he knelt beside the couch. He handed her a bright yellow t-shirt proclaiming the upcoming tour of a group of singers long dead.
She eyed it distastefully. "This is not mine," she told him. "It looks like one of your t-shirts."
He nodded. "Should be big enough on you to do for a nightgown. Go ahead and slip it on while I'm working on your leg."
"I prefer my own clothing, sir," she told him icily.
He shrugged and motioned toward the fireplace. She looked and for the first time saw all of their clothing dripping dry before the fire. "You're welcome to it," he told her, pulling the towel back from her shin. "Even in front of the fire the stuff won't be dry for a while, but if you just like being cold and wet, they're right there."
Her glare focused on him. "Avert your eyes, please, sir," she ordered.
He frowned. "I've already seen everything you've got," he pointed out, tightly wrapping the ace bandage around her leg.
"Assisting me in bathing is one thing," she told him coldly. "Watching me dress myself is something else again." She locked glares with him. "Would you willingly appear naked before me without good reason?"
He blinked, and she could tell by the change of expression on his face that he honestly hadn't thought it through like that. He sighed. "I'm sorry," he told her. He tied the bandage off and turned to sit down facing away. Without undue haste she slid the towel down and slipped into the tee. She made sure that it was pulled down as far as it would go—nearly to her mid-thigh—and tapped him on the shoulder. He glanced around, saw that she was decent, and smiled encouragingly. She didn't return the gesture.
"May I have my underwear please?" she asked him.
He shrugged. "Again, sure, if you like cold and wet," he told her, putting the splints in place and gently tightening the straps. He didn't look at her. "Took a little time to get them extra-clean," he said quietly, and she felt her face flush. "Since that's all you have, I figured you might at least like them non-stained and non-smelly."
She glared at the sofa back, angry and embarrassed. But she realized that he'd made that extra effort out of courtesy, and courtesy demanded that she respond. "I—I was very frightened when you—when you—" He nodded, tugging at a split strap. "SooJin said that she had rinsed them out, but they still smelled very badly."
"Your slip and dress, too," he told her, still focusing on the splints. "They'll be dry eventually, and you should be able to wear 'em without being embarrassed." He pulled the straps around so that there wouldn't be loose pieces flapping about. "There. We need to try it out now." He looked up at her. "I don't have the stuff to make a bracing cast. You should be able to walk, as long as you take it easy, but you're going to have to lean on something, me or the furniture. If I can find the stuff I'll make you a crutch or a cane. How's that sound?"
"Thank you," she whispered. She hadn't expected him to be this solicitous. It wasn't the kind of person he'd seemed to be when he'd cursed her and staked her. Still distrusting, she was curious of his motives. "Why are you doing all of this for me?"
"Partly..." He hesitated. "Partly it's because Simon and the others all told me, over and over, how important you are. Like you've got some way of making this world go back to the way it was. If that's true, then it's my job to protect you, regardless, and keeping you safe and reasonably happy comes under that heading."
"I see," she said neutrally. It was at least a logical response, one she would have to give some thought to in the next few hours.
"'Restoring it'," he continued uncertainly. "Does that mean putting everything back the way it was before The Day? Everything that was destroyed?" He hesitated. "Everyone that died?"
She looked at her hands in her lap. "No," she said simply.
He was silent for a moment. "But all the evil stuff's gone?"
"As you say," she quietly confirmed. He nodded.
He looked away from her, and she could tell that he was embarrassed—and ashamed. "Partly... I'm not apologizing for staking a vampire. Vampires did this. Ruined the world. Took my—" He choked. "But I guess you're not all bad vampires. Simon and SooJin and the others, they say you're one of the good guys." He sighed heavily. "I'm sorry I tried to kill you. I was wrong. I nearly queered it for the world. So I'm trying to make up for it."
He clambered to his feet, and gently lifted her from the couch. She held tightly to his arms as he steadied her. He gradually released her, and she stood on her own. She stumbled on her first step, and he caught her light body easily. Her cheeks were blazing. "You hurt?"
"No," she told him. "I mean, yes, it hurts where it is broken, but the bindings do not, although they are not comfortable."
"If you can bear it during the day," he told her, "we can try going with just a tight bandage at night. When you sleep, I mean." He frowned and circled a finger at his cheeks.
"That is not pain, sir," she told him. "I am embarrassed at wearing nothing but a t-shirt in front of a stranger."
"Ah." He took her little hand in his and shook it. "I'm Jamie Kinnison. I like bacon, motorcycles, and I followed the New England Revolution when there was still a team to follow. Pleased to meet you."
For a moment her slender fingers were limp in his grasp. Then she grimaced and decided that she might as well relax and enjoy it. She shook his hand back, very minimally. "I am Lilith Lunette Demarais," she told him. She was silent. "You may call me Lilu." He nodded encouragingly. "I enjoyed soccer as well," she told him quietly. She looked curiously at him. "I, too, enjoy motorcycles. Riding on them."
"Outstanding," he praised her. He cocked his head. "Not pleased to meet me?"
"Not particularly, no," she told him truthfully. He groaned and clutched at his chest as though he'd taken a shot.
"Well, anyway, now we're not strangers, right?" he asked her, receiving a dark eye-roll for his troubles. He stepped back and held his arms out. "Can you walk to me? Or at all?" She tried twice before admitting defeat. She leaned heavily on the back of one of the chairs. "S'okay. I can carry you if you need to move somewhere. If you're going to go lay down and sleep now, I'll see about working on that cane while you do." He picked up the biggest towel and wrapped it around her as he picked her up. "I need you to take a look at something real quick," he told her as he carried her out the front door.
She shivered in the cold of the outside world. "Real quick," he said, and she felt him shiver as well in his t-shirt and shorts. "Whatever it is that you guys said was out here. Is it still here?"
Lilu closed her eyes and leaned over crossed hands for a long seconds, her unkempt ebony mane taking on a grayish-white shine. Then she shivered again, and this time it wasn't from the cold. "Yes," she told him softly, "it is still out, and it is a stronger presence than it was. We should go back inside now."
Inside he took her back to the couch, taking the towels to the bathroom to hang up for drying. "I need to brush my hair," she told him, lips drawn to the side in frustration.
"Just the thing," he said, holding up a battered hairbrush from the table beside the couch. "Thought you might want it." He sat down behind her and began brushing, starting from the bottom and working his way up. She turned a questioning look at him over her shoulder. He grinned. "My wife had long hair," he told her. "She loved having me help with it." His grin became sad. "My little girl had a head full of hair, and if momma was getting her hair brushed, Becky had to have hers brushed too." He shrugged and she slowly turned back around. "I got lots of practice."
"You do not have to," she told him softly, leaning into the brushing. "I accept your apology."
"You want to do it yourself, be my guest," he told her, working out a snag. "I just thought I'd offer. Figured it'd make you sleepy quicker." As if to punctuate this thought she yawned hugely, and then blushed. "Just like that, yeah."
"Excuse me," she offered.
"You're fine," he told her. He brushed more. "I've been thinking about this place, though," he told her.
"And what have you been thinking about it?" she asked him politely.
"Well, the way I figure it, you guys wrecked my place," he told her.
"I did not—" she began to automatically dispute.
"You helped," he bulled over her protest. "'Aye moost deeg ahp my cahsmeek asparagoose right zis instant ohr eet weell looz ahl ahf its vahst meesteecahl flavoor'." She huffed at him. "Anyway, my place is gone. I hope I can salvage a few things, but we'll see. This place, though, it's intact. It's better than the place I had—bigger and warmer and actually constructed to keep the Dark from noticing it. I figure, you've got Ravensfork so you don't need it, so I get first dibs."
"You wish to remain here?" she asked him quietly.
"I was thinking so," he told her slowly, concentrating on her hair. "It's not like I have many options. Of the homesteads I know best, the Robinsons are already crowded—two of them keep wanting to come back and live with me, and this place'd be big enough for two or three of us if we were friendly—and the Foxfire folks are, well, kind of loopy. Not the kind of people that I'd want to spend my nights around. I'd rather sleep alone than have to sleep with one eye open." She could hear the grin in his voice. "I take Pen and Tam up on their offer and I won't have to sleep alone much longer anyway."
"Are they good women?" she asked him politely.
He was quiet as he worked at one fair-sized tangle. "Yeah," he told her. "Hard-working. Friendly. Nice-looking. We've gotten to be good friends in the last couple of years. I know they'd rather be out in their own family place than stuck there forever." She heard him breathe deeply. "Be nice to have some babies around the house, too. Kids are great. And they sure want 'em."
She was silent for a moment as she gave this startling revelation thought, shifting when either of them felt a need to work on a particular tangle. "Have you not considered staying at Ravensfork?" she asked him. "You appear to be a Bane, and there are several such working for Simon. SooJin leads them, but Douglas and Christina are not the only ones there. There are many tasks to be accomplished, for both a Bane and for one such as yourself, skilled in the repair of things. Ravensfork is large, and not all of its rooms are occupied." She felt herself getting a little too enthusiastic and toned herself down. She could easily live without him as a new science project. "I am certain that Simon would offer you a place there."
Jamie was quiet for another moment, still brushing. "I've been out on my own for four years," he told her slowly. "We've already seen that I'm not so good any more at behaving in a civilized manner."
"I would grant you that," she told him evenly. He snorted. "Still, even the occasional murderous lunatic can be taught manners." She shrugged, setting her hair in motion. "Case in point, the ability to brush another's hair without discomfort to her."
"Whaddya mean murderous?" Jamie responded indignantly. His hands never stopped their gentle brushing. "I might allow for enthusiastically injurious, but not murderous."
"You staked me," she pointed out doggedly with a dark-eyed look over her shoulder. She stopped to think. "You cursed at me, too."
"I said I was sorry," he responded cheerfully. He vastly preferred interacting with other people in a non-confrontational manner. "What do you want, blood?"
She lifted a dark eyebrow at him. "Perhaps." Jamie blinked, the brush forgotten in his hands. "And the lunatic part?" she pressed him.
He shrugged and resumed combing. "We all have our cross to bear."
Her lips drew to the side. He felt a twinge of regret as he realized that she'd pretty much reached her limit for frivolity. "I see no reason to contest a lunatic's claim to this place. If you wish to tell the others that it now belongs to you, I will not dispute your insanity."
"Outstanding." He fluffed her hair a couple of times. "Do you do anything with it at bedtime?" She shook her head. "Okay. Need to visit the little bats' room?" She gave him a lowered eyelid and shook her head again. "Okay." He picked her up, towel on the couch, and took her to the bed. She slid under the covers, wiggling around to get comfortable. He touched the straps on the splints. "Do I need to replace this with some hard wrapping?" he asked her.
She thought for a moment, wiggling her toes, and shook her head. "I believe that I can sleep with it on," she told him, "and as long as I am wearing it my leg is knitting correctly."
"Cool." He puttered around, making extravagant motions of tucking her in until she reached up and slapped his hand. He pushed the bangs from her forehead, and his fingers were light as they brushed the bruises remaining from Ward's attack. "Wish I healed that fast," he offered.
"No, you do not," she told him seriously, "for you know why I do."
He nodded and sat on the corner of the bed. "Go ahead and rest. I'm not in any hurry to get to sleep myself, and the sofa's perfectly available if I decide to."
"I usually awaken at sunset," she told him.
"Yeah, but that's when you're not down on rest and don't have a broken leg," he responded. "That whatsit's still out there, just hopefully not looking for us, but we're going to avoid it by staying here and getting caught up on rest. So rest all you like. I know I'm going to, after I make you that cane."
Lilu nodded and shifted her head to one side of the pillow. She puffed at random strands of unbound hair that drifted across her nose and closed her eyes. She felt Jamie get up from the bed, and heard him doing quiet things in the one-room cabin. For a few minutes she concentrated on those sounds, trying to follow what he was doing. A few minutes later she was breathing slowly and deeply and not reacting to the noises in the cabin any more.
Nightworld 04: Trust is a Feral Hamster Press presentation of a Davey Jones production. All the characters and situations herein are Davey's. He's enjoying saying that, considering how many of his usual crop of actors are based on someone else's notion. Copyright 2010 by Davey Jones.
Next Episode: The mysterious unknown presence appears to be fading, and a few days' rest and relaxation have gotten our protagonists so that they're at least on speaking terms. Now begins the most perilous part of the long journey home, as everything and its eldritch cousin is out looking for Lilu. Nightworld 05: Home Again. It'll be by Davey.
Coming soon! The Feral Hamster Press website (you didn't think Nightworld's the only thing I write, did you?)