In which a stranger comes to call, and there is some confusion.
He was the first one up—always the first one up, he had to black the boots and bring coal from the cellar and make sure none of the captives had died during the day—so he was the first one to see her. He’d done his chores and was lying on his back on the fainting couch, smoking a stolen cigarette, when the knock came.
In later years, he thought back on that moment many times. There was still a little sunlight; he could see it glowing red on the brick, through the curtain. The house was silent. He could have ignored the knock. If he’d known then how it would all come out, he could have just turned over, pressed his ear to the cushion, and avoided the whole thing.
He didn’t know, of course. And he did ignore the knock.
It came again and he closed his eyes and wished bloody death on the knocker. He actually liked this time alone—didn’t like the chores, but liked lazing around on the furniture when he’d finished them, pretending this was his house, his captives, his cigarette. Also, his back hurt. It hadn't healed completely since the latest thrashing, although he’d already forgotten what it had been for. Not as though it signified.
The knocking came again—harder and louder, but just two strong blows and then a third one that was oddly quiet and seemed to drag across the door. If he didn’t answer it, the others would wake up. And that would be unpleasant.
“Bloody hell—“ He levered himself up and went to the door, holding the cigarette behind his back with two fingers. Might as well be a little bit cautious. “Who’s there?”
There was no answer. He paused and listened. Nothing. No reply, no more knocking. But there was something—a smell, just faint, like smoke and sweet and salt. Like blood.
He pinched the cigarette out and stepped closer to the door, pressing his ear right to it. He heard a horse and carriage going up the street, a couple of rich ponces in it talking in plummy voices about Java. Outside the door, there was no sound of someone waiting quietly to surprise him. No breathing, no miniscule human timpani. Could be there was nobody there at all, that the knocker had given up and scarpered.
But the smell of burnt blood was still there, and the back of his neck prickled over.
He put his hand on the knob, wondered for a moment whether he should do this after all, whether it might be stupid and lead to another beating, then thought Fuck it. Everything led to a beating sooner or later, and now he was curious.
He opened the door and right away felt the strange weight against it, just as the body fell forward into the hall. He jumped back and dropped the cigarette.
“Christ—“ The smell of blood and burning was coming off it in waves, and for a moment he thought it was a dead human. A human that had been crisped over most of its face and neck and hands and wrapped up in some kind of muddy cloak. It smelled like a slaughtered cat. He wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, much less feed on it. And now he had to clean it up.
He hooked its legs in with his heel and shut the door quickly, before anyone on the street could take notice of what had just happened.
“Well, ta very fucking much,” he growled, and bent down to pick it up.
One of the burnt hands came up and closed over his wrist. He yelped and tumbled back, cracking his tailbone.
The blistered eyes were open and fixed on him, weeping rheum. It was a young boy, he realized dazedly—younger even than himself. Not breathing, not alive, but looking at him in confusion and pain.
“You’re a vampire,” he said, and the burnt boy licked his lips with a bloody tongue. He opened his mouth and said something, but it was just air.
“Sorry, didn’t get that,” he said, not moving any closer.
The burnt boy opened his mouth again, and closed his eyes with the effort. This time, what he said was clear.
Will sat for a moment longer, waiting to see if there would be any more. There wasn’t. He picked himself up and started for the stairs.
“I told you, I was done the chores, sitting down in the front room polishing the fire irons, and I heard a knock.”
“And you just opened the door. Without a halloo to anyone else, and it still daylight.”
“It was practically dark, and I didn’t want to wake you—“
“’Practically dark’—is that dark enough that you could stand in it?”
“I could stand in here, yeh. Curtains were closed.”
Angelus turned around and his hand closed on the back of Will’s neck. It was such a big hand, hard to believe it could move so fast. It tightened and Will swallowed.
“You just let a stranger into my house, boy. You think that’s amusing?”
“No…Sire.” He gave it a ‘Sire’ without much hope. What was he supposed to have done—just lain there and listened to someone hammer the door down? Angelus would call that laziness, and leather him twice as hard.
“’Practically dark’ isn’t dark enough if it’s a Slayer on the doorstep,” Angelus said. The hand tightened and Will’s neck creaked in protest. He bit down and stared at the fireplace. “Maybe tomorrow evening you’ll show me how far you can get on foot when it’s ‘practically dark.’ That might be entertaining.”
“Not for me, sir,” Will said. His voice cracked, betraying him, and Angelus lifted him suddenly off his feet, gave him two hard shakes that snapped his neck like a whip, then tossed him against the wall. His skull whacked the mantel and stars went round.
“You put Darla and Drusilla at risk,” Angelus said. There was the sound of metal, and Will looked up woozily to see Angelus taking the strap from his pocket. Bastard. “Get up. Turn around.”
Will opened his mouth to say something—What was I supposed to do, then?—but then shut it. Angelus was going to beat him anyway, it was clear from his eyes. They were hard and flat and full of demon. The best thing was to shut up and take whatever came, and maybe if he didn’t fight back this time it wouldn’t go so hard.
He stood up slowly and turned to face the wall, closing his eyes only after Angelus couldn’t see his face anymore. He heard the strap go back, and then it came down on his neck like an iron bar. He braced himself and thought, One.
The strap whistled back again and he kept his tongue clear of his teeth, his eyes still closed tight—but the blow didn’t come. After a moment he realized that Darla had come into the room.
“Stop that,” she said. “Do it later, Angelus. And not over the carpet.”
Will spun around and stood with his back to the wall, trying not to look pleased. Angelus was standing with the strap wrapped around his fist, staring at Darla.
“He’ll clean the carpet,” he said.
“He’ll do a poor job of it, too,” Darla replied evenly. “But that’s not the matter. She’s awake.”
Angelus stood for a moment longer, staring at her, then tossed the strap onto the couch and walked out. Darla gave Will a small, cold smile.
“You’ve certainly let us in for interesting times, Will.”
He stood uncertainly, wondering whether he should thank her for intervening. From the tone of her voice, though, it was probably best not to try her.
“I don’t mean to,” he said humbly, shaking his head to get rid of the sting of the blow. “Who’s this she, anyway?”
“We don’t know yet,” she said, then caught his look and frowned. “Our visitor, William. You realize she’s female, don’t you?”
“Yeh, ‘course. I’m not stupid.” Darla looked at him and smiled a little wider, and he knew that this was going to get back to Angelus. Which meant another pasting. He ducked his head and rubbed a little blood mark off the mantel where he’d struck it.
“And someone’s dropped a cigarette here, Will. You’ll be sure to pick it up, won’t you?” He looked up and caught her look of pleasure—stealing cigarettes, which meant the number of strokes Angelus would give him had just gone up. Why bother to keep a tally, really? He nodded and she went out.
He walked over, picked up the cigarette, and straightened it out carefully. He might as well smoke the rest of it, since he was going to be whipped anyway. He walked back and held the end carefully in the fire, then drew on it a few times to light an ember.
Upstairs, he could hear Dru saying something in a soft voice—milkweed, bright sparks, a bad smell in the air. They’d closed the door on him, but he could hear that she was excited and frightened. He pulled on the cigarette and started to pace.
The body he’d pulled in had been light and fairly small, with hair no longer than his own. The face and hands had been burnt black. How could he have known it was a woman? Her voice had been a croak.
“Stupid bint,” he said, and dragged so hard on the cigarette that a spark cracked off. It was satisfying to curse her, since he was going to be whipped on her behalf. “Couldn’t have waited till full dark to trip over the step, could you?”
He tossed the butt into the fire and stood still, listening hard. Drusilla was moaning quietly and saying Angelus’s name. She sounded terrified. Neither Darla nor Angelus was saying anything.
Well, he was going to be beaten anyway, so he might as well get up there. He took the staircase at a lope, then lost his nerve just outside the door.
Now everyone was silent, and he stood in the dark hallway listening to the three—no, four—of them not breathing in the front bedroom, the one he sometimes used when Angelus didn’t want to see his face. Which was fairly often, lately. He could smell the visitor’s blood and burnt flesh in the air, and it made his skin crawl.
“Come in then,” Angelus said, and he flinched. Then he squared his shoulders—for God’s sake be a man—and opened the door.
It was completely dark inside, and it took his eyes a minute to adjust. The visitor was lying in the bed, stinking like true death. Drusilla was sitting on the edge of the blanket, smiling, her face wet with tears. Darla leaned on the chiffonier, and Angelus was standing at the foot of the bed, ten foot tall and four wide, his face black.
“You’ve been smoking,” he said. He was looking at the burnt woman while he said it, and Will almost laughed. He stifled it in time, though, which probably spared him a broken neck.
“She dropped a cigarette,” he said. “Didn’t want it to go to waste.”
Darla gave him a look, and Angelus just shook his head. “Go rouse the servants,” he said. “Tell them to pack the women’s trunks. Enough for a few days. You pack my things, and your own.”
“We’re going somewhere?”
“We’re running away,” Drusilla said with trembling delight. Her eyes went to Angelus and stayed there. “We’re running from the Slayer.”
Will stood up straighter and tried not to let shock show on his face. “The Slayer? Who says there’s a Slayer?”
“She’s a cuckoo,” Drusilla said, reaching out and touching the burnt woman’s hand. “A cuckoo in our nest, Will. She’s going to thrust us out and take Daddy’s love for herself.”
“No she’s not,” Angelus said. “Will, have you gone deaf?”
“I’m not scared of the Slayer. I think we should stay and have a go—“
Angelus turned and belted him. He landed sitting against the baseboard, his head spinning and his lip bitten clear through.
“Get out. Before I kick you down the stairs.”
Will stood up as quickly as he could and wiped at the blood running down his chin. Drusilla made a singsong sound and clapped her hands.
“Lucky Will,” she said. “Daddy still loves you.”
“Yeh,” he said, his bloody hand slipping on the doorknob. “Lucky me.”
They were packed in less than an hour, and out of London in just slightly more than that. They had the burnt woman with them, wrapped in a sheet and looking like a corpse. What Angelus told the servants, Will didn’t know. Maybe he gave them a story, maybe he just killed them. Either way, if they were running away from the Slayer, they probably weren’t coming back to the house again.
They took a hackney to Euston Station and barely caught an express heading north.
“Shouldn’t we be going the other way?” Will asked, hanging in the door while Angelus dumped the burnt woman in a corner of the compartment. Angelus turned and looked at him slowly, and Will closed his mouth and took a seat.
They had the compartment to themselves, which was fortunate as the burnt woman was seeping somewhat and smelling like burnt pork. Angelus sprawled out full-length with his feet propped on the seats and closed his eyes. Darla sat beside him with one hand in his hair, and Dru sat pressed close to the window, watching the darkness speed by. Will slouched next to her, fiddling with the hem of her cloak. It was cold, and he was hungry. The ride went on forever.
No one spoke, except Drusilla to herself, and after an eternity they rattled through a darkened suburb and into a grimy, slushy, looming city. Angelus got up without a word and hoisted the burnt woman. A matched pair of towheaded boys were waiting at the door to carry the luggage, and Darla smiled and gave them half a crown. Then they all started across the platform, through the murmuring crowd. Will chewed his thumb and watched the boys out of the corner of his eye.
“Come along,” Darla said, and when he didn’t turn at once she caught his elbow in an iron grip and pulled him away.
He expected them to be heading out to the street, to find a cab and carry on to some new haunt of Darla or Angelus’s—when he saw they were heading back toward the ticket office, he groaned.
“Where are we going, exactly?” he asked nobody in particular—and of course, nobody answered. Drusilla was transfixed by the yawning middle classes, and Angelus just settled his load a little better and ignored him. Darla was already walking away to buy tickets. When she came back, she led them to another platform and onto another train, and the boys loaded the cases in, and with very little ado and almost no wait they were off again into the night.
Over Drusilla’s shoulder he saw that they had just left Birmingham, and settled down to sulk. They were still heading north, and he could see no possible reason for it, and no one would explain. That was all right—if they were going to treat him like a child, he’d act like one. When they were cornered and staked in Manchester, they’d wish they’d asked his opinion.
He crossed his arms over his chest, put his feet up on the opposite bench, and closed his eyes. This carriage was slightly warmer, but that made the burnt woman smell worse. After a moment Angelus kicked his feet off the bench, and he sat up without opening his eyes, and went to sleep like that.
They disembarked at an unlit waystation that smelled of wet newspapers. “Darlings!” Drusilla laughed, pointing at the rats that skulked along the walls. Will yawned and checked the clock over the closed ticket window; it was well past midnight.
“What now?” he asked, studying his fingernails. He didn’t bother to ask where they were now. Wherever it was, it smelled deserted.
“Now we take a coach,” Angelus said. “Bring the luggage round front.”
“What—all of it?” Will asked. He and Angelus only had a case apiece, but the women each had several, and altogether it made a sizeable pile. He looked around, but the few passengers who’d got down were gone already, and the platform was empty. “Isn’t there a boy for that?”
“Indeed there is,” Darla said. She turned and walked after Angelus, who’d already started around the office. Will bared his teeth at her back, then bent and started gathering up the bags.
When he staggered around front with Drusilla in tow, he was surprised to find there was actually a coach waiting. It wasn’t large, but the horses looked sound and the driver smelled sober. Will dropped the bags and let the driver heave them up top, while he gave Dru a hand inside. Angelus and Darla were already seated, having a low conversation that they stopped at his appearance.
It was uncomfortably close inside. Will was wedged in between Angelus and Drusilla; Darla faced them from the opposite bench with the burnt woman propped up beside her. They sat in silence, listening to the thump of the cases on the roof, then the sound of the driver climbing heavily down to his seat. He whistled to the horses and they set off with a jolt.
“It’s the boy who’ll do for her,” Drusilla said happily, and tapped a little rhythm on the wall. “Pop! Like a Chinese firecracker.” Darla raised an eyebrow and looked at Angelus, and he shrugged. The carriage bounced hard and they all grabbed hold of something to keep from losing their seats.
The roads were bad and the carriage was old, and Will’s legs and back started to ache with the jolting. Drusilla took his hand and whispered things to his fingers. Her skirts took up too much room for him to move his feet. The air was cold and stank of burnt skin and blood.
“Christ, that’s a pong,” he said when he couldn’t stand it anymore. Darla just looked at him, and Angelus clouted him on the back of the head. Drusilla purred and rubbed her face into his neck, and he stroked her hair absently.
“They went up like the heather,” she said, “only the smell wasn’t so sweet. Like firing the heather. The little cuckoo’s the only one left, and we don’t want her. Do we, Will?”
No, we bloody don’t, he wanted to say, but Angelus was huge and dark beside him, so he just stroked her hair and said, “Pull your skirts over, Dru, my feet are killing me.”
They went on forever without stopping, and the road got worse and worse. The burnt woman didn’t move or open her eyes and Will got bored with watching to see if she would. Drusilla fell asleep with her head on his chest. The jolting didn’t bother her, but it was hot pokers in his back by now, and even Darla was looking grim and white-lipped, fixing a hand on the burnt woman’s shoulder to keep her from toppling over. Will stared at Drusilla’s hands, crossed in her lap like a child’s, and counted silently to a hundred. When he was done he counted back down again.
He was at eighty-seven for the third time when they hit something huge. They were all tossed up and slammed back down again, and he yelped from the pain in his back. At the same time, the burnt woman opened her eyes and stared at them all with a look of utter terror, and then in the next instant she was in game face and trying to take Darla’s throat out.
It happened too fast for him to react, too fast even for Angelus to do anything. In an instant her teeth were at Darla’s neck and Darla’s face was shocked. She was shocked—Will would remember that for the rest of his wanderings. It was a lovely sight.
But Darla was old and fast, and she never completely dropped her guard, not even after hours of being rattled in a carriage like a single coin in a beggar’s cup. Before Angelus could even start to right himself and push off the bench toward her, she had broken two of the burnt woman’s fingers. They made a sound like dry twigs. The woman didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t have time to react, because Darla simply slipped her palm under the woman’s chin and snapped her head back against the carriage wall.
Angelus was up by then, in game face, lunging across the small space and somehow finding room to bring his arm up. He grabbed the woman by the neck and pinned her, then punched her quickly, twice, in the face. Her nose broke—a wetter sound than the fingers—and she gave a strangled gasp, then fell silent.
Angelus brought his arm up again, but Darla held it.
“That’s enough,” she said. Her voice was calm, as if he were pouring tea.
The carriage had come to a stop, and they all sat in silence for a moment. Angelus dropped his game face and let the woman slump into the corner. Her face was a mask of blood.
Bad luck, Will thought. But really, it was a miracle they hadn't killed her. Drusilla was awake and clutching at his arm.
“See, Will?” she said softly. “Daddy loves her more already.”
“Looks like,” he breathed.
“Be quiet, Drusilla,” Angelus said. They all felt the slight bump of the driver coming off his box, and then heard his footsteps starting back toward them.
Angelus opened the curtain and leaned out into the night. “What’s the trouble?”
“Sir, a broken wheel,” the man replied. He had a lantern, and when he came around to the window his face was chapped and red. “I’m sorry to say, it’ll take some time to fix it.”
“That’s all right,” Angelus said. “The horses are still fresh, aren’t they?”
“Oh yes sir,” the man said. “These four can outrun the Devil himself.”
Angelus turned and looked at Darla, and she tilted her head slightly to the side, letting her eyelids drop. The driver raised his lantern and peered in at them.
“I hope the poorly one’s all right,” he said. “The roads are fierce here.”
“Where are we, exactly?” Angelus asked.
“Past Harrogate now, sir,” the man said. “On our way to Ripon.” He raised the lantern higher and looked past Angelus’s shoulder. The blood on the burnt woman’s face shone. “My God, sir—“
Angelus put a friendly hand on the man’s shoulder, leaned toward him, and yanked his throat out.
He dropped with a cough and fell to kicking in the dirt. Angelus opened the door and stepped out over him. Will followed and almost fell over because his legs were numb and his back on fire. When he straightened up, Angelus was frowning at him.
“Will, your manners are disgusting.”
He hurried back to the coach and gave Drusilla his hand down. She bent down beside the driver and laughed softly.
“He looks angry, doesn’t he?”
“He looks dead, Dru.”
Angelus was handing Darla down, and she stepped fastidiously over the man’s body. “Don’t touch that, Drusilla. Come away.” She held out her hand and walked a pace off, and Drusilla followed her reluctantly.
Angelus was climbing back into the coach for the burnt woman, and Will put his head in after him. “You want the horses?”
“Unless you think we should walk.”
“What about the trunks?”
Angelus was looking at the burnt woman with an expression of disgust. “Leave them. Or carry them yourself, if you like.”
Will got the horses, and left the trunks.
None of them liked horses, and the horses didn’t like them, but they would have to make do. Angelus had Will take the driver’s body into the woods and cover it with leaves and trash—a poor cache job, but there was no time to bury him. They spread dirt over the blood on the roadside and left everything else as it was. Drusilla was especially perturbed at having to leave her music boxes behind.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” Will said, climbing awkwardly up behind her on the horse. “Bloody hell, it’s high up here.”
“Not a rider, Will?” Darla asked, smiling. She looked vibrant and carelessly beautiful, as if she were delighted with their situation. She was the only one riding alone, leading the spare horse by a rope on its halter.
“No, Madam,” he said, reaching around Dru to struggle with the reins. The horse squeaked and sidestepped.
“Don’t let the horse know,” Darla said, and turned hers away expertly.
“Will,” Dru whispered, “I don’t like this horse.”
“Neither do I, luv.”
“It has a superior attitude. It’s thinking about us right now.”
“Yeh? What’s it thinking?” He pulled too hard on the right rein and the horse started to turn a circle.
“It’s thinking we’re in second place now. It’s thinking that the cuckoo gets to lie in Daddy’s lap, and we’re all alone.”
“Yeh, well—“ He looked over to where Angelus was fastening some of the smaller bags onto the spare horse’s back. He’d slung the burnt woman arse-up over his own horse’s back, and there was a dark patch of blood smeared into the animal’s coat where her face touched it. “I don’t know that the cuckoo’s all that pleased about it either, luv.”
“I miss Daddy,” Drusilla whispered.
He tightened his hold on her waist and just had time to think, Dammit, I’m right here, I’ve got my arms around you, when Angelus kicked his horse forward and started off without a word. Darla wheeled her horse and followed him, and then there was nothing to do but try to keep up.
They rode all night, until the horses were lathered pale, and the sky was starting to bleed pink in the east. It was earlier than Will had ever been out, since the day he’d died. He watched the sky to his right with one eye as he rode. If they didn’t get to shelter soon, they’d all end up looking like the carcass slung over Angelus’s horse—but there was nothing he could do about it. Angelus would take care of them. Will knew it was true, but as the sky grew pinker he still felt a tremble in his belly.
They were in rough open north country now, just rolling barren heath and scrub, and no shelter anywhere in sight. Drusilla was limp against his chest, lost in her own mind, and Darla was riding easily, looking pleased and unafraid. Angelus was just a black back up ahead, riding into the dawn.
And then he wasn’t.
Darla was next behind him, and as she disappeared Will realized it was a valley—they’d gone down into a hollow—and the next thing he knew, his horse was going down too. It wasn’t all that deep, but in the monotonous landscape he’d missed its edge. The furze was taller down here, and there were some small trees. The horses were moving slower, following a game path of some kind.
“Dru, wake up. We’re here, I think.”
She tipped her head back against his shoulder and blinked up at the sky. “Do you think Daddy will bring me home a new music box?” she asked.
He gritted his teeth.
They followed the tail of Darla’s horse until they caught up with Angelus. He was sitting staring at a small stone cottage. He looked around as they joined him, and smiled at Darla.
“Still here,” he said.
She smiled and raised her eyebrows, and they both swung down off their horses. Will sat watching as they walked toward the house.
There was a faint wisp of woodsmoke in the air—a fire banked and not yet poked to life again. A white goat was tethered to a pole beside the house, next to a chicken run.
People lived here. Out in the middle of the godforsaken country, probably hacking a living out of peat and goat shit.
People meant food.
He swung down from the horse and reached up to help Dru down—she whimpered as soon as he wasn’t behind her.
“Be quiet,” he said. “He’s going to get us something to eat, I think.”
Drusilla said ooh and tapped her fingertips together, then shushed him.
Angelus and Darla knocked on the cottage door, and there was a long pause. Finally, the door opened a crack.
They were standing perhaps fifty feet away, but he still heard the humble, courteous tone Angelus used, and the nice accent he dredged out of somewhere. The man behind the door looked at him, then squinted out into the darkness.
The sky was getting very pink in the east. Drusilla turned to it with a look of rapt absorption, and he knew he’d have to pull her away when the time came.
The man hesitated a moment longer, and Will thought he could feel something wrong in his veins—the sun must be up outside the valley, and they should all be within shelter.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Come on, you bloody idiot. Say it.”
The man must have heard him, because he didn’t pause any longer. “Come in,” he said, and Angelus and Darla stepped inside.
The door closed behind them.
Will grabbed the horse’s reins, pulled Drusilla’s shoulder, and started walking fast toward the cottage. When they reached the other horses he grabbed their reins too, and walked them all right up to the house.
“Get inside,” he said, pushing Dru to the door. He turned away and started tying the horses’ reins to the porch bar, making sure they had enough slack to reach the little trough put out for the goat.
“I can’t,” she said. “I have to be invited—“
Angelus opened the door. “Come in,” he said. There was a kiss of blood on his lips.
Drusilla squealed with delight and went in, and in the last few moments before daylight came over the lip of the valley, Will reached out and grabbed the burnt woman off the back of Angelus’s horse. She was thin and frangible in his hands, but the burns on her arms had already started to fade. Strong enough, then. Especially considering how she’d spent the night.
He thought again of the shock on Darla’s face, and let himself have a small smile. She was either a lion-heart or a blockhead, and either way he didn’t want anything to do with her, but that look of shock was almost worth the thrashing he’d get later for Angelus’s bad day.
He carried her up onto the porch and through the door into the house, where Angelus was waiting.