Six


A conversational interlude.



The barbarian side of things was no different, as far as he could tell—just the same steady progression into darkness and cold, with the horses stumbling and breaking through the ice crust. The farther they went, the deeper the snow was. After half an hour, it was well over the horses’ fetlocks. Their hooves squeaked like grating bone.

Will was truly cold again now, shivering in violent fits and starts, as if his body were experimenting with the method. It didn’t make him any warmer, and it hurt his leg. He wrapped the reins hard around his hands and cursed softly, every combination he could think of.

Angelus and Drusilla were perhaps twenty yards ahead, and Darla was lost in the darkness. It seemed to him that they’d been riding this way forever. The river seemed days ago. His back ached, his leg felt stretched and numb and wrong. It struck the horse’s side at regular intervals, and the ache crawled up his whole left side.

Another shivering fit seized him and he had to cling to the gear to stay mounted. He was almost out of curses. A safe place, Darla had said. In the Orkneys, no doubt. Safe because no sane creature would ever ride there in winter, and the Slayer could set up camp in Oxford and wait for them to return, starved and frostbitten, in spring.

After the shivering passed he was exhausted, and his eyes closed briefly. He forced them open again. There was nothing to see, but it was childish to ride half-asleep. For God’s sake, it’s just a little snow. A little water, a little snow. None of it would kill him.

Before he knew it, though, his eyes were closed again, and the creak of hooves was soft and distant. He could sleep for just a minute; the horse knew how to follow.

There’s nothing to you.

He opened his eyes and sat up straight; he’d been leaning forward, slumped over against Caitlin’s back. How long? Not more than a few seconds, he thought. He opened his eyes wide and flexed his hands, then pinched his neck. His fingers were clumsy and he could hardly feel the sting.

If he could read the sky he could at least figure how far they’d come, and how long this was likely to continue. It couldn’t go on much longer; it would be dawn soon. Three hours, he’d guessed, and that had been perhaps two hours ago already. He thought about it and had to admit he wasn’t really sure about that, either. He’d never had a good sense of the passage of time, and being dead had only made it worse.

If he still had Dru, he wouldn’t be so cold. Well, he would, but it wouldn’t bother him. He stared at the dim shape of Angelus’s horse ahead of him and thought, It was bloody unfair and you know it. One stupid kiss from his Sire didn’t make up for losing Dru. Or perhaps it did. He was conscious of having reached an unpleasant crossroads of thought, and so he stopped thinking.

At the same moment, Caitlin shifted, startling him so badly he almost struck her. She hadn't moved in so long, he’d forgotten she could.

“Fucking hell,” he snarled, holding his arms out to keep from touching her. She sat up and turned her head to look at him. She was almost as pale as the snow, with frozen mud through her hair and down the side of her face. There was more mud clotted in her eyelashes. Her eyes were sunken and hollow, and her cheeks had the tightly-stretched look they all got when they hadn't eaten enough. She wasn’t healing well, either; her face was still bruised where he’d punched her.

“Where are we?” she asked. Her voice was thin and dry.

“Bath,” he said. “We’ve sent the servants on ahead to prepare our rooms.”

She looked at him for a moment, then turned her head and peered into the darkness. “Angelus is up there,” she said unnecessarily. Her tone was relieved. Will didn’t bother to reply.

They rode in silence for a while. She started to shiver too, and he found that vaguely gratifying.

She wrapped her arms around herself—like him, she hadn't retrieved her coat yet—and looked up at the sky. “It’ll be morning soon,” she said. “We need shelter.”

“Oh right,” he said. “Why don’t you halloo up to Angelus and tell him that?” She said nothing. “I can call him if you like.”

She rubbed at the mud on her forehead, and he let it go. He watched her flake mud off her face and neck, and brush it out of her hair. Her hands were so white the nails had gone blue.

“You smell like a gutted cat,” he said.

“You look like the other man won,” she replied, without looking up.

He sat for a second wondering whether to thump her, and by the time he’d decided to do it the moment had passed. He comforted himself with the thought that Angelus would do a thorough job of it soon enough. He raised his hand self-consciously and touched the weal on his forehead where the horse had bashed him. It was fading, but it still hurt.

“Where are we going?” Caitlin asked, and he frowned.

“None of your business.”

She turned and looked at him, one finger digging mud out of her ear. “You don’t know,” she said after a moment, and turned back.

Again, his hand itched to smack her, and again he let the moment go by. She was shivering harder now, and he moved his leg back to keep it clear of hers.

“Not Ireland,” she was saying, her tone pensive, as if she were musing by a drawing room fire. “We’re too far north. Does he mean to carry on to Scotland?”

Will snorted. “Scotland? That’s stupid. We should have gone to Dover right away.”

She glanced at him. “And crossed to Calais?”

“That’s the usual route, yeh.”

“The Slayer is French.”

“So?”

“She knew I came to England, she followed me. By the time I reached London, Calais was filled with vigilants. I expect they roused the English Council, and by now Dover will be the same.”

He was silent.

“It’s the sensible thing to do,” she said. “Watch the ports.”

He said nothing, and she went back to rubbing mud off her neck.

“Scotland,” he said after a minute, and she shook her head.

“It’s madness,” she said. “We’ll be cornered, and either staked or starved.”

“Angelus knows what he’s doing,” he said. “The really stupid thing was you coming to us in the first place, with the Slayer right behind.”

“Yes,” she said. “But I was sent.”

“Right, to be his minion. He doesn’t need one, so you can sod off back to France.”

“And to warn you.”

“Warn us of what? The Slayer wouldn’t have come if you hadn't led her to us.”

She turned and looked at him. “You’re quite stupid,” she said mildly, and this time he did smack her, with just his open palm across her cheek. She gasped, and he grabbed her chin.

“Be civil,” he said, and tapped her bruise. “Or I’ll give you another to match.”

She looked at him for a minute, and he thought she was going to hit him back. He smiled, inviting it. She pulled her chin free and looked away.

“The Slayer was coming anyway,” she said. “She’s ambitious, and the vigilants are pushing her. She’s made some kind of pledge to wipe out all the strongest families.”

He laughed. “Indeed. She’s…what, a few months on the job? And hardly into her teens. Angelus will rip her to pieces.”

Caitlin said nothing. They rode for a minute in silence.

“She got your group, though,” he said thoughtfully.

Caitlin’s shoulders went up, but she kept silent. She was shivering again.

“You were a strong family, then?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“Your Sire’s name was Rebecca?”

“Yes.”

He recalled hearing the name a few times before, without attaching much importance to it. “Doesn’t sound French.”

“She was American.”

“What was she doing in France, then?”

“Angelus is Irish. What’s he doing in London?”

“That’s not the same.”

Caitlin sighed. “She liked to travel. She stayed in lots of places.”

He thought about what Angelus had said earlier—We’re not in London now. We may not be again for years. He knew families moved around, most of them quite often, for fresh hunting, but he’d never moved anywhere. Angelus took trips from time to time, and Darla too, less frequently, and sometimes there were conversations about moving. He hadn't really taken them seriously.

For the first time it struck him that they’d really left London behind. He felt a strange wrenching sensation in his chest, which took him a minute to recognize as homesickness.

“Well, she may be ambitious,” he said, “but she’ll be dogmeat when Angelus gets done with her.”

Caitlin turned and looked at him.

“Then why are we running?” she asked.

He couldn’t answer that.

“You have mud in your hair,” she said, and turned away.

He glared at her back for a moment, then scrubbed his hand across his head. His hair was frozen in chunks.

“It’s getting too late,” Caitlin said. “It’ll be light in half an hour.”

“Angelus knows what he’s doing,” he said again. But even he could feel the lateness now—or maybe it was just the tension of hearing her bang on about it.

She started to say something, then stopped and lifted her head higher. He watched her sniff the air, like a dog.

“What?”

She looked at him, perplexed. “We’re coming up to something. A…village, I think.”

He sniffed and thought there was possibly a trace of something there—coal smoke and manure and the faint tang of humans. He wouldn’t have noticed it on his own.

“People,” he said. “I told you, he knows where we’re going.”

She smelled the air again. “But there’s something—I don’t know, it’s strange.”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

He sniffed, but couldn’t tell what she was talking about. “Probably your own niff. That’s strange enough.”

She shook her head in frustration. “You’re too young, you can’t smell it.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s…sour.”

He didn’t say anything, and the scents grew stronger as they rode, until he was certain it was a village of some kind. It smelled crude and rural and dirty, but it also smelled like people, and his mouth watered. After about ten minutes Darla and Angelus reined in, and Will’s horse caught up. All four horses stood trembling, their heads down. Ahead in the darkness, perhaps a hundred yards distant, were some poor-looking fences and cottages—the outskirts.

“Awake again, I see,” Darla said quietly, as they rode up. “Just in time for morning.”

Caitlin sat up a little straighter and said, “Yes ma’am.” Clearly she was making an effort this time.

Darla raised an eyebrow and looked at Angelus. “We’re here.”

He nodded. “And no time to spare.” Drusilla was slumped back against his chest, half-hidden inside his coat. Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling; either asleep or dreaming in her own way.

“This is it?” Will asked, not bothering to keep the incredulity out of his voice. “We came all this way to a one-eyed, stinking hamlet?”

Angelus looked wearily at Darla, and she shook her head.

“Later, darling. There’s no time now.” She turned to Will. “You’ll be quiet and not ask questions, Will. Watch Angelus and do as he tells you. You understand?”

He nodded. “Yes Madam. But—“

Angelus smacked the back of his head and he shut up.

“Good,” Darla said. “I rather think I’ll do the talking from here on.” She started to turn her horse and Caitlin shifted.

“Ma’am—“

Darla looked back over her shoulder.

“It smells funny.”

There was a pause, and Darla looked at Angelus.

“What does it smell like?” she asked.

“Can’t you—don’t you smell it too?”

Angelus reached out, grabbed her ear, and yanked her to an angle. “Answer the question,” he said calmly.

“It smells…sour. Or flat. I don’t know, it smells wrong.”

Darla and Angelus looked at each other, while he held Caitlin’s head down as if he’d forgotten about it. Darla’s expression was one of moderate surprise.

“How old did she say she is?” she asked.

Angelus twisted, and Caitlin gasped, “Eight, ma’am.”

“That’s very good for eight. Rebecca taught you to pay attention, at least.”

Angelus let go of Caitlin’s ear, and she sat up and shook her head. Darla smiled at her.

“It’s a good smell, little one. You’ll see.”

Caitlin said nothing, and Darla turned her back again.

“Keep well behind me, all of you,” she said. “And stay out of my way.”



Seven







Coquette

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