Monday, 20 June 2016

Chapter Five

The Dead London Chronicles: Vol I, June 2016 is now available FREE at SmashwordsApple and Kobo!

On with the tale...

Snow in summer, Daniel Miller reflected as the carriage traveled on, was about the measure of things tonight. Snow in summer, a dandy vampire who took so long to dress that they were late for the devil's house party, a blood drinking child who clearly hated everyone except that dandy playwright, a poodle with boundless barks... If not for the stunning woman with the flame red hair on his arm, he might well be tempted to abandon the trip and walk back to London. Yet the playwright was good company, the dog sweet enough and even the girl oddly amusing, so perhaps things weren't so bad. 

They had passed a village a little while back,  as the snow began to fall in earnest, and he wondered now if they should have stopped there, should have admitted the folly of this yet on they had pressed and now... Well, now the world had turned white. 

With that thought he turned his head to study Lucile's face for a second, the pale beauty, the ethereal something that seemed oddly suited to this particular landlord, the lad from the wrong side of town in Arbroath. Hardly caring for the Frenchman and little girl who sat in the squabs opposite, Dan kissed Lucile's cheek and said, "Snow in July... Do we blame the devil?"

"I would sooner," came the lofty reply, though the expression she had for him was, he was sure, one of nothing but affection, "Blame the French. But each to their own."

"All of you people blame us!" Renaud opened an ornate painted fan with a flick of his wrist, batting it against Lucile's knee. "We French bear the brunt of your British nonsense!"

"He touched me," Lucile told Dan with clear shock, "With a fan!" 

Renaud's rouged lips formed into a playful pout and he batted Dan's knee in turn and said, "A matching one for you, sir!" With that he turned and, in a cloud of perfume, scooped the little girl onto his lap and asked, "What say you, choux, of summer snow?"

Before she had a chance to speak, however, the carriage lurched to a sudden halt and, too close for comfort, the howl of a wolf rent the air. With a frown, Dan leaned forward, his hand straying to the pistol concealed beneath the seat. 

Lucile's lips drew back in a snarl, fangs visible as one hand came to rest on Dan's arm, the young girl likewise moving closer into Renaud's arms.

From without the coachman's voice could be heard, raised in exasperation and calling that he had had quite enough of this nonsense. Even as Dan went to open the door the sound of buckles and harness could be heard and the landlord told his fellow travellers, "I'll see what the trouble is; Monsieur, you let no harm come to my lass while I'm gone!"

"I am not," Lucile looked distinctly horrified, "Letting you leave me in here!"

"Two minutes..." He promised.  "That's all."

"What if something eats you?"

"Two minutes..." Dan repeated. "And nobody eats a landlord!" 

If Lucile had any complaints, which she no doubt did, Dan didn't hear them as he slipped out of the vehicle and into the pitch black night, the snow falling heavily all around. Even as he approached the horses he knew exactly what was happening, the coachman there frantically unharnessing one of the lead animals, his breath visible in the air.

"What're you up?" The landlord asked in his usual chipper tone, even as he felt his temper surge as much as it ever did, which wasn't much, at the thought that the man he had paid to see them safe to the party was about to up and take off. "You're not abandoning us, mate?"

The coachman glanced at him, face white with fear, and Dan felt his annoyance abating at the very expression in his eyes. His voice, when he replied, was hushed, shaky. "We'll not get there by daybreak in this and I'm not being stuck out in the night with a coach load of vampires for any amount of coin." The driver abandoned his work for a moment to fumble at his belt and hold out his purse to Dan. "I'm not a dishonest man; take your money back, I want just this one horse and I'm away back to the village. They won't take their kind back there, I'm sorry, I've kids at home--"

Dan nodded, well-used to this kind of fear outside of the city, this sense of the terror lurking in the shadows. It got into villages like this, places where a stranger was to be viewed with suspicion, and ate away at the residents. The very thought of bloodsuckers and werewolves caused them to bar their doors as dusk fell, to act on fear, to see only death and terror when they caught a flash of the white skin, the too sharp tooth. Such things held no fear for him, of course, the adventurer, the rogue; after all, he'd hardly share his bed with Lucile if they did.

"Away with you and keep the cash," Dan told him kindly, moving to help unharness the horse. "Back to your hearth; I'll see this lot safe." 

The man's thanks were all too obvious and soon the job was accomplished and the coachman was on his way, bound for the safety of the village that they had passed, the village that would offer no shelter to vampires.

"Something," the child in the carriage remarked loudly from the playwright's lap, "Is going to eat him."

"He is strapping," Renaud whispered in reply. "Nothing would better that chap... If he couldn't fight his way out, he'd talk his way out instead."

"He'd not," the girl insisted, "Talk me round!" 

At that moment the door opened and Dan pokes his head into the carriage, ruffling the snow from his black hair. He offered Lucile a wink and asked, "Anyone want to ride up front? I'm driving from here!"

"Yes." The red-haired woman exclaimed immediately, "I will take what is out there a thousand times over what is in here!"

"Choux?" Renaud looked to Grace. "What will you do?"

"I," the girl declared with a glare for Lucile, "Will stay here with you."

"Come on then, gorgeous," Dan held out a hand to Lucile, "Come and keep me warm up front."

With a toss of her head she took his hand, telling him seriously, "I will keep you warm everywhere."

"Sir, young miss,"  the Scot bowed low, glad at least that the snow had started falling before they left London, giving him enough time to bundle up in his warmest coat, "We shall see you when we get there." With that he helped Lucile down and closed the door before walking with her to the front of the coach and peering up at the driver's seat. "Up you hop, young postilion!"

The jump she made was decidedly more than a human could achieve, Lucile utterly unruffled as she settled into her seat. "Do you need a hand?"

His hand ready to slap her bottom as she climbed up, Dan gave a comical pout and told her, "You've just ruined my night!"

"I could make it a lot better," she told him, wide eyed, "When you get up here."

That was enough to spur him into action and Dan climbed up nimbly to take a place beside Lucile, pecking a kiss on her cheek. Even as he let his lips press to hers he lifted the reins, sure that they must make it to the house tonight, whatever happened.

"You think," she asked, "That we can make it?"

"We have to," was his reply. "The village back there won't shelter vampires and we're closer to de Chastelaine's do than we are to London... so on we go!"

"The carriage," she pointed out the obvious," Would hardly be sun proof."

The thought had occurred to him, had chilled him and he replied, "The snow's thick on the road... I reckon we stop if we see anywhere we can hide out."

"You are worried," the frown on her face deepened, "But I have faith in you."

"I never worry," he kissed her again, the horses starting on their way, "It gets a man nowhere."

She gave no answer to that, settling back beside him, keen eyes watching for dangers in the snow-covered distance. Her eyes, keen with a supernatural zeal, watched the empty countryside, saw no trace of the wolf that had howled, nor of any other hazard that might befall them. All there was was emptiness, the still, deep dark.

They travelled in silence for a good while, though her presence was as palpable as any words, and he wondered not for the first time if she was as acutely aware of everything about him as he was of her.

There was something in her closeness, the very sense of her, that seemed as warm as the snow was cold. The fire that blazed in Lucile Wyatt, the fierce passion, showed in her eyes, her touch, her very proximity. They would reach safety tonight, he told himself, if his very life depended on it.

"If anything happens," her voice was just as fierce when she finally spoke, "You look after yourself."

"I'll look after all of us, Lucy."

"That," her response was quick, "Is what I'm afraid of."

"My girl," Dan smiled, narrowing his eyes as he did his best to search the empty road ahead, "Don't you fret, gorgeous."

"I never," he heard the pout that accompanied the words, "Fret."

"That French lad... our playwright," he couldn't help a slight laugh, the celebrated farceur from Rouen one of his most loyal patrons before his death and even after, "He wears more slap than you do!"

"He needs it," came the tart reply, "I do not."

"One day he comes into the pub coughing up his consumptive lungs, the next he swans in with a full set of fangs in his best silks," Dan shook his head at the memory, at the celebration that accompanied the dying playwright's sudden leap from tuberculosis-ridden phantom to vampire, "And you know he's still never used them!"

"I know," his companion sniffed, "He is giving us a bad name."

"Him and that little girl of hers... Is she his daughter? The lass, not the poodle."

"Her?" Lucile's response was light, "Oh, do not trouble yourself over that girl."

Dan gave a nod, realising now that he couldn't see a thing, that the snow was blinding both him and the three remaining horses. This wouldn't do, he knew, they had to find shelter.

"There," Lucile suddenly declared, pointing into the white, "There is something over there."

"Is it likely to eat me?"

"Shelter," she clarified, even as another wolf howl sounded.

"You'll have to direct me, I can't see a bloody thing..."

Her hands closed over his then on the reigns, and he hoped the horses wouldn't bolt even as she told him, "Bear left, not too far or we'll be in a ditch."

Dan was glad for her touch, the skin cold against his own and he let Lucile guide him, trusting her implicitly. Another howl broke through the air then, followed closely by another, Lucile urging the horses on faster than they should be going in such conditions, though the need to do so was abundantly clear. The shape of the barn as it emerged from the blizzard was as welcome a sanctuary as a chapel to a sinner and Dan found himself adding his own voice to spur the horses on, the darkness too deep around them. The animals sensed something in the air too, the poodle yapping frantically inside the carriage as the steeds at the head of the carriage snorted and whinnied, eyes wide.

"We mustn't," Lucile insisted unnecessarily, "Stop!"

"If anything happens," he heard himself say, heart racing, "You three take off, don't hang around."

Her hand closed over his more tightly in response, and it might have been his imagination, must be, that conjured up the sound of snapping teeth in the distance. If it was, though, why did the dog bark louder, the horses eyes roll back, their ears flattening in terror, foam at the bits?

"Get as close as we can..."

"We're not leaving the horses outside..."

"There's no time!" The thought of leaving these terrified creatures to whatever was chasing them left Dan filled with the sense that it was simply wrong, that, idiotic as it sounded, he couldn't subject the loyal creatures to  such a fate. "Take the whole thing in," Lucile's solution to the situation was surely as insane as the idea of leaving the animals was unbearable. It was, however, the only one that made sense and he cracked the reins hard, giving a shout of encouragement as the open door of the barn yawned before them, praying that the carriage would fit through. It must, Dan prayed, because it felt as though every devil in hell was on their tail.

They passed through with barely an inch to spare, the sound of grinding mingled with shrieks from inside the carriage as he dimly wondered whether they would be able to stop.

"Pull them up!" Dan instructed Lucile, relinquishing the reins to her before, with something that was either bravery or stupidity driving him on, he leaped from the seat, hitting the straw-covered barn floor with a bone-jarring thud. There was no time to think of aches and pains though, the howls outside growing louder, pinpricks of red piercing the darkness as he scrambled to his feet and made for that door, too wide open now.

It all happened at once; the shuddering halt of the carriage, the threatening shapes too close for comfort, and then the door heaving shut, some power somewhere smiling on them as without it surely they would have been done for. With a bang the door closed, the bar falling into place and Dan finally allowed himself to catch his breath, his back pressed to the rough wooden surface that had saved them. He looked to the vehicle as it stood, heard the panicked breath of the horses and announced, "Well, that was fun!"

Lucile was before him in a moment, the fear of the last few moments chased away by a decidedly enthusiastic kiss. This was more fun, of course, but the chase had left his heart hammering, adrenaline coursing through him. It was like the old days all over again, racing from danger on the continent with that supposedly dour doctor, it was living.

"You saved us...."

"A hero indeed!" Renaud's voice was a little harried, a little high but full of gratitude as he opened the door of the carriage. "I would kiss you myself but the lady would not approve."

"Find your own hero," Lucile agreed, lips against Dan's again with no care to being observed. She found no complaint from him, of course, only the wish that they were alone in this suddenly very warm barn, that there was not a shrieking Frenchman, a yappy poodle and a little girl with eyes that seemed to see everything. "I won't," the whisper came once he had been forced to break for breath, "Have you put at risk."

"Wouldn't have made it without my girl..."


"We are not to stay here all night?" Renaud's voice could be heard once more. "Surely not in a barn?"

"You are welcome," Lucile told him far too pleasantly, "To take your chances out side with the wolves."

"Then perhaps, on balance, we will stay here..." the Frenchman decided. "Let us light the lanterns and see what he can see... I shall manage, sir, catch your breath!"

"I do not like it," the girl who was never far from Renaud's side announced, and Dan felt Lucile's annoyance flare almost as if it were his own. "Not one bit."

"Away you go, lassie," Dan told Grace, feeling now the slight twinge where his shoulder had hit the ground when they fell, "And see if you can do any better! We'll have it a palace in no time..."

Lucile's hand tightened on his arm and she hissed at the girl, who, in turn, rolled her eyes before following Renaud.

"This place isn't going to be sun proof..." the thought was a murmur and as the carriage lanterns flickered into life Dan peered into the shadows, seeing bales of straw and nothing else, but he would need nothing but that. "I'll build a little den for you three, you'll be right until tomorrow night."

"I am not sleeping with them--"

"Aye, all right," he nodded, the thought of building two shelters making his shoulder complain even more yet even that was no match for making Lucile as comfortable as he could manage. "I'll build you a wee place to call your own."

"I will not have you put out," her fractiousness was growing with each moment, "We should not have come."

In reply, her lover gave a carefree shrug, rather relishing a bit of adventure rather than polite dancing in a country house, not to mention the chance to snuggle in the hay with the girl he adored. It would be a cosy day of snuggling and sleep, Dan decided, no point in getting in a tizzy about it; at least, not until the horses started offloading last night's dinner.

"How," she sounded calmer even as she asked, "Can you stay so--"

"We're safe, just about warm and I've got my girl in my arms... what's to be upset about?"

"When you put it like that..." he felt her relax further then, the tension melting away as if by magic. Even with the playwright fluttering about unharnessing the horses and the little girl haunting his every step, there was nothing that Dan even noticed other than Lucile for now, kissing her again. In a moment he would build that shelter for them, he decided, it wouldn't be dawn for hours, after all.

"Tell them," she agreed in a murmur, "To keep well away...."

"We're in a barn... their choices are a bit limited..."

"That," she kissed him lingeringly, "Is their problem."

"You know me, Lucy," Dan murmured against her lips, chasing them for another kiss, "Do you really reckon I'd leave them to it?"

"No," she agreed with a sigh, "But I can hope...."

"Where shall we sleep?" Renaud asked the question of Dan, raising a lacy handkerchief to his nose.

"I hope," the girl added with relish, "That the wolves don't get in."

It was a mistake, to say the least, the playwright's eyes widening with comical effect and he directed Dan loftily, as though he were back in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, "Sir, you must wolf-proof this barn! I cannot, I am not built for physical labour!"

"He is not," the girl agreed, "Not at all!"

"And I cannot work with my hands, lest I damage them and cannot write!"

Lucile shook her head, clearly out of patience as she told Dan, "We will do it ourselves. The only way to make sure it is done properly, after all."

"And I will strum my lute," Renaud beamed brightly, "And my music will accompany your toil; each is working in his own way then, sir!"

"Will you sing too?" the girl asked, with a far-too sweet smile for Lucile.

"If you will duet with me!"

"If you will have me!"

"Come, choux, let us find the lute and settle in the hay for a song; Mr Hogan and our lovely Rouge can build as we play," the playwright decided, even as Dan felt Lucile tense at the nickname he reserved for her.

"Just make sure," the redhead snapped, "That it is at least a little in tune." With that she turned her back on the pair, telling Dan, "It is down to us."

"You sit down," Dan replied, the very idea of Lucile working one that he refused to entertain, "I'll get it done."

"I want to stay with you."

"You can watch, but you're not lifting hay bales!"

"I will do my part," she promised, "By watching you do so then."

That seemed like a fair compromise and, as Renaud began to strum a rather saucy air on the lute, settled decadently among the hay as though it were a spring meadow, Dan stripped off his coat and waistcoat, ignoring the Frenchman's appreciative whistle. A moment later he thought better of ignoring it and turned, bowing low to Renaud before he told him, "All compliments welcome, even if they do come from a vampire dandy!"

"Choux," Renaud laughed, "fan me!"

"Concentrate on your singing," Lucile ordered, settling herself firmly between Dan and the watching pair. Renaud began to sing, more than satisfying Lucile's command to keep in tune, and as he did, Dan set to work gathering the hay, determined that the twinge in his shoulder wouldn't slow him down. As he worked he felt Lucile's gaze upon him, steady and unwavering, the intensity one of the many things that had drawn him to her, that kept him there long after a casual dalliance would have seen them go their separate ways. That gaze was as distracting as it was wonderful and he glanced to her with a wink, determined that they would have a snug place for the hours of daylight.

"I'll rub that shoulder for you," she promised, "When you are done...."

"If that is to be our bolt-hole," Renaud suddenly announced, frowning at the rather narrow confines of the foundation of hay bales Dan was laying, "It looks rather small; Sabine will need room to roam, she is a very active little poodle and--"

"It's plenty big enough," Dan's tone was light, "And you're more than welcome to hop up and help me build, monsieur!"

"There is always," Lucile reminded him, "Outside. In the snow. With the wolves."

In reply, Renaud picked up the song again, though this time the lyrics were amended to reflect what an excellent builder of shelters Dan was, how he had the finest pubs in the land and the strongest shoulders in the kingdom.

Something, Lucile's murmured response was just audible above the singing, "That we at last agree on."

Dan laughed, shaking his head as he went back to work and Renaud moved on to Lucile, his lyrics now a tribute to her red hair and pale skin, her hot temper and almost ethereal beauty. That, Dan knew as he toiled, was true enough, but Renaud had neglected to mention the sensuous touch of her kiss, let alone the comfort of her embrace, the pride of knowing that this woman, this remarkable creature, had chosen a landlord from Arbroath to squire her about London. The girl piped up then, her own additions to the lyrics somewhat less reverent, though no doubt, he was sure, meant in jest rather than malice. Even so, one glance at Lucile told him that the she was not inclined to the joke, even as she tried to blink away the hurt in her eyes at Grace's teasing. Barely pausing in his work, Dan's voice sounded over the little girl's own, sharing a little ditty of his own making about a gaudy playwright who wore scent enough to sink a galleon and the little girl who was his shadow, the two of them making a dandified pair about the theatres of the city. It had the desired effect, the girl falling silent, though he wondered if she had read his intention or not.

"Your chap," Renaud shrieked with delight, "Can certainly sing!"

"He can do many things," Lucile informed them loftily, "Most of which you will never know of!"

"Tell me," he teased, continuing to strum the lute, "Is he as much a chap of action in the bedroom as the barn?"

"Bedroom, barn...." Lucile smoothed down her hair, the action doing little to tame the mane that had as much energy as the woman herself, "It makes little difference to Dan...."

"I'll wager that bar has seen a few sights," Renaud laughed, gaze shifting to watch Dan work. "And not just him vaulting over it when things get rowdy!"

"A lady," came the gratifying response, "Never tells."

"And a gent," Dan added, "Never asks, monsieur Renaud!"

"Indeed," Lucile looked triumphant, "A gentleman has told you, Monsieur!£

Renaud gave a carefree shrug and returned to his music as Dan continued to work, the first shelter soon constructed. It was rudimentary to say the least, of course, the walls straw bales and built high enough that Renaud and Grace might be able to crawl inside and settle to sleep but certainly not stand, the floor coated in straw to cushion their rest. Blankets from the carriage would be the roof and door and though the playwright looked at it with a mixture of horror and resignation, the Scot knew that it would more than do the job. He took a moment to catch his breath then, before beginning on the second identical shelter, this one to house Lucile Wyatt.

"It will be all right," the girl took the playwright's hand, her manner at odds with her apparent years, "We will manage together."

"It is too small," Renaud shook his head, a flash of fear in his eyes. "Very confined..."

"Cosy," the girl corrected, " And an adventure to tell."

"Cosy," he repeated, watching as Sabine nosed at the bales before trotting inside and curling up to sleep, the poodle slumbering happily within seconds. "And mistress Sabi seems to approve; a few blankets, a spray of lilac scent and it will be perfect, oui?"

"Oui!" the girl agreed wholeheartedly. "and you must get your rest."

"I will strum us a song as we drift," Renaud decided, the child's enthusiasm apparently doing much for his anxiety. "And we shall try not to hear Mr Hogan and Rouge making the best of their own little hay house!"

A snort of dismissal gave Grace's opinion of that, still holding Renaud's hand as she led him to the entrance to their shelter, letting go only to crawl in. With a bow to the couple, Renaud dropped to his knees and followed after her, leaving Dan to tell Lucile, "Give us a hand getting the horses of the harness and then we can settle down too, if you like?"

Lucile murmured agreement, but as she approached one of the already shaken animals it snorted, edging away.

"You grab the blankets and get yourself sorted," Dan decided with a smile, "Chuck a couple in for our dandies too!"

"Don't," the flicker of disquiet was gone in a moment, "Be too long."

"With you waiting to roll in the hay? I'll be seconds!"

That got a smile, and then she was away, busying with the blankets as instructed. As the horses were finally freed from the harness he found himself wondering about the fate of Doctor James Faulkner,  the man who had become a brother to Dan these past years. Faulkner would have been at the house for hours, he knew, yet still he murmured a silent prayer that his friend was safe out of the night, away from the wolves. Tomorrow they would be reunited, one having slept in a barn, the other in a mansion, but even a barn was a palace with Lucile waiting to snuggle up. She had worked some magic in the little shelter, he was sure, as with a few blankets artfully arranged it was no longer a cramped space but a welcome shelter, Lucile's gaze on him as she murmured, "Hello."

"Any room at the inn?"

"For you," she confirmed, "Only you."

That was all he needed to hear and he called a cheery goodnight to the other couple before crawling into the shelter,  the fatigue of the chase and fall, not to mention the time spent hefting hay bales, finally beginning to catch up with him. Her arms were around him a moment later, lips soft against his cheek.

"Told you," he sank into her embrace, "That I'd see you all safe."

"And you were right," she agreed, "It was not us I worried for."

She worried for him too much, he knew, even as he let his head fall to her shoulder, losing himself in her nearness. "I've got nine lives..."

"Keep it that way," came the gentle murmur, softer than she allowed herself to be in public, "There's no need to waste them."

"I'll get a couple of hours shuteye before dawn," Dan yawned, circling his shoulder gingerly, "Then keep watch when the sun comes up..."

Her agreement was a kiss, one hand gently stroking his hair as she settled beside him. Tomorrow night, he realised, she would finally meet Faulkner too, the two most important people in his life brought together at last. What the doctor would make of Lucile he wasn't sure, but it felt like the next step on a road he hadn't quite planned when they had begun this liaison that had already turned into so much more.

"Sleep," he felt rather than heard the word whispered with a kiss against his forehead, "Rest and sleep.”

"A couple of hours," Dan murmured, drawing the blankets over them as the lilting sound of Renaud's lute and a gentle lullaby could be heard from the neighbouring shelter. "And no more..."

The story continues on 27th June!

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