September 17 at 12:55 PM
Photo courtesy of DepositPhotos.com
I spied them in the branches above, shadows springing from tree to tree. Silently, in unison with the howling wind, bare limbs clattering together, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, masking their advance to the untrained ear.
“Is it always so windy this side of Mayenne?” My frosty breath dissipated before me. The wind swelled, revealing my crossbow underneath, and nearly taking my wool hat with it. I tucked my journal into my pocket, and pulled my coat shut.
“Always.” The guide prodded his black mare forward. He was tall and slender, dawning a white lace shirt and tan breeches, oblivious to the biting wind. Brown curls fell to his shoulders, green eyes matching the emerald stream behind him. “I am Darrien Laroche, son of Hadrian.” He offered a hand.
“No names.” I waved him off, preferring to linger in the shade of the tree. “After you, my friend.”
We dipped into the frigid water, droplets splashing from the firs above, dousing my glasses and mustache as our horses plodded through. A branch snapped nearby, and fell into the stream. They were clumsy these two; it would not be long before they jumped into our saddles, and broke teeth on us.
I studied Darrien, feigning ignorance of the surveillance above. I waited for him to give himself away: a subtle change of subject or a rise in his voice to mask the assassins edging into place. Instead he looked up, heeding the warning of the woods.
“To be honest, I had hoped another would take my place. The woodlands always give me chills. Wind and snow, not so much,” he conceded, his steed climbing onto the bank.
I held my bow close, acknowledging his prattle with a simple nod as I crossed through. I waited for the ambush that did not come, wading patiently through the murky stream, goading the watchmen to the water where their attack would be halved.
“Quickly.” His icy breath escaped him as turned back to the twisted branches above. “I do not like the sound of the forest this eve.”
We scaled a steep slope where the path gave way to walls of thorns. Yellow hollows peered between the prickly tangles, following alongside us till the trail widened several paces later. “You must learn to welcome the whispers of the woods, if you wish to keep your head about you.” I cocked my bow, making sure that every living creature in the forest heard me, especially my new companion.
“It is a comfort knowing that you are armed.” He flashed his teeth briefly.
I looked for the obvious signs: the keen incisors, pallid skin and odd stench like preserved meat. He seemed human enough, his teeth round and beaming; but his scant attire and disconnection with the cruel spell around us aroused my suspicion.
The farming community of Avarié was not known to be a magnet for traders and entrepreneurs, but the band of gold around his finger and expensive garb draped over his gaunt frame suggested otherwise. Wealth in remote regions always sparked my curiosity; either Darrien had uncovered a pirate’s trove, or something far more sinister.
Certainly he could be the son of an aristocrat seeking to escape the mad pace of the city, but for someone with so much to lose, I could not fathom why he would wander the woodlands unattended. Why not send one of his underlings? Surely they would jump for the right coin. Unless, of course, he was not alone.
“Tell me about your infestation. Vampires, is it?” I asked.
Darrien looked around. “I hope not.”
“Have you seen them with your own eyes?”
“Not exactly.” His hands trembled. “Ever since we found the bodies, a dark cloud has loomed over Avarié.”
“Did you examine the bodies yourself?”
Darrien hesitated, and then bowed his head. “Yes.”
I stopped my horse, and raised my eyes to the intersecting branches above, slicing the silver moon into several sharp servings. “Tell me about them.” I took out my pipe.
“Sir, shouldn’t we keep moving?” The pink cast faded from his cheeks.
“Not until I know what I am up against. I must know what you do, in the event that one of us does not make it to Avarié.”
Reluctantly Darrien circled back. “Henry Thompson claims to have seen bite marks on the bodies of his eldest daughter Mary, and her best friend Edna, but this I did not see.”
“The corpses I found were…ruined…flesh seared to the bone…as one might expect if they were bathed in acid.”
“Or if one needed to cover something up.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Frankly I am surprised he could recognize her.” Darrien made the sign of the cross.
“Vampires are clever at hiding their tracks. Thus the odd corpses, glazed with an acidic wash, hinting at plague, and removing the eye cast upon them. Their necks—how badly were they damaged?”
“Most did not have necks at all.” Darrien’s horse gravitated away.
“Any organs removed? Vampires have been known to steal a heart or two.” The corners of my mouth turned slightly inwards.
“I do not believe so. Necks and forearms were burned to ash, but otherwise their corpses were unscathed.”
“Fascinating.” I scratched the stubble on my chin. “Do you think Master Thompson would be averse to us digging up his daughter’s remains?”
A branch snapped.
“I am sure you can convince him.” Darrien glanced at my bow. “Please sir, shouldn’t we be going?”
“Of course.” I pricked the horse gently with my spurs. “We will see what the bodies tell us, but I am not optimistic. Outbreaks often precede attacks, leaving a community vulnerable. We can only hope that the malady does not provoke the blood rage.” I lit my pipe.
“Blood rage?” He trembled.“The dark tide within.” I raised my bow and fired.