Dark Child (Bloodsworn): Episode 1
The evening was well advanced when the distant sound of dogs disturbed Ben in his room at the château. He was resting – or trying to – and worrying about Yara, like he had been all day, when the barking and howling began, a cacophony of canine agitation and distress coming rapidly closer. And then the voices, the shouting, the slamming of doors and slapping of running feet echoing through the halls downstairs. And he felt the jolt of shock, quickly suppressed, through the tenuous connection he’d formed with the elder, Akilina, after she’d gifted him with the healing power of her blood last night. And, heal it had. He’d arrived in pain and barely conscious, and her blood, and Anton’s hand on his forehead, had sent him at last into a restorative sleep.
But now he listened with the fevered concentration of someone who’d been forced into inactivity for longer than he was used to. Something was happening, and he’d swung his feet out of bed and started to slide shoes on before even realizing he’d made the decision to get up. He braced himself against the antique bedhead as he gingerly rose to full height. Every part of his body ached, but he was whole and he was standing. He planned to search out Kat or one of the others and find out what the noise was about, and with that aim, he quickly slipped out of the room.
“You think it’s a coincidence that Dominic has disappeared too? That’s no goddamn coincidence. Where the hell have they taken her?” The male voice was pitched low, but filled with such controlled fury that it seemed to ricochet off the stone walls of the stairwell, echoing upward. Ben flinched and briefly froze in his concealed position halfway down the main staircase. Then he cautiously continued making his way down, rounding the final bend and pausing at the foot of the stairs.
He quickly took in the faces that were familiar to him from his arrival last night. Among them was gentle Della, who’d hovered over him and made sure he had plenty at his bedside to eat, even though his appetite had deserted him. Akilina was nearby, her face tense with anguish. Anton stood at her side.
Akilina’s eyes moved over his face for a moment before she gave a slight nod of acknowledgment, but no one else gave any sign they registered his presence. He was free to look, with awed wonder, at the others crowding the château’s entry hall.
There were two groups of men, a clear current of tension running between them courtesy of a tall, muscled male, with a face like a thundercloud, who was constantly on the move, candlelight burnishing his tawny gold-blond hair. He paced the confines of the elegant foyer as if the walls threatened to crush him. Back and forth, pivoting on his heel at the end of each lap, he paused only to fire comments at one group or the other while they watched him warily. But this male wasn’t the only one with the power to intimidate. Every man there was bigger than average and every single one gave off even stronger “don’t mess with me” vibes than his guardian Falcon did, and that was saying something. Ben had never seen such a terrifying bunch of testosterone-riddled bodies en masse.
“Who thought it was a bright idea to let her go out with a few dogs for protection?” the blond man snarled, directing a glare at the men nearest the door. “Bad idea. Bad goddamn idea. We should have known the grandmother was a threat from the moment she set foot inside the gates.”
Della stepped toward him, seemingly undaunted by his forbidding expression. “Alek, going to Paris with her grandmother was nobody’s idea but Kat’s. However little you may like the idea, she’s an independent adult, and she makes her own decisions. Luc and his men have already sacrificed too much tonight. You need to work on controlling your temper.”
“When I find her …” Alek ground out, and then a shadow crossed his face, as if he were considering the thought that perhaps he wouldn’t. A muscle worked in his jaw, and Ben could almost see the struggle he was waging for control of his anger. His hands curled into fists, and he spoke in a voice that was no less fierce for being quieter. “Kat is Tabérin. She needs us. If her grandmother thinks she has the right to—”
“But as it transpires, Katerina is of the Families too,” Akilina interrupted. “That is exactly why this is so complicated. So politically sensitive. If it is true that the Families have declared war on our kind, we need to discuss—”
“We’re wasting time,” Alek snarled, looking directly at a dark-haired man who stood silently, a troubled look on his face. When the man gave no response, Alek’s lips curled in a contemptuous sneer. “Nice to see you reverting to form, Amarok. She needs us now, not in thirteen years. If the first promised doesn’t see fit to act, I’m going to get her back.” He swung around and headed for the huge entry door.
“Wait,” Akilina said, raising her voice. She took a step toward him. “How will you find her? I thought none of you could sense her presence either. I know I can’t.”
“That’s why I’m leaving,” Alek snapped. “Nobody travels without a trace these days, not even Kat’s rich and powerful witch of a grandmother. And one of the things this château doesn’t have is an internet connection.”
Anton made a move to intercept Alek, but Della pulled him back with a shake of her head. “Let him go.” She registered Ben’s presence then, and moved over to his side.
“You should be in bed.” She frowned and took his hand, patting it.
“This is a little difficult to sleep through.” Ben looked around, lowering his voice. “What’s happened?”
“It’s Katerina. She’s been taken.” Della was intent on what was happening around them, and whispered the words without turning to face him, giving his hand a little squeeze.
Katerina? Kat? The gently spoken girl who’d come to see him yesterday, with her restful air and ready smile, was still strong in his mind. He wanted to ask more questions about who’d taken her, and why, but now clearly wasn’t the right time.
The dark-haired man stepped forward.
“Amarok,” Della whispered, preempting Ben’s need to ask the question.
Ben focused on the man, noting his restrained power, and the tension in his neck. When Alek had made that jibe about Amarok reverting to form, he’d seen the look of repressed fury on Amarok’s face, and even now his face was tense and drawn. But none of that intense emotion was evident in his voice as he spoke.
“You all know I want nothing more than to be assured of Kat’s safety and to see her returned to us,” Amarok said quietly. “However, unconsidered actions could place more of us at risk, without achieving anything positive. We have already lost too many of our number tonight.” His eyes were sober and sad as he turned to acknowledge the group near the door with a nod.
“Luc approaches,” one of them growled. He jerked his head toward the man at his shoulder, and the two of them disappeared out into the night.
“They’re from the Paris pack,” Della murmured, nodding toward the two men who remained near the door. “Unalil who have taken on the role of Katerina’s protection. They lost three members tonight, defending her.”
Ben nodded to show he’d heard, and tried to force away the kernel of fear that wanted to take root in the pit of his stomach. He’d fled America hoping it would be safer here, but it seemed people were dying here too. And Akilina had talked of war. He wished he had more idea what was going on.
A big black man from the Paris pack spoke in an accented rumble. “I believe all Tabérin are at risk. Luc is exhausted, so his thoughts do not come to us clearly, but when La Grandmère Sans Cœur left with Katerina, he believes her militia stayed behind. And they are armed with silver.”
“Guns with silver bullets,” corrected the man beside him, clenching his fists reflexively, and popping his knuckles. “Times have changed. The arrows and silver blades they once used were easy enough to dodge, but a bullet is not so easy.”
“And they know where we live,” the first man reminded them all bluntly. “The grandmother has been here twice.”
“We have no idea whether we are a target they would even be interested in, now they have Katerina,” Akilina said. “And where would we go? Surely, with witches on the move across Europe in such numbers, intent on war with our kind, the best thing we can do is remain here quietly, and hope the worst passes us by.”
Anton shook his head. “But we could be a target. I feel we are at greater risk if we stay. We could very easily leave tonight. We could keep clear of roads; go over the wall and through the forest.”
Ben saw an anxious shadow cross Della’s face as she stepped forward. “We cannot expect that of Amber,” she said softly. Her eyes flew to a big man across the room who was watching her with quiet adoration lighting his green eyes. “Nor do I believe I am capable of such a journey, in my present condition.” Her cheeks blushed faintly pink, and her hand moved to rest on her belly.
Most of the men looked at her blankly, and Ben was surprised they seemed to be taking so long to catch her meaning. Della must be pregnant, and this was her way of telling her family – though perhaps she was being forced into doing so a little earlier than she’d have wanted.
When it seemed nobody else was going to break the stunned silence, Ben felt compelled to speak himself, if only to ease the awkward moment for Della, who’d been so kind to him.
“Congratulations,” he offered.
“Are you saying you’re …” Anton began.
“I’m pregnant,” Della confirmed.
Amarok’s eyes widened. “Are you sure? This is very … unusual.”
Della bit her lip, and nodded.
“We stay then,” Amarok decided, “and prepare for the possibility of attack. And if we must, we fight.”
The flurry of activity that ensued was interrupted only by the return of Luc, stained with blood, which was apparently not his own. Patently exhausted, he was all but carried inside by his two packmates, although he was soon in earnest conversation with Anton and Amarok. Debriefing, perhaps? Ben couldn’t hear what they were discussing. Akilina, meanwhile, had gone outside – something to do with warding the château and its gates, as a precaution. Despite the tension, Ben was fascinated by the events unfolding around him.
“Come.” Della gestured to him. “We will leave them to their preparations.”
“But I want to help. Do something.” He was fully aware of how ridiculous it was for him to think he could possibly perform on a par with men and women like these seasoned warriors, but the thought that they were preparing for attack and he was doing nothing was worse.
Della shook her head gently. “You will do exactly what will cause the least trouble for everyone else, which is to come with me.”
On the way back to the kitchen, she tried to answer his many questions, telling him about Katerina’s mixed heritage, and the visit by her American grandmother. And she seemed to approve of his knowledge of Tabérin history.
“So …” Ben said slowly, thinking aloud as he perched on a stool near the kitchen bench, “your kind – the Tabérin – and the witches – or Families of Power – have had a sort of truce for centuries, but now the Families think the Directorate’s leadership has been attacking their people. Instead, the Vodas has been targeting Tabérin hybrids and any witches killed were just collateral damage.”
Della appeared amused at his paraphrasing her words. “Something like that.”
“And now the witches have declared war against all Tabérin, not just the Directorate.”
Della sighed. “It seems that way.”
“But if the Vodas is now dead, doesn’t that wipe out the Directorate as a threat?”
She shook her head. “We cannot assume that. There will be a new Vodas elected by the Mandate Council. Perhaps there already has been.”
“The Vodas is dead. Long live the Vodas,” Ben quipped grimly. “But he – or she – might have different ideas from their predecessor, mightn’t they? Maybe the new Vodas will realize there isn’t really any reason for the two groups to be fighting anymore.”
“Even if the new Vodas were so minded, it might be too late to halt the bloodshed. Given the history of enmity between our two peoples, if the Families are bent on revenge, they may not give it up so easily.” Della’s forehead creased into a frown. “It is unfortunate you have been caught up in all this. I wish it wasn’t so.”
Ben shrugged, uncomfortable with the reminder that he was different from any of the others. “None of us should have been. We’re not the ones causing the trouble, are we?” Now, more than ever, he wished he’d already gone through transition, so he could be an asset, not a liability shunted off into the care of the pregnant cook. The need to be strong burned beneath his skin, a searing frustration.
Della gave a rueful smile. “No, but trouble spreads like contagion. It knows no borders.”
Ben shivered. Her words chilled him, bringing thoughts of trouble rippling out like a floodtide to engulf them. And there was nowhere they could run that it wouldn’t find them.
Alek sat in front of the computer he’d commandeered in an apartment above a patisserie in the Orléans old quarter. The sound of bakers beginning their night’s work filtered up through the timber floor as his fingers flew across the keyboard, and when he found the clues he was looking for his panic slowly subsided. Aviation schedules, immigration records … as he’d hoped, he could see when and how Kat’s harridan of a grandmother had entered and left the country. As he’d hoped, she was too arrogant to bother to cover her tracks. He didn’t need specifics on her companions to be sure that when Imara Chanter had flown out of Paris-Orly Airport on a chartered Gulfstream, she’d taken Kat with her. He found out their flight was scheduled to land at Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. He’d pick up her trail once he reached California.
He gave the inert time display on the monitor’s top corner a ferocious scowl. It was a damned shame there were no longer Concordes servicing the Paris to New York route. It was also a great inconvenience that he’d never mastered Anton’ s or Miklós’s ability to take on a bird’s form. Even if he was on a commercial flight before dawn, making it to the North American east coast before sunrise would be a challenge. But he wasn’t one to balk at a challenge.
Lucia lay on her bed watching him work. He suspected she’d been watching him for a while, but he’d been engrossed with the computer, and thoughts of Kat. He glanced at her as he reached for the tablet lying to one side of the desk, and unplugged its power cable. “Can I borrow this?”
She gave him an exasperated look, and pushed herself upright. “Hai rotto il fiato. You only came here to use my computer? Really? No, you can’t take that. Che stronzo. It’s brand new!” She pouted at him, and he belatedly noticed she’d changed into some sort of filmy and expensive-looking negligee that didn’t leave much of her stunning figure to the imagination. He was probably supposed to have noticed that earlier.
“I need it, Lu. Just say yes. I’ll send it back.”
She rolled her eyes. “I could never say no to you, Alek. But I don’t see you for years, and then you come through my window in the middle of the night, and for what? Who is she?” There was speculation in the gaze she leveled at him. How did women do that? Jump immediately from the fact that he didn’t want to sleep with them to the assumption that there must be someone else?
“Nobody you know,” Alek countered smoothly, not troubling to deny her assumption as he quickly shut down the computer and rose to his feet. “And thank you.” He gave Lucia a kiss on each cheek, but she didn’t lose the pout. “You’re still the most beautiful woman in Orléans, cara mia.”
“French girls are too thin,” she said dismissively. She watched him as he made his way back to the window. “Ciao, bello,” she said, as he paused on top of the sill and looked back. “Stammi bene.”
Now that he was closer to finding Kat, and had a clear lead to follow, he was better disposed toward the world in general. But he still had a gnawing ache inside that wouldn’t subside until he could see for himself that she was unhurt.
He gave Lucia a distracted smile, his mind already on the night’s travel ahead. “Ciao. Arrivederci.”
The hours that followed passed in a blur: a flight to New York, and then he took refuge in the covered load of a westbound truck just before the sun rose. The truck’s limited pace was galling him by the time they reached Ohio in the afternoon, and he changed form amidst the shadowy boxes, leaping from the back of the speeding vehicle on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. Desperation, and the knowledge of how far ahead Kat’s grandmother must be with her point-to-point chartered flight, drove him faster and farther than he’d ever attempted to travel, cross-country, in either form: cougar or man. All afternoon he loped through the flat, empty miles, from Indiana to Illinois, Missouri to Kansas, speeding through farmland and prairie faster than any wheeled vehicle on the nearby Interstate Route 70 would have attempted. Any farmer who noted his passing would have wondered at seeing a mountain lion so far out of its usual range, but he was traveling too fast to attract such notice, and skirting every human settlement, so he was no more than a whisper on the wind, going swiftly past. He stopped only once, during his headlong dash, to feed on a pair of unwary jackrabbits that crossed his path.
He reached Denver on nightfall, so exhausted he barely had the energy to change form; to find appropriate clothing to cover his nude body; to make his way to the airport and board the first flight out of Denver bound for San Francisco. On the plane, finally, he rested.
In the end, his haste was pointless. Around midnight, his investigations had finally led him to a walled estate in the hills above Napa Valley, guarded by armed security teams that patrolled the grounds on regular rotations, and there he stalled. He watched the grandmother leave, in convoy, just before dawn, but Kat was not with her.
She was still here. He was sure of it, though he could no more sense her presence than he’d been able to from across the ocean, because the place was riddled with silver, right to the walls. They were well informed, these witches, and well prepared to protect themselves against his kind. They’d built silver into the brick and buried it beneath the soil, invisible to the eye, but he could feel it whenever he approached too close: the crawling across his skin, and if he didn’t retreat, the spreading weakness that would leave him helpless, as graceless and unwieldy as a human. Kat was so close, yet out of his reach. The frustration didn’t sit well with him, and he channeled his energy into locating daytime shelter, and finding the perfect vantage point from which to look down on the compound and watch its comings and goings. And then, having no other choice, he settled down to wait.