Over the next three years, Claude had haunted the place off and on. He'd watched Arowenia grow; seen her in stolen moments as she rode by in the carriage, or walked past a window or through the courtyard. To say she was beautiful was to say the sun was warm, or the snow was cool; a gross understatement with words that did no justice to the truth. Sister Mary who had gone missing from the abbey shortly after he left had been right. The world was ugliness, but he had found his beauty. Not a welcoming father, as Mary had hoped, but a beautiful girl.
Still, he'd stayed back, waiting, watching, until his sixteenth birthday. Drunk with punch and youthful swagger, he'd climbed the wall and knocked out the first guard who found him. He'd left the man alive but unconscious and slipped through the fortress, up the winding stairs, and finally to her chambers. She lay asleep in the bed, her hair spread out over the pillows. Moonlight painted shadows on her delicate face and across the thin bedclothes.
He'd watched the blankets rise and fall with her breaths, watched her as she lay dreaming. In his drunken impatience, he'd drawn close to the bed, reached out, trailed fingertips over her pale cheek.
She'd jerked awake, blinking sleepy eyes. He could almost feel reality dropping over her like a mantle, and then he saw the fear take over.
Her mouth opened to scream, but he'd silenced her with a hand. She'd made a high pitched sound of terror as he lowered her back to the bed, telling her to hush, to stay quiet and he release her.
When she'd nodded, he'd let go and stepped back, hands held up to show he meant no harm. She'd clutched her blankets in trembling white knuckled hands. "Please," she'd whimpered. "Please don't."
"Don't what? Do what the beast who calls himself your father has been doing?"
She'd blinked. "II don't understand what you mean."
Whether it was the ?cuyer's innocence or hers that prompted her confusion Claude hadn't known, and hadn't cared. "It is of no importance. Know only I mean you no harm."
She'd swallowed hard. "Then why are you here? What do you want?"
"I want what any man wants, to regain those things taken from him. Do you know who I am?"
She'd shaken her head fiercely. "II know only that Father said to stay away from you. That you arenot of sound mind."
Claude had laughed. "So he has seen me outside? He would say such things." He'd crept closer, careful lest he frighten her again. "Ask him again who I am, how I come to bear his likeness but not his name. Ask after my mother. If he is truthful you will discover some ugly truths, and if he is not, perhaps you will see through his lies."
Her voice had been a soft whisper, "I do not understand."
Gently he'd taken her hand and raised it to his lips. "Ask him, and you will."
He'd left her chambers, but then a wild idea seized him. He would kill the old man where he slept and so free her. Beneath the alcohol, the sane part of his conscience screamed that he could not accomplish the deed, but he hadn't listened. He'd pulled his dagger and crept for the ?cuyer's chambers, but the guard outside the door caught him. They'd had a scuffle, that he'd lost.
The alarm given, more men had come, and at last the ?cuyer himself strode from the chamber, clad in a dressing gown and carrying a sword. He'd taken one look at Claude and, with a roar, bashed him over the head with the hilt of his sword. Claude could still remember lying on the floor, the cold seeping through his shirt, his vision blurry, his head sticky with blood from the attack. A foot to his ribs had sent pain shooting through him. But more than the agony he remembered lolling his head to the side to see her standing in a shaft of moonlight, hands clasped, eyes wide with horror. The had delivered another kick and then strode purposefully to Arowenia where he'd thrown a protective and possessive arm around her. That image was frozen in Claude's memory; the gloating superiority in the ?cuyer's eyes as he ordered Claude dragged from the castle, to be left in a ditch to die.
But I didn't die. No, he'd survived until Francoise found him. She'd healed him, played with him and now, given him the gift that would make him strong enough to finish what he'd tried to start then.
Then we'll see which of us is smug.
Claude woke the next night, the weakness and trembling gone from his limbs. Francoise was right. His full strength had only now come to him. He marveled at the things he could see in the shadows and at how the darkness, which he knew to be complete, seemed only to be early evening gloom to his new eyes.
He rose and found the others in the next room. He counted the pale faces. There were five, including himself and Francoise. The other three were her friends, if friends they could be called. They were more like a pack of dogs that hunted together for safety.
Francoise laid out the night's plans. Claude listened in silence. After he'd discovered her secret, he had spoken to her of this more than once and he knew it by heart. They would storm the castle on the hill. They would kill the soldiers and he, he would murder the ?cuyer with his own hands and then take the pale beauty for his bride.
Francoise finished and asked them, "Do you understand?"
Henri, the vampire nearest to her, snickered. "We bring the girl alive and kill everyone else. What could be simpler?"
His too casual attitude infuriated Claude. This was the epoch of his entire life, not some moment of amusement. "No!" he shouted and swiveled towards Henri with burning eyes. "You will kill only who you're told - and you will not touch the ?cuyer. He is mine."
The others drew back at his fury. Rather than acknowledge their discomfort, they looked to Francoise as if to ask, "Why should we follow him?" A dark smile curved her lips and she nodded, leaving them to grumble their assent.
With that settled, she met Claude's eyes and smiled. "Do not fear, you will have your wish tonight as I promised, mon enfant."