The night wrapped around them like a cloak, and they moved through it swiftly. Claude smiled to himself as the air rushed past his face and through his long, blond hair. He could smell the men on the wind. Though to his inexperienced nose they were just blood, Francoise could read much more.
"There are at least six of them," she whispered to her companions. "They will be no trouble."
The two at the gatehouse fell to Francoise's companions, and another ran for the keep. Francoise, Claude and Henri chased him. It was the latter who snapped his neck and ripped into his veins. Claude pushed past, Francoise on his heels, and took the steps of the keep two at a time. It was a small ch?teau-fort, and the keep was little more than a tower with a winding stair. How could he think it would protect them?
Two more guards stood on the stairs. Claude grabbed one by his shoulder and ripped through his neck with his fangs. His blood was hot. For a moment he could have been lost to it. The memory of his quest pulled him back and he flung the gurgling man down the stairs. Francoise barely dodged out of the way. Though her eyes flamed, her voice was calm, "Remember, you are not alone. Do not be careless or your allies may turn on you."
He dismissed the lesson and left the other guard for her. He heard the man scream, but he didn't look back to see what happened. He was too close.
Two final guards stood before the wooden door at the top of the stairs. They brandished swords and one of them shouted to the occupant of the locked room, "A demon is here, my lord! All blood and fangs! God save us!"
Claude laughed at the description and wordlessly grabbed the first of the guards. He fought back, and his sword cut into Claude's side. He roared at the surprise pain, and then grabbed the man by the arm and flung him down the stairs. His armor clanged and his bones crunched as he rolled out of sight to where Francoise waited.
The other dropped his weapon and cowered against the door, making the sign of the cross and jibbering. "Please, do not kill me. God, protect me! Please!"
"There is no God," Claude sneered. Then he grabbed the discarded sword and slammed the blade into the man's face. The guard screamed and raised his hands to his ruined head, as though trying to hold the blood in. It poured between his fingers and he gurgled on it.
Claude left him on the floor in his agony and stepped over him. The wooden door was bolted from within. He raised his foot to kick through it, then stopped. He wanted to savor the fear. Gently he rapped on it and purred, "I've come. Did you get my message?"
The ?cuyer swore loudly and shouted to his guards, "How can he be here? Kill him!"
"I must apologize," Claude answered and carefully combed the stray hairs from his face with a bloody hand. "I'm afraid they cannot answer you."
The ?cuyer cried something unintelligible, then dropped his voice. Though it was a whisper, Claude did not strain to hear. "Go. Hide in the back."
He was talking to her. He was telling her to hide. It would do no good.
Claude broke the door in with a single kick. He marveled at his new strength, but there was no time to be amazed. That would come later. After he had killed him.
And there he was. He stood in the center of the room, his sword raised. He was dressed in all his glory, as if his finery would make him more intimidating. His shaking hands and terrified eyes ruined the illusion.
"What do you want?" he demanded, though his voice trembled. "Be gone or-"
"Or what?" Claude strolled into the room, the dying guard's sword still in his hand. "You'll set the dogs on me, perhaps? Or have your men run me off in another shower of stones?" His smiled grew. "Or perhaps you'll kill me this time, is that your plan? Be done with me once and for all?"
"I should have done so," he snapped back, his voice gruff even as he retreated a step. "The sisters at the abbey should have strangled the breath from you when you were born."
"You should have done it yourself," Claude answered. The amusement in his eyes flickered and died. "It would have been the only contribution you made, beyond bedding my mother."
The man opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. Claude willed him to speak; willed him to say something, anything. No words came. Where was his superiority now? It had fled with the lives of his soldiers, and that knowledge only swelled Claude's fury.
He lunged at him, slashing the sword wildly. In his untrained hands it was nothing more than a sharp club that was easily deflected. It bounced across the room, but the metallic clangs did not give the ?cuyer any comfort. There was no light of victory in his eyes, only fear. Claude had wanted that fear. He'd wanted to taste it, savor it, to breathe it in. But he'd wanted to watch as the old man's eyes shifted from gloating certainty into terror. He wanted to break him but he was already broken.
Claude roared a wordless oath and threw himself at the man. The noble man dodged, but his mortal reflexes were too slow and the pair crashed to the floor noisily. Over the clang and crash Claude could hear a sharp sob from the room beyond. His attention flew to the door that he knew she was listening at. The ?cuyer saw the shift and took advantage of it to break loose and roll away. He jerked to his knees and summoned that last ounce of courage Claude had been waiting for.
"You won't have her!"