WARNING: Contains violence.
Charlotte and Richard finally meet.
London – 1842
The house was silent and still. No children. No Bran. No-one.
I lay on the chaise lounge in the library reading and listening to the grandfather clock tick-tock the time away. I was starting to wish I’d taken the hint from Freyja and removed all the clocks from the house. What did we need so many clocks for anyway? We all knew the children set the timetable for the house and Mary couldn’t even tell the time.
The front door reverberated against the wall.
‘Don’t,’ Bran’s voice echoed in the stillness. ‘Please don’t hurt her. Please.’
‘Quiet your whining, Brandon.’ Richard. His voice was gruff as a heavy drinker and carried despite being quiet.
I closed my book, set it aside and stood.
The man who entered was smaller than I expected, perhaps half a foot taller than me, he was thickset with muscle and dressed as if he was going to the opera in a black suit and a waistcoat of deep blue silk.
‘My, my, a pretty prize indeed,’ he said. ‘Sit, Brandon.’
Bran followed him in, head bowed, and sat down in the first armchair he came to. His face was bruised. My fists tightened and the little wooden rosary wrapped around my hand bit.
‘Brandon seems to think you’re going to kill me.’ Richard chuckled. ‘He really believes a little girl can kill me.’ He smiled. ‘I didn’t believe a girl could kill my vampires but look at you. A face so sweet I bet you walked right up to them and the fools never saw it coming.’ He tutted. ‘A born fool is a fool for life.’
He circled me. I hooked my thumbs in my knife belt and kept my body relaxed.
‘You don’t smell of fear, either you’re a very brave girl or a very silly one.’ His eyes skimmed me like a butcher deciding on his first cut. ‘Brandon actually thinks you can save him from me. Very sweet.’
I took a deep breath and, in my head, recited Psalm 23. It was clichéd but I was walking ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ and no mistake.
‘No man has face me with such fearlessness in a long time,’ Richard said and stopped in front of me.
I held his gaze.
He grinned showing his fangs, trying too hard to be scary, I thought.
‘What fun,’ he said.
He grabbed my throat and slammed me into the bookcase. The shelves collapsed and books spilt at his feet. I punched him in his smug face, my knuckles crunched. He dropped me and stumbled back, cradling his face.
My rosary was hot around my hand. It didn’t distract from my screaming knuckles. Punching Richard was like punching a wall.
Richard’s shoulder hit me in the stomach and lifted me off my feet. We smashed through the bookcases in a spray of wood and books. I hit the floor, slid along the carpet and I rolled to my feet, back and ribs protesting.
Richard was on his knees shaking his head. The blistered skin below his eye rippled and throbbed as it healed. It smelt of burnt meat.
I flicked one of my knives into my hand and aimed for his neck.
He grabbed my wrist. My whole body jolted with the impact. He twisted my arm, my mechanised scabbard groaned. My arm didn’t break. He frowned.
I ejected the other knife. He caught it an inch from his face then rammed it through my foot into the floor. I shrieked. He still had my wrist, my cracked knuckles couldn’t grip the hilt to pull it free. My elbow snapped. I shrieked.
He stabbed me in the stomach, lifted me off my feet and tossed me. I hit the floor, the breath rushed from me. I rolled to a stop at Bran’s feet and lay there leaking blood and trying to catch my breath.
Richard pulled me up by my jerkin, swung me to face Bran and locked his arm around my neck. I struggled. Some ridiculous part of my brain wondered if it was possible to break your own neck. His grip was so tight I could barely breathe.
He licked a gash on my face. ‘I can taste him in you. Did you think taking his blood would make you strong enough to kill me?’
My boots scraped and banged against the floor and I clawed at his arm with my good hand.
‘He can’t save you. Do you have anything to say to him? A proclamation of love? Always popular.’
‘I’ll kill you,’ I croaked.
‘Bit late for that,’ he whispered. ‘Last chance.’
Bloody tears were running down Bran’s face and staining his white shirt. He was tensed to move but couldn’t.
‘A little breath, perhaps?’ he loosened his grip just enough to allow me to breathe.
‘I weighed the odds, remember?’ I said.
‘In my entire existence that’s the worst I’ve ever heard,’ he said. ‘Keep watching, Brandon’
Blood splattered Bran’s face.
My struggles weakened.
My hand thumped against the floor.