“Here, Father. She can rest comfortably on these bales of hay.”
Lenobia felt the Bishop’s hesitation, as if he did not want to let her go, but the Abbess repeated, “Father, here. This is where you may place her.”
She was finally released from the cage of his arms, and she shrank back even farther, pulling her cloak with her so that nothing touched the priest, who lingered too close by.
Lenobia drew a deep breath and, as if by magick, the sound and scent of horses filled her and soothed her, relieving just a small amount of the burning in her chest.
“Child,” the Abbess said, bending over her and brushing the hair from her brow again. “I am going to go on to the convent. Once there I will send our hospital carriage for you. Do not fear; it will not be long.” She straightened and said to the priest, “Father, I would consider it a kindness if you remained with the child.”
“No!” Lenobia shouted at the same moment the Bishop said, “Oui, of course.”
The Abbess touched Lenobia’s brow again and reassured her. “Child, I will return soon. The Bishop will watch over you until then.”
“No, Sister. Please. I feel much better now. I can wal —” Lenobia’s protestations were drowned in another fit of coughing.
The Abbess nodded sadly. “Yes, it is better if I send the carriage. I will return soon.” She turned and hurried back to the street and the waiting girls, leaving Lenobia alone with the Bishop.
“There is no need for you to look so terrified. I find a struggling girl exciting, not a sick one.” He peered into the stables as he spoke to her, though he didn’t walk down the aisle that divided the two rows of stalls. “Horses again. It is becoming a theme with you. Perhaps after you become my mistress, if you are very good, I will buy one for you.” He turned from the dark interior of the building and the muffled sounds of sleepy horses to walk over to one of two torches that were lit beside the entrance of the building. Their flames burned steadily, though they were giving off a great deal of thick gray smoke.
Lenobia watched him approach one of the torches. He stared at the flame with a look that was openly loving. His hand lifted and his fingers moved caressingly through the flame, causing the smoke to wave hazily around him. “That is what first drew me to you—the smoke of your eyes.” He turned to look at her, the flame framing him. “But you knew that already. Women like you draw men to them on purpose, just as flame draws moths. You drew me and you drew that slave on the ship.”
“I did not draw you,” Lenobia said, refusing to speak to him of Martin.
“Ah, but obviously you did, because here I am.” He spread out his arms. “And there is something I must make clear to you. I do not share what is mine. You are mine. I will not share you. So, little flame, do not draw any other moths to you, or I may have to snuff you, or them, out.”
Lenobia shook her head and said the only thing she could think of: “You are absolutely mad. I am not yours. I will never be yours.”
The priest frowned. “Well, then, I promise you that you will not belong to anyone else—not in this lifetime.” He took a menacing step toward her, but black velvet swirled around him and it seemed a figure materialized out of smoke and night and shadow. The hood of the cloak fell back, and Lenobia gasped as the beautiful vampyre’s face appeared. She smiled, lifted her hand, pointed a long finger at Lenobia, and said, “Lenobia Whitehall! Night has chosen thee; thy death will be thy birth. Night calls to thee; hearken to Her sweet voice. Your destiny awaits you at the House of Night.”
Pain exploded in Lenobia’s forehead and she pressed both hands to her face. She wanted to sit there like that and believe that the entire night had been a nightmare—one long, unending, and terrifying dream—but the vampyre’s next words had her lifting her head and blinking the bright spots free of her vision.
“Leave, Bishop. You have no hold on this daughter of Night. She now belongs to the Mother of all of us, the Goddess Nyx.”
The Bishop’s face was blazing as scarlet as the heavy cross that swayed from the chain around his neck. “You have ruined everything!” he shouted, blowing spittle at the vampyre.
“Begone, Darkness!” The vampyre didn’t raise her voice, but it was filled with the power of her command. “I recognize you. Do not think you can hide from those who see you with more than human eyes. Begone!” As she repeated the command, the flames in the torches sputtered and almost extinguished completely.
The priest’s red face paled and with one last, long look at Lenobia, he backed out of the stables and fled into the night.
Lenobia released the breath she had been holding in a gasp. “Is he gone? Truly?”
The vampyre smiled at her. “Truly. Neither he, nor any human, has authority over you now that Nyx has Marked you as her own.”
Lenobia’s hand lifted to the center of her forehead, which felt sore and bruised. “I am a vampyre?”
The Tracker laughed. “Not yet, daughter. Today you are a fledgling. Hopefully one day soon you will be a vampyre.”
The sound of running footsteps had both of them turning defensively, but instead of the Bishop, it was Martin who burst into the stable. “Cherie! I followed the girls, but I stay back—so they don’ see me—I don’ know you leave them. Are you sick? Do you—” He broke off as what he was seeing seemed to register suddenly in his mind. He looked from Lenobia to the vampyre, and then quickly back to Lenobia, his gaze focused on the outline of the newly formed crescent in the middle of her forehead. “Sacre bleu! Vampyre!”
For an instant Lenobia’s heart felt as if it would shatter, and she waited for Martin to reject her. He drew a deep breath and let it out with obvious relief. His smile began when he turned to the vampyre and bowed with a flourish, saying, “I am Martin. If what I believe to be true, true, I am the mate of Lenobia.”
The vampyre’s brows arched and her full lips tilted up in the hint of a smile. She fisted her right hand over her heart and said, “I am Medusa, Tracker for the Savannah House of Night. And though I see your intentions are honorable, you cannot officially be her mate until she is a fully Changed vampyre.”
Martin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “Then I wait.” When he turned his face toward Lenobia, the brilliance of his smile was the key to understanding, and the truth within her was freed.
“Martin and I—we can be together! We can be married?” Lenobia looked to Medusa.
The tall vampyre smiled. “At the House of Night, it is a woman’s right to choose—mate or consort, black or white—what matters is choice.” The vampyre included Martin in her smile. “And I see that you have made it. Though, perhaps as there is no House of Night in New Orleans, it would be best that Martin accompany you to Savannah.”
“Is it possible? Really?” Lenobia said, her hands reaching for Martin as he moved to her side.
“It is,” Medusa assured her. “And now that I see you have a true protector, I will allow the two of you time for yourselves. But do not tarry long. Return quickly to the dock and find the ship with the dragon as its masthead. I wait for you there, and we sail with the tide.”
The vampyre must have left, but Lenobia saw only Martin and felt only his presence.
He took her hands in his. “What is it with horses and you, cherie? I find you with them again.”
She couldn’t stop smiling. “At least you will always know where to look for me.”
“Good to know, cherie,” he said.
She slid her hands up his muscular chest until they rested on his broad shoulders. “Try not to lose me, you,” she said, mimicking his accent.
“Never,” he promised.
Then Martin bent and kissed her, and her entire world narrowed to only him. His taste imprinted on her senses, mixing indelibly with his scent and the wonderful feel of him that was thoroughly masculine, and uniquely Martin. He made a small, satisfied sound deep in his throat as her arms tightened around him. He deepened the kiss, and Lenobia lost herself in him, hardly knowing where her happiness ended and his began.
Lenobia’s joy was shattered by the sound of a curse. Martin reacted instantly. He whirled, pushing her behind him.
The Bishop had returned. He was standing at the entrance to the stables between the two torches. His arms were spread and the ruby cross at his breast was flashing in the flames that were growing taller and taller by the instant.
“Go now, you!” Martin said. “This girl, she don’ choose you. She under my protection—sworn by vow—sealed by blood.”
“No, you do not see. Her eyes make her mine. Her hair makes her mine. But most of all, the power I carry makes her mine!” The Bishop reached his hands toward both torches. The flames leaped while smoke billowed, thickening until they licked his hands. Then, laughing horribly, he cupped the fire and threw it at the hay that was bundled into loose, dry bales all around them.
With a whoosh! the fire caught, fed, consumed. Lenobia knew a terrifying moment of heat and pain. She smelled her own hair burning. She opened her mouth to scream, but heat and smoke filled her lungs.
Then she felt his arms around her as Martin shielded her from the flames with his own body. He lifted her and carried her unflinchingly through the burning stable.
The warm, moist air in the street felt cold against Lenobia’s singed skin when Martin staggered and lost his grip on her, and she fell to the street. She looked up at him. His body was burned so badly that all that was recognizable were his olive-and-amber eyes.
“Oh, no! Martin! No!”
“Too late, cherie. This world too late for us. I see you again, though. My love for you don’ end here. My love for you, it never end.”
She tried to stand, to reach for him, but her body was oddly weak, and movement had pain racing up her back.
“Die now, and leave ma petite de bas to me!” Behind Martin, the Bishop, silhouetted by the stable fire, began to move toward them.
Martin’s gaze met hers. “I don’ stay here now, though I wish I could. I don’ lose you, either. I find you again, cherie. That I vow.”
“Please, Martin. I do not want to live without you,” she sobbed.
“You must. I find you again, cherie,” he repeated. “Before I go, this one thing I can fix this time, though. A bientôt, cher. I will love you always.”
Martin turned to meet the Bishop, who scoffed at him. “Still alive? Not for long!” Martin kept staggering toward the priest, speaking slowly and clearly:
“She belong to me—and hers I be!
“Of loyalty and truth,
“This blood be my proof!
“What you do to her you do in vain.
“What you cast come back on you tenfold the pain!”
As he reached the Bishop, his movements changed. For just an instant he was swift and strong and whole again, but an instant was all Martin needed. His arms locked around Charles de Beaumont and, eerily mirroring the embrace that had saved Lenobia’s life, Martin lifted the screaming, struggling Bishop and carried him into the burning inferno that had once been stables.
“Martin!” The shriek of agony that was wrenched from Lenobia was muffled by the awful sounds of panicked, burning horses and people rushing from nearby homes, shouting for water, shouting for help.
Through all the sounds and madness, Lenobia remained crumpled in the middle of the street, sobbing. As the flames spread and the world around her burned, she dropped her head and waited for the end.
“Lenobia! Lenobia Whitehall!”
She did not look up at the sound of her name. It was only the sound of a horse’s nervous hooves on the cobblestones nearby that made her react. Medusa slid off the mare and knelt beside her. “Can you ride? We have little time. The city is burning.”
“Leave me. I want to burn with it. I want to burn with him.”
Medusa’s eyes filled with tears. “Your Martin is dead?”
“And so am I,” Lenobia said. “His death has killed me, too.” As she spoke, Lenobia felt the depth of Martin’s loss surge through her. It was too much—the pain was too much to contain within her body, and with a sob that was a widow’s wail, she collapsed forward. The fabric along the back seam of her dress burst, and pain split her scorched skin.
“Daughter!” Medusa knelt beside her, reaching for her, trying to console her. “Your back—I must get you to the ship.”
“Leave me here,” Lenobia said again. “I vowed to never love another man, and I will not.”
“Keep your vow, daughter, but live. Live the life he could not.”
Lenobia began to refuse, and then the soft muzzle of the mare dropped to her, blew against her singed hair, and nuzzled her face.
And through her pain and despair, Lenobia felt it—felt the mare’s worry, as well as her fear at the spreading fire.
“I can feel what she does.” Lenobia reached a weak, trembling hand up to stroke the horse. “She is worried and afraid.”
“It is your gift—your affinity. They rarely manifest this soon. Listen to me, Lenobia. Our Goddess, Nyx, has given you this great gift. Do not reject it and the comfort and, perhaps, happiness it could bring to you.”
Horses and happiness …
The second story of the house beside the stables collapsed, and sparks cascaded around them, setting fire to the silk curtains in the house across the street.
The mare’s fear spiked—and it was the horse’s terror that made Lenobia move. “I can ride,” she said, allowing Medusa to help her to her feet and then lift her into the saddle.