It is eight days until the release of The Bride Price (you can read the entire first chapter here) and I’m almost to the point of running around like a chicken without its head. Not quite, but almost.
So in the meantime, and to perhaps serve as a distraction that might save my sanity, I bring you another short story/scene written for a prompt contest on Wattpad, featuring one of those old pals of mine, Mr. Callum Muir.
In Silence and Tears
His head still hurt where they’d struck him.
It throbbed, really, and he didn’t care much for the nausea that overtook him every time he opened his eyes and attempted to focus on… well, anything. They’d been thorough, at least, in their attempt at rendering him incapacitated.
The bonds on his wrists cut into his skin where he’d twisted against them. He’d expected brass or even iron, something that would act as a reminder that despite the ache in his head, the dried blood on his chin from where they’d split his lip, this was still a civilized society. But instead it was mere twine, wrapped around so tightly he’d lost feeling in the tips of his fingers hours before.
“She’s ready to see you.”
He didn’t raise his head. There was the scuff of booted feet on the bare floor before a hand gripped him under his arm, dragging him upright and onto his feet before his legs decided if they were willing to cooperate. He was led out of the room—though to give it such a grand appellation was surely misleading, as he’d seen closets stuffed full of mops and dustpans that boasted more grandeur—and into a dimly lit corridor that could’ve doubled as a corridor in nearly any building in any part of London. That is, if he they hadn’t bundled him out of town when he’d gone and inconveniently lost consciousness. But, no. It still smelled like London. There was an aroma that permeated everything; a stench, really, that no other city could emulate. That is, if he wasn’t confusing the odor of the building with the pungence of the man currently leading him towards a flight of stairs.
A groan escaped him as he began to trudge upwards. The other man’s fingers dug into the flesh of his upper arm, and something cold and hard pressed against the back of his neck when he dared to slow his pace.
“Allow me an assumption,” he ground out between ragged breaths. “Silver bullets in that fine weapon of yours, hmm? A waste of costly materials, you know, seeing as how anything used at that range will succeed in ending my life. Or do you mistake my malady for immortality, that I’m somehow gifted with the power to withstand a bullet ripping through my trachea?”
A quick movement behind him, and the arm holding the pistol elbowed him between his shoulderblades. At least he thought it was an elbow as he stumbled on the landing, his knees hitting the carpet before he was wrenched upward again, one leg dragging behind him as he struggled to get back onto his feet.
The corridor here was a riot of tapestries and medieval armour put on display, while gaslight glowed behind etched glass orbs, a series of miniature suns lining his journey towards the door at the end of the hall.
He thought he would be left to wait outside, dropped into a chair and told to stay for an inexorable length of time. It would be meant as another lesson, an exercise in patience, no doubt. But the door was opened as they approached, as if whoever stood on the other side had been anticipating their arrival. Out of the corridor then, into a room illuminated with firelight and little else. A few candles here and there, wicks trimmed and the fine aroma of beeswax filling his nostrils as he was pushed towards the center of the room.
“Why are his hands still bound?”
His breath hitched. The pain in his head, his lip, the bruises on his body were forgotten as terror rippled through him at the sound of her voice.
One of the men behind him stepped forward. He heard the flick of a blade opening, and then there was a tussle at his wrists as the threads of twine were sliced away. An attempt at stretching out his fingers nearly brought him to his knees again as the blood rushed into them, a pain as sharp as fiery needles racing beneath his skin.
“You may go now.”
Both men coughed and shuffled backwards out of the room, one of them shutting the door with a soft click before their receding footsteps could be heard from the corridor beyond.
He glanced around. It was a sitting room of some sort, all lush upholstery and cushions edged with fringe. A carriage clock stood on the mantelpiece, displaying the time as two in the morning. It had been night when they’d brought him here, but he had no way of knowing if it was still the same night.
“Mmm, Callum. What have you been up to?”
She stepped out of the shadows, clad in a gown as black as the darkness she’d just left behind. Her hair shone in the light from the grate, the pale strands almost luminous piled on top of her head. Her eyes gleamed as well, a shade of grey that seemed to shift like fog as the firelight played across them.
His throat closed up on him, hindering his ability to swallow, even to breathe as he wanted. But still he watched her as she approached him, as the dark edges of her skirt rustled across the carpet as if it were its own living thing.
A few more steps and she was before him, near enough that her every exhale warmed the part of his neck where his collar hung open. His heart juddered in his chest, and then she reached out and placed her hand there, her thumb stroking across the width of his sternum, such a gentle touch that a sigh slipped out of him as he drifted towards her.
He could not know what it was that lured him, whether her hand or her breath or the gaze with which she held him, but he moved back when her lips brushed across his jaw, her teeth grazing his skin a moment before he staggered away from her.
“Bethia.” He spat out her name, as if he could not clear it off his tongue fast enough.
She smiled, the jewelled pins in her hair sparkling as she tilted her head and regarded him. “No, no. Lady Freres, now. Or were you unaware?”
“You’re married.” There should not have been jealousy there, and yet it flared to life inside him, that this woman who had made him, who had bound herself to him, who had so effortlessly seen to his previous life’s destruction, now flaunted herself as the wife of another.
The smile she wore softened, and one fair eyebrow curved upwards. “What was I to do? You rejected me. After all I did for you…”
He raised his hand and rubbed his knuckles across the place where her teeth had been. “You’re in England,” he said, ignoring her bait. “In London. Why?”
Her expression altered again. The charm, the gleam in her eye disappeared as she gave him one last look before pacing towards the fire. “Same as you, I’m sure. It’s easier to hide, isn’t it? To disappear into the crowds and let no one see what you are.”
A minute, he thought, is all it would take. And so he stood, saying nothing, watching as she ran her fingers along the edge of the mantel, as she brushed the imaginary dust from her skin. Before her, the fire burned, eating up the coals until he feared the flames themselves could become a living, breathing entity that would consume everything around them.
“They will find you, Callum.” She turned from the fireplace, her skirts swishing against the base of the screen before she again moved towards him. “Look at how easy it was for me? You’ve been in London again for how long? A week? Two? And yet here you are…” She touched his shoulder, then trailed a single finger down his torn, stained sleeve until she moved her hand to cup his elbow. “I can keep you safe, you know. They may be aware of what you are, what you’re capable of, but they’ve taken to underestimating me.” She pulled him against her, and her mouth found its way to his neck, her breath hot as it pooled over his skin. “And I’m not about to correct their misassumption.”
Her lips… her tongue… the sharp bite of her teeth… He shut his eyes against the surfeit of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. A mixture of disgust and yearning, the urge to thrust her away from him while his fingers flexed, his hands itching to snatch at the silk of her gown, to drag her closer…
He staggered back, the string that held her to him stretching taut as he grit his teeth and moved away. “I will not…”
What he would not do was lost as Bethia’s expression hardened, the desire that had darkened her gaze giving way to a gleam of amber in the grey depths of her eyes. “There will be no more chances after this,” she said, a slight shake of her head accompanying her words. “And if you believe I will allow there to be anyone else but me, you are sorely mistaken.”
He took another step away from her, putting more space between them. “But you forget.” He licked his lips, his mouth dry, his throat ready to revolt over his next words before he had the opportunity to make them heard. “There was never you. You’re the only one foolish enough to think your existence means anything to me. Apart from the destruction you’ve wrought, there is no imprint of you on my life.”
She moved before he could draw another breath, her hand on his chest, her nails digging through his shirt, into his flesh, drawing blood that soaked into the fabric and ran down his abdomen. She could kill him now, he knew. There was more to her than the animal that resided within her, ready to break her bones and reshape them into the form of an entirely new creature. She possessed something older, something infinitely more frightening in every beat of her pulse against his skin.
“Get out.” A whisper into his ear, those two words fell like drops of poison. She wrenched her hand away from him, his skin burning where her nails had left their wounds. He walked backwards until his heels struck the bottom of the door, and then he was scrabbling for the doorknob, almost stumbling into the corridor before he turned himself around and broke into a run.
And yet the connection still pulled at him, no matter her words, no matter the tangle of desires within him to hold her against him and to tear at her throat until her blood ran fast and warm over his teeth and jaw.
There were the tapestries and the cold, dull suits of armor. And there was a man, possibly the one who had pressed a pistol to the back of his neck only a few minutes before. But no one moved to stop him now, only stepping out of the way as he passed, a few more people scattered around, their positions subtly guiding him down and out of the house, into the street, the door slammed behind him as he tripped over the edge of the curb and stumbled to a halt in the middle of the road, the cobbles smooth and glistening in the ochreous glow from the building’s windows and the lamps at each end of the avenue.
He pressed his hand to his chest, wincing at the pain there. He rubbed the dampness between his fingers, wiping it away on his trousers as he turned around himself to better obtain his bearings. Without a hat or a coat, his shirt torn and stained with his own blood, he ducked his head and began walking. And still he felt the cord that tethered her to him, dragging at the edges of the shadows behind him.