At long last, chapter two! The normal warning about this being unedited and typos apply. I’m terrible at spotting them in the wild.
I feel like this chapter is a bit slow. There’s necessary character building but it also seem redundant with Charlotte’s scene in chapter one. Well, that’s the danger of the alpha draft. I’ll tighten it up in editing.
If you missed a chapter, you can catch up on the series page.
The Woodhouse Home
“Are you certain this the wisest course of action?” Her father stood amongst the boxes haphazardly piled into his library.
Charlotte plastered a fake smile on her face and slowly counted to five.
Yes, she was sure.
Yes, she was absolutely positive that she was sick of being questioned.
Yes, she knew what people would say.
No, she didn’t give a fig what people said.
And no, she wouldn’t change her mind.
She unclenched her hand. “I’ve decided, Papa. I won’t change my mind.” No matter how many times she was questioned. “Besides, this is too valuable a research opportunity to pass by. Draven is nearly two hundred years old.”
“Allegedly.” Nathan Wodehouse opened the nearest box and peered inside. “I say, what is this?”
“Lionel’s papers and diaries,” Charlotte said. Her father raised his brows. “Oh, don’t give me that look. His sister is taking up residence for the next year and she’d burn all this given the chance.”
Charlotte herself had fought the urge to destroy her late husband’s diaries but decided against it. The information was too unique and too valuable to be destroyed out of some misguided attempt to protect the family name. Lionel had written faithfully in his journal for years, starting when he entered military service as a young man. He had been bitten by his commanding officer. His entire unit had been turned. Some held onto their minds. Some could not. The survivors hunted rogue beasts and monsters in the west lands.
They had good intentions. Charlotte had to believe that. Whatever monster Lionel became, he started with the goal to help keep people safe.
His military career was filled with success, commendations, and medals. She knew that. Lionel made his fortune in the military, a fortune she now possessed.
“Have you read these?” Nathan flipped through a leather bound journal.
“Yes, I have.” Of course she read them. She poured over them, searching for some clue as to how her husband had turned out so wrong. A young soldier, full of promise and good intentions, ended up twisted into a monster that killed indiscriminately.
That tried to kill her on their wedding day.
“It’s rather interesting if you want a first hand account of the transition.”
“Seems to be nothing but military jargon,” Nathan said.
“Lionel was a military man,” Charlotte replied. The military life had suited the beast in him. Countless journal entries supported that. Structure kept him grounded. Human. When his commander and half of his unit were killed in a skirmish, Lionel’s control began to slip. He grew erratic. Angry. The beast lurked under just his skin, ready to claw its way out.
Whether Lionel was forced out of the military or he chose to leave, the journal was unclear. What was clear was that the beast inside him had control. He killed for the fun of it. His transformations were no longer limited to the nights of solstice and the equinox. He was dangerous, a beast wearing a mask, and no one suspected.
Her father picked up another journal, this one just as beaten as the other.
“No matter what we think of him, his journals are valuable,” Charlotte said.
“I suppose the are useful for research purposes,” he admitted.
She seized the opening. “Then you admit that research is important.”
“No, Papa. There is only so much I can research from here.”
“You can request books you need from the university in Founding.”
Charlotte shook her head. She wasn’t being a stubborn brat at the issue. She had trained to be an academic. She wanted to teach at the university, just as her father had, and spent years pursuing that goal. But academia was a small world and when your father is a professor with controversial opinions, your opportunities are limited. When Nathaniel had been asked to leave the university, Charlotte found that her budding career had ended.
“I have and they are sensored.” She pulled down two copies of the same book, but vastly different editions. Various passages were missing from both editions. Charlotte compared the two, piecing together a complete work, but it was frustrating. She was interested in early accounts of the colony, diaries and log entries from the very first settlers. Unfortunately, what was socially acceptable had changed greatly in the two hundred and some years since humans arrived on Nexus. Society was generally more conversative and “offensive material” was removed from new editions. She said, “I need access to the originals.”
Nathan took the books from Charlotte, set them aside, and took her hands. “If you are trying to punish yourself with exile, don’t.”
“Why would I punish myself?” She gave a nervous laugh. Why did he have to be observant? This wasn’t like him. Usually he spent his days with his nose in a book and barely noticed the outside world.
“No one could have guessed about Lionel. It’s not your fault.”
She swallowed, her throat suddenly very dry. “He hurt people.”
People she cared for.
“Yes, he did,” Nathan said in a level, reasonable voice. “That is his doing, not yours.”
“I should have known. Suspected. I was blind. I should have–” Charlotte didn’t know what entirely she was meant to have known or done. Her excitement at escaping the fate of an old maid blinded her to Lionel’s true nature. He had acted oddly in the days leading to the wedding but she brushed away her concerns about his behavior. She had a wedding to plan, after all.
Nathan watched her inner struggle, his eyes soft and compassionate. “He had the entire village fooled. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Don’t I? I hear the whispers when I go into the village,” Charlotte said. The last time she walked into the pub, the entire place went quiet. No one looked at her directly but she felt eyes on her. Always an odd duck in the community– too educated, from money but impoverished, from the city– she never fit neatly into the village’s social structure. Solenne was her dearest and only friend, another odd duck who didn’t quite fit in. Having a compatriot, another woman who didn’t meet society’s expectations, made it less lonely. Now that Solenne was married and Charlotte not, she felt alone.
She wouldn’t be so dramatic to call herself a pariah, although at times it felt like it. She did have Lionel’s fortune and his estate. Money solved a great many problems. If the village regarded her with suspicion and were less than friendly, so be it. They accepted her coin.
“Let them talk,” Nathan said.
Pointing out that her father placed no value in having society’s good regard would be a waste of breath. Instead, she said, “My reasons are sound.”
“Research,” he said in a dubious tone.
“My reasons are also my own. You won’t change my mind.” She lifted her chin, determined. “You are my father and I love you. As much as I wanted your approval, I don’t need it.”
Her father did not respond immediately. The air in the room grew tense.
He smiled, causing wrinkles around the eyes. “You look like your mother when you’re being stubborn.”
“Papa–” With anyone else, she’d suspect a tactic to distract her with memories of her late mother, but not from Nathan Wodehouse. The man was sincere to a fault. A flaw they both possessed.
“You don’t need my permission or my approval, Charlotte. You haven’t for some time.” He pulled her into an embrace. “I will worry and I will miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, Papa.” Charlotte sank in the hug, feeling like a small child again, a feeling normally met with irritation. She found she did not mind so much this time.
Nathan stepped back and cleared his throat. “Well, then, since you’re determined, I’ll make a list of questions and topics for you to research.”
“I’d expect nothing less.”
Draven crumpled the paper and tossed it into the fireplace.
Troops were amassing at Sandwater Point. Again. The human military could be stubbornly single minded about taking back the Aerie. Obsessive, even. In Draven’s day, the outpost had been nothing more than a camp for the workers building the railroad. Now it was the last stop on the rails, a trading outpost for those foolish enough to live in the West Lands, and a depot for military supplies shipped via the train.
Now his scouts reported that soldiers arrived on those trains, along with a concerning amount of munitions.
It seemed the military would try to take the Aerie again.
“I think it’s time to pay a visit to Sandwater,” he said.
“You need a bigger cart,” Solenne said.
Charlotte sat on a trunk. She already agreed to leave half of her luggage behind. Leaving some clothing behind concerned her but it was not a disaster. The weather in the mountains would be cold. Draven was… well, not quite human. Perhaps the cold did not bother him and he kept his fortress in the mountains frigid. She would need layers, something Luis and Miles did not seem to comprehend. “I tried to pack light but I have no idea what to expect. Your brother thinks I should bring one dress and perhaps a light shawl.”
“Plus, the mountains,” Solenne said with a nod, as if she understood Charlotte’s worry perfectly.”Reading material will be hard to come by.”
“Yes, you get me. There’s nothing worse than having nothing to read.”
Solenne raised an eyebrow as if she disagreed but said nothing. “I have a gift for you.” She handed Charlotte a medium sized case.
“Oh, thank you,” Charlotte said, eyeing the size of the case. Surely one little case couldn’t weigh enough to break the cart’s axel.
“Well, it more of a necessary supply than a gift. Don’t let Luis convince you to leave it behind.”
Intrigued, Charlotte opened the case. Glass vials were nestled inside a velvet line case along with a silver dagger, a small pistol, and a wooden stake. It was a very generous gift. Too generous.
“I can’t. The expense–“
Solenne made a dismissive noise. “Those old things? Just cluttering up the basement.”
Charlotte knew that was not true. Silver was a potent element against the monsters and it was expensive to maintain a functional armory. Blades could be sharpened or even reforged, but bullets were often lost. Her friend handed her a small fortune.
“Solenne–” Charlotte started to protest but stopped when Solenne held up a hand.
“You would not say it is too generous if you saw the condition I found it in. Truly. Luis sharpened the blade and Mile put them in working order. Papa replaced the lining with a set of old drapes. Do you remember the ghastly pink ones from the drawing room?”
Charlotte brushed her fingers over the velvet lining. The pink drapes had once been a rich red but faded unevenly. “I thought the color was familiar.”
“So the only true expense is the bullets. If you must use them, use them well.” Solenne demonstrated how to load the pistol. “If you require more than six, I suggest running. If your aim is halfway decent, the vampire will be injured and slow.”
“Doubtful.” Hunting was not one of her interests. “I’ve never fired a pistol.”
“Have Luis teach you along the way. He’s bringing enough ammunition, silver and lead, that you needn’t worry.”
“And this?” Charlotte removed the stake for closer inspection. “Isn’t driving a wooden stake through a vampire’s heart an old Earth superstition? It doesn’t work here.”
“It’ll hurt,” Solenne said, “and it might work. I checked the family logs but we haven’t fought a vampire in a long time.”
“Oh, how truly delightful it is that you are from a family of monster hunters. Speaking with you is always interesting.”
Solenne sat next to Charlotte on the truck, despite there barely being enough room. Charlotte set the wooden stake back in the case and scooted as far to the edge as she could.
“My family has hunted monsters for generations,” Solenne said. “You’d do well to listen to my expertise. Someone once told me that I was quite an accomplished monster slayer.”
“I believe I said you were well read on stabbing and poisoning, but I do not doubt your prowess for monster slaying.” Charlotte brushed her fingers across the pistol, noting the lack of detail on the handle. It looked antiquated, boxy and rough, like it had been made by a person trying to rediscover a lost craft. When the settler’s technology failed, they had to figure out how to survive without tech. Often that means learning to make the basic components of civilization from books. The original settlers had to rediscover how to spin wool, weave fabric, forge metals, build carts, and a hundred other crafts, but weapons were mastered quickly.
Six bullets were nestled alongside the pistol, smooth and well made. They gleamed in the sunlight like the promise of trouble. She’d never fired a gun before and here she was equipped with a portable arsenal.
“I’m not there to assassinate Draven,” Charlotte said.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“He’ll assume the worst if he discovers this case,” Charlotte said. Draven, if he was the original Draven in the history books, had a vicious temper.
“He’ll assume you came prepared to defend yourself. Some men appreciate that. It makes for interesting conversation.”
Charlotte laughed. Her friend never experienced the joy of a social season in Founding, the center of the civilized world. When she had been young, before her family’s fortune had diminished and her father was still a respected scholar, she did her time on the marriage mart. Nothing came of it, of course, other than she grew to understand that most gentlemen did not care for interesting conversation from a young lady. They cared about a woman’s face and her fortune.
Some men might crave stimulating conversation, but she had no idea what Draven craved. Well, blood, presumably. He was, after all, not entirely human.
Solenne took the case from Charlotte. “If you think the vampire will react badly, you don’t have to take it.”
“No, you have a point. I should be prepared to defend myself,” Charlotte said. Draven asked for a year’s companionship as his bride. What exactly that entailed, she could not say. She had her suspicions. He’d have demands of her. Fine. She had her own demands.
Charlotte patted her friend’s hand. “Thank you for the gift, although I’m surprised you’re not trying to talk me out of this.”
Solenne shrugged her shoulders. “I know not to waste my breath. Now, your gift.” She opened the satchel and produced two tin canisters. “This is a tea of vervain, nightshade, and rose.”
Charlotte wrinkled her nose. “That sounds dreadful.”
“It’s supposed to make you taste dreadful. One teaspoon, let it seep for five minutes. No more. It is poisonous.”
Charlotte took the cannisters. “Poison tea. You’re so thoughtful.”
“So you’re not pressured into a situation you’re uncomfortable with.” She sounded so matter of fact but Charlotte noticed the way her gaze went anywhere but Charlotte’s face.
“There’s something else.”
Solenne nodded. “Do you have any questions about what to expect on the wedding night? Heavens, this is awkward.” Her face burned scarlet.
“Thank you, I am not… inexperienced in that regard.” Charlotte wore her own matching blush.
“Goodness. How did you find the time? I was run off my feet that day.” Solenne sounded genuinely impressed.
“Oh, we, um, celebrated a bit early,” Charlotte said, blushing furiously.
Solenne chuckled and bumped her shoulder against Charlotte. “Well, good for you. Now we needn’t have a mortifying conversation.”
Yes, good thing. Too bad Charlotte was already mortified.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to reach our first stop before dark,” Luis announced loudly.
“I’m not afraid of riding in the dark,” Charlotte said, moving to her feet.
“You’ll appreciate sleeping in a bed. We won’t have that luxury too often,” Luis said. He and Miles loaded the last trunk into the cart. Despite his protests that she packed too much, they traveled with only three horses and a cart. Hardly anything at all.
Solenne wrapped her in a bone crushing embrace. The hug from her father was less enthusiastic but just as comforting. Nathan refrained from last minute questions, which was as good as a blessing as anything.
Before the sun reached its zenith, they were on their way into the West Lands. Charlotte wouldn’t look back. She wouldn’t doubt herself. Everyone had questioned her decision but she refused to question herself. She couldn’t stay here one more day as the pitiable, naive widow. A new future waited for her in the west.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.