It’s been a minute since I’ve updated Blackthorn. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Draven and Charlotte. I was focused on getting a secret project done by New Year’s eve, so this had to wait it’s turn.
This chapter’s a good and long one. Enjoy.
The Black Gate
“Are you certain you want to go through with this?” Luis leaned forward in the saddle. “I won’t hold it against you if you’re having second thoughts.”
Charlotte shielded her face from the falling snow with her hand and looked up at the imposing fortress perched high on the mountain. The fog that rolled in when they reached Sweetwater Point had never left. They traveled for days through the murk, barely able to see more than a few feet ahead. Currently, the mist clung to the ground, obscuring the direct path ahead. Above, the mist cleared enough to make out the entrance was a black gate set halfway up, embedded directly into the mountain face. Lights burned through the mist, like a trick of some mischievous creature to capture the weary traveler.
How dramatic, she thought.
“Well, we’ve a ways to go,” Luis said, as if she might change her mind.
Honestly, why did every man think he had the right to question her decision? Jase, her father, and now Luis. Surely they meant well but it was exhausting. Solenne, the one person who’s opinion Charlotte would listen to, said nothing. Not a word. She understood Charlotte’s motivation, a mix of needing to escape and the irresistible allure of a unique research opportunity.
If this Draven is in fact the original Draven…
The possibilities were enough to make her giddy.
Old vampires were rare with no reports of an elder monster in nearly a century. In theory, the mutation occurred as the beast or witch mutation. However, the parasitic nature of the mutation made a new vampire vulnerable.
In the early colonial histories that Charlotte read, the mutations caught the first settlers unaware. Three months on their new home planet and a strange energy flux changed them. Some of them. Now it was all very well understood and nearly classified into three categories: beasts, vampires, and witches. At the time, it was chaotic and violent. Uncontrolled beasts slaughtered entire families. Hungry vampires drained victim after victim. Witches were less defined but they seemed to be useful in capturing and controlling the monsters.
Vampires required a community to survive. A beast could isolate during nexus fluctuations at the equinox and solstice. A vampire had to feed its condition. They needed, ideally, a population large enough that the occasional dead body would go unnoticed. They must always be in proximity to their prey. Their hunger left them exposed and as a result, they were easily discovered and eliminated.
If this Draven was not the original, the journey was still worth it to talk with an elder vampire.
No, Charlotte Wodehouse would not change her mind.
“I am determined to see this through,”she said.
“Let’s go before the snow worsens,” Luis said, guiding his horse up the path.
The snow fell at a rapid pace. The slate gray sky darkened, even though she knew it was only mid-day. She kept her chin tucked down so the snow would fall on the hood of her newly acquired great coat and miss her spectacles. This strategy only had moderate success. Soon Charlotte had to dismount and guide her horse. Her boots crunched through the fresh snow. The wind had a way of sneaking through every layer she wore, chilling her right to the bone. At least the gloves kept her hands warm. She focused on the glow of the lantern hanging off the back of Luis’ saddle. It distracted her from her numb toes and her positively frozen nose.
They entered the black gate. The gate rattled closed behind them. For a moment, Charlotte was confused by the absence of snow and wind. She had trudged forward and never noticed.
She unwound the scarf and pushed back her hood. Melted droplets of snow splattered across her spectacles. With a sigh, she stripped off her glove to dig out a dry cloth to clean the lenses. “Everything about winter is such a production,” she muttered. “Why have we stopped?”
“We wait,” Luis said, shaking the snow from his great coat.
Miles, usually so quiet, cocked his head as if listening. “We are being inspected.”
Behind them was the closed gate. Snow swirled in through the bars, piling into drifts. Before them was another gate. Beyond that was darkness. Above them were a pair of ancient solar panels that barely cast enough light. The walls were smooth, carved from the mountain by a machine. The surface was pitted with small holes and chips.
Bullets, she realized. This wasn’t just a gate. It was a killing field.
Charlotte had the uncanny sensation of being watched. She did not like it.
Charlotte resisted the urge to pull the hood up and hide. She held her head aloft, refusing to be intimidated.
“We have returned, as part of our bargain,” Luis said, speaking to an unseen observer.
An unsettling amount of time passed.
The gate opened and light panels further down the tunnel flickered to light.
They went through three more gates. At each one Charlotte felt the itch of eyes on her. Judging her.
After the final gate, they emptied into a large cavern. Harsh overhead lighting snapped to life. A hexagon shaped courtyard, she realized. The walls were too smooth to be natural. A parapet circled the courtyard. Underneath on each side of the hexagon were arches, hidden in shadows like black maws ready to swallow her whole. Mirrored silver windows dotted the cavern wall. How high they went, she couldn’t say. The bright lights made it impossible to see beyond.
It was a space designed to intimidate.
A woman emerged from the far right arch, flanked by soldiers. Her iron gray hair was cut unfashionably short, set with waves. She wore a black shirt with a high-collar. She marched right up to their party and gave them a once-over, distaste clear on her face.
“Madame Lemoine,” Luis said, giving a curt bow.
“Is this her?” Madame Lemoine asked, as if Charlotte was not there at all.
Well, that would not do.
Charlotte cleared her throat. “I am Charlotte Wodehouse–“
“I do not care what you are called. You are here at the master’s whim. Nothing more.” She snapped her fingers and a groom scurried forward. He took the reins and led the horses away. Lemoine turned to Luis. “You are late. You were expected hours ago.”
Luis’ brows went up. “Not all of us are experienced travelers and the path is treacherous.”
“Well, now the snow is too thick. You’ll have to stay the night. I supposed I can find room for you all,” she said, her tone aghast at the rudeness of Luis’ inability to control the weather. How dare he.
“We’ll leave now, while we still have the light,” Miles said, speaking for the first time. He turned his horse around and headed to the gate, not waiting for Madame Lemoine’s dismissal.
Luis made to follow but paused to speak to Charlotte. He did not insult her by asking again if she was sure. “He can’t abide being in another’s territory,” he explained. “Makes him itchy under the skin. He’d say goodbye if he could.”
“I know,” she said. Luis was her friend’s brother and Miles the town blacksmith recently infected by the mutation. She barely knew them at the start of the journey but now she considered them to be friends. “The storm will only get worse.”
“We passed a guard hut on the way up. We’ll wait out the storm there.”
Charlotte recalled that hut. The small stone structure had a badly rusted tin roof. Hardly ideal but it had to be better than being out in the wind and snow. She said, “Be safe.”
Luis pulled her into an embrace. “You, too. Don’t be afraid to use the tools we gave you,” he whispered.
He pulled back and said loud enough for their audience to hear, “I’ll see you in a year.”
Charlotte blinked back tears as her friend left. She was in a fortress full of strangers and utterly alone.
This is no time to be maudlin.
She scanned the recessed arches and the walkway overhead, searching for Draven. This was his domain. Where was he?
“The master will speak with you after dinner,” Lemoine said to Charlotte. “I am Megane Lemoine, Master Draven’s steward. I’ll show you to your room. Hot water and a meal are waiting. Do not worry about your luggage. They will be brought to you.”
Lemoine turned on her heel and strode away. Half the soldiers unloaded the cart and the other half surrounded her, forcing them to follow Lemoine.
Moving forward, Charlotte felt that she was too numb from the cold to keep up all that Lemoine had thrown at them. The steward doesn’t seem to like her much. That did not bode well for things to come.
She wasn’t what he expected. None of this was what he expected.
He couldn’t explain the satisfaction thrumming in his chest, knowing that she wore his coat. The beast she traveled with, the one anchored to the Marechal hunter, would know that she belonged to him.
Such possessiveness made no sense. When he spoke to the soft city-bred lady at the outpost, he knew she would not complete the journey. Shivering and miserable, she didn’t even have proper winter gear. Her utter unsuitability annoyed him.
He tasked the Marechal welp to find him a bride. He did not outline the criteria for a suitable candidate because it should have been obvious. A raider. Ex-military, either released from duty or a deserter. The details did not matter. There were only so many types of people who survived in the West Lands. Choices were limited. Draven required someone strong enough to survive the journey and this plump, soft lady from the city was not it.
Now she climbed his mountain and demanded entrance. He didn’t know if he should admire the force of her will or despair for her stubbornness and it vexed him.
Perhaps this was for the best. He had selected all his previous companions in an attempt to anchor and had failed every time.
And she looked delectable in his coat.
The lack of natural light unnerved Charlotte. The steward led her through an archway into another tunnel. Bright, overhead lights hummed to life as they approached, which spoke of a pre-colonial technology that Charlotte had only read about.
Motion sensors. Functioning motion sensors.
How intriguing. She had no idea how the tech managed to survive when all other advanced tech equipment failed. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that places without windows should not be so bright. Solar powered lanterns were usually reserved for wealthier houses and older households as a legacy. The Wodehouses had one, a battered old relic from a wealthier past. Charlotte had read by its soft light as a girl, reading past her bedtime. Most people used oil lamps and candles.
Then ancient wonders kept coming with an elevator. Lemoine ushered them into a small room. She pressed some commands on a control panel and the entire room moved.
Charlotte placed a hand on the wall to keep herself steady.
“This is an elevator,” the steward said, like she expected Charlotte to start shouting about sorcery.
“They have elevators in Founding,” Charlotte replied, snatching her hand back.
“Hydraulic powered,” Lemoine scoffed.
The elevator jerked slightly when it came to a rest and the doors slid open. Charlotte pushed her way out, eager to have a bit of space between her and Lemoine. She did not understand the steward’s hostile attitude toward her.
“The Bridal Suite,” Lemoine said, pushing open a heavy door.
With a creak that spoke of unoiled hinges, the door opened onto a sitting room. A plush sofa and chair sat near an empty fireplace. A simple lamp glowed softly on the mantle. The walls were clad in dark wood. A stone ceiling loomed overhead, dark and cloaked in shadows. Various pieces– a writing desk, a small table, and a bookshelf– had been fitted into the space. It was rather cozy, all things considered. With a fire to chase away the chill, Charlotte could picture herself reading by firelight.
The next room held the bedroom. A fire crackled in the fireplace, casting a warm glow over the room. A dark green upholster chair sat by the fire. Charlotte took in the standard furnishings or a wardrobe, a bureau, and a full-length mirror. An iron frame bed with a dark green quilt that matched the chair.
“You will find this suitable,” the steward said and pointed to a door. “You have your private washroom through there. We have hot water on demand.”
That sounded amazing.
“There is no window?” Charlotte asked. The room was dark but she imagined ways to make it cozy with lamps and lap blankets. A window would be nice, though.
“Windows are a privilege,” the steward said, her tone implying that Charlotte was spoiled for wanting a window. How dare, indeed.
“Thank you. This looks very comfortable,” Charlotte said, removing her coat.
Lemoine took the coat without prompting. She held the garment in her arms. “Where did you get this?”
“I picked it up in Sweetwater Point. I know it’s a man’s cut but it’s wonderfully warm.”
“No, where did you get the master’s great coat?” Lemoine demanded, taking a step forward. She held the coat out like it was a viper. “You did not pick it up. How did you get this?”
“A man gave it to me,” Charlotte answered, confused.
Charlotte squared her shoulders and straightened her spectacles. “I am not a liar. A man, I did not learn his name, gave me his coat because I was cold and rather pathetic looking. I was too frozen to care about fashion or what others might think. Honestly, I’m surprised you care.”
“I don’t care,” Lemoine growled. “This is Draven’s coat. Look. His crest.”
She shoved the coat in Charlotte’s face, pointing to an emblem stitched in black into the wool. A mountain peak with a moon or halo behind it.
Charlotte snatched the coat away and tossed it on the bed. “Don’t be ridiculous. If this was Draven’s coat, then I have no idea how the man came to have it. He didn’t give me his life story. In fact, he was rather rude about the entire thing.” The man wasn’t the legendary vampire. He was pale, yes, but lacked fangs and… Oh, whatever it was vampires were supposed to do. Hang upside down from rafters by their toes. Be sinister. Not a grouch who felt annoyed at being compelled into an act of chivalry. She’d know if she was face to face with a vampire.
“Now, I’d like to wash and have something hot to drink,” Charlotte said in her most refined, cut-glass voice.
Lemoine did not look impressed at Charlotte’s Lady-of-the-manor act. “Don’t act like you’re any better than the others. You won’t last. They never do.”
“The others? What are you talking about?”
“The other brides.” Lemoine paused, a vicious grin spreading across her face. “Oh? You didn’t know? Every ten years or so, Draven takes a bride. Poor things. They never last long.”
That was new information but not entirely unexpected. Draven tasked Luis and Miles, two strangers, to find him a bride in exchange for an empowered sword. Draven seemed like a man who valued quantity of quality. However, the quantity of his brides alarmed her.
“What happened to them?” Charlotte asked.
“They didn’t follow the rules.” Lemoine did not elaborate, keeping her knowledge to herself. “You should wash and make yourself presentable. Do you need a demonstration on how to work the taps?”
“No thank you, I am familiar with how plumbing works.”
“Well, one never knows with the new arrivals. Some are barely civilized.” She paused, looking as if she wanted to say more. Instead, she grabbed Charlotte’s chin and turned her head slowly for inspection. This close, Charlotte could smell anise and fennel on her breath.
“Wherever did the Marechal lad find you?” the woman asked. “You don’t look like you’re from a brothel. Too well fed. They like to keep their girls lean and hungry.”
Charlotte took a step back, out of the woman’s grip. “Madame, I am Charlotte Wodehouse, daughter of Professor Nathan Wodehouse.”
She whistled. It was quite infuriating. “Oh, so a lady.”
Whatever game this was, Charlotte was not interested in playing. She was tired, filthy, and hungry. “Please send up a tray, as I requested. When can I expect my luggage?”
The steward took a step back and folded her hands over her front. Her icy demeanor returned. “When security clears your luggage, it will be delivered.”
“You’re searching my bags?” The impudence. Charlotte flexed her hands, slowly uncurling her fingers from a clenched fist, and willed herself to be calm.
“That is standard procedure.”
“How long will it take?”
“It takes as long as it takes. You did bring rather a lot,” the steward said.
“Should I just wrap myself in a bedsheet after my bath?”
“There is no need to be so dramatic. The wardrobe and bureau have some items from the previous brides. Something is bound to fit you.”
Charlotte stiffened. Was that a dig at her weight? She was heavier than fashionable but surely no one cared about fashion here. “That will be all,” she said cooly, dismissing the steward.
“I’ll send a tray up.” The woman looked as if she had something else to say but kept her silence as she left.
Charlotte sat on the edge of the bed, running her hand over the soft quilt. Far from lavish, the room– the bridal suite, she corrected– was a comfortable space. How many other people had slept in this bed? What happened to them? Did Draven really take a new bride every ten years? What was the steward trying to accomplish with her nasty attitude? Did she think she could scare Charlotte away? If three weeks of hard travel hadn’t done it, one rude woman certainly wouldn’t.
Exhaustion urged her to lay down and worry about it after a nap. Heavens, a nap sounded brilliant, but she pushed herself to feet. She needed to keep moving. A bath, a snack, and then a nap.
The wardrobe was, indeed, stocked with clothing from other people. Stockings, shifts, and stays filled the bureau. They were all snowy white linen decorated with ribbons. She ignored them, not wanting to wear the castoffs of Draven’s other brides. Not for any superstitious reason but it felt disrespectful. To the women who were no longer there. To herself, dressing up to play a part.
No, Charlotte wasn’t interested in playing a role. She would be herself, and that included wearing her own clothes.
However, with the delay in receiving her luggage and trunks, she had to be practical. Needs must. She grabbed a silken robe from the back of the wardrobe and prepared herself to meet the vampire lord Draven.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments.
2 thoughts on “Blackthorn Chapter Four”
I’m excited to read more…I find that there are so many unknowns I need answers to! Please keep writing I’m waiting 😁
I’m enjoying the hell out of this! I’ve been “saving” chapters so I could binge!