The dungeon gate clanked ominously behind Amleth. He made a split-second decision. If he was going to live down in this hell, he meant to rule it. A guard motioned to take him further below. Amleth jerked his elbow away. “I believe I’ll see what accommodations lie this way.” He pointed to a hallway.
“Just who do you think you are?” the guard barked. “Downstairs. Move it.”
Amleth turned on him in an instant, viciously grabbing the guard’s tactical vest by the armpit. “I am Amleth of Cumbria, you absolute git. Did you not get the memo? I am Roman’s honored guest, here for my own protection and convalescence. I’ll go where I please. This is my dungeon now.”
The young vampire scoffed. Amleth slammed him against the wall and hoisted him into the air with a single arm. The guard flailed for his weapon. Amleth’s free hand was over it before he could reach it. “Shhh,” he told him, grinning like a fiend. “There’s a good boy.” The whites of the guard’s eyes shined in panic as he looked to his teammates for help. They were on the other side of the gate.
“Get the keys!” One of the other guards said.
“No, no. He’ll escape,” another yelled, restraining his teammate.
“Well what the hell is he talking about? What are our orders?” a third asked.
“What a shit end of the stick you’ve been given,” Amleth crooned into the guard’s ear. “Roman must not value you in the slightest if he’s given you this detail. Serve me well, newborn, or I’ll wipe you from this earth without a second thought.” He tossed the man on the ground. “And not another peep out of you and the other Lost Boys tonight. I don’t wish to be disturbed.” He stormed down the hallway in a flurry of robes, leaving the guards to argue over what they were supposed to do.
Amleth quickly searched the rooms in the upper corridor. As he suspected, they were less dilapidated than those below. He picked the finest room among them and began chucking the owner’s effects into the hall.
“You might have asked first,” a voice said.
Amleth smiled inwardly to himself and threw a satchel over his shoulder. The intruder danced to avoid it. “Asking permission implies that I need it, Maty dear.”
“You shouldn’t have roughed up Rashed.”
He turned. “According to who? Disorder breeds chaos. I expect discipline among my ranks.” Maty bit back a smile. She stepped through the wreckage in the doorway and offered him a carpet bag of clothing. “For me?” he asked. He inspected the contents. More voluminous tunics with rich embroidery. She had tucked some of the toiletries he had been using inside as well. He set the bag aside.
“Aren’t you glad I’m back?” She avoided his gaze. “Were you concerned?”
“No,” she blinked.
“That’s a lie. You warned me to be careful.” He closed in on her.
She tried to find somewhere else to look. She settled on the hollow of his throat. “Ancients are scary.”
“A deflection,” he judged.
She met his demanding stare. “You scare me.”
A truth, he reckoned, but not the one he was after. The corner of Amleth’s mouth ticked up. “You are well taught.”
“You know what I am going to ask next. I intend on going to ground tonight with answers.”
“Master already gave you answers.”
“Not all of them.” He waited. She swallowed. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, Maty.” She fidgeted. Good. He wanted her uncomfortable. “Who made you?”
“I’ve served Master most of my life.”
“I was orphaned. Master took me in.”
“He is not ungenerous.”
Amleth’s fingers were looped loosely over her wrist. He tightened them. “What opportunity did Roman see in you? Why would he want a foundling?”
She refused to look at him. “That is a question for him, not me.”
“Maty,” he warned. He drew her chin up with a finger. “Tell me what I want to know.”
“No,” she said coldly.
He hummed. It would have to be the hard way, then. “You’ve been ordered to care for me, I assume?” She nodded. “Come brush my hair. It calms me.” He sat on the edge of the platform bed. He was pleased to find the mattress was far more comfortable than the wretched pallet he had endured downstairs. As she ran a comb through his hair, he talked. “Someone else used to do this for me,” he said mildly. He had no intention of telling her about how Rosalyn had tended to him when he was upset. He told Maty a story nevertheless, almost none of it true. She listened to him talk, and as he talked, she began to relax.
“A little more of that argan oil?” he suggested. Maty retrieved the bottle from the carpet bag. As she went to sit back down, Amleth moved. “Oops! Be careful!” He jammed a foot out and tripped her. He caught her by the hip and the hand holding the oil – and crushed her palm over the glass as she fell.
“Amleth!” she shrieked.
“What an unfortunate accident,” he said shamelessly. He wrenched her to him and inhaled the cuts on her hand. “Pity about the Murano bottle. Was it very valuable?” She wriggled furiously but could not escape him. He was too strong and too fast. He picked the glass from the wound and squeezed, making the cuts bleed profusely.
“Ow!” she said. “Don’t!”
“Who made you,” he demanded, lips parted and fangs drawn. The scents in her veins were intriguing but not enough. He wiped off the seeping wound with his own fingers and inhaled them deeply. “Who!” he roared at her.
He put his bloodied fingers to his mouth in a threat. “Roman will execute you for a blood crime!” she screamed.
“Will he?” he asked playfully. “You slipped, I caught you. I’ve not put a fang near your person.”
He didn’t need to commit full blood theft to know. He only needed a tiny taste. No more than a blood kiss. Innocent, he told himself.
“Stop,” she pleaded. He put his tongue to the tips of his fingers and closed his eyes as he searched her blood for the truth. The grin evaporated from his features. He dropped Maty to the bed.
Amleth went to the washbasin and felt numbly for the water pitcher and soap. He rinsed off and gestured for her to come to him to do the same. The taste had not been enough to form a bond, but it was enough to know for certain.
They were kin.
“Are you Thea’s?” he said in disgust. She shook her head. “You lie. You’ve been commanded.”
“My maker is dead,” she whimpered.
Amleth’s patience was exhausted. “Whose child are you, god damn you!” She hesitated. He looked at the pink water shimmering in the wash bowl and considered drowning her. She guessed his thinking.
“Sibyl’s,” she admitted, almost silently. “I’m Sibyl’s.”
His brow crumpled and he felt sickened. Pain burned behind his eye sockets. It was impossible. The beloved sister Thea had murdered had turned no children. Sibyl had been Tarquin’s enforcer; it was not a job conducive to raising young ones. “She had no progeny. You lie.”
“She had one. Me. Not long before she was killed.”
“Try again. You are Thea’s or Calla’s or Sonia’s. Which is it?”
“I am the daughter of Sibyl Tarquinii and grandprogeny of your sire, Lucius Tarquinius.”
Amleth set his viridian gaze on her, wishing he could burn her alive with it. “I do not believe you. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you on the spot for slandering my sister’s name.”
“You want a reason?” she said, backing away from him. She finished drying her hands and threw the damp tea towel on the rug. “I’m Sibyl’s heir. I’m the only thing left of her. You want another reason? You’re not healed. You need me.”
“You dare claim such a lineage and call Roman Master?” he hissed. “You are a blood traitor.”
“I was orphaned and alone in the world! What’s your excuse?”
A growl ripped from Amleth’s throat. “Get out!”
Amleth brooded in solitude. No one disturbed him. The dungeon was blessedly free of prisoners. Bit by bit, he explored its dank, abandoned rooms. The stronghold had obviously been Roman’s for ages, but it was not a place he had used recently. Amleth was thankful they kept the human chattel elsewhere; he could not countenance the thought of anguished screams filling his ears. As it was, he wanted to crawl out of his skin.
Every passing moment was painful. His unblemished skin concealed a patchwork of nerve and muscle damage. His thoughts were scattered, memories garbled. He could not rely on his usual quick recall. He had never felt so exposed. So unbearably mortal. The vulnerability started to get to him.
He called and cried and begged and pleaded with the silent knot in his chest. Godric refused to acknowledge him through the closed bond. It was true, then. It had to be. Godric had found him guilty and condemned him. And rather than kill him outright, Godric was going to kill him slowly, thoughtfully, in an unmatched act of cruelty. Amleth had to admit being given to his worst enemy had a certain kind of wholly awful elegance to it. Godric did not usually indulge in poetics when it came retribution – the symmetry of an ‘eye for an eye’ made it far too predictable. Amleth supposed in a sick kind of way he should be flattered. He fucking loved that strange boy more than life itself, and at least for now, it seemed okay that he was going to die for it.
His devastation at this point was still abstract. It would come soon enough. By the gods, he knew it was coming. When the bond flickered out and Godric’s silence was forever. When Roman truly came calling. Amleth refused to entertain himself with morbid fantasies of how he would be hurt. It would no doubt be horrific. It would go on and on. He hoped Eric never learned of it.
It was the thought of Eric that cracked him.
Maty had made herself scarce. She left small baskets and packages at the inside of the gate for him. Amleth studiously avoided being seen rifling through them. He did, of course, and he helped himself to a number of the trinkets and supplies he found.
Maty was right, he knew. He needed her, if only to heal. It did not matter where her Tarquinii blood came from. It bound them. That bloody oaf Bora would certainly be of no use to him. It did not even particularly matter that Maty was a spy. He knew the routine. She would try to gentle him into Roman’s confidence and he would resist. Anything was better than ruminating endlessly inside his head. He had to try something, if only for his children. He relented and broke their stand-off.
Maty moved soundlessly, but the gate’s telltale groan gave her and the guards’ movements away. “Maty,” he called to her quietly. She materialized in his doorway, head bowed. “Come.”
She entered his room warily, keeping close to the furniture against the wall. He supposed he might let her hit him with a marble candlestick if it improved their relations. He had left his robes crumpled and his hair mussed. Without a mirror, he could not be certain, but he hoped the effect was pitiable.
“I’m reading Dickens,” he said. “It’s not as much fun if I can’t do the voices.”
She shrugged and toed the rug. “You want me to listen?”
“I thought we might read together.” He patted the spot beside him on the bed. After a moment’s hesitation, she crawled in. He set the battered book between them. “You first.”
Maty began to read. Amleth settled an arm over her shoulders and nestled his head in the crook of her neck. The story washed over him along with the silken timbre of her voice. He liked how she read Mr. Gradgrind’s parts and said as much. She finished one chapter, then another.
“I was not kind to you,” he finally told her.
She put the novel aside. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
“What? No,” he said, offended. He rucked himself upright. “I want you to accept my apology.”
“I haven’t heard one yet.”
“Ah,” he said in embarrassment. “I am sorry. I was a total pillock. In all fairness, I think I’m brain damaged.” She laughed nervously. It wasn’t a laughing matter, but he was glad she seemed receptive to him. “Did you tell Roman that I forced your blood?”
“But you didn’t, did you?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “I’m no blood thief. And it’s not a crime if one has a right to it.”
“You knew, then.”
“I suspected,” he clarified. “The sex felt better than it should have. You took advantage of a broken man.” She bit back a smile. “What did you tell Roman?”
“That you know who I am.”
“And?” he pressed.
“I left it at that.” Amleth hummed, hiding his relief. She straightened his collar and tucked his unruly hair behind an ear. “Better?” he asked flirtatiously.
“You’re very crafty. It is true what they say.”
“Gods. What is that?”
She smiled. “They call you the Dark Fox.”
It was his turn to chuckle. “I can’t say I’ve actually heard that one.”
“It is said.”
“You can call me your Dark Fox, if I can call you my Vixen,” he teased. She laughed a beautiful sound. He toyed with the halo of mane that framed her face. “What do they say about you?” he asked. He brushed a tendril of her hair across his lips.
She sobered and batted his hand away. “Nothing. I’m nobody. No one knows me.”
“Not even Thea?”
She gave him a look and rolled out of the bed. “Thea did not have time for me. She didn’t know I existed when she made me an orphan. When she realized her mistake, she sent me to Roman.”
Amleth tapped his steepled fingers together in consideration. Her statement was a gold mine of potential information. The ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and ‘what the fuck fors’ scattered in every direction. He needed to ask exactly the right question. “What did Tarquin say to you when you met him?”
Maty spun, her brow furrowed. “I never got to meet him. He was dead. Then my maker died.”
Amleth narrowed his eyes. “No, they were murdered, Maty. There’s rather a big fucking difference.” She lowered her gaze and nodded. He snorted in annoyance. “Don’t play submissive with me. You already showed your hand on that one. You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that.”
“I’m not a bad person, Amleth, but you got rough with me. You were going to torture me.”
“Boo bloody hoo hoo. I frightened you? I threatened you? I don’t believe for a second that Roman has not worked you over the wheel to figure you out.” She bit her lips and gave him a look that told him everything he needed to know. Of course she had been tortured. “I am your elder, Maty Tarquinii, the only surviving male of our line. Now that we’ve sorted that, you had better start obeying me.”
“You abjured your family.”
“Yes,” he said in a hiss. He was on his feet in an instant and in her face. “Why haven’t you?”
She laughed at him angrily. “I didn’t have some Gaul handy to come sweep in and rescue me!”
He cocked his head. “Lord Godric is a Celt. He is older than the Gauls that conquered your lands. Or was it the Portuguese?” Her mouth screwed up as the insult stuck. He drove it home, hoping to make her slip up. “Tell me, Maty. Were you born into slavery?”
“Is that all you see in my skin?” she retorted.
“Hardly.” He stalked towards her, backing her against a dressing table. “I see your grandsire’s fire – which is why I want to know why the first true Tarquinii I’ve met in centuries accepts a life behind bars.”
“You’re here too.”
“Touché. We have that in common, don’t we? But tell me: Sibyl turned a progeny without Tarquin’s permission?”
“Oh…I…” His dizzying tactics had confused her. She cringed.
“I think you ought to tell me plainly. I’ve got your scent now, young thing. You’re going to find it very, very hard to lie to me.” He pulled her back to sit with him on the bed.
“It is ugly what you are doing.” Vampires did not tell stories.
“Trust me, darling. I can make it much uglier.”
She glanced nervously at the door and dropped her voice. “There are things that you do not know. Things I cannot tell you.”
“Are we whispering so that I believe you?” he whispered loudly.
“Shush,” she shoved him.
“Fine. You’re lying to me. This I’m willing to believe.” He winked.
“Would you listen?” He held his hands up in defeat. “Yes, I was turned without Tarquin’s knowledge. He had already been killed. Nobody likes that fact, least of all Master. But if Master Roman can accept it, so can you.”
She had a point, which was why he was still listening. Of course, it was still entirely possible that she was lying through her teeth. “Why didn’t Thea execute you outright? You were an unlawful child.”
“I suppose her thirst for blood had cooled. I found her a year after Sibyl was killed, or rather, she found me. I left messages everywhere but she was reluctant to show herself. She thought it was you trying to lure her out.”
Amleth nibbled his lip in thought. It made sense. “How did you survive your first year?”
She shrugged. “Grit.”
“You poor child,” he said softly. The chaos in Europe during the early 19th century had caused great instability in their communities. Few would have been willing to harbor a fugitive newborn. If, in fact, she had been one. He remained unconvinced. “Where did you meet your maker?”
“Why the hell – “
“I don’t know why Sibyl was there. There were many things I never got to ask her.”
“And you were there because?” he prompted. She had been far from her birthplace, of that he was certain.
“Part of a trade caravan. My mother’s brother had sent me to Mali to find a husband. I decided to just keep going.”
“All the way to Libya,” he supplied. He was impressed. It still didn’t explain why Sibyl would turn a child on the run. It sounded careless. Not at all like what Tarquin and Godric had taught them.
Or, it sounded desperate. They had so been so horribly desperate in those months that followed. He let out a wary breath. “But your travels had only begun. What was Arun’s reaction when he found out Sibyl had turned you?”
“We did not meet,” she said quietly.
“Impossible.” His brother and sister had met the true death together in Morocco. “Maty,” he warned. “Tell me honestly.”
She looked away. “Sibyl did not know Thea was following us.”
Shock rang through Amleth’s limbs. “You led Thea to Tangier,” he said breathlessly. Led her straight to their safe house. The mistake was horrific. Maty fought back tears. It took several moments before he regained himself. He pulled her into a hug.
“I hid, Amleth. I did as I was told.” Tears seeped into his sleeve.
He cradled her and shushed her. “You were a newborn. You couldn’t have known what was happening.” She was still very young. If she was lying, it was on a scale that would be nearly impossible to sustain long term. Only time would tell.
“Sibyl was just gone,” she said. “I rose and tried to find her and…” She choked back a sob. “Nothing.”
“It was like a hole had been cut into your soul,” he murmured. He stroked her back, lost in thought.
“I was so afraid.” She snuffled and he held her for a long time. The feel of his kin against him was a balm. He tried to direct his feelings of calm toward his children. Eva and Constantine were so far away, and he was so helpless to save them.
Maty collected herself and drew back to look at him. “Can you get us out of here?” she whispered.
Amleth caressed her chin in consideration. “That depends, little one.”
“On?” she asked hopefully.
His expression darkened. “On whether or not I can believe a single word that comes out of those very lovely lips of yours.”
A/N: Happy 2020 everyone! Sorry to keep you waiting on this latest installation. Life, holidays, etc. You know the drill. I’m glad to give you another Amleth chapter. A good way to start off the year, yes?
Thoughts? Theories? Leave a review! I do have the next chapter almost complete. It’ll be a little spotty for me going forward as I’ve got major work deadlines, so a bit of encouragement to get it posted wouldn’t hurt. Reviewers get to take Amleth’s mind off his problems. Our Dark Fox does so love a distraction ;F