the dark season
Innis MacDonald heard Brother François as he recited the prayer over and over while they collected the dead. They wore makeshift linen masks tied about their noses and mouths to diffuse the putrid smell of diseased bodies. But it was the priest’s soothing baritone voice that provided a distraction from the unpleasantness of their task.
“Holy Mother of God.”
The monk flicked the reins, prompting the tired nag pulling the overburdened cart to move forward. The animal snorted, her breath freezing to hang in a frigid cloud of objection.
Innis rubbed the horse’s neck as he walked beside her, encouraging her along.
“Come now, old girl.” MacDonald’s voice was soft, gentle. “Our day is yet done. Get us home and there’ll be a bit of extra hay to fill your belly.”
His words caused Brother François to cease his usual utterance of prayers and comment, “There are people starving in the city, yet you spoil that horse with extra hay and apples whilst we are out.”
MacDonald didn't look up but addressed the good Brother’s concern with the same patience he’d used to motivate the aging beast along. “I dinnae kin if a bit of hay or a few scavenged apples would do much to feed those poor unfortunate souls, Brother François. But I do kin, if not for this strong creature, we could not do the Lord’s work. So, surely He’d not begrudge her a little extra fodder to keep her happy.”
Brother François said nothing more and continued his prayers, the repetitive words comforting as they slowly made their way through the winding, narrow streets with their dead charges. “Protect us as we do our duty for these wretched souls given unto our Lord God and His mercy.”
The wooden wheels bumped over the worn cobblestone street, the horse’s hooves clip-clopping in time much like the drumming knell of a dirge. The lanes were eerily empty, the often noisy, over-crowded city of Paris paralyzed by Death as it gripped her in its oppressive hand.
Every few feet, they would pause their journey to collect the departed souls. Sometimes entire families were among the dead, some of the impoverished areas of the inner city completely wiped out. Innis would scatter the rats feeding on the decaying corpses, and occasionally a starving dog or two before diligently loading the bodies onto the teetering pile atop the cart. When it could hold no more, only then would they head back to the Abbey.
Innis had seen much death in his life, but it saddened the old soldier to see plague victims abandoned like garbage for him to collect. They would all be taken to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the outskirts of the city where the priests would bury the bodies in massive graves on priory land. A pall of gray ash and soot hung low over the entire city, choking as it coated everything, Innis included. It was a constant reminder that many of the deceased had been unceremoniously burned, as open space was scarce and many cemeteries were full.
Before they reached the rear gates of the priory, Innis saw a lone figure slumped against the high stone wall that surrounded the Abbey. It was a young woman no more than seventeen or eighteen, her hands protectively clutching her rounded stomach. He approached her slowly, fresh snow clinging to the thin wrap covering her head and shoulders. Upon closer inspection, he saw the blueness of her lips, the frozen tears upon her face. There was no life left in her.
Carefully, as if he might hurt her, he lifted the woman into his arms. Once again, he heard Brother François repeating his prayer and, this time, Innis added his own. “May this poor lass and the wee bairn she carried be in a better place.”
Once Innis had perched her upon the precarious mound of bodies, he fixed his mind on getting the cart into the courtyard without losing any of his precious cargo. As the gate closed behind him, Innis saw Brother Bartholomieu coming out of the rectory to meet them in the graveyard, his steps hastened by the inclement weather.
Brother Bartholomieu knew there wasn’t any point in hurrying the old horse, or the Scot who encouraged her along. But a chill touched him as the snow continued to fall and he tried anyway. He pointed to the area where the latest mass grave was being dug, his gesture both grandiose and impatient. His dramatic actions didn’t rattle the man or garner a response. MacDonald’s deliberate steps didn’t quicken and he didn’t speak until he safely reached his destination with all his corpses in tow.
The rickety cart slowed and came to a stop, its creaks and groans of protest sounding as human as the burden it carried. But the souls crowded upon its wooden platform no longer had reason to complain. Their limbs were twisted and silent now, their last agonies apparent on their ashen faces.
“Brother Bartholomieu,” MacDonald said with a nod of his head before he turned back to his consignment of death. “’Tis no lack of poor souls this cold day.”
Brother François climbed down from his seat in the cart and slowly drew the sign of the cross with a stiff, cold finger over his chest. “Let us be gentle as we give them over to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
“Amen.” Bartholomieu was reminded his own discomfort was of little consequence in the face of such sorrow. “Perhaps you should seek the fire for deserved respite, Mister MacDonald. We shall care for their souls from here on out.”
The Scot nodded, looking tired and cold. “’Tis one lass I’d like to see to myself, Brother. I found her outside the gate. It may be too late to save her in life, but perhaps some comfort can be provided in death.”
MacDonald took a step forward and reached to the top of the pile of dead bodies. With the greatest of care, he pulled the young woman into his arms, her belly full with unborn child. He slowly picked his way through the cemetery, winding in between the many crosses that marked the single burial places, Brother Bartholomieu a step behind. Without pause, the Scot moved past the markers, his long-legged stride taking him to the newest mound of dirt just beyond the established graves. This woman, like the others still on the cart, wouldn’t know such privilege.
At every turn, they were reminded of the plague’s deathly hold on Paris — even in the way the deceased were buried. Losses during the great mortality were so numerous, long-held traditions had been abandoned in favor of mass graves. Stacked like cargo in a ship’s hold, hundreds of bodies were now interned into enormous, waterless moats carved into the earth.
When he reached the side of the trench, MacDonald knelt down and handed the body in his care to a young monk who stood in the pit, his spade set aside for the time being. Brother Bartholomieu cited the Lord’s Prayer as the Scotsman laid his large, weathered hand upon her swollen belly, his eyes closed as he, too, prayed for her.
Suddenly, MacDonald gasped and pulled his hand away. The monk stumbled backward in surprise and nearly dropped his charge.
Brother Bartholomieu stopped mid-sentence and looked down at the startled youth. “What is it, Brother?”
“S-she m-moved,” The monk stammered and quickly passed the woman back up to MacDonald, his pale face moist with a sudden heat despite the cold.
Still on bended knee, the Scot carefully laid her upon the ground next to him, the wide-eyed boy pointing at her belly in fear. “Th-the babe moved,” he said weakly, looking as if he might faint.
MacDonald pulled off his mask and leaned close to feel for her breath upon his cheek. He shook his head and looked up at Brother Bartholomeiu who now hovered close. “She’s not breathin’ and already grows stiff.”
“Perhaps it is from the cold.” Brother Bartholomeiu had heard of such a thing before. “You must get her to the infirmary quickly. God willing, maybe the doctor can help.”
Doctor Thomas Gregor closed the young boy’s red-rimmed eyes, eyes no longer seeing as the Black Death stole him away. Thomas sighed wearily and closed his own to ease the burning. He remained seated on the edge of the cot for a moment to gather his thoughts having slept little and eaten even less in days. The long rows of beds were filled with the worst cases, often brought to the clinic when in the last throes of the plague. If beyond help, he at least could offer comfort in their final moments of life.
He vigorously rubbed his face attempting to will the tiredness away then stood to move on to the next patient. Thomas had survived the pestilence himself some years before and he would do what he could for as long as he could. The number of physicians remaining in Paris was dwindling. But over these past weeks, his worry was for his wife, Marcelle. The couple had recently lost their son; the boy having been only weeks old when he died suddenly. It wasn't the plague that took him, but knowing this didn’t ease his wife’s grief and Thomas feared he might lose her as well.
Thomas Gregor had come to France as an army doctor during England’s war with France. After the battle of Calai and LaRoche-Derrien in 1347, he stayed on to help fight the plague that disrupted Edward’s war, a war to gain what the King considered his rightful crown. A few years later Thomas nearly died himself when he contracted the disease. And he probably would have were it not for Marcelle who nursed him back to health.
The two soon married and settled in Paris, a young couple who began building a life of hopes and dreams together. But, yet again, murderous pestilence returned to ravage the city. As Thomas thought back over the years, he suddenly felt old and tired, well beyond his actual age of forty-one years. He had witnessed the cycle of death three times already. Would it never end?
He heard the doors creak open and a cold wind blew in, the bit of fresh, winter air cleansing the smell of death from his nostrils for a brief moment. MacDonald rushed into the clinic carrying an unconscious figure in his arms, the look on his old sergeant’s face prompting Thomas to move quickly to his side.
Innis stepped to the place where Thomas pointed. “What have you there, Innis?”
“I thought she were dead. But now, I’m not certain of it.” Gently, the Scot laid the young woman onto the table used for surgery.
“She’s definitely not breathing,” Thomas confirmed, after a cursory inspection.
“But we saw the bairn move.” Innis looked pale, his face drawn with worry.
“That is unlikely,” he said, examining her rounded abdomen.
Innis objected with a scowl. “I ain’t given to imaginin’ such things, Thomas. This bairn is fightin’ to be born, like it or not. So you’d best be doing somethin’ for the wee one lest I knock you upside the head.”
Thomas noted the man’s tone and that he was being called by his given name, something the Scot only did when frustrated. Still, there was nothing he could do and was about to say so when a fierce spasm nearly shook the tiny woman off the table. Her eyes never opened and nary a sound escaped her lips.
“What the bloody—” Thomas again searched for signs of life in the woman. He placed his ear to her stomach and listened.
“Quick, bring me the scalpel,” he said to Innis, pointing to the table where his instruments were laid out. “I have to get this baby out now!”
Thomas took the knife out of Innis’ shaking fingers and pushed her ragged gown up to bare her belly. Again he snapped orders. “Hold her down, Innis. In case she’s more alive than I think.”
But there was no need. The mother never moved again, even as he made a long incision from her navel to her pubic bone. Thomas reached inside and pulled the child from her womb. He quickly placed the tiny newborn in the blanket Innis had grabbed, bringing a smile to the Scot’s face.
“’Tis a wee lass, Tommy lad.”
Thomas smiled, too, both at the baby’s hearty squall and Innis calling him Tommy — a term he used for the wet-behind-the-ears doctor when he first joined the army. Most likely, Thomas wouldn’t have survived those first hard years as a field surgeon had the Sergeant not taken him under his wing.
“Here.” Thomas laid a necklace he found about the mother’s neck onto the bundle. “A keepsake of her mother’s.”
“’Tis Celtic,” he said, examining the engraved design.
“Seems appropriate, don’t you think? Today’s the thirteenth day of December. The Winter Solstice.”
Innis looked at Thomas and whispered. “She is Wínterborn.”
Seeing the awe on his face made Thomas smile. “That’s just a tall tale told by the old ones, Innis. But if ever there was a need for such a blessing, it would be this dark winter of ’67.”
“Some say blessing, some say curse,” Innis said, gently wiping the blood from the baby with his own shirt sleeve. “There be those who’d sacrifice a bairn born as the last rays of light fade and the longest night of winter begins. ’Tis called Dumannois.”
Thomas balked inwardly at such a horrible thought, but he tempered his reply. “Well, it is some hours before sunset, my friend.”
This brought Innis’ gaze back up and Thomas saw something unnerving in his eyes. “You’ve lost track of the day, lad. The sun was nearly set when—”
In unison, they both looked towards the window, set high above them in the stone wall. Darkness was now full upon them.
Thomas laughed, but it came out sounding strained. “Like I said, it’s an old superstition, nothing more.”
Innis stared down at the tiny infant and pulled the blanket up over her bare shoulder, careful to tuck it tight about her to cover the newborn’s birthmark.
“Aye.” Innis agreed, for that was easiest. But, deep down, he knew the truth.
Despite its small size, the permanent brand upon her flesh was clearly a mirror image of the necklace her mother had been wearing. He was sure of it. Innis believed, with all his heart and soul, the Celtic symbol confirmed her as the One. In that moment, the fate of the wee orphaned lass and his intertwined. He would make sure this Wínterborn remained safe from any who would harm her.
Venetia lifted the spoon to her uncle’s lips and waited while he weakly slurped the broth. She laid it back into the bowl and gently wiped away the drizzle running down his whiskered chin.
“You needn’t feed me, Lass.” Innis gave her a half-smile. “’Tis unseemly for a man to be fed like a wee bairn.”
She smiled despite knowing he suffered, in body as well as in pride. Gone was the strength so much a part of the Scotsman. The stout, brawny ex-soldier she’d grown up with was now only a memory. Instead, an invalid, thin and frail, lie sick-abed, a pale reflection of what once was.
“Nonsense. You must keep up your strength … how else will you get well again?”
When she tried to feed him another spoonful, he firmly pushed her hand away. Giving up, Venetia set the bowl aside.
“You shouldn’t hold on to fanciful notions, Lass. I’ll not be walkin’ away from this battle.”
Tears immediately welled up in her eyes at hearing his words, but the truth was undeniable. Innis MacDonald’s face showed his age, skin leathered and deeply wrinkled. His hair was now white, his eyes a watered-down green, the vibrant sheen that had always filled them gone. She could feel his hand shaking from weakness, even the simplest of tasks too much for this aged warrior.
“Now, now,” he said when she could no longer keep from crying. “There’s no need for such sadness; I’ve lived a long life. And you, Lass, have made it a happy one. An old man couldn’t ask for more.”
Venetia sniffed and wiped the tears away. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, Innis. I may call Thomas Gregor father, but you’re as much my father as he is. It breaks my heart to think of losing you.”
“You’ll never be without me, Lassie.” Innis gave her hand a pat. “Now, shall I tell you how you came to be?”
She shook her head. “No, Uncle. You shouldn’t use your energy in the telling of legends. Not today, you need to rest. Besides, I know them by heart.”
His face reflected disappointment, then his lower lip pushed out showing Venetia his determination. “Then you do the tellin’ and I shall listen.”
Giving in, she began.
“In ancient times, the Celts were strong, their magick great and powerful. But the Romans were too many and the lands fell into their hands, their rule violent and cruel as they drove the proud people into hiding. A struggle continued and those who remained kept up their traditions, secretly passing on the magick to their offspring. However, another threat existed, one even more sinister to the world of mankind — a threat even the Romans feared.”
While she spoke, Venetia straightened the blanket about Innis, making certain he was comfortable. “It was a realm called the underworld, growing far beneath Roma itself and directly up into the heart of the Empire. This was a place where only pure evil could survive.”
She wiped a cool, wet cloth across her uncle’s forehead to soothe his persistent fever. “When the Celtic priests and priestesses became few and the evil in the world grew stronger, the last of their kind gathered to pray for an answer to their fears. Encompassing the ancient sects of the Gaels, Picts, and Britons, many traveled from afar to reach the Temples of the Sun and the Moon. In honor of the number of stone markers at the Temple of the Sun, sixty priests and priestesses were chosen and the prayers began. Throughout the day they prayed, but when the sun’s light started to fade, all made their final journey to the Temple of the Moon.”
Taking Innis’ hand in hers, Venetia kissed it before she continued. “The moment of Dumannois, the longest, darkest night of winter approached and ben-reine ny hole, the queen of the night, began her journey into the sky. The chosen sixty gathered around a great mound of wood prepared for their vigil, each placing their torch onto the pyre. Within minutes, flames stretched high into the heavens, twisted with gold and silver, misty shadows cast from darkness to light. Souls consumed by faith and commitment chanted to the Great Mother, strong voices stirring the chilled air into a great torrent of wind that raged about them. They wept in agony, tears and blood pooling at their feet and soaking deep into Mother Earth, their lives their offerings for her blessing and love.”
Venetia smiled when she saw the joy on Innis’ face, the love in his eyes. Again, she felt a deep ache at the thought of losing the dear man she called Uncle. “As they drew their last breaths they heard the cry of a babe, the Great Mother’s gift to the world. An infant marked as Wínterborn — the very first born from faith and blood sacrifice.”
Thomas Gregor had been about to enter the room when he heard Venetia telling the tale, just as Innis had many times before. Instead of joining them, he found himself listening from the hallway. He’d always considered the tale a fanciful bit of storytelling, but each time he heard it, dread filled him. He didn’t believe such things but knew Innis did. Part of him wished he’d never let the Scot fill his daughter’s head with such notions, but Thomas hadn’t the right to stop him. After all, his old friend was as much a part of her life as he and Marcelle had been.
The night Venetia was born, he’d taken the orphaned child home for his wife to care for. Doing so gave Marcelle the reason she needed to go on after the loss of their son. She accepted the little orphaned girl into her heart with ease and to her breast as if she were Marcelle’s own child.
Thomas and Marcelle were Venetia’s adoptive parents, but Innis was bound to her in a different way. This bond he never quite understood and, for some reason, feared. He wasn’t afraid of the man; Thomas loved Innis like a brother. The two men were family even if they shared no blood. And he knew the Scot would give his life to protect Venetia. It was the wild tales of different worlds — believing her to be Wínterborn, of which his daughter was convinced to be true — these were the things that distressed him.
Thomas wished his darling Marcelle were still alive. She would’ve known what to do. Venetia was only eleven when Marcelle passed. Had it already been near ten years, he wondered? He continued to watch his daughter, now a full-grown woman, strong and independent. A pang of remorse troubled him: his daughter remained unmarried. She should have a husband and a family of her own at this age. Instead, she was content to care for two old men, never seeming interested in finding a partner or having children.
Perhaps it was all this Wínterborn nonsense keeping her single and alone. Again, guilt rose up from his chest and clamped about his throat. No, as her father, he should have done better by her.
Innis’ moan took Thomas’ mind away from his worry. He watched as Venetia reached out to her uncle and was surprised when he batted her hands away.
“No, Lass,” the Scot objected weakly, agony stealing his strength. “You made me a promise never to take pain as your own.”
Thomas thought this puzzling and stopped himself from entering to help.
“I promised I wouldn’t do so when working at the infirmary with Father.” Venetia grasped his hands. “But, I never gave my promise to not help with yours.”
The shaggy head shook vehemently. “No, ’tis not right. I’m old and dyin’, there’s naught you can do for me. I can’t allow your kindness knowin’ the cost of my ease to you.”
Quietly, Venetia spoke, so quietly Thomas had to listen closely to hear what she said.
“In this world, fated purpose guides each step, my touch to ease pain and suffering.”
Venetia reached out and placed her hands upon Innis’ face, her palms cradling him lovingly.
“Content, I shall sacrifice all that I am, until the beat of my heart grows still and silent.”
Thomas saw the old man’s discomfort ease as his daughter continued to cite the unfamiliar verse.
“There is no regret, only the promise of dying.” Venetia whispered the words with such passion, he felt a chill raise bumps on his skin. “Into death’s arms I gladly go, for I am Wínterborn.”
His heart ached to hear his daughter speak of death and it stirred a dark fear inside him. Thomas found it hard to breathe, for he had heard Innis refer to Venetia many times as Wínterborn.
Venetia stepped out of her uncle’s room and closed the door quietly behind her. She found her father standing in the hall, his medical bag in hand. “Papa, are you ready to go, then?”
When her father remained unaware she was speaking to him, Venetia repeated, “Papa.”
Thomas Gregor finally looked at her, his expressive brown eyes causing her immediate concern. “Are you all right?”
“Aye, of course.” Thomas muttered quickly, turning away from her worried look.
“You should let Marie feed Innis, Venetia,” Thomas said as they walked down the stairs to the main living area of the house. “It is what we pay her for.”
His tone sounded almost angry. “I like spending time with him, Papa, and Marie has plenty to do around here.”
She saw something akin to guilt cross his features. Her father looked tired and Venetia suddenly became aware how much older he seemed. The grey at his temples had crept further into his full head of brown hair, the lines on his face more prominent than she’d noticed before.
“Was Innis in pain?”
“Yes, but it passed.”
“You should tell me when he is so I can give him something.” Thomas pulled on his coat, his manner tense and distracted.
“He doesn’t like how cloudy his mind gets. You know that.”
“Well,” her father said, a sharp snap to his words, “I suppose when he can stand it no longer, he’ll be willing enough to take something.”
For some reason, this made Venetia angry. “Innis can be a stubborn man.” She grabbed her own coat and yanked it on hastily. “A bit like you, I think.”
Her father paused and turned to her. “I don’t like him talking about all that nonsense.”
Venetia knew exactly what he meant, but pretended otherwise. “What nonsense?”
He shook his finger at her. “You know damn well what I mean — all that Celtic legend and prophecy nonsense.” He again stressed the word nonsense.
Suddenly, Venetia didn’t feel like arguing. “If you truly don’t believe, why does it bother you?”
The stricken look on her father’s face made her instantly regret what she said.
“I’m bothered because you believe. Or do you merely placate an old man you love?”
This was the first time her father had directly questioned Venetia and she knew what he wanted to hear. But, as he stood there waiting for her to respond, she found herself no more prepared to answer now than she had been when Innis first began telling her about who and what she was some years before.
It wasn’t long after her mother had passed that her uncle started to share with her the legends and how the first Wínterborn came to be. Venetia suspected he remained silent out of respect for her mother’s French heritage. And her father never voiced any objections, though she knew the stories made him uncomfortable. Now, it was clearly written upon his face — not only was he uncomfortable, but he was afraid.
Her heart pounded hard in her chest as she faced this realization. Venetia knew she should lie and tell her father what he needed to hear. But she couldn’t.
“Yes, I do believe.” She replied, as sadness for disappointing him gripped her. His face fell in despair but her resolve remained. “I will not deny who I am, Papa.”
Kiara opened the door to her son’s room, entering without knocking. Ciarán stood with his back to her and he seemed to have not heard her walk in.
“Ciarán.” Despite calling his name, he only turned his head slightly in her direction.
“Sì.” He acknowledged her presence, though he still didn’t turn around.
“I need to speak with you.” Kiara walked further into the room, but stopped when she discovered he was not alone.
He drew in a deep breath and grasped a handful of hair of the young woman who knelt before him and tilted her head up. “Did I tell you to stop?”
Caring not his mother stood only a few feet away, the head disappeared again as she went back to servicing her son’s needs.
“Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a late supper?”
She was not deterred by his rudeness nor his carnal activities. “Yes, I can see that.”
“Surely this…” Ciarán groaned and spoke through gritted teeth. “Can wait until another time?”
“I’d prefer you get rid of the whore, Ciarán, and give your mother your full attention.”
He reached down and grabbed the woman by the shoulders and tossed her onto the bed. “And I’d prefer to finish what I’ve started. Now get out!”
His voice was raised in anger and frustration, but it wasn’t until he flung off the silk robe he wore, revealing clearly what he needed to finish, she reconsidered her own stubborn will. Blatantly her son ignored her presence and crawled on top of the young woman, his stamina undaunted as he took her for his pleasure.
Deciding to retreat, Kiara turned away, irritated. “I will be in my rooms when you are done with your meal.”
When she closed the door, she heard her son reach fulfillment.
Ciarán slid down the woman’s body and captured a plump breast in his mouth, suckling until she moaned in delight. He kissed the firm, rounded mound then pierced the tempting flesh with his fangs. She cried out, squirming beneath him as her hips rose to press against him intimately, her need driven beyond sanity by the overpowering lure of the Dracul.
He pulled away, a trickle of blood running down the woman's side and onto the bed linens, the red stark against the white sheet. Ciarán licked at her wounds, savoring the salty, metallic taste before he reclaimed the taunt nipple. He then kissed her lovely, soft skin, his tongue teasing a trail back to her lips.
“How do I taste?” Her pink tongue licked her lower lip to see if his kiss left any flavor behind.
“You are so sweet, ma petite.” Ciarán buried his head into the crook of her neck, smelling the blood coursing through the carotid artery, the heady scent further rousing his bloodlust. “So juicy sweet and delectable. I could go on all night fucking and nibbling, enjoying your beautiful body to my heart’s delight.”
She moved beneath him, spreading her thighs wide to accept him, his arousal complete at her offer. He laughed and plundered the wet offering again.
This time, as he neared climax, he bit into her slender neck and fed as he peaked. He did not cease as she achieved her own ultimate fulfillment, her body trembling from ecstasy’s release until she grew limp and life drained from her into him.
Ciarán lifted his head and cried out in satisfaction of both hunger and desire. He wiped away the blood that dripped from his fangs and rolled away from her dead body. “Is truly a pity to bring this to an end so soon, but mia Mamma calls.”
When Ciarán got to his mother’s door, he paused and took a deep breath to compose himself, pushing his tangled, black hair from his face with his hands. He knocked, offering more courtesy than his mother had shown him earlier and entered when she bade him to.
Kiara was feeding her familiar by hand, the raven carefully taking the offerings from her fingers. She finally turned to Ciarán, waiting just inside the door. Unlike his own suite of rooms decorated in dark, masculine shades of gray and black, his mother’s boudoir was adorned with rich, bright jewel tones, much like the way she dressed — in vivid colors of gold, blue, red and green.
“How was your Italian feast?”
He smiled. “She was French, Mamma. A man can only eat so much Italian.”
This made her smile. “So, you enjoy French women, Ciarán?”
“Very much.” He moved to one of the two tapestry chairs placed before the large marble fireplace and sat. “What was so important you needed to interrupt my evening?”
Her smile disappeared and she moved to the chair next to him. “I see you couldn’t even dress for your mother.” Her nosed wrinkled in distaste. “You smell of whores and blood.”
He offered no apology. “You made it quite clear you needed to speak with me, so I didn’t take time to bathe. If you prefer, I can come back?”
She shrugged, but the disapproval remained on her face. “No matter.”
“Then what is it?” His voice reflected his impatience, a common reaction to his mother's frequent dramatics. He could see the slightest shift in her dark eyes and knew she calculated her next move carefully.
“We have located a Wínterborn. I thought you might like to know.”
“You’re certain?” Ciarán questioned, ignoring her tone as his interest was finally piqued.
His mother looked offended at his doubt. “My covenant of Black Wytches are not amateurs, Ciarán. The Dubh Bandraiodóirs do not play at sorcery and the dark arts. There is a Wínterborn in Paris.”
Finally, Ciarán gave his mother the approving nod he knew she waited for. “Then it’s a good thing I like French cuisine, is it not?”
Venetia watched her father settle by the fire, holding his hands out to soak in its warmth. His face was flushed, yet he shook from the cold. She’d grown alarmed some hours before they’d stopped for the night when he became unusually silent.
A few small villages south of Paris were in need of a doctor, as the beleaguered townspeople were uncertain if it was an isolated outbreak of the plague, or some other sickness that befell them. Initially, Venetia hadn’t wanted him to respond to the request, and now, she was certain her instincts had been correct.
Years of devastation by the disease and an unending war with England left France in a constant state of upheaval. Travel at such times could be precarious and she believed it too dangerous. But, regardless of her objections, Thomas was determined to help.
Her father’s intent was to travel alone, but she would accept nothing less than to accompany him. After all, who better to assist him than the person who had done so for many years? He couldn’t fault her logic and agreed. Venetia took comfort in the fact he wasn’t alone.
Thomas had anticipated it would take at least three days by horse from Paris, but the early spring rain made their progress slow, the muddy roads almost impassable in places. Now, due to the foul weather, they sat fireside in a tiny room at an overcrowded roadside inn at least a half day from their destination. They had been lucky to find a room at all, making the bad food and single bed — far too small for even one adult — tolerable. But it was the fire in the small hearth that made the meager accommodations worth the ridiculous price paid.
Venetia moved to her father’s side and laid the back of her hand upon his forehead. With a worried sigh, she knelt on the floor next to him. “You’ve a fever, Papa.”
She took his shaking hands into hers and rubbed them gently.
“’Tis but a chill.” He attempted a smile, though it wasn’t convincing. “I’ll be fine in the morning, I’m sure.”
“You didn’t eat,” she said softly, disquiet edging her voice.