Monday, 8 August 2016

Chapter Twelve

The collected volumes of  The Dead London Chronicles are now available FREE at Smashwords, or your favourite ebook retailer! 

Through the thirty six hours that had passed since he brought Alice home from the village, Faulkner had not left the side of the woman who had been his first - only -  love. Sitting beside her bed, sometimes with her maid in attendance, sometimes her perfumed stepdaughter, he tended the fever until it broke, watched as the sweat on her forehead no longer glistened, heard the gentle rhythm of her peacefully slumbering breath.

Of the other visitors to the house, including his closest friend's newly-arrived party, he saw nothing and of the violent attacks in the land beyond, he knew nothing, focused only on this most important of patients. Frail, painfully thin, drawn and sad the woman in the bed was not the vibrant girl he had once known and he wondered at what her life had been to bring her to this, yet that golden hair, those blue eyes were not diminished by her ill health and her beauty, sparkling and peerless, had not been stolen from her.

Faulkner wondered now, as the darkness deepened and the night set in, whether they might somehow renew the friendship they had lost. He would put aside the stinging mockery of her last letter, would pretend he had never loved her more than life itself and would call her friend if she would but allow it.

And then, perhaps, she would confide in him the truth behind the dark bruises that bloomed on her skin... if it was as he suspected, he could not promise such kindness to the husband he already somehow knew was responsible for steeling the joy from Alice Tyhurst's life. A murmur shook him from his reverie, those blue eyes flickering open to meet his. "Robert..."

"Good evening," the doctor leaned forward in his chair at the head of the bed, touching her hand softly. "You have rested, finally."

"I thought...." she was trying to focus with effort, "I thought you were a dream...."

"No," the word was a breath and he curled his fingers around her own, protective and comforting. For a moment Faulkner was silent and then he told Alice, "I have been beside you since you fell ill, and will stay beside you until you are well."

His words had not, he realised immediately, brought the reassurance he had hoped to convey, a flicker of something he couldn't quite read across her face as she murmured, "Thank you for your care."

"We are friends, Alice, whatever-"

Faulkner's words were silenced by the sound of hammering on the front door of the house that seemed to echo throughout every inch of the building, a man yelling in furious German for the door to be opened now, that they are coming. The very air seemed to darken with the unexpected drama of his arrival and somewhere dogs barked frantically, horses whinnying in the stables loud enough for it to be heard here in the bedroom.

The Scot squeezed Alice's hand, silently promising her that she was safe as, outside,  the air was filled momentarily with something like the sound of fabric, no, wings flapping, though the doctor could hardly think of what sort of creature might make such a sound. On instinct he was on his feet and at the window in seconds, pulling the shutters closed and pushing the bolts into place. 

Whatever was happening, whatever this was, Faulkner knew, nothing would touch Alice again.

"What is it?" He heard the fear in her voice, saw her wince as she tried to sit up.

"It's all right," yet it wasn't, voices raised in alarm inside the house too and he thought of the gun in his own room, already sure he would not leave Alice in order to retrieve it. From without the hammering on the door sounded again and then abruptly ceased as it was opened, the newly arrived visitor no doubt glad for sanctuary. 

"Help me up...." Alice demanded, "Something is coming...." 

"No," he returned to her, "Stay here, you're safe."

"None of us," came the chilling murmur, "Is safe. Robert--"

"With me, you are," he told her, knowing it to be true. "Believe me."

"I am not," the sudden burst of fire from her surprised him, a flicker of the girl he had once known, "Lying here while goodness knows what is going on--"

As Faulkner opened his mouth to speak there came an almighty clap of thunder from above, a blast of arctic cold air billowing down the chimney and causing the flames in the grate to gutter, the candles in the room to flicker. He found her hand in his again in response, glad now for her unexpected return to wakefulness as he held up his hand for silence, listening to a skittering, clawing something that seemed to be in the chimney.

He felt her holding her breath, hand tightening in his, a quiet whisper following of "Help me stand..."

Instead, he impetuously pressed a kiss to her hand before releasing it and then, with his finger held to his lips, Faulkner approached the fireplace. The flames were too low, easy enough to avoid or even extinguish for whoever, whatever was in the chimney and for a man of his extravagant height he moved with an unexpected lightness, silently taking the poker from the hearth. For a moment he cast a glance back at Alice, seeing not the fretful, frightened woman he had met at breakfast in what seemed like another world, but something more determined in those blue eyes entirely. It was with that thought that he dropped to one knee and thrust the poker with all his strength into the chimney in the direction of that scuttling, scraping invader.

He felt the weapon make contact with something, tearing through flesh and glancing off bone as whatever it was let out an inhuman shriek that seemed to rattle the windows. Then there was no weight, nothing on the poker at all and he withdrew it and stood, stepping swiftly back as a shower of jet black ash plummeted into the flames, which burst into dramatic life once more. Whatever had been in that chimney, Faulkner knew, it was not human at all.

Despite his previous words Alice had pushed herself to sit fully, legs carefully moving so her feet could find the floor, a frustrated sound as her body protested. He needed the guns, he knew, yet he also knew that he couldn't leave her here alone, that whatever that was would not be alone either.

"Help me," the words were almost an order, "We will go together."

"I took a liberty in kissing your hand," Faulkner was a model of politeness, though there was a slight gleam in his eyes as he crossed to the bed and took her elbow, "I hope you will not hold it against me before we have successfully seen tomorrow's dawn."

"I need something," he knew instinctively from her expression that she did not mind, had not minded, "From my bag....."

"You don't-" Faulkner shook his head. "Where is it?"

She gestured and at her direction he helped her towards it, where she murmured thanks before beginning to rummage. "Could you pass me my dressing gown?"

"I am so terribly sorry," that seemed to pull him up, remembering that she was a woman in her nightgown, that he really should have offered to find her maid or - no, one could hardly find the maid when creatures from a nightmare were coming down the chimneys. Instead, Faulkner retrieved the dressing gown, even as he said, "What are you looking for?"

Alice paused to accept the gown, allowing him to help when the movement jarred her back without answering his question, something slipped into the pocket a moment later. "Lets go."

"Take this," he held out the rather lethal-looking fire poker and admitted, "I have a blade."

"I will try," she took the poker, "Not to slow us down."

Faulkner fell silent then, opening the door and peering out into the hallway, where the candles still burned bright. The house was filled with the sounds of panic, with screams and noise and for a moment he wondered at the fate of Dan, even he knew that if anyone would ride out such drama with a beer and a laugh, it was the one-time resurrectionist. Instead the doctor concentrated on Alice, on getting them both safely to his room and the hard-to-explain arsenal of weapons contained therein.

Walking must surely pain her but she made no complaint, only asking, "What is your plan?"

"I have a gun in my room," Faulkner winced at the understatement, "Some guns, and a rifle; my plan is to get us there, get us armed and keep us alive until dawn. Beyond that, I have yet to decide."

"Do you think guns will work against whatever this is?" the question was a shrewd one, the matter something he had not allowed himself to contemplate.

"I think in these terms... A bullet might not kill it, but take the top of its head off, and it can't bite you anyway."

"If it comes to running," there was a ghost of a smile on her lips then, "I think they'll win."

"It would hardly be proper for me to carry you--" even as he spoke a window at the far end of the hallway smashed inwards with that sounds of beating wings and a moment later Faulkner had slung Alice over his shoulder and was running along the corridor, calling, "I apologise, Miss Tyhurst, it won't be for long!"

"Go faster--" there was fear in her voice then, and he picked up his pace, even as he apologised again for the discomfort it must surely bring her. What was chasing them she couldn't see, it seemed to be engulfed in blackness, shadows swirling around something, some creature that must be nightmarish, that was gaining on them, the shadows stretching before it. "Robert---"

The candles behind went out as that thing passed them, the wings beating, the flames at the wicks ahead guttering low and he told himself that they would outrun whatever it was, that it was no match for them. It was this thought that spurred the doctor on towards his own room, to block out the sounds of terror from below, the howl of the creature in pursuit, the sulphurous smell that engulfed them and the knowledge of its proximity as the candles ahead began to splutter and die. He felt Alice clinging to him, sensed her urging him on, and the thought that he couldn't let any harm come to her, not now that he had found her again, kept him focused, keeping him going onwards towards at least semi safety.

"Close your eyes!" Faulkner didn't know why he told her that, why he didn't want her to see what ever was following yet it seemed important, somehow. A well-placed kick opened the door to his room and he threw himself through it, the same foot kicking it closed as they landed in a tumbled heap on the rug. He helped her back to her feet as soon as he could, needing to see her face, that she was safe, fear evident in her eyes as she clung to him a moment more.

"It's all right," the doctor promised, his hand flicking out to turn the key in the door as a worrying silence filled the hallway outside. "We're all right."

If she disagreed she didn’t voice it, staying close, eyes closing briefly as if to gather herself. For a second Faulkner watched and then he took her face in his hands to whisper, "Did I hurt you?"

Her eyes opened again then, and he found himself caught by them as she whispered in turn, "No more than could be helped."

"Your room," he managed the hint of a smile, bright blue eyes gleaming for a second, "Is much grander than mine."

"You should ask," she told him seriously, "To swap."

"I've slept on the floor of an Ottoman slaughterhouse, Miss Tyhurst," was the doctor's honest reply, "And a less grand room means a smaller fireplace... one less thing we have to worry about defending."

"What were those things?" She was still studying his face, though what she was searching for he couldn't fathom, "What do they want?"

"I don't know," he murmured, meeting her gaze as his words died away.

A memory then, strong and vivid, of the last time they had been this close, the look in her eyes, he was sure, very much the same as now, though it couldn't possibly be so. Alice would not look at him now, after the years had robbed him of his fire, his youth, and see anything other than the society doctor, the establishment pillar. There was nothing other than that to see now. 

Even as he thought that her hand ghosted against his cheek, a murmured apology following a moment later. Without even meaning to he reached up and caught that same hand, prolonging the touch he had so missed, had longed for... had tried and failed to forget.

"If we're going to die here tonight," her words were soft, no hint of fear, "I want you to know I am sorry."

"We are not," of that he was certain, he had survived too much to die in a genteel bedroom in the British countryside, "And I am sorry, Alice, for everything..."

"Shh...." she was trembling, his hold on her tightening instinctively, to protect her, to keep her close. He would never lose her again after tonight, Faulkner knew, would not let this most precious friend slip away.

"When it started to snow," her words seemed to weave a spell around them, "I thought of you."

"And I of you," he admitted, remembering the first flakes that fell, how he had travelled to the inn and heard her voice so clearly he thought she was there in the room though she had not yet left the house.

"My boy...."

"That girl..." So many snowstorms had engulfed him since then, so many lands, so many dangers and always with her voice, her face... that scent of roses in the air. She was always there.

"I thought she was dead," came the murmured admission, "I have been dead..."

"And yet here we are... alive; together."

"Together..." If he closed his eyes he would be back on that cliff top, heat and promise between them despite the snow, though her frame was painfully thin now, weak and bruised through years of god only knew what treatment.

"Would it be a dreadful imposition if--"  He fell silent, finishing the question as a thought that she could never hear... I kiss you? he couldn't ask that, what sort of a man asked that? She had made a fool of him, abandoned him, laughed at him, been the only woman he had ever allowed himself to love. And now she was here again, and he could not stand the thought of losing her again.

Even as his thoughts raged her lips touched his, soft, hesitant, as if she had sensed his unspoken words after all. In that moment his worries were banished, doubts silenced and he kissed her in return, the years melting away yet it was over too soon, the need for breath breaking his lips from hers, apology stilling at the look in her eyes as she whispered, “Robert...."

It was reckless and possibly stupid, the doctor knew even as he brought his lips to hers, heart thundering in his breast, the feel of her kiss ridiculously, wonderfully familiar even after all these years. This kiss was more heated, Alice's hand in his, her slight frame sinking against him, soft in his arms. They would not die tonight, not now, not after this, Faulkner knew, there was too much still to live for. Finally they broke again, her forehead pressed to his, those blue eyes closed before they opened again to meet his.

"I should probably barricade the door..." he murmured, almost amusing himself at how prosaic he could be. "And you should rest..."


"You're not strong..." Faulkner scooped her into his arms, her weight inconsequential as he carried her to the bed and laid her atop the covers, "Rest; I'll secure the room."

"Be careful," she caught his hand, "Don't take any risks."

"I am too reliable for that," the doctor replied with a smile, squeezing her hand in turn before going to shutter the windows, even as the sounds of gunshots could be heard downstairs. Moving more quickly, he banked up the fire in the grate and then, feeling absurdly showy, shifted a heavy dresser in front of the door with rather less effort than it might have taken when he was that boy all those years ago. He could feel her gaze on him, those eyes that so captivated him even after all this years watching his every movement.

This room was safe, Faulkner knew, easy to escape from should they need to go through the window thanks to an orangery that extended below, yet easy too to defend. Better here than the glass-sided ballroom or the drawing rooms with their enormous windows and vast fireplaces. Please, he asked silently, please let Daniel Miller be somewhere as safe as this.

"I think," her words echoed his own thoughts, "We are as safe as we can be...."

"Your stepdaughter-" Faulkner suddenly realised, eyes widening as he turned back to Alice, sure she must think him rather thoughtless.  

"Will not lack for people to defend her," came the quiet reply, and he realised in that moment how little love there was lost between the two women.

"Your maid was walking with our host earlier," he said, simply to safe her any awkwardness, little that happened in the house escaping the watchful doctor. "I believe she will be well cared for."

"I had not thought," she looked abashed at that, "If anything were to happen to Mary--"

"In the company of the man who claims to be the devil?" He shook his head, allowing himself a smile as he opened the dresser and took out a small wooden trunk, "You need not worry for her safety, even if Mr de Chastelaine is more ringmaster than Beelzebub."

He felt rather than saw her nod, felt too the sudden wave of weariness as she sank back against the pillows. All they had to do was survive until dawn... it would be easy.

"Would you--"

Anything, he wanted to say, though he simply asked, "Would I?"

"Come here?" the words were a whisper, those eyes fixed on him once more. "Just be near me."

"Of course," Faulkner nodded, bringing the wooden gun case and setting it down beside the bed before he sat beside Alice, somewhere between formality and intimacy. As another gunshot sounded outside he took her hand, studying her face closely and seeing that girl she had been still in her eyes, even through the fog of sadness that had descended there. "I'll wager you did not expect life as a royal physician to be so eventful."

"There is a lot more to you than a royal physician," she told him with certainty, fingers twining with his.

A little espionage, the occasional acquisition of an old master... nothing too eyebrow raising, he was certain, even as he replied, "I do tend the occasional politician and bluestocking too, it's true."

The ghost of a smile, before she shifted a little closer, the move barely noticeable as she lay her head against his shoulder. For a moment Faulkner's eyes closed and then he tilted his head slightly to let it rest against Alice's hair, savouring her closeness.

"I am sorry," her words were soft, "For whatever it was that I did all those years ago...."

"Shh..." Her hand tightened on his and she fell silent, the room still enough that he could hear her breathing, each breath in and out as she could surely hear his. "I missed you," he whispered, quite unintentionally, "Every day."

He felt her tense, heard the edge to her voice as she told him, "You know there was no need to."

"I couldn't turn my feelings off," he replied, a slight edge to his own words, the rest of the sentence hardly needing to be voiced.

"You made a very good show of doing so!"

"I made no show," the doctor told her, thinking this a very rum affair given the tone, the content of her last letter. "What show there was, Alice, came from you!"

"How can you say that?" her cheeks, so pale moments before, were now flushed, "I waited for you-- waited and waited, and you did not come!"

"Did not come?" Faulkner lifted his head, turning to look at her askance. "Come where precisely? I sent you letters, you never replied... I visited your husband's house in the city you had me sent away! We shall not dwell on the letter you sent that advent, Alice, let no more be said."

"There were no letters!" Anguish and outrage filled the air, "Only my own. From you, there was nothing, not one word, Robert!"

He fell silent, the one thing he knew for certain being that this woman would not lie; the thought of the alternative was too painful to countenance even as he asked carefully, "You received no word from me? I wrote every week from the day you left for London to when I received your dismissal those months later; pages and pages of silly notes, I-" proposed, he swallowed that word though, "There were letters, Alice."

"I asked you to help me - to meet me--" those blue eyes were awash with confusion then, denial and anger just beneath the surface, "I waited Robert, and I heard nothing."

"No," Faulkner shook his head, searching her gaze, "Alice, I heard nothing from you; I was desperate when I read of your betrothal... did you not receive my offer of marriage?"

"Your--" something seemed to crumble within her at that, words trailing off as she gave a tiny shake of her head.

"The letter you sent... you asked me to let you move on with your life... I only did as you asked..." his own voice was a whisper.

"I wrote no such letter!"

"The writing was yours," he closed his eyes for a moment, well aware that there were people in his own sphere who could mimic any writing, any signature. "From the moment your father passed away, I believe you and I were played false..."

"Are you telling me," the hurt and hope in her voice was almost painful, "That you did not ignore my letters?"

"I received only one, and I believe now that it was sent by another," the thought was too horrendous, the years lost to them too painful. "If I had known you needed me, I would have been there."

"I don't understand--"

"I wrote to you, you to me," the explanation was simple, devastatingly so and the doctor's usually placid blood boiled with it. "Our letters were intercepted and someone, perhaps your husband, perhaps not, took it upon themselves to reject me on your behalf. That is all there is to understand."

"No--" he could see in her eyes though that she knew it to be true, the realisation that things could have been so very different, the betrayal and misery written clear across her face.

"It's all right," the words were firmer, the facade of the society doctor shoved aside in favour of something a little more dramatic and he drew Alice into his arms, a hug hardly something Robert Faulkner was used to even as he shared one with her. He felt her cling to him, and at that he held her yet closer, hushing the whispered apology that was now even more unnecessary.

What this meant for them he hardly knew, could not say, but he thought of those years of danger, of seeking the next job, the next risk just to be anywhere but near her, risking death, chancing it, daring it to find him. He might never have known, Faulkner realised starkly, might have gone to the grave believing she had thrown him away. And yet she had not, far from it, instead asking for him, for his help, though for what he could only too clearly guess at given her sorry state.

"If you still want my help," his voice was clear, confident, "I am yours to command, Alice; there will be no more falls." He felt her tense at that, felt the protest well within her, saw any words die on her lips as she lifted her head enough to meet his gaze. Perhaps they should not have kissed, perhaps they should, but when his lips had met hers he barely recognised himself, hardly knew what had become of that dour doctor or the dedicated government man, hardly cared for anything other than the woman in his arms, the girl he had lost. 

"I would have said yes," Alice whispered, "I would have said yes, Robert..." He silenced her with a gentle hush, hardly knowing what the future might bring but sure they would never lose one another again, whether as friends or something more. "What must you think of me... I should have known..."

"In my heart I knew you wouldn't have written that letter, I'm so sorry..." he felt like a failure, a feeling he was hardly used to, he realised. "I let you down, Alice, I won't again..."

What happened then, Faulkner wasn't sure afterwards but the shutters of the room were suddenly in splinters and he pushed Alice back against the covers as something, some amorphous shadow of a thing, sent him sprawling back onto the floor. He had the impression of teeth, of that sulphurous smell, of the sense that he couldn't get his breath, couldn't do anything but be engulfed by the blackness that seemed darker than any night. Even in that drowning, overwhelming darkness though he knew that he must fight, that even if he died here and now, she would not, that he would keep this… thing occupied until Alice was safe from the room.

There was a moment when he thought that everything was over, Alice's face flashing before him, and then suddenly there was a loud pop and the thing, whatever it had been, was gone, showing him once more in that thick, filthy dust. Coughing he turned enough to see Alice on her knees, brandishing the poker and looking greatly surprised that she had succeeded in slaying whatever had been trying to kill him. "Oh goodness...."

Faulkner blinked away the ash that had settled with the destruction of the creature, shaking it from his hair as he went to sit , still trying to find the air to breath again. It seemed to have taken all the strength he possessed in that short fight, his muscles complaining as he pushed himself to reach for her hand. The poker dropped to the floor again, Alice's fingers twining tightly with his own, her free hand stroking over his hair, voice filled with concern as she asked how he was. 

"Surviving," he sank against her despite the bravery of his tone, whispering, "You saved me..."

"It just---" her voice was as shaky as he suspected his own was, “Exploded." She was holding him now and he didn't pull away, wondering in that moment just what it was that this house was facing. 

Whatever it was, wherever it came from, he knew that it could not be allowed to defeat them, that he had fought and won too many battles to die here, especially now he had Alice in his arms again. For a few seconds he let himself rest in her arms, let his breath slow and his limbs regain their strength and then, carefully, Faulkner rose to his feet, bringing Alice with him.

"We are fortunate to be in Catholic country," he told her cryptically as he stooped to scoop up the gun box and then he nodded to the faintest outline of a doorway in the pale blue wall. "We might be a little snug, but would madam consent to join me in a priest hole?"

"People will talk," there was a glimmer then of the humour he had once known so well. 

"People," Faulkner winked as he gathered blankets and pillows, sure they could at least be comfortable, "Will always talk, Miss Tyhurst. The trick is knowing when to listen."

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