This chapter is told from the viewpoint of Stephan Nilsson.
Another early morning. The only reason I wasn’t complaining more about it was that Brom had let me join him and some of the others in the room furthest from the one where Larsa made love to Killian well into the night. The breakfast was good, but getting some extra sleep was even better.
We’d arrived in Rosenthal Village the previous evening. Brom had located someone who could deliver a message to the castle for him, then to us to each and bed down early, as the reply to his request would probably come before dawn. He’d been right, of course; the invitation came, and Brom started waking us and letting us know to get breakfast and make ready to meet the envoy at the gates at the appointed hour.
Thankfully, Rosenthal Village was used to operating in both night and day; it saw as many vampires and other creatures of the night as it did anyone else, and its shops and services worked in shifts to serve all of its customers. I was able to get a large breakfast, with sausages and eggs and biscuits, not just porridge and fruit. Somehow, Larsa and Killian didn’t look exhausted; I don’t know how they managed to be so cheerful even with that little sleep.
After we’d all eaten, we packed up the carriages and animals and head up the hill to the wrought-iron gates that kept unwelcome visitors from getting too close to the castle. The closer we got, the more were wolves I saw. Some followed behind us, and others flanked us. Evander didn’t seem bothered. even when I pointed out the one close to his heel.
“There are countless werewolves in this part of Tierney Ríocht,” he told me. “We cannot expect them to avoid us.”
He didn’t mention anything about the werewolves who’d died while helping the vampires kidnap Leila. I decided that it was better for me not to ask about them. I had no idea whether the ones surrounding us had been part of that battle, and if not, whether they’d heard about some of their kind being wounded or killed, and I wasn’t about to call attention to myself.
The gates were closed when we got up to them, but there were people there, waiting for us in that pre-dawn gloom. I recognized them: Xanthus and Erik. The vampire was on a pitch-black horse, glaring down at us as we approached. The satyr stood closer to the gates, flanked by a pair of especially large werewolves. They had darker fur then any of the others, and their eyes shone. I glanced over at Evander, but he didn’t have any commentary for me.
“Let me ride ahead,” Brom told us, his voice low and serious.
Nobody argued with him. He urged his horse to walk a little faster, and when he got to the gate, he addressed Erik first. They spoke for a while as we continued our approach. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to stop a little way back, but neither Evander nor anyone else signaled for that, so we kept going until we caught up with Brom.
“You really did bring everyone, didn’t you?” Erik said as we looked us over. “Even the magic little boy.”
“He is one of Lady Moss’s close friends,” Brom told him. “Is your master’s invitation not open to him?”
“It is open to all your entourage,” Erik replied. “I merely thought him too innocent to be brought out this way.”
“Is he talking about me?” I heard Larsa ask Tobias in a hushed voice.
“Yes, young one,” Erik called to him. He chuckled when Larsa looked surprised that he’d been heard. “I’ll need that bag of magic stones from you if you are to enter the castle.”
“Do you plan to collect everything from us?” Brom asked. “Magic items, weapons, all of it?”
Erik took his time in answering. “That would hardly be practical, would it? I merely need to protect my master from the most… unpredictable factors here. Once we’ve established that we can proceed peacefully, the items will be returned.”
Larsa gave the leather bag containing the magic stones to Brom, who passed it through the gate to Xanthus, and from there it was given to Erik.
“I need every single one of your axes,” Erik said next, staring coldly at me.
I stared back.
“Lady Moss herself would appreciate your cooperation,” he added, “though I’m sure you’re questioning my words already. Grand-master Thorne knows who you are to her, and he will not allow you to continue without you turning over your weapons.”
My glare turned ice cold. “You haven’t even proven to us that she’s okay,” I growled.
“I don’t have to. You came to our doorstep, fully armed and ready to take her from us. If you’d like to be invited in, you can cooperate just as your young friend did.”
“I’m not letting you leave me defenseless.”
“Do you really believe,” he replied wearily, “that w would harm Lady Moss’s consort?”
“Stefan,” Brom cut in. His voice was firm, maybe even frustrated. “We don’t have time to argue. Give me your axes.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “First I want to know why they kidnapped Leila.”
“Isn’t it obvious, barbarian?” Xanthus snapped. “We needed her help.”
“If you’re going to lie, at least make it believable,” I replied. “What help could vampires possibly needs from a woman from Earth?”
“You’ve heard enough of the ballad to be able to deduce the answer to your question,” Erik said. “Now then, will you be joining your friends in the castle, or would you rather stay out here with your precious axes?”
I handed Brom the large double-headed axe first, snarling the entire time. I didn’t want to give up a single one of my weapons, but if it was a choice between them or seeing Leila, the choice was basically made for me. I gave him the bandolier of throwing-axes next, hoping that we weren’t being drawn into a situation in which we’d be imprisoned rather than treated as guests. I glared at Erik as they were passed to him.
“Xanthus,” Erik said, holding my gaze, “you may open the gates.”
Xanthus took the key he’d been wearing around his neck and unlocked the gates. They swung open, and he and the werewolves stepped aside so that Brom could lead the caravan through and up the hill towards Thorne castle. Erik drew his black steed up beside Sleipnir.
“If you ever hurt me again,” he slithered, “you will have a horde upon you, and even Lady Moss will be unable to stop them.”
“If you don’t hurt her or my friends,” I replied, ” I won’t have to hurt you.”
“We are in agreement, then,” he said, and then he took off to the front of the procession.
Once everyone was through the gates–even the werewolves who’d been flanking us– Xanthus closed and locked them. Then he mounted the back of one of the larger werewolves and let him run past us to the castle. The moons were still out, glowing behind clusters of thick gray clouds that made me wonder whether is would rain in the next day or two. It was cold on that part of the world, and wolves running through the trees gave me an uneasy feeling.
Thorne castle stood at the apex of a tall hill; some might have called it it a small mountain, but the distinction didn’t matter to me in comparison to making sure Leila was safe. The closer we got to it, the more I could smell the salty air of the sea. Killian and Larsa agreed that there seemed to be an ocean nearby, though we couldn’t be sure, given the forest blanketing the hill and surrounding both sides of the road.
I didn’t have time to ask anyone else about it though, as we were led not to the front of the castle, but to the massive wooden doors closer to the stables. Xanthus and the werewolves had opened them, and they were shut and barred as soon as all the animals and carriages were inside. Sleipnir huffed and shook his head.
“What is this…?”
“Think of it like a garage,” Erik told me. He dismount his horse and patted its flank. “It gives us a safe place to get into and out of carriages if we have to travel during the day.”
I hopped down from Sleipnir and looked around. “How do the animals get to the stables, then?”
Erik looked to Xanthus. “That is one of the ways our acolytes are for. Our castle is not run by vampires alone; we have many humans and other beings who serve us. Sleipnir and the other animals you’ve brought will be properly cared for.”
“Fine,” I said. “How soon can you take me to Leila?”
Erik raised his brow. “You are a hasty one, aren’t you? I should caution you, however, not to mistake our hospitality for submission. It would not be wise for you to be making demands while you are here.”
I grunted and decided to ignore him. I turned and got my pack from the carriage, and helped pass down some of the other items to whoever would be carrying them. Evander and Larsa helped Sir Maël out and kept him steady. I caught Erik sharing a knowing looking with Maël, though I could only guess at what it meant. Killian carried his bassoon for him, and I wondered what good bringing it would do if he was too weak to play it.
We were taken up several flights of stairs and given our rooms. Some, like mine, were simple, single rooms, while other were more like suites; Jean-Marc and Brom shared one with Sir Maël so they could look after him. Erik had food sent to his room right away, apparently intent on helping him recover. Tobias and Aubré took a room next to Killian and Larsa, who were blissfully far from my room.
Even before everyone else was settled in, I asked where Leila’s room was. Erik refused to talk to me about it. He reminded me again that I was in no position to be making demands. Not only that, but dawn was breaking, and as the sun bathed the castle in light, he and the other vampires needed to sleep. The acolytes would see to our needs for a while, mostly in regards to food, but otherwise we were to keep to that part of the castle and not disturb anyone.
Once I was alone, I laid down on the bed and stared up at the canopy if indigo and silver brocade. I was in the same castle as Leila. She might be down the hall, or downstairs or upstairs, but I would be able to see her soon. I could keep her safe. And, I thought as I started to drift off to sleep right there in that velvet comforter, maybe I could finally find the strength to tell her…