“Madman – stop!”
I froze at the sound of an intruder’s voice and glanced up to see Jacques, torch in hand. Several other men stood behind him with naked swords in their hands.
Jacques spoke again: “Monsieur, drop your stake and crucifix or I shall be forced to run you through.”
I did as he bade and saw another man seize the holy wafers from my daughter and force her to release her hold upon Katriane. Watching with dread and disbelief as Clotaire rose from the altar, I said, “Jacques, you are making a terrible mistake. These persons whom you believe to be saving are two damned spirits who prolong their existence through drinking upon the blood of the living.” Jacques stared at me as though I were out of my mind. “Here, you fool,” I continued, swiftly losing my temper. “Perhaps this will convince you.” Stepping forward and seizing him by the collar, I dragged him before the blood-spattered body of the Marquis de Conflans. “Look at what they have done to your lord.”
Jacques gazed upon the fallen figure for a long moment. Then, turning to his men and raising his voice, he cried, “The Marquis is dead!”
They took up the shout: “The Marquis is dead!”
Outside the crypt, for the first time I heard the swell of voices cry: “The Marquis is dead!”
Advancing towards Clotaire, Jacques knelt upon one knee before the shrouded figure, taking the pallid hand and pressing it to his lips rapturously. “The Chateau de Conflans is now yours, Monseigneur. As for this, your intended murderer—we saw him depart and pursued him, suspecting him of foul intent. Yet haply he shall dog your steps no longer.” Rising, he unsheathed his sword and stepped towards me. My hand went to my hip out of instinct, but I found that I had neglected to take my sword with me.
In one swift, inexorable motion, Clotaire seized the man’s arm, effectively staying his murderous progress. “Perhaps you should have been secularly armed as well,” he remarked to me. Then, to Jacques: “None of you shall lay a hand upon either Sir de Vair or his daughter.” After a pause: “Any who do so shall be answerable to me.” His eyes then lowered to the fallen Marquis. “Pray give him a proper burial and join us within the chateau when you are finished with your task.”
Jacques bowed and this time I thought I caught the glimpse of two red marks like rashes upon his throat, though I could not be sure in the dim, flickering torchlight. Then Clotaire, taking my daughter and me by the hand with a gallant smile as though we were dear comrades rather than mortal opponents, led us out of the crypt with his lady Katriane following. We found a great gathering of men bearing torches and farming implements; at sight of me, their pale eyes filled with a great fear and loathing such as I had never beheld and I believe that had Clotaire not seemed so at ease in our presence, that they would have verily torn Elaine and me to pieces. As it was, a shout of rejoicing rose up within their ranks at sight of Clotaire and Katriane and with a shuddering amazement, I heard every tongue declare the two as the lord and chatelaine of the Chateau de Conflans.
“Are these,” I murmured. “The ones whom I thought to save from death? It seems that I have become the ghoul, the object of fearful hatred amongst them.”
“Better to be regarded as a monster amongst the damned and yet be blessed by Heaven than to be loved by the whole of the world and yet be barred from Paradise for all eternity,” Clotaire replied. For the first time I glimpsed a certain bitterness within his gaze as he glanced at me before averting his eyes. Like a cloud which, veiling the face of the moon, endows the midnight with a sudden, deeper darkness, his habitually aloof, melancholy visage darkened still more with a silent, concentrated hatred that shadowed his haggard eyes and endowed his smile with a livid, pitiless quality. I felt as though I were looking less upon a man and more upon some awful, concentrated embodiment of hate: hatred of man, hatred of self, and hatred of the peace that he had lost. For a moment, I felt as though a different man, a man with a grasp as tight and deadly as the jaws of a lion, strode beside me. Then, with a slight shudder as of a sigh, he glanced at me again and I saw that it was the old Clotaire once more: the eyes held all of their former kindness and sufferance with only that touch of bitter irony to hint at the diabolic alteration that he had undergone only a moment ago. Yet I knew that this aspect of his nature still remained and the knowledge did nothing to lessen my fear of him.
We soon reached the Chateau de Conflans and as we passed under the drawbridge and into the courtyard, we were met by still more of its inhabitants. Men with the same blanched, wan look that Jacques and his henchman had sported advanced, hailing Clotaire and his lady Katriane as the Chateau de Conflans’ new master and mistress. Fair maidens, their streaming hair adorned with white petals and their hands bearing fragrant bouquets of flowers to strew upon the path, knelt in reverence before the sweeping hem of Katriane’s gown and caught Clotaire’s hand to lay lingering, lascivious kisses thereon. It was as though every man and woman among them had been but awaiting this night and, as a city awaits the return of its conquering lord, were now lavishing upon the pair all the adoration that for long months had lain repressed within their hearts. And upon every throat, be it the wrinkled throat of a doddering old man or the white neck of a young woman, I beheld the two red welts of the vampire’s kiss.
Of a sudden, I saw that a certain group of men were pushing through the crowd, dragging someone along with them. As they drew nearer to the light of the torches, I saw to my surprise that their captive was none other than the Archbishop of Conflans. Halting before Clotaire, one of the men spoke: “Monseigneur, we found this man, rather than rejoicing at your return, hiding within the church with the intention of hanging himself.”
Clotaire remained silent for a long while. When he spoke, it was in a voice so soft that even I, who stood beside him, could barely hear: “Pray come nearer.”
Though his captors released their hold upon him, the Archbishop stood his ground, his gaze fixed glassily upon his former victim. His eyes would roam at turns from the wound at Clotaire’s breast, to the limbs which he had seen ravaged upon the rack, and finally to the pale, drawn face itself. Hatred, fear, and remorse warred within the archbishop’s visage as he gazed at the phantom before him.
“You,” he murmured. “So you have finally come for me.” Clotaire nodded silently.
The Archbishop’s face went slack with abject terror as though transformed into a tragic mask of Grecian antiquity. At the same time his reptilian eyes flashed with a grotesque fury like two embers scattered from a hell-pyre. “Too merciful by far was the Marquis upon you and these last few years have witnessed the encroachment of your evil upon the people of this citadel. You have brought Hell itself to this realm – are you well-pleased with what you have done?”
Almost inaudibly, Clotaire replied, “Yes.”
The Archbishop’s voice grew tremulous. “Poor fool – do you wreak your terrible revenge simply because of a few hours spent upon the rack?” Seeing that Clotaire grew pale and silent, he persisted, “Speak, daemon!”
“Had you suffered your wrath to be spent only upon me, you should have lived to a hale and sotted age,” Clotaire replied. “But there was one other. Perhaps this shall remind you.”
And, releasing his grasp upon Elaine, Clotaire took Katriane’s hand and drew her forward. A look of terrified recognition blanched the Archbishop’s face for one terrible moment. Then his eyes of a sudden dimmed and he fell forward, the blade of one of Clotaire’s stealthy guards plunging deep within his back.
Even as the guards dragged the body away, I felt the crowd around us of a sudden begin to surge and press forward towards some particular destination, bearing me along in their midst. I lost my grasp on Clotaire’s hand and ceased attempting to resist the human tide on which I was borne, struggling instead to find Elaine within that mob. Searching that sea of grey faces and sickened, feverish eyes, I at last caught sight of her pale, frightened face as she was hustled forward as well. Pushing past the villagers, I managed to catch hold of her hand tightly and the two of us were borne along with the throng. So dense was the mob that I could not see too clearly in which direction we were heading, but soon I saw ahead the tall spire of the chateau’s chapel built into the wall of the citadel.
As we passed under the church’s doorway, I saw that to the right of the entrance leading to the main chapel there was a wooden staircase leading to a higher story. Farther ahead upon the staircase, I beheld Clotaire pause in his ascent for a moment, his dark cloak trailing at his feet like the skirting shadow of an attendant familiar and the lady Katriane standing at his side, her slender-fingered hand resting upon his shoulder. I gazed upon those two tall figures – the clear grey eyes and piquant features of the woman and the dark, haggard eyes of the man, filled with such a proud, tortured implacability. I believed then and still do believe, damned though they are, that in that moment I looked upon the fairest sight that I have ever been worthy enough to behold.
Clotaire took a torch from one of the men standing by: in his hand, the golden light mounted to a tall, eerily blue flame that stood steady and motionless in spite of the draughty staircase. His eyes wandered consideringly over the silent throng before him, finally resting upon Elaine and me. With a peculiar smile, he said, “We have here among us an honoured stranger and guest – Sir Jean-Claire de Vair, a renowned scourge of evil.” His irony softening somewhat, he added, “Would that both he and his daughter might become a friend of our company.”
“Perhaps,” said Katriane. “Perhaps they will join us within the chapel’s upper chamber before they depart.”
As the two departed, I felt something catch hold of my shoulder. Turning, I saw that it was Elaine, her face white with distress. “Father, you are not unwell are you?”
I shook my head, asking her why she should think thusly.
“Your face seemed very odd when you looked upon the two of them.”
To be continued…