The Soldier’s Song
Easthaven, East Yorkshire, England, May 1811
It burst like a gunpowder explosion, blooming behind Lieutenant John Lewis’s eyelids so brightly, he screwed his eyes closed against it. There was more than just light. He could hear fabric shuffling by his head and the humming of a soft hymnal. His body felt heavy and hot. When the brush of a breeze across his face followed the sound of wood sliding against wood, he was only more aware of how much he felt as if he were roasting alive.
The realization pierced him with bitter regret and something else; something he recognized as frustration. It was not the outcome he had wanted.
“Keep your head down, David!”
Memories — sharp and unwelcome blossomed with a heat of their own.
Blood ran down David’s brow from a hole the size of a coin.
But he wasn’t on the Ridge; the soldier knew that much, and he tried to make sense of his surroundings.
The breeze carried the scent of death and decay out, and he breathed in sharply for the freshness of the air that rushed in to fill the space. That was a mistake.
Pain shot through his chest, setting his lungs afire. He coughed, bringing up pus and blood and more pain.
“Gently, gently,” tutted a woman’s voice over him.
John’s jaw tightened at the sound. A hand touched his brow, cool and dry against his skin. It lifted away, and a cloth soaked in water replaced it. He turned his head from her touch and squinted his eyes open, testing them in the lamplight’s glow.
His vision was bleary, but he could make out enough to see he was in a green painted room. An assortment of brass and tin trinkets filled the shelves and clumsily made paintings adorned the walls. Across the street, the silhouette of a brick building faced the open window.
Not the infantry hospital either.
The rotting smell had almost fooled him. In the crowded triage, surrounded by his dying brothers, the stench had been as thick in the air as a fog.
But he had escaped that.
The surgery that had pried the pieces of the bullet from his lungs had ensured as much. The ship voyage back to the British Isles had not been as kind.
“There you are, Mr. Lewis,” the woman was saying.
Fanny. That had been her name. Fanny Barlow.
She hummed and dabbed the cloth against his hairline. “No doubt your friend will be by soon with the doctor. He was riding like the devil himself was on his heels.”
“There are better men than I in need of a doctor, ma’am,” John whispered.
His voice was raspy from lack of use and too much use, all at once. He vaguely remembered his screams. None of the men he spoke of were on England’s shores — they were still in Spain, if they lived, fighting Bonaparte’s war — where he should be.
None of his friends were here.
“Well then, when one of them is dragged to my door,” Fanny said, “I’ll be pleased as Punch to tend them as well.”
John wondered why it was he who had been chosen to survive.
Fanny’s presence was an unwelcome reminder of a reality he did not wish to face, and he closed his eyes against the scene playing in his mind’s eye.
David, with his face covered in soot and dirt and blood; his voice strangled in his throat as his last words were lost beneath the boom of gunfire.
David, who would not have been in Spain were it not for John.
The soldier tried another shallow inhale. It triggered a spasm and a cough that he gritted his teeth to suppress. He opened his eyes again and struggled to focus on a crude painting of a tabby cat on the wall.
“What is this place?”
“This would be my home in the north of England, Mr. Lewis. Easthaven, if I’m being precise. You’re right on the Humber.” Fanny touched the cloth to his brow again. “Well, not right on the Humber, you’d be just north of it. I can’t stand the smell of fish.” The woman laughed. “I think the ladies coming in about the storks wouldn’t much like it either.”
He twisted his head to face her.
Storks. A midwife, then.
She was a plump, older woman with gray-streaked, black hair. Her lips were thin, disappearing with her laugh and her smile to reveal small teeth and large gums.
“I’m… sorry,” he croaked. He didn’t know what he was apologizing for. Maybe that he would make her a harbinger of death instead of life.
“What is there to apologize for? I’ve had bloodier messes in these beds than you can produce. Would you like some water? We must clean your wounds and take care of the bad blood while you’re awake, Mr. Lewis. It’s like wrestling a bear to pour vinegar on them while you sleep.”
John’s brow furrowed at her words. He felt nothing at all except the heat of a fire in his blood that refused to be cooled.
He cracked a response: “Water…” Then, with a wince, added: “And the vinegar.”
He was infectious. The soldier smelled it in the air that clung to him like a death shroud. He had survived thus far — if not by choice — and in the face of the Reaper, he found it harder than he expected to relinquish his hold on life.
John would need to summon his will for more than a hope for survival if he intended to live. And this was not how he wanted to die.
“Aye, Mr. Lewis,” Fanny clucked. “We have water right here.”
She drew her hand and the cloth back, clattering the glass on the tray she had brought with her in its place by his bedside. “Here now, up a bit, it’s just my hand —” She slipped it beneath his head, helping to ease him up.
No sooner had the edge of the cup touched his lips than the bell pull chimed downstairs.
Fanny tutted. “Maybe that’s your friend. The poor thing had to ride to York; though he’s made a quicker trip of it than I might have thought — gently now, Mr. Lewis.”
The water splashed across his tongue, and aware of his thirst, he took it in too quickly. John sputtered, and his chest tightened around his wounds, sending fire and pain searing through his body in protest.
“There, there,” Fanny tutted, and smoothed her fingers over his hair like a mother tending a child. “We had a doctor in Easthaven once. Friend of mine, Mr. Wescott. Disappeared after the fox hunt in November. Though I’d not have blamed him for running off.”
He was still clenching his jaw against the coughs as she spoke when the pull chimed again.
“I suppose I’d best answer.” She withdrew her hand from his head. “I’ll be right back, Mr. Lewis. Now just rest. I’ll bring whiskey and laudanum with the vinegar for your comfort.” With a swish of heavy fabric, Fanny turned to take her leave, leaving the door ajar behind her.
An eternity ticked by, and John stared at the painting of the cat and its warped, too-large eyes until he shuttered his gaze.
It was not Fanny who eventually entered his room. The steps that crossed the floor were almost lighter than hers had been, and they betrayed a longer stride. And it was not Fanny whose shadow fell across the bed.
John opened his eyes, narrowing them on the blond man who stood over him. That he was a gentleman or Lord was clear by his dress and the near indifferent study drifting over John in those moments.
“You will not make it through the night.” The man exhaled a breath, and raised his hand to rub the space between his brows.
John blinked, but the stranger did not disappear or appear any less perturbed for his dire announcement.
“So they’ve said, but I’m still here,” the soldier rasped. He had heard as much every night that he could recall since he’d been shot. Not that he wasn’t conflicted about the fact. “Who are you?”
“I am Lord Lian Redmond, the Earl of Rosse.” The man drew a chair nearer, sitting down by the bedside.
John narrowed his study on Lian Redmond. Though blurred, he could see the fineness of the man’s clothing. An earl’s clothing, he supposed — one who kept his hair long and seemed all of John’s age.
The soldier frowned. “Where’s Fanny?”
“Fetching vinegar, I believe. Two holes, is it? How were you shot?”
“With a big damn rifle…” John answered wearily, but the ghost of dry flatness found his tone. He coughed and paled for the taint of copper on his tongue. “Bastard Frogs got me in the lung.” He lifted his fingers to his lips and wiped at the moisture there. It came away pink.
“Frogs…” Redmond repeated, sounding amused. “That will hardly do.”
“Why are you here, Lord Redmond? Looking for a story?” His visitor was wasting a hell of a lot of what remained of John’s life standing around looking like he was the one facing life or death.
The man straightened in his seat, folding one leg over the other. “No, not a story. A son.”
Now John knew the golden stranger crazy.
“You do realize there are better candidates for whatever scheme you’ve got in mind…” John allowed his weight to sink into his pillows and fixed his gaze overhead. It could only be some shady activity that would bring a gentleman to a man’s deathbed with such an offer.
“Do you have a family?” Despite the gentleness of the earl’s tone, John could feel the intensity of the stare resting on him. “A wife or child?”
“Brothers and a sister, old enough to be my parents. No family of my own.”
John’s expression shadowed and then pinched grimmer. He should have had a family, would have, if he had not chosen service with the Guards over Emily’s pleas to marry sooner than later. She had not been willing or able to wait until he returned from the war.
She was married now — to someone else.
“But a family nonetheless,” the blond murmured at his side. “And you hail from York. I suppose it is likely they will hear of your condition when your rider makes it to town.”
John rolled his head toward the stranger, feeling his patience wearing thin. “You got some special treatment for holes nobody ever heard of? I doubt you can help me otherwise, Lord Redmond.”
Redmond’s frown deepened. “You are dead, John. No amount of vinegar or medicines will change that. I doubt the doctor will arrive in time to see you.”
John’s expression betrayed his confusion and his exhaustion. With every moment that passed, he could feel his strength ebbing and knew his breathing threatened to become more difficult. It would only be a matter of time before he couldn’t breathe at all.
The earl unfolded to a stand and lifted his hand in a display of peace to touch his fingers to John’s brow. They were cold and soothing against his fevered skin.
“You will die a war hero.” Redmond’s voice sounded far away. “And you will die a man who fought bravely against two French divisions in an impossible battle.”
“Is that supposed… to make me feel better?”
“No, it is not.”
“Good… Because you were failing admirably if that was the intent.”
“My intent is to make clear the reality you face.” The back of Redmond’s knuckles brushed across John’s brow, almost tenderly. “Lieutenant John Lewis will die in this bed.”
John closed his eyes and accepted the truth of his words. Perhaps it was as it should be. He did not deserve a different fate.
“Yet,” the earl continued, “if it is your wish to live, I can give you the opportunity. To live as something else. Someone else. The lieutenant will not survive, but you can. I can give you an eternity, a family — my family — and a new chance at life.”
“You’re not making sense, Redmond,” John murmured. “One moment I’m a dead man, in another, I’m living forever.” He opened his eyes and paused long enough to take in another shallow, painfully controlled breath. “The two don’t… come as a package deal from where I’m laying.”
“Not in the world you live in now, no. In mine, I can give you what the doctors cannot. The cost will be high, and perhaps you will not survive the effort. But I can give you the opportunity to change your fate.”
John studied the blond for a long moment before lifting his gaze to the worn beams that crossed the ceiling. He felt his life. What it meant to still be here, to be taking each painful breath he managed.
Somewhere, in the depths of his being, John knew that there was something different… something unnatural about a man who thought he could defy death. He could only imagine what the cost of such a gift might be. And yet, he heard himself speak.
“I’ll give… whatever’s left of me… that’s not torn up, for a chance…” he whispered, and swore the light in the room grew dimmer for his admission.
“You will give up more than what is left of you, John. It will be all of you: two hundred years of sunlight and your humanity. If you survive this, you will live off the lives of others, but you will live.”
John heard Redmond’s words but did not understand them. The man spoke of things that sounded familiar; things John recognized from old wives’ tales — the loss of sunlight, losing his humanity — what would he be if not human?
The earl continued speaking, his fingers growing still in John’s hair before they lifted away.
“You will have a family of sisters and brothers and live in all the comfort I can afford you forever. Your life will be bound to ours, and ours to your own.”
John turned his head, watching Redmond’s blurred figure as it drifted to the door to shut it. The earl turned the lock and then moved to the window to draw it closed and pull the curtains. In the darkness, he returned to John’s side.
The soldier wrestled with the thoughts that struggled for supremacy in his fevered brain, but only one mattered. Without whatever Redmond was offering, he would be dead.
He did not want to die. He took another pained breath and coughed.
“This will hurt for a moment, John.” There was something almost resigned to Redmond’s voice.
“I have the feeling… that I may regret this… someday,” the soldier said quietly.
But not now. Not now when he could all but see the Reaper standing at his shoulder.
“Do you believe so?”
“I believe… I’m making a deal… with the devil, Redmond.”
Hadn’t the blond stranger all but appeared as one? A stranger with an unbelievable gift; one too good to be true.
“Not quite a devil,” Redmond answered. “Though I suppose it may appear close enough. Do you wish me to leave?”
“No. I’ll pay your cost… for my life.”
Lian Redmond bowed down to touch his cool lips to the soldier’s brow before the man’s shadow shifted over the soldier. This time, when the earl’s lips found his skin, it was at his throat. They parted, and a firm, sharp press of teeth found his pulse.
When the bite came, it hurt like a fury.
The lift of John’s body was instinctual, pushing back against the offender. To his surprise, Lian Redmond did not budge. The blond’s hands anchored onto his shoulders, holding him down against the sweat-soaked mattress, and John knew that Redmond had not just bitten.
He was drinking.
The soldier thought he had lost his mind. Redmond clearly had, but John was questioning his own sanity.
He swore — swore — he heard music.
He could hear guitars, piano chords and harps. Then it was like an entire symphony was playing in his head, and he was drowning in the orchestra. It carried him from the weight and heat of his infected blood like a tide, making him lighter with each increasingly sluggish heartbeat.
There was light, then, suddenly, there was darkness.
In the shadows between sleep and wakefulness, Redmond remained fixed to the chair at the bedside or settled on the mattress. There had been only once when John awakened that the blond had not been present. As if he could sense that the soldier had stirred, Redmond appeared only minutes later and touched his fingers to John’s brow.
He had smelled blood, then.
It woke a hunger in him, one that hollowed out his stomach and made his veins twist and burn as if they had caught fire. The blond did not fight when John grabbed his wrist, nor pull back when he tore through the skin to drink and drink. There had been a different kind of fire in his blood, darkness and the copper-tinged bitterness of blood on his tongue when he came into himself again, but John found he was not disgusted by the fact.
He had wanted more.
Lian Redmond had refused him, holding him down with a hand on his shoulder. The skin of the Lord’s wrist had healed as if there had been no damage at all, and the blond had wiped his arm with a cloth and settled into his chair again. He had spoken quietly as a parent might to a sick child until sleep had claimed the soldier.
Now, it was clattering from downstairs and an occasional burst of laughter that had drawn John out of the darkness again. He squinted up at the ceiling.
God, but he was thirsty.
His throat felt as if it were cracking, and his tongue felt thick in his mouth. He ran the muscle over his teeth, lingering on the strangely pointed edges of his canines, then pressing. Blood welled up from the punctures, bitter and sweet at once, but it did nothing for him; even when he chewed against his tongue to draw more.
Redmond’s voice was quiet, almost drowned out by the raucous noise rising from below.
John turned his head to face the man. The Lord was positioned leaning on one arm against the chair’s armrest and watched him from between his fingers. His sleeve was rolled back, revealing a flash of white skin, and John felt his teeth extending. He shifted, surprised by the sensation.
Of their own volition, his eyes fixed on the rush of blood running beneath Redmond’s flesh, and he swallowed against the rise of a burn in his veins anew. He would have missed the blond’s smile for his fixation had the expression not found its way into his voice.
“You will have to wait until your mourners leave,” the Lord said, and straightened, pulling his sleeve down to hide his skin from view.
John could still hear the blood; just as he could hear a piano drifting through his mind. Piano. Piano, strings like a violin and a flute.
“Mourners?” John could scarcely recognize his own voice for its hoarseness, and he licked his lips. They were as dry as he felt. It didn’t hurt to breathe anymore, and the fire in his blood was gone. The soldier closed his eyes and made a mental inventory of his condition. He felt tired; tired with a weakness that threatened a week of sleep if he could have it… and hungry. Ravenous. But he didn’t feel sick. And he didn’t feel dead.
“Revelers, more like. Your brother has already come and gone. He took your uniform back to York in lieu of a body. My apologies.”
His family. It would only be his sister whose loss he would grieve — who would truly grieve for him, he knew. Even his middle brother — the reason he had joined the military — would likely only regret that he had not fallen in the field. It would have made for a better story.
“They… think I’m dead.”
“I told you that you were.”
“But I’m… not?” The conversation was just difficult enough to follow to threaten the soldier’s level of exhaustion.
“Do you remember what we spoke of? The cost of a chance to live.” Redmond leaned forward, folding his arms over his knees. “The chance to live as someone else?”
“As far as anyone knows, Lieutenant John Lewis died. You are something else entirely now… or will be, and I have spent the better part of the last two days fending off Ms. Barlow… and your mourners.”
The soldier tested the sharpness of his teeth again. They had not receded and sat awkwardly in his mouth, making it difficult to close his lips entirely. They were like… fangs. The fangs of a beast — a monster.
Redmond had spoken true… he was a thing. For a few heartbeats, he felt a swell of panic rise for the realization, but almost immediately, he sought the detachment of which a soldier was capable. He could not change what had been done, or renege upon an agreement already made.
“You can steady your drums so quickly,” the Lord offered, amused. “We call ourselves Immortals. You know it as vampire now. What I am, and what you are becoming.”
John leveled a tired stare at the man — the vampire — who had changed his reality.
The soldier raised his fingers to scratch through the cropped length of his brown curls before passing a touch over the gristle of his chin.
He desperately needed a shave.
Something broke downstairs, followed by even more laughter; deep and booming, and high giggles. Redmond lifted his hand to massage the space between his brows before his fist came down upon the arm of the chair. The piano song shifted, too; a brief hammer of keys and an irritated scale of notes before it settled again.
“What… is that? That sound.” He almost couldn’t tell if the music was in his head, or an illusion that was really part of the activities downstairs.
“Me… And perhaps your brother and sister.” The blond tilted his head back to turn a glance toward the door. John almost thought he would not explain further, but Redmond turned his focus back to him. “The music binds us to one another. It is in my blood and yours, and that of our family.”
The laughter grew again in a wave, and John listened for the music. The piano near his head, and the flute and violin that played a harmony unlike anything that should be played at a wake. A guitar, somewhere else, singing out from the depths of his blood with the swell of an orchestra that sounded like a quiet hum. He found himself momentarily distracted by the dance of its strings.
“I am pleased you have chosen this life,” Redmond offered, lowering his hand to reveal a softer smile. “And survived the worst of the transition. I’ve grown fond of you.”
“That would likely be because you have known me but a few days, m’lord.”
“I have known you in that time as mine.” The blond’s expression was thoughtful before the soft quirk at the corner of his mouth returned. “I chose you, John.”
“It is to be hoped that you do not come to regret your decision,” the soldier answered, and he did not try to hide the worry in his tone.
John didn’t know quite what he had gotten himself into. Redmond had spoken of a son, and he found that for all he did not know the Lord, there was a part of himself that wanted to please him. Whatever had caused the man to seek him out, the soldier hoped that he was up to the task.
He tried not to let the growing concern unsettle him and focused again on the matter at hand. If Redmond had been fending off visitors, surely, he had been seen. “How have they been convinced I am dead?”
“I am very old,” Redmond answered. “With age, our kind can make others believe and do what we will them to. They believe you dead, as your brother believes you dead. No sight of you breathing will convince them otherwise if it is not my wish.” The Lord leaned back. “And it is absolutely not. They are rather irritating enough thinking you to be a corpse.”
As if on cue, the roaring below rose in volume, and the blonde’s expression flattened.
“They are hardly the most diligent in their mourning, it would appear.” Redmond’s voice was very near to a grumble before he sighed and straightened.
There was another sound beneath the ruckus, one John was almost surprised that he could make out. Footsteps, some distance away and growing closer. The Lord turned his head toward the doorway, tensed, and then relaxed again with a touch of his fingers to his brow.
“Do not say Frog,” he warned lightly.
John squinted at him. “What?”
The door to the bower opened, revealing a blonde woman standing in the entryway and an olive-skinned Lord hovering behind her. The man lingered, holding the door and lifting a hand to his companion’s back to encourage her inside, only to toe it closed once more when she was securely within.
“May I introduce Dorian and Joanna Vaughn, the Conde and Condessa de Castile.” Redmond lifted his head, and eased to a stand. “Your brother and sister. You will be living with them for a short while.”
John looked at the new arrivals. Lord Vaughn looked the part of a dashing gentleman, and one all too familiar for the skin tones he had seen among the Spaniards on his deployment. That he had taken the bullet that had ended his mortal life on Spanish soil and would begin his Immortal life anew in related company, was not lost on him.
It was his memories, more than Dorian himself, that brought a furrow of the brow to the soldier’s expression.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, m’lord,” he said quietly. “John Lewis, at your service. I suppose I’ll be doing my best to stay out of your way if it’ll be no trouble.”
“Oh… It’ll be trouble,” the dark Lord answered pleasantly. “But that is precisely why Lian has assigned you to my purgatory. We shall find a means to enjoy each other if only for the sake of upending his designs.”
“Non.” The woman, Joanna, breathed the word with a hint of laughter.
French. A frog. The likes of which he had faced on Barossa Ridge and lost David to.
Lost his life to.
John felt something stir inside of him, and another sound — like that of fingers smacking hard against a drum skin startled him from the threat of darkness.
The sound of the flute in his mind took a turn to something quieter, and he understood the reason for Redmond’s peculiar request.
The Frenchwoman bowed her head, still smiling gently. “I only meant to say it will not be trouble. Our manor is already in shrouds for my sake, and I will enjoy not being the youngest of our family. I am happy to meet you, John.”
“Ma’am.” He acknowledged her greeting politely. It was the best that he could manage in the moment. It was to be hoped he could do better for enjoying her hospitality.
“If it is of any comfort, John, our Joanna has lived in England longer than your own ancestors are likely to have arrived,” Redmond offered.
John found it in himself to relax somewhat, and a wry smile curved his lips. “Was I entirely obvious? My apologies, m’lady.”
“Just Joanna is fine — as is Jo,” she said, and lifted her shoulders with a smirk. “We can hear one another’s hearts in our music. I expected it would take time for us to grow used to one another. I will try not to speak French until we are more comfortable.”
“And the three of you will soon have another brother to keep you company, besides,” the blond Lord interjected.
Redmond’s smile was small but genuine where it settled on his lips. “It will be quieter at the Conde’s manor than Fanny Barlow’s residence, if nothing else.” His attention shifted to Dorian.
“Do you have George on his way? I am growing increasingly more…” The blond Lord trailed off, his smile vanishing in a frown. “I do not remember wakes being quite so energetic.” There was irritation drifting through a skittering of his piano song, again.
“I expect him here within the hour,” came the Conde’s answer as he made his way to one of the larger armchairs. A hand lifted to invite his wife nearer to settle into its cushion as he stood at her back. “And not soon enough. All they’re missing is a damned orchestra, and it’d be a ball down there. You wouldn’t think they’d just lost a war hero and a son. I take it this is not your hometown, John?”
The soldier shook his head, slowly. “I was born in York. But I don’t doubt it’d have been much the same there.” His brow furrowed. “Men…” he paused, and his tongue ran over the points of his fangs again. “Men are capable of a darkness that most cannot imagine.”
Redmond’s features softened only for a moment before he seemed to reign his expression back to composed neutrality.
“We exist in the shadows that lie beyond human imagination, John. It is a darkness that is your world, now.”
John breathed a soft, dry and humorless laugh. “I have seen the face of darkness. Next to it, your shadows shine like the sun.”
The soldier closed his eyes and swallowed. Each moment that passed, brought with it a greater demand in his thirst.
“I need a drink.”
Water, whiskey, anything to keep his mind off the beats of three hearts and pulses that were threatening the limits of his self-control.
“The door please, Dorian.” Redmond directed the words to Lord Vaughn before offering a drier: “Do feel free to ward them off as you will.”
Whatever Dorian’s reply might have been, John hardly caught the words. Redmond had moved to the bedside to settle on the mattress, and he knew what was coming.
His veins lit aflame even before the blond rolled up his sleeve, and he barely even heard what the Lord said over his head.
“I will not leave you to find your brother until it is finished, John. You’ll have a few days of suffering my company yet.”
Lian Redmond pressed his teeth into the skin of his own wrist, and blood, sweet and smelling of old books, was offered to John’s lips.
It was life and family.
It was music — a symphony more beautiful than anything he had ever heard in his life. It was a song he would live for eternally.