Vampire queen 8 bound.., p.25

Vampire Queen 8 - Bound by the Vampire Queen - Joey W Hill, page 25

 

Vampire Queen 8 - Bound by the Vampire Queen - Joey W Hill
 



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  They were prepared to their attendants’ satisfaction, and it was time to go. Taking Jacob’s offered arm, she let him lead her from the room, the two of them moving down the winding staircase.

  Though she was aware of his quiet scrutiny, she couldn’t push the memories back.

  From the first, she’d known Kane wasn’t the incarnation of her daughter. The near-term fetus had been delicate and soft, so feminine and sensitive.

  For all that he was an infant, Kane was a bowling bal of testosterone. But she’d wondered if Kane, when in the Hal of Souls, had touched her little hand.

  Of course such thoughts were fanciful and maudlin, for the soul of that long ago baby had certainly gone into the body of some other fetus, hopefully to be born in better times. Born to a mother who’d gotten to hold her, live, hale and hearty, with kicking feet and a scrunched-up face, squalling irritation at being so rudely born. Not still, like a little ghost in the womb.

  She’d stopped on the stairs, was staring vacantly out an open window on the staircase. As she focused, she saw an array of luminaires had been strung along the drawbridge. Similar decorations outlined all the castles, with the exception of the Castle of Fire, of course, though she noted the fire had myriad colors tonight and the flame was more animated, jumping high and swirling out wide in fanciful shapes, like a light show.

  “My lady.” Jacob slid his arm around her, picking up the tone of her thoughts.

  I’m all right. She nodded, acknowledging the comfort. Those who lived much shorter lifespans assumed the past grew dim after a while. That memories didn’t have as much power to hurt. That was true, somewhere in the middle of one’s life. But as the years accumulated, they came back with a renewed power. Though they didn’t hurt the same way, poignant regret was there, more sharp. The desire to reach back and change things increased.

  Giving her a look of quiet understanding, he offered his raised hand, in true courtier fashion. She laid hers upon it, tightening her fingers on his knuckles, and let him lead her down the staircase to the main hall. The tables were set, the decorations a profusion of autumn color. Ice sculptures that looked like Fae maidens, undines, satyrs and other dancing creatures glistened, thanks to the gentle light of the three candelabras hung from stout chain. Hawthorne, ash and rowan branches were woven into the black wood frames, dotted with the gold, red and brown colors of flowers appropriate to the season.

  As they moved out into the courtyard, they found the Queen’s Guard had dressed for this event as well. Jacob drew her to the wall so they could safely survey all the activity. They were meeting up with the main Unseelie host out on the front field before the castle, but well over a hundred of the males were getting mounted up here and it was a sight not to be missed.

  The guards were all on black horses tonight, painted with white, skeleton-like slashes along the flanks and neck. Through some magic, the horses’ hooves appeared to be wreathed with flame, though the creatures seemed unconcerned by what would spook a normal animal. Their riders were dressed all in black, with long cloaks and silver painted faces, which made their expressions seem remote and eerie.

  In the center of that formation, she saw a handful of younger Fae, perhaps the ages of her earlier group.

  They were dressed in a variety of masks and scary costumes like she’d seen sold at the pavilions.

  When she and Jacob arrived, they were cavorting about the courtyard, laughing and loud, but at a sharp word from Cayden’s lieutenant, they settled into an open carriage. A pair of black centaurs took up the yoke, bearing breastplates with the queen’s dragon insignia. Apparently, this small group of young had been awarded the privilege of accompanying the Haunt, but only with close supervision.

  Lyssa saw Keldwyn, striding out of another corridor. He was also all in black, but wore an elaborate mask of layered feathers that fanned out in rust and gold colors, accentuating the stern lips and firm chin. His dark hair was clasped at his nape and, as he turned his head, she saw the clasp was a silver skull.

  She didn’t see Cayden, which was surprising, since Rhoswen made her appearance next. She rode out of the stables on a white charger painted in black slashes, the mirror opposite of her escort.

  When her eyes settled on the Fae young, her expression cool, they immediately became even more somber and well behaved.

  “The Lady in White,” Jacob murmured, his hand tightening on Lyssa’s. “Jesus.”

  The queen of the Unseelie was garbed in a creation of white silk that turned her into a ghost with her pale face. Her long skeins of white hair were unbound so the ends spread over the blanket on the rump of her charger. She had those sparkles of snow and starlight upon her skin, as did her antlered headdress.

  A belt made of heavy chain rested low on her hips, the excess of it running up to a set of loose manacles she bore on her wrists. She looked ready to drag some unsuspecting mortal back to the Fae world against his will , pul ed behind her horse in those chains.

  She made her way past the assembled guard.

  They sat straight and expressionless as her gaze passed over them, assessing. When at last she reached the lieutenant, she nodded. Though his expression didn’t change, it was obvious the minimalist praise was the equivalent of a roaring accolade to him.

  As she continued toward the drawbridge, the guard fell in line behind her, the center carriage with them. Seeing several others of the high court on foot, walking out behind the formation, Jacob and Lyssa accompanied them, moving to the drawbridge and beyond to join the main host of the Unseelie entourage. The high court members drifted over toward outfitted horses being held patiently by castle stablehands, but Lyssa and Jacob were caught by the spectacle of the waiting cavalcade—and the sudden sharp screeches that split the darkening night.

  Lyssa found the banshees, long, thin-bodied creatures draped on the shoulders of several giants in the procession. The banshees looked much like normal men or women, though their eyes were luminous gold, and they all seemed to have burnished red hair.

  Harpies winged swiftly up and back, reminding her of her own batlike way of flying as they took teasing passes over the heads of the others. They looked much like the stories, with skeletal faces, burning dark eyes and long, grasping fingers, their gray hair streaming out behind them as they turned and rolled in the air, impressive aerial maneuvers in a sky already populated by hippogriffs, griffins, dragons and phoenixes.

  Interestingly, there was also a large murder of crows. The black, glossy-feathered creatures collected on the branches of nearby trees, making a substantial cacophony when not taking flight in sudden explosions of synchronized movement around the other flying folk.

  Beneath the spreading branches of the oaks the crows seemed to favor, Lyssa saw a woman even more pale skinned and white haired than Rhoswen.

  She was in a silver sleigh drawn by a foursome of horses. The sleigh seemed to be made entirely of ice.

  “The Snow Queen,” Jacob murmured. “She coaxes a child into the sleigh with her, and then takes him to her castle of ice. To make him her own child, she erases the memory of the parents from his mind.”

  “Remind me to never let Kane go out in the snow,” she responded.

  The trolls and ogres were banded together in a tight group. Viewing their round, glittering eyes and broad faces, Lyssa realized a happy-looking ogre was downright disturbing. Yips and bays announced the arrival of the hell hounds. Their handlers were a satyr and a centaur. Instead of straddling the centaur, the satyr squatted on his back on shaggy haunches and cloven hoofs. Though he had a steadying hand tented on the centaur’s withers, it was obvious they were companions, not mount and rider. The satyr made a short, musical trill on his pipe, bringing the hounds back to mill around them. Before that, they’d been running about, slathering on any person who let them jump up on them. Their red eyes glowed, long, curved fangs glistening with drool. It made Lyssa miss Bran and his siblings.

  It was awe-inspiring, magnificent, macabre. As several shado
wlike creatures passed them, she drew in a quick breath at a blast of icy wind. An overwhelming sense of desolation came with it.

  Jacob drew her close, giving her his warmth. “The Gaoth Shee,” he said. “Sometimes, when you pass over a fairy line in the mortal world, you'll feel their touch. And when you do, the lore is you suffer a malady soon thereafter, like a stroke. I assume we’re immune.”

  “Let’s hope.” It reminded Lyssa that, despite the festive air tonight, there were other, far darker things happening. When she studied her half sister’s serious face, her intent scrutiny of everyone in the procession, she realized Rhoswen didn’t consider this a night of mirth at all. She wanted to terrify the mortal world. She wanted them scurrying back into the safety of their homes, not venturing into dark, old sections of forests and other places where they might find their way into her world. Tonight had a deadly, determined purpose.

  As such, when Rhoswen raised her hand, Lyssa wasn’t at all surprised that the assembled fell silent within seconds, all their playful antics vanishing. They were about to become the creatures of the night, the vengeful spirits that humans feared, the things that exploited a mortal’s deepest terrors. It was the Ichabod Crane legends coming to life. And afterward, they would come back here to feast and play, their hard work done.

  Rhoswen met her gaze, gave her a slight, impartial nod. Her horse bent his noble head restlessly, shaking the snow out of his mane, nostrils flaring with mist from the frost that emanated from his Mistress. When Rhoswen spoke, she raised her voice, making it clear her address was for a public audience.

  “Our visitor will need a proper mount to ride with the Seelie king tonight.”

  A lovely palfrey was led from a pavilion on the lawn. The mare was decorated with ropes of greenery and lavender flowers in her dapple gray mane. Lavender embroidered silk was cinched with braided ribbon over a saddle pad. The reins were likewise tangled with a trail of lavender and green ribbon.

  “Thank you, Your Majesty.” Lyssa nodded to her.

  “A lovely mare. I hope my servant’s mount is not as gentle, however. He is quite a horseman, and likes to be challenged.”

  Apparently enough was known of the queen’s intentions for the second quest that Lyssa’s words surprised a chuckle out of a member or two of the Guard. The lieutenant’s sharp glance brought them in line.

  “It is our pleasure to accommodate him.” Rhoswen’s voice had that silver, brittle sound that resonated off the trees, off the silence of the listening Fae. Not even a horse shifted with restless impatience. “Like a faithful hound, he goes whither you goest, right?”

  An outraged whinny came from the pavilion, a thud of hooved feet. The side of the pavilion shuddered, as if a support had been kicked, and then Cayden was leading out Jacob’s mount, using all of his strength to control the creature.

  The massive black stallion was built like a draft horse, with powerful withers and thick neck. Glowing red eyes glared at the gathering. The high court, whom Lyssa assumed contained many Fae of considerable power, drew back apprehensively as the horse surged forward and then was forced by Cayden’s quickness to swing his haunches around in a circle. He kicked, causing the nearer Fae to draw back farther.

  Lyssa’s brow rose as the horse snorted, producing two short gouts of flame that dissipated with wisps of smoke, like a dragon. This horse had no tack except a bridle and cinch. Instead of flowers or strands of jewels in his long mane, he had tangles of seaweed and shells. As he swung around, Lyssa smell ed the ocean coming off his damp, heated skin.

  The steed’s front legs were hobbled, forcing the horse to move at an awkward, hopping gait. When she saw Jacob looking at the headpiece, his expression darkening, she realized a bearing rein was holding the horse’s head at a painful upright angle. The discomfort and restraint prevented him from dropping and bucking.

  Jacob had been the master of horse at the Ren Faire, and she knew well how he felt about seeing one mistreated.

  Easy, Jacob. There’s more here than meets the eye.

  “A water horse is a very difficult horse to catch.

  Impossible to ride, unless you wish to ride to your death.”

  At the sound of Rhoswen’s voice, the horse let out another shrill , bloodcurdling cry. Cayden shifted with the stallion once more, narrowly avoiding having his skull crushed with a swing of the massive head.

  Oh, lovely fucking Christ. A kelpie.

  Lyssa glanced at Jacob. From the set of his jaw, it appeared the situation was far beyond optimal.

  Perhaps even in the realm of hopeless impossibility.

  Ah, my lady, there is no such thing as hopeless around you. Impossible, yes; hopeless, no. He gave her that warm look he did so well, though it was laced with tension.

  “Mortal legend claims a waterhorse coaxes children onto his back,” Rhoswen said. “Then he races away, plunges into a loch and drowns them. It is believed he has a strong binding magic to keep them on his back until the last breath leaves them.” The Fae queen considered the creature, the brutal effort he was expending, trying to stomp her guard captain into the ground. “Since the bodies were rarely found, it was also suggested that the horse took them to the Fae world. Or ate them, once he had them below the surface of the water.” She shrugged. “Only the waterhorses know for sure.

  Even the Fae are wary of them, as you can see. The Irish called them kelpie. Right, Irishman?”

  “Aye. And the Scottish called them each uisge.” When Jacob looked toward the queen, Lyssa saw his blue eyes were almost as cold as Rhoswen’s.

  “To be feared… and respected.”

  “Supposedly, if you have the kelpie’s halter or bridle, he has to obey your will .” Rhoswen gave Jacob a tight smile. “As far as we know, Firewind has no such weakness. He despises most Fae, let alone humans. He won’t tolerate a vampire on his back at all. Perhaps because he feeds on blood and doesn’t like the competition. However, if you do manage to get on his back, be careful of the unique trait he inherited from his sire, Firebreather.” She lifted her hand toward the horse, gave a sharp command that was reinforced by a flicker of magical energy. Jacob started forward, but Lyssa caught his arm. Firewind’s head snapped around, long ears pinning back as his malevolent expression intensified. A wreath of flame erupted from his withers and, in a dramatic sweep, encased him from neck to tail, the long black strands like a flame-covered flogger as he lashed them over his haunches. Cayden had his hand on the bridle’s cheek piece, avoiding the fire. Then the flame vanished and Firewind made another valiant attempt to get his hooves off the ground.

  “Ride him in the Hunt,” Rhoswen said, fixing her eyes back on Jacob. “That is the second quest. If you do not succeed, or if you don’t dare to try, your lady has failed the Gauntlet, per your failure as her champion, and her fate rests wholly in my hands.

  Since I know you are as full of pointless nobility as Firewind is of flame, I expect you will immolate yourself. But try not to singe your fine backside, vampire. Some things should remain sacred.” Rhoswen turned her attention to Lyssa. “You will ride with me at the head of the procession. We proceed to the rendezvous point with the Seelie court. Your servant will join us, or not.” The stablehand holding Lyssa’s palfrey moved forward, presenting a hand to help her on the steed.

  Lyssa turned her gaze to Jacob. Sir Vagabond?

  “I'll catch up,” Jacob told her. He gave her a wink, though there was no such affability in his gaze. His mind was already concentrated on the task ahead because, of course, it wouldn’t occur to him to do anything but try, just as Rhoswen said.

  Lyssa nodded. She accepted the stablehand’s help onto the mount with the brief press of hands on her waist, since mounting with a dress train was not an easy task for any species, Fae or vampire. She caught a brief flash of surprise on Rhoswen’s face at her detachment, but she couldn’t feel any smug satisfaction. For one thing, looking serene and unconcerned was taking all her effort. As she bent her knee over her mare’s withers in a sid
esaddle position, she saw Jacob take two steps toward Cayden.

  “Looks like you’re a little out of your depth, Captain. Ready to turn him over to me?” For Jacob’s thirtieth birthday, she’d surprised him with a visit to the particular Ren Faire that had been his home for a couple years. They’d invited him to rejoin the jousting that night. Vividly, she remembered how he’d swung up on the back of a horse, no stirrups, just holding a handful of mane.

  The moment his fine ass had touched the horse’s back—she and Rhoswen at least agreed on that— he’d become part of that horse’s body.

  The horse he’d ridden that night, Boudiceaa, had been a badly abused mare who’d become the Faire’s top attraction because he’d taught her to trust again.

  She held on to that memory to reassure herself as she calmed her own mount. Firewind had managed to agitate most of the horses in the procession. It gave her an extra moment to linger, watch Jacob move toward that monster. As he did, he was loosening his shoulders, his gait. He tilted his head, cracking his neck with an audible pop that made several of the Fae flinch in surprise.

  When he was four steps away from the kelpie, he nodded to Cayden. “Let him go.”

  She had accelerated senses, but the ability was not the same for all Fae. Some seemed surprised to see Jacob standing where Cayden had been a moment before. As the captain moved out of range, the kelpie screamed his rage and twisted around, pivoting with over a thousand pounds of muscle at his disposal to crush whoever was offending him.

  Though the creature was moving even more swiftly than he had with Cayden, his frustration mounting to berserker level, her servant was staying a step or two ahead of the horse. He made the rapid turns with him, an odd merry-go-round of twisting, dangerous movement.

  “Mount up,” Cayden called out as if nothing dramatic was occurring. “The queen is departing.” Lyssa started as a guardsman’s hand landed on her bridle and led her horse toward the front of the procession. From that vantage point, she couldn’t keep her eyes on Jacob unless she twisted around in her saddle. Rhoswen wanted her to appear agitated and concerned, she knew. While she could be in Jacob’s mind—in fact, she was in it now, amazed by the instinctual flow of counter reaction toward the horse, as natural as a swift river current— it was not the same as being able to watch him. She needed to withdraw from his head, because if he did get in a difficult position, an agitated reaction on her part, even internally, would be a distraction he could ill afford. Damn it.

 
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