"Why not leave this alone, Juliette?" Matthew caught me in his cool grip.
"I must learn from my mistakes-Gerbert's been saying so since you abandoned me in New York." Juliette focused on Matthew with an avidity that made my flesh crawl.
"That was more than a hundred years ago. If you haven't learned your mistake by now, you're not going to." Though Matthew's anger was not directed at me, its power made me recoil nonetheless. He was simmering with it, the rage coming from him in waves.
Juliette's nails cut into my arm. "Kiss her, Matthew, or I wil make her bleed."
Cupping my face with one careful, gentle hand, he struggled to push up the corners of his mouth into a smile.
"It wil be al right, mon coeur." Matthew's pupils were dots in a sea of gray-green. One thumb stroked my jaw as he bent nearer, his lips nearly touching mine. His kiss was slow and tender, a testament of feeling. Juliette stared at us coldly, drinking in the details. She crept closer as Matthew drew away from me.
"Ah." Her voice was blank and bitter. "You like the way she responds when you touch her. But I can't feel anymore."
I'd seen Ysabeau's anger and Baldwin's ruthlessness. I'd felt Domenico's desperation and smel ed the unmistakable scent of evil that hung around Gerbert. But Juliette was different. Something fundamental was broken within her.
She released my arm and sprang out of Matthew's reach. His hands squeezed my elbows, and his cold fingers touched my hips. With an infinitesimal push, Matthew gave me another silent command to leave.
But I had no intention of leaving my husband alone with a psychotic vampire. Deep within, something stirred. Though neither witchwind nor witchwater would be enough to kil Juliette, they might distract her long enough for us to get away-but both refused my unspoken commands. And any spel s I had learned over the past few days, no matter how imperfectly, had flown from my mind.
"Don't worry," Juliette said softly to Matthew, her eyes bright. "It wil be over very quickly. I would like to linger, of course, so that we could remember what we once were to each other. But none of my touches wil drive her from your mind. Therefore I must kil you and take your witch to face Gerbert and the Congregation."
"Let Diana go." Matthew raised his hands in truce. "This is between us, Juliette."
She shook her head, setting her heavy, burnished hair swaying. "I'm Gerbert's instrument, Matthew. When he made me, he left no room for my desires. I didn't want to learn philosophy or mathematics. But Gerbert insisted, so that I could please you. And I did please you, didn't I?"
Juliette's attention was fixed on Matthew, and her voice was as rough as the fault lines in her broken mind.
"Yes, you pleased me."
"I thought so. But Gerbert already owned me." Juliette's eyes turned to me. They were bril iant, suggesting she had fed recently. "He wil possess you, too, Diana, in ways you cannot imagine. In ways only I know. You'l be his, then, and lost to everyone else."
"No." Matthew lunged at Juliette, but she darted past.
"This is no time for games, Matthew," said Juliette.
She moved quickly-too quickly for my eyes to see- then pul ed slowly away from him with a look of triumph.
There was a ripping sound, and blood wel ed darkly at his throat.
"That wil do for a start," she said with satisfaction.
There was a roaring in my head. Matthew stepped between me and Juliette. Even my imperfect warmblood nose could smel the metal ic tang of his blood. It was soaking into his sweater, spreading in a dark stain across his chest.
"Don't do this, Juliette. If you ever loved me, you'l let her go. She doesn't deserve Gerbert."
Juliette answered in a blur of brown leather and muscle.
Her leg swung high, and there was a crack as her foot connected with Matthew's abdomen. He bent over like a fel ed tree.
"I didn't deserve Gerbert either." There was a hysterical edge to Juliette's voice. "But I deserved you. You belong to me, Matthew."
My hands felt heavy, and I knew without looking that they held a bow and arrow. I backed away from the two vampires, raising my arms.
"Run!" Matthew shouted.
"No," I said in a voice that was not my own, squinting down the line of my left arm. Juliette was close to Matthew, but I could release the arrow without touching him. When my right hand flexed, Juliette would be dead. Stil , I hesitated, never having kil ed anyone before That moment was al Juliette needed. Her fingers punched through Matthew's chest, nails tearing through fabric and flesh as if both were paper. He gasped at the pain, and Juliette roared in victory.
Al hesitation gone, my right hand tightened and opened.
A bal of fire arced from the extended tips of my left fingers.
Juliette heard the explosion of flame and smel ed the sulfur in the air. She turned, her nails withdrawing from the hole in Matthew's chest. Disbelief showed in her eyes before the spitting bal of black, gold, and red enveloped her. Her hair caught fire first, and she reeled in panic. But I had anticipated her, and another bal of flame was waiting. She stepped right into it.
Matthew dropped to his knees, his hands pressing the blood-soaked sweater into the spot where she had punctured the skin over his heart. Screaming, Juliette reached out, trying to draw him into the inferno.
At a flick of my wrist and a word to the wind, she was picked up and carried several feet from where Matthew was col apsing into the earth. She fel onto her back, her body alight.
I wanted to run to him but continued to watch Juliette as her vampire bones and flesh resisted the flames. Her hair was gone and her skin was black and leathery, but even then she wasn't dead. Her mouth kept moving, cal ing Matthew's name.
My hands remained raised, ready for her to defy the odds. She lumbered to her feet once, and I released another bolt. It hit her in the middle of the chest, went through her rib cage, and came out the other side, shattering the tough skin as it passed and turning her ribs and lungs to coal. Her mouth twisted into a rictus of horror.
She was beyond recovery now, no matter the strength of her vampire blood.
I rushed to Matthew's side and dropped to the ground.
He could no longer keep himself upright and was lying on his back, knees bent. There was blood everywhere, pulsing out of the hole in his chest in deep purple waves and flowing more evenly from his neck, so dark it was like pitch.
"What should I do?" I frantical y pressed my fingers against his throat. His white hands were stil locked around the wound in his chest, but the strength was leaching out of them with each passing moment.
"Wil you hold me?" he whispered.
My back to the oak tree, I pul ed him between my legs.
"I'm cold," he said with dul amazement. "How strange."
"You can't leave me," I said fiercely. "I won't have it."
"There's nothing to be done about that now. Death has me in his grip." Matthew was talking in a way that had not been heard in a thousand years, his fading voice rising and fal ing in an ancient cadence.
"No." I fought back my tears. "You have to fight, Matthew."
"I have fought, Diana. And you are safe. Marcus wil have you away from here before the Congregation knows what has happened."
"I won't go anywhere without you."
"You must." He struggled in my arms, shifting so that he could see my face.
"I can't lose you, Matthew. Please hold on until Marcus gets here." The chain inside me swayed, its links loosening one by one. I tried to resist by keeping him tight against my heart.
"Hush," he said softly, raising a bloody finger to touch my lips. They tingled and went numb as his freezing blood came into contact with my skin. "Marcus and Baldwin know what to do. They wil see you safe to Ysabeau. Without me the Congregation wil find it harder to act against you. The vampires and witches wil not like it, but you are a de Clermont now, with my family's protection as wel as that of the Knights of Lazarus."
"Stay with me, Matthew." I bent my head and pressed my lips against his, wil ing him to keep breathing. He did- barely-but his eyelids had closed.
"From birth I have searched for you," Matthew whispered with a smile, his accent strongly French. "Since finding you I have been able to hold you in my arms, have heard your heart beat against mine. It would have been a terrible thing to die without knowing what it feels like to truly love." Tiny shudders swept over him from head to toe and then subsided.
"Matthew!" I cried, but he could no longer respond.
"Marcus!" I screamed into the trees, praying to the goddess al the while. By the time his son reached us, I'd already thought several times that Matthew was dead.
"Holy God," Marcus said, taking in Juliette's charred body and Matthew's bloody form.
"The bleeding won't stop," I said. "Where is it al coming from?"
"I need to examine him to know, Diana." Marcus took a tentative step toward me.
Tightening my arms around my husband, I felt my eyes turn cold. The wind began to rise where I sat.
"I'm not asking you to let go of him," Marcus said, instinctively understanding the problem, "but I have to look at his chest."
He crouched next to us and tore gently at his father's black sweater. With a horrible rending noise, the fabric gave way. A long gash crossed from Matthew's jugular vein to his heart. Next to the heart was a deep gouge where Juliette had tried to punch through to the aorta.
"The jugular is nearly severed, and the aorta has been damaged. Not even Matthew's blood can work fast enough to heal him in both places." Marcus spoke quietly, but he didn't need to speak at al . Juliette had given Matthew a death blow.
My aunts were here now, Sarah puffing slightly. Miriam appeared, white-faced, behind them. After only a glance, she turned on her heel, dashing back to the house.
"It's my fault." I sobbed, rocking Matthew like a child. "I had a clear shot, but I hesitated. I've never kil ed anyone before. She wouldn't have reached his heart if I'd acted sooner."
"Diana, baby," Sarah whispered. "It's not your fault. You did what you could. You're going to have to let him go."
I made a keening sound, and my hair rose up around my face. "No!" Fear bloomed in the eyes of vampire and witch as the forest grew quiet.
"Get away from her, Marcus!" shouted Em. He jumped backward just in time.
I'd become someone-something-who didn't care about these creatures, or that they were trying to help. It had been a mistake to hesitate before. Now the part of me that had kil ed Juliette was intent on only one thing: a knife. My right arm shot out toward my aunt.
Sarah always had two blades on her, one dul and black- handled, the other sharp and white-handled. At my cal the white blade cut through her belt and flew at me point first.
Sarah put up a hand to cal it back, and I imagined a wal of blackness and fire between me and the surprised faces of my family. The white-handled knife sliced easily through the blackness and floated gently down near my bent right knee.
Matthew's head lol ed as I released him just enough to grasp the hilt.
Turning his face gently toward mine, I kissed his mouth long and hard. His eyes fluttered open. He looked so tired, and his skin was gray.
"Don't worry, my love. I'm going to fix it." I raised the knife.
Two women were standing inside the barrier of flames.
One was young and wore a loose tunic, with sandals on her feet and a quiver of arrows slung across her shoulders. The strap was tangled up in her hair, which was dark and thick.
The other was the old lady from the keeping room, her ful skirt swaying.
"Help me," I begged.
There will be a price, the young huntress said.
"I wil pay it."
Don't make a promise to the goddess lightly, daughter, the old woman murmured with a shake of her head. You'll have to keep it.
"Take anything-take anyone. But leave me him."
The huntress considered my offer and nodded. He is yours.
My eyes were on the two women as I raised the knife.
Twisting Matthew closer to my body so that he couldn't see, I reached across and slashed the inside of my left elbow, the sharp blade cutting easily through fabric and flesh. My blood flowed, a trickle at first, then faster. I dropped the knife and tightened my left arm until it was in front of his mouth.
"Drink," I said, steadying his head. Matthew's eyelids flickered again, and his nostrils flared. He recognized the scent of my blood and struggled to get away. My arms were heavy and strong as oak branches, connected to the tree at my back. I drew my open, bleeding elbow a fraction closer to his mouth. "Drink."
The power of the tree and the earth flowed through my veins, an unexpected offering of life to a vampire on the verge of death. I smiled in gratitude at the huntress and the ghost of the old woman, nourishing Matthew with my body. I was the mother now, the third aspect of the goddess along with the maiden and the crone. With the goddess's help, my blood would heal him.
Final y Matthew succumbed to the instinct to survive. His mouth fastened onto the soft skin of my inner arm, teeth sharp. His tongue lightly probed the ragged incision, pul ing the gash in my skin wider. He drew long and hard against my veins. I felt a short, sharp burst of terror.
His skin began to lose some of its pal or, but venous blood would not be enough to heal him completely. I was hoping that a taste of me would drive him beyond his normal range of control so that he would take the next step, but I felt for the white-handled knife just in case.
Giving the huntress and the witch one last look, I returned my attention to my husband. Another shock of power ran into my body as I settled more firmly against the tree.
While he fed, I began to kiss him. My hair fel around his face, mixing my familiar scent with that of his blood and mine. He turned his eyes to me, pale green and distant, as if he weren't sure of my identity. I kissed him again, tasting my own blood on his tongue.
In two fast, smooth moves that I couldn't have stopped even had I wanted to, Matthew grabbed the hair at the nape of my neck. He tilted my head back and to the side, then lowered his mouth to my throat. There was no terror then, just surrender.
"Diana," he said with complete satisfaction.
So this is how it happens, I thought. This is where the legends come from.
My spent, used blood had given him the strength to want something fresh and vital. Matthew's sharp upper teeth cut into his lower lip, and a bead formed there. His lips brushed my neck, sensuous and swift. I shivered, unexpectedly aroused at his touch. My skin went numb as his blood touched my flesh. He held my head firmly, his hands once again strong.
No mistakes, I prayed.
There were tiny pricks along my carotid arteries. My eyes opened wide in surprise when the first drawing pressure told me Matthew had reached the blood he sought.
Sarah turned away, unable to watch. Marcus reached for Em, and she went to him without hesitation, crying into his shoulder.
I pressed Matthew's body into mine, encouraging him to drink more deeply. His relish when he did so was evident.
How he'd hungered for me, and how strong he'd been to resist.
Matthew settled into the rhythms of his feeding, pul ing on my blood in waves.
Matthew, listen to me. Thanks to Gerbert, I knew that my blood would carry messages to him. My only worry was that they would be fleeting, and my power to communicate would be swal owed up.
He startled against my throat, then resumed his feeding.
I love you.
He gave another start of surprise.
This was my gift. I am inside you, giving you life.
Matthew shook his head as if to dislodge an annoying insect and kept drinking.
I am inside you, giving you life. It was harder to think, harder to see through the fire. I focused on Em and Sarah, tried to tel them with my eyes not to worry. I looked for Marcus, too, but couldn't move my eyes enough to find him.
I am inside you, giving you life. I repeated the mantra until it was no longer possible.
There was a slow pulsing, the sound of my heart starting to die.
Dying was nothing at al like I'd expected it to be.
There was a moment of bone-deep quiet.
A sense of parting and regret.