Sarah directed Matthew to hold Rebecca up so that her face was turned to the sky.
“Rebecca Arielle Emily Marthe,” Sarah said, her voice ringing through the clearing, “we welcome you into the world and into our hearts. Go forth with the knowledge that all here will recognize you by this honorable name and hold your life sacred.”
Rebecca Arielle Emily Marthe, the trees and the wind whispered back. I was not the only one to hear it. Amira’s eyes widened, and Margaret Wilson cooed and waved her arms in joy.
Matthew lowered Rebecca, his expression full of love as he looked down on the daughter who resembled him so much. Rebecca reached up and touched his nose with her delicate finger in return, a gesture of connection that filled my heart to bursting.
When it was my turn, I lifted Philip to the sky, offering him to the goddess and the elements of fire, air, earth, and water.
“Philip Michael Addison Sorley,” Sarah said, “we also welcome you into the world and into our hearts. Go forth knowing that all present will recognize you by this honorable name and hold your life sacred.”
The vampires exchanged glances when they heard Philip’s last given name and searched the crowd for Gallowglass. We had chosen Addison because it was my father’s middle name, but Sorley belonged to the absent Gael. I wished he had been able to hear it echo through the trees.
“May Rebecca and Philip bear their names proudly, grow into their promise in the fullness of time, and trust that they will be cherished and protected by all those who have borne witness to the love their parents have for them. Blessed be,” Sarah said, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
It was impossible to find a dry eye in the clearing or to know who was the most moved by the ceremony. Even my normally vocal daughter was awed by the occasion and sucked pensively on her lower lip.
From the clearing we decamped to the church. The vampires walked, beating everybody down the hill. The rest of us used a combination of ATVs and cars with four-wheel drive, which led to much self-congratulation on Matthew’s part as to the wisdom of his automotive preferences.
At the church the crowd of witnesses swelled to include people from the village, and, as on the day of our marriage, the priest was waiting for us at the door.
“Does every Catholic religious ceremony take place in the open air?” I asked, tucking Philip’s blanket more firmly around him.
“A fair few of them,” Fernando replied. “It never made any sense to me, but I am an infidel, after all.”
“Shh,” Marcus warned, eyeing the priest with concern. “Père Antoine is admirably ecumenical and agreed to pass lightly over the usual exorcisms, but let’s not push him. Now, does anyone know the words of the ceremony?”
“I do,” Jack said.
“Me, too,” Miriam said.
“Good. Jack will take Philip, and Miriam will hold Rebecca. You two can do the talking. The rest of us will look attentive and nod when it seems appropriate,” Marcus said, his bonhomie unwavering.
He gave the priest a thumbs-up. “Nous sommes prêts, Père Antoine!”
Matthew took my arm and steered me inside.
“Are they going to be okay?” I whispered. The godparents included only one lonely Catholic, accompanied by a converso, a Baptist, two Presbyterians, one Anglican, three witches, a daemon, and three vampires of uncertain religious persuasion.
“This is a house of prayer, and I beseeched God to watch over them,” Matthew murmured as we took our places near the altar. “Hopefully, He is listening.”
But neither we—nor God—needed to worry. Jack and Miriam answered all the priest’s questions about their faith and the state of the children’s souls in perfect Latin. Philip chortled when the priest blew on his face to expel any evil spirits and objected strenuously when salt was put in his tiny mouth.
Rebecca seemed more interested in Miriam’s long curls, one of which was clenched in her fist.
As for the rest of the godparents, they were a formidable group. Fernando, Marcus, Chris, Marthe, and Sarah (in place of Vivian Harrison, who could not be there) served with Miriam as godparents for Rebecca. Jack, along with Hamish, Phoebe, Sophie, Amira, and Ysabeau (who stood up for her absent grandson Gallowglass) promised to guide and care for Philip. Even for a nonbeliever such as myself, the ancient words spoken by the priest made me feel that these children were going to be looked after and cared for, no matter what might happen.
The ceremony drew to a close, and Matthew visibly relaxed. Père Antoine asked Matthew and me to come forward and take Rebecca and Philip from their godparents. When we faced the congregation for the first time, there was one spontaneous cheer, then another.
“And there’s an end to the covenant!” a unfamiliar vampire said in a loud voice. “About bloody time, too.”
“Hear, hear, Russell,” several murmured in reply.
The bells rang out overhead. My smile turned to laughter as we were caught up in the happiness of the moment.
As usual, that was when everything started to go wrong.
The south door opened, letting in a gust of cold air. A man stood silhouetted against the light. I squinted, trying to make out his features. Throughout the church, vampires seemed to vanish only to reappear in the nave, barring the new arrival from coming any further inside.
I drew closer to Matthew, holding Rebecca tight. The bells fell silent, though the air still reverberated with their final echoes.
“Congratulations, sister.” Baldwin’s deep voice filled the space. “I’ve come to welcome your children into the de Clermont family.”
Matthew drew himself up to his full height. Without a backward look, he handed Philip to Jack and marched down the aisle to his brother.
“Our children are not de Clermonts,” Matthew said coldly. He reached into his jacket and thrust a folded document at Baldwin. “They belong to me.”
The creatures gathered for the christening let out a collective gasp. Ysabeau signaled to Père Antoine, who quickly shepherded the villagers from the church. Then she and Fernando took up watchful positions on either side of Jack and me.
“Surely you don’t expect me to acknowledge a corrupt, diseased branch of this family and give it my blessing and respect?” Baldwin crumpled the document in his fist.
Jack’s eyes blackened at the insult.
“Matthew entrusted Philip to you. You are responsible for your godson,” Ysabeau reminded Jack.
“Do not let Baldwin’s words provoke you to ignore your sire’s wishes.”
Jack drew a deep, shaky breath and nodded. Philip cooed for Jack’s attention, and when he received it, he rewarded his godfather with a frown of concern. When Jack looked up again, his eyes were green and brown once again.
“This hardly seems like friendly behavior to me, Uncle Baldwin,” Marcus said calmly. “Let’s wait and discuss family business after the feast.”
“No, Marcus. We’ll discuss it now and get it over with,” Matthew said, countermanding his son.
In another time and place, Henry VIII’s courtiers had delivered the news of his fifth wife’s infidelity in church so that the king would think twice before killing the messenger. Matthew apparently believed it might keep Baldwin from killing him, too.
When Matthew suddenly appeared behind his brother, having only a moment before been in front, I realized that his decision to remain here was actually intended to protect Baldwin. Matthew, like Henry, would not shed blood on holy ground.
That did not mean, however, that Matthew was going to be entirely merciful. He had his brother in an unbreakable hold, with one long arm wrapped around Baldwin’s neck so that Matthew was grasping his own right bicep. His right hand drove into Baldwin’s shoulder blade with enough force to snap it in two, his expression devoid of emotion and his eyes balanced evenly between gray and black.
“And that is why you never let Matthew Clairmont come up behind you,” one vampire murmured to another.
“Soon it will hurt like hell, too,” his friend replied. “Unless Baldwin blacks out first.”
Wordlessly I passed Rebecca to Miriam. My hands were itching with power, and I hid them in the pockets of my coat. The arrow’s silver shaft felt heavy against my spine, and Corra was on high alert, her wings ready to spring open. After New Haven my familiar didn’t trust Baldwin any more than I did.
Baldwin almost succeeded in overcoming Matthew—or at least I thought he had. Before I could cry out in warning, it became evident that Baldwin’s seeming advantage was only a clever trick by Matthew to lull him into changing his position. When he did, Matthew used Baldwin’s own weight and a quick, bone-cracking kick to his brother’s leg to drop him to his knees. Baldwin let out a strangled grunt.
It was a vivid reminder that though Baldwin might be the bigger man in height and heft, Matthew was the killer.
“Now, sieur. ” Matthew’s arm lifted slightly so that his brother hung by his chin, putting more pressure on his neck. “It would please me if you would reconsider my respectful request to establish a de Clermont scion.”
“Never,” Baldwin gurgled out. His lips were turning blue from lack of oxygen.
“My wife tells me that the word ‘never’ is not to be used where the Bishop-Clairmonts are concerned.” Matthew’s arm tightened, and Baldwin’s eyes began to roll back into his head. “I’m not going to let you pass out, by the way, nor am I going to kill you. If you’re unconscious or dead, you can’t agree to my request. So if you’re determined to keep saying no, you can look forward to many hours of this.”
“Let. Me. Go.” Baldwin struggled to get each word out. Deliberately Matthew let him take a short, gasping breath. It was enough to keep the vampire going but not to permit him to recover.
“Let me go, Baldwin. After all these years, I want to be something more than the de Clermont family’s black sheep,” Matthew murmured.
“No,” Baldwin said thickly.
Matthew adjusted his arm so that his brother could get out more than a word or two at a time, though this still didn’t remove the bluish cast from his lips. Matthew took the wise precaution of driving the heel of his shoe into his brother’s ankle in case Baldwin planned on using the extra oxygen to fight back. Baldwin howled.
“Take Rebecca and Philip back to Sept-Tours,” I told Miriam, pushing up my sleeves. I didn’t want them to see their father like this. Nor did I want them to see their mother use magic against a member of their family. The wind picked up around my feet, swirling the dust in the church into miniature tornadoes. The flames in the candelabrum danced, ready to do my bidding, and the water in the baptismal font began to bubble.
“Release me and mine, Baldwin,” Matthew said. “You don’t want us anyway.”
“Might . . . need . . . you. My. . . . killer . . . after . . . all,” Baldwin replied.
The church erupted into shocked exclamations and whispered exchanges as this de Clermont secret was openly mentioned, though I was sure that some present knew the role Matthew had played in the family.
“Do your own dirty work for a change,” Matthew said. “God knows you’re as capable of murder as I am.”
“You. Different. Twins. Have blood rage. Too?” Baldwin bit out.
The assembled guests fell silent.
“Blood rage?” A vampire’s voice cut through the quiet, his Irish accent slight but noticeable. “What is he talking about, Matthew?”
The vampires in the church traded worried glances as the murmur of conversation resumed. Blood rage was clearly more than they had bargained for when they’d accepted Marcus’s invitation. Fighting the Congregation and protecting vampire-witch children was one thing. A disease that might transform you into a bloodthirsty monster was quite another.
“Baldwin told you true, Giles. My blood is tainted,” Matthew said. His eyes locked with mine, the pupils slightly enlarged. Leave while you can, they silently urged.
But this time Matthew would not be alone. I pushed my way past Ysabeau and Fernando and headed for my husband’s side.
“That means Marcus . . .” Giles trailed off. His eyes narrowed. “We cannot allow the Knights of Lazarus to be led by someone with blood rage. It is impossible.”
“Don’t be such a bloody lobcock,” the vampire next to Giles said in a crisp British accent.
“Matthew’s already been Grand Master, and we were none the wiser. In fact, if memory serves, Matthew was an uncommonly good commander of the brotherhood in more than one tricky situation. I believe that Marcus, though a rebel and a traitor, shows promise as well.” The vampire smiled, but his nod toward Marcus was respectful.
“Thank you, Russell,” Marcus said. “Coming from you, that’s a compliment.”
“Terribly sorry about the brotherhood slip, Miriam,” Russell said with a wink. “And I’m no physician, but I do believe that Matthew is about to render Baldwin unconscious.”
Matthew adjusted his arm slightly, and Baldwin’s eyeballs returned to their normal position.
“My father’s blood rage is under control. There’s no reason for us to act out of fear and superstition,” Marcus said, addressing everyone in the church. “The Knights of Lazarus were founded to protect the vulnerable. Every member of the order swore an oath to defend all his or her fellow knights to the death. I needn’t remind anyone here that Matthew is a knight. So, too, are his children.”
The need for an infant investiture for Rebecca and Philip made sense now.
“So what do you say, Uncle?” Marcus strode down the aisle to stand before Baldwin and Matthew.