The Buccaneer Chronicles:
By Karen Dunn (Despite Interference by Keith Dunn, Andy Simpkins, Adam J Purcell and Tony Gallichan)
Chapter Nine - The Cruelty
"He's looking at her again.
I swear to God, if he gives her that stupid grin one more time I will slap him.
It doesn't help that she has turned on the 'little girl lost' charm - all eyelashes and shy smiles - that makes the poor sap think she needs looking after.
We've been walking for a while now and I can see the first houses of the town through the trees.
I've been trying to concentrate on what Rafe is telling me - vampires preying on his people for more than 100 years - but all I can see is Blanche and Marco walking in front of us making eyes at one another and 'accidentally' brushing shoulders every few paces.
It brings out the big brother in me, and my over-protective streak is likely to get him thumped.
I've never seen her like this before. Sure, she'll flirt with anything that has a pulse and walks upright, but this is different. We met these guys 30 minutes ago - by now she usually has a string of phone numbers and a declaration of undying love from some doe-eyed fool who thinks she'll come home with him and meet his mother.
Perhaps it's just because we're in the middle of a forest; perhaps it's the floppy hair - women love floppy hair - but she seems perfectly happy to trot along next to this guy and chat about everything from the stars in the sky to the first flakes of snow that are fluttering round our ears.
It's almost innocent. It's not normal.
Pay attention...pay attention...
Mac will want to know the ins and outs of what these guys are about and I can't afford to get distracted.
When we left that Matthias skunk, Rafe sent one of his men ahead while the other hung back 10 yards, covering our rear.
They are obviously a professional outfit, but besides Rafe none of them look old enough to have been through any decent level of training.
I asked Rafe how many men he has to fight the vampires and he just smiled and raised an eyebrow. 'You're looking at them,' he said, and laughed when my answer got no further than 'Oh'.
There's a big chief vamp called Stackmore, apparently. Mac will want to know about him. But it's this Eleanor I want to meet.
Rafe seems a decent sort and he speaks highly of her without actually giving anything away about who she is and what she's up to.
I must be sure to take in as much information as possible. Mac's not the only observant one.
He's touching her arm now, guiding her attention to some rodent that has just scampered across the track in front of us, and she's laughing at whatever it is he just whispered in her ear.
When we get back to the Ship - whenever Mac has wandered into town and helped Eleanor win whatever fight it is she needs help with - young Blanche and I are going to have a very long chat.
And if she giggles at that jumped up yob one more time..."
She jumped at Colin's sharp tone and turned to look at him, "What?"
The soldier glared at her, embarrassed that he had shouted, annoyed at the blush that he could feel creeping up his neck.
He gestured vaguely at the forest around them, "Keep your eyes on the road. How many times have I told you, you have to be aware of your surroundings?"
Blanche frowned at him then exchanged a smirk with Marco. Silently counting on her fingers with a look of exaggerated concentration on her face, she grinned and said, "Including all the other times you've told me? Once."
Marco gave a bark of laughter and the pair turned away from Colin and continued walking.
Rafe chuckled and clapped the fuming soldier on the back, "Look at it this way - you're armed to the teeth but you let her live. Sign of a real man, that is."
Colin grumbled and shot his new friend a glare.
The snow looked like it was considering turning into a blizzard and he had left his hat and gloves back at the Ship.
Blowing on his hands he glanced at the forest around them, his imagination summoning hidden creatures to tear Marco limb from limb.
Not that he was jealous - that was ridiculous. Blanche was like a little sister to him and he was just looking out for her welfare.
A mop-haired vampire slayer with a little boy smile and eyes that were far too dark to be normal was not his idea of a suitable boyfriend.
Besides, if events ran true, they would be off this world and back to normal space within a day or two. And Marco certainly wasn't joining the crew.
Mac wouldn't allow it...
Wiping away an errant snowflake that had settled on the end of his nose, Colin peered through the encroaching gloom at the young couple ahead of him.
Marco had slipped out of his coat and wrapped it around Blanche's shoulders to keep her warm.
She was smiling up at him as he chatted his way through some pointless tale or other, snuggling deep into the coat as if it were a 35-tog duvet.
Colin snorted and glared daggers at the back of Marco's head. Despite his best efforts, it didn't explode.
When the forest parted before them, branches unravelling to expose the town nestled ahead, it almost took Colin's breath away and for a moment he forgot that he was supposed to be angry at the world.
It was like looking at a picture postcard.
The gently falling snow bright in the moonlight, the snug little houses with their thatched roofs dotted higgledy-piggledy along the length of the cobbled street, the clock tower jutting up from the town square - it was like stepping back into the Victorian age.
Colin loved it on sight.
If the moment ever came when Mac lost his patience once too often and told him to pick a time and place in which to be abandoned, this is where he would choose. It was beautiful.
There was even a pub! He could see a fire flickering in the hearth through the window - an honest to goodness fire - none of that central heating nonsense to dry out your skin and irritate your throat.
If the place served ale he would be sold...
"Bit of a dump, ain't it. Looks like Dunstable."
Colin glared at Blanche as she gazed around at the town, obviously unimpressed with what she saw: "What? It's nothing like..."
She waved him away: "I went to Dunstable once to see my nan. It was just before mum gambled me away in that hand of poker. I remember it 'cos it were the first time I saw a chicken." She grinned up at Marco as he tried not to shiver, goose pimples bubbling up under his shirt: "Weird-looking buggers, they were, and really hard to catch."
Colin blinked at her, allowing his retort to die on his tongue as she opened the coat and invited Marco to share its warmth.
Rafe had halted the group on the edge of town while his lead man - Colin thought his name was Ryan - darted into the pub.
He re-appeared at the door now and Rafe acknowledged his wave with one of his own.
"We'll drink now," he said to Colin, "A little something to warm our souls and then we'll take you to Eleanor."
Blanche peeked out from the depths of the coat, her face flushed from the warmth while her nose reddened in the chill: "Won't she be drinking with us?
Rafe grinned at her: "It's wasted on her, little one, she has no soul to warm."
And with a wave of his hand he ushered Marco, Blanche and Colin towards what ever welcome the pub had to offer; the fourth man, Conor, bringing up the rear.
Eleanor had the prettiest face Blanche had ever seen and her smile was warm as she handed the girl a mug of mulled wine, fresh from the fire.
The King's Cruelty may have had a strange name but, once through the door, the pub was the cosiest, most welcoming place Blanche could imagine to protect her from the ever-thickening snow that was busy painting the town and forest a fluffy white.
Gazing around the room, she felt a nostalgic twinge tug at her belly. Add a few drunks, a good bar fight, some blood and vomit on the floor and a poker game in the darkest corner and the place could pass as one of the many drinking holes her mother had dragged her to a lifetime ago.
The barman had a kindly face but looked more than capable of defending himself; the floor was made of flagstones strewn with straw and the clientèle had the ruddy complexions of people who worked on the land.
Eleanor had drifted to the far corner with Colin and Rafe and the three of them were talking in hushed whispers, though the Captain seemed to be getting worked up about something.
Blanche watched as Rafe lay a placating arm on his shoulder, then Colin extended his hand to Eleanor, who shook it warmly.
OK, so it looked as if they would be staying for a while. All friends together. She turned her attention back to much more interesting drink in her hand, inhaling the musky aroma with a sigh.
Huddled inside Marco's coat, her fingers tingling as the warm mug slowly thawed her hands, she edged towards the hearth to allow the roaring fire to heat her face.
She looked up at Marco and smiled, sure that her cheeks must be glowing as much as his in the firelight, 'Yeah, loads. It's cold out there.'
He rubbed his hands together briskly then held them out to the fire, 'It'll get worse than this before tomorrow. We're in for a chilly night.'
She sipped the wine and smiled shyly, 'I've still got your coat.'
He reached out and straightened the collar, his fingers 'accidentally' stroking her cheek, 'You were cold.'
'I'm warm now.'
Blanche grinned at him, loving the way his blond mop of hair kept flopping over his eyes making him look like an incredibly cute and attractive sheepdog. She could lose herself in those eyes...
'Did you know there are 12 different ways to kill a man using only your fist?'
Startled, Blanche and Marco spun away from the hearth to see Colin standing behind them, a flagon of ale in one hand and a forced smile plastered across his face.
Blanche glared at him while Marco took a slightly wary step back, 'What?' she said.
Colin shrugged and took a swig of his ale, 'Just making conversation.'
'You're bloody weird, do you know that?'
'And you're just visiting. Remember that.'
He took her arm and led her away from the hearth, 'I need to talk to you.'
Blanche shook off his grip, 'I'm talking to Marco.' She turned away from him and turned away.
'Eleanor's a vampire.'
Blanche stopped, 'Damn.'
With a longing glance at Marco, who seemed to find the contents of his own mug strangely fascinating, Blanche turned back to Colin and glowered at him as if Eleanor's condition was his fault.
'How long have you known?'
'She just told me.'
'She told you?'
Colin nodded, 'Seems her creature of the night condition wasn't through choice and she's spent years trying to find a cure.'
Blanche frowned, 'Is there a cure for vampirism?'
'She seems to think so.'
Taking a sip of her wine, Blanche allowed her gaze to drift back to Marco, who was staring into the fire, allowing the flames to warm his face.
'So, are the others vamps?'
Colin saw who she was looking at and scowled, 'No, just her. So if lover boy offers to nibble your neck you'll be perfectly safe.' He gulped down a healthy swig of wine and muttered, 'Can't say the same for him, though.'
Blanche looked at him, 'I can't believe you're jealous.'
'I'm just looking out for you.'
Colin's bit down on his retort when Eleanor approached, a jug of wine in hand, whispering something to Marco as she passed.
The young man nodded and sulked off to speak to Rafe.
With a smile at Colin and Blanche, Eleanor hefted the jug, 'Refill?'
Blanche took a small step back, unconsciously edging behind Colin, 'No thanks.'
Eleanor raised an eyebrow, her smile as warm as the heat from the hearth, 'Can I assume that Captain Curtis has explained the situation to you?'
Blanche nodded, 'He said you're a vampire.'
'Not through choice.'
'Yeah,' said Blanche, 'Well I have to warn you that I have really thin blood - runs in the family. You'd hardly get half full if you took a bite out of me.'
Eleanor nodded, 'I'll bear that in mind.'
Colin scowled back at Blanche, 'Will you pack it in.' He stepped deliberately away from her, forcing her to face their host, 'I've told her about Mac. If there's a cure for this, he'll find it.'
'If we can find him first.'
Colin snorted, 'He's probably still sitting outside the Ship muttering about the "one well-documented case of vampirism in E Space". I doubt he's even noticed it's snowing.'
'Even Mac's not that oblivious.'
They grinned at each other, friends again.
Elenor had been watching them with cautious amusement, 'Your friend knows of vampires?'
Blanche shrugged, 'He says he does. He says he knows a lot of things...'
'And what is E Space?'
Colin frowned, 'Well, it's here. It's what we call this place...from where we're from...' He tailed off, offering Eleanor an apologetic smile, 'I don't explain these technical things very well. That's Mac's area of expertise.'
Eleanor leaned forward and refilled Blanche's half-empty mug, the deep red wine sloshing against the side of the jug, 'Then I shall look forward to meeting him. He sounds like a remarkable man.'
Colin muttered something unintelligible and look a sip of his wine.
Blanche smirked at him and, aware that Marco had edged closer once more and was gazing at her with puppy dog eyes, she raised her mug to Eleanor in a toast, 'I'm not sure remarkable is the word you're looking for. "Prat" would be closer, but if anyone can help you out, it's him.'
Half listening to Eleanor as she chatted to him, Colin watched as Blanche wandered away with Marco.
The man-boy had found another coat from somewhere and they looked like a pair of stunted Yeti as he guided her towards a side door.
'No you don't pal!'
Rafe loomed in front of him, grinning over the brim of a frothing mug of ale, 'He's showing her the gardens.'
Rafe threw an arm round Colin's shoulder and guided him to a table by the window where the others were already seated, 'Don't fret, friend. It's a clear night, love is in the air and our Marco just wants to teach Blanche how to howl at the moon.'
Colin spluttered on his wine, a spray of red droplets spattering down his jacket. He pulled away from Rafe, 'You what?'
The three slayers began to roar with laughter and Eleanor lay a placating hand on Colin's arm, 'Ignore them.'
'Blanche is my responsibility.'
She smiled, 'I need to discuss a few things with you, so I asked Marco to keep an eye on Blanche. She is perfectly safe.' She shot a mock glare at the three men crowded round the table, giggling into their drinks, 'Unlike some I know, he would never take advantage of a new friend.'
His glare riveted to the side door as it closed behind the two youngest members of the group, Colin allowed himself to be guided to his seat at the table, 'OK...what do you want to talk about?'
Eleanor regarded him with serious eyes, 'I am keen to meet your friend, but I must know, will he understand my work?'
'What do you mean?'
'Good intentions are all well and good, Captain, but will he be able to advise me on cell counts and haemoglobin? Will he be able to point out errors I have missed?'
Colin was nodding as she spoke, 'Mac is the smartest guy I've ever met. There's nothing he can't offer an educated opinion on. And, of course...'
She nodded, 'He seems to have dealt with this problem before.'
Colin shrugged, running one finger around the edge of his mug, 'Well, I don't know about that. He knows a lot of people who know people who've done things, if you see what I mean.'
Eleanor fell silent for a moment and Colin noticed that Rafe was watching her closely.
The big man reached out and squeezed her hand, 'You OK?'
She nodded, chewing her bottom lip in thought, but didn't look up at him.
'Do you need to feed?'
To Colin's astonishment, Rafe pushed up the sleeve of his jacket and edged closer until his arm was almost under her nose.
His forearm was pockmarked with tiny reds dots, two at a time, row after row, parading up and under his sleeve, the skin surrounding them puffy and red.
Colin reached across the table and snatched Rafe's arm away, 'What the hell is this?'
He glared at the faces seated around him. Neither Conor nor Ryan seemed bothered by what they saw, one sipping quietly at his drink while the other hefted a small knife in his hand and began carving random tiny patterns in the wood of the table.
'What's going on here?' Colin's eyes darted from Rafe to Eleanor and back to Rafe. "Do you need to feed?" 'She feeds off you? Is that it? She sucks your blood?'
Rafe gently pulled his arm away from Colin and tugged his sleeve back into place, 'It's nothing I'm not willing to give.'
Colin pushed his chair away from the table, aware the pub had fallen quiet as all eyes watched him, 'This is sick. You can't let her...I don't understand...'
Rafe stood and placed a meaty hand firmly on Colin's shoulder, pushing him back into his seat, 'No you don't, friend, so sit down and shut your mouth while we explain it.'
Colin glared up at Rafe, the man's deep, brown eyes burning into his, daring him to challenge his authority. He could feel a roomful of stares boring into his back, the tension almost physical as they all waited for him to make his next move.
Eleanor was gazing at him with soft eyes, 'Please.'
Colin sat, his back ramrod straight, fists clenched in his lap as he willed them to stop trembling, 'Sorry,' he said, 'Very rude of me. I just wasn't quite ready...'
Rafe grinned, 'My fault. I should have warned you before serving up a pint of red.' He waved across at William, who had edged out from behind the bar, a sizable club hefted in one hand, 'S'ok, Bill, no head-cracking today, but I think our friend here could use something a little stronger than wine.'
The barman nodded and before Colin knew what had happened he found himself knocking back a shot of something that smelled and tasted potent enough to sedate a rhino.
When his eyesight returned they were all laughing at him again and even Eleanor was chuckling.
'Christ!' He blinked away a lake of tears and grinned, 'That'll put hairs on your chest.'
Rafe slapped him on the back and poured out another shot, 'More?'
'God, yes.' Colin took a sip of the drink and sighed with contentment as it warmed him all the way down to his toes.
Gradually the chuckles faded as Eleanor folded her hands in front of her, palms-down on the table, 'You need to go out again.'
Rafe raised an eyebrow, 'Tonight?'
She nodded, 'If this Mac is to help us I want everything ready for him. He needs to see how far I have come with the serum - he needs to see its effects on one of the turned. I need you to bring me one here, and quickly.'
Conor looked up, gently spinning the blade of his knife from finger to finger, 'It's dark out. They'll be hunting now. It'll be dangerous.'
Rafe nodded, 'I'll go alone. Safer.'
He pushed his chair back with a scrape of wood on stone, but stopped when Colin's hand gripped his shoulder, 'I'll help you.'
The vampire slayer shook his head, even as the soldier got to his feet, but Colin cut him off, 'Mac's out there somewhere,' he said, 'He's an "over-react first, ask questions later" kind of guy, so I should be there when you meet.'
He shrugged on his coat, his face grim with determination, 'Besides, if it wasn't for Blanche and me you'd have caught one already.'
Rafe watched as Colin drew his revolver and checked the ammunition before returning it to his belt with a flourish.
'Fine,' he said, 'I'll be glad of the company.'
Colin nodded to Eleanor, 'Would you take care of Blanche for me until I get back.'
Rafe tugged open the door, grinning as a flurry of snow danced into the pub on the back of a biting breeze, 'Don't worry about the kid,' he said, 'She's in good hands with Marco.'
Colin glowered at the vampire slayer as he stepped out into the night, 'Yeah,' he scowled, 'That's what worries me.'