In which Angelus' torment of Lord Asheton comes to a shattering climax,
Angelus’ hollow laugh boomed through the open window as he gazed down at William’s broken and bleeding body, where it lay crumpled in the terrace stones.
“Don’t lie there frittering away the darkness, William. The sun’s coming up soon. You’d better make a dash for the barns.” He laughed again, a sneering, nasty laugh. “If you can.”
“Oh, by the by, sweet Willy, our dear friend Mr. Manners will be here at dawn with the final papers for my installation as heir. I think I will enjoy spendin’ your blunt and wearing a lord’s robes.
William growled softly under his breath and crawled another dozen inches forward.
Nothing could have been worse than Drusilla’s return: her trailing robes drenched in blood and her ivory skin mauled by the claws of some awful beast. Her wailing was constant, a horrid yowl that rose piercing into the air, an endless flood of gibberish. Nothing stopped the noise: not Angelus’ less-than-kind attentions, not the fetching of the last of the stable boys to feed her endless hunger; not the hours of torture Angelus devised for her young victims and for William. Her screams had continued throughout the previous day and night.
Finally in a fit of pique, Angelus bashed Drusilla over the head and locked her into the attics, before turning back to William’s punishment.
Drained to the point of near dusting, then thrust out through the window, he fell onto the hard stones of the terrace below, all the while listening to Angelus’ drunken guffaw.
A dismal sight met his eyes as he continued his slow traverse of the yard; poor old Snyder’s corpse lay tossed like a pile of laundry, the empty eye-sockets a testament to Drusilla’s cruelty. Nearby, a crow sat vigil overhead for its flock of brethren who croaked from their perches awaiting their turn at the feast below.
“Eight for heaven, nine for hell…” he thought, counting the birds, “And ten for the devil’s own sel’”
One of his legs was probably broken, the muscles screaming for relief. He dragged himself into the shadows of the oaks. A lightening in the cloud cover in the east and a few red-gold bars of sunlight colored the eastern sky. The stable may as well have been a mile away. He was certain Angelus watched his struggle from the window.
Damn the creature, I will survive. He will not take my life from me in this craven fashion. He continued on, taking every advantage of branch and fencepost on his endless journey, feeling the sun’s heat creeping steadily closer. I will not stop until I have defeated him, he thought, and sent his black soul to Hell.
Xander peeled the bandage from his throat and checked the half-healed gash in the mirror. He listened again as Mr. Giles, his daughter and Oz prepared to leave for the village to fetch supplies they would need for the necessary spells and cantrips. Oz had looked in earlier and gotten his promise to rest for the afternoon. How could he rest when William might even now be hurt on in horrible danger?
The pony-cart and horses disappeared around the bend and Xander slipped out the front door. A swift walk through the woods brought him out back of Asheton Manor’s stables. Surprising how quickly the distance passed when you weren’t fleeing for your life, he thought.
It was just past noon, and the stable block was strangely empty of human life, and only a few horses remained inside. Xander went from stall to empty stall until he found Smoke, her head down disconsolately.
“Here girl, I’ve come back for you,” he slid into the loose box beside her and stroked a kindly hand down her smooth sides. He put his head down on her withers, breathing in the comforting scent of horse and hay, “You’re still my girl aren’t you, Smoke. You love me, don’t you?” She gave a soft whicker and nudged his shoulder with her velvet nose. “We have to hurry now and rescue our William,” he soothed, “Stand steady while I saddle you.”
A soft voice whispered from the shadows, “What have you done?”
“Why have you come back?”
A shadowy form lay clung to the doorway of the tack room. William, Lord Asheton, trembled, his fingers white where he gripped the wood as though his legs were too weak to hold him. A distinct smell of burnt wool permeated the air.
“Thank god you’re here! I was afraid that I would have to go back into that house for you.”
He smiled and finished bridling Smoke, the tremble in his fingers unnoticeable as he drew tight the straps and buckles.
He turned to see William sunk into the mucky straw, his limbs sprawled loosely as though he were a string-cut puppet. “Will…”
“I’ve done all I could to keep him away from you. I’ve tried to stay away from you, tried to distract them…force them to leave. Nothing’s worked. You’ve got to leave before he comes for you, you foolish, foolish boy.”
“Will...Will I’m so sorry.” He gathered William into his embrace, smoothing the curls away from his eyes. He pressed a kiss to the pale forehead and straightened his body to lie more comfortably in the straw nest. “Let me at least get you to a more comfortable spot while I finish up. We’re leaving this hellish place today and never coming back.”
“ No. Get out of here. There is something here I must do alone.”
“You’re coming with me. Giles can keep us both safe. He’s a powerful wizard.”
William smiled sadly “Despite all the wizard’s tricks, Angelus could find me anywhere on this earth, did he wish.” He ran long-fingered hand along his dear friend’s face, “I have vowed to destroy him utterly and so I shall.”
“You haven’t the strength, Will. You’re barely able to stand now.” Xander swallowed hard and looked at his feet, his dark curling locks obscuring his eyes. “Why? Why did you wed her—she is a madwoman.” He couldn’t finish the sentence for the bile that rose in his throat.
A small smile creased William’s tired face, “Well you should ask, dear one. I was a fool in love with an ideal, and she was my Muse, my inspiration, and my damnation. I had something Angelus wanted: a title and a beautiful fiancée. And so, he set out to take them both any way he could. No matter who was hurt, no matter what it took.”
“Angelus…” Xander prompted, “How did he do this?”
“Once he had killed every single person that stood between him and the title, he came for me. I was set to wed a duke’s granddaughter, Lady Anne Summers. She was an orphan and cared for by her guardian and Watcher, Wesley Wyndam-Price. I would have married her and happily, as we were great friends from childhood. But Angelus was sly, charming me with his friendship and the lure of his sister’s frail beauty.”
“Drusilla was my Dark Jewel, so extraordinary and as different from my Anne as night from day. She enthralled me from the moment I met her and I could think of nothing I wanted more than to possess her.”
“ And so, Angelus prospered. Working, cunning as a spider, laying his web to satisfy his wicked desires. He laid waste to the countryside, cleverly and quietly, the destruction of reputation and life his instruments.”
“He set Drusilla to compromise me, then brought my darling Anne as witness to my whole sordid disgrace. From there it was simple and both our ruins were accomplished easily. Angelus stole away my innocent Anne and made her…his concubine the night I announced my engagement to Dru.”
“Painted me a cad, and her a heartless jilt. Anne had no choice but to elope with him. Not only her, but also your wizard friend, his wife was stolen and foully murdered. Wyndam-Price and Giles both tortured when they tried to wreak revenge. Wyndam-Price gone mad in the bargain, though now he’s found peace at last, poor soul.”
“Poor, mad Dru. She has never been one to follow orders, even from her Angel. According to Angelus, I was meant to wed her, then after our honeymoon, fall victim to yet another of the tragic accidents that have dogged my family, leaving Angelus safely ensconced as the heir to my title and fortune.”
“Unfortunately for him, things did not play quite out the way he planned. Drusilla turned me, and then I turned on Angelus to get my revenge. It’s the demon inside, you see. Unpredictable and very strong. I can’t say I regret that, although the pain I have given others, I do most sincerely regret.”
He smiled again, and struggled to his feet. Xander was quick to help him, slinging his arm around the other man’s back. “That was how I ended up in the wheelchair, though I cannot regret that it brought me you.”
“ I chased him to the continent, trying to rescue Anne, but he during our last battle, he brought down a church on me. And still I survived.” Xander’s eyes shone and he stroked the curling hair at the nape of William’s neck.
“Angelus is a braggart and a fool. He should never have let me live, but he wanted to see me suffer before he killed me.” He took a few halting steps, an angry glint in his eye, “I vow before God, I’ll see him in hell before I allow him to defeat me.”
“But how, William? You’re so weak—weaker now than before. What has caused this sudden change?”
“Angelus and his pet apothecary.”
“Subtle poisons, quantities of the poppy---all guaranteed to both drive me mad and slowly kill me. All to the better as far as Angelus is concerned. Why go for the quick kill when suffering is so much more artistic?”
They stumbled toward the dark hollow of the tack room, “We’ll stay here until it’s dark, William. I swear, we’ll be out of here and safely at Giles’ before Angelus knows you’ve gone.”
“By dark it will be too late.” William’s face was a study in sadness, “It’s my fault you’re involved in this. Now that he knows that I care for you, nothing on this earth could give him more pleasure than to ruin you. Get away, now. There’s nothing for it now. Get away; go to Venice as we planned—somewhere warm and drenched in sun. Perhaps I shall defeat him after all, and if not, perhaps you will be of no further interest to him.” They both knew that for a lie as well. Angelus was immortal and his punishments were both ingenious and lingering.
“Giles has sworn he has an answer—sorcery or a magical working. I dreamed…”
“You dream too much, my dear. There’s nothing to help now. Leave me.”
Xander hugged him fiercely, “I’ll never let him have what’s yours, Will. We’ll find a way, somehow. Don’t…don’t do anything foolish, I beg you. Not yet.”
William looked at him sadly, “Too late for that.”
Xander’s tears flowed hot on his cheeks, the salt tears blinding him. He dug in his pockets for his pen-knife and sliced open the flesh of his arm, “Here, you’ve got to take at least a little, just for your strength.”
William looked sadly at his lover, “I fear it wouldn’t help me now, but thank you for trying.” He pressed his lips to the cut and lapped at the spill of blood to seal it shut. “He will know it, if I take your blood and it will be the worse for you.”
Xander was despaired of helping him until he had a sudden idea, “Could you take sustenance from the horses?”
William’s eyes fluttered open, and a small grin creased his pale face. “By damn, I must be getting old! Clever Xander.”
Through dint of much gentling, Smoke was brought to accept the strange feeling of the cool hands at her throat, and the quick piercing of the big vein in her neck. The mare’s hot blood ran through him like lightning, giving him strength enough to quickly seal the tiny cut, while Xander stood at her head and cooed to her in a soft voice.
Asheton smoothed Smoke’s sleek head, “What a rich and wonderful nourishment you’ve given me, dearest little lady.” He straightened and turned to Xander, “Now, saddle another horse for me then get yourself back to Giles’ cottage. I will be there as I am able. Quickly now, before something else holds you back.”
“My lord, I...I hate to leave you here. You must promise to come to Giles as soon as you are able.”
“I am not so defenseless now, thanks to faithful Smoke.” A new vigor showed in his face, “I think perhaps I shall sup again from yon stallion, “ he said with a lop-sided grin, “I seem to have a decided taste of late for stallions than mares.”
Xander fell on his lips, still hot from his meal and pressed their bodies close, “God, Will, I want you!”
William pulled away slightly, a satirical grin twisting his lips, “Oh, ho and a hot-blooded stallion you are.” He ran a cool hand along Xander’s cheek and kissed him again, “But I’m afraid that will have to wait. Now go! I will be there tonight.” His eyes glittered with excitement. “But first, I have a few things I must do.”