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One of those Decisions

Chapter Text

A visit. That was unusual. She had returned to her clinic only this morning.

Lisa couldn’t hear the distance mirror’s other side forming itself, of course, but she had learned the signs to look for. Ripples in her teacup. The shifting of the light in her scalpels. The flickering of candles. One of those candles went out. The opening of the mirror was clumsier than usual. It was her son, then, and not her husband.

She did not respond immediately, even as she wanted to, waiting to see if he came down into the clinic proper without invitation – they hadn’t quite impressed upon him the danger of doing so, and she wanted to be sure that he remembered. They couldn’t well have him running into the room when she had a patient. They might not understand.

Not yet. They would one day.

One minute. Two. Good, he was waiting properly this time. He’d listened. She wouldn’t make him wait too long, if it could be helped – he was probably growing anxious by now, if he hadn’t found himself distracted by her books again.

“Come downstairs, Adrian.” She said, no louder than she would were he stood in front of her. He hardly needed her to shout. “I’m alone.”

What followed was a flurry of limbs, all of them grown much too long much too fast, rushing down the stairs. He almost tumbled at the last, still used to his legs being the length they were a few months ago, and caught himself in the air.

Lisa sighed. She didn’t even need to voice her disappointment, because Adrian’s face fell into a slight pout. He returned his feet to the ground, where they belonged.

“Nobody’s here to see.”

“There are windows, Adrian. You need to be safe.”

She didn’t want to scold him. She’d hardly wanted to see him hurt, as would have surely happened had he fallen, as temporarily as it would have been.

“Father wouldn’t let anyone hurt me.” He said, softer now. It wasn’t fair to him, and she knew it, to demand that he keep half of himself from the world she worked in for reasons he was still too young to understand. Vlad would not let anyone lay a finger on their boy, and that was precisely why they needed to be careful.

A fall wouldn’t hurt him nearly so deeply as seeing his father at his worst.

“He would not.” She agreed, and she put a hand on his cheek, crouching so she could guide his gaze to look her in the eyes properly (given a year or so at this rate, she wouldn’t need to). “But it would sadden him, should anyone try. And I would have to leave the people here, and they would suffer without a doctor.”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t like being wrong – he was at that age, she supposed – and she stood again, trying a different tactic.

“You remembered to wait this time. Well done. Were you practising with the mirror?”

Praise had worked. He brightened immediately, taking her hands and pulling her along behind him, back up the stairs. He was careful as he did, all too aware of his own strength compared to hers. That he had come to learn quickly.

“Father wanted you to come back to the castle. It’s- he said it was important. He let me use the mirror.”

“I only left the castle this morning, what on earth could-”

“-A hunter.” Said a voice that belonged to neither of them.

Of course he was here, if he thought there was any danger. He would not have sent Adrian alone. Lisa truly did not care for her husband’s theatrics sometimes. She would really rather just have answers and his support in reminding their son to stay safe, not have him wait in silence to manifest behind her when she entered the darkness upstairs, but he had to do everything in the most dramatic way that came to mind. Ten years ago she might have had harsh words for it, but now-

-their son was delighted by it, every time, and so she tolerated it. Spoiled them both, as far as she was concerned.

“You cannot well expect a village to thrive without hunters bringing meat to its tables.”

She knew what he meant, of course, but if he was going to indulge his own fondness for dramatics then she would be indulging hers for being difficult. The three moved into her laboratory together, Vlad ducking to pass under the door frame.

(It was delightful, now that she spent half her life in a building meant for people his size, or at least people who could float, to have the tables turned on him. He had hit his head on the door frames and rafters no less than three times when he helped her set up this clinic. She had been concerned at the time, but now it was a fonder memory than she would admit.)

“A creature was attacked five miles from here last night.” Vlad said, finally speaking plain. “Another was attacked two miles away a little over an hour ago. Someone seeks them out, and they are coming here.”

“And you wish me to return home, until they are gone.” She would not be returning home, and it must have come across in her voice. Vlad’s shoulders sank, Adrian’s fingers pinched at the edge of her sleeve.

“Only until night tomorrow, so we may know they have moved on. He- we worry for you.”

She sighed.

“I have a patient going into labour any hour now. It is-” Out of wedlock. Maybe not a subject to bring up in front of their son. “-The midwife of the village will not be attending her. There will be none other she can turn to, when it comes.”

Her husband seemed unimpressed. He didn’t, she supposed, have much reason to care for such petty things as the stigma attached to giving birth out of wedlock. There was no good reason for her patient to not seek out the usual midwife, only a bad one that she could do nothing about. But she cared and he had yet to convince her to put the well being of her patients second to anything. He said nothing, Adrian gripped her sleeve tighter.

“I will be safe. Your hunter has no reason to target me.”

“He has every reason to target you!” Vlad snarled. She glared. It might have been intimidating, once, but now she cared only that their son not see this. He softened immediately. “I will stay with you.”

She half-considered it. He had offered before, when her work put her in danger, to go with her or in her place. In truth, she wanted him to. Not for her sake, but for his own. He was more than capable of delivering a child – their son was proof enough of that. It would do him good, to use his knowledge to help people directly rather than through her. It would teach people the truth.

But her patient was young. Young and vulnerable and so very afraid. There would be a time for him to come into her world, to become the force for good that she knew that he could be. A time that didn’t turn a scared girl into a test subject.

“No. You will not. The last thing the poor girl needs is to have the babe scared out of her belly. Leave the way open, and I will return when I am done.”

Her tone was soft and yet it had, apparently, been final. She turned her attention back to Adrian, stroking his hair, though still speaking to her husband. “You said your creatures were attacked, not killed. Nobody who cannot overcome them has any quarrel with you. They must have strayed too close to someone’s home, nothing more.”

That was that. She kissed her husband good night and hugged her son and promised to be back at the castle for breakfast in the morning if they left the way open for her.

The path to her patient’s cottage was dark but she knew it well. Even without her husband and son’s gifts, she could travel it without a torch. It was best that she did. She had little to fear from the things that lurked in the night, but gossip was vicious. If the girl’s mother just happened to give birth to a younger sibling after nine months of being very much not pregnant, well, that was a story that was difficult to believe, but just as difficult to disprove. If she just happened to have been seen receiving a doctor the same night, though, instead of the good midwife – well, that would be a stretch of coincidence too many. There would be fines, and whippings, and shame. No, she had far more to fear from what might befall her patient should she be spotted than she did from anything that lurked out here, hunter or not.

It was an easy birth, as far as they were ever easy. Medicines for the pain, hot clean water and her husband’s knowledge of how to make the process as safe as possible all served to make it all as pleasant as it ever could have been. The girl was young, too young – probably only half Adrian’s age again - but she was sturdy and bright enough to have come to her and not to the church. Her mother and father were all full of joy and sorrow at once, with the balance between the two shifting for the brighter once the babe was out and warm and safe against his ‘sister’s’ chest. The child was loved, inconvenient as he was. The girl believed entirely that the father would return for them both eventually, and Lisa smiled and helped her understand how to feed and did not voice her doubts even as the girl’s own father ground his teeth. The cottage was warm and clean and filled with the smell of burning herbs. It was the early hours of the morning when she was done – time enough to make the journey home and to be asleep in time to wake next to her husband, and her heart was as light with relief that it had all gone so well as her head was light with tiredness when she set out on the road again.

There was a hissing in the air, on her way back. It did not deter her. She had seen darker things than the creatures of the night. She loved darker things than the creatures of the night. They would do her no harm.

And then, then there was a crack and a different sort of hissing, like hot iron in water. Her husband’s hunter. She ran.

She probably ought to have run in the opposite direction. Away, rather than to. But she had never been one to allow caution to overcome curiosity. In truth she was perhaps as blinded by idealism as her patient had been, for her mind was suddenly filled with thoughts of bridging the hatred between this hunter and her husband. Showing them the good in each other. Making peace between them. What good it would do, to show him that even the humans who detested him most could be compromised with.

But she did not find a hunter.

She found a boy.

He was filthy and bloody, thrashing about and swinging a whip like a wounded animal. He looked to be around the same age as Adrian appeared, which meant that he probably was only a few years older. Twelve. Maybe thirteen. The frame of a boy who had been strong and stout before going hungry for a few months (she saw that often enough in her patients, in the winter months, to recognise it), practically swimming in a tunic made for someone twice his size, swinging about a whip that must have clipped him a few times already judging by some of those bruises and a short sword that wasn’t particularly short when viewed against him.

This was what had struck such fear for her sake into her husband.

The creatures – there were three, one still on the ground and two alive and fighting - dived at him. He stepped back, then fell backward, yelping and using his hands to protect his face.

“Stop.”

They did.

This was, she felt already, going to be one of those decisions she regretted. But then, she had felt that way eleven years ago now, when she had banged the handle of her knife against a massive door. And she only regretted that when her husband insisted on lurking in the shadows to sneak up behind her instead of saying ‘hello, dearest’ like a normal person.

“My name is Lisa Tepes. You know the name of my husband. You will leave the boy be.”

Her voice was clear. Calm. Fearless. The creatures growled and hissed in protest, but they dispersed.

The boy was still struggling when she made her way to him. She crouched, just out of arms’ reach, where he could strike her with the blade but she could not touch him, and she waited. He became still, only flinching at the sound of glass hitting glass when she opened her doctor’s bag and looked through it, producing a small vial of liquid.

“Drink.” She said, removing the cork and handing it over. He did as he was told. It took only a few seconds, after he had handed the vial back to her, for his body to begin to sink. It was a high dose, for a child, and she suspected he was taking it on an empty stomach. Unconsciousness took him within the minute.

Chapter Text

Even with a son of her own, she had managed to forget how heavy a growing boy was. It would have been better, perhaps, to give him something for the pain and to have him walk, supporting him. But then he would have remembered. The sleeping medicine’s side effects – confusion, disorientation, minor hallucinations - were why she didn’t use it often, but convincing the boy that he hadn’t just watched her attempt and succeed to pull rank on the creatures of the night seemed more of a benefit than anything else. She was exhausted by the time she made it back to her clinic, too much so to set up a cot for the boy. Instead she just laid him out on a table, finding a cushion to place under his head, and set to work.

It was nearing dawn by the time that she had checked over, cleaned and dressed his injuries, peeling that filthy, oversized tunic from him and giving him one of her blouses as a nightshirt in its place. He’d live, there was no doubting that, but the great cut over his eye concerned her. It wasn’t as fresh as the injuries he seemed to have sustained in his attempts at hunting, red and swollen with infection. The eye itself didn’t seem to have been injured by whatever had caused the cut itself, but infection spread. She might be able to save his vision on that side if they were both lucky, but she’d need ingredients from her husband’s study to do it.

It was fortunate, then, that it was almost time for breakfast.

A pang of guilt struck her as she entered the study through the mirror that had been left open for her through the night. Adrian was there, curled up in Vlad’s chair. He must have been waiting for her all night. His eyes fluttered open as she leaned forward to kiss his forehead softly, and the exhaustion almost left her body entirely when he wrapped his arms around her neck.

“Is the baby well? Is the lady?” He asked before anything else, and her heart swelled. Of course he had been worried for this family he would never meet. Of course her son, sweet and kind and so ready to love, would have cared so deeply. “Father said that was why you couldn’t come back, that childbirth is dangerous. That maybe-” He sounded so worried. “-maybe they were sick.”

“Both of them are healthy.” She said, letting him pull her down into the chair (god, she was grateful for a chance to sit down) and climb up onto her lap. Growing boys really were heavy. “Another patient needed help, but he will be fine for a little while. I can have breakfast with you.”

She needed sleep. But in its absence food would do. Adrian didn’t get up immediately, though. Instead he leaned against her, head resting on her shoulder. “If nobody were sick or hurt, then you could be here all the time.”

“There are better reasons than me to wish for everyone’s wellbeing. Far better reasons.”

She’d closed her eyes, and Adrian had allowed her to rest. Her husband was not there when she woke, but the two of them were wrapped in a woolen throw and two plates of bread and cheese and a pot of tea had been left out on his desk. This wasn’t the first time that she had made it back in time for breakfast, only to miss it anyway when exhaustion overtook her. It would not be the last.

There were other chairs in the study, and Adrian pulled one over to her so that he could sit with her while they ate. He cleared his plate first, growing boy that he was, and kicked his feet (he would not be able to do that for much longer, she thought with only a little regret that this time would end, they would reach the ground with his next growth spurt) as he talked excitedly at her. She was a captive audience, mouth too full of food to reply to much of it, and he told her about his plans for the day, about the latest subjects that his father had chosen to teach him, about how a pigeon had managed to get into the castle and make its nest in the rafters and how he meant to make sketches of it and its little straw home.

That was his favourite, right now. It changed every now and then, because he was too interested in all things to focus on one, but right now it was making sketches of animals. He would watch them through the mirrors for hours at a time, making careful note of the way that their bodies moved. Guessed at how their muscle and bone must look, when he could not find answers in his father’s library. One having found its way into the castle must have been a special treat for him, a chance to observe something that normally he might have only seen through the mirrors.

“I should think they would eat grain. Or bread, perhaps.” She said, because she was not a vet but she had fed birds often enough when she was young.

“Even the little ones, when they hatch?” Adrian asked. “Do they need food from outside the castle?”

He was trying to find an excuse, wasn’t he? To convince her to bend the rules, make an exception out of necessity. He did this, from time to time – not a disobedient child as such, but one who was eager to find the limits of his freedom. One of those limits was that he remain in the Castle during the daylight hours, at least while she could not be there. He was able to leave in daylight, seemed to prefer it even, but if anything were to happen-

-Vlad could not be with him, not if he left the castle during daylight. And she could hardly run her clinic only during the night hours. God knew she earned enough suspicion as it was.

“The little ones will be fine. Make sure the parents are well and they will be attended to.” She said warmly, not particularly eager to go into the details of how baby birds were fed while she ate.

She took a small satchel of powdered root with her when she left, kissing Adrian’s forehead and leaving him with instructions to open the mirror again tonight and a promise that she would return when he did. It was a common enough ingredient in the medicine that her husband studied, but it did not grow in Wallachia. Keeping stores of it at her clinic would invite questions that she didn’t care to answer. She took a half loaf of bread, too, and a lump of cheese. If her patient was awake by now he wouold no doubt need breakfast. He had the look of a boy that hadn’t eaten in days.

And she rather wished she wasn’t so familiar with how it looked when a child had not eaten in days. But she was a doctor and not a miracle worker. She could not make her poorest patients richer, save by sparing them the bills of another doctor. She could not keep harvests from failing, or stores from rotting, or any other number of things. Perhaps Vlad could. Perhaps her son might be able to, in time. For now, she could repair ailing bodies, and maybe offer her patients the leftovers of her breakfast from time to time. She would do that, and hopefully that would be enough.

The boy was sitting up as she came down the stairs. He remained on the table where she had left him, knees drawn up to his chest, staring at the door.

“Good morning.” She said, about as brightly as she could when she saw the work that was laid out ahead of her and the tiredness began to creep in again. It was still morning, by the direction of the light in the windows, though fast approaching noon. She’d managed a few hours sleep, at least. The boy looked up, confusion crossing his face, and then pushed himself unsteadily down from the table.

“Oh. I thought you were outside.”

“Did you not look for me there?”

“Can’t.”

She wasn’t sure how to answer that. She had locked the door, yes, but the latch was on the inside. He could easily have opened it to look for her if he needed to. She looked him over. He didn’t meet her gaze.

“Breakfast.” She said, changing the subject. She handed him the bread and cheese. “Eat. I need to give you medicine for your eye, and you oughtn’t be taking it with nothing in your stomach.”

He looked at the bread and cheese, one in each hand. He looked at them for a long time, in silence, as if they were something far more fascinating than scraps from her table. And then, he put them down on the table where he had been lying, pushing them away from himself.

“Can’t.”

Couldn’t go outside in the daylight. Couldn’t eat the food she was offering. Lisa’s eyes narrowed as she looked her patient over again. His skin seemed too ruddy for the answer that immediately came to mind. Canines too short and blunt. Ears too round. He’d been too warm with the infection when she’d put her hand on his forehead to check if he was feverish earlier. But still- she had to ask.

“What are you?”

The boy tilted his head at that, as if it were a very strange question. Then he seemed to curl in upon himself like a startled hedgehog, hunching over and staring at his feet.

“Excommunicated.” He answered, after a moment, and something in his tone gave her the sense that her question hadn’t been quite as foolish as she felt when he said it. Like he really was something other than human, like excommunication had made him that way.

“You still need to eat. The Book may well say that man cannot live on bread alone, but all of my studies have told me that the bread helps.”

“Can’t. You can’t give me food. You can’t- I can’t have been here. Stop talking to me.”

Lisa Tepes took orders from nobody. Not the church. Not her husband. Certainly not children. The silence that followed was born of horror and not of obedience. A child. A child, excommunicated, with all that that entailed. If she cared much for being thought of as moral, she was forbidden from offering him food or shelter, even from speaking to him.

But she did not care much for being thought of as moral, not half as much as she cared about doing what seemed right, and so she lit the fireplace and put the kettle by it before moving over to the cupboards. She spread the bread with jam. The nice jam, one of the jars that she and Adrian had made after they went berry picking. One of the jars she saved for when she needed to be separated from her husband and son for a few weeks at a time and even her warm little clinic seemed like the coldest, loneliest part of the world.

When she pushed the bread back into his hands, covered in jam this time, he actually looked at her. Stared at her, even, in some mixture of utter bewilderment and anger and fear. “You can’t. It’s not allowed.”

“I will do as I please. Eat. Now.”

Whether convinced by her instructions or by the prospect of something sweet to eat, he did. Greedily, in a manner that she would have scolded Adrian harshly for. He took almost half of the bread in one bite and tried to swallow it without chewing. It didn’t work. He choked, his eyes welling up with tears, coughing but with his mouth firmly closed as he tried to get the bread out of his throat without any of it leaving his mouth and being wasted. When that seemed to have succeeded he chewed with an awkward, almost exaggerated motion, trying to break it down while having far more in his mouth than he actually had the capacity for. He was crying by the time he took the next bite, smaller now that he had learned his lesson. When he wiped his mouth and nose on the back of his hand to lick any leftover jam from it, he seemed almost beyond consoling. His eyes and nose ran freely. He wasn’t saying anything, not screaming or yelling, just making a long, distressed wail.

Perhaps that was best, agonizing as it was to hear. Sometimes the poison needed to be drained from the wound before it could heal, after all.

Chapter Text

Lisa only interfered when he began to scrub at his eyes. The wailing was fine, was probably good for him in the long run. Interfering with an injury was neither of those things. She reached out to hold his wrist, firmly, to keep him from rubbing it against the wound any further. He flinched, tensed, and became quiet. The boy looked up at her for only a moment, and then at the floor. He was bracing himself, as if he expected her to strike him. She let go.

It was hard to resist the urge to lay her hands on his shoulders, to talk to him softly. But somehow she doubted that was what he needed now. He had responded to orders before. Clear, simple orders. Things that he could do and know that he wouldn’t be hurt for it. That he would be doing the right thing.

“Don’t rub at your eye. You’ll make it worse.”

It was difficult to keep the softness out of her voice, but she did the best she could. He didn’t want it. Didn’t need it, at least for the moment. The boy stared up at her and let his arms fall to his sides. He nodded and said nothing. “Close your good eye. Tell me what you see.”

“It all looks softer. And brighter.” He turned his head aside again after trying to look through the one bad eye, but this time he wasn’t looking away from her but from the windows. “Too bright. It hurts.”

Pain from light exposure. Perhaps his unwillingness to leave the building wasn’t solely fear of the consequences for her if he was seen. That probably indicated some sort of damage from infection. And the kettle was probably boiled by now. She took it, making tea for the both of them and downing her cup in one long gulp with the practised grace of a woman well-accustomed to working on only a couple of hours of sleep.

“Eat the rest. Drink your tea. Then wash the cups, take the cloth by the sink and wipe down the table.” She said, pushing the cheese back over. “I will be back.”

With only a little hesitation, this time, he reached out to take the lump of cheese. He ate it with more grace, less tears and just as much desperation as he had the bread and Lisa took this as an indication that he would follow the rest of the instructions, as well. It seemed a little thoughtless, to be giving chores to a patient, but the boy needed some sort of direction just as much as he needed medicine and food.

The medicine took longer than she had expected. She looked down every now and then to check on the boy – he had eaten, the table was cleaned, and he was now sat in silence on the floor. He seemed to have found his things when where she put them to one side last night, and he rocked the handle of the whip in his hands, staring at the door. He did not move from his spot, even as the hours passed. It was well into the afternoon by the time she came back down the stairs. He stood when she did, leaving his tunic and weapons on the ground.

“Lie back on the table.” She said, and he did. “The medicine will feel strange. Try to go a few seconds before blinking, and do not rub it.”

Her patient didn’t answer, but his eyes settled on the bottle of medicine in her hand. Unease crossed over his face, becoming more like dread when she took the dropper from the bottle. “Stay still.”

Staying still may have been a little much to ask – he flinched when the drops of liquid fell into his eye – but he did his best. His face scrunched uncomfortably, as if he had eaten a food that he disliked immensely. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.

“’m I allowed to blink yet?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

She sealed the bottle carefully, helping the boy to sit up and pushing it into his hands. “Do that every few hours. Don’t rub at it, and try to avoid dust. It should keep it from getting worse and stop the sensitivity to light.”

The blurred vision- that could well be beyond fixing. But she had done what she could. The boy was rummaging around in his filthy tunic, now, and she sighed, ready to add a reminder to keep his hands clean. Before she could, he found what he was looking for. He approached her, reaching out as far as he could, trying to give something to her while keeping her at literal arm's length.

“Will this be enough?”

When she opened her hand to look at what he had pushed into it, a calm statement that she did not take payment from children died on her lips. He had placed a gold ring into her hand. But more than that, it was a signet ring, engraved with the crest of a noble house. And the pieces fell into place. The whip. The excommunication. The acting as one of those hunters that her husband despised so.

She should have seen it before, but she had been so tired and the tunic so filthy that it hadn’t occurred to her that the crest sewn into it should mean anything to her.

“I can’t accept-”

“-I didn’t steal it.” He cut her off. She raised an eyebrow. Defensive. “I didn’t steal it, and I didn’t hurt anyone, and I didn’t- I don’t have debts. I’ll go once the sun sets, and I’ll find the body of that creature, and- and I’ll take it to the church, the big one in Targoviste. And then- then they’ll know I’m good. That we’re good. That we were good all along. And then you can sell it.”

That had been why he was hunting. That had been why he was hurt. He thought that was how to make things right. She tried to keep her face calm as she watched the outburst. It was difficult, and the best she could do was to try to force her thoughts not to stray to how, without his father’s protection, her own son could easily be in this boy’s position. Anger, blistering hot and righteous and acidic, swelled in her chest. But she was an adult, and he was a child, and so it was her duty to be calm.

“You mean to earn absolution by entering the house of God without His leave, and by dragging a monster behind you.” She repeated. She let the softness into her voice, now, to take the edge off her criticism of his plans. He looked away in shame.

“I don’t- I don’t have another way. I have to do something. They can’t rest if I don’t.”

Lisa blinked in confusion before realisation fell upon her. That entire line had been excommunicated. Those who had been killed had died in excommunication. Heaven was closed to them, along with the chance to change that. What a disgusting burden to place upon a boy’s shoulders.

“Those creatures eat their dead, I believe.” It was Lisa’s turn not to look at the boy. She stared out of the window instead. Nobody there – there would not be, unless she had a patient. Her clinic was on the very outskirts of the village. “Bones and all. I doubt you’ll find the thing’s body. And I have no use for a ring I won’t be able to sell.”

“I don’t have debts.” The boy repeated, refusing to take the ring back from her outstretched hand.

“You don’t. I do not charge children for treatment.” And she sighed again, putting the ring down on the table. “You can work, if you like, once night falls. I could use firewood.”

He considered the offer – or, at least, that was what Lisa chose to believe the silence meant. Without her pushing the conversation forward he returned to his spot. Once again, he went through the pockets of that horrible, filthy tunic, taking stock of the contents of its pockets. The ring remained on the table, and she looked up the stairs. Her bed was calling her. Had been calling her for near enough the last fourteen or so hours.

“Once night falls, go gather wood. Then enough water to fill the basin. Wash your hands. Your face, too. Don’t rub it dry. You’ll find a folding cot and blankets in the cupboard over there, if you need them. There should be a little left in the pantry, if you are hungry.” He watched her as she spoke, not quite looking at her, but at least paying attention. “Use the dropper on that bottle to apply the medicine to your eye every now and then. And take the ring back.”

Hopefully, that would be enough orders to keep him satisfied and not doing anything foolish, because she truly did need rest. The boy watched her as she climbed the stairs. “The room at the far end of the upstairs corridor is off limits, the medicines there are dangerous. Otherwise go where you please.”

She was asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.

When she woke, a hand was lying on her shoulder. She sat up, blinking until her eyes grew used to the darkness.

“Mother?”

She smiled, at first, more than happy to see her son’s face. But she was in her clinic, not at the castle, and she had a patient.

“Adrian-”

He shrunk back, turning his head to the side in a pout. “There was nobody there. I used the mirror to look. It was safe. And- and you weren’t awake.”

The last point, at least, was fair. She had slept longer than she meant, and it was hardly right to expect him to wait for an instruction that would not come. But-

“-nobody?”

She climbed out of the bed, rushing downstairs. Sure enough, the boy was gone. Wood was piled high by the fireplace. The ring was still on the table, now accompanied by a few coins and a small, ornate knife. Her blouse had been – not quite ‘washed’, but dipped in water and left to dry by the fire.

In hindsight, she should probably have expected that.

“Mother?” Adrian asked, following behind her. “Are you not coming back tonight?”

That boy was going to get himself killed, wasn’t he? Were he anyone else, she would go back to the castle, enlist her husband’s help. Find him. But she could hardly send him chasing a Belmont. Even a little Belmont. Her thoughts were interrupted as Adrian took an interest in the table’s contents.

“Adrian, don’t-” she began when he reached out. To her relief, his hand fell upon the knife’s handle. She picked up the ring as he investigated the blade, opening a desk drawer and putting it safely out of sight. Best not to have her son ask questions about the Belmont family, because she didn’t have nearly so many answers as she imagined his father must.

His face twisted with discomfort as he took it out of his holder, as if it were something horrible to look at. It was not – the knife was beautifully crafted – but she suspected that she might know what made him so uncomfortable about it.

“It’s silver, Adrian. Put it down.” He did, and she gently moved his fingers away from its handle and put the knife safely away as well. “My patient must have left it as payment.”

Adrian’s gaze remained on the desk drawer for a little longer, but he nodded. She smiled, reaching up to stroke his hair, and that seemed to bring his attention back to her. “You did well to open the mirror without waking me.” Praise worked. Praise always worked. His attention was on her entirely once again, and whatever spell the presence of a weapon meant to kill him in this clinic had left on him had passed. “Shall we return home? I’m eager to hear more about this bird of yours.”

Chapter Text

In truth, she did not know if what she had told the boy about the creatures eating their dead was accurate. She knew little of them, save for that they would not be a danger to her and hers, and had only wanted to deter the boy from his foolish, foolish task. But she suspected that something must have happened to it, because it was a full month before news reached her ears.

“-Right through the doorway of the Church of His Ascension, he brought that thing. It was alive, too, just barely.”

She had been only half listening, if that. She cared very little for who was seen with who behind which oak tree or whose children looked like which man, the usual favoured topics of the friend at her table. She liked to talk, and Lisa liked the company and the background noise as she went about the monotonous task of grinding seeds and leaves into paste. It was important to do this every now and then, to remain human when she now occupied a world so far from them. She almost nodded, giving a soft sound of affirmation to prove that she had not lost her hearing at any point in the last few minutes. And then she actually listened and almost dropped her pestle and mortar, contents and all, to the ground.

“-Alive?” Was the word she settled on repeating in an incredulous tone, though any of them would have done the job well enough.

“Alive. Not enough to move about, but oh! The screeches it must have made as he brought it over the threshold! I heard it caught one of the clergymen in its thrashing.”

Her heart caught in her throat at that. Perhaps if nobody had been hurt- perhaps it could have been written off as a mistake. Perhaps it would have been seen as the action of a desperate child that it was. However vanishingly unlikely the chance of that was, though, it was gone now. An excommunicant attacking a man of the church- that was more than enough for charges of heresy. More than enough to close the door to absolution for the rest of the boy’s life, and more than enough to make that time very short indeed.

She placed the pestle and mortar onto the table. She no longer trusted her hands.

“What of the boy? What became of him?” She asked, her usual easy and sociable calm replaced with a colder, harder one.

“I don’t think it was a boy.” Her friend said, tilting her head. “It must have been a man, I think, to be able to catch one of those things.

“It was a boy. I- I heard it was a boy.” Her voice did not change, save for when the words caught in her throat, a steady, calm tone.

“I don’t know, then. A beating for the deed itself, at the very least. And then a trial. You don’t do a thing like that unless you’re working for something dark, Lisa. But there’s no more men about than usual, so they aren’t running about trying to catch him. Imagine he’s locked away somewhere.” She sighed, putting her own knitting on her lap. “It’s a terrible thing, Lisa. If the devil can get his claws into even children these days.”

“It is.” Lisa said, and her heart returned to her voice. “It is dreadful. We ought to be ashamed for allowing it to be, every one of us.”

She didn’t rush out immediately. She couldn’t. She couldn’t speak with her husband until the mirror opened in the evening, and if she started the journey to the city without speaking to him, if he found her missing- he would look for her. She did not want him to look for her. Not when what she would be seeking out would be, of all things, a Belmont in a church. Somehow, she imagined that would go poorly.

So she waited and she ground her medicine. Her friend moved on to other topics of conversation, some happier and others just easier to ignore, and she continued her ritual of nodding and mm-hmming until the shadows grew long and the tea grew cold. There was an easy way to do this, she supposed. The mirror that she used to move to and from her clinic could open to anywhere in the world. Her husband had used it many times before, to show her faraway places, wonders that she could have never imagined and that he could never have appreciated without her at his side. It would be simple enough to find the boy, to move him first to the castle and then back to her clinic.

But she could not use the mirror. Did not particularly care to learn, either, even if by some miracle that was possible. She had respect for the scholarly arts of magic, but no particular interest. The way that every part of the body worked to create life had always been magic enough for her. Vlad could use the mirror to bring the boy to her clinic simply, but he was no fool. She had heard the warnings he had given their son, seen the very few old wounds he bore. He would know a Belmont boy. And she could hope, she could imagine him putting aside old wars when he saw an innocent in peril, but she could not ask a child to accept the risk should her hopes not come to pass.

Her husband would know, but her son would not. He was an obedient boy, she knew that he would do this for her if she asked it of him. But no. She would not put him at risk in that way. Even for a good cause. Even if the danger was minimal. She would need to find another way.

“Do you know much of the Belmonts?” She asked, hoping that she was doing so at least somewhat naturally.

“As much as anyone, I suppose. Their oldest came through the village a few times, I recall. It was while you were off on your studies. Something taking away young women. Probably best that you were away back then, a beautiful thing like you’d have been snatched right away from us.”

If the situation were not nearly so dire, she would have been tempted to laugh at that. As it was, she reminded herself to tell her husband of it later, once all of this was over. Imagine, her, snatched away in the night by a vampire. What a ridiculous thought. She thought back. There had been a time when Adrian was very small and she stayed with him all the time, that Vlad had told her of one of the younger vampires forgetting that there were parts of Wallachia that were under his protection. He had been furious. Had Lupu been attacked, then?

He should have told her. She would have come home to help. Somehow, she imagined that he would rather she not.

“But then, I suppose it must have been her who was taking them away the whole time. A demon of a woman, walking right under our noses.”

Lisa sighed. She loved her friend dearly – they had grown up here together – and she knew the woman was not unkind. But unkindness and obedience coloured by fear were close enough to each other to be mistaken easily in these times. “What was her name?”

“A Leontine, if I remember correctly.”

It was an hour or so later, after her friend had left with a kiss upon the cheek and a paste for her mother’s bad knees, that Lisa put pen to paper. How to imitate a woman she had never met before? She was half-tempted to impersonate her husband’s mannerisms, to give the boy’s captors a witch to fear. But while family names meant little to Lisa compared to the lives attached to them, the boy’s meant a lot to him. It felt wrong to drag it through the mud.

It couldn’t be helped. If the church wished for a witch, they would have one. But a repentant one, one who would tell them all of the things that they wished to hear.

My name is Leontine Belmont.

I survive the attack upon my family’s estate, but while my body remains whole I fear for my eternal soul. I wish to save myself and to undo this deal that I have made with my Master, whose name I would not put to paper. To this end, I do write this confession and beg the forgiveness of your God, for I know that he is kinder and greater than mine own false ones.

I have met with my Master three times-

It was disturbing, how easily nonsense confessions flowed from her hand onto the page. Even without trickery, without the threat of pain, it was all too easy to come up with the details of this Leontine’s meetings. If she had ever seen much truth in the confessions of punished witches, it was gone now that she could see how even she could be inspired by desperation to put such nonsense to paper.

I would submit myself to your Lord for punishment, but there is a wrong that I must right before I can. In your care, you have a boy of my house. He had wished to save my soul, and thought that he might break my Master’s hold over me by bringing my familiar over the church’s threshold. Your Lord is good and kind, and he should not be made to suffer the sight of a child’s wrongful punishment for a simple mistake. I would accept responsibility for whatever harm I have driven him to do.

I dare not enter your city, for my Master would surely use me to do further harm to your Lord’s children. If you would bring my brother to the woodlands outside Targoviste in two days time, after evening service, and show me that he is well then I would gladly go to whatever punishment awaits me.

I finish this letter with a lighter heart than I began, for I know that this darkness shall soon be burned from me by the touch of your God.

It was- a little silly, Lisa thought, reading it back. Very silly, really. It was overdramatic and repentant to the point of sounding as if she were making fun of the concept of repentance and mentioned a god more often than she had in her life until now. It was very obviously a trap of some kind. It was exactly what they would want to hear. They would not come expecting this Leontine to follow quietly, and she would not have expected them to simply release the boy even if they did. She would not be able to take him from whatever guard they would send with him, but if they were primed to expect something terrible- perhaps she could scare them away from her patient.

She took sealing wax and the signet ring that the boy had left, and sealed the envelope with the Belmont crest. It looked almost real. It was her husband who opened the way back to the castle that night, and she slipped the letter and its seal away carefully out of sight.

Adrian’s bird had hatched its chicks by now, and he was overjoyed by it. The creature still would not take grain from his outstretched hand, much to his disappointment, but it would eat what he offered to it once he was a safe distance away. That was, as far as she understood, as much as one could expect. It was a wonder that such a little creature so fond of the day had come into the castle at all, even moreso that it stayed there with her son bothering it so frequently. Not many animals reacted well to her husband’s kind.

He was finishing recounting for the third time (the third time that she had been here for. The tired, amused, loving but exhausted look on her husband’s face indicated that it must have been something like the twentieth time overall) how one of the little chicks had fallen from the nest, and how he had found it and looked it over and returned it home. It was his new proudest achievement. He was, at his age, a polyglot, better read than the men of the church’s highest stations with a grasp on the sciences that rivaled her own and an understanding of his father’s magics that would only grow as the years passed, and his proudest achievement was none of those things. It was an act of kindness.

They had raised him well.

“I have a patient in Targoviste.” She said, once her son was done with his tale of heroism. “I will be gone for a few days.”

Adrian climbed up to sit next to her, leaning his head against her arm and going quiet and sulky. Maybe they had spoiled him just a little. Vlad sighed and shook his head.

“You could be there in an instant, and back again just as fast.” He said. “And yet you continue-”

“I continue to be a human, yes.”

“I was going to say that you continue to be stubborn.” Her husband stood from his chair, walking over to stand beside her and take her hand. “And difficult. You could do so much more good with my aid, Lisa. Save so many more of your people. Is that not what you wish to do?”

“I wish to keep my clinic intact, and to spare my patients the consequences of treating with a witch.” She responded matter-of-factly. There was no fear in it, nor sadness. The world was simply as it was. It would change, with time. “You know full well what would happen if I was seen in Lupu one moment, and then twenty miles away the next.”

Lisa was resigned to the possibility that her work would cause her trouble, because she had been causing trouble her whole life. Vlad was not. His hand left hers and settled on the back of the seat that she and Adrian shared, his talons digging into the wood and through the cloth.

“I would be there. I would protect you.”

“And even with your protection, I would have to leave. I have friends in Lupu. Patients. A life there.”

It was not Vlad who spoke next, but Adrian, and his voice was very small.

“But if you didn’t, you could stay here.”

They all went silent. It was selfish, and children ought to be expected to be selfish. Lisa watched the fire for a while, feeling Adrian’s eyes burning into her. She wanted to be here with him, she truly did, but she would be doing him a disservice if she left her humanity behind. It was better, better to work toward a world that he could join her in some day. If she didn’t, what power would there ever be in what he was?

It would be easier to convince himself that she was in the right were she telling the truth to him and to Vlad.

“I will leave in the morning.” She said, softly but firmly. Finally. She put her arm around Adrian and tried not to look at the way he stared at his shoes as his face went red with anger and shame.

Chapter Text

She left at dawn. The city was a little way away, but she would be able to make it in a day. She would find a way to leave the letter in the church discreetly in the evening and hope that the boy would not be harmed before it was found.

The journey was uneventful and quiet, save for a few encounters with others on the same road and steadily aching feet (if she ever did cave and allow her husband to just move her from place to place, she thought toward the end of the journey, it would be tempting to never walk anywhere again).

Two days was always going to be either too much or not enough time, because cadavers were always either all too easy or all too difficult to come by and never anywhere in between. Mercifully, this time it was too easy. An illness had passed through the city not long ago, and it took only a few inquiries with local physicians – ones who she could speak almost frankly with, who did not shy away from the practice of dissection in accordance with the church’s wishes, ones who were willing to learn – to source a woman’s body with no family to claim it. She took it out of the city that night.

Her ‘Leontine’ was wrong, she imagined, in almost every conceivable detail. She had formed a picture of the woman in her head over the hours of walking – tall and handsome, with that boy’s dark hair and icy blue eyes. Her hair would be long, and wearing it down she could pass for a proper lady in any place that would judge, but she would wear it up in a tight and practical bun to travel and fight. Younger than her by about a decade, and maybe still a little self-conscious about the silly things she had loved as a girl but just on the cusp of growing into herself and forgetting any fear she once had of being who she was.

(She tried not to think too hard about the fact that she was imagining the woman who had almost certainly once been destined to cross swords with her husband as a beautiful, heroic, intelligent thing.)

The body was short, and its hair was shoulder length and a mousy sort of brown. A little older than she was, if she had to guess, and probably somewhat sickly her whole life. But this- she would do. With her hair stained black with coal dust, pulled into one of Lisa’s old dresses, she would do. Whoever she encountered almost certainly wouldn’t care for the details, they would care that they had expected a witch and found one. She just had to wait, and to try not to allow the stupidity of what she was doing to sink in too deeply. Two days really had been too much time.

Evening service on the second day arrived at last, and Lisa set out when she heard the church bells announce it. Climbing into the trees was far more difficult than it had been in her youth, and doing so while carrying a body was still more difficult. It was perhaps for the best that her Leontine was so much shorter than she had imagined. She was easier to carry, this way. She waited as the night set in, covering her face with a scarf just in case. She could hear the distant sound of wolves and whatever small part of her still believed in things like ill omens hoped desperately that it wasn’t one.

“Leona?” The voice was distant, but she knew it. “Leona, don’t-”

It was cut off by a yelp, and another voice too low to hear properly. Lisa could feel something heavy and angry growing at the base of her throat and fought every instinct she had to leap down now and confront whoever had done whatever. No. She had to stay here.

The men who led the boy – chained and limping, with a freshly bloodied nose – they were priests in name only. She didn’t care much for the politics of the church, but she knew enough to understand this. These were those who strove to use the church to better their stations, rather than to express devotion to any god, and they took root within it like a cancer. Like a cancer, they made other things like them, bringing thieves and murderers alike into the church and giving them robes and collars and the promise of absolution so that they might have bodyguards and agents indebted to them. She had known priests before, some of them good men, and she had enough respect for them still not to call the monsters who burned witches and dragged children away for whipping ‘priests’.

It was when they were close to her tree that the boy next called out.

“Leona-!” The cry was met with a sharp yank of chains, pulling him forward. He fell to the ground, and before he could stumble back to his feet his captors continued to walk, dragging him along behind them. His voice was muffled, but he continued to shout. “They’ll- they’re going to kill you. Again. Please-”

Lisa Tepes had had enough. They were close enough now, and this was the time for doing stupid, reckless things because they were right. She took a deep breath and let out a scream, loud and chilling as she could manage.

And then she dropped the corpse out of the tree, right onto the heads of the boy’s captors.

There was chaos. Screams. The boy scrambled toward the corpse as the men fell over themselves moving away from it, but he took one look and his tiny face turned stony. Lisa tumbled from the tree herself, landing on her feet through sheer luck, and set off running. The men had dropped the chain. She grabbed it and tugged, and the boy ran after her. They had a head start, though not much of one. The men would notice that the witch that had attacked them was nothing but a corpse soon enough, and they would be faster. Faster than Lisa, even with her skirts hitched up to her waist to make running and climbing easier. Certainly faster than the boy, who limped and stumbled behind her and surely could not maintain any sort of pace for long. Distantly, she wondered how she had seen any of this succeeding.

She had seen it succeeding in the same way that she had seen knocking on the door of an ancient castle in a forest of skulls succeeding. She had enough faith in her own sheer bloody-mindedness to know that she would survive anything.

The men had already begun giving chase when she found a tree with a great hollow and ducked into it, pulling the boy in behind her. He was trembling, now, from fear or cold or any number of other things she could not tell, as he tried to tug his hands free from the chains and she pulled him tight to her chest. He did not speak, and she desperately hoped that he knew enough not to until they were safe. To remain quiet, because at least one of the men had had a lantern. Their hiding place would conceal them well enough in the dark, where everything was silhouette and the tree engulfed their smaller forms completely. If anyone came with a lantern, though, it would be more than clear that they were here.

Time passed slowly. She could hear footsteps – distant but still too close – and the sounds of the animals of the woods. Once the steps faded, they would set out. They needed to leave their hiding place before dawn.

But the footsteps didn’t fade. Instead, they became louder. Closer. She held the boy as still as she could, holding her breath. The boy tensed, his hands curling into fists, as light fell onto the area around them. A few more steps, and they’d be visible. And then the growling began. Wolf. Maybe wolves, she couldn’t quite see. She could only listen, as two men discussed whatever what making that noise.

“-young one, by the look of it.”

“Shit. Turn back. Even a young one is an ill omen.”

Ill omens. She had thought that only a few moments ago, hadn’t she? Back before she had done something deeply, terribly foolish. Perhaps there was something to it after all (there was not. She would have been foolish with all the luck in the world, because the most foolish thing to do was also the right thing to do). Unlucky or not, a young wolf meant a wolf with parents nearby. Protective parents, who would be aggressive even if normally they feared humans. She held her breath, trying to remain silent, as the two men discussed it – the path they were taking would be dangerous, yes, but surely such an omen must also the a sign that the witch was here. Eventually, after long enough for her lungs to begin burning, they decided that their hides were more important than any witch.

She didn’t let out the breath she was holding until the footsteps were distant enough to be silent, and so when she did it must have been louder than she meant it to be, because the wolf came closer.

It was a beautiful creature. Juvenile, certainly, with paws a little too large for its body. But its silvery white fur reflected even the low light and its golden eyes shone with intelligence and she couldn’t bring herself to feel afraid as it gave a soft, almost proud bark.

Adrian.” She mouthed softly. This had become so much more dangerous in the space of a few seconds. She would have sooner been found and captured than involve him in this foolish quest of hers. Another bark.

And then the boy in her arms pulled away from her and punched the wolf (her son) right on its nose, knocking it away and placing himself between Adrian and her, as if she needed him to defend her from her own son. The wolf pounced upon him, because of course this would be how her son’s first encounter with a child his age would go. Fur twisted away into the shape of a boy and the two of them began to fight.

“Adrian.” Fighting was perhaps not the right word for it. The boy, the Belmont boy, was trying to harm, trying to kill, trained at least enough that he might have succeeded against a human. Adrian was- he was angry but he was play-fighting, pushing and tugging hair, with enough strength behind him that the Belmont’s technique was useless and the two of them fell into a very childlike squabble regardless of the boy’s intent.

“Adrian!” She repeated, scolding this time. He stopped at that, long enough for the Belmont boy to sink teeth into his arm. He hissed and she sighed, lifting her son up and away from the terrified, hurt, near-murderous child. “You. Behave.”

The Belmont boy froze, suddenly shamed, and pulled himself up, staring at his feet. He hadn’t been spoken to like a child in a long time, had he? Probably not since he left her clinic.

“This is one of my patients, Adrian. I am taking him back to the clinic.” She stroked her son’s hair as she spoke, calming him. She’d rather hoped his first encounter with a boy his age would be friendlier. Less liable to have his father burning with rage. Less liable to leave him feeling like something strange and wrong. Less likely to leave him lonelier than he was before. The tooth marks on his arm had already faded away, but she kissed it anyway and Adrian put his arms around her neck.

“They were going to hurt you.” He said softly, all anger gone and only fear left over. “Father was busy, and I couldn’t tell him, but-”

Her blood ran cold at that thought. If Vlad had seen any of this. If Vlad left his work to find Adrian missing. He had come so far, so far, and she knew that it would not be enough to still his hand. She rubbed Adrian’s back softly, grateful that his levitation took most of his weight away from her. She’d carried quite enough people today.

“Will you keep this a secret, Adrian? For me? You know how he would worry. Go home, before you are missed, and-” Bribery might work. “-and I will not tell him that you left home without his leave. He would not allow you to use the mirror again if he knew.”

It took Adrian a while to answer, honesty at war with obedience at war with selfishness. Obedience and selfishness won – he liked the mirror, and using it to look at things in faraway places. He nodded, and she hugged him tightly. “Home. Before you are found. You will see me tomorrow night.”

She let him to the ground and he scampered off, presumably to find wherever he had left the passage back home. The Belmont boy was staring at her now, instead of at his feet. He almost certainly had a great many questions, and she planned on answering none of them.

“You’re well enough to bite people, then you’re well enough to walk without being carried. Walk on until we find the road, then from there to Lupu. You remember the clinic, don’t you? We go back there.” He stared for a little while longer, and she almost wished she could know what was swirling around in his head at the moment. In one night he had been dragged from a cell, thinking he was going to be traded as a hostage. He had had a corpse dropped in front of him. He had run from his captors and punched a wolf and fought a vampire (a small one, but a vampire nonetheless). And he had been spoken to like a child, and that was probably the strangest experience of all as of late.

He didn’t manage to speak back, but he nodded and turned and continued to walk. She followed. They went in silence, and not a word was spoken until they arrived at the clinic at dawn.

Chapter Text

Lisa briefly regretted not having set up a cot before she set out, because she certainly had not the strength for it now. She was exhausted, even by the standards of a woman accustomed to exhaustion. But the Belmont boy was exhausted as well. He lasted until they were in the safety of the clinic, until he could not longer be seen by the morning’s first light, and then stood as still as he could, staring up at her in desperation, waiting for permission to collapse.

Hardly capable of more, she threw a cushion from a chair onto the rug by the fireplace for a bed and pillow. She’d let him take the bed and suffice with that.

“You can sleep-” That was as far as she got, because the boy stumbled over the the rug and fell onto it and was gone within the span of a breath. That was unfortunate. It wouldn’t do any good for his injuries, to be sleeping on the rug like a dog, to be hugging the cushion to his chest for comfort rather than using it to support his head. But she had neither the strength to lift him not the heart to wake him, and so she climbed the stairs to her own room and slept.

Every muscle of the body has a name, and Lisa knew all of them by heart. And so it would have taken her a very long time to list every last part of her that ached when she woke, near to sunset and, thankfully, without Adrian’s face taking up the whole of her vision this time. Her body protested as she pushed herself up. She had work to do, still, and it would be prudent to do it before the way back to the castle opened.

From the stairs, it was hard to tell if the Belmont boy was awake or asleep in a sitting position. He was perfectly still, staring into the fire. It only became clear that he was awake when a stair creaked under her feet and he practically jumped out of his skin, scrambling back over the rug to make distance between them.

“Is it still sensitive to light?” She asked. “Your eye. You oughtn’t stare into the fire if it is.”

He nodded, and it took her a moment to think further through her haze of aches and tiredness. There shouldn’t be a fire, for a start. She certainly hadn’t lit it. She was grateful for the warmth in the house, the evening chill would have been unkind to her poor aching body, but if it meant that Adrian had come here when he shouldn’t- if it meant that Vlad might be here-

“Did you light the fire?”

The Belmont boy nodded in response, and Lisa sighed with relief.

“Had to. I’ll get-” He paused, and words seemed to be difficult for him. Moreso than at their last meeting. Something had happened. Anger once again threatened to bubble up inside her, hot and sharp and ready to leave her energised and painless for having so clear a focus. Tempting. But there was nobody but the victim of an injustice for it to hurt and she swallowed it back. “-more- get more firewood after dark.”

“The axe is where it was before.”

She wanted to tell him that there was no need. That he was injured and could serve her best by resting and recuperating. That he owed her nothing. She did not. He wouldn’t hear a word of it. Would only argue and wear them both out. “Not tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll gather firewood for me.”

It would keep him here another day and, more crucially, mean that once the door back to the castle opened she had - ‘everything under control’ seemed too strong a phrase. She would know where he was. She moved forward and the boy scooted back further away from her.

“You have questions.” She said, with a sigh. He nodded. She pressed her lips together into a thin line. “My name is Lisa. I am a doctor. I mean no harm to you or to anyone else. And I am sorry for my trickery, truly- your sister is dead, I imagine. Anything more is my business, and I would keep it mine. Just as your family and your church are your business, and you may keep them yours.”

He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again, looking into the fire once more.

“No harm will be done to you here. And no harm will come of your being here. This is all you need to know, is it not?”

“Yes.” Even across the space of a single word, his voice trembled, and she allowed her tone to soften (it had become so hard, so stern, both in anger at whatever had been done to make him like this and in defence of her son and husband and patient, all from each other).

“Undress. Let me see to you.”


 

Most of the injuries she had seen before in some form or another. She had seen patients who had been whipped and beaten for various crimes. It was the way of things, she supposed, that in taking money only from those who could afford it she would attract the desperate, and that the desperate were wont to do things that might see them punished or find themselves in the presence of those who might hurt them. How many petty thieves had she applied salve to the bruises of? How many women’s burns had she applied dressings to, the lucky ones who were found innocent?

She should be glad, perhaps, that it still was not easy. That she still had not accepted it. Not for the first time, she wondered if it was such things that had twisted the darker parts of him into such terrible knots.  How many years could one treat the ills that men did to each other before judging them beyond hope?

When the fire flickered, she was barely halfway through the task. She was on the second bucket of water, the first so dirtied as to be unusable. Stripping down had been a challenge in itself, the clothing that they had put him in practically welded to his back with dried blood. There was barely any skin left there. It had been a shearing comb, she suspected, though she had never seen the marks from one on a patient before, that had been used to tear it away from him. She hated how clearly she could picture it. To the boy’s credit, he behaved himself admirably, but that only distressed her more to consider. Her treatment could not be painless, no matter how much she wished it, and he remained so still throughout-

-she touched his hair softly, and that he did flinch at.

“I need to go to get some medicine. Will you stay here?”

The Belmont boy nodded, and she headed up to her laboratory.

Adrian was in her chair. He was quiet today. Subdued. He looked up and brightened a little when she entered the room, but didn’t run over. It would pass, she knew. He had been like this before. It didn’t make it less painful, that he didn’t leap up and bound over to her the way he so often did, but it would pass. He would be brighter again. Even a child so sweet as him would have days that were less bright than others, and she could hardly have expected last night’s events not to effect him.

“Just a moment.” She said, washing her hands thoroughly in the basin by the door. Blood didn’t seem to affect him terribly, a nutritional need that would not trouble him as long as it was met more than a constant temptation, but there was no reason to tempt fate. He still didn’t approach her once she was done, and so she went to him instead.

“How is your bird?” She asked, and he shook his head.

“I didn’t see her today. Only fed her.”

He was trying, bless him. He was doing his best. He didn’t mention the incident last night, half maintained a short conversation about a cat he had seen through the mirrors, a massive one that had long hair like his. He was doing his best.

“I have a patient downstairs.” She said eventually. “I’ll need to finish tending him before I return to the castle, but you may tell your father that I gave you leave to stay awake and wait for me.”

That was usually a sufficient bribe. Sleeping, for Adrian, was a thing of some difficulty. His nature made him both long to and reject sleep by either day or night. After some debate, they had decided that he should be awake by day and sleep at night. Vlad needed sleep only rarely, and Lisa so much in comparison. It made better sense that their son should keep to her hours rather than his. But he chafed against that structure, and it was a true struggle with his nature rather than the chafing against rules that all boys did. They would need to find a true compromise before long, but in the meantime being given the choice to choose whether he wanted to be asleep or awake at any given time was valuable enough to him to be adequate reward for good behaviour.

Tonight, it was not.

“Is it the boy?” He asked, and a bitterness entered his voice that cut deep into Lisa’s heart.

“It is.”

For a long time, he said nothing. Just as Lisa was ready to tell him to be on his way, though-

“He deserves to be hurt. You should tell him to go away.” There was so much of his father in his voice as he spoke, and she fell silent. When she hadn’t spoken for a few seconds, it seemed to occur to him that he had said something wrong and hurt entered his tone, too, as he choked out an angry justification. “He wanted to hurt me! He’s bad! Bad people ought to be hurt!

“Adrian!”

Her tone was horrified, far more than she had intended to sound, and Adrian slapped both hands over his mouth immediately. His face reddened in- she ought to have been able to tell, this was her son, and yet she suddenly felt like there was a part of him that she didn’t know at all. Shame, maybe. Or maybe anger. Then the tears began.

She pulled him close, and he didn’t resist. Vaguely, she was aware that she only had so much time before the boy downstairs suspected something other than a search for medicine might be behind her absence, but- well, he already knew more than he was capable of suspecting. And this- he was more important. Adrian was more important, and he needed to know that. This was what this was about, wasn’t it? That he thought that she was taking the other boy’s side. That he thought that she believed hurting him to be justified. She stroked his hair and back and slowly, slowly, he began to calm.

“People do foolish, foolish things when they are afraid. Things like hurting people. Things like-” And she pulled away from him for a moment to kiss his forehead. “-wishing hurt upon others.”

He looked at his feet, truly in shame this time, and she pulled him close again.

 “And that doesn’t mean that they deserve to be hurt, or afraid, or anything like that. People hurt that boy because they were afraid, and that made him afraid. And then he hurt you because he was afraid, and that made you afraid. And now, you have a choice. You can hurt someone else, and you will be less afraid, and perhaps that person will hurt someone and it will go on. Or you can try to understand him, and then you needn’t be afraid at all.”

He held on to her for a little while after she was done speaking, and she kissed his forehead again and washed his face when he let go and gave him a glass of water to sip at. She finally gathered her medicine and left him with instructions to tell his father that he had permission to stay awake until she came home and to read any book he pleased.


 

The Belmont boy’s treatment continued, and at a certain point the horror became secondary to the task. Cuts and welts were just cuts and welts, and all she needed to think of them was how best to treat them. He remained silent for most of it, letting out sharp breaths and tiny noises of pain that were, in truth, worse than screams might be. She didn’t speak much, until she took his hands. Burns in the spaces between the fingers. That was one of the things that they did, she’d seen it before. But these, these were fresh.

…he’d said he had to start a fire. Her eyes moved to the fireplace, to the poker left on the hearth.

“You made these. Why?” She said, and her voice was stern. He didn’t answer at first, and perhaps she should have asked more softly but she couldn’t bring herself to. Instead, her voice became sharper. “Why”

He flinched, and she regretted it until she realised that the sharper tone had, at least, prompted an answer out of him.

“Dusk is fingers.”

Chapter Text

It was a nonsense statement. ‘Dusk is fingers’, like a riddle of some sort, and for a long few silent moments she approached it in that way until the meaning of it sunk in. Fingers was obvious enough, he meant the burns. That whatever ‘dusk’ was, it had compelled him to hurt himself. Was it something he believed had power over him? One of the many malevolent things that she made a stern effort to not believe in until they dined at her husband’s table?

After far too long for a woman who like to consider herself sharper than most, it hit her. ‘Dusk’ was just that. The time of day. They’d had a schedule, and he was keeping to it. For whatever fool reason, he was continuing his captor’s work, even in safety, even in their absence. She sucked in air, closing her eyes and swallowing down everything as she pushed the boy’s hand into the third pail of water both to wash it and to soothe the heat from the burns.

“It is not. Not in this house. No more of this silliness. Dusk is suppertime in this house, and nothing else.”

"I have to!" The boy blurted out. He looked terrified, more terrified of not being hurt than he was of the alternative. They had told him something. Filled his head with lies, and made him need to do this, need their schedules to be followed, in order to feel safe. Safe, with a fireplace poker between his fingers, in the knowledge that being hurt was somehow the correct thing to do. The noble thing. The thing that would make everything right, give meaning to all the hurt that had come before it.

It would be bad practice to vomit on a patient, and it was this, this and maybe the lack of food since last night, that kept her stomach from emptying itself at the thought.

"You do not." Wash the burned area. Pat it dry. Clean dressing between the fingers, held there with bandages. There were things that were under her control, even now, and she made them better. She could still do that much. It would still make things a little better, even if it would not make them right. "I promise, you do not. I have studied people’s hurts for the better part of my life, and not once have I seen any good come from a single one of them."

He opened his mouth to protest. Of course he did. But then he seemed to think better of it and fell still, letting her work in silence. There was shame in it, and briefly Lisa realised that she must have placed the boy in a terribly difficult position – caught between being shamed for failing to follow his captor’s regimen of torture and being shamed for succeeding in it. But one of those would end in him hurt and one would not, and she could hardly bring herself to regret it. Better for him to know that this would achieve nothing. That it was not the key to anything at all, let alone making all of this better. That hurt in itself didn’t have meaning. Never did. It was only a bad thing, to be avoided and soothed as long as doing so did not bring about more hurt to others.

All of this she had seen before, and far too many times. It was a quirk of the human mind, to try to make all things mean something, and those who loved to torment others knew this as well as she did even if they could not articulate it. They knew that there was a vulnerability in the mind in the face of pain, a chance to write new things onto it. They knew how to use it to control. And perhaps they had a stronger understanding of parts of the human mind than she did, because she had never found a way to undo it.

In another world, in a crueller world, this would be Adrian. She could not keep that thought from nagging at her.

Awful as the task was, she was done with that she was able to do for the boy before too much longer. She finished binding his hands, gave him what food she had had the foresight to put in the pantry – dried meat and nuts, and he ate them so carefully in comparison to how he had eaten the first time – and left him with medicine for the pain, a cot by the fire to sleep in and instructions not to leave the clinic this time and to stay out of her laboratory. He would listen, she suspected. He had listened when he was told he needed to burn himself. He’d been left incapable of doing much other than listening. He could damned well listen to her.


Adrian was waiting for her when she emerged into her husband's study, looking small enough in the large chair to almost seem his age, the book on his lap turned to a page on the anatomy of a pigeon’s wings. He didn’t look up at first, intent on tracing the paths of bone and muscle and feather with his fingers. It was only when she approached, tutting at how his hair had come out of place during his upset earlier and untying it to comb through it with her fingers and braid it nicely, that he responded to her presence, leaning his head into her hands so softly that for a moment she thought he might have fallen asleep on the spot. He hadn’t, but he was close. He traced over the wing again, this time less scientific and more fond, as if he were stroking the illustration.

“She doesn’t like if I go too close to her, still.” He sounded a little hurt by that, more than he had then the bird first proved herself unwilling to be touched a month ago. Lisa couldn’t blame him, really. It was silly, to be hurt by a pigeon being wary when being wary was all pigeons ever seemed to do other than defecating on things. But it must have weighted heavily upon him, the way that everything other than herself and Vlad seemed to react to him with horror. “I wanted to look at her wings, but she won’t let me. Father-”

“He has no appreciation for the art of taxidermy.” The shadows interrupted, and from the darkness a set of arms coiled themselves around her waist. Like snakes, but the most beautiful, comforting sort of snakes. She leaned back into Vlad’s chest, sighing in both contentment and exasperation as this argument began. It had been a constant ever since Adrian had developed his latest interest in drawing animals. Vlad would give his son the world, and there were parts of the world that Adrian simply did not want.

“They’re dead! I don’t like dead birds!”

“They have wings.” It was always something to see Vlad attempt to reason with their son, centuries of politicking among the things of the night providing absolutely no useful experience when it came to confronting a child’s arguments and logic. “You can study them all you wish, and you will know all you need to know to help your friend if they are injured.”

“But they’re dead.”

Vlad sighed into Lisa’s shoulder. “He is being difficult. Explain to him that he will learn faster if he studies the stuffed birds.”

It was ridiculous, and she adored them both. She raised a hand up to Vlad’s cheek, the other settled atop Adrian’s head. “I don’t suppose I could explain this to him over supper?”

She could, of course, explain this to him over supper. Barely minutes passed between her expressing hunger and being seated at the table eating apples and cheese and the sticky bread made with spices and dark sugar that Adrian had come to enjoy of late. He reached over occasionally, pulling slices of apple from her plate. She would have thought it a wonderful feast ten years ago, and it was strange to consider it a quick supper now, eating it too quickly to really savour. Perhaps she was growing spoiled. It would be hard not to, in Vlad’s company. Even now he looked down at the plate, disapproval at its contents plain as day on his face.

“This is hardly a meal. Let me-”

She would not let him. She reached out to take his wrist as he tried to leave for the kitchen, no doubt to produce something that met his standards for what she should feed upon, something far too grand for the very end of a long day. It truly would be hard not to grow spoiled in his presence.

“I shall not have any sleep at all if I have a full meal. You wouldn’t rob me of the chance to spend a night in our own bed at last, would you?”

It did the job, and he took his seat once more, watching her as he ate with the kind of look that she was certain he didn’t realise she could catch from the corner of her eye. The same look he wore when he watched Adrian play, that had told her that there was hope for him in the first place.

“Is it what you want?” She asked, once her hunger was stated sufficiently to only pick at her food slowly over conversation rather than devour it. Adrian looked up from his task of spreading a slight of the spiced bread with butter and far more honey than was truly advisable. “To learn about your friend’s wings. If it is, you truly would be better off studying the stuffed birds. They could teach you better than any book in the library.”

This was, she suspected, the crux of the issue. It wasn’t knowledge he wanted, not truly, at least not about avian anatomy. He didn’t want to learn about birds, he wanted to learn about the creature that he had decided was his own. He wanted to know all he could learn about that bird. It was a need for closeness to a living thing that drove him, not academic curiosity.

Well. Not just academic curiosity, anyway. He was still the product of the both of them, after all.

“I just want to look at them. Her wings. Not a dead bird’s wings.”

From the look on Vlad’s face, she could tell that that was useless to him. The subtleties of it were lost upon him, no doubt, and she considered them all lucky that he had the self-control not to offer to bring Adrian the wings of any bird he pleased and to keep it alive throughout. Lisa put her hand down upon Adrian’s, leaving her fingertips uncomfortably sticky with honey.

“Be kind to her, and perhaps she will let you be closer to her eventually. But remember – she is very small, and she must think that you are very big. If she never grows calmer around you, you have to accept that.” It was not a satisfying answer, and she could tell, but any better one meant speaking with her husband in private, outside of his considerable hearing range. “Your father is right. If you study his models and books, you can learn all there is to know about her and her wings. And with that knowledge, you can better help her should she need it. And with that, perhaps she will come to realise you mean her no harm.”

Not satisfying. It was still not satisfying. But it would have to be enough, because she could not force the poor creature not to be afraid of him.

“Wash your face and hands,” She added after a moment more. “before you sleep. You’ve made yourself terribly sticky.”


 

“He is lonely.” She sighed into Vlad’s chest, his collarbone cool and soothing against her tired brow. It was wonderful, to finally be back in her own bed, next to her husband and not worrying about churches and witches and feral little boys. “He doesn’t care for your collection of dead things because the animals themselves aren’t the point, he just needs- something living, something other than us.”

“Must you call it a collection of dead things?”

“That is not the point either, love.”

The soft scratch of his beard against her scalp told her that Vlad had bowed his head even before his lips bushed over her hair. He gave a low hum of contentment, of thought. Of acceptance, for the something millionth time, that his son was not him and needed strange things on occasion. Spiced bread as well as blood. Live birds as well as stuffed ones. Companionship as well as family.

“A few more years. Then he can go into the city with you. And into Lupu, once he can walk among men undetected. Not yet.”

Normally, this would be the point where she argued that all of this needed to come sooner. He was lonely now, and a matter of years wasn’t the blink of an eye to him the way that it was to his father. Tonight, tonight she did not. She could not bring herself to, not having seen how deeply it cut him that the Belmont boy lashed out at him. Whether he was lonely now or not, perhaps he did need to be older to be able to accept the cruelties of the world.

“Vlad?” She asked, changing the topic. And she tried to make it sound natural.

“My love.”

This was a terrible question to ask in their bed, lying against him like this. But it was a question that needed to be asked while their son was asleep, and this was where she was while their son was asleep.

“What became of the Belmonts?”

Chapter Text

The silence was long, and for a moment Lisa thought that this might be the first time in their marriage that he would not answer her. He had always answered her questions from the first. Sometimes with more snideness than was strictly necessary. Sometimes with what were truly non-answers. But, infuriating as his responses occasionally were, he would always give her something. A sign that he had acknowledged her question, that even if it was not something he could answer he valued her more than the silence. This time, though, there was only silence.

She had closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder to drift off, with only a note to herself to ask again in the morning and not to allow her husband to avoid the topic forever, when he finally spoke. His voice was distant, thoughtful.

“More than I should have wished upon them.”

There it was. One of those non-answers that he liked to give when a topic was something he thought below discussing with her. Something he ought not to expose her to. Something that he did not foresee his letting live long enough for her to need to know of it.

“I heard that one of their daughters came to Lupu,” She prompted. Because her husband would almost certainly wish to know from whence came her newfound interest in his oldest foes, and because she had never yet found a closed door that she would not bang upon with a knife. “A few years ago, when I was here with Adrian.”

“Ah, yes.” There was a note of satisfaction to his voice at that – he had wanted to know why she was so interested all of a sudden. “My protection of Lupu was taken as a challenge by a foolish few, and that indiscretion earned the attention of that stupid girl. I chose not to intervene when she became the consequences of their actions.”

“You met her.” Lisa said, after a moment of thought. It was a statement, and not a question. He had called her ‘stupid’. It was more personal, simultaneously more and less harsh than her husband would use when speaking of a stranger whose actions he disapproved of. He could look upon a stranger and call them a fool, like a ruler judging his subject. ‘Stupid’ seemed - below him, almost, or at least below the him that the world outside this castle knew. The kind of thing he would only say of someone he had had dealings with, and who had touched him in some way with those dealings. He would call her stupid, perhaps, though she would banish him from his own chambers for doing so. “And she survived the encounter.”

Another long pause. This time, Lisa did not rest her head. This, she needed an answer to. Much as she should have loved to believe her husband to be a man capable of the sort of mercy to let his most hated foe leave a place he had declared to be under his protection alive – he was not. He would be, one day, but he was not that man today.

“She was past nine months, with twins, and still at her work.” He said eventually.

Oh.

“She went into labour in the woods. I delivered her sons.” A shorter pause, almost fond. “While she was trying to stake me. Leon’s blood through and through.”

...Oh.

“She calmed, when they were out of her and upon her chest safely. I told her I would not fight her while she was holding the two of them, and we spoke.” His voice grew wistful, at the end of it, wistful but sad, the way it grew when they spoke of Adrian growing up and apart from them. The next pause was too long, and after a while it became clear that he had no intention of continuing unprompted.

“Of what?” The pommel of a knife was there in her voice, and it banged at her husband’s stubbornly closed lips.

“The boys’ futures.” He shook his head, and she could feel the sigh travel though his body. For a heartrending moment, her husband looked as if he might one day grow old. As if this conversation was aging him and wearing him down in a way that time never had. “It hardly matters now. I searched their home. Their bones were there, hers and her sons.”

“You ought to have told me.” She said, after letting him have the solemn silence that that declaration needed. “I should never have let you suffer that loss alone.”

There was a dark humour when he spoke next, the kind used to mask sorrow. Lisa didn’t approve of it one bit, but she indulged her husband and only held him closer. It was not the time to do anything else.

“The loss of my oldest foe? Perhaps you would have joined me in a dance upon the graves.”


He had had nephews, ones a few years younger than Adrain. And now they were dead. Lisa had lost young patients before. She had known the terror of losing Adrian, back before they knew fully what he was and had thought him entirely human and found that no matter what they fed him he would cry and scream and waste away. She could try to imagine.

It wouldn’t come close, though, would it, to the real thing? It was late morning when she arrived back at her clinic, and the boy was staring into the fire again.

Dusk was fingers.

“...what is dawn?” She asked, cautiously, and the boy shook his head.

“I didn’t. Dawn is the whip, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. You don’t have one, and mine is still-”

He was getting more and more nervous as he spoke. Spoke more than one sentence, which was an improvement, but the more the words spilled out of him, the smaller he seemed to become. She sighed, laying a serving of leftover bread and honey on the table for him.

“No, you did well. That was right. No whipping, not here.”

He looked at her, apparently lost again. The schedule. He needed the schedule, at least for now.

“At dawn, you put away your cot.” She said, watching his face closely for any sort of reaction. It lit up, just a little, in understanding, and he stood and set about doing that. A schedule. She could give him that. “How are your letters? Can you read?”

He looked up from disassembling the cot and nodded. She smiled back at him, picking up a pen.

Dawn – Put away cot, boil kettle, breakfast.

Midday – Sweep and scrub floor, lunch.

Dusk – Set up cot, gather firewood and water, supper.

He stared at the paper as the sound of her pen being set back onto the table caught his attention, then at her again.

“I could use an orderly here.” This was not true, at least not true so far as she was concerned. Giving the menial tasks of running the clinic to someone else would mean that she could focus only on the work that needed her, might mean she could be with Adrian more. But it had never seemed worth the risk of exposing him to someone while she could still do everything herself. The boy, though – work might keep him here until she could find somewhere safe for him. It would give him structure. “We shall start simple, and I’ll give you more tasks as you recover. Does that seem fair?”

The boy set the folded frame of his cot in the corner that it had been taken from, then moved over to look at the small list of tasks.

“Won’t people see? If I’m doing jobs here. You’ll be in trouble.”

...it was a valid point. She sighed, then smiled. Teasing.

“I’d like to tell you about something called lying.”

He puffed out his cheeks and spluttered uselessly at being condescended to so, and Lisa was overjoyed by that in the way only someone who has been truly worried can be overjoyed by a child being prideful and difficult. There was still something in there, after all. “I know what lying is!”

A little more, and that might have counted as raising his voice. She rather hoped she wouldn’t have to squabble with him in order to make him act like a real child, but kept the possibility in her mind.

“What is your name?” She asked, and it occurred to her that she had gone quite a while without knowing him as anything other than the Belmont boy.

“Trevor Belmont.”

...that was not a lie. Or- perhaps it was a lie, she couldn’t know for certain if he was telling the truth about his given name. But- well, he responded to being teased.

“Oh dear, I thought that you knew what lying was. Should I explain it to you?”

Once again, he sputtered in embarrassment.


His name would be Katalin, she told him, if anybody asked. His eye had been injured when a horse threw him, and he worked for her to pay his treatment for the injury. His family lived in one of the tiny settlements in the forest. They already had enough sons to tend their land, ones who were older and stronger and healthier, and gained more from not having to feed another mouth than they did from having another pair of hands.

Katalin, the real one, had been an old friend of her father’s, one of those people that one called ‘uncle’ despite their not being an uncle and her first patient long before she would have called anyone a patient. She had tended to him in her youth as he wasted away from sickness. After he had been buried and her time was her own again to do as she pleased with, she had decided that what she pleased to do with her time was to dedicate every moment of it to understanding the terrifying force that had turned a capable man into a husk of flesh. It was also simply the first name to come to mind.

The boy - Trevor – accepted his new name. She let him stay in the bedroom during the day, out of sight, when he was not doing his chores. Boredom didn’t seem to be sinking in yet, but she tried him with when books she kept in the clinic for Adrian nonetheless. He wasn’t quite that good at reading, sadly, and in the end she gave him some clothes that she had been putting off darning to occupy him instead. He took well to the work, took well to just being put somewhere and told what to do.

“They wouldn’t let me keep the devil’s piss.”

He said it in the evening, while she was examining his eye again. On the one hand, she had never thought she’d be so glad to hear a young boy swearing. Even a day of being given simple tasks to do had brought his voice out of him with woulds more certainty. On the other, she had no idea what he might be talking about.

“...the devil’s what?”

The incredulity was carried only in her voice. Her hands remained steady, busy with the work of cleaning the wound once again. The infection had not become too much worse in his time away – her medicine had made a decent job at killing it, she assumed, only for it to return.

“The- thing. For my eyes. That’s what they said it was.”

“That isn’t what it was.” These people were exhausting, truly. She made a note to tell her husband about this newest name for her work. No doubt he’d both find it hilarious and bristle at the insult. Devil’s piss, indeed. He’d probably reply with some disgusting anecdote about the qualities of an actual devil’s-

“-I know. It would have burned my eyes out, if it was.” He added, and Lisa just wondered if she had made a mistake. She had liked the boy better when he wasn’t telling her facts about devil urine. She liked everyone better when they weren’t talking about urine of any sort, especially not in the context of using it as medicine.

“Please, please, just call it medicine.”

Chapter Text

“I do wish you wouldn’t call it that.”

It had been two full months since she’d brought Trevor in. As autumn threatened to drive summer out of the year, the broken and feral thing that she’d brought into her clinic was slowly starting to become something more human. More childlike, in some ways. But a perfectly serviceable orderly nonetheless. The story had stuck, to the point where after a few conversations with friends Lisa had half the village convinced that not only was there a family out in the forest whose son had hit his head after being thrown from a horse, but that some friend of a friend of theirs knew them.

Perhaps it should have alarmed her, how easily the lies came from her tongue. But she’d had to learn. She’d had to grow good at deception, because deception was sometimes the only way to really tell someone the truth in these times. Oh, she could tell people that he was only a boy, that he meant none of them harm and that what had been done to him was unjust, and all of those things were true. But so long as he was a Belmont, it wouldn’t matter whether they were true or not. They wouldn’t be believed.

This was what she told herself, when the dear friend who she took tea with looked Trevor up and down and convinced herself that she must have been there for young Katalin’s baptism. It was a lie, but it was a lie meant to communicate a greater truth. The same way ‘my husband is travelling with our son’ meant ‘they will not harm you’. The same way her failure to mention the Belmont boy to her husband meant ‘I do not need protecting from a child’.

“’swhat it feels like, when I put it over the rash. Bloody devil’s piss.”

She sighed at the patient. It was true, the medicine would sting terribly. She didn’t object to the complaint. It was just- god, did that name truly have to be the one that stuck?

“Be that as it may, there is a child in the room.” She gestured to Trevor as she spoke, and he looked up from his work of crushing the herbs she had given him.

“Lad his age knows what piss is, I’m sure.”

“I do know what piss is.” Trevor added, incredibly unhelpfully.

“Very well, then.” Lisa shot an exhausted, somewhat irritable look at the boy in her care, and he shrugged back. “There is a lady in the room, and you will both stop this. Else you shall be given medicine that stings twice as much and you shall be given twice as much work.”

Trevor shrugged again. It was hard, to find anything to force him to behave. Anything that she could stomach, anyway. The worst thing she could threaten him with was disapproval, and that would make him shrink down so small that it made a part of her wither as well. Extra work, he liked. What work he didn’t like generally needed doing anyway. Luckily, he tended to do what he was told, for the most part. Except when it came to taking her side in discussions of what people should call medicine, it seemed.

A candle flickered. She’d barely even noticed that the sun had set. She rarely did, these days, with Trevor’s tasks expanded to include keeping the clinic lit so that she didn’t need to interrupt her work. It was useful, having him around. But without the anchors of the light fading or growing hungry or thirsty it was easy to lose the time. She’d thought it maybe only a few hours after lunch, and yet now she thought back on it she remembered Trevor bringing her supper while she was checking samples of the village’s wellwater for anything untoward.

“I know the stinging is uncomfortable, just as you know what the alternative is. An infection like this, if it’s allowed into your blood- it could take the entire limb from you. At best.” That was not a lie. “Please, just for another week. Apply the tonic every day, bear with it, and the problem should be gone. If nothing else, it seems more pleasant than the old way.”

The man chuckled. “Suppose it is better than sticking my arm in a bucket of manure for a night.”

Lisa cringed, what was everyone’s obsession with associating medicine with the bodily waste of devils and horses? But the man seemed satisfied, and as long as he kept treating the infection then she could happily bear any insult. He left and she let her shoulders slump, locking the door.

“It’s later than I thought. You can fetch water and wood in in the morning. Use the bed, if you like. I’ll be sleeping in the study again.”

Trevor put aside his pestle and mortar and stood, frowning. The study was the only room in the clinic that Trevor was forbidden from entering and he was not a fool. He knew that she wouldn’t be sleeping there. She knew that he worried, that he had assumed that she wouldn’t be sleeping, rather than that she would be sleeping but somewhere else.

“You can sleep. You’ve worked hard.” And then, almost as an afterthought. “-Please.”

...He’d remembered his manners, without being corrected on it. If she actually were planning to work through the night she would have been touched enough to be convinced. She could hardly blame him for the assumption that he had reached. She would enter the study at night, not leave for hours, and then emerge in the morning – sometimes with a medicine or information that she had not had before. What was truly a good night’s sleep and maybe a few hours work in her husband’s own laboratory must have from his perspective looked like long sleepless nights spent on punishing work.

“I will sleep. And I will be fine, Trevor.” He didn’t look convinced, and so she used the one thing she’d found that would immediately stop him from asking questions. “And my business is my own.”

He didn’t ask any further questions, just nodding and starting to wash to prepare for bed. Inside her study, the way was open. Vlad wasn’t there, and nor was Adrian. She had expressed worries over either of them being spotted by patients and that had been enough to keep either of them from entering her clinic without warning. She went through her papers before she left. A speaker caravan would be on their way within the month, likely travelling close to Lupu. She had friends in neighbouring towns and villages keep watch and make sure she was informed when they came close. They were also traders of medicine, after all, and she alternated between saying that she would very much like to know when she had the competition or when their presence meant that she would be safe to rest and take fewer patients for a while, changing her reasoning based upon how harshly the person in question viewed them.

There were so many lies in her life these days.

In truth, they were – useful, if she were to put it in the most heartless way possible. Ingredients that couldn’t be found locally, ones that her husband had procured for her, she could claim that she had got her hands on by trading with the outsiders. They carried news of the spread of disease through the places where they travelled, while generally keeping from carrying the diseases themselves. She could tell them all of the simple things that people could do to ward off sickness or to recover from it quickly and trust that that information would find its way to the very borders of the country and beyond even if it was not always trusted. And they were good at knowing things – most knew who she was, who her husband was, and understood that while close to Lupu, as long as they had her blessing, they would at least be safe from the things of the night. It would be wonderful, if only it were not the things of the day that proved the greatest danger to them.

On this occasion, she had a greater motive. She had, ignoring the twisting of her stomach the whole time, read her way through the list of crimes committed by the Belmont family. The evidence that had been brought against them. Amidst the accusations, one stood out - they had sheltered Speakers. Sheltered them from the winters that were too harsh to travel through. And sheltered those accused of witchcraft from the church’s judgment. She didn’t want rid of Trevor, but nor did she want to lie to her husband forever. If he could be safe anywhere that was not her clinic, it would be among them. Better to be hidden in the care of his family’s allies than in the care of the family of its oldest foe.

Another month, and they would be here. She could give Trevor a family again, a place where he could be safe, learn to be a child properly for the few years that he had left of it. She set the letters down with a lighter heart than when she had picked them up.

A few steps and she was hundreds of miles from Lupu. Hundreds of miles from Trevor Belmont and her patient and their creative names for her life’s work. Adrian was not there to meet her, he tended not to be these days. Through summer, the long days and the short nights, he tended to miss his father more than he missed her. In winter, when the nights were long and the days too short, he would pine for her presence.

Her son would be in lessons with his father now, no doubt. After some weeks of continued conflict, they had finally convinced him of the value of studying the anatomy of birds, rather than trying to force that poor scared thing in the castle’s rafters to allow him to touch it. It had been difficult at first. He didn’t like the taxidermied things that his father kept, and at first the more he learned the more he longed to see for himself if the bird in the rafters was identical to those in the books. But it had grown easier. As the summer drew to a close, as they passed the solstice and his father was available more and more often, he grew to enjoy the lessons more. He stopped bothering the poor bird, and so when he approached it with little gifts of breadcrumbs it didn’t frighten so much at his presence. For now, at least, he was a little less lonely, a little more content in the tiny part of the world where he was safe and loved. It was enough of a relief that it was no insult at all to not be greeted when she arrived back at the castle, nor was it an inconvenience to prepare her own tea and cut her own fruit. Vlad would know that she had entered their home, for she had learned (and disliked, for it made no sense at all) early enough that this place was a part of him just as much as his own bones. They would both be here to greet her soon enough, when the immediate joy of learning faded into the nagging feeling of guilt at leaving her alone.

In truth, though, it was nice to have at least a little time to herself, to sip at her tea and eat segments of mandarin. Her husband and son rarely left her alone for long, while she was in the castle. Her time at the clinic was occupied by patients, but until the last few months it had nonetheless been her own. Trevor had changed that. Even keeping to himself much of the time his presence meant that she couldn’t be alone in her clinic the way that she had been before. She was certain that come winter, when Adrian’s time with his father was plentiful and he came to miss her more, she wouldn’t have a moment’s time to spend in solitude.

Bur perhaps that was worth it. She rested better, these days, with Trevor and his insistence on doing everything at the correct time of day to remind her to actually eat and tend to her own needs. And, of course, attached as her husband and son were to her, she would not trade a second spent with either of them for all of the world. There were other benefits, as well. After all, it occurred to her as she bit into another segment of mandarin, that she must be the only woman in Wallachia to have ever tasted the fruit.

Soon enough, her thoughts were interrupted. Not by footsteps, because neither her husband nor her son were considerate enough to warn her of their coming in such a human manner, but by the two of them simply appearing in the doorway. It was a good thing that she had never been a woman who surprised easily. Adrian bounded over to her, so much as one can bound while floating, waving a hand covered in flour in her face as if that should hold any meaning at all to her.

“Breadcrumbs again?” She asked, making an educated guess. He nodded, and then waved his hand again. The bird had come close to eat scattered breadcrumbs from the ground before, and he had been overjoyed, but nothing like this.

“From my hand!” He blurted out, and she understood what he meant but it wasn’t because he had communicated it in any effective way. So she kept her face still, to prompt him to explain better. Not son of hers would ever learn go around making nonsensical statements and expecting people to know that they meant. He would have a hard enough time among humanity already, she would rather not have anyone think him mad. He tried again. “She ate them from my hand. The crumbs.”

Better. She let herself smile, warmly enough that she could feel her whole body lift, and reached out to dust the remaining flour from his hands before taking them in her own. They were almost as big as her own, by now. His whole body lifted in joy, too, a little more literally than hers.

“And did you try to touch her when she did?” She asked carefully. She didn’t think he would have, they seemed to have finally managed to convince him through a mixture of good science and careful, emotional, discussions that doing so would be a bad idea. Would scare the poor thing even more than he already had, if it finally grew to trust him not to do it only for him to betray that trust. Vlad had shown him cross section after cross section of a bird’s hollow bones, carefully explaining how delicate they were and how even what seemed like a gentle touch might risk hurting them. She had tried, possibly less successfully, to get him to understand that not all creatures saw things many times their size and thought them akin to their patient, gentle fathers.

He shook his head, and she nodded in approval.

“I stayed very still. I didn’t even breathe.” He sounded prouder of not breathing than she would like, but he had got most of it right. “And she came up and took the bread right from my hand.”

She was proud. She was proud for reasons that he couldn’t understand yet, for reasons that his first encounter with another boy had not yet impressed upon him. He didn’t need to, not yet. He would see the connection, with time. See that just as he was terrifying to a pigeon who couldn’t understand that he meant it no harm, he was terrifying to people who didn’t understand. Just as Vlad was. Just as her science was. See that he could undo that terror in the same way.

It was a lot to ask of a child, to give and give and ask for nothing. The opposite, in many ways, of his father’s nature. But it was possible, just as Vlad had found it possible to give the world to her and ask nothing in return. It was necessary. And seeing his face, radiant with joy, when those efforts finally bore fruit, she knew full well that it would be worth it.

“He is doing passably.” Vlad said, and he had the decency to do so from the well-lit kitchen rather than from the shadows outside in the hallway. From him, it was high praise. He had an awful habit of comparing Adrian’s intelligence to hers, or to his own, and constantly finding the results unfavourable for reasons that he seemed to find utterly unfathomable. No amount of reminding him that he is eleven, Vlad seemed to cure him of this. Luckily, Adrian himself seemed to take this as a challenge rather than discouragement. His father’s judgement only ever seemed to make him eager to learn more and do better. ‘Passably’ was ‘extraordinarily well’, so far as she was concerned, and she let herself smile more widely to make sure that Adrian was well aware of that.

He took one of her mandarin slices, apparently deciding that this meant he deserved a reward.

Chapter Text

“It’s a wonderful sign.”

She pulled the night robe over her husband’s shoulders as she spoke, sinking against his back contentedly once it was in place. He would change back into his working clothes in an hour or so, she knew full well. Her work bound her to working through the day, and his nature to working through the night. He would lie with her until she fell asleep, and then get up and go about his business. It was all a little pointless, really.

But she allowed everyone else their pointless little luxuries, from her husband’s fondness for dramatics to her son’s desire for the things of the world outside the castle, to Trevor’s need for a schedule and her friend's need to believe any and all of the words of men of the cloth. She deserved to have her own little desires indulged, as well, and one of those little desires was that she fall asleep in her husband’s arms whenever it was possible to.

Beneath the robe, she could feel muscles shifting in a way that she knew by now meant that he was smiling. One of those soft, genuine ones that seemed to be kept only for her and their son. The ones that made every muscle of his body sink into a position that was more relaxed and comfortable, with a relief that suggested that they must have been tensed through all of his long centuries.

“He has been doing far better as his studies, when he has a reason to apply himself to them.”

That had very much not been Lisa’s point, but the moment was too wonderful to ruin it with any sign of exasperation. He made it sound as if Adrian had been hopeless at his studies before, rather than more brilliant and learned than doctors – real ones, ones she had known and respected and studied under – five times his age. Just perhaps not as learned as ones five hundred times it. She shook her head, her forehead tugging the silk of her husband’s night robe back and forth over his shoulders as she did. The sound he made at it might have been a chuckle, but the movement of his shoulder blades almost certainly was.

“The bird, I meant. That he has learned to treat it properly and not scare the poor little thing too much. I’d worried he might never be able to live among humans.”

Vlad gave a ‘hmm’ of thought, turning to face her.

“You think of your kind as little birds? Here I believed you thought better of them than I did.”

His tone was warm, teasing, and she matched it.

“All manner of creatures know full well to fear what is greater than them. Neither my kind nor yours are any different.”

Her husband moved closer. Closer, until her vision was filled entirely with his chest and she had to lean her head all the way back to look up at his face. “And yet you have never feared me.”

He really was far too tall. She couldn’t kiss him very properly at all from down here, and so it was terribly unfair that he could also float and she could not. Instead, she grabbed at the collars of his robe and pulled down. He moved when she demanded it, until his head was at the level of her own, and she kissed him on his cool, pale lips.

“You have never been greater than me, my love, and you know that perfectly well.”

And that was that, wasn’t it? Having successfully won that bout, she buried herself in the crisp, clean sheets of their bed and let her husband wrap his arms around her. It was a little while later, as she was just on the verge of unconsciousness, that he next spoke.

“Perhaps it is the time, after all. In winter, maybe, when the nights are long enough for me to be there if things go- poorly. We shall go travelling, the two of us, and he will see all the birds he pleases.”

Too sleepy to respond properly, she only gave a soft, contented noise of approval.

Adrian’s pride had not waned one inch by morning, and he was still glowing with it when he saw her off. Vlad must not have told him yet of his plans, because she was more than certain that Adrian would have been twice as bright and overeager if he knew. As it was, it was dawn, and he was armed with a handful of breadcrumbs and seeds. Dawn and dusk, she had told him, would be the best times to feed the pigeon. Not because of any reasons of pigeon biology, but because those were the times when either she or Vlad could be here for him. He wouldn’t need to sulk on his own all day if his gifts were rejected.

She kissed him good-day and returned to her study, picking up those papers that she would need for the day. Not for the first time, Trevor was there outside the door when she opened it. He was stood like a soldier, feet together and arms at his sides, back to the wall at the side of the door so that he would not look into the study by accident.

“You did sleep-?” he asked, when she stepped out. She just smiled.

“Wonderfully.”

The boy wasn’t convinced. It was hard to convince him of things, really, she had no idea how the church had done it so efficiently. It was more than a little infuriating, that he could so easily believe that he deserved to be hurt and yet so stubbornly refuse to believe that someone had got a proper night’s sleep.

“I made breakfast.” But it was touching, too, how he went out of his way to make sure she was well and rested and fed. And he was learning a lot of it, she supposed, from her own treatment of him and her patients. She had already eaten with her husband and son, but- well, another cup of tea and slice of bread with honey could hurt nothing but her waistline.

It would be a little lonely, come winter, when all the people who insisted on giving her food were with the speakers or travelling and far away from her. Perhaps she had let herself become spoiled.

 


 

The weeks passed in that sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow way that weeks always did. She cut Trevor’s hair when it grew longer, taking away all of the ends of it that were ruined by poor cleanliness and diet. The last of the infection was finally, finally gone from the eye, and the dressing could come away from it. Through some miracle or another, she’d managed to save the eye itself. For the most part, anyway. The infection had left tiny scars upon its surface, and she could guess that bright light might always be painful for him and his vision always a little blurry, but it was whole and he could see well enough. The scar on his face was a nasty, ugly thing, but no longer painful to the touch. In fact, he had a bad habit of poking at it to feel the roughness of the skin, one that she never quite managed to scold out of him.

Sooner or later, she realised, she was probably going to need to explain to him the consequences of going out and kissing young women and men. He wasn’t doing so, so far as she was aware, but he was about the right age for it, and underneath all the horrible things that had been washed and cut away was a boy handsome enough that he would need to know these things before long. She certainly didn’t want the lie to be given to her story when some angry father marched off to speak with his entirely fictional family.

For now, however, he kept himself busy enough with work that that was not yet a concern. Through the weeks he had added more sheets of paper to that first one, filling each of them with functional, almost-neat handwriting as he added task after task to his schedule until every waking moment was given a purpose and a way to do it correctly. He had given himself so much work that a few of her patients expressed concerns about how hard she was driving the boy until she explained to them that he was the one driving himself for the most part. After that, the topic usually turned to where they might find such an assistant.

“I will be using the bed tonight, I’m afraid. You’ll need to sleep somewhere else.” She sealed the jar as she spoke, packing it into the sturdy leather bag that she used for house visits. It was a little overfull, if she were honest, and she hadn’t yet even started on the things that she would be having Trevor carry. There were gifts as well as medicines, bread and sausage and jars of preserved fruits and vegetables. She would be asking a lot of the Speakers, after all, and it would not do to come to their camp empty-handed.

She had not yet told Trevor about her plans, and this failure was not so much a deliberate choice as it was simple neglect. Other things demanded her time and attention. Always, always, things demanded her time and attention. It certainly was not that it would be an emotional discussion, not that she predicted a fuss being made and questions about if he had done something wrong. She simply hadn’t done it, and that was that. He looked relieved, far more so than any boy should look when told he would be spending the night lying on a doctor’s cot.

“You’re sleeping?” he asked, and the words seemed to carry so much weight that she was surprised that didn’t float off like a soap bubble for being rid of them. He worried for her almost as much as her own husband did. Lisa proceeded to ignore all but the literal meaning, because boys his age didn’t really care for people noticing that they felt any emotions whatsoever.

“I am, and I expect you to as well. We will be leaving early tomorrow for a house call some way out of the village, and I won’t have you being seen trudging around half-asleep.” He nodded. He would have nodded no matter what she said, she was quite certain, he was so relieved that he could be sure she was resting. These days, it was easier to get him to leave the clinic during the day. She’d successfully got tit through his head that it was far less suspicious to be seen and have his face known than not, and that meant that he could accompany her for house calls where she expected to need an assistant. “Bring me the honey, will you? The new jar that we were given on Monday.”

Come the dreary, cold time between midnight and dawn, the two of them were up and about. She added another scarf to the mountain of them about her shoulders and Trevor pulled his coat – a hand-me-down that one of her patients had outgrown, given to him as payment-of-sorts for treatment because he had no winter coat and the patient had no money but a perfectly serviceable coat that was around the right size – tightly closed. Winter may not have yet been upon them but it was making its way and the morning was bitterly cold before dawn.

The Speakers were a few miles outside of the village, and she couldn’t say for sure whether the distance was to avoid provoking the townspeople or her husband. Either way, it meant that it was two hours’ walk with an overstuffed bag. Well- closer to one hour’s walk, for in the second hour she gave in and allowed Trevor to carry both bags. And he did, dutifully, the demonstration of strength apparently motivating him more than the weight tired him.

It was not dawn when they drew close, but the sky was light with the imminent sunrise and their hosts were up and about, attending to the various tasks of early morning. It was the robes that she saw first, because blue was a colour one seldom saw upon the ground in autumn. The wagons and horses came into focus as they moved closer and eventually, eventually, Trevor seemed to notice them.

“Speakers?” he asked, only when they were very close indeed. Perhaps she had not saved his eyesight quite as well as she liked to think. “We’re visiting Speakers?”

“We are.”

“But they’re-” he sounded uncertain, and lowered his voice as if the subjects of their conversation might be able to hear them over fifty or so yards and the bustle of their morning work. “-Doctor, they’re witches.”

Of course. A phrase she disliked more intensely than ‘devil’s piss’.

“Don’t be silly. And don’t be rude. They’re no such thing.” She smoothed down his unruly hair, letting the softness of the action blunt her sharp tone just enough to not cut. “You’ll behave yourself properly in their presence, and they’ll do you no harm at all.”

“Everyone says they’re witches. That may as well be the same thing. I’m not-”

He interrupted himself with a huff, adjusting the strap on the bag to make it fall over his shoulder more comfortably. His voice lowered further, into the sort of dark whisper that could only ever mean fear or conspiracy. Fear, in this case. “-it doesn’t matter whether they are or aren’t witches, or dangerous, or anything. It’s being seen with them that’s the dangerous part.”

Lisa hated that he was right, in that. Being seen in the presence of the speakers was dangerous. Even justifying it by saying that she was trading or that one of their number needed care, it brought more suspicion and rumour upon her than she would like.

One step at a time. One agonisingly slow step at a time. People would accept her and her methods, and then she could lend that trust to help people to understand them and theirs. To understand her son and husband. To learn and learn and learn until there were no more things in the world that scared them, and then they could stop lashing out in fear. She didn’t answer, because she had no answer that didn’t make her heart ache, and instead let her response be the way that her steps quickened. The way that she hailed one of the speakers with a wave that was significantly more energetic than she felt at this hour of the morning after a long walk.

Chapter Text

They weren’t the first people of the village to have found the Speakers, despite leaving to arrive at the camp at dawn. There was a man of Lupu in one of the wagons, slumbering under a pile of blankets and spare robes. She didn’t recognise him, but the rosiness of his face and nose told her all that she needed to know.

“He found his way to our camp last night.” the Elder said, smiling with all the patience that one did when trying very hard to say nothing at all for want of anything nice to say. “He seemed ill, and so we worried that he would freeze in the night.”

“He was drunk and staggered miles just to shout at you before passing out.”

Lisa had no concerns about saying things that weren’t nice. Certainly not when they concerned those people who went out of their way to do harm to people weaker than themselves, drunk or sober. The Elder only laughed. It was warm, with a humour to it that could only ever come from youthful ignorance or a long, hard life.

“We will say that he was ill and confused. That is all that matters, in the end. He may do as he likes, take what he likes, but when all else is done with the story is ours to remember. I think I would rather remember a tale of a lost man who found his way to us, rather than a cruel one.” He looked away from Lisa in thought, staring off into the horizon at nothing. “We shall make ourselves the rescuers in his story, and deny him the satisfaction of being a villain in ours.”

“Speaking of the lost finding their way to you-” The subject was aggravating – oh, the Elder seemed to be perfectly content with the way of things, but the idea of someone going about hurting people gnawed at her patience anyway - and so Lisa changed it. Best to get the request out of the way sooner rather than later anyway.

“Your bags are very full, Sunlight of House Dracul. You have a request for us, do you not? I suspect that it must concern the Belmont boy.”

She could not quite determine which part of that made her most deeply uncomfortable. The awful, flowery title was close. But that she must have been so transparent, that the Elder had identified Trevor at a glance alone – she didn’t care much for any of it. The boy was, thankfully, busying himself with finding a good place to put down the bags they had brought far too much to have overheard, sinking with relief to be rid of the weight and then rubbing his shoulder.

The drunk aside, the camp seemed a perfect place for him. There were other children here. Some were just on the cusp of adulthood and one or two much younger, but two were close to his own age. A girl and boy, the Elder told her, because she could not for the life of her tell at a glance. The girl, or the one she suspected to be the girl, looked on as the boy washed something dreadful out of the drunk’s trousers.

She wore the face of someone who knew what a terrible indignity this was but who was trying very hard not to show it. Lisa had worn that expression before many, many times. Her hair was the colour of flames and like flames the curls of it meant that it flickered back and forth, as agitated by the light, cold breeze as their owner was by the indignity of cleaning mud and shit from a drunk’s britches. She held her hands behind her back, tugging the robe between them – in irritation, perhaps, the same way that Lisa would catch herself grinding her teeth or tugging at a dishcloth when her patients reported to her the awful treatment they had endured at the hands of other ‘doctors’ and the amount of coin they’d happily paid for some of it.

The boy was taller and clearly terribly gangly even through the shapeless robes, one of those boys who had grown to an adult’s height long before he grew to even half an adult’s width. His dark hair was curled, too, but far more tightly. More orderly. His expression was unreadable.

“My granddaughter, Sypha.” The Elder told her, entirely unprompted. “And Arn. You wonder if he will grow to love them as his brother and sister, as he goes with us.”

“I had yet to ask you any such thing.” Once again, the man’s prescience unnerved her. It was just the wisdom that came with age and travel, she knew, and yet it was still terribly uncomfortable that he was capable of poking about in her head like that.

“But you meant to. We will welcome him with open arms, should he come willingly.”

Arn hung the trousers from a tree branch to dry. After a little hesitation and a lot more tugging at her robes, Sypha held out her small hands as if she were about to do something. But then she paused, looking first at her, then at Trevor and then at Arn, an expression of caution turning into a silent plea for guidance. When none came from him she turned to her grandfather instead.

“Dry them, Sypha. We won’t have our guest catching a sickness from walking home in damp clothes.” He said, and the message was clear enough – whatever she was about to do, it was safe to do before them. Lisa was less certain. Trevor was watching them too from his spot in the grass by the bags, his attention probably caught by the rare presence of a boy and girl his age, and-

-he was entranced, she could tell. He was looking at the two the way her husband looked at her and Adrian from time to time. He barely flinched when the girl’s hands glowed softly. It wasn’t obvious what she was doing, but Lisa could guess it was something to do with- heat, probably, or wind, or something else that might dry the trousers. It was only when the job was done, Arn looking over her hands (for burns, maybe? Lisa didn’t know much of magic, but Adrian had complained of burns when he trained with his father even if on him they vanished in seconds) that Trevor stood. He made his way uneasily over to the other children. His gaze moved over Arn, slowly, and onto Sypha.

“You’re a witch, aren’t you?”

Of course.

Lisa didn’t even have time to sigh, let alone reprimand the boy before a lot of things happened at once. Arn shoved himself between Trevor and Sypha. Sypha stumbled back in alarm. Even the Elder seemed to start at the question (and Lisa had to admit, it was a little satisfying to see something catch him off-guard). The girl was the first to speak, finding her footing and the moving forward again, letting Arn shield her but sticking her head out from around his side.

“No! I am not!”

“She is not. You must be confused.” Arn added, his tone soft but unwavering.

“And rude!”

“Confused and- perhaps rude.”

It would have been comical, were it not for the severity of the accusation, the way Arn carefully tried to translate Sypha’s shouts into something more comfortable and only really succeeded in making them sound condescending instead of insulted and cross. It was Trevor’s turn to be taken aback as they went on, and his discomfort made it more than obvious that he meant no harm. The Elder chuckled a little.

“-And you wouldn’t know a witch if you did see one!”

“...You’re acting uninformed, she means.”

“And your eye looks funny!”

“-Sypha!” A dig at an injury seemed like it was just a little too far for Arn to be comfortable with, but he tried. “She means- she means she’s concerned about your injury, and thinks you must have mistaken what you saw.”

“I mean that I don’t like his face.”

Sypha and Arn were squabbling amongst themselves, now, over whether it was proper to insult someone’s face. Trevor was all but forgotten. He looked down and clenched his fists, and when he spoke his voice was so small and soft that it was almost inaudible. Still, the camp seemed to fall into silence at the exact right second for it to carry perfectly.

“I am a witch.”

It sounded- it sounded a lot of things. Like a confession rehearsed many, many times before. Afraid. Desperately lonely. True enough to the words, it was as if a spell had been cast over all of them. Again, it was Sypha who spoke first. She brushed her hands against her robes before putting them behind her again in that strange robe-tugging motion, emerging from behind Arn.

“Good for you.” She said, in a tone that made it more than clear that she didn’t care all that much whether or not it was good for him at all. It was with strict finality that she continued. “I’m not.”

The camp came back to life at that, and it at least seemed like there was no permanent offence done. Trevor stayed with Sypha and Arn, on the very outside of their tiny group, content to simply orbit them rather than being part of the unit. It hadn’t gone constructively, by any stretch of the imagination, but it seemed to have ended well enough. The Speaker children didn’t seem to mind his presence all too much, even if they did think him rude and foolish with a face they didn’t care for, and he attached himself to them and said nothing but followed them about the same way he followed Lisa as they went about their chores. After a little while of it they caught on that they could order him about, and he held and carried things for them as they did their work.

It was good enough. When it came to Trevor, she had learned to accept good enough in a way that she never would if matters concerned her own son. The ideal was that he truly be a child, one who had experienced none of this sorrow, but she was too sensible a woman to waste too much time on wishing for impossible things. It would do that he could work and fill his time with things that helped people, that he could take pride in.

The other guest woke soon enough. It was while she was sharing news of local illnesses (or rather, if she were to be painfully honest with herself, largely anecdotes about rowdy patients that came close to what she might describe as gossip, were it anyone else saying it. They all had their stories of people who resisted every attempt to help them and lashed out in ways that had to be laughed at to keep the tragedy of it from biting too viciously) with the adult Speakers and sharing a breakfast of the honey she’d brought upon their hard travelling bread. It had been a pleasant enough morning until then, time spent with bad food and good people and barely any truths hidden at all. The Speakers feared her husband, of course, but they did not fear her. They were eager to hear of Adrian, of the child who was a thousand stories in himself, though she remained tight-lipped on the topic of her son. He would speak with them in time, and she would have him be a human before they made him into a tale.

With his waking, a perfectly nice morning was ruined. He shot up, swore, looked about himself and then swore some more. Once he was done swearing, he made his way not to the closest of the speakers but to the one who had flinched the most violently at his outburst. Lisa took note of things like that. She always took note of things like that.

“Where the fuck has your band of canting devils brought me? And where are my clothes?”

He was, to make the situation all the less pleasant, naked as the day he was born. Lisa was hardly a woman who shied away from the more dangly parts of the human body – being a doctor who prided herself on keeping secrets, she saw far too many a reddened groin – but it hardly improved the situation that the angry man threatening her hosts was also waving his genitalia about. Thankfully, the children had gone off on some errand or another.

The Speaker he was threatening, clearly the most easily panicked of the group, lacked the Elder’s easy grace. He (she? They?) looked like he might be about to cry when the Elder stood. He laid his hand softly open the man’s shoulder and didn’t flinch when this prompted the man to turn and grab his wrist with what looked like uncomfortable firmness.

“You were ill, my friend. Your God was kind enough to bring you to us. We took your clothes and cleaned them so that you would not freeze in the night, and you will find them left next to where you were sleeping.” The man’s grip loosened just enough for the Elder to free his hand and he did, his long sleeve falling quickly to cover the beginnings of a bruise. He only smiled. “Go make yourself decent. Eat with us, if you wish.”

All wind seemed to have fallen out of the man’s sails when faced with the Elder’s unwavering calm, and he dressed himself in what Lisa chose to interpret as chastened silence. The conversation didn’t begin again until he slunk away in shame. Lisa offered the Elder a salve for the bruise, the conversation turned light and joyful once again.

The noise that next interrupted them was distant. A yelp, then a massive crack, and then a scream. Lisa was on her feet fast enough to send the half-finished bread on her lap flying. The Elder was slower, but he still moved with a speed that she wouldn’t have expected of his old joints. In seconds he was giving instructions, speaking in something like twenty different languages so as to get the most efficient and clear means of expressing his orders in each one. This of course meant that Lisa understood none of it. It didn’t matter, because she was already marching in the noise’s direction. Some speakers followed, the Elder among them. Most were already setting about packing their camp so as to be gone quickly if need be.

It didn’t take long to find them. The elder rushed ahead of her, pulling both Arn and Sypha into his arms. Both seemed shaken, but Sypha more so. Her hands, still buried in her robe behind her back in that odd way, trembled as she tried to say something that wouldn’t quite come out. Trevor trailed behind them, slowed by the weight slung across his shoulders. It was the drunk from before, and he tossed him into the grass in front of Lisa like a sack of potatoes.

“He deserved it.” He said plainly, and Lisa’s mouth fell open in horror. Instinctively, she fell to her knees by the body, checking for breathing and pulse. They were there, but he was unconscious. She turned back to Trevor, ready to ask him what he did, but he spoke again before she could. “She didn’t kill him.”

‘She’. Then- All eyes turned to Sypha, save for Trevor’s. He seemed to be more concerned with considering whether or not to kick the man’s unconscious body. She shrank under the combined gaze of all present and tried a few more times to speak. She was successful on something like the fifth attempt.

“I don’t hurt- I didn’t want to hurt him!”