Agney Hall stood frowning on the moor, its dark windows wreathed in eyelids of snow. Aurora Trease paused for a moment on the brambled escarpment that overlooked the place from the south, her large footpads steaming in the snow, her breath billowing out in panting clouds as her tongue hung out between sharp lower canines. The wind blew her silver fur into wicked tufts, giving her an even more ragged appearance as she contemplated what sort of scolding Blake would have for her if she burst in this way. She snorted and gave a slight shrug before making her way down, expertly navigating the steep incline by using the clumps of heather and grass to brace her descent.
Dusk was falling. Trease was glad for the lengthy, dull shadows, making her greyish form almost invisible as she stole close to the manor. The house loomed ominously as she approached, but it was her house, and she paid it no mind. She knew every stone, every path, every cold pane of glass, every weathered beam of wood. Her childhood was bound up in this ancient place, and it was no more enemy to her than it was a friend.
She decided against the front door, making her way along the dark side of the house towards the servants’ entrance. She listened for a minute just outside the door, a murky rectangle indentation, and heard a couple voices inside. Neither of them were Blake’s, and she paused to consider what to do. Her mind turned to a secret passage that could be accessed via the storm cellar. She made her way around the corner of the house cautiously, keeping an eye on the moor for watchers. At the edge of the shadow she stopped, the cellar door in sight. It would be easier to open if she were human.
The transformation was agonizing, moreso because her human form now bore the cuts and bruises of a long night journey through the wilderness. Naked in the damp cold, she began to cough uncontrollably, and her whole body shook with pain at each spasm. Finally she managed to pick herself up out of the mud and hobble over to the cellar door. Her fingers protested numbly as she struggled to articulate the latch. At last it gave, and she wheezed as she pushed the heavy wooden door up and probed into the black square with her wet bare feet, finding the dirt-covered steps leading down. The wooden door closed behind her as she descended confidently into total darkness.
It was only a few steps to the opposite door, a few steps to the stairs leading up. She strode across the blackness, shrugging off the fears of a sick old lady, accessing her demon-wolf. Her eyes glowed that aurora blue-green for which she was named, and she could just make out the lines of the walls and objects in the cellar. Nothing had moved or changed since the last time she had seen this place, and a chill ran up her spine. The house seemed impervious to change, to the passage of time, to the ravages of existence itself. With decay it grew stronger, more permanent with every storm, more obstinate with every tragedy. She inhaled deeply, slowly, unsteadily warding off a fit of coughing, as the musty air aggravated her lungs. She exhaled, even more slowly, determined not to let a single cough arise.
The elderly Blake was in the sitting room, stoking the fire, which he had been commanded to light every evening whether his Lady were home or not. The sitting room doubled as a library, and the bulk of the ancient books in the house were shelved here along the walls in regal array, carved cedar shelves with mahogany panelling between, all the old volumes bound in gilded cloth hardcovers that still gleamed dully in the firelight. The magnificent chandelier remained unlit, saved for special occasions, but its crystalline mass caught the orange light and tossed it in a thousand directions like magic. Blake sat in the smaller of two armchairs that seemed to hunch near the fire, their high backs casting gargantuan, dancing shadows on the walls of books behind him. He yawned and stretched out his legs and arms toward the fire, black sleeves and pantaloons making his lanky form appear somewhat spider-like. He never noticed the false bookcase along the side wall sliding open on its well-oiled track, the naked, haggard form of Madam Trease stepping out from the shadows and towards him.
A floorboard creaked, slow and deliberate. Trease knew it was there, and she had stepped on it on purpose. It was her house, after all. Blake fairly jumped out of his seat, dropping the poker with a clatter and nearly losing himself when he saw his Lady standing there, dripping wet and nude, her hair straggled down her shoulders and back, her body covered in red cuts and welts.
“Madam!” he exclaimed. “What has happened? But let me get you a towel, just a moment.” He darted away and returned in less than a minute with a large towel and a bathrobe, which he quickly draped around Madam Trease’s shoulders. She was smiling grimly, having achieved some amusement from making her oldest servant jump a little.
“Tea would be nice, Blake,” she muttered as she collapsed into the larger of the two chairs, letting the fire warm her legs and feet.
“Yes, Madam! Right away!” Blake was about to ring a bellrope when Trease raised a single hand which stopped him as surely as a magic spell.
“Get it yourself,” she commanded. “I’ve no desire for the others to see me like this.”
“Of course, Madam!” Blake hurried off.
When he returned, it was with tea, crumpets, and a change of clothes. Madam Trease smiled at him for the extra effort, and decided to let him dress her then and there. She was tired of being a wolf, and doubly tired of being a naked, bedraggled woman. Normally the duty of dressing would be carried out by the lady’s maid, Margaret, but Trease trusted Blake more than any of the other servants, and she still had no desire for any of them to know how she had arrived that night.
As he dressed her, Blake cautiously inquired as to her adventures of the day. “Were you not supposed to be in Lornden tonight, Madam?” There was a note of scolding in his voice, but it had been almost entirely deflated by his concern for her wellbeing.
“Indeed, such was the plan,” Trease admitted. “But trains have a way of unsettling me.” Her mind was working now. She had had much time to consider the repercussions of her actions while running as a wolf, but now, in the firelit sitting room, her thoughts were much clearer.
“I need you to send a wire, Blake. Tell [William] Lord Treleaven I’ve taken ill, that I never made my train, and I shall be indisposed for the rest of the week. He will be cross, he’ll ask questions. Send no more information than what I’ve told you.”
“He’ll want to know what to do with the children, no doubt.”
“Him and that tipsy tart will just have to reschedule their damned vacation,” Trease curved her words with more than a little venom as Blake finished buttoning her dress. She thought of little Wesley and Annette then, and she felt bad, but she didn’t say anything. They had no doubt looked forward to spending time with her, and now their elusive mother was distant again, and ill, and the future was grey and uncertain. She knew what it was like to be a child haunted by tragedy and uncertainty.
When Blake was done, she turned and looked him in the eyes, her poise as noble as a goddess. “See if you can arrange for the children to come here instead. I don’t care about William or his tart, but I’d like to see them just the same. This house may not be as exciting as Lornden, but I’m sure I can find something for them to do.”
“As you wish, Madam.”
“Also,” she added, “contact Sir Harold. Invite him over for tea on Thursday. It’s time I found out what’s been going on in the Pack.”
As Blake nodded knowingly and left to carry out her wishes, Madam Trease sat back down in her chair and sipped her tea, feeling once again alive, and a lady.
In the candlelit great hall adjacent to the sitting room, the chambermaid, Sally Olwind, took a step back from where she had been listening curiously at the double doors. She scrunched her face quizzically and continued on her way, wondering why her Lady was suddenly back from her journey. She took her questions with her down the winding stairs to the servants’ quarters. At Margaret’s door, she paused and knocked. The severe whiplash monotone “Come in” caused her to hesitate fearfully, as it always did, but she twisted the brass knob and opened the door.
Margaret Densfield was a short, stocky woman with sombre eyes that seemed capable of peering straight through walls, disguises, and pretenses with equal clarity. She was not a pretty woman, but she was what one might call handsome, with a bearing of authority that seemed to elevate her beyond her garb and station. She was at her writing table when Sally called, composing her diary for the day, and she only half-turned in her chair to analyse the chambermaid over her reading spectacles. “Yes Sally? What is it?”
“Begging your pardon, Ms. Densfield, but I was up in the Great Hall, and I heard voices, and I stopped by the double doors leading into the sitting room, and I could have sworn I heard Madam Trease talking to Blake, but isn’t she supposed to be on a train to Lornden? I know I didn’t imagine it, but I can’t think who else it might have been, Ms. Densfield. Has she returned? So soon?”
Margaret gazed thoughtfully at the corner a moment, then waved her hand nonchalantly. “Yes of course, she never left, silly. You know as well as I do, she cancelled her train to Lornden.”
“Shush, now Sally, you’ve interrupted my diary. Stop wasting your precious few thoughts on matters that don’t concern you, and find your bed before the Moon turns you into a turnip.”
Sally sighed. It seemed Ms. Densfield always knew everything before she did. “Yes, Ms. Densfield.” She closed the door quietly and shuffled off to her bunk.
When she left, Margaret snapped shut her diary, folded her spectacles away, and sat for a few minutes in deep thought. Of course she had known nothing of Madam Trease’s return, but she could not very well allow Sally to think her omniscience was fallible. Truth be told, she was not at all happy to be kept in the dark about her Lady’s comings and goings, so Sally’s news had disturbed her deeply. She took an oil lamp and climbed the winding steps up to the Great Hall, heading straight for the double doors to the sitting room. She opened the left door and entered, and there, sitting in front of the fire, were Blake and Madam Trease, just as Sally had guessed.
“Margaret,” Madam Trease said, barely managing to conceal the quaver in her voice at being found out so soon, but the look in her eyes gave her away for an instant.
“Madam,” Margaret curtsied, her deep eyes never leaving Trease’s face. “You are back from your journey already?”
“Why Margaret, I can’t believe I didn’t tell you, I took ill this afternoon and had to return early from the station. My trip to Lornden has been cancelled.”
Margaret nodded slowly. “As I surmised, Madam, though it is nice to finally be informed.” Her voice was icy as she eyed the discarded towel and bathrobe. “Shall Blake be taking over my dressing duties then?”
“Oh Margaret, don’t be silly. I had a fever and couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to wake you in case you were asleep already. Blake was here tending the fire.”
Again the slow nod, the penetrating stare. Then Margaret seemed to remember her place and cast her eyes down, retreating a step. “If there is nothing you require, Madam, I will take my leave.”
“By all means,” Trease smiled somewhat cryptically. “Blake can handle my needs until the morning. Get some rest, Margaret.”
When the lady’s maid had left, Blake and Madam Trease exchanged a look. “That woman,” Madam Trease muttered. “Sometimes I wonder if she thinks she is the lady and I the servant.”
“She has a stubborn disposition, to be sure,” Blake nodded. “But the other servants respect her greatly. I dare say they like her more than me. Which reminds me…” he shifted in his seat, suddenly remembering something. “…there is a matter I should discuss with you. It concerns your apparently rapid decline in health, Madam.”
“You know as well as I do, the vampire curse—”
“Indeed Madam, I know, but the servants don’t know, and they’re starting to talk. It looks mighty strange for a woman to go from her thirties to her sixties in a few years, and I imagine it must look pretty strange to anyone who sees you with your children too. It’s becoming harder to hide that something pretty peculiar is going on, Madam.”
Madam Trease stared into the fire, biting back the resentment of Blake’s observations. “Damned vampires,” she hissed, and thought of William Lord Treleaven, her former husband, and the vicious little minx, Lermine Loxworthy, who had whisked him away from her. Her mind wandered suddenly.
“Let me tell you, Blake, I hated living in Lornden. I don’t want to go back. It’s a wretched place.”
Blake listened silently.
“Full of vampires. They own everything.” She wheezed and coughed, again feeling that pain in her abdomen, now creeping up the side of her chest. “I can’t prove Miss Loxworthy’s part in my illness, or my rapid aging, but I’m as sure of it as I am of your loyalty, Blake. She wants me to suffer, that little bitch. I could see it in her eyes.”
Blake’s face seemed to lengthen with sorrow. “How long, Madam? Forgive me, but if you’ve already aged this much…”
“Not long, I’m afraid. The doctors in Lornden could do nothing for me except seltzers and hail-marys.” She coughed, a sound filled with agony, and her knuckles whitened as she clutched the chair stubbornly. “I’m dying, Blake. Sooner or later, but I doubt I have more than a year left. A lot less, I’ll wager.”
“And the demon-wolf? Surely there is some power you can draw—”
“The wolf’s got nothing to do with it, Blake. Loxworthy’s struck me in my vulnerable place, the human lady. The disguise. It’s the weakest link, and she knew it. Once Madam Trease is dead—” she coughed— “The wolf will be sent back. Banished.”
Blake frowned. “There must be something we can do, Madam. The Pack?”
Madam Trease nodded. “It’s my last hope. If anyone knows what can be done, it will be Sir Harold.”