And here is the second story! I wrote both of these during NaNoWriMo. I've had this idea for months. It does tie into Aoife's continuing story. Rian and Sophie will appear in the sequel to Widowed Witch of the West should I write it.
Sophie’s parents continued to sleep as the wagon ruts failed to contain the wheels of the coach they traveled in with one other person. They’d picked up the other passenger in Fort Smith and he’d been in a hurry to leave town. She thought him a criminal of some kind, but her parents told her she was being fanciful. Which she certainly was not. At 22, she was desperate to be out from under their control, but they had insisted she come out west with them. Even though she’d had friends in Boston determined to let her stay with them.
Her best friends worked for their own wages, running a small secretarial business, and rented their own home near downtown. To Sophie, it sounded wonderful. To her parents, it sounded as if she were falling straight into the clutches of Satan. If she’d wanted to stay, she would have lost all contact with her family. In the end, fear of loss, forced her onto a train and a coach to help her parents set up a ministry.
And now, they traveled with a criminal. Or, at least a man who looked as if he had criminal tendencies. Other than a few sailors fresh off a boat at the docks near her father’s church, she’d never seen a rougher man. Not that he was unattractive. Not to her, at the least. His eyes were an odd color, she thought them brown, but had seen an orange tint to them once. Deep brown hair was tucked under a red bandana and she thought it longer than most men wore.
How a man so large made himself comfortable in such a cramped place was a mystery to her. Discomfort had followed her since Boston. Unlike her three sisters, there was nothing petite about Sophie. Even her father stood shorter than her six feet and her mother constantly despaired of the thickness of her bones. Not that she didn’t think herself pretty. Men complimented her, but still danced with the small ladies of the congregation.
All of which meant, she was no more likely to find a husband in the tiny town whose name she couldn’t remember, than she was back at her old home. The heel of her boot slid across the dusty coach floor and hit something too soon to be the other bench. Her eyes lifted, and she found herself caught in the gaze of the criminal across the way.
Who was smiling at her.
Warmth stole over her face, but she kept her own pale blue eyes on his brown ones. Fingers felt flustered, to match the rest of her, and rose to tug at a few blonde curls sprung free from her tight bun. There was something about his smile that worried her. Something quite predatory, in truth.
“Hello,” he whispered with a nod.
Sophie smiled, hated how her cheeks were still stained with embarrassment. “Hello,” she whispered back after a quick glance to find her parents still asleep.
“What’s your name?”
“Sophie. Sophie Cogswell. A pleasure.” The words followed her name because she was raised to be polite.
“Pleasure is all mine,” he said, still whispering. “I’m Rian Na Fahe.”
“Mister Na Fahe,” she repeated.
“Rian,” he whispered with a wink.
Which is when her mother snorted and straightened up in her seat. “Sophie,” she snapped. A heavy, slim hand landed on her wrist.
Before looking away, Sophie was sure she saw Rian’s eyes flash almost orange.
“Mother,” she said as she forced her fingers to leave her hair be. “Do you need something? Father is still sleeping.” Sophie wanted to look over at Rian. His eyes were still on her. For the first time, she understood what the other women had giggled about at church socials.
“I need nothing. What is the time? I thought we were to be off this stagecoach by now?”
Mrs. Cogswell had not handled the travel well. Twice she’d resorted to laudanum to quell her stomach and back pains. Her sleep was fitful and all of it made her more unbearable than ever.
“I do not know the time, mother. But I believe the sun is beginning to descend so surely we will reach the coach stop soon. They will have a fine meal prepared and we will have a bed.” Sophie hoped for a bed of her own. Their other two stops, she’d slept on a pallet in their room.
An elbow to his side woke Mr. Cogswell and he coughed before fixing the glasses on his nose. “Are we there?” he asked before he looked out the window. “I swear on His good name, I will be quite pleased to stretch myself out for the evening and have a proper walk before our meal.”
“Sophie thinks we might be there soon.” Not that her mother sounded impressed by her deduction. She glanced at Sophie before casting a disapproving gaze on Rian. “But I do think this trip has exhausted her.” Whatever she said next came too low for anyone but her husband to hear.
Sophie was sure it was not complimentary. Few words from her mother were these days. All because she’d wanted to remain in Boston and not go on this missionary quest. To be her own person. Finally.
An uncomfortable silence fell and they all listened to the wheels roll and the stagecoach creak until the driver shouted a stop. By then, Sophie had seen the cattle and the split-rail fence. Her sore bottom was thankful as they rolled to a slow stop. The brake squeaked a fraction as it was set, and the horses jingled in their harnesses. The door opened from the outside, and a hand helped her father out and onto the dusty ground.
Before her door might be opened, Rian slid over and helped himself out of their tight confines. As her mother was assisted by her father, Rian’s hand was held out to Sophie. His palm was rough, she could tell without touching. When her gaze left his hand to meet his eyes she thought the squint teased her. Which was nonsense. The sun was setting right into his face. Still, his lips did turn up and she saw a flash of teeth she swore were pointy, as he waited.
“Sophie!” her mom scolded.
But she didn’t look away from Rian. Oh, she was in for a scolding, but her gloved hand was laid atop his and she stepped out with ease. Other than the shooting pain down her spine that nearly buckled her knees. Rian’s fingers, blunt, dirt stained nails and all, tightened around her hand as she righted herself.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“My pleasure,” he responded in kind before releasing her hand. “Perhaps I will find you later.”
The statement, offered as he turned away, made Sophie shiver. If he found her later, she was unsure what she might do. For now, her mother’s shriek from around the stagecoach drew her back to the present. And, likely, a scolding once in private.
At least, she hoped in private.
Two weeks since leaving Fort Smith and Rian still felt the pull of whatever was going on there. He’d sensed trouble, his kind did, but it was not the sort he’d wanted to be a part of now. There was plenty of open space, plenty to eat, but the madness there felt to be spreading. So, he’d made his way to a small stagecoach stop and paid to travel west. Traveling West was in the nature of his kind.
So, travel west. Find some new place to settle. There had been no ties to sever.
Then he’d stepped onto this particular coach and seen her. For the first time in a long time something other than the need to restrict his violent urges had filled him. She’d ignored him, trapped against her parents, and he’d thought her like them, wrapped in the new religion of shame and restrictions.
Until today. As they’d slept, she’d made contact. Intentional, he was sure, and an offer to make his own advances. Not that he’d done more than say hello. Her parents remained, after all, and would dampen any desire she might begin to feel. All at once, he thought he might not travel so far west.
For now, he would see where the Sophie woman traveled. Who he lost sight of as he spoke with the stagecoach driver. A pity, but he was sure to see her in the evening when they shared a meal. He had not noticed before if her parents went early to bed. Or if she shared their bed. Questions he was determined to answer tonight. If they might form an attachment, he could separate her from her parents.
Rian wished he might offer his assistance around the stable, but the horses barely tolerated him on the coach. A shame. There was work to be found for a man with his size, but so much involved livestock and he made them uncomfortable. Well, unlike humans they knew a predator instantly. Humans, he often had to explain the matter to. Briefly. Before they died.
The bandana on his head itched and he tugged it off before his fingers smoothed the wild hair tucked underneath. He’d been meaning to get it cut, but his swift departure from Fort Smith had been more important. His bandana hid the mess most of the time. Unless- No. Best not to even think it. These past few days he’d known how close he was getting, but hoped to arrive somewhere to quench his need. Now there was Sophie to take his mind from the situation.
Gathering his hair up, he twisted it into a knot and tucked it back under his bandana before setting out for a walk. In order to better be able to dominate Sophie’s attention later, he needed to give her time now. With any luck, tonight, they would address the flare of desire.
“And I am sure that man is some sort of criminal,” her mother said. She finished washing her hands and splashing water on her face before sitting down on the bed. Since they’d arrived, she’d not let Sophie out of her sight.
“As opposed to earlier? When I’d suggested the same and was accused of fancy.” Sophie knew she might be in for a scolding, again, but was annoyed. Since they’d been shown to this small room it had been one question after another. Followed by prayer. Followed by more questions. The process was exhausting, but her father had insisted she stay in the room with her mother. “He merely helped me from the stagecoach,” she reminded.
Idly, she wondered if she had enough of her own money stashed away for passage back to Boston. The new congregation had paid for their passage out west. If she were able to get home, a pleasing thought especially now, she would risk her parents’ ire.
“Perhaps we should remain here for dinner. There is no need to risk an unfortunate incident.” The tiny towel she used to wash up was folded and set atop the wash basin. “We might discuss several scriptures.”
Sophie bit back an impatient noise in her throat. Spending the night with her mother was not the plan. So, she did not respond, but washed herself up, and headed for the door.
“Sophie!” her mother scolded.
Turning from the door, Sophie smiled in a conciliatory manner, “Mother, if we are here to save the souls of those in the west, what better opportunity than the lost soul we travel with.” She did not think her mother convinced, but she was not stopped from leaving her prison for the evening. One without a bed, of course.
Not that she had the opportunity to visit with Rian at dinner. Her parents placed her between them and her father delivered a rousing sermon she was sure no one listened to as they were busy eating. The food was much the same as before. Better than the last stop, if not as much.
Her attention strayed to Rian who sat at the far end of the table. Every time she leaned forward to reach for something, which she did frequently despite not needing more salt, he was waiting for her with a teasing smile. She did not think her parents fooled when she complained of the warmth when they inquired about her red cheeks. It was too late to ignore him. She’d been trying since he joined them a week before.
If she squinted at her own morality, she might convince herself what she’d told her mother was true. Certainly, she might convince herself she meant nothing illicit in her pleasure at the thought of them speaking later. Not that she’d any idea what illicit things might be available to her.
Every time she looked his way, he knew beforehand. The Fates had surely placed him on the stagecoach to meet her. Although, they might have left her parents behind. Not that he wasn’t able to get around them. He finished his meal before her and rose to go for a walk. All of the people had his scalp itching against his bandana. The light of the lanterns and the fire bled red over all their skin. His tongue felt swollen and his teeth ached, so he left to clear his head.
By the time he returned there was a fire burning in the coach yard. A couple of people he did not recognize had guitars and were singing songs he did not recognize. Children, he thought they belonged to those running the place, danced about and he watched them in amusement. The children of his people scampered about in much the same manner. Although often with bloodier results than he thought might come about from here.
Not that children interested him. He had more entertaining prey this evening. As he looked about, he saw his quarry near the corral. The shadows hid him from her parents’ view and he watched her feeding a donkey, appearing unaware of his approach. Not that he believed her ruse.
“Do you not like dancing?” he asked from behind her.
The donkey darted away, and she had no reason to not turn and face him.
“There is no one here who will ask me to dance. I am a foot taller than most of them. Dancing becomes awkward at that point.” The calm in her voice did not hide the faint sadness at her own words. Still, she smiled at him and he stepped closer.
“Sophie, I do not know how to dance,” he told her “Not any sort you might know.”
“I am sure wherever you are from, the dances are no different than in Boston,” Sophie teased.
“Do you not remember my name?” he teased back as he leaned closer. “Have your prayers driven the word from your knowledge as a protection?”
Sophie’s laugh swam over him. He could not help but touch her hand. When she did not pull away, he laced his fingers with hers.
“Rian.” Her eyes darted away, towards the bunkhouse. “My parents do not approve of my socializing with men who are not of upstanding character.”
“And you assume I am not?” he asked as he shifted his body to stand between her and anyone who glanced their way.
“No upstanding man has ever been so forward.”
“So, are you saying I shouldn’t kiss you?”
“I am not saying that at all,” she replied. “Only that I told my parents I might save your soul if I spent time with you.”
Rian laughed and caressed her cheek with the back of his palm. She had no idea, of that he was sure, of how his self-control was tested. His kind were not known for such. Part of why he no longer desired to live with his kind. The older he’d grown, the more he’d stopped giving into every impulse.
“So, I can kiss you?” he asked, setting aside the thoughts of the past.
Sophie turned red again, the blush creeping to the top of her tan. Something about the blush shot through his blood and his willpower was forced again to keep him from hauling her close for a kiss now. Then she pulled her hand from under his and he felt all the warmth leave his body.
“Not here,” she whispered.
“No?” he said with a smirk. “Where?”
“I don’t know,” she said as her eyes darted about. “I’ve never done such a thing before.”
“Never?” he asked. He tried to hide his surprise at the lapse of judgement humans sometimes possessed. A woman such as her, strong and capable, if she were of his kind, would have been fought after. Men and women would have murdered to be chosen by her. “I would kill for a kiss from you,” he swore.
Not the right thing to say.
Sophie shrank back against the split rail of the fence and now her eyes darted about looking for escape and not a dalliance.
He immediately stepped back cursing himself in his head as his bandana itched. It felt dry and her fear raised his pulse even more than the desire he’d known she felt a moment ago. Before he’d ruined it.
“I should go,” Sophie whispered. “You frighten me.”
“What else?” he pressed as gently as his kind was able.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what else do I do to you?” He wanted to see if she worked past the fear. Some humans were capable. Of all the ones he’d met in the last several decades, she was the one most likely. Otherwise, the Fates only mocked him, and he did not believe them so cruel.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. Which she hated more than the fear. Admitting ignorance had never been something she was fond of doing.
“Do you still want to kiss me?” he asked.
He hadn’t moved since she’d spooked. How she felt about such patience she did not know. Predators did such things, she knew from her readings. What few readings she’d managed away from her parents’ prying eyes. They felt there were no words needed outside the Bible. The question she had to ask now was, did she want to kiss him? A part of her did, in a way. He felt dangerous, but she wasn’t afraid.
“Is that all?” she asked when she met his eyes again.
“All you will do? Is kissing me all you will do?”
“If that is all you desire.”
Only so brave, only slightly daring, she nodded. “A kiss.”
Rian grinned, teasing and promising. “A single kiss. Unless it inspires you to want more.” He looked over his shoulder. “Meet me in the barn in a few minutes.”
His steps were sure, if meandering, and she lost sight of him in the shadows before too long.
Frozen with indecision, she was not sure she was even so daring as she’d thought. Until she thought she heard her mother calling her. Maybe she would not go through with the kiss, but she surely was uninterested in a lecture about propriety.
She darted in the shadows as well, but less successfully. Wishing for something other than a skirt, she managed not to stumble, an embarrassment if she had, and made it to the barn without drawing notice, she hoped. Inside the cooler dark, she waited for her eyes to adjust. Before they did, a hand took hers and she suppressed a cry of surprise.
“It is me,” Rian said.
“I knew that,” she bluffed. “I was not expecting the touch.”
Rian took her hand and pulled her deeper into the barn. “I thought it was my touch you came here seeking.” His hand left hers and moved to her waist. “Have you changed your mind?”
“I do not think so,” she admitted. “So long as we are in agreement and it shall only be a kiss.”
“One?” he followed up with as he laid his other hand on her waist and began a slow pull forward. “Among my people, you would be prized.”
Sophie, unsure of what to do with her own hands, left them at her sides. “The ones who think it proper to woo a lady by offering to kill for her?” Which she did not find flattering. No proper Christian lady would.
“My people are not human,” Rian said. “I tell you this so there are no secrets before we initiate physical contact.”
“Aren’t we- aren’t we in contact?”
“Not until you touch me as well.”
Sophie glanced away before she laid her hand on his arm. “Like this?” Her other arm hung at her side.
“May I show you?”
Again, she wondered what she was doing. He clearly was a madman. She’d heard his words, but thought him merely touched in the head. Not much. Only enough to have wild fancies about being something other than human. Because there was nothing other than humans. Created in God’s own image and everything.
“I- Yes, Rian.” Touched or not, she was already ruined if caught. She might as well enjoy some small ruination in truth.
The burn of passion in his blood grew hotter at her affirmation of what he desired. Not that he would take all she might offer. If this was truly her first experience of desire, she would be easy to manipulate, and he did not want to do so. Not the rational part of him. Only the itch on his scalp as his bandana reminded him of its dryness, urged him to take.
So, when he reached for her hand, he did so slowly when he desired swiftness. Her fingers were soft, and warm, as they slide along his neck at his own urging. He felt the catch in her breath as she touched his skin. While his mind was able to hold back, his body was aware of the touch and responded appropriately. He guided her other hand to his back before his own arms wrapped around her waist and hauled her against his body.
There. He had wanted her close and now she was against him. She felt right. No one had felt right in this manner since his second wife fifty years ago. She had not been tall like Sophie. At first, he’d been afraid of breaking her, but she’d possessed her own strength. For a human.
“Will you kiss me now?” Sophie asked of him.
With her head turned up as it was, he saw no reason to answer with words. Instead, he lowered his mouth and smiled as he heard her draw in a sharp breath. Her last as a woman unappreciated. Rian knew to take his time despite the urge to take, consume, claim. She was not of his kind. She would be frightened by such actions.
So, he teased and stoked her fires of desire. When his tongue traced her lips, and began to tease them open she let out a quiet moan. His fingers tightened on her waist and he found there was a scant inch of space between them he could close. The fullness of her against him was hard to resist. For a moment, he wished her of his kind. Even though he would wish no such curse upon anyone. Were she like him, he could take her. The desire was there, and she would expect him to take action.
Instead, he had to content himself with deepening the kiss and allowing his hands to steal lower and feel the weight of her hips. Even that was not enough and as her fingers locked around his neck and she returned the kiss with no hesitation, he let himself cup his hands on her bottom and adjust her position to feel the way she fit around his erection.
Heaven, if the humans’ construct existed, was surely this sensation. What else compared to the feel of a woman who was willing to fall into unquenchable desire together with a man? Nothing.
“I want to touch you,” he said against her lips when he ended the kiss. Her breath was as wild as his and he knew he saw not only his own need reflected in her eyes. “Please. Sophie, say I may touch you. I shall swear an oath to stop when you say, but please.”
“I don’t know,” Sophie answered. He thought her clinging to wisdom and felt sad. Less wisdom would lead to more fun for the both of them. “I am afraid if I say yes, I shall be saying yes to everything.”
Rian could not hide his groan at her words. His hands stroked her bottom and he held her tight against his body. Awareness flooded her senses and he watched it all in her eyes.
“You are crazy.”
“The thing you said. About not being human. That is crazy.” Not that she’d tried to disengage. Nor did she speak of stopping as he wrapped his hand around the back of her thigh and pulled her leg up to let her feel him more directly where he desired to be.
“It is the truth. You may choose not to accept it, but the lack of acceptance does not negate the truth.”
“I have never-” She bit back what he was sure was a moan. “Never even contemplated such behavior. Why now? Are my parents right? Does the Devil send temptation my way?”
Rian laughed and released her. After making sure her knees were capable of supporting her. She looked disappointed which heartened him.
“I was not sent by your devil. The Fates surely placed you in my path. If you desired such, I would find a spot and show you why I am ever thankful to the Fates. Because, sweet Sophie, that is all I desire this evening.” He leaned in and placed a swift kiss on her lips. “But you must say yes.”
Which was not what he expected. Not the swiftness of her response. Certainly not the way she lunged for him, wild desire filling her with a light he needed to take. Now. Her word was all he needed. The syllable left her lips and he caught her up in a kiss threatening to set the barn on fire.
Somehow, they made it up the ladder to the hayloft where he found a mouse chewed blanket to lay out over the stiff hay. Not the best bed, but he vowed to make her forget such things. He hoped, come morning, she would find him successful.
At first, she was not sure what awoke her in the middle of the night. A heavy weight lay atop her body and she felt a moment of panic. Once fully awake, the awareness of what she’d done came back to her. She thought to feel shame, but there was none.
If not that, then what had woken her? She nudged Rian who grunted as he rolled off her and sat up. He looked fully awake and she rubbed sleep from her eyes as she reached for some form of clothing.
“What was that?” she asked as she clutched her shift to her body. “Did you hear something? Something woke me.”
A scream stopped her thinking and she looked towards the ladder with wide eyes.
“Will you stay here?” Rian asked as he pulled his clothes on.
His bandana, she noted, had remained on his head. Well, at least one of them had no visible rats’ nest of hair. She wanted to get dressed, but heard another scream and couldn’t move.
“Stay here,” Rian said. He took her hands and she looked down at them. “Please.”
“Don’t go,” she said as he dropped her hands. “What can you do? What is happening?”
Rian was dressed, and he kissed her, the weight of his need pressing her down into the straw before he sat up once more. “Stay here. I will protect you.” He waited until she nodded and was gone.
Sophie’s fingers did not want to work, but she managed to get dressed as the horrible sounds from outside continued. Whatever was happening was not good. Once her boots were laced again, she began searching quietly in the straw. A pitchfork was half-buried near the edge and she hauled it back with her to the blanket.
Where she sat for what was surely an eternity.
Eventually, the night silence came back full force. Which was only worse. She worried in silence over her parents, over Rian, and everyone else. Prayers had not formed. No matter how much she tried to form the words, none of the comforting prayers she’d learned as a child came forth. Well, she was fallen and all. Perhaps the Lord’s words would not come to her anymore. Which did not mean she was going to sit up here like a damsel. There were plenty of strong women in the Bible and she would be cut from the same cloth, fallen or not.
Pitchfork in hand, she maneuvered down the ladder and toward the door. The silence was worse than the screams had been. Huddled near the door, she peeked outside, but saw nothing. The fire had been scattered, either during whatever happened or before. The stars were bright, but not enough to show her what she needed.
“Rian,” she hissed.
So, she crept out two steps. “Rian,” she tried again. Still nothing, so she moved forward and tripped over something that had not been there before. When she looked down, she suppressed a scream.
It was one of the children. The daughter, she thought, of those who manned the stop. Or, what was left of her. Light from the left forced her to turn and she saw several figures hurrying away. She backed up toward the barn once more and stopped when splintered wood hit her back.
Because the hooded figures had been fleeing…something.
Something that made no sound until it was atop them and yelled, screamed, in a way that made her bones chill. The hooded figures stood no chance. Whatever the large figure was, it tore through them like pages from a book. Was that what had done- what had happened? Did the ones trying to escape turn on each other?
All of the questions spinning in her head came back to one thing.
Rian’s insistence of his lack of humanity.
Except, he had been with her. It could not be him. Not that had killed- Except, he was out there somewhere now. So, if he had not killed the little girl and anyone else, where was he now? A yell and a tearing sound pulled her back to the scene happening across the yard.
“Rian,” she whispered. Her fingers tightened on the pitchfork and she took a step forward. The first two were hard, but they became easier. She had to check on her parents. On everyone. Whatever had happened, she should have been there as well. Except, she’d fallen into sinful ways instead.
The three hooded figures were not whole when she reached them. Bile rose in her throat and she turned to the side, still holding the pitchfork, and lost her dinner. Perhaps lunch and breakfast as well. Maybe, she didn’t know, everything she’d eaten since she was a babe.
Because Rian was there. He sat atop the torso of someone. At first, she’d thought he’d lost his bandana in the fight, but then she saw him dipping it into…some part of the remains of the body. Judging by the blood dripping from the fabric, this was not the first body he’d done this to.
His head came up and she wasn’t sure what she saw. Her fingers tightened on the pitchfork as he rose and walked toward her. Her body tried to lose the fight with the darkness behind her eyes when he reached for her, but she would no fainting flower.
He saw her knees lock as she trembled at the sight of him, but he still reached for her. How he hated the sight of blood on the sleeve of her dress. Worse, hated what it meant. That she’d seen him as he truly was. Rian guided her back to the barn, thankful she was in compliant shock, where the horses and donkeys objected to the scent of blood and him in general. A cot for a stablehand in back made a bed for her and he covered her with a blanket before returning outside.
The bandana tied around his head dripped blood into his skin and hair. Tomorrow, the latter would be redder, freshly colored, and harder to manage. And still, every time he found a piece of one of the ones he’d killed, he let the bandana soak up their congealing blood. When it leaked into his mouth he spat it out, not wanting to be tempted down that road again.
When light began to form in the east, he began to gather up everyone he could find. Smaller pieces he almost missed in the dark because more obvious as the sun rose. Sophie’s parents had been caught in their bed. He wrapped them in blankets before carrying them outside to the pile in the yard. Wood needed to be gathered. To keep this many dead, especially given the manner of their death, a chance to form a nightmare was irresponsible. They had to be burned.
A couple of old wagons gave him larger pieces of wood to add to the stuff already gathered from the wood pile out back. He used embers on the hearth to light a stick he could carry to the makeshift pyre.
Where he saw Sophie, eyes wide in horror, and clutching her pitchfork once more. He wanted to go to her. He’d wanted to spare her all of this. No one deserved to see such a nightmare.
“Please,” he said. “go back inside.”
“What are you?” she demanded. Unable to answer, he felt the wood burning closer to where he clutched it. When she brandished the pitchfork, he fought the urge to smile. “What are you?” she screamed.
“Your family are not from the old country.”
“My parents’ parents came over,” she said. “Which has nothing to do with- did you do this? What happened?” More quietly, afraid, “My parents?”
“I am sorry,” he told her. “I do not know what they meant to do, but- they will not do so again.”
“But what are you?” she demanded, and he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes.
“Your kind call mine redcaps. Have you heard of me?”
“No,” she admitted. “But what- what killed these people? Why?”
“I do not know. But we have to burn them. There are things which might grow from such a massacre. I am so very sorry, Sophie. Even your parents, righteous though they may have been, are not immune. Will you let me do this?”
“I-” She stared at him and leaned on the pitchfork. “I do not know what is going on. Or what we should do. But- but very well. If you believe you must.” Her eyes narrowed as he approached the pyre. “But then I want answers.”
Rian had no idea what questions she might have, but he nodded, wanting the work done. She stayed across the fire as he lit it. Soon, her arm covered her mouth and nose. He wondered if he might get her to go inside and then thought of what was inside.
The barn perhaps. The animals were already skittish, and he hated to impose upon them, but the little house would welcome no one for some time. As black smoke whipped about in the wind he kept an eye for flying embers, but mostly he watched Sophie. She coughed into her arm and leaned on the pitchfork for support as the fire crackled.
“Do you know how to tend horses?” he asked.
“I- The basics. We had a couple of horses at home. But we had a man to take care of them.”
“They will need feeding.”
“You do not want me out here.”
“I seek to spare you this horror as I meant to spare you last night.”
“I do not appreciate being coddled.”
“No,” Rian replied, “I would not expect such from one as strong as you. But, the horses and wee donkeys you fed last night will not want me so close. Even when I am not covered in blood. Will you tend them? They should not suffer.”
He was obviously attempting to get rid of her, but Sophie hated being out here. Only, she felt she owed it to her parents. Someone should whisper quiet prayers to the souls lost here. Coughing interrupted her thoughts and she bent over, clinging to the pitchfork to stay upright now. The taste of burning flesh filled her mouth and if she’d anything else in her stomach, it would now be on the dirt.
“Sophie?” He was close. He might touch her.
That she was not capable of handling.
“I will tend the animals.”
She fled. Which she knew. And made her mad.
The smoke had not permeated the barn and she lost herself in the scent of animal. Feeding, cleaning the stalls, debating on releasing them into the corral, took not long enough. In the end, she left them in their stalls, worried over their reaction to the smell of burning flesh.
She was not excited to get close. So, she found the pump around the back of the barn and filled a few buckets. Which still took not enough time, so she pumped water over her own head, drenched her hair and the back of her blouse, and shivered only from the cold. Or so she told herself. If only herself were not so hard to convince.
“What will we tell the authorities?” she asked when she heard footsteps.
“Why should we tell them anything? Rian asked in return. He held out a horse blanket and she wrapped herself in it as the shivers began. “I would take you inside, but- You will not want to go there.”
“Is that where they died?”
“Several people. Would you like to go in the barn? The fire is dying down. We can find a place to talk.” He stretched his hand out, but did touch her. “Do you still have questions?”
“I do.” She did not take his hand. “Inside the barn. I suppose.” Her eyes continued to drag upward to stare at his bright red bandana. A lock of hair had slid free and hung over his ear. It was not the brown of before. The shock of red was another punch in her gut. Which already ached between the shock, vomiting, and general trouble.
He left first, as if he knew she was unwilling to turn her back on him. Acutely aware, as she was now, of how much he felt like a predator. And how much she was only prey.
Inside, she sat on a haybale and set the pitchfork against it. Within reach. Because there was nothing to make a woman feel better than a weapon to hand.
“What happened last night?” she demanded.
Rian sat across from her, several feet between them, and met her eyes, holding her attention. “Someone attacked this place. With evil intent. They were human. Perhaps they sought to create a Hunt.”
“A hunt? Were they…Indians?”
“I do not believe so. Does it matter? I suppose, should we be forced to make a story, we should tell them it was Indians.”
“No!” Sophie glared as she jabbed a finger towards him. “I will not lie.”
Rian stood and stepped closer to her. “And so you will tell everyone what I am, Sophie Cogswell?”
Fear, for a second, had kept her seated, but she stood and grabbed the pitchfork when anger burned away fear. “You will not intimidate me. I will not let you think you might shove me around. Whatever you are, sit down.”
His eyes followed the wave of the pitchfork as she spoke. Once she was done, he grinned and sat down again. She remained standing. All of her nerves were lit up and sitting still was impossible. So, she paced as Rian’s eyes followed her movements.
“I killed no one other than those who had attacked the people here. Yes, my people kill. Those who have fallen prey to their own nature, consume the flesh of their victims.” His eyes widened, and he leapt to his feet, “I would not. I have not. Not of a human.”
Of his own kind, the fae, he said nothing. He was unashamed of his past, but some of it was not fitting for human ears. Sophie was already spooked.
“Why is your hair red?”
Rian tugged the bandana off, his fingers running along the edge and feeling no itch. He shouldn’t for some time after last night. All of the blood he’d fed it was not from those he’d killed, but it was all accepted. Holding it in one hand, he ran his fingers through his hair, tugging at the snarls beginning to form.
“Because when my cap is red, so is my hair. As it dries, my hair changes color.”
“That is no cap.”
As he tied it back onto his head, Rian grinned. “No. When I arrived in this country it was still as it was. But, the further west I moved, the more I thought to change it and when I awoke one morning it was as it is. The function is the same.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered.
And, for the first time, he cursed the Fates for placing her in his path. To him, she had been a joy even when they had not said a word to one another. For her, she had been thrust into a nightmare. He did not know how to comfort her. His kind were not known for their comforting abilities. Food, maybe. He might catch something, but would be forced to leave her alone.
“I swear, I shall not allow harm to fall to you.” Rian laid his hand atop his head, fingers pressed against the bright red bandana. “By my name and my power, by the cap of my foremothers, I swear to you, Sophie Cogswell, that I, Rian Na Fahe and those of my line shall never cause harm to befall you. I shall bind myself by whatever oath you require.”
Tears filled her eyes and he dared approach her. With caution, because she still held a weapon. There was no brandishing of rusted, sharp tines, so he took it from her hand and let it fall to the floor. Unlike last night, he did not crush her to him. Even if he wanted to. The fight, the death, left him with the urge to seek other desires as well.
Except, she was human, so he kept those desires at bay. All he did was hold her, even when he felt the tears fall and not stop. Because he did not know what else to do for her. Damn the Fates for putting her through this.
Eventually, her tears stopped, and he wiped her cheeks with the pad of his thumb.
“You should drink. Do you think you might eat something?”
“Without being sick? I doubt it.”
“Well, water. I must insist. You humans are so fragile at times such as these.”
Sophie laughed, and it startled him, so he pulled her back to see her face. There was no hysteria to read in her eyes as she got herself under control. Which did not mean her mind had not broken. He had witnessed such before.
“No one has ever called me fragile before,” she told him.
“Well, as a race, your kind are easily breakable. Which does not mean you are fragile. I was drawn to your strength the moment I stepped onto the stagecoach. I believe the Fates delivered me to you.”
“We do not believe in your god. He is new, and we are ancient.”
“My mind cannot handle this discussion at this moment. We must focus on something more immediate. There will be another coach. There might even be soldiers. And I will not lie.”
“I do not care.” He did not care. “So long as my secret remains so. I came west for a reason and I’d rather not be found.”
“I am sure there is a story there,” Sophie informed him. “but we haven’t time. We shall have to tell the truth.”
“That we were awoken in the evening from- from our slumber and discovered everyone dead. We had- had to burn them because we feared wild animals hauling away- you know.”
“Bits and pieces?”
She slapped his chest and he was unable to keep his grin away. “Yes,” she mumbled. “And while we wait, we should clean up inside. So whomever comes next doesn’t have to.”
“Are you sure? It is not a pretty sight.”
“I have been witness to death.”
Rian stepped closer and laid a kiss on her lips. “Whatever happens, understand I will uphold my oath. It binds me in ways you do not understand.”
“Well, you may explain it later.” Because surely, he did not insist she take him at his word for everything. “For now-” They had a massacre to clean.
“I shall answer all your questions.”
She planned to hold him to it. Once they were done. A coach was not likely to come today. They’d said every two to three days. Soldiers did patrol the area, but she’d heard they’d not been around for a month. Which either meant they would show up soon or not at all.
They spent the day cleaning as best they could. Sophie tended the animals as they refused to let Rian near them. Unlike many men of her acquaintance he was more than helpful with everything else. The worst of the evidence of death he insisted she allow him to clean. As her stomach roiled all day, she was quick to let him.
By the time the sun headed down, the house was better. Not that she wanted to sleep inside. She also did not want to say anything.
“There is the cot in the stable. I will sleep on the floor away from you. First, we shall clean up and I will prepare a meal unless you wish to do the cooking.” Rian had brought out the small trunk her parents had carried inside and taken their larger ones from the top of their coach. He had nothing of his own.
“I would like to get clean. I do not care for a meal, but I know you will insist because I am fragile.” Sophie rolled her eyes, something her father had always scolded her for. “And I am used to sleeping on the floor so do not mind if you take the cot.”
“Nonsense. You are the lady.”
Since she did not want to sleep on the floor she did not argue. He left her to clean up and she dug out one of her two dresses to change into. Her hair she managed to brush clear of tangles and braid. Good enough.
“I found their root cellar,” Rian announced as he set a box down filled with cans, jars, and loose vegetables. “I made sure to find clean pots. There was venison as well. I will fry it up with some onions.”
Sophie said nothing, and he continued to speak. His voice, despite the roughness of his words, calmed her. The sound of humanity, she supposed, even if he insisted to being other. And, she was beginning to believe him.
“I believe you,” she said when he handed her a plate. “Even if I find it most odd. Until now I have not noticed you lying or pretending. So, I shall accept the truth of you.”
Whatever he’d been about to say, he stopped. Rian stared down at her on the hay bale before returning to his own seat. As he ate, he watched her.
“I want to sleep in the loft,” she told him after they’d washed up and put out the tiny fire. “I would feel more comfortable.”
Rian headed for where they’d laid out her things by the cot now tucked into an empty stall.
“No,” Sophie said, and he stopped. “I wish to sleep with you.”
“That is not necessary.”
“Of course, it is not. But I am afraid to sleep by myself as I am alone in the world now. And, I am already ruined.”
“Nonsense,” Rian said as he approached her and laid his arm around her waist. “You are on the way to being well-seasoned, but that does not mean ruined.”
“That is nonsense,” Sophie scoffed.
“So, I shouldn’t show you?” he counted as he stepped closer.
“I never said those words.”
Rian paced outside, crushing rocks in his hands as he listened to something. Whatever it was had been itching his bandana all night. Sophie had grown annoyed with his pacing and sent him outside to settle down.
To be fair to her, in her condition, she was liable to be annoyed by plenty. She carried his child and the child was not human. That alone made him anxious, but this was something else. In the barn, one of the horses spooked and he dropped the rock to race toward the building.
The smell hit him before he saw the piece of darkness where it should not be.
“Back away, sluagh,” he bellowed.
The darkness froze, but another flowed forward to join it.
“I did not know you resided here now.”
“Come out of here. You’re bothering the animals.”
The shadows moved, headed for the door, and Rian followed. What he saw under the moonlight made him curse. “Damn you, Liam.”
“Rian,” Liam hissed. “I want no trouble.”
“Then move on.”
“Yes. My child will find food elsewhere.”
The smaller shadow made sense now. The face, not formed yet, but appearing to melt off soft bones, hissed. Little claws flexed, and Rian smirked.
“Get your bastard in line.”
Liam hit the babe in the side of the head. “Apologies. But, what are you doing here? I hadn’t heard you’d left Fort Smith.”
“Moved on. Things were happening I wanted no part of.”
Liam laughed, and the babe laughed with him. “I should have been wiser. Then I might not be where I am now.”
“Which is where?”
“Cursed. Me and the child. By our next queen.”
Rian swore, a habit he’d tried to drop for Sophie’s sake. “There are no queens here. We are free of such nonsense.” Humans were not the only ones who’d fled the monarchies of the old country.
“One is rising,” Liam said, sounding too pleased. “And you would be wise to make your peace with her now.”
“There are no queens out here. Let her sit on a throne in Fort Smith.”
Liam laughed, the babe with him, and it was not a pleasing sound.
“She is coming here. And you will be thankful when she arrives.”
“Rian? Do you need the shotgun?” Sophie called from the open kitchen door.
“And that is why,” Liam said as he grabbed the babe and began to melt into the shadows. “She’s your only hope of saving your own child. Certainly, your only chance to save the woman.”
Rian’s blood went cold as Liam spoke before disappearing. He wanted nothing to do with queens. He would handle the birth of his own child and would see Sophie through it.
“Rian?” she called again.
“Coming,” he hollered back. “Coyote, I think. Get inside. You need to rest.”
She grumbled, but complied, and he joined her before the fire to fret over new troubles coming.