Read The Dark Volume Online

Authors: Gordon Dahlquist

Tags: #Murder, #Magic, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy Fiction, #Horror, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Suspense, #Adventure fiction, #Steampunk, #Thrillers, #General

The Dark Volume (3 page)

She thrust the mass of clothing onto Miss Temple's lap and began to sort it into piles—undergarments, shifts, petticoats, a corset or two, stockings, and several actual dresses. Miss Temple watched Elöise's fingers darting about and she struggled to make sense of her news. Chang was gone? And the Doctor?

“But where—”

“Back to the city. My dear, so much has happened. It has been over a week—there was, my goodness,
such
a storm.”

“I have been told.”

“We are far north, in a fishing village on what is called the Iron Coast—no harbors to speak of, no trains, the only roads washed out by this tempest.”

Miss Temple shivered to recall the terrible last minutes on the damaged airship, as it settled onto the freezing waves and began to fill—the dark rush of seawater lifting the bodies of the Prince, of Lydia, of Xonck, and of the Comte, transforming each from a person to an object. She shook the thought away.

“But what is so pressing? Our enemies were destroyed!”

“Try these,” said Elöise, pointing to a sorted stack of worn white underthings.

“I'm sure they will fit well,” replied Miss Temple, already regretting the absence of her silks and suspiciously curious what had become of them, “but I do not understand the
urgency.”

“At least try the dresses,” insisted Elöise.

“Where did you get them?” asked Miss Temple, holding up a cotton dress of a faded royal blue—simple but pretty enough in its way, and an admittedly fetching color with her hair.

“A local woman, Mrs. Jorgens—the match in size was fortuitous.”

“And she parted with them willingly?”

“Please put it
on
, Celeste. I must see about the water. We must hurry.”

THROUGH THE door she could hear Elöise speaking to Lina, and then a general buzz of preparation that she knew had nothing to do with baths and everything to do with imminent departure. She stood naked with a dead woman's dress pulled up to her waist, looking at her face and body in the tiny square of mirror. Her skin was pale as milk, a fact that seemed less a part of her than the bruises and shadows traced across it, evidence of another life, just as the ruddy thumb-smears of her lips and at the tip of each breast were signs of an interior hunger that struck her now, slipping her arms into each sleeve and shrugging the dress in place across her chest, as fully at odds with the colder creature she had per force become. She pulled it from her shoulders and then brought it up to her nose. There was no scent of its previous owner, only salt air, dust, and camphor. It must have been her finest dress, worn but three times a year and scrupulously cleaned.

Miss Temple glanced behind her and saw, laid to the side of the pile of clothing, a tiny white shift and a cotton dress to match it, to fit a girl of five years at the very most. Elöise must have gathered them up along with the rest of Mrs. Jorgens’ things. Bette had not mentioned a child… had one been killed as well?

Elöise knocked on the door and opened it enough to say the bath was ready. From beyond the far room, Miss Temple heard the stamping of horses.

AS SHE crouched in the wooden tub, the water none too warm but nevertheless welcome, Miss Temple saw Elöise pass Lina several silver coins dug from one of Miss Temple's sea-battered green boots. How much money had been left in them—and how much had now been spent without her knowledge? Bette poured another bowlful of water over Miss Temple's head, interrupting her calculations, and worked the soap through her hair with thick fingers as Lina packed food into a wrapped bundle. Elöise glanced to Miss Temple and saw that she was being watched.

“We will speak as we travel, Celeste,” she said. “But we must travel at once.”

“Will not the Doctor or Chang expect to collect us? Will they not be confused when we are gone?”

“They will not.”

“Why? What are they doing? Where will we go?”

“Excellent questions—you are yourself once more.”

“What has happened to our enemies?”

If Elöise replied Miss Temple did not hear it. Bette emptied another bowl over her head, and another after that, pouring slowly to wash out the suds. Miss Temple carefully stepped free of the tub as Bette dabbed at her dripping hair.

“I suppose it is impossible that my hair be curled,” she said to Elöise.

“The curls are quite natural to you, are they not?” Elöise carefully replied.

“Of course they are,” snapped Miss Temple. “It does not mean they are not better when
managed
.”

She raised her arms, the better for Bette to dry her, and nodded at Elöise's hands rather pointedly.

“Where is my other boot?”

GREEN-SHOD once more, Miss Temple stepped from the wooden house into a pallid light. The trees above were leafless and the path to their wagon—a simple affair drawn by one weathered nag—was still moist from the rains. She smelled the sea and even heard the distant waves somewhere behind the house, tracing the air like a restless rope of wind. Lina and Bette stood in the door, watching them go with, Miss Temple recognized with annoyance, expressions of relief. She turned to Elöise to remark on the fact but saw for the first time the line of men that waited on the far side of the wagon—raw, hard-faced fellows with knives at their belts and staves in their hands.

“Are they coming with us?” she whispered to Elöise.

“Ah, no,” Elöise replied with a tight smile. “They have come to make sure we
go.”

Miss Temple looked with more attention—perceiving women and children now peering out behind the line of men—and felt their gazes could not have been more cold had she and Elöise been diseased interlopers with the plague. She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped at the sight of a small girl with a haunted pale face, hands gripped by two grey matrons—no mother or father near her. Her view of the girl was blocked by one of the men with staves, who met Miss Temple's curiosity with a frown. The man sported a new pair of knee-high black leather riding boots, incongruous with his rough wool garments and fisherman's beard.

Before she could point this out to Elöise, their driver—an aged man whose wrinkled face seemed crushed between an untamed beard and a close-pulled woolen cap—reached down with hard knobbed hands to lift Miss Temple aboard. A moment later Elöise stood beside her and a moment after that they groped for awkward seats on a pallet of straw as the driver snapped the reins without a word. The bitter nameless village and its silent people receded from view.

Miss Temple frowned and hissed sharply to her companion, “I do not know what they think we have done—were they not paid?”

Elöise glanced at the driver's back. Miss Temple huffed, quite out of patience. “What has
happened
, Elöise? I quite insist you say!”

“I plan to, but you must know, these people—”

“Yes, yes, the rising river in the forest, I have been told—”

“Indeed—”

“People were
killed
.”

Elöise nodded, and spoke carefully. “The implication is a wolf. Or wolves, actually.”

“Which is no reason to glower at
me.”
Miss Temple looked up at their driver. “How
many
wolves?” she asked waspishly.

“It depends on how one reads the attacks.”

“Well, how many attacks were there? Bette mentioned the Jorgenses. I saw her washing the bloody linen.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Jorgens died two nights ago—or that is when they were
found.
Without the Doctor no one could specify when in fact they died. But before that a fisherman was found in his boat. And before
that
two grooms at the nearest stable.”

Miss Temple snorted. “What sort of wolf goes in a
boat
?”

Elöise did not reply, as if, the question having no answer, nothing further might be said. Miss Temple felt no such hesitation.

“Where is the Doctor? Where is Chang?”

“I have told you—”

“You have told me nothing at all!”

“They have each gone ahead of us.”

“Why?”

“The roads, for one—they have been ruined by the weather; and as you were so very ill, we did not know if you could travel—the last thing one wanted was to be two days out and then stranded without shelter, if
another
storm—”

“That might perhaps convince me for the Doctor, but never Chang.”

“No, indeed, Chang departed earlier.”

“Why?”

“Did you see that Lina put together a parcel of food? How kind of her.”

Elöise smiled at Miss Temple, mildly but determined. Miss Temple pursed her lips, grudgingly working for a topic that might be safely overheard.

“This
storm,”
she offered with patently false interest. “One gathers it was
prodigious.”

“You did well to sleep through the thing,” replied Elöise at once. “In truth we felt—for it was the very night after we'd come ashore— that all the anger of our enemies was being vented through the heavens, as if the waves were the late Comte's attempts to dash us to pieces, and the lightning bolts sent down from the dead Contessa's furious eyes.”

Miss Temple said nothing, aware that the other woman would not have mentioned the Contessa lightly. When she finally replied, her own voice had become distressingly small.

“The Contessa is dead, then?”

“Of course she is,” said Elöise.

“I did not know you'd found the body.”

“We did not need to, Celeste. She fell from the airship into the frozen sea. You and I could barely swim in our merest underthings— that woman's dress would have taken in enough water within one minute to sink her down to hell itself.”

“It is just that… I spoke to her on the roof of the airship—it must have been just before she leapt to the sea… her face… even then so proud, so uncaring. She haunts me still.”

“She is dead, Celeste. I promise you.”

Elöise put her arm around Miss Temple's shoulders and squeezed. Never one to anticipate affection of any kind, Miss Temple did not know what to do, and so did nothing, looking instead at her salt-cracked boots and the dirty planking. Elöise squeezed again and took her arm away, a trim smile on her lips, as if she were not entirely sure of the gesture either, but then she reconsidered and reached up to smooth the hair from Miss Temple's face.

“I know you feel better,” she said, “but we are traveling while you would still be best in bed. Lean against my shoulder and I will tell you what I know”—her voice dropped to a whisper—“and what has taken the Cardinal and the Doctor from our sides.”

“THE FIRST night was spent in a fisherman's hut. I do not exaggerate to say the Doctor was hard-pressed to keep you alive, while tending to Chang—for the icy sea had done nothing kindly to his lungs—and to myself, for I admit to very nearly drowning. That night the heavens erupted in a storm the likes of which I have never seen—a raging sea, the land awash, trees torn from the earth by the winds. In the morning Chang and the Doctor went for help and that afternoon, during the briefest break in the tempest, you were moved to Lina's house. You lay there for six days, quite incoherent. It was only on the fourth day that your fever finally broke and the Doctor saw fit to leave.”

“But where was Chang?” Miss Temple burrowed more tightly into the crook of Elöise's arm and allowed her eyes to slip closed.

“The Doctor felt it vital that, once the storm was over, we get a boat and return to the fallen airship, to collect what remained of the glass books, to find any papers that might tell of our enemies’ agents in Macklenburg, and to bring ashore what bodies we could for decent burial.”

Miss Temple's thoughts went to Roger, imagining with dismay what her fiancé must have looked like after two days in the sea. She had seen a drowned sailor once on a beach and remembered—indeed, could never forget—his swollen and shapeless cast, as if submersion had half transformed him to a fish, with only his unseeing eyes and hanging open mouth showing protest at the horrid injustice done to his body. She imagined Roger's thin, nimble fingers, bobbing bloated and pale in the dark water, already subject to the gnawing of scavenger fish or industrious crabs. She pictured his softening face—

“But the airship was gone,” Elöise went on. “Dragged out to sea, no doubt, by the water-logged balloon. Scraps of canvas washed ashore… but that was all.”

“What,” Miss Temple forced herself to ask, “of the… bodies?”

“We saw no sign. But they were inside the craft. They would be carried with it, down below.”

“And all the glass books?”

“All of them. And all the Comte's machines—everything they had brought to conquer Macklenburg.”

Miss Temple exhaled. “Then it is truly finished.”

Elöise shifted slightly.

“And
then
the dead grooms were discovered—horses driven from the stable—and then the poor fisherman in his boat. The local folk have little doubt of the killer—the victims’ throats were all torn out most savagely, and this
is
a land where wolves are known. But after this—after Chang and Doctor Svenson had both taken their leave— the Jorgenses were discovered—”

“But why
did
Chang go?”

Elöise shifted her position to look into Miss Temple's face.

“You and I have lived in the city. The villagers who took us in became frightened, in the sober light of day, by our strange appearance— you and I dressed as if we'd escaped a seraglio, and the Doctor a foreign soldier… but most of all by the Cardinal—his figure, the scars, the long red coat, the obvious capacity for violence. All of this brought suspicion upon
us
as these deaths began to appear so suddenly one after another. And of course Chang
is
a killer. Once the villagers began to whisper amongst themselves—once there were
deaths
—well, Doctor Svenson—”

“And where is
he
? If he went to make sure of the road, why did he not
return?”

“I do not know.” Elöise's voice sounded hollow. “The Doctor left the day before yesterday. We… I am ashamed to say we quarreled. I am a fool. In any event, I knew that I must stay with you, and that the two of us must leave as soon as you were fit. That we were to meet them—”

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