Prequel to the Blades of the Rose
From Zebra Books
“Two…novellas combine themes of love and zombies. Vintage horror, high adventure, and soul-aching romance blend in Archer’s compelling ‘The Undying Heart,’ prequel to the upcoming Blades of the Rose trilogy…. Readers [will] love Archer’s powerful, polished tale.”
“Four Stars! These zombie stories stand out in a genre dominated by vampires. The two tales of lovers reunited feature strong, courageous women who won’t let zombies stand in the way of getting their man. Archer’s imaginative and unusual tale will have you cheering for the characters, while D’Arc delivers a creepy and pulse-pounding story of danger.”
Yorkshire, England. 1858.
Ladies never hunted humans.
Fortunately, Cassandra Fielding never truly concerned herself with how ladies should and shouldn’t behave. As she crouched in the shadows of a stonemason’s yard, pistol ready in the folds of her skirt, she kept her focus off of such inconsequential things such as decorous, ladylike behavior and on the front of the tavern opposite the yard. Her prey was inside the tavern. She needed to be ready to move, to follow. To hunt.
The windows of the tavern glowed yellow, and within the taproom, raucous male voices rang out—laughing, boasting, debating. Within was Cassandra’s intended target. Colonel Kenneth Broadwell. Entirely unaware that his every moment was being monitored. Broadwell had been spotted several days ago in the vicinity after years abroad. As the Blade closest to where Broadwell had been seen, Cassandra was dispatched to follow him. Her orders were clear, however: track Broadwell, but do not engage. So, Cassandra now waited in the stonemason’s yard, her cloak wrapped around her against the night’s chill, a pistol standing by, should it be needed.
Her parents, tolerant though they were of her campaigning for factory conditions reform, would most definitely not approve of their daughter skulking about on her own in the middle of the night. But Cassandra never told them she was an operative for the Blades of the Rose, had been one for nigh on a year. It was for her parents’ protection as much as her own.
Right now, her protection nestled in the folds of her skirt, and her pocket held a goodly handful of bullets. Not that Cassandra had ever shot anyone before. As soon as she’d received her assignment, she’d gone out and bought her very own gun. Borrowing one of her father’s would raise questions, questions she couldn’t answer, so she purchased her own.
The weapon was necessary, but it felt strange and alien in her hand. Yet she would use it if she had to.
She prayed she didn’t have to. Her goal had always been to improve people’s lives, not end them.
Moonlight spilled into the yard, and the hulking forms of uncut stone turned to creatures of silver and darkness. Cassandra hid herself behind one slab of granite, entirely alone except for the stone. Overhead, the night sky was a black, glittering void. All the decent citizens of this small town had been asleep, safe in their beds, for hours. No one walked the streets, and the wind cut down the narrow lanes with soft, keening sounds.
As a child, she’d been afraid of the dark, thanks to her brother Charlie. He’d once locked her in the cellar as a prank, luring her down there with promises of treacle tarts. She’d spent terrible hours crying in the darkness, until Mrs. Walsh, the housekeeper, heard her sobs and let Cassandra out. For months afterwards, she couldn’t sleep without a lamp burning.
But that was long ago. Cassandra knew now that things really did creep in the darkness, but they were often just as afraid of her as she was of them. She took some comfort in that as she hid herself in the stonemason’s yard.
Her childhood imagination must now enjoy taunting her. How else to explain the sinister feeling lurking amongst the shadows with her, a presence that felt palpable, malevolent.
A slight shifting, the merest suggestion of displaced air. Cassandra whirled around, gun pointed. She knew better than to dismiss instinct. One of the first things she learned when she joined the Blades: never shrug off intuition. That’s where the true danger lay, for magic dwelt in the margins of awareness.
In the gloomy darkness, she saw nothing. No person, no animal. Yet nothing could shake her sense that something was there. A presence that loomed just beyond the boundaries of sight and perception. Unnamed, unknown, drawing closer. Closer. Her heart stuttered as her every nerve became a plucked string, reverberating with tension.
She knew it now without a doubt.
She wasn’t alone.
Fighting the sudden lump of fear in her throat, Cassandra pressed herself against the granite slab. Not for protection, but to better see whoever, whatever, prowled in the darkness. She held her breath, waited.
There, again. A justified chill of fear scraped down her neck. Someone was sliding from shadow to shadow, movements so swift, so silent, anyone who wasn’t trained to spot such subtlety would have missed it. Who could it be? Another Heir of Albion, like Broadwell? It couldn’t be a Blade, for Cassandra had been unable to send a telegram to let them know Broadwell’s whereabouts. Someone else, then.
Something else. The shadows gathered, shaping themselves into the form of a man gliding from darkness to darkness—tall, long-limbed, powerfully built. Twenty feet away. At a slight sound, he turned to investigate. His eyes literally glowed. Hollow and white, unearthly.
Cassandra stifled a gasp. Oh, it was one thing to read about and study magic. Entirely different to sense it, see it.
Whatever this…man…was, he moved with unearthly speed and stealth. She could not see his face as he shifted back into the shadows, more subtle and elusive than any human or animal. What was he? Before she could study him further, he melted into darkness, disappearing.
For several moments, Cassandra peered into the night, straining for another sense of him.
Yet he was gone, absorbed into the fabric of shadow like a half-remembered dream.
Perhaps he was gone now. Cassandra, trying to refocus, turned back to keep her vigil on the tavern.
The unknown man stood right in front of her.
They both started, neither expecting the other.
Her pistol came up immediately.
Ambient light from the tavern revealed his face, the glow of his eyes vanished, and her fingers around the trigger slackened in shock. The tall man also started again, as shocked as Cassandra.
It could not be. Yet it was. She took a step forward, lowering her weapon, hardly daring to believe what she saw.
“Sam?” Her voice was a stunned whisper. “Samuel Reed?”
Oh, God, she knew that voice. Knew it as well as she knew the deepest recesses of her own heart. A low, masculine rumble, much deeper now than it had been ten years ago, but it was him. Sam.
“Cassandra now,” she said automatically as she grappled with understanding. Nothing made sense. It could not be that Sam was the creature she had just witnessed prowling through the darkness. “What the blazes are you doing here?”
Sam emerged slightly from the darkness, wariness evident in the guarded movement of his long, lean body. He’d been only eighteen the last time Cassandra saw him, verging into adulthood. Now there was no debate. Sam had grown up. He was, positively, a man. She noted it in the breadth of his shoulders, his broad chest and powerful limbs. Even in shadow, even dressed in clean but slightly threadbare clothing, she could see it. Sam had left boyhood long ago. This man radiated potent strength, barely restrained.
Cassandra stared up at his face and felt another jolt of shock. The softness of youth had vanished entirely. Sam’s face…there was no other way for her to describe it…it was hard, a collection of sharply-chiseled planes that made no allowance for leniency. Bold jaw, tight-pressed lips, sharp nose and forbidding, dark brow. Too severe to be handsome, but undeniably striking. Such a change from the boy he’d been.
“I should ask you the same damned question,” he growled. “You shouldn’t be out. Alone.” He moved, as if to reach for her, but his hand stopped, curling into itself and falling to his side instead.
Fear suddenly danced along her neck. His voice was rough, almost menacing. But that was ridiculous. This was Sam, her brother Charlie’s best friend, the boy she’d known—and adored—almost her whole life. Ten years ago, he and Charlie both bought commissions, joining the army and serving in the same unit together, as they had done everything together. Including—
“For a lady,” Sam growled, “you’re pretty damned free with that gun.”
She glanced down at the weapon in her hand, then tucked it into her skirts. Proper young women did not carry pistols. Certainly not during the day, and most assuredly not in the middle of the night. Whilst lurking in deserted stonemason yards.
“Pistols are all the rage this season,” she said. She could not tell Sam anything about her mission, bound by a code of silence, as well as for his own protection.
Although, she amended, gazing at Sam, he seemed perfectly capable of protecting himself. If forced to use only one word to describe this man, the word she must choose would be: lethal.
She’d never met a man who held such dangerous intent in his body, including the most seasoned Blade field agents. He did not even offer a veneer of a smile at her attempt at humor.
“Nothing good brings a woman out at night,” he rumbled. “Some kind of assignation, then. A husband? Lover?” He raised a brow.
Cassandra wondered what kind of lover necessitated having a gun. “I might not be the same girl who collected spiders in jars,” she said, “but I’m not the sort of woman who arranges moonlit trysts.” However, she wasn’t a maiden any more. She’d seen to that a few years ago, though she wasn’t about to tell Sam this.
Truthfully, she did not know what to say to Sam. She’d so often dreamt of this moment, how she would greet him upon his return. She had even contemplating something as frivolous as the dress she would wear. It would show him she was no longer a girl with dirt under her fingernails, but a grown woman, with a grown woman’s desires. And he would see her as if for the first time, a slow smile of wonder illuminating his face, and realize that what he had been searching for had been at home all along. Her nails, too, would be clean. She curbed the impulse to check them now—for often, after touring factories and inspecting conditions, her fingernails did get dirty. But that was a minor detail compared to seeing Sam again.
Her dream of their reunion had ended two years ago, but she remembered it vividly, an imprint of abandoned hope burned into an afterimage on her heart.
Yet this… fierce, dangerous man…was entirely unlike the Sam she’d longed for, resembling him only in the most superficial way. He burned with a deep, profound coldness that seeped into her own bones.
She realized that it had been Sam, stalking the darkness. Moving with an eerie fluidity. More at home within the realm of unnatural shadow than light and life. But how could that be possible?
“I’ve no idea who you are anymore.” Sam’s voice glinted like a knife in the darkness.
“That feeling,” she said, “is mutual.”
Truthfully, she had no idea who he was. Or, her mind whispered, what he was. She tried to push that thought away, but it would not be staved off.
Unfamiliar, this terror. Something clammy and frightened uncoiled in her stomach as she stared up at his impassive face. The changes wrought in Sam went beyond the shift from youth to maturity, from civilian to veteran soldier. Yet she did not know what, exactly, was different, was deeply, profoundly not right.
A burst of noise careened out of the tavern. Both Cassandra and Sam shot alert glances towards it, but no one exited the building. As Sam continued to rake the tavern with his gaze, Cassandra could feel the waves of anger and purpose emanating from him, palpable as frost. The gentling of his expression was gone. Nothing gentle in him now.
Sam had been a soldier, a major, the last she’d heard, and still held himself with a soldier’s vigilant, capable presence. He wore civilian clothes, yet carried, she saw at that moment, an officer’s sword and wore tall military boots. The war in the Crimean ended two years ago. What had become of him since then?
“This makes no sense,” she said. “I was told….” Her words dried as he swung his gaze back to her. Even in the weak light from the tavern’s windows, she saw his eyes were the same palest blue, edged in indigo, only now his eyes did not dance with humor or mischief. They were…haunted.
“I was told,” she began again, “that you were dead.”
He stared at her with those anguished, cold eyes. And said, “I am.”