The voice was back. I shut him out without much effort this time. I didn't know why he'd dragged me into the Civil War, but it certainly was holding my interest. I knew that the Renee of the past was the same Renee who I was in charge of in the present. Okay, maybe 'in charge of' was too much of a stretch but I was supposed to keep her safe and make sure she made it to her upcoming wedding to Carlos, the alpha werewolf of the Southern California territories. I think his territory was a tad larger than that, but it was what I'd been told initially. The longer I hung around with them the more I gathered that I hadn't been told much of anything by my Master, Simon.
I drifted back to the Civil War without much effort. I sure hoped I wasn't dead and doomed to rerunning scattered bits of history for my afterlife. It didn't matter; it was more entertaining than the fight I had in Balboa Park with the rogue vampires and escaped zoo beasts. I drifted.
1863: South Carolina, late fall, in a small town ...
"Oh, you're both back!" Willow had pulled some comforters from a cupboard and had them nestled in her arms. Her face had two bright spots of color that Charles could tell wasn't from the flames but from some stray thought. He resisted slipping inside her mind to find out because Renee deliberately stepped back on his foot with obvious purpose. Putting his hands on both of her arms he tightened his grip and physically lifted her off his foot without uttering a sound. Her slight squeak let him know that she recognized how easily he could have crushed her arms with his strength.
"Yes, and Renee helped me finish up stacking the wood. It's around back with the rest of your woodpile and should see you through a few days. Let me know tomorrow where there are anymore large logs you need split and I'll make sure to get them cut. I needed the night air to clear my thoughts. Renee probably told you it's been a rough few weeks for me." He made the war sound like it was a mere blip.
He'd lost track of actually how long he and Beau had been fighting. He knew it wasn't that long, but it seemed interminable with all the blood flowing and death surrounding him day and night. The days hadn't been that tricky, because Pee Dee and Beau had come to an arrangement where Beau and Charles patrolled in the evenings, reporting back before dawn to Pee Dee, then headed back out to find a place to sleep. Pee Dee hadn't inquired too closely but took it to be logical since they worked all night, and camps weren't quiet in the daytime. They only fought when battles went on past dusk. Usually it was a bloody mess by that time, and Charles had to resist outright rage and using his vampiric speed, not to mention his fangs.
Abandoned homes, dry wells and caves were the best of his daytime lodgings, but even then he slept fitfully due to the proximity of all those humans. Beau tried to put it all in a nice light by saying how wonderful it was to get to see America at a slower pace. They tended to use the rails and carriages when they traveled and with the War they were walking everywhere. Charles had left his best horse behind when they'd left their home, but still he felt bad for the death of his second best horse after a long night and a horrific battle with canons and sabers used with fierce determination. He had to give it to the Northern boys, they did know how to fight. He found it mildly inspiring at times to watch the viciousness of the opposing side. He really didn't have a choice, but had let Beau lead on the side of the War. He feared from everything he saw and heard that Beau had, in fact, chosen poorly.
Willow was still unfashionably flushed, and darted a quick look at Renee. Charles didn't know what had gone on while he was out but obviously some tales had been told and he figured it would be best to keep his silence rather than create a conflict.
"Willow, you are overly generous. Please, we only need one comforter to share. You and yours need to keep warm too. Winter is winding her way through the valleys and hills rapidly and you don't need to catch a cold." Renee made it sound like she and he were lovers. Biting back a grin, Charles returned his hands to Renee's arms and rubbed them slowly. She tried to step back on his foot again, but he was watching sharply and lifted her up a good three inches off the ground while saying, "Oh, honey. That's so thoughtful of you."
Renee wiggled and tried to keep her dignity while held aloft. He felt her tense and casually put her back on the floor while tugging on her ear lightly. She flushed with anger, but Willow giggled, misinterpreting the gesture as one of a lover's affection. It was the vampire's fault for telling such tall tales, Charles figured. He knew he'd pay for it later, but it was worth it to see Willow relax. Rose came out of the living room to see what had caused Willow's lighthearted giggle. Seeing the blushing vampire, she too giggled.
"You can't wait to get to bed?" There was a playfulness to Rose that appealed to Charles on so many levels. She, too, was happy to see Willow giggling and Renee blushing. Charles could see what it was that attracted him to Rose. She had been so serious when they first met he hadn't realized that she had dimples. He was a fool for dimples on a woman's cheek. She had one on each side framing her crooked smile. And she was smiling and shaking her head.
"Are you sure you won't need another comforter for the bedding? It's a bit brisk down in the cellar and I wouldn't want you catching a cold, either." Willow grinned and wagged her eyebrows.
Renee gave into the women and laughed deeply. It shocked Charles to hear her so amused. He had only seen the serious and furious side of her nature, so she was enjoying her friends and their cheerful teasing.
She just took one comforter and an offered candle and led Charles to the door in the kitchen that led down to the root cellar. The women were still giggling when Charles shut the door as he followed Renee down the stairs. Once in the space, he was shocked to see it was almost as big as the entire home. There was a thin mattress in the corner with a box for the candleholder to be placed and illuminate the space. It wasn't that they needed much light, but a little light helped. It helped Charles enough that he had the time to leap back from Renee's swing. She wasn't happy.
"Don't you ever touch me like that again," she snarled.
"Then don't stomp on my foot and lie about our relationship. Unless you were asking for something more than my pleasant company tonight." He smiled at her fury. "Do not flatter yourself, Charles. I didn't want the women giving up their bedding for us. We don't need the blankets, they do." She was smug and she was correct.
"I am sorry. But, Renee, you haven't told me much of anything." He wasn't completely apologizing, but she was correct that the women would freeze long before the vampires even noticed it had gotten chilly.
She glared at him and said, "You take the comforter and find another corner. I'll talk to you about everything tomorrow."
With that she threw the bedding at him and blew out the candle. The loss of light caused him to feel blind for a minute, and he caught the blanket just before it hit him in the face. She didn't say another word, but simply settled into the corner with the mattress.
The little bit of light leaking from around the door was enough to allow Charles to see with his enhanced vampiric vision. The cellar was roughly shelved and there was the expected dirt floor. But what was startling was the number of shelves. There were enough jars of food to feed an army for months. He could make out beans, peas, sauces and pickles in a few jars nearest the doorway, and in the distance there looked to be jams and assorted preserves. The women were ready for a long siege and it was odd to know that mere miles away men and boys were starving. There wasn't a speck of dust on anything despite the dirt floor. It was hard packed and nearly as solid as a wood floor. He made his way slowly to a corner far away from both Renee and the doorway. Putting the comforter over his head he allowed himself to finally relax.
To his surprise he fell asleep quickly.
"Wake up, Charles," Renee stood a scant foot from him and was impatiently tapping her foot.
"I'm awake," he groggily responded, feeling like he'd been drugged. The combination of blood and the battle with the vampire the night before had served to knock him out cold. The fact that Renee was within a foot of him was disturbing. He felt the sword at his side and calmed down. She'd announced her presence, so it wasn't like she'd meant him harm. At least not yet, he remembered the teasing he'd dished out earlier.
"Fine. We need to talk." She rapidly walked away from him and back to the corner where she'd been sleeping. He followed with the comforter wrapped around him. He wasn't sure what time it was but he was sure it wasn't nightfall yet. He looked at her and waited for her to speak.
She looked sad and somehow smaller. He had thought of her as larger than life. She wasn't talking, just sitting and staring in the air.
"Beau's not anywhere near here."
He nodded since he already knew that. He didn't see the purpose in saying anything. He had nothing more to offer on that topic.
"He found me in my dreams two nights ago, and said you'd been injured in battle and that I was to go get you and bring you here. I've heard nothing from him since. And now I'm not even sure if he was dead or alive when he visited me in the dream." She bit her lower lip as she spoke.
Something twisted inside him as she said what he feared. He didn't know if his older brother was dead or alive, and the fact was that Beau hadn't tried to seek him out. But then Charles had been out of it during a bit of time when he'd been dragged to the tent to die. She continued to chew on her lip as she tried to figure out what to tell Charles. He could tell that she needed to say something he wasn't going to like.
"Beau and I used to come to this town in the fall. Willow and Wren are part of a new movement of grooming our future."
"What do you mean?" Charles didn't understand what she was trying to tell him.
"Beau thinks it's getting too risky for vampires to feed inside the cities and towns and figured if we started creating healthy stock and winnowing out the bad elements our blood source would be purer and healthier." She said it hesitantly. What she said slowly dawned on him and he looked at her and said, "Beau was breeding humans for feeding stock?"
It really shouldn't have shocked Charles given his brother's obsession with blood lines, but to hear it put out there raw and without pretty words hit him hard. It wasn't how vampires were supposed to feed, off humans like little more than sheep raised for consumption. Renee didn't look overly comfortable with it either, but that wasn't his concern. No, he was worried where Beau was and what else Beau had been doing.