I’m not that fond of April fool jokes, and this year, I just don’t have the time. If you must, this is my one (I think) joke on this blog. And this is a link to my favorite all-time April fool’s joke.
What I’ve been doing, in the evenings, after contracted work, is line-editing Sword and Blood, the first of the Vampire Musketeer books. I decided to do away with the pen name, which was assumed only because I didn’t trust the publisher not to kill my name, in those days when computer numbers still mattered.
The first book is now on pre-order, scheduled to come out on the 5th of April.
There’s cover — I am indebted to Oleg Volk for the picture of the man who, weirdly enough, is one of the huns. For whatever reason all other stock photographers posing men with not-oriental-style swords have pictures of stupidly grinning models. And yes, the cover is what you see in historical vampire works. I researched — and the “prologuish” and first chapter below. Warning, the prologue is PG-13. If your parents would be upset at you reading this, DON’T.
And oh, yeah, my vampires don’t sparkle,unless they’re on fire. (Rolls eyes.)
Sword And Blood
Sarah A. Hoyt
In another world, history changes
But heroes remain heroes.
His Duty Formed Him; Like God the World
HIS captors dragged and pulled him past the ruined marble archway, the ropes on his wrists too tight, the ropes on his ankles loosened only enough to allow him the small steps he must take to avoid falling. They had stolen his sword. His blond hair was matted with blood, but he didn’t know whose.
Three of them held him on either side, their supernatural strength making it impossible for him to escape.
Still he struggled, his fevered mind knowing only that he must break free from the hands gripping his arms like vises. He must defeat the bone-crushing grasp of fingers on his waist.
Pulled into the shadows of the defiled church—with its broken cross, its holy statues scribbled with obscenities, painted with leers and fangs—he twisted, suddenly. The frantic hands tightened on him, but not before he managed to sink his teeth into one of the implacable fingers gripping his arm.
The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. The one he was biting—a coarse-haired man, who in life must have been a peasant—pulled his hand free and grinned widely, displaying long fangs that sparkled in the guttering light of the candles surrounding the-bloodstained altar.
“Oh, good effort!” the bitten man said, speaking as though Athos were a puppy or a kitten. Then, looking up, he said, in quite a different voice, “We’ve brought him, Milady.”
Athos turned. His mind stopped.
She stood by the altar, as she had stood by quite a different altar, fifteen years ago, when she had given him her hand in marriage. You could say she was tall, beautiful, slim, and blond—but that omitted much of everything she truly was. The first time he had seen her, in the humble cottage that the priest of Athos’ parish was given as a prerogative of his office, he’d thought her an angel descended from heaven.
Whatever had happened to her in fifteen years since he had last seen her had changed neither her countenance nor her figure. She retained the perfect oval face with the large , expressive violet-blue eyes. Her hair was still that shade of blond on the edge of silver, still a straight, glimmering cascade down to her waist.
She wore simple clothing, albeit much more expensive than it had been when he met her—a white overdress made of velvet with a collar outlined in ermine shining like ice around her neck. A silver belt delineated a waist that could still fit the span of his two hands.
She stepped down from the altar platform, down the marble steps, between the candles, her steps so graceful and lovely that Athos, unable to breathe, could only think he was seeing her ghost—that she had descended from heaven to redeem him, to finally forgive him for his horrible crime against her.
The last time he had seen her, he’d left her for dead after hanging her by the neck from the branch of a young tree. He looked anxiously at her neck for signs of the ordeal, but by the light of the candles it looked white and perfect, and he wondered if all this, now, was a dream.
Had the other been as well? An evil nightmare, conjured by a demon? Perhaps the whole world they lived in was a nightmare. Perhaps none of it was true. Perhaps vampires didn’t fill half the world and more, maybe France wasn’t at war in all but name. Just possibly, perhaps he and this exquisite beauty were still married and their lives were whole again, back in Athos’ domain of La Fère.
He felt his dry lips move, and heard himself rasp out, “Charlotte!”
She spoke in the voice he remembered, the musical tones that fell on the ears like the caress of soft fingers upon the skin. “Did you miss me, Raphael?”
Looking like she was dancing in air, she drew near, until she was standing close by him, her scent enveloping him. So near that were he not still held immobile, he could have leaned down and kissed her. “Yes,” he told her, struggling to embrace her. “Oh, yes.”
The inescapable fact that she was here, and that he had been brought to her by Richelieu’s guards penetrated his mind, and he knitted his brow. “Did they . . .” He was about to ask if they’d captured her too, then he remembered one of those holding him had talked as if she’d ordered it. They had called her Milady. He looked at her in horror. “Charlotte!”
She grinned, displaying sharp fangs he had never seen. They glimmered brightly on either side of her mouth. “What else, Raphael?” she said. “How else do you think I could have survived that noose?” She stared up at him, her eyes gleaming. Then, looking away, she told the men holding him, “Strip him!”
Athos twisted, pivoted, trying to avoid them, but a hand reached out and ripped his doublet, then his shirt, and finally his breeches and undergarment, leaving him shivering in the spring night in his stockings and boots. Those too were then torn from him.
She said “The altar.”
Two of the vampires lifted him and laid him down on the cold marble. They tied him down, to the column supports, arms and legs twisted and bent.
Athos and his friends had found corpses tied like this. Blood masses they called these rituals, though Aramis had said no masses were celebrated. There was no ritual, just a group of vampires all feeding on the human victim until he was dead. A communion, perhaps, but not holy.
The cold, hard altar leeched the heat from his skin, and all thought from his mind. He was immobilized, hand and foot, atop, he was sure, old bloodstains. They tightened a rough rope across his torso, biting into his flesh. This was his last hour. He would die here, bound so he could not move. He would die here, and his friends would find him, dead and pale, and defiled.
He licked his lips and managed to summon voice to his dry mouth, “Listen, Charlotte, I don’t . . . I don’t blame you for wanting your revenge.”
She checked the knots at his hands, her light fingers just touching his skin as she adjusted the rope. “Oh, good,” she said. “I would hate to think you withheld your forgiveness from me.”
One of the watching male vampires laughed, but stopped abruptly as Charlotte glanced down at him.
Athos shook his head. Before he died, he must make her understand. “It isn’t that,” he said. “I just . . . I realized afterwards I judged you too quickly. Just because you . . . just because you were branded with the fleur-de-lis, it didn’t mean you were a Judas goat or that you served the vampires. I should never . . . I should have asked you first. Before . . . executing you. Trying to execute you.”
She smiled at him and did not say anything. Her fingers moved idly from his wrists, as if of their own accord tracing the contour of muscles on his arm, sculpted and strengthened by his sword fighting day after day for fifteen years. “I think you’ve grown more muscular Raphael,” she said, smiling a little. “You were too thin when we were married.” Her fingers, at his chest now, moved slowly down, cool and velvety soft, tracing his flat stomach.
“And I see I can still make you react,” she said as her hand traced the edges of his burning erection.
He shivered. She was a vampire. Other vampires watched them. It took all his will to clamp his lips together to keep from begging her to touch him, to forget it all, to be his wife again.
But no matter how much he still needed her—through the horror and fear and remorse, and the mind-snapping craving of his body—the Comte de la Fère would not beg.
And yet . . . and yet, his bound back lifted fractionally off the marble, attempting to arch his body upward toward her touch.
She looked up at his face, and smiled slowly, knowingly, as though she guessed his thoughts and knew the extent of his need. Then she pulled her hand away and leaned in so close to his face that he could smell the familiar lilac scent she wore. “You are right, you know?” she said, confidentially. “I wasn’t a Judas goat.”
“No?” he said, relieved and crushed at once, because that meant he had tried to hang an innocent woman, a woman he’d adored with his whole heart, a woman who had survived only to become this. If only he hadn’t been so quick to judge. If he hadn’t been so proud. If he–
“No,” she said, smiling widely, her soft, moist lips glistening, sensuous and inviting. “I was already a vampire.”
With that she struck, her fangs biting deep into his neck and forcing a scream out of him. Pain burned into his muscles and propagated like fire along his nerves, descending, tortuously, down his spine. He screamed until he could scream no more. Tired and wrung out, he lay still in a puddle of his own sweat. Looking up at , and looked up at Charlotte’s eyes, he saw that they were dancing with amusement.
He tried to speak, but could not find the strength.
Then the feeling changed and instead of pain, bliss radiated from her mouth on his neck, sucking his life away. A tingle of pleasure like nothing he’d ever felt—an overall caress, skin-enveloping, nerve shattering—took him completely and soothed him. Transported on its wings, he felt his body react again, excitement gathering, coursing along his veins—pounding, demanding release.
She bit deeper and his mind fogged. He plunged into the darkness of death.
GRIEF carried d’Artagnan to Paris. Like a tidal wave swelling from shock to anger, it propelled him across the devastated country, riding along lonely roads amid denuded fields.
As the anguishing surge receded, it left him sitting on an ornate chair in the private office of Monsieur de Tréville, Captain of the Musketeers.
“I don’t know what you heard in the provinces,” the captain said. He was a small man, a Gascon, like d’Artagnan. Despite the silver threads mingled with the dark in his long straight hair, he didn’t look old. No wrinkles marred his mobile olive-skinned face and his eyes remained bright. He stood behind a great armchair facing d’Artagnan. His long thin fingers clasped the frame tightly, flesh dark against the white-painted wood and the threadbare blue-gray velvet of the cushions. “But France is not England. We are not at war with the vampires. Our king and the cardinal have signed a truce between them. His Eminence might have been turned, but he still wants what’s best for France. Neither the king, nor the cardinal—nor I, myself—want to experience here the slaughter and mayhem that engulfs the other side of the channel.”
All the energy drained from d’Artagnan’s body, leaving his arms nerveless and his legs feeling as though they lacked the strength to support his body. He had run to Paris to fight the vampires, and to stand for king and queen, supporting the forces of the light. To avenge his parents who’d been turned and had chosen to die as humans rather than live as vampires.
“My father said,” he heard his own voice echo back to him, aged and flat, “that I should come and offer my sword to you. That no matter who else had made peace with evil, you never would. That you knew darkness when you saw it.”
“Your father.” For just a moment, there was a flash of something in Monsieur de Tréville’s eyes. What it was, d’Artagnan could not tell. It flickered and vanished. In a changed voice, the captain said, “Your father and I fought side by side thirty-five years ago, when the first vampires came to France from Germany.” He sighed deeply. “Other times, my boy, other times. Now there’s a treaty in place. Daylighters are not to hunt vampires and vampires are not to turn the unwilling. Those turned must register promptly and become subjects of the cardinal, restrained by his laws. Only undeclared vampires, the ones in hiding, could be a danger, and we don’t have those.” He opened his hands. “Different times demand—”
Behind d’Artagnan, the door opened. A voice said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Captain, but you said you wanted to know when the inseparables came in.”
Turning, d’Artagnan saw a thin man in threadbare livery that seemed too big for him, looking in through the half-opened door. Just like all other Parisians, he looked starved, and not so much worried as anxious. He was ready to run at a sound, like a hare amid wolves.
D’Artagnan knew that no intelligent Parisian could take the truce or the treaty seriously. Monsieur de Tréville did not look stupid.
In fact, he did not look stupid at all, as his fingers released their death grip on the back of the chair, and his eyes filled with an eager curiosity, leavened by hope and fear. His voice trembling with what appeared to be near-maniacal relief, he said, “All three? Athos, Porthos, Aramis?”
The servant shook his head and looked away as he spoke, as if afraid of seeing the reaction to his words. “Porthos and Aramis, only, sir. Should I send them away?”
Monsieur de Tréville’s face froze, the skin taut on the frame of his bones—as though he’d aged a hundred years in that moment and only iron will kept him alive. He licked his lips. “The two?” His expression became impenetrable. He drew his mouth into a straight line and crossed his arms at his chest. “Send them in, Gervase.”
The gentlemen had apparently been waiting just outside the door, because as Gervase opened it, they burst into the room.
They were splendid. There was no other word for them. D’Artagnan, who had waited in the captain’s antechamber, had seen the rest of the musketeers as something very akin to immortal gods. He had listened to them jest about how many vampires they had killed, and taunt each other with the latest court gossip. Fearless and unabashed they called evil by its true name: vampire. Yet, admirable though they were, they admired others. They too had idols they looked up to.
All through the other musketeer’s chatter—like a touchstone, a prayer—he’d heard the names of the inseparables: Athos, Porthos, Aramis.
They were, according to their own comrades, the best and the bravest. It was said that in one night, the three of them alone had killed a hundred vampires. It was whispered that if France still had a human king, if the throne still belonged to the living, it was to the credit of none but the three noblemen who hid under the appellations of Porthos, Athos, and Aramis.
D’Artagnan, a Gascon and therefore inclined by nature to discount half of what he heard as exaggeration, and the other half as mere talk, now felt his mouth drop open in wonder at the sight of Porthos and Aramis. He thought that, if anything, the rumors had been an understatement.
Though their clothes looked as worn and their bodies as thin as those of other Parisians, the two inseparables were so muscular and broad-shouldered, and stood with such pride, that they lent their humble threadbare tunics, their frayed doublets, their mended lace and worn cloaks an air of distinction. They stood with pride an attribute one would have thought departed from mortals since the vampires had taken control.
The smaller of the two—just taller than d’Artagnan—had dark-golden hair and the flexible body of a dancer—or an expert sword fighter. His features were so delicately drawn that they might have graced a well-favored woman. However old his clothes might be, they looked well matched and even better fitted. Made of dark blue velvet that showed no mended patches. The ringlets of his hair fell over his shoulders, disposed in the most graceful of ways, with a longer love-lock caught up on the side of his head by a small but perfect diamond pin. Other than that pin, he wore no jewelry save for a plain, flat silver cross on a silver chain around his neck, and an antique signet ring on his left hand.
The other musketeer stood at least a head taller than any man d’Artagnan had ever seen. His chestnut brown hair was shoulder-long, his beard and moustache luxuriant; the bare patches on his tunic had been sewn by an expert hand and embroidered in what looked like gold thread.. D’Artagnan only noticed they were skillfully covered rents because there was no other explanation for the haphazard nature of the embroidery, which meandered over his broad torso with the abandon of a gypsy caravan on an endless jaunt. He wore a ring on the finger of each massive hand—most of them ornamented with stones too large to be anything but paste or glass—and on his chest lay a thick gold chain, with a cross composed of rubies and garnets—or their counterfeits—dazzling in its splendor.
This would be Porthos, d’Artagnan surmised. He had heard the man was a giant. Indeed, he had arms like tree trunks, legs like logs, and the most terrified brown eyes that d’Artagnan had ever seen.
His gaze darted around the room in skittish anxiety and, alighting on d’Artagnan, it made the Gascon wish to make his excuses and leave. But the musketeers blocked the path to the door. Porthos’ gaze moved on, immediately, to stare in abject fear at his captain, whom Porthos outweighed by at least half again as much.
Looking at Monsieur de Tréville, d’Artagnan could understand at least part of the fear. The captain’s face had hardened, and his gaze threatened to bore holes in the two musketeers, if it could. Settling on Porthos, the hard gaze then dismissed him, focusing instead on Aramis, who bowed very correctly. D’Artagnan had heard how valiant Porthos was and could only imagine his fear in this instance was that common malady known as timidity or shyness in social situations.
Here stood a man who could destroy vampires with a smile but who would be forever in fear of offending another human or committing a faux pas.
“Aramis,” Monsieur de Tréville rasped. “Where is Athos?”
Aramis smiled, as if he had expected this question all along. “He’s indisposed, sir. It’s nothing serious.”
“Nothing serious,” the captain said. He turned his back on them and stared out of his window. Through it one could just glimpse the broken cross atop the cathedral, the marble stark white against the lowing sky. “Nothing serious,” he said again, his voice heavy, like the closing of a tomb. “The cardinal bragged at his card game with the king last night. He said that Athos had been turned. That Athos was now one of them. The rumor is all over Paris.”
“It is . . . not so serious,” Aramis said.
“Not so serious,” the captain turned around. “So is he only half turned? You men and your careless ways. How many times have I told you not to wander the streets at night, after your guard shift? Never to go into dark alleys willingly? And if you must go into them, to guard yourselves carefully? Do you have any idea what Athos will become as a vampire? Do you not know your own friend well enough to know what a disaster this is?” His voice boomed and echoed. Doubtless, the musketeers massed in the antechamber were eagerly drinking in every word he said.
Porthos and Aramis shifted their feet, looked down, and let their hands stray to their sword pommels. It was obvious that had anyone but their captain given them such a sermon, he would have paid dearly for it.
Porthos, who had been squirming like a child in need of the privy, blurted out, “It’s just . . . that . . . sir! He has the smallpox!”
“The smallpox?” The Captain asked, with withering sarcasm, even as Aramis gave his friend a baneful, reproachful glance and a minimal headshake. “The smallpox, has Athos, who is over thirty years of age? Do you take me for a fool, Porthos?” His voice made even d’Artagnan—over whom he had, as yet, no power—back away and attempt to disappear against a wall-hung tapestry that showed the coronation of Henri IV. “I’ve given the three of you too much freedom because I thought you’d at least defend each other. How can you have allowed Athos to be taken? From now on, I am making sure that none of my musketeers go anywhere, save as a group. Not after dark. And if I hear of any of you starting a fight with a vamp– ”
He stopped mid-word, as steps were heard rushing outside, followed by a man’s voice, calling out, “I’m here.”
A blond man burst through the door. He was taller than Aramis, almost as tall as Porthos, though of a different build. It was not so much that he appeared lithe and lean, though he was both, but that on that leanness was superimposed a layer of muscle. D’Artagnan had seen similar bodies in a book of drawings by someone who had visited Greece. The ancients had excelled in the creation of sculptures of ideal men, which they placed as columns in their temples, supporting whole buildings on their backs. The buildings and the men were both a harmony of perfect proportion. Though d’Artagnan imagined this man must be Athos and that he must therefore be over thirty, he looked like a young man in the early prime of his days. It was as though he had halted at the peak of golden youth and from its summit looked through the ages unafraid, carrying the best of his civilization upon his powerful shoulders.
Like most of the other musketeers, he did not exactly wear a uniform. Instead, he wore the fashion of at least ten years before—a black doublet with ballooning sleeves and laced tightly in the Spanish fashion, and black knee breeches, beneath which a sliver of carefully mended stockings showed, disappearing into the top of his old but polished riding boots.
But it was his face that attracted and arrested one’s gaze as he threw back his head, parting the golden curtain of his hair as he did so. He said. “I heard you were asking for me, Captain, and, as you see, I came in answer to your call.”
He looked like the angel guarding the entrance to a ruined cathedral; beautiful, noble, and hopeless. The mass of hair tumbling down his back might have been spun out of gold, his flesh resembling the marble out of which such a statue’s features might be chiseled. The noble brow, the heavy-lidded eyes, the high straight nose, the pronounced cheekbones and square chin, and the lips—full and sensuous, as if hinting at forbidden earthly desires. All of it was too exquisite, too exact; perfection that no human born of woman should be entitled to.
He also looked cold, unreachable, and lost—and, except for still standing on his feet and moving—as if he’d died waiting for a miracle that had never come.
Monsieur de Tréville’s mouth had remained open. He now closed it with an audible snap, and advanced on the musketeer, hands extended. “Athos! You should not have come. You look pale. Are you wounded?”
Athos shook his head, then shrugged. “A scratch only, Captain,” he said. “And you’ll be proud to know we laid ten of them down forever, d’Alene among them.”
“D’Alene? The Terror of Pont Neuf?” Monsieur de Tréville asked, suddenly gratified.
Athos bowed slightly, and in bowing, flinched a little. His eyes, which had looked black at first sight, caught the light from the window—as he turned his head—and revealed themselves as a deep, dark jade green.
The captain squeezed the musketeer’s hands hard. Athos bit his lips, looking as if the touch pained him, though not a sound of complaint escaped him. “As you see,” he said, “we do what we can to defend the people of Paris.”
“Indeed. Indeed. I was just telling your friends how much I prize men like you, and how brave you are to risk your lives every night, in defense of the people, and how . . . ”
Athos, who looked pale and wan as if he were indeed wounded, and, in fact, as if he only remained standing through sheer will, didn’t seem able to withstand the barrage of words, or perhaps the additional pain of what must be the captain’s iron grip on his hands—so tight that Monsieur de Tréville’s knuckles shone white. He made a sound like a sigh, his legs gave out under him, and he began to sink to the floor.
His friends managed to catch his apparently lifeless body and ease him onto the carpet.
Bewildered, d’Artagnan suddenly perceived that the captain must be playing some deep game. The man who’d told him musketeers didn’t fight guards clearly was pleased that musketeers did. Which must mean d’Artagnan’s father was right and that Monsieur de Tréville fought against the vampires still―only carefully enough to not be caught at fault under the treaty.
D’Artagnan took a step forward to help with the fallen Athos, but the musketeer’s two comrades moved, obstructing his path.
The young man stopped, staring. It seemed to him that, as Athos fell—awkwardly caught by Aramis around the chest and Porthos by the shoulders to ease what would otherwise have been a floor-shaking collapse—his hair moved away from his neck revealing two deep, dark puncture marks on his neck.
Athos would not be the first to be bitten by a vampire and live to tell the tale. There was a time, d’Artagnan’s father had told him, that this was the basic requirement to become a musketeer—to have felt the bite of the vampire—and his allure—and to have survived it. But the bite mark combined with Athos’ pallor seemed to indicate a vampire might have gone too far. Far enough, in fact, that the human thus bitten turned into a vampire within twenty-four hours, and would be prowling the streets for living blood by the next evening.
D’Artagnan moved closer. He was barely breathing as he strove to see the musketeer’s neck. Surely, if he had been turned, his friends would not hide it. They were musketeers. Surely―
The two musketeers knelt, one on either side of their comrade, while the captain stood nervously at his feet. Aramis was unlacing Athos’ doublet, a sensible action indeed if he was wounded and needed air. With his movements, Aramis had also artlessly pulled Athos’ hair to hide what might be punctures on his neck. Perhaps it had indeed been by chance, but d’Artagnan found it hard to trust anyone.
“Sangre Dieu,” Porthos thundered, looking up and noticing that a crowd had come from the antechamber and gathered at the still-open door, to watch the excitement. “Back all of you. Can’t you see the man needs to breathe?”
At that moment, Aramis lifted a reddened hand that he had just dipped beneath his friend’s doublet. “He’s all over blood,” the musketeer said. “He was badly cut in the fight last night.” As he spoke, he undid Athos’ doublet altogether, and showed the red-soaked shirt beneath. There was a sound of relief from bystanders as they released long-held breaths in a collective sigh.
Clearly if the musketeer could bleed still and in such quantity, when he could not have fed as a vampire yet, the rumor of him turning would be just that. Yet D’Artagnan was not so sure. Such things could be falsified.
Aramis pulled back the gory shirt to reveal a cut on the pale, muscular chest beneath—a cut smeared in blood, some of it dried.
“My surgeon,” Monsieur de Tréville said.
“No, please, sir,” Aramis said. “Athos wouldn’t even let us bandage him last night. You know how private he is and how proud. He wouldn’t like it if it was known he suffered such a wound.” He looked toward the crowd with worried eyes. “I hope no one speaks of this.”
The mass of musketeers backed a step, then two under his steely gaze.
Porthos stood, then bent down to pick up his unconscious friend. “I’ll take him to his lodgings, sir. His servant will bandage him up, been with his family since Athos was a baby. Athos cannot resent him. Yes, Grimaud will look after him.”
“Yes,” Monsieur de Tréville said, his gaze heavy on the bloodied shirt. “Yes. Do. Take care of my brave Athos.”
“We will, sir,” Aramis said, bowing a little.
But d’Artagnan had discerned two things. First, the appearance of Athos’ chest and the blood on it was wrong. If he had bled so copiously, most of the blood would have crusted around the wound. Instead, it was smeared around the pale skin in irregular streaks looking like it had gone from the shirt to the wound, and not the other way around.
Second, Athos wore no cross. While there was no requirement that musketeers—or indeed anyone—wear a cross, almost everyone did. A cross or some other chosen symbol of their faith that not only stood between them and the vampires, but which showed to the world that they were, indeed, still free men.
Had a vampire managed to get into the ranks of the musketeers? And were his friends hiding him?
When the three inseparables left the room, d’Artagnan slipped out and followed them.
I’ll probably bring out the next book, Royal Blood in May and the third one in June (depending on moving schedules which depends on whether sale comes through or not, hence the “probably.”) That completes the trilogy, though there might be after-books with a different generation.