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From Solitude

No Man Is An Island

From Solitude…
By Amanda Berendt
Copyright June/July 2004

    Natalie Lambert sat silently on the uncomfortable folding chair staring at the flower-draped casket. Her three-year-old daughter sat on her lap. The new life she had built for herself had just come crashing down around her. Everything had happened so quickly. Just three nights ago, she had gotten a call from the station that Thomas had been in an accident. She had rushed to the emergency room to be by his side. There had never been any real hope, but at least she had been able to say goodbye.
    She and Thomas had met five years earlier at a department Christmas party. He was an attorney in the crown prosecutor’s office. He had recognized her last name and had asked if she was related to Richard Lambert. Hitting it off immediately, they began dating and were married a year later.
    Despite her sincere happiness in her life with Thomas, Natalie occasionally found her thoughts turning to what Nick might be doing. She often pictured him traveling the world or maybe teaching somewhere.
    Shortly before their first anniversary, the couple learned they were pregnant. Nine months later, they welcomed a beautiful baby girl whom they christened Rachel. She had the chestnut curls of her mother and the bright green eyes of her father.
    Natalie managed to get through the service and the reception without breaking down. Amazingly she no longer felt sad. Now it was more than a numb feeling… as if she were living in an alternate reality.
    That evening, after she had put Rachel to bed, she found herself wandering through the house. Because of all the years she had worked nights, she still sometimes had trouble sleeping. Sitting down at the desk in the den, she began going through the drawers just to keep her mind occupied.
    The next morning, she awoke to find herself still at the desk with a crick in her neck from sleeping in an awkward position. As she leaned back in the chair and stretched, she saw an old brochure for a European tour on the desktop. She didn’t remember getting it, perhaps Thomas had. She leafed through the booklet, thinking that maybe she and Rachel could get away for a while.
    Several months later, she and Rachel were at Pearson Airport saying good-bye. Grace and Myra and Jenny Schanke had come to see them off. Natalie had taken some time to get everything in order before the trip so she could concentrate on creating some happy memories for herself and Rachel.
    They spent the next several weeks visiting various European cities. They rode gondolas in Venice, saw the ruins of Pompeii, and as the days passed Natalie was pleased to see her daughter smiling more and more. When they visited London, she even found herself giggling along with Rachel as they were overwhelmed by the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
    It was early September when they arrived at the tour’s final destination. Natalie held Rachel’s hand as they followed the group out of Charles de Gaulle airport to where the tour bus was waiting. They would be spending the next day on a trip to a country estate, and then they were free to explore Paris for five days until the conclusion of the tour.
    The next morning the group was on the bus driving across the French countryside. Natalie sat gazing out the window with Rachel asleep on her lap. It was several hours before the bus pulled into the small town. Natalie was surprised to find that, with the exception of the cars and the telephone lines, the town looked as if time had passed it by. The bus drove through the village toward the manor house visible on the other side. Moments later they stopped in a gravel parking area not far from the house and filed off the bus.
    Natalie looked out over the landscape as she helped Rachel from the bus. It was a beautiful morning – the light breeze tickled the tall grass and the warm sun beamed down as the group made it’s way up the gravel drive to the manor house. The granite façade of the house glimmered in the morning sun.
    The tour guide paused the group outside the front entrance and explained that the original manor had been built in the mid – 12th century by the local duke. It had recently been fully restored by a descendant of the original family and he was kind enough to allow the town to occasionally give tours of his home.
    The guide then led them inside. Natalie made sure she held tight to Rachel to prevent any breakage of priceless family heirlooms. By the time they reached the great room, Natalie was carrying her daughter. The guide stopped in front of the large fireplace and pointed to the portrait hanging above the mantle. He said it was the only object in the manor that the owner refused to give any information about. He then welcomed any thoughts from the group. Natalie shifted Rachel in her arms and looked closely at the portrait. She was shocked to find that she recognized the subject. It looked exactly like Janette!
    As the guide led the group from the room, Natalie reluctantly pulled herself away from the portrait. Wild thoughts flooded her mind as the group walked back to the bus. Was it really her? Could this house have some connection with Nick? Rachel shifted in her arms bringing her thoughts back to the present. She shook her head, banishing the fantastic thoughts. Even if the portrait were of Janette, it was probably one of many. Still, as the bus carried them back to Paris, she couldn’t get the portrait, and what it might mean, out of her mind.
    Instead of visiting the typical tourist attractions Paris had to offer, Natalie spend much of the next few days finding out as much about the manor and the surrounding area as she could. She discovered the area was once known as the Duchy of Brabant and the original manor house was built by the Duke of Brabant. The house had stayed in the family for several generations until the mid 13th century when the last family member (a woman) had married. It was then that the house and land began to fall into disrepair. Then, according to the records, six years ago the land had been purchased by a charitable foundation in the name of a descendant of the original family. The manor had been rebuilt and restored to its original glory.
    It was too much to be just a coincidence Natalie thought. On the final day of the tour, she packed up their things and instead of heading home to Toronto; she booked two tickets on a train. She called Grace to tell her she was spending a bit more time in France and to ask her to keep feeding Sidney.
    Late that afternoon, Natalie and Rachel stepped off the train into the small village. She found a small inn and checked in. The late summer sun was still high in the sky as she and her daughter walked along the gravel path just outside of town. They came to a gate proclaiming in French that no trespassers were allowed beyond that point. Looking around and seeing no one, she pushed the gate open and passed through. A little farther up the path, the manor house came into view. She hesitated for a few moments, then taking a deep breath she took Rachel’s hand and walked determinedly up the path toward the house.

    Lucien Lacroix stood by the carved wooden fireplace drinking from a crystal goblet. He gazed out at the Toronto skyline framed by the night sky. It had been six years and no word. Of course, there had been much longer times, but times had changed.
    When Nicholas had left, he had moved into the loft temporarily, expecting his son to return after he had finished with his tantrum. But that had not happened. The days had become weeks, weeks became months and the months years. He had been more patient than he should have been. The vampire gently placed the glass on the mantle and took off into the night sky. The time had come to find Nicholas.
    It had been several weeks since he had entered the Raven. Despite his long absence, the bartender immediately produced a glass of the special stock when he approached the bar. He stood for a moment, sipping from the glass, as he surveyed the club. He was pleased to see Aristotle sitting at one of the tables. This made things much easier.
    He crossed the club and stopped in front of the table. The two female vampires sitting with Aristotle easily sensed the presence of the ancient vampire and quickly left the table. Lacroix sat in one of the newly vacant chairs and smiled at the other man.
    “What can I do for you, Lucien?” Aristotle said with a grin.
    “I am looking for someone.”
    Aristotle chuckled. “You know I can’t divulge any relocation information.”
    Lacroix sighed. “Could you at least tell me if you helped Nicholas leave Toronto?”
    A bemused smile spread across Aristotle’s face. “So you’ve lost him again, have you?” He took a sip from the glass on the table.
    The expression on Lacroix’s face remained unchanged. “Did you?’
    “Not recently. Perhaps he’s gone somewhere on his own.” He shrugged.
    Lacroix glared at the other vampire once more, then got up from the table. He went back to the bar where he sat for a few hours contemplating his next move. Where would Nicholas have gone?
    The question remained unanswered as dawn came and Lacroix returned to the loft. He climbed the stairs to the bedroom and lay down on the silk sheets of the bed. Throughout the long daylight hours he sifted through his perfect memory for any clue as to where Nicholas might have run.
    It was almost dusk when his memories reached back to Paris when he had first met Nicholas. He had reached the beginning and had found nothing. He stopped. That was it! The beginning. Nicholas would have done his best to return to his life before Lacroix.
    The vampire sat up on the bed and picked up the phone next to the bed. He dialed the number for his personal assistant. “I need a flight to Paris immediately.”
    After a day spent resting at his apartment in Paris, the next evening found him driving along the countryside north of Paris in his black Jaguar sedan. He reached the small village not long after midnight. The late hour assured his privacy as he drove along the main street. He remarked how little it had changed in nearly a millennium. Passing through the town he came to the gated driveway of the estate. Not wanting to alert its occupant, he pulled the car to the side of the road, got out and took to the air.
    He was glad for the late summer warmth when saw an open window. Sensing a single heartbeat downstairs, he smiled. This would give him some time to explore. He quickly found the master bedroom and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
    The room was dominated by an oaken four-poster bed, which was set just opposite a carved wood fireplace mantle. A pair of leather chairs was arranged around a chess set at the window. The atmosphere of the room seemed to have been transported across the century. The only intrusions from the current time were the electric lamps, a telephone on the night table, and a laptop on the desk by the fireplace.
    Sensing the heartbeat climbing the stairs, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver pocket watch. Calmly he placed the watch on the night table nearest the door, then crossed to the window and waited.
    The door opened and Nicholas immediately saw the watch on the night table. He picked up and despite an obvious recognition of the piece, he opened it to read the inscription – FOREVER. Lacroix saw the muscles in Nick’s neck and back tense up before the man turned to look for the intruder.
    The vampire waited several moments before stepping from the shadows to reveal himself to his former child. “Good evening, Nicholas.” He purred.
    He could see the mortal man ready himself for some kind of assault, whether it be mental or physical. Lacroix respected this effort even though both knew it would be useless. Nicholas’ newfound mortality was no match for the vampire.
    “What do you want, Lacroix?” Nicholas asked, holding his ground.
    The vampire smiled and took a step back. “Who said I wanted anything? Can’t I just come to visit?”
    Despite the amiable atmosphere, Nicholas did not let his guard down. “You have never ‘just come to visit.’”
    “True.” The vampire sat down in one of the leather chairs by the window and casually crossed his legs. “But things have changed.” He leaned back in the chair, folding his hands together and gazed intently at Nicholas.
    Nicholas returned the gaze, still not rising to the bait.
    Silence hung in the room for several moments before Lacroix spoke once more. “I have not come to reclaim you,” he paused. “Unless, of course, that is what you want.” Nick remained silent. “I have come to offer a truce.”
    This caught Nick’s attention. “A what?”
    Lacroix smiled. “A truce, my dear Nicholas. You have heard of the term, haven’t you?”
    Ignoring the jab, Nick asked. “Why?”
    Even though it was unnecessary, Lacroix took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “As I have said, things have changed.” He picked up the knight from the chess set and studied it. “In light of recent events, I have altered my opinion on your ‘quest.’” Placing the knight back on the chessboard, he added. “Have you played much lately?”
    This caught Nick off guard, but he recovered quickly. He stepped forward and sat down on the edge of the bed. “As I am sure you have noticed, Lacroix,” He said calmly and without malice. “My quest has ended.”
    “Yes.” There was a pause as the vampire’s ice blue eyes met Nick’s gaze. “But you are all I have left.” There was almost a sense of defeat in his eyes that in call the centuries they had spent together, Nick had never seen before. “So I have come to offer you a truce.”
    Still unsure of his former master’s intent, Nick still did not let his defenses down. “What are the terms?”
    Always the general, Lacroix smiled. “Terms? Yes, of course. I will not interfere in this life you have made for yourself and I will not bring you across.” He paused.    “Unless, of course, you ask me to.”
    Still not completely convinced of the vampire’s altruism, Nick leaned forward. “And what do you get?”
    “Your company.” Then off Nick’s confused countenance, he continued. “All I ask is that you extend an open invitation to me.”
    Nick stood up and shook his head as if unable to comprehend what was happening. “That’s all? You let me live my life as I please, and I allow you to visit me?”
    Lacroix uncrossed his legs and sat forward. “Yes, are we agreed?”
    Nick looked at the watch still in his hand, it’s inscription burning into his mind. He knew there had to be more to this bargain than simply what was stated, but at least for now it granted him safety and security. He would deal with what the future held when it came.
    “Yes, we are agreed.”

    The morning after his visit with Lacroix, Nick awoke wondering if it had only been a dream. As he sat up in bed, he looked at the chair by the window as if he expected his former master to still be sitting there. He shrugged off the covers and put his feet on the floor, and it was then that he saw the watch on the nightstand. It hadn’t been a dream, after all.
    Stretching, he stood and crossed to the window. The late summer sun streaming through the glass pushed away the remaining darkness from his mind. He opened the window and took a deep breath of the clean morning air. The dew on the grass sparkled in the mid morning light. Smiling, he turned away from the window and went out into the hall. He showered and dressed before going downstairs.
    The large kitchen was also shinning in the morning light. It was the one room in the house that he was not sure what to do with at first, but over the past several years he had become quite a chef. He opened the refrigerator and took out the leftover turkey from the night before and prepared a sandwich. He wrapped it up and along with a bottle of water and a few carrots carried it out to the stables.
    Nick set down his lunch on the table in the tack room and crossed to Tristan’s stall. The black stallion whinnied a greeting when he saw his master come to the doorway. Nick gave him a handful of oats as he led the horse out of the stall. He quickly saddled the horse and packed his lunch into the saddlebag before leading him out into the morning sun. Nick looked up at the nearly cloudless sky. A beautiful day for a ride, he thought. Mounting the large horse, Nick took hold of the reins and set out across the open grass.
    It was nearly noon when he reached the stream. He stopped and dismounted taking the saddlebag with him. Tying back the reins, he let Tristan graze. The horse wouldn’t go far. Nick took a deep cleansing breath of the country air, then flopped down on the grass. He lay back on the ground closing his eyes.
    The visit from Lacroix had brought with it thoughts of the past Nick had fled from. He had wanted to start a new life and look to the future, but now the past had caught up with him once more. With the memories of Toronto came images of Natalie. Was she all right? What was she doing? Had she gone on with her life? He shook his head to clear the thoughts from his mind. Natalie had her own life now and he was not part of it.
    Still lying on the grass he opened his eyes to stare up at the clear blue sky. The white cotton clouds dotted the wide expanse of blue. Over the past six years, he had taken to spending as much time in the sunshine as he could. He was making up for eight centuries of darkness.
    He was shaken from his reverie by Tristan’s head blocking out his view of the sky. The large horse stood over his master for a moment before leaning down to nuzzle Nick’s head.
    “So, I guess this is your subtle way of telling me its lunchtime?” He chuckled.
    Pushing Tristan’s head out of the way, Nick sat up and reached for the saddlebag. He opened it and took out his sandwich as well as a carrot for Tristan. Handing the carrot to the horse, he set about unwrapping the sandwich. He sat there eating his lunch on the bank of the clear flowing stream and thought about how simple his life was now. He had peace and security and wanted for nothing. Nothing tangible, at least.
    Putting the garbage from his sandwich back into the saddlebag, he took out the bottle of water and took a long drink. Although he had achieved his desire to become mortal once more and was very happy in his new life, something was missing. He had achieved his goal, but he had no one to share it with.
    He spent the afternoon riding along the stream before turning to head home. Although the summer sun was still high in the sky, his stomach told him it was nearly dinnertime. Tristan carried him slowly across the fields allowing his master to savor the late afternoon light.
    As the manor came into view, Nick noticed someone coming up the path from the town. It looked like a woman and a child. From this distance and without his vampire senses, he couldn’t see any details. As he rode closer, he saw that the woman noticed him. She stopped on the path, looking at him. He saw her put her free hand to her mouth, as if she were surprised. He stopped and dismounted from the horse and began to walk towards the woman, the sun beginning to set behind him. As he got closer to the woman, he stopped when he recognized the chestnut curls moving softly in the gentle breeze.
    His voice almost failed him. “Natalie?”
    The woman took the child’s hand and came to him. “Oh, my god, Nick.” She gasped. “I saw the portrait and thought, maybe… but I never believed it could be true.”
    He opened his arms and she stepped into his embrace. “Natalie, I am so sorry.”
    Their reunion was cut short by a small voice. “Mommy, I’m hungry.”
    Nick stepped back as Natalie picked up the little girl. “Nick, I want you to meet my daughter, Rachel.”
    Nick looked from Natalie to the little girl. She was a carbon copy of her mother. He smiled at her. “Would you ladies to me the honor of accompanying me to dinner?” He asked holding out his arm.
    Natalie linked her free arm in his and as the sun slipped below the horizon, he guided them up the hill towards the house.