It took a little time to find her, the lone human heartbeat in a château large enough that Henry did not immediately hear it when he rose. She was on the uppermost floor, standing next to a wide-open window, the chill breeze winding the scent of cognac together with that of her life.
She glanced back at him, sidelong, a sliver of elfin profile behind a curtain of dark hair. "They're singing. In the trenches."
So they were, in counterpoint to the song of her blood, with the same undertone of apprehension held in check. "You can hear them?" he asked as he looked out over her shoulder, surprised that the carols were reaching her mortal ears.
"Just barely, and only when the wind is right. I can't quite make out the tune."
"Alles schläft, einsam wacht." Both his singing and his German were adequate and no more, and this time Estelle turned far enough that he could see her smile. "Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar...."
"They'll have their silent night." It was soft, but still had the ring of a vow about it. She took a sip of her cognac and leaned her head back against Henry's shoulder as he slipped his arms around her. "The German boys too, as well as yours and ours."
"It's been many years since I could call the English mine," he murmured into her hair. "But you're right, they all deserve peace tonight. I wish I could do the same for you."
"You can. Stay with me until..." She interrupted herself so smoothly, it almost seemed she had left nothing out. "You can wait that long to hunt, can't you? If not, I can --"
"No." He wrapped himself more closely around her. "You'll need every bit of your strength. I can wait."
Estelle's laugh was silent, little more than a shudder through the small body in his arms. "You still sound like you think I'll survive." She set her glass on the windowsill and turned to face him, laying the fingertips of one hand on his lips before he could answer. "Don't. I know there's a chance, Henry. I do."
He twined his fingers in hers, moving her hand away from his mouth. "But I mustn't speak of it? Why?"
"I don't think I can explain. But I can't think that way, not now. I can't afford it."
"You know I'll do whatever I can to keep you alive."
"And I'm grateful for that. For anything you can do that doesn't interfere," she added firmly. An ironic smile twisted her lips. "I'm not the only one here destined to die at seventeen."
"That's not how the story ended."
"Exactly." She stretched up on tiptoe to kiss him, fingers laced at the back of his head. "It could have been worse," she breathed against his cheek. "The curse could have required the guardian to be a maiden. Of course, that might have been what they had in mind when they barred the threshold to any living man."
He couldn't help but laugh at that. "It might have been. It's a bit late to be thinking of that now."
"I thought of it a week ago," Estelle informed him primly. "It was a calculated risk."
"Well. Far be it from me to argue with the guardian's calculations." This was no joking matter, but her spirit was infectious, and letting her set the tone was the least he could do. It remained to be seen, when midnight came, if he could do more.
Not much, as it had turned out.
Flame danced on the wick of the votive candle in its red glass, bright and lively as the soul for which it was lit.
Ninety years. Ninety candles. He always did his best to remember the laughter they had shared in her final hours. Not the pounding inside the heavy door of the desecrated chapel at the heart of the château. Not the screams.
Not his failure.
In the trenches, the soldiers had settled down to their silent night, never knowing its price. He didn't begrudge them that; the Great War had been more than enough of a nightmare without releasing another.
Raymond stood patiently behind him. He said nothing, but he knew he didn't need to. Henry crossed himself and stood, turning to his friend and confessor's welcome hug. To his slight surprise, the young priest was already in street clothes; he had been kneeling here longer than he realized.
"Merry Christmas, Henry. You've been scarce around here lately."
"I know." He couldn't bring himself to make excuses, not standing here in the Lord's house, its air heavy with evergreen and incense from the midnight celebration of His birth. "Merry Christmas."
"Five-thirty and seven on Saturday," the priest persisted. "This time of year, you can take your pick."
"Okay. End of lecture." Raymond buttoned his coat and put his hands in his pockets. "Come on. It wouldn't feel like Christmas anymore without getting demolished at backgammon at three a.m."
Henry gestured for him to lead the way, glancing back at the votive on his way out. "You'll know who I was," memory whispered. "Hundreds of years from now. You'll know what we stopped. That's a gift I never expected to have."
Merry Christmas, Estelle.