Willow sat staring at the easel standing in front of her; she looked back and forth between the black-dipped paintbrush in her own hand and the single piece of thick paper taped to the surface of the easel. She moved as though in slow motion, replacing the brush on the lip of the easel and studying the half-completed painting sitting in front of her. Thick lines of black paint criss-crossed the surface and formed no discernable image nor followed any set pattern. A small frown marred her features as stared at the painting, there was something not right...not about the painting, but about everything. Willow glanced down at her hands, turning them over as though studying them but they seemed to be her hands. She smoothed her palms over the fabric that covered her legs and gripped it as though to confirm what she touched was real. Even as she was trying to put her finger on what was out of place, she heard heavy footsteps echoing on the wooden floorboards behind her, she swivelled on her ottoman to see a tall red-haired young man, handsomely attired in full military dress, stride into the room. She felt her entire body relax at the mere sight of him...Abraham.
Abraham smiled at the sight of his sister painting, a lonely figure in an almost bare room. Besides Willow's easel and ottoman, there was just one other chair and a small table. This made the room seem large, and his sister exceptionally small and fragile indeed. He was however pleased to see that she was finally wearing a colour besides black. Today she was wearing one of her favourites; a handsome light green day dress with embroidered sleeves. A patterned shawl rested on her elbows despite the warm sun filtering through the window panes. He crossed the room to where she sat next to the window in just a few powerful steps and stopped to press a tender kiss to the top of her head. He then placed a hand on her shoulder and stepped back to admire her masterpiece.
"If I might be forthright, I would say that this is not your finest work," he commented, trying to inject an element of humour into his voice,
"Looking for an insight into my tortured mind, dear brother?" Willow replied in a voice that would brook no nonsense.
Abraham did not press the issue with any further comment about her artwork as Willow made it clear that she would not be baited by his taunts. He turned to drag the unoccupied chair behind him a little closer so he could sit at Willow's side, his knee resting lightly against her own.
"Where are my manners," Willow chided herself as set the brush down and swivelled in her chair, she reached out and briefly laid her hand on his thigh, "Welcome...home..."
"Thank you...although it doesn't really seem like home yet does it?" Abraham glanced around at the depressingly bare room, "Still, Hagley Park is empty of our things and ready for its new occupants...I should imagine that the new furniture I have ordered from in town will be arriving within the month."
"We'll have some new artwork for the walls at least," Willow commented with a nod towards her painting, finally allowing Abraham's infectious good humour to win her over slightly.
Abraham raised his eyebrows, "Please do not hang that, Willow."
Willow nodded seriously rather than take offence, "Yes, it is rather depressing isn't it?"
"Depressing? It's downright dull," Abraham noted bluntly.
Willow glanced down in her lap, absently stroking the dried black paint that covered her fingers and hands. When she returned her gaze to Abraham's face, any trace of amusement was gone once more. He sighed and reached out to cup her cheek with his sword-calloused hand. She leaned into the touch, closing her eyes.
"I wish you to smile again, Willow, "he whispered tenderly, "I have very little memory of mother, but when you smile I can see her as if she were alive just yesterday."
Willow endeavoured to do her best for her brother but the awkward twitch of her lips could not be labelled a smile by any stretch of the imagination. With another quick squeeze of his knee, she faced her painting once more. She retrieved her brush, scooped up a liberal amount of black paint, and resumed applying it studiously onto the canvas as though there was a great deal of thought behind each stroke.
Abraham was content to watch Willow paint and brother and sister sat companionably in silence for several minutes. However, he had hurried home with the express intent of passing on a vital piece of news...news he knew Willow would want to hear but at the same time, it was news he never wanted to have to give her. He had managed to conceal the grief he felt from her throughout their initial greeting but as the time passed, he knew he could delay no longer or risk her hearing a choked sob burst forth from his lips. Such an outburst would no doubt make his task more difficult than it already was.
He waited for a pause in her painting efforts; it came as she leant back slightly to study her work with a thoughtful expression. However, after cocking her head to one side and sticking out the tip of her pink tongue she made such an adorable picture that Abraham could not bring himself to tell her. He dragged a trembling hand through his hair. Just a moment later, Willow spun around as though she were about to ask him something. She paused as though seeing something in his expression and her adorable expression was ruined by a frown.
"You look decidedly ill...whatever is the matter, Abraham?"
Willow was scared, in all her nineteen years she had never seen her brother as close to tears as he was now. Abraham was her rock, the one person in her life whom she could always count upon no matter what. She quickly replaced her brush on the lip of easel and turned to face him, trembling with the thought of what he would tell her...whatever it was that had rendered him so upset, it was grim news.
"A-Abraham," Willow prodded hesitantly.
He looked away as though he could not face her gaze, his strong shoulders stooping beneath a tremendous weight. Moments later he felt a slight pressure on his knee and he looked back once more to see Willow's small hand resting there, her skin white. With a pained smile he reached out and picked it up, squeezing the trembling fingers between his own.
"I have just come from the Tovey's...Mrs Tovey as you well know is a confidant of Amelia Walsh, Edward's mother," Abraham breathed in deeply and exhaled shakily, "Apparently Edward returned from his wedding tour yesterday evening..."
"The Walsh's are back?" Willow was quick to interrupt, instantly forgetting her vow to avoid Tara at all costs when faced with the prospect of being able to see her again, "Abraham, dear brother, please do not hold back, did she say anything at all about her?"
All Willow's vows and admonitions to herself counted for naught in the face of news about Tara. She had scooted forward on her ottoman, close enough to Abraham to reach out and seize both his hands in her own.
"As a matter of fact..." he began, trying to keep himself steady as he stared into his sister's searching, longing gaze, "She did."
Willow's first instinct was to feel an inkling of hope at the prospect of news about Tara, good or bad, however her hope quickly faded to anguish as she saw Abraham's struggle to control himself. She knew at that moment that the news went beyond just reporting that the married couple had returned, which in itself was enough to upset her, and into the realm of heartbreak.
Abraham shifted his hands so it was he who was holding her delicate fingers, he squeezed them firmly, "My dearest sister, I do not begin to know any of the details...but something horrible happened in Austria...people are saying it was a tragedy...all I know is..."
Abraham's composure finally broke and a single sob escaped his lips. It was smothered almost as quickly as it emerged but to hear it coming from her ordinarily unflappable brother was more than enough for Willow, she found herself choking back tears of her own.
"All I know is, Tara is dead," Abraham managed to finish quickly, his words tumbling over one another in his haste to get them out.
Despite the haste at which he said them, Willow clearly heard Abraham's words, especially the last three...
Tara is dead, Willow rolled the words over and over within her mind as though she were trying to make sense of them, Tara is dead...Tara is dead... Her thoughts then immediately ran to the complete lack of information as the main reason for her inability to comprehend those words, Tara is dead...how is Tara dead? Tara was killed in an accident? Tara died of an illness, Tara was murdered...? No...Tara's not dead, it's impossible...
"No," Willow heard herself whisper the word unconsciously, as if saying the word itself would somehow negate the validity of Abraham's information.
"I know how immensely dreadful this must be for you, dear sister," Abraham continued to hold her hands, gripping so tightly her fingers were beginning to turn white, "and I want nothing more than to find out more information for you. It is imperative that I attend to some affairs with the bank before it closes...but as soon as I am done we will go together to the Walsh's. Willow, please promise me you will wait until I have returned and we might call upon Edward ...to offer our sympathies?"
He was immensely distressed by the awful pallor to her cheeks and blank stare. Her reply to his plea distressed him even further, she did not rant or rave or protest against his decision, she merely nodded with her lips set into a tight line. He knew that he should not leave her in such a state, but he could not avoid his business. Abraham stood and deposited a gentle kiss on the top of his sister's head. She did not respond in any way, even when he left the room.
Willow glanced towards the door only when Abraham had stepped out. She sat on the edge of her ottoman, still struggling to comprehend the meaning behind the news. Even though she knew it was relatively straightforward, a myriad of questions were demanding answers in her mind. In her confusion, she could not find the space inside her head to be upset, all she could do was sit and stare as she waited for the information to process.
Less than a minute after Abraham had departed, one of the parlour maids stepped quietly into the room and remained standing just to the right of the door. Willow wondered whether she was on suicide watch or merely there to make sure she did not try and leave the room. As her confusion slowly gave way to anger, Willow's nostrils flared with her indignation at being dictated to by her brother. She was not a child; she did not require a nursemaid every second of every day.
Seething inwardly, Willow turned her back on the door and instead stared at her unfinished painting. She lost herself in the swirl of black lines that went nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It was as though she had created a maze for which there was no solution, a perfect analogy for her tortured mind.
Willow could not tell how long she sat staring at the painting, she could only tell that she had lost track of time as the sunlight moved across the bare floorboards. However, she had not been idling wasting her time, she had been thinking and now she knew exactly what it was she had to do. Willow stood, feeling her muscles protest at the abruptness of her movement. She stared at the painting one last time and all of a sudden realised that she hated it. With an angry swipe, she knocked her jar of black paint from the table. It hit the ground with a glassy clatter and the thick liquid erupted out across the floorboards in a great black wave. Impassively, Willow watched the black paint spread outwards, it was exactly how she felt with the darkness of hate and anger spreading throughout her body. She was ruined and stained.
When Willow turned around the parlour maid was standing directly behind her. The startled young girl had been staring at the spilled paint but now she ducked her head in a quick curtsey.
"Can I make you some tea, Miss Van Helsing?" the girl offered quickly, her cheeks reddening as a result of Willow's uncomfortable stare.
"Do you enjoy working in this house, Nancy?" Willow asked coldly, ignoring the offer.
Nancy glanced up with a puzzled expression on her face at the usual behaviour of her mistress, "Y-yes Miss Van Helsing, of course."
"Then I suggest if you want to keep your job, you will let me walk out that door and you will not breathe a word to anyone else that I intend to go out," Willow continued, surprising herself with her iron-like tone.
The poor girl was obviously terrified; she could not open her mouth to form a reply and managed only a hasty nod. Barely waiting for her answer, Willow glided from the room, her steps firm with purpose.
Several minutes later, Willow was entering her carriage. The coachman, obviously having missed any message from Abraham to keep her in the house, could not agree to the curt demands of his young mistress fast enough. He was already spurring his horses forward before she had even closed the door behind her.
The decanter shook violently against the rim of the glass, sending most of the liquid sloshing onto the lace cloth beneath it. Even before he set down the decanter with a heavy thud, his fingers were already wrapping around the glass. With quick movements he lifted the glass to his lips, threw back his head and drained it in one gulp. The burning he felt in his throat and the warmth in his gut did nothing to dull the raw panic he felt coursing throughout his body. He poured a second measure, even larger than the first and sent this in the same direction. He was struggling to pour his third when he heard footsteps echo on the floorboards at his back, he slammed down the decanter and gripped the edge of the buffet table with both hands.
"How many times have I told you, mother!" he growled, slamming one clenched fist down so hard his glass jumped and fell to the floor, smashing instantly, "Leave me alone...there was nothing I could have done!"
"I'm not your mother," was the cold reply, "And I have no intention of leaving you alone until I have some answers."
He immediately straightened at the sound of a familiar voice but he remained facing the wall until he had smoothed his dishevelled clothing with his sweaty palms. When he did turn around he snorted back an inappropriate laugh at the sight of the small woman standing in front of him.
"Edward Walsh," she breathed in a monotone.
"Willow Van Helsing," his reply was high-pitched, almost nervous.
Edward had to admit that the past few months had not been kind to the young woman. She still had a beauty all of her own but her skin was taut over her bones, devoid of any colour save for the smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose. Deep shadows hung beneath her dull green eyes, lending her a haunted air. What little skin he could see beneath her dress was also of a pale hue and her usually vibrant red hair was bound into a taut knot at the nape of her neck. She was the last person he wanted to lay eyes on. He knew exactly what she wanted, he would have to explain to her what had happened, someone who actually gave a damn about his dead wife as opposed to what everyone else seemed to care about, the family's reputation.
"How did you get in here?" Edward licked his dry lips, he desperately needed at least one more drink to deal with this woman.
"I shot the butler," Willow replied simply.
Edward launched into an uncontrolled cackle so violent his entire body shook, he could not imagine the tiny woman in front of him holding a gun, let alone loosing one off...and he had heard no shot ring throughout the house.
With a smooth, almost practised motion, Willow withdrew a pistol she had 'borrowed' from Abraham from the pocket in her skirt. Her arm was steady as she levelled the weapon directly at Edward Walsh's head, still shaking with laughter. He stopped almost immediately and his beady dark eyes widened in fear. Willow's own eyes were steely with her resolve.
"Make no mistake Mr Walsh," Willow said in a slow, dangerous tone. "I have no qualms whatsoever about rendering your ugly face even uglier...and from this range I cannot possibly miss. You will tell me the truth of what happened to Tara...minus any lies you may be tempted to tell."
"I always thought you were insane," he replied, not at all impressed at being forced to stare down the barrel of a pistol, especially wielded by a woman.
"Are you trying to anger me?" Willow said as she slowly pulled back the lever on the pistol with her thumb; after it locked into the firing position, there no other sound in the room save for Edward's hoarse breathing.
The fully cocked pistol was starting to have its intended effect, his eyes remained wide, his lip trembling uncontrollably," You're serious in this madness?"
"I'm deadly serious you arrogant bastard."
"It's simple!" he spluttered desperately, "She was a poor rider, she fell from her horse and broke her neck...it was all over very quickly."
"I said no lies, Mr Walsh!" Willow bellowed, her voice echoing throughout the room, "Tara was an accomplished rider...I know it was not an accident, now tell the truth, my finger is growing tired."
Even in her fury, Willow could still watch the play of emotions across Edward's face. Behind his own fear lay a definite anger, anger at being intruded upon in his own home by a woman he hated and forced to explain something he was trying to forget. Willow couldn't care less about how he was feeling, all she wanted was the truth and she was willing to go to any lengths to get it.
"If you lower that pistol I promise I'll tell you everything...just get it out of my face!" Edward's fear was beginning to dissipate; he spoke in a low tone that belied just how dangerous he was.
Willow lowered the pistol but keep it at her side in a firm grip, "Speak."
Edward did not reply immediately, instead he turned his back on Willow and crossed back to the alcohol sitting on the table behind him. He stared down at the pieces of glass lying in a pool of liquid on the floor; it was as if he just remembered smashing the glass.
"It was two months into our wedding tour...we were in Austria, a remote lakeside resort, Tara and I had a...disagreement," Edward paused and kicked at the largest piece of broken glass with the toe of his boot, "If I have to say one thing about her, I would say she was spirited..."
Willow's mouth was set into a tight line, she had to fight to keep the pistol at her side and not level at his head. She could read into his pithy words and deduce exactly what had happened, she knew the layers of meaning hidden beneath the word 'disagreement' and felt both sick and furious. By the tone of his voice, the set of his shoulders and his cruel disposition, she knew the disagreement had been far more than mere words. It almost broke her then and there to imagine the hell Tara had gone through...and all to keep her safe. With tremendous willpower, Willow regained the control she needed to see herself through.
Edward continued, "Tara left our hotel room and ran out into the night, I gave her a few moments to cool off before my footman and I went after her...by the time we found her it was already too late."
"Too late for what?" Willow asked, her voice tight, her knuckles white as she gripped the pistol.
When he turned around to face Willow his face was as pale as marble, his lips almost as white as his teeth as he bared them in an awful smile, "What do you think...she ran off alone into the night in a foreign country! We found her lying face down in a small copse of trees, when my footman touched her to roll her over he found her as cold as ice, he turned her over, I'll never forget those sightless eyes staring up at me, lips parted as though she had been screaming when she died...and indeed she had, a terrified shepherd heard her screams but when questioned all he would say was the word 'vampyre,' over and over again."
The word obviously meant nothing to Edward, dismissing it as some local dialect. Willow could only hear the violence in Edward's tale and her heart ached for what Tara must have suffered.
"She was..." Willow had to pause and draw a deep breath lest she faint, "She was attacked?"
Edward shrugged, "In a manner of speaking I suppose, there were no marks on her save two puncture marks on her neck...the sight of them terrified the locals when they came to retrieve her body and they buried her almost as fast as a priest could be found to speak over her grave."
A cold shiver ran throughout Willow's entire body at the thought of Tara being shoved hastily and unceremoniously into a plain wooden box before being covered over with the cold earth of a country so far away. She closed her eyes, squeezing them tightly to combat the tears that threatened to slide down her cheeks. She immediately heard Edward's feet shuffle across the floor towards her but a split second later her eyes shot open and she lifted the pistol. He stopped a mere few feet away from her, his hands going into the air as if in surrender. Willow itched to pull the trigger and blow the smug smile from his face.
"Look at you, the little lover...it's disgusting and immoral that's what it is, you corrupted her beyond the point of redemption," Edward snarled, taunting her with his words, "She died violently and her rest was short...the next day her grave was torn open and her body gone, that's what happens to whores who flout the natural order of things by fucking other women...she was punished even in death!"
It took every ounce of control Willow possessed to hold herself together, on the outside she was as impassive as marble with only the firm set of her lip betraying the utter turmoil that lay within. She could feel herself falling apart, about to explode into a thousand pieces...inside she was screaming.
"How do I know this isn't some story you concocted?" Willow demanded, even though somehow she could sense that he was telling the truth she knew he was the type of man capable of anything, "How do I know you didn't kill her?"
Edward snorted, "What do you take me for, Miss Van Helsing? I am a gentleman, not a murderer. I never wanted Tara dead; you forget I loved her once...before you took her away from me she was destined to be mine! I still wanted her, even after what passed between the two of you, but I wanted to possess her, to make her spend an entire lifetime as my woman...no, killing Tara would be the last thing I would ever do, I wanted to prolong her suffering!"
"You wanted to prolong her suffering?" Willow repeated in a dangerous voice, the pistol suddenly grew very heavy in her hand and Edward's forehead was right in front of her, "You wanted to make her suffer...and you call me disgusting?"
Willow felt all the rage inside her body bubble to the surface; she felt absolutely no sense of remorse as she squeezed the trigger. At precisely the same moment that the gun discharged in her hand, Willow felt a solid shape shove her to one side. When the smoke cleared from her eyes she saw Edward Walsh still standing in front of her but looking over his shoulder at a jagged hole in the wall. Willow growled in frustration and tried to spring forward only to find her arms pinned behind her back.
When Edward spun around he saw Abraham Van Helsing restraining his struggling sister. Willow had dropped the gun but there was still murder in her eyes.
"You're insane!" Edward squealed, stabbing his finger in Willow's direction, "You could have blown my head off!"
"That was my intention!" Willow growled, trying to yank her arms out of her brother's grip.
"Willow, for heaven's sake...let us leave," Abraham pleaded.
"Get that bitch out of my house!" Edward demanded, taking several stumbling steps backwards and further away from the Van Helsings.
"We're leaving, Walsh," Abraham barely acknowledged Edward, instead concentrating on keeping Willow's arms from flailing in all directions and inadvertently hitting him in the eye.
He eventually gave up trying to help her out on her own two feet and picked up her entire body. Willow buried her face in Abraham's chest and allowed herself to be carried out of the Walsh house.
Edward watched them leave with an expression torn between relief and disgust, fervently hoping that he had seen the last of Willow Van Helsing. He turned back to the decanter behind him, now standing amidst fragments of plaster fallen from the wall. The glass forgotten, he seized the entire decanter and poured the remaining alcohol down his throat as fast as he could.
The sunlight outside was too bright; Willow had to squint to avoid its painful glare. Everything was spinning around her, the footpath, the cobbled streets, the people. All the carriages rushing past seemed to be coming directly at her, the horses towering high, snorting as though they were ferocious beasts. Willow cringed back against the nearest wall, wanting desperately to be able to sink straight through and be somewhere else...preferably dead.
Abraham was talking but Willow couldn't hear him, all she could see was his lips moving, his eyes wet with concern. He finally seized her by both shoulders, forcing her to stay still and stare right back at him.
Willow's eyes focused on Abraham, at the sight of her brother's concerned expression she was forced to face the reality of her situation. The woman she loved was not merely married to another man...she was dead. Her anger and confusion finally gave way to grief; she sagged against her brother's chest as the tears fell.
Abraham gently cradled his sobbing sister as her entire body heaved. He glanced up to see passers-by giving them strange glances and a width berth on the street.
"Willow dearest, you must come into the carriage with me, people are staring," Abraham urged gently.
"What care I for anything in this world?" Willow sobbed brokenly into her brother's chest, "Tara is not just gone Abraham...she's dead, Tara's dead!"