Authors: Steve Hockensmith
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Historical, #Horror, #Adult, #Thriller, #Zombie, #Apocalyptic
As his beloved Elizabeth shattered the nearest zombie’s skull with a perfectly placed axe kick, Fitzwilliam Darcy saw in her eyes something that had been missing for a long, long time: joie de vivre.
Much as he would have liked to revel in it—to bask in the rekindled warmth of his wife’s delight—he could not. She was already ducking beneath another dreadful’s clumsy lurch, for one thing. And then there were the three unmentionables that were closing in on
Although one couldn’t say the creatures had joie de vivre, both
being long beyond them, they were undeniably enthusiastic in their quest for succulent flesh. His. Which he denied them—temporarily, at least—with a backward flip that delivered him safely out of their reach.
Darcy landed directly behind the tallest of the dreadfuls. He drew his katana and, with one stroke, made it the shortest. The others whirled on him howling as even more zombies clambered out of the abandoned well in which they’d apparently wintered.
Darcy danced back a few steps and then stopped and set his feet, readying himself for the onslaught.
Something pressed up against him from behind.
“I’m so glad you suggested we check that well for dreadfuls,” Elizabeth said, her back pushing harder into his with each panted breath.
“I thought it might bring you some amusement.”
“Oh, it has. More than I’ve had in quite a while.”
“So I noticed.”
Mindless as they were, the unmentionables could be instinctively wary, and, rather than rushing in one at a time, they spread out around the couple, encircling them. Darcy raised his sword.
Elizabeth, being a married lady, had left the house unarmed.
“Would you like to borrow my katana?” Darcy asked.
“Oh, that wouldn’t be proper, would it?” Elizabeth replied, sounding sour. Then she took in an especially deep breath, and her tone brightened. “At any rate, I can make do.”
Darcy had little doubt she could—to a point. Elizabeth was no longer a warrior, but she sparred with him and his sister every day. Her way with the katana, longbow, musket, flintlock, dagger, mace, pike, battle axe, blow dart, and (most fortunately of all, at the moment) death-dealing hands and feet were nearly as sharp as the day he’d wedded her.
Yet that was in the privacy of the dojo; she hadn’t faced a dreadful since becoming Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy four years before. Now they were surrounded by a dozen of the creatures. Her wedding ring would be no replacement for the saber or throwing stars she couldn’t, as the wife of a gentleman, be seen wielding.
Their only hope, Darcy knew, was that the unmentionables would prove every bit as out of practice with killing. These were the first zombies of spring, still stiff from the long months they’d spent packed together in hiding. Some were men, some women, some whole, some disfigured, some as new to death as the previous autumn, some little more than rag-wrapped skeletons. One thing could be counted on, though: They would all be hungry. That never changed.
As if at some silent signal, the unmentionables charged en masse.
There was a bloodcurdling shriek, but it wasn’t a scream of terror or the fabled zombie wail. It was Elizabeth unleashing the warrior’s cry that had been bottled up within her for so long.
Darcy lopped off one head, and another, and split a third dreadful down the middle. And then, to his surprise, he was able to just stand back and watch.
Elizabeth had gone spinning into the pack like a whirling dervish. Her first kick turned everything above one girl-zombie’s gray flap-skinned chin into an exploding plume of foul-smelling scarlet. She let her momentum twirl her into another unmentionable, a tottering collection of old bones, and snapped off its arm, using it to bat its head clear off its shoulders. A couple more swings and two more zombies fell, their crowns crushed. By then Elizabeth’s bone-club had snapped, and she jammed the jagged end through the next dreadful’s face. Two more ghouls, twin males, latched onto her wrists, but she was able to yank her hands free and use them to smash the unmentionables’ heads together, the identical faces merging, for a moment, into one. The last two survivors of the pack turned to flee. Elizabeth stopped one—permanently—with a hefty hurled rock, while the final zombie she simply beat to a pulp with a branch hastily broken from a nearby tree.
“More!” she cried, whipping this way and that. “More!
“You can stop now,” Darcy said.
Elizabeth turned on him, still clutching the branch, the almost feral look on her face saying,
Why would I want to do that?
“They’re all dead,” Darcy said, ensuring the truth of it by casually hacking at whatever necks were still attached to something resembling a head.
Elizabeth watched him a moment before tossing aside her branch and dusting off her hands.
“So the unmentionables are beginning to awaken,” she said, suddenly sounding bored. “My, can it be that time of year again, already? I suppose we should return to the house and tell Charles what we’ve found. It would seem his gamekeeper has been unforgivably lax.”
Darcy offered Elizabeth his arm, and side by side they strolled back toward Fernworthy Manor, home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bingley and family.
As they walked, Darcy tried to recall what he and his wife had been discussing when, on a whim, he’d suggested they check the old well. Yet there was no conversation to resume, he remembered now. Until they’d left the safety of the lane, their walk had been free not only of zombies, but of chatter as well.
And so it always was these days when the Darcys visited the Bingleys. Elizabeth, usually so spirited and free in discourse with her husband, became sullen and withdrawn. She hid it from Mrs. Bingley—her much-loved elder sister, Jane. And she doted on her young nieces. Yet whenever out of sight of the Bingleys, she became muted, broody, and it took a week back at Pemberley for her spirits to lift. Even then, they never seemed to rise to the same heights they’d once known.
Upon returning to Fernworthy, Darcy and Elizabeth found Bingley in the drawing room playing Stricken and Slayers with the twins, Mildred and Grace, while little Millicent toddled around chewing on one of her mother’s disused garrotes. As Darcy began telling his old friend of the unmentionables he and Elizabeth had encountered on the grounds, his wife excused herself, retreating upstairs to check on her sister and the household’s newest addition, five-day-old Philippa.
“I’ll send someone out to burn the bodies,” Bingley said when Darcy finished his account. “Good thing you were here to deal with the wretched things. I can’t tell you how sick I am of shooting them. At times I almost wish Jane would pick up her Brown Bess again and spare me the trouble!”
Mildred and Grace had been fighting over a battered wooden practice sword, each declaring herself the slayer and her sister the stricken, but suddenly their quarrel ended.
“Has Mumsy killt lots of zombies?” Mildred asked.
“Language, dear heart,” Bingley chided gently.
“Has Mumsy killt lots of zed words?” Grace said.
“Yes. She has.”
“But Mumsy don’t kill zombies now?” Mildred asked.
“But Mumsy don’t kill zed words now?” Grace said.
“No. She does not.”
“Why?” Mildred asked.
“Yes? Why?” said Grace.
“Because Mumsy is Mumsy, and mumsies don’t kill unmentionables.”
“But Auntie Lizza did,” Mildred pointed out.
“Aunt Elizabeth is not a mumsy.” Bingley peeked over at Darcy, his ruddy face losing some of its color. “I mean, not yet. And your aunt doesn’t
go about killing unmentionables. This was a special—Millicent!”
Bingley leapt toward his second-youngest daughter, who was now sitting on a chaise longue teething on a dueling pistol she’d swapped for the garrote.
Not long afterward, the Darcys said their goodbyes and set off for home. Their own estate, Pemberley, was half a day’s coach ride away. It was half a day that dragged past almost entirely in silence.
As the road began snaking up out of the shallow wooded valley before Pemberley House, Darcy signaled for the driver to stop.
“We’ll walk from here,” he said.
A moment later, the landau was rolling on without them.
“Again, you make me hike today,” Elizabeth said as they started toward the house. “I fear you think I’m growing stout.”
Darcy almost smiled. When he looked over at Lizzy, however, his grin wilted. There was no spark of impish mischief in his wife’s dark eyes. She was simply staring dully at the winding road before them, her face slack, her usual crisp gait a grudging trudge.
“I know how fond you are of long country walks,” he said. “And it seems to me we’ve had, while indulging in them together, many of our most heartfelt talks.”
“There is something you wish to speak to me about?”
“Certainly. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is.”
“Then, I don’t see how I can be expected to hold forth upon it. Perhaps we should settle on a topic we can put a name to. Would you prefer the weather or which parent young Philippa takes after?”
The word came out more sharply than Darcy intended—more sharply, in fact, than any words he’d spoken to Elizabeth since the time, years before, they’d come to blows over his first, botched proposal. Their tempers burned hotter in those days, perhaps fueled by the passions they had to hide deep inside, and they were lucky indeed that on that long-ago day, one or the other hadn’t ripped out and eaten the very heart that would, in due time, be so gladly given.
“Dearest Elizabeth,” Darcy went on softly, “I pride myself on less than I once did, but on one thing my self-satisfaction has never wavered: the forthrightness of my relations with the wife I so treasure. There has been, for some while now, a cloud hanging over you, and I have waited patiently for you to put a name to it. I had faith that you would do so in your own good time. Yet that time never seems to come, and the cloud has only darkened—until today, when I saw it part, however briefly, during our battle by the well. These four happy years there have been no secrets or lies or subterfuges between us. You know I find such things intolerable, as do you. So I will put it to you directly and trust that your answer will reflect all the frankness and honesty we both so value. Lizzy, what is wrong?”
Elizabeth wrapped her arm more tightly around her husband’s, pulling him closer as they walked. It was, Darcy felt, a promising beginning. Then she spoke.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? If ever there was a woman who knew her mind, it was you.”
Elizabeth loosened her hold on him and moved a little bit away.
“I harbor no secrets, I assure you. I simply find myself at a loss for words.”
“A first,” Darcy said, pulling her to his side again.
Elizabeth looked up at him and tried to smile. That she didn’t succeed pained him, yet the attempt was reassuring. This was still the Lizzy he loved—the woman who, once upon a time, could behead a hundred dreadfuls with a grapefruit spoon and still have the good humor to tease him for only doing away with ninety-nine. There was no difficulty they couldn’t overcome, Darcy felt, as long as they faced it squarely, together.
“The moods seem to come upon you most strongly when we visit Fernworthy,” he said. “Does it have something to do with the girls? The fact that your mother and father can visit no such grandchildren at Pemberley?”
Elizabeth gave him an uncertain nod. “Yes. That is part of it.”
“But we’ve spoken of that before. You know how I feel. We will be blessed as have Jane and Charles if only we continue to—”
“You misunderstand,” Elizabeth broke in. “I do not envy Jane. Quite the opposite, in fact. Do you know—?”
This time she cut herself off, and half a dozen strides were taken in silence before she spoke again.
“It is too horrible a thing to say.”
“There is nothing you could think that would be so horrible it couldn’t be shared in confidence between us.”
“You didn’t say that the last time I told you what I’d like to do to your aunt.”
“If you’ll recall, it was only what you planned to do with the head that I found shocking. And upon reflection, even that I came to appreciate as a truly novel—perhaps even tempting—idea. Come. There is nothing you need hide from me.”
“You say that
“And I mean it now. And always.”
They took more quiet steps together up the hill. By this time, Pemberley House wasn’t far off, its high ramparts and swooping roofs making it look like a palace out of a Japanese tapestry, which was exactly the intended effect.
“When I see little Philippa nursing at her mother’s breast, do you know what I think of?” Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth took in a deep breath, and Darcy could feel the muscles of her hand and arm tense. It was as though she were preparing herself for some great exertion. Or a duel.