Chapter 1: Young Love
Chapter 01: Young Love
LATE FEBRUARY 1864
Captain Eric Northman had been promoted several times during his relatively short tenure in the army. Of course, those three years of service seemed like an eternity. And the promotions had come with the deaths of his commanders—more than from anything he had done, though, by all accounts, he was an excellent soldier and tactician.
That was likely the reason why he lived with such frustration! The Union army was bigger, better armed, and—arguably—better trained than the Confederate force. However, the Union's Commanding Generals had been ill-suited to run the army. Indeed, many of its officers had proven more cowards than fighters!
Eric sighed as he came to the crest of the hill that gave him a view of his family's rolling property just outside of Boston. He could not yet see the house, but he knew that he would see it soon. The road leading to it was soupy due to a late February snow, but that was not uncommon, nor was Eric unused to the cold, given the fact that he had spent the better part of three winters in tents or on the battlefield. He had long since learned what had to be done in order to avoid frostbite or gangrene. And he had been clever and careful—having seen too many others lose fingers, toes, or the tips of their noses to the elements.
And having seen even more fall from disease than from the fighting.
Given the condition of the road and the condition of his tired horse, Eric did not kick in his heels to drive his gelding faster towards his destination. Hell—a part of him was nervous about getting home.
He had not seen his mother or sisters for years, though he had managed to see his father twice since Godric was so often in Washington, D.C. and Eric had been stationed mostly in Virginia.
Because he was a valuable officer, Eric had not been given a leave of absence of more than a week since he had enlisted in May 1861, shortly after word of the fall of Fort Sumter had reached Boston. With working telegraph lines all the way from Florida to Maine, something that was no longer the case, it had not taken long for the North to be hit by the blow that they had lost the Fort.
Eric's father, Godric, had been most displeased by Eric's joining the army. A political advisor to Abraham Lincoln, Godric had wanted Eric to follow in his footsteps. Godric had strongly believed that Eric could better serve his country from Washington—where he would be safe. However, though Eric had graduated from Harvard in 1860 with a law degree, he did not have political aspirations. Of course, he had not planned on being a soldier either.
In fact, his childhood dream had been to open a law practice with his cousin, William Compton. However, that dream had been smashed like so many other things—by the war.
Eric closed his eyes tightly for a moment. In truth, that dream had already been on thin ice—even before the war—because of one woman: Sookie Stackhouse.
FLASHBACK: JUNE 1856 (EIGHT YEARS EARLIER)
"Pamela, settle down!" Rose Northman said to her extremely excitable 16-year-old daughter, who was bouncing more than the carriage on the uneven dirt roads.
"But we haven't seen them in ages!" Pamela pouted.
"We saw them just last year—when they visited us in Boston," Godric reminded indulgently.
"But we didn't see Sookie!" Pamela said of her favorite playmate.
Godric chuckled. "No—we did not at that."
Pamela gave a little nod of vindication and turned to look out the window in anticipation. She had been exchanging letters with Sookie Stackhouse for as long as either of the girls could write, and they had been best friends for even longer. Sookie was the daughter of Corbett and Michelle Stackhouse and was only a few months younger than Pamela.
The sixteen-year-old frowned.
"What is it, dear?" Rose asked of her daughter's changed expression.
"Is Miss Michelle really so sick?" Pamela asked. "Sookie said she was," she paused, "dying."
Godric and Rose exchanged a look.
"I am not sure," Rose said, reaching out to pat her daughter's arm in comfort.
In truth, Michelle was often sick, and Rose and Godric had discussed—privately, of course—the possibility that the high-strung woman had more wrong with her head than with her body. Neither of the Northmans liked to think ill of their friend, but it seemed likely that Michelle used her various illnesses to garner attention and to manipulate those around her.
Having never faced loss or hardship, Pamela was quick to "forget" her friend's mother and to turn her attention toward something else—in this case, her older brother, who had, as always, refused to ride with them in the carriage.
"He's sleeping—again!" Pamela said with exasperation, looking at her brother's tall body slumped slightly forward in his saddle. Godric chuckled as he looked at his son.
"I believe he insists upon riding so that he can sleep," Rose said, looking at Godric knowingly. Eric often complained about his little sister's "prattling." And—indeed—Eric was known for his ability to sleep anywhere, except in Pamela's company.
Godric winked at his wife, and she leaned into him a little, the subtle touch all that they could "properly" do with their daughter's inquisitive eyes so near. Still, the touch was lovely.
"Why couldn't I have a better brother—like William?" Pamela pouted.
Godric grinned. "Eric is a very good brother to you, dottir," he said, his Scandinavian roots showing. Though the height of his forebears had skipped him–seemingly being saved for his son—Godric was still quite proud of his heritage, and he had taught both of his children Swedish.
"He pulls my hair," Pamela said sullenly, acting very much the child rather than the blossoming young lady that she was.
"He has not done that for years," Godric said. "And—let me tell you something—I used to pull your Aunt Caroline's hair too!"
Pamela gasped. "You did?"
Godric chuckled as he thought about his twin sister. He was older than she was by only ten minutes. And they had remained close, despite the geographical distance between them. However, they could not have looked any more differently if they would have tried. While he was shorter than their father had been—standing at about 5'5"—Caroline was tall and elegant at 5'10". She had inherited the blond hair of their father, while Godric was a brunette like their mother.
In fact, brother and sister often joked that their sons had been switched at birth, for Eric was fair and tall like Caroline, while William was shorter and brunette like Godric. Of course, Caroline and Godric's own parents had been one of each, too. Godric sometimes wondered how and why certain traits were passed along to some and not to others, and he had once considered becoming a doctor, though he was ultimately glad to have followed his father's lead into the study of law.
He glanced back at Eric, proud that his son would soon be going to Harvard—just as Godric and his father had. Selfishly, Godric hoped that Eric would join him in his practice so that he could turn his focus more toward politics.
After their summer visit in Louisiana was over, William would be returning to Boston with the Northmans as well. Practically twins themselves, in that they had been born within days of one other, William and Eric had grown up close, despite the fact that they saw each other for only a couple of months a year.
Godric sighed as he remembered the day that Caroline had told him that she was marrying Jessie Compton, a plantation owner in Northern Louisiana. Oh, Godric liked Jessie—well enough—despite their disagreements over many political issues, the chief of which was slavery. Certainly, Jessie was a good businessman and ran his plantation with more morality than most Southern slave owners; however, Godric was an Abolitionist through and through.
Many years prior, the brother-in-laws had mutually agreed not to speak of that issue—for the sake of keeping peace in their families. But staying quiet was becoming more and more difficult for the progressive Northerner.
Of course, Godric had hated that his sister moved so far away from him and the rest of their family. But Caroline was always anxious to see new places, and twenty-three years before, the romantic notions of the South had enthralled her—as had Jessie's genteel manners. And Caroline had proven to be a wonderful mistress of the large palatial estate that had been in the Compton family for many generations.
Despite the distance, Godric and Caroline had maintained a close relationship, exchanging weekly letters. Both families were well-off; thus, they were able to exchange yearly visits with one another that would last approximately two months at a time. And, as the railroads had gotten better, those visits had, thankfully, become much easier.
Godric chuckled as he saw his son's body lolling slightly to the side, but he knew that Eric would not fall off of his horse, even though he was sleeping. Godric shook his head. Eric had been a natural horseman and swordsman—and had even considered going to West Point for a while. Thankfully, when William had decided upon Harvard, Eric had done the same. From his political contacts, Godric knew well of the horrors of the War with Mexico the decade before. Thus, he was happy that his son was not planning to become a soldier, especially since Godric worried that the conflicts between the North and the South would continue mounting. Though others thought he was foolish to suggest that a war might occur between the two regions, Godric could sense that a boiling point was coming.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering what a war would do to his family. The Comptons and the Northmans were entwined by friendship—as much as by blood. He glanced at Eric again, fearing that he and William might very well be at odds one day soon. The cousins and best friends were actually brothers in their hearts, but would their relationship survive if the country broke in two?
Hell, South Carolina had threated secession—again—only six years before! And the increasingly powerful Abolitionist movement had stirred up a hornet's nest among Southern slave owners—as had Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book which had opened up the eyes of many Northerners to the horrors of slavery. Of course, it had also enraged many Southerners who had denounced the book as false.
Southerners like Jessie defended the practice of slavery and reminded Northerners of their own shortcomings. Sadly, Godric knew their arguments to be accurate, too. He had inspected many of the manufacturing houses of the North—industries that used poor immigrants for cheap labor. Many of those immigrants worked in extremely hazardous conditions and existed in squalor the likes of which he had never seen on his brother-in-law's plantation.
Indeed, those workers were only better off than slaves because they were not "officially" owned. However, in Godric's opinion, that did not make their situation any less deplorable, and he worked tirelessly for the group.
Thus far, William and Eric had managed to skirt around any political differences they might have had; however, Godric knew that—as they attended college together—arguments would likely occur between them.
As if reading his mind, Rose grasped his hand. In that moment, Godric wished that gloves were not in fashion so that he could feel his wife's warm, silky skin against his own. The touch of her flesh would have truly comforted him. But, sadly, that would have to wait for later.
"Sookie!" Pamela squealed.
Eric chuckled as he watched his little sister jump from the carriage before it had even stopped, despite the gargantuan size of her hoop skirt.
"Pamela!" Sookie grinned as she ran to embrace her best friend, her own skirt neither as elaborate nor as large as Pamela's.
Eric noticed this—as he had noticed everything about Sookie Stackhouse for as long as he could remember.
Knowing he would have to wait until it was his "proper" turn to greet the object of his affections, Eric dismounted and greeted his closest friend in the world, William Compton. The two were as jovial as always in their greeting. But Eric wondered how long that would last.
Though his father did not like to recognize it, Eric understood a lot more than Godric thought he did about the world around them.
For example, though the Comptons and the Stackhouses were neighbors and friends—and the relative economic statuses of the families were not spoken of—it was clear that those statuses were disparate, not that this fact had interfered with the friendships that had grown throughout the years.
Friendships between the Comptons and the Stackhouses and between the Northmans and the Stackhouses.
In fact, other than William, Jason Stackhouse was Eric's closest friend. Jason was headed toward West Point in the fall, and—in truth—Eric envied him a little. But Eric had resolved to make his father happy by choosing Harvard.
Unbeknownst to his father and mother, Eric had also noticed many other things throughout the years.
For instance, Godric and Corbett Stackhouse were much better friends than Godric and his brother-in-law, Jessie. And Eric knew why, too. Godric and Corbett shared many of the same philosophies in life. In fact, Godric was helping Corbett invest his limited funds so that the Stackhouse family status could be solidified. Eric knew that his father worked many hours to help Corbett.
And, at nineteen years old, Eric was well-aware of the political turmoil in his country. So far, he and William had been able to remain amiable toward each other because they simply did not discuss some things. But Eric also knew that—although more progressive than his father—William would support Jessie's ideals as long as his father was alive, even if they differed from his own.
Eric grinned as he greeted his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Jessie, even as he noticed Corbett and Adele Stackhouse standing off to the side, waiting for their own turns to greet the Northmans. It did not escape Eric's notice that Michelle was not with them, and—almost immediately after their greeting—Godric and Corbett seemed to be discussing that sad fact in low voices to the side of the gathering.
Having said hello to Adele Stackhouse, who insisted that everyone call her Gran, Eric turned—finally—to greet Sookie, who had been reluctantly let loose by Pamela.
Eric's breath caught. The last time he had seen Sookie, she had been fourteen and—though beautiful to him—she had still looked like a little girl to his eyes, even more than his sister, who had matured early, partially because of her insistence that she wear more "grown-up" fashions.
Now, at almost sixteen, Sookie was a beautiful young woman. And her clear blue eyes held a level of maturity that Pamela's certainly did not.
Standing almost a foot shorter than he stood, Sookie had to look up to greet him, but Eric could still see the firm set of her chin—the strength in her posture.
She entranced him more than ever.
"It is lovely to see you, Sookie," Eric said somewhat formally, suddenly feeling a little awkward. In the past, he had been free to greet her with a hug, but now he realized that her age did not allow for that. Still, he felt the desire to touch her.
Thus, he took her hand gently into his own and brought the back of it to his lips. She was not wearing gloves—though, sadly, he was.
He would not make that mistake again.
The touch seemed to heighten her pulse, and Sookie gasped a little.
He gasped too.
"Hello, Eric. It is nice to see you too," she said, her voice gentle.
Not wanting to let go of her and seeing that the others were heading to the back yard for refreshments, he crooked his arm so that she could move her own to lock with his.
"Shall we?" he asked.
She smiled, nodded, and walked with him.
Chapter 2: The Post
Chapter 02: The Post
DECEMBER 1859 (THREE AND A HALF YEARS LATER)
Sookie watched anxiously as the postman rode toward the house. She always did.
Almost without fail, she received two or three letters a week. Though all were welcome, one was particularly so.
Sookie also had in hand the correspondence that her family was sending out, including four letters written by her.
"Miss Sookie," Terry Bellefleur said with a tip of his hat as he stopped his pretty brown mare in front of the modest home that belonged to the Stackhouses.
Though certainly not as grand as the Compton estate, it suited the family just fine—except for her mother, who had been raised in more luxury.
"Good morning, Mr. Bellefleur," Sookie smiled as he dismounted.
Lafayette quickly approached from where he had been patching a fence. "Mister Terry. Let me take ol' Bessy here and get her some water and oats."
Terry smiled at Lafayette. "That'd be real kind of you."
"And Gran already has a brunch set out for you," Sookie smiled as the mail carrier put his hefty satchel over his shoulder.
Terry Bellefleur would not dare deny Adele Stackhouse's hospitality. Not only was she a formidable woman—even at her age—but also she was the best baker in the county, and Tara, the Stackhouse family cook, could always be counted upon to have delectable food on hand as well.
Before going to the kitchen, however, the mail carrier gave Sookie the family's mail and he took hers, making a show of carefully tucking it into his bag. Then he produced a little package for her from his satchel.
"This too, Miss Stackhouse," he winked at her before Adele's summons drew him to the kitchen.
Sookie smiled as she looked down at the parcel in her hands. It was from him.
Eric Northman had entranced her from her earliest memories. He visited the area for only two months every other year, but those had been her favorite times of her young life. Of course, Pamela was a big part of that, too. But Eric had always been her favorite person.
Eric was a little more than three years older than she was; in fact, he and William and Jason had all been born within a few weeks of each other. Similarly, she and Pamela had been born within months of one another. Not surprisingly, the five children—Jason, Eric, William, Pamela, and Sookie—had been playmates and companions during their summers together, and Sookie always envied the fact that William got to see The Northmans every year, for the Comptons would travel to Boston during the summers when the Northmans did not travel south.
When the Northmans were not visiting, Sookie lived a much more solitary life. Jason and William tended to "do boy things" that they would not let Sookie participate in—not that her mother would have let her. Michelle had always wanted Sookie to be a proper Southern lady, and she did not much care for Sookie's independent streak. So Sookie had stifled it, especially around her mother after Michelle had gotten sick.
The young woman sighed, knowing that her mother would not approve of Eric sending her a gift. She knew that her mother had long since had other ideas about Sookie's destiny—ideas that Sookie did not want for herself.
Michelle Stackhouse—along with Jessie Compton—had not so subtly been pushing for a marriage between Sookie and William. And, though Sookie liked William well enough, her heart was not with him. No—that had belonged to Eric for the majority of her 18 years.
As children, when she and Pamela had wanted to join in the boys' games, it was always Eric who made sure they were involved. Sookie would never forgot the moment when she had fallen out of a tree as an eight-year-old. She had not been hurt beyond a couple of skinned knees and a sprained wrist. Still, eleven-year-old Eric had scooped her up without a thought as Jason and William had stood by laughing at her and Pamela had been crying.
Even at eleven, Eric was larger than the other boys, and he had picked her up as if she weighed nothing. He had known to take her in through the back door—to Gran rather than to Michelle. And he had given her a kiss on the cheek and a wink before holding her hand while her little wounds had been tended to.
Though not even close to being a woman or having a woman's feelings at that time, a part of Sookie had loved Eric from that day onward; not surprisingly, her feelings had evolved over the years. And the last time she had seen him—now more than one and a half years before—he had secretly asked her to be his bride. However, it had been the visit before that—the summer when she had turned sixteen—that her feelings had changed into full-out romantic love.
Sookie sighed, thinking of her sixteenth birthday party, which the Comptons and the Northmans had attended. Her mother had been too ill to come downstairs, but her father and Gran had made everything look perfect, nonetheless.
Eric had taken her for a walk after the party, and—hidden by a weeping willow tree—he had given her her first kiss. And then her second. And then her third. Then nineteen, Eric had needed to stop her from literally throwing herself at him in her youthful passion. Eventually, he had led them to a fallen log and removed his coat so that she could be more comfortable when she sat down.
He had told her that he loved her that night. And she had told him that she returned his feelings. There had been more walks that summer and more stolen kisses, but Eric had been a perfect gentleman beyond that.
Two years later, the Northmans had returned for the summer of 1858. Having spent two years in law school by then, Eric and William had both seemed much older. Due to pressure from her mother and Jessie Compton, Sookie had taken several walks with William that summer, though it was clear that they were not interested in one another—at least not romantically. Not surprisingly, it was her time with Eric that Sookie had treasured the most.
Three nights before the Northmans were due to leave, Eric had proposed to Sookie. And she had accepted. The next day, they had arranged to speak privately with Corbett and Godric about their intentions.
However, things were not that simple. Her father and Godric had outlined several obstacles that were in the young couple's path and had "postponed" giving their permission—though they had not forbidden the match. They had simply asked that time be taken so that the obstacles could, perhaps, be worked out.
One obstacle was William Compton, Eric's best friend and cousin, as well as the Stackhouses' neighbor. According to Corbett, William had—long before—accepted his father's wishes that he eventually court Sookie, though his acceptance was obviously only out of duty and William had yet to make any clear overtures toward the young woman. Still, Michelle and Jessie had come to "an understanding," and Corbett could not deny that aligning with the Comptons would solve some of the Stackhouse family's financial issues.
In fact, Jessie had already shown Corbett plans for creating a canal system from the existing stream that ran through the Stackhouse and Compton properties. Such a system would allow Corbett to plant twice as much. Jessie had talked about shouldering the expense of the project "once their children were wed."
And Jessie had also mentioned to Corbett that no dowry would be needed for Sookie, another arrangement he had made with Michelle. Of course, no dowry would be expected by the Northmans either.
However, strained relations between the Stackhouses and the Comptons would put an end to the plans for the canals. And dissention would also cause other problems, too.
Like some others in rural Louisiana, Corbett had chosen to free his people after he took over the Stackhouse plantation when his father, Earl, had died. More than fifteen years before, Corbett had offered his workers papers proclaiming that they owned themselves. He had also offered them free housing and a small wage if they would stay on and work for him; most of them had done just that. In addition, his people had no restrictions whether or not they could marry, and some of his workers had had families of their own. Of course, it helped that the workers all knew that Corbett would support them if they ever chose to travel to the North as free men and women, a course of action that several of them had decided upon over the years.
In addition, for more than a decade, Corbett had refused to support the practice of slavery by buying more people from the New Orleans slave traders, whom Corbett felt were the worst sort of human beings—if they could be called humans. This decision had agonized Corbett, who still rehashed it with Godric every time the two met. On the one hand, if he bought additional slaves, then he could free them, and they might choose to stay on to work for him. On the other hand, he would be perpetuating slavery if he did. So far, Corbett had stood firmly by his ideals for the greater good, but that meant he had not been able to increase—or even replenish—his workforce.
This fact and the payment of wages to his current employees had been the main causes of the decline of the family's income. The Stackhouse plantation had always been a modest one, but with Corbett's choices, the profits of the farm had certainly lessened, much to Michelle's chagrin.
And then, of course, there was the stigma of Corbett's choices. If the Stackhouses were to remain in the good graces of the community at large, their friendship with the Comptons needed to be retained. And a marriage between William and Sookie would ensure the alliance.
Additionally, Godric warned that Sookie would likely face prejudice in the North if she moved there at this point. The times were becoming more and more volatile, and Sookie's Southern accent would stick out like a sore thumb. Moreover, the fact that her family had once owned slaves might make her a target for radicals in the Abolitionist movement.
That said, neither Godric nor Corbett had forbidden Eric and Sookie's relationship—at least not outright. They had simply asked that the couple "take into consideration a variety of factors."
They had also cautioned them against making their affections for each other known—not even to Pamela and William.
Sookie and Eric had agreed with their fathers—at least about the secrecy part. However, Sookie was determined to soften her mother's heart to Eric's attributes, and Eric was determined to figure out how to help the Stackhouses financially. Of course, the Northmans had enough money to just give some to the Stackhouses, but Corbett was a proud man, and he had denied loan offers from Godric many times throughout the years.
For the sake of secrecy, Sookie always wrote weekly letters not only to Eric, but also to Pamela, William, and Jason. And she received weekly letters from Eric and Pamela, as well as a biweekly letter from William—though Jason sent her one only every other month or so. Of course, her letters to Eric were different in nature from her ones she wrote to the others, but no one but Eric—and perhaps her father and Gran—knew that.
Otherwise, Sookie kept her feelings mostly to herself.
She quickly took her letters to her room and hid them under the mattress for later. However she could not resist the package, and—after closing her door—she ripped into the brown paper.
She gasped at the beauty of the locket inside the small box, and when she opened it to reveal the pictures, her heart leapt. During the Northmans' last visit, a photographer had been commissioned to take some family pictures, and the Stackhouses had been invited to sit in some of the photos. In addition to a large group shot, she and Pamela had been photographed together, as had Eric and William.
Of course, it was the picture of Sookie's beloved that drew her eyes. After a few minutes of staring at him, she closed the locket with a smile and put it on, though she hid it under her clothing. She could easily say that the locket was a gift from Pamela if her mother asked, and—since the pictures included Pamela and William as well—there would be no suspicion that it was a lover's gift. However, Sookie figured that it would be best to discuss the matter with Gran before she wore the piece overtly.
Her decision made, Sookie took the rest of the mail to her father, who was in his study. As he often did in the mornings, he was going over his books. By afternoon, he would be working alongside his free laborers, hoeing the winter crops or making repairs to the out-buildings. His work had, thankfully, become easier to hide from his more "traditional" wife—given the fact that her illness left her in bed more than not; however, Corbett was careful to keep many things from her. She had enough problems with the fact that their people had been freed, though she continued to refer to them as "slaves" or "darkies," both labels that Sookie detested.
Still, Sookie could not bring herself to outwardly challenge her mother, with whom she'd always had a complicated relationship. Especially since Michelle had become ill, Sookie had tried to be appeasing to her, making sure that she always presented herself with the utmost decorum in her mother's presence.
With her father, she was able to be more herself.
Corbett smiled at his daughter. "Go ahead and shut the door," he instructed.
Sookie did as he asked and brought him his letters. There was one from Godric.
Sookie put books back on the shelves and straightened up the room as her father read.
She sat down across from him when she heard his loud sigh, signaling that he was done reading.
"What is it, Papa?" she asked.
"More turmoil between the North and the South," Corbett relayed after another sigh. "And bad news about Thomas."
"Thomas?" Sookie asked, fear in her tone. Thomas had been one of their freed workers who had decided to go to the North. Given the Fugitive Slave Laws, even freed men with papers were often taken into custody or shot; thus, with Godric's help, Corbett had arranged for Thomas to make his way north via the Underground Railroad.
"What happened?" she inquired nervously.
"He was shot," Corbett sighed, his eyes scanning the letter again before he got up to throw it into the fire. Sookie knew that Godric wrote about such things in a code, but her father was still very cautious—which was understandable, given the times.
"Dear Lord!" Sookie exclaimed. "Where?"
"In the leg. In Kentucky," Corbett responded, answering both questions she might have been asking. "The good news is that he made his way to Godric's associates in West Virginia, and they got him patched up. Godric thinks it best to get him to Canada." He breathed deeply. "Thomas will be okay, Sookie, but he had to kill the man who shot him—in order not to be captured and enslaved. Or murdered."
"Dear God!" Sookie exclaimed.
The two were silent for a moment as Sookie took in the news. She was horrified by what had happened, but happy that Thomas would be okay and would soon be someplace where he could pursue his studies. Like the other free men and women on the Stackhouse estate, Thomas had been offered the chance to get some education. In fact, Gran held classes on reading, writing, and ciphering pretty much every day, and Sookie helped her. Of course, the classes were kept relatively secret, and the Stackhouse workers were discreet about their knowledge—mostly.
The only problem they had faced had come when old Mister Fortenberry, who was likely just as cruel to his people as the slaveholder in Miss Beecher Stowe's book, learned that Thomas had offered to secretly teach one of the Fortenberry slaves.
Thankfully, Jessie Compton had acted as a mediator; otherwise, Mister Fortenberry likely would have insisted that Thomas be whipped! Sookie was not sure how the matter had been resolved. However, she did know that her father had asked their workers not to share their education with others after that. And Sookie was pretty sure that the incident had been what had encouraged Thomas to want to go to the North.
Sookie sighed. As free as their workers were, they were really only safe if they stayed tied to the Stackhouse land, for many of the other people in the area simply did not recognize them as free—let alone as equal. Sookie had learned from Tara just how difficult it was for the slightly older woman to know that others who looked like her were enslaved. Tara had been brought to America with her family when she was just a child, and she had no idea where her parents or brother were. However, some might call her "lucky." Her cousin, Lafayette, had been with her family when they had been captured. And the two children had both been bought in New Orleans by Earl Stackhouse, Sookie's grandfather. Corbett had tried to trace the rest of the family after he took over the plantation, but he had run into a dead end, and further inquiries would have been dangerous. Sookie only hoped that Tara and Lafayette might one day find their family.
Sookie's shoulders drooped. "War is really coming—isn't it?" she asked her father, who had also been lost in his thoughts.
Corbett frowned, but then nodded. "I think so."
"It is going to tear us all apart," she commented quietly.
Corbett looked at her, his blue eyes misting a little. "Yes," he agreed. "It already has."
"What do you mean?"
"Godric told me that he can no longer help me with investments in the North due to the pressures he is facing. And their trip down here this summer has been cancelled. It is just too dangerous for them, especially with the new baby."
Sookie's face fell at the news, but she kept herself from crying. Born two winters before, Willa had been a surprise child for Godric and Rose; of course, Pamela had thought she had won a prize when the child had been a girl. Pamela loved having a baby sister she could "dress up like a doll."
"Eric may yet come with William," Corbett tried to comfort her.
Sookie nodded. She had been anxiously awaiting Eric's visit that summer, but she hoped now that he would stay away if the danger was too great.
"What will you do about the investments?" she asked, mustering her strength to change the topic.
"Godric suggests that I move my funds to the shipping industry; specifically, he believes I should invest in trade with the Caribbean." Corbett sighed. "Godric ought not to have told me, but he believes that the North will try to cut us off from Europe should there be war. And he has seen advanced plans indicating that—if there is war—the Northern Navy will try to take control of the Eastern seaboard, the Mississippi River, and eventually the Gulf, too. Of course, any ships that I invest in now would likely be commandeered if a war did break out," Corbett continued, shaking his head. "I just do not know what to do in this case."
"They are already planning for a war?" Sookie gasped.
"I am sure that there are factions in the South doing the same," Corbett conveyed honestly. "The Dred Scott case rattled the North and the Harper's Ferry raid inflamed the South. And Southern hatred for Lincoln seems to be growing, rather than leveling off—as I had hoped it would. If Lincoln is elected next year . . . ." He stopped midsentence, though his implications were clear.
Sookie let out another gasp.
"You must not mention this—not to anyone," Corbett cautioned a moment later. "It is wrong that I use you as a sounding board like this."
"I am glad you do, and you know that I will say nothing."
"I know," he said confidently.
Sookie had long since been her father's confidant. Jason had made the family proud, excelling at West Point. But he had never been the sharpest of tools. And he tended to sway with the wind, rather than have his own politics. Lately, that wind had been taking him more toward the side opposite of their father's beliefs.
Corbett smiled at her, obviously ready to change the subject. "You got your letters?" he asked knowingly.
She mustered a smile in return.
"Then go and read them. And try not to worry about all of this. Things will happen, and we will all do our best to get through them. That is all we can do."
She nodded and scurried to her room.
Chapter 3: Learn to Make Love
Chapter 03: Learn to Make Love
MAY 1860 (SIX MONTHS LATER)
My dearest Sookie,
Today, I became a graduate of Harvard—as did William. We celebrated together, even though neither one of us felt much like celebration. Attending school together has kept us close; however, I fear our closeness will soon be at an end, especially if Lincoln wins the election this coming November.
Instead of spending a month with me at my parents' home, William will be returning to Louisiana early next week. I cannot blame him; life in the North has been uncomfortable for him these last two years—to say the least. I have tried to keep the other students from acting upon their prejudice, but the strife between our two parts of the country continues to grow. I fear for what will come, my beloved.
I have convinced my father to allow me to accompany William home in order to visit with my aunt and uncle—and you. However, the whole family will—as I believe you know—not be able to make the trip at this time. My father is too recognizable as one of Lincoln's chief aids and supporters, and—though the election is not until November—he is already much over-worked. Plus, the Harper's Ferry incident has made my father quite reticent about traveling with the women.
In truth, it seems clear that my father would not currently be welcome in Jessie Compton's home, though, thankfully, I still am. I have been able to keep my own political leanings close to the vest, even with William, though—as you know—I often feel myself to be a liar with my cousin. I have written before of how I love William as a brother, which makes our own situation just that much more difficult, but I find that I abhor his politics.
It is not even as if he is like Uncle Jessie; indeed, William and I share many of the same beliefs. He is against the Fugitive Slave Law, and he agrees with the notion that no new states to the Union should allow slavery. He also thinks that slave-owners who abuse their people should be fined, though he disagrees that they should also be imprisoned. Moreover, he continues to believe that it is the right of the Southern states to keep the practice of slavery alive. Otherwise, he thinks that the Northern states will become too powerful comparatively. He already feels that the North is the bully in most of our current conflicts, and the names that he has for Mr. Lincoln are unflattering to say the least.
Of course, William has always been a proponent of States' Rights, but I fear the rhetoric involved with such beliefs will soon tear this country apart.
I must say that I am relieved school is over. Protecting William was becoming more and more difficult. And I will be glad to see him safe. I know, however, that these tumultuous times will put on hold William and my plans to open a law practice that strives to link the agriculture of the South with the industry of the North. Such an enterprise begun in these times would be doomed. I am sure of it.
One thing that I do not think will be doomed is you and me, my beloved. I remain yours—in every way. On a heartening note, William has proclaimed his affections for a local girl named Lorena. She is from a good family, and—once we arrive in Louisiana—he will be asking his father for permission to propose to her. I pray that Uncle Jessie agrees. Lorena's family has Southern roots; in fact, she still has aunts and uncles in Atlanta! If Jessie accepts William's preference, then one of the impediments in our way will be removed. Then, hopefully, your mother would been more amenable to my own attentions in regards to you. I know that there are other obstacles, but I have faith that we can make our way through them.
I must have faith.
I would like nothing more than to declare you mine to the world, my beloved—just as I would declare myself as belonging to you and you alone.
Until that day, my love,
LATE JULY, 1860
"What if?" Eric asked, panting from the many kisses they had been sharing—as well as from the feeling of Sookie's hands and mouth upon his body.
"It is not my time," Sookie returned, panting just as loudly, even as she continued placing warm, open-mouthed kisses onto his broad chest.
Eric was to leave the next day, and the two had no idea when they would next see each other. The tensions between their two parts of the country had ratcheted upwards, and Sookie's mother had seemingly taken another turn for the worse. Plus, Jessie had denied William his request to ask Lorena for her hand in marriage.
Indeed, most people in the county, would have sworn that William Compton was currently courting Sookie Stackhouse. And he was in a way. Michelle would seem to recover slightly whenever Sookie mentioned William's visits. And William and she had gone on several walks at the bidding of her mother and his father. As of yet, William had made no romantic overtures, seeming to see their "courtship" as a hardship as he tried to figure out how to better "sell" Lorena.
Still, even the mere thought of Sookie and William somehow ending up together rattled Eric greatly, though he was good at hiding his emotions from all others except for Sookie.
Of course, Corbett and Gran knew the truth about Eric and Sookie, but they continued to advise the couple to bide their time. Given Michelle's seemingly fading health, it was speculated that she might not last out the year, and Corbett was loathe to break his wife's heart by telling her that he could not approve of a match between Sookie and William since Sookie's heart belonged to another.
Meanwhile, Corbett, Gran, and Godric continued to hope that the unrest between the states might be squelched by Lincoln, rather than intensified. Of course, it was a gamble—one that Eric did not see paying off. Southern states like South Carolina were already threatening secession if Lincoln was elected. But, if secession did not happen, the stalwart Illinois native might be just what was needed to bring the country back together.
If the Southern states would simply compromise.
But Eric and Sookie both feared that there would be no compromise. For this reason, Sookie had contemplated running away with Eric went he left; she knew that she would have her father and Gran's blessing—even if they had to keep that blessing a secret. But her mother's condition prevented Sookie from acting. Plus—if she did run away with him—Eric's relationships with his best friend and his uncle would be compromised, perhaps irreparably. And—of course—there was her father's position to consider as well. Corbett's progressive ways were now being more openly denounced by many of their neighbors, and keeping the Comptons' support was vital to the Stackhouses' continued well-being.
Thus, Eric and Sookie's interactions that summer had been furtive, especially since Jason had arrived and seemed to be keeping hawk eyes on Eric—as if having a "Yankee" in the area might compromise them all. Jason, like William, had acutely felt prejudice during his time at a Northern school, though Jason had literally beaten up anyone who had tried to give him hell for his Southern heritage. Sadly, during the past several years, Jason had become less and less of a fan of Northerners—even the Northmans, whose name alone seemed to set him off—although they had always been his friends before.
It had been Gran who had been Eric and Sookie's best ally when they had sought time alone during the summer. And this night—their last time together for the foreseeable future—Gran had told Sookie about a secret cabin in the woods at the edge of the Stackhouse property, a place that had once belonged to her own family, the Hales.
Adele had also told Eric about the location of the cabin, and it was there that the couple had met.
It was there that they had truly explored each other's bodies for the first time. But they had only been enflamed even more by that exploration.
"I want this," Sookie moaned, dragging her fingernails across his sculpted chest. His shirt and coat had long since been discarded—as had her dress.
"But what if?" he panted again. "I will not leave you fending for yourself with a child on the way," he added forcefully.
"I am not near my time," she reassured again. "I had my monthly only last week. We should be safe."
He looked pensive. "If you were to be with child . . . ," he started.
"Then my father would support me. And Gran would too," she said insistently, even as she moved her lips to his nipple where she bit a little. She had already discovered that he enjoyed that.
"Sookie," he groaned. "We should wait until we are wed." His words did not match his actions, however, as his large hands drifted over the thin fabric that still hid her breasts from him.
She looked up at him with sad, wide eyes and then placed his hand more firmly upon her breast. "That might be a long time from now, and we both know it." I tear rolled down her cheek. "In truth, it might be never. There is a war coming, and you and I will be on different sides of it."
"That is not true. You, your father, and Gran are all on the same side as I am," Eric said passionately.
Sookie looked down for a moment. "I will always be on your side, Eric. I hate slavery. But I cannot go with you now. As for my father—he will be forced to adapt to whatever times befall us. And Gran is practical enough to fall in line, too—at least publically. They love this land and will protect it," she whispered. "And you know that William will fall in line with his father. And your aunt will not speak against her husband."
Eric sighed, but nodded in agreement.
"Why must so many things drive us apart?" he asked, his tone agonized.
"I do not know," she said in a quiet tone. "But—for tonight—especially since it might be the only time for us—please be together with me."
Eric shook his head. "If I take your virginity and you must marry another, he would know."
Sookie shook her head. "No. He would not. Tara knows a way to make it appear as if I am still untouched."
"And she would help you?" Eric asked.
Sookie nodded. "Yes."
Eric looked down and to the side, a movement that Sookie knew signaled that he was trying to make a difficult decision.
Finally his eyes met hers again. They were inflamed and lust-filled.
He pulled her closer.
"I love you, Sookie Stackhouse. No matter what occurs. No matter how far apart we are—you will believe that!" he said forcefully, right before kissing her with just as much passion.
"As I love you," she assured when she was finally let up for a breath.
Sookie stood up and slipped out of her petticoat. Eric licked his swollen lips as she next lifted her chemise over her head, exposing her beautiful breasts to his hungry eyes.
He stood and lowered his trousers.
And then it was her turn to lick her lips as he slipped his undergarments from his body, exposing himself to her entirely.
She bit her lower lip a little as she took in his manhood. From Tara, Sookie had learned the basics of how sex worked, but she had never seen a man's sexual organs before. Curious, she reached out her hand and tentatively touched the dripping tip of his manhood before moving her fingers in a timid exploration of the shaft.
"Dear God!" Eric moaned.
"It is hard, but the skin is soft," Sookie said with something akin to amazement, as she surrounded his member with her hand and applied more pressure. Instinctively, she began moving her hand up and down.
"Sookie," came another guttural moan as he moved his hands to the ties that held up her pantaloons. As her hand continued to move slowly over him, he pushed the thin layer of cotton over her rounded hips and followed its progress with his eyes. After she stepped out of the undergarment, he moved his hand to her center—to begin a gentle exploration of his own.
Soon enough, their bashful investigations had become much less so, and Eric laid Sookie onto the pallet he had made for them.
They kissed and enjoyed the feeling of their flesh touching and rubbing together. His hands explored her breasts before drifting to her sex again.
"Am I supposed to feel so," she panted, "wet down there?"
"Yes," he returned. "It will make things easier." He looked a little concerned.
"What is it?"
"It will hurt—at first—when I go inside of you."
"I know. Tara told me," Sookie responded.
"You're sure?" he asked.
"Yes," she assured.
Eric nodded and moved a finger slowly into her core.
William had lost his virginity when Jessie had taken him to a house of ill repute in New Orleans when William was fifteen. And best friends talked about such things—especially when they were teenagers. Apparently, the prostitute had not only taken William's virginity, but also had taught him how to "ready" a woman for his body so that things would be more pleasurable for her. At fifteen, Eric had hung onto every single word that William had spoken about sex. Hell! The adolescent had even considered asking his own father for a similar "gift."
But now as he stretched his beloved so that she would be better prepared for him, Eric was glad that their first times would be with each other. However, he was also thankful for the knowledge he had picked up throughout the years—not just from William, but from many of the other young men with whom he had attended university.
"Oh!" she gasped as his long finger was joined by another.
"Does it hurt?" Eric asked as he moved his fingers gently apart in order to stretch her tightness so that he would better fit into her.
"It feels strange," she admitted. "But nice too."
Eric smiled a little as his thumb stroked her clit by accident.
"Oh!" Sookie exclaimed.
"What?" Eric asked, quickly pulling his fingers from her, fearing that he had hurt her.
"No. Don't stop!" Sookie cried out fervently, but then blushed. "Uh—when you—uh—touched me just now," she stammered, "it felt so nice."
"Where?" he asked.
Shyly, she guided his fingers back to her clit, though she did not have a name for it.
"Here," she instructed.
He circled the little nub with his fingers, causing her to gasp and become even wetter than before.
Eric smiled and used his fingers to enter her again, though he made sure to continue caressing the part of her body that made her moan wantonly. God, he loved that sound!
Soon, he could not hold himself back and he moved so that he was hovering over her. He dragged his member over her lower lips and up to her nub several times, causing them both to gasp in pleasure.
"Feels good," she panted.
He nodded in agreement. Though his purpose had been to lubricate himself with her wetness, the result had been a feeling that was more amazing than he could have imagined during the nights when he had touched his own body.
"Ready?" he asked, his voice low and laced with desire.
"Yes. Please, Eric," she said, raising her hands so that she could grip his shoulders.
Slowly, he began to push in.
When she grunted in discomfort, he paused.
"Keep going," she said.
So he did, inch by inch. When he reached her hymen, he pushed more forcefully, though he almost stopped when he saw her tears.
"Keep going!" she insisted again.
So he did. He could feel her body adjusting to his size, a sensation that increased the amazing pleasure that his own body had been experiencing from the start of their joining.
"Not fair," he grunted, trying to remain patient—working hard not to move too quickly.
"What's not?" she asked.
"That this feels so good to me, but hurts you."
"It will not hurt in a minute," she assured.
He nodded and continued to move forward until the tip of him touched something deep inside of her. She gasped loudly.
"Good?" he asked.
"Yes," she said throatily.
He smiled and leaned down to gently kiss her lips. He had seen enough bodies of other young men to know that his manhood was long, and though he had not quite entered her fully, it was clear that her young body could take no more of his inches, so he slowly began to pull out.
And then he moved back into her.
Soon, Sookie began to move her hips with his, and it became clear that her discomfort was changing into pleasure.
She wrapped her legs around his.
"Faster," she gasped.
So he went faster.
Predictably, the twenty-three-year-old first-timer did not last long before he exploded into his lover's body. Also, predictably, she had not yet reached her peak when he did. But soon he had used his fingers and then his mouth to make amends.
Not surprisingly, stimulating her and watching her come apart had reinvigorated his manhood, and their second time was even more pleasurable for them.
By their third time, they had truly begun understanding each other's bodies.
And they learned to make love together.
Chapter 4: Close Enemies
Chapter 04: Close Enemies
"Yes, Jessie! Please! Harder! Harder! More!" Michelle cried out as her lover pounded into her from behind. It did not take him long to spill inside of her tight, contracting pussy.
He collapsed against her before carefully laying their spent bodies onto the floor of the old cabin on the Stackhouse property. He and Michelle had been using the structure ever since they had become lovers, six years before. Sadly, her health did not allow her to meet him very often. But occasionally, she would feel up to joining Caroline for tea. Her personal lady's maid, a Mulatto named Martha, who had been with Michelle since even before she'd married Corbett, would always drive her to the Comptons' estate in the Stackhouses' finest carriage.
And then—after tea—Martha would drive Michelle straight to the cabin, where Jessie would be waiting. And then Martha would keep watch for the lovers.
"I only feel better when I am with you," Michelle said dreamily. She shifted in Jessie's arms to look up at the man she loved more than she would even love her own husband. "How I wish I had met you first! How I wish that you were my husband!"
"I feel the same way," Jessie lied smoothly.
"We should run away together!" Michelle suggested excitedly.
"You know that we cannot," Jessie responded. "We have discussed this before. We would both be ruined if our relationship became known."
"But I love you," she whimpered.
"As I love you," he lied. In truth, Jessie did care for Michelle, but he did not love her. For years, he had enjoyed their flirtations before he finally "won" her. She was also a good fuck—given the amount of sexual energy she stored up between their encounters. Moreover, he enjoyed the clandestine nature of the affair.
His own wife still pleased him sexually, but Jessie had always been tender with Caroline—and he always would be. For instance, he would never have fucked his wife from behind as he had just done with Michelle. Indeed, with her and the others he had taken as lovers over the years, he could be rougher.
But there was no way in hell he would ever risk his marriage or his reputation for Michelle Stackhouse. In fact, he paid Martha to talk Michelle out of any notions she might have about confessing to Corbett, and—thankfully—the Mulatto was very good at keeping her mistress under control.
Even if laudanum was required to insure that she was.
Michelle sighed. "I suppose we will have to content ourselves with being together like this." She looked up at Jessie with intensity in her eyes. "You were telling me the truth when you said that you no longer shared Caroline's bed—were you not?"
"Of course," he lied. He and his wife did have separate rooms—as did most affluent couples—however, he was in her bed and in her body often enough.
"And I have not been with Corbett since we made Sookie," Michelle assured her lover, though Jessie only pretended to be happy with such information. In truth, he did not care who else Michelle bedded—as long as she saved up her more lascivious desires for him.
Jessie held her for another ten minutes before he began to feel restless.
"We must go now, my love," he whispered.
She brushed away a tear, but did not argue as he began to dress. After he left, Martha would come in to put her to rights.
"What of Sookie and William?" Michelle asked as he tucked in his shirt.
"I have told William that he must get over his silly notions about the Northern girl and propose to Sookie by the end of the year," Jessie shared, "though I am not certain that Sookie will accept. In truth, she has never shown William much preference."
"She is shy and naïve," Michelle said. "But she will say yes to him—for the sake of her family if for no other reason."
Jessie nodded, though he was a little sad at the thought that Sookie might not be a "warm" wife to his son. He had contemplated allowing William to marry for love—to wed the Northern girl, Lorena, similarly to how he had once wed Caroline. However, having more Northern in-laws was not something Jessie could abide. Several years before, he had lost all of his tolerance for Godric Northman, the brother of his wife. And—invariably—his brother-in-law stirred up trouble during his visits. He would try to fill Caroline's head with notions that went against Jessie's beliefs, and Caroline was already ambivalent enough when it came to such matters.
Jessie sighed. No—marrying a Northerner now would be even more uncomfortable for William than it had once been for Jessie. And he did not want that for his son.
He gave Michelle one more passionate kiss. "I hope you are right about Sookie accepting William."
"I am," she reiterated. "And—if she tries to deny the match—I will simply have another 'episode' to convince her," she added, an evil glint to her eyes.
Jessie smiled at her. Certainly, Michelle was often legitimately ill, but he had always recognized her propensity to exaggerate or manipulate when it came to her condition. Corbett was a fool not to recognize it too!
MARCH 4, 1861
Please do not hate me when you hear that I have become engaged to William. In truth, the whole thing is a sham! I swear that to you! William and I spoke at length about the pressures we had both been feeling from our parents, and we have agreed to this pretense for several reasons—none of which involve love!
My mother had another fit when I initially denied William. In fact, her condition worsened to the point that both Martha and the doctor thought we might lose her! So I relented, but—again—just for her sake and my father's sake and William's sake.
Indeed, my mother became calmer when she learned that I had accepted William. And, because of that, her tremors have lessened. The doctor believes that her nerves were frayed by the fear that my future was in jeopardy somehow. And she was already overwrought with anxiety since Jason has quit the army and has gone to South Carolina to train the militia that is growing there.
In better news, William has convinced his father to allow him to travel abroad to investigate some investment opportunities in France. He leaves in two months, not long enough for a wedding to be planned, even in my mother's opinion.
Once in Europe, William intends to defy his father. Lorena will be in France when he is, and the two plan to marry there—obviously, ending his engagement to me. So—you see—William and I have only an engagement for convenience sake. He needed his father's approval and support to go abroad, and he would not have gotten it unless he and I seemed to be a happy couple. And, after William elopes, it is our hope that Jessie will feel more obliged to the Stackhouse family than ever, given the situation.
With any luck, by then, my mother will feel better and will take the disappointment without succumbing to another episode. Regardless, however, I can no longer live my life with her happiness in mind—especially since she is so rarely happy even when all is going exactly as she wishes. Moreover, I cannot give away my love for you to a woman who has never really shown me much love at all! In truth, I am more concerned about my father's position; thus, I am ready to act the heart-broken, jilted woman in order to insure that he continues to have Jessie's support. Without it, I fear that our other neighbors might begin to take out their frustrations against the North on my father!
William might have told you this himself, but he plans to stay in Europe until his father retroactively approves of his marriage. And he has told me that he would be willing to stay there indefinitely if need be.
Regardless, a fake engagement helps us all—for now.
I just pray to God that you understand. I did not tell William about us, though I hope that—very soon—all secrets can be revealed. I am tired of living as if I do not love you—as if I do not burn for you.
My heart is yours and will always remain yours.
Chapter 5: And He Fell
Chapter 05: And He Fell
FLASHBACK(s) OVER: LATE FEBRUARY 1864
As Eric approached his family's estate, he let himself luxuriate in his memories of being inside of Sookie the one night they'd had together. They had made love as many times as their bodies had been able, and—both being virgins at the time—they'd had a whole lot of pent up sexual energy.
After their first—embarrassingly quickly-over—time, they had taken their time, and Eric had learned to pleasure Sookie's body as she had pleasured his. Not long before dawn, he had finally walked her home, where Tara was waiting to make sure she got to her room unseen.
As for Eric? He had spent the rest of the night and the early dawn staring at the fading stars before making his way to his uncle's home shortly after dawn. When Jessie saw him, he did not ask him any questions. Likely, Jessie assumed that Eric had been out fucking a poor local girl or a slave. To Jessie Compton, it did not matter. And acknowledging that fact had been what had made Eric's respect for his uncle diminish even more than it already had. As Jessie gave him a knowing grin, Eric realized that his uncle had not been faithful to his aunt. He realized that he had likely exploited his slaves in more ways than for their labor. And that thought had sickened the young man.
Still, it was with a heavy heart that Eric had said goodbye to his Aunt and his cousin later that day. He'd also had a chance to see Sookie one last time, but it was with their family members present, and the most he had been able to do was to give her a quick kiss on the knuckles.
Neither one of them had worn gloves that day. Thankfully, Eric had been wearing his topcoat, or the erection that had been created from the mere brush of her skin would have been visible to all.
Jason and William had both ridden with Eric to Shreveport that day, where Eric had boarded a northbound train.
Eric had had the feeling that—while William rode with him to prolong their time together—Jason had made the trip only in order to make sure he actually left.
At the time, Eric had lamented the change in Sookie's older brother, whom he had always accounted a close friend. He sometimes wondered how things might have been different had he gone with Jason to West Point instead of with William to Harvard.
One thing was for sure. Eric knew that his initial position in the army would have been altered if he had been a West Point graduate. Given all the deaths of people of rank within the Union army, he wondered if he would have been a brigadier general by now, instead of just a captain.
Of course, he had no way of knowing.
Looking up and just barely seeing the lights of the house, Eric knew that he was still about fifteen minutes away from home, given the languid pace of his well-used mount. Thus, the tired soldier emptied his brain of thoughts and allowed himself a little rest. He had always been able to sleep while riding. That—at least—had not changed.
Exactly thirteen minutes later, Eric's horse stopped where the road did—right in front of the Northmans' barn.
Bubba, who had been the family's chief stableman for all of Eric's life—and for much of Godric's, too—woke up the young man with a chuckle.
"Look what the cat dragged home," the amiable man said.
Eric jerked awake. "Bubba!" he greeted as he dismounted.
Bubba took one look at the haggard young man and drew him into a heartfelt hug—before calling his stable hand to take care of Eric's equally haggard horse. Bubba determined right then and there that Eric would be leaving on a much better stead than the one he arrived on!
Then Bubba rushed Eric directly to Sam, the Northmans' butler, who hurried the young man to his chambers after barking orders that a tub and hot water to be brought upstairs to Eric's room. Sam made haste in getting Eric the tools needed for a shave, before he helped the young man undress.
"That bad?" Eric asked.
"Your mother," Sam said simply. "She could not endure seeing you like this. Nor could your sisters."
Eric nodded and quickly went to work on shaving himself, avoiding looking in the mirror as much as possible. He knew that his ribs were likely showing. And—though he had managed to avoid losing any limbs, fingers, or other body parts, he had been eaten up by the insects and the rodents that hounded the soldiers unrelentingly.
Sam rushed to get Eric's bath prepared and then rushed his rancid uniform out of the room—hopefully to clean it.
Five minutes after he had settled into the best bath of his life, Eric heard the door creak open. Godric entered Eric's room with a full decanter of whiskey and two glasses. Eric had telegraphed from New York, so the family had known to expect him; still, his father seemed taken aback by his son's actual appearance.
Eric smiled at his father. "I look better with clothing on."
Godric sighed and nodded as he took in his son's body, which was riddled with bruises. He noticed several scars as well, and he gasped as he realized that each scar signified a moment when his son had been close to death.
The father squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, but then opened them so that he could pour two full glasses of the whiskey. He handed one to Eric.
"Do you think Sookie will still want me?" Eric asked reluctantly, having witnessed his father's reaction to his beat-up body.
"Once you are fattened up—which I am sure your mother will see to," Godric said with assurance, "you will look like yourself again. And most of the marks on you will heal with time. But even if they did not, we both know that Sookie would want you."
Eric took a long drink. "I am not sure that the marks within me will ever heal."
"Those might lessen in time," Godric sighed before he, too, took a long drink. "Sookie is a good woman—a strong woman. She will not need to be sheltered from your pain."
Eric smiled for a moment. But then his face fell. "Have you heard anything of the Stackhouses—or the Comptons?"
"No—not for well more than a year," Godric sighed, before taking another long drink of his whiskey.
In truth, both father and son were worried about their friends and family in Louisiana—as Northern troops were getting closer and closer to them.
Godric's last letter from Caroline had been written in July 1862. It had reported the bad news that Captain Jason Stackhouse had died at Shiloh. Michelle Stackhouse had died—probably of an overdose of laudanum—soon after getting that news.
"Surely, the war will be over soon," Godric said hopefully.
"Yes—within the year, I think," Eric returned, surprising Godric with his confidence.
"You really believe that?" father asked son.
"Yes. Even the most idiotic of generals cannot stop the inevitable, but it could have ended long ago," Eric added bitterly.
Godric gave Eric a challenging look.
Eric returned the look without blinking. "McClellan was inept and Halleck is too goddamned methodical!" He sighed. "If one fucking thing is out of sorts, he holds back!" The younger man angrily raked his hand through his newly clean hair. "He is a fucking joke!"
Godric raised an eyebrow.
"Don't tell me that you don't tell Lincoln the same thing!" Eric challenged as he held out his glass for a refill. "Do not get me wrong. I like a lot of the things that Lincoln has done, but he has been piss-poor at choosing his Commanding Generals!"
Godric gasped at the anger in his son's words, but obliged him by pouring him another drink; he poured himself another as well.
The two were silent for a moment as Eric's anger simmered down.
"What if I told you there was new leadership on the horizon?" the father asked the son.
"Tell me that it is Grant! Or Sherman!" Eric said hopefully.
"Why them?" Godric asked.
Eric sighed. "Honestly, Grant would be best. He is sloppy-looking and drunk half of the time, but he has the instincts for battle. He listens to those under him—those in the field—and . . . . ," he paused.
"And I have lost fewer men since my division was merged with his. Otherwise, I would have never accepted this month-long leave of absence when it was offered to me. I would not have trusted anyone else to oversee my men for so long!" he added vehemently. "Grant agreed to do it personally, so I am here."
"He is a great general, but his tactics are brutal at times, and we," Eric paused, "have loved ones that I would not want his kind of tactics touching."
Godric could not help but to smile proudly at his son. For all the disagreements they'd had in the past, Godric had been proud of every single report he had gotten concerning his son, and Eric had just encapsulated in a few sentences the report he had been preparing for Lincoln for weeks.
"Can I quote you on that?" Godric asked.
Eric lifted an eyebrow. "Please do."
Godric poured his son another drink and watched as he relaxed into the tub like it was a pool of the softest silks.
Yes—Godric was proud as he remembered the various reports that had come across his desk, celebrating his son for his valor.
Unlike most of the other officers during the Civil War's first main conflict, Eric—though only a lieutenant at the time—had held his portion of the line at the first battle of Manassas, or, Bull Run, as the South called it. Later, at Ball's Bluff, Eric had maneuvered his men so that none of them were killed or captured, though many Union forces had been marched off by the enemy that day. In the battle of Dranesville, Eric had led his cavalry division despite the fall of his captain at the time. And Eric had been a noted hero of that battle. In Kernstown, Eric had, again, distinguished himself and his division during a Union victory.
In Williamsburg, it had been rumored that Eric presented a, perhaps, winning strategy to General McClellan, who had turned down the plan for a more conservative approach. Many people privately felt that the inconclusive outcome of the battle had been due to McClellan's not listening to young Lieutenant Northman. Again, at Oak Grove, Eric had suggested a strategy to McClellan, which the older general had not listened to.
After that, Eric's division had been sent to a different front by McClellan, who was tired of being outclassed by the younger man. Soon after, McClellan withdrew in Glendale, but finally gained the advantage at Malvern Hill, though he did not strike a death blow to the enemy. Many thought that—if he had—the war could have ended within months. But, again, McClellan had hesitated.
Meanwhile, Eric had blossomed even more once he had been freed from the yoke of McClellan. In Chantilly, Eric's cavalry division was cut off from the main force, and the generals in charge of the Union forces were both slain as the Confederates—under the leadership of "Stonewall" Jackson—tried to cut off the Union's retreat. By all accounts, it had been Eric's ability to link back up to the main Union force that had halted Jackson's attempt to put his army between the Union forces and Washington, D.C. If Jackson had succeeded, he could have then directly attacked the Union capital.
A few months later, Eric had distinguished himself again—this time at Fredericksburg—though the Union had lost that battle. And, because of his successes, Eric had earned a field promotion—when his captain had put a bullet into his own brain.
Godric closed his eyes and took another long drink.
Indeed, in battle after battle, Eric had shown tenacity, bravery, and—perhaps, most importantly—guile. He had managed to survive situations that would have taken down lesser warriors. And Eric always managed to pull most of his division through the battles with him.
"I saw William," Eric said in a small voice when the silence had stretched out between father and son for almost ten minutes.
"Where?" Godric asked, his eyes popping open.
"Almost a year ago. In Chancellorsville," Eric reported.
"Where "Stonewall" Jackson was mortally wounded," Godric commented. It had been a battle won by the Confederate army, but that win had come at the price of one of the Rebel Army's best generals.
Eric nodded and closed his eyes as if he were horrified by what he was about to relay. "It was a horrific battle, and I knew that if we did not withdraw soon, we would all be lost. I was trying to get my men into a better position when—suddenly, out of the fog—William appeared. It took me a moment to register that it was him. He was covered with mud and blood, and more slender than I had ever seen him. And his eyes—they were so filled with hatred and fear!"
Eric shook his head and ignored the tear that rolled down his cheek. "I often wonder if I looked the same to him."
There was a long pause, and Godric held his breath.
"It was over within moments. William had a shot at me. And me at him," Eric finally continued.
"But neither of you shot," Godric said perceptively—hopefully.
Eric opened his eyes, his blue orbs practically glowing. "No," he contradicted. "I did shoot. I shot. And he fell."
Chapter 6: Always the Darkest
Chapter 06: Always the Darkest
STILL LATE FEBRUARY, 1864
NORTHERN VIRGINIA, UNION FIELD HOSPITAL
When her brother had died at Shiloh almost two years before, Sookie had been crushed. However, when her mother had died not long after, Sookie had felt strangely liberated. Her father—even more supportive of her choices than ever—had helped Sookie travel via some old contacts he had in the Underground Railroad, and, in March of 1863, she had finally made her way to Washington, D.C., where she had interviewed to become a nurse with Dorothea Dix herself. Sookie did not fit the mold of Dix's nurses, for Dix liked her nurses to be between 35 and 50 and what she determined to be "plain."
However, given the shortage of nurses at the time, Dix had not turned away the Southern woman looking to serve—not after Sookie had told Dix her story. Dix had overseen Sookie's training herself and had placed her in one of the hospitals in Northern Virginia, cautioning her to hide her beauty under rough fabrics and blood and her accent under a lisp. Sookie had done just that. And—though she did not know the soldiers she treated—both Northern and Southern young men received her best care, for Sookie knew that one of those men might be William.
Or her Eric.
From both the training facility in Washington, D.C. and the field hospital to which she had been assigned, Sookie had tried to get letters to Eric and to Godric, but she feared that they had not gotten through. It seemed that not much correspondence did, and—even when it did—it moved at a snail's pace.
Of course, letters South were impossible, but Sookie prayed for her father and Gran every day.
As always, Sookie tried to keep out the horror of the war as she completed her rounds.
It seemed as if hundreds of soldiers teemed in and out of the make-shift hospital. Sookie saw more blood than many on the battlefields ever did, but she was ever stalwart, channeling Gran's strength. However, her main motivation had always been knowing that if Eric were ever hurt, she would want someone strong to take care of him.
However, only strangers knew Sookie's care until—one day—someone she recognized was transferred to her section of the tent.
"Sookeh," he had said in disbelief as he had taken her in. She had smiled at him happily—though somewhat indulgently. She had gotten used to her name being pronounced by the other nurses in a way that rhymed with "Cookie." That was how Eric had always pronounced it too, and, frankly, she preferred it that way. Sookie found that William's way of saying it now seemed almost foreign to her, but—still—she was very happy to hear the accent and even happier to see her childhood friend. Alive, though injured.
"We will speak later," she whispered, before checking his bandage and returning to her duties.
MID-MARCH, 1864 (TWO WEEKS LATER)
As he watched more wounded men being hurried into the hospital, William Compton could not stop himself from remembering the last time he had been on a battlefield—almost a year before. He had been near Chancellorsville, Virginia.
He remembered the remarkable warrior on his stead—slicing through his enemies as if he were Thor!
That godlike man had been William's enemy.
And his best friend.
The Confederate Lieutenant sighed.
William was not clueless. He knew that Eric had been and still was his rival for Sookie Stackhouse's affections.
Truth be told, William had never planned to marry Sookie—though he did care for her. Although he and Sookie were still officially engaged and he'd not had contact with Lorena for years, Sookie was like a sister to him—at least, that is what she had been to him before the war. In fact—had the situation been different—William would have advocated for a match between Sookie and Eric.
William's father, however, had always had different ideas about his destiny. Jessie Compton wanted the fertile Stackhouse land and often lamented about how it had been mismanaged. In fact, the land was extremely productive, though a bit wild. Like the Compton acreage, the Stackhouse property had a water source running through it. However, Corbett had long since sacrificed the maximizing of production for his moral code, something that William secretly respected about the man.
In truth, William had been ambivalent about the issue of slavery as he had been growing up. His conception of the issue had been—understandably—skewed by the people he knew, very few of whom mistreated their slaves. His father, though he certainly found black people beneath whites, did not treat his people badly. William had never seen a whip brought out on Compton land. His mother simply would not have allowed it! And William knew that Corbett Stackhouse kept only free men in his employ. In fact, William knew of only one local family that was cruel to its slaves: the Fortenberrys. However, both Jessie and Corbett had hopes that Hoyt, the eldest son in the family, would change things.
If he survived the war.
So many if's.
William closed his eyes, trying to will himself to fall asleep. His wound—though suffered almost a year before—was still painful and kept him mostly off of his feet. Although the initial wound had not been that bad, it had festered after he had been placed into a Union prison; in fact, it had eventually becoming infected to the point that he had almost died from it.
But he had not died.
He had been taken to a hospital where an angel was seeing to his care.
It was difficult for William to picture Lorena nowadays, and he wondered—briefly—if that angel might marry him for real. He let that nice fantasy loll him into a deep sleep.
LATE APRIL, 1864 (FIVE WEEKS LATER)
"William," Sookie whispered, even as she administered a shot meant to numb any pain he might feel. She looked at the wound in his side. It was clear that the wound itself had not been as bad as the infection that had followed it. According to his records, William had been sent to a prison camp—despite his wound. There, he had been forced into hard labor. Eventually, he had dropped because of a fever; thankfully, he had been transferred to a field hospital thereafter, instead of simply being left to die as many Confederate soldiers were in such places.
It had taken more than a month to stabilize him, but Sookie was now pretty certain that he would make it—unless the infection came back.
She and William had not had many chances to talk since he had arrived; thus, Sookie was glad to have a few moments of relative peace and quiet by his bedside.
"He shot me—you know," William said with a little smirk. Clearly, the drugs were affecting him, though he seemed more coherent than he had been since he had arrived.
"Uh—who?" Sookie asked, as she checked William's bandage.
"Eric," William responded.
"Eric!" Sookie exclaimed in a whisper-yell that would have awoken the soldiers around them had they not been high on laudanum.
William nodded. "It was on the battlefield in Chancellorsville. Suddenly, there he was—like some kind of Norse god or something." He chuckled somewhat groggily. "I lifted my firearm first, though my body screamed against it. I would have shot him, too. But he was faster than I."
William looked down at his side. "You know how good of a shot he is; obviously, he did not mean to hurt me that bad. Had the wound been taken care of immediately, it would have been little more than a scratch."
"You are not angry at him?" Sookie asked pensively.
"Of course not. He saved me in a way." William looked down again, this time because he was too ashamed to hold Sookie's gaze. "My gun had been aimed toward his heart."
William shrugged. "I cannot tell you whether or not I would have actually pulled the trigger. I registered an enemy and a friend at the same time." He paused. "My best friend."
"I love him," Sookie confessed.
He patted her hand. "You do not think I know that? You forget how well I know him, too. He would always ask about you, even when we were quite young. I doubt if you even remember it. But he toddled around you when he and I were but four years old," William smiled.
"I do not remember that," Sookie smiled. "I would have been what? One?"
"I do not remember either," William chuckled. "But yes. You were one, and Eric, Jason, and I were four. My mother told me about Eric's immediate interest in you once. It was the first time you'd met, and I think my mother recognized it even then." His smiled dropped. "The problem was that your mother did too."
"Your father and my mother . . . ," Sookie started.
"Had a dream that their children were never meant to fulfill," William returned with a sigh. "I know that, even though a part of me now wishes things were different."
"William . . . ."
"It is fine," he interrupted. "Is it not ironic that I have recognized your beauty for the first time in this horrible place? Maybe that is why I have finally seen it," he admitted.
"I belong to Eric," she said.
"And if he dies?" William ventured.
"You do not want that any more than I do," Sookie chastised.
"No," William sighed. "I do not. But what if . . . ." His voice trailed off.
"There will only ever be one man that I would marry," she returned.
He sighed but nodded in understanding. "I guess that means our engagement is off."
"It was never real to begin with," she reminded.
"What of Lorena?" Sookie asked.
"I do not know whether she is safe or not," William admitted. War had broken out before they had been able to journey to Europe. And—of course—William had been obliged to join the Confederate army after Louisiana had seceded.
"I am sure she is safe. Boston has not been touched directly by the war."
William nodded. "I truly hope you are right. And I do pray that she has waited for me—that she still loves me."
"I hope that as well," Sookie said, patting his hand. "You deserve to be happy."
"I was sorry to hear about your brother—and your mother," William said sincerely.
"Jason's death was a tragedy, but my mother had been sick for such a long time," Sookie sighed. "What of your father? Your mother?"
"They are fine. At least, they were the last time I heard anything," William conveyed. "But it has been so long since I have heard anything—more than a year."
"I am sorry, William," Sookie said sincerely, speaking of his injury and many other things.
He chuckled. "Why? Because you love him?" He shrugged. "Me too, though I intend to kick his ass the next time I see him. Of course, had I not fallen from my horse, I would have never been captured. I should really have better studied how he could sit a horse even when he was dead asleep."
Both William and Sookie chuckled at that, but then Sookie frowned.
"I have tried sending letters to both him and to Godric, but there has been no word," she said.
He reached out to take her hand. "Eric is fine. I know it."
She squeezed his hand back, and the two childhood neighbors prayed for Eric together.
MAY 5, 1864: THE BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS
My dearest Sookie,
The night has come—finally. And the gunfire is now only sporadic.
I am with Grant's army, and he has a good strategy, but I believe Lee has better position. Grant concurs with this opinion. He told me earlier that he just hopes to get out of this with most of his army intact.
He is already planning a withdrawal, but we must be careful, lest Lee's army surround us.
At first light, the gun I have loaded and ready will fire at my enemy, but—for now—I write in the dark.
In truth, all is dark without you near.
I pray that you are well. It is the only prayer I can make in the hell that I am in.
If I live, I will find you.
If I die, please know that I die yours.
JUNE 8, 1864: NEAR PETERSBURG
My Dearest Sookie,
I no longer know the day, but I know the month. It is June. I think of the days when my family used to visit William's family.
I think of the days when I held you.
I shot William on the battlefield; I cannot remember, now, which battle it was in. For all of them are running together for me. I do not know where I am exactly, though I do recognize that the battle I am now facing cannot be won. We do not have the advantage, but we will have to fight, nonetheless. And, when we can, we will withdraw. I can tell now; I can always tell when hope is lost before the first shot is fired.
But I also know that the shot will be fired.
Maybe it will be aimed at me—just as I once aimed a round at dear William.
Please believe me when I say that I acted because he was about to shoot me. Every day I think of him. Every day, I hope that he lived and is well. I aimed for his side, but I cannot tell you if my bullet grazed him or if he was mortally wounded, for he fell from his horse.
I no longer have a horse. She was killed during the last battle. And there is not much of a cavalry left to speak of. Lee has been defeating us soundly as of late, but I feel that Grant will soon turn the tide. It is good to still have hope, despite the dark.
It is the memory of you that gives me such a thing in these times.
Because so many are dead, I have been granted the field commission of Major. Given all of the men that have been lost under my command, I doubt my fitness, but I will strive to do my best.
I was grazed by a bayonet last week—or maybe it was the week before that. General Grant himself poured bourbon on the wound and it hurt like hell, but I no longer have a fever, so I take that as a good sign.
I fear that I am rambling as a write, but I am too tired to think straight.
I am sorry that I have nothing better to tell you, my love. But I see so little of beauty these days that even your face is sometimes not clear to me.
Still, I hope to see you again. It will be daytime soon, so I must end this letter. I hope it can be read, for I did not dare make my lantern too bright as I wrote.
I will love you always,
Chapter 7: The Dawn
Chapter 07: The Dawn
NORTHERN VIRGINIA, UNION FIELD HOSPITAL
Godric strode into the make-shift hospital as confidently as he was able, scanning the tent for the doctor in charge. He walked up to the woman—the only female doctor known to him.
She had recently been appointed doctor in charge of the hospital closest to Grant's frontline. And—though Godric had no idea what favor had been cashed in with the appointment—he was certain that one had been.
"Who the fuck are you?" Dr. Ludwig asked without looking up from the patient that she was patching up.
"I am here on an inspection," Godric lied.
Ludwig scoffed. "Another one?"
"The President is a thorough man," he returned.
"The President is a tall man, who wears a tall hat, but that is all I can say about him," Ludwig intoned. "And I am tired of the extra inspections. I save more than I lose; I have already proven that. I challenge any chief surgeon in any of these so-called hospitals to claim more than that."
"I know," Godric said. "The President is pleased with your work. The inspection is a," he paused, "formality. Oh—and I am to make a routine prisoner pick-up while I am here as well."
"Then do your job and let me do mine," she gruffed, still not looking up.
Godric nodded in agreement, though he doubted the diminutive doctor noticed. What was important was that he had gotten permission for his pick-up from the doctor in charge, and his army escort had heard that permission being granted.
Godric had to work hard to keep his countenance indifferent when he saw Sookie. She was thinner than she had been the last time he had seen her, but she had also grown into a beautiful woman. Gone was any trace of the girl he had once known.
Though her eyes flashed when she saw him, Sookie did not show any other outward signs of knowing him as he handed her the paperwork which would place William Compton into his custody.
Godric, of course, had had the document manufactured.
"Mr. Bryant," Sookie said, looking up at him with just a hint of a smirk.
"Yes," Godric responded. It had been Sookie's letters—which had finally reached him in a bundle—that had alerted him to his nephew's hospitalization, his turn for the worse when his infection had taken hold once more, his ultimate recovery, and also his impending trip back to a Union prison where he would likely die.
Godric was not about to allow that.
"This way," Sookie said with a lisp that covered up her accent.
It was Godric's turn to smirk.
As Sookie led him to his nephew—to William—Godric agonized over whether to give Sookie Eric's latest letters. He had not read them, but—if Eric's letters to him were any indication—Sookie would be upset by the tenor of Eric's words.
The utter desolation within them.
The war was turning more and more toward the Union's favor, but it was clear that it was taking its toll on his son nonetheless.
However, as Godric studied Sookie, he could tell that the woman who was leading him to William was no shrinking flower. She was every bit the worthy mate for his child—the one that Godric truly believed would bring Eric back from the horrors of war in a way that even his mother and sisters had not been able to accomplish during Eric's leave of absence from the frontlines.
Godric decided then and there to slip her the letters Eric had sent to him with Sookie's name on them. Letters to the South could not be delivered. And, of course, none of the Northmans had had any idea that Sookie had been in Northern Virginia for the better part of two years. Thus, Eric had entrusted Godric with the letters' safe-keeping.
Just in case.
Godric looked at the guard escorting him. "You are not armed accordingly!" he said accusingly—authoritatively.
"Huh?" the man asked.
"I am transporting a Union officer!" Godric returned somewhat angrily. "Where is your firearm?"
"Um—uh—the doctor in charge does not allow guards to have them in the hospital, sir," he said sheepishly.
Godric sighed as if exasperated. "Then get your weapon and wait by the door." He looked at Sookie. "The patient is ambulatory, I assume."
She nodded. "He can walk now—yes."
"Fine!" Godric snapped at the guard. "Hop to! I expect you to help me get him into my carriage and to get him shackled for me!"
"Uh—yes sir," the guard said with a salute.
As soon as he had left, Sookie smiled at Godric, though she made no move to hug him as she wanted to do. Though the guard had been dealt with, there were still the prying eyes of patients all around.
"This way," Sookie said, leading Godric.
"You are looking well," Godric said quietly to her.
"You too. How is Rose? Pamela? Willa?"
"Fine. All of them," Godric whispered, trying to look as if he were not speaking.
"I am so glad you got my letters," Sookie said, just as quietly. "William was to be sent back to prison by week's end."
Godric nodded grimly.
"Is he okay?" Sookie said, asking the question she needed to ask—dreaded to ask.
"I saw him in March. He was scarred, but not broken," Godric conveyed.
Sookie looked at Godric and then nodded.
As they reached a corner, Godric grabbed her hand and put paper into it.
"Letters—addressed to you," he whispered.
Sookie sighed and took out a bent letter from her apron. "For him," she said, looking into Godric's eyes. "Please get it to him."
Godric nodded and quickly took the letter before gesturing to Sookie to continue walking.
William gave a little start of surprise when he saw his uncle, though he quickly schooled his features.
"The time has come for you to go back to prison!" Godric said harshly, and much more loudly than he needed to, even as he subtly winked at his nephew.
William looked at Sookie with affection in his eyes and nodded to her in gratefulness.
"I hope to one day be able to repay you for your kindness," he said, even as he gingerly got up from his bed.
Sookie gave him a hint of a smile and a nod before walking away to continue her duties.
Uncle walked with nephew out of the field hospital.
APRIL 4, 1865, NEAR PETERSBURG, VIRGINIA
My Dearest Sookie,
I can report that the war is winding down. It—like so many of its soldiers—is in its death throes.
And I pray that it dies soon.
The Southerners continue to fight valiantly, but I can tell that even they are disheartened. And now, as we prepare once again to meet the enemy near Petersburg, I wonder how much damage will have to be done before the war is done.
I wonder how many days it will take before I see the men across the lines as my friends again—not my enemies.
I fear it will be many, even when the war is over.
Only two things keep me going—your picture in my pocket.
And the letter you sent me.
In it, you told me that you still love me.
In it, you told me that you have become a nurse just so that you can tend to all the Erics in the world for all of the Sookies.
In it, you asked me to promise that I would never come to your hospital until the day I come for you once the war is over.
In it, you told me that you intend to marry me as soon as possible.
And that your father and Gran have given us their permission.
Far be it for me to defy Gran!
My father told me—when he put your letter into my hand—that you looked even more beautiful than ever, and I cannot wait to see that sight.
He also told me that—because of you—William is safe. According to him, our friend has also forgiven me for shooting him—though I imagine you already knew that. William is, at the moment, hiding out in my parents' home, and Pamela is tending to him. William is—apparently—ready to kill her.
But I am sure that he appreciates her nonetheless.
I must go now, my love.
General Grant has called his commanders to him. Did you know that I have been promoted again? I am now a Lieutenant Colonel. However, I do not want you to be a Colonel's wife. I want you to be a lawyer's wife—my wife. I pray to God that I can survive this war so that I can call you that.
APRIL 7, 1865, HIGH BRIDGE, VIRGINIA
General Lee was a tenacious man—a great man in Eric Northman's opinion. But Lee was also on the wrong side of history. The practice of slavery had run its course in the United States of America, a group of states that still included the Southern ones in Eric's view.
Eric knew that all of the states would soon be brought back together, though he also knew that the rejoining would be a difficult one.
However, Eric figured that if his cousin could forgive him for shooting him and "stealing" his fiancé, then the North and the South might forgive one another for the damage they had wrought to one another. Maybe the analogy was a bit oversimplified, but it was all Eric had left to make sense of the world.
Eric mustered all of his strength, confidence—and humility—as he rode with two men and a white flag—a large one. He prayed it would be the only white marker he ever had to carry.
General Grant had entrusted Eric and two of his best soldiers to ride into Lee's camp. And they made sure their white flag of truce was quite visible as they rode through the no- man's land that Eric was certain contained Confederate sharpshooters.
He breathed a sigh of relief when his group was met by a Confederate Brigadier General and two other officers.
"Your business?" the general asked.
"My commander has asked me to make a request of yours," Eric relayed formally.
The Confederate soldier looked at Eric through narrowed eyes, but still escorted him to the camp. Not surprisingly, Eric's weapons were held for "safe keeping."
It was General Robert E. Lee himself who welcomed Eric into his command tent.
The tall Northerner saluted Lee as crisply as he had ever saluted anyone.
"Lieutenant Colonel?" Lee asked.
"Northman," Eric supplied.
Lee smirked. "A fitting name. Did you know that you have a nickname among my army?"
"I do?" Eric asked, definitely surprised.
"Yes. You are called the Viking. Your height and hair color distinguish you—as does your valor."
Eric could not help but to smile a little.
"I am complimented," he said.
"If I had had but twenty of you, I could have won this war," Lee said wistfully.
The general shrugged. "True warriors are difficult to find, and I have followed the progress of the best soldiers I have faced. You are one of them."
Eric bowed a little. "You honor me, sir."
"You have done yourself much honor, son." He gestured for Eric to sit.
Still amazed by Lee's words, Eric followed the general's direction, though he suddenly hated the words that he had been charged to say by his own general. "Your attempt to reestablish your supply lines was valiant, but . . . ," Eric found himself stopping midsentence.
"But is was ultimately unsuccessful," Lee relented. "Yes. I know. It was always a longshot."
"My general has tasked me with the assignment of asking for your surrender," Eric said, almost apologetically.
"Yet I cannot give it—not yet," Lee sighed. "Almost—perhaps—but not yet."
Eric nodded sadly. "More will die," he sighed.
"We are not quite done," Lee returned.
"Please," Eric found himself begging. "I remember what you wrote before the war. You wanted the Union to stay intact. And you were never really a proponent of slavery. Lincoln even offered you a commission in the Union army."
"Yes," Lee agreed. "But I could not accept it. Though I disagree with her, I would die for my native land, for my beloved Virginia."
Eric felt his frown etch into his face. "I know others who feel the same."
"Maybe that is why you fight with your very soul," Lee returned.
"Maybe," Eric responded.
"It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it," Lee said.
"It is horrible," Eric concurred.
"Tell your general that I still have a trick or two up my sleeve—will you?" Lee asked, standing up.
"I would rather tell him that your trick was peace," Eric sighed as he stood.
"Part of me would too," Lee admitted. "But I will do my duty—until there is no longer hope."
Eric nodded in understanding and then crisply saluted the general again.
"Be safe, young man," Lee said as Eric was escorted from the tent.
Chapter 8: Hell
Chapter 08: Hell
APRIL 8, 1865, Battle of Appomattox Station
General Lee's words echoed in Eric's mind as he readied his rifle for another shot.
There was no safe on a battlefield.
There was mud from turned-up earth where men had run at each other—hastening to kill each other.
There were battle cries—utilized not just to make the enemy frightened but to make the one yelling a little less frightened.
A little more insane—and disconnected from the killing he was doing.
There were other cries—those from pain.
There were the blasts of guns being fired—eventually enough of them to make a man's ears ring with them for hours, even after the blasts had ended.
There was the ripping of bullets through the air, bullets aimed to kill and to maim.
There was the thud of men falling because of those bullets.
The sputtering of last breaths being gasped.
The prayers of the men who simply could not fight on—the ones who fell to the ground and rocked back and forth, just waiting for death to be generous enough to save them from hell.
The sounds of begging.
The tastes of splattered blood, gunpowder, smoke.
The sounds of bayonets cleaving through skin and muscle and sinew.
The sight of eyes opened in death, fixed stares that only coins would be able to keep closed.
The feel of the mud between your fingers as you stumbled, but then grasped your gun as if it were the only thing that could save you.
Steel and iron—cool and comforting.
Hands shaking with fear and adrenaline as you reloaded again and again. And then you could no longer load fast enough. And then you had to count on the bayonet—the rusty knife at the end of the rifle—or the saber.
Or the Bowie knife.
Or the fist.
Or the rock.
Even if one's body could escape with just scratches and the soreness of its exertions, the mind could not escape.
The heart could not escape.
The soul could not escape.
No. There was no safety in a battle.
There was only the will to survive.
The skill brought on by training and drilling.
And by whatever God-given instincts you possessed.
And by luck.
Luck most of all.
But luck could be fickle.
Eric Northman found that out.
It took him a moment to realize that he had been struck from the side by a bayonet.
In fact, it was the sound of the weapon being pulled from his body and not pain that he was first aware of.
And then there was a warmth.
Then a strange coldness.
Eric registered falling to his knees, but he did not register the face of man who had surely killed him.
The Viking slumped to the side.
For a moment his eyes focused on a burning Confederate flag.
"Don't let her burn," he whispered, taking a moment to wonder if those would be his last words.
He heard a splash—his cheek landing in a shallow puddle.
Of water? Of blood?
He could not tell.
Sookie's face flashed before his eyes and he felt something wet on the other side of his face too.
And then he felt nothing.
Luck was a funny thing.
Just when Eric's seemed to run out, more came his way.
Despite the fact that he had been sliced in the gut—a wound that would have been mortal 99% of the time, several things happened within minutes of his fall: things that anyone would call lucky.
First of all, the sounds of bugles signaling that Lee was retreating filled the air.
Next, Ulysses S. Grant himself happened to catch sight of the distinctive blond hair and tall frame of his favorite Lieutenant Colonel, despite the fact that Eric was in the muck. Grant quickly sent his own personal field surgeon to tend to the young man as he continued to try to cripple the enemy.
Third, another soldier fell dead on top of Eric's wound, helping to stay the blood until the doctor could get to him.
Fourth, the closest Union field hospital was only seven miles away.
Fifth, Eric Northman was on the first wagon of wounded taken to the hospital, and he was the last man put on that wagon. Thus, he was the first patient seen by Doctor Patricia Ludwig. And Dr. Ludwig did not shy away from difficult cases or gut wounds as almost all of the other surgeons did.
However, the biggest stroke of luck that Eric Northman had that day was that his eyes popped open right before he was given laudanum to put him out for his surgery.
Those eyes focused for but a moment. But they focused on just the sight they needed to see.
"You should sleep," came Dr. Ludwig's harsh voice as she took in Nurse Sookie Stackhouse, who was slumped on the floor next to the cot where the tall Union soldier was sleeping in relative peace.
Immediately, Ludwig had been able to tell that Nurse Stackhouse knew the young man who had been hurt so badly that the doctor had almost given up on him so that she could help the other doctors deal with the other patients from the day's battle. Thankfully, there had not been as many wounded as usual. Otherwise, the choice would have been more difficult.
But Ludwig was not one to give up.
She patched up.
Ludwig came up behind the young woman and noticed that she was clutching the young man's hand.
"He is the one in the picture that you stare at every chance you get?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," Sookie said, her voice ragged.
Despite any personal connection the nurse had with the man, Miss Stackhouse had performed her duty admirably that day, a fact that Ludwig respected. Honestly, the doctor did not know what she would do if her son or her brother was suddenly brought into her operating room.
That was one of the reasons why she had been assigned so far north.
Her son was stationed with her brother much further south. In fact, her brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, was the reason why Ludwig had been given her position and post. Hell—it was only after her brother's successfully-led campaign in Atlanta that Lincoln had garnered enough momentum to be reelected for a second term!
Ludwig scoffed. That coward, ex-General McClellan, had had the audacity to run against Lincoln—as if he would have done any better as president than he had done on the battlefield.
Indeed, Will—as she called her brother—was the only reason why she had finally been allowed to openly practice as a doctor—as opposed to pretending to be a nurse. Her appointment had been Will's cashed-in favor.
Now the doctor decided to do a favor for the competent nurse before her.
"He will survive," Ludwig said confidently.
For the first time, Sookie looked up at the doctor. The younger woman's eyes were bright with unshed tears.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her lisp suddenly missing.
Ludwig smirked. She had always suspected that Sookie's lisp was hiding a Southern accent—not that she gave a fuck.
"The intestines are a resilient organ. His wound was difficult to repair, but repair it I did," the doctor responded. She was not being cocky—just factual. "So far, there is no sign of infection, and the sutures are obviously holding. Plus," she winked, "he has the countenance of a survivor."
Sookie allowed her lips to turn upward into a gentle smile.
"Does he have something to live for?" Patricia asked.
"Yes," Sookie responded. "He does."
With the exception of a few skirmishes that followed due to poor communication between the different theatres of the war, the War Between the States—the Civil War—ended at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Approximately 750,000 soldiers had been killed during the war.
Some in battle.
Some from wounds sustained during battle.
Some from disease.
Some from the elements.
Some from suicide.
Some from despair.
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Northman was not one of them.
Chapter 9: Epilogue: Victory
TEN YEARS LATER
"Momma?" seven-year-old Adele asked.
"Yes, honey?" Sookie responded as she tried to quiet eleven-month-old Caleb by bouncing him on her lap.
"How can Daddy sleep on his horse like that?" Adele asked as if exasperated.
"And why can't I ride my horse?" Adele's twin, Jason, asked.
"The trip is too long for a little boy to take a horse," Adele said, mimicking the words that she had heard Grandpa Godric speak to her brother. Adele often conveniently forgot that she and Jason were the same age—save for about forty minutes.
"He has always been able to sleep almost anywhere," Pamela chuckled at her nephew and niece.
Pamela had never married, choosing instead to focus her energy on reform movements—both for freed slaves and, more recently, for women. Secretly, she had told Eric and Sookie that she preferred the company of women to men, and she was working her way up to telling her parents. Certainly, the times would not allow her to live openly as the lover of another woman. However, given her money and position in society, Pamela had been able to have female "companions" without suspicions being raised. Her current "companion," Hope, was traveling in the other carriage with Godric, Rose, Willa, and Sookie and Eric's eldest child, eight-and-a-half-year-old Patricia, who had been named for the hard-ass doctor who had saved Eric's life—when any other doctor would have decided he was a lost cause.
Sookie smiled out the window of the carriage, both at the man she grew to love more every day and at the trees that hearkened that they were drawing near to her old home.
She sighed. So much had changed following the war. Yet other things had stayed the same.
Jessie Compton had had a heart attack when a false report claiming that William had died reached him—ironically enough—two days before Eric had shot William. And, of course, Sookie's brother, Jason, had been killed relatively early during the war in bloody Shiloh. And Michelle had died from her grief.
Other than that, the Stackhouses, the Comptons, and the Northmans had been incredibly lucky.
Eric and Godric had been reunited when Godric came to get his son from the field hospital. Dr. Ludwig had had quite a bit of fun needling "Mr. Bryant" about the odd change to his name.
Of course, by then, Sookie and Eric had confided the whole story to the woman they both valued so much.
Sookie had been able to leave with her beloved, given the fact that—by the time he was able to safely travel—Lee had long-since surrendered.
Sookie's own feelings were mixed about the outcome of the war. She had been against slavery, but it was her part of the country that had lost. Moreover, no side had really won—not with the huge costs that had been felt by all.
At Godric's home, they had been met by Rose, Pamela, Willa, and William, who'd had to stay in Boston since traveling to the South was still treacherous. The reunion between William and Eric had been initially awkward—to say the least—given the fact that the last time they had seen each other, they had both been pointing guns at one another.
But the awkwardness had gone away within a few days, and the two were soon acting like brothers again.
In fact, as soon as Eric was recovered enough and the railroad lines were relatively functional, William, Eric, and Sookie had traveled together to Louisiana—with Eric in his uniform up North so they would have fewer difficulties there and William putting on his uniform once they were in the South so they would have fewer difficulties there.
It had been an odd trip—to say the least.
With them had traveled Lorena, for—with Jessie gone—there were no objections to the match between William and her.
Sookie and Eric had been married twice—the first time in Boston with only Godric, Pamela, Willa, William, and Rose present. Then they had married again in the presence of Gran, Corbett, Caroline, Tara, Lafayette, and all of the freed men and women on both the Stackhouse and Compton estates.
Sookie smiled to herself. She would have married Eric even more times than that—if need be!
She smiled a little wider as her husband lolled a bit to the side on his horse. Even asleep, he still sat his mount beautifully. And, with age, he was getting more and more handsome to her eyes.
"Do you think Aunt Lorena will have her baby while we're there?" Adele asked.
I nodded. "She is due to."
Adele bounced excitedly and then went back to leading her brother in a game of rhymes.
Adele was as smart as a whip—very much like her namesake. Luckily, Jason was quite clever too—unlike the man for whom he had been named. Jason was the diplomat among the children and the peacekeeper among his sisters—and "Aunt" Willa. Thus, Jason usually went along with his somewhat pushy twin.
Just to keep her pacified.
Sookie smiled at her twins and then went back to her thoughts. She had never quite warmed to Lorena, but William seemed to love her, and that was what mattered. Lorena had given William four children, with a fifth one imminent. William liked to tease Eric that he was "one ahead" in the child department.
But Sookie had a bit of news which she was currently holding onto—until she was sure. Or until Gran saw her. Gran had the uncanny ability to tell when a woman was pregnant with a single glance.
And Adele Stackhouse, thankfully, was still going strong.
The Stackhouse and Compton families had finally been joined in matrimony—though, obviously not by Sookie and William. No—Caroline had married Corbett five years after she had been widowed.
Eric and Sookie had both been surprised at hearing the news, though they had agreed—after seeing the couple together—that the pairing was well-suited.
Godric had been delighted by both his sister's increased happiness and his ability to call Corbett Stackhouse his brother.
Indeed, the Stackhouse and Northman families had become entwined, to the point that it was sometimes difficult to explain all of the relationships to the younger children!
Eric and William had eventually opened their law practice together—almost two years to the day after Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
Their endeavor had struggled at first, but was now quite successful.
Sookie figured that their practice was likely the only one with offices in both the North and the South. They specialized in trade and commerce between the two regions, and they also worked hard to fight the nefarious elements that had arisen during Reconstructions, especially the Carpet Baggers and the embittered Southerners who took out their anger on freed slaves.
Caleb started crying in earnest as the carriage hit a particularly deep bump in the road.
Within moments, Eric was awake and guiding his horse so that he was right next to the carriage. He bent down and looked in the window.
"Want me to take him?" he asked.
Sookie smirked, knowing that—as soon as the baby was riding with his father—he would surely fall asleep.
She nodded and grinned at her husband.
Eric winked at her before giving her a look that indicated that he was aiming to see a lot more than her petticoats in the near future.
She was fine with that.
"Hold steady," Eric told the carriage driver before bringing his horse even closer.
Sookie held her breath somewhat nervously as she passed Caleb to his father through the wide window. They had performed similar actions dozens upon dozens of times, but she was a mother, and they were supposed to worry—even if there was no need to.
Her husband's steady hands took the boy and managed to brush against hers at the same time, causing her pulse to quicken.
Of course, the two had stopped wearing gloves years before.
He winked at her again before riding away from the carriage a little.
Caleb settled and began laughing and jabbering in his own language almost immediately after he was with his father. And Sookie leaned back against her own chair, just enjoying the sound of her husband's voice as he explained something or other to his second-born son, despite the fact that Caleb was too young to understand.
It did not take long for the talking to quiet.
Sookie looked out the window and saw that Caleb was asleep in his father's arms, though Eric was awake, attentively holding his son and looking down at him as if he were a miracle.
Eric always looked at their children like that. And he looked at her like that too.
She would never forget the day that he was brought into the hospital bleeding.
Even ten years after the war, he sometimes awoke from nightmares. So did she. Thankfully, however, they were not afraid or ashamed to cry in each other's arms.
It was a miracle that he could still feel.
A miracle that he could still love.
A miracle that he could still smile in that way that made her heart leap.
Sookie thanked God that Eric was the kind of man who could go through horrors, yet still remain whole.
As if he could feel the heat of her gaze, he looked her way and smiled at her, his eyes lighting up as he did so.
Yes. He was her miracle, too.
And he would remain so.