(a Lunch Hour Read)
(1st Christian & Brina story)
A sliver of moon hung in an ink-black sky. Christian raised his torch high to prowl the narrow streets of the village east of his fortress. At his approach, an owl flapped away on silent wings. An omen? He’d watched the signs, studied the planets, and danger was near. Almost upon them. Its source, he didn’t know.
His eyes scanned the eight-foot, stone wall that he’d had built to circle the villages. Was the wall high enough, strong enough? His foot tripped over something on the cobblestone street. An arm. A young woman’s body sprawled in the gutter—a peasant, judging by her ragged tunic. He lowered his torch to get a better look at her. Fang marks near the base of her slender neck. Deathly white complexion. She’d been drained nearly to the last drop.
He knelt to see her better. Young, with calloused hands and burn marks on her arms. A kitchen girl, by the looks of her. Damned vampires. They weren’t allowed here. They knew that. Christian cursed under his breath. Whatever monster killed her added insult to injury, dumping her like garbage on the side of the street. Before daybreak, he'd send Zeke with the cart. Corpses could cause panic. He didn’t need that now.
He pushed himself to his feet, about to walk on, when the girl writhed in pain. She smashed a hand to her breastbone and pulled her knees to her chest. A flush rose to her cheeks. He stared in surprise while the color returned to her face.
Christian squatted beside her, sliding an arm under her shoulders. How could she live? She sucked in air, held it, and groaned in agony.
“How can I help you?” He was afraid to move her.
She pressed her eyes, tight. Tears slid down her cheeks. “Everything hurts. I can feel my body making blood.”
He couldn’t leave her. She was a mess. He held her steady and waited.
In time, she jerked up on her elbows. Another moan tore from her lips. She shook her head, trying to focus.
Christian stared. She was a pretty, little thing with honey-colored hair and saucer-sized, blue eyes. He studied her lips—full and pink. No fangs. Still very much human. The bite hadn’t changed her.
What the hell was she? No human could survive an attack like that. His tone turned accusing. “Only witches and vampires can heal themselves.” Vampires, he wouldn’t condone. Other serfdoms burned witches and feared magic these days, but seeing as how he practiced it himself, she rather intrigued him.
"I'm not a witch," she lied.
He raised his torch to see her better. “You’re not pale enough to be a vampire. Surely you have magic."
She tried to push herself to her feet. She wobbled, and Christian gripped her arm to assist her. "Who are you, girl? Who are your family?" He knew most of the people in the nearby villages by name.
She lowered her gaze, a tremor shaking her thin frame. "I have no one. I work in the lord's manor, baking his bread."
Bread. That explained the burn marks on her arms, reaching in and out of hot ovens. "Why have I never seen you?"
She frowned now, looking more frightened than before, and attempted a curtsy. Christian tightened his grip to stop her. “No need for that, but I’m supposedly your master. I don't recall ever seeing you.” He’d notice. She was quite fetching.
She bit down on her bottom lip. "I was left on the back doorstep. Your cook took me in. The kitchen servants raised me. I belong to all of them and none of them."
"And no one told me of this?" Christian chafed with irritation. He trusted his people to keep him informed. Cook, however, did as she pleased and always had. When Christian was a small boy, she threatened him with wooden spoons when he vexed her too often.
"Rumors were that my mother practiced the arts. Your uncle had her destroyed. They believed the same fate would await me."
"You don’t look evil." Christian’s mood improved. His uncle would have killed her. He'd have killed him too, if he'd known of his talents. Christian's mother kept those hidden. How his father and uncle could be so different made Christian shake his head, but luckily for him, his uncle’s sour disposition apparently affected his health. He died of disease before Christian reached manhood—a miserable death, unlike his father’s, who died fighting for King and country.
The girl shifted from one foot to another. Her instinct was to flee, Christian could tell, but no one insulted the lord of the manor. He turned her toward his keep. He’d walk her to the kitchens. “Come. Let’s go home. You can recover there.”
She glanced over her shoulder toward the huts at the edge of the village. Her footsteps faltered.
Christian scowled. “Where were you wandering so late at night?” What was this girl about? Sneaking off to meet a lover? Scurrying to a rendezvous?
A breeze gusted past them, chasing clouds to cover the tiny slice of moon. It carried a stench that cloyed in Christian’s throat. The girl raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth. A moment later, the smell was gone. The moon glimmered weakly.
The girl’s gaze dropped to the cobbles under her feet. “I had news that my father is failing. I wanted to visit him.”
“You said you had no one.”
“No one to raise me.”
“Are you treated so cruelly that you can’t go to him during the day?”
“No, no, I’m shown nothing but kindness.” She wrung her hands, then rushed into speech. “If Cook knew my father was near….”
“Near? He doesn’t live in the village?” Christian glanced again at the heavy wall that protected the villages, not as tall or as strong as his fortress, but surely a deterrent. Did someone wait on the other side? The guards at the gatehouses had mentioned no one.
She stumbled to a stop. “I’m not clever at words or concealing my thoughts. You’re confusing me.”
“Explain.” Did the girl slip out of the gates unnoticed? How? And how did she return?
She sighed. “You’ll learn soon enough. The kitchen help knows. They’ll tell if you ask them. My name is Brina, daughter of Caedmon.”
“The Caedmon who led an uprising against my uncle?” How could this be true—an enemy’s child raised in secret in his own keep? He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. This girl seemed innocent enough, but each thing she told him disturbed him more. How did she slip past his guards? Was she the only one who came and went at will?
She braced her shoulders. With a touch of defiance, she blurted, “Father was faithful until your uncle’s men burst into our hut and killed my mother.”
Caedmon’s rebellion had been brief. Christian’s uncle ordered his guards to slaughter anyone involved. Christian deemed Caedmon’s escape a miracle. But maybe his daughter used the same means to slip past the villages’ stone walls into the fields and forests outside them.
“Where is your father now? Surely, he went to another town.” Was Caedmon what the planets warned of? Had he raised an army of unhappy serfs? Christian felt his shoulders relax. Serfs could be dealt with.
Brina hesitated before answering. “He wandered for a while, but returned now that he’s near death. He wanted to see me before he died.”
Christian released his grip on his sword and resumed walking. A dog barked in the distance. He frowned, scanning the area. Nothing but shadows. His eyes moved to the keep where candlelight spilled from his mother’s high, narrow window. She was suffering another sleepless night.
Brina fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve. He could sense her trying to gather her courage. “I must go to him tomorrow.”
“I’ll leave orders for the guards. Fetch him and bring him to my mother. She’s a healer. Perhaps she can help him.”
Brina stumbled, surprised. “He rose against you.”
“Not me, my uncle.”
“Father’s past help, worse off than your uncle was. If your mother couldn’t heal him….” She clamped a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry, my lord. I speak before I think. I….”
Christian smiled. “Uncle died, yes, but I often wonder how hard Mother tried to save him.”
Brina’s eyes went wide. His people loved Lady Enid, he knew. They’d never suspect how much she’d loathed their former lord. The girl’s gaze returned to the cobblestones. “My father loves this village, the people he left. He wouldn’t return here.”
An odd statement. This girl was something of an enigma. “I forgot to ask if you saw your attacker.”
She gave a quick shake of her head. “He jumped from a rooftop and hit me from behind.”
A lone vampire, then, probably a rogue. Normally, Christian would hunt him. Hopefully now, though, he was only moving through the area and would be gone before Christian had to deal with him.
Brina frowned. “He did apologize for biting me. He didn’t mean to drain me so much. He was starving.”
Christian came to an abrupt halt. “A vampire apologized?”
“I’ve never had that happen before.”
“You’ve been bitten more than once?”
“Several times.” She gave a heavy sigh. “Nothing I say is coming out right. You should know, I cannot bring my father to your keep. While he was wandering, he was attacked. The vampires drained him, and now….”
“He’s one of them.” Christian stared. “And you?” She didn’t look like a vampire. Her skin was fair, but no longer deathly white.
“Their bites don’t affect me.”
“What sort of gifts do you possess?”
Brina took several steps away from him. She pressed her palms together in supplication. “Please, have mercy and banish me rather than lock me in your dungeons or burn me at the stake.”
It was too soon for that. “You haven’t proved yourself a traitor.”
“A traitor! Why would I harm those who have treated me so well? What other lord walks among his people, cares for them?”
“How do you pass the guards at the gate?”
She looked away from him. “They know who I am, that I’ve been hidden from you. They use the herbs and roots I find to ease their ailments, so they let me out to gather ingredients after sunset.”
“And they have no fear that you’re in danger?”
“People near and far know your reputation. Who’d dare harm me?”
“That argument doesn’t hold. You’ve been bitten several times!”
She spread her hands. “But still, I live. What will you do with me?”
He wasn’t sure. He had no intentions of sending her back to his kitchens. His shoulders slumped. So far, he’d been able to protect his lands, his people. Now, he worried. “A witch could be an asset in the coming days, if she was loyal to us.”
“The coming days?” Her brows furrowed in confusion. “I love my village as much as my father did. Could I still visit him?”
Caedmon was another matter, an added complication. Had he come alone? Or did he travel with his pack? “Is your father the vampire who drained you?”
“No!” Her cheeks burned with indignation. “He’d never treat me badly.”
“Vampires heal quickly. Why is your father ill?”
“Ill?” She frowned.
Christian tried to remember her words. No, she hadn’t said her father was sick. She’d said he was near death—another matter entirely.
Before he could ask more, a body hurled itself from the shadows, slamming him to the ground. Cobblestones bit into his back. Long talons pierced his leather tunic. The vampire lunged forward to bite his neck. How dare he? Didn’t he know who he was? Christian jabbed his torch into the vamp’s face.
The young man sprang out of reach, hissing. His eyes glowed red. He’d recently fed.
Brina started forward, but Christian held up a hand, warning her away. “Is this the one who bit you?”
The thing crouched, ready to spring again. Christian lowered his torch. Vampires should know better than to invade his kingdom.
“Kembell, let him go!” A tall vamp with long, dark hair stepped toward them. Gray tinged his temples and his beard. “I warned you not to cause harm.”
“You don’t control me. A dog’s blood barely suffices for our journey.”
“Youth. You have no perspective.” The vampire moved behind his friend so quickly, Christian didn’t see it happen. He meant to pin him in strong arms, but Kembell leapt aside.
Christian raised his voice. “Brina, back away. You, too,” he told the tall vamp. “I’ll handle this myself.”
Brina pressed her hand to her lips, upset, but did as she was told. Bemused, the vampire did, too.
Kembell gave a cruel grin. “And what do you plan to do, mortal?”
Kembell leapt again, this time landing on Christian’s back. Before he could sink his fangs into the exposed skin above his tunic, Christian burst into flames. Fire formed a halo around him, lighting Kembell more brightly than Christian’s torch. The vampire blazed briefly, then turned to ash and fell as dust.
Brina’s jaw dropped. She hugged her arms to her chest. “You have magic, too?”
“When I was a small child, I grew sick. My mother forced her healing powers into me with such force, they became a part of me. I can call on energy at will.”
“And your clothing?” Brina asked. “It didn’t burn.”
“An easy spell a beginner could manage.”
“I doubt that.” The tall vampire cocked his head. “You’re a wizard? You have powerful gifts.”
“As my father before me. That’s why the king called him to battle, to have magic at his side. The reason my uncle hated witches. He had nothing, couldn’t light a candle, so he feared us.” Christian turned to Brina. “I have no quarrel with white witchcraft, only the dark arts.” He nodded toward the vampire. “I take it he’s the one who drank from you?”
Pain contorted the vampire’s features. “I’m Jarman, friend of the girl’s father, Caedmon. If I’d have known…” He paused, then shrugged sadly. “Perhaps not. We’ve been running for too long. Like Kembell, I was too hungry.”
Christian’s gaze shifted to the slice of moon overhead, the stars that were barely visible. “Birds call warnings. Owls screech at night. Danger’s coming. What are you running from?”
Jarman narrowed his eyes and studied Christian thoughtfully. “Why should I tell you?”
“You’re still an undead, not ashes like your friend.”
Jarman snorted. “I can be gone from here before you can stop me.”
“You can try.”
Jarman stilled, weighing Christian’s threat. “Do you have more powers?”
“I’ve practiced magic for a long time.”
The vampire’s lips tilted upward. He shook his head. “I’ll give you answers. Not because you frighten me. But because, if you prepare, you might actually survive this. A warlord trapped one of our pack. He kept her prisoner with silver chains. He forced her to drain and turn him, then made her drink from one of his lieges after another until she created an army of the undead. He’s determined to take your king’s throne.”
Brina’s voice cracked. “And your friend?”
“A beautiful soul lost to us. Your kingdom lies in their path.” He motioned toward Christian. “Your uncle supposedly killed all witches here. Only mortals remain. Easy pickings.”
Chills slid down Christian’s spine. The omens were bad, but the reality was worse. His soldiers didn’t stand a chance against vampires. How could he save his people from a horde of the undead by himself? “This army’s on its way?”
Jarman gave a quick nod. His eyes never left Christian’s face.
“You and yours chose not to join them?”
“Our pack feeds off forest creatures. Cedany gagged on human blood. The warlord thinks us weak. He’ll hunt and kill us.”
“A recent convert, still too new to control himself. We were hoping with time….”
Christian nodded, his thoughts a jumble. “It seems you’re in as much peril as we are. Can we defeat the warlord if we work together?”
“You’d make allies of vampires?”
He never thought he’d say this. “Good ones. There are good and bad humans. White and dark witches. There must be good vampires, too.”
“Better ones than others, but we’re all cursed.” Jarman’s gaze flitted over the village and fortress. “Still, it’s our only chance. Alone, we’ll die…You know my meaning.”
Desperation gnawed at Christian. How much time did they have to prepare? Was there a way to better their odds? “How long before the enemies reach us? How many do we face? And how many are in your pack?”
Jarman shook his head. “You don’t waste time, do you?”
“I’ve watched the signs. My mother reads the planets. Dark days lie ahead.”
Jarman was silent a moment. He finally said, “Your neighboring kingdom is already destroyed.”
Christian remembered the foul breeze that had nearly gagged him. “Everyone? Dead?”
“Rotting bodies and spilled blood. The warlord will linger there, enjoying his victory, toying with mortals he’s saved for sport and feeding. We came to get Brina, to have her run with us.”
Brina raised her chin, eyes flashing. “And you wouldn’t have warned my village?”
“What difference would it make? How many mortals listen to vampires? And how can you defeat an army of our kind?”
Christian waved a hand, dismissing them. “My people are not cattle. How can I protect them?”
Brina spoke first. “More witches remain than you and me. Everyone hides their powers, but we each have gifts. Together, we might help you.”
“Some still live?” Christian didn’t hunt and persecute magic in his lands, but he’d never encouraged it either. As far as he knew, it didn’t exist.
“Witches are the natural enemies of vampires. We fear them,” Jarman said. “If they live, you have reason to hope.”
Christian turned on his heel. “I’ll rouse my men. We’ll bring people together at the keep. We’ll form a plan.”
Jarman glanced at the sky. “The sun will rise soon. I must return to my pack. If you still choose to fight with us, fly a black flag on your rampart wall, and we’ll come to you at sunset. No need to lower your drawbridge. No moat will protect you from vampires.”
“It will be done. I’ll see you then.” The eight-foot, outside wall that protected the villages would be of no use. Neither would the inside wall that surrounded the fortress. Christian stalked toward the keep, Brina at his side.
Jarman disappeared into the shadows.
At the fortress gate, Christian called, “Guards, gather my men!” As he crossed the castle’s courtyard, sun rays lit his path. That would be one advantage. The undead couldn’t attack during the day. They had to hide from the light. Maybe he could use that against them.
When they reached the heavy doors of his keep, Brina pulled away from him. “I’ll spread word that any witch of any kind is needed to defend us. I’ll ask them to join you here.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You never told me. What is your magic? I hope it’s not only that you can be endlessly drained of blood.”
She pressed her lips together in a firm line. “I don’t like to talk of it.”
“You’d risk my displeasure to guard your secret?”
It was her turn to raise an eyebrow, this time in disapproval. The girl certainly had a mind of her own. “It’s better no one knows.”
He studied her a minute. He could insist, but decided against it. He’d learned that some things were best left alone. “All right, then, bring any witch you can to my keep.”
Her glance was grateful. She turned to leave.
Christian looked at the horizon. Hot beams bathed the earth. He hurried into the great hall. He wanted to talk with his mother. She not only practiced the healing arts, but also divination. They needed all the help they could get. His fire gifts might not be enough to survive this battle.