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.
At sunset, Christian stood watch on the walkway near the guard tower. A black flag hung on a pole on the high turret. Movements made him turn to see Jarman, along with a dozen others, land at the end of the walk.
“Are we welcome? Or should we move on?” Jarman asked.
Christian motioned to the flag. “You’re allies. We need you.”
“Likewise.” Jarman started toward him, but a stocky man pushed past him.
“Is Brina here? Where’s my daughter?”
“I’ll take you to her. Everyone’s meeting at the long table, laying plans.” Christian led them down steep, stone steps to the courtyard before entering his keep.
A tall, blond female hesitated before stepping inside. She held back while the others passed her. Christian turned to wait for her. She refused to enter.
Jarman went to her. “Aldith?”
The woman glanced back at the forest beyond the outermost wall. “Mortals captured Cedany. They forced her to drink from them, so that she changed into the monster she never wanted to be. And then they staked her. We know nothing of these people. What if soldiers wait inside with silver chains?”
“These mortals have no bloodlust. They only wish to protect themselves, as do we.”
Aldith shook her head, took a step backward. “I don’t like castles. I don’t like the smell of mortals.” Her words halted as Christian’s mother left the great hall and walked toward them. Lady Enid’s smile and outstretched hand caught her off guard.
“My dear, we’re so fortunate you’ve joined us in this battle.” Lithe and beautiful, Christian’s mother emanated kindness. She placed a hand on the vampire’s arm. “You’re so chilly. There’s a fire inside. Come and make yourself comfortable.”
Aldith blinked in surprise. “My flesh is always cold. I’m an undead.”
Lady Enid’s soft laugh greeted her words. “Silly of me. You’re so lovely, I forgot. But it’s not safe for you to be out here on your own.” She wrapped her arm around the girl’s waist. “The men have their heads together, discussing strategy. I’m doing embroidery by the fireplace. I’d love to have some female company.”
Aldith darted Jarman a helpless look and let Lady Enid lead her inside.
Christian smiled. “My mother is a force to be reckoned with.”
Jarman gave a quick nod. “Would that we all were under such kind influences.”
They followed behind the women, and Christian led Jarman to the others.
Warriors crowded around the long, wooden table. A half dozen women in peasant garb entered by the scullery door and gathered uncertainly behind the men. Brina came to join them, included with the witches. The vampires huddled near the arch to the courtyard and visibly relaxed when Jarman came to join them.
Once certain his friends were safe, Caedmon went straight to his daughter.
Brina saw him and flung herself into his arms.
Christian strode to take his place at the head of the table when he stopped in surprise, glancing at the witches. “Cook?” he asked.
The older woman whom he’d known since childhood looked at him uneasily. Short and squat, with her gray hair scraped back in a bun, as usual, she looked as if she might cry. “My lord.”
“You’re a witch? You harbored this girl all these years without my knowledge?”
She shifted from one foot to the other. When she spoke, her voice cracked with distress. “I would never do anything to harm you or your mother, my lord. You know how I’ve doted on you, but your uncle ruled when Caedmon brought her to me. I feared….”
Christian held up a hand to silence her. “Rightly so. You did well.”
“I hid my gift.” She blinked and a single tear fell. She wiped it away with her sleeve. “I didn’t want you to think less of me.”
Christian went to her and wrapped her in a hug. “My old friend, I, too, have magic. I hope yours and your friends’ is powerful. We face powerful enemies.”
His hug proved her undoing. Tears fell freely as she said, “My sisters’ faces appeared in my kitchen two mornings ago, in the steam from my soup pot. They glimmered, then died. I’ve lost them, I know.”
Christian shook his head, confused.
Cook tried to explain. “Witches from miles around once gathered in the forest to celebrate the solstices. We were sisters in spirit. We had a bond.”
Jarman asked, “Did they live near here?”
“In the manor of the next lord. He must have discovered their talents….”
“No, the lord’s fortress fell. The vampire army killed them.”
A warrior stood. “Christian told us of the warlord, his thirst for power and blood. If those witches couldn’t defend themselves, how can we defeat him?”
Caedmon answered. “You forget. In all other kingdoms, to this day, witches are hunted and burned. They’ve hidden their powers for so long, they forget to use them.”
“Is that what happened to my mother?” Brina asked.
“She never raised a finger, forgot that she could defend herself.”
Christian looked from one witch to the next at his table. “My men are brave and skilled at fighting, but they’re no match for the warlord and a vampire army. There are seven of you. A fair number. Can you use your powers?”
A middle-aged woman with calloused hands held up her palm and shot a ball of white, hot energy out an arched, narrow window. “Mine’s weak, but I’ve kept it alive.”
Another, older than the rest, waved her hands overhead, and a protective bubble formed over them. She whispered, and the shield disappeared.
“How many can you protect this way?” Christian asked.
“I can cover this room. Nothing comes in, but nothing goes out. Warriors can’t shoot arrows. They’d bounce back. Nothing penetrates the magic.”
He turned to the next witch, one of the youngest, a plain girl of maybe sixteen at most. “And you?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, frightened of her powers. She held out her hands and sparks shot from her fingertips. They threw Christian several feet away. He landed with a thud. She opened her eyes and let out a frightened sob.
Christian staggered to his feet.
He smiled at her. “You’re new, but strong. Learning to aim would be good.” He looked at the others. “The rest of you?”
One witch chanted a spell and disappeared from sight. She whispered in a warrior’s ear, making him jump with a start.
Jarman sniffed the air and pointed at where she stood. “I can smell you. So will the vampire pack.”
She spoke more words. The aroma of too-sweet flowers filled the air.
Jarman sniffed again and smiled. “A wise precaution. That scent spreads, masking everything else.”
Christian looked at a witch, big with child. “You shouldn’t fight. Your time is near. Stay safe.”
“No one will be safe if we lose this battle.” She moved her hands, and winds blew through the room. At a second wave, the gusts whipped past them, almost knocking them off their feet. At a whisper, the winds stilled.
He looked at the last witch. “Well, Cook?”
She waved her hands, and the floor moved beneath them. “There’s earth, water, wind, and fire. I’m an earth witch.”
Christian frowned. “Will that be an advantage if you meet a vampire?”
“I’ll manage.” Cook nodded toward Lady Enid. “She’s the one I worry about, one of the rare few who are healers.”
Christian looked at his mother, leaning close to Aldith, showing her a new stitch of some kind. She couldn’t harm anyone if she wanted to. He worried, too. His eyes settled on the last witch among them, Brina. “What’s your gift?”
Cook stepped between them. “We pledge ourselves to you, my lord. We’ll do what we can to save you and yours.”
Christian raised an eyebrow at her odd interference. Voice stern, he snapped, “I asked a question. I expect an….” Brina wrung her hands, flustered. His words faltered. Why the need for secrecy? Were her gifts that small? Surely, being drained wasn’t her only power. But Brina was obviously upset. He stammered to an awkward finish. “We fight together, or die together. The vampire army that’s coming for us will show no mercy.”
The pregnant witch nodded toward Jarman and his band. “And them? Witches have no use for the likes of them. You want us to battle beside bloodsuckers?”
“Some people believe there are no good witches,” Jarman shot back at her. “A man’s deeds determine his character, not his talents.”
The witch’s gaze remained on Christian. “You trust them, my lord?”
Christian nodded. “The warlord would make examples of them. Their deaths would be long and lingering, unlike ours. They risk a lot, taking a stand with us.”
The witch shrugged. “If we lose, they die. They know that.” She turned to Jarman. “You swear not to bite me?”
“No fangs will pierce your flesh if I can help it.”
Everyone circled the table to talk strategy. Ideas flew back and forth. Opinions concentrated on the best way to defend themselves, the best way to survive.
“The witches and vampires will be our first line of defense,” Christian told his warriors. “The only way for you to kill the warlord’s army is to stake them, aim for their heads, or slice them off.”
“Almost impossible for mortals,” Jarman stated. “Vampires are too fast.”
Brom, Christian’s second in command, glanced at his men. “There must be some strategy we can use.”
Jarman hesitated, considering. “We could use silver.”
Brom raised an eyebrow. “Silver?”
“It’s poison to our kind. If my pack shot arrows dipped in it, the silver would weaken any enemies we hit, make them fester. They’d fall.”
“And we could finish them.”
Christian turned to his guards. “Collect and melt all our silver jewelry and coins. Dip as many arrows as you can.”
“And when those are gone?” Brom asked.
“We’ll shoot stakes.” Jarman glanced at the cords of wood piled near the huge, stone fireplace. “My pack and I will start carving.”
Christian asked another question. “What if we attack first?”
Brom frowned. “My lord?”
Christian leaned forward, both elbows on the table. “Vampires sleep during the day. What if we go to them when the sun rises? And kill as many as we can.”
Brom stared, speechless. Finally, he turned to Jarman. “Is this possible?”
“Possible, but dangerous. When they realize mortals are near, they’ll wake. They can’t walk in the sunshine, but they can move inside the keep, protected by the roof and thick walls.”
Christian persisted. “Do they separate to sleep? Go to their quarters? Or do they stay together?”
Jarman sighed. “This is foolish, my lord. Your men would be at great risk.”
“They’re at greater risk here, waiting for an undead horde to attack at night.”
“And who would you send?” Agitated, Jarman leaned forward, too. “We can’t help you. We can’t travel during the day to accompany your warriors.”
“You’d do that?” the pregnant witch asked.
“Your fate is our fate.” Jarman turned to Christian. “So who would you send?”
“I’d go myself.”
Lady Enid’s head jerked toward the table. “My son….”
Christian interrupted. “With my gift, I’d be safer than anyone else. I’d slay as many as I can, then leave.”
“Foolishness!” Jarman slammed his hand on the tabletop, nearly splitting it.
“Necessary. Brom can lead my warriors. You can lead your pack, and the witches can care for themselves. But the fewer enemies we face, the better.”
“I’m going with you.” The voice was unexpected.
Everyone turned to stare at Brina.
“You?” Christian shook his head. “What will you do? Let them feed off you so I can run?”
Caedmon’s brows knitted together. “You might not return, daughter.”
“You risked your life for honor. Do you regret it?”
He spread his hands. “My only regret is that I lost you.”
“But you didn’t. I understood.”
“And that’s your wish?”
“Then so be it.”
Christian glared at them, his arms crossed over his chest. “No.”
Brina faced him. “Yes.”
“I’m your lord and master. You must obey…..”
“I’m going, too.”
Anger churned through him. He clenched his hands into fists. “The whole reason I’m going is to protect my people. You’ll only be in the way. You’ll be of more use here.”
“You have no idea how I’ll be of use.”
“How can I? You won’t tell me.”
She raised her chin. “I’m going with you.”
Christian looked to Lady Enid. “Mother?”
Enid took a long time to study Brina. “What’s your birth date, child?”
“The goddess Athena’s birthday.” She was silent a moment. Finally, she said, “I’m a healer. No more. No less. This girl will help you. Take her.”
“If you can risk your life, why can’t she?” his mother demanded.
“She’s a girl!”
“I’m a witch!” Brina’s hands went to her hips.
Christian pressed his lips together to keep from answering. When his mother sided against him, the battle was lost. “We go at sunrise.”
Cook stepped forward. “If she goes, I go.”
Enough was enough! “I will not be saddled with two women!”
“Two witches,” Cook reminded him.
Christian tamped down his temper. He made a point of learning from his mistakes. This time, he shrugged. “As you wish. You two go fight the army. I’ll stay here.”
Cook’s eyes flashed and she waggled a finger at him. “Don’t use strategy on me, my boy. I can help you. I’ll prove useful.”
“Help her.” He motioned toward Brina. He’d spent his youth trying to outmaneuver Cook. He’d gotten pretty good at it. “Combine your powers and defeat our foes. We’ll wait for your return.”
The pregnant witch laughed. “He’ll do it, you know. Admit defeat, Nesta. From what you’ve told me, he was always an obstinate boy.”
Cook sighed, resting her arms on her bosom. “I really could help you.”
“If you go, I stay.”
Brina took Cook’s hand. “My friend, wish us luck. We leave at daybreak. You stay to guard the castle.”
Cook nodded unhappily. She shot Christian a dark look. He smiled. He’d been scolded by her many times and lived to see the next day.
Christian was in the stables, mounting his horse, before daybreak. If he left soon enough….
“Planning to leave without me?” Brina’s voice came from the shadows of an empty stall. “I’ve never ridden before. Lady Enid told me to mount behind you.”
“Did she?” He reached down a hand to yank Brina onto his mount. She wrapped her arms around his waist and shut her eyes.
“Are you afraid of horses?”
“If I dumped you here and went alone, no one could fault you.”
“I’d follow. I’ve been told there are older horses, easier to control.”
He sighed. “You can always change your mind.”
“But I don’t want to.”
He leaned forward, urging his horse toward the gate. “I refuse to fight beside you without knowing your magic. Know that now.”
“A fair request, but I’d rather you told no one. I take and give energy. I can drain a person dry.”
He pulled on the reins. His horse stopped. “What?”
“My touch can drain life and claim it for myself, or I can restore life if there’s any still remaining.”
He stared. “Is that how you restore yourself when you’re nearly dead?”
“Yes, if I’m nearly, not entirely.”
“And Cook knows this?”
“A rabid dog entered the kitchens when I was young. It meant to attack her. I laid a hand on it to distract it. I was frightened, wishing it dead. And soon, it was.”
“She loves you, you know.”
“She loves you, too.”
Christian smiled. “We’ve tormented each other for as long as I can remember.” Brina nodded. “She’s been like a mother to me. But she warned me that my powers would frighten people away. They’d fear that if they angered me, I’d sap them dry.”
“Have you ever hurt anyone unwittingly?”
“Never. It’s such a worry, I tend to wait too long before defending myself.”
“True. You’ve been drained several times.” He leaned forward again, urging his horse onward. “And how will this help me defeat vampires?”
“Even the undead can be drained of energy.”
“Only if they don’t drain you first. You have to touch them.” He wasn’t happy she was coming. She’d only get in his way, but there was no way to dissuade her. He thought about taking her as far as the forest, then dumping her to walk back to the keep. But what if something happened? A stray rogue? A lookout in advance? He wouldn’t forgive himself. He gritted his teeth and rode on.
They trotted until early afternoon, when the neighboring fortress came into view. Christian slowed his horse. Crows lined the high walls, cawing and fidgeting. Buzzards circled the sky. A stench hung in the air.
Christian raised a hand to cover his nose and mouth. He motioned for Brina to do the same. His father had told him about battlefields. He’d braced himself for the worst, but he feared the real thing would exceed anything he’d imagined.
When he reached the village gates, they stood open. Nothing to fear here. Vampires couldn’t be about in the daylight. But the sight before him made bile rise in his throat. The smell made his eyes water. Bodies littered the ground. Men. Women. Children. All in their nightwear. Yanked from their beds. The warriors had no time to rush to their defence.
His horse carefully picked its way through them. If he survived this, Christian vowed to bring his people into the keep, even if he had to stack them in the kitchens, chapel, and dungeons. He’d line the walls of the towers with them.
He turned his head when he saw a newborn, drained. His thoughts went to the pregnant witch who’d joined them. He should send her to safety. Then he laughed, a grim sound. Like witches ever listened to him!
Brina spotted the baby, and a low gasp escaped her. She buried her face between his shoulders.
He stopped his horse inside the gates of the high wall in the open courtyard. Lots of sun. Even more bodies. “We’ll walk from here.” The keep wasn’t far.
Brina glued herself to his side as they threaded their way forward.
Warriors sprawled across the stones, their throats ripped out. A group of them had taken a stand at the doors of the keep. Christian’s stomach churned, suddenly queasy. A last stand. They’d been slashed to shreds.
He hesitated before stepping to the massive doors, thrown wide. A trap? A welcome to sure death? Christian pressed himself close to the wall and peered into the huge room that greeted them. Were guards posted nearby? Did they hang from the ceiling, ready to drop on intruders? He listened, but heard no movements. A few muffled moans came from somewhere close by, but he couldn’t place them.
He motioned for Brina to wait while he darted inside. Back to the wall, he stopped once again to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer lighting. Sunlight spilled through arched windows. Enough, perhaps, to keep them safe? He followed the moans to a far corner of the room. A small herd of humans lay in a heap, nearly dead, tethered to a heavy timber beam. Fang marks rimmed their necks, arms, and legs. Not for draughts, but for sipping.
Christian glanced up as Brina hurried to him. He raised his eyebrows in question. She gave a quick nod. He cut the ropes that bound them. As she placed her palm on one of them after another, he clamped his hand across their lips to keep them from crying out. When her energy poured into them, their eyes flew open in alarm. Christian motioned that they were safe, then nodded toward the door. As each rose to flee, he noticed that they were dressed in finer garments—the lord and his lady, their children and servants. The warlord was making a mockery of defeating them.
The last to heal was the lord’s wife. Tears misted her eyes as she glanced into the courtyard and saw her husband and family, along with their servants, waiting for her. She mouthed a thank you, then hurried to join them. Christian and Brina followed. Once outside, and hopefully out of earshot, Christian said, “I rule the kingdom next to yours. Go there. We’re preparing for war. There’s no guarantee we’ll win, but we won’t be caught by surprise, as you were.”
The husband’s knees gave as he gazed at his dead warriors, and Christian offered an arm to steady him. Then his eyes shifted to the far gate and the peasants lying outside their huts. He stifled a groan and looked to the heavens.
“Go,” Christian told him. “And good luck.”
“You?” his wife asked.
“We’ve come to destroy as many of our enemy as we can while the sun shines.”
The oldest daughter dug her nails into Christian’s arm. “You have no hope. Leave here. You can’t defeat them.”
“They burn as well as you or I,” Christian said. “Now go before they realize we’re here. It’s a long walk. You need to make it before nightfall.”
The husband yanked his wife after him. The others followed.
Christian headed back inside. Quietly, he looked for the steps that led down to the dungeons. The upper floors of the castle were probably dim enough to house vampires in the bedchambers, but he was guessing most of the army were sleeping in the gloomier regions below ground.
He stopped before reaching the bottom levels of the keep and pulled Brina close. “You’ve seen my gift. I can aim my fire, but if things go wrong, you’d be safer staying close to my back.”
“You blazed there, too, when you burned Kembell.”
“I’ll form a bubble that will protect you.”
“You have that magic, too?”
“It’s a spell. I’ve learned many of them.” He descended to the last step and looked around expectantly. This keep’s kitchens were located directly under the great hall. A fire precaution. A good thing. His flames wouldn’t penetrate the stone floor overhead. With luck, the keep would still be standing when he left here. Its lord could return home.
The kitchen door was closed against any light filtering through the low, barred windows that lined the walls. Silently, he pushed it open. The windows designed to let in light and let out smoke were covered with skins and furs. Vampires slept in every nook and corner. A countless number of them.
Christian squared his shoulders. If these monsters could slaughter people in their sleep, so could he. He motioned for Brina to step out of the room, then called on his gift. Fire burst from him. It swept forward in a great rush, consuming everything in its path. Soldiers charred to ashes before they could call out.
When the fire ebbed, he joined Brina in the hallway. He nodded to the next room—a holding cell for prisoners. When they looked inside, dozens of vampires slept in its shadows. Three humans, locked away, lay drained on the floor. Christian repeated the same pattern he’d used before.
They were making their way to the end of the hall when a voice stopped them.
“Please! Help me!” Two arms protruded from a cell at the opposite end of the corridor.
“Shhh!” Christian tried to quiet him, but the man called more loudly.
“Please! You can’t leave me here!”
Scrabbling noises came from the well room farther down the hall. The door burst open, and vampires rushed at them. At the same time, vampires flew at them from the opposite direction. Brina pressed herself to his back, and Christian held out both hands to shoot fire. It caught most of them, but some bounced to the high ceilings and scurried toward them.
Brina pointed upward in panic. One dropped toward them. She reached for him and grazed him on his way down. He withered at her touch.
Two landed on Christian while another knocked Brina to the ground. He struggled, trying to twist away from them. If he turned into a torch, his flames would burn her, too. If he formed a bubble, he’d lock her inside with her attacker. He pressed a hand against one of their chests and pushed flames into it. The fire licked through the vampire’s body and shot out the other side. He tried to reach the second, but couldn’t. It sank its fangs into the base of Christian’s neck. Pain shuddered through his body, and he felt his strength leaving him.
A hand gripped his ankle. Heat tingled through his veins. Energy rushed into him, pulsing with power. So much energy that the vampire choked on it, gagged, and exploded. Flesh splattered the stone walls. Christian rushed to his feet.
A circle of desiccated vampires lay close to Brina. Two more dropped onto her. Christian grabbed them by their collars and shot flames through their necks. They crumpled to the floor. Furious, he aimed at the ceiling and blackened the high stones, singeing them along with any vampires hovering there.
Silence greeted them. He helped Brina stand and scanned the area. Nothing in sight. He glanced to the prison at the other end of the hall. The two arms that had reached for them drooped now. He strode toward the iron bars just as vampires smashed them out of the heavy stone they were set in. He raised both hands and blasted them. A bonfire of the undead.
On the main floor, he heard a rush of sound. Vampires were massing in the great hall. He scooped Brina into his arms and raced up the stairs. He chanted a bubble around her and burst into flames. Vampires filled the room. They scattered as he ran through them. A few reached for him and caught fire. A female tried to block the door. He shot hot flames into her. Outside, in the sunlight, he turned to see the keep. He could feel vampire eyes on him, but they couldn’t follow him. He glanced at the sky and hurried to his horse. He had to reach his castle before they came after him.
He rode hard. There was an hour of daylight left when he raced toward the first wall that circled the villages. Brom saw him coming and opened the gates. Sweat covered his horse, and Christian ran a hand up and down its neck to thank him. Brina loosened her grip on him.
Brom helped her to the ground, then looked from one of them to the other. “You’re both all right?”
They answered at the same time. “Thanks to ….” came out in unison, as they looked at each other.
“No time.” Christian’s feet hit the ground, and he motioned for his groom to take his horse. “Extra treats for him. He’s earned them.” He turned to Brom. “Every man, woman, and child has to be inside the keep. We killed a lot of them, but there are plenty more.”
Brom motioned for assistance.
“Did the lord and his lady reach our fortress? I looked for them on our way, but didn’t see them.” Christian took a deep breath, trying to center his thoughts. What to do next?
“They arrived a short while ago. The lord told us of the attack, how fast it was. They had no defenses against the warlord.”
Christian nodded. “We have to prepare. They’ll come for us tonight. I’ve angered them.”
Brom issued curt orders to the guard who joined them. “Lead the villagers into the keep. Leave no one behind.” He stayed to supervise while Christian took Brina’s elbow to steer her across the uneven stones.
When they entered the great hall, Lady Enid sagged with relief.
Cook rushed toward Brina and hugged her close. “Your powers aren’t that dangerous in battle. I feared for you.”
Brina lowered her eyes, uneasy. “I was as much a burden to our lord as a help.”
Christian disagreed. “Without her, the lord and his family would be dead. She saved them.”
“Almost at the cost of your life! You could have burned your attackers if you hadn’t feared for me.”
“But you saved me. It worked.”
Brina stamped her foot. “Barely.”
Her anger amused him. “Is there no pleasing you?”
“You could have died.” Her honey-colored hair had escaped from its ribbon and hung in waves past her shoulders. Her blue eyes flashed.
An inappropriate time, but how much time was left to them? “I still might. I ask for one more favor before tonight’s battle.”
Suddenly humble, she looked at him eagerly. “Anything, my lord.”
“Good.” He bent his head to kiss her lips.
She stepped back, had to grip Cook’s arm to keep from falling, and gaped.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for a while. Having you cling to me on the back of my horse almost overwhelmed my sense of honor.”
Brina waved her hand at the elegantly clad ladies in the room. “I’m a peasant.”
“And a fetching one.”
Her chin shot up. “I will remain a maiden until I wed.”
“I’ll consider that a challenge.”
A flush crept up her neck and colored her cheeks. “To seduce me?”
“No, to wed you.”
She gasped. “That’s not proper.”
“Aah, but I’m a wizard, unfit to marry mortals. You and I are alike, filled with magic. Who knows what our union might bring?”
Cook roused herself to jab a finger in his direction. “Quit teasing the girl! She deserves better. Everyone’s watching. Show her respect.”
Christian grinned, but turned to the others. “Sorry. I needed something to lift my spirits. I’ve learned a lot from today’s adventure.” Serious again, he went on. “We’re going to need every advantage we have. My warriors can’t win against the vampires. They’re too strong and too fast.”
Brom, who’d joined them, raised a torch in his left hand and his sword in his right. “We won’t die without a fight. Jarman worked with us while you were gone. Vampires fear fire.” He shot Christian a meaningful look. “We’re meant to dispatch the wounded before they can heal. We’ll keep these lit to defend ourselves and behead every enemy that’s been shot with silver.”
All business now, Christian turned his attention to Jarman and his pack. “Can you hit them? They’re so fast, they were upon me before I could stop them.”
“We’re fast, too. We won’t miss, but we’re sure to run out of silver. Stakes won’t be quite as efficient.”
Christian gave a curt nod and turned to the witches. “You’re taking an awful risk. You won’t see them until they’re almost upon you.”
“You underestimate our powers. We’ve been practicing,” the witch who shot balls of energy told him. “We sense more than mortals do.”
“So do I.”
The witch squared her shoulders. “I’d rather die fighting than wait to be drained.”
Christian couldn’t argue with that. “Then let’s take our positions.” He turned to his mother and the others in the room. “The warlord toyed with anyone of importance. I don’t want that to happen to you. Hide yourselves, and if we lose, use these.” He pointed to a row of knives he’d asked Brom to fetch.
His mother took one and handed them to each of the others.
Christian sighed. He never thought it would come to this. With his powers, he thought his people were safe. “If anyone knocks down the door….”
His mother nodded. “We’ve been warned. We won’t tarry.”
Brom led her from the room. They climbed the stairs to the family’s bedchambers. Small, narrow windows would allow them to watch the battle from there. Thick, wooden doors could be bolted from inside.
Brina came to stand beside him. “How many were left in the great hall? I couldn’t see through your flames.”
“Too many.” His voice was grim.
She placed a hand on his arm. “They’ve never met the likes of us—witches, vampires, and mortals united.”
“Let’s hope that’s enough.” He ran a hand through his hair. The warlord’s army had surely killed many by now, while making their way across the country, but they were still new at their game. With Brina beside him, he went to join the others.
A witch, along with two vampires, stood guard at each corner of the fortress. Christian didn’t think the warlord would bother with strategy, trying to sneak past them to attack from behind, but he wouldn’t risk it. He placed the rest of the witches and vampires, along with himself, on the wall facing the forest, in a direct line from the fortress he and Brina had visited earlier. He was fairly certain the warlord would be storming straight at them, ready to overpower them with sheer muscle.
He squinted into the darkness. He’d expected the enemy army to rush them at sunset, but the moon had climbed to its zenith, and still no one appeared.
Jarman paced back and forth from the end tower to the central gates. “Are you all right?” he called to Aldith, who was pacing, too.
“I have Forwin beside me. I’ll be fine.”
The young, male vampire gave a serious nod. Christian had watched them together, the lovely female and the dark, brooding male—the way they exchanged glances, touched. They must be a pair.
Jarman came close to whisper, “Don’t be fooled. Of the two of them, Aldith is by far the deadliest. She’s nearly as old as I am. Each of her arrows will find its mark.”
Christian looked at her with new respect. “And the friends you posted on the back wall?”
“Older than dirt. They were changed before my mother wrapped me in nappies. None of us are new, or we wouldn’t be free.”
At Christian’s frown, Jarman explained. “A vampire belongs to whoever sired him. It takes centuries to break free from that allegiance—if you’re lucky.”
“So every single one of you is strong.”
“All but Caedmon. That’s why I paired him with Umfrey. He’d still be bound to his mistress if she hadn’t released him.”
“And why would she do that?”
“As a special favor to me.” Jarman didn’t explain, and Christian didn’t ask. Jarman turned to pace back to the guard tower when he jerked his head toward the forest. Loud enough for all to hear, he hissed, “They’re coming.”
Christian planted his feet to take a stance. He stood on the high walkway above the heavy, wooden gates of the fortress. Not that vampires would use the gate, but at midcenter, his power could reach both ends of the wall. The pregnant witch kept watch to his left. He’d tried to place her on the back wall, hopefully far from action, but she’d have none of it.
“I’m an air witch. I can blast a wind to slow down any enemy. I’ll do more good on the front lines.”
He’d finally compromised by placing the young witch who shot sparks in her place. Brina stood to his right, another choice he chafed at. Cook hovered on the guard tower, close enough to keep an eye on her prodigy. The witch who could throw white balls of energy stood at the end of the walk. Earth, wind, and fire—as formidable a line-up as he could think of.
A rush of sound roared from the trees in the distance. Shadows burst toward them, spurting through the air, like a flock of giant nighthawks with dagger fangs.
Jarman and his pack readied their arrows, waited a moment, then let them loose. Vampires tumbled from the sky. Jarman’s pack reloaded and shot again, then again. Everything happened so fast, actions blurred, but row after row of vampires fell to the ground. Then the horde was almost upon them.
When Jarman’s pack ran out of silver-tipped arrows, they started to shoot stakes. It was impossible to be accurate enough to kill with each shot, but the wooden stakes slowed down the onslaught. A few seconds more, and Christian raised his arms to shoot fire. Bodies briefly blazed until turning to ash. Before the vampires jumped them, the pregnant witch waved her hands. Winds blew, pushing the vampires back. They fought harder to make headway, and she waved once again. The winds held them in place as perfect targets for Jarman and his pack’s stakes. Like a blow torch, Christian’s fire raged with the winds, consuming anyone in its path.
One vampire, obviously smarter than the rest, quit struggling against the winds and fought his way sideways out of their path, like a swimmer escaping a riptide. He hurled a branch at the pregnant witch. It slammed into her, and she yowled in pain. Her arm dropped, limp, to her side. The winds died, and the warlord and his troops sprang toward them.
Cook stepped forward. She chanted a spell and a wall of earth jutted upward so suddenly, vampires slammed into it—some with such force, their heads split open. Bursts of ashes erupted and fell. For those who escaped, Cook raised her palms. Rocks floated skyward. She whooshed her hands, and the rocks sped like rockets. More heads cracked. More vampires fell.
The witch on the far tower let loose volleys of white, hot energy. Her powers had been weak before. No longer. They slammed through one vampire after another. Christian shot more flames, Cook more rocks. Jarman and his men fired stakes. The vampires retreated.
The pregnant witch took advantage of the short lull. “Tie my arm!”
Christian sliced off his shirt sleeve to drape a sling around her neck. He wrapped her arm in it, so that her hand pointed outward. “If we survive this, Mother can heal you.”
The witch laughed. “If we survive this, I can heal myself. But first things first.”
The new attack came quietly. Four groups of vampires shot out of the trees, all going in different directions.
“There!” The young witch on the back tower pointed. Two of Jarman’s vampires, assigned to her side, shot every stake they had, then braced themselves for hand to hand combat. She stepped in front of them and said, “Keep me on my feet.” She let loose such a fury of sparks, she almost lost her footing. The sparks were so powerful, they drilled holes in the vampires’ heads. When her power fizzled to a stop, more than half of that group was dead.
“Our turn,” one of the vampires told her and shoved her aside. He and his friend flew to the soldiers who remained. Fangs sprang past their lips. Claws shot from their fingertips. They whirled into the newly changed troops, slashing and biting. When they finished, no one remained.
Jarman nodded at Christian. “I told you. Older than dirt and strong as hell.”
The second batch of vampires attacked the left, back tower. Christian fired, but from his spot above the front gates, his magic couldn’t reach that far. The witch on guard was the woman who could make herself invisible—a clever trick, but not overly valuable in war. At least, that’s what Christian thought until the enemy all floundered before passing the walls. They struggled and strained, as though mired in mud. Jarman’s two, old vampires positioned there finished them off. When the last enemy crumbled to dust, the witch showed herself, releasing her grip on a rope net the vampires had helped stretch from one tower to the next.
She grinned and waved to Christian. “We spent all night weaving this. I added just enough silver strands to make it hold. As long as I touch it, it becomes invisible like me.”
Christian raised his fist toward her in a sign of victory. He’d greatly underestimated the power of his witches.
The third phalanx sped toward the left tower. The pregnant witch straightened her shoulders and gripped her broken arm. Words flew from her lips, and a wind so strong hit them, that it hurled them into trees. Heads smashed. Bodies broke in half. When the winds died, the vampires by her side finished off any survivors.
A wave of triumph surged through Christian. Short-lived. Vampires plummeted into the courtyard from the dark skies. While the three sets of troops were harrying them, a fourth had streaked overhead to invade them from above.
The enemy raced toward the fortress.
“No!” Christian blasted fire before the heavy doors. The first onslaught of vampires burned in the flames. A second group rushed toward a side window, larger than the rest. Cook spoke and earth lunged upward to cover it. Another group settled on the rooftop and scrabbled down the stone walls to try other windows. No luck. They were all too narrow. The witch who shot energy zapped them there.
Christian glanced at the sky, searching for the sliver of moon. Surely, it would be sunrise soon. How long could he and his men hold off the warlord’s army? Could they gain victory before dawn? Sweat drenched his skin. His shoulders ached.
A roar came from behind Christian, and an ax buried itself in his back. Pain exploded up and down his spine. The blow nearly knocked him off the high walkway, but Jarman grabbed him before he could fall. Brina’s face burned with a fearsome anger, and she laid a hand on Christian’s shoulder. The pain shifted to a heat that was almost too intense to endure. He gritted his teeth and knotted his fingers into fists. He shut his eyes against the agony.
A horde of the warlord’s soldiers rushed toward them as Jarman yanked the ax out of Christian’s flesh. The pregnant witch called for her winds, but her energy was spent. The air rush was powerful enough to hold them in place, but it was fading.
“Raise your arms!” Brina snapped.
Christian grimaced, tried, and failed. Jarman held them for him. Brina placed a hand on each of Christian’s shoulders. “Trust me,” she said. To the others, she cried, “Stay out of my path!”
A cold raced through his veins so frigid that Christian’s teeth chattered. She moved his body slowly, from left to right, and the cold spewed out of him, freezing anyone and anything in its path. Leaves fell from trees. Grasses grew brittle and broke.
The warlord jammed a soldier before him, and the vampire froze. When he pushed him aside, he broke into pieces and fell to earth, splintering to shards.
Christian gave a convulsive shiver, numb with cold, and Brina released him. She stood on tiptoe and kissed warmth back into his body. When he blinked to full consciousness, few of the enemy remained.
The warlord motioned for retreat and turned to flee. Too late. Aldith and her partner were upon them.
“This is for Cedany!” Aldith spat. She raked sharp nails across the warlord’s eyes. “This is for the blood you made her drink!” A claw ripped across his jugular, nearly removing his head. “And this is for….” The threat was futile. The warlord crumpled to dust and sifted through her fingers. She turned to her handsome, young friend. He’d finished the rest.
The battle was over.
It took Christian a moment to realize they were safe. He kept expecting someone to zip from a tree line or drop from the air. But the warlord was destroyed—the progenitor of his troops, their master. If any had escaped, his death meant their demise.
Jarman stayed a fair distance from Brina. “How did you do that?” he asked her.
“I can’t on my own.” She glanced at Christian, a flush rising to her cheeks. “I need a conductor. Not many will do. But when I touched him before, I knew. We act as one. My power flows through him.”
Jarman gave a slow smile. “Ice and fire. A heady combination. Who’s the stronger of the two?”
Brina licked her lips, embarrassed. “We’re equally matched. We seem to complement one another.”
“So you can’t destroy him, and he can’t destroy you?”
She blinked in surprise. “Why would we want to?”
“Love spats perhaps?”
She raised an eyebrow, and he changed the subject. Turning to Christian, he grew suddenly serious. “What now, my lord? Now that the danger’s past.”
Christian rubbed his arms, still cold. “What are you asking? I don’t know the meaning of your question.”
“We’ve won this war. You and your people have survived. What of witches and vampires now?”
Christian stared. “Do I strike you as someone who’d turn on my allies after they served us so well?”
“We had no choice,” the pregnant witch told him in her usual blunt manner. “We couldn’t survive on our own.”
“What’s your name?” Christian was tired of thinking of her as the pregnant witch. She deserved more than that.
“Sabina,” she told him. “A witch.”
“My point exactly,” Christian stated. “We united our strengths to work together. Our differences made us strong.”
Jarman’s hands went to his hips. “You saw our powers. Would you trust us to dwell among you?”
“I did see your powers, which made me wonder. Why didn’t you attack fortresses before the warlord thought of it? With surprise on your side, who could defeat you?”
Aldith came to stand beside him. “The smell and taste of humans disgusts us.”
“I see.” Christian gave Jarman a level look. “But we have a vast forest between my fortress and the next. That lord was saved by our combined forces. No one would argue if you chose to make those forests your home.”
Jarman smiled. “No one would come hunting us during the day?”
“Not if I could stop it.”
Aldith held out her hand. “For a mortal, you’re a decent sort. We thank you.”
Christian shrugged. “I doubt any rogues will wander this way again.”
“Fear of you would stop that,” Jarman said. “But fear of us will ensure it.”
Caedmon went to join his friends. “Will I be able to visit my daughter?”
“I see no reason why not. And she can visit you.” He quirked a brow at Jarman. “If you swear not to drain her.”
Sabina interrupted. “And witches? What about us?”
“You’ve never harmed me, and I see no reason why that would change.”
Cook glanced at Jarman. “And the forest? At one time, we celebrated the solstices there.”
“Pick a spot, and we’ll leave you in peace,” Jarman assured her.
“And our sister witches? Will you honor them, too?” Sabina asked Christian.
“Their only peril will be their own villages if someone finds out they’ve joined you at the solstice.”
Cook nodded. “And her? What will become of Brina?”
“I have plans for her.”
Cook’s shoulders straightened. “Young man….”
Christian laughed. “Mother says it’s time I choose a wife. Mortals don’t interest me. Brina does.”
“And you?” Cook turned to Brina.
This time, Brina stepped into Christian’s arms. “I’ve hidden in the kitchens a long time. I think I’ve finally met my match.”
The fortress doors opened, and Lady Enid stepped out, along with everyone else. Christian’s mother took one look at her son and smiled. She glanced at the heavens.
“It’s on to the next journey,” she said.
That journey could wait. Christian believed in celebrating each and every victory, whether large or small. And for him, this one was life changing.