July 23, 1451
The dying light from the sun cast an orange glow across the room, signaling my nightly hell was about to begin. Two months had past since the creature called Mikov broke into our small two-room cottage in Ireland. My husband of four years, Aidan, was slaughtered while I huddled helpless in a corner—paralyzed by my own fear.
The long-fanged monster may have looked almost human, but the blood dripping off its sharp teeth and the crazed look in its eyes certainly wasn’t. With surprising strength, it tore the limbs from my spouse and tossed the bloody remains about the room. The frozen look of terror on Aidan’s decapitated face will forever be imprinted on my mind; seared deep by the indescribable hatred welling in my gut for the vampire who changed my life forever.
“Where is she?” Mikov’s deep voice boomed through the darkening English farmhouse, sending goose bumps up my arms. “Bring my Ceara to me.”
Strong hands pulled me from my dirty straw pallet in the great hall, gentling when I didn’t struggle. “You know he gets worse if we delay,” the hoarse voice of Mikov’s mate, Fiona, whispered. Her breath pulled in sharply when she looked at me. “Damn you. You didn’t bathe or make yourself presentable as instructed.”
I remained silent, as I had for the duration of my capture. If that blood-sucking prick wanted to feast on me he’d have to get past the stench first.
Fiona stood straight and glared down the long room at the others; a dozen or so men and women who lived to feed the master and his fellow vampires. “If you don’t help to clean her, you will all feel Mikov’s rage. I’ll make sure of it.” She turned and stormed out, calling back over her shoulder that we had ten minutes.
I stood perfectly still, not moving to obey and unwilling to meet the eyes of the emaciated women who rose to do Fiona’s bidding. Once or twice someone tried to soothe me when I woke up screaming from the nightmares of the day my life changed forever, but mostly, the others kept their distance.
“You think we don’t know your pain?” asked a haggard-looking young woman with long black hair. “Some of us were taken as maidens, others from our husbands and children.” Her tone was soft and soothing, like a stable lad talking to a skittish horse. She held a brush in one hand and pulled the long, messy strands of my copper-colored hair off my neck and started to work through the knots with a light touch.
Two others came and removed my filthy over-dress and shift. Without resistance, I stood while they bathed me, everyone in the room quietly watching on. I stared straight ahead, ignoring the whispers and heated glances from the men. The cool dampness of the cloth soothed my healing bruises and scrapes.
“At least you’ve finally learned to stop fighting him,” my hair-brusher continued. “The ones who don’t die quickly.”
And what kind of life is this? I wanted to ask, but kept quiet.
The lavender scent of the water didn’t calm me, as it had in the past. Anger burned in my gut and threatened to overwhelm the passivity I tried to emulate. I discovered the hard way just how strong Mikov and the other night creatures were. In the end, they still got what they wanted so there was no real reason to keep fighting and injure myself further.
I needed to escape, but had yet to be allowed past the fortified walls beyond the main building. I didn’t know how much longer I could take their leader’s attentions without losing my sanity completely.
“How long have you been here?” I asked. My voice sounded harsh and unused, even to my own ears.
The women gasped, it was the first time I’d spoken since my arrival. My hair-brusher faltered in her strokes before answering. “So, your tongue does work, eh, lassie?” I didn’t respond, but waited for her to answer my question. “Three years,” she said after a moment, her fingers grazing the fading strangulation marks on my throat. “You’ll find it gets easier when he tires of you and finds a new infatuation.”
But she was wrong. He never found another plaything.
I’d heard all I needed to hear. These women weren’t like me. They were already broken. I would find a way out or I would die trying—preferably, it would be the first one.
The two bathers finished their ministrations and pushed clean, threadbare clothing over my head. One met my eyes with undisguised pity. “I’m sorry you’re so pretty.” Her blackened teeth peeked from behind a lip twisted with distaste. “It’s always worse for the pretty ones.”
And therein laid the blame of my current predicament. If this deranged monster hadn’t noticed my flaming hair and fair looks, my husband and my happy life might never have changed. A simple farm, food in our bellies, long nights making love by the fire… my heart constricted in my chest as I recalled the winter we lost our unborn child. I was only eighteen and miscarriages happened to many… family reassured us we’d have many more chances together to bring a life into this world.
They, too, were wrong.
Shoving the grief and heartache down into a tight ball in my mind, I tried to clear my head. I cried the first month, every night straight. It didn’t change my fate nor did it lessen the vampire’s craving for my blood. Time to do what my folks always said when the wee ones fought and complained—God helps those who help themselves.
As the thunderous footsteps of Fiona echoed down the hallway, I knew my hell was about to begin again. Fear coiled in my middle as I steeled myself for the angry look I knew I’d see in the other woman’s gaze—she disliked her husband’s attentions of me almost as much as I did.
“Be strong,” whispered my hair-brusher. “He can only take what you freely give.”
The door swung open and I stepped forward, out of the circle of the three women whose names I did not know… ready to face my weekly raping.
August 15, 1451
Darkness started to descend in the forest and still I ran. Branches scraped my skin hours ago and thin lines of dried red ran across my arms and legs. I wasn’t sure how far I’d gone from the stockade walls of Mikov’s farmhouse, but I feared it might not be enough. The deceptive calm of the trees and the softening heat of the day did nothing to soothe me. My heart thundered in my chest and the sound of my ragged breaths filled the twilight.
Would he find me? Had I a chance? Every time I started to feel safe I pushed the hope into a tight ball around my heart, protecting me and fueling me to continue on. The stable master’s voice, the last one I’d heard at the farm, rang again and again in my mind.
“You think others haven’t tried what you’re doing, lass? You may hide in the straw of the wagon, but mark my words, he will find you.” The slovenly bastard pushed off me and tied his breeches, leaving his seed on my thighs.
I smiled and rose from the straw, lowering my skirts. “Is that concern I hear in your tone, Thomas?”
He may have asked a steep price to smuggle me out beyond the walls, but it was no worse than what I’d endured for months—and at least he was human.
The weathered face of the stable master frowned, his big bushy eyebrows scrunched together in his displeasure. “You’re all dead anyway. It’s just a shame to see such beauty go to waste.”
Bits of straw still tangled in my hair, tickling my face as I stumbled over a root. The smell of the burning peat reached me as I rose from the forest floor. Not sure how long I’d been running, the timing seemed premature for an evening cook fire—perhaps I’d reached the next closest farm. Letting my nose guide me, I made my way through the dim light to the edge of the trees.
Dark clouds covered the sky, making it darker then the hour warranted. More than likely, the pending rain drove the farmers indoors for an early dinner. A crack of thunder overhead signaled a coming summer storm and I hoped the family would consider taking in a dirty woman traveling alone.
Potato plants in neat rows stretched on for an acre, with the faint outline of a thatched roof showing in the distance. The carefully guarded hope I’d held near my heart blossomed, filling me with renewed energy. I might just make it out of this living nightmare yet.
A tingling entered my limbs, the muscles protesting despite the desire to reach safety. Each step seemed a trial, reminding me of the muscle ache I’d get when Aidan and I worked during harvest time, long past sunset to get our crops in. I pushed on, stepping carefully down a row to not damage the still-growing plants.
Shadows lengthened and through the distance two shapes stood out, possibly the farmers. Exhaustion clouded my mind and I wasn’t sure if the figures up ahead were fence posts or the inhabitants. I straightened, trying my best not to look like a beaten dog. The scent of farm animals and fresh soil mingled in the rain-scented air with burning peat moss, triggering sharp memories of Ireland.
Twenty feet from the edge of the field I felt a rumble through my feet. Recognizing the thunder of hooves, I craned my neck, trying to discern where the riders might be approaching from. The road near the small cottage was clear and my heart seized in panic.
I whirled to see a team of black horses breaking through the dense trees and barreling across the field toward me at a full canter. Foam dripped from their mouths and a crazed look glinted in their eyes. Their pale-skinned riders dressed all in black, with flowing black capes fluttering behind them in the growing breeze.
No! It can’t be! How did they find me so fast? Fear clutched my throat and adrenaline pumped through my veins, chasing away the last of my fatigue. My instincts screamed to run, but I knew there was no hope.
Lurching forward in a staggering run, I waved to the figures near the cottage as I cleared the last of the crops. “Help!”
Standing not fifty feet away were the couple who worked the land. A tall man with dark hair and a thin frame turned at the sound of my voice—he took one step forward until he spotted the oncoming horsemen. He froze in his tracks, horror and fear twisting his face.
Mikov’s voice boomed out across the field as the horses raced upon me. “Leave her, Finnigan! She is mine!”
Finnigan grabbed the hand of the woman standing behind him and raced for his cottage door, slamming it behind them both in his haste.
“No!” I screamed into the growing darkness. The skies chose that moment to open up and rain poured down from the swollen black clouds. Not willing to accept defeat so easily, I ran toward the house, determined to bang on the wooden door and beg to be let in.
The sharp neigh of a horse screamed in my ear and a booted foot landed firmly in my back, shoving me to the dampening ground. The shock of hitting the hard earth reverberated up through my arms and knees as a frustrated scream of defeat tore from my lips.
Two other horses pawed the earth around me—the three vampires had me effectively pinned. A large round object was thrown on the ground near my head. I turned my face and gazed into the staring dead eyes of Thomas, the stable master. His mouth was locked in a silent scream and the jagged flesh of his severed neck stank of fresh death.
“Silly lass,” Mikov rasped while dismounting from his steed. “I smelled your essence on him.” Gloved hands grabbed my upper arm and yanked me to my feet. He tsked when he saw the scratches on my arms and ran a leather-encased finger down my skin. “We’re linked by blood, you and I. You can never hide from me. Your life force calls me like a beacon.”
He mounted his horse and dragged me up in front of him. One steely arm wrapped around me and he locked both of my wrists in his larger hand as the rain pelted us. “You are mine now and forever. There is no freedom for you, Ceara.”
Thomas’ last words ran through my mind. “You’re all dead anyway.” Tears leaked silently from my eyes, mixing with the summer downpour and streaming unnoticed down my face.
Is this what my life has become? Am I only food for a monster?
December 1, 1451
The days were short and the monsters were awake for longer. They grew bored in the cold and started using the humans for blood sport. Heather, my original hair-brusher, died last week during one of their sick games. They passed her around, drinking from a new spot while she begged them to stop. It was one instance where being Mikov’s favorite spared me from their sadistic ways.
Heather’s pitiful, pleading cries haunted me. She recognized what they were doing before most of us; after all, she’d been here the longest. Jacob, one of Mikov’s seethe, as I had come to learn a grouping of bloodsuckers were called, drained her to unconsciousness and kept going….
She was not deemed worthy enough to be turned into an undead, so she wouldn’t rise from her early grave like the pale bastards who tormented us. For that, I was grateful. Heather was a strong woman. She revealed to me she’d had two children before being taken by Mikov three years ago. Did her family know a creature of death had stolen her from them? Did they look for her?
Becoming friends with my fellow captives proved difficult. Which of us would die next at the whim of a bored vampire? I dared not think on it.
On this day, the merry band of filth rose from their secret resting place and donned riding apparel. Their excitement permeated the very air, putting all of us who fell into the “food” category on edge. Would they be running one of us down in the dark woods surrounding the farmhouse? Did they plan to stack us like kindling and jump their steeds over the prone bodies again?
If I’d learned one thing over the past months it was this: we were chattel to them. Nothing more, nothing less. We existed solely for their pleasure and were cared for only to ensure the continuation of our survival for their needs.
Debasement had become common practice and I shuddered when I dwelled on their lost humanity. Clearly, they were human once. Did they let go of their last shreds early on, or were the scraps pried from their grasp by the cruelty of their peers?
Only eight of us remained from the nearly two-dozen that were here when I arrived. The hooves of the galloping horses thudded dully into the distance as the seven cloaked undead rode out. A collective sigh escaped the group of food and for a brief moment I wondered if escape was a viable option.
The thought died after a quick flare of hope. Winter was almost upon us, I knew no farmer in the area would risk taking one of us in, let alone eight. Mikov would hunt us down like he did to me in late summer. And those who escaped would perish from the elements.
A soft scrape to my right brought my attention to a lanky man who stood in an archway leading to the kitchen. All of us except Fiona were lean and wiry like Henry, the cook. My mother once teased you should never trust a skinny chef, and yet in this house of evil we all stood as equals, banning together in our desire to survive.
“Come, quickly,” he said to the occupants of the great hall. “All of you who feed the creatures. I have extra rations tonight.”
None of us asked why, perhaps they were like me and secretly afraid to hear the answer. Henry stood taller than most of us, no bend to his spine and no gray touching his temples yet. His teeth looked solid and he retained a glint of something in his eye… something I hadn’t seen in a long time—a spark of life.
“You too, lassie,” Henry said, his gaze lingering on me as I held back in the shadows. “We all hate them, but we can’t survive if we don’t eat.” His bearded face moved with a hidden smirk, pulling a returning smile of gratitude from me.
As I passed, he rested a hand on my shoulder drawing my eyes up to his hazel gaze. “I can see the strength in you. The group needs you to step up and lead as Heather did or they will all perish this winter.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because Fiona has been here the longest and she’s seen it before when a beloved member dies.” The twinkle I saw before transformed into outright humor, “She told me her thoughts when she shared my bed last.”
I shake off his hand and turn to face him. “Why would you discuss me? And don’t you fear Mikov when bedding his wife, you fool?”
His low chuckle reached my ear as I left the hall and headed into the warmth of the kitchen. “They aren’t married. She’s his vampire-servant. A bond he can easily dissolve if he wishes. Mikov has eyes only for you since you arrived. She knows it—and knows if the monster’s food dies off this winter she would be next.”
The cold reality of his words sank in. The creature who just last week cast an illusion over himself to look like my dead husband and seduced me while I slept, still prefers me over his “wife”. Could I use this somehow to worm my way into a position to kill him? More importantly, could I handle the vermin wearing my lover’s face long enough to execute a plan?
My face split into a genuine smile as I sat on a crowded long bench by the warm cook fire. I reached for the crusty warm bread and ladled some thick stew into a bowl. The smell of simmering root vegetables and rabbit wafted up in delicious aroma of… hope.
A glance up into the doorway revealed Henry, staring at me in slack-jawed amazement. I guessed he never saw me smile. Either that, or the fierce expression of determination on my face scared him. I’m betting it was the smile.