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When a band of marauders, led by a strange creature ravages his village and kills his parents, young Craven Arneau escapes and seeks revenge. During his flight to safety he is befriended by Michal Vebermus, a reticent monk who takes him to the safety of his monastery. There he meets Danielle, a young peasant girl who tempers all thoughts of revenge. However, his contentment is short-lived when his past catches up with him in the form of a cuckold Baron who charges him with rape ...
When a band of marauders, led by a strange creature ravages his village and kills his parents, young Craven Arneau escapes and seeks revenge. During his flight to safety he is befriended by Michal Vebermus, a reticent monk who takes him to the safety of his monastery. There he meets Danielle, a young peasant girl who tempers all thoughts of revenge. However, his contentment is short-lived when his past catches up with him in the form of a cuckold Baron who charges him with rape and murder. Craven is again forced to leave his life behind.
While on the dusty, dirt road to safety, more tragedy befalls him; those he left behind at the monastery fall prey to the evil creature who fed upon his village.
When his journey brings him to the French town of La Rochelle, Maurice Chassell, an ancient Vampire, convinces him that in order to destroy the horror that has tormented him all these years, he must die and become its equal. However, despite his alliance with Maurice, revenge constantly evades him. Only when he encounters Joseph, a Vampire even older than Maurice, does he come face to face with the lies and deception that have tormented him since his death and rebirth.
Only now do I see how fitting it was that my fate was to be born into such a period of turmoil and rebirth.
Most know little of Fate, its malice, its frivolity, its whimsical rewarding and punishing. In our ignorance, we foolishly taunt it as one taunts a caged bear. The bear will have its day, however, and when that day comes, it breaks loose and dons whatever cloak it chooses—plague, drought, flood, even a horde of evil leaving a trail of death in its path as it tears through an innocent village. In my ignorance, I also scoffed, until I had to face my Day of the Bear. That day came in a cloud of dust on a summer eve.
I had just returned from the blacksmith where I bartered horse grooming and stable cleaning in exchange for red satin ribbons for my mother's birthday.
"Did you bargain well?" Father asked with a knowing grin as I gasped for breath. "I have them!" I said, waving the scarlet ribbons in front of him. "I have them!"
"And at what cost, my young tradesman?"
I told him of the trade I made.
"A bitter price," he replied as we walked towards the sod-roofed house with smoke swirling from the stone chimney, "but she will be pleased."
We found my mother standing outside when she would normally be stoking the fire to cook our evening meal. "Craven," she said with a scowl, "were you not supposed to be in the field helping your poor father?"
Father and I exchanged glances. "The boy was ... was running an errand for me, wife, and—"
She interrupted his lie and pointed toward the horizon. "Look, a rain cloud!" The sound of thunder excited her even more. "Lord knows the crops can use the rain."
Father looked toward the growing cloud. However, his wrinkled brow and growing frown indicated he did not share Mother's enthusiasm. "No!" he said, "dust, not rain!"
When the cloud settled, a group of riders, twenty or more by my quick count, emerged.
"Boy, go get the elders and Father Philippe," he said.
The tightness of his jaw, a sign I was well acquainted with when anger or fear rose in him, said he was troubled.
"Who are they, Father?"
"Do as you are told, boy, and be quick about it!"
His sudden harshness sent me running back to the village. Once there, a crowd gathered while I told Father Philippe about the strange riders outside the village.
With the priest and the villagers trotting behind me, I rushed back to the house. As soon as we arrived, my father motioned to the priest. "There, Father," he said, pointing to the edge of the field, "a group of riders."
With the eyes of the villagers focused on the horizon, a pair of black stallions, pulling a black carriage, suddenly appeared before us.
With eyes narrowed, Father looked at me. "Go back to the house, boy!"
With a muscular arm that could toss a large deer onto his broad shoulders with one scoop, he dragged me to the cottage where my mother stood, anxiety distorting her delicate face. "Are they soldiers?" she asked.
"No, not soldiers," Father replied. "At least, not soldiers of the Duchy."
"What other kind are there?" I asked when my feet again touched the ground.
It wasn't his failure to answer that sent a chill up my spine; it was the look in his eyes.
"Monsieur Arneau, I must speak with you," the priest said when he caught up with my father. Once he pulled Father away from the cottage, I took the opportunity to inch my way back into the panicky crowd of villager's with their shaking heads and gesturing arms.
Seeing the gnarled finger of the village elder pointing at the riders then back to the village, I sensed that the horsemen concerned everyone. However, since they seemed contented to stay where they were, I did not see them as a danger. I would learn over the years that it is the nature of danger not to be seen.
I watched as my father listened to the priest's mutterings. After a nod to some secret agreement, they both returned to the crowd. Father did not seem surprised to see me. He knew I was as addicted to excitement as the priest was to communion wine.
"Boy, bring me the gelding!" he shouted.
Apprehension hung in the air like a damp fog from the fields on a sultry morning. My mother's silence only added to my bewilderment. However, I knew there was no need to question or to argue.
I found the gelding with his head in a bucket of oats. After token resistance and a twitch of his ears, he accepted the bit. Then we trotted back to where Father was holding my frightened mother in his arms. The pallor in her face, matched with fear in his eyes, gave me even more cause for concern.
"You and the boy go to the church," he said to my mother while mounting the jittery gelding. "Craven, you look after your mother until I return." Before Mother could respond, he sent the horse cantering towards the riders.
It was unusual for my mother to disobey him, but she did this time. With trembling hands, she clung to me as if holding me ransom for her husband's safe return and joined the townsfolk who were murmuring among themselves. Despite the building wall of fear, no one wanted to leave and risk having to hear second-handed what did or did not happen.
I managed to pull away from my mother's arms and pushed my way to the front of the group. Twilight was beginning to fade, turning the riders on the horizon into a disassembled group of long shadows. It was a ghostly image.
Realizing that the strange riders had still not advanced or dismounted, I became less concerned, thinking how everyone was swatting at flies with logs rather than bundles of straw. However, as the sun dropped over the horizon, I began to share everyone else's concern. Somehow, my father's task seemed more ominous with the loss of daylight.
Just when it seemed the riders were leaving, a lone rider broke from their ranks and intercepted my father and the gelding. The remaining men closed ranks and stood quietly while the black horse and his rider circled my father. Other than the echoes of hooves prancing and the occasional whinny of the horse when the rider jerked its head this way or that, the night was quiet. As soon as the rider's horse pranced next to the gelding, a strong arm sent my father tumbling to the ground.
Hysteria overtook my mother. "No!" she cried out. "Please, God, please!"
I was about to run towards my downed father, when the rider suddenly reached down as if to help him up. I stopped, believing the fall had been an accident. There was no real danger after all.
I was wrong.
The rider grabbed my father's arm with one hand then pushed his horse to a gallop, dragging my father mercilessly at his side.
I tried to run towards him again, but a bony hand held me back.
"No, my son, there is nothing you can do," the priest said. "Your father is in God's hands now."
"No, he's not in God's hands," I shouted. "He's in the hands of that giant." The last of the scattered light faded as I spoke the words.
Darkness fell upon us that night in more ways than anyone realized.
"What are they saying?" someone asked.
"They cry for blood," the priest mumbled, almost choking on his words. "They cry for blood."
As if beckoned by the chant, the moon suddenly emerged from behind a dark cloud, flooding the black carriage with its fullness. A chilling wail followed as a new rider emerged from the darkness. Within minutes, another rider, seemingly more boy than man, joined him.
I could hear their horses' ghastly snorts as they clawed at the air with razor sharp hoofs. Both were befitting steeds of devils.
As the moonlight glittered from their uplifted swords, the hoard's new chant echoed over the hillsides. "Le Faucon reveille! Le Faucon reveille!"
"The Falcon has awakened," the priest whispered, his words edged with fear.
Minutes later, the gelding's nicker echoed in the distance. It was clear by the gasps and hurried hands making the sign of the cross that the villagers sensed the animal's fear. Still, no one rose to go to his or my father's aid.
"Help him!" Mother begged as her eyes darted maniacally past the dimness of Father Philippe's glowing torch. "Please! Someone help him!"
I cradled her trembling body in my arms and whispered, "He will be okay, Mother." As I spoke the words, I heard the rhythmic sounds of our plow horse's gallop. Father was returning. "It's the gelding," I said. "I would know its gallop anywhere."
The sound of charging hooves grew louder until the gelding's burly legs grazed my shoulder. When I looked up, a spray of stickiness blinded me. When I opened my eyes again, all I saw was the horror in my mother's eyes as she crumbled to the ground.
"Father! Father! Help her!" I begged.
He did not come.
"Merciful God ..." I followed the strained voice of Father Philippe as he reached for the reins of the snorting horse. Men were now shouting, women wailing, but my eyes frozen on the bloodstained horse and the headless rider tied to its back muted their cries. I fought my way through the crowd of shrieking people, some running aimlessly, some on their knees, some just standing and gazing at the horror.
I found myself trapped between my mother and my dead father when I heard the sound of more galloping hooves. Ignoring the oncoming horde, I fought to get back to my mother only to be grabbed by a strong hand. "No, boy, it's too late," the blacksmith shouted. "They're coming. We must get back to the village."
I pulled away, shouting, "No! I need to get to my mother!"
The blacksmith's grip was unyielding. "She would want you safe, Craven. More than anything, she would want you to—" The sword in his back silenced him. He would not strike another anvil again, not in this life.
I fell to the ground with him on top of me. This alone saved me from the view of the riders galloping towards the village. As they passed, the rider dressed in black jerked my mother onto his horse as if she were but a bail of straw. Once in his hands, he nestled his face in her neck, then dropped her to the ground.
I pushed the dead blacksmith off me and jumped to my feet. In the glow of the fire, my eyes locked on those of the rider on the black horse. Although he had appeared dark from the distance, up close, his face was as sallow as candle wax. He sneered as his horse pranced towards me. knew I would soon be joining my mother and father, wherever they had gone. Even at that early age, I was not convinced of the existence of a heaven. However, I now knew there was a hell.
Another rider, his face and tunic splattered with blood, approached and bowed deeply. "What of the boy, Master?"
The ashen-faced rider laughed, revealing two glistening fangs jutting from his mouth. "Perhaps a morsel for later."
As if on cue, the riders burst into laughter until the monster quieted them with his raised hand. "I feel charitable this night. Perhaps, I will let him live, at least for a little longer." He turned to the gruesome, one-eyed man and said, "Bring my carriage and bind him to it."
Bound at the wrists to the carriage's large wheel, one thought filled my numbed mind—escape. As I struggled to free myself, the rawhide straps bit deeper into my flesh. Although painful, it was a pain I could understand, a pain I could accept.
I watched in the glow of the burning village as the pallid rider sat before his soldiers in the magnificent chair brought from the wagon. The wolf-like creature sitting next to him looked younger but just as deadly.
During the night, the giant continued motioning to the one-eyed man to bring him a villager. He would return within minutes, dropping a screaming woman at the creature's feet. After scrutinizing the offerings, the creature would lift each woman gently to his lap and whisper in her ear. I could not hear his words, but the whispers seemed to calm her. As soon as she fell under his trance, he buried his face into her neck. Once he finished with her, the one-eyed man dragged each pale, limp body away.
He repeated this ritual throughout the night, occasionally passing one of the villagers to the younger monster. At first, they favored the younger women, but as the night progressed, age and gender no longer mattered.
I watched the horror until the demand for sleep overcame my need for vigilance. Sleep, however, showed even less mercy, punishing me with frightful visions of the monsters sharing one woman after another, each with the pale face of my mother. Eventually, the nightmare faded, leaving me adrift in a sea of haze. However, sharp fangs tearing at my neck and blood-red eyes glaring at me through the haze told me the nightmare was not over.
I tried to stand but quickly sat back against the wagon wheel when a toothless man brushed a fly from his face then rolled over on his belly, and the one-eyed man began to stir. I had noticed something, however: the leather straps were now looser than before. The morning dew had stretched them.
I knew that I had to act before the men woke. Gathering all my strength, I pulled relentlessly on the straps. After several painful tugs, one hand slipped free. With another jerk, the other followed. I was free. Being free, however, did not necessarily mean freedom.
If I tried for the open road, it would just be a matter of time before they caught me again. This time they would surely put me to the sword. Even worse, I could suffer the mysterious death imposed by their leader. Although I was not sure by whose hand or in what manner, I was sure that I would suffer the same fate as my parents and the villagers. To I would have to wait until they were at least a day or more ahead of me.
I crawled towards the pile of feeding flies and dead villagers. The dried blood covering my face and my neck blended well with the pile of flesh surrounding me. I watched and listened while hiding right in front of their noses.
The toothless man was the first to open his bloodshot eyes. He wiped the drool from his mouth, cleared his throat with a raspy cough and headed towards the wagon. After several steps, he shouted, "Who has the boy?"
The others quickly came to their feet. They shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. "He was your responsibility," one shouted with fear obvious in his voice.
"I want the boy, and I want him now!" the toothless man shouted back. "If any of you have him, your buggering days will be over once the master awakens."
After an hour of searching, they saddled up and rode off in disarray, with the black carriage well protected by a score of riders. Once the tattered army was out of sight, I crawled out from under the pile of bodies. With what little strength I had left, I found my headless father and my trampled mother and buried them side-by-side, then fell to my knees in prayer for their souls, and ultimately for mine. For the first time in my life, I was alone. There was nothing left of my former life, save for the crimson ribbons in my pouch and my memories.
I spent the remainder of the day and the night hiding in the woods far away from the smell of death, yet close enough to see the smoldering world I left behind. Only when death and horror were many hours away did I start my journey to wherever Fate guided me.
On the second day of my journey, I came upon a field of calamity that gave me deep satisfaction: scattered about the ground in a circle lay a dozen men, each with a short shaft protruding from his chest. A black carriage was in the center of the dead men. Beside it was its apparent cargo, two jeweled coffins inlaid with gold and silver.
One coffin was empty; the other was not. It contained a mass of what appeared to be charred leather. Several paces away, I found a similar mass the size of a human head. When I turned it with my foot, it crumbled into a mound of black ash. Only teeth and two long fangs remained identifiable. Outside of the fires of hell, what manner horror could turn flesh and bone to ash and dust, I did not know, nor was I sure I wanted to.
Excerpted from Craven by Chuck Hughes Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Hughes. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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