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Llanllawer Church, Pembrokeshire, Wales, 1485
He needed a miracle.
Here he was, on the brink of a battle for the crown of England, and it was increasingly obvious that God wasn’t listening to his desperate prayers. Henry Tudor rose from his knees, made the sign of the cross, and backed away from the altar. A single tallow candle illuminated a handful of dilapidated pews and a ragged altar cloth, tattered and chewed by vermin.
There was only one thing left to do, and it would be the biggest gamble of his life. He’d left the Earl of Oxford in charge of his pitifully few troops, and brought his Welsh companion, Sir John Llewellyn, as his guide. They were the only two men who knew he had left his sleeping army and gone out into the countryside, ostensibly to pray at the church, but in reality to do so much more.
“Are you ready, my lord?”
Henry relaxed as John’s familiar dark-featured face emerged from the gloom. John’s knowledge of the Welsh countryside had proved invaluable. He’d found Henry the perfect place for his needs, a place where the old religion of the Druids lodged uneasily alongside the new.
“Is it true there was a battle fought here, John?” Henry asked as his friend led him away from the church and down into the all-encompassing darkness beyond.
“Aye, my lord. Parc-y-Meirw means Field of the Dead. A fitting omen for your upcoming victory over King Richard.”
“Indeed.” Or a reminder of just how quickly an overambitious man could fail . . .
John stepped aside to reveal a low huddle of stones. “This is the Holy Well I spoke of. It is said the spring leads directly to the old gods, who will listen favorably to the prayers of anyone who offers them a tribute.”
Henry strained his eyes to make out the dimensions of the less than impressive stone arch that covered the entrance to the spring. The sound of water trickled and echoed deep in the ground below his feet. He crouched down and shuddered when his fingertips slicked over decaying plants and dipped into ice-cold water.
“I shall make an offering, then.” He found a coin and threw it into the small gaping mouth of the well. Was he throwing away his immortal soul as well? Richard Plantagenet was a formidable opponent on and off the battlefield.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Go back to the church and wait for me there. I will do what I must do alone.”
“Nay, sir. I promised Lord de Vere I wouldn’t let you out of my sight.”
“Even if what you see will imperil your soul, your chance of paradise, and the glorious resurrection?”
To Henry’s surprise, John smiled. “Sir, I am prepared to walk through hell itself to protect you.”
Henry let out his breath. “All right, then, best get on with it. Do you have the vessel?”
“Fill it with water and give it to me.”
Henry withdrew his dagger. Strange that both the old and the new religions demanded blood. He slashed the blade across the fleshy pad of his thumb and allowed his blood to drip into the narrow opening of the pot. He was unsure exactly how much was needed. Tales of the Druids draining their sacrificial victims dry were commonplace. Even the Christian God had allowed his precious son to be crucified, bloodied nails hammered through his wrists a sword thrust in his side . . .
Henry took a deep, steadying breath and sucked his thumb into his mouth, waited until the sickly coppery flow slowed and stopped. “Show me where the stones are.”
He could see better now, and did not hesitate as he followed John toward the ominous row of shadows bordering the field. He reached the first stone, which was about one and a half times his height, and put his hand on it. The stone quivered and warmed to his touch as if he had somehow awakened it.
He snatched back his hand and examined the smooth surface of the bluish gray rock. “How many stones are there?”
“The color reminds me of the great stone circle I once saw down in the West Country of England,” Henry whispered. “A circle built by giants, as legend would have it.”
“These stones came from the same quarry, and there were no giants involved. Just mortal men.”
“You seem to know a lot about it, John.” Henry knew he was procrastinating, but his first touch of the stones had proved almost too much for him, had made him doubt his purpose once again.
“Like you, I was born here, sir. I learned all the ancient tales before I could speak.”
“Then tell me. What must I do to call the Druids?”
A moment of silence met his challenge and he tore his gaze from the stones back to John.
“Near the bottom of the third stone is a small crevice. Kneel and pour your blood offering into the hollow.”
Henry found his way to the third stone and knelt in front of it, used his fingertips to discover the crevice and the worn hollow at its bottom. He closed his eyes and poured the contents of the pot into it, was surprised when none of the liquid seeped out or ran down the surface of the rock. He wanted to pray, but hesitated to offend the old gods he was trying to reach.
Suddenly the wind began swirling and squalling around the stones. A humming sound in his head grew louder and louder until he staggered to his feet and broke off contact with the rock.
Something coalesced out of the wind in front of him. Henry couldn’t move as the thing took shape and became a bearded man dressed in flowing white robes, a long staff covered in ivy in one hand. His form was as indistinct as a flickering candle flame, but his voice was commanding.
“Greetings, Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond.”
Henry bowed his head and tried to answer through the stark terror that closed his throat and threatened his ability to breathe. He clenched his fingers around the rosary beads concealed in his palm. How strong was the Christian God against the ancients? If he prayed now, who would win? He was no longer sure.
“I need your help.”
Inwardly, he winced at his own abrupt words. But there was no time for subtlety or false praise. Already, faint streaks of light were visible in the night sky. He had no illusions as to the precarious nature of his cause. He needed to get back to his army before they deserted him.
“What do you want, Henry Tudor?”
Henry forced himself to meet the specter’s glowing eyes. “I want the crown of England and Wales.”
“And what are you prepared to offer the Druids in return for our help?”
“What do you want?”
“Your solemn vow that you will aid us in our fight to wipe out the Vampire race.”
Henry frowned. “I do not understand.” He’d anticipated being asked for many things—money, power, even his soul—but not this. “What is a Vampire?”
“A fair question, mortal.” The Druid inclined his head. “They are an abomination, a race of parasites that prey upon humanity. Many centuries ago, some of our Druid brethren forsook the traditional blood sacrifice of humans when they discovered that drinking the blood of living humans gave them a different form of religious ecstasy. They gained new powers and became immortal.”
As he tried to imagine such monsters, Henry struggled to breathe. “I still don’t understand. . . .”
“These ‘Vampires’ have grown in numbers and live among humans everywhere. Our seers have knowledge that they will attempt to overthrow the monarchy, set up one of their own as king, and enslave the human population.”
“You wish me to stop them?”
“We wish to join with you to defeat the Vampire threat. Our numbers have dwindled, and we are no longer strong enough to fight them here in the mortal world.”
“If they threaten my realm, I’ll deal with them myself.”
The Druid’s eyes glowed red. “You will fail. They will either kill you or steal your immortal soul and make you rule for them. However, if you accept our bargain, we will send to your court a family of Vampire slayers to protect you.”
Henry stared at the apparition, his mouth dry, his heart racing. “This seems a small thing for such a huge boon.”
“It is not small, Henry Tudor. According to our prophets, having the king’s ear may save our race from extinction. In return for protection against the Vampires, you and your heirs must shield this family, keep their secrets—and heed them always when they warn you of danger.”
Henry shook his head to clear it. Could he really accept that such creatures existed?
“They exist, mortal. Do you accept the bargain?”
Henry flinched. Had the Druid read his very thoughts? He tried to weigh the options even though he knew what his answer would be. If he was fortunate, the Druids might never need his assistance against those monsters. But news of his invasion had surely reached the ears of King Richard by now. Without the support of the Druids, his small army faced certain defeat, and he would die a traitor’s death. “I agree.”
“Then kneel beside your servant, Sir John Llewellyn, and accept your fate.”
Henry knelt shoulder to shoulder with John and closed his eyes as the Druid began to glow and shimmer. Suddenly a jolt shot through him and he gasped as he witnessed his victory, saw King Richard abandoned, his broken, bloody corpse dragged through the streets and vilified. Then a blast of heat seared his left wrist and he cried out.
When he opened his eyes, the shimmering form had disappeared. Cursing, he slapped at the sleeve of his smoldering leather coat and stared at the three parallel lines now etched in his skin.
Slowly, John rolled back his sleeve and displayed the same sign to his astonished lord. “It’s called the symbol of Awen. It represents the rays of the sun and the balance between male and female. It marks those of us bound to destroy the Vampires.”
Henry got to his feet and pushed down his sleeve. His hands were still shaking, but John seemed unperturbed by what they had seen, and Henry had always trusted his Welsh servant. It was lighter now, and he could clearly see the row of eight stones, feel the subtle pulse of their energy around him. If he believed he had just bargained with an ancient Druid, surely he should believe in the Vampire threat too?
He glanced at John as they walked back up the slight incline to where their tethered horses awaited them by the church. “It is you who will stay with me, then, and fight these ‘Vampires’?”
Henry watched John’s face as he tightened his horse’s girth and untangled his reins. “You truly believe they exist?”
“I know they exist.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Seen them and killed them, sir.”
John’s matter-of–fact tone made Henry blink. “Since you have served me?”
“Of course, sir. The Vampires have their prophets too. They are well aware of your existence, and your place in history. So far I’ve managed to stop them. When you are king, I expect my job will be a lot harder.”
“When I am king . . .” Henry mounted his horse and kicked the beast into a canter. He couldn’t quite believe what he’d done, but he would do his best to honor both his true religion and his promise to the ancients. A surge of hope shuddered through him.
He would be king.