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ISBN-13: 9780671319816
Publisher: Baen
Publication date: 04/28/2001
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.19(d)

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Chapter One


Normandy, the Beginning


He awoke in a meaningless half light that could have been dawn or dusk, and in all truth it did not matter. His eyes pierced the gloom easily; to him the inside of her tent was as bright as day. He lay on fur and beneath fur, and the small of his back was wet with sweat. He shifted sleepily and became aware of her next to him. He turned his head and saw she had her back toward him, only partly covered by the stifling fur. Her dark hair, long and lustrous, tumbled away from her shoulders and across the pillows. The side of her neck was bare, and his gaze followed the line of her body from that point, over the rise of her shoulder along the slope of her side and up the sudden sharp rise of her hip. By the slow steady beat of her heart she was still sleeping.

    He smiled at the memory of the long hours of love and passion and pure pleasure with her. He'd lost count of how often they'd coupled and ridden together toward that little death, surrendering willingly to it. Each time he'd thought it the ultimate ecstasy, and each new encounter had proved him wrong. They'd kissed and tasted and sucked and stroked. Their sweat and juices had mingled; every moment was perfect.

    He reached out and caressed her thick, heavy hair, absently straightened it, smoothing it down, and yet his touch was so light, so gentle that she did not wake. Her skin was alabaster cool and delicate as that of a babe, and he traced her spine with a finger down to the deep cleft between her cheeks. He cupped their firmness, then slipped his hand around to the flat wonder of herbelly, and her thatch of dark curls. She was still wet, and as he stroked, a soft low moan escaped her.

    He hardened quickly and feeling it, laughed under his breath in surprise at the strength of his desire. He pressed closer and buried his face in her hair. It smelled of blossom and earth and sky and moonlight, and he breathed in deep. He was fully erect now, hard along her spine, and she pushed back against him, shifting her legs. Without effort, he was in her, once more held in her sweetness, and he closed his eyes and gasped at the feeling, at the warmth, at the sense of wholeness.

    She moaned aloud now and as one, they began to slowly move against each other, caught up in the rhythm of creation. She did not open her eyes. Perhaps she slept still, and this was all a dream to her. He did not know. One of her breasts filled his questing hand, hard-nippled, compelling, and he found himself pushing deeper, deeper into her. All his being was centered on her, her every reaction to his touch. They moved together so slowly, so languidly.

    Sweat seeped from his brow and disappeared into her hair. He kissed the soft nape of her neck, tickling the fine skin there with his tongue. Lips parted, she murmured something; it sounded like a prayer. Her hands pressed against his as he held her, enjoining him to further exploration. He took his time, touching and fondling, until her breath came short and fast, grew harsh with desire. He brought her right to the edge of it, then without warning the animal took him as well. A desperate urgency seized his being, and he thrust harder into her slick wetness, anticipating the coming explosion, wanting it, needing it. In her sleep she pushed back, equally urgent, arching against him. He was so deep inside her, yet felt himself opening, spreading wide as a rose in the sunlight. Then, spasming, quite out of control, at one with his spirit, and out of his body, he burst within her. Once more she moaned, this time from fulfillment, not longing, and he glimpsed a smile as it flicked across her sleeping face.

    Dear Goddess, could there be any greater pleasure?

    And inside his head came an answering voice, clear as church bells on a summer's day.

    No.

    They slept together, he still inside her, softening slowly, until they were once again apart. Yet he held her close, she, he, they, as one in their shadowy heaven.

    He dreamed, and in his dream, she came to him, held his face gently in her hands, and spoke. "It will be ever thus, my love, ever thus. I am of thee and thou of me. We are truly one and will never sunder."

    He smiled in his sleep, and as she watched him, eyes wide in the darkness, a single tear slid down Sabra's cheek and melted into the pillow.


    The thick oaken doors of the great hall of the Castle Orleans creaked open on their mighty hinges, swirling the smoke-laden air into delicate spirals that disappeared upward into the fading golden light of sunset, and Richard d'Orleans strode through. The rushes on the stone flags crackled under his boots as two weary servants hauled hard and pulled the doors slowly shut again, sealing him in the vast, dim space. He pushed back the thick protective hood of his long cloak and looked about at the wreckage of triumph.

    The smell that arose all around him would have given many a man cause to retch. The feasting after the great tourney had gone on for several days; the floor was littered with rotting food, spilled wine, pools of vomit. None of the scullions had yet attempted any cleaning. They'd indulged as liberally as any. The collective sickness pressed heavily upon the whole of the stagnant keep. Richard noted and ignored its near-physical presence, immersed as he was in his own thoughts and fears.

    He'd been summoned by his father, Duke Montague d'Orleans. Sabra had insisted that he answer to the old man, and Richard could no more refuse her than stay his breathing. So he'd dressed in the fine linen and leather that she'd laid out for him with her own hands, kissed her chastely on the forehead, and gone for her sake, not the duke's.

    As things stood now, he had no need to obey the savage old despot ever again. So far as Richard was concerned, he was free of him, of all the past, free of everything except his loathing for it.

    How mightily his life had changed since the great tourney, since his ignominious defeat at the hands of that damned boy. Only a few days had passed, yet in that time Richard d'Orleans had been—quite literally—reborn into a new and never-ending life. While he waited in the empty room, looking idly at familiar tapestries covering the cold stone walls, the events of the past few days came back to him with startling clarity. From the depths of defeat and despair he'd risen to a fresh beginning given to him by his lady, Sabra of the Lake. He was changed, from mere mortal to something much more.

    His heart raced, and he caught his breath at the thought. The impossibility of it was almost too much to take in, but on his left hand he bore the undeniable truth that it had indeed happened to him. His third finger had been severed by a dagger thrust at the tourney, but because of his change a healing such as he'd never imagined had taken place, magically reversing the maiming. Though the scar that went around the base of his mended finger was not like to go away, he felt no twinge of pain from it. Indeed, its white ring was constant and absolute proof that no injury could truly harm him, that no enemy could ever strike him down again. He had inhuman strength and the skill to use it to withstand anyone now. He clenched his restored hand into a fist and smiled openly as the raw power surged within him. He was what he'd always longed to be: a true champion, afraid of none, invincible, free.

    Yet there was a price to pay. Sunlight was now his enemy, as too was flowing water. He discovered that the first day after his change; Sabra had warned that these would kill him if he lingered in either for too long. Like her, he was a creature more of night than day, a creature of earth and darkness and shadow like the Hounds of Annwyn, their progenitors.

    But the most important, and most dangerous, price of all was that his appetite, too, had changed. Like Sabra, like all their kind, he drank blood and only blood to live.

    Richard d'Orleans was vampire.

    This utterly set him at odds to all that he'd been taught; he'd become a depraved thing to be feared, abhorred, and destroyed. Blood was precious, sacred, not to be spilled or taken by such monsters.

    Or so he'd always been told.

    We are not monsters, he thought with quiet certainty. No mindless beast could love as he loved Sabra, as she loved him. No evil could possibly abide in her, nor would she allow it near her. That being so, then he was not as others might see him, but something well beyond their limits. They would only perceive him as an unnatural threat though, and act according to the dictates of their fears. Absolute secrecy was necessary for his survival against such deadly ignorance, but it seemed a small enough price to pay for what he'd gained. He was a servant of the Goddess now, a protector of her ways. So long as he was careful and kept silent about the truth behind his new existence, he was ageless and deathless. That was the Goddess's gift to him, bestowed through his beautiful Sabra.

    They'd awakened together the day before from a long afternoon of sleep and fleshly enjoyment in the shelter of her pavilion, but this time Richard's first thought and desire was not for more love.

    "You hunger, do you not?" Sabra had asked, raising up on one elbow in their bed to look down at him.

    "I feel its hold upon me." He ran a hand over his face and lightly touched his corner teeth. They were not extended yet, though he felt the potential to do so tingling in their roots.

    "But not as strongly as that first craving?"

    "Nay, 'tis but a shade to it, but still ..." He licked his dry lips, recalling the first glorious red rush of fulfillment he'd taken from the veins of one of Sabra's servants. The old eunuch had given up his life that Richard might live, given it up to be with the Goddess they all served. "Must I kill again to satisfy this need?" Though troubled by the prospect, he was willing to do so if it meant a never-ending eternity with Sabra.

    "But surely not," she replied, smiling at his concern. "Killing each time we must feed would call attention to us, and we would be hunted down and killed ourselves by those who have the knowledge. There is a simple way to satisfy our wants and a pleasing one. I will show you."

    Sabra rose from their nest of cushions and wrapped herself in a long loose robe of the same rich brown color as her hair. She went to the tent opening and untied the flap, carefully keeping clear of the rays of the lowering sun that lanced through the cracks. She called to someone outside and soon a young servant girl hurried in. Richard hastily covered his nakedness with a blanket.

    "This is Ghislaine, she has helped me many times," said Sabra.

    Ghislaine stood in a modest, respectful pose, hands folded and eyes down for the most part, but stealing quick darting glances at her surroundings, at him. Richard could hear the swift patter of her heart. Sabra crossed to her, putting an arm around her shoulders to lean close and whisper something, smiling as she did.

    The girl flushed deep crimson and stifled a giggle, nodding.

    Sabra whispered again, and the girl shuffled a curtsey at him, smiling coyly. Fresh as a peach, she could not have been much past fifteen, but already had the fullness of a woman's body. By her manner she certainly possessed a woman's experience of the flesh, yet at the same time she seemed to retain a measure of innocence. Richard found the combination highly appealing and felt a predictable stirring within.

    Sabra stepped away from the girl and gazed steadily at him. "Now you must tell her what you want."

    "What do you mean?"

    "With your mind, with your words, you may beguile her to your will"

    "I-I know not how, my lady, Richard began, but was stopped from further protest by Sabra's piercing stare. He could not look away. And then he heard her as clearly as if she had spoken to him, though she had not, for he could well see that her lips did not move.

    You have the power as I do. Her voice sounded in his head: warm, sweet, seductive. Will her to do as you wish.

    He blinked, recovering his own thoughts amid those she'd imparted to him.

    Try, and learn in the trying, my Richard.

    "But is this speaking to the mind not your own Gift of Sight?" he asked. "You told me I did not share in that."

    "True, you do not," she said aloud. "What I would have you master now is very like to it, though. It's part of your new nature. You're capable of bringing others to agreement with your desires. If you learn to use it carefully and to your advantage, with prudence and wit, you will always be safe. No one will ever suspect you differ from any other man, for you can put all such wonderings from their heads."

    He thought he understood what she wanted of him. He gestured at Ghislaine. "What must I do?" If she followed the meaning of their talk, she gave no sign.

    Bend your thoughts, your will upon her, Sabra whispered. Call her to you.

    Facing the girl, he looked deep into her eyes, not knowing if it really would work. "Come to me," he murmured so softly that he had doubts she could have heard him. "Come, Ghislaine."

    With no change of expression, she glided toward him. Was she merely obeying her new master's order or truly responding to his will? He wasn't sure.

    "Sit beside me," he said, testing. No servant, no matter what their ranking, would dare take their ease thus in the presence of their betters, but Ghislaine did exactly that, sinking upon the cushions next to him as though she owned them. He looked at Sabra, half smiling in wonder. "I did it."

    Indeed, my love. Now lull her to sleep.

    With Sabra's approval to bolster his confidence, he focused on Ghislaine and spoke soothingly, willing her to submissiveness and finally slumber with his soft words. God, it was so easy. Her eyelids slipped shut, and she slumped against him. He eased her down by his side on the cushions.

    Sabra sat next to her as well, looking at him across the girl's reclining form. Again, she spoke out loud. "In the deepness of her throat or at the crook of her elbow, the blood flows close to the surface and is easy to get to. There are many such places, but 'tis better to take from the arm when you can, for the marks you leave will be less noticeable to others. Bite gently, and take only as much as you need. You will find you want but little and seldom. It is rich elixir and filling."

    Richard lifted the unresisting girl's arm, and pushed up the loose sleeve of her simple gown. The skin was white and clear. Blue veins lay just below the surface, and he traced them with his fingertips. He could smell the blood through her flesh. Unbidden, his corner teeth budded, long, sharp, wolflike, and he felt the warm flush as his eyes reddened. His heart began to pound heavily with anticipation, and he could hear the sound of another heart, Sabra's, rising to match its rhythm.

    Sabra's voice purred in his ear, and she stroked the side of his face, her touch like fire. "She will feel little, and what she does will be naught but pleasure, I assure you."

    For us both, my lady, he thought, lowering his head. He paused to taste the smooth young flesh, running his tongue over the pulsing vein. As he did, Ghislaine's breath became deep and ragged, her lips opening slightly, showing even white teeth. Richard recognized arousal when he saw it and turned to Sabra, silently questioning.

    "Take her," she urged, her own eyes gone red.

    His teeth broke easily through the tender skin, and a gasp escaped the girl's lips, followed by a long, delectable moan. Blood gushed into his mouth, and eyes closed, he sucked hungrily. Ghislaine's heartbeat sounded like close thunder to him. His hand strayed to her chest to feel the throb of it as he fed. She shifted under his touch, gasping again as his palm smoothed over the firm rise of one of her breasts. Through the light fabric of her gown his thumb teased at her nipple. Not too surprised, he realized he was hard, erect. He sought release by taking more blood.

    The heat of it stole over him, more potent than the headiest wine. The sheer pleasure roaring through his body was almost beyond bearing; he wanted to shout in celebration, but could not tear away, not yet. What came out was a smothered groan of ecstasy.

    Ghislaine writhed, drawing her legs up, pressing her head into the cushions. He felt her young body trembling, then shuddering as he fed. Her back arched, and he had to hold her down. She breathed out the name of the Goddess in her crisis, once, twice, before uttering a long wordless cry of exultation. The tension abruptly departed from her, and with a little sigh, she went completely limp. Disturbing for a moment, it gave him pause, but her heart still beat strongly; her blood still flowed to him.

    He took in another fiery draught.

    Sabra's hand was on his shoulder, fingers digging into his bare flesh. Now was he able to break off, lifting away to open his eyes. Sabras dark head was bowed over the girl's other arm as she drank from the same fount. The sight excited him in a manner he'd never known before. He instantly understood what he wanted to do next, but wasn't certain how to bring it about.

    As if in response to his thought, Sabra raised herself, her blood-flushed gaze meeting his before sliding down to his hard manhood showing beneath the blanket.

    No use trying to deny it. "Forgive me, my lady, I—"

    There is nothing to forgive. She leaned forward, her warm lips brushing his like a butterfly's wings. She left behind the taste of Ghislaine's blood.

    "Have you had enough?" she asked, drawing his blanket clear.

    "No," he answered, decisively reaching for her. He stripped away the robe and lifted her small body effortlessly, pulling her right across the slumbering Ghislaine and onto him. Her legs straddled his hips and she gasped as he entered her. She fell forward upon his chest. His mouth on hers, he kissed and licked at the blood there until it was quite gone.

    Not enough.

    He was aflame like a fever victim. This was no languorous, dream-filled lovemaking, but a primitive and frenzied coupling, as needs he'd never been aware of took him over. Sabra seemed caught up in it as well as her kisses became deeper, more intense, more fierce. She rode against him with bruising force, nails clawing his chest. Then her mouth fastened on his throat, and he felt the sharp dent of her teeth breaking his skin. He pressed her close, panting as she drank. It was almost the same as when she'd killed him to bring about his change, only this time he stayed gloriously awake as his red life went into her.

    She suddenly drew back, eyes shut, her body convulsing in time to his thrusts. He watched her face, reveling in her rapture, taking it for his own. When her moans ceased, he pulled her close again, pushing her head to one side to make taut the skin of her neck. His mouth yawned, his teeth piercing one of her surface veins, and he drew hard at the wounds until all that he'd shared rushed back to him again. It overwhelmed all his senses, stealing away the last of his control. Then came his own explosive release as his seed drove into her; the combined impetus of it and the blood gusted through him like a firestorm. It swept him up and out of himself, his soul tumbling helplessly in the searing heat.

    The last thing he heard in the chaos was his own laugther as he embraced the red wind.

(Continues...)

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