England, the Cumberland border, November 1871

 

                                                           PROLOGUE

 

            Paloma danced beneath the autumn moon.  It was full and round shining down upon the fells.  She needed no music.  It lived in her heart, drowning out the sorrow of her reality among the Travelers.  She needed no partner, no Lord of the Dance. Hadn’t she stolen out onto the fells to get away from the rest?  It had been thus since her father passed and her stepmother took a new husband.

            It was warm for the cusp of November; warm enough to go about with naught but her paisley shawl for a wrapper, warmer than it had been last year when the caravan came this way.  Soon, they would be traveling south, to Dartmoor or Cornwall, where the winters were milder.  Paloma scarcely thought of that then, dancing to the music in her mind beneath the full autumn moon, and the stars, like so many winking eyes looking down from the indigo vault overhead.  Dancing was in her blood.

            All at once, the vista changed.  A sooty cloud passed before the moon casting deep shadows over the fells. Cold suddenly, Paloma shivered.  Was it an omen of ill boding, or just what it appeared—an innocent passing cloud?  It lasted but a moment, before it drifted on and the moon shone down again, but now it shone upon another figure squatting in the tall grass a few yards off, watching her—a wolf.  Where had it come from?  They’d heard the howling for days, but no wolves had been sighted.  That was as it should be, since there were no wolves in England any longer…unless the tales of phantom wolves—vampires that took the form of wolves—were true.  But surely not.  Those were naught but fables told to frighten wayward children.

            For a moment the creature didn’t move.  How beautiful it was, a dusky shade of gray in the eerie filtered moonlight.  Its iridescent eyes were mesmerizing.  Paloma missed her step.  Her music of the mind faded then. She heard nothing but her rapid heartbeat, and saw nothing but those two glowing acid-green eyes rimmed in red burning toward her.  She could not unlock her gaze from them.

            All at once, the creature sprang up and started to advance.  Taking slow, measured steps, it began slinking toward her.  She wanted to run, but her feet were rooted to the spot.  She wanted to scream, but her throat closed over the sound.  The wolf prowled nearer, but then it wasn’t a wolf any longer, it was a naked man.  In the blink of her eye, it surged into a silvery streak of displaced energy that brought it so close to her she could smell its foul, sickening-sweet stench, like rotting flesh, and feel its fetid breath puffing on her skin, grown moist from dancing.

            How the creature towered over her, its skin the color of gray-green mold stretched so tightly over its frame the veins showed through.  It was aroused, its hard shaft forced against her belly as it encircled her waist with one thin arm, threw back its bald head and bared its long, curved fangs stained with the residue of old blood that looked black in the moonlight.

Through a blurry haze, Paloma stared transfixed as the creature slowly lowered the fangs toward her arched throat.  How strong it was.  Why couldn’t she move?  Why couldn’t she tear her eyes from its hideous face?  It uttered a guttural chuckle as if it read her thoughts, swooped down and sank the slippery fangs into the base of her arched throat.  When its long talons plunged beneath her embroidered blouson plucking at her nipple, her heart nearly stopped.  When those talons made attempt to lift her skirt, she screamed, and screamed again—a bloodcurdling sound that carried on a cool wind that had suddenly risen.

Raised voices from the camp rumbled in her ears.  The vibration of heavy footfalls carrying toward her, shuddered beneath the soles of her boots.  Snarling like the lupine animal it had been when it first appeared, the creature threw her down and, just as swiftly as it had changed before, it changed again.  It wasn’t a naked two-legged creature that loped off into the deep darkness beyond the thicket, abetted by another cloud shutting out the light of the moon.  It was the beautiful great gray wolf that had so mesmerized her, its guttural howl living after it, reverberating in the very marrow of her bones.

            Out of the corner of her eye Paloma watched the bobbing torches approaching through a mist of tears.  Her body seemed as light as a feather; as if the wind would carry her off if she didn’t hold tight to the tall grass her hands had fisted into.  The fells were swimming around her.  The torches were suddenly so close she felt their singing heat.  Several thrust full in her face narrowed her eyes, and she turned her head aside, with a groan.

            A woman gasped. Vampir!” she shrilled. She has been bitten!”

            “Aye,” a gruff man’s voice returned, making the sign of the cross. “There!  Look there!” he cried, pointing toward a shaggy gray, bushy-tailed blur disappeared among a stand of young saplings, “—a wolf in camp!”

            His words were scarcely out, when the creature changed again, and a huge black bat soared skyward from the place where the wolf had been.  Silhouetted against the moon, the creature climbed aloft, its dark wings sawing skyward through the still night air   The others seemed not to notice.  Were they blind?

            The man reached to lift Paloma into his arms, but the woman arrested him with a firm hand. “No!” she said. “Leave her.  See?  She loses consciousness.  She will rise a vampire.  We cannot bring that with us. Are you mad?”

            “We cannot just leave her, Kesia,” the man said.  Was that her stepfather’s voice?  Yes…She shuddered at the sound of it.  He was bending over her.  He smelled foul, of strong onions and sweet wine.  Dazed as she was, she shrank from him—from his familiar touch.

            “I see the way you look at her, Seth,” the woman snapped at him. “I see the way your eyes stray to that fiery mane of hers—that fair Irish skin.”  She spat to the side and wiped her thin lips on the back of her hand. “You lust!” she accused him. “Leave her, I say.  She is naught to me, and too much of a temptation to you. We break camp now—tonight.  Hear the wolves howling?  Come away before they have their way with us all!”

            “What of the old woman?” he said. “She will not conscience leaving Paloma behind.”

            “You leave the old one to me,” Kesia snapped at him. “Now, come!”

             Help me, Paloma wanted to say, but the words would not come.  Her numb lips seemed paralyzed.  Don’t leave me, her mind cried out, but they didn’t hear—couldn’t hear—even if she had been able to speak the words aloud.  It was as if she no longer existed to them now. They had already told the others gathered there that a vampire lurked among them, and mass hysteria had broken out as they doused the fires, packed up their gear, and broke camp, like a cloud of swarming bees.

            Paloma tried to rise, but vertigo held her down.  Time meant nothing then, as she drifted in and out of consciousness.  She’d heard what they said.  She dared not succumb to the lure of oblivion that would have her wake undead. 

The wagons had started to roll; their motion visible, when the cloud cover let her see it.  The charged voices grew distant.  They were really leaving…But surely not.  It was moon madness…a dream…a terrible nightmare…wasn’t it…?

 

 

Whitebriar Abbey, Cumberland, England,

the Winter Solstice1871

 

Chapter One

 

            Milosh sat his horse just inside the forest curtain at the foot of the tor, staring through a veil of cold rain splinters toward what remained of Whitebriar Abbey, no more than a burned out shell at its summit.  He hadn’t come this way in thirty years.  This was the last thing he would have expected.  The sight of the great house standing wounded against the twilight sky brought physical pain.

            The charismatic Gypsy shrugged his saturated greatcoat closer about his neck and shoulders.  Rain dripping from his wide-brim slouch hat was trickling down his neck from the wet hair resting on his collar.  He was chilled to the bone. 

            “Easy, Somnus,” he said, soothing the sleek black stallion underneath him, while crooning to it soto-voiced. The restless horse had begun to prance in place, tossing its long, wet mane.  As if in reply, the animal bobbed its head, puffing visible breath from flared nostrils, and snorted. 

Milosh paid no attention to the obvious protest. Narrowing his eyes to the rain, he spurred the rambunctious horse on and it bolted out into the thicket.  The wind had picked up and the rain was fast turning to ice.  He was heading into the gale, and the splinters of freezing rain stung his face and beat about him relentlessly.  The horse balked as they started to climb, but the Gypsy would have none of it.  Leaning low over the animal’s neck, he whispered: “It is now or not at all.  The tor will be as a sheet of glass in no time.  Then where will you sleep out of the weather, eh?”

 As if it understood, the horse complained in reply and began its high-stepping ascent, every muscle in its sleek, black coat rippling. There had to be some shelter remaining on the place.  Instinct moved Milosh toward that possibility.  There was a perfectly respectable inn in Carlisle, but that would not do.  As inhospitable as it was in its present state, he would sleep in Whitebriar Abbey one last time before moving on.

            Still complaining, the horse danced crazily up the tor, slip-sliding on the slick, icy crust forming underfoot.  The closer it carried him toward the summit, the more Milosh’s heart sank at the devastation.  As he climbed, his mind’s eye saw in rampant flashes the Abbey as it used to be, standing proud against the gales, facing the cruel north wind unscathed.

            Destroyed by fire, that’s what the vicar in the valley had said; a fire of mysterious origin. No word of its occupants, the Hyde-Whites. They were not harmed.  They were seen after the holocaust, but then disappeared.  There had been no word of them since.

Milosh heaved a ragged sigh. He was six month too late.  Maybe there would be some clue inside, something his extraordinary perception would disclose.  When he was here last, the Abbey was under siege by vampires.  It was snowing then—a virtual blizzard.  This was worse, this icy cold that stabbed a man to the very marrow of his bones.

 It was the winter solstice.  At home, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, there would be bonfires and feasting and pageantry.  Many of the celebrations were remnants of the old religion practiced in secret there still or openly under new guises, like the bonfires in fall and winter, and the May pole in spring.  And then there were the colorful events, tribal mysteries, whose roots were planted deep in Romany custom.  Yes, Milosh was homesick, but he could not go home—not yet, it was too soon.  Some still may live who would remember.  Only sixty years had passed since he’d set foot on Romanian soil—a mere blink in time’s eye to a vampire who had roamed through the world for nearly four centuries hunting the very thing he had become.

            By the time he reached the summit, the ice had bent the grass spears low, and as he’d said the slope was as slick as glass.  Somnus snorted dourly, flashing eyes that glowed with an iridescent radiance, and glanced behind at Milosh in the saddle.  The two shared a unique bond.  Of all the horses Milosh had commanded over the years, Somnus was the closest to him.  The animal was vampir, like the Gypsy himself, having been bitten by a vampire; Milosh had saved the wild black phantom, and made him his own.  Somnus would be his last.  Like himself, the stallion would not age, but rather wander through the centuries with his master.

            The stables were still standing, at least most of the structure had escaped the fire, and Milosh breathed a ragged sigh of relief as he climbed down and unsaddled the horse.  Somnus had grazed before the rain began, but Milosh was never without a treat for the horse.  He drew an apple from his greatcoat pocket and lured the stallion into one of the intact stalls with it.  Searching the others, he found an old horse blanket and draped it over the animal’s back.  Then turning on his heels, he sprinted out into the icy rain again, and made straight for the Abbey.

            He entered where the west wing used to be.  The front door was still intact, but the roof above the Great Hall was gone as was everything up to the staircase that divided the house in two.  He climbed over burnt timbers, heaps of blackened slag besotted with the rain, and scattered furniture, some of which was barely recognizable.  The stench of it rushed up his nostrils and for a moment that was all he could smell.  It wasn’t until he had cleared the second floor landing and turned into what remained of the east wing that another scent rose above the rest—an unfamiliar scent.  Such always flagged danger and Milosh froze in his tracks, his head raised as he sniffed the cold air.  When he lowered his head, he did so slowly, his eyes snapping in all directions.  He was not alone.

            Adrenaline surged through his blood.  He was always on guard, elsewise he would never have come through the ages unbitten since that one fateful time so long ago, when the nightmare began.  Making no sound, he prowled to the toile suite, where he had stayed as a guest so long ago.  The master suite and yellow suite across the hall had been gutted, but several suites on the north side of the hall were in fairly good condition, but for smoke damage and crumbling plaster exposed to the weather.  The toile suite was one of these.  Aside from a dusting of soot over everything, the rooms were reasonably intact; at least the sitting room was as he strolled through them.   The unfamiliar scent was stronger there, and Milosh was on his guard as he sauntered into the vast bedchamber. 

Lifting down the tinderbox from the mantle, he lit a candle.  A fire was wanted if he was ever to dry his soaked clothes.  His fine wool caped greatcoat had absorbed the icy rain like a sponge.  He spied a few logs stacked beside the hearth and chucked them into the hearth.  More were needed if he was to keep the fire going through the night, and he strode back into the sitting room and collected what was there. Arms loaded, he was striding back into the bedchamber, when a small hooded figure slammed into him as he crossed the threshold catching him off balance.

“Hold, there!” he thundered, but his words were wasted.  Two small hands gave him a shove and he backpedaled into the wall beside the door dropping the wood in his arms.  The impact of his body slamming against the singed wall at his back dislodged a heavy mirror, which fell striking him a blow to the head that drove him down on the floor.

His slouch hat spared him being cut by the mirror shards raining down around him.  Dazed, he shook his head to clear his vision.  The room swam around him.  Through the vertigo, he saw that his assailant was a woman, slight of build though fleet-footed.  Her hood had fallen back in her haste, and her long mane of bright coppery hair streamed out behind her as she fled.

“Wait!” he called after her. “Who are you…what are you doing here…?”

A strangled outcry replied as she darted out into the corridor, the hem of her cloak dusting the woodwork.

Milosh ground out a string of blue expletives righting himself.  Four hundred years roaming the planet doing battle with bloodthirsty vampires only to be knocked off his feet by a mere slip of a girl?  He must be getting old.  It was degrading.  In his haste scrambling upright, he leaned upon several slivers of the broken mirror, and quickly drew back his hand.  The shards cut deep into his right palm, and blood gushed from the wound.  Things were much simpler when such gee-gaws were made of polished metal that did not put a body to the hazard. 

Muttering a fresh string of profanity under his breath, the Gypsy clenched his fist over the ragged gash and staggered after the girl.  She was nowhere in sight when he reached the landing.  Still dizzy, he opted to employ his extraordinary power to leap great distances, and soared over the debris in his path. He touched down running through the gaping hole that had once been the west wing of the Abbey.

His eyes, narrowed in the stabbing rain, flashed in all directions.  Where could she have gone so quickly in such a downpour, more ice than rain?  He wasn’t left long to wonder.  His gaze had scarcely come around to the stable, when he saw her leaving it at a gallop astride Somnus, her cloak billowing about her like a great black sail.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted at the top of his lungs: “Stop, thief!  That is my horse you’re stealing!”

The girl made no reply, and Milosh gave an ear-splitting whistle meant to bring the stallion back, but Somnus galloped on, his high-pitched whine siphoned off on the wind, and disappeared down the ice-crusted tor a good deal faster than he’d climbed it.

Milosh ground out another oath and trudged toward the stable.  No one else had ever been able to mount the phantom horse, much less ride him, which many a thief had discovered these past thirty years.  In any other circumstances, Milosh would have praised the girl for her fine seat astride the stallion, and excellent horsemanship in general to sit such a horse bareback.  As it was, quite something else was streaming from his clenched lips.

Anger set his blood racing, and with it, came the fangs that always descended whenever his temper flared, or he was in need of a weapon, or he had become aroused; that had not ended with the feeding frenzy.  He would always bear the mark of the vampire—bloodlust or no.

 There was only one way to catch the girl, and he stripped of his clothes, leaped into the air, and hit the ground running on the four thickly padded feet of canis dirus, his wolf incarnation.  Truth to be told, the Gypsy was more at home in the skin of the great white wolf than he was in his mortal flesh.  It had been that way since the blood moon ritual he’d learned of in Persia had freed him from the bloodlust.  Though he was still and always would be a vampire, once the feeding frenzy was eliminated, his instincts and prowess in the body of the wolf increased until they carried over into his human incarnation.  He was more wolf than man, able to destroy the undead in either body.

He sniffed the rain-washed air.  The strange scent he’d smelled earlier rode the wind.  So this was the foreign scent he’d smelled—her scent.  It filled his flared nostrils still.  He recognized it now—herbal and clean, a blending of rosemary and lavender—all manner of herbs—a fragrance of the wild—of the wood—of the earth, mysterious and evocative.  It played havoc with his senses, reminding him of his early days…and of home.

The great wolf snorted as it skidded down the steep incline in a gait more closely resembled a limp owing to its gashed right front paw.  It was definitely less graceful than its usual surefooted prowl, when sinew and muscle meshed in a flawless mechanism that felt more comfortable to Milosh than his two-legged stride.  At the moment, he was too enraged to care.

The snorting wolf staved on in mindless pursuit.  He was the hunter now, that feral instinct having taken over. Was her scent a memory or was she near?  Either way, Milosh couldn’t shake it.   On his last visit to Whitebriar Abbey, he had the snow to show him his quarry’s tracks.  Now, he had to rely upon his extraordinary sense of smell.  He wasn’t too concerned.  He also had the horse’s scent, and since the other had made such an unsettling impression upon him, he decided to trust Somnus’s musky odor instead.  It led him through the brake and the thicket at the foot of the tor, past what remained of the dormant, sheared off woad canes, then finally into the forest.

Above, the canopy of interlaced boughs kept much of the icy rain from penetrating to the forest floor.  A cold green darkness prevailed under the pines.  Reflected light from the shadows twinkled in the wet patches that hadn’t escaped a sprinkling.  The white wolf’s breath puffed from its flared nostrils.  The ice underfoot had slowed the blood flow in its gashed front paw, but the nagging pain remained.  Now and then a high-pitched whine testified to that.  His extraordinary night vision was charged now in the deep dark of the forest.  He saw the path ahead as if through a blood-red veil, and though he strained and tested his power to its fullest, he detected no sign of horse or rider.  Where could she have gone? 

All at once, he stopped in his tracks.  The scent was stronger now, but that was not what made the great wolf hesitate.  It was the plaintive howling of other near and distant wolves that raised the hackles on his back.  Waves of déjà vu washed over him at the sound.  It brought back memories of the siege that had taken place there thirty years ago, of Sebastian, the vampire that hunted him as he did it, and of the Brotherhood that had driven the creature back, but could not—for all their number—destroy it.   Could it be happening again?  More pointedly, could he have brought it here?  If it was, and he had, whoever the girl was she was in grave danger, and he sprang forward, her scent ghosting through his nostrils, and plunged deeper in among the ice-glazed trees in search of her.

 

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The Ravening  by Dawn Thompson
[mass market paper: Love Spell; February, 2008; $6.99;
ISBN: 0505527278; ISBN-13: 9780505527271]

 

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Book 3 of the Blood Moon Series