My entry for American Android's Historical Fic Contest over on Area5BloodyPen, back in 2015. Re-written somewhat in April 2018, but no substantial changes.
The Black Forest
Year of Our Lord, 1378.
In the district of Ortenau, not far from Offenberg, Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire, on the fringes of Der Schwarzwald.
Cherry blossom floated like pale clouds in the moonlight. The trees thus adorned were sturdy, thick of branch, their trunks fat and scarred with age. Evenly spaced, they had been planted many moons ago when man took it upon himself to claw back this sheltered spot from nature's grip, cutting and clearing the wildwood to satisfy his appetite for sweetness. Now the orchard shone softly in the night, an oasis of beauty surrounded on three sides by looming spruces and pines, the ancient forest crouched above it like some dark beast.
Two women walked through the cherry trees, ducking the boughs as they spoke. The first was tall and wore a good quality blue kirtle, her well-fed frame and robust health speaking to her status as much as her heavy bronze belt and the glint of fine gold chain that bound her chestnut hair. The second was dressed well but plainly, a round-faced plump girl with kind eyes and mousy hair.
"Oh Hildegard, what am I to do?" lamented the taller woman in German. "Rudolf is gone and my heart is in pieces."
"He will be back, Mistress," Hildegard said stoutly, giving her companion an admiring look. "He would not abandon a gentle lady of your charms."
"It seems my charms were not enough," her mistress scoffed, "for Rudolf has fled across the Rhine to Strasbourg and he may as well be dead. All my flattery wasted! His mother is set against the match and my father has a mind to marry me elsewhere. To that hideous old Viscount, no doubt. Pah! Come, let us return before we are missed."
Unseen by the two women, a shadow detached itself from the trunk of a spruce tree at the edge of the forest.
Cloaked in darkness, the vampire watched the women leave with interest. He had come from the nearest town, Offenburg, where there was good hunting for his kind. Replete with blood and sated by the warmth of the woman he'd bedded there, he had been returning to his hideout deep in the forest when he saw the cherry orchard and stopped to admire the blossom.
A shadow within shadows, the vampire smiled. He had found more to admire than blossom this night. A luscious nobleman's daughter, a mere hour's flight from his hideout and ripe for the plucking. Headstrong, too. She wasn't afraid to wander the orchard at night with only a handmaiden to protect her.
Fate had set a gift before him, an unexpected gift. And who was he to ignore a gift from the gods? Besides, a game of seduction was just what he needed to relieve the monotony of his nights while he lay low in the forest, waiting out the wrath of the vampires he had angered.
He would sample her right under her father's nose.
The challenge turned out to be concealing what he was, not the seduction. That went smoothly from the moment Irmengard, eldest daughter of the Count of Ortenberg, laid eyes on him.
For their first meeting, Eric took care to wear his good doublet. The one he'd stolen in Strasbourg, from a minor nobleman so the crest wouldn't be recognised here and cause him problems. It was velvet, dyed a rich dark blue and the snug fit showed off his lean frame perfectly. He'd paired it with his best and tightest hose, and he knew he cut a dashing figure as he waited for his quarry.
Irmengard, he had discovered by glamouring her handmaiden Hildegard, planned to slip out of her father's keep at midnight to take a stroll about the orchard. Hildegard said the heat of May made the air inside the Count's stronghold too thick and cloying for her mistress. Eric suspected it was something else entirely that was slowly suffocating Irmengard within those cold stone walls.
When he heard them coming, he leaned against a cherry tree and struck a pose that displayed his body to good effect, his head bowed as if he was deep in thought. As soon as Irmengard saw him, she was transfixed by this handsome stranger, dressed so finely. Her eyes lingered on his hands, his thighs, but longest on his doublet, which he had carelessly — oh, so carelessly — left undone at the neck.
Suffice it to say that the cut of his cloth impressed her.
Once he'd righted his attire, fingers lingering a little on the buttons to draw her eye, they fell to talking. He wove a tale of a broken heart, just broken enough to explain his wandering alone at night, seeking solace in the beauty of her father's orchard. He asked if her husband did not send guards with her when she walked at night, if the threat of wolves did not concern her.
"The wolves stick to the woods, and I to the orchard. There is nothing to fear," she said haughtily and he almost laughed. He was far more dangerous than any wolf she might meet. Sighing she admitted, "And alas, I have no husband to take such pains over my safety. My hand is unclaimed, good sir."
He professed the right amount of astonishment at that situation.
"I can only hope," she said, casting her eyes demurely to the side, "that my father makes me a good match. Else I fear I may be forced into a nunnery."
If she could use such unabashed hyperbole, so could he.
"Surely not, my lady," he replied. "One as lovely as you must have many wealthy suitors. Your father would be a fool to turn them all away."
She feigned embarrassed modesty and he graciously changed the subject, lamenting his own father's plans to marry him off to some innocent girl not half as beautiful as his lost love. "Or indeed," he added softly, "as beautiful as the woman who appears before me in this very orchard."
He reached out to dislodge a fallen petal from her hair and she inhaled sharply.
"I am sorry," he said in a hoarse whisper, smouldering at her. "I forget myself before such perfection. You are a vision, one I doubt paradise above could rival."
He watched her eyes dilate and hid his smile. He had her.
It wasn't long before she was flirting openly with him. When the opportunity came to glamour her, her brown eyes fixed on his, he decided on the spur of the moment to do without his supernatural powers of persuasion. Just this once, he would seduce his meal the old-fashioned way, see if he hadn't lost his touch. If that meant spinning the seduction out a little longer, teasing her, teasing himself... Well, the prize would be all the sweeter for it.
So he kept to soft words that first night, words that slid easily off his tongue. A few heated glances, a chaste kiss pressed to her hand when they parted, that was as far as he took it.
Why not? It was no hardship. It wasn't as if he'd be missing out.
Not with the smorgasbord of prey within easy flying distance. Offenburg at the head of the Kinzig valley, Baden to the north, and Strasbourg across the mighty Rhine — they all offered him easy hunting. Safer to drink his fill from amongst the masses in the larger towns, where another pale-faced exhausted woman would not be remarked upon. Here, his activities were more likely to be discovered, his nature exposed.
It was madness to set up a regular tryst with Irmengard, a Count's daughter no less.
But Irmengard wasn't the only one suffocating. Eric had wearied of quick and dirty fixes of blood, of fucking in some dark alley or on some flea-ridden straw pallet in a pauper's shack. It slaked his thirst for blood, it sated his physical desires, but it did nothing to quench his deeper need for connection, a need he had long neglected in favour of survival.
Rising to his knees, Eric gazed down at the bounty spread before him. Irmengard was naked, her skin creamy white against a carpet of pale pink petals, her legs trembling slightly, relaxed and splayed open. A faint blush coloured the skin between her soft breasts.
Irmengard had been worth the wait. She was a beautiful woman.
Eric licked his bloody lips, tasting her sweetness on them and revelling in it as he watched the twin punctures on her inner thigh fade. Once his bite had healed, he bent his head and licked away the dark smear that remained; his blood and hers, mingled together, black in the moonlight. It wasn't prudent to leave evidence of his attentions.
"Mmm, Frederick," she murmured breathily, her heavy-lidded eyes fluttering open. A slow smile lit her face and she sighed happily. "I cannot wait until your father gives you his permission."
"Hush," Eric soothed, "rest now." Her eyes drifted closed without the pressure of glamour. He had worn her out.
Once he was sure she was insensible, he called the handmaiden over. Hildegard fell under his thrall easily and exposed her neck. He struck quickly, not savouring the meal. Her blood was thin, sour with past deprivations, the effects of an impoverished diet present in every mouthful. He regretted washing away the richer flavour of her mistress, but needs must. He hadn't been to town in a fortnight, concentrating instead on his pursuit of Irmengard, and at his age it was too risky to take all the nourishment he required from one woman.
He was taking enough risks as it was.
But there was no thrill in an easy challenge, and in truth Eric was well satisfied. He had completed the seduction in less than a month, tasting Irmengard before the blossom had blown from the boughs. All without the use of glamour, too. Well, none beyond the touch he needed to hide the coldness of his skin, his fangs and his blood-drinking. He had given a false name, healed his bites and been careful not to take so much blood from her that the Count would suspect something.
Risky, but a prize worth the winning. Irmengard was as delicious as he'd anticipated her to be. She had yielded to his eventual physical advances with enthusiasm and neither of them had been disappointed.
They were both playing a game and he knew it: he to alleviate his boredom, she driven by a determination to avoid the dusty old Viscount her father had in mind for her. She hoped to force her father's hand with a pregnancy sired by her new lover, but that was a trap that would not catch a vampire.
It was a pity, but there was nothing he could do to alter her fate. Except leave her with the memory of him.
A fair exchange for the warmth and blood he took from her, he felt. Memories to warm the bitter winter nights ahead of her with the aged Viscount, memories to ward against disappointments to come. She had had her share of those already, for Irmengard had been married and widowed in quick succession, before a child could cement her place in the husband's household.
So Eric hadn't taken her maidenhead and made her unmarriageable. He wasn't a complete bastard. He didn't deflower innocents in an age when it would ruin them.
He sent the servant girl back to keeping lookout and stood looking down on Irmengard, his eyes on her full lips. She was a delight. Really quite skilled, especially with her mouth. He wondered if it was her late husband who'd taught her that, or some other lover. Rudolf, perhaps. If so, he was a fool for deserting her.
Idly, he wondered how long he could keep the lovely Irmengard on the hook he'd baited.
Spring warmed to summer. It was harder to hide his cool skin in the heat. It took more little touches of glamour to keep Irmengard content. He planned to end the affair.
Soon, but not tonight.
Cherries, dark and swollen, hung from the trees. They shone in the moonlight like fat drops of blood. Eric plucked a handful from the branches and fed them to Irmengard one by one as they lay on his cloak, caressing her lips with the ripe fruit, teasing her, encouraging her to bite. She tore at the dark flesh, juice oozing between her small white teeth, juice as dark as blood in the moonlight and just as tempting. Her tongue flicked out to lick the escaping sweetness from her lips again and again.
He held back until his blood was on fire for her.
When he kissed her, her breath was hot and fast, heady with the taste of cherries as it washed into his mouth. In a blink, he had her on her feet and pushed against the tree, his fingers pulling impatiently at the ties of her kirtle, almost tearing it. She pushed his hands away, drew up her skirts herself and snatched at his belt, clawing at his hose to free him. He ripped her kirtle off her shoulder and buried himself inside her, above and below, fangs and cock throbbing with need. As he took her, she called his name to the stars. He swallowed her cries in a salt-sweet kiss, her lips stained with cherries, his with blood.
Irmengard and her passion kept him returning to the orchard all summer, long past the time he should have moved on. As the year cooled, his chilly flesh was less jarring. It took fewer touches of glamour to keep his secret.
In truth, he found that freedom more addicting than Irmengard herself.
So when she became impatient with him, pressing him to approach her father and ask for her hand, he didn't glamour her into obedient silence. Instead, he made excuses for the delay, stole trinkets on his trips to Strasbourg and Baden to keep her sweet, played the generous and devoted suitor.
He spent more time than was wise in the orchard. He took too many risks. He grew careless.
Autumn passed and winter came, sure and swift and silent.
It turned the Black Forest white. After the first significant snowfall, Eric took to landing some three miles from the orchard and travelling through the forest on foot. He enjoyed the smell of the pines, the crunch of the powder, and it was more believable if he arrived for his trysts with Irmengard looking like he'd walked through the drifts. Wet hose did not bother him and drying clothes was no trouble, not now he had built up a more extensive wardrobe.
That was another risk he was taking. Before Irmengard, few saw him twice and he had no need to steal so many outfits.
While Eric relished the snow, Irmengard did not. She had laid a thick fur coat on the ground for them, under the bare-branched cherry trees. Once she was in Eric's strong arms, his lips on hers, his tongue in her mouth, she soon forgot the cold air and the frozen ground beneath the furs, slowly leaching the heat from her flesh, chilling her to the bone. When Eric pulled down the front of her dress and showered her breasts with chilly kisses, she moaned in pleasure, staring blindly up at the lacey branches above, dark against pale clouds that heralded more heavy snow to come. Eric's fingers tugged up her skirt, worked his hose loose, and he entered her with a hiss of pleasure.
White flakes drifted lazily down around them, winter's icy crystals mimicking spring's soft petals. Fallen from the clouds or shaken loose from the branches by Eric's passion, Irmengard neither knew nor cared as she lost herself in him. When he bit, she didn't flinch, only sighed in relief at the sharp pinch, shuddering beneath his weight as the pleasure enfolded her.
Eric revelled in contrasting sensations, the soft warm swells of her body, the tickle of the furs, the cold wetness of the snow. Once he'd had his fill of her, he made sure she was well-wrapped and sent her back to her father's hearth. Her blood still warmed him as he slipped into the darkness under the spruce trees, whistling softly and kicking playfully at the snow.
Deep in the forest, in the stillness that follows a heavy snowfall, a figure flitted silently from tree to tree, sure and swift of foot.
A hunter, with a bow, swaddled in fur. An archer, wearing a motley patchwork of pelts, white and grey and brown, sewn roughly together to shield against the cold and to camouflage against the eyes of those it hunted. When the archer looked up to take a bearing, the moon shone on a face smudged with dirt and a few pale wisps of hair. Sniffing the air, the archer bent low to the ground, seeking, searching, eyes fixing on a scatter of powdered snow here, an impression there.
At last locking onto a trail, the archer followed it between trees, over snowdrifts, stopping only to unsling the bow from its shoulder, then inching forward to kneel behind a tree. A grubby hand reached for the makeshift quiver at its back, slipping out an arrow. Nocking it, the archer rose and leaned carefully around the tree, drawing back the bow.
The fox pricked up its ears, lifted a delicate paw…
And darted away, startled by some noise inaudible to human ears. Letting out a steamy cloud of breath, the archer melted back into the shadows, hands tightening on the bow as the sounds that had alarmed the fox arrived on the still air.
Restrained creaks and rustles of men in armour, men attempting to move with stealth and failing.
The archer pressed close to the tree, eyes narrowed. Dark shapes picked their way through the forest along the slope below. Militia men, wearing unfamiliar black tabards, carrying crossbows that glinted in the moonlight. Men in a killing mood, with grim faces and tight-pressed mouths.
There was a priest with them too, black robes flapping under his fur mantle, plumes of hot breath rising around his tonsured head. What, in the name of all things holy, was a priest doing this deep in the forest? The archer stared after the priest until he was lost to the darkness beneath the trees.
The militia men had blazed a wide trail of crushed snow and broken branches. It was easy to follow.
Eric hummed softly as he walked. At the back of his mind he registered the scent of men, but the same scent, fainter and a day or two old, had criss-crossed his path on the way to the orchard and he dismissed it as a hunting party, of no concern to him. What did he have to fear from mere mortal men? He was three centuries old, for fuck's sake.
Ahead, moonlight broke through the tall firs. It caressed the snow with its ethereal glow, casting shadows in a single track of footprints. His, from the outward journey. No other had disturbed the snow. Grinning, he stepped out of the trees and loped across the snow in a child's game, matching his steps to his earlier footprints. As he reached the centre of the clearing he heard a hiss.
The hiss of a sharp steel edge cutting air.
Eric jerked to a halt, his head whipping towards the sound, his fangs snapping down. All his senses alert, he belatedly registered six or so muffled heartbeats and, at the same time, the dull thwack of an axe biting into wood. He crouched to launch into the air.
Something flickered past his face. A net, dropping neatly over him, dragged swiftly down by rocks tied to its rim. Pulled to his knees, he hissed in shock. The net bit at his face and hands, searing, burning wherever it touched skin.
Silver! Snarling, he tore at it with his bare hands, ignoring the pain. The silver held.
Bulky shapes were rising from behind trees and under snowdrifts. Men, at forty paces, forming a rough circle around the clearing, a wider net closing in on him, shaking clouds of white powder from their armour, lifting their weapons, their crossbows, taking aim.
A thin voice cried out: "The heart, the heart! Aim for the heart!"
Eric groped desperately for the edge of the net, his charred hands spasming. Got it! Flipping it over his head, he leapt for the sky, body twisting as he went.
The motion saved him. Two bolts hit, both too low to end him. The first thudded into his belly; the second, his right thigh, boring deep into the muscle, its tip lodging in bone. Eric roared, landing heavily, six feet from the net, throwing up a cloud of powdery snow, his belly on fire, his leg giving way.
Silver bolts too! He was furious. These bastards were going to pay, and pay in blood.
Rage propelled him forwards in a staggering run. As he charged at the closest man, the one who'd fired first, Eric scrabbled for the bolt in his stomach, fingers slipping in the thick blood gouting from the wound. His fist clenched around it as he reached his target. Snarling, he yanked it out.
"Yours, I believe," he spat, plunging the bolt into the startled man's eye socket. Life snuffed instantly, his body went slack and fell to the ground in a limp heap.
"Shoot him! Shoot him!" That thin reedy voice again, panicked and off to the right.
The leader. Take him out first.
The wound in Eric's belly was already half-sealed. A bolt whistled passed his shoulder, spending itself harmlessly in a snow drift.
Ignoring the white-hot pain in his thigh, Eric stagger-ran through the trees towards that thin voice and came across the next militiaman in the circle. He was fumbling to reload, but he looked up at the crashing noise and saw the vampire barrelling towards him. Terrified, he opened his mouth to yell.
Brown eyes met blue and Eric drilled his will into him, commanding roughly: "Protect me. Shoot them."
"Do not look the demon in the eyes!" screeched the thin voice, rising in fear.
Eric bared his fangs in a vicious grin. Too late.
Stepping past Eric, the glamoured man raised his crossbow and aimed across the clearing. The bolt whistled on its way. Eric heard it hit home. A cry rang out; a body hit the snow with a soft crump.
The glamoured man began to reload calmly. Shouts came from all directions. Another bolt whistled past Eric and smacked into a tree, splinters of bark flying into his face.
Shit, that was too close. Move, move!
He veered left, but his leg gave way again, throwing him against a tree. As he grabbed at it for support, a bolt slammed into his back, shattering his right shoulder blade, burrowing deep into his lung. Fuck! He swung around the tree, taking cover, spitting blood and curses.
If that had been a hand's width to the left—
"Herman is in the demon's thrall," shouted a deep voice. "Shoot him."
Almost immediately a bolt hit the glamoured man in the chest, spinning him around. Blood sprayed from the wound, filling the air with its mouthwatering aroma before the unfortunate Herman had even hit the ground. But Eric was already gone, seeking cover, counting heartbeats as he dodged deeper into the trees, his right arm hanging useless at his side.
Three dead, four yet live. New plan. Flank them through the trees. Take out those fucking crossbows one by one. Save the leader for last.
"Stand your ground, men! The demon is wounded." That deep voice again, the man who was quick-witted enough to realise the recently deceased Herman had switched sides.
And he is just the other side of these bushes.
Eric burst through the undergrowth in a hail of torn leaves and branches. A stocky militiaman span round to face him, older than the others, his face hard, his hands steady as he raised his weapon. Eric, recognising a seasoned soldier when he saw one, put on a desperate burst of speed and smacked the crossbow from his grip before he could fire.
The man yelled in shock, but Eric had already closed on him. Growling ferociously, he grappled him around the chest, his good arm constricting like a band of steel. Ribs snapped like twigs and the man cried out hoarsely, his neck arching, exposing his throat. Eric lunged to bite and recoiled, hissing.
Silver again! A fucking silver neck guard! Bellowing in fury, he snapped the man's spine and threw him aside.
Four dead, three live.
But all the noise had given away his position. One of the remaining men had run out boldly of the trees into the centre of clearing. He had a clear shot and was about to take it.
Eric had had enough. He launched himself upwards, using his ability to fly to vault over the man's head. Turning mid-air, he dropped neatly behind him, wrapped his good arm around the man's neck and yanked with all the force of three centuries. Flesh and sinew tore like cloth. The severed head spiralled away into the night, spraying a looping trail of red over the white snow.
Five dead, two live.
Blood, rich and warm, fountained from the neck, calling to Eric, singing its siren song. Snarling, he clasped the body to his chest and had just enough sense left to turn so it was between him and his remaining foes. Lowering his face to the ragged flesh, he opened his mouth wide and drank in great guzzling gulps.
With a cry of horror, a young militiaman charged from the trees, his crossbow abandoned, a sword raised wildly over his head. He ran at Eric, screaming. Eric, lost to bloodlust, lapped up the last of the rapidly slowing gush of blood and dropped the corpse in disgust, leaving himself wide open.
Disaster seemed inevitable.
A few paces from Eric, the man jerked mid-step, his body suddenly stiff and awkward, a wooden marionette. The scream died on his tongue, the sword fell from his grip and he toppled onto the blood-splattered snow at Eric's feet.
Face-down and stone dead, a wooden arrow planted in his back.
Eric hissed and took a step back, confused. His thoughts slow and sluggish, he shook his head to clear the fog of bloodlust and pain. Someone blundered through the trees, snapping twigs and whispering panicked words.
One… One lives.
The last man broke cover and pelted along the edge of the clearing, long black skirts hitched up in his hands, skinny white legs pumping ridiculously beneath them, a Latin prayer tumbling from his lips between gasped breaths. A wooden arrow hit the fleeing priest square in the gut. With a grunting moan, he tumbled forwards and landed in the snow.
Nothing moved for a long beat.
Eric swayed on his feet, bloodlust receding as the silver seeped into his system, poisoning his blood. Weakened, he sank to his knees, in urgent need of blood. His fangs extended, thirst tickling at his throat, threatening his control. His shoulder burned, his thigh felt as if a hot poker was being rammed directly into the bone. The pain grounded him.
Get the fucking silver out.
He ripped the bolt out of his thigh, hissing as its barbs tore the muscle open. Furious, he hurled the poisonous thing away into the snow. The wound was slow to close, oozing dark viscous blood. He made to staunch it, but a sharp stab of pain from his shoulder had him cursing and reaching for the bolt lodged there instead.
No matter how he twisted he couldn't grip it. Fuck. He'd have to knock it through.
He tried one last time, straining to catch hold of it. The bolt shifted and pain drilled through his torso, a spasm racking his chest, throwing him forward onto his hands, coughing and spitting up blood. Blood he could ill-afford to spare. Wiping his mouth on the shoulder of his doublet, he gathered his strength and rocked back onto his haunches.
There was an arrow pointed at his heart. A very wooden arrow.
An archer stood ten paces away, bow taut and aim steady. Ten paces might as well be a mile the state Eric was in. Even if he launched himself straight at this new opponent, it was odds on that arrow would end him before his hands closed around the archer's scrawny neck.
Shit. He looked wistfully towards the silver bolt he'd just thrown away. He could have used that, thrown it faster than any arrow. But if he could persuade the archer closer, use his glamour…
The archer's eyes were fixed on his chest. Fuck. No way to glamour him — no, her from the scent.
A girl. A human girl, although she smelt like one of the two-natured at first sniff, reeking of fox and rabbit and deer and sweat. Looked feral, too. Matted hair, dirt ingrained around her nails, pelts sown haphazardly together for a cloak, feet roughshod in deerskin. An outcast, perhaps. It wasn't unusual to meet the desperate and the abandoned, out in the wilds. It was a hard century, this one.
"In the heart," she said, her voice hoarse, the words stilted, as if her tongue were stiff. "That will kill you, yes?"
Eric debated answering. "Yes," he replied truthfully. Then he lied. "But I can break your neck faster than you can loose that arrow."
"Your wounds. They make you slow."
Wasn't she observant? And also, unfortunately, correct. His leg was still oozing and more blood wetted his back, sticking his undershirt and doublet to him. If this stand-off lasted much longer, he would keel over before she loosed that arrow.
Time to try something else. He retracted his fangs and said softly, "You should look a man in the eyes before you kill him."
"You are no man."
"Look at me," he whispered, infusing his voice with seduction and glamour.
She shook her head stubbornly, keeping her eyes fixed on his chest. "The priest said not to."
She spoke like a child, but he judged she'd seen at least sixteen summers. The dirt made it difficult to tell. She was thin too, bordering on malnourished. Hoping to provoke her into making eye-contact, he said coldly,"You are no friend to the priest. He will die from that arrow you stuck him with."
The bow didn't waver.
Neither did she look up, and Eric cursed his luck. He waved at the dead militiaman lying face down in the churned-up snow a few feet away. "You killed that one too. That's a mortal sin."
Still she didn't look. Too clever to fall for simple tricks, damn her. He admired her self-control, though. And her nerve. She'd seen what he was, what he could do. A blood-soaked monster knelt before her, a thing of nightmares, yet she stood firm.
He switched tactics again. "You aided me. Why? What do you want from me?"
"You are strong. Make me strong too."
Eric blinked. "I cannot. You are human."
She nodded and pulled back on the bowstring. Eric tensed, ready to throw himself to the side. If she loosed that arrow, he would kill her.
But she didn't. She stilled for a breath and then said, "Teach me to fight."
Her voice was flat, as was her expression. Almost vampire-like. Something was off about her, but Eric didn't have time to waste wondering what it was. He was weakening by the second. He needed assistance, however much it rankled to take it from a human.
"What do you offer in return?" he countered.
"I won't kill you."
"No, you will not." He gave her a wide confident smile and it was perhaps lucky she wasn't looking at him. The effect was anything but reassuring, his face caked in gore, his teeth rimmed red with clotting blood. "But if you mean to point that arrow at my chest the whole time, teaching you to fight will be impossible. Lower the bow and I'll consider it."
"Promise?" He almost laughed. A promise wouldn't protect her once that fucking arrow was pointing somewhere else.
"Swear you will teach me," she said, pulling the bowstring tauter.
"No," he snapped, losing patience, the acrid smell of his own burning flesh and the throbbing in his shoulder shortening his temper. "Lower your bow."
"Give me your word, demon," she insisted, unbending.
Gods, she was like a dog with a bone!
But of course. Demons were bound by their word. That explained her insistence. Foolish humans and their myths. She was fortunate that he did keep his word. Usually. If he gave it. And if he gave it, it would be on his terms. Perhaps he could work this catastrophe to his advantage yet.
"Training takes time," he said, letting his fangs snap down. "I will need payment. In blood. You will give it."
She thought for a moment. "Will it kill me?"
"No." Unless I want it to.
"Then you can have my blood."
"You will not cause me harm. You will help me now."
He wouldn't make it back to his hideout tonight. "You will shelter me from the sun when it rises. Guard me through the day."
"Do all this and I will train you. You have my word. Now point that elsewhere."
She lowered the bow slowly, warily, keeping her eyes down.
He gestured at his shoulder. "Pull it out. I cannot reach."
She slung the bow over her shoulder and walked around him, keeping her distance. He felt her take hold of the bolt. When she tugged on it he hissed in pain, but she didn't stop and he gritted his teeth as she levered at it, trying to work it free, leaning back, using her weight, grunting with the effort.
She let go. "It's stuck."
Fuck. His luck had well and truly deserted him. He staggered to his feet.
She jumped back, reaching for her bow.
"Don't even think about it," he growled. Picking out a suitably robust tree, he limped to it, lined his shoulder up and slammed back against it. He roared as the bolt thrust forward, breaking a rib. Light-headed, he slid down the tree and sat in the snow. He looked down at his chest, at the blood seeping around the silver point.
"Damn," he said. "I liked this doublet."
Two grubby hands latched firmly on to the bolt and pulled it swiftly out. Eric coughed, his mouth filling with silver-fouled blood. He turned his head and spat, his eyes closing. When he opened them again, the girl was scooping up snow and scrubbing her hands with it.
"Your blood is sticky," she said, disgusted.
He wanted to laugh, but with broken ribs and a hole in his lung he knew that would burn like hell-fire itself. Instead he said gruffly, "The priest. He lives. Bring him to me."
She crossed the churned snow and landed a vicious kick to the priest's side. He didn't stir.
Eric tutted. "Such disrespect for the Holy Orders."
She didn't answer. Grunting, she heaved the priest onto his back. A spasm curled his limbs, making him look like an up-ended black beetle. Eric let his eyes close and listened to the priest's faltering heartbeat as the girl dragged him closer. Panting, she dropped the unconscious man beside him.
Eric's eyes snapped open. He hauled the priest to him and bit into his neck, tearing at his flesh, drinking him dry in great thirsty gulps. The girl watched, stoic. He pushed the corpse away when he was done with it, wiping his mouth on his ruined doublet, grimacing as his ribs and shoulder blade began to knit back together.
Now to find out how deep in the shit he was.
He dragged himself to his knees, his right arm held tight to his side. One-handed, he searched the priest's coarse black robe and discovered a bundle of parchment. Resting it on the priest's unmoving chest, he riffled through it until he found what he wanted.
A letter to an abbot at Gengenbach, a stone's throw from Ortenberg and Irmengard. From the Bürgermeister of Freiburg, confirming his militiamen were at the abbot's disposal, equipped with the special weapons and armour that the abbot had requested.
Freiburg. Thirty miles to the south, a rich town. Minted their own coins. Silver coins, made with silver from their mines.
Well, fuck. That explained a lot.
Sitting wearily back on his haunches, Eric recontructed the chain of events that lead to disaster. Somehow, the Count had found out he was feeding on Irmengard. Or maybe Hildegard, he'd been more careless about healing her bites. The Count had run to the nearest abbey, babbling about his daughter and a mysterious blood-drinking suitor named Frederick. By chance, a very unlucky chance for Eric, the abbot there knew a thing or two about vampires and, recognising 'Frederick' for what he was, sent to Freiburg for assistance.
These men, with their silver nets, and silver crossbow bolts, and silver neck guards, had come equipped to hunt a vampire. It was them he'd scented in the forest earlier. They'd been tracking him. They'd found the path he took to the orchard, because he'd been lazy about that too, taking the same route these last few weeks. He'd made it child's play to set an ambush.
He cursed himself for a fool. His nights with Irmengard were over. No more taking his pleasure under the cherry trees, no more of her sweet blood. Instead he had this one, this filthy, stinking, half-starved feral girl.
He gave her a sour look. No doubt her blood would be as thin as she was.
The girl was peering across the clearing, at the darkness under the trees. Shadows moved there. She reached for her bow as the sharp, hot scent reached Eric. Wolves. Attracted by the scent of blood.
"We should leave," she said. "It's a long walk."
A bolder wolf trotted out into the moonlight. It paused, front paw raised. It turned its head and locked eyes with Eric. Eric growled low in his throat. The wolf darted back into the shadows.
"It will come back," the girl said, already turning to go.
"Good. It and its friends can feast on the dead." Their bites would disguise his, their scent would muddy his. Before more humans came hunting him, with dogs.
He got to his feet, cursing the fact he was too weak to fly.
Eric scrambled inelegantly down yet another steep gully, too weary to even levitate above the snow. Cold might not discomfort him, but it sapped his energy and they'd been walking for hours. His clothes were heavy with water, his hose torn and muddy, his mood foul.
The girl had stopped on the next ridge, waiting for him. It was humiliating.
A furlong from the massacre she had led him to a stream, shallow but freezing. She'd plunged straight into it and Eric had followed suit, his teeth gritted. It was a necessary evil; the icy water should throw any pursuit off their trail, at least long enough for him to rest safely for the day. They'd stuck to the stream for a mile, then the girl had cut through a stand of thorn bushes and deeper into the forest. Deeper, ever deeper. He'd scented nothing but animals these last few miles.
She didn't speak when he caught up to her, and neither did he. He was too proud to ask how much further it was.
About a half-mile later, she halted at the bottom of a small gully. It was sheltered and the snow wasn't as deep here. His eyes fell on a square of rough stones, coated with the ashy remains of old fires. A battered cooking pot sat on the ground beside it.
"You live here?" he asked, eyeing the… Hovel would be over-generous. It was a rough huntsman's shelter, a lean-to of fallen boughs lashed together and propped against the rocky side of the gully.
She nodded and disappeared inside. Eric ducked after her. The space was barely big enough for two and he had to kneel. A bed of ferns shifted under him. The air stunk of bear and the girl. There was a second screen of branches against the rock face, lashed together. The girl pulled it aside to reveal a dark hole.
Ah. That explained the smell of bear. Perfect.
The abandoned den was short, but the ground inside was dry and there was a pile of furs to sleep on. The girl curled up on them like a cat, settling down for the night as if there wasn't a large vampire watching her. Eric debated whether to just drain her and save himself the trouble.
It was her smell more than anything else that decided him against it.
He slipped out and backtracked to a boulder he'd spotted further down the gully. It would take two, maybe three humans to move it, but it was the best he could do, weak as he was and so close to dawn. He rolled it up the slope. The sky was greying when he shook the girl awake. He grabbed her chin before she could look away. Her eyes were pale green, like a patch of shallow ocean in sunlight.
"Conceal the entrance," he commanded. "You will forget I am here until sunset. If men come looking for me, you will say nothing."
Satisfied she would obey, he let her go. Once she was outside, he pulled the boulder into place, blocking the mouth of the den but not quite sealing it. He listened as the girl put the branches back, then curled up on the furs himself.
She was sitting by the fire gnawing meat off a bone when he rose. Rabbit, from the smell. Her mouth was smeared with grease. Throwing the bone into the fire, she wiped her hands on her furs and got to her feet. "You will teach me now," she said, matter-of-fact.
"Is there water nearby?"
"To bathe in." His clothes were stiff with blood and he stank. She was not much better.
Somewhat reluctantly, she led him down the gully, over a rise and to a narrow stream. They followed it to a spot where it pooled three feet deep. Eric stripped, washed himself, then his clothes. The girl waited patiently on the bank, watching with supreme indifference as he stood, naked and thigh-deep in icy water, wringing out his hose and doublet.
When he was finished she said, "Now you teach me."
"No. First I drink from you." As meals went she wasn't appealing, but he needed the blood.
Her forehead creased slightly and her mouth thinned. It was the most noticeable expression he'd seen her make. She'd witnessed him devour the priest, but she wasn't afraid, she only looked … irritated.
"You agreed," he reminded her, intrigued.
Still wearing that slight frown, she nodded. Her fingers went to work on the fastening of her furs. Shaking them off, she tilted her head to the side, swept back hair that was short but unevenly cut, and offered him her neck. She was in underclothes: baggy, holed stockings and a smock that was too short, all grey with encrusted dirt. Goosebumps rose on her arms, but she held still, waiting, and made no complaint.
Eric, still smarting from the previous night's humiliations, decided to have some fun with her. "Bathe first. You are filthy."
The crease between her eyebrows deepened. "I did not agree to that."
"Bathe," he repeated, and then, to provoke her, "You reek and I do not enjoy the taste of dirt."
"No." She was petulant where he had anticipated shame, embarrassment. "I did what you asked. Take my blood."
"Bathe. Only then will I drink."
She went rigid. "No. Take my blood; then teach me. You agreed. You have to."
"I do not have to do any such thing. Bathe," he snarled, looming over her, his fangs down. Grown men had pissed themselves at this; she didn't even blink.
"I did my part. I helped you. I brought you here. I hid you." She was yelling now, her face red. "I did everything you asked! No bathing, you never said bathing!"
Eric laughed, amused. "Are you truly human? You stick to the letter of an agreement better than any demon I know."
"Take that back!" she screamed, pulling a knife from her furs and launching at him.
He knocked the blade out of her hand and shoved her to the ground, but she came at him again, kicking and clawing in a frenzy. Laughing, he held her at arms length and shook her. "Foolish girl. You cannot hurt me."
When her rage showed no sign of abating, he tossed her in the stream. She rose from the black icy water, spluttering and coughing, cursing him to the heavens. He laughed louder. Teeth chattering, she turned her back, peeled off her soaked underclothes and hurled them at his face.
He caught the wet bundle easily, still chuckling, and was rewarded with a fierce scowl. He was too amused to care. "Scrub yourself clean before you freeze," he said mildly.
As she did as she was told, he crouched in the shallows and rinsed the shift and stockings until the stream ran clear, marvelling that they didn't fall apart without their crust of grime. She obviously hadn't cared to wash them in years. Clean clothes should improve her smell dramatically.
The girl clambered out of the water, shivering violently, immediately wrapping herself in her furs. She wouldn't look at him on the way back to the gully. Once he had the fire blazing, their clothes hanging by it to dry and her sitting close enough to it that her face was flushed, he told her: "That was your first lesson. Do not lose your temper. Especially with a stronger opponent."
She frowned at the flames.
"The blood," he prompted.
After only a moment's hesitation, she pushed the furs off her shoulders. He knelt beside her, still naked, but she seemed oblivious. As she swept her lank hair aside, exposing her throat, the notion that she preferred women crossed his mind and he thought to mess with her again. Then he saw lice crawling in her hair and thought better of it.
"The wrist will do," he said gruffly, wrapping his hand around hers and bringing it to his mouth.
She turned slightly, watching as he licked the sensitive skin inside her wrist. Dropping fang, he bit and was pleasantly surprised by her taste. Her blood was heavy and rich, but a trifle flat. Dulled by a diet of meat, he realised from past experiences. He took only enough to take the edge off his thirst, licked the bite closed and healed it with a drop of his blood. She held her wrist to the light of the fire, watching the punctures close with interest, but she didn't question it. In fact, she didn't speak again until their clothes were dry and Eric, who had dressed swiftly, made to leave.
"Where are you going?" she demanded.
"To my home."
"What about my lessons?"
She hadn't specified how many lessons he was to teach her, but instead of pointing that out he just shrugged. "I will come back. Tomorrow night, or the next."
She watched him leave with a distrustful look.
But Eric kept his word, and he took to turning up at the girl's camp every few nights. Why, he wasn't completely sure. Curiosity, mostly. The girl puzzled him. And a regular supply of blood was always useful.
The rest of his time was split between hunting meals and covering his tracks. Literally that first night: he left the girl and flew straight to the scene of the fight to check the wolves had done their work. They had, and he was lucky; it had snowed heavily while he slept in the bear's den, preventing any immediate pursuit.
That gave him time to alter the scene and lay some false trails leading away from the girl's camp. Hunting parties would be out in force once the weather cleared, but all he left for them to find was half-eaten bodies and a few dead wolves apparently killed by silver crossbow bolts.
Let the huntsmen spread tales of werewolves, not vampire.
As far as Eric could tell, his hideout — a rough one-room cabin that he'd built himself much deeper in the forest, with a hidden chamber dug beneath it — was still secure, undiscovered. But he'd learnt his lesson. He buried caches of money and clothing in two other spots as a contingency, and went back to varying where he rested.
Even though it meant sleeping in the ground, which he detested.
Wary of returning to Ortenberg and its environs, he kept his hunting to Strasbourg and Baden at first. Dressed more humbly than 'Frederick', he frequented seedier drinking dens and listened for gossip about blood-drinking monsters. He heard none. A fortnight after his disastrous encounter with the militia men, he spotted one of the Count's servants in Baden. An application of wine and glamour was all it took to discover Irmengard's fate.
She'd been sent to Stuttgart, married off to the wealthy but decrepit Viscount.
She'd been let off lightly. Eric had half-expected the dear abbot at Gengenbach to insist she be burnt at the stake. This century was a cruel one to women and it wasn't unusual for a vampire's meal to be accused of consorting with the devil. Although perhaps Irmengard would prefer a quick fiery end to the lingering suffocation of marriage to the Viscount.
Old men had accidents though, didn't they? Suffered apoplexies, tripped down stairs, choked on fish bones. If Eric could arrange something like that without risking his own neck, he might just see to it. Call it a parting gift, a thank you for all those sweet nights in the cherry orchard.
That night in Baden, Eric also overheard talk of a vicious wolf attack. Such attacks were commonplace and didn't often draw comment, but this time the victims were well-armed militiamen. In the imagination of the populous, that made these particular wolves rabid, ferocious, and in need of culling. There was talk of raising hunting parties once the snow eased, which put Eric on his guard again.
Two hours later, after he'd checked thoroughly for out-of-place scents and found none, he landed at the girl's camp. She was waiting for him by the fire, as usual. The smell of roasted fowl hung in the air tonight.
"Here," he said, tossing her the lumpy bundle he was carrying. "See if those fit."
Unwrapping it on her lap, she ignored the clothes for the root vegetables inside them, picking up a turnip and sniffed at it suspiciously. "Where did you get these?"
"A farm near Baden."
"But you don't eat. Are they for me?" Her voice was smoother now, her words quicker, easier.
"Yes. And for me. Variety will improve the taste of your blood."
"Variety. What is that?"
"In this case, eating more than one thing. Meat alone is not enough."
Shrugging, she moved the vegetables off her lap and inspected the clothes. He'd stolen her a good pair of hose, an undershirt and a thick tunic. "These are for men," she remarked, shimmying out of her furs.
"They will be easier to fight in."
She smiled gleefully as she pulled off her smock. "Can we fight now?"
She was eager, he'd give her that. And a quick learner. They'd already covered the basics of unarmed combat, but he wanted to build on that, make sure the foundations were secure, before he taught her sword-craft. There wasn't anything he could teach her about bowmanship, and precious little he could add to her woodcraft. They sparred until her legs were shaking with fatigue. She sprawled on the ground next to the fire, sullen and breathing hard.
"You are improving," he told her.
Her brow wrinkled. "I can't hurt you."
"I am not human. That blow to the throat would fell a mortal man." He waited for her breathing to settle, then added, "I must feed tonight."
She pulled up the sleeve of her tunic.
Eric eyed her wrist, then shook his head. She had agreed to bathe twice a week for him and she smelt almost pleasant tonight, the faint musk of sweat from her exertions fresh and not yet stale. "The neck," he said simply. He wanted to test a theory.
She didn't seem to care one way or another, shrugging off her new tunic without complaint. But she stiffened when he pulled her onto his lap.
"It will be more comfortable," he said softly. He could glamour her, but he hadn't since that first night and he found he didn't want to. She had begun to look him in the eye — only quick darting glances, and only when they trained — and he knew instinctively that that would stop if he took away her control.
Control was important to her, and he thought he knew why.
Instead, he ran a hand up and down her back, soothing her as he might have soothed a startled horse when he was still human. Little by little she relaxed against him, until her head rested on his shoulder. He shifted her to get at her neck and began kissing there, soft butterfly kisses that slowly became wet and sucking. Her skin tasted of salt and sweat.
She made an irritated, impatient noise in the back of her throat.
"You will enjoy it," he whispered against her neck. "I promise." He carried on, pushing her undershirt aside to get at her collarbone, kissing there as his fingers trailed down her front, skimming her breast. When she didn't tense, he palmed the small mound and kissed his way to her ear.
Then he stopped, perplexed. No response, not one whiff of arousal. Her breathing was even, her heart steady. She might as well be asleep.
Pulling back so he could see her face he asked bluntly,"Do you not desire me?"
She blinked slowly, as if waking from a trance. "No," she said, uncertain, puzzled. "Should I? You're a demon."
"That does not make a difference." Usually, but if he was right… He tucked her hair behind her ear and said gently, "But I am a man. And men have hurt you."
Her eyes shifted away, to the side. "Women too. Neither spared me the rod."
"I did not mean beatings."
"Oh. That." She shrugged. "I don't remember it. They gave me brandy."
He was careful to keep his face as stoic as hers. Pity would not help. "Should I continue?"
She shrugged again, so he went back to kissing her neck and rubbing her back. It relaxed her at least, but he didn't take it further. He made his bite as pleasurable as he could, something that generally left his meals moaning and breathless, but the girl was not like other meals, other women. All he got from her as his fangs slid home was the faintest whiff of arousal and a soft sigh, a sigh which sounded distinctly bored at that.
A deer carcass hung from a tree, head down, a rope around its back legs, its tough hide cut in many places. The girl slashed viciously at it with her sword; another gash opened and bloomed red.
"Keep your weight on the back leg," Eric ordered sharply, slapping the flat of his blade against her thigh to emphasise the instruction. "Widen your stance. Again."
A week ago, Eric had stolen her a suitable sword from Strasbourg. She'd given him one of her rare smiles when she saw it. Or maybe the smile was for the basket of vegetables he brought with it. Or the pastries. It was hard to tell.
With all the food he was bringing her, she was filling out nicely. He told himself it was to his benefit to keep his blood supply healthy. He'd given up offering anything else in return for her blood after his third attempt to seduce her fell flat. For whatever reason, that particular pleasure of the flesh left her cold.
Food pleased her well enough, though.
Tonight when he walked into her camp, her smile had been for the dead deer slung over his shoulder. That smile had only widened when he told her it wasn't for eating, that she was ready to move on from practising footwork to a real target. They'd been at it for half an hour and she was still attacking with gusto. She slashed at the carcass again, so hard it swung away from her.
"Better," he said, eyeing her stance critically. "Try the lunge we practised last night."
Stabbing ferociously at the deer, she skewered the carcass. "Ha!"
"Now what? Your blade is stuck."
Without hesitation, she braced her foot against the deer's belly and yanked at the sword. It came free, tearing the belly open, and a mess of guts spilt onto the ground, splattering blood and fluids. The girl leapt back, cursing. Eric laughed at the disgusted look on her face.
"It stinks," she grumbled.
"Get used to it. Human guts stink worse." He motioned for her to continue. She redoubled her attack, hacking mercilessly at the deer's flank.
Staying in the forest had been time well-spent. Eric had enjoyed teaching her these last two months. His luck had improved too. When the weather finally broke ten days ago, a second party of militiamen had come from Freiburg, armed with silver, but this time Eric had been ready for them.
For seven nights he'd led them on a merry dance. Somehow, on the seventh night, the captain had got separated from his men. When they reunited, the captain was certain that 'Frederick' was just a run-of-the-mill scoundrel who preyed on women. All this superstitious nonsense about demons and blood-drinking was just the church's way of keeping ignorant peasants in line.
Glamour was such a useful tool.
Even better, a fortnight ago Eric had bumped into Irmengard's father. The Count was leaving his favourite tavern in Offenburg and they'd had a very enlightening conversation, not entirely voluntary on the Count's part. After it, Eric knew more about the would-be vampire expert at Gengenbach Abbey.
And the Count knew a whole lot less about Frederick. Old men had such shockingly poor memories, didn't they?
Yes, all in all, Eric had the situation well in-hand. Everything was going his way. The only loose end was the abbot who knew too much about vampire for his own good. Unfortunately, the abbot was bedridden, recuperating from some winter illness, closeted within the abbey walls.
So Eric had not had any luck getting at him. Yet. But like most vampire Eric was patient in his revenge. Perhaps the dear abbot would venture out of those thick walls if he thought Eric had left the area with the spring thaw.
Once the girl tired, her slashes becoming erratic, Eric called a halt. They retired to the fire, where the girl ate a bowl of stew noisily as Eric watched the flames spit and flicker. Her stew finished, she offered her wrist. He shook his head. She found a crust of bread to wipe her bowl and they lapsed into comfortable silence.
The fire had almost died down when he asked, "How long have you lived here?"
Looking up, she thought for a moment. "Five winters."
She nodded. Gods, she was resourceful to survive out here. Those winters had been brutal. He remembered the roughness of her voice that first night. How many years it had been since she'd spoken to another soul?
"How old are you?" he asked.
She put the bowl down to count on her fingers. "Seventeen, maybe eighteen summers."
"What happened to your family, your parents?"
She searched her memory. "I don't remember my mother," she said slowly. "I had an older brother, but he left us. Father was a hunter."
"He taught you?"
"Yes. Before he died."
"A plague?" There'd been many.
"No." She pulled at her sleeve, something he'd learnt she did when she was unsettled. "Hunger."
Starvation wasn't uncommon this century, with its savage winters, wet summers, failed crops. There had been plagues, riots, lawlessness. Talk of cannibalism. Even vampires found it hard to survive. Desperation made humans superstitious, distrustful of strangers and quick to violence.
As the winter ebbed Eric came to the camp more often, aware that he must soon leave. Once the snow melted, someone in Freiburg might take it into their heads to come hunting him again, with more men armed with silver. The girl trained hard, without complaint. She was tough as nails. Tonight he was taking things a step further. Her eyes widened when he walked into camp and dropped the watchman he was carrying at her feet.
"It is time you had a human opponent."
She frowned. "Who is he?"
"Scum," Eric said succinctly. He'd come across the man in back alley, beating a woman to a bloody pulp. His fate would be poetic justice. Eric bent over the man, catching his eyes. "Stand up," he ordered. To the girl: "Are you ready?"
"Yes." She had her sword. She was never without it now. He was sure she slept with it.
"Use the flat of your blade unless you mean to kill him and end the lesson." To the man, he said simply: "Kill her."
As expected, the girl held her own despite the man's greater strength and reach. Between Eric's glamour and her skill they kept the bastard on his feet for half an hour before she finished him. Eric disposed of the body and returned to find her by the fire. She looked content.
"You did well," he said. "Your lessons are almost done."
"You cast a spell on him. With your eyes." She looked up at him, meeting his eyes fully. "Did you do that to me?"
He sat down. "Once. The day I rested here. To make sure you would keep me safe."
"You needed me."
"Yes. When the sun is up, I am weak."
"It is not good to be weak."
"No, it is not. But at night I am strong, much stronger than a man."
She looked into the fire, thinking.
"What sent you to live here, in the forest?" he asked. It was the last piece of the puzzle, the last piece he needed to make sense of her.
"After father died…" She pulled at her sleeve. "I stayed in our cabin. On my own. But it wasn't safe."
"The men with the brandy."
She nodded, her eyes on the fire. "I went to work for the Widow Albrecht after that, in the village."
"The one who beat you."
"Yes. She let me sleep in her barn. But when her cows got sick, she said it was my doing. The villagers threw stones at me and I ran away. The priest told them I was a witch."
Ah. Hence her dislike of holy men. Eric asked teasingly, "And are you a witch?"
"I can't cast spells with my eyes. I haven't made a bargain with the devil." She looked sideways at him. "Unless you're him."
Eric laughed. "No. No, I am not the devil."
She seemed faintly disappointed to hear that. "Then I am no witch, I think."
"You are not sure," he said, serious.
She shrugged. "I am not the same as other people. The priest said I was … unnatural. The villagers called me a changeling. Maybe they were right."
"You are human, nothing more." When she looked doubtful he added, "A strong human, though," and she smiled at him, pleased.
A week later, the forest streams were swollen with the spring thaw. Soon huntsmen would venture deeper into the forest and there would be more chance of discovery. It was time to move on. He sat by the fire with her for the last time, his plans made. All except the one he had left to decide on tonight.
"What's your name?" she asked, out of the blue, as if she sensed their time was over.
"Eric. Eric the Northman. What is yours?"
"Christyne," she answered quietly. "Father called me his little Kirsche."
Eric smiled. Little Cherry. "It suits you," he said. He didn't believe in fate as a rule, but the name decided him. It was cherries that had brought him to her.
"Don't make me forget you," she said fiercely.
"I will not, min Kirsikka," he said, naming her in his own tongue and liking the taste of it. Then he began the long conversation they must have: "I am vampire, min Kirsikka. Vampire must drink blood to survive. They do not age. They cannot survive sunlight or an arrow to the heart, but they have the strength of many men…"
One moment she was a quiet hum in his blood, and the next he was flooded with her emotions: puzzlement and delight. Eric chuckled quietly. He had allowed her to rise in familiar surroundings, anticipating that she would be unsettled by her new senses, but as usual she had surprised him. She was quite calm.
She sat up and wrinkled her nose. "What is that terrible smell?"
"The bear that lived here before you."
"Oh." She looked out of the entrance, into the dark. Her fangs dropped. "And that sound? Like a drum. It makes me … hungry."
"I brought you a present. Your first meal."
She took to feeding as if she'd been born to it. The abbot from Gengenbach didn't enjoy the experience half so much. Eric watched her drain the old man dry with great satisfaction.
He had been wrong all those months ago, when he stopped to admire the cherry blossom in the Count's orchards. The gift fate had set in his path here wasn't Irmengard, with her supple curves and her sweet blood. It was this fierce, strange girl. She was a fighter, a survivor, just as he was. The perfect choice for his first child.