Takes place approximately three years after the very end of Dark Sanctum.
Disclaimer: I am not Christine Feehan. I'm not trying to be Ms. Feehan. I'm not making any money off of her neighborhood, I'm just playing in it for a little while and most likely making a huge mess of it.
The large ballroom was already filled with Carpathians who had come from near and far. They were dressed in their best to greet the New Year and pay homage to their prince, Mikhail and his lifemate, Raven.
The couple sat at the front of the room on two large ornate chairs that befit royalty since that was what they were to those present. But he was more than just a prince to his people. He had ushered in a new age for them with the introduction of the first human female lifemate that had been fully converted, thus giving the males of their dying race something to hope for.
Clothing from times past was being worn by all that evening. The ladies wore fine gowns in the richest tapestries of color along with adornments of jewels of unique eastern design. The males wore cloaks and capes trimmed with the finest fabrics, the inner linings pure silk, their suits the highest quality.
Ordinarily gatherings such as this one did not occur. But the castle they occupied that night was owned by Vlad and Eleanor Belandrake and it was far from any of the other homes in the Carpathian Mountains. The couple hardly ever used it since they ordinarily stayed in Italy. But since they wanted a festive atmosphere and freedom for their people to have such a large gathering without prying eyes, they'd opened this old castle just for tonight.
The last time they had held a public gathering it was at an inn and there had been an attack upon them. Manolito nearly died. It was decided, then, the next time they held such a gathering it would be in private and known only to their kind.
There were plenty of formerly human female lifemates there that had been converted, but the only human present that evening was Lena, niece of Andriev and Danica Lupov. Andriev was a cousin to Julian and Aidan Savage. Julian's lifemate, Desari, was the famous lead singer of her group.
The males of the Dark Troubadors formed a circle that surrounded their women. And the young human was put in the innermost circle of them all forming a two person barrier between her and everyone else. Though there were not overly many present, a few Carpathian males still without lifemates were in attendance. And some of them were attempting to get as close to her as possible to test things in order to see if she were their match, the light to their darkness, the other half of their souls. Though they could not formally do so since she was not yet 18 years of age, desperation was the one emotion most of them were still capable of feeling.
Andriev and Julian exchanged worried glances with one another. They had grossly miscalculated. They assumed since Lena was still too young to be displayed that she would not be harassed. That was clearly not turning out to be the case. They knew that if they so much as let Lena step one foot outside of their circle of protection she would be hounded. To the two of them she was still that videogame playing girl they'd met three years before full of smiles, jokes and that undercurrent of sadness and vulnerability. But to these unmated males, she was a possible lifemate, future Carpathian and most likely a maker of more lifemates since she did possess abilities. Dayan, Barack and Darius were also all watching the unmated males like the proverbial hawk. There were serious stare-downs happening all around them.
The girl was dressed in a maroon gown made specifically for her. Her hair had been pulled up into a lovely style filled with braids and curls. Dark blue jewels were at her neck, ears and adorned the circlet atop her head.
As Lena stood in the protective circle, though the clothing was very flattering on her, she felt acutely out of place. The girl that had a joke for every occasion was uncharacteristically silent that evening. Earlier that day when she'd gotten up, she had a premonition her life was going to change substantially. She couldn't shake the suspicion that she would walk away from the Carpathian Mountains with a heavy heart for years to come. Future seeing was not her gift so she didn't understand why she had this indelible feeling sticking to her insides.
Eleanor came toward their group. She felt personally responsible, to some extent, for the young woman and could tell she was feeling strange about the unattached hunters attempting to get close to her. "The prince will see you now," she said to their group.
They all went forward then to the couple sitting at the head of all. On one side of Lena was her aunt Danica and on the other side was Desari.
Lena looked across the room at MaryAnn standing with Manolito. The therapist smiled warmly at her and gave her an encouraging wink. She had worked with MaryAnn for months and as a result had been able to lay a lot of her personal demons to rest. Her sense of humor was still intact, but she had also grown a little serious in the undertaking as she grew into the knowledge of who the Carpathians were and the responsibility she carried in keeping their secret.
Their group finally reached the front of the ballroom. The men bowed and the women curtsied. Andriev stepped forward and brought Danica with him. "May I present my lifemate to you, my prince?"
"Pleased to meet you," Danica gave the couple before her a smile as her own case of nerves shivered through her.
Raven smiled warmly, "There's no reason to be nervous."
"And the human girl?" asked Mikhail as he looked past all of The Dark Troubadors.
"My niece," said Danica. "Daughter of my sister. I take care of her." She looked over at Andriev for a couple of seconds with the warmest of smiles. "We take care of her. Her name is Lena."
Mikhail couldn't help the fatherly smile that graced his face. He remembered when his own daughter was this age. Was it so long ago? "Hello, young lady," he said as he lightly checked and saw she was a strong psychic. He was overjoyed at the discovery of another human female with Talent. He looked over at Raven and caught the disapproval on her face, in her mind.
Do not even think it! She is too young to be displayed!
She is but one year shy of what our own daughter was at the time of her coming out party.
And even our own daughter, born to this life, begged her lifemate for more time before their joining. This one is still human and she is most certainly too young.
He knew that at times his own desperation for his race made him forget certain critical facts. And Raven always wisely brought him back to remembering those facts …you are correct, my love.
"Hello, Prince," Lena said in an unsure voice as she bowed her head slightly first to him and then to the woman she knew had also once been human, "Lady Raven."
Mikhail asked with a warm smile, "Would you like to go and look at Vlad's library for an hour?"
She immediately felt a sense of relief at being able to get away from the eyes of the unattached males. "Yes, sir."
Mikhail turned to Eleanor and called her over. "Take her there, please."
Nearly an hour passed and into the main hall came a newly arrived contingent of males, all unattached, all deep in their own trouble fighting off the darkness. They patrolled Spain, Portugal and France as often as they could. They were two sets of brothers, and the two sets were cousins to one another. They had all been raised in the same home in Spain where an older Carpathian couple had settled so long ago with their sons and then later, their nephews.
The four hunters were there on a grim task. The eldest of them, Armand, had come for one reason only: To pay homage to Mikhail that night, to see this Raven that had once been human and then to walk into the sun the next day. Seeing Raven with their own eyes, he knew, would give hope to his brother and his cousins. Though he knew he was needed in the fight against the undead, he could no longer keep away from the darkness and the pull to turn. He had nearly killed while feeding not one week before and had barely been able to stop himself when the rush of adrenaline kicked in. He knew at that moment that it was time. He would have to end it now or he would not have the power to end it at all. With his age and abilities, he knew he would most likely turn on his brother, Jaime, and his two cousins, Miguel and Javier. He knew he could kill them all easily. The three of them, his constant companions for centuries, had been providing him with nourishment since that night since he dared not go out and hunt on his own.
They had all urgently asked him to rethink his decision, to perhaps sleep in the earth for the time being. He remembered so many years before he had been told there was going to be someone for him. But he had not found her and now, to him, it was too late. He had decided, they would come this night, pay homage and that would be his last act as a Carpathian. He would die with dignity instead of turning.
Despite the darkness that had nearly enveloped him, he was always impeccably dressed, his black long hair hung with slight waves since he preferred to keep it loose and unfettered. His shirt was of the finest dark blue silk, his black trousers creased to perfection. His cape was of a free-flowing material that was black on the outside, cerulean blue on the inside. The color of the inner cloak peeked out only by slight degrees as he walked. It created a wonderful contrast to the deep blue of his shirt. The colors were created by him from memory alone since he had not seen colors himself for so very long. They been his favorite hues in his youth and he hoped he had achieved the correct look. He wanted to appear his best for his last night on Earth.
When the four hunters reached the deeper part of the ballroom, they were beckoned forward to the prince and his lifemate. They were all watched like hawks, and understandably so. Besides the fact that they were all unmated and powerful though not turned, no one knew exactly who they were.
The four of them bowed to their prince and looked upon the woman that they had heard had been converted into one of them. The other three hunters, at least, did gain hope from the sight of her. But not Armand. He was done with this life. His hope was spent. It was too late for him. He couldn't bear his existence any longer.
"You are the sons of Ivan and Romana," Mikhail realized as he looked at the two eldest. And he looked at the other two, "And you must be the sons of Nicola and Beitana." He smiled. The youngest of them resembled his mother's family very strongly.
"Ivan and Nicola were brothers, yes," answered Armand for his group. "When Nicola and Beitana were lost in one of the wars, my parents brought their boys to be raised with us." He had, in fact, helped raise the two younger men, as well as his own brother, since he had already reached maturity himself by that point. Javier, the youngest, had been but seven years of age back then. But that was so long ago…
"What brings you here this evening?" asked Mikhail. Now that he could place who they were, he knew these four ordinarily did not travel outside their range. Their appearance there that evening was more than 'out of the ordinary' and he was weary of the answer he knew was about to escape the eldest hunter's mouth. He saw that look in his eyes. He had had that look in his own eyes once.
Armand was about to speak of his intentions when he turned and saw one he had not seen in centuries.
"Andriev," he halfway whispered in wonder. How strange that he would see that man this night, the one who had foretold that he had a lifemate not yet born all those years ago. The even stranger thing was the hunter looking at him across the room was visibly taken aback. Armand wondered what it was that could cause him to appear as such, as if his old friend were waiting for something…
Armand then noticed a woman standing beside Andriev. She appeared to be Eurasian and he was in an unmistakably protective stance next to her. So he had at least, after all, found his lifemate! He sent a nodding bow of congratulations in his general direction but still did not understand the look on the hunter's face as he whispered something to his lifemate.
Armand turned his attention back to the prince and declared, "I have come to pay my respects before I seek the sun."
Danica gasped in horror. Half the room had overheard what Armand said to Mikhail. "We can't let him," she whispered slowly.
"No, we will not," agreed Andriev. He began walking across the room to take Armand aside and tell him what he knew, to try and negotiate something where he could come for the girl later when she was older. But too late, things unfolded right before their eyes as Lena exited from behind Mikhail and Raven with Eleanor, in full view of everyone including the ancient hunter.
Armand remained where he stood not able to understand the sudden shift in the world around him. How was it he could see the exact shades of every color in the room?
He was able to see and appreciate the exact color and smooth texture of the petite young woman's skin exiting from behind the prince. He could see the maroon color of her dress, see his favorite blue in the jewelry at her neck and in her ears, wended within the silver circlet of her hair.
"Thank you so much," she was saying with a true smile of happiness to Eleanor. Armand's heart plummeted and then sped up at the sound of her voice. "That's one of the biggest personal libraries I've ever seen," she remarked in a low voice of wonder.
He stood there and stared and stared as too much information began to flood his senses. But there was one thing he realized immediately. His heart was already changing its pattern to find the rhythm of the exquisite young lady walking toward him.
Andriev didn't have time to move to stand in front of him or the girl he had accepted as a daughter and neither did any of the Dark Troubadors. Lena happened to be standing right in front of her lifemate in a matter of no time.
Lena felt herself stopping in her tracks. She was inexplicably drawn to look up into the eyes of a male she had never seen before. Who was he? He hadn't been there earlier, had he? She would have noticed. Mere seconds turned into what felt like an hour as time ground to a halt. She felt a rush of something in her head and was almost overcome with dizziness, but she managed not to do something embarrassing like swooning.
He was nearly tall. His hair was the richest black she had ever seen and his eyes drew her in, held her there. The beauty of his face was the best thing she had ever seen in her life. She was beginning to suspect he was the most beautiful man she would ever see forever after, hands down. That quickly she forgot her uneasiness about standing so close to so many unmated males. There were four near her, in total, but this one was the one that mattered and she didn't understand why.
Both of his hands slowly reached forward and captured one of hers, held it gently, almost reverently. "What is your name?" he whispered in wonder, his eyes still holding fast to hers.
His voice caused tears to raise behind her eyes. She had never wanted any strange man to touch her, but this one…she wanted to melt into his chest. She trusted him implicitly. Why did she feel this way? She was scared. "I'm Lena," she found herself whispering anyway.
"I am Armand Solano de Navarre," he said as his eyes devoured hers, his senses inhaling her on every level. Her look, her touch, her scent, they were all bombarding him down to the cellular level. His hands practically sizzled with the contact of his skin touching hers.
They both continued to stand and stare, equally dumbstruck for different reasons.
Both came back to reality as Andriev, Julian and all of The Dark Troubadors intervened by surrounding the two of them. "Prince Mikhail," said Andriev, "she is still too young to be claimed."
Mikhail looked down at Armand, shocked at this development unfolding right before his eyes. "Is this young woman your lifemate?" he asked Armand. He knew it was so, but he had to formally ask.
"She is," Armand confirmed, even as he was still unable to tear his eyes from hers. "She is mine."
Lena felt her heart somersault at the words 'she is mine'. Her hand squeezed his in agreement, despite her fear.
Mikhail stood. "Come, all of you, this is a sensitive matter and we will speak on it in private."
Lena finally looked around her and realized that all gathered in the ballroom had stopped their individual conversations and were staring at them and what would happen next. Palpable fascination of the people crowded around them at the strangeness of how this had happened was obvious. She then felt herself being pulled from Armand by her aunt and all of the other ladies in attendance. On the one hand, some part of her was relieved. But on the other, she found herself looking back at him, looking at his eyes, wondering if she really wanted to leave him behind so quickly. She was worried for him.
Armand did not know where he found the strength, but he allowed the girl to be taken from him by the other women. Pain assaulted him as he only just realized what it was Andriev had said. She was too young? Exactly how old was she?
On top of almost turning vampire the week before, he thought, he was pursuing an underage lifemate. His patience with himself was seriously running out.
Lena found herself back in the library, but this time she was with her aunt and Eleanor. The other ladies had decided to wait just outside the door.
Eleanor couldn't stop talking. "She's too young, we should never have let her come out in public like this or this soon!"
"It's a good thing we did, though," said Danica. "That man was about to walk into the sun!"
Lena flinched at the thought and reflexively hugged herself. She was unable to speak, just yet. She was still trying to absorb what it was that had just happened. That man… that beautiful man was her lifemate? Him? And she had only just gotten to him in time? What if she hadn't? She was haunted by the thought, what if she had changed her mind about tonight at the last minute or broken her leg two days ago or-
"Well she won't be made to do anything," Eleanor was saying emphatically. "She is just too young and that's all! They're getting worse and worse with this business and now we should have a seventeen year old claimed? No! Eighteen is already too young in my opinion but this is crossing a line!"
"I know she is, but you have to agree that this is an extremely strange situation," Danica said as she shook her head. "We have to figure something out."
"Why are they even discussing anything with him?" Eleanor was still on her own tangent. "The answer should be a flat-out 'no'! He can wait a couple of years!"
Lena mentally begged MaryAnn to come to her and within seconds, there was a knock on the door. Eleanor answered, saw who it was and then allowed MaryAnn to come into the room. "What's happening?" asked the crisis counselor.
"The Spaniard wants to claim this child!" Eleanor said angrily.
"Has anyone asked Lena what she wants to do?" asked MaryAnn.
They all seemed startled by the question and then looked down at the teenager. Her face was filled with confusion and sadness. "Lena, honey, say something," Danica asked, ashamed that she hadn't even spoken to her niece to see how she was feeling.
"Why did they take him away from me?" was the first question she was able to get out.
"I don't know," Danica admitted as she tried to reach Andriev to find out what was happening with him at that time. "But we need to find a solution to this that's best for the both of you."
"Are you afraid?" MaryAnn asked the teen delicately.
She thought before she answered. Then she shook her head. "No."
Eleanor seemed taken aback. "You aren't?"
"No," she said again, that time annoyed. "I was at first, but I'm not now. Shouldn't I be in there with them? Why aren't I in there with them since it's about him and me?"
"They have to figure out exactly what they're going to do next," said Eleanor.
Lena stood quickly, "Not without me, they're not!"
"You can't go to him right now!" Eleanor insisted.
"Is he or isn't he my lifemate?" Lena asked almost forcefully as she pointed at herself.
"You have four months of high school left!" Danica said as a panic descended on her. "You still have to go to college!"
"Who said I wasn't going to do those things?" Lena asked as she pushed past the ladies to go and find Armand.
Danica began to demand to know, "Why are you in such a hurry to-"
"I think this should be between him and me first!" said Lena. "What, I don't even get to talk to him first before they try and send him away for who knows how long? And what's to stop him from coming back later and stealing me anyway?" She realized then that that didn't sound like such a bad thing to happen. She wondered what was wrong with her. She had more sense than this.
The ladies looked at one another. "Do you understand what you're doing?" asked MaryAnn.
"I think I know what he needs to do," she said to the woman she had learned to trust implicitly. And there really was the beginnings of a plan in her mind to make this all right for the time being. She then looked over at her aunt. "I'm not stupid, Aunt Dani. I think I know what I need to do so he can do what he needs to do. But you need to move out of my way and let me do this. Do you want to risk him turning violent? He's so close to something… Something bad," she said as she realized what it was she had felt when their hands were touching. It was the reason she had been afraid. "I can feel it, he was so close." She could feel tears in her eyes. "He's done so much for his people and for humans and why can't you let him talk to me before he has to be alone again? Doesn't he at least deserve that?"
Danica saw the desperation in Lena's face, but she also heard the reasonableness of her words. She may have been too young to join with the hunter, but this was truly a woman standing before her now. "Come on," she said as she took her niece's hand. "Let's go."
They were all standing in Vlad's personal office, but Prince Mikhail was the only one seated. Armand looked around at all of the Carpathian males. "I am glad to know she has so many looking out for her, protecting her. I thank you all immensely." A Spaniard accent had overtaken his speech patterns so many years before.
"We all love her very much," Julian said. "But you have to know we can't let you take her today."
Before he could answer, the door opened and Eleanor entered with the other ladies and the girl in question. "She insists she wants to speak to him, one on one, before any decisions are made." They could tell from the look on Eleanor's face how she felt about that.
Andriev looked over at Danica. "And we should let her because?"
Danica sighed shakily. "She insists. She has her own mind, right?"
Andriev relented. "Everybody, outside for now."
Eleanor shook her head angrily. "You had better not try anything!" she pointed at Armand.
Being in such close proximity to Lena, he was able to feel the humor of the situation. "Yes, ma'am," he smiled almost devilishly with a charming bow of deference.
Everyone except for Andriev, Danica and Julian filed out of the room. The three of them remained at the door just inside the room with them at a far enough distance so their conversation could not be overheard.
The pair finally stood before one another again, hearts in their throats. He could not believe his fortune or the curse of this situation. He would be vilified everywhere if he cemented his relationship with this girl right now. And they would be correct. It was much too soon. His eyes held hers hard and now he saw what he had not before. It was so obvious. "You are too young," he lamented in a low voice quaking with emotion. "I wait so long and I find you now, too soon."
"Just in time," she whispered as she shyly reached for his hand. She didn't want to even think about him walking into the dawn. Think about him burning, dying. He gently took the hand offered to him and held it between both of his. "So now we both have to wait. Would it hurt to wait?" she asked, though already the thought of it hurt her. How much more so must it hurt him who had already waited for so long?
His eyes closed hard as he fought the impulse to grab her and flee. He inhaled then exhaled heavily. "I do not have the strength to send you away from me. I can admit that."
She moved closer, stood directly in his space, put her hands to the warmth of his chest. He even smelled like perfection to her. She knew she had to be careful since he was so very close… "They can put you in the ground for a long time, can't they?" she whispered.
"Do you want me to go to ground?" he asked as his eyes held hers.
"No. But it's the only solution, right? For now."
He nodded as he felt the edges of tears in his vision. "Correcto," he agreed in Spanish as his fingers lightly brushed at the side of her face.
"And time passes fast for you when you're asleep like that, right?" she whispered.
"It does," he admitted as he let himself drown in her eyes, feel emotions for the first time in so long.
"And I can be back here, waiting for you when you wake up," she promised on a sniffle as pain welled up inside her and tears began to track down her face.
He felt his own tears threatening to come to the fore. They hugged one another fiercely at that point, clung to one another. "If my lifemate commands, then that is what I will do."
"It's a deal," she said past the straining in her chest. "You go to ground while I grow up."
They all walked Armand to the underground region of Vlad and Eleanor's temporary home. It felt like a funeral procession. No one spoke. Armand still held fast to Lena's hand, unwilling to let her go ahead of time. She was young, but she was accepting of who he was in her life. And it made it easier for him to let her go for the time being. Without that acceptance, he shuddered to think of what he would have done to keep her with him and force her to accept him.
Once they reached the area beneath the castle the owners or other passing Carpathians used whenever it was needed in cases of injury, though the gathered party of onlookers knew this was necessary they still felt a tearing sensation in all their chests when Mikhail stepped forward and opened the earth.
Armand looked down at the lifemate he had found too soon and would have to let go of for a time. "Kiss me goodbye, damita," he said, tears in his eyes.
She watched him get down on one knee. It was odd to her how up until that moment in her life, she had never once wanted to kiss anyone. But she wanted to kiss him.
Their lips met softly. He forced himself to keep it chaste as they shared one kiss full of pain. He pulled back quickly when he felt the ritual words on his lips trying to escape. "We must stop, my Lena." He swallowed as he lay himself in the earth. He reached into his pocket and handed over a pouch to her. "I have carried this for five hundred years. It is for you."
She took it from him. It was something in a black silken sack about the size of her palm. She would look at it later. Not right now. "Thank you," she whispered as she looked back down at him.
"My brother," he looked past her to Jaime standing there, "I am sorry I cannot go on any longer. Give her the bag that is meant for her."
Jaime stood there, emotionless. But he knew his brother's presence would be missed by them all. "This is preferable to your seeking the sun, my brother," he acknowledged. He looked at Lena. "Thank you."
She frowned. "For what?"
"For existing," he said. "It gives us all hope to carry on."
She looked down, feeling slight shyness at such words. Then she looked back over at Armand. She loved him already. She forced herself to give off the appearance of strength she was not feeling, forced a smile onto her face. "Good-bye," she whispered.
"Until later, damita," he smiled. "I will come to you if you are ever in direct danger, I promise you that now. Call to me. I will come." He looked at Andriev and the males of The Dark Troubadors. His eyes begged them all to keep her safe.
"We will," promised Andriev. "Nothing will touch this girl."
Mikhail ordered him to sleep. Armand Solano de Navarre closed his eyes.
A/N - This character, Lena, is still a teenager in my mind and I just couldn't put her with her lifemate yet. But the next story will be for her friend, Natalia, a couple of years into the future. Eventually I'll get around to Lena's full story, but for now I wanted to have the chance to tell another story of another hunter and his lifemate. Please review since I'm already nervous about what I've done to poor Armand!