Consciousness struck in a single, terrifying blow. Amleth woke with a scream in his mouth. Rosalyn.
He had to get to Rosalyn. She had been not five yards away when the explosion struck. There was debris all over him, blinding his vision, binding his limbs. He struggled to clear his face. His arms and legs were pinned. Trapped. He tried to call for Ros. His voice sounded rough in his own ears. Wrong. It echoed oddly. His predatory nature kicked in and told him to still, told him to hunt. He stopped struggling.
He listened. Water dripped on stone. He inhaled. The air was moldy and putrid with death. He tugged again at his arm, this time slowly, and heard a clank. Chains. A dungeon, then, Amleth surmised, and he its prisoner.
“Hello?” he called out. No one answered.
The ground beneath him punished his back. Every part of his body ached. His mouth was sour and he bit his tongue to clear the awful taste. It remained. The stench in the dungeon was fouling his senses, he reasoned. He had never experienced anything like it – and he had slept in some truly rancid places. The rot was worse than a hot grave, worse than the killing fields of war. It burned inside his nose and touched him where nothing should penetrate. He couldn’t understand it. He had long since stopped breathing and still the smell continued its assault.
He slipped in and out of downtime. Finally, he heard someone. It might have been hours later, perhaps it was days. Footsteps tapped on a stairwell – too light for a human. “Good. You’re awake,” a silky voice said. Vampiress. He was almost certain. Demons had a rasp that gave them away. She came closer and he found her scent to confirm the suspicion. The vampiress pulled at his head until shards of light filled his eyes. Amleth hissed at the sudden brightness. The stranger was too close and he snarled. “I’m just a caretaker,” she laughed.
“Who are you? Where am I?” he demanded. “What have you done with Rosalyn?” His voice cracked and his thirst surged.
“Master will see you when you are stronger. You’ve been in a very serious accident.”
“Who do you serve?” he barked. She was young, not yet two hundred, and well-made. He glanced at the soiled bandages in her hands and startled. He was what was rotting. A wave of nausea rushed over him.
“Save your strength. I’ll bring you a meal.”
He mustered the energy to lift his head. “Be a darling and bring me a bath and the key while you’re at it.”
She hid a smile and disappeared up a spiral of stone steps at the end of the room. He heard the scrape of a heavy gate. “Gads,” Amleth said aloud. Straining his neck, he assessed his injuries. He had been wrapped head to toe in linen gauze that had soaked brown with fetid fluid. He must have been blown apart in the bombing. The injuries had not healed. How long had he been necrotic? Amleth swore softly to himself. He should not have survived.
He shifted slightly in his fetters and in the dim light saw that the bandages had been painstakingly wrapped in layers, like a moldering cat mummy in a museum. “Bloody hell.” He let his head fall back against the floor. An ancient had done that. But which?
Fear curled in his stomach. He reached out in the blood to his children. They were to the west of him and very distant. And they were very, very afraid.
The young vampiress was called Maty, and much to Amleth’s surprise, she brought him everything he asked for. She stripped him first, leaving him chained, and roughly scrubbed him to slough the stench from his skin. She giggled to find he was appreciative of her touch and his body was in working order. She batted his penis playfully and left him, nude and hungering, only to return with a burly male. They unlocked him, doused him with another bucket of water, and carried him upstairs. His legs were too weak to do much more than tap along like a marionette.
The dungeon was deep in the ground, that much he could tell. The stairs led to more stone rooms. These too were airless and humid. They were beneath some sort of heavily fortified building. Nothing else could explain the looming pressure overhead. Amleth reached out and tested his children’s location again, only to realize he could not find Eric to triangulate himself. It had been months, then, if the bond was gone. Or he had been drained completely. He realized, with a rush of relief, that in his disorientation he had forgotten Godric. His sire had gifted him with the most exquisite bond right before the explosion.
Amleth felt for the ancient presence. It sat in his chest like a cold jewel. He pushed at it, trying to get past its silent walls. The connection did not register the slightest response. Mentally, he screamed at Godric to answer him. Nothing. The fear began to rise in his gut once more.
They put him in a large claw-toed bathtub to soak. Maty set a tray of oils across his lap and let him choose from among the bottles. The glass was Murano, and old. The scents inside were older still. The hair on the back of his neck raised in alarm. He was surrounded by used, shabby things that had all been rather fine in their day. Only old vampires like himself ended up with such eclectic collections of trash. There was a certain stratigraphy to the dilapidation that was unmistakable. It revealed obscure preferences no youngling would or could dream of emulating – fads and trends that were lost to time. A shiver involuntarily ran through him. This was an ancient’s abode.
Maty took up a delicate pair of embroidery scissors and moved to attack his head. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said, lurching away from her. The water in the tub sloshed violently.
“Your hair is badly singed.”
Amleth studied her. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I can’t make it worse,” she offered.
“Minerva guide you,” he swore. “Just do it.” He clenched his jaw and gripped the tub and submitted to the indignity. She snipped gently, carding her slim fingers through his mane. Black tendrils fell to the floor.
By the time she declared it done, the bathwater had gone cold. “It’s the best I can manage, mon sieur.” Milord, she called him, and in a French lilted with the Sahara Desert.
“Whose prisoner am I?” he asked again. Maty’s amusement reached her smoke-colored eyes. She scratched her painted nails over his chest and left him to cleanse the last of the filth from his body. The barrel-chested vampire stood guard by the door. He was shaggily mustached and wore a gold chain that caught in the mat of fur beneath his collar.
His keepers assisted him to another room occupied by a pillowed bed and piled rugs. It had the distinct reek of a vampire brothel. Humans had been there and died. The steel eyehooks sunk into the wall above the bed did not bode well. They were not meant for human shackles. Amleth tried not to panic. Panic was not a plan. Godric had taught him that. The thought of his sire stabbed at his heart. Gods, what had happened to Rosalyn? Why would Godric not answer him?
Maty brought him a human woman and a girl. “Send the child away,” he said immediately, keeping his teeth covered. They ached and he was starving and he knew this would go badly. Maty smirked and gestured for the muscle at the door to escort the girl out. Amleth did what he had to do and it disgusted him. He had not drained someone in ages.
“Am I to work here now?” he asked, once the body had been cleared. He chanced another glance at the eyehooks on the wall. “You had better charge a fortune for me.”
The luscious coils of Maty’s hair bounced as she laughed. She climbed into bed with him, shedding her sheath dress like a skin. “We figured you wouldn’t take your fill of the humans. You’re so tame.” She licked his stomach and sucked his chest. “Let me help,” she said, cupping his crotch.
He watched as she took his length in her mouth and her smoky eyes watched him back. He could kill her and the guard in an instant. He knew it. They knew it. And whoever had sent them knew it too. This was a test. He needed more information before choosing a course of action.
Maty tongued his tip and twisted his nipples into tight peaks. His body screamed in need. A blow job would not come close to satisfying him. Yet he was pathetically weak. He gestured for her to hop up and she did. She took him to the hilt and he held her close. “You’ve been trained,” he said, half a question.
“You’d prefer someone naïve?”
“I’d prefer someone alive, Maty darling.”
“And yet you didn’t take what was offered.” She laughed again, a pleasant sound, and ground him too quickly toward an orgasm. “You’re a snob,” she pouted.
He hummed and filed her response away for consideration. “Shall we allow the mustache to watch?” he asked of the guard. “Or would you have him help?”
“His name is Bora – and no. He ruts like a beast.”
Bora ignored them, keeping one bulbous eye on the hall beyond. Amleth rolled Maty onto her side, finding he could manage slightly more than being ridden like a stubborn pony. He watched the guard with disdain. “Like the view?” he asked him.
Bora’s hand twitched on his whip. “You are weak and she is bored.”
A Turk, then, Amleth reasoned, from the name and the rolling accent. He was one step closer to guessing his latitude and he did not like where it was situated. He suspected the dungeon was an ancient Greek construction, though where he could not say. The Greeks had left their garbage strewn on three continents. There was no telling what might have been subsequently built over an old foundation.
He rolled Maty back on top of him and spread his knees, tucking his heels beneath her. “Are you bored, Maty dear?” he asked. She went to answer and he pumped hard and used his fingers to good effect. She came right then and there. “Not so bored then, after all.” He smiled gleefully at Bora and Bora looked away.
He flooded Maty’s body with pleasure again and again, chatting casually to keep her talking. If she had thought to play him by using his foolish cock against him, she had lost the game. Her moans were genuine. Amleth relented and simply enjoyed it. He felt better and better each time. Too good, in fact. “Who are you?” he asked when they stopped for a breather. He narrowed his eyes in concern.
“Smoke?” she offered, borrowing an etched case from Bora.
“That is a ridiculous pretension.” The air filled with the scent of cloves. He waved it away and inhaled her at the crook of her neck. “Who are you?” he demanded. He should not have felt so healed by a mediocre fuck.
She picked at bits of loose tobacco on her tongue and got up. “You’re welcome.” She kissed him coldly. He watched the high globes of her hind end roll voluptuously as she left. He suddenly worried he had made a serious miscalculation.
Bora sized him up from the doorway. “Next?” Amleth said. He stretched out his long frame in a taunt.
“You not funny,” Bora grumbled.
“Or maybe you’re just too stupid to laugh.”
Bora promptly chained him up by the ankle.
He did not see Maty again for a week. Bora brought him food and reading material, but otherwise refused to engage him. The humans that came had been trafficked and were glamoured into oblivion. There was nothing to glean from them beyond nutrition. Their pockets were bare and their clothes had been stolen. His sad pile of used books on the table revealed little in the way of information. Their imprints were European and their pages smelled of open-air flea markets and diesel trucks. They had traveled far and wide like the humans. Like him.
He tried scratching at the ancient mortar in the stone walls and rolling the crumbles in his mouth. He tasted nothing but sand. He chewed a bit of the carpet and recognized only silk and dye. His senses could not glean more. Amleth thought enviously of Eric’s tactile gift. He reached deep into his blood once more to find him, but Eric was gone. His silence tolled like a hollow bell, right beside the empty void his maker had left when he died.
Amleth felt carefully around his connection to Constantine and Eva. They were terribly weak and he sensed they were captive. The frailty of their bond was made worse by the distance and his own injuries. He did not dare call to them and risk giving them bonding sickness if they could not get away. He prodded instead, asking about Godric. They pushed violently back. Stay away.
Dread settled over him. Amleth screamed at the ancient blood bond in his breast, and still Godric refused to acknowledge him.
When Maty returned one evening with a parcel of clothing, Amleth did not set his book down immediately. It was never wise to appear too eager. He rolled languidly off the bed. She offered to help dress him and he thanked her. She styled his hair with a dab of fragrant oil. “It will grow back,” she commented as she worked.
“I’m not healing well,” he said carefully.
Her face betrayed nothing. “I’m not surprised.”
“Someone blew me up, Maty. It was very rude. I’d like to file a complaint.” Her lips suppressed a smile and he stroked her buttocks and pulled her close, “You really got short-changed, you know, bedding me as an invalid. You have no idea what I am capable of, my dear.” He traced his long fingers down her spine and gooseflesh rose on her arms.
“Come,” she said, pulling his hand.
“Make me,” he hummed in a husky voice.
“You are expected,” she told him.
He knew, which was precisely why he was dawdling. “Make me come again, beautiful Maty, and I’ll go wherever you please.”
“Get me off,” he replied.
“Amleth!” she said sharply.
He leaned back in the embroidered robes she had dressed him in and grinned like a cat, victorious. “So you do know who I am.”
She avoided his piercing gaze. “I do.”
“Then perhaps it was I who was short-changed.” He tongued his teeth and his smile grew. “I didn’t get to hear that lovely mouth say my name when it mattered.”
She called Bora, and the brute chucked a set of silver shackles at her. Maty narrowly escaped their path. Amleth swore at him. “Gods’ teeth, you imbecile! Mind the youngling.” He shielded Maty with a protective arm.
“Put on!” Bora said.
Amleth rose to his full height. The robes they had brought him gave his figure an imposing volume. The Turk was tall, but Amleth was his elder by a thousand years. “You can put them on me yourself, you coward,” Amleth spat. He hurled the restraints back at Bora and held out his wrists. Bora grimaced with indecision. The heavy silver was more than uncomfortable for the younger vampires to handle.
“Do it,” Maty said. Bora grunted and set about shackling him.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Amleth said. “You were very helpful, Bora bear.” Amleth pivoted on a heel. “Lead the way, fair Maty.”
She accompanied him as far as the end of a labyrinthine corridor, where he was handed over to a guard at a gate. The guard was joined by another soldier. They were outfitted with expensive black-market goods. Classic mercenaries. Amleth reached up and tugged at a scope dangling from the guard’s vest. “That’s pathetically outdated. Work for me and you’ll have only the best.” The guard shoved a weapon into his side and looked away. Amleth gritted his teeth. They had all been warned. No one was making prolonged eye contact with him.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder. Maty remained behind the locked gate. She looked small in the torchlight. “Be careful,” she mouthed silently. She was concerned.
The guards escorted him up multiple flights of stairs. The air became fresher, as did the scents. The ancient stone walls yielded to a younger construction of stone and brickwork. They were still underground, but the Byzantine arches vaulting the upper basement were unmistakable. “You wouldn’t perchance know if this is Turkey or Greece we’re in, would you?” he asked his guards. He dodged the rifle butt too slowly and it connected swiftly with his ribs.
A voice he had not heard in years answered him. “The ancients still call it Thrace, Amleth Tarquinii. But I call it home.”
The rage and shock rocketing through Amleth nearly incapacitated him. What little strength he had went out from his knees. The guards dragged him into a seat and left him. The sitting room was octagonal, with huge arched windows inset with stained-glass. Colored shadows crawled up the windowpanes each time a servant passed by in the corridors unseen. Hanging lanterns lit the space in bent, dancing patterns, disorienting Amleth’s infuriated senses. He waited, lock-jawed, for his elder to speak first.
“Please, enjoy a drink.” Roman’s molten amber gaze pinned him to his chair, dissecting him.
Amleth took a slow sip from the short glass brought to him. The blood tasted like ash in his mouth. He thought of a thousand possible retorts, a thousand sharp words. He discarded each as the product of temporary insanity. He had dreamt of this moment for nearly two hundred years and not once in his wildest, most morbid fantasies had he imagined this. He was utterly unprepared. He drew a slow breath and settled on practicality. “Last I knew, I was with Rosalyn Murray. Where is she?”
“Lady Rosalyn is with her husband, I expect.”
“We were in an explosion. Was she injured?”
“She was. Quite gravely, I believe. Was that not your intention?”
Amleth’s stomach bottomed out and he dropped his glass of blood. It thudded dully on the thick carpet. “My what?” he said, too stunned to raise his voice.
Roman searched him in confusion. “You bought a house for her and rigged it with explosives.”
Amleth started trembling. “I did no such thing.”
“This is not what Godric has said. Our American colleagues have had a rather difficult time patching it up in the press. King Peter has blamed the Fellowship of the Sun. Were you not planning on handing Rosalyn to the humans for sacrifice?”
Amleth struggled to understand what he was hearing. “You…” he began sharply, then silenced himself. There were not words enough to describe this villainy. “What happened to Ros?” he demanded instead.
“She was happily married on Samhain.”
Roman sat back in his chair. He snapped his fingers and a servant came. He whispered a brief order and the servant disappeared and returned with a set of newspapers. The man deposited them in Amleth’s lap. Every front page bore images of Godric and Rosalyn happily waving as streamers came down. “Fakes,” Amleth said.
“Please, Amleth. I don’t have time for juvenile games. I was there. They were handfast with their pledging knife. Rather unconventional, but it is to be expected. Godric would sooner die than be seen sharing his blood.” Amleth’s eyes raced over the articles. He flipped to a continuation in Le Monde on page nine and traced a thumb over the image. He squinted. The pommel of Godric’s pledging knife was unmistakable. “Can’t fake that, can you?” Roman gloated.
“How would I know?” he shot back.
Roman cast him a patronizing glare. “Don’t insult me, Cumbrian. I know when the Sheriff of London and the Sheriff of Dallas are cavorting. I also know approximately when Rosalyn rose. It is not a difficult leap. You were there for her Awakening. Was it very moving? Did you weep?”
Amleth threw down the papers. “What do you want with me? Why am I here?”
Roman swirled the dregs of his drink and appeared thoughtful. “Godric gave you to me.”
Amleth felt sick. “No.”
Roman made a sympathetic noise. “You nearly killed his wife.”
“No,” he said, his voice barely making a sound. Tears pricked his eyes.
“If it is any consolation, Godric tried to find evidence to the contrary. There simply wasn’t any. I suppose all anyone wants to know is why?”
“Why?” he repeated dumbly. His head was swimming.
“Why you took Lady Rosalyn to a property you bought without Godric’s knowledge and attempted to assassinate her a week before their wedding.” Roman waited for an answer. Amleth’s mouth quivered as he tried to comprehend it. “There was some business about pictures being posted of her online? I even hear you were supposed to have had permission to take her out.” Roman waved off the idea and shrugged. “Godric has always been overbearing. It’s hard to keep track of his rules.”
Amleth sucked in a sharp breath. “You are an abomination of a vampire and a liar! You destroyed my family. I don’t believe a word from your vile mouth.”
Roman blinked lazily, like a savanna cat before the pounce. “You tragic prince.” He clucked his tongue. “This is no way for us to begin.”
Amleth swallowed the bile in his throat. “There is only an ending when it comes to you and me.”
The servant returned with a tray of fresh blood. Roman selected a glass and wafted it beneath his nose. The tray was offered to Amleth and he turned away from it in disgust. Roman dismissed the servant with a flick of his hand. “How do you imagine ending me?” he asked.
Amleth leveled his gaze. “With my hands and my teeth,” he said ferociously.
Roman gave a wolfish grin. He ran a tongue over his incisors, then sobered. “Godric has your children. What do you think he’ll do to them?” Amleth gasped in spite of himself and fought the burn of tears. Roman shook his head. “The Celt is a petty warlord and the New World a land of newborns. He has no power. We could smash him in an instant – if you wanted.”
Amleth laughed bitterly. “You will never turn me against my sire.”
“The Boy Death is not your sire, child. And he has most definitely turned against you.”
Amleth glared and worked his jaw, willing the name to his lips. “Lucius Tarquinius was my maker and you will answer for his murder.”
Delight danced in Roman’s eyes. “Tarquin was a failure, Amleth. He failed you. And now the creature to whom you have given all your undying loyalty has abandoned you once more. How many times has Godric refused you? Exiled you? Cast you out?”
The truth of it seared Amleth to the core. He clenched his eyes against the pain. “Godric will come for me.”
Roman sniffed in feigned pity. “The words of a frightened child.”
“I am no child.”
“You needn’t be frightened here. I’ve not tortured you. I’ve not starved you. I’ve kept you safe.”
“Then show me the door.”
“Gladly. How long will you survive on your own?” Roman raised his nonexistent eyebrows. “Your allies are Godric’s. Your spies are Godric’s. Everything you have is Godric’s. He is a stain on your life, and yet he treats you as a grotesquerie, a mistake to be hidden in the shadows. How used you must feel. What indignities you suffer for his cold vanity.”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me. Did you rehearse all that, or does the horseshit just flow that easily for you?”
Roman sat forward. “You won’t live out the year without my protection and you know it. Godric is on a war path. The only thing keeping him from slaughtering your children is the wife – and perhaps me. You would have true family to help you, but Godric commands your blood.”
“No one commands my blood, Counselor, least of all Godric!”
“Only two children? After all this time? With all of the astonishing skills you possess? And so much more to come.” Roman spoke lovingly, with awe in his voice.
“How dare you speak of my blood as if you know it.”
“I know that Tarquin could not be a good maker to a child who had been led astray by another.” Amleth growled and struggled in his fetters. Roman waited patiently. “I know that a child kept from his true bloodkin cannot flourish undernourished and denied his blood rights. Your elder siblings were all much stronger than you at your age.”
“You know nothing of us!”
“The firstborn? Incomparably magnificent. Arun was Tarquin’s favorite, was he not?”
“Do not speak that name,” Amleth hissed.
“Why not? Arun Tarquinii.” Roman closed his eyes, reveling in recollection. “Mmm, glorious. Such a shame.”
Furious tears clung to Amleth’s lids. “Then why! Why did you let Thea destroy him?”
Roman shrugged. “Because like Tarquin, he wasted himself worshiping a false prophet. If Godric had his way, he would castrate our kind into extinction.”
“Throw me back in the dungeon and spare me more of your lies.”
“It is time to wake up, Amleth, and rise to your true potential. You have been living your nights shackled to a vampire who despises what he is.” Roman’s expression softened. He went Amleth’s chair and knelt. Reaching into the breast pocket of his waistcoat, he pulled out a key. His gaze flicked upward, hopeful. Promises hung poisoned and ready on his lips. “You are not beyond rescuing, my lovely child. It is up to you whether you will help yourself.” He teased at the slot of the manacle with the blade of the key. “I brought you here to protect you. To free you.”
“Get on with it, then.”
Roman hummed in amusement. “There is the little matter of distrust between us.”
“I think we can agree that creeping into your crypt and staking you after sunrise is beneath us both,” Amleth said.
Roman laughed out loud in spite of himself. He seemed surprised by his own reaction. “I brought you here at no small risk to myself.”
“Let us start with a show of good will, then. A little something to sweeten this predicament.”
Again Roman smiled, seemingly against his better judgement. The flecks of gold and yellow shimmered unnaturally in his gaze. “Ever the diplomat.”
Amleth boldly held out his wrists. Roman went to engage the key and he pulled his hands back. “And in exchange?”
“You will stay below, of course,” Roman replied. “You may not be a threat to me, but you could decimate most of my staff if the mood struck.”
“That would be appallingly rude of me, Counselor. Good help is hard to find. Are you not concerned about Maty’s safety?”
“Should I be?”
“Who is she?” Amleth asked.
“Who is she to me?” he specified.
“You tell me,” Roman said. “You enjoyed her, did you not?”
Amleth held his tongue. Roman unlocked him, unwrapping him slowly like a gift, savoring each turn of the key. His touch was clinical, detached, and unflinching against the chains. He handled the silver with his bare hands. “Can I get you anything to ease your recovery?”
“Yes,” Amleth dared. “Thea. Wearing these chains. And a dull knife.”
Roman gave a toothy smile. “My, my, Amleth. You do not disappoint. I’ll see what I can do.”
A/N: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m so thankful for readers like you. Leave a comment for Amleth and let him know what you think about his return! xx, M