Hungary, Late Middle Ages
Run! The one frantic word pounded through Alliana’s head in time with the beating of her racing heart. She could hear him behind her, closer and closer, Mikhal the Merciless, he who had no soul. The one she had been warned about over and over since her clan had moved into the area. The very reason she had been ordered to stay close to the caravan. One leather clad foot slipped on the icy grass, making her stumble, arms pin wheeling, but she regained her balance and raced onward, pursued by the devil himself.
The clouds in the night sky parted, allowing the moon to shine down through the semi leafless trees, making the ice that clung to their black branches glisten and light up the night. A freak early storm had coated everything, giving it a crystallized sheen, turning the world dazzling and wondrous, if not for the fact that it made the ground beneath her slick and treacherous.
Her breath came out in frosty plumes as she ran, her golden hair flying behind her. Once again her foot slid, the thin soles of her well-worn boots giving her no traction on the hazardous terrain, but she righted herself, terror giving her the power to go on.
Branches tore at her hair, pulling the tattered shawl from her shoulders, scratching at her arms and face. Then, the worst happened. A branch tore the large pocket of her faded skirt, spilling the apples secreted there. They tripped her up as they tumbled before her, making her fall to her knees. Her hands skimmed over the frost-covered grass, and though her fingers tried desperately to find purchase, she was unable to stop her fall.
She landed hard; half-frozen apples trapped beneath her body, bruising her ribs, a multitude of petticoats twisting around her legs. Alliana yelped, then shook off the pain, and quickly managed to right herself, grasping frantically at the branches around her for stability. She launched herself forward once again, fleeing in a blind panic. The fall had cost her precious time.
Pounding hooves, gaining ever quicker, rang in her ears, along with her gasps for air and frantic whimpers of terror. He was going to catch her. He was gaining. It would only be a matter of time now. Mere seconds and then her life would be over. Alliana thought again of her maman and her papa and their dire warning about coming onto the devil’s land. She whispered a fervent plea for forgiveness, even as she felt herself being lifted off the ground and pulled onto the horse of the one who had hunted her down.
She felt a rumble of laughter in his chest as he pulled her close. Alliana twisted, kicking, clawing, trying to scratch at his eyes, fighting for her life, but her strength was no match for his. He stopped his mount, wrapping up her struggling body and flailing limbs, with arms like bands of iron, crushing her to his chest as he stared down into her terrified eyes, the moon illuminating his features, thick curly hair, sharp cheek bones, sensuous lips, and harsh dark eyes, gazing at her with amusement and contempt.
She screamed and fought, turning from his piercing gaze, refusing to look the devil in the eye. He was one with the dark magicks, a vampire, one without a soul. Alliana had heard the elders talking. His serfs were terrified of him. Children, even babies, were said to have gone missing, young girls defiled, blood rituals held in the dead of night, torture and screams from the castle. Why oh why had she come here? For the apples that now lay scattered in the wake of her flight? The hunger gnawing at her belly was nothing compared to the terror filling her soul.
“Stop it. Be still, girl.” He squeezed her face in his hand painfully and forced her to look into his eyes. “You’re nothing but a Gypsy thief. I could hang you from that tree this instant.”
He said the words, but his eyes told her he had no intention of doing just that. Though they were cruel, they appraised her features as he turned her head left, then right, smiling a sardonic grin of approval. He then raked them down over her body, staring at her with undisguised lust, eyes glowing, tongue curled behind his teeth, nostrils flaring as he scented the increase in fear his desire caused. She was young, not more than sixteen or seventeen, but she knew what a man did with a woman.
“That’s right, little one. You should be afraid.”
One hand came up to cup her breast, squeezing sharply, and she screamed again, struggling, panicked. He slapped her, stunning her into silence, the force of the blow making her slump in one tightly curled arm as he kicked his mount, clucking softly to the startled horse to resume its journey, and headed for the camp Alliana called home. If this little bit of a thing was who he thought she was, and she had to be with her obvious Gypsy garb and highly unusual coloring, he had plans for the girl.
“Let me go. Please. The apples were rotting from the ice and needing to be picked. They were of no use to you. We’re hungry.”
“You were on my land and you stole from me, girl. That gives me the right to do with you as I please. I am Lord and Master here. There will be a price for your thievery and trespassing. Tell me was Nicolae your great-grandfather? Are you of his blood?”
The whispered tales of the Gypsy Clan of Nicolae and the powerful golden girl child who would be born among them had not escaped Mikhal, even in his lofty castle far above the squalid poverty where his serfs lived. The gossip that the clan had moved into the area a fortnight ago hadn’t escaped him either, though he hadn’t known if the girl had been born or had come of age.
The Gypsy’s were disdained by all because of their different ways, but even so, the fable had woven itself into the folklore of the region. All who lived in that part of Hungary knew the story of the magical golden girl child. She was to be born to the Clan of Nicolae and contain much magic in her soul. She would be recognized by her unusual coloring and beauty, and would be the savior of her people by delivering them from persecution on the day of her eighteenth birthday. After that, they would lead a life of freedom, full of power and riches.
Mikhal’s only thought had been what she could do for the man able to possess her. He didn’t need riches, and he certainly didn’t need more power. He was already known and feared far and wide. He had everything he desired and did as he damn well pleased, committing whatever heinous acts and atrocities that titillated him, but to be practical, no man could ever be too rich or too powerful.
Over time, someone he couldn’t easily crush, could take offense at his activities, or decide a creature such as himself must be destroyed, so the little bundle in his arms could come in very handy. Besides, with dear sister Marishka’s magic, he’d be able to sire a son with the girl he already thought of as his own. Their combined magic would ensure his bloodline was the most powerful one on earth.
Yes, he must have her, and it mattered not that she didn’t want him, nor that her family would protest mightily. There wasn’t a chance in Hell they could oppose him and deny him what he wanted. He was God here, and his word was law. He’d throw the lot of them in his dungeons if they dared to lift a finger against him.
When Alliana still hadn’t answered his question through all of his musings, he shook her and asked again. “Was Nicolae your great-grandfather? Are you of his blood?”
Alliana jerked and fought the iron bands that held her. What did he know of her family? Why? “Bengalo! Bengalo!” She struggled as she screamed at him.
“Yes, my dear. I know I am the devil. That is why I need to see your papa. Your family, or more precisely you, has high magic, and as you know, I am powerful as well. Together we will do great things. You will give me a powerful son.”
Alliana’s eyes opened wide at his words. He meant to keep her. She lifted her hand to claw at his hateful eyes, but he batted it away and caught her wrist in a crushing grip. “I’ll not tolerate any of that, sweet.”
“My family would never sell me to you, to a Bengalo. You will never touch me.” Alliana spat in his face in defiance, the thought of this man, this evil thing, laying his hands on her made her stomach churn. He sneered at her and wiped the spittle from his cheek then forced his fingers into her mouth, making her gag.
“I already am my pet, and I plan on doing so very often in the future. You shall be sold to me or they will be put into my dungeon. I imagine you shall cost a high price, but they will sell you all the same. You are just one girl in exchange for all of their lives. Come tomorrow you shall be my bride.”
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