© Jolynn Raymond 2013
My work is not to be copied, or republished in any form or format.
Taken is a dark love story set in the 1500’s of Hungary. It’s one that begins with terror and cruelty. Mikhal the Merciless is pure evil, a dark anti-hero who will fill you with loathing long before he catches your heart. The road to love for Alliana and Mikhal is a rocky one; and any roses that bloom, also pierce with thorns. You may well be wishing for Mikhal’s demise before you cheer them on to love, but you will cheer them on to love.
Stolen from her family and very way of life, a young Gypsy woman finds herself trapped among evil. She is to be kept by the dark lord who has taken her from all she knew and thrust her into his world of terror. Mikhal is the known and feared Mikhal the Merciless, a rich and heartless Lord, who has a taste for blood and cruelty. Many suspect his true origins. Alliana is a poor Gypsy woman, but her family has much magic. It is rumored that Alliana will bring those around her great wealth and power when she comes of age. She is their treasured golden child. When Mikhal happens upon her one night on his land, he decides he must have her for his own. With the magical help of Marishka, his sister, he plans to create a son with the wild Gypsy, one who will help him rule the earth as he lives out his life of eternity. Will Alliana’s innocence shatter the fierceness of Mikhal’s heart and drive the cruelty from him, or will he cast her aside once she gives him what he seeks?
Beneath the Shadows of Evil
There have been many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding Gypsies throughout history. In an effort to dispel some of those misconceptions and help my readers understand why Alliana behaves as she does, I have listed some facts I uncovered during my research. It is my wish to give readers a clear understanding of her staunch beliefs, and possibly confusing actions, and behaviors. For the purpose of this story, these explanations will be in regard to the Gypsies of old Europe, not for those of modern times.
When a Gypsy child is born, they are given three names. The first is the English name they will use in life when interacting with Anglos, or non-Gypsies. The second is their Gypsy name that will be used in their clan, and the third is a name that the mother whispers in the child’s ear when she first holds the baby. The name is one that will never be heard by another living soul. It is a name given the child in secret to confuse the evil spirits so they will not be able to know or find the child.
Gypsies did not bathe in still water. To do so was marime’ or unclean, and was forbidden. That means pools of water, lakes, or bathtubs were not acceptable. There were precise rules for the order or place the members of the clan bathed in a river. The water must be flowing, and the men bathed at the point furthest upstream, the children second, women third, and menstruating women at the furthest point downstream. A menstruating woman is marime’, or unclean.
It has been said that Gypsies sold their children. In reality, that is not so, but there are reasons for the misconception; Gypsies girls married very young. Girls of 13 or 14 were married in the Anglo world in the Middle Ages, and Gypsy girls were as young as 8 or 9. One reason is because the laws of the clan state that no man can touch a married female. Rape, or merely touching a married girl/woman below the waist, inside the clan, was very rare. Being married young ensured any male would not touch a girl improperly. Her husband doesn’t touch the child sexually until she begins menstruating. Child brides were common as a way of protection, because touching a married girl would mean banishment from the clan.
The Gypsies also had a custom that is much like a reverse dowry. When a girl was married, the groom’s family gave the bride’s family a bride price or gift in order to compensate them for losing her. She was cherished, and the gift was meant to ease their loss, not as a means to buy her. So in reality, there was money given, and often the bride was a young girl, therefore, the belief that Gypsies sold their children was in actuality a young girl being wed for her protection and the family given a gift to help with the loss of their daughter.
A dilko is a headscarf that is worn by all women who are married. A woman must always wear her dilko when others will see her. No one but her husband may see all of her hair. Also, a woman is never to be seen or touched above the ankle or below the waist by anyone that is not her husband. It is against clan law.
A Kris is the governing council in a Gypsy clan. They make the decisions regarding anyone who has violated the laws of the clan and determine their fate. They also make decisions on what is best for the clan in terms of where they live, how they earn money, who should marry, etc. Anglo laws are not considered when making decisions.
In Gypsy culture, a bride’s dress is red. A white dress signals that one is a thief; therefore Alliana feels appalled at having to wear a white dress.
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 pinwheeling, 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 the 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. Although 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 Gypsies 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 a 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.”
“You would imprison them all?”
“Until they rot. You shall be mine one way, or another, girl. I shall either buy you, and in doing so provide your clan with something to live on in the process, or I will hold you in my castle while my guards storm your camp, rounding up every last one of those you hold dear.
“Tell me pet. Are there many of you? Are you starving? The cold has come early. You were stealing apples that were rotting in the ice. Which is the more attractive option to them? To you? Are you honorable, girl?.”
“You speak of honor! I… I can’t….” His touch revolted her; his mere presence terrified her. How could she accept a life in his bed? Bear his son; live in his castle? What of the rumors of bloodshed and terror? He looked like a man, but they said he was the devil, a vampire, a beast. His eyes and touch were so very cold. Alliana shook her head mutely, stunned by the turn of events her rash actions of the night, had caused.
“This is not a matter for you to decide.” Mikhal chuckled at her predicament as the fear, revulsion, and panic flashed through her eyes and her pulse raced anew. He, himself, was quite pleased with the night’s outcome. He’d caught a fine prize. She was warm, beautiful, and so, so tender, and he had no intention of letting her go. Even if she didn’t turn out to be the fabled golden girl child, this one was worth keeping, at least for a while.
Mikhal guided his mount between the dense trees, navigating through the darkness; Alliana perched sideways in his arms, one leg bent, skirt and petticoats in wild disarray. She strained to keep herself erect as the horse gently swayed, loathed to come into contact with him, sitting as stiff as she could. She’d strayed far off the path in her flight, and the ground was rough beneath them, making her fervent wish almost impossible. The forest was dense, and Alliana was quite lost, but Mikhal knew his land well. His subtle movements of the reins were made with hardly a thought.
The moon was shrouded in clouds once more, the fairytale realm of glistening ice, now just a menacing world of dark, twisted shapes. The cries of a distant wolf pack hunting down its prey punctuated the stillness time and again, but neither Alliana nor the horse feared the hungry beasts, both knew the creature that mastered them now was far more frightening than anything that prowled the woods.
As they rode, a jaunty little ditty suddenly spilled from Mikhal’s lips, filling the air around them. He was filled with delight, and as he sang a supremely pleased smile appeared on his smug face. The moon appeared again as well, in time with his smile, casting a spotlight on his features, as if to make sure Alliana could see how pleased her captor was. She did see. She saw, and she heard, and it sickened her. He was so very casual and unfeeling about the drama playing out that night.
At the moment, he was completely self-absorbed. Proud and pleased, congratulated himself on a job well done, oblivious to the daggers Alliana was shooting at him with her eyes. It was almost as if he wasn’t aware of her presence now that he had decided on keeping her. Mikhal the Merciless was after all, used to have everything go his way. The mere idea that he would be denied something he desired never entered his mind. Now that his plan was set in motion, he needn’t worry himself with the girl who would be at the center of it all. She was just a pawn in his game. Granted that pawn had come in the form of a very desirable, shiny new toy, but she was a pawn just the same, a means to an end, albeit a very luscious one.
Alliana decided to interrupt his irritating merry mood, though she was still filled with trepidation. It annoyed her to no end that he was so pleased with himself while she was in this wretched situation. Besides, although he’d frightened her, he hadn’t truly hurt her, and Alliana didn’t think he had any plans to do so at the moment. If she were ever to gain her freedom, now would be the time. She couldn’t be silent any longer. Her life was in this monster’s hands. Perhaps if she made herself undesirable, he’d release her. Her maman had always told her that her sharp tongue turned her into a shrew, and men didn’t like shrews. Perhaps if she were repugnant, he’d give up this folly.
“What were you going to do with the apples anyway?” Her voice held a brazen, disrespectful tone. Very shrew like, Alliana assured herself. It made Mikhal look down at her in shock. “They’re half rotten with the frost. I dare say royalty such as you would get a stomachache from such mealy things. Did you honestly have a need for them?” She’d said the word royalty with just a hint of disdain and the slightest of sneers, knowing that if she pushed him too far, things could go badly.
“I don’t fill my stomach with apples, little girl. My hunger is quenched in other ways. You would be wise to remember that.” His tone was chilling, icy, full of malice. She’d done well in upsetting his mood, at least for the moment, but at what cost? His answer made her blood run cold.
“Then you… They say you drink… ” Alliana wanted to know the truth, but she couldn’t finish her question. The knowledge,the answer,held was terrifying. Instead, she chose to lapse into silence once more. She knew very little about manipulating men, and Alliana realized she needed to heed the icy fingers of fear crawling up her spine before it was too late.
Mikhal smiled at her audacity and toyed with the hem of one petticoat, then stroked her calf with his finger. Alliana raised her hand to slap it away but stopped herself. In her culture, it was unthinkable to touch a woman below the waist. She was horror-stricken. Just the one simple act left her feeling impure, but she also felt completely helpless and afraid. Wanting to strike him, but knowing it would have disastrous consequences, she lowered her hand to her side and balled it into a tight fist, fingernails digging into her palm.
Mikhal raised his eyebrows at both her words and action. Would she boldly ask him such a question? He knew he should be angry, but he decided to let it go just this once. She was daring, beautiful, and feisty. The wench had actually almost struck him. He loved a woman with spirit, and this one looked as though she had a lot of fight. That was good. The mother of his child had to be strong. Too much insolence would have to be squashed at once of course, but a bit of will was acceptable in a mate as long as she knew her place.
“What is your name girl?”
Mikhal laughed out loud. “That isn’t very regal for the golden girl child of Nicolae.”
Alliana dared to glare at him, furious over his teasing, monster, or no; she’d not tolerate an attack on her name. “I never said I was of the blood of Nicolae.”
“You are. Tell me of your name.”
“It’s my pet name. My proper English name is Alliandra, but everyone has called me Alliana, since the day of my birth. I like it.” Her chin had risen in proud defiance at her declaration, and Mikhal again felt a hint of admiration for the girl. She was almost daring him to make some sort of derogatory comment. While it was true this one was tiny, she seemed to have the heart of a lion.
“Then Alliana it shall be. Lady Alliana. A bit commonplace, but it will do.” Alliana wanted to sneer at him and say she was so glad his great and powerful Lordship approved, but wisely held her tongue. She sensed the agreeable man before her could disappear in a flash, only to be replaced by something she didn’t care to know.
“I,” Mikhal said with haughty grandeur, pausing for effect so the mere human in his arms could be sufficiently awed. “Am Lord Mikhal Arcos of Debrecen. I possess all you see, far and wide. This is my domain, pet. Mine and I rule it however I see fit. I am not one to trifle with or anger. I suppose that’s why they have dubbed me Mikhal the Merciless,” Mikhal shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. He cared less what the poor masses thought of him. Fear was good for them. It added an extra bit of spice to their blood.
“You would be wise to remember that as well.” His eyes sparkled with self-satisfaction and his chest puffed with pride as he said the words. Alliana again wanted to slap him for his smugness. He then looked down at her to judge her reaction to his proclamation, expecting reverence and admiration, only to find her staring at him with disgust. Mikhal snorted and curled his finger under her chin, stroking ever so slowly, looking at her curiously. He raised his eyebrows, and then drew them together in a scowl of frustration. He was finding Alliana a bit perplexing. No matter, she would break like all the rest.
The wind picked up, making the icy branches creak and groan in the darkness, sounding for all the world like the cries of some lost pitiful soul, adding to the haunting feeling that she’d been plunged into a nightmare. Alliana shivered, both from the eerie sound, and from the cold, her shawl and her headscarf having been stolen by the trees during her mad flight.
“Are you cold my love? We can’t have that.” Mikhal reached up and gently pulled his fur-lined cloak forward, so it engulfed her slim shoulders. Alliana stiffened at his touch, and tried to shrug it off, despising him and all that was his, but he wouldn’t allow it. “Be good, kitten. I must take care of you. You’re to be my bride, the mother of my son, and therefore I must see that you are well kept.”
Alliana bristled at his words, feeling like a possession, an animal to be tended. “Am I to be watered and well fed like your hounds and horses as well?” Her snappish tone irritated him at once, making his previous tolerance and admiration for her spunk disappear in an instant. What did this little slip of a thing think she was doing, being so insolent? He intended to care for her as no human deserved to be cared for. They were but mere cattle, and he was lifting her from that position, yet she didn’t appreciate it.
A low, animalistic growl came from deep in Mikhal’s throat, making Alliana start with fear. “You ungrateful, insolent little, bitch! How dare you turn your nose up at my generosity?”
As she watched him, wide-eyed, the plains of his face shifted, bones moving, changing, becoming horrifying. His eyes glowed, deep amber gold, his teeth elongated, turning to fangs, the once handsome man, replaced by a hideous beast.
Alliana struggled, trying to free herself, but she was trapped. She shot forward, intending to leap to the ground; only to feel the cruel crush of his arms, backwards only added the press of his hard lean thigh to the mix. She couldn’t move without making him tighten his hold on her. His body was everywhere, surrounding her with his strength, restraining her and bending her to his will. He caught her face in his hand, forcing her to look upon him.
He snarled at her, tongue darting out to slowly lick his lips, upping her level of terror even higher, and then brought his face within inches of her, his amber eyes tearing away any defenses, piercing her soul with their intensity. “I am your Master, and you are to look at me.”
His words were strangely mesmerizing, hypnotizing. She was mewling with terror because of the sight in front of her, but she couldn’t close her eyes. His eyes and voice held her with a powerful force, making Alliana feel as if she had to obey. The sight before her froze the blood in her veins, but she was powerless to move. Her heart pounded as a cold sweat trickled down her spine. She could barely take a breath. Her stomach churned, and goose bumps rose up on every inch of her flesh. Her mind was screaming at her to run, but she had nowhere to go. Shaking, unable to help herself, Alliana stared at him in shock. It was true. It was all true. She’d been captured by the devil himself.
“Not so uppity now are you, pet?” He stroked her hair lovingly for a moment, then fisted it in his hand and pulled her head back, exposing her neck, knowing the act would push her to the brink of insanity and dash any hope she still carried in her heart.
The pulse point of her neck called to him. He breathed deeply, savoring the scent of her panic, almost tasting her wild need to flee. Her heart was beating in her chest like the wings of a trapped little dove, bursting to be free. Mikhal knew her blood would spurt down his throat in rich, thick, delicious waves. All he had to do was take one little bite.
His mouth trembled, held poised to do as his beast commanded. His nostrils flared; he gripped her hair tighter and closed his eyes. Oh, such turmoil, it made him feel alive. The hot coppery richness flowed just beneath her satiny skin, and it took all his willpower not to tear her throat out. His cock swelled with a sudden need. He wanted her, here and now. Needed to toss her to the ground and crush her body beneath his. Grind her into the dirt, as he tore away her innocence, plunging deep, taking, devouring, and then drinking his fill as she cried and begged. The image was so vivid; he could almost feel the tight sheath of her body giving him pleasure. His blood lust and passion for the girl in his clutches almost drove his demon over the edge, but Mikhal reined him in. The girl was to be his bride; she wasn’t some common wench to be rutted in the mud.
Mikhal bent his head and licked slowly, making Alliana shiver and mewl with fright. Those teeth, those awful teeth, were going to tear out her throat. She jerked backwards, into his body, to avoid his hideous mouth and found a new threat. The unyielding evidence of his desire pressed against her bottom, telling her he didn’t just want her blood. Fighting anew, more panicked than ever, the woman in her fearing defilement, the human in her terrorized by the sight of the thing that held her, she opened her mouth to plead, but only managed to produce a single word.
“Yes kitten. I will do as I wish. Not what you wish.”
He grazed his tongue up and down, flicking it gently, teasingly, savoring her very essence, so close. She was so close, and her body was so soft. He knew her blood would be sweeter than ambrosia, more powerful than the headiest of wine. The innocent ones always tasted the best, and this one was rumored to be powerful. How he wanted to drink, to claim her, to make her his, body and soul, but it had to wait. Some things were better taken slowly.
Mikhal pressed fluttering kisses against her throat in time with the pounding of her pulse, making Alliana gasp with fear, and then he chuckled. “Don’t worry; I’ve no intent of draining you pet. As I said, I have other plans. You shall be mated and claimed. Taken in my bed as mine. Mine in flesh, mine in blood. As for your manners, I’ll not tolerate your snappish tongue. I get enough of that from Marishka. Behave.”
Staring into her eyes, Mikhal took one razor sharp fingernail and made a tiny cut on Alliana’s neck. He suckled gently, tasting his bride for the first time, unable to help himself, and then licked the wound closed. The horror of his action did what he intended, and effectively stilled any protest or insolent words from his captive. She lay stiff against him, too frightened to move, mute with fear, the terror seeping from her every pore excited him to no end.
“That’s a good girl. It’s always wise to do as you’re told. I do tend to get testy at times. Take that as a little warning from me to you.” He winked at her then, his face changing back to that of a man, making her stomach clench.
Alliana wanted to rail against God. What had possessed Him to allow such a creature to walk the earth? Her captor had gone from menacing monster to cavalier rouge in a matter of moments, and the simplicity of his transition sickened her. His disguise was perfect, impossible to detect. How could mankind battle such a beast? It was easier to know thy enemy when you could always see the evil in his eyes. This was treacherous and supremely deceiving.
On the surface, he was handsome, terribly handsome. Even in her terror and current predicament she had to admit that. His skin was like smooth, pale, porcelain. Any woman would die for it. His lips were so very sensuous, and his eyes the deepest blue when his beast was at bay. The sculpting of his cheekbones was exquisite. He would almost be called lovely, if not for the virility that exuded from every pore. Alliana pitied all the unknowing maidens who had happily gone with him, titillated by his looks, only to find themselves in the clutches of evil. She knew what lay beneath the surface, but she couldn’t deny the attraction of his face, the pull of his eyes, or the charm of his voice. Part of her wanted to slap him, though she knew that wasn’t wise, the rest of her was shaking in fear, and a very tiny part of her, the woman in her, wanted to trace her fingers over his cheekbones. In the end, she just bit her lip and turned away, unable to stand the sight of him anymore. He was dangerous, so very dangerous, and she’d have to stay vigilant if she intended to survive.
“Ah, I’ve upset you my dear. No matter. Sit up now and do behave. We’re entering the village. There won’t be anyone about, but even so, you’ll be Lady Arcos soon, and we must keep up appearances. Smile my love.”
Was he mad? He acted as if she was some willing bride touring her new homeland, greeting the peasants, and yearning to make a good impression. Never mind, she’d do as he asked. The last thing she wanted was for his demon to arise again. Alliana fixed a frozen smile on her face and stared at the village before her with unseeing eyes, sitting tall, trying to put space between herself and Mikhal, but he would have none of it. He curled his arm around her waist and pulled her close, leaning in to smell her hair, and then whisper in her ear.
“Don’t even think of calling for help. No one here would dare lift a finger, and you’d only embarrass yourself. Besides, it would make me ever so angry. Do you want to make me angry, kitten?”
“Alliana,” His voice had turned sinister once again and Alliana could feel the tension in his body. What had she done? “I prefer ‘No, my Lord.’ A man such as I; must be addressed properly.” When she didn’t reply he gripped her waist tightly, showing his displeasure in no uncertain terms.
“Forgive me, my Lord. I shall address you as you wish from now on.”
“See that you do, pet.”
The horse’s hooves struck the hard packed dirt as they entered the village. Up ahead they could hear running feet and cries of panic. Doors slammed, shutters were thrown into place, and lanterns winked out one after another, until the place was dark and shut up tight. Every man, woman, and child had fled at their approach. A dog barked; a horse whickered; one last shutter banged shut, and then silence reigned. It was as if no one lived there.
“I’m afraid I never get much of a welcome unless I insist. Pity isn’t it?”
Mikhal’s laughter rang out through the night, and Alliana was nearly strangled by her anger and the harsh words she forced herself to hold back. He was despicable. Everyone here was terrified of him, and he loved it.
They continued through the village without encountering anyone. Even the pub was shut tight. The laughter and bawdy talk had died. The creaking sign blew in the breeze, welcoming no one. It was usually the only place of merriment in the destitute village, but if there were patrons inside now, they were waiting in silence for him to pass, huddled over their ale, wishing they were home protecting their families, praying he wouldn’t stop at one of their houses and whisk their daughters away into the night.
That was an occurrence that had happened far too often, but no one dared to face Lord Arcos, none dared to stop him. He was hated and feared by all who served him, but he was also mighty. He owned every last one of them, or at least everything they owned. He was the all-powerful, brutal, landowner. They were mere serfs, who had to do as he bid. His dungeons were legendary; his cruelties widely known; his name whispered to children at night, to keep them good and safe. He was the stuff of nightmares.
“Not so talkative now, are you, Poppin? Have I frightened you, Luv?”
Alliana didn’t speak. She had nothing to say. They would be at her camp soon, and images of her maman and papa swam in her head. Oh, the horror they would feel when they saw her riding in, clutched in the arms of Mikhal the Merciless.
“Never mind, here we are. You just continue to hold that tongue and let me bargain. I’m willing to pay a high bride price for you, Kitten, but I won’t let them cheat me.”
Any further conversation was put to a halt by their arrival at the camp Alliana called home. She’d squeezed her eyes shut at their approach, dreading the sight she knew would meet her. Shouts, gasps, and cries of horror filled her ears as they moved forward, and the flickering firelight of a dozen campfires danced behind her eyelids like the flames of Hell. The whole scene was surreal, like some twisted nightmare into which she’d been plunged.
How could she ever face them? All would be looking at her with eyes full of dread and despair when she dared to open hers. She felt shamed, full of deep remorse and regret, neither of which would do anything to save her, nor change her fate now. Their faces would be full of pain, full of questions, maybe even full of accusations. She’d always been too impulsive. They’d called her the bravi’os one. The wild one, and said she was too free spirited for her own good. She’d been told time and again that her stubborn, willful ways weren’t proper, but she had always rebelled, and now that impulsive behavior had caught up to her.
Alliana took a deep breath and slowly opened her eyes; the time had come to pay for her sins. She looked up with a pleading expression on her face, one that begged forgiveness, one that cried for rescue. As she dared to gaze upon the people she called family, her heart sunk in despair. Every one of them looked as if their world had come crashing down upon their heads. They were shocked and horrified, and knew at once that their precious golden child was in the clutches of a monster they could hardly fight.
All who beheld him easily surmised Mikhal’s identity; his description was known far and wide, as was the crest on his leather jerkin. His silk shirt with its extravagant lace collar and cuffs, doe skin leggings, fur-lined cloak, and highly polished black boots spoke of wealth, as did the sneer of arrogance on his face. No one in these parts had riches except for the devil that resided in the castle on the hill, and every soul was certain that the man holding their Alliana; had to be Mikhal the Merciless.
Alliana’s eyes shifted to her maman. She was sobbing, trying to reach her baby girl, but was restrained by her papa. Her friend Natalya stood on the other side of her maman, looking distressed and near tears. Many of the women were waving their skirts, sending a curse, an amaria, towards the man who held her, but Alliana knew in her heart that it would make no difference now. He was a curse in and of himself.
Other women were quickly herding the children into a wagon, not wanting them in the presence of the Bengalo, fearing for their lives. It was said that the littlest of ones in the village, vanished in the night. What disaster had she brought down on her people?
Everyone in camp was awake from the young to the old. Not a soul was tucked into bed, as they should have been at this late hour. Alliana imagined they had been up searching for her since her disappearance had become known. Now their worst fears had been realized, the devil did indeed have the girl who held their future in her hands.
Mikhal was quite right in his assumption about her identity. Alliana was, in fact, the Golden Girl Child of Nicolae. She knew it well, had, in fact, been told of the prophecy and her future duty to her people since she’d been a toddler on her papa’s knee. All her life she had been protected, it was one reason her wild behavior had been so upsetting to her clan, but she was also already revered, so the punishment for such behavior had always been mild. Banishment was unthinkable; her papa didn’t have the heart to use a heavy hand, and she had no husband to do what many thought was sorely needed.
The Kris had met many nights to decide on Alliana’s marital state when she’d been a young girl. Those nights had filled Alliana with trepidation. She hadn’t wanted a husband at all, preferring to do as she pleased. She’d vehemently refused to speak of any man whom her family thought might be suitable, much to everyone’s dismay. Most girls were given no choice. It was the family’s decision, but Alliana was special. Her opinion had to be taken into account because of what her future held for them. Finally, they had decided to wait until the age spoken of in the prophecy. She would remain unwed until she was eighteen, and then they would see if a marriage was the best thing. Her future husband would have a hold on some of her power, so he must be chosen with extreme care, if at all. The magic she was to be blessed with; was not entirely understood, so the Kris had conceded that it was best if Alliana stayed close to her family, and be watched over by the entire clan.
She hadn’t been idle during those years though. Her godmother Sabina was the clan’s mystic and seer. She knew of the magicks and herbs. Doctored the sick, was a midwife to the women, preformed spells of various nature as she saw fit. She was both feared and revered, and had schooled Alliana in the magicks as well, training her, preparing her, giving her the knowledge of herbs and spells that would be of use when she gained her prophesized powers.
Unfortunately, as of yet, Alliana was unable to perform the simplest of spells. Even her medicinal potions failed to help the sick or injured. Something always went wrong. She did just as her godmother instructed, but the results were always a disaster, or nothing at all happened. Over time, it had been decided it was best if Alliana refrain from any sort of magical activities for the safety of those around her. She would learn best, when her magick was better understood.
The shrieking voice of her maman brought her back to the horrors at hand. “My baby. Release my baby. Bengalo! Bengalo! You shall be cursed if you dare to touch her.”
“Silence, I haven’t harmed her, though I could have. The girl was on my land, stealing apples.”
Her godmother raced forward, brushing her skirts against one of Mikhal’s highly polished boots, her action a highly feared curse in Alliana’s world, but Mikhal merely laughed. He had no belief in such foolishness. Hearing this outrage, her godmother spit on the ground at his feet instead. This act of disdain did catch Mikhal’s attention. No one showed such disrespect to the feared, Mikhal the Merciless.
Mikhal pulled his foot from the stir-up and placed it against her chest, shoving the old woman back, a scowl of contempt on his face. She went sprawling on the ground, puffs of dust rising around her, shocked and full of rage, as the other Gypsies gasped. Alliana struggled, horrified. She twisted in his arms until she faced him, beating her fists upon his chest. How dare he treat her godmother in such a way? Mikhal snarled and caught her wrists, wrapping her up in his arms to hold her tight, nipping at her neck with a low growl, in an unmistakable warning.
He ran his tongue the length of her slender neck, then hissed in her ear. “Shall I show my demon to your clan, pet? Shall I terrify them further and let them know just what shall be bedding their favorite child?” Alliana shook her head quickly, not wanting her family to know the horror of his beast. The memory of his twisted features, glowing eyes, and glistening fangs was still sharp in her memory.
Seeing the Bengalo manhandle Alliana, her godmother shrieked, and spat again as she rose to her feet. Griping an amulet that hung from her neck, holding it up in the firelight towards Mikhal, she shouted a string of words in her Gypsy dialect that made the others gasp, and then looked him in the eyes. “Pain and terror will come to you if you touch this child.”
“She is hardly a child now is she? She is quite grown, well past the age you usually marry them off, and I’ve decided to take her as my bride. I find her quite fetching. As for the pain and terror, that is mine to give, not receive. You would do well to remember that. Keep your curses, old woman, they have no effect on me.”
Her godmother was still reeling from Mikhal’s first statement. His bride? How? Why? Gypsies were considered even lower than serfs and peasants. “Why would the likes of you want a poor Gypsy girl for a bride?”
“You prefer I toss her to the ground, rape her, and tear out her throat? Or perhaps you prefer I throw her in my dungeon for being a filthy Gypsy thief, and defile her day after day until I tire of her then toss her to my minions? I want to wed the girl. What shall it be for her, honor or dishonor? You know who I am and what I am that in itself is reason enough to do as I say.”
Her maman had paled at his words, and her grandfather had come forward to collect her godmother, pulling her back before her rash actions caused the devil to harm their golden child. He stared at the Bengalo, who was ruining their lives with a calm he didn’t feel, and finally spoke. “Let us talk this through.”
“The only thing to discuss is her bride price. I intend to have her. Tonight.”
Her grandfather’s face was stoic, but Alliana could see a slight tremor in his hands as he struggled for composure. Finally, he nodded. “We will talk out a deal.”
At his words, Alliana knew her fate was sealed. The surrounding forest seemed to close in, the firelight becoming brighter, the air thicker, harder to breathe. Every detail of the place and time was being burned into her memory. She gazed at the painted wagons, the fires that always meant warmth and fellowship, the women in their head scarves and brightly colored skirts; saw the children peeping out wide eyed from the curtained windows, and realized that soon it would all be gone. She loved these people; this was her life. The wandering, the freedom, the kinship and laughter of a close-knit clan, it was who she was.
Now it was all to be ripped away. She knew her life would never be the same again. Her body began to shake with the force of her loss. Her lip trembled, and she bit it to stifle her cry of despair. The images before her began to swirl. She squeezed her eyes shut as her head began to swim. Mikhal felt her shiver and looked down. The feisty girl in his arms had turned pale at the turn of events. It wouldn’t do at all for her to faint. He fully intended for her to listen as her fate was sealed.
He stroked her cheek gently, no sense scaring her now unless he was forced to. The girl seemed a bit traumatized as it was. “Alliana Dear, open your eyes. This is all about you, and you must take part in it.” She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head in defiance, having no desire to stop the blackness that was taking over, and Mikhal growled deep in his chest. He found her resistance most irritating. It appeared tenderness was not warranted yet. She would learn very soon that everyone always obeyed him immediately, or suffered the consequences. He would have to reprimand her later in private for such a public display of impertinence.
“DO IT NOW, Alliana!” Alliana’s eyes flew wide open, the cobwebs of blackness disappearing in a flash. She again bit her lip, not wanting her clan to hear her cries of fear. Instead, she mustered all her dignity and sat as straight as she could, but Mikhal wouldn’t have it, he forced her back against him violently, making her teeth snap together.
“Tell me her bride price so we can be off. This is becoming tiresome, and it seems as if dear Alliana needs to be taken home. She’s not looking well.”
Again her maman wailed; she struggled to be nearer to Alliana, but her papa would have none of it. Ignoring them, her grandfather focused on the devil before him. “While it is true she is shebari’, she is not available.”
Mikhal snarled. “I don’t wish to dicker in a language I don’t understand. Enough of your Gypsy talk.”
“Forgive me, your Lordship. While it’s true, the girl is of age; her father and the clan elders have not offered her for marriage. Not to you, not to anyone.”
Mikhal smirked at this proclamation. The old man was practically confirming the chit’s identity. “And why pray tell is that? She’s healthy, able, and beautiful, a good wife for any man. She’ll produce many fine children.”
Her grandfather looked perplexed at this statement. How could this vampire produce an heir? No matter, Alliana, would not be his. “She is simply not available.”
“Must we speak in lies? I much prefer to haggle over the true matter and be done with it. The girl I captured is the fabled Golden Girl Child of Nicolae. We all know it. Now how much do you want for her bride price? Horses? Silver? Furs? I expect it to be high. You want her to ensure your future. I want her to strengthen my bloodline. Name your cost and my soldiers shall bring it at once. I wish for this unpleasantness to be over with.” He sneered with disdain at them all. They were in shock over his knowledge of their secret.
Her godmother could not hold her tongue at his last proclamation. “Your kind cannot sire children. Your seed is cold and dead. That is a fool’s quest.”
“You are sorely mistaken, old woman. My dear sister Marishka; is wise in the ways of dark magicks. Alliana shall give me a son, and he will help to ensure my reign of terror continues for hundreds of years.”
“You would make her a broodmare for the devil!”
“I assure you she shall be kept quite comfortably as long as she behaves jewels, silks, furs, even a handmaiden. She’ll never lift a finger except to serve me. Luxuries she has never known. She’ll never be hungry or cold either. None of which you can promise her. I dare say she’ll be much better off.” Mikhal looked around him with disgust, turning up his nose at what he considered to be a dirty and squalid place. “Your golden child will lead a good life with me, in my castle, under my thumb, doing as I bid.”
“You are greatly mistaken, My Lord. The girl is merely troublesome, headstrong, and wild. That is why she is unwed.”
“Liar! A good man could curb that streak of insolence in one night, and if that is your excuse, then its all the more reason I should marry the wench. I have very persuasive ways to tame her wildness. It bothers me in the least. Now, I’m finding all this talk irritating, do we have a bargain or must I defile her here and now and imprison the lot of you? Be it known that dear Marishka has a taste for the very young. Even your children will go to my dungeons.”
“She is not what you think. She’s a mere Gypsy girl.”
“Her coloring and the fact she is not wed say otherwise. Must I rip the front of her blouse to expose the mark we all know lies just above her breast?” Alliana’s heart sank even further at his words. For a second, she’d had a faint glimmer of hope that her grandfather could talk Mikhal into releasing her, but he knew about her birthmark. At top of her left breast was a mark in the shape of a teardrop. It told the world of her true identity.
When he was met with stunned silence, Mikhal did just that, making the entire encampment gasp. He rubbed his thumb over the telltale mark, then kissed it, then moved a hand to her leg, sliding her petticoat up and stroking Alliana’s calf, remembering how it had upset her, wanting to rile these people up and make them understand how serious he was. He intended to take what he wanted, one way, or another.
Her maman and godmother cried hysterically at his actions; her papa and grandfather paled. She’d been horribly shamed, and was now marime’, dirty and polluted from his touch. Gypsy women simply weren’t touched below the waist, ever, except by their husbands. Ever.
Alliana bit her lip and bowed her head, tears filling her eyes. The only way to rectify the situation was for Mikhal to be banished from the tribe, which obviously couldn’t happen since he wasn’t part of it, or for him to marry her. She knew he didn’t know the significance of his action, and was ignorant of their customs, but it made no difference. What he’d done had sealed her fate. They couldn’t see their golden child soiled like this.
Just as Alliana suspected, Mikhal hadn’t known the significance of his deed, but he immediately saw the change that came over the older man who’d been confronting him. Gone was the defiance, replaced by a weary resignation. Going in for the kill, he squeezed Alliana’s thigh through her skirts, smirking at them all the while. “Is she for sale now?”
“Come to my wagon and we shall make a bargain. The girl will be delivered to you tomorrow at nightfall.”
“You think me a fool? By morn, you’ll have disappeared with the girl and my silver.”
“Your men can watch us. Alliana can’t come with us any longer. She must wed you to make things right.”
“No. She comes with me tonight. I insist.”
“Her maman must prepare her for marriage. There are customs.”
“Your customs be damned. She isn’t a Gypsy anymore. She’s to be Lady Arcos, and will have nothing else to do with you. Once you are paid, you are to leave this area forever. As for preparing her for marriage, I am quite capable of teaching my new pet what is expected of her. Now what do you want? I refuse to even dismount. This has taken far too long.”
Alliana began to sob at his words, her veil of composure slipping away. She wouldn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to her friends and family. Mikhal looked down at her and scowled, making it clear she was displeasing him but she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to scream and rail at him, to beat her fists upon his chest and scratch out his eyes, but she knew her life and the lives of those she loved depended on her cooperation. Besides, there was honor at stake. She wouldn’t bring shame upon her family.
“Horses and cattle, five of each plus five hens and a good sow, a milk cow, ten sacks of parched corn, five of dried beef, furs for the coming winter, and fifty pounds of silver.” Her grandfather rattled off the immense list like it was nothing, though his heart was breaking inside. It took every bit of will he possessed not to fling himself at the devil before him, but he knew this was, as it had to be. The girl had strayed from camp, and in the process had been caught and defiled. The only way to right the wrong was for her to be wed. He’d always known Alliana’s impulsiveness would lead to disaster, now they all must pay the price. He also knew that someway, somehow, they were going to get their golden girl back. Marriage or no, that beast wouldn’t keep her from them.
“Done.” Mikhal said the word without batting an eye. He was weary of the whole drama. “I will send my men as soon as things can be gathered. Once they arrive, you will be escorted away from here. If you’re wise, you’ll never return. Alliana belongs to me now, and if I catch any of you near her again, you’ll be flayed alive in my dungeon, to be nibbled on by the rats and whoever else might take interest.”
That said Mikhal began to turn the horse’s head, flicking the reins. “Noooooo! Maman. Papa please.” Her maman broke free of her father’s hold and rushed forward, stopping boldly in front of Mikhal’s stallion.
“The deal is done. You have our word. Please let her down so I may hold her one last time.”
“Your word means nothing to me.”
“Please My Lord. I beseech you.”
Mikhal gripped Alliana’s chin tightly, staring into her eyes. “If I let you down, Poppin, do you promise to be a good girl? There will be dire consequences if you defy me.” Mikhal was conceding, not out of any hint of tender emotion, but because he hoped it would stop her sniveling.
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Very well.” He released his hold on her, and Alliana slid to the ground, racing to where her maman stood.
“Please maman. Please don’t make me do this.”
“Alliana you must. I love you, my angel. Be a good girl for me. Do as he says. He is to be your husband so you must do all he says.” Her mother reached inside her blouse and pulled a medallion free, slipping it quickly around Alliana’s neck.
Alliana held it tightly in one fist, eyes misting over. “I’ll be good maman. I love you too.”
They hugged fiercely, and her maman whispered in her ear. “We’ll find a way to free you. Your godmother is wise, and you shall be powerful someday. The amulet has magic you can call upon when you reach eighteen. Keep it safe. Until then, do as you’re told so you may survive. Serve him as a wife serves a husband.”
“Enough.” Mikhal moved the horse forward and lifted Alliana out of her mother’s arms, kicking it hard as he did so. The jerking of the stallion made the medallion fall from Alliana’s fingers. It bounced upon her breast as the horse picked up speed, catching Mikhal’s attention. Seeing it, he grimaced with disapproval, yanking it from her neck and hurling it to the ground.
“Your old days and ways are over, my love. Don’t ever forget it. You are mine; now.” That said; he gathered her close, face raised to the moon, and let out a cry of triumph that could be heard for miles as they raced into the night. He had the Golden Girl Child of Nicolae in his arms, and soon her belly would swell with his son. What more could a man ask for?
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