Chapter 2 - First Contact
Lanterns highlighted the horses in the courtyard and from the shadows behind them, stepped a dark-clad figure in tight-fitting leather pants and a bodice, a hooded cloak with high boots. Alena found her presence both mysterious and chilling.
Rowan’s gait betrayed the kind of self-assurance attained from being self-reliant, a trait gained from having faced the odds and triumphed, Marcus deduced as he studied her. She didn’t have the gracefully elegant stride of Alena which directly resulted from her birthright, her education, and awareness of the position of power she held. Alena also watched Rowan approach and thought she spotted something predatory in the way this stranger moved, but it didn’t compare to the powerful, almost panther-like gait of Marcus. There was no doubt that Marcus was a natural leader with a strong personality. Her father saw the potential in him and noted Marcus’s innate ability to make people both like and respect him. Her new Sire may also be slow to anger, but one dared not discount the danger he posed to any adversary. The vultures who descended on this castle the moment the council declared Victor dead and Marcus, his heir, swiftly learned their mistake. They barely rattled his defenses, and his retaliation left them reeling.
Rowan stopped some distance from them and made no further move to acknowledge their presence. One scarcely noticed the tension which revealed a wariness that was only reasonable under the current conditions. They were all wary, expecting treachery and death. The divide between them somewhat resembled a chasm. Neither side discounted the knowledge that if circumstances hadn’t drastically changed, Rowan would never have gotten an invitation to enter between those imposing gates.
“Show yourself,” Marcus demanded. Rowan hesitated to comply, and he accepted that she wouldn’t respond. He regretted acknowledging that Alena was right; he made an error in summoning Rowan, but they didn’t really have a choice.
Rowan lowered the hood to expose her head, just as he reluctantly re-evaluated his options. Her appearance proved a shock to them both. The lanterns highlighted the green and brown of her eyes. The dark blond of her hair had corn-colored highlights which framed a face of pure, natural beauty. Her features were familiar seeming and shockingly vampire for a halfling.
The undeniable truth lay ingrained into every part of her: Victor’s blood had forged both these exceptional women. The similarities in their built, carriage and the structure of their faces were uncanny. They were undoubtedly sisters, and the lesser attributes of their mothers only made them individual. Rowan’s looks carried a more earthy cast while Alena leaned toward the too perfect elegance of the vampire.
Rowan’s gaze restlessly measured both them and the darkness beyond. Something taut and coiled lived under the surface of her skin, and Marcus surmised that she fought herself in a constant battle to remain in command of her inner animal. He sensed that she had way too much restraint to tolerate any weakness: especially in their vicinity. Rowan would see Alena as the half-sister she envied and who would loathe the idea of her existence, while he was the intruder who succeeded their dangerous and often cruel sire. He wasn’t far wrong, and they were the last people Rowan wanted to confront on this moonless night.
Rowan understood that Victor felt he loved her human mother: although she wasn’t sure Victor even grasped the concept. He allowed Ilse to conceive an infant her body wasn’t equipped to sustain and rejected her wish to end the pregnancy. He turned Ilse into a vampire to save the Halfling child in her womb before killing Ilse, at her own insistence. She hadn’t chosen the turn, and she refused to become an out-of-control killer.
The fact that Ilse wanted to die, didn’t make Rowan despise Victor any less. She reasoned that if he hadn’t crossed the line, Ilse wouldn’t have fallen pregnant. If he hadn’t strayed from his marriage bed, Rowan wouldn’t have been born to a life of misery. She never once blamed her mother for anything. From her point of view, Ilse became the innocent victim of a vampire’s will.
Despised by mortals, and scorned by vampires, Rowan fit nowhere. She rarely received kindness from either species and the lessons Victor taught her in trust, had shattered the last of her illusions. Life created armor around her heart, and with the passing of seasons, the barrier grew thicker. Marcus observed her carefully, and he spied her defenses in her eyes. He estimated that winning Rowan’s confidence would prove a near impossible task, and if it were conceivable, it would take little to lose it again. She might be a dangerous, and unpredictable ally.
A month ago, Rowan would have paid no heed to the letter which invited her to this castle. That Rowan would have argued that no force on earth could force her to this place her sister and father before her, called home. The perimeter walls of the ancient castle stood sentinel over the ages. It witnessed the rise and fall many masters, both mortal and vampire. The passage of countless feet smoothed the weathered cobblestones but also imbued them with the memory of several wars. Humans and vampires both spilled their lifeblood on this courtyard over matters of pride, faith, greed, and fear. From the battlements to the extensive gardens, this historic building reeked of wealth and influence, but also of privilege and paranoia. The drawbridge, the towering walls, and moat, which might have been essential to the first human inhabitants, were both pretentious, and ineffectual in the age of vampires. Such things may deter a human army, but it would never keep a vampire out.
After all the death Rowan witnessed since the senseless attacks on helpless humans started, along with the wholesale extermination of vampires, their request gave her hope. She believed they might be able to tell her what the hell was going on.