Chapter 6 - Common Enemy
Rowan sped to where they tied up the horses, just inside the gate. Striker shivered uncontrollably with eyes wild, and fangs bared, while the other two horses remained unperturbed. She found this very strange. Always more sensitive and alert to changes in his environment than regular steeds, the vampire horse could pick up on something beyond the sensory range of his companions. Whatever he perceived, seemed to terrify him, and nothing much unsettled the beast. Typically, his restlessness would translate to the other horses, but they remained unaffected. It made no sense.
She scanned the shadows for Tiny and Ralph, but they had disappeared. She hadn’t heard them leave and they would go nowhere without their horses, not of their own accord. Neither would they pursue any course of action without her or without at least alerting her to their intentions. Rowan caught the faint scent of human blood, stirred up by a listless breeze. Why she didn’t notice it before, she could not tell.
Her heart rate doubled as the fear of loss and the knowledge of disaster warred with each other in her chest. A distorted sound made Rowan step away from the horses to approach the gate. Something bounced over the paving and rolled to a standstill at her feet, and a spray of bright red blood marked its passing. Her stomach clutched, her eyes urgently investigated the darkness, but her keen senses felt muddled as if some form of interference made it impossible for her to perceive what should be right there.
She knew what lay at her feet, and yet she instinctively crouched to pick it up. Her manner became predatory as she studied the night. Anger welled up inside her, but right alongside it birthed a fear she could not deny. Rowan finally allowed her gaze to settle on the bloodied thing she held suspended from its hair, in her left hand.
Rowan frowned as she realized what she already knew, it was Price, instead of Tiny or Ralph, who had accompanied her. Price whom they left in charge of their camp. Someone or something took the two best mercenaries she ever met, while she spoke with Marcus and Alena. When they arrived, she knew there were a few guards in the towers and men on the walls. A natural precaution on the side of Marcus, now there were none. The night appeared to have swallowed them, and Rowan knew only the day walkers could have come this close to them, without notice. Her mind could not credit the fact, and if she were superstitious, she would contribute what happened to some strange magic.
Rowan stared numbly at Price. He saved her life by allowing her to become one of his soldiers. He promoted her when he noticed her ability to lead and made her one of his lieutenants. He also reluctantly remained at camp because they refused to risk his life. He was their leader, and without Price, his people would perish. She knew what they meant this message to convey. Their precautions had been futile. The men and women whose lives she shared and who were like family to her these last two years, were all gone. Dead. Just like everyone who ever extended a hand in friendship to her. Almost everyone, Rowan corrected herself.
The bitterness in her soul threatened to consume her. Her feelings of guilt, regret, and anger were an automatic reaction forged by a lifetime of conditioning. Rowan moved at vampire speed as she surged to her feet, and with two powerful lunges, she launched the head over the wall with all of her strength, accompanied by a roar of raw fury.
Her heart ached with the familiar feeling of loss. Every time she allowed people into her life, Rowan promised herself she wouldn’t get attached. She would keep it impersonal, and without fail, she ended up having to grieve for someone. When would she learn? When would she ever become as callous as the man who sired and abandoned her? Rowan angrily demanded of herself.
Laughter echoed from the darkness in a hollow, eerie way and hooves pounded the earth, but they didn’t belong to horses. The noises made Striker rear, and paw the ground in terror while he whinnied shrilly. How had the creatures gotten so near this well-guarded castle, without alerting them to danger and how had they dispatched those supposed to guard these walls, in absolute silence? Rowan wondered.
“Stand,” Rowan ordered, and the panicked horses were slow to obey, but they quieted down, still eyeing the blackness outside of the gates nervously. The whites of their eyes were showing, but Striker was eyeing her too, reacting to the roller coaster of emotions broiling in her chest as he responded to their odd connection.
Some impulse made Rowan dive and roll. With a single bound she cast herself behind the horses, and an arrow hit into the side of something wooden where she just stood. One horse whined and screamed. It fell heavily and again the sound of hooves disturbed the night, but this time it belonged to horses.
Her instincts had barely saved her life. Rowan hadn’t expected an assassin to attempt to kill her, why the thought didn’t occur to her, she could not say. Experience should have taught her by now, to anticipate the unforeseen. Nothing else happened and the sounds of the night returned one by one.
The wounded horse lay on its side, and it breathed heavily. An arrow struck its belly and penetrated so deeply that only the feathers protruded. It caught the lungs and pink fluid frothed around the hole. Whatever strange quality possessed the night until then, lifted.