Blood and War

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Chapter 40 - Snowball

“We have brought a priest to perform both rites,” the man threw the comment down like a gauntlet. This was the test, and this was the choice. In or out. His eyes measured them both, and he was almost challenging them to protest.

It was not much of a choice. On their own, they did little more than whittle away at the edges of the Eastern army. They were annoying them slightly but making no real headway.

With the backing of the most powerful vampire in the land, even if only covertly, their chances were greater than they could have hoped for.

“The witnesses are ready,” Dillon acknowledged and their eyes measured each other across the space separating them.

Dillon stared the Northman down before he turned to Catherine. Her eyes were once again hooded, wary and unreadable. He turned back to face the Northman.

They stood there, and all of them were uneasy. Dillon was very aware that this could be the trap to end it all, but he knew Catherine well enough.

If she trusted Aldrich, then he would trust her. Dillon reached out and offered her his hand. Their eyes met and held for the longest moment. Catherine took his hand without hesitation.

“Gently,” Dillon breathed when he pulled her forward to stand beside him and with a quick look at him, her grip gentled to a whisper.

It was good to know that Catherine was as unsettled as he was. Marriage to her was the last thing on his mind when he went up that mountain at nightfall,.

His aunt and nieces were going to disown him, yet his dwindling hope threatened to smolder back to life. This was their one chance to heighten the odds in their favor.

Dillon turned back to his tent and started walking. He didn’t let go of her hand, and she did not pull hers from his grasp.

The mountain men followed them to the tent, and they ignored the armed men with their weapons as if they were inconsequential.

With a dismissive wave of his hand, Dillon commanded his men to be at their ease. They stood reluctantly and uneasily aside.

Dillon motioned for them to return to what they were doing before, and still, they milled around. He chose to ignore them and entered the tent. He allowed Catherine to enter before him and the gesture did not go unnoticed.

Once they were all inside, the large tent seemed to shrink to the size of latrine with all those large bodies inside it. Yet, there was no smell of sweat and unwashed male.

For all the world, the tent suddenly had the smell of faraway woods. It was the scent of wild places, high mountain passes and some comfortingly familiar scent he could not place. It was somehow connected to a childhood memory of feeling... safe.

He was definitely losing it, Dillon decided as he turned to face the Northmen and pulled Catherine to stand by his side. The gesture did what it was supposed to, and it eased the stance of the men.

“Ready your witnesses and we will start the rites. We will allow your lady to dress more appropriately,” the Northman spoke as if he were a general addressing his troops. Dillon gritted his teeth and remained silent.

“This is our man, Priest,” the shorter Northman took charge as if he was born to do so. His manner said more than words that he was a leader, not a follower.

His men obeyed his every order, spoken and unspoken, soundlessly, without question and immediately. These things spoke of discipline and familiarity.

The Priest moved from the back, and he was as tall as any of the others but gaunt and almost wiry. He was a tough, hard, pale man with a face so stern it would scare small children.

To add to it all, he had one blue eye and one brown eye, which unsettled one even more. The crucifix around his neck was a dagger, Dillon realized.

Priest bowed first to Dillon and then to Catherine. Dillon never even realized his hand tightened involuntarily around hers, or how he had moved slightly in front of her as if to protect her from them.

Catherine noticed, and she smiled ever so slightly. She was used to men such as the Priest. She found Dillon’s response surprising and unexpectedly unsettling.

“I am a slave, and I own no dress. I will marry as I am,” Catherine sounded all haughty, proud and powerful princess.

The Northman turned to her. His eyes were merrily dancing at the challenge in her voice and the incongruous logic of her manner opposed to her words.

“I am Robert, and I have grown blunt in the wilderness, your Highness. Aldrich has sent you a dress and for you sir, your true face,” the men snickered quietly. Robert was always blunt.

Dillon frowned because he felt suddenly uneasy and he did not understand what it was Robert meant.

Without being told what to do, the men brought in two identical chests. One was bound in silver and the other in gold. Bundled among their large frames, they herded in Althea and Dina. Both women looked very uneasy and on the edge of panic among these wild men.

The chests were both heavily ornate, carved from solid mahogany and clearly very old. The craftsmanship was beautiful and embossed in the lid was Aldrich’s family crest.

On the sides were scenes of battle, which were centered around men who bore a striking resemblance to Aldrich himself. They were fighting dragons, vicious looking beasts, vampires, and men.

“Take your mistress to her quarters and spend the day with her. Treat her, prepare her, see to her and dress her. The ceremony will begin at the stroke of midnight as vampire law dictates and will be concluded at the break of dawn according to Northern custom,” Priest spoke with a voice grave and laden with no inflection at all as he commanded the two human women. Their eyes were wide with terror and transfixed on him.

“Now,” Priest ordered curtly and startled them into obedience. They moved to where Catherine stood, and she frowned at him while she remained immovable as a rock.

They panicked when she did not obey, but she paid them no heed. So instead they seemed to try and cower behind her, while their eyes darted around the room like those of scared rabbits.

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