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Scotland, 1000 years ago
Tonight, Clan MacGregor celebrates the Spring Equinox with feasting, music, and a contest called Kill the Vampire King. During this tournament, anyone may challenge me, King Caelin, to a wrestling match.
I fight on until death or morning. Naked.
Welcome to the best night of my year.
Many thing must take place before the contest begins. In the morning, I process through the castle complex with my queen and court. The afternoon features boat races along the coast. During the evening, my people enjoy feasting and music. Once night falls, everyone gathers at the sacred grove with its lone birch tree. The moon rises. The games commence.
Which brings me to the present moment.
Grinning, I stand on a muddy clearing beside our sacred birch. Moonbeams cast the rolling moors in an unearthly pattern of light and shadow. About a hundred onlookers stand in a circle, their bodies forming the round boundary line for the match. Once a wrestler is tossed into the crowd—or killed in combat—the fight is over.
So far, I’ve defeated twelve warriors. All are still alive. My current opponent is Tavish, a sturdy man with long red hair and a barrel chest. I’m tall and broad-shouldered with brown hair and blue eyes. As with every match, Tavish and I fight Roman-style. No clothing.
The crowd keeps up a steady chant. “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Tavish and I slowly circle each other. “Mayhap this is a bad idea,” he murmurs.
In truth, my opponent has reason to worry. I’m bloodkin, which means I’m born a vampire. By contrast, Tavish is nightling, so he’s a human who got transformed into a vampire later in life. Compared to nightling, bloodkin are stronger, faster and fear no sunlight. We also wield magic. In my case, I can control the will of others.
“You’re casting spells,” says Tavish. “Getting into my mind.”
In truth, I do sense Tavish’s pulse. I could easily tap into his life force and compel him to my will. I won’t, though. There’s no sport in it.
“Trust me,” I state. “If I were in your head, you wouldn’t be jabbering.”
The crowd laughs. And not just due to my teasing. While I’m coated in mud, Tavish’s skin remains pale and clean. Instead of attacking, Tavish paces me. Every so often, he roars or shows his fangs.
We’ll never finish the match this way.
I lunge forward. Tavish and I grapple. Our shoulders press. Each tries to shove the other down. Cool mud slides beneath our feet.
The crowd chants faster: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Tavish grunts with the effort. Angling my body, I kick out my opponent’s legs from beneath him, toppling him into the mud. Fast as lightning, I clasp Tavish’s right leg. In a shot put-style maneuver, I toss Tavish into the crowd. People step away from the potential impact point. Tavish slams onto an open stretch of green.
“The match is over,” I declare. Stepping over to Tavish, I offer him my hand and help him get upright again.
“I donna what went wrong,” murmurs Tavish.
“Stop thinking about what I can do,” I tell him. “Focus on your own attack.”
“Easy words for you,” counters Tavish. “You’re bloodkin. I’m nightling and—”
“—your mouth is your hardest-working muscle,” I finish.
The crowd laughs again.
I set my hand on Tavish’s shoulder. “We’ll spar another time. I believe you can best me. We’ll train on it, brother.”
Tavish smiles. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
I step back into the mud pit. “Who claims the next match?”
This time, a bloodkin steps forward. It’s Breagha, a female warrior on my personal guard. Even before the match officially starts, Breagha leaps for me across the mud. Her arms and legs are spread out like a starfish.
In response, I flip onto my back, careful to ensure Breagha lands with her belly against my feet. With a vertical push from my legs, I launch her into the air. She lands in a crouch on a bit of green that’s beyond the crowd.
“The match is over,” I declare.
Arching my back, I hop up onto my feet. Next thing I know, I stand before my queen, Elisava. All my manhood is close and fully exposed. Elisava blushes.
Ah, my sweet bride.
Together, my queen and I are a study in opposites. I’m burly with sun-darkened skin and brown hair. Elisava’s pale and slight. The beautiful curve of her belly makes it clear that she’s with child. My soul warms at the thought.
I wink. “Good evening, Milady. Are ye well?”
Elisava replies in her native Rus. “Da.” Yes.
All the world fades away until it’s only me and my queen. Suddenly, I want the night to be over so we can be alone. I scan the horizon line. Not long now. Direct sunlight kills made vampires. Once dawn arrives, the nightling must go. The games will end.
I step back to the center of our makeshift ring. “Who challenges the king?”
A new bloodkin steps forward. This time, it’s Hunter, my second in command and the only other bloodkin who’s as tall as I am. He has golden hair, green eyes and a sharp wit.
“My turn,” announces Hunter.
“I was wondering when you’d step in.”
Behind me, Elisava coughs. All thoughts of the match vanish. Turning, I scan her carefully. Bands of anxiety tighten around my chest. Elisava’s been coughing for weeks. There’s no need for me to speak my concerns. My queen knows what I’m thinking. I pin her with a worried stare.
Are you and the baby all right?
She nods and smiles. I know what she wishes to tell me, although she does not speak a word.
All is well.
Still, my protective instincts are on edge. It’s a reflex to inspect the crowd for danger. I find the usual mix of vampires—both bloodkin and nightling—as well as humans. The men wear tunics and leathers, while the ladies are wrapped in simple dresses. The blood brothers and sisters stand in a group, all of them wearing their characteristic red cloaks. These are humans who we honor as willing blood donors.
Some of the alarm and tension seeps from my shoulders. There’s no threat here to Elisava.
“Your Majesty,” says Hunter. “Why check the crowd?” He gestures across himself. “I’m right here.”
I chuckle. This is why Hunter makes a great second-in-command. The man has both wit and strength. Like Breagha, Hunter leaps for me without waiting for the match to officially start.
It’s a sneaky move. How I’ll enjoy making him pay for it.
Hunter and I grapple for a while. Our muscles strain. Bodies twist. Voice groan. Long minutes pass while Hunter maneuvers me face-down into the mud.
“Ha!” cries Hunter. “At last, I win!”
“Not yet.” I spring to stand. My momentum sends Hunter flying. In fact, he might have gone past the crowd… if he hadn’t hit a particular obstacle.
I step over to Hunter. “You slammed into the sacred birch.”
Hunter pats the trunk. “My apologies.”
I offer him my hand. “Well fought.”
“I’ll get you next year.”
With Hunter gone, I scan the crowd. “Who else wants a turn? The sun’s about to rise. We’ve time for one more battle.”
A female voice sounds behind me. “I wish to fight.”
It’s Iona, one of the clan’s blood sisters. At one time, Iona was a squat woman with full curves and long black hair. Now, she’s short and skeletal. Though only twenty years old, Iona’s dark hair has all turned gray.
My heart sinks. If bloodkin feed from one brother or sister for too long, the human donor can lose their sanity. We have a name for it.
In the past, I always tracked all our blood brothers and sisters carefully. If any donor shows signs of illness, I make them live with other humans until they recover. But I’ve been so concerned with Elisava and our baby, I’ve stopped checking on our human donors.
Which means that if Iona’s going mad, it’s all my fault.
“Fight me,” repeats Iona.
“Nae,” I say simply.
“You canna stop me,” counters Iona. “I have a right to battle. Your reign ruined me, just like you’ve destroy us all.”
Hunter steps forward. “Quiet, Iona.”
I shake my head. “Anyone in the clan may approach me. Perhaps Iona can fight with words and release her fury that way.”
Hunter knows what I mean. There still may be time to save Iona. If she speaks out her rage, we could reason with her to get help.
Iona stalks closer. “Fyodor the Rus, a bloodkin raider, killed your father, the last MacGregor King. But when Fyodor’s daughter appeared on our shores, asking for refuge? You didn’t kill her. You married her. Fyodor came to reclaim his spawn. You didn’t turn Elisava over. Instead, you killed Fyodor, bringing ill luck on us all.” She points to Elisava. “Now, our queen is dying. She’s diseased by the bloodkin plague.”
Anxious bands across my rib cage. There have been whispers of this plague and how it kills only bloodkin women. We’ve been checking vessels before they unpack their cargo. So far, none in the clan have fallen ill. I won’t have Iona panicking the clan.
“That’s enough,” I say evenly. “We all can see that you’re the sick one.”
“Nae!” Iona tears at her red robe. The garment falls to the ground, revealing her naked form. A weight of sorrow settles into my bones. All Iona’s veins are dark red, making her pale skin looks as if it’s covered in a crimson web. It’s the worst case of red madness that I’ve ever seen.
The crowd steps back. It’s a wise move. Those with red madness can do anything.
“Fight me!” cries Iona.
“Nae.” I offer Iona my hand. “Let’s go to the Gray Woman. Perhaps she can heal you.”
“You won’t fight?” Iona’s body vibrates with rage. “You leave me no choice.”
And Iona charges toward Elisava.
Primal rage heats my veins. This is my wife. My bairn. I speed toward Iona and set my palms on either side of her head. wit one swift movement, I snap her neck.
The human crumples at Elisava’s feet, dead. Grief and rage battle it out inside me. This is horrible.
Rising, I check Elisava once more. A thin line of blood trickles from her ear. A jolt of alarm runs down my spine.
“Are you well?” I ask.
She forces another smile. “Of course.”
“But, your ear.”
Elisava wipes at her cheek. When she examines her fingers, bright blood glistens on her spin. “Ah. Tis nothing.”
Despite my muddy body, I scoop Elisava into my arms. “I’ll get you safely to bed.”
“Please don’t,” says Elisava. “If I needed the Gray Woman, wouldn’t I say as much?”
“Indulge me,” I state. “While you’re pregnant, I’ll take no risks.” I call to the crowd. “Allow a protective husband to end our night a little early.” When I next speak, I press magic into my voice.
“The festival is over.”
* * *
Carrying Elisava, I rush up the hill toward the castle. My queen and I sleep in a chamber on the top floor. I set her in bed and order the servants to bring her clean linens and broth. All the while, my thoughts darken.
Elisava’s been coughing for too long. And now, she bleeds from her ear. Iona may be right. This could be the bloodkin plague.
Hours slowly pass as I watch my bride sleep. I wash up, change, and try to convince myself that Elisava and the baby will be fine. Eventually, I take a perch on the windowsill and watch the sea lap against the shoreline outside the castle.
That’s when I see it.
In the moonlight, a single Rus ship appears on the ocean. Our watchman’s basso voice echoes through the night.
“Rus Ahoy! Rus Ahoy!”
Elisava awakens. “Rus raiders are here. Tis likely my brother, Konstantin. This is good.”
I check the window again. Most of the Rus sailors keep to their vessel. One man marches through the shallows toward the castle. Although he wears battle leathers, this warrior doesn’t carry any weapons.
“You’re right,” I tell Elisava. “This could be Konstantin. And it seems he’s here to parlay.”
Yet, even as I speak those words, there’s no avoiding the truth: raiding ships bring trouble. Even if the Rus don’t fight, then neighboring humans and nightling will see this as a chance to attack.
After pulling on my battle leathers, I grab my obelisk dagger—it’s the best way to stake a vampire—and head for the door.
Time to meet the Rus.