Hounds? She didn't understand. Not at first. But then she heard the men's voices in the distance, village men. And then the hounds drowned them out. Crying, baying in a horrific cacophony of noise that chilled her blood.
Mamey Neal's hounds, she thought vaguely, knowing the animals were trained hunters. But they didn't hunt game, they hunted men. Mamey trained them for that purpose. So if they were out tonight they must be after some criminal.
Then why were they heading toward the castle?
She swallowed hard, but her throat was dry. And then she stood there, frozen in fear, as the hounds rounded a curve in the road and came into sight.
Running, bearing down on her. A horde of galloping, baying death. She whirled, panic taking hold as she surged into the woods, even knowing they'd offer no protection. But the dogs were too fast, too determined. One leapt, and his forelegs clawed her back, propelling her forward. Instinctively she rolled to her back, but the beast was upon her, teeth flashing. And then, suddenly the dog was hurled away.
Donovan. He stood above her, surrounded by the dogs, wielding a club as they lunged and snapped at him.
"Go," he shouted.
"Run for the castle. Go!" One snatched his arm in horrible teeth. She heard fabric tearing, saw blood as Donovan clubbed the animal uselessly.
Shaking, dirty and terrified, she struggled to her feet. And then she staggered toward the road. But she stopped as Donovan went down and the dogs leapt in for the kill. Screaming, she crouched low, scooping up hands full of debris and hurling it at their tawny bodies to get their attention.
"Here, you filthy beasts! Here! Come!" One dog turned toward her snarling.
"Come for me then," she cried, and then she turned to run, knowing they'd follow.
And they did. She made it to the road with the hounds on her heels, now.
But the men were in sight, and she cried out to them.
"Marney Neal, call off your hounds! Call them off!"
"Sakes, 'tis Rachel!" someone said. But then the dogs were on her, knocking her down once more.
One of the men raced forward, shouting commands at the dogs.
Thankfully, they were trained well enough to obey at once. The dogs fell away from her as one, and sat as docile as pups, awaiting the word of their master. And then Mamey himself, beer on his breath, was leaning over her, helping her to her feet.
"Rachel, fer the love of God, where've ye been? We've been worried to death for you! Are you harmed, girl? Are you harmed?" She let him help her to her feet.
"What in the name of God were you thinking, turning those killers lose on me like that, Mamey Neal! I should have you jailed!"
i "Nay, 'twas for you I done it, child. You disappeared! and we feared the murderin' O'Roark had taken you to his : lair!"
"What utter foolishness!" She brushed the dirt and twigs i from her clothes, and sent a furtive glance toward the j woods where Donovan must still by lying. Perhaps dead, ; already.
"Is it, Rachel?" Mamey eyed her suspiciously.
"I take , the hounds through these woods every night since that bastard has been in residence. Just to be sure he stays within his castle walls, and doesn't venture out to make victims of my neighbors."
"You're a superstitious fool. Donovan O'Roark is harmless." "Then what are you doin' here wandering these godforsaken lands? And where have you been these past two nights, Rachel?" She lifted her chin, met his eyes. ' "Had I agreed to wed you as you wanted, I'd feel that to be your business, Mar- they Neal, but since I turned you down I've nothing to say."
"You've been at the castle. As his lover?" he asked. "As a guest, Mamey.
No more than that. Mary knows full well my interest in the legends associated with Dono- van's ancestor. He's offered to help me with my research."
"Indeed!" Marney huffed, and eyed the castle as if it were something demonic.
"Well, you're found now. Come with me, back to the village.
Mary will be relieved to see you there, and well. " She glanced again toward the woods, then quickly at Mamey again.
"No. I'll return to the castle tonight. Tell Mary I'm fine and will contact her shortly."
He set his feet, hands on his hips.
"I'll not have it." ; "You have no say in it. Now kindly take your hounds and go home, Marney, before I decide to inform the all1 thorities about this deadly pack you set on me. They nearly ', killed me. No doubt the law would see them all shot just to preserve the safety of the citizens."
"You wouldn't" -- "I will, I swear on my mother's grave. Unless you leave now, I will."
His eyes held hers only for a moment. Then lowered.
"You've changed, Rachel Sullivan. The States have done this to ya, no doubt.
Or perhaps 'twas that monster in the castle."
"I've grown up. I won't have you or anyone running my life for me.
Not anymore. "
"Fine. Ye deserve whatever fate befalls ye. But mark my words, Rachel, the man of that castle is no human being'. He's a monster, and more dangerous to you than my dogs ever could be." He turned to go, with his dogs leaping up to follow, tails wagging. Harmless pets.
Rachel waited until they were out of sight. Then she turned and ran back into the darkness of the trees, falling to her knees beside the dark shape on the ground.
He opened his eyes, his face pain-racked and pale in the night.
"You could have gone with him," he whispered.
"Aye, I could have." She tore strips from her skirt and tied them tight round the wounds to stanch the bleeding. She'd never seen so much bleeding.
"Can you stand? Walk?"
He tried to get up, faltered, and Rachel gripped him quickly, helping him to his feet. Then, pulling his arm around her shoulders, she propelled him forward, through the woods toward the castle. The road would be easier, but she'd prefer they not be seen by prying eyes.
Especially Marney Neal's.
"There's a trail to the left," he managed, though he spoke through gritted teeth.
She took him that way, found the trail and followed it, but felt his eyes on her face.
"Why?" he asked her, breathless, still bleeding.
"Don't ask foolish questions, Donovan O'Roark."
He leaned on her heavily, and when he spoke, his words were slurred.
"Is it foolish to ask why? You were free. It's what you said you wanted."
"I wanted my freedom, yes," she said.
"But not at the . cost of your life." She shook her head.
"You jumped into the midst of those hounds as if you thought yourself invincible. You could've been killed." He said nothing, and she tugged him faster.
"Don't be telling me again how you can care for no one besides yourself, Donovan O'Roark, for 'tis a bald-faced lie an' you know it."
"No" -- ' "No? No, you say? Why, then, would you risk your own life to save mine?"
He shook his head. She couldn't see his face, because he kept it so low. Or perhaps he had no choice, too weak to hold it upright.
"You're no more selfish than you are a hermit," she said.
"You're selfless, and more lonely than you even realize. An' I'll tolerate no more of your nonsensical lies. I've seen through this mask you wear, Donovan, and you can't don it again."
"You're seeing what you want to see."
Her hand felt damp, and she looked down to see the blood dripping from it where she clung to him.
"Damnation, why do you bleed so?"
"It... it's part of what I am. Bleeding to death is one of the few ways I can die."
"That and sunlight," she whispered, glancing at the sky between the trees.
"There's plenty of time before dawn, Rachel. More's the pity. It is only with the day sleep these wounds will heal. Until then" -- "Until then I'll stay beside you and be sure you don't bleed to death," she told him.
It shocked me. Astounded me, really. But that was precisely what she did.
My unwilling captive vanished, the rebel was gone. Her stubborn determination, her boundless energy, was directed toward helping me now, rather than escaping me. She eased me onto the set tee in the great hall, then ran back toward the door. For the briefest of moments I thought she would run from me now that she'd seen me safely back to the castle. I was utterly bewildered when, instead, she turned the lock.
"What" -- "For Mamey Neal and those narrow-minded fools like him," she said, back at my side now.
"Those hounds were meant for you, not me, Donovan. You must know it. An' those men would have stood gladly by an' let them tear out your heart had it been you and not me on that road." She knelt on the floor beside me, shoving her hands through her hair, her cheeks pink with exertion, or frustration, or anger.
"Lordy, how do you live like this?"
It wasn't a question she expected me to answer. Already she knelt beside the set tee tugging my shirt away to reveal the jagged tear in my side. Tearing the skirt she wore, until little remained but shreds, she packed the wound, and wrapped strips around my waist, tying them so tightly I could scarcely breathe. Her every touch brought on the most intense pain--and the most excruciating pleasure-- I'd ever known. I thrilled at her hands on me, no matter the reason.
"Why do you come back here at all, Donovan," she asked.
"There must be places in the world where you're safe."
"There are." I looked around the hall, my gaze straying to the hearth where Dante and I used to sit and talk for hours on end, or read in companionable silence while the fire danced.
"But this place is... dear to me."
"Then move it."
I only frowned at her.
'"Tis done all the time. Rich folk buying castles and having them moved stone by stone to the place of their choice." I shook my head slowly.
"It wouldn't be Ireland." "No."
"You came back, Rachel. Despite the narrow- mindedness, despite the unwanted attentions..."
Her head came up sharply.
"An' what would you know of that?"
"I know. Mamey Neal would do well to know when to give up." I smiled slightly, despite the burning pain in my side.
"Before you do him bodily harm."
"Aye, an' he's lucky I didn't tonight." She eyed my skin, shaking her head at all the blood.
"You've watched me, haven't you?" So she knew.
I'd sensed it before. That she was aware somehow of my presence those nights when I'd drawn near to her, pulled as if by some irresistible force.
"There was a time, long ago," she whispered, dabbing now at the blood with a dry bit of crumpled fabric, 'when I nearly drowned in the river near my home.
Someone plucked me out, breathed into my lungs, and brought me back. But even as I lay there, choking, he vanished. "
She stopped wiping and met my eyes. "" Twas you, wasn't it? " I lowered my head.
"And later, after my folks passed on. When I lay awake, frightened and alone, someone came to me in the darkness.
Just a dream, I thought when I was older. But 'twas no dream, was it, Donovan?
"Twas you, the man who told me he was my guardian angel, that I'd be safe, always."
I released a long, slow breath.
"Did you ever know what that meant to me? Did you know how I slept soundly, how I believed it, how I clung to it? My parents were gone, but I had someone, still. Someone watching over me as my dear ma had, protecting me as my da had done.
"Twas the second time you saved me, you know."
"No," I said.
"I didn't know."
"Now you do. Quite a thing for a self-servin' monster to do, wasn't it, Donovan?"
"You don't understand," I began. But I wasn't certain I could explain. I didn't understand it either. Not fully. "Make me understand then."
Nodding, I shifted to one side, so she could sit beside me on the edge of the set tee I saw her gaze shift quickly to the wound again, as if to assure herself my movement hadn't started the bleeding up again.
"Dante told me of our nature, long ago. He told me that only certain mortals can become... what we are."
Her intense expression told him how interested she was in hearing more.
"As a mortal, I had a rare antigen in my blood. It's known as belladonna.
That made me one of those few, one of the Chosen, as we call them."
"That's fascinating. I had no idea..."
"I know. Vampires are... aware of mortals with the antigen. We sense them, just as Dante sensed it in me. And there's more. There's a ... a connection. For each vampire there's a mortal somewhere, one with the antigen, for whom that connection is stronger. So strong that we're drawn to them."
"And... were you that mortal for Dante?"
I 'i I nodded.
"Yes. I never knew it, but he watched overj me for most of my life. If trouble had come, he'd have protected me. And if I'd needed help, he'd have sensed it, wherever he might have been, and he'd have come." ; She lowered her head, made a noise of disbelief in her throat. I "You don't believe me," I stated. Slowly, she raised her eyes to mine.
"If the legends are 3 true, Donovan, he attacked you as you walked alone one: night. He made you into what he was. If you call that protection, then" -- "I was dying."
She blinked fast. Her eyes widened.
"I didn't know it, of course, but Dante did. I'd been feeling the symptoms for weeks. Weakness, dizziness, blacking out for no reason.
I had no idea what was wrong, and I'd thought it was something that would pass. But it wasn't. "
"How do you know?"
I didn't answer that. Couldn't. Not yet. It would be too cruel to give her so much to deal with all at once. I couldn't tell her that mortals with the antigen always suffered the': same fate--an early death. I'd been very close to my end. ; "I simply do," I told her instead.
"There's no doubt." I She stared down at me.
"Then... you'd have died if he hadn't... done that to you."
"Without a doubt." : She nodded, deep in thought.
"But he could have given you the choice. He never asked you to decide."
I smiled slightly, remembering.
"Dante was never one to take time about acting. He was impulsive. Action first, thought later. But there were other reasons too. Had he told me, I likely would have repeated it to my parents, or the village priest. And some secrets simply must be kept, Rachel."
She drew my bloody shirt down over my body, deep in thought. I saw the moment she made the connection, because her eyes widened and met mine.
"I have the antigen, don't I?"
"You are the mortal I'm driven to watch over, Rachel. It's a part of who--of what I am. Don't go attaching any noble motivations to it. It's simply an irresistible urge. I couldn't ignore you if I tried."
"So saving me from the hounds...?"
"A reflex. Nothing more."
She lowered her eyes.
"I'm not sure I believe you." "Why not?"
"I think there's an element of choice involved, Donovan.
You can't tell me that it was impossible for you to choose not to put yourself into the jaws of those hounds. " She tilted her head to one side.
"Or not to come back here at all. But you did. You came back because of me, didn't you, Donovan?"
I lowered my head.
"Perhaps that was part of it. But I also came back because of Dante."
"Dante is dead."
"Yes. But I don't know where..."
Frowning, she studied me.
"Where? Where he-lies, you mean?" Sighing, I absently ran one hand over the wound in my side.
"When they came for us, put their torches to the castle walls, the sun was just beginning to rise. We had no choice but to run. Flames... devour our kind very quickly, you see. We both knew our only hope was to make for the relative shelter of the woods, where the sun's light wouldn't penetrate quite as quickly. And perhaps that would give us time to find shelter. A few minutes, at best, but perhaps enough." She nodded, urging me with her eyes to go on.
"When we emerged, they were waiting. We could have stood and fought, and likely defeated them all."
"But... I thought there were dozens..." I nodded.
"We're very strong, Rachel. We could have fought, but the sun allowed no time. We had to run. They pursued us, though, and we had no choice but to split up. t I ran in one direction, Dante in another. The mob... they went after him." "And what happened to you?" ' "I made it to the forest, and the hay field beyond. I saved myself by burrowing deep into a haystack and remaining there until nightfall. It offered thin protection, but I survived. Weak, burned in many places, but I lived." ; "And Dante didn't," she said softly.
"I returned to the castle ruins by night... for weeks. Knowing that's where he would look for me if he were : alive. Even after I left the country, I came back periodically to wait for him here. I had the place rebuilt, just in case. " , But he never came. Now I only want to know where he ; died. "
"Will you put a marker there?" she asked, her voice quiet. "A garden," I told her.
"Something as alive as he was."
"You loved him very much. Yet you claim you care for no one." "I loved him," I said.
"He was the last person I ever let myself care for. The lesson his death taught me was too hard won to forget."
I felt heavy. Tired.
"If you can't love," she asked, "then how can you live?" "It isn't so hard."
She closed her eyes.
"I'm like you," she said.
"In more ways than I realized."
But she only shook her head as I slipped into slumber.