Short Stories Ala Carte

** Caution some stories contain adult language!


Reviews and comments are most welcome!!!


Soulful Sacrifice (working title)
anyone have an idea for a good title =just leave it in the comments!
As the candidates for auditions filed into the theater Sacha shook his head, none of them appealed to him, not one seemed to fit the image he had in mind for the part of Katrina in his play. As each woman read through the part he became more and more disappointed then with a crash a young lady came rushing through the doors. “I’m sorry,” she quickly rambled on. “Am I too late? My relief at work showed up late and I missed the cross town bus and had to catch a cab, which got caught in traffic…”
Sacha eagerly interrupted her with his deep Russian accent. “No, you’re just in time. Please sit down. Here is a copy of the script. You can be next.” His expression changed instantly, the gloom disappeared and he acted as if an international celebrity had just walked in. While he doted on her the others girls, sensing the emanate rejection to come, dropped their scripts on the floor and walked out, mumbling amongst themselves. Sacha took no notice of them for his attention was fixed solely on the new arrival.
Sacha sat in the rear of the theater and listened as the girl read the lines in the script. Even with his eyes closed he see picture her standing up on the stage, her voice, like a soothing melody, filled his ears and his heart. He had seen her before. The essence of her soul shone through her big blue eyes, a soul he had known again and again. It could not hide from him. Though her hair was lighter, it was the same face, the same spirit that he had loved long ago.
“Is there anything else you want me to read?” she asked, bringing Sacha out of his trance.
“No, no,” he gleemed joyfully, “no, that’s all I need.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely, my dear…” he stopped, not knowing her name.
“Annabelle D’LaRicci.” She introduced herself.
“A name befitting of your great beauty.” he smiled and kissed her hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Valinski. When will you be announcing who has the part?”
“Actually right now,” he looked deep into her eyes, “the part is yours.”
“Really?”
“Yes, you are exactly what I was looking for.”
“Thank you, I’m flattered.”
“We shall begin rehearsals tomorrow at eight p.m.”
“I’ll be here,” she scrunched up her face, “That is if the bus is on time.”
“No need to worry about the bus I will send a car for you.”
“You don’t have to do that Mr. Valinski.”
“Please, call me Sacha and I insist, my dear Annabelle.”
“Well then, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she grabbed her jacket and disappeared through the side door.
“My love has returned once more, and I have yet another chance.” Sacha whispered to himself as he stood there in the dim light of theater’s center isle. But the joy in his heart soon diminished as his memory went back to the first time he found his soul-mate.
The year was 1192, King Richard I had abandoned the crusades in the Middle East and was returning home to France when he was captured by the Austrian King Leopold. Sacha Valinski was a Russian ambassador at Leopold’s court, who was deeply in love with one of the queen’s young ladies-in-waiting. He also did not approve of the reason for which the King had captured and held Richard for ransom or that Leopold had been seriously considering the counter offer of eighty-thousand crowns from Prince John to hold the English king captive until John could usurp the throne.
Valinski had found himself frowned upon by Leopold numerous times due to his outspokenness. Speaking frankly to the King, without invitation, was not generally accepted but His Majesty liked Sacha, almost as his own son, and usually overlooked this behavior. However this time Leopold’s fondness for the young man could not intervene. He was caught assisting a young English lord with an attempt to rescue Richard. As much as Leopold cared deeply for Sacha he could not ignore the charges this time.
The young lady-in-waiting, Katrina, pleaded with the King for Sacha’s life but to no avail. As a last hope she went to a Koldunya, a witch, named Yachia to find a way to save his life. After reading her cards the old woman told Katrina that she could help but there would be a great price. Katrina agreed to pay whatever it took as long as Sacha would not die. Yachia went to the prison disguised as a kitchen servant bringing meals to the prisoner. She explained that Katrina had come to her for help and slipped Sacha a small vial which he was to drink exactly at sundown and the in the morning the hangman’s noose would do him no harm.
Through the small window Sacha could see the sun as it began to shrink behind the horizon. He pulled an empty barrel from the corner over to the opening and stood up on it. He watched, with the vial readied in his hand, as the sun descended for the night. At the moment it could no longer be seen he poured the contents on the bottle into his mouth.
At first the potion tasted strangely sweet and bitter as it rolled over his tongue but after a moment he realized just what it was, blood. Before he could hop down from the barrel he felt his stomach writhe with a sudden, excruciating pain. Falling to the floor he curled in a ball and squelched the urge to cry out and be discovered. As suddenly as it came on him the pain subsided. He could feel his body going cold and his heart beating slower and slower until it stopped. “Oh Katrina, my love, what have you done?” he said aloud to himself.
As the night went on he felt himself becoming stronger, his vision more acute as well as his hearing. He could see insects crawling on the floor across the cell through the darkness clear as day and hear the guards down the hall whispering amongst themselves as if he were standing right beside them. After a while he decided to see just how strong he had become by attempting to enlarge the window. He pulled on one of the stones, it crumbled in his hand. He tried another and another. Soon the opening was big enough for him to squeeze through. However, he was in the tower and the only way out was by a one hundred meter drop straight down onto the rocks of the dry moat below. “There’s no other choice,” he said before he jumped. He landed hard but in one piece. “I must go see Katrina,” he sighed.
He made his way through the rocky ravine and into the dense forest that surrounded the castle. By the time he had gone around to the other side of the mountain along the outer borders of the village he began to feel the hunger, the blood lust, which would soon consume his entire existence. Sacha fought against it with all his might, willing himself to focus all his concentration on his other abilities which he needed to get past the guards at the castle gate and make his way to Katrina’s room. He discovered he could now move with great speed, which with a little distraction from a large stone thrown in the direction opposite, allowed him to cross the courtyard undetected. Once inside the castle, moving on became more difficult because he could smell the scent of human blood everywhere. The hunger was getting stronger. It called to him and each time someone passed by him the blood thirst grew in strength, self-control was nearly spent.
He at last reached Katrina’s room and when he burst through the door she leapt into his arms. “Sacha! You’re safe!”
“Katrina, you do not know what you have done.”
“You are free and that’s all that matter’s to me.”
“The witch’s spell has turned me into a monster.” He said stepping further into the candlelight revealing his face. His skin was the grey-white pallor of death and his once rich green eyes were as black as pitch and fangs peered out from beneath his lip.
“I did not know it would do this!” Katrina gasped. “Oh, dear God! What have I done?”
Just then one of the other ladies came into the room. She saw Sacha’s face and screamed. Sacha quickly grabbed her by the throat and silenced her. His teeth torn through her flesh like a knife through butter then he drank every drop of blood from her body and let her fall to the floor like a rag doll. Katrina stood frozen. Her hands shook and she tried to cry out but no sound would come. In an uncontrolled rage Sacha seized her and sunk his fangs into her throat. When his senses return, he found himself kneeling beside the dead body of his beloved. Letting out a bloodcurdling howl he lifted Katrina’s body in his arms and jumped from the open window.
He ran through the woods until he reached Yadia’s cottage. “Bring her back!” He howled as he crashed through the door.
“I can’t,” the old woman explained while Sacha laid Katrina’s body on the table. “If you had stopped before her heart seized beating you could have turned her and you would be together forever but now it is too late.”
“Do something witch or you will join her!” He growled grabbing her by the neck, “Help her!”
“There is nothing to do. She knew that the price for your life would cost her immensely and fate took its due.” The old woman picked up a cloth and began to wipe the blood from Katrina’s body. “You can take my life if you wish, my lord, it is not of much worth except as someone to help you through your transformation. Kill me and you will have no answers, no guidance.”
Sacha pushed the old woman aside and clung to Katrina. “My love, my love, please forgive me.” He kissed her on the forehead and gently caressed her cheek.
“You will see her again, my lord.” Yadia sighed.
“How?” Sacha turned and glared at the witch. “You made me immortal, a monster. I cannot follow her into the heavens.”
“Her soul lives on and will return to a new life some day. You will know her when you see her. You are rare thing, a vampire, yes, but a vampire with a soul and therefore you can see into the souls of others.”
“I am doomed to walk the earth always searching for my love in the eyes of another?” Sacha hung his head.
“Unless you allow yourself to be destroyed, not an easy task for us humans though not impossible, but then you will not go to your heaven and she will be lost to you forever.” The witch put her hand on his shoulder, “Dawn approaches, my lord and you must sleep. I will show you where.” Sacha followed her to the graveyard where she pointed to an unoccupied mausoleum. He easily slid the heavy stone away from the entrance and went in. “Bury her near me.” He whispered sadly to the old woman.
“I will.” She said as he slid the stone back to close out the coming day.

****
Sacha was startled by the theater doors slamming shut. “How’s it going?” The janitor asked wheeling a trash cart down the enter isle. “Didn’t mean to scare you, figured the place would be empty by now, Mr. V.”
“Yeah, well,” Sacha replied, “I was just leaving. Have a good night.” He rushed out the side door.
“Same to you, Mr. V.” The janitor returned.
The night was clear, but the stars were barely visible through the murkiness of the city lights but he knew they were there and so now was the twinge of hunger. Sacha hurried off to his hotel room and his supply of blood, stolen from a local hospital blood bank, before temptation caused him to do something he would regret.
His watch flashed seven forty-five. Sacha paced nervously from one side of the stage to the other. He could not remember feeling so anxious, not even before he became immortal. It would be only seconds until he could once again feast his eyes on her beauty. It had been over a hundred years since she her last appearance in this world which, like the other six reincarnations, ended in tragedy and heartache, leaving him to yet again to face eternity on earth alone.
The door gave a slight squeak when Annabelle came into the theater. Sacha quickly spun around and watched her make her way down the isle to the stage. “I’m not late am I?” she asked.
“No, not at all,” Sacha answered.
“I’ve been reading through the script, Mr. Valinski, it’s an incredibly sad story. It made me cry, especially in the end when Valentine realized he had been doomed by his own actions to spend eternity searching for Katrina’s soul,” she said pulling the script from her bag.
“Well, thank you. Let us hope the public loves it as well.” He hopped down from the stage. “It is a true story from the village where I grew up in Russia, or so the legend goes.”
“Really?” she quickly zipped the pages through her fingers. “Where are the others?” her hair flipped to one side as she looked up.
“Today is a special rehearsal just for Valentine and Katrina.”
“Who’s playing Valentine?” she looked around for another person. “He must be running late.”
“No, no he is here.” Sacha took her hand in his and gently kissed it.
“You’re playing Valentine?” she smiled.
“Yes, I was debating at first who to cast but when I saw you I decided to do it myself. Amongst the players I have seen, there are none worthy of your talent, my dearest Annabelle,” he kissed her hand again.
“Please, you can just call me Anna. I’m afraid my talent won’t live up to your expectations.” Annabelle blushed, she was flattered but she knew that on some level she should have been suspicious of his behavior. For some reason she felt she could trust him explicitly, when she looked into his dark lonely eyes she felt as if she had known him before, there was something strangely familiar about him.
“No, darling? Do not under estimate yourself.”
They spent the evening running through their scenes over and over. Anna was spellbound by Sacha’s talent. He made her believe that he truly was Valentine, that his emotions were real. This in turn made it easier for her to interpret her charactor and feel as if she had actually become Katrina. Little did she know just how real this all was.
Eleven o’clock, the janitor, having heard voices, came in quietly and watched. When two actors had finished with the scene they were working on he applauded. “Wow! Mr. Valinski! You have got yourself some skills there!”
Sacha turned sharply, “Fred! Is it that late already? It seems as if we’ve just started.”
“You’re pretty good there, Mr. V,” Fred pushed his cart down the isle, “the young lady too!”
“Thank you.” Anna said politely. “Guess I had better get moving before I miss the last bus.”
“Nonsense, I will take you home.” Sacha declared as he collected the papers he had spread out over the stage floor and stuffed them in his briefcase.
“Thanks but I can manage.”
“I insist,” he motioned for her to go ahead of him. “I cannot leave my star to the dangers of the city. Good night Fred.” Sacha followed Anna to the exit and held the door open for her.
As they climbed into the back of the cab Anna told the driver where to drop her off. Sacha walked her to her door. “You best get some rest, my dear, beauty sleep is quite important.”
“This is New York,” she chuckled, “nobody really sleeps around here.”
“Point taken,” Sacha smiled and nodded.
“Would you like to come up and have something to eat?” Anna asked. “I could whip up an omelet. You must be starving because you’re looking a little pale.”
“No, thank you, I have a special diet. I’ll eat when I get to my hotel. I will see you tomorrow.” Sacha said, kissing her hand once more. As he did another man approached the steps.
“Well, if it isn’t the spoiled princess.” The man said sarcastically. “Got yourself a new prince, Anna?”
“What do you want Richard?” Anna seemed annoyed by his presence. “I told you to leave me alone.”
“I was just passing by and thought you might want company but I see you’ve already taken care of that.” Richard sneered and outstretched his hand toward Sacha. “Richard Grammer, New York Times, nice to meet you. And you are?”
Sacha did not return the gesture.
“This is Sacha Valinski,” Anna introduced him. “He’s the writer/director of the play I’m doing.”
“Your mother gave you a girl’s name?” Richard moved up one step, “I feel for you bud.”
“It is not a girl’s name in my country and I believe the lady asked you to let her be.” Sacha stepped closer to Anna and took his other hand from his pocket. “Perhaps I could offer you a ride home, Mr. Grammer.”
Richard stepped back down to the sidewalk. “Maybe some other time, Sacha,” he said mockingly, “I’ll see you around, Princess, you know where to find me if the mood hits you,” he winked before he turned and walked away.
Sacha watched as Richard rounded the corner and disappeared. “Will you be alright?”
“Oh yeah, I’ll be fine.” Anna pulled out her keys. “Richard’s an ass but he’s not dangerous.”
“You are sure.”
“Absolutely, you go on and have your dinner. I’ll just jump in the shower and go to sleep.” She opened the door and smiled. “Good night Sacha and thank you again for this great opportunity.”
“You are most welcome, my dear, good night.” Sacha went back to the cab. He watched as Anna closed the door behind her. “Let’s go,” he instructed the cab driver. As the car moved away from the building he looked out the back window to see Anna’s silhouette against the drawn shade. He smiled and turned away.

****
Sacha sat on the roof of his hotel and stared down into the street. The more he thought about how Richard had treated Anna the more angry he became. He was sure the putrid scent that hooy morzhovy left behind would still be strong enough for him to follow. He jumped from the roof to the alleyway below, the building was only five stories and therefore was no more to him than stepping off a curb is for a human, and returned to Anna’s street. He instantly identified the foul smell of Richard’s aftershave and followed it around the corner, down five blocks and into a local bar.
Sacha hated places like this, the stench of smoke, alcohol and unsavory humans was almost unbearable. Humans, in general, smelled bad enough to vampires, something equivalent to the sulfurous scent of spoiled eggs that humans find so distasteful, but combined with the aromas of contaminated blood, blood of those who take no notice to their health, was to a vampire, more like the smell of a rotting corpse in human terms.
He spotted Richard immediately. The ingrate was in the back corner with a young lady who clearly was not interested in his advances. “Fancy meeting you here,” Sacha said, clamping his hand around Richard’s wrist, forcing him to release the hold he had on the lady’s forearm. “It appears that the young lady is not very receptive to your attentions. Maybe you should look elsewhere.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here? You following me?” Richard pulled his hand loose.
“Perhaps fate has put me in your path,” Sacha raised an eyebrow and grinned. He stepped between Richard and the girl. The woman ducked behind Sacha and held on to his coat. “to teach you some manners.”
Richard stared at him momentarily then balled up his fist and took a swing at him. Sacha stepped back causing Richard to miss and fall forward. “Maybe I should teach you how to fight as well,” Sacha laughed as he caught the drunken man in his arms then pushed him into the seat behind him. Richard sat there stunned and too drunk to get back up. Sacha escorted the woman out and hailed her a cab. “Thank you.” She smiled, “I didn’t know how I was going to away from that jerk.”
“It was no trouble,” he said as he opened the car door for her. “You are safe now.”
“Thanks to you.”
Sacha’s ability to see into the souls of humans told him that this lady was a good person but very desperate, desperate enough to consider doing something stupid to get some money. He knew her reason for being in that bar. He reached into his pocket and paid the cabbie in advance then pulled out a business card. “Come to the theater on Water St. the day after tomorrow, in the evening at eight. I need someone to handle ticket sales, if you are interested,” he said as he handed her the card and some cash,
“How did you know I needed a job? I’ll be there. You are an angel.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” he grinned, “call me Sacha.”
“Okay, my name is Yvonne. See you then, Sacha.”
He stood and watched as the cab drove off down the street then returned to the bar. He hauled Richard out into the alley, pinning him against the wall with one hand. “I don’t like you,” he said calmly.
“The feeling’s mutual.” Richard slurred his words.
Sacha seized him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. His allowed his true image to show, pale grey skin, fangs and all. “Heed my warning human, if I catch you near Anna again I with rip your throat out,” He growled and threw Richard across the alley. The man hit the wall with the force of a cannonball and went unconscious.

****
Two days later, Richard was waiting for Anna outside her apartment. His clavicle was shattered and his arm was in a sling, his face was bruised and he had deep scratches on his neck. “Anna,” he called to her as she came out. “Anna, I need to talk to you.”
“I told you to leave me alone.” She scolded before she noticed his injuries.
“Anna please!” he pleaded and took hold of her arm. That’s when she saw his face and arm.
“What happened to you?” She asked.
“What happened to me? Your new friend happened to me!”
“What are you talking about?” she flagged down a cab.
“Your friend, Sacha! I just spent two days in the hospital because of him.”
“You’re telling me he did this to you?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the worst of it. Stay away from him, he’s not human, he’s, he’s some kind of creature. He’s dangerous!” He explained while he opened the car door for her with his good arm.
“Really Richard, Sacha wouldn’t hurt a fly let alone me. You were most likely drunk and having hallucinations. You were probably hitting on some guy’s wife.”
“Okay, I was drinking, but I know what I saw! Something like that can sober a guy up real fast.” Anna simply shook her head and climbed in the taxi. Richard shouted after the cab as it pulled away “I’m serious, Anna, be careful!”
It was nearly six-thirty when Anna got to the theater. Two of other actors were standing at the door waiting. “It’s locked.” Rene, who was playing the witch, said when Anna walked up.
“Sacha’s just running behind I guess.” Anna supposed.
More of the cast accumulated at the door as they waited for the director to show. They waited nearly a half hour before he arrived. “Sorry, my friends, but I had an appointment with a financial backer. Without them there is no pay, yes?” He explained as he opened the door. Once inside he turned to Anna, “Perhaps I should give you a key in case I am late again.”
“That would be very helpful. It is cold outside, after all, and you don’t need any of us to get sick.” Anna smiled and flung her coat on one of the front row seats.
“Okay,” Sacha said loudly, “Take a few minutes to defrost. I have some business to take care of up in the office.” He disappeared through the door marked ‘private’. Anna followed him. “You are needing something, my dear?”
“No, not exactly, Richard showed up outside my apartment this morning,” she said, sitting down in the chair across from his desk.
“Didn’t you tell him to go away the other day?” Sacha didn’t even look up.
“Yeah, but he was pretty beat up.”
“Is he hurt badly? Have the authorities caught whoever did it?”
“He hasn’t told the cops yet, I guess he’ll live, but…” She paused.
“But what?”
“He said the person who attacked him was you.”
“That is ridiculous,” he answered calmly. “Why would I do such a thing? I don’t even know him.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said but I thought I should tell you in case he does go to the police or something.” She stood up and walked over to the doorway. She stopped and turned. “He said something about his attacker not being human. He had to be so drunk he was seeing things.”
“He must have been. If he bothers you again you can warn him, I didn’t do it this time, but if he doesn’t stop I’ll be the next one to beat him up.”
“I’ll tell him if I see him,” she gave a disconcerting smile and left.

****
Yvonne came into the theater promptly at eight o’clock and very quietly sat in the back row until the scene that was being rehearsed had finished.
“Take five,” Sacha told everyone as he rushed up the isle motioning for Yvonne to come closer. “I’m happy to see you.”
“I’m glad to be here, Sacha. I am so grateful to you for this.”
“Come, I’ll show you what needs to be done.” He put his arm around her and showed her to the office.
Anna felt a twinge of jealousy when she saw him disappear from her sight with another woman though she knew she shouldn’t be. “It’s only business, you twit,” she whispered to herself. “You have no claim on him, he’s just your boss.”
When Sacha rejoined the group Anna asked about Yvonne. “She’s my new assistant. She’ll handle the business of the theater so I can concentrate on the play. I gave her the keys and asked her to make copies for the two of you.”
“So you’ll be working closely with each other?” Anna inquired in a soft voice.
“Naturally, but most of my attention will be here,” he tapped his fingers on the script. “What is this face?” he reached out and caressed her cheek. “Are you jealous?”
Anna shrugged her shoulders and shook her head from side to side. “No?” Sacha smiled. “Oh, but I think you are, I had no idea you felt this way,” he took a hold of her arm and led her to the side, away from all ears. “You care for me don’t you?” he continued.
Anna turned away and looked down. Sacha gently lifted her chin toward him, leaving her no choice but to look him in the face. He smiled.
“I know it’s only been a few days since we met but I feel like I have known you forever. I didn’t realize how much I cared for you until I saw you put your arm around that woman’s shoulders. At that very moment I wanted to scratch her eyes out.”
Sacha pulled her closer, gently cradling her cheeks between his hands. “I must then confess myself, for I too have desired you. From the first moment you walked through those doors I knew you were the one with the keys to my heart.” He kissed her forehead. “I can think of no other woman to fill my soul with joy.” He looked deep into her eyes and gently brushed a strand of hair from her face. “We will talk more later?”
“Yes.” Anna replied with a huge grin. Her eyes twinkled like the stars as she gazed into his face.
“We must work now, my darling, but after we will celebrate.” He embraced her tightly for just a moment then, releasing her from his arms, glanced over to the others who were waiting to return to rehearsals. “We have only two weeks until opening night, my friends, so let’s get back to work.”

****
Time went by quickly for Anna over the next couple of weeks. She went to work every morning at the diner where she waitressed, had rehearsals every night from six to ten and afterwards she and Sacha would spend time hanging around the theater or at her apartment. She could not remember ever feeling so happy and fulfilled and Sacha was a perfect gentleman toward her, very prim and proper.
Richard had stayed away, or so Anna thought. He kept out of sight but he was there watching her every minute, day and night. His reporter instinct went into overdrive and he dug into Sacha’s past like a steam shovel into a swimming pool but he found nothing. It’s not that he found nothing criminal or unlawful but that he found nothing at all. As far as records and databases were concerned this man had no background, he didn’t exist. until he bought the theater building a year ago, outright, with cash, no one had ever heard of him. There was no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no school records, no financial records, no medical records and no tax records other than the theater. He paid his taxes to the city and used cash for everything. Richard had a friend of his in the FBI check with Interpol and they had nothing on him either. Another interesting piece of the puzzle was that Sacha Valinksi never left his hotel during the day, all his business was done at night.
On the day the play was expected to open, Richard showed up at the diner to talk to Anna. “What are you doing here?” she sneered when she found him sitting at one of her tables.
“We have to talk,” he told her.
“About what?”
“Your new boyfriend.”
“Leave him alone, leave us both alone.” She warned him, pouring a cup of coffee.
“There is something fishy about this guy, Anna. I care about you and don’t want you to get hurt. Trust me on this. He has no background, no birth certificate, no license, he doesn’t exist!”
“You investigated him?”
“He beat the crap out of me. Did you seriously think I wouldn’t check him out?” Richard began to raise his voice.
Anna hushed him, and acted like she was taking his order. “I don’t believe it. He is a sweet, kind and gentle man who loves me dearly and I love him. He wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
“God, he’s got you so bowled over it’s not even funny. He’s not a man, Anna, he’s not human. Look I know this is going to sound absurd but I went to a professor at NYU and explained what happened. I showed him the marks on my neck. He believes I was attacked by a vampire.”
“Oh really, Richard! A vampire?” She stuffed the order pad into her pocket. “Go away! Take your alcohol infused imagination and leave us alone. If you cared about me the way you say you do you would never have cheated on me.”
“Let me ask you something>”
“No!”
“Do you ever see him eat or drink anything? Is his skin always pale and cold? Has he slept with you? Does he ever spend the entire night?”
“That is none of your business!”
“He hasn’t has he? You’ve never seen him in the daylight, have you?”
“Get out!” she fumed under her breath.
“Anna, please listen to me. I’m not making this shit up!”
“Get out before I call the cops!” She turned up her nose and stormed off to the kitchen. Richard wrote something on a napkin, swallowed a mouth full of the coffee, threw two dollars on the table and left.
When Anna came back she found the napkin lying beside the coffee cup.
‘Ask him why he never leaves his hotel before nightfall.’
Anna decided to head over to the theater a little early. She unlocked the door and found the lobby lights on. She assumed that Sacha was somewhere in the building. “Hello,” she called out. “Sacha are you in here?” She walked across the lobby to the office. Light shone through from under the door. She turned the knob, it wasn’t locked so she went in.
Yvonne looked up from a stack of papers she that sat in front of her on the desk. “Hi, you must be Annabelle. Sacha told me you had a set of keys too.” Yvonne said coming around the desk to shake Anna’s hand. “My name is Yvonne.”
“Hi, Sacha said he hired someone to take care of the business end of things.” Anna unbuttoned her coat. “I got off early at the diner and decide to come in and take my time getting ready for the show.”
“Are you really nervous?”
“Yeah, the butterflies have a pretty good start on the hurricane in my stomach.” Anna grimaced a little and placed her hand on her middle.
“Surprisingly enough I am too. I mean I don’t get up on the stage like you but there is a lot to do up front here. I’ve never handled so much money at one time before. I’m scared to death I’ll screw something up,” Yvonne confided in Anna.
“You mean you’ve never done this before?”
“Oh I’ve waitressed and cashiered before but never on this scale. Plus I’ve never run an office before either. Paying the bills, dealing with the business contacts, I’ve been shaking in my shoes this past two weeks.”
“Then why did you apply for the job?” Anna tried not to sound sarcastic.
“I didn’t.” Yvonne explained. “I lost my last job, the store went broke and closed down, my rent was due, the utilities were sending final notices, my credit card was maxed out then God sent me an angel.”
“Sacha?”
“Yeah, he saved me in more ways than one.”
“Really? How?” Anna sat on the sofa across the room.
“Well first off, “ Yvonne began, “He saved me from some drunk in the bar. See I was so desperate for cash that I seriously considered hooking myself.”
“You didn’t, did you?”.
“Almost, I went to the bar and struck out several times but then this really good looking guy came in. He was already three sheets to the wind so I figured he would be easy to persuade. We started talking, when he told me he was a reporter that’s when I started thinking this guy was gonna be easy, writers seem to have this kinda loneliness factor going for them. After a couple more drinks he started getting rough and I just wanted him to leave me alone but he wouldn’t. This guy had me pinned against the wall trying to kiss me when in walked Sacha. He picked this guy up with one hand and dropped him in a booth then he led me outside and got me a cab. That’s when he asked me to work here. He just handed me his card said the job was mine.”
“Amazing,” Anna was genuinely shocked though not at the woman’s story but at the fact that the man she loved and trusted had lied to her. “Well, Sacha does have a good heart.”
“He sure does.”
“I guess I had better get a move on.” Anna got up and went for the door.
“Tonight’s the big night, guess we all need a big dose of ‘break a leg’ huh?” Yvonne returned to her seat behind the desk.
“Yeah, see you later. I’ll be in the back.” Anna walked from the office to the dressing room backstage in a complete daze. She didn’t even remember going through the inner doors, climbing the steps onto the stage or walking past the drawn curtain. All that ran through her mind is how Sacha had lied to her. He was at the bar and he was the one who attacked Richard. But she still didn’t believe Richard’s claim that Sacha was a vampire.
Costume and make-up done she sat blankly staring into the mirror in a deep state of contemplation. A light tapping at the door startled her back to reality. “Who is it?” she said with her hand on the knob.
“It’s me, Sacha.” Anna turned the key and let him in. “Yvonne said you’ve been here since three o’clock."
“Yeah, I wanted to take my time, it helps to curb the jitters when I don’t fell so rushed.” She didn’t look at him just went back to the dressing table and sat down.
“You are sulking, my dear, why?”
“I’m not sulking, just nervous.”
“Oh, I can tell the difference. What is bothering you?”
Anna sprung to her feet, then walked to the corner and turned around. “Richard came to the diner this morning. He still insists you are the one who attacked him in that alley.”
“Ridicules.”
“Is it? You lied to me. Yvonne told me how you helped her that night in the bar.”
Sacha looked surprised then began to explain. “I’m sorry, I confess, I did follow him into the bar. He was behaving very badly towards the girl. I pushed him down and then left. I did not beat him up in the alley.”
“What did you do after you put Yvonne in the cab?”
“I came back here.” Sacha replied, looking her straight in the face.
She frowned.
"You don’t believe me? Ask, the janitor, he was leaving when I came in.” Sacha tried to put his hands on her shoulders but she squirmed away. “Very well, I’ll leave you alone for now. We have a performance to focus on. We can discuss this later.” Sacha said coldly, closing the door behind him. Anna didn’t wait for Sacha after the show. She quickly changed her clothes, slipped out and flagged down a cab. She knew Sacha would go to her apartment looking for her so she went to the diner. Lefty, the fry cook, offered to let her crash at his place for the night. Lefty was a nice guy, very nonjudgmental and easy to talk to so whenever she had a problem she would unload her mind on him.
“I can believe he acted like such a jealous schoolboy, I thought he was more mature than that,” she whined through her tears.
“Honey, men are gonna lie. I do it all the time.” He told her then swallowed a mouthful of beer. “I know it hurts but you can’t change nature.”
“But this was something important not some stupid white lie, like why you’re late for work,” she wiped her eyes.
“You just go in there tomorrow and listen to his explanation. Then you can decide the next step.” He finished off the beer, “In the meantime, get some sleep. Your fans don’t pay to see bags under your eyes.” Lefty gave her a big hug then disappeared into his bedroom. “Good night.”
“Good night.” She said lying back on the couch and pulling the blanket over her. She tried to sleep but every time she closed her eyes the question Richard told her to ask Sacha kept creeping into the silence. She found herself thinking of reason why Sacha was never seen during the day. The fact that they worked half the night was a logical explanation but even someone who stays up till the wee morning hours would be out of bed by mid-afternoon. There also was the fact that it was winter and nightfall came as early as four p.m. some days. But even with those explanations Sacha never held afternoon rehearsals not even on the weekends and he never checked in with Yvonne at the theater office until after dark either. Anna decided that she would take Lefty’s advice and let Sacha explain about lying and then broach the other question after, better yet she would go to his hotel before he had the chance to leave.

****
Anna handed the cabbie the fare and climbed out of the car. This place was definitely not the Ritz. “Doesn’t even qualify as a sleazy dump, that would actually be a step up,” She whispered to herself looking around on the way in. She inquired about Sacha’s room number at the front desk.
“Mr. Valinski’s in the penthouse suite, lady,” the clerk, who looked like he had been strung out longer than last year’s laundry, said sarcastically, “and left instructions not to be disturbed before dark.”
“Really? Well, it’s almost dark so I’m going up.” Anna started for the elevator bt was stopped by the clerk.
“Elevator’s broke lady,” he told her as he lit a cigarette. “You’ll have to use the stairs.”
“Nice.” Anna rolled her eyes.
“Look lady,” the clerk brushed his hand along her arm as she passed by, “I wouldn’t go up there if I were you. That dude, he’s the freakiest guy I’ve ever run into and there are some pretty wacked out weirdoes around this place.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Look, before he moved in he sent some shades, black ones, you know the kind that block out the light real good, and ordered that they be put up before he arrived, see. And then, this huge wooden crate, full of who knows what, was delivered. He won’t let the maid in, he stays up there until nightfall and comes back in just before the sun comes up everyday. The dude’s been here since July and I’ve never seen him in the daylight and this guy I know says that Mr. Valinski’s been paying a friend of this dude to steal blood from the hospital. Lady, I’m warning you, I don’t even go up there.”
“Well, I am,” Anna smiled and started the climb to the fifth floor. About ten steps up she let out a soft chuckle, “The penthouse suite, now that’s funny.”
The closer she came to the top floor the more she wondered about the things that filthy little clerk said. “He has to be high,” she mumbled to herself, “Okay, so Sacha’s a little extreme with his privacy, after all he is from Russia, but come on, Anna, do you really believe this vampire crap?” When she got to the fifth floor she put her hand on the service door handle and sighed. “I hope he doesn’t get mad at me for just popping in.”
When she exited the stairwell, she found herself standing in a small foyer rather than a long hall way. Apparently this, at one time, probably a hundred years ago, really was a penthouse suite. The ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign was on the door and the door was locked. She knocked, softly at first but by the third time she was nearly banging on the door. “Sacha! Sacha are you in there? It’s me Anna.” No answer. She waited another minute then tried knocking a fourth time to no avail. Just as she opened the stairwell door to go back down Sacha stepped out of the room.
“Annabelle, what are you doing here?” rushed her to the exit. “This is no place for you, I’ve told you never to come here.”
“If it’s so bad then why do you stay here?” she asked.
“I have my reasons.” He held the service door open for her.
“What reasons?”
“They are not important right now,” he seemed more anxious than surprised, definitely more so than warranted.
Once they reached the lobby Sacha hailed a cab but told her that he was not going with her to the theater. He had some other business to take care of first and would meet her there in an hour. Anna’s suspicion grew more every second, he was hiding something and she wanted to know what it was. Watching through the back window of the car she saw him go back inside the building. She turned to face the front of the vehicle, promptly pulled out her cell phone and called Lefty.
Lefty wasn’t his real name. His real name was Ryan and he wasn’t even from New York, he came here from Georgia for a construction job and then never left. He had broken his right hand on the job shortly after he got here, the construction crew chief dubbed him Lefty and it stuck. She liked talking with him. He had a way of making things sound ‘not as bad as you thought they were’. He was good at calming her down so she could think things out.
“Hi, it’s Anna. Can I ask you for a favor?”
“Sure, anything you need?” he answered.
“Do you still talk to that PI dude? You know one who asked you to take pictures for him last year?”
“Not really but I know where to find him. Why?”
“I need him to follow someone around for a few days.”
“Is Richard bugging you again?”
“No,” she pause briefly, “It’s Sacha. There is something about his behavior that’s just not right.” Anna was almost in tears. “I hate to do this but he is keeping way too many secrets from me. He knows everything about me and I know almost nothing about him.”
“Well, honey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I’ll give the PI a call and we’ll see what happens from there. I hope things work out for you though, you’ve had a really bad year.”
“Tell me about it,” she sighed. “Thanks, I’ll call you back in the morning.”
The theater was unusually empty and cold, not even Yvonne was there yet. Anna walked down the isle and sat in one of the front row seats. Tears fell like a river but she didn’t know if she was mad, scared or just confused and unsure. All of a sudden there was the sound of the door swinging shut behind her. She turned, straining to see who was coming towards her. Her heart began to beat faster and faster and she prepared herself to run as the dark figure came slowly closer, until she saw Richard’s face. “What are you doing here?” she half sighed and half groaned.
“I followed you.”
“What?”
“I’ve been following you for a few days.” he sat calmly down in one of the seats. “You went to his hotel today.”
“So?” Anna tried to act annoyed but deep down she wanted to jump into his arms and tell him how frightened and confused she was.
“Did you talk to the clerk?”
“What’s it to you?”
“He told me some pretty wild stuff. I just wondered if he told you the same thing.”
“You’ve been following Sacha too, haven’t you?”
“Anna, I’m an investigative reporter, that’s what I do. Especially if some dead guy with fangs stares me in the face and threatens my life.”
“You really still expect me to believe that?”
“Maybe not yet, princess, but you’re getting close aren’t you?”
“Richard you need to get out, now!”
“Okay, okay, I’m going, but I’ll be back,” he stood up and started down the isle then turned and looked back, “By the way don’t waste your time and money on that PI, I’ve already done the leg work, call me later I’ll enlighten you.” He swaggered through the lobby and out into the street.

****
“Hello.” Richard grumbled when the phone rang at four a.m.
“I’m not even going to ask how you knew about the private investigator, but I really need to know what you know.” Anna told him.
“Sure, I’ll meet you at the diner around seven.” Richard said as he threw off the cover and sat up.
“I’ll be there.”
Anna was waiting on a grubby looking old man when Richard walked in so he and sat in a booth at the other end of the dinning room. A forlorn smile came across his face as he watched Anna clip the old man’s order on the string that hung across the kitchen window then disappear into the back. Setting his briefcase on the table, he opened it and pulled out his laptop. Just as the computer finished booting up a cup slid across the table at him. He looked up to see Anna holding a pot of coffee.
“Coffee?” she said softly.
“Yes, please.” Richard replied. Anna sat down in the seat across from him and poured them both some coffee. “You look tired.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she rested her cheek on her hand. “My mind wouldn’t shut down. I am so confused. I don’t know what to think or believe.”
“That’s what I’m here for, to help you see the truth.” Richard pulled out a file and plopped it in front of her. “I did a background search on him. As you can see there are tax records for only this past year, no driver’s license, no Social security number, no green card, no previous address, nada. The man does not exist as far as the state of New York is concerned.”
“I don’t understand. How can he be running a business without all this?”
“Wait, princess, it gets better. Had a friend of mine in the FBI run a nation wide check and got the same results.”
“Well, maybe there’s information about him in Russia, that’s where he’s from.”
“I thought of that too, so my friend contacted someone he knew in Europe, an Interpol agent. He checked all the countries you said he told you he had lived in.”
“And?” Anna could feel the tears beginning to well up.
“Nothing. On top of all that, there have been a string of unexplained deaths amongst the homeless. The cops are looking for a serial killer but have no clues except that these people have all been bled out ad dumped in alleys.”
“That’s could be just a coincidence.”
“Maybe. But I went back to that professor at NYU and he did some digging. That play you’re doing is a folktale alright but not from Russia, it’s from Austria.”
“Austria is not even mentioned in the play.” Anna added.
“If he was hiding behind the tale it wouldn’t be would it? The legend goes that during the time when the Austrian king had captured Richard I there was a Russian Ambassador in his court who was in on a plan to help the British king escape. The Russian Ambassador was caught and convicted of treason. He was sentenced to be beheaded but a woman in the court, a lady-in-waiting named Katrina, who was in love with him, went to the village sorceress for a spell to protect him from the executioner’s axe. The spell had an adverse effect. It turned him into a vampire.”
“It’s just a story it’s not real.”
“That would have been my first instinct. But after what I saw looking at me, reality is a bit on the shaky side.” Richard spun his computer around for her to see the article he brought up on the screen.
“This is all so bizarre.” Anna stood up to get back to work.
“Well there’s only one way to find out,” Richard handed her the file again. “Confront him.”
“I don’t know.” Anna poured him another cup of coffee.
“You could always wait until he flashes his extra long pearly whites at you. But by then it might be too late.” Richard gave her a cynical look then tossed a five dollar bill on the table and left.
Anna put the file in her backpack behind the counter and went back to work. She tried not to think about it as the day went on but she couldn’t get Richard’s words out of her mind. Could something that outrageous actually exist? There had to be another explanation. It would be easier to believe that all the secrecy surrounding Sacha was because he was some kind of spy or government agent or something. But a vampire? She thought Richard was far more levelheaded and realistic than that. However, he was truly adamant about it and he has never taken anything at face value before. As much as she hated the idea she knew she had to push Sacha for some answers.
After work she headed straight over to Sacha’s hotel. The clerk she had spoken with before was not there, “mugged in the alley and pretty tore up”, the new clerk told her. She managed to convince him to give her a key to Sacha’s room.
The blinds were down and heavy black curtains also cover the windows making it very dark. Making her way across to the window she raised one of the shades to let in just enough light for her to see but not brighten to room completely. She dialed Richard’s number. “Richard I’m in his suite.”
“Well, what did you find?”
“Nothing yet, just three bags full of trash by the door.”
“You are not a very good detective, princess, look inside them.”
“Okay, hold on.” She told Richard as she set down the phone to untie one of the bags. “Oh my God!” she muttered in surprise.
“What did you find?” Richard heard her and spoke louder into the receiver.
Anna opened the other two bags, “Oh God! No!” she said again with as she picked up the phone as she backed away.
“Anna!” Richard said into the phone. “Talk to me! What did you find?”
“Richard!” she squealed under her breath. “They’re full empty IV bags from the blood bank.”
“Listen to me, Anna.” Richard explained slowly. “Close the bags back up then go look in the bedroom.”
“I can’t go in there,” Anna told him as she pulled the draw sting on each of the trash bags to close them.
“Sure you can, just crack the door and see if he is in there.”
Anna tiptoed across the room and wrapped her fingers around the doorknob and froze. “I can’t.” she said into the phone in her other hand.
“Yes you can,” Richard encouraged her.
Very slowly she turned the knob and crept the door open. At first glance the bed was empty but when she came further in she saw something that made her freeze in her tracks. “Richard,” she could barely speak for fear, “It’s a box, a big coffin size box.”
“Open it. “ Richard told her.
“No! I’m getting out of here.” She sniffled because she had started crying.
“Anna, you have to look.”
“No!” she said hanging up the phone and closing the door as silently as her trembling hands would allow. She darted out into the foyer and down the stairs then dropped the key off at the desk.
“Wow lady, you look like you saw a ghost.” The clerk said as he took it from her.
“No, not a ghost,” she turned and rushed out into the street where she finally took a deep, ragged breath then called for a cab.
Before she was halfway to the theater Richard was calling her back. “Don’t worry, if his cares about you like he says he does I don’t think he’ll hurt you.”
“But I can’t… This can’t be happening!”
“Look, I’ll come to the theater as soon as I can and we’ll face him together. Okay?
“Okay, but hurry.” Anna hung up. Her entire body was shaking by now and tears ran down her cheeks like Niagara Falls.
It was only twenty minutes until the curtain call. The small obscure theater was filling up and Sacha was just walking in the door. Yvonne was getting worried. “You’re late,” she said poking her head out of the box office door. “Where have you been? Anna has been looking for you.” Sacha just rushed past her without answering.
He knocked on Anna’s dressing room door. “I’m sorry I’m late. You wanted to see me, is there a problem?”
Sacha had never come in there before and what she saw, or more appropriately, what she didn’t see as she stared into the mirror almost made her heart stop. She could see the open door and the grimy doorframe but the man who should have been standing between the two did not appear in the glass. Anna barely held in the urge to screech in horror. She spun around and tried to seem as normal as possible. “I need to talk to you about something.”
“What is bothering you?”
“It’s personal,” she said spinning around to face him.
“Then it will have to wait. It’s almost time.” he said curtly in his Russian accent which tended to become quite prominent when he was rushed or angry. Anna turned back again just in time to see the door close by itself in the mirror.
Half way through the performance Anna saw Richard enter and slip into a seat in the back. This made her feel a little more secure and perhaps a bit courageous but she knew if Sacha were to show his true face Richard couldn’t save either of them.
When the show ended she returned to her dressing room Richard was waiting for her. “I don’t know if we should provoke him,” she said, ducking behind the screen to change her clothes.
“We’re not going to provoke him,” Richard explained calmly. “We’re going to destroy him.”
Anna popped out from behind the screen. “No!”
“What did you think this was all about? He’s killed dozens people and God know if he turned any of his victims into vampires.”
“No, I haven’t,” Sacha came into the room. “I wouldn’t wish this curse upon my worse enemy.”
“Sacha!” Anna gasped.
“I thought I warned you to stay away?” Sacha glanced at Richard.
“Did you really think I would let you hurt her?” Richard rose to his feet.
“I could never have hurt her. I love her.” Sacha went to Anna and embraced her.
“She’s not Katrina.”
“She has my Katrina’s soul within her. For centuries I have strived to be reunited with my eternal love and every time someone has taken her from me, sending her back the heavens beyond my reach.” Sacha’s discontent and sadness echoed in his voice.
“Yeah, I know the story.” Richard stepped closer. “So what was your plan for this century?”
“We will be together.”
“The only way that’s going to work is if you both die together. I’m not about to let you live or her die,” Richard explained.
“And how do you plan on stopping me, mortal.” Sacha snarled, his face changed right before Anna’s eyes. His eyes became even more dark and empty, his skin turned an ashy white and fangs protruded from his upper jaw but for some reason she no longer feared him.
“Like this.” Richard pulled a sword from under his trench coat. “A friend at the university gave me some pointers.”
Sacha tried to leap at him but Anna held him back, “Sacha, no. Don’t hurt him, please.” she begged. His features returned to normal as she drew him in and kissed him.
“Anna? What are you doing?” Richard was stunned at her reaction. He took a step forward.
“Please Richard, stay back.”
“Anna he’s a killer!”
“I love him,” she said softly caressing Sacha’s cheek.
“What?” Richard shouted. “Are you crazy?”
“You love me? You are not afraid?” Sacha stared deep into her eyes.
“No.”
“You know what I must do? What you will become?” he cradled her face in his hands.
“I’ve had time to think, time to realize that we were meant to be together. Once I knew the truth the play made perfect sense to me. I saw for the first time that every word you spoke on that stage came from inside you, not just some character lines. I could feel what you were feeling. Maybe I really am Katrina come back to life and maybe I’m not but my heart and soul tell me that we are one.”
“Anna, you’re not serious?” Richard shouted.
“Dead serious, Richard,” She glared at him, “You have two choices let us alone or kill us both right now. I will die with him but I will not live without him.”
“Anna get away from him.” Richard instructed.
“No. I am staying right here.”
“This all has to end.” Richard raised the sword over his head.
“He’s right, my love,” Sacha said as he push her long brown hair away from her neck and entwined it tightly in the fingers of his left hand. She exposed her throat freely to him and he brought his lips to her ear. “I will love you forever. This curse must end, now” he whispered. With a quick glance and a nod toward Richard he pushed Anna across the room. Richard instantly understanding what was expected of him swung the sword with all his strength severing Sacha’s head from his body.
“NO!” Anna screamed and scrambled to try and get herself in the path of the blade. But it happened too fast. “Sacha!” She collapsed on to the floor beside his body. “No!” she wailed again throwing herself upon the corpse weeping.
Richard dropped the sword and pulled her away. “Anna, come on. You have to let go.” She refused.
“He’s gone, you killed him.”
“I saved you, Anna, I saved you both. In the end he knew what had to be done. He’s free now.”
“Go away Richard, just go away. I never want to see you again!”
“Okay, but you don’t mean that,” he said as he turned to leave the room. “I’ll call the cops and make up some story about a robbery or something. Will you go along with whatever I come up with?”
“Yea, just leave, please” she nodded and put her head down on the body.
Richard showed up at the theater about two months later to see how Anna was doing. Apparently Sacha had put the theater in Anna’s name the day before their ordeal. She and Yvonne were running it now. “How are you doing?” He asked when he came in.
Anna, who had been perched up on a ladder changing a bulb in a sconce on the wall, smiled when she saw him. “I’m okay. I read your article about the investigation. Thank you for what you said about him. It was kind of you.”
“Yea, well, he didn’t ask to be cursed after all,” he paused a moment and sighed. “Look,” he fumbled with paper in his hand. “I thought you might want to see the review of your new production before it goes to press.”
“Were they kind to us?” she asked as she climbed down.
“You were a hit,” he tossed the paper in the trash.
“Well than I can wait,” she said softly. “time has a whole new meaning for me now.”


My Desert Flower
“My lord,” a servant frantically called through the curtain that surrounded his master’s bed. “My lord, Saladin approaches our gates.”

“Saladin? Here in Damascus?” Tariq mumbled as he sat up and pulled his robe over his head. “Go prepare food and wake the others,” he said waking the wife who slept beside him.

Jerusalem was once again under fire so for Saladin to have traveled away from there in such a perilous time, whatever task he had for Tariq to do was immensely important. “Sultan, welcome to my home,” Tariq greeted. “What brings you so far from Jerusalem?”

The Sultan had with him his youngest daughter. Her face was hidden beneath a dark veil but from what he could see Tariq could tell she was no more than twelve.

“I need your knights,” Saladin told him.

“Of course, they are yours,” Tariq replied briefly but humbly lowering his eyes. “Shall we be fighting in Jerusalem or Acre?” he asked looking up.

“Your men will come with me, but I have another task for you.” Saladin held out his arm and the girl came closer. “You are my most trusted friend,” he began, “I want you to escort my daughter across the desert to Baghdad. She is not safe in Jerusalem,” the Sultan handed Saracen Knight a parchment scroll. “These are my terms. You have my full authority to negotiate with the Sheik on my behalf. This,” One of the Sultan’s men brought in a small chest and set it down in front of the knight, “goes with her.”

“She will be kept safe,” Tariq bowed his head and took the paper from Saladin’s hand.

“Good, now I shall return to Jerusalem. Have your knights follow me immediately.” The Sultan left Tariq’s home as quickly as he had arrived.

By dawn his entire company of Saracen Knights and soldiers were marching south to fight for Jerusalem and Tariq, along with two knights and the Sultan’s daughter were heading east across the desert.

The last thing Tariq remembered was traveling along the small tributary that ran off the Euphrates River near the city of Baghdad. He had been sent to arrange the marriage between Sheik Husam al Din and the daughter of the great Saladin, Sultan of Syria. The Sultan was, at that time, deeply entrenched in a fierce war with England’s King Richard the Lionheart over control of Jerusalem and Tariq was happy to have been sent to handle such a peaceful undertaking rather than risk his life in the heat of a senseless battle. He saw no point in fighting over a city that essentially belonged to neither party, “Jerusalem had belonged to the Hebrews for a thousand years let them keep it,” he had often said. He was a skilled soldier but in his heart Tariq was no warrior, he could fight when he had to but never went looking for it. He had a good life with plenty of his own wealth, four wives, and six sons and was in no hurry to die for Saladin’s futile causes.

He had spent a month traveling to the Sheik’s palace in Baghdad and another fourteen days negotiating on Saladin’s behalf. Finally, a satisfactory agreement was reached and Tariq, accompanied by his two Saracen guards, was on his way back across the desert to deliver the terms to the Sultan. Husam al Din had given a bag full of exquisite jewels as an offering of good faith between Saladin and himself, which Tariq carried with him. The three knights had been attacked in the night as they rested by the river. The two guards were killed and Tariq was unconscious and barely alive when he was found near the river bank by a woman and her daughter, who brought him to their encampment.

“Where am I?” he asked hoarsely as he opened his eyes and glanced around him. He tried to sit up but found his shoulder and arm had both been wrapped tightly and it was far too painful to move.

“You’re awake,” He heard a small female voice. He turned his head and saw a woman with big dark eyes sitting near him in the tent. “How are you feeling?” She asked softly.

“Who are you?” he grunted in pain, “How did I get here?”

“My daughter and I found you near the river. You were badly beaten. Your shoulder is pulled out of place and your arm is broken.”

“How long have I been here?”

“Two days,” she answered as she wiped his face with a cool cloth.

“Where are my clothes?” He tried to sit up again but the pain was too much.

“They are being washed. You really shouldn’t try to move.”

“The jewels, I had a small sack of jewels hidden in my robes.” He explained to her. “They belong to Saladin.”

“You were going to Saladin? Or coming from?” she asked as she allowed the thin veil to slip from her head to her shoulders.

“Going back to him, the jewels were an offering to the Sultan for his daughter’s hand in marriage.”

“Calm yourself.” She said in a loud whisper placing the cool, wet cloth on his forehead. “The jewels are long gone by now. I suspect they were the reason we found you as we did.” She held a cup to his lips and helped him drink. “My name is Azhara,” she said as she took the cup away.

“I am Tariq,” He replied, staring into her eyes, and thinking how big and beautiful they were. “I came from Damascus to arrange the marriage of the Sultan’s daughter to Sheik Husam al Din in Bagdad.”

“The Sheik does not like to part with his treasures.” She added with a smirk, while she was busy mixing something in a mortar and pestle. “He most likely arranged for you to be robbed and killed. Then he could get the girl and keep his jewels.”

“I am not so easily killed and Saladin is not so easily fooled.” He watched as her hands nimbly worked at adding herbs to the stone bowl and grinding them into a fine powder. She mixed the powder in some water and told him to drink it.

“It will help relieve the pain.” She said bluntly.

“Thank you, you are very kind, Azhara,” he gazed benevolently upon her face as he handed her back the cup. He felt as if a fire was beginning to stir in his heart, but was it her beauty or her kindness that affected him. He could not, yet, be sure but something had instantly drawn him to her.

For the next few days she stayed with him, catering to his ever need, until he had been able to sit up on his own. He would talk with her about the war and what she thought of the world. He discovered that though she was isolated from much of civilization she was highly intelligent and well informed of what was happening. “Zayna brings me news from the city when she goes into the market.” She told him.

“Why don’t you ever go with her?” he asked once. Her only answer was a smile as she left him alone.

The more he saw of her the more he wanted to stay with her. He was beginning to wish he did not have anything to return home to, he wished he could stay with her and never leave. His duty to Saladin and his family seemed to exist in another lifetime.”

She told him how Saladin’s daughter would be better off marrying a slave than Sheik Husam, “He is a vicious hateful man, who would have her disgracefully beaten just for the pleasure of watching.” She cared nothing for money or treasures and often expressed a dislike of those who had wealth. “Most of them are so greedy that they would sooner watch a child die of hunger in the streets than part with coin to feed him,” she explained. After learning how she felt about the rich he thought it best to kept his from her.

One night, not long after he was able to more freely move about, he took her hand in his as she was attending to his bandages. “Azhara,” He spoke almost in a whisper, “I must tell you something.”

“What is it?” she looked at him.

“Forgive me for being bold but the time we have spent together has stirred my heart and I have been so taken by your beauty. I have fallen deeply in love with you. I wish for you to come with me back to Damascus and marry me. I can give you and your daughter a good home.”

“Tariq, you are a good man, but it can never be.”

“Why?”

“You have enough wives already, and many sons. You do not need us.”

“Then you deny me?”

“It is for the best,” she said softly and left the tent.

The desert sun had already begun to set when Tariq woke again. He carefully pulled himself up and on his feet then staggered outside for the first time in nearly a dozen days. The brightness had nearly blinded him but his vision soon cleared and he could see at last where he was. Azhara’s home was not far from the river, within the green of a small oasis but still very secluded with the desert sand not far in the east. It was only a day’s travel from there to the city. Looking him around it seemed as if the world had come to a standstill, no people, no buildings, only the two tents she and her fourteen year old daughter, Zayna, lived in. A fresh warm breeze blew across him. His injuries were painful yet and made it difficult, but he drew the air deep into his lungs, “I feel alive again,” he said under his breath.

Zayna came out of the larger tent carrying several sheepskin bags. She was on her way to get water. “Zayna,” Tariq called to her. “Where is your mother?”

“Down by the river with the goats,” she answered. “I’ll take you.”

“Thank you,” he smiled. “Lead the way.”

Tariq’s pace was much slower than normal, it was painful to walk about but he needed to get out and move. Sitting about would only make his injuries worse.

“You have become very fond of my mother haven’t you?” Zayna asked him bluntly as they walked.

“What makes you think that?” He tried to contain a smile.

“It is obvious, and she told me that you had asked her to be your wife.”

“Yes, I did.”

“She won’t do it,” the girl said plainly.

“Why not?”

“First off you have four other wives. She is not like that. My parents were very devoted to one another. My father would never have considered having other wives.””

“She really tells you everything, doesn’t she

“Yes, who else would she talk to?”

“But the others were arranged marriages, I care for them, yes, but I do not love them. I love Azhara. I have a greater love for her than I have for my own life. I would gladly give up my other wives for her.”

“That won’t help.” The girl smiled.

“That is the first reason, what are the others?” He asked.

“I don’t think it is my place to explain those to you.”

“No?” Tariq took her gently by the arm, “Why not?”

“If you love her as you say you do, then you will leave as soon as possible and let her go on with her life. She will never marry anyone.”

“I don’t understand?”

Zayna glanced up at the sky then gave a heavy sigh. “She is dying and we do not have the means to make her well.” Zayna hung her head to hold back the tears then turned away. “Physicians want payment. We cannot provide it.”

“Surely someone could help, you have no family near-by?”

“If we did she would never take it. She does not want to owe anything to anyone.”

“If she had payment could they cure her?”

“Possibly, if it is not too late,” the girl said to him, “Why, do you have money to help her?”

He thought for a moment, if he said yes then Azhara would hate him like she does all other rich men. Since he allowed her to believe he was but a poor soldier, he certainly would not have the means. “No,” Tariq said, “but I could get it from Saladin, if she were my wife. He would grant me this.”

“She will not marry you just to save her life,” the girl replied and pointed to the left where her mother could be heard calling to the goats from behind a patch brush and trees. “Ask her yourself, you’ll get the same answer.”

Tariq waited a few more days, during which time he showered Azhara with so much affection and words of love that she could not possibly doubt his feelings for her. He helped her tend the goats and, as painful as it was, carry the water from the river. Daily, he brought her flowers that grew along the banks, exclaiming every day that they paled in beauty compared to her, his desert flower, as he called her, because her name meant flower.

Again he asked her to marry him and again she refused. He continued to ask every morning for the next week until one day she stopped and stared at him. He stood by the river, his hand filled with flowers. She slowly approached him and took the blossoms from him. Tariq could swear his heart stopped beating as she looked deep into his eyes. “You swear you love me?”

“I swear on the moon and the stars that I love you above all others.”

“How much do you love me?” she came closer.

“More than my own life,” he answered.

“Then I will be your wife,” she whispered softly, “if you stay here with me until I die.”

“But I can take to my home and Saladin’s physicians can help you,” he said ardently.

“No.” she said calmly, “Pull me close to you.”

As he cautiously wrapped his arms around her, he instantly knew why she wanted him to touch her. Beneath the heavy robes, under which she kept herself covered, she was nothing but skin and bones. He had not realized until then just how ill she had become. “It is too late isn’t?” he lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “All the wealth in the world can’t help now.”

“No,” she answered, “I am dying, more quickly each day.”

“I will stay with you. You will not die alone, but in my arms.”

“Thank you.”

“I could have found you help.” He held her close again. “I deceived you, and I am sorry. I am not a poor soldier but a Saracen Knight I have much gold and silver, I could have paid the physicians. I could have helped you sooner.”

“Why are you sorry? That you deceived me or that you could not save me?”

“Both, but more the latter.”

“You only think you deceived me. I knew you were more than a soldier from the beginning. Saladin would not send a mere soldier to represent him. And for the other you did save me. I was bitter, I had cursed all men except my husband, the day my father abandoned me because I married a man he did not approve of. He banished us.” Tears began to roll down her cheek. “We lived here happily for many years, until I became ill. He went to my father to ask for help and instead was beaten and ridiculed. He sought help from those who used to be his friends, they too beat him. He died in the streets begging for my life.”

“Your father was very cruel. Who was he?” Tariq asked.

“You have met him,” She fumbled with the small red stone that hung around her neck, “he is Sheik Husam al Din.”

“Husam is your father?” Tariq was surprised.

“Yes.” She wiped the tears from her eyes.

“Then how have I saved you? You’re dying and I did nothing.”

“You have restored my faith in man. A rich man can have a sincere heart and now I have proof that there is at least one in the world. You would give up all that you had to stay with me no matter how long it took.”

“Because I love you and nothing will take me from your side.” Tariq swore. “I have never felt this way for anyone.”

“I cannot hold you to such a promise. There are others who need you and you have a duty to them. But please swear to me that you will take my daughter with you and see that she is looked after.”

“I’m not leaving you alone. You saved my life and I give it to you for however long you wish to keep it.” Tariq stayed with Azhara for almost three months. During those days his love for her grew stronger and stronger while she quickly became weaker. He watched as she faded further and further away until she could no longer walk beside the river with him or sit and look out among the stars or eat without becoming immediately ill. He knew the end was near when she was at last confined to her bed.

The dawn had just begun to revive the sky when Tariq woke to say morning prayers. He reached over to caress Azhara’s cheek, she was still and cold. He lifted her in his arms and carried her out into the rising sun. Placing her gently on the ground before him, he began his morning ritual with tearful eyes. When he was through he returned her to her bed so Zayna could prepare her for burial. He walked down to the river and collected as many flowers as he could find. After he and Zayna laid her in the ground he covered her grave with the flowers he had picked.

“I promise you, Zayna will be a wealthy girl and only marry for love. I shall see you again, my desert flower.”

He and Zayna sold everything but a few small trinkets that belonged to Azhara. They bought two camels with which to travel across the desert. With Azhara wrapped safely within his heart and her daughter beside him as he had pledged, he returned to his service to Saladin and to his family. The family, which because of Azhara’s effect on him, were to have a new meaning in his life.



Eternal Essence


Fiona Pentangeli glared hopelessly at the shelves of books before her. After looking through several she peeked at her watch and sighed. “These have all been told a million times.” As she ran her fingers over the next row she noticed a man with dark hair and even darker eyes staring at her from across the room. She nervously pulled another book from the shelf and began to thumb through it but her attention was more on the stranger than what she was reading, watching him through the corner of her eye. He never moved, he just stood staring directly at her without even as much as a blink of an eye. “This guy is really starting to freak me out,” she whispered to herself. Fortunately Abby, the library assistant, had stepped between Fiona and the Creep blocking his view.

“You look frustrated,” Abby said quietly. “Are you looking for something in particular?”

“Yea, I am reading to the kids at the orphanage tomorrow during their Halloween party and I want to find a story that is not too mature and gory but not childish either. Most of the kids are preteens and I don’t think they’ll go in for the usual children’s faire.”

“That’s really very kind of you to volunteer. Young people today do need to take more of an interest in books than video games.”

“It’s more like a repayment of kindness. I grew up there myself so I know how they feel.”

“Well, you have a good heart.” Abby smiled. “Now let’s go over to the computer and check there first, shall we?”

Fiona followed her over to the corner where the computers sat. Abby typed Halloween stories for preteens, into the computer while Fiona looked on. 

“I’ve seen most of these titles already, some have really been over told, everyone knows them.” Fiona said as Abby scrolled down the page. “Wait, go back to that last one.”

“The Society of the Emerald Taliesin,” Abby read aloud. “I’ve never heard of it before. It must have been added to the inventory just recently.”

“Tales of myths and monsters for all ages,” Fiona read the subtitle. “Sounds like what I’m looking for, let’s go find it.”

Abby jotted down the location information and the two ladies returned to the row of books. Abby checked the upper shelves while Fiona scoured through the lower ones. “Here it is,” Abby climbed down from the step ladder and moved it over a few paces. “Way up on the top,” the librarian stretched as high as she could but still couldn’t reach.

“Here let me try,” Fiona said as Abby came down, “I’m a couple inches taller then you.”

Fiona slid the book from its place and climbed back down. The book was bound in black velvet with gold lettering and a flat green stone on the front cover. She ran her fingers across it. “Wow this is really nice.” She whispered in Abby’s direction but again out of the corner of her eye was that man only this time he had a grin on his face. “I think I’ll check this one out. There has got to be something in here that’s never been heard before.” She and Abby walked over to the counter to run her card. As they stood waiting for the computer to okay the loan the creepy man went out the door. “That man was freaking me out.” Fiona whispered to Abby, “He was staring at me the whole time. I think he was stalking me. Can you walk with me to my car? I don’t want to go out there alone, I’m parked only a couple of spaces away from the door.”

“Sure.” Abby smiled. “Not a problem.” Outside they looked around but didn’t see anyone. Abby stayed on the steps until Fiona was in her car and on her way.

****

“Hey! Where have you been?” Paul the station director shouted down the hall as Fiona came crashing through the doors. “You are on the air in five minutes!”

“I know! I was at the library then the traffic was atrocious. I’m sorry.” Fiona explained frantically as she headed for her office. She tossed her bag with the book inside on the chair and began to rummage through the papers on her desk.

Darren, who was basically the stations private fix it guy poked his head in the door. “Cutting things close aren’t we, Fiona?”

Fiona looked up and smirked, “Don’t you have something to fix?”

Darren didn’t reply he just lowered his eyes and fumbled with the mass of wires in his hand.

“Look, I have to go,” she said as she rushed past him and scrambled down the hall, “Oh by the way, the light switch in my office still doesn’t work.”“I’ll get right on that,” he called out then mumbled to himself, “She’s out of your league, idiot.”

****

Fiona was so engrossed in the book that she never noticed Darren come into the office. “I came to fix that switch. It’s probably just crossed wires,” he said cheerfully but got no response. “Fiona?” He called her again and still noting. “Fiona!” he was almost shouting as he waved his hand in front of her face blocking her connection with the book

“Darren,” she said as she dropped the book, “What!”

He set his tools on her desk. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for like five minutes.”

“I was reading.” She glared at him annoyed that he interrupted then quickly glanced at the tool box, “Do you have to put those there?”

“No not necessarily,” he said, a little annoyed himself and put the toolbox on the floor. “What has you so involved that you couldn’t hear me right next to you?”

“I got this book from the library for tomorrow. It’s amazing. It’s full of stories I have never heard of before. I think the kids are going to be thrill to death.”

“That’s generally not a phrase one should use in reference to children on Halloween.”

“Oh stop, anyway the story I’m reading now is incredible, it makes you feel like you’re right there inside the pages.”

“Obviously,” Darren murmured as he started to take the cover off the light switch.

“This princess is sent by her father to marry some duke in another country and a knight is sent to escort her but along the way they fall in love. They decide to run off to be together but when the duke finds out he goes after her. To stay hidden they follow a gypsy woman through this strange land neither of them had ever heard of before. There’s a really creepy dark forest and wolves that chase them until they come to an old castle.”

“And?” Darren asked.

“That’s far as I got before I was so rudely interrupted.”

“Sorry.” Darren continued to work on the switch.

She picked the book up and opened to where she left off when sh turned the page she got a rather unpleasant surprise. The rest of the story was missing. “Damn,” she rolled her eyes.

“What’s the matter?” Darren asked without looking away from his work.

“The pages have been torn out. The rest of this story is gone.”

“You best take it back to the library and let them know.”

“I don’t really feel like going back there today, I’ll call and tell them. I need to look through it for another story for tomorrow anyway.”

Darren finished with the switch as Fiona called to talk to the librarian but the library was already closed. After the call she grabbed her coat to go home. “Will you lock the door on your way out” she asked, watching Darren pack up his tools.

“Sure,” he answered.

“Thanks,” she smiled and turned to go.

“Wait!” Darren picked up the book from her desk where she set it while she put her coat on. “You don’t want to forget this.” As soon as she touched it there was a flash and then everything went dark.

“What the hell was that?” Darren exclaimed as he spun around in the darkness trying to surmise the situation. They each took a step closer to the other and that was when they realized that the book was gone and the spot where they stood was definitely not Fiona’s office.

There was a cold breeze and the sky was a dark but not black, more like a deep purple, there were no stars and the moon was nowhere in sight. They couldn’t even see each other for a moment until their eyes began to adjust. Fiona grabbed onto Darren’s arm, “Where are we?” he wondered out loud.

“How did we get here?” Fiona squeezed his arm tighter.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “This can’t be real.”

“It looks pretty real to me.” Fiona took a half step away from Darren. “Look at your clothes!” she gasped.

Darren looked down at himself and saw that he was no longer in his usual jeans and t-shirt but dressed from head to toe as a medieval warrior, including a sword. “What the hell… my God look at you,” he said in an unbelieving tone. As he spoke a stiff breeze swept over them and Fiona realized that her warm coat and jeans were gone and she was in a long velvet dress. “You look like some kind of damsel in distress.” He paused a moment, “Not a bad look for you.”

“Really?” She said contemptuously as she folded her arms in front of her, rubbing her shoulders to keep warm. “Damn, it’s freezing.”

“Come here.” Darren reached his hand out to her.

“Why?”

“I’ll keep you warm,” he answered matter of factly. “Unless you want to turn into an icicle.” Fiona reluctantly pressed herself against Darren. He wrapped his arms around her to shield her from the cold. “I don’t know what’s going on here but we need to find someplace to get you out of this weather.”

“Thank you.” she whispered.

They started walking, tough they had no idea where they were headed. Darren kept a look out for anything that could serve as shelter.

It wasn’t long before they came upon a dead-end. The road stopped at a rock wall. It wasn’t as steep as a huge cliff, maybe thirty or forty feet high, but it appeared to go on forever in either direction. “It’s not so windy here,” Darren said while Fiona sat down to rest. “We could try to build a fire.”

“And how are you going to light it?” Fiona smirked. “Do you have a way to make fire?”

“Flint rocks,” he held up the two stones that hung around his neck. “Apparently they were standard issue in medieval times.”

They gathered up some branches and dry grass to build a campfire. Fiona paced incessantly both out of frustration and to keep warm. Darren was crouched down working on the fire but every time he got the spark to catch, the wind would blow it out. His hands were beginning to stiffen from the cold and holding on the stones was getting difficult.

Fiona was now shivering almost uncontrollably, “Can’t you don’t that any faster,”

“I’m doing the best I can. Believe me I…” Darren began but was cut off by Fiona’s sudden gasp.

“Oh, my God!”

“What is it?”

“The book!” she shouted.

“What?”

“The purple sky, the dark forest, the fire that won’t light, Darren, we are in the book!”

“That is absolutely not possible.” Darren rose to his feet.

“I don’t know how this is happening but it is. Look at us! Look at you dressed up like a warrior.”

“Okay let’s say we have somehow been put into that story, those two characters were in love,” Darren struggled to speak the next few words to him because he so wanted the love aspect to be true. “We are clearly not lovers. Hell, we don’t even like each other most of the time.”

“Trust my instinct please.” Fiona rested her hand on his chest while still keeping her distance. “Let me remember what came next. The woods in the unknown land, the dead-end,” her rich blue eyes grew wide with fright, “We have to get out of here!”

“No kidding.” Darren mumbled.

“I’m serious! Any minute a pack of wolves will be coming up the road.”

“Wolves!” he rolled his eyes. “Nice! So how do we escape?”

“I don’t know. That’s where the pages were torn out.”

“Were on our own! The book didn't give much of a head start, did it?” Darren paced around a moment. “Let me think this through. If we go along the edge of the rocks they will follow, but if we climb up,” Darren began to scour the area.

“What are you looking for?” Fiona watched, puzzled.

“Vines.” He said then disappeared into the trees.

“Don’t leave me here.” Fiona shouted after him.

“I’m not going far.”

In just a few minutes he returned with a long thick vine coiled up on his shoulder. “Boy Scout training has just paid off. I’ll climb up and send this down for you.”

“I can climb up.”

“Not in that you can’t,” He pointed at her long skirt. “You’ll snag it on something or step on it and fall.” Darren took the sword belt from around his waist and buckled it around Fiona’s, “Hopefully you won’t need to use this but just in case.” He started up the side of the cliff.

There was very little foot hold but halfway up he found a ledge he could safely stand on. He decided to toss the vine up and around a tree that sat at the edge.

“Hurry up,” Fiona shouted to him. “I can hear them howling.”

“I’m working on it,” he grumbled to himself.

It took several tries but once he got it, he tied one end around his waist and used the other to pull himself up like an elevator. When he reached the top he dropped the one end down to Fiona. She slid her foot into the loop just in time as the wolves were nipping at her feet as he pulled her up.

With Fiona now safe, Darren collapsed on the ground to catch his breath. As he lay there panting he started to chuckle.

“What is so funny?” Fiona stood up, brushed the hair from her face then handed him back the sword.

He took the weapon from her. “I’m a knight and you’re a Damsel in distress. How likely is that scenario in the real world?”

“If this is truly the book then I’m not just a Damsel, I’m a Princess,” she held out her hand to help him up.

“Now that part is believable.” He grinned and took her hand, using her help to pull himself to his feet. He buckled the sword back around his waist. “You still cold?”

“Not as bad, but thank you for saving me,” she smiled.

“Let’s get away from here,” he announced, avoiding her glance. He began walking and Fiona followed alongside him. They had no clue where they were headed but anything was better than where they were.

****

After several hours of hiking through the cold night, both Darren and Fiona were nearly frozen through. Darren did his best to keep Fiona warm but when he had no body heat left to share it seemed hopeless. They had just crested another hill when the scent of a campfire came wafting into their nostrils. “It coming from this way,” Darren said sniffing the air.

“I can’t go any further, I have to rest.” Fiona sat herself on a tree stump.

“No, if you stop now you’ll die from the cold,” he looked down the road. “We need to find out where that smoke is coming from. Come on I’ll carry you a while.”

“I can’t let you carry me!” She protested.

He glared down at her, “And I can’t let you freeze to death out here,” he said lifting her in his arms in spite of her objections.

“You’re really taking the whole warrior protector thing seriously.” She said holding tightly around his neck.

“No, I’m just doing the decent thing.” Darren was feeling just as exhausted as she was but he, of course, was never going to admit it. “We need to stay alive.”

About a half mile down the road the two wanderers found the source of the smoke. The entrance to a cave was only a few yards from the path and the fire inside burned bright enough to light the way through the tree.

“Hello?” Darren called out as they approached. “Hello in there!” Setting Fiona down, he pulled the sword from its sheath and crept slowly forward.

“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Fiona whispered.

He gave her a grimaced look and signaled for her to hush, he took a few steps forward. Motioning for Fiona to follow closely behind him he stepped as silently as possible into the cave. The fire was burning in the center of the cave floor but there appeared to be no one inside. Darren returned the sword to its place and gave a sigh of relief. “Sit by the fire and warm up. There must be some kind of edible vegetation around, I’m going to see if I can find something for us to eat.”

“You’re going to leave me here?”

A couple hours back he discovered there was a dagger in his boot, “At least the dreamer, whoever they are, dreamt me well equipped,” he thought to himself at the time; reaching down he slid it out and handed it to Fiona. “You’re a big girl, I’m sure you can figure out how to use this.”

“What if whoever lives here comes back?” Fiona asked nervously.

“Turn on the radio personality and entertain them,” he said and walked out.

Fiona ran after him. “Hey, are you angry with me?”

He tried to ignore her but then turned around and let out a heavy sigh. “No, I’m not. I’m tired and cold and I’m sorry for snapping at you."

“I’m sorry too, this is all my fault,” she hung her head.

Darren came up close to her. “How is this your fault?”

“I picked out the book?”

He gently held her by the arms and looked deep into her eyes, “You couldn’t know this would happen. It is not your fault and you have nothing to be sorry for, really.” His face was somehow softer but stronger and his eyes, which were ordinarily a strange shade of purple, seemed to glow brighter, almost neon, in the fire light. She couldn’t help but to stare into them as he spoke. “You okay now?” he asked almost in a whisper. Fiona could do nothing but force a half-hearted smile and nod her head.

As he walked out into the night Fiona stood waiting for the one sure sign, it is said, that stands as proof that someone really cares; “Glance back. Come on glance back at me,” she whispered. He had been almost completely engulfed by the darkness when he stopped and turned his head to look at her.

“Yes, I knew he cared.” She went back into the cave and the warmth of the fire.

Fiona was fast asleep when Darren returned with some good news. He had found a house on the other side of the woods. There was an older man living there and he offered them dinner and warm beds.

“Look I brought a cloak for you to wear so you won’t freeze. It’s not far,” Darren explained.

“You’re sure about this?” Fiona wondered knowing how Darren tended to be overly cautious about strangers.

“Any port in a storm, right? My priority is getting you out of this weather. Maybe they can help us find out how to get out of here and go home.” he stopped and looked at her, “Hey, I thought you were the optimistic one and I was the sync?”

“I guess we’re both a little disoriented right now. Let’s just go.” Fiona followed Darren through trees.

****

The house was little more than an oversized shack but at least they would have a hot meal and somewhere to sleep. They were met at the door by a small lady with graying hair and sad eyes. “Come in and sit by the fire, my lord.” She bid them to follow her across the room. “Would her ladyship care for some hot tea?”

“Yes, tea would be very welcome but please, we are not really…” Fiona started to counter the titles to which the old lady referred but Darren squeezed her arm to stop her.

“Don’t insult their customs. We need their help, remember?” he whispered.

“You’re not what, my lady?” the old woman asked.

“Nothing, I was just rambling, never mind. Tea sounds wonderful.” Fiona replied as she sat on a stool beside the fireplace.

“Where is the man I met down the road, Abel was it? Is he your husband?” Darren inquired politely.

“Oh no, my lord, I’m just a servant. The Master should return shortly.” She turned and handed them each a cup with tea. “Would you like some stew? You will sleep better on a full stomach.”

“Yes, thank you. The lady needs to keep up her strength.” Darren smiled at Fiona.

The two travelers ate their fill of venison stew and bread and had just finished when the master of the house returned. “There you are,” he said as he came through the door. “I had wondered if you had found your way.”

“It was very kind of you to offer us shelter,” Fiona said softly. “Thank you.”

The man stood silently glaring at her for a moment. She could feel his eyes scan every inch of her being and she began to feel uneasy. When he had come into the firelight she found herself unable to stop staring at him either. He was dressed completely in black leather except for the emerald colored amulet he wore around his neck. He was clean shaven and his shoulder length gray hair was neatly pulled back with a black leather lashing. His eyes were as dark as night and the crow’s feet around them were deep and well aged but they seemed so familiar to Fiona. She felt as if she had seen him before but she couldn’t quite place him.

“It is a pleasure, my lady,” he reached out, took her hand in his and kissed it. Fiona blushed and lowered her gaze. The man, Abel, turned to Darren. “Did you have some dinner?”

“Yes, we did. Thank you.”

“So tell me Lord Darren, where is it you two were going in such nasty weather?” Abel asked, pouring out two goblets of something from a pitcher on the table beside the fire. He offered one to Darren, who hesitated. “Hot wine, mulberry, I make myself.”

Darren took the cup and sipped it, “Very delicious.” Abel passed the other one to Fiona, who nodded in reply.

Darren and Fiona explained how they were suddenly transported into this strange world and that they were looking for someone who could tell them how they can get back home. “That’s quite a tale.” Abel replied with a smile and a nodded.

“I know it sounds ridiculous but that’s what happened and now were stuck.” Fiona added.

“Well,” Abel said pouring them each another cup of wine. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how to return to your world but I can direct you to the Duke’s castle maybe you can find answer’s there.”

“The Duke?” Darren leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Yes, Slavensk is governed by Duke Morgovik.”

“Is that where we are, Slavensk?” Fiona asked.

“Yes.” The old man answered. “Long, long ago this was a beautiful city but because the spirits of the land were not properly honored when the building of it had be completed, a great plague came, wiping out the crops as well as every living creature except the inhabitants of the city. The current Duke decided that in order to save his city he would offer a proper sacrifice.”

“Better late than never, so to speak,” Darren commented.

“Yes,” the old man continued. “Messengers were sent out to find a suitable animal but none could be found; there were no animals left. One messenger determined not to return empty handed brought back with him a young child, in desperation, the Duke sacrificed the child. The gods were not pleased; the Duke, all his successors and the land were cursed was forever. The land has been in darkness ever since. Most of the people moved away, the animals eventually returned but not in the numbers they once were.”

“That’s a very sad story.” Fiona drank down the last sip of her wine. Abel reached over and refilled her cup.

“You had better take it easy on that stuff, Fiona.” Darren warned her. “It will go to your head.”

“I’m fine, Darren, I know when to stop,” she chuckled and then reached over to Abel and put her hand on his. “The wine is very good and warming.”

Darren sat back, silently watching Fiona and Abel interact. He also noticed that the old lady was also watching them very closely. She had a concerned look on her face. Fiona had had two more goblets full of wine and was getting far too friendly, he couldn’t take it anymore. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said rising to his feet, “I need to get some air.” He quickly went through the door and out into the cold night.

“Is he alright?” Abel asked. “He’s been very quite.”

“He’s fine, I’m sure.” Fiona was on her feet, “I'll check on him.”

Fiona stepped outside and was immediately pounced on. “What the hell are you doing?” Darren grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the house.

“What are you talking about?”

“That guy is… We have no idea who that guy is and you’re in there playing patty fingers with him! Not to mention he is way too old.”

Fiona began to laugh. “Patty fingers? That’s funny.”

“I’m serious!” Darren shouted.

Fiona’s eyes grew wide as she smiled. “Oh my God! You think I’m flirting with him, don’t you?”

Darren made no reply, he just gave her a severe look.

“You’re jealous!” she squealed.

“No I’m not.” He said calmly though he knew that was a lie. “But we’re not exactly at home. I’m worried for your safety.”

Her tone became sober. “Come on, he’s a nice old man and need I remind you that you are the one who dragged us here? Any port in a storm, remember?”

Darren breathed a heavy sigh. “Forget it. Never mind, just go back inside by the fire where it’s warm,” he told her and stormed off into the darkness.

He walked the road toward the cave trying to wrap his head around everything that had happened. He was most certainly jealous of every man that came near Fiona for the past year but when he combined that with the fact that he had now been put into the position of being her protector, her proverbial knight in shining armor, the feelings grew more intense. Watching her with their host sent a fire through him that was hot enough to melt iron.

As he started back to the manor he had the feeling he was being followed. He gradually quickened his pace until he was running. Suddenly in front of him three wolves with huge, sinister yellow eyes and long snow white fangs jumped out of the trees. He heard a noise behind him, turning he saw three more wolves behind him. Slowly, they moved in closer, growling and forming a circle around him. He pulled the sword from the sheath and swung it around at them. The animals backed away but only for a moment. “Okay, don’t panic,” he said to himself, “They’re just dogs, big, ugly, wild dogs.” He swung his sword around again. “Now would be a good time to have a couple bones.” The wolves moved no further, just sat there surrounding him and growling. “Come on!” he taunted them. “If you’re going to kill me then come on! Stop playing and just do it!”

A dark figure appeared from nowhere on the road behind the wolves. A man’s voice said something in a language Darren couldn’t understand. “Who are you?” he called out. Almost instantly the wolves turned and went back into the woods and figure vanished. Darren spun around, confused and amazed. He had a sudden sense that Fiona was in danger and rushed back towards the manor house.

****

Fiona returned to the warm fire but Abel had gone. “Where did you Master go?” she asked the old lady was bent over stoking the fire. When she turned around she was no longer old. “I’m sorry my lady,” she said softly. “I wish this was not happening.”

“I know you,” Fiona gazed at her, “I remember, you’re the library assistant. But how, what is going on?”

“The master will be here for you in a few moments.” Abby told her.

“What are you talking about?”

Abby took Fiona by the arm. “He’s coming for you.”

“Who?”

“The Duke. You are to be his bride.”

“His Bride! What? Are you nuts?”

“Please listen to me. I will pay dearly for this but I must tell you.”

“Tell me what?” Fiona was still in shock.

“The book you took, it is a door to this world and the story is real. Every hundred years he is able to search for a bride. The princess in the story sacrificed herself rather than be his soulless mate and her lover died trying to protect her. Her soul, it was foretold, would be reborn into a new body, he searches endlessly to find her again. But every woman he has brought here so far refuses him and chooses death.”

“Okay, so who are you?” Fiona was beginning shake nervously.

“The princess’ younger sister. I offered myself in her place to save my father from the Duke’s wrath, but he took me prisoner and destroyed my father’s kingdom anyway. I begged him to kill me but he wouldn’t. He made me his slave, I am neither human nor vampire but I am immortal and can only die if he does. Every one hundred years at Samhain, the witches new year, the door to this world opens and he is free to search for his bride and he uses the book and me to find them. If he gets his bride there will be no stopping him, he passageway will never close and this world will overcome yours. All will be lost.”

“How does he pick his victims?” Fiona whispered.

“He plants the book and watches, if a woman of the proper requirement checks it out, they are doomed.”

“And tell me, what are the proper requirements?”

“She must have hair the color of gold, eyes as bright as the summer sky like my sister, be an orphan so she won’t be missed and a virgin.”

“How do they die?” Fiona asked solemnly.

“It depends on if he had bitten them yet or not. But either way it is not painless.”

Fiona walked over to the fire and stared down into the flames. “What do I do? What will happen to Darren?”

“He’ll die one way or another.” Abby put her hand on Fiona’s shoulder. “There is a way to kill Abel but no one has been able to do to.”

“How,” Fiona spun around. “Tell me.”

“You must get him up into the top chamber of the tower…” Abby began to explain but a man’s voice came from the dark corner behind them.

“Telling my secrets are we, my dear?” As he stepped into the light Fiona recognized him immediately as the man in the library and now realized where she had seen their charming dinner host’s eyes before, it was Abel himself. He came close and stroked Abby’s cheek. “No matter, the end is nearly here. I will have my bride and you, sweet Abigail, will at last have your freedom.”

“Shall we be on our way, my lady?” He looked at Fiona with his empty black eyes and an evil grin, “We have much to do before dawn.”

“And if I refuse to go?” Fiona held her head high and flashed him a defiant glance.

“You won’t.” He smiled, “Not if you wish to say good-bye to your protector.”

“What have you done to Darren? If you hurt him I’ll…” Fiona began to protest but Abel leaned in close to her face, the stench of death and blood almost overcame her.

“You’ll what? Kill me? Not likely. I have done nothing to him, yet.” He reached around and grabbed her by the waist, the next thing she new she was standing in a cold empty room with damp stone walls and no windows. There was one chair in the center and one small candle sat on the floor beside it. Her neck was throbbing. She brought her hand to it and felt the wet sticky substance that trickled down. “Blood,” she said out loud as she examined the liquid on her fingers. Hers hands began to shake and a shiver forced it way through her entire body. “Oh, no, please no. He bit me.”

***

Darren came bursting through the door of old man’s house. Abby was sitting on the floor beside the fire waiting for him. “Where is she?” he said, his chest heaving from exertion.

“He took her,” she answered with tears in her eyes.

“Where?”

“To the castle. I can take you there.” Abby whimpered.

“Then let’s get moving.”

Abby rose and walked over to the corner opposite them. From the shadows she pulled bow and a quiver full of arrows. “Here you’ll need this,” she handed it to Darren.

“What for?” he looked it over.

“You’ll know when the time comes.” She started for the door then turned, “You do know to use one of those I hope?”

“Better than Robin Hood,” he said with a highly confident grin.

Without a word Abby lead him down the road back to the cave. “What are we doing here?” he asked her.

“The castle is at the top of the mountain, if we take the trails we’ll be too late. There is a secret way in through here. Only I know of this, not even Abel knows of its existence.”

“That’s surprising.”

“I have had many centuries to explore, my lord. He seems to forget I exist most of the time.”

“Look, don’t call me that okay, my name is Darren,” he said more kindly. “I’m not a lord.”

“You are while you’re here.” She lit a torch and signaled for him to follow her into the tunnel. “You are in Lord Cyril place in the story. He was a kind man and a strong warrior but even he could not defeat Abel. He died in my sister’s arms.”

“Your sister?” Darren questioned.

“The princess Elana, the original betrothed of Abel, was my sister. When she defied him and gave her virginity to Lord Cyril on the night she was to turn her, he killed them both.”

“Turn her, what do you mean?”

“My poor father, he did not know at the time he betrothed her to Abel, Duke Morgovik.” she paused to sigh.

“Didn’t know what?”

“He’s a vampire, and I suspect your Fiona will be one by dawn. He has already bitten her by this time.”

Darren began to breathe harder nearly hyperventilating, “You’re telling me that the man who’s taken the woman I love is a vampire.”

“Not just a vampire but the original. The first and the strongest. He cannot be killed as easily as the others.”

“What do you mean?”

“The usual methods, holy water, stakes in the heart, crucifixes, iron objects, sunlight, these things can slow him, cause him pain but they do not kill him.”

“Why?”

“Because he was the first, his power does not come to him as it does the others. When a vampire bites someone and turns them the power of the vampire is passed through the blood to the new creature, each new generation of vampire losses a tiny bit of its strength in transition.” Abby explained. “But Abel was the first, made by the hand of Satan himself, his is the original power. He has the ability to fight those things that kill the others, he slinks off into the darkness and returns in a day as good as new.”

“Then how am I supposed to kill him and get Fiona back.” Darren was getting more frustrated and furious with every step.

“You don’t, like I said he’s already bitten her by now.” She stopped in her tracks, tears flowed freely down her cheek. “There’s only one way to save her soul and end the story forever.” She stared directly into his eyes.

“I’m afraid to ask, what is that one way?”

“Kill them both.”

****

“Let me out!” Fiona stood in the dark pounding on the door. “Let me out of here. Abel!” She went over and sat on the chair. She had been there for hours in the dark, all alone and was beginning to feel the vampire’s bite surge through her veins. “How much longer,” she wondered to herself, “Where is Darren, why hasn’t he come yet?”

“If he is wise he will find somewhere to hide,” Abel’s voice came from the other side of the room. “Soon you will be my bride, and when the new era of my reign begins the wolves will hunt him down and we shall have him for dinner.”

“In your dreams,” she smirked.

Abel appeared in front of her and in the blink of an eye she was pinned against the wall. He grabbed her throat forcing her head to the side. He ran his tongue down her the side of her neck and across the bite he left earlier. She winced from the pain. “How does it feel, my love? Is it burning? Are your veins crying out be fed yet?”

“Not even an inkling,” she glared at him and lied. It burned alright, worse than sticking one’s hand in a bonfire and her muscles ached so badly that she could scream but she wasn’t going to give in, she was never going to let him take her. She longed for Darren to come so she could beg him to kill her before she became a monster like Abel.

“You lie,” he smiled and released her from his grip. “I can see in your eyes. Come dawn, you will be mine, willingly. I will return shortly with your first meal. Do keep the home fires burning, my dear.” He gave her a peck on the cheek the vanished from sight.

****

Darren and Abby lumbered through the secret caverns under the mountain for what felt like an eternity. Twisting and turning until Darren had no idea in which direction they were heading, north, south , east , west, it all seemed the same.

“How much farther? We’re running out of time.” Darren complained as he blindly followed Abby through the pitch black tunnels.

“Patience, my lord. This is much quicker than climbing the trails being chased by wolves.”

“Good point.” He conceded. Then felt a slight breeze blow across his face. “Air. Fresh air.”

“We are close, my lord. Around the next turn the rest of the way heads up to the castle.”

Up was an understatement however, as they spent nearly an hour climbing an endless spiral stairwell. When they had at last reached the top Abby stopped to remind Darren of what his duty now entailed.

“Remember, she will not be herself,” Abby clarified. “She will try to trick you into trusting her.”

“I do trust her.” Darren barked.

“You mustn’t and don’t let her get you in an embrace it is too dangerous, she’ll try to turn you.”

“And that’s going to make a difference now?” he added. “And what about Abel?”

“Take her to the tower chamber, he’ll find you. It is the only room in the castle with a window. When the sun comes through the window he must be in its path and without the amulet. Take it from him or he won’t die.”

“Then what? When he’s dead.”

“Make sure she follows him into the light.”

“No, I can’t.” He grimaced.

“It is her only salvation.” Abby softly placed her hand on his shoulder. Darren stared deep into her eyes then turned away without a word. “If one of them bites you-“

“I know.” Darren closed is eyes and replied sadly.

Abby lead him to the room where Fiona was being kept and let him in. Fiona jumped to her feet happy to see him alive. “Darren! You made it!” Fiona ran across the room and kissed him, long and deep. He lost himself in the moment but quickly regained his senses and pushed her away. “No! Fiona stop!”

“But I missed you. I was worried that you were already dead.” Fiona tried to come up to him again, he backed away. “Please don’t shy from me, I love you, all the things that have happened have me realized that.”

“I truly hope that somewhere beneath it all you do love me, but you are not yourself.”

“Of course I am, I’ve been fighting this. I’ve been fighting so hard.”

Abby stepped between them. “We must get her to the tower.”

“Yes,” Fiona muttered. “I remember, you said the cure was in the tower. Let’s go!”

Darren took her hand and started for the door but Abby stopped him. “Tie her hands behind her before we leave this room.”

“What?” Darren objected, “No!”

“Trust me!” Abby gruffly seized his arm and handed him a leather lashing studded with iron beads. “This will keep her from attacking along the way.”

The halls were like a labyrinth but Abby navigated them with ease. Darren was sure he would never find his way back out of this place, but he knew deep down he was never leaving.

“Where is Abel?” he asked Fiona as they followed Abby through the maze of stone walls.

“He went to feed,” Abby answered for her. “He won’t be back until almost dawn.”

“And how long do we have until then?” Darren asked.

“Two hours.” Abby said calmly as they stopped and a long stairwell. “This is the entrance to the tower. Here’s the key. Go all the way to the top and lock the door behind you and leave the key in the lock, it’s made of iron. It won’t stop him but it will slow him down.” She put the key in Darren’s hand. “You know what to do after that.”

“Yes."

“Be strong, my lord.” she whispered. “I shall pray for both of you.”

“What if Fiona completes her transformation before sunrise, before he gets there?”

“She won’t, not until the moment sun breeches the horizon. She can still turn you now, so keep away.”

“Will you two stop talking like I’m not standing here?” Fiona interrupted violently.

“Fair well.” Abby turned and disappear down the hall and around the corner.



****



Darren and Fiona climbed the steps to the top of the tower. Inside there was nothing but a stack of very old burlap bags in the far corner and a few lengths of rope. The window was high up in the center of the east wall and as Abby had said, boarded up.

“This looks cozy. At least the other room had a chair.” Fiona grumbled, something her old self very seldom did.

“I don’t think this was meant for comfort.” Darren responded as he lit the candle he had brought from the room downstairs.

“I don’t need light, I can see in the dark now.” Fiona smiled and plopped herself down on the stack of bags.

“Really?” Darren grinned sarcastically, “Well, I can’t.” He said, looking up at the window. “I also can’t reach that window.”

“Why do you need to reach up there?”

“Never mind.” He glanced back at her. She was trying to get her hands untied. “Yes!” he whispered to himself. “She said I’d know when the time came.” He removed the bow from the case and strung it, then tied a length of rope to an arrow and shot it up into the boards.

“What are you doing that for?” Fiona asked in a voice that was more like herself. Darren ignored her. He shot three more arrows up into the wood on the window and left the ropes to hang down so he could pull the boards out at just the right moment, he hoped. After he was done he had only two arrows left and decided one would be used to, hopefully, stun Abel long enough to pull the medallion from his neck and the other would be saved for Fiona.

“Darren,” Fiona said his name softly. “Please untie me. I won’t hurt you, I promise. I’m myself at the moment.”

“Maybe you are, maybe this is a trick,” he walked over to where she was sitting and looked down at her.

“You know I’m not strong enough to overpower you yet.” She looked up at him with her blue eyes. “You can always tie me back up.”

His head told him, no; but his heart could not resist one last chance to hold her close. He released the lashes and sat down beside her. She calmly curled up in a ball and put her head on his lap. Her hair was soft beneath his fingers and tears ran down her face. He wiped them away with his sleeve.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered. “I don’t want to die, or become a monster.”

“I don’t either.”

“But you can still get away. Kill Abel and me then the story ends and you stay alive.”

“Then I’ll be stuck here, alone. I think that would be worst then death.”

Fiona sat up and kissed him again. Just when he decided to let it happen she backed away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“Yes you did.” He interrupted her. “Say it, I want to hear it, I can see it in your eyes. It’s been there for nearly a year. Don’t deny it now, we don’t have the time.”

“But I…I can’t it’s too late now.”

“It’s never too late.” He cradled her cheek in his hand. “Say it, Fiona, please just once more before life taken from us.”

She gazed deep into his eyes, they were the color of the sky outside and she knew she would never look upon them again once the sun came up. Tears began to stream down her face, “I love you. I love you more than anything.”

Darren pulled her to him and kissed her, softly at first, but the moment overtook them. She straddled his lap and pulled her skirt up to her hips. She unbuckled his sword belt and began to unlace the leather jerkin he was wearing. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he whispered in her ear.

“It’s now or never. I can’t die without knowing what loving you feels like.” She said through her tears as she lay back and pulled him down with her. Their bodies melded together, caressing each other gently until Fiona felt the blood lust begin to take over. She tried to pull away but Darren held tightly. “No, I can’t. I feel it coming, I’ll hurt you! Let me go!” she cried out. Her eyes went black and the fangs were clearly visible.

“DO IT!” Darren shouted.

“No!”

“Yes, turn me! I can’t live without you, wherever vampires go after they die we’ll go there together!” Darren held her against him until she had no more control. He felt her teeth pierce his skin and then a sudden rush of pain swept over him. By the time she released him he felt nothing, he was numb. He could hear his heart stop yet he could still breathe, and his mind was clear. After a few moments he sat up and looked around, everything was brighter, the light from the candle actually hurt his eyes. He blew it out from across the room. He could hear the wind blowing and the wolve’s paws pattering on the ground as they circled the castle outside as loudly as if he was stand in the midst of it all.

Dawn was nearly upon them and Fiona’s transformation was complete. Yet there was still a tiny bit of her soul left with her, Darren could still feel it.

“He’s here,” Fiona rose to her feet and backed up against the far wall where the light couldn’t reach. Darren pulled his shirt on over his head and hurried to protect Fiona.

Two thuds on the door and Abel had crashed through. He stood in the threshold but came no further, he feared this room. “Fiona!” he commanded. “Come!”

“No,” Darren shouted as he blocked her way. “She mine now!”

Abel cocked his head to one side and sniffed the air. “You took her!” he roared and before Darren could blink Abel was across the room and had Fiona backed against the wall. He sniffed her. “You are no longer pure. But you are still mine.” Abel spun around and stood face to face with Darren. “She has turned you,” he smiled. “Now I have you both.”

“We’ll see about that.” Darren glared back at him. “This is not over yet.”

“You dare to challenge me?” Abel laughed. “Over a female? I can get you one of your own, you can have a whole harem,” his laugh turned to a growl and he flashed his fangs, “but she is mine.”

“I don’t want a different one, I want her.” Out of the corner of his eye, Darren could see the light begin to peek through the cracks around the window. The sun would be positioned right in the center of the window very soon, all he had to do was keep Abel in the tower long enough. “She’s not a virgin any more. I win after all, Abel, because you don’t get your pure and innocent princess, again! The King of Vampire’s beaten by a mere mortal. I’ll bet that’ll look good on a resume,” Darren laughed loudly taunting him with his failures. “How long have you been trying? A thousand years? More? And you still can’t seem to get the girl. I think it’s time to give up. I’m king now!”

With that Abel came at him. Though his strength was nowhere near Abel’s, Darren was not running on rage, his mind was clear. Abel sent him flying into the wall. Fiona attacked Abel next and was knocked to the floor. Darren quickly regained his footing and took a swing at the vampire who again sent him flying to the other side of the room. Darren landed beside his sword. Fiona went after Abel again, distracting him enough for Darren to get in a lucky shot with his sword, slicing Abel across the arm. The wound, of course, healed up as fast as it appeared. Darren went flying again but this time he landed directly under the window where he left the bow. He motioned for Fiona to come to him, and she did, further taunting Abel’s superiority. “I think I feel a bit of a power shift in this administration, don’t you, my lord?” he said confidently as Fiona picked up the bow and aimed it at Abel.

“Do you think that tiny arrow will stop me?” Abel growled through his fangs.

“No.” Darren explained as Fiona let it loose to pierce the vampire’s chest. “but it’s laced with enough iron to slow you down long enough to do this.” Yanking on the ropes Darren pulled the boards from the window and the sunlight came pouring through. Abel was momentarily stunned as he writhed with pain from the arrow and the sun. Darren still able to withstand sunlight ran over to the smoldering creature and ripped the amulet from his neck. “No more sunscreen for you.” He smiled and walked away. Abel quickly turned to dust before their eyes.

Darren quickly ushered Fiona out into the hall where she was safe from the light. Outside the door they found Abby lying on the floor, now even more gray and old looking then before and growing older by the second. Fiona knelt down and lifted her head. “Thank you for releasing me.” she said weakly.

“You can rest now.” Fiona smiled back and with that Abby finally breathed her last breath.

Fiona stood up and started to head back into the tower room. Darren caught her be the arm. “Where are you going?”

“My turn now.” she murmured.

“Not yet, wait with me, please.” He took her in his arms, “There’s no rush now, there’s no one left to hurt.”

“Alright,” Fiona kissed his cheek. “We’ll go together.”

They sat together in the dark and waited for Darren to become completely transformed.

“You know, today is Halloween. What should we dress up as?” Darren grinned.

“I don’t know, a couple of werewolves?”

“Could work,” Darren smiled and put his arm around her.



****



By the time darkness came Darren’s transformation had begun. Fiona stayed near him as he went through the pain of the blood lust and as much as it pained her to kill, provided his needed relief. They made love one last time before dawn came again. Then wrapped in each other’s embrace they stood in the tower where the sun entered in the window and waited.

“We are soul mates. There will be other lives in other times, we will be together again. We are forever.” Fiona said softly then asked. “Do you think it hurts a lot?”

“ Don’t be afraid, I won’t let go. I love you.” Darren brought his lips to hers and as the sun inched its way into the room they clung tighter to each other and braced themselves for the pain. But instead they found themselves back in Fiona’s office locked in the same embrace. “Whoa!” Darren said as they caught their breath. “We’re back,” he said looking at the time on the computer, “and we’ve only been gone two minutes. Was it even real?” Fiona had the book in her hand, “Quick check the pages.” Darren told her.

Before she could open the book the phone rang Fiona picked it up and handed the book back to him. “Hello?”

“Hello, Miss Pentangeli? This is Richard Donnelly, of the police dept.”

“Oh yes, you’re calling about the party at the orphanage.”

“We just wanted to check and see if you were still planning to read tomorrow because we’ve had several others ask about reading as well and there is only so much time.”

“I do it every year so if someone wants to take my place that’s fine with me.”

“Well, thanks Miss Pentangeli that’s very kind of you and have a nice weekend.”

“You too, good bye.”

“What was that all about?” Darren said flipping through the book.

“The party, good news, I don’t have to go.”

“Really?” He was a bit preoccupied, “More good news,” he held up the book. “All the pages are here and check the words at the bottom of the last page.”

“The End,” Fiona took the book from his hand and closed it. “The best part of the story,” she whispered and she put her arms around his neck. “Tomorrow is Halloween, what should we dress up as?”

Darren pulled her close. “Maybe we shouldn’t dress at all.

“Hmm, my kind of costume,” she whispered, then kissed him long and deep




The Witch and the Warrior
The story takes place in 10th century Wales where even though Christianity had moved in and made an impact the Druidic culture was still very much prominent and Druid Priests and Priestess were part of every King’s court. Maelgwyn was one of the three major kings of Wales at the time.

Here is a pronunciation guide to the Welsh words:
Maelienydd- Mile-ee-EN-ith the name of the Kingdom(real place).
Maelgwyn- MILE-gwin – king of Maelienydd (Real Person)
Dafydd- DA-vith - Welsh for David
Gwirion- Gwir-EE-on Real name- made up character
Generys- Gen-ER- is (hard g as in go) real name- made up character
The air was crisp and clean, the trees along the road to the castle of King Maelgwyn were the bright vibrant colors of autumn. The young Sir Ioan was glad to be headed home at last and just in time to compete in the harvest tournament. He had been escorting an envoy of French diplomats through Britain to the coast so they could return home after their treaty talks with Kings of Wales. As he crested yet one more rolling hill he heard a woman screaming and calling for help. He reared his horse and took off in the direction the cries were coming from. Not far into the woods he came up on a band of three men who were clearly trying to molest a young woman. He charged his horse toward them with his sword in hand. He managed to kill one with a blow to the head. He leapt off his horse at the second one and wrestled him to the ground. While they were fighting the man pulled a dagger out of his belt and plunged it into Sir Ioan’s side. The knight tried to roll away from the bandit’s reach but his head began to spin and he passed out.

When he regained consciousness he found himself lying naked from the waist up on a table in a strange room surrounded by dozens of burning candles. He tried to sit up but discovered he was restrained. “Hello!” he called loudly. The pain in his side made it difficult but he shouted out again. “Hey! Anyone here!”

The girl he attempted to rescue in the wood came in with a bowl of water and some bandages. “You shouldn’t move around so much you’ll make your wound start to bleed again,” she said softly.

“Were you hurt?”

“No, thanks to you,” she said with a smile that emanated not only from her lips but from her sky blue eyes as well.

“But how did you get me here?”

“Does that really matter?” she continued washing the gash in his side with water while she talked. “The important thing is that you are still alive.” She loosened the leather bands that restrained his hands and feet and helped him sit up. Very gently she began to wrap the long strips on linen around his chest to cover the wound. She was small and thin, not more than eighteen, he instantly felt an attraction. The scent of wild roses emanated from her long brown hair filled his nostrils and the touch of her skin sent a shock wave of emotion through his body as she brushed against him to reach around and secure the dressing.

“What were you doing out in the forest alone?” he asked.

“Collecting herbs,” she answered without moving her attention from her task.

When she had finished she told him to lie back down and re-applied the restraints. “What do I need these for? Am I a prisoner?” he asked.

“It is my Mistress’ orders,” she calmly gathered up the old bandages and the water bowl.

“Your Mistress?”

“Yes.” She began to walk away but Ioan caught a hold on her gown, causing her turn back toward him.

“Where am I?”

“Not far from the castle.”

“What is your name?” he let go of her skirt. “Come now, I saved your life today the least you could do is tell me your name.”

“Her name is Gwendolyn and you saved her three days ago.” Another woman barged into the room. She was tall and thin, with long black hair and eyes so dark that they seemed almost serpent-like. “That’s enough, Gwendolyn. Bring us some wine please,” she commanded the girl. “You have been asleep for more than two days, my lord.”

“Who are you?” Ioan turned his attention to the new woman.

“I am Generys, High Priestess of Aradia.”

“You’re a Druidess?” he was calmly surprised.

“Yes,” she stood directly beside him and slowly ran her hand, with her long red nails, along his leg. “There are many of us in Maelienydd,” she smiled when her hand reached the top of his thigh and gave it a squeeze. “There doesn’t appear to be any broken bones,” she said in a half-whisper through a devious grin.

“I had no idea there was a grove so close to the castle. I thought you all preferred the isolation of the mountains,” he added trying desperately to fight the sensation of her touch. “The King’s priest has never mentioned you.”

“We stay well hidden. Gwirion and I do not see eye to eye. We stay out of each other’s way.” she replied arrogantly. “And you, Sir Ioan, should be more alert when you are out numbered by bandits.”

“How do you know who I am?” he scowled at her. There was something about her that Ioan didn’t like or trust.

“As you said, I’m a Druidess,” she stood glowering over him. The girl returned, she handed a pitcher of wine then left again. Generys poured some in a goblet and helped Ioan to drink, then took a sip herself. “Besides you are the King’s champion, the illustrious, and quite young and handsome, Sir Ioan. Everyone knows you.” She went over to one of the tables covered with bottles of various sizes and shapes and a large mortar and pestle. She picked up a small vial and put it at his lips. “Drink this, it will ease your pain.”

“What is it?” he said suspiciously.

“Something to help you heal faster,” she smiled.

Ioan, left with no choice as he was tied down, reluctantly drank down the contents. “If you know who I am then you know the King is expecting me. I am grateful for your help but if you would be so kind as to release me from these bonds I’ll be on my way.”

“Oh, I think not, my lord. Your wound is serious and you should not travel just yet. Perhaps in a few days,” she replied in a mocking tone and began to walk out of the room.

Sir Ioan was becoming infuriated with her devious attitude. “Why am I restrained?” he growled at her.

“You were quite violent when you were unconscious. It is for your own protection,” she glanced over her shoulder as she reached the door.

“I’m not unconscious now,” he grumbled and yanked as hard as he could on the straps that held him down.

“You will be,” she said as she left him alone. He continued to struggle against the straps but within moments his head started to ache and the room began to spin. He tried to fight it but in less than a minute everything went black.

***

When Sir Ioan woke again he was in total darkness. He found himself lying on a cold stone floor scattered with thin layer of fresh straw. The room had no window, even the door allowed no light to seep through its cracks. He ran his hands along the wall, all the way around looking for a weak spot, a loose stone or a section of cracked mortar, which he could work free but his prison was inpentratable. He started shouting hoping to get someone’s attention so they would open the door and he could escape.

“My lord,” a voice came from the other side of the locked door. “Please, you must be quiet. My lady does not take kindly to such behavior, not even from a knight.”

“Gwendolyn, is that you.”

“Yes, please hush yourself. If you do not stop moving about you will start to bleed again.” A small hatch at the bottom of the door open and the girl slid a goblet through to him. “I brought you some water.”

“Tell me where I am?”

“I cannot.”

“Please, Gwendolyn.”

“You are in the hidden caves beneath the Mynyddoed Cambria just north of the Elan Valley,” she answered timidly.

“So I’m not as near to the castle as your mistress lead me to believe,” he pounded his fist on the wall in frustration. “The mountains are on the opposite side of Maelienydd. from where we meet.”

“King Maelgwyn’s castle is nearly two days from here.”

“Gwendolyn, you must help me get out.”

“I can’t, it’s too dangerous. The mistress would have us both killed.”

“I have to try,” he explained.

“Quiet, my lord, the guard is returning. I have to go.”

“Gwendolyn,” he called out, but all he got in reply was the guard’s rough voice telling him to be quiet.

Ioan paced anxiously in the dark for what seemed to be an eternity. Once more he studied the walls for any sign of weakness but found nothing. He sat on the cold floor staring out into the dark. Eventually he began to drift off but the sound of Generys’ voice coming closer snapped him back to consciousness. The key turned loudly in the lock and in stepped Generys with the guard, who was holding a torch.

“I see you are on your feet again, Sir Ioan.”

In the faint firelight her eyes were much darker than earlier and her features appeared even more matronly. Ioan made an attempt at civility. “My lady, His Majesty does not think well of anyone who tries to hold one of his knights captive.”

“Oh don’t imagine he would,” she came up close to his face. “especially if that knight happened to be his favorite, his champion.”

“If you would return my armor, my weapons and my horse I will ride away from here and never mention your existence or this incident to my King,” he said in a commanding tone as he stepped back and awaited her response.

“Oh but Sir Ioan, I fully intend to return all those things to you, in due time,” she smiled and ran her hand along his jaw line.

“At what price?” Ioan asked boldly.

“Later, my darling. It is much too soon for that answer,” she pressed her lips to his, though he did not reciprocate.

“What do you want from me?” He asked with a repugnant growl.

“In time, my lord, in time,” she turned to leave.

“I demand an answer!” He reached out and seized her arm. The sudden movement made his side burn with pain but he kept it hidden.

“You are in no position to demand anything, my lord,” she pulled herself free from his grip and flashed him an evil glance. She walked out followed closely by the guard.

“I want an explanation!” Ioan shouted and slammed his fist into the door. “Witch!” In frustration he smashed his fist against the stone wall until his knuckles were raw and bleeding. When the pain became noticeable he tore off a part of his sleeve and wrapped it around his fingers.

Alone in his cell he swept the straw together in a pile to make a bed and tried to sleep but it proved pointless. His mind rambled endlessly through possible means of escape and the cold from the floor crept right through to straw and made his body ache. After a while he was startle from deep thought by the sound of the key in the lock. It was Gwendolyn. She broke quietly into the darkness with a single candle in her hand.

“My lady, am I glad to see you.” It took a little painful effort but he rose to his feet. “I beg you, please help me get out…” but before he could finish two guards came in behind the girl.

Gwendolyn held out her hand. “Come with me, Sir Ioan.” Her voice was soft and timid and in the candle light Ioan thought she looked like an angel with her bright blues eyes and long sandy brown hair that hung loosely over her shoulders. He took her hand. She led him out of the damp prison cell, accompanied by the guards, through a tunnel with many twists and turns to another room.

The guards stationed themselves at either side of the door as Ioan followed Gwendolyn inside. There was still no window but it was well lit with plenty of candles. In the center of the room was a table and a plate of food and in the corner a large canopy bed covered with furs.

“What’s all this?” Ioan looked around.

“Generys has ordered that you be made as comfortable as your noble status requires.” Gwendolyn explained.

“How very generous of her,” he said sarcastically, picking up a chicken leg and started to take a bite but stopped. “How do I know this food isn’t poisoned?”

Gwendolyn picked up a piece and took a bite herself. “I cooked myself,” she said smiling.

“In that case,” Ioan raised his eyebrows and bit into the chicken, “it is delicious.”

“Thank you, my lord,” she headed for the door. “Before she left the Mistress commanded me to see to your every need so if you want anything just tell the guards and they’ll …”

Ioan interrupted her, “Did you say before she left?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Your Mistress is gone?” he drilled her again.

“Yes, not but an hour ago.”

“Where did she go?”

“I don’t know, but she said she would be back in four days and you were to be...”

“Fours days?” he zealously seized her by the shoulders. “She left and you brought me here instead of letting me go!”

“Please, my lord!” She pleaded, “I know what you’re thinking but I beg you, do not try to escape, the guards will kill you and if Generys returns and finds you gone she will have me killed as well. She is not what she seems.”

“I gathered that.”

“She has a plan to hurt your King. I heard her tell the head guardsman a few weeks ago.”

“King Maelgwyn?” he looked at her apprehensively. “It’s all the more reason to get out now, tonight!”

“Please, for me,” she fixed her eyes on his, “stay until she returns.”

“I’ll take you with me. She can’t hurt you if you are under the King’s protection.”

“No!” she glanced down at the floor. “She will hunt us down, We’ll never make it to the castle. Stay here and heal, you are in no condition to ride, my lord. Seek your chance when you are well. You cannot help your King if you are weakened by injury.” She, again, looked at him with her sad blue eyes, something about her touched his soul when he first laid eyes upon her and now it bore its way in deeper. His heart could not say no.

“Alright, I’ll stay put for now, for you.” He lightly kissed her on the forehead then smiled. “I’ll be good, I promise.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Gwendolyn curtsied then turned to leave.

“Wait.” Ioan grasped her hand. “I have never dared to be so bold toward a lady before but,” he sighed and pulled her close. “I can’t help myself. You have captured my heart,” the knight whispered as his lips gently touched hers. In his mind he expected her to slap him and storm out but she didn’t. She brought her arms up around his neck and pressed herself hard against him. They kissed long and deep. After a few moments of blissful surrender he suddenly backed off and turned away from her, “No, this is wrong! I can’t do this.”

“What is wrong?”

“I just can’t do this. Not to you.”

“My lady explained how young knights prefer virgins if that is your concern, I assure you that I have not…”

“She told you what! No! My lady, no, that’s not it. I have no doubt of your purity. That reason alone makes it wrong for me to take advantage of the situation.”

“But my lord, is it not your wish for me to please you?”

“Yes!” confused he turned towards her and said loudly, “No!”

“I don’t understand!” the girl cried out in confusion.

“Oh sweet Gwendolyn, I do want to be with you, but not because someone commanded it, not under her terms. Generys has no right to use you in this manner.”

“I should go, I have clearly distressed you.” Teary eyed Gwendolyn turned the latch on the door. She glanced over her shoulder as she slipped out. “I’ll be back later to change the dressing on your wounds and clear away the dishes. Enjoy your meal, my lord.”

***

It was several hours before Gwendolyn returned with two younger girls. Ioan sat silently on the edge of the bed glaring at the floor while the Gwendolyn instructed one of the girls to take the food away and the other, who had come in with and arm load of logs, to build up the dying fire in the hearth. Once they had finished Gwendolyn sent them away and sat beside the knight. “I need to redress your wound, my lord. You don’t want it to become infected.” In an effort to avoid temptation, Ioan stood up without a word and held his arms out to the side so she could walk around him rather than try to reach around from the front. The attempt wasn’t much help, he could still smell her hair and the feel of her tiny hands upon his skin only made him want her more. “I am sorry I upset you earlier, my lord,” she murmured shyly as she finished and gathered up the soiled bandages. “It’s just that I thought that you wanted to…” Ioan gently put his finger to her lips.

“You thought I was like those guards out there, vile, heartless, thinking only of my own pleasure.” He ran his finger across her cheek. “I saw how they looked at you when we were in the tunnels, I hear them talking through the door. That’s not me. I could never use a woman like that.”

“You are very kind, Sir Ioan,” she turned to leave.

“Don’t go yet,” he pleaded, “Sit and talk with me.” He motioned for her sit on the bed. She complied, cautiously. He lowered himself to the floor. “Tell me about where you came from, you’re not from here. You’re not Welsh. Your accent gives you away.”

“No, my lord, I’m not.”

“Then where are you from.” He smiled.

“I’m a Saxon. My family was killed in a raid. I was brought to the Welsh shores by slave traders when I was only ten. Generys took me in and promised to train me to be a priestess and she started to, but then a couple years ago she went away for a week and when she returned she was angry at everyone. She stopped teaching me and the other girls and started treating us like slaves. She began employing these guards, there had been no men around before that, then last month I heard her talking to the head guardsman about her plans to take revenge on King Maelgwyn.”

“What plans? How is she going to this?”

“I didn’t hear much, just that she wanted vengeance and was going to use you to get it. Something about turning you against the King.”

“Me, betray my King? That is never going to happen. I need to know what she is planning.” He rose to his feet, “If I’m being used as bait I need to know how to prevent it.”

“Maybe I can get some information out of the guards later after they have been drinking. Tongues tend to wag more freely when wine is involved.” Gwendolyn added. “Surely one of them must know something.”

“Good idea, but be careful not to raise suspicion.”

Gwendolyn quickly rose from her seat and headed for the door. Ioan nervously followed. “Gwendolyn.” He reached for her arm and spun her around. Putting his other hand around her waist he held her against him and looked deep into her eyes. “You are truly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he whispered as he brought his lips to hers. Again she did not resist him. Her fingers came up to wind themselves within his pitch black curls as she surrendered her body to his powerful embrace. Instinctively, she threw her head back and his kisses traveled down to her shoulder.

“I have never felt such emotion before,” she sighed loudly. He jerked his head up. “Why have you stopped, my lord?”

“I have never felt like this before either, but we cannot let it happen.” He took her face within his hands and lightly kissed her cheek, “We must focus on Generys and her plans.”

***

Iaon laid awake most of the night thinking about what Generys and how he could possible protect the King from her. He remembered that the King had had several visits from a mysterious woman, always dressed in black, two years ago. No one, at least not the knights, had ever seen her face. Now that he thought back on it, it had to have been Generys. After the lady stormed out of the castle gates early one morning the King kept his Druid Priest, Gwirion, close to him for many months. Did she want revenge for being spurned or was there another reason? He had no way of knowing.

As he began to nod off his mind wandered back to the sweet smell of Gwendolyn’s hair, and the softness of her lips. He shivered as he remembered the touch of her hands on his skin and the thought of holding her against him once more.

***

Gwendolyn had quietly slipped into the room with a plate of food and pitcher of water which she set on the table. She tried to put a log on the fire in the hearth without making a sound but a small puff of ashes flew up and made her cough. Ioan woke and gave her a sleepy smile. “Good morning,” he said softly. “It is morning?”

“”Yes, my lord,” she did not turn her gaze away from the fire. Her hair hung down in to the side, hiding her face from him. “I left your breakfast on the table.” She told him as she swiftly rushed for the exit. He could hear the distress in her voice.

“Stop,” he commanded, he knew something was wrong. The girl froze in her tracks. “Gwendolyn, turn around and look me.”

She turned but kept her face downward and hiding behind her long hair. “I really must go see to my other duties, my lord.”

Disregarding the pain from his wound Ioan sprung out of the bed and went to her. He gently lifted her chin. Her upper lip was split and swollen, her cheek was badly bruised and she had a cut above her right eye. The flames of hatred and the tenderness of deep concern both burned in his eyes. “Who did this?”

“Please my lord, it’s nothing.”

“Don’t give me that. This is not nothing!” he demanded. “Who beat you like this?”

Tears poured from her eyes, she clung to his shirt and sank to the floor, “Please my lord, I am not important enough for you to concern yourself with,” she tried to explain but the knight only pushed harder.

“You are important to me,” he stooped down beside her and pulled her close to him. “Whoever did this has signed his death warrant. Tell me.”

“The guards,” her tears fell freely onto his shoulder, soaking his shirt. “They wanted to know if you had…if we…” she couldn’t go on.

“They wanted to know if I took your innocence,” he finished the sentence for her. Gwendolyn shook her head. He embraced her tightly until she regained her composure. “Tell me what happened?”

“I told them you didn’t and they wouldn’t believe me. They tried to… Two of them hit me and held me down…” she began to cry again.

“Never mind I get the idea. Did they succeed?”

“No, the head guardsman came in and stopped them. But when I told him what happened he hit me for not succeeding in seducing you like I was ordered.”

As they sat on the floor, Gwendolyn curled in Ioan’s arms crying, the head guardsman came crashing in and saw them. “Lying wench, get up and get to work,” shouted grabbing her by the hair. “Seems you’ve made more of an impression on guest than you said you did.”

“Let go of her!” Ioan jumped to his feet.

“What are you going to do knight?” the guardsman pulled his sword from its sheath and pushed Gwendolyn to the side. “You’ve no weapon, my lord, and” he said mockingly, “apparently no balls since this little Saxon tart couldn’t entice you,” he slammed the shut the door to keep the other guards out.

“Apparently you and your men are a bit lacking as well.” Ioan gave a devious grin.

“Let’s just see how skilled the great Sir Ioan of Maelienydd really is.” The guard came at him but Ioan side stepped to avoid the blade and grabbed the stool beside the fire and smashed over the back of the guard’s head causing him to stumble forward and giving Ioan enough time to charge him from the side and knock the sword from his hand. They rolled on the floor using their fists to pound each other until the guard picked up a leg from the stool and raised it up to hit Ioan on the head. He stopped in mid swing with a shocked look on his face. Ioan saw the tip of the sword blade push through the man’s chest from behind. The guard dropped forward on top of Ioan.

The young knight heaved the dead man to the side and found Gwendolyn standing frozen with fright, the bloodied sword in her hand. He stumbled to his feet and gently removed the sword from her hand. She gasped and collapsed in his arms. “Gwendolyn!” he said her name but her gaze was still fixed with fear. “Gwendolyn,” he shook her and she began to pant and gasp for air, “It’s alright now,” he held her tight and whispered in her ear. “It’s over, he dead.”

“I-I-I killed him!” she stammered still in shock.

“You certainly did.” Ioan half smiled and helped her to sit down on the bed before she fainted. He took the sword belt and sheath from the dead man’s waist and buckled it around his. He took her by the hand. “Come on we have to get out of here.”

“But the guard,’ she murmured.

“He’s dead.”

“The other guards,” she said quietly.

“I can handle them, come on,” he said leading her out into the tunnel surprising the two men at the door, who were dead before they could draw their weapons. Without a candle or lamp the tunnels were as black as a moonless night. Ioan, wary of what may be around every corner, kept Gwendolyn hidden behind him while she told him which direction to go. Twice they came across a single guard but the young knight made quick work of each one. Outside the sun nearly blinded him after being in the darkness for so long. Gwendolyn showed him the path that led away from the caves and towards the road to Maelienydd. “You’re coming with me,” he held tightly to her arm.

“No, I can’t. I have to go back. I have to protect the younger girls.”

“We’ll send some soldiers back for them once we get to the King.”

“You don’t understand. I’m obligated to…” she pleaded.

“To her?” he firmly gripped her shoulders and made her look at him. “Gwendolyn, you do not owe that witch anything, neither do the other girls. We’ll come back for them, I promise.”

“But…”

“No buts, come on,” he said pulling her along behind him.

***

They traveled slowly through the woods staying in the denser parts of the underbrush as much as possible. The sun was now beginning to set and Ioan began to look out for a place to camp that preferably was not in the open. If he lit a fire outside it would be too easily spotted. Night was nearly upon them when they came across an old, abandoned hut. There were gaps in the walls and three large holes in the roof but it was better than freezing.

Ioan collected some wood and started a fire in the small hearth in the center of the room while Gwendolyn searched around the room for old blankets or whatever she could find to provide warmth. She found three tattered cloaks in a chest in a corner. They each put one on, then Ioan took the third and spread it out on the floor for Gwendolyn to sleep on.

“You lie down and get some rest, I’ll keep watch,” he said softly, holding his hands over the fire to warm them.

“You need to rest too,” she added. In the firelight she could see the blood on his shirt from the gash in his side. “You’ve opened your wound, let me look at it.”

“I’m fine,” he murmured. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I will worry,” she scolded him and lifted his shirt in spite of his protesting. “This needs attention and I can’t do anything out here without bandages or herbs.” She let the shirt fall back over the injury then briefly glanced around the room. She didn’t see anything suitable to use as a dressing so she tore a strip from her shift beneath her skirt.

“What are you doing?” he grumbled.

“I am not going to let you bleed to death. This will keep pressure on it long enough to stop the bleeding for a while,” she explained as she reached around him to blind the cloth as she did the first time he saw her in the cave. Her hair still smelled of roses and the touch of her small hands again made his skin come alive with excitement. “There, that should do for now.” She smiled, readjusting the cloak around his shoulders.

“Thank you,” he said tenderly. “It does feel better.”

They sat in the dark glaring silently into the fire for several minutes until Gwendolyn felt a cold blast from one of the gaps in the walls. She shivered violently and pulled the tattered cloak tighter around her. “I think the wind has become stronger,” she uttered in a low voice.

“Come here,” the young knight said as he opened his cloak wide. “I’ll keep you warm.” Gwendolyn hesitated briefly then went to him. He brought her close and tightly wrapped his arms and the cloak around her.

“It is much warmer.” She sighed and let her head rest against his chest.

“I can’t allow you to freeze to death,” he brushed his cheek against her hair.

“Is it true, Sir Ioan,” she asked. “What Generys says.”

“About what?”

“That knights take unsuspecting virgins, win their hearts then discard them after they have been used.”

“She told you that?”

“Yes. She said that was why we stayed hidden in the caves. She said she was keeping us all safe from men. But then, she told me that I was to allow you to… I don’t understand why she would do that.”

“Either do I. But I can tell you that not all men are like that.” He held her tighter.

“How many women have you loved before?”

Ioan paused then sighed heavily, “Only one. But not the way Generys says.”

“You loved her?”

“She was my wife.”

“You’re married?” Gwendolyn, startled, turned to face him.

“She died two years ago. She and our child.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. You must miss them terribly.” Gwendolyn looked away.

“I do. I think of them everyday,” with a weak smile he brushed the hair from her face and caressed her cheek. “But life moves on. I’ve found someone new to love, someone to ease the pain in my heart.” He gently brought his lips to hers. She responded with pure passion, rising to her knees before him and returning his kiss with zealous wantonness. Her hands eagerly reached down to unbuckle the sword belt from his waist. He paused, “Are you sure?” She smiled and nodded in reply then lifted his shirt over his head and tossed it aside. She took hold of his hair and guided his mouth back to hers. Their tongues savagely entangled with each other as he unlaced her gown and slid it down from her shoulders.

Their bodies, locked in a fierce embrace, were now impervious to the cold. His mouth moved wildly down her throat to the inviting silkiness of her firm breasts causing her to throw her head back and gasp as his lips ran tenderly over her nipples. She shifted her legs so that she could straddle his lap. With a sigh she clenched her thighs around his waist and locked her ankles behind his back. His hands and lips roamed lustfully across her body until he could no longer withhold his own need to penetrate her moist, soft sheath with his sword.

“Does it hurt badly?” she whispered as he lifted her with his powerful arms and eased her to floor.

“We can stop if you’re afraid.”

“No.” Her sky blue eyes shined in the firelight, “Don’t stop.”

His hands slid tenderly along her thighs moving her skirt up above her hips. He felt her body tense up, “Relax, I’ll be gentle.” He held his gaze upon hers as he slowly entered her, a little at a time. He stopped momentarily, when she closed her eyes and winced from pain, and waited for a sign that she was ready to go on.

Once she began to relax, she began to respond to him. Their bodies entwined with one another as they became one. A cold draft blew across the floor. The sensation of cold air against her skin only heightened her sensitivity to Ioan’s touch. Her hips moved rhythmically beneath him. She gasped in pleasure and he could feel her muscles tighten around him squeezing until his pleasure mounted and he could not hold back. In one swift move he pushed himself up to his knees and lifted her hips off the ground and began to thrust hard against her with an uncontrolled fervency. The harder he drove the more she moaned with delight until, at last, they both cried out with gratification.

Iaon collapsed on the floor beside her, still out of breath. Gwendolyn huddled close to him and rested her head on his shoulder. “Are you alright?” he asked as he put his arm around her.

“I think I’ve been to Avalon,” she answered, “I had no idea it could be so wonderful.”

“Avalon?” Ioan chuckled. “I hope you are not comparing me to the gods?”

“My lord?” Gwendolyn wondered as she sat up with her back to him. “What happens to me now? You must think me horrid.”

“Horrid?” he objected. “No, far from it.”

“But I’m…”

“You are not damaged or spoiled. Never think that again.” The knight sprung up behind her and took her in his arms. “From this moment I look at you and see only the woman I love, the woman who, once I have the King’s permission, will be my wife.”

Gwendolyn was shocked by his words though she had wished often since they met that he would carry her away to live together forever. “Do you really love me?”

“Yes, I love you more than life itself,” he smiled and brought her hand to his lips.

Just then there was a crash and the cottage door flew open. “I warned you, girl, about believing men and their lies.” It was Generys. Ioan went for his sword but four heavily armed guards had followed the Druidess inside. “I wouldn’t try for it if I were you, my lord,” she said forcefully. “Your little trollup might get hurt.”

“I thought you said she’d be gone for four days.” Ioan looked at Gwendolyn.

“I lied.” Generys smiled.

“Don’t take this out on her. You have me, let her go.” Ioan stood up to Generys.

“I paid good money for this one, she’ll never be free.”

“I remember who you are. Maelgwyn bedded you and when he was tired of you, you made a scene. The King has his queen and you will never take her place. To him you are just another romp. Actually you’re worse he still sees the others he just doesn’t want you.”

“You are sadly mistaken Sir Ioan. He promised I would sit beside him forever, then he went and married that Norman. I don’t want to take the queen’s place. I want to take Maelgwyn’s throne.” She gave him a look of fierce malevolence. “I don’t need you now either. I’ve made other plans. You will bring your king a message. He has refused my affection for the last time and the time has come for him to pay. I have an army of my own and by this time next week Maelienydd will belong to me.” She motioned to the guards to take Gwendolyn out. “Just as dear little Gwendolyn belongs to me.” Generys smirked at left.

Ioan ran after them. “Gwendolyn!” he shouted into the dark night. “I’ll come back for you.”

It took Ioan four days to reach the castle on foot. After being treated by the King’s surgeon, he explained to King Maelgwyn about Generys and her plans to attack. The King ordered his troops to prepare for battle. He had no intention of letting her army get near his land he would meet them in the woods far from his walls. Ioan then asked for a small company to return with him to the caves and save Gwendolyn and the other girls. He was granted thirty men and well as the royal Druid, Gwirion, who would be able to defend against any magic they may come across as well as care for the wounded. Along with the means to rescue his love, Maelgwyn granted him permission to marry her.

A week later, with his wound nearly healed and renewed resolve in his heart, Ioan and his men went out with the King’s army. When they reached the proposed battlefield Ioan led his company into the mountains and to the cottage where Generys took Gwendolyn from him. Scouts were sent ahead to see if the enemy army had gone from the lair and what kind of defense was left behind. When the scouts returned with the news that the army was nowhere in sight and they could easily overpower Generys’ puny guard Ioan was able to breathe easier. Generys had apparently counted on Ioan’s obligation as Maelgwyn’s champion to fight beside his King and not on Ioan persuading the King to allow a separate rescue attempt during the battle.

He and Gwirion were to enter the caverns alone through the back, the exit through which he had escaped, while the rest of the men were to marched to the front entrance of the lair and draw out the remainder of the guards. While they fought Generys’ men Ioan and the Druid could search for Gwendolyn. His plan was working perfectly, that is until they discovered that all the girls had each drank a dram of poison and locked themselves in their rooms. If they had arrived before dawn, Gwirion explained, he could have saved them with an antidote but now it was too late.

Ioan had a deep disconcerting feeling when he put his hand on the door to the room where he had been held prisoner. Slowly he lifted the latch and pushed it open. “Gwendolyn!” he gasped. She was laid out on the bed, unconscious. With a closer look she was as pale as the freshly fallen snow. “Gwendolyn!” he shook her, but she didn’t awaken.

The old man removed a small vial clutched within her fingers. “I afraid she’s been poisoned too, my boy. This must be what they took. It appears that they all made a death pact.” Gwirion put his ear to her heart. “But she still breathes.”

“She’s alive!” Ioan rejoiced.

“Yes, but just.” The old man added. “I may yet be able to find the antidote, if you know the way to Generys’ sacred room.”

“Magic room?” Ioan seemed confused but only for a moment. “Would it have the sign of the pentagram on the floor and tables full of potions and herbs?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, follow me.” Ioan lifted Gwendolyn in his arms and hurried through the tunnels. He remembered passing the room, where he had first been held, when he and Gwendolyn escaped. It was the only other room beside the one they just left that was well lit. There were several twists and turns but he managed to find it.

“Lay her on the table.” Gwirion told Ioan. “Talk to her keep her mind working, while I mix the potion.”

“I hope we’re not too late.” Ioan said carefully placing the girl on the table.

“So do I,” the old Druid began to rummage through all the bottles.

Ioan held her hand and began to speak to her like he was instructed. “Gwendolyn, it’s me. I told you I would come back for you. Why did you do this? You and the girls didn’t have to do this. Why didn’t you wait for me? I promised I would come and take you away.” His eyes filled with tears though he fought hard to keep them from falling. “Please don’t die, don’t leave me. I love you. I wish I could have gotten here sooner, I should have been here.”

“I think I have it,” the old man lifted her head and little by little poured the liquid into Gwendolyn’s mouth until it was all ingested. “All we can do now is wait,” he placed his hand on the knights shoulder.

They heard a loud clatter out in the tunnels. “The guards are coming back in,” Ioan whispered and pulled his sword from his belt. “You stay with her,” he told the Druid and headed out into the dark passageways. Several of his men were being forced through the tunnels by the guards. “Looks like you could use another hand,” he called out as he joined the fray.

“You qualify as a few hands, Ioan.” Sir Dafydd said over his shoulder.

“The more the merrier.” Ioan said as he pulled his sword from the chest of one of Generys’ men. It was only a few short minutes later that all the guards were either dead or had surrendered. Though several of Ioan’s men were wounded he had lost only one. The knight showed the others the way out of the tunnels and before he could return to check on Gwendolyn, she emerged from the entrance leaning on the old Druid.

“My lord, you came for me!” she said weakly. Ioan took her in his arms.

“I told you I would. All those girls? The poison, why would you all do that?”

“They chose to die rather than be slaves any longer.”

“Why?”

“Before you came we didn’t know anything but her ways, we were all so young when she brought us here, we believed everything she told us. She would never have let us go. There was only one way out. Generys said you would never come for us. I held on as long as I could but a week went by and you didn’t come, I lost hope, I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry, I never should have left you.” Ioan held her close.

“My lord,” Sir Dafydd walked up. “The lady is safe. Might I suggest you send her back to the castle with Gwirion and after we bury the girls we should join the King, he’ll need the men.”

Gwendolyn stayed with the Druid while she waited for the King and his army to return. For nearly ten days she climbed up to the ramparts every morning and stood on the castle walls watching and waiting until well after dark. It was on the eleventh day that she was awakened at dawn by the sound of the tower bells. Every one ran out to the courtyard and cheered as the King returned victorious, with Generys in chains.

Gwendolyn elated at his homecoming flew into Sir Ioan’s arms as he dismounted his horse. “I so happy to see you,” she said. “I was so afraid you would not return.”

“My champion, not return from a battle?” King Maelgwyn grinned as he approached the lovers. “What an unspeakable thought, my lady. He has a banquet to attend tonight.”

Gwendolyn curtsied, “Your Majesty.”

“I shall arranged for you and Sir Ioan to be the guests of honor at tonight’s celebration.” The King whispered as he kissed her hand. They began to walk across the yard to the hall.

“Not I my lord, I’ve done nothing,” she said puzzled.

“Do you own a white dress?” the King raised his brow and grinned.

Gwendolyn shook her head. “No, Your Majesty. I have nothing but what I’m wearing.”

“No matter, we’ll find you one. You can’t be married to one of my knights without a white dress.”

“Married!” Gwendolyn screeched.

“Haven’t you asked her, my boy?” the King laughed.

“Yes, I did, Your Majesty but I have yet to receive an answer.” Ioan winked.

“Well,” They stopped at the huge door to the great hall, “do you accept my champion’s proposal, Lady Gwendolyn.” The King inquired playfully.

She gasped then smiled. “I do. Yes.”

The King put an arm around each of them. “Tonight you shall sleep in my rooms as husband and wife.”

The houseman lit the sconces in the King’s chambers then bid Ioan and his bride good night. Ioan poured two goblets of wine and handed one to Gwendolyn. “Here’s to the rest of our lives,” he said and took a sip.

“To my hero,” she drank from the cup then set it down on the night table. She slowly and carefully slid her robe down from her shoulders letting it drop to the floor.

“Are you still trying to seduce me, my lady?” he raised his left eye brow as he took in his first full view of her naked body.

“I thought, since I didn’t get much of a chance back in the woods…” she started to say but first his finger came to her lips to hush her, then he lifted her onto the bed. He tossed his robe to the floor and hovered over her.

“Don’t you know that the knight is supposed to do the seducing?” he said softly as he pressed his lips to hers.

She pulled him down beside her then rolled over and straddled him. “Not tonight he’s not,” she said with a grin. “It’s my turn.” She rolled her hips forward and took him in. He gripped her thighs and moaned with ecstasy. A moment later he sat up allowing her to wrap her legs completely around him. Their lips explored every inch of the others neck and shoulders. They held each other so closely that their heartbeats became one. Gwendolyn sighed loudly and threw her head back as Ioan’s hips began to move with hers. Her pelvic muscles began to convulse as he thrust uncontrollably against her. Both bodies became taut and each let out a wail of euphoria then exhausted fell back into the softness of the down filled bed.

“If I were to die right now I would die a very happy man.” Ioan murmured sleepily as Gwendolyn curled up beside him.

“You better not. I’m not finished with you yet,” she chuckled.




Prince Not So Charming


Callie stood on the pier, cigarette in hand, gazing out across the endless sea. Taking a drag from the last few centimeters of tobacco, she mindlessly tossed the butt into the water. The sun was quickly going down and the wind, already blustery, was getting steadily colder. She shivered as she glanced down at her watch. “Come on already,” she muttered to herself.

Hearing the sound of slow, heavy footsteps behind her she instinctively slid her right hand into her coat pocket and firmly gripped the nine millimeter handgun concealed inside. “Did you get the file?” she asked as the man, dressed in a navel officer’s uniform, came up next to her.

“Yea, and it wasn’t easy either,” he answered reaching into the inside pocket of his dark wool coat. He paused for a moment and looked directly into Callie’s eyes. “Bringing this guy down could kill you, Cal.” He said then pulled out a thick envelope and handed it to Callie.

“I know. It’s an occupational hazard.” She took it from him and carefully opened it briefly glancing through the contents before putting it into the leather bag that hung from her shoulder.

“I’m serious Cal. You shouldn’t be doing this alone.” He gently caressed her cheek with his hand. “Tell your director and have NCIS back you up.”

“I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself.” She smile and removed his hand from her face. “Besides I can’t trust anyone right now, not even the Director of NCIS. I can’t blow my cover.”

“Just watch your six, Special Agent Waterford,” he lit up a smoke. “You know where to find me if you need me.”

“Yea, I do,” she said and calmly walked away. 

****

Callie was beginning to feel uncharacteristically anxious about her meeting tonight, so when the knock, which she was fully expecting, came at the door she jumped and dropped an earring in the sink. “Damn it!” She grumbled, annoyed with herself for being so edgy and for loosing one of her favorite earrings down the drain. Rushing to the front door, she took a deep breath and turned to knob. A quite handsome man about thirty-five with dark hair and eyes stood before her clutching a dozen red roses. “Hi,” She smiled nervously holding tightly onto the door.

“Hi,” he replied with a curious grin. “Can I come in or should I wait in the hall?” He had a slight, almost unnoticeable Middle eastern accent.

“Oh,” Callie waved him into the living room. “Please do.”

He held out the flowers. “These are for you.”

“They’re beautiful, thank you,” she said as she set them on the counter behind her.

“You seem distracted, is everything alright?”

“I’m fine, I just dropped one of my favorite earrings down the drain,” she tugged at her ear.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I could try to fish it out for you.”

“No, thanks, I’ll just call the maintenance guy in the morning. If you’ll excuse me I’ll just go and put on a different pair and then we can be off.” She quickly disappeared into the bathroom.

****

The waiter was busy pouring out the champagne for Callie and her date, Ben, when their table was approached by the very handsome Commander Richard Halsted.

“Fancy meeting you here, Miss Waterford,” Richard greeted them politely.

Callie gave him an irritated glance, “Commander Halsted, what a coincidence, indeed.”

“I’m glad to see you out enjoying yourself for a change, Miss Waterford. I was beginning to think you loved machines. Who’s your date?” Richard gave her one of his interrogation looks.

“Commander this is Ben,” she reached across the table and touched Ben’s hand. “Ben, this is Commander Richard Halsted, he is assigned to the Judge Advocate General’s office at Quanico.”

“Oh,” Ben stood up and held out his hand. “so you’re a Navy lawyer.” He and Richard shook hands.

“Afraid so,” Richard smiled. “Well I had best be getting to my own table. I won’t bother you any further. Have a nice evening Miss Waterford.”

“A JAG Officer?” Ben returned to his seat. “You have some pretty influential friends.” Ben said picking up his champagne glass.

“I wouldn’t exactly call him a friend.” Callie smirked.

“No?”

“We dated for about two months.”

“And he let you get away?”

“He has another commitment.” She took a sip from her glass.

“He is married?”

“Oh yea, forever dedicated to lady liberty, his first love is the Navy.”

“I see.” Ben’s dark eyes seemed to sparkle when he looked at her.

When the waiter arrived with their food Callie excused herself to the ladies room.

In the hall behind the cloak room Richard was waiting for her.

“That is one of the most wanted men on this planet and you’re having dinner with him! Callie what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Richard backed her against the wall.

“Me? What do you think your doing tailing me? I’ve been investigating this guy for three years!”

“Yea, unofficially, and until now it was from your office! Does anybody at NCIS know what you’re doing? That man is a killer!”

“And I’m a trained Federal Agent!” Callie pushed him and made him back off.

“You can’t take this guy down alone. Unless this becomes a sanctioned case everything you’re doing is going to go right out the window. Nothing will be permissible!”

“I know that Richard. When I get an irrefutable link between him and the trafficking ring I’ll call in back up.”

“You are taking a risk that will cost you your life and I won’t help you any more. If you need files or info get them yourself. I can’t risk it. I can’t risk you.” Richard argued. Though he was an American citizen he spent most of his childhood and teen years in Britain. He always made a conscious effort to suppress his slight accent but when he became excited or angry it made itself known. Callie loved to hear to it and just now it caught her ear. She paused, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her wits regained she gave Richard a fierce stare.

“Bailing on me again Richard?”   

“That’s not fair Callie, this is not the same thing and just because I value my career doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. You know how I feel.”

“Does she?” Callie fought to prevent the tears that begged to be released. “How many times have you cheated on her like you did me?”

“Oh come on Cal.”

“You are married to the Admiral’s daughter!”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“Yea, you did. Go home to your wife and son and get out of my way.” She snapped at him pushing her way by. She stopped just before the dining room entrance and turned back. “I wonder,” she asked calmly, “what you are more worried about, the danger level of this investigation or the fact that I might end up in another man’s arms? She whirled around and went back to her dinner date.

****

She could barely keep her mind on the task at hand all through dinner. Commander Halsted’s behavior at the restaurant had Callie seething inside and when Ben was standing at her front door saying good night she could not seem to stop herself from saying words she knew were extremely dangerous. “Would you like to come in for a drink? It’s still pretty early we could maybe watch a movie?”

Ben looked at his watch and smiled. “It is early but you have to be at the hospital in the morning don’t you?”

“No,” she thought quickly as she turned the key in the lock, “I am, actually, filling in for one of the other technicians on Sunday so they can go to a wedding. We’re trading off she is working my shift. I have tomorrow off.”

“Well,” he grinned, “if you insist.”

Callie closed the door behind them and set her purse on the table beside it. “There’s some wine in the fridge, I’ll just be a minute.” She said and disappeared into the bathroom. She removed her earrings and then the clip from her hair. The soft blonde curls bounced slightly when they hit her shoulders. She stared into the image in the mirror, “I hope you a have a clue as to what you’re doing?” she whispered to herself. But deep down she knew that obtaining Ben’s connection to the human trafficking ring was not her only objective tonight and even though her head told her that this was a dangerously stupid move she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Callie had been in this kind of situation before. Pretending to be sexually interested in a suspect in order to gain his trust and get information but this time she found herself, not only combining her undercover efforts with her secret need to get back at Richard, but genuinely falling for a man that she was trying to put behind bars. Duty aside Ben was utterly intoxicating and she wanted him.

Ben was standing at the kitchen counter with two glasses of wine. “I think I like your hair down,” he smiled and handed her one of the glasses.

“Thank you,” she returned the smile and took a sip.

“All the times I have seen you, you’ve worn it up.” He said setting his glass down. He reached out and wound his fingers in the ends of her hair with one hand and took her glass with the other, putting beside his on the counter. “You should let it down more often.” He whispered seductively as he leaned in, gently pressing his lips to hers. “You are very beautiful.” She reciprocated his actions pulling him to her as if she were going to devour him. She quickly removed his tie then yanked his jacket over his shoulders, letting it land on the floor at their feet. Her tongue wrestled with his as she unbutton his shirt.

At the same instance his hands slid wantonly beneath her sweater, he unhooked her bra dexterously heaved both garments over her head in one move. He lifted her in his arms and carried her into the bedroom. They both landed on the bed with a thud. His lips passionately traveled from her lips to her neck to her breasts. She shivered with excitement as his tongue brushed across her nipples causing her to arch her back. She felt his hardness press against her outer thigh. Her hand inched its way down to his belt which she skillfully unbuckled. Then loosened the button on his jeans and slipped her hand into his boxers. He exhaled deeply and moaned with pleasure. The sound only made her want him more.

She felt her skirt creep slowly up past her hips. Ben brought his hand up under the waistband of her panties then ripped them off. Callie gasped, partly from arousal, partly from surprise. “Did that excite you?” he asked rolling over on top of her.

She smiled, her breath now heaving with anticipation, “Absolutely.”

“I would never have imagined you to be such a vixen.”

“You know what they,” she sighed with delight as he thrust himself between her thighs.

“No,” with a deep groan, “What do they say?”

“It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.” With a huge grin she rolled them both over.

****

“Commander what can I do for you?” Callie’s team leader Rob Westin, who had just come out of the Director’s office, asked as Richard stepped off the elevator.

“I’m looking for Special Agent Waterford.”

“She’s not here yet.” Rob said with an irritated tone as he returned to his desk. “Apparently she’s running late.”

“Called her twice,” Frank Masters, her partner, explained. “She’s not answering her cell or her private number.”

“Does she do this often?” the Commander fumbled with the hat in his hands.

“Not usually.”

“Special Agent Westin I think I should tell you-” Richard began but then there was the sound of the elevator opening and in walked Callie.

“Commander Halsted, what are you doing here?” She asked nervously, setting her bag on her desk.

“I wanted to talk to you about our conversation last night.” Richard stepped towards her.

“This is not the time, Commander.” Callie quickly led him away from her co-workers. “What are you doing?”

“We talk or I tell.” Richard gave her a firm look. “You were with him all night weren’t you?”

“What business is that of yours! You have a wife and this is my case.” She snapped at him.

“You pulled me in when you asked me to dig up info. You’re getting in over your head.”

“I think I’ll decide that for myself. Now if you don’t mind I have work to do.” Callie started to walk back to her desk but Richard grabbed her by the arm.

“I’m keeping an eye on you whether you like it or not and the first sign of trouble I’m informing your boss,” he said under his breath.

Callie freed herself from his grip. “I can handle this,” she snarled and returned to her desk. The Commander got back in the elevator and disappeared.

“Where were you?” Frank asked as she plopped herself down in her chair. “You didn’t answer your phone.”

“Car trouble,” she grumbled, “phones were inside the car I was outside the car. Can we drop this now?”

“Sure.” Frank said as he answered the phone on his desk.

Rob came up and handed her a file. He didn’t need to say a word. He just gave her one of his looks. “I know,” she said softly. “It always ends badly.”

“Somebody just dropped a dead sailor at the front gate,” Frank announced as he hung up the phone and grabbed his jacket. He, Rob and Callie quickly piled into the elevator.

****

Callie was just about to jump into the shower when someone buzzed at the security door of her building. It was Ben. “I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight. I was going to turn in early, it’s been a rough day.” She told him, pouring two cups of coffee.

“I thought I would surprise you.” Ben smiled, removing his tie and jacket and laying them across the back of the chair.

“I was about to get in the shower when you buzzed and I’m really very…” Ben put his finger on her lips to stop her from speaking then tightly wrapped his arm around her waist. He gently kissed her on the forehead then on the cheek then on the mouth. Callie brought her arms up around his shoulders.

“A shower sounds very refreshing,” he whispered in her ear, “Shall I join you? I had a rough day as well.” Ben took her by the hand and led her into the bathroom.

Callie felt her nerves instantly relax when the hot water rushed over her head. Within seconds Ben had followed her in. He ran his fingers down her back then around to her nipples, the heat of the water and the touch of his hands made her shiver with excitement. She turned and kissed him. Reaching behind her he took the soap and began to rub it on her back. Once it began to lather up he moved to the front. Starting with her shoulders he worked his way down. Her entire body shudder again when his hand slid between her legs and his middle finger found its mark. “Ben,” she softly said his name while his other hand held her against him and his kisses hungrily traveled down her throat and back up to her mouth.

“I want you,” he said in her ear then violently spun her around. “I want you, now.” He pressed her face against the wall and grabbed her by the hips. There was nothing gentle or loving about the way he was treating her now. She gasped, this time not with pleasure, as he brutally pushed his way into her. She began to plead for him to stop but he only became more forceful and vulgar. “I thought you liked rough, bitch?” he said gruffly seizing her by the hair. He squeezed her breasts until she screeched with pain until, at last, he groaned loudly and pulled out. Callie slowly sank to the floor while Ben snatched up a towel and left the room.

She sat curled up in a ball with the shower raining down on her until the water became cold. After turning off the faucet, she wrapped herself in a towel and staggered out. Ben was fully dressed and lounging on the couch with his eyes closed when she stepped into the living room. Tears streamed from her eyes, “Why Ben? Why would you do this?”

Ben didn’t sit up or even open his eyes he just callously told her to get dressed, that they were leaving.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” She barked and stormed into her bedroom, slamming the door. Before she could get across to her closet Ben had burst in and was pointing a gun at her.

“You will get dressed and come with me or you will die,” he told her calmly. She obediently reached into the closet and took out a sweater and a pair of jeans then went over to the bureau and opened the top drawer. “Don’t bother looking for your revolver Special Agent Waterford I’ve already taken it,” he smiled and held up her gun in his other hand.

“You knew,” she said stepping into her jeans.

“Your not the only one with connections my dear.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“I woman with your skills is worth a high price.” He grinned and motioned for her move out into the living room.

“NCIS will come looking for me,” she stared directly into his eyes.

“By the time NCIS figures out what’s happened to you it will be too late.” He tossed her coat at her. As she caught she realized he had no idea here work phone was zipped up in the secret pocket inside the sleeve. She put it on and headed out the door with Ben and the gun right behind her. Ben opened the car door and let her in. As he walked around to the driver’s side she quickly silenced the phone and zipped it safely back in its place. Ben wouldn’t hear anything but NCIS could use GPS to track her.

****

“Where’s Callie?” Rob asked as he stepped off the elevator.

“Don’t know,” Frank answered. “I’ve been calling her all morning. It’s not like her. I think it’s time to worry.”

Rob tossed a set of keys to Frank, “You drive.”

“Where we going?”

“To Callie’s place,” Rob glanced at Mike Fenneli the fourth member of the team. “Get Commander Halsted over here, he was going to tell me something the other day I want to know what it was.”

“Right on it, Boss,” Mike replied.

****

Rob and Frank arrived at Callie’s building and rang her apartment but there was no answer. They buzzed the superintendent, who came to the door. They held up their badges. “NCIS,” Rob told the old man. “Special Agents Westin and Masters, we need to check Callie Waterford’s apartment she didn’t show for work today and she’s not answering her phone.”

“Of course,” the old man said letting them in. “I don’t think she came back last night though.”

“You saw her leave?” Frank asked.

“Yeah, she left about nine with a man. I assumed he was her boyfriend because he’s been coming here every night for the past week.” The man continued as they climbed the stairs. “Nice looking guy, dark hair, polite, always said hello. I didn’t notice if she ever came back here last night but then I’m not much of a night owl and she’s very quiet when she comes in.”

Frank knocked on the door, “Callie,” he called loudly, “Callie, you in there? Open up.”

“Unlock the door.” Rob told the super as he and Frank pulled out their guns. The old man turned the key in the lock then Frank stepped between him and the door, slowly pushing it open.

“Clear,” he said with his gun poised and ready as he checked around the room before Rob followed him in.

Special agent Westin carefully went to the bedroom then the bathroom, “Clear.” The two men lowered their guns. “Looks like they left in a hurry,” Frank pointed to the coffee pot that was still on, the cups that were still full and her wallet, ID and badge, which she would have never left behind, laying on the table.

In a blink of an eye Rob was on the phone, “Fenneli, is Commander Halsted there yet?”

“Yeah and he’s really anxious.”

“We’re on our way back.” Rob hung up.

***

“Special Agent Westin,” Commander Halsted instantly rose to his feet as Rob and Frank exited the elevator. “What did you find out?”

“Commander,” Rob nodded then began to bolt out orders. “Frank put out a BOLO on the car the super said they left in.”

“Good as done.” Frank parked himself at his desk.

“Fenneli, try her cell again and see you can track it with the GPS.”

“On it,” Mike said as he picked up the phone.

“Commander,” Rob turned to Richard. “You had something you wanted to say when you were here last, what was it?”

“She’s missing?”

“At this point,” Rob sat on the edge of his desk. “but I think you know something.”

“I do,” Commander Halsted sighed, “I know who she’s with.”

“Who?”

“Benjamin Redfin.” Richard blurted out.

“You’re sure.” Rob nodded at Mike, who started typing on his computer.

“Yeah, she had inner with him four days ago.” Richard explained, “She’s been investigating him on her own for the past three years. I’ve been getting classified information.”

“Benjamin Redfin,” Mike brought up Ben’s picture up on the flat screen monitor on the wall. “Mother was an Egyptian national and his father was a Marine of Native American descent. Has dual citizenship in both countries and owns an international shipping company. He’s suspected of dealing in black market weapons and human trafficking, though no one has ever been able to concretely link him to either.”

“Callie’s been working on this guy alone ever since a cold case about a missing Navy dependent caught her attention. She discovered that there have been dozens of missing girls, between sixteen and twenty, classified as runaways and missing persons in the tri-state area who were military dependents. But none of them had behavioral or emotion issues that would substantiate voluntary disappearances. When she started digging she found that they all disappeared right after meeting a man fitting Redfin’s description. Ever victim had had a dinner date at the hotel Redfin was registered at and disappeared a few days later.”

“His credit card records confirm that he paid for a dinner for two at the various hotels within three or four days of each girl’s disappearance.” Frank added as he changed the image on the screen. “And every file has a witness that claims the victim had a date with a rich guy named Ben, however he never used the same last name.”

“What’s happening with the GPS?” Rob asked Mike.

“Working on it but I can’t get a signal, if she’s not near a tower or if there’s something blocking the signal we can’t track her.”

“She could be anywhere by now,” the Commander exclaimed.

Rob spun around, opened his desk drawer and pulled out his weapon. “He owns a shipping company!” he said rushing towards the elevator, “Phones don’t work at the shipping docks.” He pushed the button to open the door. “Let’s go!” he called out. Mike and Frank scooped up their gear and got in the elevator followed by Richard.

****

With her hands bound in front of her, Ben yanked Callie from the car and dragged across the containment yard. “They’re going to find me.” Callie said calmly though she wasn’t so sure in her own words. She had no clue if the NCIS team had been able to track her.

“Oh I highly doubt that they will even figure out what you’ve been up to before the ship is halfway to Russia, let alone come looking for you within the next hour.” Ben said as they rounded the corner of a warehouse. He opened the door and gave her a shove. She gasped in shock and her eyes grew wide when she saw that there were a dozen young women bound and gagged sitting on the floor in front of her. They were all scared and bruised from being rough handled.

“Thirteen is an unlucky number,” a man dressed like a dockworker came out from behind a huge crate.

“I don’t believe in superstitions.” Ben growled at him.

“Sailors do.” The man said with a thick Russian accent.

“Then kill one of them but this one is getting on that ship,” Ben gave Callie another shove and she stumbled forward next to the other girls. “Sit down,” he told her.

“You said no killing!” The Russian barked at Ben.

“Then fucking deal with the odd number!” Ben shouted getting in the man’s face.

The Russian backed off and looked at the watch in his pocket. “She looks too old.”

“She’s not going with the rest.” Ben said more calmly as he peeked out the door. “She has a special purpose.”

“Keeping her for yourself?” the man grinned.

“Her destination is Afghanistan.” Ben said, appearing a bit agitated again, “Where are they, the other crate should have been here already?”

“You’re going to try and sell me to Al-Qaida aren’t you?” Callie asked trying not to sound afraid. “What you already do isn’t enough? Now you’re a traitor?”

“A traitor?” Ben chuckled as he turned away from the door. “You can’t betray a country you don’t consider yours. This is all about the money not which side I prefer. They will pay big bucks for what’s in your pretty little head.”

“God, I’m so stupid,” Callie sighed. “I can’t believe I was actually becoming attracted to you.”

“Were you? That was not very professional of you.” Ben squatted down in front of her and smiled then ran his hand down her cheek. “I must confess the time spent in your bed was quite enjoyable.” He stood up then seized her by the hair, “But the shower was much more my style. Maybe just once more before we part company?”

“What are doing?” she screeched. “Let go of me!”

Dragging her into a small office in the corner, he pushed her backwards onto the desk sending several stacks of papers and folders to the ground. He pinned her beneath him but she fought him off quickly, with a knee to his groin. “You fucking bitch!” he groaned as he doubled over. Callie tried to run for the door but a bullet hit the frame just as she reached for the doorknob. She froze. Ben regained his composure. Gun in hand he pinned her against the door and callously hauled her sweater up to her neck. Her nipples hardened almost immediately, a natural reaction to the cold. He ran his free hand across them. “I will remember these for a very long time.” An evil grin flashed across his face as he squeezed her left breast until she cried out. “You won’t withstand much torture before they make talk,” he laughed. He was about to force her back onto the desk when there was the sound of gunfire out in the warehouse and the girls began screaming. Ben knocked Callie aside and ran out ducking behind a stack of wooden shipping crates. He fired off a couple of shots then tried to run to a cement pylon but he tripped, falling forward and losing control of the gun, which went sliding across the floor. Ben scrambled to get it back but was stopped by Special Agent Westin who had pinned his hand to the floor with his foot.

“I wouldn’t try it if I were you. NCIS,” Rob’s weapon was pointed at Ben’s head along with Frank’s and Commander Halsted’s, “You’re under arrest.”

Frank knelt down and handcuffed Ben then very gruffly helped him to his feet. “Where is she?” Rob asked.

“Who?” Ben said sarcastically.

Richard grabbed him by the throat. “Special Agent Waterford, where is she?”

Ben just stared him down with a grin on his face.

“You better answer the man or he might just kill you.” Frank added flashing a nonchalant grin.

“No, I won’t kill him.” Richard removed his hand from the prisoner’s neck and pointed his gun somewhere else a little lower. “But I will change his gender.” Ben stared him down again but then Commander Halsted fired a round into the floor between his feet. Ben nodded his head toward the office.

Special Agent Westin and Richard found Callie unconscious on the floor bleeding from a gash on the side of her head. Rob radioed for an ambulance. Richard knelt on floor. “Callie,” he placed his hand behind her neck, “come on baby open your eyes. Please Cals.” He attempted to wake her but it was no use. He stayed with her until the paramedics came, then went with her in the ambulance.

Three days later Callie lay in the hospital still unconscious from the head trauma. “Callie,” Richard held on to her hand as he sat beside her, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I was stupid and arrogant, thinking only of my own ambition, I-I thought being married to Lynn would move me up the ladder faster, make me more important and get me a desk in the Pentagon, but I was wrong and now it’s all a mess. I told her the truth, that I do care about her, because of the baby, but I never really loved her. I told her about us and that I still loved you. She slapped me then packed up and left. Please wake up, Cals, I don’t want to lose you again.” He put his head down and gently squeezed her hand.

“I hope she hit you really hard.” Callie was weak but her sarcasm was working at full strength.

Richards’s head sprung up, “You’re back!” He kissed her fingers, “I was getting worried.”

“She left you, huh? “

“Yeah.”

“If it were me, I would have knocked you out,” Callie gave a weak grin. “Why did you tell her, she was good to you?”

“But I don’t love her like I love you. Almost losing you like that, made me realize I can’t live a lie and my career ambitions were just a means to camouflage my fear of commitment.”

“You committed to Lynn.”

“Not really, I just went through the motions because of the baby. We weren’t as happy as we seemed and you were right, it would have been only a matter of time before I blew it.”

“And you think I’m supposed to let you back in my life, just like that, because your wife walked out?”

“No,” Richard hung his head. “I’m thinking it’s going to be a long hard voyage, for me, to earn your trust again.”

“You bet it will be,” she tried to sit up but her head began to spin. “And I’m not making any promises that it will ever happen. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” he smiled and nodded.

The nurse came in, “Have we returned to the land of the coherent?” She said with a smile and hung a new bag of saline solution on the pole beside the bed. “I’ll call the doctor and tell him you’re awake,” she said as she left the room.

Rob and Frank came in as the nurse was leaving. “It’s good to have you back Special Agent Waterford,” Frank said happily.

“It’s good to be back.” Callie smiled. “I’ll be back to normal in a few days.”

“You have two weeks leave coming and you are taking it.” Rob gave her one of his looks, “That’s an order.” Then he smiled.

“Well, I have to be getting back to the office,” Richard said as he reached for his hat and coat. He bent over Callie and kissed her forehead, “I’ll be back later tonight.” He nodded at Rob and Frank and walked out of the room.

“You’re doing okay?” Frank asked as Rob’s phone rang, he answered.

“As good as one can expect I suppose.” She said attempting to clear her throat.

“You scared us. Not cool.” Frank scolded her with a grin.

“I know.” She said. “What about the girls?”

“All of them had been raped. Most of them are back with families. A couple had pneumonia and had to be admitted. The bureau is looking into finding the rest but it’s been years and it’s not likely they’ll ever be found now.”

Rob hung up the phone, “That’s the ME, he’s found something.”

“We have a marine with bullet in his head,” Frank started to explain. “Might be suicide but-”

“Today, Masters!” Rob said growled holding to the door open.

“Coming Boss,” Frank winked at Callie and rushed out.

“See you later,” Rob stopped in the doorway for a moment, “And if you ever pull another stunt like that, I’ll shoot you myself,” he said as he closed the door behind him.

“Got it Boss.” She whispered to herself as she closed her eyes and sighed in relief.