Llanllawer Church, Pembrokeshire, Wales, 1485
He needed a miracle.
Here he was, on the brink of a battle for the crown of England, and it was increasingly obvious that God wasn’t listening to his desperate prayers. Henry Tudor rose from his knees, made the sign of the cross, and backed away from the altar. A single tallow candle illuminated a handful of dilapidated pews and a ragged altar cloth, tattered and chewed by vermin.
There was only one thing left to do, and it would be the biggest gamble of his life. He’d left the Earl of Oxford in charge of his pitifully few troops, and brought his Welsh companion, Sir John Llewellyn, as his guide. They were the only two men who knew he had left his sleeping army and gone out into the countryside, ostensibly to pray at the church, but in reality to do so much more.
“Are you ready, my lord?”
Henry relaxed as John’s familiar dark-featured face emerged from the gloom. John’s knowledge of the Welsh countryside had proved invaluable. He’d found Henry the perfect place for his needs, a place where the old religion of the Druids lodged uneasily alongside the new.
“Is it true there was a battle fought here, John?” Henry asked as his friend led him away from the church and down into the all-encompassing darkness beyond.
“Aye, my lord. Parc-y-Meirw means Field of the Dead. A fitting omen for your upcoming victory over King Richard.”
“Indeed.” Or a reminder of just how quickly an overambitious man could fail . . .
John stepped aside to reveal a low huddle of stones. “This is the Holy Well I spoke of. It is said the spring leads directly to the old gods, who will listen favorably to the prayers of anyone who offers them a tribute.”
Henry strained his eyes to make out the dimensions of the less than impressive stone arch that covered the entrance to the spring. The sound of water trickled and echoed deep in the ground below his feet. He crouched down and shuddered when his fingertips slicked over decaying plants and dipped into ice-cold water.
“I shall make an offering, then.” He found a coin and threw it into the small gaping mouth of the well. Was he throwing away his immortal soul as well? Richard Plantagenet was a formidable opponent on and off the battlefield.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Go back to the church and wait for me there. I will do what I must do alone.”
“Nay, sir. I promised Lord de Vere I wouldn’t let you out of my sight.”
“Even if what you see will imperil your soul, your chance of paradise, and the glorious resurrection?”
To Henry’s surprise, John smiled. “Sir, I am prepared to walk through hell itself to protect you.”
Henry let out his breath. “All right, then, best get on with it. Do you have the vessel?”
“Fill it with water and give it to me.”
Henry withdrew his dagger. Strange that both the old and the new religions demanded blood. He slashed the blade across the fleshy pad of his thumb and allowed his blood to drip into the narrow opening of the pot. He was unsure exactly how much was needed. Tales of the Druids draining their sacrificial victims dry were commonplace. Even the Christian God had allowed his precious son to be crucified, bloodied nails hammered through his wrists a sword thrust in his side . . .
Henry took a deep, steadying breath and sucked his thumb into his mouth, waited until the sickly coppery flow slowed and stopped. “Show me where the stones are.”
He could see better now, and did not hesitate as he followed John toward the ominous row of shadows bordering the field. He reached the first stone, which was about one and a half times his height, and put his hand on it. The stone quivered and warmed to his touch as if he had somehow awakened it.
He snatched back his hand and examined the smooth surface of the bluish gray rock. “How many stones are there?”
“The color reminds me of the great stone circle I once saw down in the West Country of England,” Henry whispered. “A circle built by giants, as legend would have it.”
“These stones came from the same quarry, and there were no giants involved. Just mortal men.”
“You seem to know a lot about it, John.” Henry knew he was procrastinating, but his first touch of the stones had proved almost too much for him, had made him doubt his purpose once again.
“Like you, I was born here, sir. I learned all the ancient tales before I could speak.”
“Then tell me. What must I do to call the Druids?”
A moment of silence met his challenge and he tore his gaze from the stones back to John.
“Near the bottom of the third stone is a small crevice. Kneel and pour your blood offering into the hollow.”
Henry found his way to the third stone and knelt in front of it, used his fingertips to discover the crevice and the worn hollow at its bottom. He closed his eyes and poured the contents of the pot into it, was surprised when none of the liquid seeped out or ran down the surface of the rock. He wanted to pray, but hesitated to offend the old gods he was trying to reach.
Suddenly the wind began swirling and squalling around the stones. A humming sound in his head grew louder and louder until he staggered to his feet and broke off contact with the rock.
Something coalesced out of the wind in front of him. Henry couldn’t move as the thing took shape and became a bearded man dressed in flowing white robes, a long staff covered in ivy in one hand. His form was as indistinct as a flickering candle flame, but his voice was commanding.
“Greetings, Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond.”
Henry bowed his head and tried to answer through the stark terror that closed his throat and threatened his ability to breathe. He clenched his fingers around the rosary beads concealed in his palm. How strong was the Christian God against the ancients? If he prayed now, who would win? He was no longer sure.
“I need your help.”
Inwardly, he winced at his own abrupt words. But there was no time for subtlety or false praise. Already, faint streaks of light were visible in the night sky. He had no illusions as to the precarious nature of his cause. He needed to get back to his army before they deserted him.
“What do you want, Henry Tudor?”
Henry forced himself to meet the specter’s glowing eyes. “I want the crown of England and Wales.”
“And what are you prepared to offer the Druids in return for our help?”
“What do you want?”
“Your solemn vow that you will aid us in our fight to wipe out the Vampire race.”
Henry frowned. “I do not understand.” He’d anticipated being asked for many things—money, power, even his soul—but not this. “What is a Vampire?”
“A fair question, mortal.” The Druid inclined his head. “They are an abomination, a race of parasites that prey upon humanity. Many centuries ago, some of our Druid brethren forsook the traditional blood sacrifice of humans when they discovered that drinking the blood of living humans gave them a different form of religious ecstasy. They gained new powers and became immortal.”
As he tried to imagine such monsters, Henry struggled to breathe. “I still don’t understand. . . .”
“These ‘Vampires’ have grown in numbers and live among humans everywhere. Our seers have knowledge that they will attempt to overthrow the monarchy, set up one of their own as king, and enslave the human population.”
“You wish me to stop them?”
“We wish to join with you to defeat the Vampire threat. Our numbers have dwindled, and we are no longer strong enough to fight them here in the mortal world.”
“If they threaten my realm, I’ll deal with them myself.”
The Druid’s eyes glowed red. “You will fail. They will either kill you or steal your immortal soul and make you rule for them. However, if you accept our bargain, we will send to your court a family of Vampire slayers to protect you.”
Henry stared at the apparition, his mouth dry, his heart racing. “This seems a small thing for such a huge boon.”
“It is not small, Henry Tudor. According to our prophets, having the king’s ear may save our race from extinction. In return for protection against the Vampires, you and your heirs must shield this family, keep their secrets—and heed them always when they warn you of danger.”
Henry shook his head to clear it. Could he really accept that such creatures existed?
“They exist, mortal. Do you accept the bargain?”
Henry flinched. Had the Druid read his very thoughts? He tried to weigh the options even though he knew what his answer would be. If he was fortunate, the Druids might never need his assistance against those monsters. But news of his invasion had surely reached the ears of King Richard by now. Without the support of the Druids, his small army faced certain defeat, and he would die a traitor’s death. “I agree.”
“Then kneel beside your servant, Sir John Llewellyn, and accept your fate.”
Henry knelt shoulder to shoulder with John and closed his eyes as the Druid began to glow and shimmer. Suddenly a jolt shot through him and he gasped as he witnessed his victory, saw King Richard abandoned, his broken, bloody corpse dragged through the streets and vilified. Then a blast of heat seared his left wrist and he cried out.
When he opened his eyes, the shimmering form had disappeared. Cursing, he slapped at the sleeve of his smoldering leather coat and stared at the three parallel lines now etched in his skin.
Slowly, John rolled back his sleeve and displayed the same sign to his astonished lord. “It’s called the symbol of Awen. It represents the rays of the sun and the balance between male and female. It marks those of us bound to destroy the Vampires.”
Henry got to his feet and pushed down his sleeve. His hands were still shaking, but John seemed unperturbed by what they had seen, and Henry had always trusted his Welsh servant. It was lighter now, and he could clearly see the row of eight stones, feel the subtle pulse of their energy around him. If he believed he had just bargained with an ancient Druid, surely he should believe in the Vampire threat too?
He glanced at John as they walked back up the slight incline to where their tethered horses awaited them by the church. “It is you who will stay with me, then, and fight these ‘Vampires’?”
Henry watched John’s face as he tightened his horse’s girth and untangled his reins. “You truly believe they exist?”
“I know they exist.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Seen them and killed them, sir.”
John’s matter-of–fact tone made Henry blink. “Since you have served me?”
“Of course, sir. The Vampires have their prophets too. They are well aware of your existence, and your place in history. So far I’ve managed to stop them. When you are king, I expect my job will be a lot harder.”
“When I am king . . .” Henry mounted his horse and kicked the beast into a canter. He couldn’t quite believe what he’d done, but he would do his best to honor both his true religion and his promise to the ancients. A surge of hope shuddered through him.
He would be king.
Richmond Palace, the Court of King Henry VIII, 1529
“Lady Rosalind? I’ll take you to the queen.”
Rosalind Llewellyn stood up, shook out her skirts, and followed Sir Richard out of the oppressively crowded anteroom into the wide hallway beyond. She hoped she didn’t look as nervous as she felt. At court, presenting the right appearance was essential, and with the kind of enemies she had, any sign of nerves could prove disastrous.
Despite Rosalind’s familiarity with the palace, it seemed at least a mile before they reached the queen’s apartments. Strains of a lute and the hum of conversation died as she entered the largest of the rooms. Queen Katherine sat by the window surrounded by her ladies. Her embroidery lay on her lap as she compared shades of blue silk thread held up to the light by one of her waiting women.
The queen smiled. “Lady Rosalind. It is a pleasure to see you again.”
Rosalind sank into a deep curtsey. “You remember me, Your Majesty?”
“How could I forget? You had the most charming singing voice I have ever heard and the sweetness of disposition to go with it.”
“Sweet as a country bumpkin or a freshly picked turnip.”
The queen looked up sharply at the whispered interjection, and Rosalind felt herself blushing. One of the dark-haired Spanish women clustered around the queen barely bothered to conceal her laughter behind her fingers.
“Hardly a country bumpkin, Lady Celia. Rosalind was born at court and lived here for the first fourteen years of her life. She only returned home to nurse her mother through her final illness.” The queen smiled gently. “Isn’t that so, my dear?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I—”
Rosalind stiffened and slowly inhaled. She could sense the presence of the undead in the room, the scent of stolen blood, the peculiar dry aroma left by an animated corpse. She studied Queen Katherine closely to make sure that the scent of Vampire was not coming from her. It never hurt to be cautious, and she hadn’t been close to the queen for several years.
She forced her attention back to the queen and smiled. “In truth I could probably find my way around these halls blindfolded.”
“That skill might be useful if the king decides to hold one of his wild masques.” The queen nodded at Sir Richard. “Please ask the king if he can see Lady Rosalind today and give his formal approval of her appointment to my household. I don’t think he’ll object,” she said to Rosalind. “Your family has always served us well. Lady Clarence will find you a bed for tonight, but until then, reintroduce yourself to my ladies and take your ease.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Rosalind had always loved Queen Katherine and had no intention of deserting her now, even if—especially if—the rumors were true and she had lost favor with the king because she had failed to produce a male child. She’d always been a most gracious and kind friend to Rosalind.
“Oh my goodness, Rosalind, it is so good to see you again!”
Rosalind turned and found herself in a warm embrace. She enthusiastically reciprocated. “Margaret, how are you?”
“I am well.” Margaret Sinclair tilted her head to one side and studied Rosalind critically. “You have grown into a beauty.”
“Hardly.” Rosalind shrugged. “I’ve just grown.”
She’d known Margaret since they were five years old, when her friend had been made a ward of the king’s court to protect her considerable inheritance. They had been inseparable until Rosalind’s abrupt departure five years previously.
“And how is married life?” Rosalind asked. Margaret was glowing, her blond hair concealed beneath a French hood while her ample bosom was displayed above her silver and blue bodice.
Margaret’s smile widened. “I am very happy. Robert is an excellent husband.” She blushed. “We are expecting a child in the summer.”
Rosalind took Margaret’s hands and squeezed them hard. “That is wonderful news. I am truly happy for you.”
Margaret led her away from the queen and toward the quietest corner of the room. “You aren’t married yet, then? Is that why your grandfather sent you back to court, to find a husband?”
“Perhaps. But you know how difficult I am to please.”
Rosalind tried to keep smiling. At almost twenty, she was already considered far too old to be unwed. It didn’t bother her; she had important secrets to conceal, a monarchy to protect, and many dangers to face. Somehow she suspected a conventional husband would not approve of any of that.
Margaret gave her an encouraging pat. “I’m sure you’ll find someone. Several of the gentlemen present looked very pleased to see you when you arrived.”
“Only because I am an untried delicacy.”
“You are so distrustful, Rosalind. Show a man a pleasant face and a willing disposition and you will find your love match in no time.”
“But I am not willing,” Rosalind grumbled, and Margaret laughed. It occurred to Rosalind that if she wanted to conceal the real reason for her attendance at court, she would at least have to entertain the idea of encouraging a few suitors.
There was a disturbance around the queen and Margaret looked up. “I have to go and attend Her Majesty. She will no doubt be taking a stroll in the gardens. Would you like to come or will you rest from your journey?”
“If the queen permits, I think I’ll remain here and accustom myself to her apartments again.”
“That is an excellent idea. I’ll ask the queen.”
A few moments later, the queen’s court streamed out into the pale sunlight chattering and laughing, leaving Rosalind alone in the pleasant receiving room. She picked up the altar cloth the queen had been embroidering, folded it carefully, and set it back on the stool along with the tangle of silks.
To her relief, the faint scent of Vampire had disappeared with the exodus of the queen’s court. She had no idea yet whether the threat came from a male or a female. To her delicate and well-trained nose, there was a slight difference in the odor. Females smelled more like plants, the males like animals. Unfortunately, experienced Vampires could conceal their scent among the overperfumed and underwashed bodies of the court. It would take her some time to sift through the courtiers and discover exactly who was threatening the king and queen. She could only hope she found the culprit before any damage was done.
With a sigh, Rosalind wandered through the large suite of rooms, but there was no further evidence of Vampire occupation. She paused in the queen’s bedchamber and closed her eyes. How close did this Vampire get to the queen? If she was a trusted member of the household, she might be the last thing the queen saw at night before she slept. The last thing the queen ever saw . . .
“What are you doing in here?”
Rosalind blinked and swung around to see a tall young man dressed entirely in black leaning against the door. His crow black hair matched his tightly trimmed beard and he had the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen.
“You startled me, sir.” Rosalind advanced toward him, but he didn’t move away from the door.
“You shouldn’t be in here.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “And you should?”
He blinked as if taken aback by her boldness and his amiable expression disappeared. She guessed he was too used to dealing with the simpering maidens of the court to tolerate a direct challenge from a woman.
“In fact, yes. I’m a member of the queen’s household and I’m sworn to protect her.” He studied her from the tip of her French hood down to her feet. “You, however, are a stranger.”
“To you, perhaps, but not to the court or the queen.” She marched right up to him. “Excuse me, sir.”
His hand shot out and he gently grasped her elbow. “Not before I know your name and your reason for being here.”
Rosalind gave an exaggerated sigh. “Now you are being ridiculous. If you let go of me, perhaps I won’t embarrass you in front of the queen by insisting on an apology.”
Up close, she saw his skin was olive and that within his fine eyes lurked an intriguing strength of purpose that matched her own. He smelled of exotic spices and leather, not Vampire, for which she was profoundly grateful. Tangling with a Vampire without her weapons—and in the queen’s bedchamber in broad daylight—was hardly the way to begin her mission.
“Sir, the queen is in the gardens. If you insist on being difficult, why don’t we go and find her? Then you can make your apology and be done with it.”
“That’s an excellent idea.”
Rosalind met his gaze, her own unflinching. “Then let go of me.”
“Not until you tell me your name.” He inhaled slowly and his blue eyes narrowed as he scrutinized her face. As if he couldn’t help himself, he trailed his fingers along the line of her jaw, paused to feather his thumb over her lower lip.
“It must be Helen, because your beauty is unsurpassed.” He leaned in closer until his lips almost brushed hers.
She resisted the urge to nip his thumb, instinct telling her that inviting him into her mouth wouldn’t be wise. Was he trying to intimidate her, or was he as intrigued by her as she was by him? She managed an unsteady breath. For some reason, his mere presence made it difficult for her to remember her own name, let alone why she was annoyed with him.
“Do you normally kiss any woman you find unprotected?”
His smile was an invitation to sin. “Only the pretty ones. Now tell me your name.”
“Why is it so important for you to know who I am?”
“So that I can couch my apology to you in an appropriately abject manner?”
She couldn’t help herself. Her mouth quirked up at the corners. “I am Lady Rosalind Llewellyn.”
He dropped her arm abruptly. “Llewellyn?”
He started to laugh, his teeth white and even against his tanned skin. “I don’t believe it.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
He bowed low and stepped away from the door. “Just that I was expecting someone far more . . . exciting.”
Rosalind glared at his handsome laughing face. “I do not excite you? In truth, I am relieved to hear that, as I find you rude, ignorant, and totally beneath my interest.”
His expression sobered. “Oh, you’ll find me of interest, my lady. I’m Sir Christopher Ellis. I’m sure your grandfather has spoken of my family.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.” Oh, but she did, and the thought was utterly terrifying. She fisted her hands within the folds of her gown.
“You are lying, Lady Rosalind. Your kind has lived in fear of mine for generations.”
“You know what I mean, my lady.” He bowed again. “But I’m not going to discuss it here.”