Monday, 15 December 2014

A Very Vampire Christmas To All!

Along rolls another Christmas, and all the fun and joy that comes with it. Gingerbread cookies are baked, the tree's been decorated and the greeting cards posted. Living in Australia doesn't mean snow but rather sunshine, and lots of it. The last couple of weeks we've experienced heat waves. Thank goodness for air-conditioning, is all I can say. Now imagine being a vampire living in Australia at this time of year - challenging!
So for all you vamp, paranormal romance and gothic urban fantasy fans (yep, that's a mouthful!) here's my Christmas present to you. I'm sharing a chapter from Book 2 in my Dantonville Legacy Series - Bloodpledge. See how my vampire family celebrate Christmas. And for those who haven't yet read my series, here's a juicy taste.
Enjoy!

CHAPTER 27 - A VERY VAMPIRE CHRISTMAS

LAURA

It was midnight when we sat down, to what Judy described as a vampire Christmas. Earlier in the day, she, Jenny and I had celebrated with my foster-parents, John and Eilene, and we were still recovering from that meal. My mum had created an amazing spread—a four-course gastronomic delight that could have come from the pages of Delicious magazine.
      Jenny had gone to bed, no longer able to stay awake. In spite of my own drowsiness, I was determined not to miss my first official Christmas with my immortal family.
      The dining room on the main deck was dark, except for the light created by two exquisite golden candelabras, shaped like twisting vines, in the centre of the glass dining table. Twelve silver candles—six in each—rose from their scrolled-leaf beds and threw flickering shadows across the room. On either side of each candelabrum, four crystal decanters filled with wine caught the glow of the candlelight, their burgundy contents appeared as if lit from within. A fifth crystal decanter filled with clear liquid, sat on the table in front of me. White wine or water?
      Marcus sat at one end of the table, Luc on his right, Judy on his left. Alec and I sat together at the other end, Jake and Cal on my right, Kari, Sam and Terens opposite me. Each of the men had an empty wine glass in front of him, as well as a small vial the size of a man's thumb, filled with red liquid.
      It must be blood. But why such a minuscule amount?
      There was a quiet solemnity about this gathering that I didn't understand. Most of my Christmas dinners with friends and family had been noisy, jovial affairs, with each person attempting to talk over the other. I glanced at Terens. His gaze was riveted on the glass vial in front of him. The other men seemed just as mesmerised by theirs, staring at the delicate-looking containers hungrily.
      What was in them? Something similar to the ruby pendant-vial that Luc had given me? I leaned over to ask Alec, when Marcus stood.
      'My family,' he began, looking around at each of us, 'this night is special, for we celebrate the homecoming of my granddaughter, Laura.' He looked at me. 'Our first Christmas together since you were a baby. My life is now complete.' He reached for the decanter and filled his, Luc's and Judy's goblet. His men did the same.
      Alec reached for the clear decanter and poured its contents into my glass. 'A precaution,' he whispered.
      I sniffed the glass. Water. In case I was already pregnant? 'You know something I don't?' I whispered back.
      'Not for want of trying.' He smiled and tipped the rest of the water from the decanter into his own wine glass.
      Marcus raised his, 'To the Child of Light and Darkness, daughter of Lucius Antonius Pulcher, my son, and Judith Dantonville. To Laura, last of the Ingenii.'
      Beneath the table, Alec took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
      Everyone rose, turned to me and chanted in unison. 'To Laura, last of the Ingenii.' They downed their glasses.
      Touched by Marcus's welcome, I could appreciate what it meant to him. He was there at the beginning of the curse, and now he was here, at what I hoped was its end. What would his choice be? Life as a vampire—a nightwalker—or a higher form of life throughout eternity? Maybe I was selfish, but I didn't want him to choose. Although I knew how old he was, my grandfather had the appearance of a young man; and young men should not die. He'd suffered enough and deserved his own happy ending.
      'Thank you.' I sipped my water.
      The men remained standing and refilled their glasses as Marcus spoke again. 'According to our tradition, we remember our fallen comrades.'
      Kari rose from her seat, and I did the same.
      'Fallen comrades,' they repeated, and raised their glasses in another toast, and then refilled.
      Terens suddenly uttered, 'Melander.' He leant forward and blew out one of the silver candles before throwing his head back and emptying his glass.
      'Nepos,' Jake puffed out the next one and downed his toast.
      'Appius,' Sam said, and another candle died.
      'Pudens.' Cal followed suit.
      Four silver candles had been snuffed out. The aroma of burnt wax filled the room.
      'Martius,' Marcus said and blew out another one.
      'Galen,' Luc said. Another candle spluttered out and the last toast was drunk.
      Six extinguished candles to represent six dead soldiers. I guessed those on the candelabra that remained represented Marcus and the four living members of the original Roman patrol, as well as Luc, his son. Luc had told me the story of the deaths of two of them in particular. They'd been caught up in the terror when Marcus and his men were transformed by the witch's curse and were killed by their comrades. From the sad expression on Terens's face, he must have been responsible for one of those deaths. Perhaps Melander's, the name he called out.
      We resumed our seats, but Luc remained standing. 'And now, to The Second Cohort of Frisians,' the others rose and stood to attention, 'my customary gift.' He indicated the crimson vials in front of each of his men. 'Tribune Sextus Terentius, Troopers Quintus Sempronius, Caius Justinius and Calixtus. May you enjoy the day and the light of the sun. May the strength of the gods be yours, and the swiftness of their steeds in your feet. May your enemies cower and prostrate themselves before you.' When he finished, Luc gave them a nod.
      The men bowed low to him and Marcus, picked up their vials and drained their precious contents. Yet another ritual, but without the biting. Its ancient formal language embodied romantic images of soldiers in red cloaks riding on white horses into battle.
      'Oh man, I'd forgotten how damned good that is,' Terens remarked as he sat back down.
      'Can we know whose blood we've been given this year?' Jake asked.
      Luc looked at Judith, and she smiled. 'My gift to you. A way to say thank you for looking after our child.' She and Luc linked hands on the tabletop. 'It's First Blood.'
      I was stunned at my parent's generosity. First Blood, I'd been told, is the most potent, filled with energy and power unmatched later in an Ingenii's lifetime. It slowly declines over time, hence the need for a changeover every fifty years.
      Cal, who sat closest to them, took Judy's hand, brought it to his lips and kissed it. 'Thank you, lady. I speak for us all.'
      The other three acknowledged with 'Aye's.'
      'What are you going to do with your three days of sunshine?' Judy asked him.
      He ran his finger around the rim of the wine glass. 'Botanical gardens. A lot of flowers only open in the day. I want to see and smell them.'
      Everyone nodded. There were no chuckles or smirks. It was the last thing I expected to hear from an ancient warrior. Who would've guessed that Cal liked flowers? I found myself waiting to hear what the others would do with their fleeting time in the sunshine.
      'Jake, what about you?' Alec asked.
      'Been thinking about that since this time last year.' He paused. 'I'm gonna take off my shirt and stroll along the beach. Then sit and watch the sunset.' A beaming smile lit his face.
      I looked at Terens. He was lounging back in his chair, rubbing the diamond stud in his ear and staring into space. 'Terens? What are going to do?'
      He glanced at me. 'I had considered skydiving, pet. I've always wanted to see the world in the daylight from that height, but I've had a change of plan.'
      'So you're not going to make a hole in the ground if the 'chute doesn't open?' Sam said.
      'Nope. Going hunting.' Terens poured himself another glass of wine. 'I lost an arm. That bastard. Timur's responsible, and he left his sidekick, Rasputin, behind. He knows where he is.'
      'Why didn't you tell me?' Sam turned in his chair and faced him.
      'Just did.'
      'Well, I'm after that son-of-a-bitch myself. I'm going with you.'
      'Count me in, as well. Luc, bring me one of the vials.' At Marcus's sudden pronouncement the room became deathly quiet.
      'But, you never - ' Luc began.
      'This time it's different. I can't hide in a monastery and let you battle this alone.'
      Terens grinned and slammed the table top with the flat of his hand. The candelabras bounced. 'Like old times!'
      'There goes the beach.' Jake rose and hammered on the table's surface as well.
      Sam did the same and muttered, 'I'll smell the roses next year.'
      The table vibrated with their rhythmic thumping, and the entire room reverberated to the accompanying cry, 'Marc-cus! Mar-cus! Mar-cus!'
      In that moment I was drawn into another world, another era, like a bystander from another time witnessing a scene that had disappeared from the planet, centuries before. Here they were, Roman soldiers saluting their commander—my grandfather.
      The passage of time had become irrelevant.
      A broad smile lit Luc's face as he and Marcus clasped forearms and exchanged words, so low and fast I could only guess what passed between them. Whatever it was, the men thumped the table even harder, the din so loud my ears began to ring.
      Next to me, Alec rose and joined in the salute. I wondered how much the glass table could take till it shattered under their prolonged assault. I glanced at Kari. She was staring open-mouthed at Jake, hero worship evident in her eyes. How long will it take for him to see it?
      Luc spun on his heel and left the room.
      Marcus raised his hand for silence and looked at Alec. 'With your permission, I'd like to resume permanent command of my men.'
      'You have it. Welcome back, Lord Marcus.'
      Marcus bowed his head then motioned for us to be seated. His gaze went straight to me. 'Laura, when Luc first told me about finding Alec, I knew we wouldn't have long to wait for your arrival. But, by Deus, neither he nor I guessed how all this would come about.' He smiled briefly at Judith. 'It all comes full circle, and where it began, it shall end.'
      The curse began in a remote Pictish village in Scotland. That's where I would have to give birth to a child conceived with Alec in order to end it. I had no idea if I was even pregnant and inwardly laughed as my twenty-first century feminist ideas were jettisoned in the face of the ancient juggernaut that had taken over my life.
      Luc returned and handed Marcus the little red vial. Marcus swallowed hard and straightened his shoulders. 'The time has come.' Everyone around the table watched as he removed the stopper, stared at its contents then gulped it down. 'Deus!' His eyes widened. 'I could lift a house off its foundations. My entire body's tingling.'
      'Welcome to my world, Father,' Luc said.
      Marcus placed a hand on Luc's shoulder and squeezed. His gaze went to his men. 'We leave at dawn.' His chin quivered.
      'Been a long time since you've given that command, Marcus Antonius Pulcher,' Terens said, a note of reverence in his voice. 'It's good to hear.'
      'Why did it take you so long?' Luc asked.
      Marcus sat back down, and with a wave of his hand, indicated his men. 'I brought them into this, so I took the brunt of the punishment. I could have acted more nobly and showed clemency in the face of her cruelty that day. But I did not. I showed myself to be no better. She as much as said so, and I've carried the guilt for nearly two-thousand years.'
      'No!' Luc cried. 'The bitch cursed us all; the innocent with the so-called guilty. I'll never accept it as punishment. It was vengeance, Father, and no less. To be condemned for all eternity to live without the light, far outweighed the so-called crime.'
      Marcus continued. 'I've had a long time to think about it. She and I were both wrong. But I believe she relented after her death. Hence the Ingenii.' He glanced at Judy, then at me before returning his attention to Luc. 'You have been privileged to enjoy the sun, Luc, and I am proud of you for sharing it with our men. Any more then once a year, though and who knows how the curse would have reacted.'
      'You talk of it like a living thing,' I said.
      'Laura, these things are like an entity, an extension of the one who uttered it—like a lost spirit who hovers on earth waiting for Judgement Day. It cannot leave till all things are properly fulfilled.'
      The hairs on my arm stood on end.
      Alec squeezed my hand. 'We'll end it, darling, and it'll haunt us no more.' His eyes looked into mine with such assurance, I wanted to believe everything was going to be all right.
      'You could've shared in this once a year,' Jake said. 'It wouldn't've affected the curse. Why didn't you?'
      'I had my reasons.' Marcus waved his hand. 'No longer relevant.' He looked at the wine glass in his hand and drank down whatever was left.
      It occurred to me that they always spoke English. Did they ever use their own language when alone? Would it be Latin? I whispered the question to Alec.
      'Only Marcus, Luc and Terens are from a Roman background,' he answered. 'Cal, Jake and Sam are Frisians—from the Netherlands. Latin isn't their native tongue. In fact, Frisian's the ancestor of modern English.'
      Terens turned toward me, wearing a mischievous smile. 'You should hear Sam speak Latin, pet.' He shook his head in mock disgust. 'Worst thing I've ever heard. At least in French or English I can understand what he's saying.'
      Sam slowly turned his head in Terens's direction as quiet chuckles filled the room.
      'For example,' Terens went on, 'I remember a particular incident when he was stopped by that old, bandy-legged centurion, Nemius - '
      'Not that  old story,' Sam protested.
      Kari sat forward in her chair and asked Jake, 'Have I heard this one?'
      'Probably. Terens loves to repeat it.' Jake's eyes crinkled up at the corners as he sipped on his wine.
      '"Festinabimus taberna!" he said.' Terens mocked Sam's voice. Even Sam cracked a smile.
      Of course, I didn't have a clue what they were on about. I looked at Alec for clarification. 'Sam said he and his companions were hurrying to the tavern, but he used the feminine form of the verb, as if they were women.'
      I could see how that would've been embarrassing to his fellow soldiers.
      'I got a week's latrine duties for getting it wrong,' Sam said.
      'As I recall,' Terens remarked, 'he said you accomplished what no enemy of Rome had done—destroy the Roman language.'
      Marcus and Luc roared with laughter.
      'You'll never let me live that down, will you?'
      'Not in a million years,' Terens answered, leaned forward and slapped Sam on the back.
      'Don't you think it's ironic. Nobody speaks Latin anymore, yet Frisian's everywhere—in modern English? Maybe it's just as well I didn't waste my time learning to speak your language.'
      Cal guffawed, reached for the decanter and poured himself another glass of wine. 'How you gonna counter that one, Terens?'
      'Only one way I know.' Terens stood and flexed his right arm. 'Brand new model.'
      'By all means, test it out.' Sam's chair scraped across the floor as he, too, rose and began flexing his right arm. 'Ready to lose some fingers?' The two faced each other, grinning.
      Kari rolled her eyes. 'Oh no, not this stupid game.'
      Alec leaned toward me and whispered. 'Maybe we should go for a stroll around the deck.'
      'Why,' I asked. 'What are they going to do?'
      'Their version of an arm wrestle.' Alec looked uncomfortable. 'They do it every Christmas.'
      'It's gross, Laura.' Kari grimaced. 'The loser must chop off a finger and hand it over. The one with the biggest collection wins.'
      'You're kidding! At Christmas?'
      'It's the only time they can do it—good way to test the strength of the Ingenii blood. Any lost appendage regenerates in an instant,' Alec said.
      'Sorry, boys, you know I can't stay to watch,' Judy said. 'If anyone wants me I'll be in my room.' She wished us goodnight and kissed Luc and Marcus on the cheek. The men rose and bowed as she left.
      'Think I'll do the same,' I said when I saw Terens move one of the candelabra aside and pull a blade from beneath his trouser leg. 'No way am I going to watch them cut off fingers, even if it is some weird Christmas tradition.'
      'Allez, ma petite, this is not for a lady's eyes.'
      'I agree,' Kari said and skipped to my side of the table. 'Let's join Judy.'
      I still had Alec's Christmas present. This was a good time to slip away and give it to him. 'Meet you there, Kari. There's something I need to do first.' I mouthed the words, 'Present for Alec.'
      She nodded and gave me a knowing smile as she left.
      I turned to Alec. 'I accept your offer of a stroll around the deck.'
      With his arm around my waist, Alec led me from the dining room just as Sam and Terens took up their positions, elbows on the table, hands clasped, steely gazes locked. Two long menacing-looking knives lay in the centre of the table.
      I shuddered and looked away.
      The night air was cool and sweet as we stepped through the doors. I took a deep gulp to rid myself of the warm scent of burnt candle wax, along with the image of disembodied fingers. It brought back the sickening memory of Rasputin's severed hands clawing at the ground.
      Although it was cloudy, the air was still, and every sound was magnified—the hum of the crickets in the bush across the bay, gentle lapping of the waves against the sides of the boat. Several smaller boats were anchored nearby, their lights reflecting off the dark, mirrored waters.
      I reached into the pocket of my taffeta, black and white polka-dot dress, pulled out a tiny parcel and held it out to Alec. 'Merry Christmas.'
      'Laura, I didn't expect—'
      'Ssshhh, open it.'
      While he and Jake had been away at the lab searching for an antidote for white-oak, I'd done some searching of my own. After several hours trawling through the net, I'd found it—the perfect gift—on a Scottish Clans site.
      Alec tore off the wrapping and sucked in a breath when he opened the little box.
      'I hope it fits,' I said.
      A dazzling smile lit his face. 'It will, darling.' He lifted the gold ring from its box and slipped it on. It fitted. A gold eagle perched on top of a strap and buckle—the ancient family crest of the Munro clan—sat comfortably on his left, index finger. He pocketed the box and wrapper, took me in his arms and kissed me with a passion that made my thighs tremble.
      'So, you like it?' I asked after a while.
      Alec chuckled. 'Very much. Where did you find it?'
      'Online. You asked me not to leave the boat.'
      He brought his hand up and gazed at the ring. 'It's perfect. Now it's my turn to ask—how did you know?'
      'I didn't. Only knew you had a set of bagpipes, and since there's no other ring on your finger apart from wee serpent here,' I put on a mock Scottish accent and wriggled my finger, 'I thought to get you one.'
      'Our clan crest.' He chuckled and kissed me again. 'Merry Christmas,' he murmured into my mouth. As we were locked in each other's embrace, faint growls and swearing drifted out from the stateroom. I didn't want to know who was losing a finger.
      I pressed closer to Alec. The drumming of my heartbeat drowned out any other sound.

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