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vampire series

Dead by Dusk

January 2005
Zebra Books | ISBN 0-8217-7545-6

The rustic oceanfront village of Bella Vista seems like something from an Italian postcard—until young women start disappearing, only to be found horribly mutilated. The police fear a sexual serial killer is at work—something to be hushed up to keep the tourists calm. But the fear in the eyes of the locals says it all: the murders are starting again...

EXCERPT....

Prologue
Legend

Raoul Masson, squire to Conan de Burgh, burst in upon his master where the great Norman warlord sat at his desk, writing letters to his king in Paris.

Startled, Conan de Burgh looked up.

Raoul was in a rare state of anxiety.

They’re coming. The villagers, the people, from miles around. Knights who have taken up their swords and shields again.

This area of fierce Calabrian tribesmen had certainly produced its share of excellent fighting men, and yet, it was difficult at first to understand Raoul’s agitation. Fighting to subdue the populace had often been brutal and cost many lives, but the battles were long done. The townspeople were little able to make war now against the power of the Comte de Burgh’s well horsed, trained, and steel-armed knights. Though de Burgh had reached his position of power through heated battle and tournament, time and time again, he was a man who had come to greatly love peace and the riches of posterity. He was known for the mercy he showed those who were conquered and brought under the Norman yoke. Though de Burgh had reached his position of power through heated battle and tournament, time and time again, he was a man who had come to greatly love peace and the riches of posterity. He was known for the mercy he showed those who were conquered and brought under the Norman yoke. Though his men could easily smash a small rebellion of peasants bearing scythes and hoes, he did not want the slaughter it would cause. Even if a great number of trained soldiers had arisen again, they had been bested before and could be brought down again.

He was puzzled. The chain of command had been running smoothly. In the last year, he had proven to the people that they could live well beneath his rule. To many peasants it mattered little where the man had come from who called himself lord, just that he refrained from slicing their necks, raping their wives, and stealing their entire produce.

Conan frowned, rising, reaching for the heavy battle sword the never left his side.

“What is their grief?” he asked Raoul.

Raoul, a strapping young man, looked ill. “The slaughter, my lord. Sweet Jesu! The slaughter. I saw…I saw myself. They were strewn…in pieces…across the field. They say that it was the Lady Valeria, so they were told, and there have been the whispers…you must see yourself, you must see! The people…they are not rising against you. They are demanding that you act. You have refused to see the evil in Valeria and François, my lord, but now the people are rising against you. François intends conquest even here, and she is with him.

Conan felt ill. His heart sank.

Valeria.

He had come here, the great conqueror, proven, confident, and self-assured, but then found himself at a loss, shaken by his deep desire for the incredible daughter of the Italian magnate Paolo Ratini. Quick to see the power of the great waves of Normans, Paolo had astutely joined forces with the conquerors.

The first time Conan had ridden to the Palacio Ratini, Valeria had stood out upon the balcony, and he had seen her, ebony hair bared to the sun, eyes huge and deep blue, face sculpted like the finest porcelain. She had smiled, evidently fascinated by the sight of him–or his great party.

He hadn’t known or cared.

The great passion of his life had been born. She was well bred, naturally, the daughter of such a man as Paolo. He had intended marriage from the moment he saw her, and it would have been right, natural, just like the nearly excruciating hunger that had grown between them. A vital man of tremendous strength, bred himself to conquest, power, courage, and the endless battle such life required, he’d known innumerable women throughout his life, from the basest whores to the most refined nobility, and yet, he had never known anyone like Valeria. She had been widowed during one of the first battle between native lords and encroaching Normans, and was experienced, fully mature and beautiful in her form, the mother of a young daughter. Intimacy with her was as raw as the rugged cliffs and verdant earth of Calabria. It was something more as well, almost ethereal, a touch of heaven, thoughts that a man such as himself shared with no one, including the woman who so enthralled him. He had planned on marriage, a life of such never-ending fever and bliss.

But destiny had other plans for the lady in the form of François de Venue, an illegitimate cousin of the king in Paris. Thus far, Conan’s great strength, and his natural ability to lead and draw others to him with absolute loyalty, had preserved his presence here, and he assumed that François would not dare to challenge him. But the bastard royal, François, had arrived upon the scene with a brutal and unnecessary violence. Those areas still in minor rebellion fell beneath his onslaught. Men who still might have ridden proudly beneath a Norman banner had been slaughtered. Somehow, François and his men had triumphed over larger forces, leaving battlefields with few of their own lost, while the enemy lay decimated.

The first conquest François had made upon his arrival had been that of Valeria, as well as her father’s holdings. Conan was stunned by the betrayal. Had Paolo turned his daughter over to François in pursuit of what he perceived as a greater power? Or had the man been threatened to such an extent that he’d felt he’d had no choice? The one tryst Conan had managed with Valeria after the arrival of his French counterpart had been deeply wrenching; he had been willing to fight any man for Valeria, including his own king. But while the beauty clung to him, in tears, holding tight as if she might forever memorize their time together, she denied him. She didn’t want him to fight for her. He would never understand, but she was betrothed to François because she had to be, and any effort Conan made on her behalf would cause her nothing but harm. And so he had stepped aside. He had kept his fury leashed, watching François ravage the countryside, killing again and again. He had been stunned to hear that Valeria had often appeared on the battlefield at the side of her betrothed, and it was rumored that it was she who brought about such death and destruction. He had never thought, however, that an entire populace could believe the woman capable of such horror. And yet…

He heard again and again that indeed, it was she, Valeria, who brought about the anguish and bloodshed. The people had spoken of her as if she were a witch, a monster, the devil’s own bride cloaked in beauty. As of late, he had even begun to fear for her.

“My lord, they will be upon us any minute,” Raoul reminded him, urgency growing in his voice.

Conan strode for the door in the office of the magnificent fortress, built right into one of the cliffs and almost impregnable. A fine hallway with Roman marble columns brought him to the sweeping stairway; he descended to the great hall, where his knights were assembling. Well trained and attuned to his every move, men rushed forward with his armor, buckling chain and plate into place and proper position. Hagar, his massive black war stallion, was brought to the entry, and he strode at the head of his men, readying to meet the hordes.

And they were coming. Just as Raoul had said. It was night, but then, he had heard that much slaughter had taken place at night, and de Venue and his company had often fallen upon the innocent during the very late hours, before the dawn. They rode with monsters, he had been told, great dogs that tore into the flesh of men and babes alike.

Now, torches burning in a sea so great it might have been day, the people were coming. Some were soldiers, some peasants, others were women and children.

Conan mounted Hagar at the head of his men; he motioned that the gate down the slope be opened, he rode out from the walls with his most trusted knights at his side, his men-at-arms following in rank. Before the great field at the foot of the cliff, his fellows flanked him in a line; then he rode forward alone.

“Halt! Tell me, what is it that you seek from me?” be bellowed loudly to the crowd, his voice deep and rich with confidence and authority he never failed to wield.
A fellow burst forth from the crowd, a man he knew; a fine Calabrian warrior who had lain down his arms and accepted a truce. He was Giovanni da Silva, young and intelligent, a man of God and of faith, and yet tonight, his eyes were as wild as those of a madman.

“Lord Conan!” he called. “We have accepted your rule–the peasants beneath you saw a kinder man that they had served before. But tonight, if you do not lead us against the devil horde of François de Venue, we will die to a man–indeed, the woman and children among us as well!–if you do not take arms against the unholy butchery of your countrymen. Against him, the witch who commands the wind and fog, and the demon dogs that come before them. Lord Conan, you alone have the power to fight such unearthly demons, and you alone, blessed sire, must rid us of the monster queen who would slay us all.”

“Good fellows, knights and peasants among you, surely you cannot believe that the woman is such a monster!” he called back.

“Make way!” da Silva called, and a woman, young and slender, work-worn at a tender age, burst through with the bloody, battered body of a young lad in her arms.

“She did this!” the woman cried brokenly to him. “I saw her. Saw her stand upon the hill, and the demon dogs rushed around her, and laid claim to our village. I saw her! Saw her lift her hand, saw the light of hell in her eyes. If you do not stop her, slay her, she will tear down everything. By gracious God, dear Lord Conan!” She fell to the earth, her tears mingling with the blood of her son. “You must help us!”

From the southeast, a bloodcurdling how suddenly encompassed the night. The earth itself seemed to tremble Conan was not a man who feared battle, pain, or even death. Yet at the sound of that howling, he felt as if his blood grew cold and congealed in his veins. Fear trickled in icy rivulets along his spine. Angrily, he ignored it, ignored the unholy unease that seemed to filter into his very being.

Wolves. Wolves crying to the moon by night, nothing more. Or wild dogs, perhaps, their one-time owners dead and decaying upon shorn fields where battle had taken place, now left to starve and rampage on their own.

“Wolves, or wild dogs,” he said aloud.

“No! You don’t understand, you’ve yet to see…you won’t believe. You must come, now. You must lead us. They attack yet another village!” da Silva told him. “Lord Conan! For the love of God!”

He nodded. Best that he lead the forces against François and Valeria, who was surely forced to ride at his side, who must now have witnessed such horror that she stared upon it, her eyes glazed with dismay. If her were to conquer François, he would make himself an enemy of his own king. And yet he had earned his place here; the king would have to make war on him, and he doubted that, far away in Paris, the king could afford the man and arms he would need to roust Conan from his powerful hold. That mattered little. Seeing the horde before him, the tears, the blood, the strange majesty of the thousands of torches burning in the night, he knew there was no choice.

“Aye, then, we ride against François,” he said.

“Wait!”

From the crowd, a cleric rushed forward. It was customary to pray before entering upon the field of battle and death. Yet this fire-eyed priest would demand that he dismount and kneel, were he not to do so of his own volition, and so he did. The priest burst into a spate of Latin so rushed that Conan could not follow, though he, like others of his status, was taught the language as a child. And when the words were done, the priest stepped forward, placing a huge silver cross around his neck. Even as he mounted, he felt himself doused with drops of holy water as the priest intoned more words he could not discern.

Mounted again, he lifted his hands, and his knights and men fell in beside him, the hordes of people behind them, Normans and natives of the Italian peninsula as well.

They rode.

The moon high above them, a strange, cold wind whipping at their mantles.

They approached Trincia, the village under attack. As they rode, the wind whipped higher, for there was a fog upon the ground, and the wind did not disperse it. They could hear screams and cries, and the unearthly howling of dogs. Riding into the mire at last, they saw the troops of François de Venue emerging through the fog, making a line before them.

François led.

Valeria was at his side.

Dark hair billowing down her shoulders, violet eyes dazed and yet he thought that the strange glow came from tears. He had loved her so.

“Get from here, Conan!” François shouted angrily. “I have let you live–go, and be grateful.”

“Eventually, you will come for me,” Conan said. “But that matters not. You’ve become a warrior against life itself, against God and man, and I will stop you!”

The dark, handsome face of François de Venue darkened into a scowl of fury. Then he smiled. “Never,” he said, “Tonight, Conan, is as good as any night for you to die.”

“We shall meet in hell then, François. If need be, we shall meet in hell, “ Conan told him.

“Valeria!” François roared suddenly.

She didn’t move, but stared at Conan.

“Remember the child!” François said sharply to Valeria. And he leaned toward her, whispering.

The wind began to whip anew in an eerie, dark swirl of fog and night. The baying began.

And the demon dogs came rushing through the throngs of horsemen that flanked François and his troops. And Valeria.

Conan drew his sword. “For God and man!” he roared.

The first animal leapt upon him and Hagar. The great war horse staggered. The animal was a dog, and not a dog. It was huge in size, but not a wolf. Its teeth were more those of a great cat, a tiger in the night, than those of a canine. Its shoulder muscles were huge, and its massive paws held cat claws. The sight of the beast, bringing down both Hagar and himself, was so startling that Conan almost missed his instinctive reaction. But he brought his sword forth in powerful fury, and severed the animal’s head from its shoulders before teeth could tear into flesh.

All around him, he heard the screams of his men as they met the beasts. Slashed, cut, and stabbed, they rose again to attack men and horses. Unseated, Conan fought in a desperate fever himself, fighting in front and behind, striking fur and flesh and bone, only to have the creatures rise again. With a great blow, he severed the head of another creature and realized that death came to the demon dogs only then.

“The heads. Sever the heads!” he roared.

And slowly, slowly, with screams of death and despair rising around him all the while, the demon dogs were brought low, and then they were left to battle the men who fell in line behind them.

Despite the wind, the dark swirl of eerie fog, the forces of Conan de Burgh began to push back the enemy.

François himself was upon him then, in a rage of energy, his sword swinging with such fever and strength that Conan was incredulous, battling desperately for his life. He had never encountered such power in a man. His men, engaged around him, could do nothing, and he feared that his great efforts would fail, for should he fall, his men would retreat, and the forces of his enemy would follow, and all would be slaughtered in this bloodbath.

He deflected a mighty blow from François, who was in such a berserk wrath that foam gushed through his thin lips. Down upon the ground, he feared the brutal weight and strength of his enemy would finish him at last. Yet as François lifted his arm to deliver the coup de gr?ce, Conan managed to lift his sword, and the tip of his weapon struck straight into the base of the man’s throat, where no helmet or mail protected him. He caught hold of a vein, and the man wavered. Calling upon his last resources, Conan forced the sword deeper, finding his feet against the weight of his own chain and mail, and with a maddened pressure delivered by God or desperation, he pressed the sword with an ever greater fervor. Like the demon dogs, he knew somehow that François would perish if his head were severed.

And so it was. His enemy fell to his knees, gurgling through the blood that spurted from his throat. Conan strained harder, and François was forced down on his back and still his eyes were alive with fury and hatred, and some strange glint of knowing.

“Valeria! Valeria! Valeria!”

The chant had gone up from hose around them, as great as the field of torches and lights that had filled the field of battle.

“They have her!” Conan heard, and saw that Raoul had never faltered, had fought at his side all along, while others had rushed forward.

François de Venue remainded on the ground, fingers around his throat, choking on his blood.

“His head. Sever his head!” Conan commanded. He was already moving. He had to reach Valeria. They meant to kill her.

They had fought at the village in the valley at the base of great cliffs. And as he looked up now, he saw that the men had taken Valeria, that she was laden down with silver chains, and a large silver cross swung between the valley of her breasts. Giovanni da Silva had her high up on the tor of a cliff. She was being forced to her knees. Da Silva was ready to deliver an executioner’s blow upon her neck.

“No!” Conan roared the word, casting off his helmet as he raced the distance to the cliffs, threw himself upon the rock, and began to climb.

“By God, she must die!” da Silva called back.

By some insane mercy, Conan reached the cliff and the outcrop of rock where Valeria had been taken. The little plateau might have been a strange, sacrificial altar, the way it protruded high above the ground and jutted out over the battlefield.

Da Silva drew his sword high, and Conan crawled atop the rock and found his footing just in time. He grasped the man’s arm, with Valeria at his knees, and there they locked in a magnificent struggle.

Conan glanced down. And he saw her eyes.

And for a second, he was frozen in the midst of his very struggle.

“Conan de Burgh!” came a roar, and he was distracted to the edge of the tor, where he saw that François de Venue, incredibly, had crawled as well, his life’s blood still streaming down his throat. By all rights of nature, the man should have been dead!

Da Silva screamed out, crying to God, and to the heavens, and to all that was holy.

A great sound suddenly filled the night, a rumbling of the earth, a schism in time and place and being, in the very world.

A cracking…fracturing…

And suddenly, the tor upon which they stood began to shake, and all were thrown to the earth. The rumbling continued until…

Strewn upon the ground, helpless against the explosion of the earth, Conan heard a whisper. “My love…!”

She crawled to him, violet eyes huge. Stunned, he felt the shattering of ground.

And one more thing.

Her tears upon his face.

Her lips…against his flesh.

The earth, the rock, the very ground upon which they stood began to break and crumble. It seemed that there was another howl in the night?the horrible, dying shriek of a demon dog.

And then the earth exploded, and the cliffs themselves tore apart and fell…

François, covered in blood and still at the edge of the precipice, toppled first. Down…down to the earth below them. Then the rock shattered like glass, nd all who had stood upon it came crashing down to earth.

People, shrubs, creatures, rocks and trees…all crumbled and fell. And as dust and earth and bits and pieces of rock came tumbling after, the dawn came.

Streaked with gold, yet heavily laden with the crimson of spilled blood.

And beneath great piles, tons of rock, lay the bodies of those who had struggled.

The godly and determined Giovanni da Silva.

The beautiful Valeria.

And the great and powerful Conan de Burgh.

His men wept openly.

Had he only let da Silva behead the witch Valeria, as was right, he would have survived to enjoy the bounty of goodness and life left to those he had led.

But now…

Alas. He had loved the evil beauty far too deeply.

Yet she was his again.

For beneath the rock, they were entombed together forever.

Or, at the very least, centuries to come.

© 2005 Shannon Drake


 

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