Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Paranormal Romance
The Edinburgh Vampires, Book I
Who could resist his power?
His tongue had toils and dangers to recount...
He knew so well how to use the serpent’s art …
by John Polidori, first published in the April 1819 edition of the
New Monthly Magazine
When an ass climbs a ladder
we may find wisdom in a woman.
It was a dark and dreary night — or, rather, drizzly late afternoon — when a small shabby cart rattled along the rutted, little-used track that led from Morpeth to the coast of the North Sea. The driver was as shabby as his vehicle, the collar of his coat pulled high around his chin to combat the damp.
On the seat beside him perched a wee snippet of a lass. Large gold-flecked brown eyes peered inquisitively through the gold-rimmed spectacles that rested precariously on the bridge of her freckled nose. Frizzy tendrils of orange hair had escaped their tight braid to curl around her vivid little face. If no one would call the lass pretty, she had a fey quality about her. Willie spat over the side of the carriage, and discreetly crossed himself. He wadna hae been surprised to discover her ears were pointed at the tips.
The old road wound through wooded valleys and springy turf fields, past an old stone church and several abandoned cottages, and ended abruptly at the base of a desolate cliff. The young woman pushed her spectacles back up where they belonged, the better to survey the grim battle-scarred tower that stood harshly silhouetted against the gloomy sky, surrounded on three sides by deep water, the fourth approachable only by a steep slope. “Are you certain this is the right place?”
Of course Willie was certain. Wasna he Morpeth born and bred? Corby Castle this was, or what was left of it, after Robert the Bruce pulled three of the great towers down to near ground level, and Oliver Cromwell blasted open the gatehouse with a mortar piece. All that remained intact was the three-story keep, which held the Lord’s Hall and private apartments, not that Willie had seen them himself, nor did he care to, for the place ‘twas said to be haunted, and Willie had nae more desire tae be meetin’ up wi’ gravestane-gentry than wi’ the grey folk.
His passenger allowed that the ruin looked haunted. She said, nonetheless, “I’m going inside.”
Willie gaped at her. “G’wa! Haeno’ I been tellin’ ye aboot the ghaisties?”
“So you have.” She turned to look at him. “You
wait for me?”
Willie scowled. Was it no’ just his luck to be oot in the middle of nae place wi’ a fashious female (not to mention ghaisties and gropies and wirriecows), and the gloaming comin’ on? “If it’s castles ye’re after visitin’, there’s Traquair and Drumlanrig and Sterling. Come away, noo, and I’ll take ye someplace better on anither day.”
Miss Emily Dinwiddie grasped the handle of her umbrella and refrained, barely, from giving her driver a good poke. Those other castles weren’t said to house a creature old enough to remember fabled Sarmizegetuza, once perched atop a crag in the Orastie Mountains in Romania, or the Dacian god Zalmoxis, or the powerful night goddess Bendis, whose cult involved curious orgiastic rites. Emily produced a gold coin, which she brandished in front of the driver’s nose. “You’ll wait.”
He snatched the coin from her. “Aweel.”
Emily stood up, shook out her shirts, snatched up her furled umbrella, and climbed down from the cart. Gingerly, she made her way past the stone nesting-boxes where doves and pigeons had once been bred — pigeons being especially tasty cooked in a pastry pie — to provide a source of fresh meat in winter or during times of siege. Green moss spread like a slippery soggy carpet over the broken stone steps that wound upward to the castle. Emily trod carefully, lest she slip and fall and join the other wraiths wandering the ruins.
At the top of the stair stood a small side entrance, its door long since rotted away. Emily moved down the arched walkway, skirting the murder hole through which castle defenders had once spilled boiling oil, hot sand or sharp rocks through the ceiling onto unwelcome guests. Such light as the dreary day provided filtered down from the winching room on the second floor.
She followed the passage into a courtyard. The battlements on the west side were missing, and holes gaped in the outer wall. Courtesy of Cromwell’s mortars, no doubt. Here would have been the stables and kitchens, guardrooms and vaults. Bake house, brew house, chapel. The deep pit where criminals — and any uninvited visitors who had survived the murder hole — had been thrown and left to rot.
Hopefully, a creature old enough to remember fabled Sarmizegetuza would be more enlightened as regarded uninvited guests. To the left of the gate, the tower Emily had glimpsed from below rose three stories high, its domed roof miraculously intact.
A strange stillness hung over the courtyard. Not even a bird sang.
No good sign, that.
Emily gathered up her courage and strode briskly toward the tower’s ancient door. She lifted the rusted iron knocker, which was formed like a dragon eating its own tail, and let it fall.
There came no response. Emily rapped the ebony handle of her umbrella briskly against the weathered wood. Still no reply. Frustrated, she gave the door a good kick.
With a groan of unoiled hinges, the door swung slowly inward. Half expecting to encounter one of Willie’s ghaisties, Emily stepped across the threshold, umbrella thrust out before her like a broadsword.
The lower floor of the keep was one great empty room, separated from the entry by a wooden screen with a minstrel’s gallery above. The vaulted hall was damp and drafty, bare of furniture save for a couple carved chests. A raised dais stood at the chamber’s upper end. The plaster walls behind it still bore faint red lines, representing large masonry blocks, each decorated with a flower. A hooded fireplace was set into the far wall.
Broken wooden shutters hung drunkenly at the windows, some of which still held cracked cobwebbed panes of greenish glass.
snarled a voice from the shadows, startling Emily almost out of her skin.
She spun around, umbrella at the ready. A small shrunken man hobbled forward to plant himself, arms akimbo, smack in her pathway. Bright beady eyes squinted up at her from a face as wrinkled as a raisin. Strands of dark hair had been combed carefully across his gleaming pate.
Surely this wizened little man was not he whom she sought. “This
the residence of Count Revay-Czobar?”
“ ‘The earthen pot should keep clear of the brass kettle’.” His nose was impressively long for so short a fellow. He gave it a good twitch.
Emily looked down her own nose at him. “That’s as it may be, but I’m not budging one inch until I’ve spoken with the Count. Meanwhile, you may build up the fire.”
The old man regarded her sourly for a moment, then limped toward the doorway, muttering under his breath.
Emily exhaled. Her breath ghosted in the chill air. Timeworn tapestries hung here and there around the chamber: a giant gnawing on the leg of a bear; three archers shooting a duck; a dead woman standing in her shroud while worms gnawed her entrails.
Memento mori: remember that we all must die.
The old man returned, carrying an armload of kindling. In almost the same moment, a huge brownish gray canine padded through the arched opening of the wheel stairway that had been built into one stone wall. Emily snatched up her umbrella and fell back a step. The creature’s triangular ears were alert. His slanted, black-rimmed yellow eyes fixed on her with unnerving intensity. Lupine lips parted to reveal gleaming white teeth.
The old man dropped his kindling into the fireplace. “Drogo, behave yourself.”
Emily moved prudently behind a dusty carved chest. “Drogo looks like a wolf.”
“ ‘A wolf knows a wolf as a thief knows a thief’.” The old man tossed the last twig onto the fire and then limped toward the spiral stone stair. Did he think she’d come to steal the silver? The wolf-dog settled on the hearth, his pale stare still fixed on Emily.
Drogo seemed content to remain where he was for the moment. Emily pulled off her damp wool cloak and draped it over a rusty candle stand. Impatiently, she tucked a tendril of carrot-colored hair back behind her ear. Difficult to look brisk and businesslike when curly tendrils frizzed out about one’s head in all directions, like Medusa and her snakes.
She edged toward a deep-set window. Other than swiveling one pointed ear in her direction, the wolf-dog didn’t move. There was little enough to see outside, save for the darkening sky and the wind-tossed waters of the sea.
Dusk was nigh, that hour when, according to her studies, the exanimate emerged from their graves, not being prone to perambulate about beneath the sun’s lethal rays. Emily touched the chain from which she’d hung a crucifix, the seal of St. Benedict, an evil eye from Greece, a tiger’s eye, a crescent-shaped charm, and a brass finger ring. Lest those precautions prove insufficient, she had also splashed herself liberally with holy water and garlic oil. Would Count Revay-Czobar be a blood-sucking fiend so foul she couldn’t bear to look at him, let alone ask his help? Would he see her as a tasty tidbit, and thereby force her to defend herself?
A reflection appeared behind her in the clouded window glass. The hair on Emily’s neck rose. A chill crawled up her spine. Even her elbows tingled, and in her admittedly limited experience, elbow tingles were almost always a bad thing.
Clutching her umbrella, Emily turned to face the man standing by the fireplace. He was rumpled, tousled, as if recently roused from a well-used bed.
she reminded herself. His shirt was half-unbuttoned. Tight breeches molded to his strong thighs. Emily realized she was staring, and where, and hastily elevated her gaze to his face.
And what a face it was. No mortal sculptor had the talent to chisel such exquisitely formed bones. Eyes the blue of the most precious sapphires, mouth a shamelessly sensual delight. Pale perfect skin and a slanted slash of eyebrows. Thick auburn hair tumbled loose over his shoulders, gleaming in the firelight.
He reached down to rub the wolf-dog’s ears. “You asked to speak with me?”
His voice was smoky, dark, seductive, with the faintest trace of an accent. Emily attempted to collect her scattered wits. “Count Revay-Czobar?”
“Call me Ravensclaw. It’s easier on the tongue.”
If here was no graying skin or deathlike pallor, no stink of putrefying flesh — ‘Ravensclaw’ looked to be no more than five-and-thirty — the Count was definitely preternatural. No mere mortal could be so magnificent. Emily was grateful for her umbrella’s sharpened tip.
The sensuous lips curved. Ravensclaw’s gaze caressed her face, skimmed her forehead, the slope of her cheek; kissed the tip of her nose; lingered on her lips; nuzzled an earlobe.
Emily’s knees trembled. Sweat popped out on her brow. A strange drugging sensation stole over her senses, as if those elegant fingers stroked her flesh instead of Drogo’s thick fur. As if his lips were warm against her ear, whispering of her hunger to be consumed by something greater than herself. She longed to touch him in turn, to slide her hands over the smooth skin hidden beneath his linen shirt, unfasten his snug breeches, and—
And what? She wasn’t certain. Ravensclaw made her feel things she’d never felt before.
feel them. Irritated, Emily said, “Stop that!” She was a sensible, bespectacled spinster, not at all the sort of female this man would have noticed when he was still alive — and if Ravensclaw was this potent now, what had he been
He had moved, somehow, without her noticing, and now stood so close she might have reached out and touched him, had she wanted to touch him, which she did, very much. Emily locked her traitorous knees together and thrust out her crucifix.
Ravensclaw plucked the thing out of her hand. “Excellent workmanship. Solid gold. Byzantine. The sort of thing a Crusader might have worn.”
So much for the literature. The Count hadn’t cringed or blanched or hissed at sight of the holy relic; he’d touched it with no sizzle of burning flesh. Moreover, he was — despite the experts’ assertions to the contrary — standing in what remained of the daylight without any ill effect. Emily found herself fascinated by the length of his eyelashes, which were thicker and darker than her own.
He leaned toward her and sniffed.
“Eau de garlique.
Is this a new fashion of which I’m unaware?”
“Garlic doesn’t disturb you?”
“Quite the contrary. I especially like garlic with chicken, forty cloves and two bay leaves.” Ravensclaw reached out one graceful finger and pushed Emily’s glasses back up to the bridge of her nose.