Authors: Susan G. Charles
Tags: #Vampires, #paranormal vampire romance, #Paranormal, #immortal, #Norway, #vampire books, #Brides, #vampire, #battles, #Romance, #Supernatural, #War, #conflict, #warrior, #Medieval, #New Adult Romance, #vampire romance, #Coming of Age, #Royalty, #bride, #Historical, #castle
Count August was well known as a warrior, never shying from a fight if necessary, but he was also a fair businessman and leader. In fact, his dealing with the citizens of his lands was almost legendary – plus he always ensured that the tithes of the overlords in the lands around their village were paid, and that not one citizen suffered undue taxation. In fact, if she really thought long and hard about it, Catherine could remember several instances of Cornelius personally paying taxes to help out the needy. A close friend of her own family was one example she knew of directly, Widow Darja. She knew for a fact that Count August paid Widow Darja’s taxes out of his own pocket for three consecutive years after her philandering husband met with an untimely end.
But most importantly in the recorded history of his rule, and in Catherine’s own memory, Dalmar had never suffered the invasion or plundering of any other overlord, military body, vampire or supernatural being. He proved to be the perfect protector for their town. But the other principalities in their region were not so fortunate in their peace or happiness. It wasn’t even a year earlier that their neighbors to the south, Sylvan, had lost well over one hundred people to a blood feast of a band of roaming young noble vampires.
And a year and a half before that, their largest northern neighbor, Valfrid, was caught between two warring tribes of werewolves. The presiding lord of Valfrid, a despicable man who cared for no one except himself, watched over the destruction of all the lives in his care. Before it was over the entire village turned to ash – by the end of the dispute everyone in the town was dead or missing. The werewolves concluded their conflict, moved on to their next battlefield and the lord of Valfrid was left with nothing but heaps of corpses and a pile of ash where a town once stood.
Tale of the Century Bride Book One: Chapter 4
Hearing of such tragedies, such as the fates of Valfrid or Sylvan wasn’t uncommon for the peoples of this area, but it had been many, many years since one had actually happened in Dalmar. In exchange for a life free of conflict, war and strife, anyone could easily argue from afar that the price Count August required was very small. However, if you really thought about it, you would see that the homes of Dalmar were not completely free of destruction; they only experienced it in a different form – perhaps a far more tame form, but one family did experience the harsh reality nonetheless.
It was by just such an arrangement as this that one family was broken apart every few generations. The century bride tribute became a cultural identifier for the Dalmarn people, though all the neighboring villages were aware of this phenomenon. At the weeks end of the tribute festival, the final activity, the main event as it were, consisted of seven unmarried women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, all gathered in the town square to await the choice of Count August. If a woman of qualifying age was indeed lucky, she never even qualified for the final seven in the tribute celebration. But even then, every woman in the village was sure to know at least one of the candidates who made the final seven.
In addition to their best dresses, each of the seven women were also required to wear an amulet emblazoned with a symbol of her choosing as her identifier to the Count. The symbol on the charms face was meant to represent her character, temperament and overall personality. When the time finally comes and Count August actually arrives for the selection ceremony, many things such as appearance and sexual appeal had some pull however most felt it was his interpretation of the ladies’ amulets that held more weight in his determining which woman to choose for his own.
As it turns out the amulets were Count August’s only way of formally identifying the women; he knew not their names ahead of time, nor did he seem particularly interested in learning them before or during the ceremony. Instead, the tribute winner would be informed by the declaration of nothing more than her amulet’s symbol. This final custom was simple, short and elegant. And at that very moment, she would say her goodbyes to family and friends before being whisked off to Dalmar castle. After that time the villagers would never see the girl again. Her fate from that day forward was unknown, save a small headstone in her honor erected in her families graveyard plot, as well as a plaque fastened to the elders home in the town square.
No one in the area actually knew what happened to the century bride after the tribute observance was complete. Rumors and discussions came and went, but no one in Dalmar actually really knew what happened to the new bride chosen by Count August. Growing up, Catherine often wondered about that too. She never understood how this tribute was of any benefit to the lord. It was a fact that he would always outlive every bride he chose. In fact, he’d be lucky if she even lasted until the next was chosen but that had never happened as far as Catherine knew.
Moreover, Dalmarn families couldn’t be anything but distraught to lose their beloved daughters if theirs was the one chosen, never to see or hear from them again. “What a strange feeling it must be to have a loved one there with you one day, then gone the next”, she thought to herself.
Of course, she acknowledged, the Count protected them fiercely and held dominion over their lands, but what precedent ordained the sacrifices? Or was this merely a price demanded of them by a madman? Catherine’s questions and objections on the tribute bride subject were endless. She had been wondering about this for most of her life. She had just turned 23 a few months back so it already felt a lifetime to her that she had been wondering about every fact concerning the festival.
Just a few years back, about four or five actually, she had started to gather support not only from the younger members of the principality, but a few of the elders as well in her underground battle against the entire festival and the custom of the tribute bride. Eventually she stopped convening meetings in the dead of night and publicly made it known how she felt about these centennial tribute sacrifices. Over time many others joined in to champion her cause, discussing strategies for how they might bring forth the change they sought.
Finally after much deliberation, it seemed the principality might actually reject the tradition and petition Count August to accept a different offering. Many of the elders, however, vehemently opposed changing the tradition. Then the tragedies in Valfrid and Sylvan happened. People were slaughtered, villages destroyed, and the people of Dalmar suddenly realized just how lucky it was to have a lord and protector as kind and protective as Cornelius was watching over them. Support for Catherine wavered as fast the leaves on autumn trees. While Catherine continued to reject the offering, most others accepted that one woman’s sacrifice was well worth the protection of their entire town.
Tale of the Century Bride Book One: Chapter 5
When the royal officer of Dalmar opened up the volunteer list six months prior to the official selection ceremony, Catherine had stomped out of the village in a huff, disgusted at the entire process and the thought of the festival proceeding on as though nothing would happen to at least one girl. Grabbing her crossbow and a quiver full of bolts before she left her house, she sought refuge in the forest just outside of town, in a series of hills and valleys that she knew like the back of her hand. She figured that so long as she remained far away from the village, that the chances of other girls stepping up and volunteering to fill the quota of seven were more an actuality.
No one was allowed to petition the ceremony. In the event that no one volunteered to become the Counts wife, or not enough women signed up as a tribute, then the royal officer would use his discretion in observation of the most attractive single women the village had to offer that fit into the strict requirements. The quota of seven would be filled one way or another, she knew that as sure as she knew her own name. And if the girls on the list refused to leave their homes on the day of the selection for any reason, then the royal officer was permitted, upon report to Count August, to infiltrate the homes of the selected tribute bride candidates, forcing them out into the town square against their will. And even if that failed, Count August would simply make a home visitation, observing each girl in her home before making his choice.
As far as Catherine was concerned, the only way to escape the selection process was to remove herself from the entire pool of candidates. So she justified the outing this day by needing to hunt and possibly even gather medicinal herbs for her mother’s apothecary. It was not uncommon for her to make these hunting trips since her father was no longer alive. On more than one occasion she would leave home and be gone for several hours or most of the day. But she knew that if she spent much more time that her mother might worry.
On this particular excursion she spent a historic two days by herself out in the forested wilderness. The first day passed uneventfully. She knew how to survive off the vegetation and find water and shelter, and her crossbow was for more than show; she could kill a number of animals if hunger took a grip on her. But as it turned out, she spent most of the day simply walking, moving in no particular direction and just enjoying the scenery. So long as she had maintained enough time away from the village, where she ended her voyage mattered not to her. And before the sun fell below the horizon, she managed to find a clearing where she established a resting place with branches and leaves.
When the second day came, she continued her voyage through the forest. As expected, hunger took its toll on her long before the day finished and she turned her talents to finding a suitable meal – and maybe even enough to take back to her family if all went well. With a smart eye and dose of luck, Catherine just happened upon an elderly female wild hog around mid-day. After hours of tracking the hog, waiting for the most opportune moment to make her move, she tracked it to an overhang near the border of Dalmar. The sun was beginning to drop low in the sky and she guessed to herself that it must be around supper time back home. Should fortune favor her, the hog just might walk close enough to the edge for her to trick it off the side of the gorge. That would definitely make a normally hard to hunt kill exponentially easier for her.
Just as she was about to make her final move, Catherine was startled from her hunt by the sound of a number of unfamiliar male voices echoing upwards from the ravine below. She slowly lowered herself to the ground and froze in her tracks, listening for more.
“Surely you can’t be suggesting we attempt to take Dalmar, Santu. No one has ever bested Cornelius in the entirety of his rule for over nine centuries!” A man’s deep voice floated to Catherine’s ears.
Quickly, she flattened herself against the ground, and then crawled over to the edge of the overhang to see if she could actually see the speaker. She looked all about, trying to be as quiet as possible while at the same time finding the sources of the voices in the fading sunlight. Finally, farther down in the gorge, she spotted them – a group of seven armored figures sat on the other side of the river that marked Dalmar’s southern border about 200 yards from her current hiding place. The remaining three stood off to the side of the group; those were her speakers. A second man immediately answered the protest of the first.
“That is exactly what I am suggesting. August Cornelius is but one man,” said the man named Mattis. He was a tall figure with long dark hair and dark eyes but that was about all Catherine could make out from her view point.
“And one old man at that,” Mattis continued. He may be a competent warrior, but time has surely taken its toll on him. So many years of being trapped in that castle without training his body, it can not help his strength or stamina. My father tells me he doesn’t even feed anymore. And not even one heir of blood or womb to aid him. We will over power him and take Dalmar for ourselves. The lands here are rich and fertile, and the people simple and weak. It will not be a problem for us at all.”
The third standing man, with long, yet lighter hair, braided at the bottom, offered his input next. “Come, Mattis. You know that your father sent us here only to claim brides and nothing more. I myself, Barius of Hedeby, have always wondered why should Cornelius have exclusive rights to these women? He makes no important use of the women here. So far, he has only taken ten brides, and to my knowledge not a single one has stayed with him long enough to give him a heir.”
“Except one,” the one named Mattis quickly interjected.
“Yes,” Santu agreed, as he rubbed his full beard. “The one your father managed to make did die in childbirth – that is true. But you know the laws of the overlords. And if Cornelius has not engendered an heir after all this time, well, he simply does not deserve his lordship. Do you all agree? So why not kill two birds with one stone? It is high time someone relieved him of his rule and lands.”
“Enough of this idle chatter.” A fourth figure named Alrik interrupted, emerging from the seated group of men. His hair was shorn close to his scalp and looked as though he might have done it himself.
“The night is still young,” Alrik stated, “and the time for action is now. If we move quickly enough we can have the entirety of Dalmar under our control by dawn. And while we are at it we will make certain that Cornelius has no bride to choose from or no land to rule as well.”
After that statement the rest of the vampires began to speak excitedly among themselves and all at the same time about their next sequence of actions needed to carry out such a raid – each one trying to talk louder than the other – all except Mattis. Still frozen in her hiding spot, Catherine couldn’t believe what she had just heard! If these violent vampires were truly going to attack her village, then there was nothing she could do to protect them; there was nothing anyone could do.
She continued to lay there, her body pressed tight against the moist soil, envisioning the feasting that had previously decimated Sylvan’s population. That very same fate, soon, would befall her own precious town of Dalmar. Her mind was still reeling as she began to slowly and quietly back up from the lip of the gorge and away from the group gathered below.