Helen is the beautiful elder daughter of the Duke of Engelton. The duke's title is really just an echo back to ancient days of glory, when their clan was the fiercest of the local tribes. Her father, like his title, is a shrunken shadow of his former self; half the man he was before his wife's passing years ago. Following her death, the duke has taken to keeping odd hours, active only at night and in the early hours of the day.
It seems that lately everyone in her family has developed their own eccentricities. Her little sister, Ruth, has been exhibiting wild mood swings and a tendency toward dark, vicious humor. How can Helen judge them? She has taken a young vampire as a lover.
Their relationship seems the one positive thing in her dreary life, until she awakens one morning to find her bed empty and the castle awash in screams and blood. She arrives at the source of the disturbance just in time to see a hooded figure leap from the chaos, pursued by her father's men. Hissing at the sun, he casts one regretful look back across the room before escaping through a window.
Despite his concealing clothing, Helen recognizes Peter immediately. Her eyes follow his parting gaze and lock with those of her sister. Why would her peaceful lover have suddenly wrought such destruction? And how could Ruth possibly be involved?
She will have answers.
Helen shuddered as the white clad altar boys passed her carrying the holy cross. Their faces were lit by a pious passion but she found their soft, cherubic features revolting. Her father did not move, but she could feel the force of his attention shift upon her. She made a show of pulling tight the lace collar of her church gown.
"This old chapel is far too drafty in daylight," she considered the flame of a
guttering candle in a nearby wall sconce before raising her eyes above the stained glass images of saints, etched in vivid reds and whites, to regard the lofty ceiling. "I don't know why we must make matters worse by always attending midnight mass."
"Hush, child," growled the duke. "Count it a blessing that you have walls and warmth on this winter's night. A slight chill is not so much to endure."
Helen reddened, feeling ashamed, but at least her father had been appeased by the opportunity to lecture and paid her no more mind; his gaze leaving her like a heavy shawl slipping off of her shoulders. In truth, the discomfort she felt at services had been growing stronger with each passing week. Initially, it had been quite mild but it had long since grown too strong for her to ignore or rationalize away. She feared she would not be able to endure attending mass much longer if her queasiness continued to intensify at this rate.
Her sister Ruth, seated beside her, knocked a knee against her own.
"Be thankful for this cold," she whispered, giggling. "And the blessed cough and holy snot that it shall bring!"
Though she appreciated the sentiment, Helen scowled at the girl's vulgar tone. Helen was only a few years Ruth's senior, but her sister always struck her as severely lacking in maturity. When would the girl grow up? Even her body seemed oddly nymph-like; where Helen was tall and well-figured, her sister was small and bony despite being well past puberty. Sometimes, she thought they shared nothing beyond common parents.
Ruth's whisper had not been quiet enough and the duke struck her sharply in the back of the head with a black-gloved hand. Their father had never been above beating his children in church if it was necessary to teach them discipline.
Helen's sister surprised her again by smiling ruefully despite the blow. Typically, she would have whimpered and straightened into a cowed silence. Instead, the rebellious gleam in her eye made her look almost like some demented stranger. Helen wondered briefly if Ruth actually were the one actually suffering from a fever.
Helen followed through the motions of the mass like a sleepwalker, her mouth voicing prayers that touched neither her consciousness nor her soul. She marveled that she had once been a member of the devout. The memory of that younger self seemed almost alien to her now, but it had not been so long ago.
What would her mother think to see her now? It would crush her heart. But then, a stumbling horse had done a fine job of that years past, without a care for the duchess' piety or sense of propriety, so why should her dead feelings hold any more sway than Helen's living ones?
Behind the altar, the priest completed his lengthy homily about the importance of devotion to one's Lord. Since her recent loss of faith, Helen had begun to look at the preacher's messages in an entirely different light. For example, she had noticed that when the duke was in attendance, the readings tended to emphasize the importance of serving one's master and obeying without question, as opposed to the usual patter about the poor and the humble inheriting the earth.
Helen zoned out again, returning to her fugue state, until one line of prayer penetrated the haze of her thoughts.
"Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo"
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, she thought, and knew at that moment that she was already lost. For she desired not to be led from temptation, but only to succumb to it completely once more.
She had embraced the Devil, and her soul would not be saved.
Helen felt herself flushing suddenly, the memory of another's warmth momentarily erasing the chill from the drafty chapel. Unconsciously, she rubbed her legs against each other and the feel of the smooth, cool silk over her skin reminded her of another night when clothes such as these had been slipped so slowly away.
She turned her head from the altar, some vestige of the good Catholic girl within her still ashamed of these thoughts, only to have Ruth catch her eye. The girl raised an eyebrow, almost lewdly, and Helen would have almost thought there was something knowing in that smirk.
She was left feeling embarrassed, as if Ruth had caught her in the act itself.
Finally, the mass was ended and they royal family afforded a chance to egress from their private section at the front of the chapel. Their father would be caught before he could reach his chambers. Given the duke's habitually odd hours, many a deal had been struck during meetings long after midnight following his preferred time of prayer.
Being young, and of the feminine persuasion besides, his daughters were under no such restraints. The duke's footmen would see them swiftly back to their beds.
"You'd best return to your rooms at once," said Ruth, the mocking in her tone of concern only audible to Helen due to their sibling's familiarity. "In your state, it seems you are quite in need of your bed!"
Helen flushed again, how much did her sister know? Were there things had she seen? Ruth had always been a vile little rodent, creeping around where she was not wanted!
Hopefully, Ruth thought she had caught Helen in some romance book tryst. The fact that she did not appear to have told anyone else was promising. Helen would have to arrange a meeting where she could speak with her more openly and ensure that Ruth would keep matters secret. They were sisters, and if the situation required it, Ruth had her own skeletons that Helen could threaten to expose.
Regardless, her sister's taunting unnerved her. Was Helen's arousal so clear that everyone could see it? Looking around, no one else seemed to have taken Ruth's words at anything but face value. Indeed, her servants appeared quite sincerely concerned about hastening her out of the chill.
Helen thanked her sister for her concern, careful to show no emotion. Something about the girl was changing, and it bared investigating. A good long sisterly talk was definitely a necessity.
But as she mounted the stair leading to her quarters, her thoughts rushed toward what awaited her there, and any concerns about Ruth were quickly forgotten.
* * *
Helen's chambers were atop the castle's southwest tower, but her family's hold was modest and the climb only enough to get her blood flowing. Though the cracked walls and chipped stone steps had absorbed the evening's cold, she felt stronger with each step away from the chapel, and the chill could no longer penetrate her.
The Engelmann's had ruled the lands surrounding this small keep for centuries, sometimes serving one greater lord and sometimes another, but the duchy's glory days were clearly in the past. As Helen ascended the tower's stairs, she saw flashes of the small, sleepy village huddled about the castle's walls, filled mainly with turnip farmers and goat herders. It bridged a slow-moving river that had once been of strategic importance, back when war was fought at the local level between rough bands of men fighting to be king of this hill or that.
In this new world, where wars were fought at a distance and the prize harvest of the country's youth sent off by ship to die alone on foreign shores, the duchy had little to offer in and of itself. The goods they could generate were plentiful and cheap, all over the country, and there was no great industry or culture for her people to look to with pride.
Helen had dreams of turning Engelton into more than a one-horse town, but she was honest enough with herself to realize that these were likely pure fancy. Real change had to start at the bottom and work its way up, but even if she brought in the country's best teachers, what farmer would allow their children to lounge about in the classroom when he should be digging up the fields?
She turned the final curve of stair to her door and found it open. Her two handmaids, Sarah and Andrea, awaited her, blinking sleepily out of reddened eyes. She sent away the footmen and had her maids begin undressing her. The girls had stoked her hearth to a baking heat to combat the weather, and sweat glistened on her naked skin as she had them change her into her sheer white satin nightclothes.
"How can you be sweating in this frigid weather?" demanded Andrea. The handmaiden was a foot taller than Helen and at least two feet broader at the shoulders. Her lineage had clearly done some mingling with the local peasant stock.
"Are you ill again?" asked Sarah, a pretty little dark-haired girl with swarthy skin and freckles. The ongoing changes in Helen's health and behavior had not gone unnoticed, most of all by her ever-present friends and maids. "Should we call for the physician?"
Helen tied tight the scarlet sash on her robe and shooed them away.
"It is nothing but the exertion from mounting the stairs combined with the sudden heat of the fire," she assured them. "Once I lie down in my cool bed I will be as right as rain."
Sarah bowed meekly and drew back her covers.
"Are you certain, my lady?" asked Andrea.
Helen slid beneath her sheets and staged a mighty yawn.
"Yes! Now leave me be. Don't think I don't see your own bleary-eyed gazes. You both nodded off while you were awaiting me, didn't you?"
They looked down guiltily.
"It is no matter," she assured them. "Off to bed with you. I wish my privacy, I don't want to hear you shifting about and disturbing me as you have of late!"
"Yes, my lady. Sleep well," said Sarah softly, almost a whisper. She paused in the doorway as Andrea continued to eye the duke's daughter skeptically. Helen sent them away more often than not these nights, and despite her excuses of irritability and insomnia, Andrea was not so dull as to be entirely devoid of suspicions. Fortunately, she was also not of a station to be able to act on them.
"Is there something more, Andrea?"
The handmaiden's frown deepened the lines on her horse-like face.
"No, Helen," she said sourly, pointedly refusing to use the proper title. "Enjoy your evening."
Oh, I will, thought Helen; shivering with a sudden thrill. Andrea crossed the room to join Sarah at the room's entrance. Both bowed again, and they pulled the broad wooden door shut with a thud.
Helen was on her feet at once, but was careful to scamper across the floor and put her ear to the door. It was several moments before she heard the footfalls of her friends begin to descend the tower. Once she felt certain they were out of earshot, she struggled to jostle the thick wooden bar into the brace on her door, ensuring that they would not return. It dropped into place with a boom that echoed throughout the room, and as always, she expected the noise would bring guards running; but after a few tense moments, it became clear that barring her door had not provoked any alarm.
Peter had assured her that such precautions were unnecessary, that no one would interrupt them when he did not will it. She was never sure when he was boasting, however, and saw no harm in being careful.
Her heart racing now, she nearly tripped over her own feet in her urgency as she practically sprinted across her chambers and unlatched the door to her balcony, pulling it ajar by only a few inches. Instantly, a gust of icy air swirled through the opening. She shivered with pleasure as it caressed her feverish skin through her clothes.
The wind grew stronger, her bedside candles guttering and nearly extinguishing before flickering back into life. The fire in the hearth seemed to pull back into itself for a moment before reasserting its strength with an audible snap.
The tingling on Helen's skin intensified as a gray mist began to blow in through the open portal, darkening and thickening as it slipped beneath her gown and slid along her skin to pool at her feet. She failed to contain a moan, blushing at more than her embarrassment.
The mist swirled smoothly down the front her body with tantalizing slowness, finally, regretfully releasing her to coalesce into the kneeling form of a dark-eyed young man whose oily black hair shimmered in the candlelight. He was shirtless, revealing a lean but well-muscled form; and though he wore dark green breeches, they too were revealing of his own arousal, which only renewed her own.
He pulled her sash free with one forceful tug, and suddenly the whole of her flesh was bit by the frosty air. He sprang forward, almost predatorily, to kiss her, and she wrapped her arms around him, crushing him hard against her. Her fever surged and the throbbing heat of his body only intensified the feeling. The wintry chill of the air was forgotten. She felt as if she might set the castle afire.
He lifted her from her feet, his lean arms raising her effortlessly from the floor as if she weighted nothing. He had a body like a dancer, slim and smooth with muscle, but was barely taller or larger than Helen herself; yet somehow his physical strength was immense.
His lips never left her, though they trailed from her lips to her neck, shoulders, and chest. Sometimes kissing, sometimes biting softly and unexpectedly, drawing wanton moans from her lips.
Despite his intense desire, he placed her gently upon her bed, almost as if afraid that she would break. You would think that he would know better by now, she thought with a bark of a laugh. As she struggled to unclasp his trousers, his hands drifted softly through her hair, down her breasts, and along her thighs; gently nudging them apart. He caressed her there and she went rigid, filled with yawning need. Graceless, she managed to work his pants down around his knees and free him.
It was some time before she was once more capable of thought.
She lay against him in her bed, one hand wrapped possessively about his waist, the other stroking at the already healing bites along her neck; this renewed symbol of his love that, despite her vulnerability, he fed but did not kill.
She lazily admired his sleeping form. Peter Nourlish and his family had come to her father's court a few years back, God knew what profit they thought would be found here. Helen had been defenseless against him--a handsome, aloof boy whose European upbringing made him seem older and exhilaratingly worldly. Her passion for him had followed the expected route, but he had possessed even darker secrets that she could ever have dreamed.
And to her detriment, she supposed, Helen had found herself more than willing to embrace them. She smiled and rubbed her naked form against his, the source of her Eternal Damnation, falling into a satisfied sleep.