Chapter 1

If a fleeting whiff of perfume can trigger memories of long-lost passion and lust for mortals, then for others, the distinct bouquet of fresh blood can enliven far more primal instincts.

Atop the lofty heights of a rugged mountainside an apex predator peered down in rapt anticipation. His name was Sigmund. Hunger ruled him as the tall dark figure scanned the majestic intermontane view. For far below lay neatly cultivated fields, fruit groves, and modest habitations. Meandering snake-like wisps of smoke rose from several cooking fires.

“Ah, the possibilities,” he grunted, in a guttural northern European tongue.

Sigmund could not remember, much less count, how many centuries, lo’ millennia, he had been in existence. Old memories of barren tundra, cold and snow, had driven him south into warmer climes. Even his near-mythic Germanic name was a recent fiction, the latest in a long line.

Then, like a peal of thunder, this predator’s hypersensitive nose caught an errant scent that jarred its senses. The powerfully sweet aroma beckoned. Unbidden, nostrils flared to parse the delicious scent, fortified with youthful vibrancy. Turning his head this way and that, Sigmund divined the direction of the wind-borne source. Fully fixated and eyes dilated, the hunter recklessly began its descent, leaping down from crag to boulder with preternatural ease. Along the way, a yearning hunger made his mouth water. Two fangs, extending in excited anticipation, pricked his heavily scarred lower lip. Already dark eyes dilated wider as the pace quickened. Down the mountain’s final scree he flitted like a shadow across a mirror. Through the tree line of the upland forest Sigmund bounded like a deer until it reached the rich alluvial floor of the valley. Panting, alive, and invigorated by the hunt, the vampire began its stalk.

*          *          *

A young woman suffering her first pangs of womanhood, struggled with her hand-held scythe amid the stands of ripe wheat. Usually she worked in a low waddling squat, but today she knelt quietly groaning. Inching forward on her knees, the farm maid took another low pass with her well-muscled right arm. The crude tool—made of antler bone and sharp obsidian microliths—easily cleaved away a handful of stalks. These she stacked neatly to the side in crisscrossing piles of four. Looking back over her shoulder she puffed away at an errant lock of wavy dark-brown hair, and smiled at the progress made since that dewy sunrise. She knew that her father would be proud.

The day had turned late beneath a powder-blue sky dappled with fluffy clouds, but Rovena, tired, doggedly continued with her harvesting. The last swing taxed her, so she sat up on her knees to catch a breath. Cramping badly, she grunted loudly, and bent over again. Lances of pain shot through her stomach. Gritting her teeth, Rovena brushed back another lock of hair, and took another pass through the tawny sheaths. Dried salt painted the sides of her unwrinkled oval face, one beautiful beyond compare. Gold-flecked gray eyes tried to see past the stinging salt clinging to her long black lashes. She pursed her rosebud lips in pain.

Presently, a cooling shadow shaded her. Looking up, Rovena saw a tall stranger standing over her. She took him in. Lean of face, he wore an unusual broad-brimmed leather hat, linen robes, and a hooded cloak of the well-to-do. He was shod with stout leather foot coverings that strapped up his ankles and calves. His clean-shaven face was long and triangular. Dark eyes framed a narrow beak-like nose. A simple leather throng gathered long curly black hair at the nape of his neck. His skin was the golden color of ripe wheat.

The stranger paused over her, lifted his head, and scented the air. Then he smiled down at the farm maid in a warm, inviting way. “You, who labors so hard while under such distress,” he said with oddly accented words. “Where is your father?” He asked with authority as his hands rode upon narrow hips. The easy pose set off his broad, oxen-like shoulders. But before Rovena could answer, he continued.

“Or has he abandoned you like a common field slave?” he concluded with an imperious rise of his chin.

In response, Rovena sat up to look about, and discovered with surprise that she had indeed been abandoned in the field. All the others had left for home, even the gleaners. Noting the sun was about to disappear behind the valley’s western mountain, Rovena said, “I must have been day-dreaming, Noble One. My father can be found either at our home or at the mill over there,” she said smiling, while shading her eyes and pointing off toward the west.

Dark eyes slowly scanned in that direction. Then the stranger cryptically said, “Verily, Providence has indeed smiled upon me today.”

Looking down again at the kneeing farm maid, “I am called Sigmund. What is your name child?”

“Rovena, Noble One.”

“Rovena … what an interesting name. Do you know its meaning?”

“No, Noble One. All I know is that my parents didn’t name me. An old high priestess did.”

“Ah, a priestess you say. How appropriate. Well child, your name means ‘sacred lance’ in a very old tongue.”

At that moment a dusky dark shadow fell across the valley as the setting sun occluded behind the mountain. The air chilled. The song of birds and insects stilled. Sigmund smiled and removed his broad brimmed hat. It fell to the ground.

Before Rovena could blink, the now hatless nobleman knelt before her, pushed her back to the ground, and raised her blood-stained lower garment. Gasping in surprise, Rovena watched as the man plunged his head between her thighs and began licking at her womanhood.

Shocked at the swift and audacious act, Rovena squealed and struggled to wriggle free, but failed to escape Sigmund’s powerful grasp. With ever-widening eyes, the virgin girl gasped wide-eyed at the exquisite sensations that beat against her loins like waves on a seashore. In a matter of moments however, Rovena ceased to struggle, and instead began to breathe heavily. In nearing ecstasy, she squirmed this way and that, her thighs held wide in total surrender. She entangled her fingers in his sweaty hair, and pulled his head to her. Suddenly, the stranger broke free, rose up, and in a storm of lust, plunged himself deeply into her. Soon his moans matched hers in rhythm and urgency.

When the farm maid gasped in full release, only then did she focus upon the stranger’s blood stained lips, his open, panting mouth, and his two eye teeth that seemed to be lengthening. At that frightening vision she jerked in fear and tried to break free again, but he continued to thrust on and on. Reaching his climax, the stranger bellowed like a bull. Withdrawing, he bent forward and held her shoulders down, pinning them firmly against the rich, fertile earth.

“This time, my beautiful Rovena, I will spare you. Next time, however, you may not be so lucky.” And like a ghost, Sigmund vanished into the gathering darkness.

Ashamed, yet curiously warmed by the frightening nobleman’s attentions, Rovena gathered herself, retrieved her hand sickle and water jug, and made for home. When she arrived, the young woman found everyone sitting around the central fire pit, all deeply engrossed in their evening meal. Her father, seeing the front of his daughter’s blood-stained garment, eyed his wife and notched his chin. The wife immediately rose and took her eldest daughter outside to the well head.

“Strip,” she commanded.

Rovena did.

“When did your womanhood begin to weep?”

“Only this morning.”

“Hrmph.”

“Wash yourself,” she commanded, as she extended a full bucket of the well’s icy clear water. This Rovena did, but while she performed her ablutions, her mother noticed a whitish streak of mucous amidst the blood.

“Who did you lie with?” she pointedly accused.

“No one mother,” Rovena guiltily blushed.

“You lie! His seed runs down your leg. Who was it? That adventurous potter’s son?”

“No mother.”

“Then, who was it?”

“A tall stranger, a nobleman, dressed in fine clothes.”

This rich fantasy earned Rovena a slap across the face that knocked her to the ground.

“Liar!”

“Who did you lie with?”

The young woman shook her head in defiance. “I am no liar, mother. It was a tall nobleman.”

“More lies!”

“He is called Sigmund,” Rovena said with a surprising amount of pride and defiance.

That retort resulted in a swift kick to the stomach. Rovena buckled over, gasping in pain.

“Thoroughly clean your clothes and yourself. You sicken me. Sleep with the animals! And try not to couple with any of them!”

And so began Rovena’s new life, one now filled with distrust and suspicion, and with parents who practically disowned her. Her father wouldn’t even speak to her as his disappointment ran so deep.

*          *          *

The day following the nobleman’s unwanted visit, a middle-aged farmer with graying temples sat in his mill before a silent grinding stone. He wore a dull look on his face.

“What’s on your mind my husband?”

“Our daughter, what else? It seems that ever since that prying priestess made her visit after her birth, Rovena has been cursed.”

“Do you really believe that?” the wife chided. “Rovena has always been your favorite.”

“It all began with that priestess’ insistence on her birth name. That, from the very start, troubled me.”

“Strange, my husband, I remember you were quite pleased at the time with the priestess’ attention.”

“Such a fine young girl, so strong and healthy, how could such a thing befall her?”

A knowing smile. “My husband, do you not remember how you wooed me that first night?”

A growling grumble emanated from his chest.

“But with a passing nobleman of all things. Who is this man? That is what vexes me. Where is he to care for our daughter? Take responsibility for his rash actions?”

“Gone like the summer wind I suspect,” the wife concluded with her hands on hips.

To this her husband grunted his displeasure. “Well, I suppose that I should make an effort to find out about this Sigmund. Tomorrow I will go to the market and make inquiries about him. Is there anything needful for me to fetch?”

After some thought, “Salt, my husband. I have much to put up for the winter.”

*          *          *

Along the mountain valley’s western margin stood a hamlet made up of four rugged structures arranged in a crude circle. Along one side the seasonal tented stalls of traders flapped and snapped noisily in the breeze, while opposite, a rocky whitewater stream gurgled. Through its center ran an earthen track that connected the valley with the encircling snow-covered heights. Depending upon the season, nature could quickly transform this way into either a muddy quagmire or dusty track.

Constructed of hand-hewn pine and hardwoods, the four buildings represented a considerable investment, measured in generations of toil, by several families of the valley. They in turn provided the essentials of valley existence: grain milling, pottery and beer-making, leather crafts and smithing, and the baking of breads and sweet cakes. This was a simpler time, long before the fortunes of the hamlet would wax and wane to eventually form an ancient town with stout stone walls.

By necessity the four structures represented intimately intertwined occupations. The miller’s house with its ever-creaking waterwheel was connected to the baker’s by a covered walkway that prevented the freshly ground flour from getting wet from rain or snow. The brewer depended upon the baker’s yeast for its highly carbonated brews and the leather maker’s goatskin bags for its intoxicating honey-laced milk fermentations. All depended upon the potter for their many cooking pots, storage jars, and sundry jugs and beer juglets. As for the smithy, little truly was made at its forge. The expense of raw ore had become prohibitive. Consequently, much was repaired by shrewd and ever more inventive means.

Such was this Bronze Age hamlet located in southeastern France. It was a place of few secrets, but much gossip and speculation. To call a gathering, all one had to do was strike “the conversation pole” erected in the hamlet’s center twice with its “calling stick” that hung from a thick leather throng.

This particular morning, Rovena’s father did so with a heavy heart. He did not have to wait long before seven men joined him at the conversation pole.

“Miller,” the baker inquired, “what caused you to take me from my dough?” said the stocky man with flour dusting his forearms and tunic. “Be quick with your words, as it is fast arising.”

“Your breads are always ‘fast arising,’ unless it is you who calls us together baker,” the miller snapped back.

“Yet, here is my question neighbors. Has anyone recently seen a tall and dark-haired nobleman passing through our lands recently? He wears a hooded cape and broad-brimmed leather hat.”

“Does this nobleman perchance have a name?” the smithy asked.

After a moment of hesitation, the miller nervously provided, “Sigmund.”

Silence fell among the seven at hearing the strange foreign name, accompanied by several shaking heads.

Several quick glances were exchanged, however, the smithy finally admitted sadly, “A day ago, my prized goat was killed by something. I was fattening it up for our winter solstice sacrifice.”

“The fine white one with black ears?” the brewer asked with raised eyebrows.

“Yes, that is the one.”

More head shakes in dismay at the awkward, if not portentous news of their lost sacrificial offering.

“Killed ‘by something’ you say?” the baker broke the mood as he nervously rubbed at some dough stuck under his fingernails.

“Yes,” the smithy said. “Whatever it was, it drained the goat of all of its blood. Then brutally tore out its livers. I have never before seen such a monstrous thing done to an animal.”

“Indeed, nor I,” said the leather craftsman, now looking directly at the miller, seeking his eyes for some inkling of meaning.

“So miller, why pose this odd question?” the potter challenged. “Perchance, did you lose something of value as well?”

At this the miller with eyes suddenly wide and insane, lunged for the potter, but was restrained by the others.

“Miller, for someone who is usually of such a calm demeanor, clearly, I have somehow found a sore spot.”

Turning to the smithy, the leather craftsman pointedly asked. “What did you do with your ravaged goat?”

“I destroyed it by fire.”

“Ah, so you did not taste one morsel of its succulent flesh?” the leather craftsman asked.

“Not one, though I was sorely tempted.”

“Why did you not give in to the temptation?”

“Because whatever killed it must be some sort of a monster, something unclean. I judged my prize goat defiled, maybe even cursed. To eat of its flesh …” the smithy just grimaced and shook his head.

The leather craftsman now looked at the miller and what he saw was sheer, wide-eyed terror. “I agree with you smithy. Whatever took your prize goat must be a monster. And, as we all well know, whatever a monster touches is at the very least defiled. At the worst … cursed.”

Head down while fussing with his ornate belt, the leather craftsman openly confronted the miller. “So, what did you lose to this nobleman called Sigmund? What thing of great value?”

The question caused the miller to hang his head. Tears ran freely. He snorted as they dropped off his nose. His heavily callused hand wiped away at them.

“This is about the fair Rovena, is it not, miller?” the potter guessed as he rubbed clay from his hands.

Silence was the miller’s answer. Now with red-rimmed eyes, he turned away from the conversation post and returned to his mill with all thought of purchasing some salt from the baker forgotten.

As for the six who remained, knowing looks were exchanged, several of them openly lecherous.

After the evening meal, the young woman’s father and mother had a conversation and decided that the daughter was defiled and selfish. Defiled by the nobleman Sigmund and selfish because her father’s plans for a strategic marriage with the potter’s son had been dashed.

*          *          *

Just before dawn the next day, Rovena’s father went to the household’s animal pen to awaken his daughter. Before doing so, he took a moment and looked around. The pen smelled different—fresher, cleaner. He had never before seen it so neat and well-swept. A pang of regret stabbed his heart as he gazed down upon her sleeping form nestled in a straw nest. His voice broke when he said, “Rovena, wake up,” with a gentle shake of her shoulder.

“Father?”

“Take this bundle and leave before first light. Perhaps you can find a home in the next valley.”

“But, but …”

“Shake the sleep from your head my beautiful Rovena. Go! Go now before the dawn arrives!”

“But, but …”

“Move quickly my sweet one! Others suspect that you are the carrier of an evil spawn! Don’t let them find you!”

*          *          *

Rovena did as she was told and immediately left. With tears flooding down her face, the young woman obeyed her father and disappeared into the darkness. As she neared the surrounding forest that ringed the valley, Rovena finally dared to peer within the bundle that her father had provided. In the predawn light, she found within her mother’s worn flax robe—generous in size and warm, two loaves of bread, and two dried fish.

Just as dawn broke upon the vale, the young woman stood at the forest’s edge, a dark and densely-leafed curtain that no doubt hid many things. With a final glance over her shoulder Rovena found she could no longer see home, only a dark wisp of its cooking fire. Without another thought, she turned, parted several bushes, and entered the green gloom.

On her own, Rovena began the process of eking out an existence within the forested margins of the valley. That first day she took shelter in a small cave, hoarded her bundle, and started gathering food from nature’s bounty of berries and nuts. One bad experience with mushrooms, however, caused Rovena to swear off them entirely.

In no time, the former farm maid learned how to leave no trace of her passage, breaking no twigs, disturbing no moss, while walking barefoot upon tree roots, rocks, and firm soils.

But by the time the moon cycled once, the young woman, who suspected, now knew for sure. Her womanhood had not wept. The awful pains had not returned. Now her breasts had become tender. She now carried a child. The farm maid made a plan, long before she began to show.

She now had to think ahead as well. When Rovena came across a flowering blue flax clump that grew in a forest glade, she began gathering them up. From these fibers she would fashion garments not only to cover her swelling form, but also to clothe her for the coming winter—perhaps even to fashion some foot coverings. Her mother had taught her well.

*          *          *

In an often visited verdant and idyllic forest setting that overlooked a crystalline mountain stream teaming with trout, Rovena came across a hunched and arthritic woman who was settled upon a fallen, moss-covered log. This mildly irritated her as that spot was precisely her favorite place to sit in the sun’s rays. The old woman’s long gray-white tresses were colorfully braided with wild flowers. She nibbled on fresh bread, cheese, and roasted garlic, all arranged with an inviting purpose around her. All of this Rovena observed from her concealment behind a massive gnarled tree.

After some moments, the priestess casually looked up from her picnic meal and called out to the surrounding forest, “Come out, young one, and eat. I have plenty for the two of us.”

Hesitant, the sight and smell of fresh bread made Rovena’s stomach growl loudly, too much so.

“See, young one. Even your stomach agrees. Come forth and silence it.”

Still unsure, Rovena silently approached from behind, constantly looking this way and that, expecting an ambush of some kind. After all, her father had warned her that others were fearful of her and the child that she carried.

Remaining quite still, the priestess called out again. “Why must such a beautiful woman stalk an old crone like me like a hungry wolf? I can assure you that my old bones carry little flesh, certainly, very little marrow.”

Approaching silently from her hiding place, Rovena finally confronted the seated woman. What she beheld was graceful frailty, deep life lines, olive-colored skin, and shockingly intense light blue eyes. In short, she was a beautiful woman—grown old beyond estimation. “How do you know all of these things?” Rovena challenged.

“Ah, there you are! Greetings young one, I am called Hermonia. That makes you …” she said pointing, “Rovena. Yes?” she queried while extending a large portion of rough bread with a hearty crust.

“How …?” Rovena asked, snatching away the offering.

“Why, I named you child. How could I not know of it?”

Rovena took a bite. The bread tasted beyond delicious. Again her stomach agreed.

“You named me?”

“Yes, it is my duty within my religious order to do such things.”

The young woman’s eyes widened at the revelation.

“Have you ever fished here before?” the old priestess conversationally added. Hearing no answer, she continued.

“Well, I find these speckled ones, once baked over a fire, wonderfully tasty. Do you know how to do that?”

Rovena had already wolfed down all of her bread. “No, Honorable Hermonia, I do not.”

“Ah, then child, watch and learn.”

The priestess rose and quietly approached the gurgling stream taking care not to throw her shadow across its surface. Squatting down, she slowly revealed a thin pale arm from under her robe, and waited. Her lips moved silently. Soon, a fish approached within her reach. The priestess nodded to the fish in acknowledgement and with surprising speed, gripped the fish from behind its gills and lifted it clear of the stream. Dropping it in the tall green grass, the victim jumped and squirmed while the priestess refocused upon the stream, murmuring again to it.

In all three fish were captured and gutted swiftly by the priestess with a small knife that she produced from a hidden fold. The entrails, she carefully examined.

“Rovena, note these,” she said, pointing with her delicate finger. “All are pink, healthy, and without stain. Never eat anything from the forest or stream that is putrefied. Also, note this cut that I have made along the length of both sides of the fish’s spine.”

“Why did you do that, Honorable One?”

“You will soon see. Now, fetch me three thin straight green sticks, each twice the fishes’ length, and strip off their bark. I will make us a small fire.”

When Rovena returned with her prepared sticks, she found the priestess squatting before a fine cooking fire of whitened coals. As Hermonia mounted each of the fish on their sticks, she chatted on.

“Rovena, we have much to discuss. Not so much about the cooking of fish, but rather about the future of the child that you carry.”

“Oh…” Rovena reacted again in surprise at the old woman’s knowledge.

Seeing the young woman’s surprise, the priestess smiled warmly. “Indeed. While you carry your child well, you must know that it is hardly cursed, but instead is really quite special. Some would even say … blessed.” This good news caused Rovena’s heart to warm with a mother’s pride. “Regardless, it must be cared for and raised in the proper way.”

The fish near the fire began to sizzle, their aroma enticing. The priestess reached down to turn their sticks.

Rovena finally found her tongue. “How so, Honorable One I mean, about my child?”

“Its father is a horrible thing named Sigmund. Is that not so?” the priestess asked flatly.

“How…?”

Hermonia waved her hand brushing aside the question. “Sigmund is a monster. Always has been since his unfortunate creation,” the priestess stated with passionate eyes. Now pointing, “But you know this truth as well as I. He and his kind must not be allowed to walk the earth. They all must be hunted down and destroyed.”

Again she turned the fish-ladened sticks. Their skins had begun to crisp from the heat. Rovena saw they had begun to curl away from where the old priestess had sliced them.

Rovena briefly entertained a thought to leave the old one to her cooking, but her groaning stomach frankly prevented her from doing so.

Glancing at her knowingly, “I would not leave quite yet fair one. Firstly, you now have to eat for two—never forget that. Gorge yourself upon the flesh of rabbit, squirrel, fish, and deer. Your child dearly needs it. Village food is no longer for you. Secondly, you still do not know what your baby is, and more importantly, why it must survive.”

“Then tell me, Honorable Hermonia,” Rovena eagerly said as she rearranged herself in the moss and grass before her, “What is my child?”

Hermonia smiled broadly, for the first time revealing a set of perfectly white teeth, something Rovena had never before seen. “Most gladly. Your child, Rovena, is the rare product of the unliving, and you, a mortal female. Such a coupling makes your child a dhampir, or if a female child, a dhampirica.”

She paused to turn the browning fish, which now sizzled in their own fat with their skins crisping nicely.

“Such offspring are a boon to mortal society as they are natural monster hunters, and their killers. At birth, they are endowed with senses far greater than mere mortals. These they need for the hunt and their survival against the unliving and their unsavory familiars.”

“How do you know these things, Honorable One?”

“Because I have been waiting patiently to train our valley’s next dhampir. You see, it is my purpose within my order. Sadly, I can no more perform this task alone. I have become old. I need help. Will you, Rovena, undertake this task? Will you help your child to survive and learn the many ways of the dhampir?”

Rovena nodded quickly, so quickly in fact that her sudden agreement surprised her.

“Good. I am pleased. I frankly was not sure you would. Not every mother loves her child. That tells me that you already love yours, and love, my dear Rovena, means much. There is not enough of it in this world. By the way, you have much to learn about the ways of fishing, the trapping of small animals, and the gathering of bird eggs, honey, berries, and nuts. All these I will gladly teach you.”

*          *          *

Within the span of several weeks, the young woman named Rovena learned much from the priestess Hermonia about survival in the forest. She mastered the gentle enchantment spell for catching fish, another for starting a fire, and still another for concealment from predators and man. Her wizened teacher said she had much more to learn. The priestess explained the local herbs, their uses, what kinds of mushroom to eat and which not, and the other natural medicines that occurred seemingly everywhere underfoot.

Unlike Rovena’s fearful parents and the superstitious villagers, the priestess Hermonia understood what happened to the young woman and what it meant for their valley—the potential for future protection from the undead and their minions. As a consequence, Hermonia’s avowed purpose was to make sure the young woman’s baby survived, come what may.

*          *          *

Just before the coming winter, Hermonia surprised Rovena by offering to take in the now very pregnant young woman. Against all the usual cycles of nature, Rovena’s hybrid child grew at a furious rate. While Hermonia knew of this, the priestess instead explained to Rovena that she needed a strong back to make it through the harsh season—clearly a half-truth.

Grateful beyond words, Rovena readily accepted the old woman’s hospitality and none too soon. For by the early spring, she experienced a swift birth of a healthy baby girl—born a full three months early. Hermonia insisted on naming the babe Astra.

“While you nurse your child Rovena, it is very important that you continue to eat the flesh of rabbit and squirrel. But even more critical during this time, you must also eat their livers raw.”

“Why raw and not cooked, Honorable One?”

“Because your baby girl needs the raw nourishment that only a fresh liver can provide. And, once she requires your milk no more, feed her such foods. They will help her immensely.”

Days later, perhaps reflecting the rhythms of nature, the old priestess breathed her last, but not before gifting all of her worldly possessions to the young mother. Tearful, Rovena buried the ancient priestess beneath a cairn of stones in their long-favored meeting place in the forest—the one next to the mountain stream full of speckled fish.

From that day forward, mother and child lived in Hermonia’s hut, a structure built with a sturdy field stone foundation, earthen bricks, and roofed over in many layers of densely woven broad-leaf boughs. Situated in the forest beneath the gnarled trunks of tall trees of great age, the mushroom-shaped structure made for a dry and warm place that was filled with Hermonia’s personal treasures, gathered over a lifetime. One such treasure the old priestess bequeathed specifically to the baby girl Astra—an amulet precious beyond price, made of silver. While far too heavy for the babe to grasp much less effectively wield, Hermonia had instructed Rovena on its purpose and to hang the short-bladed knife and sheath around tiny Astra’s neck at all times to protect her from evil. From that time forward, the babe and amulet become inseparable.

BUY