Authors: Heather R. Blair
BLOOD IN FIRE
Heather R. Blair
BLOOD IN FIRE
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
© 2014 Heather R. Blair
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
COVER DESIGN by the author, with special thanks to the artist, dreadpiratefluffy for the background image, and also to h.koppdelaney, for allowing commercial use of the beautiful foreground image.
to all my beta readers; Sabrina, Renee, Katrina and Rachel. All of you contributed in ways large and small to making this book what it is.
Go raibh míle maith agat.
Some small liberties have been taken with Irish history, most notably the retaking of Dublin has been placed a couple decades earlier that it actually happened.
In the long ago days of
King Connor Mac Nessa, there was such a band of fighting men as the world has never seen, and likely will never see again.
They were known as the
Cróeb Ruad, the
Red Branch. Great warriors all—and the greatest of them was
Born of the illicit liaison between a married woman of Connaught and Lugh the Long Hand, king of the gods himself, the child was christened at birth with the name
At the tender age of ten, the boy’s name would be changed forever when he traveled to
, Mac Nessa’s keep, to join the fighting troop there.
A handsome lad, strong of spirit and limb, he caught the eye of
, the king’s man at arms, who invited him to a liege man’s house for feasting that night. Plied with drink and good company,
had long forgotten his invitation to the lad by sunset. Assuming that all invited were present, the liege man—a good fellow by the name of Cullen—released his watchdog as night began to fall. A vicious hound this was, well known in those parts and well feared.
, unaware of the beast or its' reputation, was walking alone through the gathering twilight to the feast when he was greeted by hair-raising growls, glowing eyes and the sight of the enormous animal leaping for his throat.
However, this was not any normal boy to be trifled with, but one with the blood of the Tuatha de Nanaan in his veins. Seizing an immense rock, nearly twice his own size, the boy threw it at the beast, killing it instantly. At the commotion, out rushed
Conchobar and Cullen and the rest of the gathering, all stunned to see the creature dead at young
While understanding the boy had acted only to save his very life, poor Cullen was in a state. Living out beyond the protective walls of the keep, with a wife and daughters to look out for, the man despaired of finding another protector as fierce and loyal as the hound had been. It took years to train a pup to be such a ready and able guard.
Considering this, and feeling responsible for the man’s predicament, the boy drew himself up and declared, “Hereafter,
will be your hound, Cullen. I will guard your door from sunset until sunrise until another can be trained for the one you lost.”
That oath the boy kept, sleeping on the man’s doorstep every night for many years. In truth, he was a far more fierce hound than the first; no beast or man dared threaten Cullen and his kin under
. Folks at
took to calling the lad
And so it was that
became known far and wide as
would have many adventures and many victories, but his last and greatest was his single-handed defeat of the army of Bav. When the goddess of death came with her host to Mac Nessa’s kingdom in retaliation for the great cattle raid of Cooley, it was clear that any direct confrontation between King Connor’s much smaller and weaker army and that of Bav’s would result in slaughter.
Making a fateful choice,
stalked onto the battle field and demanded the right of single combat. One by one, he swore he would fight them all. The men of the goddess’s army laughed, despite their fear of the great warrior, for they were legion and he was one.
The goddess herself spoke not a word, but turned her back to the field and walked away.
It took three bloody days and nights, but to a man
took Bav’s army down.
Victorious but dying, bleeding from six mortal wounds,
climbed the hill of Cooley, his intent to lash himself to the great tree that grew there. He had sworn an oath long ago that he would die on his feet, unbowed…and so he did, with his eyes to the dawn—
“But Unc Ruad, wait! Ye missed a bit there—” The boy half-rose from where he lay on the grass.
Close to the age of
when he took on Cullen’s hound, this boy was also handsome and lithe. Here, unlike in the story, it was evening. The sun was already touching the dusky blue hills to the west.
Next to the boy lay the man telling the tale, spread out lazily against a tree. He was an older man, muscular and stocky in build, softening but slightly with age. There was an air of indomitable spirit about the man despite the lackadaisical pose. He had red hair giving way stubbornly to grey, and eyes of lightest blue that had narrowed at the interruption.
“Eh, what bit—ye rude and gormless youngster?”
The boy’s eyes were even lighter than the man’s, a blue that should have been nearly colorless, but was instead as faceted and multi-colored as crystal. “The bit where Bav comes and gives him her scarf so he can tie himself to the tree, where she tries to kiss him to make him whole and tells him that she’s sorry—”
“Aye, ye never minded missing those bits afore, laddie. Not fussed with them t’all, as I recall. ”
His cheeks reddened under blond curls, those bright eyes darted away for a moment. But the boy’s voice continued stubbornly and his chin came up. “'Tis part of the story, though, Unc Ruad. At least the way Will tells it.” This last was said in a rather sly tone.
“If ye are wanting that bloody wastrel’s tales rather than mine, then ye can damme well wait fer him, aye? Only be ‘bout another turn of the moon or so afore he’s bac
” The old man with the rusty hair started to shove off the bank over which the boy’s legs dangled. The river at the bottom was singing softly in the evening mist.
The boy grabbed his tunic. “Nae, donna stop! Unc, yer tales are just as fine as Will’s. Finer, even. I swear it!”
The man’s whiskers twitched, but he slumped back. Taking a flask from his coat, he eyed the boy. “When’s did ye start growing up on me, then?”
The boy shrugged, tossing small rocks in the water. “I canna stop it, Unc. Wish it would hurry right along, to tells ye the truth.”
Laughter whooshed out of the man like a blacksmith’s bellows, making him snort the whiskey out his nose. “Ye’ll regret tha', soon and sure enough! Oy, go on then, what’s the bit ye were so keen on, jus’ the kissing, is it?” He asked teasingly.
Again the boy shrugged, ducking his head this time. “Nae, no’ really. I like when he tells her to go away, is all. So tha' he can die alone and on his own terms. 'Tis all so angry and sad, but beautiful sad, innit?”
“Aye, tha' it is, lad—as love often is. Ye’ll find out yerself one day. If yer lucky.” Or not, thought the man with a grim smile, wiping his lips and taking another swig.
…he dinna love Bav back, did he?”
“Nae, he dinna. And wise tha' was of him.”
“Even if it killed him in the end?” The boy looked doubtful.
The man shook his head. “It was nae
’s lack of love for Bav tha' killed him, lad. It was her pain and bitterness at tha' lack, her desperation for a man tha' dinna want her as she wanted him. An angry woman is a terrible thing—an angry goddess a right deadly one and no mistake.”
The boy sighed, with an air of impatience for the first time. “Alright then, Unc Ruad—but tell us about the tree again, please…about when he’s dying…how he…”
“Oh, shut yer trap then and let an old man speak, Áedán
Lashing himself to the tree took the last of the mighty warrior’s strength. Slumping against the oak, blood soaking the cloth and falling drop by drop to the earth,
raised his head to the dawn rising over the hills of Connaught for the last time…
The boy let the rest of the tale wash over him, not really hearing the words, needing only the familiar cadence and fall of sounds to sketch the picture in his mind—the great man, slashed and sorely wounded, on his feet to the very end, the sun’s rays warming his face as death found him and made him hers at last….
Áedán sighed happily. It was his favorite story, even though he thought it a bit mad. He wanted to be exactly like
when he became a man. Just as fierce, just as loyal and brave and good and powerful. But
the boy knew very well his hero
had made mistakes, many terrible mistakes.
had killed his own son by accident, he'd broke good Emer’s heart—and cracked the
and made a goddess hate him so much she had hunted him down until she killed him.
Still, none of that could change Áedán's mind. He
be as great as
one day. His eyes closed, a confident smile on his sweet young face, he would be just as big and strong, with just as many daring, wonderful adventures. Only without all the sad bits.
He’d skip those parts.
Aidan O’Neill drifted along the tree line, his eyes never leaving the eastern sky, his whole body tense....with both a centuries old longing and a terrible fear. Dawn was coming and for the first time since there had been a High King in Tara he was going to see it. One way or the other.
potion he'd ingested was a physical entity in his veins, warm and soft and silky. He didn't know if it would work.
And if it didn't...
Well, he'd find out how it felt to be burned into a pile of ash. No worries, right?
Vampires were the soulless, the damned—not meant to see the sun nor fit to walk in its light. Ever. Aidan had been a vampire for so long sunlight was a fading memory.
His best mate, the former werewolf, Ronan Fitzpatrick, had taken the
potion off a Changeling less than a week previously. Changelings were undead minions that served the demon race of gods, the Fomorians. Once human, Changelings had given up their souls in exchange for favors that never, ever turned out to be worth what they lost. Aidan had only contempt for the Changelings, who were to vampires what rats were to humans.
However, vampires and Changelings did have one thing in common—their lack of a soul. And creatures without a soul were doomed to walk the night. Forever. No exceptions, no reprieves. Not ever.
Unless you wanted to become a fiery pillar of soulless kindling.
That had all changed when a Changeling had attacked Ronan
sundown a week ago, prompting the hunt which had netted his friend said potion.
Dangerous beyond belief—with the power to upend the balance of power between humans and vampires—the
probably should have been destroyed on sight. That was almost certainly what Ronan would have done with it in the end.
So Aidan had nicked it while his friend was otherwise occupied. He couldn’t help it.
He didn’t want to fucking help it either.
Ronan would not be happy, but he would understand. If any person would understand the longing to be free of a curse, it would be Ronan. Ronan’s curse had been broken at long last, but Aidan was under no such illusions about his own affliction. That didn’t mean he couldn’t dream.
All he ever dreamed for anymore was this.
The dark, velvety hills were beginning to lighten, glowing white-gold on their edges. Aidan's breath caught in his throat.
He should have been reeling with exhaustion by now. The rising of the sun always induced a strong lethargy in vampires, but he felt….
Fine. No, way better than
More like kickass.
The potion teased his body from the inside out like a secret lover. Fueling him with a tangible energy that zipped along his veins, lifting him along, so that it felt as if he was floating over the grass instead of merely walking on it. Chills raced down his spine as he watched the horizon grow lighter.
be possible. He was courting suicide—not for the first time in both his lives—but for surely the last. There was no way he would get away with this unscathed.
He closed his eyes and moved away from the tree line anyway.
Aidan held his breath and opened his eyes. A disbelieving laugh burst out of him as the burnished edge of the sun rose, blushing the sky a vivid pink.
Aidan O'Neill had stepped out of the woods into the pale light of dawn for the first time in over eleven hundred years.
He breathed deep of the smell he had never been able to forget, that elusive heartbreaking smell that reminded him of a child’s laughter.
Sunshine on blond curls. A smile as sweet as a sunbeam.
‘Up, Da, up!’
He didn’t even notice the tears sliding down his face.
Heather Kantos cursed as she tried to coax the Jag's balky transmission to shift into fourth. She'd specifically asked the rental agency for the DX, because she owned one herself and loved its sleek good looks and powerful engine. She would have had to get the one model in existence that had a faulty clutch and a stubborn tranny.
There was no way she was turning around and heading back to Dublin. Kate Ryan had called her half out of her mind with worry for her little sister, Lacey, who was also Heather's BFF.
Lacey had come to Ireland over two weeks ago on what Heather called her little leprechaun-chasing expedition; leaving her career and most of her good sense behind in a quest to pursue her love of writing and her downright weird obsession with Ireland.
Heather was all for finding yourself, but she thought Lacey could have been more sensible about it. Which meant that for once she and Lacey's ice-queen bitch of a sister agreed on something.
Kate had called to tell her Lacey hadn't checked in for almost a week, after already changing her plans with no explanation and saying only that she was now staying with a family somewhere in the middle of County Limerick.
Heather had just left the Mediterranean on a job and was in a De Gaulle airport when she got Kate's call. Jet-lagged and pissy for reasons entirely her own, she had nevertheless agreed immediately to change her New York flight to Dublin and find out what the hell was up with her friend.
So here she was, gritty-eyed, fighting with fussy British machinery on an unknown Irish roadway with only a phone number Kate had snagged from her caller id and a name to go by.
‘I'm sure the family Lacey's staying with is called Fitzpatrick, but she didn't tell me much of anything else. It’s downright weird. I…I had a bad feeling about this whole Ireland thing from the beginning, you know.’
Kate have a bad feeling? The harbinger of doom, that was Katherine Mary Ryan. Heather knew that probably wasn’t fair, considering everything the Ryan sisters had been through. They had lost both their parents when they were very young and then their guardian, less than ten years later. Kate had raised Lace on her own since she was eighteen.
a bitch. And she loathed Heather. Kate reaching out must mean she was damn near terrified.
Lovely. Just goddamn lovely.
“When I find Lacey, I'm gonna smack her.” Heather muttered to herself, even as the unease she hadn’t been able to shake since Kate’s phone call knotted her stomach.
It didn't help that fucking Ireland was the
place she wanted to be right now.
Even though it was an especially pretty dawn, she thought, her eyes sliding over to glance at the fantastic streaks of orange, gold and rose stippling the soft blue sky. Her gaze darted back to the roadway as something moved. Heather let out a scream, slamming her booted foot on the brake so hard the heel of it snapped off.
She hit him anyway.
The man she had just caught a glimpse of flew up over the Jag’s front end, slamming into the windshield and fracturing it into an instant web of cloudy starbursts. Heather screamed again. Brakes squealed and rubber smoked as she fought to control the wheel, the car spinning around like a mad carnival ride.
Her head slammed into the driver’s side door with a crack and just like that her vision and consciousness winked out. But not before she saw the man on the hood get to his hands and knees, shaking off glass and blood. Not before she saw him
at her through the cracked windshield, with eyes of crystalline blue that she could have sworn were glowing.
Not to mention awfully damn familiar.
Just his bleedin’ luck!
have to get hit by a fucking car on his first daybreak stroll.
Aidan growled as he jumped off the hood, shaking tempered glass from his leather coat with amused disgust. He couldn’t find it in him to get pissed, not with the sun on his face. Instead, he fairly purred as he lifted his chin, feeling the sunbeams warming his skin and smiling all the wider. Damme, if he wasn’t going to be walking around with an eejit grin all day.
“Fuck me, now there is a phrase I have nae gotten to use properly in awhile.” He laughed and turned toward the vehicle that had struck him. A Jag. Well, there now.
“If ye are going to get nailed by a car, at least ye did it in style, O’Neill.” He chuckled again and decided to get a better look at the chit that had hit him. For a second there…of course, there was no way in hell that he had seen who he
Aidan bent down to peer through the window and cursed as a warm gush of blood ran down his abdomen accompanied by a splintering sound. A rib was poking through his black T-shirt, the white bone glinting up at him almost jauntily.
Aidan pushed the bone back under his flesh with a long, gloved finger, wincing as it slid home with a squelch. He felt his tendons grab the broken rib and knew it would be right as rain in a minute or so. He swayed as a wave of dizziness hit him hard. Aidan clutched the driver’s side door with a gasp.
wasn’t going to be right as rain, though. Not unless he got a drink and right soon. He wondered if that would dilute the potion’s effects and cursed.
Piss on it. There was an easy meal right here, no sense in wasting the opportunity.
He turned to the woman who was slumped against the driver’s window, a mass of dark hair obscuring her face. He opened the door, and eased her out onto the pavement. She was breathing, he could feel the warmth of her slow, steady exhalations against his face as he leaned closer. There was something tauntingly familiar about her smell.
There was also a nasty bruise forming on her right temple, but other than that she looked unharmed. He went to push her hair back from her face with one gloved hand. She stirred, whimpering and trying to push his hand away, but Aidan only smiled. Compassion wasn’t something he came by easily in the best of times. She’d had to come along and ruin his little outing, so she deserved what she was going to get.
He watched as she winced and tried to lift her head. “Ye had the bad luck to hit a vampire, love. A head injury is the least of yer worries.”
She blinked, gazing at him fuzzily. Aidan swore at the sight of those deep violet eyes. Gorgeous, black lashed, incredibly
violet eyes. Heather Kantos. World-renowned model and aspiring actress. Aidan might not have recognized her from that alone. Their scorching ‘
in Istanbul about a week ago, however…
he remembered. Shit. Too much heat, too close to the
. Too many questions would arise if Heather goddamn Kantos was found on the side of the road with a mysterious blood loss that couldn’t be explained by a minor accident. But Aidan had to drink and
Fuck, fuck, fuckety fuck!
Dizziness blasted him again as her eyes cleared and narrowed in confusion and pain. “Aidan? What the hell are you doing here?”
“My question exactly, love.” He loosed his hunger ever so carefully, its' claws bore down on his flesh as it scrabbled for the woman, sensing prey. Weak, blooded prey. His eyes burned and he knew they were glowing.
Heather lurched back in fear, then inexplicably relaxed as he leaned closer, pushing his power at her,
her. Her body went limp. Aidan slid his hand under her hair and lifted her head.
“Just a sip or two and we will be on our way. No hard feelings, eh?” He’d fed from Heather before. She had no memory of
part of their previous encounter. She wouldn’t remember this time either. He breathed in the smell of her skin, his body hardened immediately at her scent. Oranges and hibiscus, spice and honey….
Mmm, she’d been delicious. So delicious in
way. His fangs pierced her skin and Aidan groaned as her blood spilled over his tongue. Gods, had he actually forgotten how amazing she tasted?
He didn’t want to stop. He wanted to feel her breathing cease, her skin cool— wanted to get the last burst of her heart’s blood down his throat. The monster inside of him growled for all that and more, as it always did.
Aidan might not have been able to stop, but the sound of sirens came at the same instant he started to get a warning tingle in his veins. The potion was fading and the garda were coming.
Well, this day was going arseways in a bloody hurry.
When Heather came to, she was face down on a heavenly soft and utterly unfamiliar bed. Her head was aching, but only in a mild five-six drink hangover kind of way. For a minute she thought she was back in Istanbul, the morning after….
Her breath caught.
Had she really hit Aidan O’Neill with her goddamn rental car?