Emma was stunned. She came to a halt, hiding behind a gnarled tree. She held her breath as she peered around to take a closer look.
Through the mist shrouding the black woods, her eyes fell on the most handsome man she had ever laid her eyes on. With skin like pristine marble, pale blond hair, and chiseled features, he was nothing like the men Emma had previously seen. His eyes—red. Otherworldly.
A woman knelt before him, possessing a glow that softly illuminated the surroundings.
"I will do anything for you, Lord Lazarus," she mewled in a regal accent, her eyes locked with his. "This mortal body is dying and in order to rule Wilyra, you need me—a goddess. But I am trapped in this sickly body. You must find another human body for me."
"Soon," he hissed. "I will find a way."
Emma's eyes widened as terror surged through her. She had heard of those who ruled Wilyra but had never seen any of them.
They lived in high castles over the snow-covered hills, away from the mainland.
Shaking with fear, she gasped but immediately slapped her hands over her mouth, realizing she made a mistake by revealing her presence.
His head snapped in her direction and their gazes locked. Those murderous piercing red eyes bore into her emerald green ones. She let out a soft whimper. He clenched his jaws, fisting his hands upon seeing her… as if in rage. Thick tendrils of mist rolled in the forest around them, enveloping them in the dark woods.
The fog now reached up to her thighs. Lightning crackled in the distance, making her jump. Dread skittering down her spine, she turned away to the woods behind her and raced back home. Twigs and leaves and swishes of blades splattered and crunched beneath her feet as she crossed the poppy fields and the stars overhead, to go back to her home, trying to outrace her thundering heart and not focusing on the occasional rustle of leaves around her.
Emma had come to this part of the woods, a path she had memorized ever since she was fourteen years old. She found peace here, and from the past few months, her life had been tumultuous.
As she ran, her nightgown fluttering behind her, the sky deepened with darkness. She stopped at the edge of the forest, far away from them. She leaned her back against a tree, trying to catch her breath and tears poured out uncontrollably. She sucked in sharp air when she started to walk back on the path that led to her village.
Just when she was crossing the dirt road that led to her village, a high-speed carriage whooshed past her. She almost caught herself in time otherwise she would have fallen under its wheels.
The carriage came to a screeching halt and the coachman jumped down. He rushed to Emma. "Are you fine?" he asked, studying her with serious concern.
Shocked, Emma nodded, not realizing that her cheeks were now wet. "I'm fine," she said in a hoarse voice, noticing his tall and wiry frame.
His brows were furrowed as he looked at her with concern in his emerald green eyes. Her eyes darted towards the carriage he was driving and from its black and gold façade, she knew it was a royal carriage. She wondered if a vampire was sitting inside.
"You should be careful, little girl," he said with a warning in his voice. "The skies have become too dense. Another blizzard is on its way. Get back home soon, unless you want to become food for the rogues. There are plenty, roaming at this time."
She gulped as terror dug its claws in her. "I'm going," she said in a low voice.
She stepped back from him and hurried away. As she walked, she could feel the eyes of the coachman boring holes in her back. She turned round a corner and stopped in the shadows of a house to hide and take a glimpse at the coachman.
He went back to the coach and spoke to someone through the window. Then in one swift motion, he sat on the seat and pulled the reins of the horses. The equines let out a soft neigh before moving.
Who was he? She wondered as she watched them disappear in the night.
Thunder sounded far in the distance and Emma hastened. She trudged through the accumulated snow over the cobbled street as she passed through a row of small houses. Snow started falling as wind slapped her face and the soft little flakes fluttering to the ground quickly became icy needles.
The streets at this time of the night were eerily silent and empty. They had no sign of the market that was held that day. Soft glow of candles or firelight that escaped through the windows that were covered with thick furs were the only signs of life in this part of the kingdom.
When she reached her home, she heard her mother's loud voice from their room. Her hands fell away from the door that she was about to open to enter.
"The royal family?" her stepmother said excitedly. "Are you sure? Finally, our son will be saved!"
"Shh… keep your voice low, Avice," said her father, Drogo. "It's a secret. Lord Remus said that I had to remain silent about it till the deal was done."
Avice lowered her voice. "So how many coins will they give us for our daughter?"
Emma froze, withering in her place. Were they selling her? To the royal family?
"They will take her, this I know for sure," said Drogo. "And although I don't know whether he would care for her, it's not like she will spend the rest of her days in poverty. She is going to be safe."
"Safe? She will be treated royally, and at least we will get enough coins to treat our son," her mother scoffed. "But what about other vassals? Won't they rebel against you?"
Water welled in Emma's eyes. She lifted her trembling hand to open the door, but her father's words stopped her. He said, "Hush. We will talk about it later. Don't tell any of this to anyone. The royals will come here tomorrow night. Just dress her up in your best gown for him. This is the only way we can save Angus."
Emma's whole world crumbled in that second. Was she going to be a vampire's concubine? And that too a royal one? He would suck her dry in a day. Her body started shaking uncontrollably as her heart lurched to her throat.