Evie Byrne: Fantastik Romance
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Guardian by Blood

Guardian by Blood

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As they turned onto the private road, Eva said, "Turn off the lights. I want to take a good look around."

Her driver doused the headlights. In the side-view mirror, Eva watched the rest of the caravan go dark as well. Freed from the glare of the headlights, which had forced her to focus on the few yards of road ahead, her night vision sharpened. With the blessing of darkness she could see far—far up the tangled white ruts on the road, far out into the forest, where moss grew on towering pine trees and scrub poked from frozen drifts, and high up into the canopy of branches overhead. She leaned forward in her seat, peered past the occasional spinning snowflake, tried to estimate the height of the looming trees, and gave up.

In the back seat, Collins muttered, "How can they live out here in all this…this…nothing? Trapped in snow. It's just not right. Haven't they seen The Shining?"

His partner, Ruben, said, "What? You think they've heard about the invention of moving pictures out here?"

"Nah, you're right. They don't need movies. They're too busy banging their sisters."
Eva spun around in her seat. "Enough." She jabbed a finger at them. "Alya wants a peaceful transaction, and I don't need the two of you fucking it up with your attitude. Yes, they're animals eaters and rogues. And yes, we own them. But tonight we're going to offer them our courtesy. Got it?"

"Yes, ma'am." They looked suitably sheepish. She faced front again, and the SUV lurched along, the crunch of its tires the only noise in the repressed silence. To either side of the road, pines stood in long rows, sentries marking the caravan's passage. For city vamps born and bred, like her and her men, all this nature was disturbing. None of them had ever seen country like this. Ruben had never even seen snow before.

Eva took a breath and made an effort to soften her shoulders and clear her mind. Her men were not as idiotic as they sounded. Close—but not quite. They were just bored. Since dusk they'd been driving straight north, further and further into the uncharted wilds of Northern Minnesota. For the thousandth time, she checked the GPS. As always, the SUV was a slow dot creeping through a sea of green.

The radio hissed and squawked. She picked up the handset. "That you, Martin?" Delilah Martin was in charge of the prisoner, her car positioned in the middle of the three-vehicle caravan. Ten soldiers to deliver the boy. The natives were supposed to be pacified, but she hadn't wanted to take any chances.

"Yes ma'am." Martin responded. "What's our ETA?"

"Twenty-five minutes if the road holds. You ready?"

"Ready. But if we hear banjo music, we're turning the fuck around, right?"

Eva shook her head as everyone in her car cracked up.

A rickety shack stood at the given coordinates, dark and dilapidated in the gathering night. A rusted truck with missing wheels rotted in the yard. Blowing snow pinwheeled across the desolate ground. No signs of habitation except three wooden frames stretched with frost-stiffened animal hides standing in the side yard. They reminded Eva of war banners. Louis, her driver, raised a brow, but said nothing of banjos.
She checked the coordinates again, though she knew very well they were correct. This was supposed to be the heart of the Northwoods Territory, the sad little empire of squirrel-suckers, but no one was home. Thinking, Eva tapped a sharp nail on her teeth. Had they run? For the survivors, running would be the smart thing to do. Planning an ambush, on the other hand, would be extremely stupid, but they'd not proven themselves particularly smart up until now.

They'd have to keep going. The road did not end at the shack, but rounded a blind turn. That she did not like. She picked up the radio. "We'll continue, see what we can see. Everyone keep to the set distance. Car Three, watch our backs."

They rounded the bend only to find an empty turnaround surrounded on all sides by dense forest. A few old, confused tire tracks marked the turnaround. "Turn the lights back on, Louis." The raking light would make the tracks easier to read. Maybe she could see if any of them headed off the road.

A line of figures materialized at the edge of the woods, ten people standing in a loose half-circle where the forest met gravel. She blinked, surprised. These people were sneaky, even for vampires.

"Jesus H. Christ," whispered Collins.

Sneaky and creepy. They wore animal skins: fur hats, buckskin leggings, hooded, knee-length Eskimo parkas. Alya had mentioned that they were a fashion-challenged group, but they looked like people from another time. Another planet. It was hard to tell old from young, male from female, much less determine rank. They stood silent, unmoving. Their eyes shone green in the headlights. She saw no weapons, but they could hide whole arsenals under their coats.

Ten of them. The same as her force. Was that courtesy? Coincidence? Threat?
Eva picked up the radio. "Car Three, I want you out of the vehicle, two by two. Flank and cover. Do not fire unless you hear shots first. Car Two, hold your position, guard our asset. Wait for my signal to bring him out."

To the men in her car she said, "Ruben, Collins, come with me. I want your weapons holstered, but at the ready. Louis, stay by the car and cover us."

She pulled on a pair of thin leather gloves she could fire a gun in and zipped up her coat. Though she'd done plenty of enforcement work for Alya, this was a new kind of job, an unprecedented one, really. She'd won it over the other Hands because she'd convinced Alya she could handle contingencies gracefully. Now it was time to find out if she deserved the trust of her prince.

Here we go. She threw open the door and jumped to the ground, choking on her first in-breath. The cold grabbed her by the throat, bit her ears, and shot up her nose. She clung to the door handle for a moment, stunned after spending hours in the stale warmth of the car. Shocked, too, because she'd never felt such penetrating cold in her life.

Three wolfish dogs circled her, their barking high-pitched and aggressive. They kept dogs? That was nuts. Dogs were no friends to vamps. She hissed at the dogs, and they backed off. Ruben and Collins waited. At her gesture, they fell into position behind her. Snorting snot and squinting through tears, Eva tromped along a rut in the snow toward the enemy.

As she approached, she saw that the animal eaters looked even stranger up close. Grim. Weathered. Hairy. Big. Really big. One tall, fur-swathed figure stepped out of the crowd. At first, all she could make out from beneath his deep hood was a short, copper-red beard. He lifted his head, and she spotted a span of pale cheekbone and twin flashes of eyeshine. He was staring straight at her.



Wat stepped forward to meet the small woman marching toward him. She wore sleek, expensive technical gear. All in black, of course. It wasn't keeping her warm enough. Already she was shivering. He doubted she'd have the dexterity to handle the big gun strapped to her thigh, but didn't want find out if the thugs spreading out behind her might be a little more cold-tolerant.

He'd expected Alya Adad to send a more impressive representative, but maybe she'd thought his people didn't merit the consideration. Or maybe this woman was disposable.

She stopped a body length from him. Gods bless her simple soul; she wasn't even wearing a hat. A hat would mess up her hair, wouldn't it? He sighed.

"Watkin Freysson?"

He raised his chin. "Call me Wat. Everyone does."

She cocked her head at him, her eyes bright despite the pending hypothermia, and offered him her hand. He took it, and it vanished in his big mitten.

"My name is Eva Sosa Padilla, lieutenant to Alya Adad, and her designated Hand. I also bear a warrant from the North American Council to treat in their interest. Are you still regent and authorized to treat for your people?"

"Yep. You have the boy? Is he whole?"

"He's here." She raised her voice and addressed his people. "We have no wish to deny you your blood prince." In a lower voice she added to Wat, "And yes, he's been treated well, despite his family's crimes."

"You mean their acts of self-defense?"

She twitched a heavy piece of dark hair off her face. "This is no place to have that discussion."

"You want to move some place warmer?"

"That would be nice."

"Then give us the boy, and you can get back in your car."

"I'd love to do that. All you have to do is finalize the treaty."

Her teeth were beginning to chatter. Wat bit back a smile. It was so hard to play conqueror when you were shivering like a rabbit. "Ah. So what you're saying is he's still a hostage."

She held up one gloved finger. "First, he's guaranteeing our safety." A second finger joined the first. "Second, I don't know why you think you have any grounds for complaint. We're mopping up here. Signing the treaty is a formality. You know the terms. Fulfill them, and you can have the boy."

Wat knew all this; yet he also knew he had no intention of signing that paper. It was surprisingly hard to come out and say this, though. Just as a shout could start an avalanche, his refusal would set off a series of reactions that he could not anticipate or control. He might even be shot in the next minute—a best-case scenario, considering his mood.

The silence stretched. When the Hand began to look concerned, he gave himself over to Fate. "I will die before accepting those terms. So will our prince."

The woman's hand drifted down her thigh to hover near the gun, but her voice remained cool, her words measured. "That's disappointing, Wat. We wouldn't be here if we didn't believe our groundwork to be firm. Are you sure you want to go down this path?"

At that, her two men stepped forward, hands on their weapons. Following their lead, her driver drew his weapon and aimed it over the hood of the idling SUV.

Wat sensed his brother, Ivar, moving into position behind him. A warm rush of adrenaline made Wat's fingers tingle. His nostrils flared, capturing the combined scents of car exhaust, gun oil, and tense city vamps. The old, wild part of him longed to mix it up. But this was bad ground, and there was the boy to consider.

Very slowly, he raised his hands to shoulder height, palms out. "Relax. This isn't the OK Corral."

"I don't want it to be." Eva Sosa Padilla's face had turned to stone. "What are you thinking about, Wat?"

He noted how she kept using his name. Maybe she'd learned that trick in Hand School. "I thought we might be able to work something out."

"Renegotiation? At this stage? You agreed—" Her head snapped to the left. In a flat voice she asked, "What are those men doing?"

The lady had excellent peripheral vision—some of his boys were trying to outflank hers.

"Call them off. Now."

He whistled, signaling the men back to their places.

"Things are getting a little tense, don't you agree?" Still her voice held no alarm, just a quiet flatness that, in combination with her stone face, was beginning to bother him. They said Alya Adad ate the souls. Maybe this Hand had already given hers over to her boss.

Careful not to move too much or too fast, he nodded toward her men. Her driver had his gun drawn, resting on the hood of the SUV. "Staring down the barrel of the gun does tend to put me on edge."

"That's not going to change, not as long as you're jacking us around."

"What if I told you I had snipers in the trees?" He tilted his head to the right, and then to the left.

Her expression grew even flatter, if that was even possible. "Then I'd say we're in a fucked-up situation."

"All I'm saying is that we're both in a position to do each other some damage."
"Your prince will be the first to die."

As Wat had told her, Gunnar would die before he betrayed his people. "It won't come to that. You said you're authorized to negotiate?"

Backwoods bastard. The terms of the treaty were simple enough. All they had to do was disband, move out of the woods, and quit feeding on animals. Not only was their diet barbaric, but it was also giving rise to too many uncomfortable rumors in the human community, rumors that put all vamps at risk. And if they stopped feeding on animals, they certainly couldn't stay in the woods. What would they eat? They'd have to move to the city. What points did he imagine she'd be able to negotiate?

She repressed a shiver. Her nose was numb, her ears likely to fall off any moment, and her toes had gone weird and tingly. Meanwhile, Nanook of the North planned to keeping her there, talking, until she dropped dead of exposure.

Taking a deep breath, she began, "As the defeated party—"

A scuffle broke out behind her: a thud, a shout, the pop of a gunshot. Ruben and Collins dove toward her. Wat was shouting, running toward the shot. The crowd scattered. A second shot, and then silence, except the furious barking of dogs. She broke free of her guards and ran to Car Two. One of her men leaned against the passenger door, holding his upper arm, blood seeping between his fingers. Wat held one of his own men by the arms. A handgun lay on the ground. Inside the car, the boy prince, Gunnar, struggled with his guard. Her team converged on the scene, weapons drawn. None of Wat's people on the ground held weapons, but she did not doubt his threat of the snipers in the trees—she could feel them up there.

"Where did the second shot go? Anyone else hurt?" Wat asked. General headshaking seemed to indicate it had gone wide.

Eva went to her wounded man. "Talk to me, Flitch." Flitch was from Car Three. What had he been doing by the prisoner car?

Flitch spoke between clenched teeth. "They tried for the kid."

"I did not authorize that," Wat said, emphatic. The man he was holding still struggled.
Sick of the circus, sick of the cold, sick of frigging Minnesota and its intransigent population of hairy vampires, she lashed out. "You didn't authorize it? Can't you control your own people?"

"I'm not the one who drove in here like it was the goddamn fall of Baghdad. What did you think would happen?"

"Now, now." A woman stepped out of the crowd. Eva only knew she was a woman by her voice; she was tall and swathed in unisex Nanook-wear like the rest of them. "You give boys guns, and how long do you think you have 'til they start to use them? Miss—what's your name? Pedela?"


"Miss Sosa. Seems Wat isn't of a mind to sign your treaty. And Wat is stubborn, take it from me. If we fight it out here, lots of folks are going to die, and the treaty still won't get signed. I'd recommend a different approach."

Collins stepped forward. "Here's a new approach for you, lady. Why don't we put a gun to your prince's head and see if that gets the treaty signed."

Eva wheeled around and showed him her teeth. "Stand down, and shut the fuck up."
But Collins was unswayed, belligerent. "They could have killed Flitch."

She stared at him, fuming, until he backed off. Never, ever, would she work with Collins again.

The woman flashed a smile from the depths of her hood. "How about a cup of coffee?"
Eva glanced around. Her own people were wound tight, weapons drawn. Wat's savage-looking people managed to be scary while doing nothing. And inside the car, Delilah had the prince in a throat-lock.

She sighed. "Ruben, see to Flitch. Collins, get in the car, and think about how you're going to explain your sense of initiative to Alya. Wat, you and I need to talk alone. Tell your people to disperse—including those snipers—and I'll send mine to the cars. This lady can stay."

"And Gunnar?"

"Gunnar stays in the car, to guarantee my safety."

Wat considered. "Fair enough." He waved off his people. They melted away into the darkness without argument.

She watched four previously invisible snipers shimmy down from the trees. How many others had remained aloft? But there was nothing to be done. If they shot her, they'd all die screaming once Alya caught up with them. They had to know that. At her nod, her men backed toward the cars, scanning the area, their hands still hovering near their weapons. Ruben opened the back of the lead car, pulled out a med kit, and began to treat Flitch's arm.

She turned back to the woman. "Coffee?" Unfortunately, her teeth chattered, so it sounded like Caw-ca-coffee?

"Oh, I don't drink the stuff myself." The woman smiled. "But Wat would be happy to make you a cup. You two will be fine together."

"Thanks, Maren," Wat said, his voice dry. He gestured ahead. "My place is through the trees. You're welcome, but your men stay here."

With a flick of her hand she stifled Ruben's protest. "You know that Alya does not negotiate for hostages?"

"We don't take hostages," Wat said, curt and bitter.

She believed him. "Lead on."

Wat led her off the road, through a stand of brush, and into a small parking lot. She spun around and saw the cleverly camouflaged gate that hid the entryway. Wat gestured that she should continue. They walked around the few trucks parked in the driveway, past the partially disassembled carcass of a snowmobile, and then up a short flight of slippery wooden stairs.

At the top, Wat said, "Welcome to Brunnrheim."

Eva's eyes went wide.