Authors: Sara C. Roethle
Tags: #urban fantasy series, #myths and legends, #Fae and fairies, #Vikings, #gods and goddesses
Book One of the Bitter Ashes Series
©2015 Sara C Roethle
felt hot breath on the side of my neck. At first I thought it was a dream, then the bed shifted as someone slowly climbed up beside me. Fully awake now, I froze, my thoughts racing for some sort of explanation. I lived alone, and didn't have the type of friends that would stay the night. Whoever was sidling up beside me had broken in.
I slowly opened my eyes, hoping to not alert the intruder that I was awake. The room was nearly pitch black, but the curtained window let in enough moonlight for me to see a second form standing beside the bed. Judging by the build, I was pretty sure it was a man, though I was still unsure about whoever was in bed beside me.
I snapped my eyes shut as the standing intruder bent at the waist, placing his hands on either side of my pillow. He continued to lean down until his face was only inches from the large artery in my neck. The one who had climbed onto the bed shifted a little closer to my feet.
The man near my neck took a deep breath, almost like he was sniffing me, then the presence lifted away. I let out a quivering breath that turned into a scream as suddenly both figures grabbed me. The one on the bed grabbed my feet as the other pulled me up by my armpits into a vice-like embrace. A large, masculine hand clamped over my mouth to stifle my screaming.
The one who'd grabbed my feet scooted to the end of the bed and stood so that I was lifted entirely into the air. The intruders began moving as one toward my bedroom door as I thrashed my body wildly, hoping to loosen their grasp. I only succeeded in straining my back and a few other muscles as the figures carried me effortlessly through the dark house. I tried to scream again as we neared the back door, but the hand pressed more firmly against my mouth, effectively muffling the sound.
The figure carrying my feet put them both under one arm so he could fling the back door open, bathing us in a wash of chilly air. I tried to make out the features of the person holding onto my bare feet, but the clouds covering the moon stunted my vision. All I could see was the outline of broad shoulders and possibly wavy hair.
I turned my eyes skyward and began to cry, soaking the hand that covered my mouth. Stars twinkled serenely above me as we entered the woods that bordered my house. I gave up on my thrashing and let my body go limp, but it didn't slow my attackers any more than my previous strategy.
My captors continued gracefully through the foliage even though they each held one end of a human being. I began to shiver with the cold, but it didn't seem to bother the man carrying my upper half. He radiated warmth, even though I could feel only the fabric of a thin tee shirt against the back of my head and neck.
It seemed like we ran on for ages, but the men carrying me never tired. I closed my eyes and told myself that I was dreaming, yet the bite of cool wind and the ache in my back did their best to shatter the illusion. Eventually we came to a stop, deep within the darkness of the woods.
I felt dizzy from moving horizontally so quickly, and so didn't immediately react as I was lowered to the rocky, damp ground.
I was placed gently on a raised mound of earth. The soil was soft and felt like it had recently been turned, with loose rocks jabbing into me here and there. Moisture soaked into the back of the tee-shirt and underwear I'd gone to sleep in, chilling me further.
My panicked breathing brought in the scent of damp earth and growing things while my two captors crouched over me. I tried to sit up, but hands instantly pushed me back down. Something slithered across my arm. My first thought as the cold, rough skinned creature made its way toward my neck was
My heart pounded in my throat as more things slithered over me. I pushed against the restraining hands, but I couldn't seem to budge them. I screamed, and one of the hands lifted from my shoulder to cover my mouth. It wasn't an improvement since now my head was being forced against the earth, hard enough that the soil scratched my scalp. Within seconds I was covered entirely with slithering objects. Some of the objects started reaching up toward the sky like tiny hands trying to grasp the moon.
The spindly creatures unfurled toward the dim light, casting eerie moon shadows on my face. Something was wrong with them though. They had no heads, and instead branched off at the ends like no creature I'd ever seen. It was then that I realized I wasn't covered in snakes, they were
. I was glad that the things weren't snakes, but being slowly engulfed in living vines did nothing to ease my panic.
I began to fight against them with increased desperation, a last ditch effort to not be buried alive, but they only bound me tighter, until I could no longer move at all. It became hard to breathe, and in that moment I knew I was going to die. I managed to catch one last glimpse of stars as the last of the vines covered my face, obscuring my view completely.
y eyes snapped open. I sat up in bed with a deep, aching breath, clutching at my chest. The last thing I remembered was vines encasing my entire body, then pulling me down into the cold, moist earth. I had been buried alive while my attackers watched silently.
The bed I was in now was not my own.
bed was back in my small house in a suburb of Spokane, Washington where I lived alone, and had lived alone for many years. It had been a long time since someone had been in that bed with me. I hadn't expected for it to finally happen again when someone decided to kidnap me.
Dim lighting in the room revealed that this unfamiliar bed was one of those four poster monstrosities with a princess canopy. I reached out and touched the nearest post, half expecting myself to wake up out of a nightmare at any moment. The wood was smooth to the touch, thick and obviously expensive.
My distorted reflection looked back at me from the dark, gleaming wood. What I could see of my long, medium brown hair was a snarled mess. I looked back into my blurry blue eyes numbly, and couldn't seem to think of anything beyond my messy hair.
I shook my head in an attempt to clear the fog. I had to get out of there. My bare feet slid to the edge of the burgundy comforter as I lowered myself to the ground. The floor and surrounding walls were made of strange gray stone that made me feel like I was in some sort of castle.
A crackling sound caught my attention. I jumped, ready to fend off my attacker, then realized the sound had come from the simple stone fireplace in the far wall. My first thought was that perhaps fire could be used as a weapon, but I had nothing to wield it with. That was just like my attackers to not leave me a torch.
“I didn't expect you to be awake yet,” a male voice said from behind me.
I nearly stumbled as I tried to turn around too quickly. A man stood framed in the now open doorway, leaning against the frame casually. He wore black slacks and no shirt or shoes. It was an odd look that made it seem as if he simply hadn't finished dressing yet . . . or perhaps he just hadn't finished
I grasped at the ends of my oversized gray tee-shirt and tried to cover at least a small portion of my bare legs. I realized as I looked down that my legs were still covered in dirt from my experience in the woods, verifying that it had all been quite real. Perhaps this man was one of my kidnappers.
He chuckled at me as he stepped further into the room. His straight, black hair fell well past his shoulders to frame his pale skin and dark brown eyes perfectly. My mouth went dry with a mixture of fear and apprehension as he took another step forward. He was tall, I placed him around 6'2”, given that I'm 5'9” and still had to look up to meet his eyes as he came even closer.
I held up a hand in front of me and backed away. “S-stop,” I stammered. “Where am I?”
The man cocked his head at me. He was attractive in an ethereal sort of way. Something about the slope of his jaw or the narrowness of his nose made him seem almost feminine, though he was clearly
man. “Where do you think you are, Madeline?”
“It's Maddy,” I corrected, still gripping my shirt with one hand while I pushed my hair out of my face with the other, “and how do you know my name?”
He met me step for step until my back was against the hard stone wall. When that distance was closed, he pushed his body gently against mine, just barely, half threat, half seduction. I craned my neck to look up at his deep brown eyes, feeling like a deer in the headlights.
“Don't you want to know
name?” he asked casually and he reached a hand up to twirl the ends of my messy hair around his fingers.
He smiled widely, and if I didn't know any better I would say I saw the points of little fangs where his canines should have been. Then again, I had just been pulled through the earth into some sort of windowless castle by vines, maybe I didn't know any better.
“No,” I gasped, “but directions to the nearest exit wouldn't hurt.”
He smiled again, flashing his little fangs. “I like a girl who can joke when she's terrified.”
I gulped, unsure whether or not he was just toying with me. “I wasn't joking,” I said, voice barely above a whisper.
He grinned. “Neither was I, but I'm afraid I can't show you the exit when you've only just arrived.”
“Leave her alone, Alaric,” a woman's voice snapped from the doorway.
The fanged man stepped aside to reveal a woman that looked startlingly similar to him. She strode into the room confidently, trailing the ends of her gossamer-thin red dress behind her. Her black hair hung nearly to her waist, intermingling with the loose red fabric like oil on blood. There was something else about her that I recognized, though I couldn't quite place it. It tickled at the edges of my memory, letting me know that I had seen her before.
Alaric left me to stand by the woman I had to assume was his sister, given their strong resemblance. He tugged on her long hair playfully like they were children, eliciting a steely glare from her dark eyes. I watched the woman's face, searching for any sign that she might recognize me as well, but she only returned her gaze to eye me coolly.
“Out,” the woman ordered her brother sternly, pointing a finger behind her toward the door.
Alaric gave her a mocking salute, then winked at me. I stared back at him as he turned to glide toward the door.
was the only word I could think of to describe his walk. He moved like a cat, with light steps and limber, balanced grace.
The woman came toward me, taking my attention off Alaric's sinewy back as he left the room. She looked annoyed, yet I still instantly preferred her company to that of her brother. At least she wouldn't hit on me . . . probably.
“I'm Sophie,” she introduced.
The introduction would have been nice had it been accompanied by a smile, but I decided to keep my opinion to myself. I caught a glimpse of dainty, sharp canines in her mouth as she sniffed the air around me. I gulped, suddenly glad that I'd chosen not to speak.
“You need a bath,” Sophie said with a sneer, revealing her sharp teeth more clearly.
“What am I doing here?” I asked, ignoring her statement. “I know I've seen you before.”
“We've never met before, Madeline,” she replied flatly. She said my name with harsh emphasis on the
, and something once again tickled my memory.
I saw a flash of her in my mind, sitting behind a large, wooden desk.
This time will be different
, she said with a warm smile. She wore a modest skirt suit, with her black hair pulled back into a tight braid.
“You were my case-worker!” I said suddenly as realization dawned on me.
I had sat on the other side of that desk so many times growing up, and those moments were thoroughly ingrained in my memory. In fact, I was surprised I hadn't recognized her sooner.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” she snapped, though her eyes shifted nervously.
I almost believed her despite the nervous twitch. She hadn't aged a day, and I'd been out of the foster system for over ten years. Yet, the resemblance was just too much to be a coincidence.
“Why am I here?” I repeated, beginning to panic again. “Don't lie to me, I remember you. I was in and out of your office often enough to remember.”
I knew I was right. Sophie had been my case-worker as I was bounced around from home to home all those years ago. Now that I'd made the connection, I remembered distinctly how she'd said my name each time she told me that the next home would be different. A few weeks, or a few months later, I'd go back and call her a liar, but she'd never get angry.