I wanted to kick October off by setting the right mood. Here’s a story I wrote just for fun called Shadows and Roses. Vampires, romance, and breaking a two hundred year old curse! (P.s. I can safely say I’m more of a novel gal. My fingers itched to add at least 50,000 more words to this.)
This is a paranormal retelling of Sleeping Beauty, except the roles are reversed. Enjoy!
Shadows and Roses
A bloodcurdling scream echoed in the skies, scattering a flock of crows toward the dark clouds overhead. Eliana’s heart squeezed as she dropped the bucket in her arms, the water splashing across the bottom of her blue skirt.
“Help!” Hazel screamed again as she staggered down the dirt road, her face pale and her eyes bloodshot.
Eliana joined the other townsfolk at the edge of the road as the twelve-year-old girl stumbled into her mother’s arms. Her arms shook uncontrollably, her breaths coming in labored gasps.
“Someone, fetch a wet cloth!” the mother cried, and Eliana rushed into action. She dipped a cloth into what remained of the water at the bottom of her bucket, and returned to the girl’s side.
“What happened?” she asked as she dabbed at the perspiration on the girl’s forehead. “Did you discover anything more about the curse?”
Her gaze drifted toward the dark clouds swirling overhead, a greenish tint in their gray depths. They gathered above the large gray castle several miles away, suffocating the skies so no sunlight reached their crops. Thorny green vines climbed the castle walls, a warning to stay away. At night, lamenting howls echoed from the direction of the castle, making sleep difficult to come by.
The castle had existed for as long as she could remember, the thorny vines making the roads impassable. But only in the last year had the clouds grown thicker and killed what remained of their crops and livestock. Two people had already died of starvation while several men had died trying to break through the impassable vines. More were sure to follow unless they broke whatever curse lay upon the land.
“Let me travel to the castle!” a man shouted, followed by a chorus of protests and arguing.
“The vines block any man from entering.”
“The last man who went was killed!”
“The curse favors women.”
Eliana continued to dab the cloth to Hazel’s forehead. “Tell us what happened.”
The voices died down to listen to the girl’s trembling answer. “Monsters.”
More arguing. Some didn’t want to risk anyone else’s lives by sending someone else through the thick vines. Others wanted to stop the curse from killing more of the townsfolk. Eventually, they ended up debating who to send next into the thorny void.
Her gaze drifted to the foreboding gray walls poking out from an expanse of vines and gnarled trees. Monsters… Could it be true?
She glanced at the people around her. Two skinny, malnourished children sat on a crate, watching the happenings with wide eyes. A woman large with child clutched her belly, her eyes filled with fear of losing the child. Men desperate to save their families from famine. Her aunt and uncle who had raised her since she was a child after her parents’ passing. Good people who gave up precious food to feed her.
“I’ll go,” she whispered. But the arguing continued, her words disappearing into the fray. She stood, holding her chin high and speaking louder. “I’ll go!”
The crowd hushed, disbelieving stares settling on her.
The village leader, Piers, looked her up and down, gray eyebrows drawn together. “Not you. You are of childbearing age. We need you here, to marry and settle down to keep the population from dying out.”
At eighteen years old, Eliana was much sought after as a bride in their small village of Bridgefield. She’d already turned down three proposals, her heart set for a life outside the walls. Her auburn hair was the color of rich tree bark in autumn, her eyes a forest green with flecks of gold. Light freckles dotted her face from too many afternoons spent outside. She may not be the most beautiful dame in the countryside, but she dared hope her looks were enough to attract a foreign suitor.
“A child surviving within the womb is a scarce possibility with this curse looming over our land. I will go.”
“I said no. We’ll send Margaret first thing in the morning. As for you… It’s time you did your duty to our village.”
She clenched her hands into fists as she returned Osbert’s stare, the last man to propose to her, and regretted it immediately. His icy gray eyes stared possessively at her. Greasy strands of hair threatened to fall from a balding head. Gapped teeth hid behind a snarling lip.
Unfortunately, the two prospects before him weren’t favorable either, as they were both somewhere between fifteen and twenty years older than her.
Later, late at night when her aunt and uncle breathed deeply in sleep on the other side of the room, she slipped quietly out of bed and slipped out the front door into the darkness of night.
Her shoulders tensed at a nearby sound, but no one stopped her as she waded through the darkness and to the road leading to the castle. A brisk wind rushed passed, gooseflesh prickling the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder. Nothing. She gazed at the foreboding path ahead.
And swallowed the lump in her throat.
Vines slithered lazily as they wound around the trunks of trees, suffocating the very life from them. The clouds overhead thickened until she stumbled blindly forward with nothing to guide her way, not even a flicker of moonlight.
Her heart jumped frantically within her rib cage when a screech filled the skies, something not quite human. She quickened her pace.
The castle grew larger with every step she took. The tangle of gnarled vines thickened until she lost sight of the castle completely. A wall rose up before her, vines slithering and hissing like snakes. Formidable thorns threatened to shred her to pieces if she tried to climb through the unforgiving maze.
“Let me through.” Her voice shook. She hid her trembling hands in the folds of her skirt.
A voice hissed as the thorns wove their way through the wall of tangles.
“Frozen in a vat of time
Waiting for the clock to chime
A miss to come to break the spell
To walk the path from heav’n to hell
One kiss to start the clock again
But find yourself within the den.”
A shudder wracked through her veins as she took a step backward, only for her shoulder to bump against something solid behind her. Terror gripped her with tight claws when she found herself surrounded by the vines, with no way back and no way forward.
Blood, the voice whispered.
Blood, it hissed again on all sides of her like a relentless echo.
One more time, it demanded, Blood.
“Who are you?” she shouted, spinning around in an attempt to locate the source of the voice. “I demand you end the curse!”
But instead of answering her, it repeated the riddle all while the cage of thorns continued to box her in. Panic jumped into her throat. She kicked at the vines, but her feet bounced harmlessly off the tangle of green. She clawed, pushed, kicked, yet her efforts didn’t deter the cage from closing in. A gasp escaped her as she stumbled backward, and in an attempt to catch herself, something sharp pricked her hand.
She cried out and clutched her bleeding hand to her chest, but instead of the vines trapping her further, they paused, and then all at once, they retreated. The wall untangled from its tight coils until a path lay ahead of her, leading directly to the castle.
Not wasting a single moment, she ducked out of the vine prison and glanced behind her with wide eyes. Although they didn’t move to trap her again, she felt like the…thing…was watching her.
A small sliver of relief escaped on her sigh. At least until she faced forward.
Two gargoyles stood as centuries on either side of the front entrance, their faces twisted into snarls, each with stone wings tucked behind them. One of the beasts furled its wings, its stony claws digging menacingly into the ground. The other crouched low as it glowered at her with blank gray eyes, ready to pounce.
Heart in her throat, Eliana grabbed a shovel resting against a tree and held it above her head. The crouching gargoyle pounced. She ducked and swung her shovel just in time to smack the metal against the second gargoyle’s shoulder as it flew over her head with outstretched talons. Before they could round on her, she opened the creaky front doors and slipped inside.
Air struggled to enter her lungs as she breathed heavily, her back against the closed double doors. A brisk chill brushed her shoulder blades. Not from outside, but from inside. A heavy dread filled the dark entryway. Ominous cobwebs hung from corner to corner. A layer of dust coated each table and the sconces hanging from each side of the wall. An eerie silence descended upon the castle. Gooseflesh crawled up her arms.
Hazel must have seen the gargoyles before running back to the village. Eliana wanted to race back to the village herself, but she forced herself to face forward, her head held high with mock bravery. She would defeat whatever curse infected the castle. Her aunt and uncle needed to eat. The villagers needed to survive the winter.
With trepidation in each step, she followed a long hallway. Picture frames lined the walls, each coated with thick dust.
Curiosity won over her fear as she wiped her hand across the dust to reveal a painting of a beautiful woman with red hair and brown eyes. Beneath the dust of a second painting lay a man with red hair and brown eyes, similar to the woman.
She swiped her fingers across one more painting to reveal a man with serious blue eyes and black hair. Unexpectedly, her heart stuttered as she gazed back at him. Handsome. Stoic. And more than likely dead if the state of the castle proved anything.
Taking a deep breath of stale, floating dust, she continued onward until the hallway opened into a vast room also filled with cobwebs and dust. Thorny vines slithered across the floor like snakes, latching onto walls and winding through furniture. It tangled itself with a long, rectangular table in the middle of the room. In the chairs surrounding the table…
A gasp escaped her. She dropped the shovel in her hand and the makeshift weapon clattered to the floor.
People. People sat in those chairs.
Without a care for herself, she rushed toward the table, only to slow as she took in the cobwebs and vines stretched across them. Twenty people in all, each pair of eyes closed as if sleeping. But instead of finding skeletons, she found healthy, vibrant faces.
The chanted rhyme echoed in her ears.
Frozen in a vat of time
Waiting for the clock to chime
A miss to come to break the spell
To walk the path from heav’n to hell
She recognized one of the people sitting at the table, the redheaded woman from the painting. Her hair contained a vibrant shine despite being coated with cobwebs. And her face…
A yelp escaped Eliana’s mouth as she jumped backward. Fangs. There were fangs in her mouth.
These were vampires.
In her haste to rush away from the scene, she tripped on a rusty goblet and landed on her back, staring up at vines crawling across the ceiling.
Something grabbed her skirt, and then her sleeves, her hair. She screamed as she kicked and swatted at shadows. One particularly strong shadow in the shape of a hunched-over monster grabbed her foot and managed to drag her several feet before she kicked it and met with something semi-solid.
“Get off me!” she shrieked.
She staggered to her feet and attempted to run back toward the entrance, but the shadows grabbed her again and pulled her in the direction of the carpeted staircase.
“Break the curse…”
“Break the curse…”
“Break the curse…”
“Let me go!” she screamed.
Finally, she broke free from their shadowy fingers and backed herself against the far wall. They didn’t touch her again, but rather moved around her. The half dozen shadows paced back and forth across the ground and walls. Eager. Waiting. Desperate.
Her heart settled a fraction when they continued their pacing, leaving her alone. The vampires at the table remained still as if in a deep slumber.
A strangled sob got stuck in her throat as she glanced toward the entrance. Gargoyles waited for her if she managed to escape this cursed place. Shadows and vampires threatened her within the castle’s walls.
She leaned back against the wall and took several deep breaths to calm her nerves. Not for the first time, she reminded herself of why she’d come. To break whatever curse lay upon the land. Running for her life wasn’t going to lift any curse.
Under her breath, she recited the rhyme again, this time focusing on the last two lines. “One kiss to start the clock again. But find yourself within the den. Of course. Den of vampires. But…a kiss?”
The last thing she wanted to do was kiss a vampire, but if she must do it, she would.
She started toward the table with purposeful strides, her gaze settling on the first male within reach. However, before she reached the table, the shadows grabbed her skirt again and pulled her in the direction of the stairs. Although her heart raced uncontrollably, she allowed them to guide her to the foot of the staircase.
The shadows shrank away as torches flickered to life along the walls, lighting up the deep red carpet climbing the stairs. She took one tentative step. And then another.
In a long, stretching hallway, she passed more dusty paintings of landscapes and several statues, one a head of a veiled lady, another a life-sized man wearing armor. She stared at the man, almost expecting it to jump at her like the gargoyles had, but it remained still.
At a fork in the hallway, she started to turn right, but torches flickered to life in the opposite direction. With tentative steps, her palms sweating, she continued to follow the trail of fire.
Vines crept along the walls as if following her progress. She released a shuddering breath, the whisper of sound echoing off the empty walls.
Finally, the torches stopped in front of a room, and for a long moment, she stood outside with fear pounding in her heart like a drum. What horrors lay inside?
She turned the door handle and pushed it open slowly. The hinges creaked as the door swung open to reveal a torch on either side of the room. Several windows were cracked as vines and thorns forced their way inside. A lone table stood in the middle of the room with several chairs surrounding it. In one of those chairs…
“Oh my,” she gasped as she leaped over a coil of vines and stumbled toward the end of the table where someone sat. Like the others, he remained still as if in sleep. Vines wrapped around his torso, keeping him tied to the chair. They wound around his arms, one of which lay inches away from a knife as if he’d fought the thorny beast and lost.
Sticky cobwebs clung to her fingers as she pulled them off the man’s head. Recognition flashed across her face. The man from the painting… The handsome one with dark hair and blue eyes, though his eyes were closed. Vibrant life still lived within his face, as if at any moment, he might wake up and carry on with everyday life.
First things first. She needed to cut him loose from the vines.
She reached for the knife on the table, still sharp despite the layer of dust. She carefully touched the blade to the vines gripping the man’s arm, but at the first slice, the living entity hissed and tightened its grip on him.
The man grunted as tendrils of blood dripped down his arm. Horror squeezed her heart. The vines’ thorns pricked his skin like barbs on a fence. If she tried to cut through them, she feared hurting him again.
Setting the knife down, she placed her hand on top of his and watched his face intently. “Can you hear me?”
He remained still, but after a moment, a muscle in his jaw twitched.
“You can,” she breathed. “Oh my, what a mess you’ve found yourself in. I don’t know how to free you. The others downstairs aren’t faring much better.”
She squeezed his hand reassuringly, but she wondered if she was the one who needed reassurance. As she eyed the vines, she wondered how quickly they could snatch her if she made one wrong move.
Trepidation a pulsing rhythm in her veins, she grabbed one of the torches from the wall. Slowly, she lowered it toward one of the vines until the fire touched it. The vine hissed and recoiled from the heat, but not before another vine shot out and wrapped around her ankle. A cry of surprise escaped her as the vine yanked her right off her feet. She landed hard on her back, black dots at the corners of her vision.
Instead of dragging her into its thorny depths, the vine released her at the same moment the torch flickered out, bathing half the room in darkness.
“All right,” she coughed as she climbed to her feet, her heart pounding with fear. “No knives and no fire. I suppose only a kiss remains. It’s a bit silly, don’t you think? A curse can’t end because of a kiss, right?”
The vampire didn’t answer her, but his jaw jumped again.
When the vines didn’t make a move to snatch her, she cautiously approached the man, her hands nervously clasped in front of her. She thought of her village, of the people who needed her help to survive. It was only a kiss, and with no shadow hands to grab her clothing and tear her away, she wondered if this was the right man.
“You can’t kiss a stranger…” she murmured. She swallowed the trepidation rising in her throat as she side-stepped long ropes of vine and lowered herself onto his lap—a daring feat she never would have attempted should the situation not have demanded it. She wouldn’t get a good enough angle otherwise. “My name is Eliana. I came here alone because my village refused to let me give this a try. Several men have already died trying to break whatever curse this is. A young girl escaped with her life, but I fear for her mental well-being.”
She took a deep breath and cupped one hand on his strong jaw, the other lay on his chest. No heartbeat.
Did a vampire deserve to be freed from a prison of vines?
Her gaze jumped across his face. She didn’t know anything about him. His background. His history. Not even his name. How could she judge him for his past deeds? But if this worked and she released him from this curse, would she be setting an even bigger threat on her people than just famine from lack of sunlight?
Was it a risk she was willing to take?
And what was the reason for the curse in the first place?
Hoping to not regret her decision, she cupped his face with both hands and leaned in. The moment their lips brushed, the air shifted around them as sparks flew in all directions. Heat flamed within her core, hot and devouring. She breathed in a sharp breath of surprise when a gentle pair of hands touched her waist before the man returned her kiss with equal fervor.
Her heart whispered the word with each frantic beat. She didn’t even know this man, yet her heart yearned for him like nothing she’d known existed.
But the kiss ended too abruptly as he cried out in pain and pushed her away. The vines extracted their thorns from his arms and slithered out the windows in a rush. Her eyes widened as she jumped to her feet and rushed to the window just as the last vine dispersed. The dark clouds overhead dissolved and revealed the light blush of pre-dawn.
Soon, the sun would rise.
She delighted in the fact that the land would once again receive sunlight. She had done it. The curse was broken.
She spun around with a large smile on her face, wanting to share her joy with the man, but to her dismay, he was gone. No trace of him remained.
Slowly, her smile fell into one filled with sorrow. He left? But what about the kiss? What about the incredible sparks between them?
Laughter from downstairs pulled her attention away from the empty seat. She rushed from the room and stood at the top of the stairs to find the twenty other vampires hugging and crying and laughing and kissing. Joy filled every inch of their expressions.
“I thought for sure she was going to kiss you, Anton!” someone laughed as she hugged a male vampire, tears streaming down her cheeks. “She would have bolted in the other direction after getting a whiff of your two-hundred-year-old morning breath.”
“Very funny,” he replied with a roll of his eyes.
Another couple smiled at each other, their eyes sparkling with happiness.
“I had my mouth open and everything,” the man said with a grimace. “Do you know how many things crawled in there in two hundred years? And I couldn’t do anything—” His eyes widened and he dipped into a quick bow as Eliana descended the stairs.
Her heart stopped for a moment as her gaze roamed over his black hair, his prominent chin. But her hopes fell right through the floor. It wasn’t him. Perhaps a relative. But it wasn’t him.
“Where are you going?” the red-headed female beside him asked, also dipping into a curtsy. “You belong with us now. You broke our curse.”
“I was looking for… Well, I don’t know his name.”
The two vampires shared a look. The black-haired man grimaced. “My brother, Godric. He’s…”
“Reclusive,” the woman finished for him. “Solitary. Keeps to himself. He’s our coven leader, but this whole curse business started because he refused to take a mate.”
“Don’t sound so bitter, Veronica,” the man said with a grin as he poked her in the ribs with his elbow. “You got second best.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist and gave him a look of pure adoration. “First best,” she murmured.
Eliana took that moment to make her leave. A wave of disappointment washed over her, and curious stares followed as she exited the castle. What had she expected? One magical moment did not equate to a lifetime of happiness, vampire or not. He had disappeared so suddenly… Perhaps he did not want her here. Perhaps he still did not want a mate.
Thankfully, as she exited the castle, the gargoyle sentries were no longer standing guard, as if they, too, had disappeared along with the curse. Or at least she hoped.
The pre-dawn light illuminated the beautiful courtyard, a garden filled with flowers of all varieties from roses to peonies to hydrangeas. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the sweet air.
Looking back one last time at the castle, she started toward the road to return home. However, it no longer was home. Not anymore. Oh, how she would feel so much more out of place than she already did in the village.
One foot stepped onto the road, but a voice behind her startled her.
“Wait! You will turn to dust if you leave the property.”
She jumped back, her heart racing as she glanced down at her body, her arms, her feet, her legs. No dust. She spun to face the man she had kissed. Godric. “I will?”
His lips twitched in amusement from where he leaned against a tree. “No. I just didn’t want you to leave.”
Her mouth dried as she gazed back at him. Holy handsome… Godric’s eyes were a stunning shade of blue, his hair as black as midnight. He was also much taller than she’d realized, standing at about a foot higher than her. The spell ended suddenly when he smiled, revealing the set of fangs in his mouth. A vampire. Godric was a vampire.
“You must forgive me,” he grimaced when she still said nothing. “I have been completely alone for two hundred years. I find my social skills suddenly lacking.”
“You remember those two hundred years?”
“Every agonizing second.”
“What…” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She’d never met a vampire before, though she’d heard plenty of frightening tales. But Godric didn’t seem all so threatening. “What happened?”
Home… Her heart whispered the word again.
He ambled toward the waist-high brick wall surrounding the property, broke off a red rose from a nearby bush, and brought it to his nose. He inhaled the scent with his eyes closed as if savoring the sweet aroma. When he lowered himself onto a stone bench, she dared to approach, but she didn’t quite dare to sit next to him.
“What happened was a girl and her overly ambitious match-making witch of a mother. No, really. She was a witch. When I refused to take the girl as my mate, the mother cast a spell on my coven. We’ve been frozen in time for two hundred years, cursed to experience every second of it. Until you came along.” He lifted his gaze and gave her a charming smile, one that knocked the air right out of her lungs.
Unable to help herself, she joined him on the bench when her knees gave out.
“I never said thank you.” He placed the red rose on her lap. “I know very little of you, but yet you are extraordinary.”
A sweet fragrance greeted her when she lifted the flower to her nose. The velvety petals tickled her skin like a gentle caress. And the thorns… A lump formed in her throat when she realized Godric was a rose. Beautiful and sweet, but not without dangerous thorns.
“Let me see your arm,” she said as she reached for him and carefully pulled up his sleeve. Pink scratches and thorn marks crawled up his arm, the wounds much faded from last she’d seen them. “You heal quickly.”
He nodded. “One of the benefits of being a vampire.”
At the mention, she bit her lip, her heart beating unnaturally fast as she lightly stroked a finger over one of the wounds.
“Does it bother you?” he asked. “That I’m a vampire?”
Her head snapped up to meet his gaze, and her heart thundered for an entirely different reason as she stared into his entrancing blue eyes. Honesty flew from her lips as if coaxed by magic. “Yes. I don’t know much about vampires other than the horror stories I’ve heard around the campfire.” She blinked several times and then smacked his arm. “You enthralled me! Never do it again.”
A wince contorted his handsome features. “I apologize. Like I said, my social skills are a bit lacking.” He wrapped a hand around hers, the one holding the rose. Neither pulled away. His skin was cold, but his touch warmed her entire body nonetheless. “Vampires are predators. Of course, people will make up lies or stretch the truth. There are those out there who feast on human blood. I can’t say I haven’t, though under acceptable circumstances. It tastes better than animal blood. But my coven chooses the latter route. We prefer not to make a mess of things.”
His thumb stroked her wrist in gentle, soothing circles. Magic sparked between them, full of warm anticipation and absolute connection. Eliana wanted to be here. Stay here. Somewhere she felt like she belonged.
Continuing, he said, “Humans have…complicated entanglements. I think I will steer clear of them for now.”
Disappointment coursed through her when he dropped her hand. A frigid wall of ice began to creep up between them, and if she didn’t knock it down immediately, she feared it would remain.
“All of them?” she asked in a near whisper.
He studied her for a moment before a smile blossomed across his face, fangs visible and all. “Perhaps I can make one exception.” Once again, he took her hands and kissed one wrist, then the other. Fiery flames shot between them, a searing heat she had no desire to douse. “I have been alone for so long… I don’t want to be alone anymore. Eliana, will you become my bride? My mate?”
Still, she fought against the pull to him. But it was a fight she was losing.
“We hardly know each other.”
“We know enough to begin a beautiful union. Besides, sometimes the heart knows when it’s found a home.” He kissed her jaw. Below her ear. And her body trembled with anticipation as he hovered just over her lips.
Despite not being in his enthrall, she found herself powerless to refuse. She’d always wanted a life away from her small village. This certainly was not the turn she had envisioned, but it was the right one. She felt it deep within her heart.
Their lips met in an achingly beautiful kiss, as if he had been waiting two hundred years to find her, and she had been waiting for the right man to come along. Her hands traveled up his chest, over his broad shoulders, and she played with the hair at the nape of his neck.
When they broke apart, she breathed heavily, her lungs taking in breath after breath of his sweet scent.
“Godric,” she whispered.
“Eliana.” He smoothed her hair down, his fingers creating gooseflesh along her neck, down her arms, and then warmth sprouted to life where their hands touched. Another joyful smile pulled up on his lips as he kissed her forehead and laced their fingers together.
“Allow me to introduce you to your new coven.”