Read Chapter One of Firebird

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Firebird is now available in paperback! Read the first chapter below:

Chapter One

 

It was Sunday morning, and I was going to meet William.

And I was nervous.

A feeling of uneasiness had been growing on me steadily within the last month, and just as steadily I had pushed it aside. But the feeling was stronger than ever this morning, and this time I couldn’t block it out.

And so I hesitated before the door.

Things are normal now, I said to myself sternly. You no longer have visions. All of that is over.

I wasn’t having a vision, but there was a feeling—a barrier—something solid but invisible standing in my way. The way this strange feeling overwhelmed me reminded me of how I had felt when I had had visions—it overpowered my senses and threatened to blot out the reality in front of me.

This particular feeling warned me not to leave the house.

But I was determined to go—I wasn’t going to let fear run my life—no matter what had happened in the recent past.

All the same, I couldn’t help stepping quietly back to my grandmother’s office at the front of the house and peering in through the open door. GM was sitting with her back to me, her head bent as she perused a letter, her long silver braid flowing like liquid silk down her back. I had already said goodbye to her, but I had a strong urge to say it again—as if it would be the last time I would ever see her.

Don’t be ridiculous, I said to myself. What could happen in a sleepy small town like Elspeth’s Grove?

But my own memories of a little more than a month ago rose up like an uneasy spirit to answer me.

I saw a livid face, burning eyes—I heard inhuman cries—

I shut my mind against the memory and hurried out the front door before I lost my nerve.

The morning was clear and cold—it was just past Thanksgiving—and a brisk wind kicked up, whipping my pale hair across my eyes. I pulled the strands of hair away from my face carefully.

As I pulled my unruly hair back and secured it, I wondered what advice my mother would have given me on a day like today—a day on which, if I admitted it to myself, I could feel danger in the air.

I tried to close my mind to it, but the strange feeling remained.

I hurried on toward Hywel’s Plaza, which was surrounded on all sides by trees, and as I entered the wooded area, I was struck by the eerie calm of the place. There were no sounds of birds or other animals—it was as if the woods were watching, waiting for something. There were no people or houses nearby, and I broke into a sudden, panicked run.

What do you think is in these woods? I asked myself, and I found I couldn’t answer my own question. I just knew that I wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as fast as I possibly could.

I ran for what felt like an eternity before breaking out suddenly on a clearing.

Stretched before me was a vast sheet of ice surrounded by a low wall. A roof made of pipes and angles, supported by thick metal poles, extended protectively over the ice, and black matting had been laid down between the ice rink and the skate house. The rink was brand-new and had only been open for about a week.

Loud, cheerful music suddenly filled the plaza, and I could see that skaters were already out on the ice. All of the sound and motion was a pleasant contrast to the watchful silence of the trees. As I stood looking out over the big white sheet of ice, the sun dipped behind a thick bank of solid gray clouds, and its harsh glare was blunted, suffusing the area with a muted, gentle glow.

The area around the rink was fairly crowded, and the atmosphere was cheerful, happy, relaxed. And in the midst of the crowd, I spotted a familiar, well-loved figure.

I hurried forward.

William turned and smiled his crooked half smile.

A casual observer would describe William as tall, lean, dark-haired—maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. The only thing that might be said to be unusual about him were his eyes—blue was not an unusual color, but the intensity of the color in his eyes wasn’t quite human. There were other words, too, that had been used to describe him—cursed, damned, outcast—words that had real, if melodramatic meaning. There were still other words that described him—fantastical words but real nonetheless. On this particular morning my mind shied away from that last group of words—as if thinking them could somehow bring about disaster.

“You had me worried, Katie,” William said as I reached him. His voice was colored as always by an accent that I could never quite place. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of tension in it.

I glanced at him sharply, and I could see faint lines of strain around his eyes. I was late, and that was unusual for me—but it seemed to me that William was anxious over more than just my lateness. Or was it my imagination? I shrugged the feeling off—I figured I was just projecting my own recent paranoia onto him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just got started a little later than I meant to.”

William held out his hand, and I took it, marveling anew at the tingle that ran through me whenever he touched me. His skin was warm, and his hand was pleasantly calloused. I didn’t want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to be with him. As I had done for the past month, I decided not to tell him about the strange feeling of dread that had stolen over me.

We started toward the skate house.

“Were you worried about trying to skate today?” William asked.

“No,” I said, making an effort to be relaxed. “I wasn’t worried about skating.”

A strong gust of wind swirled around us then, causing me to stop and turn toward William. He slipped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.

There was laughter out on the ice, as skaters found themselves pushed around involuntarily by the wind.

We stood together until the wind died down, and then I went closer to the ice to watch the skaters for a few minutes—I had never actually been ice-skating before.

A little girl with braids and red mittens went flying by on miniature skates, her cheeks flushed with happiness. An even smaller girl with equally pink cheeks gave a tiny shriek and chased after the bigger girl. I wondered if the two of them were sisters.

The atmosphere at the rink seemed so happy and normal that it was hard for me to credit my fears of only a few minutes ago. Surely there was nothing dangerous in the woods that surrounded us.

“Do you think you can do that, too?” William had come up to stand beside me, and he was smiling at me now.

I glanced over at the two little girls who were now on the other side of the rink.

“I think so,” I said, smiling back at him.

We turned once more toward the skate house.

As we reached the door, William stopped and looked around suddenly, as if he’d heard something. His eyes narrowed warily.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. He gave me a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m positive—it’s nothing.”

I knew William could hear things I couldn’t, and I felt a flash of panic that I quickly pushed aside. I told myself to relax—just because William had heard something that had distracted him, didn’t mean it was something dangerous. I would have to make an effort to get my imagination under control.

We continued on into the skate house and emerged a short time later with skates on our feet.

A gate stood open in the rink, and I walked over to it and paused with one hand resting on either side of the gate. The ice stretched out in front of me, white and unforgiving.

Now that I was about to step onto it, the rink suddenly seemed much bigger than I had realized, and the ice itself seemed to glow faintly, as if it were pulling all available light into its depths. It almost didn’t seem real.

I was seized powerfully by nerves.

At the same time, I felt something like relief. The fear I was currently feeling was born of the moment—it had nothing to do with the fear that had very nearly prevented me from leaving the house that morning. It was a perfectly normal fear.

As I stared at the ice, however, I suddenly saw a dark figure appear in the white surface—right by my feet. The figure was black and shifting and vaguely human in form. It looked like a human shadow, but it wasn’t mine—and it was definitely something that shouldn’t have been there. At first there was only one—and then there was another and another. The figures seemed to swim under the surface of the ice itself—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, as if they were trying to escape.

I backed away from the ice.

William was standing right behind me, and I bumped into him.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He took my arm, and we stepped away from the gate.

“There’s something out there—under the ice,” I said. “I can see—things.”

“Those are just shadows,” William said reassuringly. “It’s nothing to worry about. The ice can play tricks on your eyes if you’re not used to it. You’ll adjust.”

I looked back out over the ice again, and the strange shapes I’d seen had disappeared. Maybe William was right—maybe I’d just seen shadows.

“Go on out, Katie,” William said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here to catch you if you fall.”

There was more laughter from the ice rink, and I looked around. Out on the ice there were parents helping their young children, older children racing each other, smiling couples holding hands. Everyone and everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth that I wanted to join them.

For just a moment, I wished that I could be normal, too.

I stepped back to the gate. Two skaters suddenly zipped past me at what seemed like alarming speed, and I felt a little tingle of nerves again. I told myself I would be fine as long as I didn’t see any more dark shapes in the ice.

“Like I said, I’ll be right here to catch you,” William murmured.

I waited till the way was clear, and then I stepped out onto the ice. Almost immediately I began to slip, and I grabbed frantically for the wall, catching it just in time to prevent myself from falling.

I clung to the wall, my heart pounding.

William glided around to my side and leaned against the wall, his lips twitching suspiciously.

“You’re laughing at me,” I said.

“No, no, I’m not,” William said, but his smile grew broader. “I’m not laughing at you, really.”

I continued to cling to the wall.

“So, what do I do?” I asked after a moment. “I don’t actually know how to move away from here.”

William reached over and helped me to prize my hands away from the wall. Then he pulled me to a standing position. As he did so, I noticed with some irritation that his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

Over the next hour—with William’s help and with much stumbling on my part—I managed to make it all the way around the rink several times—and I even managed to move away from the safety of the wall. We kept going, and eventually, I raised my head and looked around. I realized I was moving along with everyone else on the ice and having a good time.

William gave me his crooked smile. “You’re glad you did this now, aren’t you?”

I could feel the cold air nipping at my cheeks, but the rest of me was comfortably warm. And William was beside me.

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I’m happy I did this. And I don’t just mean the ice-skating.”

William bowed his head, so I wouldn’t see his expression, but I could tell he knew what I meant.

William and I were together now, but it hadn’t been easy to get to this point—and we hadn’t been together for very long. But even though we were officially a couple, he kept limits on our time together. I still didn’t know very much about him, and that included the things he could tell me—I didn’t even know where he lived.

But he was here now—and that was all that mattered at the moment.

When William and I were done out on the ice, we went into the skate house and sat down on the benches to unlace our skates.

I could feel William’s eyes on me, and I looked up at him. There was something forlorn in his expression.

“You don’t want me to go, do you?” I said.

“No.” His voice was quiet.

“We can spend more time together, you know.”

“No, we can’t.” William was suddenly stern. “We have to limit our time together. No matter how much I wish things were different.”

“Because you think you’re cursed,” I said.

“Because I am cursed,” he replied. “All I can do is savor the time I have with you before you find someone of your own kind.”

“My own kind,” I said, shaking my head. What was my kind exactly? William insisted on seeing me as a normal girl—but I was far from normal.

The two of us put our shoes on and walked out into the cold. I was warm from my recent exertions, but a gust of wind kicked up, and I shivered. William put his arm around me.

We left the rink and entered the woods nearby. Another shudder ran through me as I thought once again of the fact that I didn’t know where William lived. What if he had no home? What if he slept outside in the frozen night? Of course, I didn’t know if William ever actually had to sleep. And I didn’t know if he felt the cold—though somehow I doubted that he did. But I still didn’t like the idea of William’s not having a proper home.

“William, why won’t you tell me where you live?” I asked.

“Because you don’t need to know.”

I felt frustration welling up within me—William gave me that same answer whenever I asked him anything about himself. I knew today would be no different, but I suddenly felt very stubborn.

I persisted. “Do you have a job? Where do you go while I’m at school?”

“Katie, it’s not important for you to know these things. You know we need distance. You’re too young to get deeply involved. I’m much, much older than you are, and I can barely remember my past. Like I said, someday you’ll leave me for one of your own kind. Leave the heartache to me.”

“William, answer my questions,” I said. “Answer just one. Tell me what neighborhood you live in.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this territory before. Why are you bringing all of this up again?”

“I worry about you,” I said. “I want you to live somewhere safe and comfortable. I want to know you’re okay.”

William gave me a searching look. “It’s your grandmother, isn’t it? She’s uncertain about me. You must have told her by now that I don’t go to school, and she wonders what I do with my life. She must wonder if I’m good for you.”

I felt a brief stab of guilt when he mentioned my grandmother.

“It’s not GM,” I said.

“She doesn’t ask about me?”

“No.”

William looked puzzled. “Are you telling me that your grandmother has never had any questions about me?”

“I wouldn’t say she’s never had any questions about you,” I replied.

“But?”

“But she hasn’t had any questions about you since we returned from Russia.”

“Why not?” William demanded.

“Because GM doesn’t know you’re in Elspeth’s Grove. She thinks you stayed in Russia.”

“What?” William stopped walking and stared at me, incredulous.

He continued to stare at me.

“Your grandmother doesn’t know I’m in Elspeth’s Grove,” he said slowly. “So she doesn’t know that we’ve been meeting?”

“No—I was afraid she would forbid me to see you.”

“Katie, I insist on seeing your grandmother,” William said sternly. “I want her to know I’m here. I need to—”

He stopped suddenly. He turned to look behind us.

I turned too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone. William held up a hand.

As I stood looking around me, I noticed that the surrounding woods were quiet and somehow watchful—just as they’d been when I’d walked through them earlier.

I thought once again of the fact that there were no houses nearby.

William continued to stare at a fixed point somewhere off in the trees.

“William, what’s—”

“Katie, get out of here,” he whispered. He didn’t turn to look at me.

“William?”

“Katie, go! Run!”

I turned to do as he asked, panicked by the tone in his voice.

I had not gone very far when someone stepped out of the trees and blocked my way.

I looked up and found myself staring into the calm, pale eyes of a vampire.

His name was Innokenti, and I had last seen him in the Pure Woods in Krov, Russia.

He was friendly. Sort of.

“Hello, little one.” His voice, as I remembered only too well, was silky and just a little superior. His brown hair fell in a straight line to his chin, and his clothes were as picturesquely antique as they had been the last time I’d seen him—he appeared to have stepped out of the Middle Ages.

Innokenti’s presence here in these woods was deeply disturbing. I had believed that I would never see him again after I left Russia—and I certainly hadn’t expected him to show up today. Seeing him again was like being revisited by a nightmare.

“Innokenti,” I said, taking a step back. “What are you doing here?”

He bared his teeth in a smile that was far from reassuring—especially since it allowed me to see the unusually sharp outline of his teeth.

“My friend and I,” he said, “have traveled thousands of miles to pay you and William a visit. How fortunate we are to find the two of you together.”

Innokenti sent a significant nod over my shoulder, and I turned.

Standing next to William now was a man I didn’t recognize—young, tall, dark of hair and eye, dressed all in black. William was staring at the young man with dislike, his body tense, his expression set into harsh lines. For his part, the newcomer was smiling malevolently at William.

Innokenti gestured to the young man. “Shall we go over so I may make introductions?”

As Innokenti and I walked over to them, I had to remind myself that Innokenti had never actually done me any harm—but no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.

As we reached William and the stranger, I could see a muscle working in William’s jaw, and the stranger’s smile deepened as he looked me over with unpleasant scrutiny. His eyes met mine, and I was startled by just how dark they were—they were eyes with the depth of night in them.

“Innokenti, get out of here,” William said angrily. “And take him with you.”

“Now, now, William,” Innokenti replied mildly. “This is a friendly visit.” He gestured to the stranger. “The two of you know each other, of course. But introductions are in order for the young lady.”

Innokenti gave me another one of his unnerving smiles. “Katie Wickliff, may I present my associate, Anton. You’ll have to forgive us—we don’t go in for surnames much in our community. Many of us don’t like to dwell on the past.”

I looked to Innokenti. “Is Anton a—”

“Vampire?” Innokenti said. “Yes.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Katie,” Anton said. His voice was dark and smoky, and I had the feeling that he was laughing at me.

He lifted my hand with his ice-cold fingers and kissed it, and then he stared at me steadily as he let my hand drop. He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

I found myself momentarily at a loss for words.

Anton’s amusement deepened. “Too stunned to speak? I have that effect on a lot of women.”

William grabbed Anton’s coat and shook him. “Leave her alone.”

Malice lit up Anton’s dark eyes. “I’m simply saying hello.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Innokenti said. “I believe you’re upsetting young Katie. Our mission here is a benevolent one. We should all be pleasant to one another.”

William rounded on Innokenti. “Why did you bring him? If you wanted things to be pleasant, you should have left him at home.”

“William, your attitude isn’t very charming,” Innokenti admonished gently. “You should put your antagonism aside as Anton has done. This mission we are on is one of the gravest importance. Anton knows that, and that’s why he very graciously volunteered to come with me.”

“Why did he have to come at all?” William said angrily. “If you truly need to speak to me, you should have come alone.”

“William, you weren’t listening,” Innokenti replied patiently. “We have come here to see you and the little one, and this is no routine visit we are on. I am a messenger here. Anton has accompanied me in order to look out for my welfare.”

“He’s your bodyguard?” William said derisively. “What do you need protection from? Me?”

“Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that. And the situation is a dangerous one—for both of you.”

William’s face grew grim.

“Say what you need to say. But leave Katie out of this.”

Innokenti spread out his hands apologetically.

“I’m afraid I can’t leave Katie out of anything,” he said. “She is involved no matter how much we all might wish otherwise.”

William folded his arms. “Make this quick. Then get out of here.”

“Very well.” Innokenti’s pale eyes grew hard. “You both have your duties, and you’re both avoiding them. This is unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable to whom?” William asked. “To you?”

“William, you know I do not speak for myself,” Innokenti replied. “I speak on behalf of others. You, William, belong in Krov in the vampire colony there. You have special abilities—you alone amongst our number can fight the kost.”

“Are you being troubled by a kost at the moment?” William asked.

Innokenti gave William a mirthless smile. “No—not at the moment. But our kind grows thirstier. You know what that means.”

Innokenti’s pale eyes shifted to me. “And you, little one, you too, have a purpose. You are the Little Sun, and you are also destined to fight the kost. You owe us no particular allegiance, but your heritage confers certain obligations and responsibilities—ones that cannot lightly be ignored.”

“Little Sun?” Anton said with a mocking lilt. “So you’re the one. How about I call you ‘Sunshine’?”

“It’s true we can both fight the kost,” William said, ignoring Anton. “What do you want from us?”

“I propose that you and Katie return with me now,” Innokenti replied. “You can return to the colony, William, and Katie can live in the house that was vacated by her cousin, Odette. You can live near one another, and possibly even work with one another whenever a kost rears its ugly head. But I would recommend that you put an end to your romance. Such a relationship will not meet with much approval.”

“And what if we refuse to go with you?” William asked.

Innokenti sighed. “I would advise against it. But in the event that the two of you refuse, I would return to the colony and explain to them, with a heart full of regret, that I was unable to make you see reason.”

“You would not attempt to force us to return with you?” William asked.

Innokenti’s eyebrows rose. “William, we are vampires. We are not barbarians.”

William shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. You’ve admitted that the kost is not an immediate threat. And I can return to Russia any time I wish—you know that. And you’ve also admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance. So what does it matter to you where she lives? This must be about something else. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Innokenti fixed William with a piercing stare.

“William, you may not believe this, but you matter to us, and we know that this human girl here matters to you. Anton and I are here to help you both. Forces we don’t entirely understand yet are gathering. And the two of you would make convenient pawns.”

William was unmoved. “Then tell me what you do know. Give me all the information you have, and maybe I’ll consider coming with you. Katie isn’t to be involved in this—at all.”

Anger flashed in Innokenti’s cool eyes. “Katie will be involved in this no matter what you want. There’s a price on the girl’s head, and there are two separate groups after her. I am telling you that she is not safe.”

“Who’s after her?”

“I cannot tell you that, William. I am merely a humble servant of a greater power—and I have told you too much already. I have only been authorized to tell you that it’s in your best interests to return with us.”

“Then the answer is ‘no,’” William said. “I’m not going with you and neither is Katie.”

Innokenti’s eyes flicked to me. “Perhaps you should let Katie decide for herself. After all, she is the one in the greatest danger.”

William took a step toward Innokenti. “I won’t allow Katie to be tricked into anything by you. That cousin of hers that you mentioned so cavalierly a few moments ago tried to kill her. If Katie goes back, her cousin may return, too, and try to finish what she started. Krov is far too dangerous for Katie. She’s safer here with me.”

“What do you say, little one?”

There was a strong hint of warning in Innokenti’s voice, but I met his pale gaze unflinchingly.

“I want to stay here with William.”

Innokenti suddenly seemed to radiate rage. He turned toward William.

“I’ll give you one last chance. The girl doesn’t really know enough of the world to make a reasonable decision, but you know something of the true darkness that exists out there. If you don’t care about your own safety, then you should at least consider hers.”

“We’re not going with you,” William said curtly.

Innokenti spread out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As you wish, William. But remember this: I tried to help you.”

He backed up a few paces, and his eyes flicked to me once more. “You cannot remain with him, little one. They will not allow it.”

He melted into the woods. Anton gave me a wink and a smile, and then he, too, vanished into the trees.

I looked up at William. He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood, and his face seemed set in stone.

After a moment, he looked around at me.

“We need to go to your house now. I need to be able to protect you.”

*******************************

Thanks very much for reading!

Firebird is now available for the first time in paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s also available in eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple (iBooks), and Google Play.