Prologue

The soldier tramped his way through damp strands of yellowed grass, backpack and armour clanking with each resolute, even-paced step he took, his boots crunching in the rustling drifts of multi-coloured leaves falling thick and fast from the multitude of deciduous trees all around. An eastern wind buffeted a strong-featured face still tanned from long summer months spent out in the field – training, fighting, staining the churned earth of a wounded nation with the blood of her people for the sake of an empire that held too much power in its corruptive, greedy hands already.

He looked up at the sky without faltering in his pace, his dark eyes tracing the bright constellations that had often been the only familiarity he could find in far distant and varied lands. He'd spent too many nights out in the open, too many nights lying restlessly amidst friends long since perished, wondering what was going to happen in the next day's bloody battle.

But not tonight. Tonight would be different. Tonight, he was finally home.

For the first time in months he allowed himself to smile as the rolling meadows, dense patches of peaceful woodland and sleepy, sentient hills became increasingly familiar as he continued his trek homewards. Then, suddenly making up his mind, he drew his sword from its sheath with a familiar, metallic rasp and hurled the weapon as far and as hard as he could.

The blade – so often drenched in the crimson flood of pain, suffering and incomprehensible terror that the Roman army so constantly evoked – flashed almost mockingly in the bleached light of the full moon as it flew in violent circles until it finally plunged with a resounding splash into a nearby lake.

The soldier stopped in his tracks, watching bubbles rise before the dark water settled and became quiet and still once more, feeling as though a great weight had been lifted from his heart. He'd never raise a sword again if he could help it – he had no more desire for fighting or bloodshed. His time in the army had been served – he was finally free!

Silently he laid his shield and empty scabbard on the ground, then continued on his way, happy to be leaving the memories of war behind. The branches of trees seemed to wave in greeting and the wind in the grass whisper a welcome as he cleared the crest of the last hill that stood between him and the family he longed to be reunited with. He took the last few steps to the hilltop with a single bound, and, catching his breath, squinted through the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of the homestead he had helped to build in what seemed like ages past.

"No!" he cried suddenly, his heart plummeting as the flames licking the horizon seemed to burn at his eyes, distant though they were. He took off, pounding across the landscape with as much speed as his armour would permit, never averting his gaze from the chaotic scene ahead of him…

The homestead was in flames, the thatched roof consumed by a raging inferno that ravenously engulfed the entire building. Livestock unlucky enough to be in proximity of the home were slain, their bloodstained flesh glinting cruelly in the flickering crimson light of the snickering flames. The soldier raced up to the burning door, slipping on a quagmire of blood and mud, and slammed his shoulder against the flame-consumed wood.

The door gave way and fell into the building with a resounding creak and crash. The soldier burst past it, throwing strong arms up to shield his face as he stumbled through the chaos that had once been a peaceful family home until he came to the room he had shared with his wife. He called her name once, twice, a third time – but she didn't respond … and one look at the bed showed why.

The most beautiful woman in the world lay far stiller than any natural sleep would permit, her fair hair falling haphazardly over perfect, pale skin. Her cheeks were still stained by recently shed tears, the flesh of her exposed body rife with raw, red welts and purple bruises. The rope that had choked the life from her was still coiled like a serpent around her slim neck. The crib by the bed, holding the newborn child that the soldier had not yet had the chance to hold, was crimson with the blood of the infant, who lay as white as marble, as peaceful as though he were sleeping.

With tears in his eyes the soldier gently lifted the woman over his shoulder and the babe in the crook of his arm and carried them both outside, where he gently laid them on the ground, far away from their burning home – away from the dreams of a happy life that had gone up in smoke.

Then he heard it – the distinctive sound of footsteps crunching on leaves. He growled and leapt to his feet, suddenly wishing he had no been so hasty in tossing away his sword. He picked up a fallen branch with a splintered end and turned in the direction of the sound, his dark eyes suddenly dark with anger darting around the ravaged farmland.

"Show yourself!" he bellowed, "Coward! Preying on women and children … I'll run you through!"

A twig snapped somewhere behind him and he whirled around, just spotting a dark shadow melting into the darkness, out of sight. He growled in anger and struck out at the place where he had last seen the figure, but the footsteps sounded again – from behind him. Spinning once more, he was just in time to slam the makeshift weapon in his hands into the neck of the figure that was bearing down on him, a split second before it would have struck him in the back.

The attacker was overbalanced, but he caught the angry soldier's leg as he fell, bringing him crashing to the ground. The soldier grabbed the villain around the neck and for a long time the pair rolled in the churned mud, each struggling to pin down the other, to bring the end to one another's lives.

The soldier had been trained long and hard in the skills of warfare and his body was strong and well developed, but still he could not match the shear brute strength of the man he was struggling with. Try as he might, he could neither shake him off nor get the upper hand in the battle and, all too soon, he found himself pinned helplessly to the ground with his opponent kneeling on his chest, pinning his arms to the ground.

He waited, glaring defiantly up into his captor's eyes – determined that, if he had to go – he would not die pleading for his life or with his head turned away. His attacker, however, looked up and spoke a few words in a harsh and incomprehensible language.

Much to the soldier's surprise, a second, obviously female voice answered.

He turned his head and saw her walking towards him, her raven-black locks glimmering in the firelight, and couldn't suppress a gasp when he saw her eyes, burning as red as coals above a red-lipped mouth stretched wide, exposing two glittering white, pointed teeth that looked disturbingly like the fangs of a serpent.

The woman seemed to glide sensuously towards the pair on the ground, until she drew level and crouched down beside the helpless soldier, cupping his chin in her thin, long-nailed fingers.

He struggled, but the strength of the man on top of him was more than he could handle – all he could do was watch in horror as the woman – whatever she was – flicked back her long tresses and bent her head down, brushing the tips of those horrible fangs against the tender flesh of his neck.

This time he couldn't help it – he closed his eyes and let out a scream of pure pain and terror as those fangs plunged deep into his throat, breaking his skin as though it was paper. He struggled to no avail, feeling the blood pump out of him as the female snarled in pure pleasure, runnels of crimson running down her chin.

White hot pain knifed through his body, as if something was draining out of her and into him, scorching his blood-vessels like acid. Gradually, his struggles became less and less strenuous, his eyesight blurred and his breath came out in ragged gasps, air bubbling out of the twin puncture marks in his neck. His strength deserted him – he barely had enough even to acknowledge the pain that was wracking his body. Dimly, he was aware that the woman had ceased feeding and backed away from him. The weight of the man was gone from his chest, too – he could hear nothing but the flickering of flames in the background and the ragged, bubbling gasps that were emminating from his weakening chest, gradually growing fainter and fainter as the life pumped out of him.

He closed his eyes … and knew no more.


A/N: please tell me what you think ... I'll have chapter one up asap :) It's promising to be a little darker that Scarla.