Marayah's Return prologue read by author Merri Hiatt This link will open a new page at YouTube.
For five decades Marayah Winther successfully avoided Lord Eldrick Banion?s presence. Then he found her. Marayah?s return to Mangadarth unearthed memories she longed to abandon. The crone?s curse continued to hold the people of Mangadarth in its grip as the pale ones devoured both body and spirit. A red liquid used for nourishment brings hope to the city as the pale ones no longer need to feed on humankind. A deeper malice dwells inside the castle walls, one that will show itself to be a greater threat than even the pale ones.
Paperback and e-books available at:
E-book only at Kobo, Sony, Apple iTunes, Diesel, Baker & Taylor's Blio
Clicking on a link will open a new window.
The stoning had taken place in the center of town, a public act of retribution. Sivah had been shackled in chains unbreakable. Her power was not strong then, had not been cultivated and honed the way it would become.
Serena cried when they tore her from her mother?s arms. She was but four days old, fresh from the womb. Sivah screamed at them to stop as she saw the stones they carried from the mountain and knew their purpose.
One by one the villagers walked past Sivah shouting and spitting in her face.
?Daughter of the Devil!?
And, one by one, they placed their rocks upon the piece of wood that Serena lay beneath.
Sivah thought her heart would split in two from the anguish she felt for her daughter. Serena?s cries pummeled her ears as fire tore through her veins. Then the crying stopped and a new feeling wrenched at her gut. Serena was dead. The breath had been squeezed from her body by the weight of the stones. Her tiny bones broken and her flesh pressed flat.
?That will teach you to bring evil to our town!?
?We will watch you burn!?
Sivah closed her eyes, but not to ward off verbal blows. She pulled every ounce of pain from her body and gathered it into a spell. She used the villagers fear and anger as energy to bind it to them as the words of her curse churned from within.
A life for a life
Is what you seek
The innocent blood
Of the mild and meek
Now you stand firm
Righteous in your cause
I call forth the darkness
To amend humankind laws
Take all my heartache
Take all my pain
Gather it up
And bring forth a change
Take what is humankind
Blend it with fear
Jagged edged teeth
In appearance they mirror
Create a new thing
That walks as they do
Travels among them
Pale as the moon
Blood it will seek
As vengeance they take
For this moment in time
Serena?s soul they forsake
The ground trembled and a flash of lightning lit the sky. The chains that bound her broke loose and Sivah ran to her daughter?s side, removing the heavy stones and then the boards.
She gently lifted her baby into her arms and held her close, not noticing the bones that had pushed through her skin or the skull that had been crushed by the heavy weight.
Sivah rocked her daughter and wailed with the cry of every mother?s sorrow.
The villagers fled, sore afraid of Sivah?s retaliation, not knowing that the curse she had unleashed would haunt them for the rest of their days and beyond.
Sivah?s pace was slow as she left the village. Her cries echoed down the main pathway. All the while, she cradled Serena?s broken body gently and despised those who had harmed her.
It took her several hours to travel through the forest to its outer edge. She knew the villagers would rally, gathering sticks of fire to light the night and hunt her down. She kept walking, all the way through the Valley of Pandor to the base of the mountain.
She would climb high up into its peak and spend the rest of her days there alone as she watched Mangadarth be devoured by the pale ones she had unleashed upon them.
Her bones were tired and her heart ached with such grief that she rested by the waterfall and drank deeply of the life-giving liquid in the pool at its base.
She washed the blood from Serena?s body carefully and kissed part of her cheek that had not had the skin stripped from it.
Her body shook and the heaves overtook her. She had never felt a pain so intense.
When she was finally able to take a breath that brought new air into her lungs, she laid the baby down and gathered the items she would need to bury her daughter. She bound many tree limbs together with strips of her skirt, making an oblong structure to lay Serena on.
She chose white roses and daisies with bright yellow centers as a covering, laying the petals on the rough pieces of tree to cover them. She then stripped lavender stems of their tiny amethyst pods and scattered them on top of the flowers.
Sivah laid Serena on top of all the items and covered her body with palm fronds in a crisscross fashion. She used the thin rope tied around her waist to secure her daughter to the raft and then carried her down river to the waterfall that lay below.
She waded out into the deeper portion of the river, raised her daughter high above her head and said, ?Into your hands, I commend my daughter?s spirit.?
Sivah placed the raft into the water and released it. The current carried it downstream and over the waterfall?s edge into the frothy foam below.
?Goodbye my daughter, my little love. You will remain in my heart forevermore.? Sivah made her way to the water?s edge and headed back to the base of the mountain. She rested in the same place she had been earlier. Her strength gone and her soul weary.
A motion behind the waterfall caught her eye. As she watched the water pour down in a steady stream, she saw it again. It was the head of an adder poking through the falls. She continued to watch as it seemed to glide along behind the waterfall. An impossible feat, she knew.
Sivah rose and headed to the base of the falls. The sound was deafening to her sensitive ears, yet she went closer still. She felt the cool mist against her skin and the tumultuous bubble of water as it landed hard against itself.
She hugged the mountain close and searched for places to hold on as she crept even closer to the area she had seen the snake originally.
The falls were so close now, they began to skim her arms and back with water, yet she saw that she could move even closer still. She slid, much as the snake had done, through an area that could be no wider than eight inches until the falls no longer touched her, but were seemingly all around her.
She kept tight to the wall, the wet dirt acting as a binder to keep her steady. When she moved her hand again to slide further, she felt air and an edge unexpected. Sivah was able to pull herself over to it and then rest her foot on a ledge. She pulled the rest of her body over and found herself in a cave behind the waterfall.
She turned and a wall of water met her eyes. The force of it almost knocked her off her feet as she stepped backward. The cave was deep and the darkness enveloped her, welcomed her, seemed to understand the grief she was now living with.
Sivah ventured back further into the cave, though she could not see even a footfall in front of her. She kept her hand on the wall to her left as a guide. When the roar of the waterfall had dulled, she sat down and leaned her back against the cavern wall.
Sorrow rose high in her throat and she choked back tears until they could no longer be restrained. Her cries found their way down the valley walls and they echoed back to the water?s edge. She continued to sob until her body gave way to sleep.
When she awoke, the darkness welcomed her again and she knew she was home.
Sivah found the entrance to her cave easier and easier to traverse the more she traveled it, even being able to carry large items with her.
She saw no one, save the birds and small animals, never venturing into the village again. She spent her time thinking of Serena and honing the craft of the witches.
Marayah Winther dared to look back. Lord Abingdon?s men, along with a small group of the pale ones, were at the opposite edge of the clearing. She would not be able to outrun them. Their steeds were already making haste across the unprotected grassland. Her only protection now was the woodlands.
The redwood trees ahead were sturdy with heavy limbs. Scanning the forest quickly for low branches within her reach, she never slowed her pace. Finding none, she raced further into the dense woods.
The trees seemed to close in around her. Her foot caught on an exposed root and Marayah fell hard against a heavy stone.
Fresh pain seared through her right calf and her hand screamed as it slammed against a stump. The impact took her breath away for a moment. She inhaled deeply. The smell of her own blood, along with the damp night air, filled her lungs. She would find no safe harbor among the trees now. There was no hiding place the pale ones could not find once the scent of blood permeated their senses.
Her eyes searched the area, finding only low bushes and limbs too high for her to reach.
Marayah pressed hard on her wound with both hands. Scarlet life force pulsed out greedily, spilling onto the forest floor. She rose and retraced her steps; stopping every few feet to expel more blood from her wound, creating a trail until she was nearing the forest edge again. She hoped the ruse would confuse her assailants and they would travel in circles looking for her.
She tore the sleeves from her white cotton shirt and tied them tightly around her calf and hand.
She had no choice now. She began climbing the redwood tree. Bark embedded itself in her hands as she tried to grab hold of anything that would give her leverage. Just when she thought she had a firm grip, a piece of bark came loose and she slid down the trunk, forcing more pain to stab at her hands and legs.
Marayah jumped down from the tree and tore at a layer of her skirt, ripping it into strips, tying the ends together.
The horse?s thundering hooves were making the ground shake. She could not see them through the trees, but knew they would be upon her soon. She must hurry.
When all the lengths of fabric were tied together, Marayah threw one end as high as she could. It almost reached the lowest limb, but fell to the earth beside her. She tried again with the same result.
Beads of sweat were rolling down her face, tears filling her eyes. They would consume her while she was still alive; the same fate many of Mangadarth?s inhabitants had endured, including her mother and father.
She would rather take her own life than have her innocent blood stain the sky over Mangadarth. Marayah looked around for anything she might use to end her life as a hand encircled her waist and another covered her mouth.
She was lifted high upon a horse painted black; its powerful muscles churning beneath her legs. Her captor led the horse deep into the forest, following an unseen trail he alone knew.
Marayah turned her body slightly so she could see the face of the man who saved her from Lord Abingdon?s men. He was cloaked in a heavy layering of cloth. All she could see were his lips against a light, stern jawbone.
They traveled through the woodlands in silence for what seemed like hours before Marayah began to recognize her surroundings. The trees had changed from redwood to pine and ferns became prevalent. They were on the outskirts of Mangadarth, near Banion Castle. The thought sent a shiver down her spine.
?Thank you for coming to my aid, my lord,? Marayah said, breaking the stillness. ?I fear what would have happened if you had not arrived when you did.?
?Lord Abingdon can do you no harm here, my lady.?
?Thank you for your kindness. I can find my way home from here.?
?It is not safe. I will provide you with a meal and then escort you back to your home. What is your name??
?Marayah Winther. I am sorry to say? well, I do not know who you are, my lord. May I inquire as to what your name is??
?Lord Eldrick Banion.?
She had heard many stories as a child about the family that lived in Castle Banion; none of them good. Her father told her of the great war between the Abingdon?s and the Banion?s. It led to a new rule twelve thousand years prior. Yet, Lord Banion had saved her life and for that she owed him her allegiance.
?You are quiet. I am surmising that you have heard of me or the castle before??
?Yes, my lord, both you and the castle. But, I must say, after meeting you and after you saved my life, I believe the rumors to be falsehoods spread by gossipmongers who would wish to discredit you and your family.?
?Please, call me Eldrick.?
?Thank you, my lo?, Eldrick.?
As they approached the castle gate, Marayah felt a dark presence reaching toward her. She leaned back to ward it off, only to find herself pressed against Lord Banion?s firm muscles. She quickly leaned forward. ?Pardon me, my lord.?
The pace of her heartbeat quickened at the contact and Marayah felt warmth grazing her cheeks. A man of Lord Banion?s stature would never be interested in a bread maker?s daughter. Such thoughts were best put out of her mind immediately.
The castle was an imposing structure surrounded by a sixteen-foot spiked metal fence. Blood and bits of dried flesh and clothing could be seen on the tips of many of the spear-like barbs.
Marayah watched as the four guards at the main gate placed their hands on their swords. A slight bulge in their boots gave the suggestion of weaponry hidden within.
Six cannon barrels were in plain view jutting out from behind protective windows. Wild boar flanked the entrance with three on the left side and three on the right.
The intention was clear; to show a promise of unleashed power to any visitor who dared cross the threshold of Banion Castle uninvited.
Once inside the gates, Eldrick dismounted and extended his hand to help Marayah do the same.
?Your hand, it is so cold,? Marayah said, as she found ground beneath her feet again.
The pale ones walked among humankind with their cold, ivory skin and lack of emotion. The two elongated teeth they used to press holes into their victims to release the blood flow were hidden from view. They had long life, some saying around three thousand years. Humankind were lucky to live to be one hundred years old. And, they were strong, at least as strong as five men.
The pale ones drained the blood from the innocent ones for nourishment. Their prey either killed or left alive to turn into a pale one within three hours. Then they would need to feed.
The spirit of their victims rose to the heavens as a crimson mist. The sky above Mangadarth bore witness as it changed from a welcoming blue to an inflamed rose. It took souls years to find their final resting place among the stars; the moon only a thin slice among the ruined lives.
Some of the pale ones chose a different path; fighting the desire to feast on humankind. They chose small animals and rodents on which to feed and never participated in turnings or killings. They lived in peaceful coexistence with humankind.
?What kind of pale one are you? Do you survive on the blood of the innocents?? Marayah knew her question was much too forthright. It would only take a wave of Lord Banion?s hand and she would be thrown into the dungeon, never to see daylight again.
?How I survive is of no concern to you. Follow me.?
Marayah obeyed as she tried to discern for herself which description fit him best.
A bowl of hot stew was set before her, along with a large piece of hard-crusted bread. She watched as Eldrick drank from a goblet, but ate no food. Their meal was consumed in silence as Marayah?s head filled with unasked questions.
?For what, my lord??
?For allowing me to have a quiet meal without interruption. I have found that it is often difficult for a lady to sit still and be quiet for any length of time.?
Marayah?s back stiffened, she said nothing in response.
Eldrick?s eyes were upon her for several minutes. ?You are very striking.?
?I am afraid I do not know what you mean, my lo?, Eldrick.?
?Allow me to rephrase that. You are very beautiful.?
Marayah blushed. ?Thank you.?
Again, Eldrick?s eyes seemed to bore through Marayah?s very bones.
?Maybe it is safe for me to return home now.?
?I was hoping you would stay a while longer. I could give you a tour of the castle.?
Marayah could not deny that she had coveted the idea of seeing the inside of Castle Banion, even as she feared stepping foot inside its walls. She was here now and she might never have another opportunity.
?I would like that.?
For the next several hours, Eldrick and Marayah strolled through the rooms and hallways of the castle. Marayah commented on the gray stone walls covered with large jewel-toned tapestries showcasing battles of old, the Banion family crest, and the woodlands. She ran her fingers along the edge of heavy cherry wood furnishings and enjoyed the generous amount of firelight encased in glass along the walls.
As they traversed through each room on all four above-ground levels, Marayah had many questions and Eldrick never tired of answering them.
When they had made their way to the turrets on the roof on the south side of the castle, all of Mangadarth lay before their eyes.
?This is the best view of the village.?
?Yes, I see that it is. You can even see the waves of the ocean, and they are a great walking distance.?
As they stood side-by-side taking in the vision that lay before them, Marayah noticed how close Eldrick?s body was to hers. She felt an undercurrent between them that she did not fully understand.
?Are you married, Marayah??
?No, I am not. I was engaged last year. I had just turned eighteen, but??
?A pale one came one night. We were out past dark. We should not have been. We were having so much fun trying to catch fireflies in a glass jar, we lost track of time. They came at me first. Patrick protected me. In doing so, he lost his life.?
Marayah could still see Patrick?s body going limp as the pale one sucked the life force from him. She had hoped the creature would leave then, having only sought sustenance, but her hope was not fulfilled.
Patrick?s screams filled her ears once more as she saw the pale one open its jaw wide and clamp down on Patrick?s neck. When it wrenched the flesh loose and began to chew, Patrick?s blood spewed from its lips.
?I did not mean to remind you of an unpleasant memory,? Eldrick said, placing his hand on Marayah?s hand.
Marayah jumped at his touch and her hand flew to her chest. ?You startled me.? She looked deeply into Eldrick?s eyes. ?I ran that day, and I have never stopped. I live each day in fear that it shall be my last.? Tears spilled from her eyes.
Eldrick gently wiped them away. ?You have no need to fear when you are with me.?
?You never answered me, when I asked you which kind of pale one you were.?
?I do not kill innocent people. We at the castle consume the blood of animals for sustenance.?
?I did not mean to question you. After all, we are complete strangers to each other.?
?Is that what we are, Marayah, strangers?? Eldrick leaned closer.
Marayah?s pulse raced.
?I have been searching for a woman who is beautiful, intriguing, not afraid to speak her mind, and has a kind heart. You seem to embody all these traits.?
?You just met me. How can you know these things about me??
?I pay attention. From the first moment I saw you trying to make a rope out of your skirt fabric, I knew I wanted to spend more time in your presence.?
?I do not know what to say.?
?I would like to see you again. Will you meet with me tomorrow??
?Yes, I would like that.?
?I shall escort you to your home and count the hours until I will see you again.?
Eldrick called for a carriage to be brought to the back gate and he held Marayah?s hand as she boarded, then he sat next to her on the seat.
?I live only a stone?s throw from the river that flows through the south end of Mangadarth.?
Eldrick parlayed the information to the driver.
A comfortable silence settled between them. Marayah had never been around anyone as quiet as Lord Eldrick seemed to be. While his words were few, when he spoke, he did so with meaning and purpose.
They reached their destination quickly and Marayah found herself saddened that they would need to part so soon.
?I will pick you up in the carriage at this location. We will travel to the meadow and watch the butterflies at mid-day.?
?I shall look forward to it.?
?I shall, as well.?
Eldrick laid a kiss upon her hand as he helped her out of the carriage and then instructed the driver to return to the castle.
Marayah thought she would not be able to remove the smile from her lips. As she performed her daily chores, she found herself dancing and singing as her heart opened wide to make room for Eldrick.
She took extra care the next day, brushing her hair well over one hundred strokes and choosing the most colorful and feminine articles of clothing she owned.
Marayah waited patiently by the river for almost an hour, not wanting to make Eldrick wait should he arrive early.
When she heard the sound of wheels against cobblestone as they made their way through town, she stood up; excitement making it impossible for her to sit still.
Eldrick greeted Marayah and helped her enter the carriage and the driver headed for the meadow.
?Did you sleep well?? Eldrick asked.
?I daresay not as well as I should have. I was looking forward to today and could scarcely get my mind to quiet down.?
Eldrick placed his hand over Marayah?s hand. ?I had cook prepare food for us.?
?But, you do not eat food for nourishment??
?It was kind of you to think of me.?
When they reached the meadow, Eldrick collected a blanket and the basket of food and carried them to a slight incline with the best view of the meadow.
?It is lovely here. I have never seen so many butterflies in one place before. They seem to be multiplying before my eyes.?
As they settled themselves on the square piece of thick cloth, Marayah asked, ?Does your father like being ruler of Mangadarth? It would seem to be a position laden with heavy responsibility.?
?Father is one who seeks control in every situation. Being ruler suits him.?
?One day you will rule Mangadarth. Will you do so in the same manner as your father??
Eldrick shook his head. ?My father and I have very different ideas about leadership.?
?Tell me your ideas.?
?Do you really wish to hear them??
For the next half hour Eldrick shared his vision for the people of Mangadarth. As he spoke, Marayah nibbled on a piece of bread and an apple that had been cut into wedges and dipped in the juice of a lemon to keep it from spoiling.
?Have you told your father of these excellent thoughts??
?My father is not interested in change. He is set in his ways.?
?Will he be bothered, then, when you make changes once you are ruler of Mangadarth??
?I am certain of it.?
?My mother and father had different views on many things, yet they found a way to live peaceably together. Perhaps you will find such a path with your father.?
When the carriage returned Marayah to her home, Eldrick asked if she would spend more time with him the following day. She said yes. It was a pattern that continued for several months.
Every time they parted ways, it was harder for Marayah to leave Eldrick?s side.
After sharing nourishment together one evening at the castle, they journeyed to the south tower and looked over the wall to the city of Mangadarth.
Eldrick took Marayah?s hands in his and said, ?Marayah, I know we have only known each other a short time, yet I feel bound to you like no other. Will you share your life with me??
Marayah looked into Eldrick?s eyes and said, ?Yes. It would be my honor and privilege to spend the rest of my days in your presence.?
Eldrick caressed Marayah?s cheek with his thumb and laid a gentle kiss upon her tender lips. She tasted of potent wine and deep promises of the future.
His soft kisses trailed down her neck and back to her ear. His tongue slid across her flesh, releasing anesthetizing fluid. ?I do not expect you to understand everything right away. It will take time. You will come to know me and my ways and I will protect you and love you and keep you safe always.?
Marayah?s head felt thick and heavy from Eldrick?s kisses. Every area his lips touched felt tingly, as her legs sometimes felt when she sat too long in one position. Her body began to sway. Eldrick held her close to steady her.
?It is okay. I have a hold on you.?
Though her eyes were blurry as she tried to focus on Eldrick?s face, she thought she saw a darkness overtake him. His eyes seemed to shine black and his teeth had become like tiny spears. Fear gripped her heart and she tried to pull away.
?What is happening to you??
?Do you trust me??
?No! No! Let me go. Where is Eldrick??
?I am Eldrick and you and I will now be one, my love.?
Eldrick had rendered Marayah?s skin less sensitive to his bite. When his two elongated teeth met the flesh on her neck, his eyes rolled back briefly in his head and a surge of dominance coursed through him.
The rein on his control was tight as he tasted her blood on his tongue, taking just enough to allow her to turn.
Marayah went limp in his arms, feeling no pain, only a dream-like euphoria that was akin to a hazy pleasant memory from long ago.
When she awoke, Marayah was laying on a bed covered with an elegant brocade coverlet. A pain below and behind her left ear made her reach to touch the area gently. She felt two indentations that were tender to the touch with a protective coating beginning to form over them.
?Do not be alarmed, my love. I will explain about your new life and we shall be as one forevermore.?
?Yes. You shall live a long life, at least three thousand years measured in humankind time. You will have the strength of five men. Your body will heal itself within minutes when you are injured and need very little rest or sustenance.?
?You turned me into one of the pale ones??
?Yes, so we could be together for many decades. I have given you a great gift. Rest now, you will feel better in a few hours, after you have partaken of nourishment.?
?You mean blood.?
?I prefer to refer to it as sustenance or nourishment.?
Eldrick left the room as Marayah?s thoughts fell like waves. She had felt a love and deep attraction to Eldrick where now hollowness seemed to lay inside her.
She remembered the feeling of her pulse racing when she touched Eldrick?s skin, but now she felt nothing. Looking into his eyes had sent heat through her veins, yet her hands were now cold as ice.
This was not a gift. How could she live her life without emotions?
Marayah closed her eyes and prayed it was all a dream. That she would awaken in her bed and the images of the day would be erased. She fell asleep with her fingers touching the wounds on her neck.
When she awakened hours later, her fingers felt smooth uninjured skin. ?It was but a dream,? she mumbled aloud. Marayah opened her eyes and found herself within the castle walls.
She quickly rose from the bed and went to the mirror, looking closely at her neck. While there were no indentations, two small scars could be seen. ?It was not a dream.?
?Pardon me, my lady, but I have nourishment for you,? George Ashcroft said, after knocking gently on the door and opening it. He placed the tray with the ornate goblet on the table next to the bed and left the room.
Marayah could smell the blood even before she walked over to pick up the goblet. Every part of her body seemed to gravitate toward the red liquid. She felt dizzy as she picked up the goblet and drank with a hunger she did not know she possessed.
Her rational mind and body fought as the thought of drinking blood horrified her, yet her body craved the sustenance.
New life, that was what Eldrick had called it. Marayah walked over to the mirror and stared at a reflection that looked familiar on the outside, yet was completely different inside. She had a new life.