The boy darted swiftly in and out of the trees, making hardly a noise. His long, black hair whipped behind him, blending with the night’s shadows, and his navy eyes searched ahead and to the right.
His father had taught him to keep a clear head on the hunt.
Coming to an abrupt stop, he lifted his bow and nocked an arrow with expert quickness, drawing the string back by his ear and holding his breath. His young vampire hearing picked up the approach of both the wild boar as well as the other hunters from the clan who were corralling it toward him.
Closing his left eye, he tracked with his right as he looked down the length of the deadly arrow to the tip. He slowly swept toward the left, following the crashing noises of the boar as it tore through the trees in the darkness.
As soon as the animal burst through a patch of undergrowth, the boy took a second to steady himself then released the bow. The arrow zipped through the air and penetrated the boar between the eyes.
A squeal peeled from the animal’s throat as it lurched and fell, and the boy rushed forward as the rest of the clan’s hunters broke into view.
One of the adult hunters buried his knife in the boar’s neck, ensuring the beast was dead, then another rushed forward to capture the blood that poured from the wound inside an animal-skin satchel. They would take the blood and the carcass back to the village so that the females could prepare the overnight feast for the newly-mated couple within the clan.
“Good job, Micah.”
Micah smiled proudly up at his uncle, Rory, his heart beating wildly with adrenaline as it always did after a kill.
“You’ve got some skill there, boy.” Rory sounded impressed and clapped him on the shoulder.
Micah panted and turned back toward the scene in front of him as the other hunters quickly prepared the boar for travel. If they had been humans, the pitch of night would have prevented them from seeing anything around them. As it was, Micah and his clan mates didn’t need light to see. Their vampire vision, heightened by the excitement of the hunt, easily delineated tree from shadow from beast.
Rory knelt down beside Micah, his own black hair falling over his face. “What do you think you’ll do with this talent, Micah? Hmm?”
Micah looked into eyes so much like his own and his father’s and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
His uncle arched an eyebrow at him. “You don’t know?” He wrapped his heavy arm around Micah’s shoulders and gave him a paternal shake. “You’re twelve years old, Micah. Almost an adult. I’d say you have the makings of a fine warrior, boy.”
Micah looked down at his bare feet, which were covered with dirt. Did he want to be a warrior? His father was. So was his Uncle. So were several other elders in the clan. He looked at the boar again, remembering the feeling of power that roared through him every time he hunted. His muscles reacted without thinking, and he instinctively knew where to aim and when to release his arrow. Even during training exercises and games back in the village, Micah excelled far and away over the other young. He was stronger, faster, and more cunning than all of them.
Nibbling the inside of his cheek, Micah grinned at Rory then nodded. “I will be the greatest warrior our clan has ever seen,” he announced confidently.
“Just our clan?” Rory roared with laughter. “Why not the world, lad?”
Micah pursed his lips then licked them before nodding. “The greatest warrior in the world!” He yelled and raised his bow into the air.
A couple of the adult hunters glanced over, shaking their heads and smiling at the young, overly-confident boy with the grand plan for his future.
“That’s my nephew talking.” Rory clapped him on the shoulder once more and stood.
The boar was ready for transport, so Micah spun on his heel and trotted back to the village to let the females know to prepare. Their meal was on the way.
Sitting off to the side, his back against a tree that bordered the courtyard where the boar had been spitted for roasting, Micah watched the females of the clan busily preparing the rest of the feast. The animal’s organs had been removed, and the blood had been prepared into blood sausages being roasted on a separate fire.
He sat forward and used a twig to draw figures in the sandy dirt between his soiled feet.
Everyone in the village wore simple clothes and lived in simple houses made of stone, but that didn’t mean the village was poor. The vampires carried tremendous wealth, keeping their fortunes locked inside the village bank. Micah’s parents didn’t like using the bank, though, and had buried the mass of their wealth in a secret enclave only they and he knew about.
“Look at those feet.” Micah’s mother called to him from across the courtyard.
Micah blushed and pulled his feet up and under him as he crossed his legs.
His mom joined him and sat down. “Don’t think you’ll be catching Katarina’s eye with dirty feet like that. And dirty hair, too.” She made a disapproving face as she lifted his long hair off his shoulder and tsked.
“Mom.” Micah whined and swatted his hair out of her hand and frowned with embarrassment.
She laughed. His mom had the most beautiful laugh. Everyone said so, and even when Micah was in one of his moods, her laughter always made him feel better.
“Oh, come on. We’ll make you all handsome for her, Prince Charming.” His mom stood up and extended his hand toward him. “Maybe she’ll even dance with you during tonight’s festivities, hmm?”
His mom indulged his crush on the beautiful female named Katarina whose family had joined the clan a year ago, teasing him on a regular basis. But teasing or not, the thought of getting a dance with her during the celebration tonight was enough to quicken Micah’s boyish gait back to the family home down the street from the courtyard.
“There you are, Isa.” Micah’s father called his mom, Isa, which was short for Isabel.
His father was just getting out of the large wooden tub in the corner by the fireplace when Micah and his mom got home.
Tall and heavily muscled, his father was one of the strongest males in the clan. With such a tall father and an equally tall mother, no doubt Micah would grow up to be an imposing adult. Something every warrior needed to be, thought Micah as he scuttled past his father toward the tub.
“Shall I beckon Sylvia for you?” His mom said to his dad.
Sylvia was one of the humans who serviced Micah’s parents’ blood needs.
“If she’s ready.” His father wrapped a dingy covering around him.
Micah took off his filthy clothes and jumped into the now lukewarm bath water. They didn’t get to bathe often, but for tonight’s celebration, everyone was expected to put on their best.
While his mom and dad left the room to tend to his father’s blood needs, Micah lifted one foot out of the water and scrubbed with the brush until his skin was rosy and clean, then he repeated with the other before dunking himself to wet his hair so he could wash it.
Most of the males in the village wore their hair short, but Micah preferred it longer, even though it was harder to keep clean.
A few minutes later, his mother reappeared alone. She didn’t like watching his father feed.
“How are we coming in here?” She sat down by the tub and helped Micah rinse suds from his hair.
“Good. I think I’m finished.” Micah blinked wet lashes at her.
“Not quite, honey. We can’t have this smudge on your face if we want Katarina to show you more than a passing glance, can we?”
Micah huffed as she picked up a wash cloth and rubbed his forehead until he thought she would rub clean through the skin.
“There. Perfect.” She sat back and smiled. “Now, get out and dry off and I’ll get your clothes.”
Micah trailed his parents, looking down at his trousers, feeling embarrassed at how short they were. When had he grown so much?
His mother glanced back at him. “Stop moping, Micah.”
“But I look stupid.” He scowled and hid his face
His dad stopped, turned around, and crouched in front of him. “I’ll have none of that, Micah. You don’t look stupid. You’re my son, and my son does not look stupid.”
Micah had been on the verge of tears, but as he looked into his father’s icy-sharp navy blue eyes, he immediately swallowed them. More than anything, Micah wanted to be like his father. Brave, powerful, respected. Yaris Black was a natural leader. Micah admired him, as did everyone in the village.
His father took Micah’s shoulders and held him firm.
“If you walk into that courtyard with your head held high and your shoulders squared and back, no one will notice that your trousers hit above your ankles. But if you walk in slouching and defeated, the other kids will see your weakness and exploit it. Now, stand tall, son. Be proud.”
Micah nodded and tried to stand a little taller, wanting to win his father’s approval.
“That’s my boy. Now, you always remember that, Micah. Appearance is everything. If you act like a leader, everyone will treat you like one. Be that which you wish to become, and not only will you become it, everyone around you will believe it and make it so, too.” His father chucked his chin. “Now, you hold your head high when we get there, you hear me?”
His mom motioned to take Micah’s hand, but his father pulled it back. “No, let him walk on his own, Isabel. Don’t coddle him. He needs to start becoming the adult he’s meant to be.”
With that, the three turned and continued toward the courtyard. Music was already playing, and the smell of a hundred different types of food assaulted Micah’s senses, making his mouth water and his stomach growl.
This was twice today that references were made toward Micah’s impending adulthood. What did his future hold? Would he be the warrior he had proclaimed he would become? Or would another course open up to him that he would be compelled to take? He hadn’t given much thought to his future until his uncle had goaded him about it today, but becoming a warrior seemed the likely choice.
Once they reached the courtyard, Micah slipped away while his parents pitched in and helped finish setting things up. He wandered from fire pit to fire pit, inspecting what was still being cooked for tonight’s meal. Grains, meats, breads, wild vegetables, roasted corn and potatoes from the gardens.
And then there were the desserts. An entire table was set out with sweet biscuits, tarts, cakes, and pies. Looking around mischievously, Micah quickly snatched one of the tarts and darted into the shadows of the trees to eat it.
As he took his first bite, he glanced back toward the gathering to keep watch that no one caught him. And there she was. Katarina.
With long, reddish-brown hair that hung in loose curls down her back, Katarina looked glorious in a simple, pale blue dress. She was talking to his mother, both of them smiling and giggling animatedly.
Katarina would be his someday. Micah felt that as a truth all the way into his heart, which now skipped a beat as she glanced in his direction. He quickly ducked behind a tree, the tart all-but-forgotten in his hand as he peered back out. She laughed over her shoulder as she walked away from his mom, coming his way, pausing to bend over to smell a bouquet of flowers on one of the decorated tables in the center of the courtyard.
She looked heavenly, her eyes closing, her nose dipping into the buds as her mouth curved into a contented smile. Her graceful hand lifted and brushed her hair from her face.
So perfect and beautiful. Micah swore she had to be an angel.
Suddenly, as if she could feel his gaze on her, she opened her eyes and turned toward him. A humored smile spread over her face as their eyes met.
“Micah? What are you doing back there?” Katarina straightened and fluffed her skirts as she walked toward him.
Feeling the blood rush into his face, Micah quickly stepped back from the tree, trying to pretend he hadn’t been hiding.
“Hi,” he said.
Katarina knelt in front of him. “Oh, I see.” She spied the tart in his hand and giggled. “You snuck back here so no one would know you stole a treat, didn’t you?”
With a sheepish grin, Micah nodded, totally transfixed by her luminous green eyes and plump lips.
Demurely glancing to the ground, she looked back up through her lashes. “Can I have a bite? I promise I won’t tell.”
Eagerly nodding, Micah held the tart out to her, speechless. The female of his dreams was right in front of him, asking him for a bite of the tart he had stolen, making flirty eyes at him even though she was more than twice his age. No doubt she knew of his crush on her, and like his mother, Katarina sought only to indulge him. But that made no difference to Micah. All that mattered was that her long fingers were wrapping around his skinny wrist as she leaned in to take a bite of the fruit-filled tart. Micah could barely breathe. He knew it was an honor to feed a female from his own hand, and here he was, feeding the most beautiful female in the world.
Katarina’s pink lips parted, and her perfectly straight teeth sank into the morsel he held for her. As she drew away, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar coated her lips, which she quickly licked away.
“Mmm, that’s yummy,” she said, releasing his wrist. “I can see why you couldn’t wait to eat it.” She grinned as she chewed with delicate propriety.
He could only stare, hypnotized by her face.
“I heard you were the one who caught our dinner tonight,” she said, sinking to the ground and sitting back on her heels.
Micah nodded and finally found his voice. “Yes. I did. I’m going to be a warrior someday.”
Katarina’s eyebrows shot up and her face brightened. “Really now? A warrior? That’s very noble, yes?”
Not caring whether it was noble or not, Micah just wanted to impress her. “My uncle says I have the makings of a great warrior.” He took a bite of the tart, carefully avoiding the part she had eaten from.
“Well, your uncle would know.” Kat brushed her palms over her skirts. “He’s quite skilled with a sword. I’ve seen him training you.”
“I’m better with the bow and arrow,” Micah said, growing excited. Katarina was talking to him. She was here, in the shadows, alone with him, and they were talking. His little heart was practically beating out of his chest.
“The bow and arrow it is for you, then. Maybe you’ll teach me how to use it someday?”
Boy, would he!? To be close to her, maybe even touching her to help her learn…? “Sure. I’d love to.” He quickly blushed, realizing he sounded too eager. “I mean, if you really want to learn.”
She shifted and giggled. “Of course I would, or I wouldn’t have asked. I hear you’re the best archer in the village, and I want to learn from the best.” She leaned forward and ruffled his hair. “Silly you.”
Micah felt butterflies alight in his stomach as her fingers tousled his hair.
“Can you show me how you killed the boar today?” she asked, sitting back once more and placing her hands in her lap.
“Sure.” He bit his lip then held the remainder of the tart out to her. “Hold this.”
She took it from him, her eyes twinkling in the night. She looked like she was fighting back a smile.
Proudly, Micah stepped back and stood tall, just as his father had taught him. It felt odd without his bow and arrow, but he pretended he had his favorite weapon in his hands.
“The others ran him to me, corralling him.” Micah glanced over as he relayed the story to her. “I heard him tearing through the trees and lifted my bow.” He lifted his arms in grand fashion, as if he held his bow and arrow at the ready. “As soon as the boar burst from the undergrowth, I held…” Micah paused briefly, “and then let the arrow fly.” He opened his hand by his ear as if releasing the arrow. “Right between the eyes!”
Micah spun back, reveling under her admiration. She held his treat back to him, and he let his fingertips graze her palm as he took it. Katarina was warm and soft.
“I think you’re an angel, Katarina,” he blurted, immediately regretting it. What a fool. Dread sank like a heavy stone to the pit of his stomach, chased by a heavy dose of humiliation.
He felt his face heat with embarrassment.
Katarina laughed lightly. “A what?”
Unable to meet her eyes, Micah answered in a voice so soft it was a wonder he could be heard at all. “An angel.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, little Micah.” She giggled and dashed her fingers into his hair once more. “Angels come from Heaven. I’m not from Heaven.”
Micah wanted to tell her he thought she was from Heaven. She was too beautiful for Earth. But he had already stuck his foot in his mouth enough so kept quiet.
Neither spoke for a moment, then Katarina pushed up off the ground. “Save a dance for me later, little Micah?”
Surprised that she would even ask, Micah looked up in startled amazement and nodded before he could stop himself. “Uh-huh.”
Bending down, Katarina placed her hands on Micah’s scrawny shoulders and kissed his cheek then pulled back with a conspiratorial smile on her face. “I won’t tell anyone that you snuck a dessert as long as you promise to teach me archery, okay?”
All Micah could do was nod.
“And call me Kat. Deal?”
He nodded again, his tongue tied in knots.
She laughed as if she realized her effect on him and thought it was adorable. “Until our dance later, little Micah, don’t get caught eating dessert before dinner.” She stood and wagged a finger at him then turned and headed back into the courtyard.
Micah took another bite of the tart and watched her walk away, mesmerized by the gentle sway of her hips under her skirts.
After she had disappeared amid a crowd of adults, Micah looked down. Only one bite of tart remained: the one she had eaten from. Almost reverently, he raised the morsel to his mouth and slowly ate it as he placed his small palm over his cheek where she had kissed him. His small body tingled and warmed all over at the thought of her and the time they had just shared.Too bad he was such a…boy. Because with Kat, he wanted to be a man.