Daniel sat upright in the saddle, wrists bound, as his horse plodded forward. The coarse ropes chafed his skin, and fear twisted his guts into knots, but he kept his face calm and expressionless. He would hold onto his dignity, he promised himself, no matter what happened. It was all he had left.
Moonlight silvered the leaves of the forest as the procession rode single file down the narrow path. A guard rode behind him, and another in front to keep him from running away. They needn't have worried. He did not intend to escape. If he did, his sister would suffer in his place.
He tried not to think of what awaited him at the end of the path. Instead, he thought of Sara safe and alive, baking bread with their mother, riding her favorite mare through the fields, picking wildflowers.
The procession stopped in a large, round clearing. Daniel's two escorts dismounted. They were both men from the village, men he knew. They wouldn't look him in the eye. Tom -- the village baker -- looked around, the whites of his eyes flashing like those of a frightened horse. His tongue darted out to wet his lips. "They'll be here any minute," he muttered.
"Aye," replied Ben, the other escort. He glanced over his shoulder at Daniel, looked down, shook his head, and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I tell you, Tom, I hate this arrangement. It ain't right, offering our young men and women to these blood-suckers. Sometimes I think it was better in the old days, when we hunted --"
"Shhh! You want them to hear you?"
"They can't hear us," he said, irritation creeping into his voice. "They aren't here yet."
"You don't know that," Tom shot back. "One of 'em could be standing right next to you, and you wouldn't know it unless he spoke." He glared at Ben. "None of us like this arrangement, but it's the only way. In the old days, people died. The offerings keep things peaceful. Keeps the blood-suckers from our village. As for the offerings... well, it's the price we pay. It's not like they kill them."
"No." Ben lowered his voice even more, but Daniel could still make out the words. "But what they do to them is probably worse."
Daniel's hands clenched, nails pressing into his palms. "It's all right," he said. Despite his efforts to keep his voice steady, it trembled. "I'm not afraid." It was a lie, and they all knew it. Ben and Tom exchanged guilty glances.
They waited. Daniel's ears caught the thump of approaching hoof beats. He tensed.
At the edge of the clearing, a black horse emerged from the shadows. It was huge, muscular; its coat sleek and glossy. The rider wore dark, close-fitting trousers, which showed off his long, lean legs, and his black cloak billowed in the wind. Beneath it was a tight shirt of black leather, molded to the contours of his body. He was slender but hard, all sculpted muscle, his abdomen flat and trim. His skin was white, as if it had never seen sunlight... and he was stunningly, unnervingly beautiful, as beautiful as a woman, though it was impossible to mistake him for one. A breeze ruffled his short hair, which gleamed a pale silver, like moonlight on water. And his eyes...
Daniel's heartbeat quickened as he stared into those ruby eyes. He had never seen one of the Kin face to face. That pale face was as cold and expressionless as a statue's. There was no trace of feeling in those blood-red eyes. They flicked over the two cowering escorts, then focused on Daniel.
"Is this the offering?" The Kin lord's voice was deep and full. It seemed to reverberate in the pit of Daniel's stomach, in the marrow of his bones.
Tom took a deep breath and straightened. "Yes, my lord."
"I was told that the offering this year would be a young woman."
Tom glanced at Daniel and cleared his throat. "Aye, that was the intent. But this young man -- Daniel -- volunteered to take the place of his sister."
Silver brows lifted. He looked at Daniel. "Is this true?"
Daniel swallowed. "Yes." His voice sounded very small.
"How old are you, Daniel?"
For a long moment, the Kin lord stared at him. That ruby gaze held him immobile. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. He felt as though those eyes could see straight into his head, as if they were examining every particle of his soul, weighing and measuring unseen qualities. At last, the man nodded. "Very well. Unbind his hands and let him dismount."
With shaking hands, Tom unbound Daniel's wrists. Daniel dismounted. His heart knocked like a fist against his chest as he walked toward the huge, black horse and the silver-haired man. He looked over his shoulder, but Tom and Ben would not meet his gaze.
"You two may go," the silver-haired man said. "Take his horse with you. He won't need it."
Still avoiding Daniel's gaze, they turned their horses and walked them out of the clearing. Daniel's mare followed. He took a deep breath and approached the Kin lord.
Ruby eyes stared down at him. The man stretched out a hand. Daniel took it -- the skin was smooth as marble -- and the Kin lord pulled him onto the horse. Daniel gasped. There was no saddle. He gripped the horse with his thighs.
"Hold on to me," said the Kin lord.
Daniel hesitated, then placed his hands gingerly on the man's shoulders.
"Not like that." There was a touch of gentle amusement in his voice. "Put your arms around my waist."
Daniel bit his lower lip. Slowly, he wrapped his arms around that dagger-slim waist. His chest pressed against the man's hard back. The Kin lord gave his mount a light tap with his heels. The horse snorted, tossed its head, and began to walk.
"My name is Vale, but you may address me as Master."
"Yes, Master," Daniel said quietly.
Vale looked over his shoulder. His crimson eyes reflected Daniel's face. There were no discernable pupils, just two solid, ruby disks that seemed to burn with their own inner light. "You volunteered to take your sister's place, didn't you?"
Daniel hesitated. "She's younger than me by four years. She's in love with a man whom she's planning to marry one day. And my parents adore her. The whole village adores her. So do I. She's always treated me with more kindness than anyone else. When she was chosen as the offering, everyone was devastated. I could not bear to think of her being taken away from all those who love her." He remembered the moment of sinking dread as a village elder had read Sara's name from the scrap of paper he'd drawn, blindfolded, from a wooden box.
"And you? Will they not be devastated by your loss, as well?"
Self-conscious, Daniel dropped his gaze. "I..."
"Look at me."
Daniel looked up and met those cool, expressionless eyes. "No, Master, they won't miss me much."