Refugee (Chapter 1)

The Barrens. The place where horror stories were born, cautionary tales were exchanged and people were frightened by the mere thought of entering them. They were desolate, somehow cold, even with the sun relentlessly pounding the earth around them. There were few people that had entered The Barrens and ever come back. The ones that did often ranted of strange creatures, monsters that hunted within the sand, appeared out of nowhere, and were even more vicious than the vampires. Few believed the extent of the stories, but even fewer wandered into The Barrens after hearing them.

And now they were here, preparing to jump head first, straight into hell. They had traveled hundreds of miles through her forest to this godforsaken land of sun and sand. The supposed new home of the vampires that had at one time been some of the most spoiled aristocrats. They were the aristocrats that had stood against the king during the war, and fled the palace when it became clear that they were not going to win and their lives would be forfeit.

Aristocrats that Braith now sought to gain support from for this upcoming battle. That was, if they could ever find these mysterious vampires amongst the vast expanse of emptiness that unraveled beyond this last border town. The town was frightening enough, the lands beyond were overwhelming. Aria wasn't used to such emptiness, not after being surrounded by trees and caves for most of her life.

Anxiety twisted within her belly. Sweat trickled down her back as she kept her head bowed and the hood pulled low over her brow. She could feel the curious stares burning through the dull gray cloak of the servant's class covering her. Braith was stiff beside her, his shoulders squared as his body thrummed with tension. She didn't know what to do with her hands as they walked silently down the street. She ached to reach out and touch him, to somehow connect with him but it was a move she knew she couldn't make.

She had to fight against the urge to look up. She itched to see the town they had entered, to take in the details of it, but she had been told repeatedly not to make eye contact. No matter how badly she wanted to look, she wasn't about to endanger the men surrounding her by disobeying.

She started as Braith suddenly grasped her upper arm, swallowing it within his massive hand. Immediately her skin heated to his touch, and though they were in this awful place a low sigh of pleasure escaped her. Her heart leapt in her chest, longing spread through her as her toes curled in her battered shoes.

"Keep your head down." Braith seemed to have sensed her wish to look around.

Her shoulders slumped, her gaze focused on the dusty, pitted road. Beside her, she could feel William's growing resentment at being ordered around and having to maintain a subservient demeanor. From the corner of her eye she could see more people moving to the side of the road. Well, at least some of them were people. The others, they were something else entirely and not at all who Braith and Ashby were looking for. These were the more lawless vampires, and therefore more unpredictable than those living within and around the palace, even though these vampires still lived under the king's laws here.

She had seen far too many of these beaten and broken towns with their battered and starving occupants lately. Sometimes she feared that they would never find what Braith and Ashby sought, and that perhaps the legends and rumors of the surviving aristocrats were just that, legends and rumors. Though it felt like they'd walked forever, it had in fact only been two days since they had turned the horses loose at the edge of The Barren's. Aria refused to bring the animals with them if there was no guarantee they could feed or water them, so after riding for two weeks, they had been forced to walk.

If she was honest with herself, two weeks wasn't that much time, she had spent far more time away from home than this. It only seemed so awful because she was never given a moment alone with Braith, they were never allowed to be on their own as either William was standing protectively close, or Ashby was quick to intervene.

Aria understood her brother, it annoyed her, but she understood his determination to stubbornly try and protect her virtue. It was actually a little amusing coming from William, the man that had left broken hearts in every corner of the forest. However, Ashby's interference was beginning to grate on her last nerve. It was most certainly annoying Braith as he'd completely lost his temper with Ashby when he had unapologetically followed them into the woods yesterday. It had only been Aria's interference that had kept Braith from completely losing control.

He hadn't even had a chance to feed from her since they'd left Ashby's rambling tree house. Aria ached for the renewal of the bond, ached to establish that connection with Braith again. She hoped that once they arrived at their destination they would finally be rewarded with some time alone again, but until then she was well aware that her two guard dogs, as she now thought of them, were not going to be shaken.

Oh well, there were many things she wished were different right now. She missed her father; she'd barely had time to speak with him before they had been separated again. He had been uneasy and somewhat uncertain as to what was going on between her and Braith. Her father seemed to want to believe that she really did love Braith, and that Braith did in fact return that love. However, she worried that a part of him still believed that the bond they had forged was only due to her time spent as Braith's blood slave.

She may be almost eighteen, but her father had still been wary of letting her go with Ashby and Braith, had absolutely refused to let it happen until Braith had finally relented and agreed to let William come along with them. Even then, her father was still hesitant to let them go. However, this mission was necessary to try and gain some much needed vampire support for a war against the king, and there was absolutely no way that Braith was going to leave without her.

The whole situation nearly turned into a debacle that had threatened to unravel the tentative plans they had formed to overthrow Braith's father. Cooler heads had finally prevailed, mainly Jack's and surprisingly, William's. Her father had wanted Jack with them on this journey, he trusted Jack, but so did many of her father's followers in the rebellion. If any of the people in the rebellion were going to believe that the vampires were willing to ally themselves with humans, then her father would require Jack's help to convince them. Jack would also be essential to help convince the young vampire girl's village, and other vampire villages, to possibly aid them in their quest.

Her brother Daniel, as their father's second in command, had also been needed to help gather human forces. And Max, poor Max, well he hadn't been able to get away from her fast enough. Tears clogged her eyes and throat. Max had sacrificed himself to try and save her when she had been taken as a blood slave, and now he hated her. So much, in fact, that Aria was terrified he would never forgive her. That he would despise her and everything she was, for the rest of her life.

She loved Max and this whole situation broke her heart. He had been her first crush, her first kiss, her best friend and confidante when she'd been so alone and broken by the revelation of Braith's engagement to another vampire. Max had understood what she had endured as a blood slave, even if it was nowhere near as hideous as the torture and abuse he had suffered. And now he didn't understand or even tolerate her existence at all. He saw her love for Braith as a betrayal, one that she didn't think he'd ever forgive.

Braith's sister, and Ashby's bloodlink Melinda, had reluctantly agreed to return to the palace to be their inner eyes and ears. Aria had understood Melinda's pain as she and Ashby embraced and touched and cried with each other. She knew how they felt; she couldn't bear the thought of being apart from Braith for so long, even if it was for a good cause. Ashby had agreed to come with them knowing that if they succeeded in their goal, he and Melinda would never have to be separated again, or risk their lives in order to see one another. Ashby was almost as determined as Braith to overthrow the regime.

That was if their plan succeeded. If they could somehow convince these possibly half crazed, half starved aristocratic vamps to aide them in their quest. She hoped they weren't crazed, hoped that a hundred years in this land of sweltering heat hadn't fried their brains. More so, she hoped like hell that the four of them weren't walking right into a death trap.

She didn't mean to do it, but without thinking her head rose slowly to Braith. She needed to see him, needed the reassurance of his presence. Even though his eyes were shaded by his dark glasses, she knew the moment when they latched onto hers. Her heart lurched; she could barely breathe beneath the weight of that stare. He was magnificent, and he was hers.

She knew he wanted to tell her to look away, to look down. She saw it in the tight pinch of his mouth, in the muscle that jumped in his cheek. He remained silent though, his eyes locked onto hers and for a single moment it was just the two of them. His hand stroked her arm as he pulled her a step closer.

"We're almost there," he murmured so quietly that she barely heard him. "Please Aria, look down."

Ashby quirked an eyebrow but refrained from saying anything. It was strange to hear the prince say please to anyone, let alone her, a human, a blood slave, a rebel. She was still surprised to hear him call her Aria, as he had always used her full name, but being around people that didn't use it had finally started to rub off on him.

She sighed and reluctantly did as he asked. The tension in his body notched up a level; she knew he was struggling not to grab hold of her and run out of this town. To run would only attract more attention though, and possibly entice the thrill of the hunt. And there would be no more running, not anymore.

Aria shifted uncomfortably. She hated the coarse wool and dull color of the servant's class cloak she wore; she despised even more what it represented. She had resented the golden chain that bound a blood slave to their master but this cloak was worse. At least the chain had marked her as a fighter, someone not to be trusted, someone that had rebelled and been made to pay for that rebellion. As far as she was concerned, the cloak signified a coward and a traitor that had bowed to the vampire race.

More legs gathered by the side of the road and whispers began to spread through the crowd. These outer vamps weren't used to strangers and they were wary and distrustful of them. Though they had not encountered any problems so far, Aria doubted they would be so lucky all the time. The vampire's that lived here were hungry, and so were the people. They were poor, and strangers offered them a new opportunity for fresh blood, perhaps even money. If Braith didn't emanate such an aura of power and dominance, she was sure they would have been jumped before this town, even with Ashby at their side.

The whispers grew louder; they grated against her skin as harshly as the coarse cloth covering her head. Dust drifted up around them, it stuck in her nose and throat. It was cloying, awful. The town smelled of blood, body odor and death. The woods weren't like this. Though they held the smell of decay, it was the earthy decay of leaves and dirt. Fresh air was what she required, freedom, and Braith.

Braith suddenly grasped hold of her hood and jerked it forward. Aria had been so entrenched in her thoughts that she hadn't realized it had slipped back to reveal her hairline, and some of her features. It wasn't that anyone would recognize her, they were far more likely to recognize him, but Braith was adamant that she stay as covered as possible.

He thought her blood was too big of a lure, Aria felt it was only a lure to him, but she wasn't going to argue just in case he happened to be right. She wasn't in the mood to be a snack for a pack of blood thirsty vampires, none of them were. She moved to adjust the hood but he grasped hold of the hand exposed by the movement and pulled it smoothly down to her side. "Remain covered Aria."

This time it wasn't the touch of him that caused her heart to leap and her chest to constrict, but the tone in his voice. She was frightened by what might be unleashed if she looked up. A tremor worked through her. Braith was strong and powerful, but the circumstances of the past two weeks had forced him to feed from animals instead of her. And though animals sustained him, human blood was better, and her blood strengthened him even more. She had a strange effect on him, she empowered him in ways that neither of them had ever imagined possible.

And now, when he needed that strength most, he was being denied it. And they may all be about to pay for that if the increasing crush of bodies around them was any indication. "Are you willing to sell one?" a loud voice inquired.

Braith raised his arm, pushing it against her chest as he halted her beside him. It went against everything she was, but somehow she managed to keep her head bent and her appearance demure. William took two more steps forward before Ashby, in a far less graceful manner than Braith, jerked him to a stop by the collar of his robe. Though Ashby remained expressionless, his bright green eyes twinkled with amusement as William grunted slightly. The two of them had gotten along well enough, but they tended to pick at each other, sometimes to the point that Aria became exasperated with their delight in tormenting each other. William bristled against the highhanded treatment, but thankfully her hot-tempered twin managed to keep his calm.

There was a moment of silence as the town became hushed in expectancy of Braith's answer. He didn't know these lands, didn't know the people or the etiquette that prevailed here. In their land servants were not sold, they were not owned and traded like the blood slaves. That may not be the case here.

"They are not for sale," Braith finally answered.

A pair of legs stepped forward, separating themselves from the crowd. The clothing on these legs was of much higher quality than the ones surrounding it. Even with the sand swirling around them the shoes somehow remained black and shiny. "You look hungry," the legs stated. "I will make a trade. Two for one."

Her heart was in her throat, goose bumps tickled her skin. "Why would you make such a trade?" Braith demanded.

Though she couldn't see it, she could almost feel the man's casual shrug. "I have grown tired of them. You know how that is, I'm sure."

Sorrow stabbed her as she realized Braith knew exactly how that was. She tried not to think of his past, tried not to think of the blood slaves he had gone through when she had escaped the palace, but every once in awhile she would be slapped in the face with a stark reminder. She may have been his first blood slave, but she had not been his last, and he had not treated the others anywhere near as kindly as he had treated her.

Braith's arm pressed closer to her, he was trying to offer her some sort of comfort, but she found none. Her face was on fire; William was as still as stone before her, his breath seemed to have frozen in his chest.

"I do, and I have not yet grown bored with mine."

Aria's breath sucked in, her stomach cramped. No matter how much time she spent amongst them, she would never become accustomed to the cruelty and open brutality of some within the vampire race. She was not naive enough to think that all humans were good either, after all, the only real abuse she had suffered as a blood slave was at the hands of a human, but it never seemed as overt amongst the humans as it was with the vampires.

She wasn't a possession though, she never truly had been, and she bristled against being thought of as such. Braith must have sensed something in her pulse or a shift in her demeanor, as right at that moment he pushed her back another step. Defiance surged through her; it took everything she had to appear outwardly tranquil while inside she was seething. She was tempted to pull out the hidden bow on her back but she wasn't sure who she wanted to shoot more…Braith or the man trying to bargain for her.

"Let me at least get a look at her," the man prodded.

"I think not."

His answer was accompanied by a collective inhalation from the crowd. Aria's annoyance vanished as apprehension surged to the forefront. They were in danger here if Braith didn't tread the right path, and judging by the crowd's reaction, he had just made a serious misstep by disobeying the request.

"No?" Though he tried to hide it, Aria detected disbelief in the man's voice.

"No."

She cringed. Braith wasn't used to being ordered about nor was he used to anyone questioning him, except for maybe her, and he certainly didn't react well to it. He was not versed in diplomacy like her father, Daniel, Jack, and Ashby. Braith was used to giving the order and having that order obeyed. As prince, he'd never had to learn anything different, and he wasn't willing to tolerate insolence now.

Aria wished she could talk to him, reason with him, but if she opened her mouth and exposed any sort of feeling between them, then they would be in even more peril then they were now, if that was even possible.

"I'm sure you understand that sometimes, when your toys are shiny and new, you tend to like to keep them to yourself," Ashby interjected smoothly. Aria took no offense to being called a shiny toy. She felt only relief at Ashby's light tone and thankfully easygoing demeanor.

"She is new then?" the vampire inquired.

"Oh not brand new," Ashby replied flippantly. "Are any of them anymore? It's hard to find something that hasn't been battered and tossed aside now." His comments were met with snickers and muttered agreements from the crowd. "But she is new to my friend here, and as I'm sure you're beginning to realize he's none too bright, and he really hates to share."

Braith stiffened, irritated by Ashby's words. Aria held her breath, hoping Braith would keep his composure as the muscles in his arm rippled against her. The man, who had inquired to buy her, pondered Ashby's words. "No, none of them are untouched anymore." He made a regretful sound. "Damn shame too. What about yours?"

Ashby jerked the hood back from William. "It's a boy, and a redhead to boot."

The hideous vampire chuckled. "Ah, neither of those attributes appeal to me."

Aria held her breath, praying that William wouldn't explode, that he would hold his tongue despite his pride and arrogance. Ashby jerked the hood back over his head. "Not my preference either, but I don't have to look at him to enjoy him."

There were a few titters from the audience. The tension in the air eased. "Ah well, perhaps if you pass through again…"

"I'm sure my friend will be far more willing to discuss a deal then."

Some of the crowd began to disperse as it became apparent no blood would be shed today. Ashby and the man exchanged a few more words before they finally said their goodbyes. Braith was so rigid she was frightened he might break his teeth if he didn't unclench his jaw. The buildings fell away as they slipped free of the confines of the town. The bleak landscape enveloped them, as they were encompassed by The Barrens.

Aria barely had time to take her first easy breath before Braith's arm wrapped around her waist. He pulled her firmly against him and kissed her with an intensity that left her breathless and limp. His fangs pressed against her bottom lip, nicking it enough to draw a drop of blood. A small groan escaped him as he nibbled lightly before his tongue swept in to claim possession of her mouth. Pulling her hood back, he burrowed his hand into her hair and tenderly cradled her head. She was enveloped by love, aflame with need as she clung to him in a desperate attempt to stay grounded despite the rising desire threatening to engulf her. She forgot about everything that had just transpired in her desperation to get even closer to him, to feel even more of him.

William coughed faintly and then more loudly as neither of them acknowledged his existence. He cleared his throat before grunting his displeasure. Braith was the first to pull away, his lips were still wet as he buried his face in the hollow of her neck and pressed them against her skin. Aria brushed his dark hair back with her fingers, relishing in the softness of it as she sought to ease the tension clinging to him.

"I never should have brought you with me." Panic tore through her as her hands stilled in his hair. "It was selfish." He shook his head, his fangs pressed briefly against her oversensitive, heated skin.

"There were no other options," she assured him when he pulled away.

His moment of weakness had vanished and she found herself faced with the inflexible, seasoned vampire she knew so well. A vampire she could sense trying to distance himself from her, trying to formulate a new plan. Aria's defiance surged to the forefront, she braced herself for the battle she knew was about to ensue.

"I should have left you at the tree house."

She snorted. "Like I would have stayed."

"Arianna." It was a low growl of warning, one she was sure would have sent many a man and vampire running, but it only served to infuriate her further.

"You're not going to figure out some way to keep me out of this Braith. I've been fighting my whole life for this war, this chance at freedom, and I've made it this far…"

"You're seventeen!" he snapped.

Her eyes narrowed as she slammed her fists on her hips. "That's old enough for you!"

Ashby and William inhaled sharply as they took a big step away. Aria didn't blame them, Braith was wound taut as a bowstring about ready to snap. He loomed over her, bending low so that his face was just inches above hers. "If I decide that you are to stay somewhere safe, then you will stay there."

Aria wanted to scream in frustration, she wanted to punch him in the gut or kick him in the shins. Instead, she simply glared back at him as she tilted her chin defiantly. "Like hell. You just try it Braith and see what happens."

"What? What will you do?"

"If you try to abandon me somewhere, I will not stay there. I'll find some other way to help in this cause, something else to do. I will not be pushed aside."

Their noses were almost touching now. "Don't threaten me Aria."

"Don't threaten me, Braith!"

He cursed vehemently as he spun away from her. Aria jumped in surprise, wincing as he smashed a fist into the side of an abandoned brick building. The wall shook, for a moment she was terrified it was going to tumble down on him as dust cascaded around him. He stood, his hands fisted, his shoulders heaving as he tried to regain control of himself. Ashby and William were staring at her as if she had sprouted two heads, she stared insolently back at them, refusing to back down no matter how infuriated Braith became with her. He wouldn't hurt her, she was certain of it, those two may be intimidated by him, may even have something to fear from him, but she didn't.

Not unless he really did try to leave her somewhere.

"There is nowhere safe Braith. There never has been, not for me, not for William," she continued more reasonably. He was frightened for her, and that made him volatile, she understood that, but she wasn't willing to be shut out of this fight. He turned slowly back toward her. Frustration filled her, she wished she could see his eyes, she hated those glasses. "We're human Braith, we were born into the rebellion; this is our life, it always has been. We'll be ok, I'll be fine. We knew when this started that it wasn't going to be easy. Braith…"

He was back before her; she'd hardly seen him move before he was standing there. She didn't think she would ever get used to how fast and powerful he was. It was as thrilling as it was frightening. He bent over her but this time it wasn't in anger, he was going to kiss her again. Her toes curled and her lips tingled with anticipation.

"We should get going," Ashby interjected loudly. Aria blinked, startled out of the reverie that had enveloped her. Braith's hands tensed on her shoulders, she could feel his frustration, his aggravation as he turned slowly toward Ashby. Ashby gulped but forced a smile. It was nowhere near as cocky as normal though. "Don't you think?"

Braith squeezed her shoulders before slipping her hood back into place. Disappointment filled her. She never thought she'd miss her captivity in the palace, but she found herself missing the time when they had spent hours together, uninterrupted as they shut out the rest of the world. No matter what happened, she was certain this wasn't going to end well for them. She needed as much time as she could get with him before that time came, but it wasn't going to happen now.

"Stay covered," he whispered. She nodded as she slid her hand into his.