Refugee (Chapter 7)

Aria stood silently in the corner of the room. Thankfully they had not retreated to Gideon's "study," but to a large dining room in the back of the house. Braith sat at the head of the large table, his hands folded before him. He was leaning forward, his tone low and fervent as he spoke with the vampires gathered around him. They listened to him with rapt attention, ensnared by his words and the aura of power he emitted. A lump formed in her throat as pride bloomed in her. It was amazing to watch him like this.

She knew he didn't consider himself a leader, but he already was. And they would follow him, she was certain of it.

Her gaze scanned over the group gathered around him. They were an eclectic lot. Gideon and Ashby sat on each side of Braith, beside Ashby sat Barnaby, a vampire even fairer than Ashby. His hair was nearly white, his eyes a washed out watery blue. Tall and thin he possessed a regal air that marked him every inch the aristocrat he was. Xavier sat beside Barnaby; he was leaning forward as he listened to Braith. His head was completely bald and his dark skin gleamed in the light filtering through the windows. Tattoos marked the backs of his hands and ran up his solid arms before disappearing beneath the sleeves of his shirt. Strange designs and flames reappeared at the side of his neck before ending at his right ear and the bottom of his chin.

Xavier might have been one of the most intriguing looking men she had ever seen, with his eclectic tattoos, but it was Saul that she found her gaze drawn repeatedly toward. Unlike the others, who all appeared to be under the age of thirty, Saul had salt and pepper hair that fell around his sharp face. His nose was hawkish, his eyes a darker shade of gray than his hair. She knew that Frank was the human leader, but what was Saul? He was the first vampire she had ever seen that appeared aged, at least fifty judging by the lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Had he been human once? Had this man survived the change? She wanted to ask Braith about it, couldn't wait to get him alone to find out the details, but it would be awhile before that happened.

Calista sat regally beside Saul, her head held high on her slender neck. Her skin was not as dark as Xavier's, but a soft brown hue that matched her eyes. Her hair was cropped close to her skull, highlighting the intriguing angles and planes of her features.

"He reminds me of father," William whispered. "People listen to and follow both of them."

Besides being a little disturbed by the association William had just made, Aria couldn't help but smile as she nodded in agreement.

"They will follow him." Aria turned toward William as she caught the hint of something in his tone. He seemed to have come to some sort of realization, one that saddened him. He smiled wanly at her, but it was forced, awkward and uncertain.

"William, what is it?"

He shook his head, looking like he was about to say something, but Braith interrupted him. "Arianna, William." Forcing her face to remain impassive, she straightened her shoulders and appeared indifferent toward Braith as she moved slowly toward him. She was well aware of the fact that they were all watching her and William questioningly.

"Their father is the leader of the rebel cause closest to the palace. David is gathering support there for what we are about to undergo." Aria met each of their gazes as Braith continued on. "Jericho, who now goes by the name Jack, has been working with David for awhile now and is helping with this undertaking. Melinda has returned to the palace to be our eyes and ears on the inside."

"Will the humans follow this David?" Xavier inquired.

"People will follow our father," William informed him. "They've followed our family in one form or another for almost ninety years, and they will continue to do so. Especially if there is a chance to end the fear, starvation, and death we live with everyday."

"I met your father once," Frank said. He rose slowly as he ran a hand through his dark hair. "It was years ago but he was a good man and I remember being impressed by him. I think your mother was pregnant with you both at the time. He is right; David will be able to rally many to the fight."

"Are you willing to fight?" Gideon inquired.

Frank was fixated on a spot behind Braith's shoulder. Then he slowly looked at William and finally her. "I'm not sure how many of my people will be willing to jump into this fray. We don't know what you know; we've never experienced the life that you have. Though, it would be nice to put an end to the apprehension that the king may one day discover us."

"What about you Frank, will you join us?" Braith pushed.

"I am willing to help. I can't say how many will come with me but my second in command, Marshall, can run things while I'm away. I'd like to move the rest of my people into the vampire towns until this is over, and I'd like to keep them all together, if possible."

"There will be room for them here," Gideon offered.

Frank nodded. "Thank you."

"There will be the matter of the king himself," Saul said. "It will not be easy to remove your father Braith. He's the strongest one of us; he hasn't managed to stay alive and retain such an iron tight hold because he is weak. I don't know anyone who could take him out one on one…"

"Braith can," Ashby interrupted.

Aria's breath froze in her lungs; every muscle in her body went rigid. There was no love lost between Braith and his father, but for the son to destroy the father…

It was unthinkable. And she wasn't sure that Braith could do it, that he could survive the consequences of it. Their probing gazes latched onto Braith. "Braith is powerful, yes, but the king has years on him, experience and cruelty, and a viciousness that none of us possess. Those are all driving motivators that make the king the deadliest one of us," Saul continued.

"They are," Braith confirmed. "We'll just have to make sure that more than one of us goes after him when the time comes."

"Even then…"

"Braith can take him," Ashby cut Saul off firmly. Aria shot him a dark look, irritated that he kept pushing the issue. She ground her teeth, clenching her jaw as she bit back a sharp retort.

"It's his father," William blurted.

"And he wouldn't hesitate to strike down his son," Ashby reminded him.

William looked sickened by the thought. "First we have to worry about getting into the palace, and then we will worry about my father."

"There is also the matter of The Forsaken Ones," Calista inserted, her hooded gaze was wicked as she stared at Braith. "They have to be stopped before we can leave our towns. We cannot leave the ones that remain behind susceptible to them."

"Yes," Frank agreed emphatically.

"We'll try and group these creatures together and destroy them. It needs to be done quickly before they cause more damage." Braith spoke the words flatly, but his muscles flexed briefly beneath his shirt. Anxiety trickled through her; no matter how many went out there after them, those things were unsafe, deadly. "I would like to do this tomorrow, if at all possible. We'll move out as soon as we can."

Aria kept her face as emotionless as possible. She was acutely aware of the fact that Xavier's deep brown had fixated upon her. His dark brows drew sharply together over his broad nose. Something slithered down her spine, something cold and numbing as his eyes slowly swung toward Braith.

"Why now?" Xavier inquired a little too loudly. "Why do you desire to overthrow your father now?"

The coldness spread to her belly, she couldn't breathe. "I have learned of my father's plot against my mother."

"How did you come to learn of this?"

"Melinda, fearing for her life after Jack's defection to the rebellion, came to me and told me the truth. I was able to find Jack afterwards, and was finally led to David and his children. I may not have known my mother well, but such a deception cannot go un-avenged. I'm sure you all understand how I feel as most of you are here to avenge your own families, though none of you were ever close with them. It is the principle of the matter."

They all nodded eagerly along to Braith's very abridged and not entirely true version, Xavier remained unmoving as he stared at her.

***

Aria was beginning to hate The Barrens with its endless sun and sand. The woods were cool even on the hottest of days and shady when the sun was at its brightest. She missed the smell of them, that invigorating blend of earth, fresh air, and wilderness. There was nothing like that here.

Sweat trickled down her back, her forehead, and in between her breasts. The thin, tan shirt she wore adhered to her back and shoulders. She pulled it off her skin, fanning herself with it as she pushed her braid over her shoulder. Shielding her eyes, she stared across the endless brown, searching for any sign of life, all she discovered was a dizzying sense of unreality and a slight headache.

"How will we ever find them out there?" she asked.

"We won't," Braith confirmed. He tugged lightly on the end of her braid, smiling for a brief moment as he wrapped it around his finger. "They'll find us."

That didn't sound like a better option. The desolate town was depressing, but she would rather be here than left behind as she had greatly feared Braith intended to do. Instead, he had been uncharacteristically reasonable about taking her with him, a fact that astounded her until she realized that he didn't feel Gideon's town was any safer than here.

Aria wiped the sweat from her brow, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the smell that wafted from her. "I miss the woods."

She hadn't meant to say the words out loud, hadn't meant to reveal her melancholy to him, but they popped out before she could stop them. Braith's hand stilled in her hair, his body was still as stone. "I know. I'll get you back to them."

She grabbed hold of his hand and squeezed as she forced a smile. "I know."

He brushed his finger over her cheek, trailing it down her throat, pausing briefly upon the marks on her neck. She felt his rising thirst, but he swiftly buried it. "You won't ever have to leave them again when this is over."

She frowned as she pressed his hand more firmly against her face. "But you'll need to be in the palace in order to rule."

"I don't plan on ruling anything Aria."

Shock shimmered through her, her fingers convulsed on his. She didn't understand what he was saying. Of course he was going to rule, who else would do it? The people would follow him, he was the next in line; it was obvious that it had to be him. "But you have to."

He shook his head, opened his mouth to respond but a shout interrupted his words. Aria wanted to pull him back, wanted to demand that he explain his statement to her but he was already releasing her, already moving out of the small room they had been standing in. There was a large group of men outside the door, most of them were vampires, but a good amount of them were also humans armed with bows and stakes. Sadly, stakes would be a last resort, if a vampire was that close it was more than likely the human would not survive the encounter.

There were other women with them, but she didn't think any of them were human, and in all honesty she wasn't entirely certain if they were there to fight, to keep the men entertained, or to try and get their hooks into Braith. She was acutely aware of the fact that they watched his every move with interest. They wore make-up, had their hair styled, and smiled flirtatiously at him whenever he was near. Many of them believed her to be the meal that the prince had brought along with him for the journey, even if her father was the rebel leader, she was of little consequence to them. Vampire or not, they were making her mad enough to take them down.

She refused to look at any of them as she followed Braith to the door of the house they had taken shelter in. She needed a thicker skin if she was going to have to deal with these people for the rest of her life or eternity? Either way it was going to be a long time, because no matter what Braith thought, she knew he was the one that was going to lead them out of this mess. He would be the one to end all of the brutality and oppression they'd experienced for the past hundred years.

He was the only one that could.

It was almost impossible to discern one thing from another in the shifting sand and wind. She didn't see what had caused the shout, what had drawn the attention of the group surrounding her. Idle talk and gossip broke off; the laughter faded away, what had apparently been some sort of titillating social event to them finally became something serious.

Then through the shifting sand and blinding light, she saw movement. Braith stepped outside of the building, the wind rippled across his hair, blowing it around his face and causing it to stand on end. Sand trickled over him, coating his clothing and broad shoulders.

He seemed oblivious to the hideous weather conditions surrounding him as he studied the horizon. Figures slipped through the sand, moving as swiftly as wraiths through the hostile environment they knew so well. Braith made his way back toward the house, he didn't say anything as he gently grabbed Aria's arm. He pulled her back into the small side room, gesturing for Ashby and William to follow them.

Pushing the door closed with his foot, he turned to her. "I need you to stay here." He held up a hand, forestalling her protest. "I can't have you out there Aria; there's enough to worry about without having to worry about you too."

"But your vision…"

"I'll be close enough to you so that it won't be affected drastically. I'll be fine, but you have got to stay here." Her eyebrows drew together; she folded her arms firmly over her chest. She was a fighter, she belonged out there, and she sure as hell didn't want him out there alone. "Don't fight me on this, please."

It was the please that was her undoing, the please that melted the fight from her. The vulnerability that radiated from him for that brief moment was almost more than she could stand. Swallowing her pride and her need to be part of the fight, she managed a small nod. Relief filled him; his hand wrapped around the back of her neck as he pulled her against him and kissed her forehead for a fervent moment. She hugged him, savoring the moment.

"Come back to me," she whispered.

"Always." He kissed her again and reluctantly released her. "Stay with her," he ordered Ashby.

Ashby nodded, William glanced between them but his unasked question was answered when Braith handed him an extra quiver of arrows and gestured for him to follow him from the room. Aria fought the urge to go after them, to race out the door and follow them across the desert. She was shaking with the impulse, struggling not to succumb to the urge. She could be of help, she knew it, but she also knew she would be a huge distraction for Braith. Her hands fisted in frustration as a feeling of helplessness flooded her.

Ashby watched her with a wary expression that alerted her to the fact he was well aware of what she was thinking. "You know he'll kill me if I end up having to tie you up," he warned her.

Aria couldn't help but give him a feeble smile as she shook her head. "He wouldn't kill you."

"Like hell," Ashby muttered.

Aria crooked an eyebrow at him but refrained from arguing. "I'm going to watch."

"I didn't expect anything less."

Though Ashby said the words, he still looked guarded as Aria popped the door back open. She was about to stick her head out when Ashby grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. "Ashby…"

"Let me go first."

She frowned at him in displeasure, but relented as he pulled her away from the door. The chatter hit her instantly; she could practically feel the excitement palpitating through the room. Ashby took hold of her arm and turned her in the opposite direction of the crush trying to work their way out the door.

Ashby kept her behind him, using his body to shield her from the stragglers drifting through the house. He shouldered aside a questioning young man that eyed Aria with interest. A low growl emanated from Ashby's chest, the color drained from the man's face as he hurried on down the stairs.

"Idiot," Ashby mumbled under his breath.

Aria craned her neck to watch the young man. "Is he human Ashby?"

"He is."

"Why is he so interested in us?"

"Because he's an idiot." Aria turned back around as Ashby placed a gentle hand in the small of her back, urging her on before swiftly removing his touch. Aria forgot all about the young man as she hurried up the last few steps, she nearly bolted to the broken window at the end of the hall. She placed her hands against the sill, leaning out to watch the group spread out across the sand. She searched frantically for Braith, but he was nowhere to be seen amongst the crowd and run-down structures surrounding them.

Panic seized hold of her, her hands curled around the ledge as she bent further out. It was bad enough not being able to be with him, but not being able to see him was a thousand times worse. Ashby grabbed hold of her shoulder, pulling her back as he pried her hands from the sill.

She was stunned to see blood welling up on her palms and fingers. There had still been glass in the frames, but she hadn't felt the bite of it against her flesh. "How did you manage to stay alive this long?" Ashby inquired as he tore the edges of his shirt and used the rags to wrap her damaged hands.

"I didn't feel it."

"I know."

She turned eagerly back to the window as he released her hands. "Where is he?"

Ashby's shoulder pressed against hers as he peered out the window. "There."

She followed his finger to a building about four hundred feet away. She could just barely make out the form of someone standing in the doorway of a small shack. He was half hidden amongst the shifting sand, and blinding light. Though it was difficult to discern the figure completely, she knew instantly that Ashby was right, it was Braith.

Her fingers twitched, she pulled the bow from her back and propped it on the floor before her. It would be tricky to get a clear shot with so many below, but she was going to do her best to take out as many as possible. Braith may not want her down there, but he hadn't said anything about her taking position right here.

She watched as more figures crept forward. Gideon had said that they were drawn by the presence of anyone in the desert sands, they did not discriminate, they were hungry and they didn't care how many were awaiting them or how powerful they were. The promise of blood was a strong motivator to these lost, ravenous souls.

"Do you think we can get on the roof?" she inquired.

"Do you want to see me dismembered?"

Aria chuckled as she shook her head. "I don't think he's quite as volatile as you make him sound."

"No Aria, he is. The only thing that might keep him sane if something were to happen to you is the fact that you have not done everything necessary to completely form the link. But don't doubt for a minute that he is capable of far more vicious and brutal acts than anything you've ever seen. I've come to realize that he is capable of anything when it comes to you, maybe even beating his father. I know what I would do if Melinda were threatened."

Aria swallowed heavily as she fought the blush trying to work its way up her neck and through her face. It didn't sit well that he knew such an intimate detail of their lives. "But your link with Melinda is complete."

"Yes, and that does make some difference, I think. How much of one I don't know. No one does."

There was something about Ashby's tone of voice, something secretive and fevered about his bright green eyes that caused a deep feeling of unease to form in her stomach. A shout from outside drew her attention, her hand constricted around the bow. The fresh cuts on her hands ached but they were not deep or overly painful. She drew an arrow from its quiver, knocking it against the bow without a sound.

The creatures were closer now, blending with the environment. They moved as swiftly as the dust particles dancing through the air. Her eyes found Braith, her heart beat against her ribs with loud thumps she was certain everyone could hear. William stood behind him, his hair far too noticeable for her liking.

The attack was swifter than she had expected it to be. She didn't think the creatures had much use for logic, at least not anymore, but she hadn't expected this suicidal rush into the town. It was as if they didn't care, as if they welcomed the thought of death as much as the promise of blood.

Braith tried to coordinate the attack but she wasn't sure he could coordinate anything against these mindless creatures. How could he plan against something that had lost the ability to reason, something with no sense of self-preservation? But somehow Braith did it as she watched the vampires, along with some humans, split and flow in different directions, effectively encircling and trapping the creatures between the buildings. She was well aware that Braith was at the center of the attack, even through the shifting conditions she could see the blood that coated him, the speed with which he moved, the deadly precision with which he carried out the death of these things.

She knew he took no pleasure in the killing, or at least she tried to tell herself that because at the moment she wasn't so certain. The ease with which it was done, the brutality of it all was mind numbing. She was so focused upon Braith that it took awhile for her to realize that though the group had encircled the creatures, Braith was the only one fighting.

"What are they doing?" She spun away from the window, determined to get to him. Ashby stepped swiftly in front of her. Gone was the good natured vampire she knew, instead he was a massive hulk of annoyance as he effectively blocked her way. "Move!"

"No."

For a moment she was speechless, then her mouth snapped shut and she glowered at him as her fingers curled around her bow. "They're not helping him!"

"I know."

"I have to!"

"No."

Aria's nostrils flared, she was fuming as she pushed against him. He was like an impenetrable wall and he didn't even have the decency to pretend her shove affected him. "So help me Ashby if you don't get out of my way I'll shoot you!"

"No." If he said no to her one more time she really was going to shoot him. "Braith suspected this might happen."

Her anger deflated instantly. "What?"

"They have to see if he's strong enough to lead. This is a test and he needs to pass it."

"There's too many of them, he needs my help!"

Ashby shook his head. "No, he needs to concentrate and you will be nothing but a distraction to him right now. He can do this Aria, you know it and I know it. You need to stay here. Why do you think he left me in charge of you instead of William? He knew your brother wouldn't be able to stop you, please don't make me force you to stay."

She didn't know which feeling was worse, the anger or the terror. Braith had suspected this, he'd set her up, the three of them had plotted against her and unless she really did injure Ashby, she wasn't getting past him. Though she would hurt him if Braith required help, and there was a definite possibility she would shoot her brother when this was over. He had it coming anyway; he'd been tormenting her since he could talk. Rushing out there, being reckless and not trusting Braith could put them all in even more danger. She could get them all killed.

"Damn him!" she snapped as she spun back to the fight. "And damn you!"

She thought she heard Ashby mutter, "Too late," but she became so focused on the fighting again that she couldn't be sure, and she wasn't in the mood to push it.

Her stomach twisted as the bow fell limply back to her side. There was no need for it now. Her interference would not be appreciated. Ever so slowly, she slipped it onto her back and replaced the arrow. She couldn't stand the spectacle of the bloodbath anymore but she couldn't turn away, not until it was over and she was certain Braith was safe.

Death, those creatures welcomed death. The realization left Aria hollow and shaken. These were not the king's soldiers; these were lost, starving souls. Souls, she reminded herself, that had done something to warrant such a fate. The reminder did little good. There was so much blood and rage that she was frightened she might be sick.

She leaned forward as two of them launched at Braith. Her breath was frozen in her chest as he fell back, struggling beneath the weight of one of them. She barely had time to blink before he grabbed hold of the back of its neck and ripped it off of himself. No matter how much she yearned to turn away, every ounce of her was focused upon Braith.

Ashby's hand suddenly slid around her mouth. She jumped; a startled cry escaped her as he pulled her firmly against his chest. A finger appeared in front of her face, held up before her as he pulled her back a few steps and maneuvered her into a side room. Aria caught only a brief glimpse of pale dirty feet appearing at the top of the steps before Ashby slid the door silently closed.