Refugee (Chapter 10)

Her forest. She'd missed it so much, the sweet scent that filled her nostrils; the cool shade that hid the heat of the sun. The sounds of the animals were familiar and soothing. The tension in her body eased, her heart beat seemed to slow to match the melodious rhythm of the world around her. A rhythm that enveloped her within its comforting embrace, and held her close as she picked her way through the natural obstacles with the ease of an expert.

An ease that a lot of their group did not exhibit. Though their predatory vampire nature made them stealthier than most, they were not accustomed to the sticks, leaves and fallen debris that littered the forest floor. And they were obvious about it. Aria flinched at every snap of a twig or branch. She was doing a lot of flinching.

Braith finally stopped, his impatience was apparent as he turned to face the massive troops gathered behind them. Though most of the women had remained in The Barrens with the children or the elderly, there were a couple hundred of them mixed in amongst the men and looking just as ferocious and annoyed by their surroundings.

She was leading an army of deadly vampires, humans, and weaponry straight into the heart of her world. Aria swallowed the lump of trepidation that lodged in her throat. What they were doing went against everything she had ever known, ever fought against.

They were on her side, she reminded herself severely, but she still couldn't shake her lingering concerns. She had absolute trust and faith in Braith, in his ability to succeed, she had grown to like Ashby, had forged a small amount of trust in Gideon, and there was something about Xavier that intrigued her. But even so, she didn't really know these vampires, and she sure as hell didn't know the thousands following behind them.

There were too many of them and she knew it. They couldn't continue on like this without being caught. Her people knew these woods, they moved through them with ease but this mass would never make it through unnoticed if they continued to stomp through the woods like a herd of elephants.

Braith seemed to sense this as he turned to her. "How long do you think it will be before you are able to find your father?"

"Stay here."

Braith lurched for her, but she was already scrambling up the closest tree. It was the only way she knew he wasn't going to be able stop her. She imagined it would be amusing to watch him attempt to chase her through the trees, but she doubted she'd ever get the chance. She wasn't at all surprised to see him following her as she leapt, jumped, ran, and swung easily from limb to limb.

Climbing steadily higher, she swiftly made her way up a small hill where she paused to skirt to the top of a large maple. She hoped she was near one of the areas she used to communicate with her father when they were separated, or that he had even moved through this region. There was a chance she'd have to go a couple miles to the west before finding another place that would help her. It could take days before she located one of his markers; she hoped that she would get lucky now.

"Arianna!" Even though the snarl had been low pitched it drifted up to her.

She didn't look down, she didn't have to. She knew his look of displeasure and annoyance well. The thinner branches bowed beneath her weight, but she'd done this since she was a child, she knew exactly how far she could go before the tree wouldn't support her weight. Pausing, she spread her legs, bracing her feet against two branches that bent to the side. Between the two of them she was able to distribute her weight without snapping them as she poked her head over the top of the leaves.

She moved slightly, adjusting so that she could see the forest from different angles. It spread out before her, an endless array of shimmering leaves, deep green conifers, and a spattering of red maple groves that added sporadic color to the landscape. For a brief moment she allowed herself to savor in the view.

Then she spotted it, a small glimmer halfway up a tree about two miles away. Her father didn't climb as high as she did, but he could also navigate the trees well. Smiling with satisfaction and relief, she was about to shimmy back down the tree when something to the right snapped her head around. Eyes narrowing, her hands dropped down to grab the two branches supporting her weight. She brought them sharply together, lifting herself higher and earning an angry hiss from Braith.

She didn't care though. She didn't even care that she was pushing her luck as she scooted another foot higher. Only about a mile away there was a movement in the woods that was not made by any animal, but she couldn't be certain if it was human, or something else, until a break in the trees revealed the group of men. Though they were too far away to discern much about them, they were all wearing the royal colors of the king.

Aria's heart leapt into her throat, panic flared through her body as two of the men turned to scan the horizon. She didn't move, didn't even breathe. They turned in a complete circle, seemingly oblivious to the brim of her head over the tree as they bent to confer again.

They had more soldiers on their side right now, but if things went wrong, and one of the king's men happened to escape back to the palace, everything they had worked for would be ruined. They needed to stay hidden until Braith decided it was time to make their presence known. But that would be impossible with the herd following them.

With their attention distracted, Aria plunged rapidly out of the tree, dropping from branch to branch until she released the final limb and plummeted toward the ground. She would have been fine if she'd hit the ground, but she didn't mind at all when Braith's arms wrapped around her. He held her for a brief moment, cradling her within his embrace. She allowed herself to relax, to feel the strength of his body beneath her hand before he set her smoothly on her feet.

Ashby was gaping at her, his bright green eyes astonished as he looked from her to the top of the tree. Behind him Gideon and William were watching her anxiously. "Dad?" asked William.

"That way, about two miles there's a marker." Taking a steadying breath, she turned slowly and pointed to the west. "That way about a mile, are the king's men."

Braith's hand stilled in the hollow of her back, his eyebrows drew sharply together over the bridge of his nose as his nostrils flared. "Are you certain?" Gideon asked.

"They're wearing his colors."

"What the hell are we going to do?" Ashby demanded.

"There are caves." William inhaled sharply at her words, his eyes darted uncertainly toward her. She stared hard at her brother, understanding his trepidation and hesitance. But it was too late for that, they had brought these vampires into their world, there was no turning back now. William looked hesitant for a moment more before he nodded slowly. "Less than a mile from here. They're large enough to hold everyone but with so many it will be cramped."

"They're not going to like being forced into those caves." Aria started in surprise as Xavier separated from the shadows of the trees. She hadn't seen him standing there, but Braith seemed to have known as he didn't react to Xavier's sudden appearance. She was even more surprised when Braith didn't remove his hand from her back, didn't separate himself from her. A tremor of trepidation shuddered down her spine as Xavier pinned her with his dark, knowing eyes.

"They knew this wasn't going to be an easy undertaking," Gideon stated. "That there would be sacrifices when we left. This will be one of those sacrifices. It's painfully obvious that we cannot move them all through here, this hasn't been their environment in a hundred years, and some have never experienced it."

"These caves will be safe?" Braith inquired.

Aria forced herself not to shudder at the thought of the darkness, the confining space, the chill that came with the underground hollows she had grown to hate after nearly being trapped in a separate system with William and Max. "All the cave systems have iron gates, some sort of alarm, and traps in them," William explained. "Though there is no way to know if they have been discovered since we left."

"I don't think we have a choice," Ashby said.

Braith was silent as he pondered the situation. "Neither do I. Gideon and William go back to round them up, try to get them to be a little quieter if it's possible. Don't engage with my father's troops, but if it becomes necessary make sure there are no survivors. Xavier, Ashby, Aria and I will go to the caves and make sure they are safe."

Aria remained silent, she didn't want to go to the caves, didn't want to step foot in them but she had no choice. "Go," Braith commanded. Gideon nodded and slipped silently into the woods with William. "Get us there quickly Aria."

She swallowed heavily and nodded firmly. "Follow me."

***

Braith followed silently behind Aria as she led them with an ease that was fascinating. She was quiet, far more so than Xavier as she moved like a wraith through the trees. She covered the distance to the caves in less than ten minutes. Standing at the edge of the woods he studied the cliff face twenty feet away that appeared entirely impenetrable to him.

"That's them," she stated.

"Where?" Xavier inquired in disbelief.

Her jaw clenched, there was a darkening of her eyes that only he would have recognized as fear. The last time she'd been in the caves, he had taken her from them. Just when he thought she was going to balk against telling them exactly where the caves were, she slipped silently from the woods.

They followed her, fanning out around her as she knelt before the rock wall. Her head tilted as she examined a cropping of bushes against the rock wall with an intensity that was a little unnerving given the fact it was simply a group of ferns and wild scrub. Then her small hands slid forward and parted the brush to reveal a sliver in the rock wall that was nearly indiscernible even without the brush covering it.

"No one has been here in months."

"How do you know?" Xavier asked her.

Her smile was fleeting. "I know."

Ashby looked about ready to protest but Xavier simply nodded. "Lead the way then."

"I'll lead the way," Braith told her. Xavier quirked an eyebrow at him, his head tilted to the side.

"I know the system Braith. Its fine, I'm certain no one has been here, at least not through this entrance, and the only other one is two miles from here."

"But there could still be someone in there," he asserted, pressing closer to her.

She shook her head as her eyes darted to the opening and then back to him. "It's unlikely. The other opening is in a meadow at the top of a hill. If it's even spotted, it appears to be more of a foxhole than an entrance to anything significant underground. There's no one in there Braith."

"Except bats," Ashby muttered not looking at all pleased by the notion.

"I'm still going before you." She opened her mouth to protest further but he cut her swiftly off. "You can guide me through Aria. Tell me which way to go."

"Ok," she agreed; her voice a little tighter than normal.

Her fingers brushed over his, before they wrapped around his index finger for a brief moment. His heart swelled with love. To hell with Xavier, it was too late anyway. He pulled her into him, cradling her as his fingers splayed across the back of her neck, savoring in the silken feel of her hair, and the suppleness of her body. Bending low, he pressed his lips to her ear. "Will you be ok in there?"

She nodded, her head turned toward his, her mouth brushed enticingly against his as she spoke. "Yes."

"We can find…" he started before she cut him off.

"I'll be fine."

Her hand flattened against him, a small exhalation escaped her as she closed her eyes and pressed closer to him. Time seemed to slow as she lifted her face to him, and her lips parted beneath his. He didn't care who was there with them, forgot about the reason that had driven them here as he lost himself to the soft pressure of her lips, the sweet taste of her mouth, and the quickening of her heartbeat.

For one long moment the only thing that existed was her, and then reality returned. It took everything he had to pull away. He pressed his lips to her forehead as he held her for a lingering moment. "I'll lead the way," he whispered.

She relented with a nod before she reluctantly released him. She didn't meet Xavier's gaze, but Braith did. Xavier's eyes were hooded with a gleam in them that Braith couldn't quite place. The wheels in Xavier's mind were turning, but it was impossible to decipher what it was the powerful vamp was thinking as he examined the two of them. It would only cause friction among the factions, but he would kill Xavier if he made one move toward Aria.

Taking hold of her hand, he turned sideways in order to fit through the small crevice in the face of the rock wall. For a moment he wasn't sure he would fit as he pushed himself further along. "It's cramped for the first hundred feet or so, but it opens up in a little bit." Aria seemed to have read his mind.

Ashby grunted in response, Xavier remained silent in the back. Aria's hand trembled in his, her palm was sweatier than normal but she forged steadfastly on behind him. Relief filled him when the walls released their grasp. Even with his enhanced night vision he had to strain to see the pathway before him as almost no light penetrated the thick rock walls.

"Wait." Aria released his hand suddenly. He grabbed for her as she moved forward, intending to pull her back, but she returned to his side almost immediately. "Hold this."

She thrust the handle of a torch into his hand and fumbled into the darkness for something else. He spotted what she was searching for and pulled the box of matches from a small hole tucked into a crevice of the cave. They huddled together as she fumbled with the matches and finally struck a spark. A small flicker of light played over the contours of her face before she pressed the flame to the end of the torch.

Fire blazed forth as she grinned at him. "Lead on."

The torch lit the dusty cobwebs of the tunnel and the solid rock floor beneath them. The air became mustier and colder the deeper they moved into the cave system. The faint drip drop of water could be heard in the distance, condensation coated the rocks around them. Aria's grip on him increased. Aria pointed out gates hidden secretly into the walls, heavy iron gates that could be swung shut in order to keep out invaders.

"No wonder the king couldn't squash the rebellion! You live like rats beneath the earth," said Ashby.

Braith halted as Aria stopped abruptly and turned to face Ashby. "We did what was necessary, what we were forced to do," she grated. "And we don't always live within the caves; most of the time we live within the woods and only resort to the caves when it becomes necessary."

Ashby chuckled quietly. He reached for her shoulder, glancing quickly at Braith he thought better of it and dropped his hand back to his side. "Easy tiger, I was just making a comment. Don't forget I was forced out too."

Aria stared at him for a long moment before Braith tugged gently on her arm, pulling her forward as even Xavier began to smirk with amusement. Braith had to admit that though Ashby had gone about saying it the wrong way, he completely agreed with him. The hidden nooks and security systems they had set into place down here were amazing. Though most of the tunnels were natural, there were manmade ones running throughout the cave system also. She'd said there was only one other exit, and he believed her. She wouldn't put them all at risk by lying about that, but there was far more to this cave system than she was revealing. Especially when she shut some of the iron doors while leaving others open.

"Do you know all of the cave systems?" Xavier inquired in his deep timbered voice.

"Not all of them, there are far too many for that, but a fair amount of them. We're almost to the center of the cave now."

Braith could sense an opening ahead even before he stepped into the massive cavern. "Bats," Ashby griped with a shudder as Braith's eyes landed upon the rodents lining the ceiling. He'd started to smell them awhile back, but the smell was worse within the large cavern. He didn't bother to look down; he knew the floor was coated with guano. The thought of staying here repulsed him, the fact that she had grown up among these caves disturbed him immensely.

No wonder she preferred the trees.