Refugee (Chapter 17)

"Would you like to take a walk?"

Aria turned away from the window she had been staring out. She was doing everything she could to keep up a brave front, to keep smiling, and to act normal. But it was so hard, harder than anything she'd ever done in her life. They were leaving tomorrow; she was actually looking forward to plunging back into those hideous swamps. At least it would help keep her mind off of everything and it meant they would be getting closer to the war, a war she desperately wanted over.

Braith was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. His dark hair was disheveled and there was actually an amused gleam in his eyes as he lazily perused her. Heat flooded her body, her toes curled as that look seemed to sear right through her clothes and straight into her flesh. It took everything she had to focus her attention on his words again.

She frowned in confusion at the book clasped carelessly in his elegant fingers. Then she recalled that she'd been the one to take it from Gideon's home. She'd forgotten that she even had it, but he must have found it in her bag.

It was Ivanhoe; she knew that without having to see the title. It was the first book they had read together, the one that he had taught her how to read with. She had vowed that she wouldn't cry anymore, she'd chosen her path, but even so she battled against the tears that threatened to break free at the sight of that book and the memories it elicited.

"Jack tells me there's a lake close by."

"There is," she confirmed.

He smiled. "Then let's go explore it."

They had so little time left; she was not going to spend it moping. She was going to cherish every moment, not cry and ruin everything from here on out. "I'd love to."

Her legs trembled as she stood, she'd been sitting for awhile, but she recovered quickly and was smiling at him as she took his hand. "I never knew you were a thief."

She laughed as he waved the pilfered book in front of her face. "I forgot I even had it," she admitted.

"I'm sure."

They didn't talk as they moved through the woods, they didn't have to. Aria inhaled the scents of the forest, relishing in them. Beneath the leaves, dirt, and musty animals, she could also pick up the hint of fresh water and fish. It was wonderful.

The lake emerged from the woods, shimmering in the early morning sunlight. She wanted nothing more than to jump into it, swim to the middle and float there for hours. She longed to feel joy over something so simple. Joy she was frightened she would lose when all of this was over.

Braith sat with his back against a tree; the dark glasses remained blessedly removed from his magnificent face. His smile was one of the most wonderful things she'd ever seen. It was indolent at the moment and focused solely upon her as he held his hand out. He pulled her smoothly into his lap, settling her securely against him as he rested his chin on her head and wrapped his arms loosely around her waist.

"I thought you could use a break."

"I could," she admitted. "But you could also."

"Yes," he agreed.

She rested her head against his chest, closing her eyes as she reveled in the solid, reassuring feel of his body. He was beautiful. This entire moment was beautiful. She wanted to pretend that it was one of many, that there were endless days before them to sit together, read together, and simply enjoy the company of each other. To pretend that there wasn't a clock ticking steadily away at their remaining time.

She kept her eyes closed as her fingers curled against him. He opened the book and began to read to her. She loved the sound of his voice, the deep timbre of it, the rich tones and subtle nuances he inflected into the story. She knew this story almost by heart but she still loved to hear him reading it. Listening to his voice had become her favorite pastime while in the palace.

His voice became tired after awhile, she opened her eyes, sitting up as she took the book from him and continued reading. She was about halfway through the book when she realized that he had worked the braid from her hair. His attention was riveted on it as he spread it across her shoulders and played idly with the ends.

Her throat went dry as she lifted her gaze to his. The book in her lap was forgotten as she focused upon those beautiful gray eyes with the bright blue band encircling the pupil. Though they were over a hundred years old, the faint white scars around his eyes were still visible.

Her fingers trembled as she traced the jagged edges of the marks that had left him blind until she had come along.

He took hold of her hand and pressed a tender kiss against her fingertips. Her body tingled with excitement. She was suddenly breathless, suddenly aching and vulnerable as his mouth moved steadily lower, across her palm to press gently against her wrist. She couldn't move. She was caught by the love he stirred in her. She watched in fascination while he pushed her sleeves back and continued further up her arm.

His eyes never left hers as his lips nestled in the crook of her elbow. Though she knew she should tell him to stop she couldn't break the eye contact, the intimacy of the moment. This was one of the things that she wasn't supposed to let happen but even as she thought that, her body screamed for more. They both deserved this time alone and she was going to enjoy it for just a few minutes more.

He lifted his head from her elbow, his hand wrapped around the back of her neck as he pulled her closer. He held her against him, his lips just barely brushing hers. She was frightened her heart might explode in her chest as it quickened in anticipation. And then, just when she thought she couldn't take anymore, when she thought she was going to scream in frustration, he kissed her.

Solace swept through her, her fingers entwined in the hair at the nape of his neck, she pressed closer to him as the suffering within her finally eased. Every nerve ending she had lit with fire, she was consumed by the flames he ignited in her. He moved her, shifting her in his lap so that she was straddling him, her legs wrapped around his waist. His hand moved steadily up her back, maneuvering under her shirt to press flat against her skin. She moaned at the glorious wonder of him.

She hadn't realized how much she needed this, how much she missed his touch. How starved her body had been until now. And now he was feeding her starved soul as his tongue became more demanding. Aria lost herself to his urgency. She recognized the fervent, almost desperate need within him. She desired him, but she realized now that her own craving was nowhere near as intense or acute as his. He would completely devour her and at the moment she didn't care if he did.

And then he was lifting her, pushing her back as she fell into the soft leaves. Her shirt was slipping away, gone beneath the expert movement of his hands. She loved the feel of him over her, the weight of his body against hers, the muscles that flexed and bunched beneath her touch. His hand was firm against the thin slip that was all that kept her covered. She pressed closer to him as he shifted, briefly leveling himself off of her.

Then his hand found the button of her pants. She froze, her breath trapped in anticipation as her eyes fluttered open. He was watching her, his eyes dark and hazy with passion. He kissed her again, his mouth firm against hers, his tongue hot and heavy as he slid the button of her pants free.

Panic tore through her as reality crashed into place. She was nearly half naked, already swept up within him and more than willing to give herself to him. She yearned to ease the frustration and need that poured from him. The only thing he truly craved was her, and it was the one thing she couldn't give to him. If she didn't stop this now, she never would.

"Wait!" she gasped.

He froze against her, his hand pressed flat to her lower belly as he lifted his head to look at her. "Arianna?" The word was a low, anguished groan.

"I… I…" she couldn't get words out.

"Do you want me to stop?"

No, she didn't want him to stop. Her body was screaming for this! She needed this almost as badly as she needed air. She ached with every fiber of her being, she wanted this more than she had ever wanted anything and she couldn't have it. For a moment she almost broke and told him everything. She was ready to pour her heart and soul out to him, but she somehow managed to bite the words back.

She knew Braith would do everything he could for the people he would lead, but he wouldn't put them ahead of her. He believed in duty and honor but he'd made it abundantly clear to her, and those closest to them, that she was his priority. She loved him for it but it didn't help the people whose hope was placed in his ability to lead.

"I just… I don't know…" His hand slid away from her and she immediately felt a profound sense of loss. Her hands clenched around his neck unwilling to completely break their connection.

"You're not ready." She was ready, she was unbelievably ready. She was in love with a man that would die for her. There was nothing that she wanted more than to experience this moment with him. "It's ok." He kissed her nose, her cheek then her lips ever so lightly. "I'll be here waiting when you are."

Tears burned her eyes. She had never hated herself more than she did at that moment. "I love you. I'll always love you."

His fingers caressed her face. "I hope so, because you're stuck with me." Nope, now she hated herself more, especially as she forced a smile to her lips. She didn't ask him why he took this so well, why he didn't become impatient with her. She already knew the answer to that: he loved her. "How about a swim? I could use a dip in something cold."

His halfhearted smile melted her heart. She wanted to finish what they had started. She wanted to say to hell with Jack, and Gideon, and everyone else. She wanted to be selfish, she wanted this for them, and she wanted to finally ease the needs of her body and his, to possess him in every way possible. Finally know only the things that he could teach her. But then she thought of Max and knew that she would never do, or know, any of those things. There were others out there in need of help, others that had no one to rescue them as she and Max had been rescued.

She threaded her fingers through his and pressed them close against her chest, over the heart that would always belong to him. "That sounds good," she murmured.

He climbed to his feet; she hesitated for a moment, ashamed of herself, but determined to see this course through. "Aria?"

She rose swiftly and bent to roll the legs of her pants above her knees. Her eyes widened and her mouth watered as Braith's shirt fell on top of hers. She lifted her head slowly, marveling at the broad expanse of his shoulders, and the rigid muscles etched into his chest and abdomen. Her breath wheezed out, heat flared up her cheeks, not from embarrassment but rather from her intense need for this man standing so close but at the same time so far away.

She had always desired him, there was never any doubt of that, but it had never been this relentless. She almost said "screw it all" to the world and launched herself at him but she managed to hold herself back. She'd never been quite as completely rattled and utterly undone as she was right at this moment.

Confusion flickered over his features, she was well aware her thoughts were written all over her face. She turned away from him, running hard, pumping her arms and legs as fast as she could in order to escape him. She had to put some distance between them before she completely caved. She didn't hesitate as she grabbed the bottom branch of a large oak, swung her leg onto it and pulled herself up. She leapt up to the next branch, then the one above it as she raced out to the end and launched herself heedlessly outward, not caring how deep the water was as she dove into it.

She kicked hard beneath the surface, pushing herself deeper and deeper into the lake. She swam into the cooler depths as the world under the water became darker and further removed from sunlight. Her lungs began to burn, her eyes were raw from straining to see, but she continued onward, heedless of the pain starting to seize hold of her body.

Strong hands grabbed hold of her, dragging her from the depths of the cool water, pulling her back toward a world that she didn't want to face. Bursting free of the surface, she wheezed in a deep breath as her lungs eagerly inhaled the precious air.

"What are you doing?" Braith demanded, shaking her a little.She shoved the mass of tangled wet hair from her eyes, forcing a smile as she met his annoyed gaze. "Just seeing if I could touch the bottom."

His scowl deepened. "You didn't even know if it was deep enough when you dove off that branch!"

"I've jumped into more than a few lakes in my lifetime."

He stared at her for a long moment. "Always so reckless," he muttered.

His hands on her were enough to make her toes curl and heat spread through her body despite the chill of the water. She squeezed his bare arms, savoring in the firm flesh and fine hairs that bristled over it before she reluctantly released him. She moved onto her back, floating lazily through the water as Braith's fingers slid into hers.

***

Frustration boiled through him, his fingers twitched as his irritation mounted. He couldn't stand to watch as Aria labored through the swamp with her brother and the rest of the humans. It wasn't like it was easy for him and the other vampires, but their greater power and strength made it less difficult to move through the water and mud that clasped at them like quicksand with each step. She looked exhausted but continued onward, her head bowed, her face scrunched in aggravation as she worked at pulling one foot out at a time.

He froze, fury tore through him as Max seized hold of her arm, helping to keep her upright as she stumbled. That was it. "Braith!" Jack hissed as he grabbed hold of his arm.

"Get your hand off of me!"

"They can't know."

"They already know Jack."

He jerked his arm away from his brother, ignoring Gideon, Ashby and Xavier as he waded through the muck and mire. Max released her instantly, he tried to move swiftly to the side but the swamp hindered his movements. "Braith wait." He didn't listen to her as he lifted her from the mud with a loud sucking noise. Her feet kicked for a moment before he slid her onto his back. She faltered, and then her knees locked against his sides and her arms wrapped around his neck.

"You shouldn't have done that," she whispered in his ear.

"They're humans Aria, they won't hurt us." Her displeasure was evident in the stiffness of her body. She didn't lean against him, didn't relax as she had on their first trip through the swamps, but he'd be damned if he'd allow her to struggle, and double damned before he allowed Max to be the one to help her. "It will be fine," he muttered as he kept walking.

Her head dropped against his back, her forehead rested against his neck for a brief moment before she pulled away. He ignored the questioning stares directed at them, Aria kept her head down as he rejoined Jack, Gideon, Ashby and Xavier. Jack and Gideon looked as if their heads were going to explode, Xavier turned silently away. It was Ashby that held his attention though. He had paled considerably; his lips were clamped and nearly bloodless as he studied them.

By mid afternoon most of the humans were starting to waiver, the heat of the day and the exertion to continue onward was wearing them down. Aria had managed to squiggle from his arms over an hour ago but he kept her close to his side, helping to lift her when she became mired by the mud. Her sweaty hair stuck to her skin, her face was florid from her effort, but it was her eyes that bothered him most.

He'd become acutely aware of the fact that there was a distance in them that hadn't been there just days ago. There was a resignation to them, wariness, and a sense of loss that he didn't understand. She smiled at him, she held his hand, but he felt a wall in her that had never existed before. He knew better than to believe it was due to her apprehension over the upcoming war. She may be afraid, but she had never allowed it to rule her before.

He was also aware of a difference in his brother. It was not as pronounced as Aria's, but Jack was colder and a little more distant. Even though they were brothers, Braith knew Jack's main loyalty lay with the rebellion, a fact that he had already proven by taking Aria away from him once.

A pit began to form in his stomach. No, it couldn't be possible. When Jack had taken her before, he had been unaware of the fact that Braith had already shared his blood with her, that he had established the connection that would allow him to find Aria wherever she went. Jack was well aware of that fact now, he wouldn't be so foolish as to think he could try and take her again and get away with it.

But something was up, he was certain of it.

Aria halted so abruptly that he almost snapped at her, almost grabbed hold of her arm and dragged her forward in his irritation. One of them was going to talk to him and it was going to be her if he had anything to say about it.

But she was staring at the world around her, eyes turbulent and her face paler than it had been moments before. He started to speak, but she held up a finger to him, as she used her other hand to wave behind her at the trudging humans. He was impressed, and a little amazed, when as one unit they all stopped.

Her forehead furrowed, her head tilted back as she searched the sky, then the treetops in the distance. "Something's wrong," she muttered.

Braith followed the direction that her eyes had taken but he saw nothing to signal that something was amiss. "How do you know?"

"I just do. Something is off. I feel it."

"Trust her on this Braith…"

"I do." He cut Jack swiftly off, fighting the urge to smash his fist into his brother's face. He had no tangible reason to hit his brother, but Jack deserved it for some reason, even if Braith wasn't sure what the reason was yet.

Aria went to step closer to him; her face scrunched in frustration, aggravation filled her as she stared down at the swamp. She gazed helplessly at Braith and then at the people behind them. Her eyes snapped to the tree line as a bird took flight about two hundred yards away.

"Braith."

He lifted her up, pulling her free of the muck and mire that encased her. She winced at the small sucking sound, but it was far more subtle than any sound she could have made. He held her in front of him for a brief moment, before sliding her around to allow her to grasp hold of him piggyback style. Her heart beat loudly against his back as he made his way forward as silently as he could.

She slid free of his back when he stepped onto solid ground. Xavier, Gideon, Ashby and Jack pressed closer to him as she grasped hold of the limb on a frail looking pine. He almost pulled her back, wary of the decrepit looking tree, but she was already moving up it with grace and agility.

The tree barely moved as she slipped from one branch to another. Near the top she hesitated, her hands rested against two thin branches that swayed almost imperceptibly. He could almost feel her holding her breath as she waited for the branches to stabilize before lifting herself above them. She released them suddenly and though he thought she was going to plunge heedlessly out of the tree, she scrambled far enough down to leap safely down. He kept his feet firmly planted as he caught hold of her.

"What is it?" he asked.

"There are seven men that I can see, through the trees that way." She pointed into the woods. "They may be human but I don't think so, and they're wearing your father's colors."

"They're not human then," Jack said.

Braith's mind churned as he slid Aria silently to the ground. They were still standing in the swamp, cornered if there were more troops in the woods. The swamp was impossible to maneuver in these circumstances, not silently, and not with any speed.

"They're heading this way Braith," Aria said, seeming to read his train of thought.

His teeth clenched. "I need you to stay here."

Her eyes heated briefly, they narrowed slightly but her attention turned to the swamp. Her brother and father had managed to creep closer, but they still weren't free of the mud yet. She looked as if she was going to argue, but resignation settled over her features. She slid the bow from her back and grasped it in her hands. She would not leave her family unprotected.

"Be careful," she whispered. She closed her eyes, went to grab him, but then her hand fell limply back to her side.

"Stay here." His tone was not as brisk.

"I will." She slid an arrow into the bow.

Braith gestured to the others and slid silently into the woods. They were about a hundred feet in when he began to smell them. The others spread out around him, filtering through the trees like wraiths toward his father's men. He heard them before he saw them; someone commented on a woman, the others laughed as the guardsman regaled them with a story. Though he was relieved that the guardsmen didn't sense their approach, or even feel that there was any threat within the woods, another part of him, the part that had been honed to rule one day, was irritated. They should be on guard no matter what, even if they felt safe and were far from the palace, they should be prepared for any threat at all times. Their lack of awareness was about to get them killed.

Jack appeared in the woods, his head poked up from behind a large fallen tree. Braith nodded toward his right, Gideon and Ashby were somewhere over there, while Xavier was on the other side of Jack. The guardsmen came into view. None of them were paying attention to their surroundings as they continued to exchange stories. They may be outnumbered seven to five, but the guardsmen didn't have a shot of walking away from this alive.

Braith waited, watching for awhile to make sure there weren't others out there. They could not take the chance of one of them escaping and returning to the palace, if it wasn't for the swampland he wouldn't engage them at all. When he was certain that it was only these seven men, he nodded to Jack and waved his hand toward the last place he had seen Gideon and Ashby.

They simultaneously burst free of the woods. Braith seized hold of the first guardsman and took him down before he was able to make a sound. He had a brief glimpse of wide, terrified eyes before he smashed his fist into the guardsmen's chest. Bone gave way beneath the tremendous blow, crumpling as easily as paper beneath the force of his fist. His hand wrapped around the heart and he ripped it free.

Braith launched to his feet, Gideon and Jack were encircling one of the last two guards, but the other one had turned and bolted into the woods. He raced after him, pouring on the speed as the guard ran toward the area where he had left Aria. The vampire ran faster as he sensed his impending demise. Concern for Aria drove Braith to levels of speed he'd never achieved before.

They came around a turn in the woods; Braith was honing in on the guard as a path opened up before them. Aria was standing there, her bow raised. The guard was stunned; he hesitated for a brief moment. Aria didn't. She released the arrow with deadly accuracy. It was only the small sidestep of the guard at the last minute that saved him from a killing blow to the heart. It drove into his shoulder, knocking him back a step.

The guard lurched forward, his hands curved as he dove at her. Braith surged forward and seized hold of the back of his shirt. He ripped the guard back, all sense of reason vanished as he drove his fangs deep into the guard's neck. The man bucked, a gurgled sound of surprise escaped him as he clawed at Braith over the back of his head. Disgust filled him as the man's life pumped into him.

This was not the way he liked to kill. This was not the way any of them liked to kill, very few of them allowed another vampire to feed from them. It walked a fine line between remaining completely in control, and becoming something unspeakable. But his desperate need to protect her had driven him to this.

He pulled away from the vampire, grabbed hold of his head and snapped his neck with a sharp, jerking motion. The guard crumpled before him, weakened by loss of blood and the severe injury but not yet dead. Braith seized hold of the arrow, ripped it from his shoulder and drove it deep into his heart. He remained kneeling over for him for a moment, struggling with the influx of vampire blood in his system and what he had just done. His actions had been bad enough, but he had just carried them out in front of her.

Slowly, guardedly, he lifted his head to look at her. He knew what he was, knew what he was capable of, especially when it came to her. He had tried to keep the worst of it hidden from her but it was too late now. Now, she could see it all, had seen it all.

She stared at him, her bow hung limply at her side. He had expected censure and disgust in her eyes, instead there was simply shock. Seeming to sense his need for her to accept him, even like this, at his most evil, her expression changed slowly and the bow slid from her fingers.

Falling to her knees before him, she attempted to remove his sins by wiping the blood from his mouth. "It's ok." Her hands clasped hold of his cheeks, her forehead pressed against his as she comforted him. "It's ok."

Then, to his utter amazement she was kissing him, softly, tenderly, and with a love that humbled him. She'd seen the worst of him, she'd seen him do something atrocious and she still loved him. A groan escaped him as he drew her closer. He buried his face in the hollow of her shoulder as his love for her swelled and grew within him. He rocked her as the wonderfully sweet scent of her blood washed over him and soothed his mind and body in a way that only she could.

Her hands were in his hair as she maneuvered his mouth against her neck. He didn't know how but she knew that he needed something else, that he needed reassurance from her that he wasn't a monster. His lips skimmed back, his fangs lengthened as they fairly vibrated with anticipation. She jerked slightly as his teeth penetrated her supple skin but then she relaxed and melded against him. Her blood filled him, replacing the foul taste of the guard's blood on his tongue.

The taste of her was enough to help wash away his transgression. He released his bite and licked the remaining drops of blood from her neck. "Arianna," he groaned. She pressed her cheek against his, her lips just barely brushing against his skin. "So sweet…"

The sounds of approaching feet silenced his following words. He kissed her cheek far too briefly before rising swiftly, and lifting her smoothly up with him. Her eyes were questioning but she threw back her shoulders and thrust out her chin as she picked up her bow and turned to face the oncoming vampires. If things were different, she would have made a magnificent queen, a wonderful leader and champion for her people. He was proud to have her at his side and always would be.

Jack rounded the corner first, skidding to a halt as he spotted the two of them. Then his gaze locked on the ruined body of the guard, his eyes widened, his jaw dropped. "What did you do Braith?"

"What needed to be done."

Jack gaped at him, he turned slowly to Aria who stared unwaveringly back at him as she took a step closer to Braith's side. She didn't fully understand what had just transpired, the true nature of the transgression he had just committed, but she looked about ready to shoot an arrow straight into his brother's heart if it became necessary. Her fingers twitched on her bow as Gideon, Ashby, and Xavier appeared.

"Help me get this out of the way." His voice was detached, he felt a small recoil from Aria when he referred to the dead guard as a 'this', but he had to keep himself disconnected from this mess.

Jack eyed him from head to toe and then back again. Gideon's eyebrows were in his hair as he looked back and forth between Braith and the dead guard. Interestingly, Xavier was watching Aria. His eyes were latched on the fresh bite marks on her neck and the single drop of blood that quivered on her skin. Braith brushed it away, fighting against a rising wave of anger as he glared at Xavier in warning. Xavier didn't back down from Braith as he continued to assess her from top to bottom.

One of these days, preferably today, Braith was going to find out exactly what it was that Xavier was trying to figure out about her, or what it was that he thought he already knew.

"Give me a hand Jack," he commanded gruffly.

Jack looked discomforted as he grasped hold of the guard's arms. He didn't offer any protest as he helped Braith carry him into the woods. "Are you ok?" Jack inquired.

"Fine," he replied brusquely.

"Braith this isn't good, this isn't the way things are done. You know that, it's a sign of loss of control."

Braith dropped the feet. "I am fine Jack."

Jack's gaze darted toward the path they had left behind. "Aria…"

"You'll leave her out of this."

Jack swallowed heavily. "What did she see?"

"All of it."

Braith didn't wait to hear what else his brother had to say, he turned and made his way back to the others. Aria stood with her shoulders back as she warily watched Xavier, Ashby and Gideon. Braith stepped between them. She looked up at him, seeming not to focus on him for a moment before a small smile curved her full lips.

"Let your father know it's safe."

She nodded before taking off down the path, the bow bouncing against her back as she ran.