Captured (The Captive #1) by Erica Stevens
The word was enough to send a cold chill of terror down Arianna’s spine. She shuddered, swallowing heavily, and repeatedly, as she tried to wet her suddenly very parched throat. Her lips hurt, they were chapped and cracking. She’d had nothing to drink in hours; the fire that had consumed parts of the forest had burned into her throat. The smell of smoke clung to her; she could taste the ash upon her tongue. She would have given anything for some water, but she was fairly certain that her misery and discomfort would soon be coming to an end anyway.
The dead did not require water after all.
Surprisingly the thought of being dead aroused even less fear in her than the alternative did. And that alternative was becoming a blood slave. The thought of being kept, of being trapped and used for the most disgusting means known to man, was enough to make her want to rip out her hair and run screaming in horror.
She did neither however, simply because she could not move enough to carry out either action. She was trapped, surrounded, penned in by the bodies crammed tightly against her. The raid on the woods had been successful. The homes of many had been ripped apart, destroyed, set ablaze. Their lives had been irrevocably destroyed; they would never see their loved ones again.
The fortunate ones, the ones that weren’t chosen to be blood slaves, would be bled outright. Their blood would be drained unwillingly, and painfully, from their bodies. A hundred separate needles would pierce their skin before they were finally killed. The blood would be bottled and saved for later use. The unfortunate ones, the blood slaves, would be used over and over and over again before their owner became tired of them and either sold them off, or bled them dry.
Arianna prayed fervently that she would be bled dry at once. She would rather feel the sting of a thousand needles than be repeatedly used for months, or years. However, she had a feeling that if the vampires found out who she was, they would never allow her such a compassionate death. They would never grant her the merciful death she fervently hoped for.
She glanced at the people surrounding her. She knew they would all willingly die before they revealed her identity, she also knew that she had been a fool, a complete idiot for allowing herself to be captured in the first place. If these monsters ever found out who she was, they would have strong leverage over the cause, over the rebellion. They would try to use her against the rebels that lived within the woods, hiding, moving, and fighting against the vampires that hunted them relentlessly. The vampires that had taken their world and twisted it into a cruel mockery of what it had once been.
At least that was what she had been told they’d done.
She did not remember a world without fear, and hunger, and hiding. She did not recall a world where food had been purchased in stores, and homes had been heated and cooled. She knew a world of woods and concealment and hunting and struggling for her meals. She knew a world that was brutally hot or deathly cold. She knew a world where there had never been a consistent roof over her head. A world where her father was the leader of the rebel movement, her mother was dead, and her two brothers were being relentlessly trained to take over her father’s position one day.
She had never experienced a life of safety and security, never experienced a life where she wasn’t fighting and running on a daily basis. But she had been told stories of the world before the vampires, and though she was certain that some of the tales had to be off, or wrong, she still thought that world sounded simply wonderful. As a child she had foolishly longed for that world, as an adult she had thrown aside childish dreams in favor of learning how to fight and how to hunt. In favor of learning how to survive.
In her world, love was not freely given, hugs were not exchanged, and the only praise she had ever received was for her far superior skills with a bow and arrow. However, though love was not freely given, she knew that it was there. Her brothers would want to risk everything to get her back; her father would want to do the same. But her father would also know that it could not be done. Her father could not risk the lives of so many, for one. Even if that one was her. It would kill him to lose her, but he would make the sacrifice, just as he had sacrificed so much in his life.
No, Arianna had no grand plans of rescue, no dreams that her brother William would charge recklessly in, yelling like a banshee, just as he charged so wildly into everything. She did not have these dreams because her father, and ever sensible Daniel, would never allow William to do so. In fact, they would probably have to tie him up because it would be the only way to keep him away from here.
It would be the only way to keep him alive.
A twinge of regret and pain filled her at the thought of her brother, her twin. Her other half. They had always been so close, inseparable since creation. He would not get over this, just as she never would have gotten over his loss, if their roles had been reversed.
She never should have allowed herself to be captured. But then, she hadn’t had a choice. The child…
Arianna’s gaze slid slowly to Mary Beckins. Mary stood proudly, her shoulders thrust back, her chin jutting out as she stared unblinkingly across the sea of heads before her. If it weren’t for the tears streaking silently down Mary’s dirt and soot smeared cheeks, Arianna would have thought her fearless. But even with those tears she still looked proud, defiant; unbreakable.
Seeming to sense Arianna’s stare, Mary’s eyes slid slowly toward her. It was Mary’s child, John, Arianna had saved. It was John’s place that she had taken in this cramped hell of nearly certain death and terror. Arianna had forfeited her life for young John’s, and she would do it again if she had the choice. She just wouldn’t have been so reckless about it. She wouldn’t have plunged carelessly in again, and she would have thought out a way to ensure that she and Mary were not ensnared also.
But, like her twin, she rarely thought out her actions and often charged thoughtlessly forward, heedless of the consequences. But these were by far the direst consequences she had ever faced. They would also be her last. Or so she hoped.
Mary held her gaze for a long moment, gratitude brimming in her wide, brown eyes. She briefly nodded her thanks, and managed a tremulous smile that Arianna returned.
The vampire’s did not know who Arianna was, who her father was, and she was certain that no one that knew her would tell them. The people had always respected and admired her father, but today, with her actions, they had also come to admire and respect her too. They would all die before they handed her over, even if handing her over would mean a pardon on their own lives. Even if it meant a chance at freedom for them.
“Fear not girl.”
She wanted to turn to see who had spoken to her, but she could not move against the crush of bodies pressing against her. She could smell the dirt, the sweat, the terror, and smoke that clung to all of them. Life in the woods did not allow for regular bathing, she was accustomed to the smells of people, but this was far more intense, far harsher than anything she had ever experienced before. She did not know if it was because they were all so confined, when they were used to wandering free, or if it was the certain end of their lives that made it exceptionally acute. Either way, the stench was nearly overwhelming. She wanted to gag from it, to cover her nose and attempt to block it out. She wanted to cry, but she merely stood unmoving and frozen within the paralysis of horror that clung to her.
Sudden movement drew her attention back to the stage set up before them. A stage for crying out loud. It wasn’t humiliating enough to be packed in like this, but they were also going to be paraded forward, separately examined, and chosen from the specimens presented. Arianna shuddered again, trying hard to keep her composure in this swiftly unraveling world.
“Be brave Aria, be brave.” She swallowed heavily, managing a small nod as the man behind her whispered in her ear again. “Take strength from those around you.”
Aria fought back the hot wash of tears that suddenly flooded her eyes. She straightened her shoulders, refusing to show weakness, refusing to break in front of the monsters now lining up before them. As long as she was chosen for death, she could remain strong through this. She could, she would, be as brave as her father and brothers would be in this situation. She would never give them the satisfaction of seeing her break; she would die with her pride firmly intact.
There was a slow ripple of movement. Arianna realized that the gate had been opened; they were starting to pull people out. She watched in horror as they removed the first person and led them up the stairs to the stage. She did not recognize the young woman, who was sobbing openly as she was paraded before the line of monsters eagerly eyeing her. Behind the stage, other monsters had gathered on the street that led through the heart of the town. The monsters were crammed in between the two and three story buildings that lined the street.
The vampires were watching the proceedings with an air of indifference that left Aria fuming. It was bad enough that they had been caught, that they were considered no more than food, but did they have to be treated as if they were worth less than an animal? Her hands fisted at her sides, her jaw clenched tight as she fought to keep control of her volatile temper.
Aria swallowed as the woman was led to the side. The woman bowed her head; her shoulders shook with the force of the tears that streaked her face. Her clothes were little more than rags. Though Aria knew her own clothes were not much better, neither was her hair, or her appearance. In fact, due to the hunting party she had been on before being captured, she had gone even longer than normal without bathing. The lingering scent of blood, body odor and death clung to her, mixing with the other awful scents encompassing her. She found herself hoping that her dismal appearance and scent would be enough to earn her the much coveted sentence of death.
A young boy was brought forth next, then a young shirtless man that was well muscled from hunting and working within the forest. The man was not led over to the boy and woman, but escorted over to a vampire. It was a young woman, (or at least she appeared young, there was no way to know her real age) she was tall and thin, with a hawkish face that was both brutal and strangely beautiful. The vampire woman eagerly eyed the young man; the look in her eyes caused Aria’s legs to shake. It was more than apparent what that woman was going to do to him, and she wasn’t going to wait long either as she swiftly led the man off the stage and through the crowd gathered upon the street. The crowd was grinning, leering after them as they disappeared swiftly from view.
Arianna swallowed heavily, trying to keep her composure, but she wasn’t sure she would make it through this. She understood now that the woman and boy still on the stage were both destined for death, a fact the boy seemed to also realize as he began to weep openly. His sobs were heartbreaking and it took all Arianna had not to cry in response.
The soft sound of sniffles began to make their way through the rest of the crowd. The majority of people remained strong, but it would only be a matter of time before they were also broken beneath the heel of the monsters that now held their fate. Arianna watched unseeingly as more people were brought forth. The crush of bodies began to ease, if it weren’t for the tight pressure in her chest, she might have actually been able to inhale easily again. Instead, she could barely breathe through the terror threatening to crush her.
Though most people were slotted for death, it was the ones that were chosen to be blood slaves that were the saddest, and openly wept the loudest. Aria was gasping for breath when someone stepped beside her. A hand slipped into hers, squeezing it tightly.
She turned slowly toward the person beside her, shock rolling through her as she caught sight of him. “Max,” she breathed.
He managed a wan smile for her, his clear blue eyes sad and resigned, yet still resonating with the strength and confidence she was so used to. Sadness engulfed her; the sight of him here was nearly her undoing. A sob rose up, caught and strangled within her throat. Max and her brother Daniel had been best friends for as long as she could remember. They had always been together; nearly as inseparable as she and William. He had been like another big brother to her, teasing her, taunting her, teaching her things, and protecting her.
He had also been her first crush as a young girl, before she’d come to understand that there would never be a place for love in her life. She had realized long ago that she would not live long, and she would never have a peaceful life. There was no way that she would ever bring a child into this world of brutality, fear, and humiliation. But for one brief year, when she had still been a young, silly girl, she had entertained thoughts of a home and a family. Max had been the center of most of those fantasies as the man that would help her with that home and children.
And now he was here, with her. “Max,” she whispered again, her heart shattering into a thousand pieces. She had not thought that things could get any worse, she had been greatly mistaken. Her own death was fine, she could handle it, but to know that Max might die too, or even worse survive, was more than she could tolerate. Max was always so good to her, always so patient and gentle with her. Though she had given up her fantasies of one day being with him, she still loved him dearly, and deeply. She could not handle this too, not bravely, not stoically. Not anymore.
He tilted his head slightly, his eyes surveying her. “Stay strong Aria, stay strong. Think of your brothers, your father. We will get through this.”
“How did they catch you?” she mumbled miserably.
He didn’t have to answer her though, she already knew how. Max had been with her on the hunting party, he had been with her when they had approached the human camp. The vampires were already there, raiding the recently assembled camp with ease. Though they had originally rushed to aid the people, it had become quickly apparent that it was going to be a losing battle and they would be of no use. The best hope was to flee, to retreat deeper into the woods, to escape and hide until the vampires retreated with their new captives.
That was what they had been doing when Aria had spotted young John being captured, she had plunged heedlessly forward without thinking to intervene and save the young, scrawny boy. And because of that, she had cost her father and brothers two of their best soldiers. “Oh Max,” she whispered, tears burning hotly in her eyes.
“I couldn’t let you come alone. Plus, I’ve always been curious about what happens here.” He tried to sound light, but she could hear the tight tension in his voice. “Don’t cry for me Aria, they’ll think you’re crying because of them, don’t give them that satisfaction.”
“They’ll keep you,” she moaned, knowing it was true. He was filthy and disheveled, but his handsome features were still clearly visible beneath the layer of dirt covering his face and chest.
“That will give me a chance to figure out an escape plan.”
Arianna shook her head swiftly. “No Max, they won’t keep me. I have nothing to offer them.” It was true; she was skinny, dirty, disheveled, smelly, and unwomanly in every possible way. They would not want her, or at least that was the hope that she clung to. They did not appear to be choosing blood slaves solely on looks though, but some strange method that she did not understand, or even want to. She didn’t want to have any kind of understanding of the monsters that held their fates. “I’d rather be dead anyway,” she assured him.
His eyes narrowed, his jaw clenched slightly. “They will want you Aria, and when they take you, you must cling to the knowledge that I will come for you. I will save you. Keep hold of that certainty, it will get you through the awful times ahead of us.”
She swallowed heavily, stunned by the earnestness and emotion that radiated from him. “Max…”
“I will come for you Aria. I promise you that.”
She gasped, stunned as he was ripped suddenly away from her. It was only then that she realized that there were just a handful of people left within the fenced area. She almost ran after him, almost chased him and the creature pulling him along, but she only made it one step before she halted abruptly. She could not show so much emotion here, they would only use it against her, or against Max. No, she had to remain in control, had to be as emotionless as she could in here.
Max was paraded onto the stage and swiftly claimed by a dark haired woman that oozed cruelty and sadism. Aria swallowed heavily, her mind spun as she realized the fate that Max had just been handed. He believed that he would be able to escape, and she knew that he was smart, wily, fast, and strong, but no one had ever escaped from the vampires before. No one had ever returned to the woods, and freedom, after capture. Once a person was taken, they remained a prisoner until they died.
Max was now at the mercy of this woman, and as long as she possessed him she could do whatever she wanted to him, whenever she wanted, and for as long as she wanted. When she grew bored of him, she would simply kill him, or sell him, and then come back here for another toy. Aria was shaking; her legs trembled with the will it took to keep her upright.
She did not fight the rough hands that seized hold of her; she was in too much shock, too fearful, and too stunned to even begin to fight right now. Max was going to be used and tortured, and it was all her fault. Why hadn’t she listened to her father when he had told her to use her head, to think before acting? Her foolish recklessness had not only destroyed her life, but the life of one of her dearest and most beloved friends.
Self hatred curdled rapidly through her. She didn’t even care what happened to her anymore, what they did to her. She was led swiftly through the crowd and brusquely pushed onto the stage. She was paraded before the crowd gathered on the stage, before being led past the vampires packing the streets. It appeared that the vamps on stage had first choice, and the ones on the street received second pick to grab the goods if they so choose. She was drug back past the people on stage as she was pulled roughly around, but no one laid claim to her. She didn’t know if she should feel relieved, or not. She found herself wanting to stay alive for as long as Max was alive. If he was in here because of her, then it was only fair that she should suffer the same tormented fate that he did; it was only fair that she was not granted the merciful death she had been longing for.
She met Max’s gaze briefly, hating the terror and helplessness in his eyes as she was pulled back toward the street side. This would be the last chance for someone to claim her, and if they didn’t, she was fairly certain that Max would go ballistic in his attempt to get at her. To save her.
Aria’s heart was hammering painfully in her chest; she could hardly see through the waves of adrenaline and fear crashing through her. She blinked dazedly as she stared out at the street, barely noticing the man that stepped forward. “I will take it.”
It! It! Aria’s mind screamed, she recoiled in horror at the word. She could hardly breathe through the panic constricting her chest. The thing that had claimed her was moving through the crowd, digging into his pocket to retrieve the money he would spend on her. He would not be spending much, as she had been nearly on the chopping block before he claimed her.
He was an ugly thing, but then they were all ugly, twisted and cruel to her. But this one was exceptionally ugly, with his stooped shoulders, pointed nose, and cruel hazel eyes. He looked warped, evil; wrong. The scent of blood clung to him as he stepped forward and grasped roughly hold of her chin. Aria winced, she tried to jerk away as he turned her head sharply back and forth but he would not release her.
“She may be fun for a bit, easily broken.”
Aria was nearly gasping, nearly hyperventilating. She was trying hard to remain brave, but she could feel a shattering growing inside of her, a breaking of her soul that was far more painful than anything she had ever experienced before. And she had experienced some very painful things in her life. But this, this was the worst. This man was going to do many many things to her. None of them would be good, and all of them would be designed to savage her body, and her mind.
She wanted to believe that he would not succeed, but from the leering, perverse look in his eyes, she wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t.
Money was exchanged; the two vamps holding her released her to the man. She wanted to flee, run screaming down the street, but she would not get far, and she would not give them the satisfaction of seeing her snap. She would not give them the satisfaction of recapturing her and taking their pleasure out on her. The vamp began pulling her toward the stairs. She staggered, trying to keep her shaking legs beneath her as he all but drug her across the stage.
“Wait!” The voice boomed across the crowd gathered within the street. It rang with authority, and a note of command that stopped even Aria in her tracks. The vamp holding her froze instantly, his hand loosened upon her arm, but he did not release her. There was a rippling amongst the throng, murmurs filled the air but were swiftly silenced as the crowd began to step aside to reveal a tall man standing in the middle of the street.
Well, not a man actually, but one of her most hated foes.
He stood casually, his broad shoulders thrust back. His black hair was tussled; it fell about his hard face in waves that highlighted his dangerous good looks. Dark glasses were settled upon his well defined nose, they completely shaded his eyes. The dark blue shirt he wore clung to his lithe figure, showing a hint of the muscles that ridged his abdomen and chest. His hands were folded before him, resting on the head of a cane with a silver handle that she could not see. At his side sat a grey wolf. The wolf’s eyes were bright, green, and eerily focused upon her as it sat motionlessly.
Behind the man two other vamps flanked his sides, but Aria hardly paid them any attention as the striking creature began to make his way forward. The tip of the cane clicked softly upon the pavement, the wolf padded silently at his side. The wolf moved before him as they reached the stairs, brushing against his legs before climbing onto the stage.
The man, however, did not make a move to come onto the stage. The vampire that had claimed her finally broke the heavy, profound silence. His voice quivered slightly as he spoke. “Your highness?”
Aria started in surprise, her mouth parted on a small gasp as she took in the powerful stranger with new eyes. Though not much was known about the vampire stronghold, she had heard a little about the prince. She’d heard rumors of the future leader, of the one that would one day rule all of their fates, if his father was ever killed. She had also heard that he was just as cruel and heartless a bastard as his old man was.
Aria straightened her shoulders, a wave of defiance washed through her as she clenched her jaw and lifted her chin. She didn’t know what came over her, but her terror swiftly vanished in the face of this man, and now she was angry. Pissed actually, royally pissed by the inhumane and unfair treatment of her fellow man. The wolf brushed against her, startling her slightly, but she was able to keep her surprise hidden as the animal settled at her feet.
The vamp holding her shivered slightly, his fear became almost palpable. Apparently some of the rumors she had heard about the prince were true, as everyone seemed to be afraid of the creature before her. The prince’s mouth quirked slightly, amusement flitted briefly over his hard features. The thick glasses he wore covered his eyes, but she could feel his attention riveted upon her, feel his keen interest as he watched her.
“She will come with me.”
A collective gasp escaped the crowd, but it was swiftly covered up, and silenced, by the sharp looks of the two men behind the prince. The auctioneer sputtered slightly, his eyes darted swiftly to Aria, then around the rest of the stage. “Your highness, we have others…” he broke off, looking frantic as he searched for help that was not forthcoming. “Better looking ones.” Arianna bristled, her nose scrunched up as she shot the auctioneer a dark look that he didn’t notice as he was too focused upon the man at the foot of the steps. “Ones that I am sure will be far more to your liking. I will select one if you wish.”
“No,” the prince responded forcefully. “I want that one. Give the man his money back and give her to me.”
The man holding her released her instantly; he could not get away from her fast enough as he retreated hastily. Aria swallowed heavily, fear trickled back through her. All of these people were terrified of the prince, and he was now laying claim to her. What did that mean? What did he want with her, and why on earth would he choose her when the auctioneer was right, there were far better looking women here?
Aria turned slowly toward Max. His eyes were wide; his nostrils flared with the force of his rapid breaths. Terror was written all over his face; however it was not terror for himself, but for her. Aria shuddered, her hands clenched hold of her elbows as she held herself tightly. Though she found herself oddly unafraid of the prince before her, she was scared of the reaction everyone else was having to him. He must be a vicious monster if everyone was so afraid to move or speak around him.
“Come here.” She jumped slightly at the sharp command, but she found her feet frozen in place, she could not move toward him. The auctioneer was gaping at her like she was a total moron, but she could not bring herself to move. Finally, having decided that she must be a complete idiot, the auctioneer stepped toward her and reached out to grab hold of her arm. “Do not touch her!”
The auctioneer jumped, stumbling slightly back as the prince’s barked command rang sharply out. The auctioneer had gone completely pale, sweat poured down his face as he gaped at her. It was his reaction that finally snapped some sense into her. She could not stand here all day, the prince would only come for her (he did own her now), and she did not know what he would do if he had to retrieve her. There were other innocents on this stage, and Aria suddenly feared that the prince would hurt them if she continued to disobey him.
Max took a swift step forward, his mouth parting slightly. She shook her head sharply at him, terrified of what would happen if he did try to stand up for her, did try to defend her. This whole mess was her fault, and she had to accept the consequences, no matter how dire they may be. The wolf moved away from her as she made her way slowly, stiffly down the stairs.
The prince followed her movements, stepping back as she stopped before him. She could see herself reflected in the dark lens of his glasses, and she was relieved to find that she did not look terrified. Even though inside she was a trembling mess of confusion and fear. He was large, powerful, overbearing, and despite her intense hatred for him and all of his kind, she could not help but acknowledge the fact that he was also magnificently handsome.
What the hell did he want with her?
He remained unmoving, his gaze focused upon her for a long while. Then, he turned abruptly away, leaving her stunned and motionless. She didn’t know what to do, what was going on, what was expected of her. Her gaze slid helplessly back toward Max. His jaw was locked tight, his disbelief and shock evident on his face. He turned slowly toward her, his bright blue eyes wounded and fearful.
‘I’ll find you,’ he mouthed silently.
Arianna wanted to believe him, wanted to trust in his promises, but she did not see how she could possibly escape the powerful monster that owned her now. She shuddered, her fingers digging harder into her elbows. The wolf slipped silently past her, plodding slowly after his master. “This way.”
Aria jumped slightly at the forceful command. The two men that had accompanied the prince came toward her, their hands outstretched. Aria took a small step back, frightened by their massive size and hard eyes. The prince turned slightly back, his dark eyebrows drew sharply together over top of his glasses as his full mouth pinched tight.
His men seemed to sense his sudden irritation as their hands fell limply back to their sides. Arianna stared at the prince in surprise, startled to realize that he seemed truly irritated at the thought of them touching her. “Move,” one of the men commanded softly.
The prince did not turn back around as he walked swiftly down the street. The wolf, and the three of them, trailed silently behind.