“Wait.” Aria said to Braith and pulled back on her horse’s reins as she surveyed the skeletal trees surrounding her. The breeze drifting through the woods caused the swaying tree branches to clack together, setting her already frazzled nerves that much more on edge. Above her, thin clouds slipped through the sky, momentarily blocking out the late afternoon sun shining down on the snow covering the forest floor.
They were almost thirty miles from the palace, in the area of the forest where she’d spent most of her life as a rebel, before she’d married Braith and become queen. That tree over there was the one she and Max had climbed in order to avoid a group of vampires on the hunt for rebels. The two of them had stood in those branches, afraid to even breathe, as they watched Caleb and Braith pass beneath them. She recalled Braith stopping below them and tipping his head back to look at her. He’d still worn his dark glasses at the time, but she’d known the instant he’d spotted her standing above him and Caleb.
The remembrance of Braith’s younger and extremely twisted brother, Caleb, gave her chills. However, those chills were nothing compared to the ones currently consuming her as she looked around the sparse woods.
She focused on the many evergreens within the forest. Their pine scent tickled her nostrils as it drifted through the air. Normally it was a comforting, constant aroma, but now it was too sharp. Someone or something had trampled some of the smaller pines, or torn away their branches, which made their smell more potent.
Aria’s gaze flicked toward the sky when a pair of mourning doves took flight, their wings whistling in the wind. Her hands tightened on the reins, and panic struck her so forcefully she nearly cried out. Ever since William had told her about the vampire woman he’d encountered who claimed to be the rightful queen, she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling something awful was about to happen.
That feeling of impending doom now kicked around in her stomach and caused a clammy sweat to break out on her icy skin.
She wanted to grab hold of Braith, yank their mounts back, and flee from here as fast as they could. Despite the driving impulse, she remained unmoving. She didn’t know where those who had made the pine scent more potent were; if they fled now, they could alert possible enemies to their presence or stumble across them. There was still the smallest chance they hadn’t been spotted yet. Any sudden movement could destroy that.
Her small group had been moving with exceptional care through the trees. They were scouting the forest ahead of the assembly of vampires and humans who made up the survivors of Tempest’s town of Badwin and the inhabitants of Hannah’s town of Chippman.
“What is it?” Braith asked from beside her as he moved his mount closer to hers.
Aria turned her head to him, her heart swelling with love as she gazed at his magnificent face. He was so handsome he could make her deadened heart feel as if it raced every time she looked at him. Her fingers itched to brush back the black hair falling to the corner of his gray eyes. A band of pure blue encircled his now dilated pupils.
Faint white scars surrounded his eyes, but they had faded further over the nearly two years she’d known him, and Braith said they’d probably disappear completely over the next fifty or hundred years. Those scars remained a testament to a time when he’d been completely blind. Then, she had walked into his life and the strength of their bloodlink, a deep bond that developed between vampires, had given him his vision back.
He sat proudly in his saddle, his broad shoulders back and the noble air of a king surrounding him. Since he’d become king, he’d grown to be a mighty and fair ruler. One who was respected and admired, one who was loved by those who followed him.
He’d put to right many of the atrocities his father had committed over his years as king. Humans and vampires now worked side by side, fear and brutality no longer reigned, and the practice of vampires owning blood slaves had been put to an end.
Now a new threat had risen, and she sought to destroy everything they had so tirelessly worked and sacrificed for.
Leaning across the small space between them, Aria rested her hand on his stubble-roughened jaw. For a second, the world around her stilled as the brief contact soothed the tumult of emotions spiraling through her. Love, deep and intense, welled within her. She would not lose him.
“There is someone or something in these woods,” she whispered.
His head turned toward the trees. Xavier, her friend and bodyguard, moved his horse so he was positioned before her.
“Are you sure?” Ashby asked from behind her.