CHAPTER 10- PREDATOR
She tugged on to the blanket as she shifted against the great couch where she lay. As Snow’s eyes remained close, she let herself slip in deep slumber right after she felt her neck adjust to the sharp bends of the furniture. Half-awake and light headed, Snow’s breathing eased, her body light with no trace of heaviness on her shoulders. Her chest felt warm as she propped her head against an extended elbow.
That was odd, she felt safe. It was as if she has never left Torryn’s chambers. It wasn’t the crackling of the firepit nor the soft folds of wool. His bed felt more comfortable. It felt like sleeping on air.
She sniffed and knew the answer. This smell, she thought, Torryn.
Slowly, she felt fingers brush against the strands of her locks. She didn’t move, didn’t even flinch. She could not bear to see him so she kept her eyes closed shut raising her chest and purposely paced her breathing as if she were in deep sleep.
This way she wouldn’t have to pretend that she was okay with this meeting nor pretend that she was okay at all.
She felt his fingers bush her shoulders.
With her night gown so loose, she felt the skin on her chest bare against the cool wind. Though exhausted with her constant trembling, her heart beat fast and strong against her ribs as warmth coursed through her body.
“I miss you.” He said.
She heard him chuckle. Confused, she wondered what could be so funny.
“You can defy me all you want and I wouldn’t mind.”
As his mood lightened, she felt his fingers part from her skin as he sat in silence. Then, Snow feel his lips land a kiss on her forehead.
“Hunt with me.” He whispered.
Then without another word, he left.
Snow ran to the west wing of Burnwood just as she finished the venison Brida left on the doorstep of the library.
The meat was gamy and rich. Snow recalled as her tongue hungrily licked the fat from the sides of her lips. Remnants of salt and spices coated the surface of her tongue as the pepper made her nose burn. The mashed potatoes eased the sharpness of the salt which made the pureed vegetable all the more sweet. Birda gave her a good helping, three slabs of meat and a bowl of potatoes mashed with sweet curd.
The food bolted energy in her legs as she ran in search for her sisters. She was about to speed her way up the stairs when she bumped into a group of men. They towered above her glancing stares between each other’s broad shoulders.
The alpha males.
Magnus Wolfram’s gaze so stern and cold landed on Snow. She almost saw it soften as his gaze landed on her. Theodor Everett, Walter Cornan and Kaius Sato’s eyes followed.
Prickles shot up Snow’s bare skin as she crossed her arms to her chest where a nightgown provided little covering. She bowed her head letting the mess of hair roll down her shoulders. On the cold floor, she saw her naked feet turn red against marble.
In contrast to the yards of fur and leather the hunting gear these men wore, she was but flesh, bones and skin. There was the nightgown too which offered so little warmth ... and covering. But she wasn’t about to submit to them cowering within their midst right after what happened at the dinner.
“Gentlemen, welcome to Burnwood. It’s been getting warm this morning.” Snow said as she fanned a hand on her face. She smiled and kept her other arm where her chest brushed against the night gown. Her hair fell on the right places as she squinted her eyes to smile at her spectators.
“Warm?” Magnus said.
He glanced to the window where ferns of frost clung against the glass. Before Snow could answer she felt something heavy and warm drop down her shoulders.
Torryn’s scent wrapped her entire body as his coat hung against her back. Snow heard him clear his throat. She was so close to him she was able to make a faint growl rumbling from his chest.
The men immediately turned their gaze away from her and resumed to tread down the stairs deep in conversation.
Her pale cheeks flushed with heart pounding, skin burning like she ran out of the woods in midsummer.
“Now, little bird,” Torryn pulled her in front of him. His arms clasped her arms beneath the dense leather coat. She could feel electricity running through where he touched her, “If you plan to leave your little hideout. Try doing it with clothes on. I don’t want anyone seeing you like this.”
Snow nodded with her head down, eyes rooted on the floor. She could still smell Sophia from his skin, a constant reminder of what she saw earlier before the break of dawn. Then she stepped back nodding her head. Before her eyes could betray her, she walked around him and dragged herself up the stairs.
Margaux and Clara ran to Snow and took her in the most disgusting embrace Celeste has ever seen. The three were too snug to each other, Lais had to pull Margaux braided hair to make room for herself.
“Lais!” Margaux voice, a high pitched squeal bantered her sister’s name, a sharp and draggy, La-yees.
“There she is,” Willow only had a hand reached out to Snow scrunching her hair as she spoke, “Running around on a night gown. You and that alpha wolf are probably that busy.”
The four laughed as Celeste dropped the long bow she strung. She rubbed her hands feeling where the tough rope left creases of red on her fingers.
That alpha wolf had a specific scent to him, Celeste knew. She clenched her fists as she gave in to the thought that he didn’t smell of Snow.
“She’s only been away for three weeks.” Celeste rolled her eyes.
“Oh, do shut up,” Margaux did not even open her eyes as she spoke. She was too invested in the hug the four shared.
Just as Clara brushed Snow’s hair back to place. The three went back to prepping their gear. The sun was almost out and it’s only been an hour since their arrival.
Leather corsets tightened, boots polished, bows strung and hairs braided. They were basically waiting for the start of the Reaping. Their meals have already been brought to their quarters and the five did not waste a moment before they devoured the feast.
Celeste was certain they should have left some for Snow. The darkness beneath her eyes and the sharp shadows on her neck made her look exhausted and a tad thinner. But her cheeks had a good color to them, this made Celeste less agitated.
“You lost weight,” Celeste darted at Snow. She was smiling always too kind, too reserved to answer back. This irritated her for some reason.
Margaux was still stuck to Snow’s arm as she flashed her tongue out towards Celeste. She snarled at the two before going back to her bow. The string was still loose. From her periphery Celeste caught Snow staring at her. Her eyes hid a longing Celeste has never seen before.
Snow would always avoid her eyes, scared of what Celeste is about to snap out from her mouth. Whether it was an insult, a comment about how her stance sucked or how her skin was too pale for her own good. Celeste always had something harsh and blunt to say to her. But she’d only just nod and look away.
Celeste couldn’t help it. She met Snow’s eyes and found her needing. She dropped the carved wood on her hand and marched towards her sister. She cupped her pale face and tried to find the answers without her havinv to explain. Margaux, as confused as her, looked at Snow, her cheeks flooded of tears as she began to cry.
“What’s wrong?” Margaux asked, “It’s the Reaping. You love the Reaping right?”
Snow’s voice trembled, “Torryn-
“What did he do, Snow?” Willow crawled on the carpet beside them as she rubbed Snow’s back.
Celeste stood and froze, her arms dropping to her sides in defeat. The only time she saw Snow cried was when Celeste’s mother locked her down in the dungeon. Heat rose to her face as she felt tears form a bank of water on her eyelids. Tears almost dropped to her cheeks as Celeste’s chest pounded in a mix of sadness and anger.
Celeste knew something was wrong. She could feel it from the pit of her stomach. But, Snow just shook her head and smiled.
“Nothing,” She said beneath the dripping tears, “He’s perfect. He’s uh- he’s kind and generous and -
“Oh, honey,” Clara said, “We’re thrilled that you’re finally happy.”
Celeste’s eyes darted at Snow’s face. Her eyes were puffy, the bones on her shoulders rose from her skin. Her sister has been crying, losing weight with every passing day. Snow was hiding something from them. For years and years of staring at her, deciphering that hollow face, Snow would always bury the truth within her silence and pathetic smiles. She always did. And it infuriated her.
“I better be going,” Snow brushed the tears from her cheeks, “He’d be looking for me.”
Liar, Celeste thought. The four gave her a final hug and let her walk out of the door.
How could they? Didn’t they see the pain in her eyes?
With her heart slamming against her chest, Celeste marched out and found Snow trembling as she walked with her back towards her. The oak trees now cast shadows as the sun rose from the east.
Snow must have heard Celeste’s steps as she looked back towards her. Snow smiled back at her waving her hand like it was the most natural thing she has ever did.
Celeste closed the distance between them and grabbed Snow’s arm tugging it before sh could run off.
“What is wrong with you?” The silent walls echoed Celeste’s voice.
Snow just stood there sobbing, her cheeks dripping wet.
“Everything is fine,” she sniffed.
“Lies,” Celeste tugged harder, “You little liar. Why can’t you just tell the truth? Look at me!”
She has had enough of this.
She has had enough of all the silent battles, masked smiles, cries that only echoed through the walls from the dungeon. Celeste grew tired, furious and angry watching Snow wreck herself and Celeste could not bear to carry to her grave the truth. She just wants Snow to admit it. She wants Snow to do one brave thing even if she has to rip it from her damn mouth.
“You’ve always been a liar,” Celeste’s voice hissed, “Well, I can see right through you, right through your mask, right through your angelic face that has always mirrored father’s. Well, except your eyes.”
Snow stiffened. A nagging pain shot up Celeste’s chest as she spoke the bitter words.
“Your whore of a mother did not let you live so you could deceive us all, so you could crawl into your little shell and pretend that everything is okay because -
“Torryn has been seeing someone!” Snow jolted as the words burst from her lips, “He has been seeing someone even before we met and now they still see each other! But he tells me he misses me, he holds me like he never wants to let me go. And I don’t know what to think!”
Snow took a gulp of air as she trembled. The pupils of her eyes wide and deep against the calm green they used to bear.
“Do you love him?” Celeste asked.
“Love him?” Snow tugged on her arm letting Celeste feel the heave from her grip that grew weak.
“He has bed me. He has taken all of me. And, I suppose people do that when they love each other. But I barely know him.”
“Snow, do you love him?” Celeste grabbed her shoulder calming the weakness of her knees.
“I don’t know. I’m still trying to,” She replied.
“Then, I’ll buy you some time.”
Celeste’s hands dropped to her sides, her foot taking alternate steps back. Then, she knew what to do. With her back against Snow she walked back to her chambers. She needed Margaux’s help.
All her life, Celeste has looked out for Snow, took in to account all her weaknesses and she has always been there waiting.
Ever since they were little, Celeste looked at Snow and saw a brave girl, quick to her feet and sharply blunt with her words, who was helplessy dragged in the dungeon and who never came back.
This time, Celeste was determined to drag that girl out.
Torryn looked behind his shoulder as a familiar voice whispered. He was alone facing the woods beyond the clearing. The Reaping will soon commence and he needed to take a look at the tracks of his prey if there were any.
He knelt to a depression on the soil brushing off the forest debris.
He snapped back, the voice now growing near. Both hands balanced his stance as he felt his chest rip open.
Then without warning, fear flooded his chest as he saw his brother.
“Percy, I told you to stay with Pa,” Flashes of blood and flesh stained wolf teeth blinded him. As an image of the woods with his brother came back to his memory.
“I’m lost,” a young Torryn wandered too far in to the woods, too far from home. His brother, Dimitri three years older than him dragged him against a fallen log where moss and forest rot has consumed it.
Torryn grabbed his chest, the fear he has so long suppressed now surfaced so easily. This wasn’t right. Before he could grasp his senses, he saw himself young and trembling bathed in his brother’s blood.
As he witnessed how a rogue wolf devoured Dimitri’s body, his chest lost all speck of courage as he started to shudder. As the splatters reached beyond the cracks of the log to where he was, he just hid there, like a coward he really is.
He could feel tears well up in his eyes. And it was the first time he has ever wept for his brother.
As soon as he thought he was over, he heard a distant scream.
He whirled where he stood finding her against the hazy black and white of his vision. Then he saw her in her night gown, wearing his coat, lying against the dry grass her guts a mess on her open abdomen, a gush of blood pooling around her, a small stream of crimson dripping from her lips.
He felt his soul crumble where he stood, with a hole right through his heart so dark and empty. He has not felt fear so true until he felt the growl of his beast. Her death was a thought so strong it tapped in to his wolf beckoning its aid to slaughter the beast of who has taken Snow’s life.
Before he felt the fur on his back sprout against his skin, his eyes shot open and basked into the calm flicker of the sunrise against the leaves above him.
Then the visions vanished as Torryn steadied his stance against a trunk. He failed to regain his strength as he tumbled back on the dry ground both his palms bracing the fall.
“Burnwood,” Celeste voice echoed within the woods. He followed the voice and saw her and Margaux standing out at the clearing. Unlike Margaux whose eyes where reddened by tears, Celeste looked at him like she could kill.
“You are bound to my sister,” She said, “If you hurt her, and by any means put her heart where you can toy with it - I will by the Gods, find you. I will hunt you down and the whores you put in her place.”
Celeste’s eyes, a blazing gray, darted him on the ground, “And, I will kill you.”
“You sent for me?” Margaux in her emerald tunic walked through the doors of the library. She had on her hood and as Snow searched for her eyes she saw them red and swollen.
“What happened?” Snow asked. She was still in her night gown sitting on the couch her legs bent against her chest.
“Nothing,” She smiled and sat herself behind Snow. She felt her sister’s fingers tug against her hair.
“Oh, you don’t have to fix it. I’m not hunting.”
“Not hunting? On the Reaping?” She heard the confusion in Margaux’s voice, “That’s not like you, Snow. What has Burnwood done to you?”
Snow let herself laugh beneath the pity she has placed upon herself, “Burnwood has done nothing but be kind to me of which I am very grateful. I’m just feeling sick.”
“Sick of the dust in this room. I’ll fix your hair anyway. Just in case you change your mind.” Margaux’s fingers still held her hair, pulling each strand in a braid where they lay compliant. That was the only way her hair would stay out of her face and Margaux knew it.
“Why does Celeste hate me so?” Snow asked.
“She doesn’t,” Margaux answered, “You just remind her of someone. And, you know what? Don’t go to the Reaping. Stay here and read. Make yourself feel better.”
Snow nodded, biting her lip as it trembled. She was sick and tired of crying but the remaining tears trickled from her eyes like her head squeezed it form her lids.
“Or,” She continued, “You can go down there and show them who you are. Don’t hunt for Burnwood. I’m not even saying you should hunt for Grimlake. Hunt until it makes you feel better. Hunt until the search exhausts you. Hunt until you feel like yourself again.”
She finished the last strands on the tip of her curls and kissed Snow’s head goodbye.
“I’ll be under an Oak Tree,” Margaux said as she left.
Snow smiled recalling how the phrase, an ancient farewell, was passed down from her elders, her grandparents and now to her and her sisters.
Under an oak tree simply meant home.
And it took her a long while before Snow realized that home wasn’t a place.
Burnwood became a haven for hunters, five wolf clans has joined them this year’s Reaping and he could feel the ground shake to the howls of each one. The participants of the Reaping stood at the grounds behind the manor. A clearing paved its way to the woods. The grass on this patch of land was low enough and was able to hold five clans surrounding a fire that lit spiting sparks of wood at the sky.
Surrounding the burning pit are five flags with an embroidered emblem.
Flame for Burnwood
Hawk for Wolfram
Mountains for Everett
Dragon for Sato
Oak Tree for Grimlake
Beneath each flag stood participants of the Reaping, a maximum of ten hunters each waiting for the beginning of the hunt. The scars on his sides where still red but the bleeding has stopped as he walked towards the clearing.
Torryn lay his shirt loose against his body. There will be no point in dressing up for he prefers to hunt in wolf form. He walked barefoot towards the center where his grandmother was. He stood beside her. Her boney hand brushed black pigment on his arm, a paste of ash and soil marking his participation under Burnwood.
“For heaven’s sake say your full name out loud,” He heard her grandmother whisper.
“Torryn, House Burnwood.” He smiled at her as he walked under his flag. He could make out the disappointment in her face. His bare feet brushed against the grass as he walked. He stood beside his cousins and the men exchanged playful punches amongst each other.
He glanced at Sophia across him who stood underneath the Wolfram flag. He tipped his head and saw her smile. And, Torryn felt like a kid again. She reminds him of long summer days and early morning hunts. Deep down he tried to search for something more but only found the same long summer days and early morning hunts.
As the hunters slowly occupied their places under each flag, he stiffened as the Grimlakes began to gather bellow theirs.
“Celeste, House Grimlake,” her voice made him shudder. As she walked passed him her gaze was darted straight not even trying to glance back at him. He bowed his head in her courtesy despite their encounter earlier.
Her clothes weren’t for hunting unlike her sisters who wore leather corsets and knee high boots. She must have preferred to hunt in her wolf form as well. On the other hand, Margaux had two bows on her back and a good helping of arrows in her quiver. Lais, too was in hunting garments, with loads of rope rolled around her shoulder.
Clara failed to join them. As she watched with the crowd of people surrounding the fire. There was only four of them under Grimlake. He shook his head and recalled what each one possessed. Their abilities can surpass any multitude of wolves before them.
Torryn gave them a final glance and felt their energy. Despite their uncanny beauty and grace, the four radiated power.
It worried him. He wanted to win the Reaping six years in a row.
His grandmother was about to blow the horns inviting everyone to head their ears in silence when a figure came walking towards the fire.
The wolf was dressed in dark forest green, a tunic piled against sheets of leather molded against her body. He felt a familiar energy radiate from her.
From his line of site he searched for green eyes and voluminous curls of hair but the girl hid her face under a hood. It was impossible to see who it was from where he stood.
Before he could take another step closer, the woman pulled the hood down where her hair snugly held in a french braid ran down her back. Torryn could see his grandmother brush green pigment against her bare skin.
The women looked to her side brushing a strand of hair from her face. There Torryn saw her bright green eyes glisten against the rays of the sun.
And for a short moment, their eyes met.
“Snow,” she said, her eyes on him, “House Grimlake.”