CHAPTER 8 – SUMMON
The forest was a maze of melting snow and fog.
The gray of the soil lay in contrast against the white stacks of solid ice surrounding each tree trunk. Celeste dug her boot against a hefty coat of winter long snow. Her fingers, now damp and cold, marked where the white surface touched the leather. Winter has left them as the frost touched the soles of her foot.
Celeste never liked the cold. She had to drag herself out of bed into the woods miles away from the comfort of a fire lit home. But as she dragged her boot against the damp woodland floor, a familiar calm enveloped her.
Her lip twitched forming a smirk on her lips as stood amidst the fleeing Winter. She pulled down the cloak from where her flushed nose and cracked lips hid. She stood up to her feet and inhaled the scent of pine and stagnant forest water. It made her insides warm as solid thumps knocked on her chest.
Celeste knew what the passing of Winter meant.
She walked passed the frozen roots of the century old cypress and grazed its trunk with her fingers. Light peeled against her lashes as flecks of sun blinded her. She squinted her eyes smiling against the warm ray of the sun.
Her knee rested on the stone studded river bed letting the frozen top crackle against her weight. She cupped a good amount of crystal water the kind her callused hands would allow and sipped the cold liquid. She could almost feel spheres of ice touch her nose. She flinched to the unexpected kisses of ice planted on her skin where the frozen liquid touched.
Spring has come and so was the Reaping.
She finished the remaining icy water on her hands before she whisked them dry. Still damp and dripping wet, Celeste’s fingers grabbed on to her bow hanging on the satchel she brought, its leather straps straddled against a tree branch. She propped the weapon on her shoulder, grabbed the arrows made of elm lying on a tree trunk and marched home.
There was no time to waste, she and her sisters have to search for a buck to hunt.
Every year, she’d look forward to the end of Winter only to be preoccupied in the preparations for the break of spring marked in an annual celebration called the Reaping. Each pack is allowed a full day to hunt the woods within the premises of their territory. For the Grimlakes, the region spanned the Gray Woods up to the bank of Lake Caelum. In the case of her household the Reaping meant a competitive sport of who can hunt the heaviest whitetail deer. With only a few of them participating including her sisters, they were open to hunt multiple fowls each and the woods would still be full of them. The Reaping, however, differed from a pack with a greater number of household.
Celeste once joined a Reaping with the Cornans where victors of the game were the contender who could hunt a chosen prey the fastest. Days prior to the competition, a buck is sought, marked, and is set free back into the woods as the Reaping commences. The participants were only given the breed and the scent of the chosen fowl. Then, they’d hunt it down.
She could recall how the sunlight stung her skin that day. The humid terrain proved to make the hunt difficult. She hovered the forest beneath the blistering heat with other contenders seeking the same prey. She had met a lot of wolves along the way, which made that Reaping all the more memorable.
But there was one wolf she dreads to remember. Celeste was so close to the marked buck when a wolf devoured it before her. Its fur a striking silver, a mixture of black and white, where hazel eyes peaked through bands of black framing its face above dark hungry lips housing its sharp fangs. His energy was overwhelming, Celeste could only stand on her paws as she watched as the beast ruthlessly savored the animal.
The man only brought the antlers back to the clearing and a patch of deer skin where it was marked. The victor, that year, was Torryn Burnwood.
A mess of old fallen twig snapped beneath Celeste’s feet as she emerged from the woods to the pathway to Grimlake house. The entrance emerged from the woods where a small moat lay below a bridge to a patch of grassy lawn to the humble doorway. Some of Celeste’s friends thought it was magical. But she could only stare at it the entire day and it’ll just be plain old doorway.
The humble manor stood above the stone cliff where Lake Cealum lay below it. The tide didn’t allow much waves to crash against the stone, she barely heard the sound of the wave. Perhaps the lake was still frozen.
The doorway lead to stone walls forming living quarters for its inhabitants. And at the top of the corner tower showed the Grimlake crest etched in stone. It was an oak tree.
“Did you freeze to death?” Margaux emerged form the entrance carrying her cat. She was still in her nightgown as she shivered to the cold morning air.
“Almost,” Celeste answered.
“That’s a disappointment,” Margaux went back inside giggling as she shut the door behind her. The wooden door snapped back open revealing Clara in her fur coat rubbing her swollen belly. In her hands a cup of black tea. Celeste could smell it from where she stood. She nodded her head and took the drink.
“Haven’t popped yet, dear sister?,” Celeste giggled. She landed a kiss on her older sister’s cheek as she finally went inside to the warmth of their home.
“She lives!” Willow came running down the stair case to the receiving hall in a see through dress.
“Shut up, Willow. And do dress up!”” Celeste could hear her sisters grunt at the display of Willow’s nakedness. Celeste threw her coat at her half naked sister who just laughed in return.
“Are there deer, sister?” Margaux came out from the kitchen with a tray of biscuits.
“Yes, for sure there are deer somewhere still hidden the forest where I can’t see them.” Celeste answered the sarcasm brimming in her voice. The women giggled as they sat before the fire in the gallery.
“Ugh, bitch.” Margaux settled herself on the carpet before the fire with her trailed on top her.
“Buck tooth,” Celeste hissed before she took a bite of biscuit. The insult made Margaux sit up from where she lay her mouth wide open in shock.
“Hog,” Margaux rolled her eyes at Celeste.
“Deaf and mute—” Celeste stopped before she could finish.
“Oh somebody misses Snow,” Clara chuckled.
Celeste used to tease Margaux and Snow with the insult.
Margaux, deaf, a conversation demands shouting for her to understand anything. Snow, mute, who never spoke a word.
She could recall how Margaux and Snow would sit together in a number of occasions. They were usually in silence reading beside each other. She wasn’t sure why it infuriated her. Snow was always deep in the pages of her books. Celeste assumed Margaux was mocking their youngest sister. Margaux doesn’t like reading but she’d sit beside Snow and leaf through the pages of a book she pulled from the shelves herself.
“I miss her,” Margaux slumped back on the carpet.
“How thrilled would she be if she knew we’re about to have a young cub in our midst?” Clara smiled rubbing her belly.
“Well, we’ll never know.” Celeste snapped her face stern with the thought of Snow.
The house has always felt complete with Snow silent and stone cold in one corner. The five of them would sit in the gallery for tea and the conversation would go on about hunting, boys, settling down, bearing cubs, and leaving home. Snow would just listen and smile as they spoke. She’d never say a word. But when Snow left, Celeste thought, conversations felt bland.
Now that the Reaping was coming, Celeste couldn’t help but think of Snow. The girl wasn’t allowed to leave the manor unlike the five of them except for one time of the year. Snow was allowed to hunt for the Reaping. And their father had a good reason why she was allowed to do so.
Snow would be as pale as frost but she’d charge the prickling heat to hunt until her freckles filled her face. Her hands were soft but would blister beneath the bow string and fletchings of the arrow. She was quick to her feet, silent and composed. She’d take one scent of the prey and she’d track it down. Their youngest was incredibly talented. Celeste almost envied her.
One day, that was all Snow had to be herself. And Celeste never felt sorry for her instead she feels competitive towards her all the more. She would never Snow her win.
Ever since she could remember, it bothered Celeste how both of them were always compared to each other. Clara would always say that Celeste and Snow looked alike except that her hair was straighter in contrast to Snow’s voluminous curls. The two are complete opposites Celeste swore but sometimes she’d look at Snow and see herself. And that infuriated her.
Celeste won their reaping the past year when Snow refused to kill the buck she skillfully trapped with vines and old fallen branches. Snow was undeniably pure hearted. Celeste could only roll her eyes at the fact. Maybe that’s why father adored her, she thought.
Her stomach turned as she tasted acid in her lips. She took a sip of the tea and took the bitter taste down her throat.
“Stop laying round, lazy pigs,” Lais came into the room in her hunting garment tying her trousers against her broad waist. She threw her boots on the floor before she sat on the carpet beside Margaux. She gave a quick slap on Margaux leg as Lais received a kick in return.
“I marched the cold this morning to check for tracks, how am I lazy?” Celeste bolted.
“Pack up, ladies. We’ll be off in a bit. The carriages are already on their way.” Celeste now puzzled sat her cup on the table and looked at Lais in confusion.
“Where are we going?” She asked.
“The Reaping,” Magaux was blunt with her answer giggling her way out the room up the stairs to her quarters.
“I was about to scout deer for our Reaping.” Celeste stared at her sisters with crossed brows. They only exchanged smiles. One by one each exited the hall with a smug grin on their faces. They knew something she didn’t, Celeste thought. And it irritated her.
“Is anyone going to tell me anything?” She rolled her eyes in frustration.
Lais ignored Celeste as she pulled a boot on her foot. She pulled on the brown leather as it snug her feet. She stepped on the covered foot sending thumps on the carpet in front of her. Her fingers adjusted the leather straps threading each loose strand on a brass hook. She did the same with the other leg.
Celeste raised her eyebrows towards her as Lais placed a folded letter on the table beside Celeste’s cup. It was still steaming. Celeste sat up and grabbed the paper in her hands. Before she could unfold it, her fingers brushed an embossed symbol on the crimson sealing wax. It was a flame.
“Burnwood sent for us?” Celeste, now confused, looked up at Lais demanding an answer.
She gave Celeste a grin and shook her head, “Snow did.”