The sun burst over the trees and dawn came soon enough. It felt as if only seconds had passed since I’d closed my eyes then Gray was roughly shaking me awake.
“What’s going on?” I looked up and saw that the sun was just rising.
“We begin our search,” he said.
I was awake now. I sat up and he moved away quickly, as if I would infect him now that I was up. “Be ready in five minutes. I will return for you.”
Alone again and with only the meager light from the ceiling window, I found my newly borrowed boots. I straightened my skirts and went to the small mirror to try to do something with my hair. When I saw myself, I stilled. I look like one of them. The image completely caught me off guard. Without wasting another moment, I shook my head and looked around for my normal clothes. Claire must have taken them from me. I would have to remember to ask for them back when I next saw her.
Just as he said he would, Gray returned. Before I could ask him anything, I noticed irons and a rope in his hands, that sight stopped my voice. “What are those for?” I wasn’t stupid. Those were for me.
“I cannot have you running off. I agreed you may come under my supervision and I do not need anyone to be distracted while searching for Mary.” He moved forward and swiftly grabbed my wrist, getting ready to lock me in an iron. I ignored the slight tingle I felt where he held my arm and pulled free. He seemed surprised by my actions, as if something like that had never happen before. And for all I knew, the women around here didn’t fight the men. Well, I wasn’t from around here.
“I won’t run away! I don’t even know where I am!”
“I am not one to take chances. Now give me your wrist.” The tone in his voice told me he was used to being listened to. The hell with that! I shook my head and crossed my arms. It was a childish move, but my choices were limited.
Anger glimmered in his eyes. “Give me your wrist.” His voice was low and dangerous…and yummy. Stop it! What is wrong with me?
I kept my arms crossed. “I told you I won’t run away.”
He growled and grabbed my arm. His grip was so tight that my hand quickly went numb. I whined, and then bit my tongue. If it was the last thing I did, I wouldn’t give him the pleasure of seeing me squirm.
With ease, he held my wrist stationary, against my flailing, and shut the iron around it. Before I knew what was happening he had the other cuffed too. He looked at me sternly. “This would be much easier if you did not insist on fighting me every time I tried to do something. You are very bold for a woman.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
After he had me secured, he tied one end of the rope around one cuff and knotted it impossibly. He tied the other end to a leather strap on his person, connecting us. He handed me the slack and without so much as a word, he marched out the door. I had no choice but to go with him, he was much larger and stronger than I was and now I was tethered to him.
He kept a quick pace, but I was from the city, I was used to walking quickly. I stayed right beside him. One look of surprise at me and I knew he’d expected me to be some fragile chick who needs someone to hold her hand. Oh how wrong he is. Even though the victory was slight, I cherished it.
We descended the stairs and met a group outside. Most of the men were already on horses, but a few were on foot. Gray walked to his horse and jumped on. Somewhere in my mind, it was only logical that he would hoist me on behind him. I was wrong. He turned the horse and started trotting. I threw the most heated death glare up at him, he didn’t even notice. What a jerk!
What did he expect me to do, keep up with a horse? I let some of the slack go and sped up. The others who walked kept good pace behind him.
I felt like I was being driven by a cattle driver. The pathway to the mansion was a lot longer than I remembered and the frozen ground was hard against my soft boots. I was thankful my boots were leather. They did a good job at keeping my feet warm, but there was one important thing I’d forgotten in the rush to get ready. A jacket.
Goosebumps appeared on my skin as soon as we walked out the door and were my constant companion. I was thankful that I could at least keep somewhat warm from the fast paced walking. After about an hour, we came to the clearing. I spotted the tree I had woken up under and had used to help myself stand. It seemed impossible that I was here only a few days ago. It seemed impossible that I was still in this nightmare.
Derek rode up beside Gray and barked a few orders to the men that had followed them. The men fanned out. Derek and Gray discussed for a few minutes then Gray dismounted his horse, tying it to a tree branch. Without a glance at me, he trudged through the snow. Of course, I followed.
This royally sucks! My shoes are not made for snow. It surrounded my calves and entered my boots, freezing my feet instantly. I was almost certain that I would get hypothermia and frostbite. Gray watched me with an expectant look on his face, just daring me to complain. Well if he thinks for a second I’m going to whine, he has another thing coming. I trudged on after him, even picking up my pace so I was in front of him; I glanced at him and to my satisfaction he gaped at me.
I began searching, just as I had agreed. See, I’m being a good little prisoner.
After a moment, he snapped out of it and began the search too. It was harder than I thought. I pretty much had to be his shadow or risk being tangled around a tree or bush. He pretended not to notice my presence, but he was not fooling me. Whenever our eyes met, he would speed up. One time, just to spite me, he walked to a huge snow bank and trudged through it. I cursed under my breath, thinking of all the pain I’d love to inflict on this man as I followed behind, the snow coming up to my knees.
Mary’s name sounded from everyone’s lips and echoed through the forest. Eventually, I picked up a stick and started smacking bushes. Lingering farther behind, or at least as far as the rope would allow; I poked the bushes with boredom. We were nowhere near the tree that was my landmark for where they found me. It wasn’t like I could just walk over there. Gray had me leashed.
I was trying very hard not to concentrate on how cold I was, or lack there of. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore and my arms felt like they were going to fall off.
I came to a very snowy bush and smacked it. A few small animals scrambled out of it, darting off in all directions, trying to get away from me. The sudden movements made me scream. I gracefully tripped over my own feet, lost my balance and fell on my butt.
The men turned around and Gray rushed over. “What is it?”
I pointed to the retreating animals, clutching my chest with my other hand, trying to calm my thundering heart. He looked at them then glared at me. “Do not scream unless you are threatened and even then, do not scream at all.” He turned on his heel and huffed off.
My jaw went slack. Jerk! “I wouldn’t hold my breath for you to save me anyway,” I muttered as I got up and dusted off the layer of snow now covering my skirts. I felt like an idiot. To make matters worse, now I was even colder.
I shivered, my irons clanking as I tried to warm myself by rubbing a hand over my arms. Gray sped up and for about the tenth time since arriving I felt like crying. This sucks!
After an hour of trudging through the snow, Gray and Derek decided to call a lunch break. We walked back to the horses and it surprised me to see how close we were to the clearing we’d started from. I put two and two together and realized we had been traveling in big circles. A laugh bubbled out, I was on the verge of hysteria. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
I had not realized I’d said that out loud until I looked up to find most of the men looking at me strangely. But, I didn’t care. This had to be some kind of joke. Before I could stop myself, I marched straight up to Gray and yanked my cord so he would turn around. He glared at me and I glared right back. “What are you stupid? You have to search the whole forest, not just the general area!”
Fire blazed in his dark brown eyes. He was about to advance on me when my world exploded around me. I stumbled backwards and grabbed my cheek. Someone had hit me, and hit me good. Stars danced before my eyes as I searched for the culprit.
By the look on Gray’s face, I could tell it wasn’t him. I blinked hard a few times then continued searching. My cheek throbbed. I was sure it was swelling already. Then my eyes landed on the offender. Derek, and man did he look pissed. I was more than certain it was he who’d nearly knocked my head clean off my shoulders. When my eyes met his, he advanced again. I took a few quick steps back.
“You will respect a man and his wishes or I shall teach you to!” he snarled.
I continued to hold my cheek. I wanted to cuss him out so badly, but with my hands cuffed and the fact that he was three times bigger than I was, I decided that might not be the best thing. Instead, I lowered my gaze, playing the part of the respectful woman, even though I despised the role. Derek continued to seethe, clenching his fists at his side. Please don’t hit me again. I thought.
I tried hard not to cower, but I could not stop the wince when he stepped closer. My body battled between rage and fear as I thought of what he’d just done and what he was going to do.
Gray put a hand on his shoulder. “Derek, that is enough. I believe she has learned her lesson.”
“You dare let the wench off that easy?!”
I bit my tongue. Wench?! Who does he think he is? Thankfully, my self-preservation kicked in and I kept my mouth shut, though my fists clenched.
Gray shook his head. “I will not let her off easily; however, we do not need to beat her senseless while we are still searching,” he said calmly.
“She needs to be made an example of. No woman should speak to a man in that manner!” Derek argued.
Gray nodded. “I assure you, when I am through with her, she will never do it again.”
Derek nodded and deflated slightly after a moment, stepping back. He threw me one last glare and joined the ranks of the other men. Gray tugged on the rope hard, pulling me to him. As I landed against his chest, he turned me and pinned me to him.
It took me a moment to realize that his hold looked very painful, but in all actuality hardly hurt at all. I did not dare move. Could it be possible that he thought he was hurting me? Were the women around here that delicate? Or maybe he didn’t want to hurt me. Maybe he was putting on a show. Or maybe my mind was just wandering again, most likely I was so cold that I was numb to the pain. Either way, I was keeping my big mouth shut.
“Finish up here then come to the house for food. I will ride ahead and make sure she gets locked up where she belongs,” he said gruffly. Before I knew what was happening he had picked me up and was carrying me awkwardly over his shoulder to the horse. He set me down only for a moment while he mounted, then picked me up and set me in front of him. At least I’m not being forced to walk this time.
We were off; it was all happening so fast. As we rode quickly, his arms tightened slightly around me. Soon he realized what he was doing and shifted so he was barely touching me, which is hard to do on a horse.
“You would be smart to listen to what Derek says. Next time, I will not stop him from teaching you a real lesson.”
I gulped slightly at the thought. We continued riding, I jostled around a lot and when I bumped against him that strange tingling started again. I ignored it, instead concentrating on my throbbing cheek. It was swelling pretty badly. I probably looked like I was packing a huge jawbreaker around in my mouth.
We were to his house in no time. It was a much shorter trip on horseback. I don’t even know if I could have survived the walk back, I was freezing. He unloaded me and walked me into the house. As soon as we entered, Claire came bustling to the door. “Did you find her?” She asked Gray quickly. Her eyes fell on me and she frowned. “Why is she so frozen? Where is her cloak?”
“She had none,” he answered simply.
Claire’s eyebrows rose far up her forehead. “And you did not get one for her? Shame on you,” she chided. Before he could say anything, she was rushing forward and gathering me away from Gray.
When she was closer, she spotted the chains. She looked at Gray in surprise then her surprise turned into anger. She motioned to my cuffs and stuck her hands on her hips. Gray sighed then untied my rope. I tried to keep a smug smile from my lips. I had to enjoy the victories where I could get them.
She motioned to the cuffs again, but this time he argued with her.
“Where is she going to run?”
Gray growled lowly before unshackling me. My wrists cried in relief. I rolled them to work out some of the stiffness. There were harsh red rings on either wrist. I bet I looked gorgeous.
As soon as I was free Claire took my arm, she had a strong grip. “You know the rules,” she whispered. She smiled stiffly at Gray and led me away.
He called after her and she waved her hand as if waving him off. She led me through the ground level. We turned through a few halls that were as lavishly decorated as the rest of the house and passed many thick wooden doors.
Finally, she opened one and we entered a large porcelain room. In the middle was a tub, obviously this was the bathroom. I surveyed the room with wonder and confusion. There was a large pump against one wall, then a fireplace along the other wall. The fire was already going, but to my surprise, I could hardly feel the warmth. Worry gripped me, maybe I really did have frostbite.
Claire closed the door and motioned for me to walk farther into the room.
“Looks like you could definitely use a hot bath. I made the bath for Mary, when they find her, but Gray can be so stubborn. I cannot believe him…” she trailed off as if realizing she was complaining about him in front of me. She shook her head and started untying the sashes of my skirts. “Never mind him. Ever since Mary went missing it has been…confusing.”
“Tell me about it,” I said as I slipped out of my snow-soaked clothing and frozen boots. I wasn’t about to argue with her. That warm water was calling to me clear across the room.
When she had me stripped to my underwear, she walked to the tub and touched the water. Pleased with its temperature she turned to me. “There are clothes by the fire when you are through. I know how you feel about allowing me to wash you, so I will leave you to yourself. I will be back for you later.”
She left, quietly closing the door behind her. I heard the sound of a lock sliding home. Ignoring my imprisonment, I decided to hurry into the water. I peeled off the rest of my grungy clothes. My first step into the tub stung, but as the heat grabbed at me, it was like stepping right into heaven. Soothing warm fingers raced over my foot to my calf, engulfing my whole leg. As I dipped the other leg in, the whole process started over again. My frozen feet quickly thawed, It tingled painfully, but at least I knew I could still feel.
As I slid myself into the large tub, I noticed the dirt already separating from my skin. At this moment, I didn’t care about anything but the warmth. I completely immersed myself in the water, holding my breath for as long as I could.
When I came up, I sighed heavily and lay against the porcelain. This was the most relaxed I’d been for a long time, even in my own world. As I looked around the room I spotted a small bar of what I guessed was soap, a brush, and some goop that, upon further inspection, smelled divine. I ended up rubbing that in my hair.
I took my time cleaning myself, sure not to miss a spot. When I was done, I simply soaked in the bath water until it chilled. I stepped out, grabbing the rough towel that was lying on the small side table beside the tub, to dry myself. Then I held up the clothes Claire had been talking about; a creamy flowing dress that went to my feet with a shawl made of thick fabric. I put on the weird underwear that was there and tried the dress on.
Perfect fit, to my surprise. It hugged the places I wanted. I guess the fashion in this place isn’t too shabby. I thought as I dried my hair. There was a knock at the door and Claire let herself in. She held a small tray with bread and a bowl of steaming soup. The delicious smells filled the room at once. My mouth watered. She looked me over and smiled approvingly. “Follow me.”
I did so without a problem. I felt like a dog being led with a bone, but the soup smelt so delicious that I would have gladly done tricks for her too.
We entered another large room. This one was obviously the kitchen.
A huge fireplace was ablaze in the far end of the room. Many servants were hurrying back and forth, preparing the meal. A very large cauldron was hanging over the fire. I could see the soup in it as a servant stirred it with a large ladle. Others kneaded dough and shaped them into rolls on large slabs before sliding them into a slit in the wall above the fire that seemed to serve as the oven.
As soon as one tray was placed in the oven, the others were taken out. The smell of warm bread made the air thick. It seemed to warm me from the inside out. Something about the smell of bread reminded me of when I was little and my grandmother used to make some, so that when I came to her house I could have a warm slice.
Claire continued into the kitchen, dictating to a few servants who were chopping some vegetables. After some arguing she turned back to me with a smile, motioning for me to follow her to a small table tucked away in the corner. She set down the tray and sat on one of the three-legged wooden stools around the table. I took the hint and sat on the second stool.
She leaned closer to me. “Usually I would get in trouble for serving anyone before the head of the house arrives, but you will not tell, will you? Besides you looked so frozen when you came in...”
I studied her for a moment. Again, her graying hair was escaping her bun in little wisps around her face. Absentmindedly, she blew them out of the way. The corners of her eyes were full of creases, telling me that she smiled a lot. Her skin held a nice sun-kissed glow, but it seemed a natural tan; there was a group of freckles on her nose that were nearly invisible. Her light blue eyes seemed to see through anything they landed on, but it wasn’t a bad thing. She didn’t seem the kind to judge. I noticed that her plain dress had slight embroidery. It was very complicated and as soon as I spotted it, it made her dress uniquely beautiful.
After a moment, I realized that she was studying me too. She smiled then looked at me thoughtfully. “You are not from anywhere around here are you? It is obvious by the way you speak. And I can see it in your eyes. You have a very strong spirit.”
I tried not to snort in disbelief. “It doesn’t feel like it lately.”
She continued to peer at me. “You have destiny swimming around you. You are here for a reason…”
I frowned at her. “It was an accident. All I want to do is go home…if that’s even possible anymore… Thank you for being kind to me,” I added.
She nodded after a moment, pulling her eyes away from me, and motioned towards my uneaten food, “You had better eat before the men arrive.”
I picked up the wooden spoon and scooped the soup. It tasted just as good as it smelt. I ripped the roll with my teeth and scooped another spoonful quickly, scarfing very unladylike. These rolls aren’t so bad when they’re warm. Claire did not say anything as she watched me thoughtfully.
“So who exactly are you? I mean are you Gray’s mom or something?” I asked around a mouthful of warm roll. I decided that since she was in such a talkative mood I’d try for some answers.
She laughed softly. “I am the head of the servants in the house, but I raised Gray from when he was a child, so in a way I am like his mother,” she smiled slightly at the thought. “He was such a stubborn child. Still is most days.”
I couldn’t help but be drawn in by her motherly look. I continued to eat the soup as we talked. “Where is his mother?”
Her eyes widened in surprise then she calmed down, realizing I wasn’t from here. “She passed away when he was very young, child labor. There was nothing that could be done…” she trailed off sadly.
I decided to change the subject away from Gray (as curious as I was about him) and back to my sitation. “Do you know what’s going to happen to me?”
She shook her head. “This has never happened before. We do not know what exactly to do.”
“Happened before? Why is everyone talking about the situation as if it has happened before? That’s impossible!”
Her brows frowned as she studied the grains of wood on the table. Her fingers traced a few as she thought. “It is difficult to explain, but… I feel like it has happened before. We all do.” As she stared at the table, her eyes glazed with thought. “It is almost as if….we have lived it already and it is just… repeating.”
She shook her head, flustered. “Listen to that nonsense.”
“What do you mean repeating?” I asked.
She was silent for a while as she thought her answer through. “ Imagine waking up one day and the past few months that you have been living is… starting all over again.”
“So, you feel like you live the same few months over and over?” I tried to clearify.
She nodded, obviously disturbed by the thought.
“You never age?”
She looked down at her hands and studied them before shaking her head. “It is always the same…I believe I have been this age…since I could remember.”
I tried to process everything she was telling me, but it seemed too impossible. From the way she was reacting to all of this, I could tell she wasn’t making any of this up, but how could she possibly be living the same few months over again? How could she never age. I sounded like something in a sci-fi book.
“Is that how you knew Mary would be in the clearing; because every few months she is, again?”
Claire’s blue eyes met mine in confusion. “Yes,” she said softly. “It is like a pattern. When she is found, I know what is expected of me to do next…But she has not been found. Now, I do not know what comes next.”
She was speaking about living in a cycling pattern. “So you mean to tell me, that you always do the same thing?”
“I believe so. It is very hard to explain. I know what must come next, so I do it…we all do.”
“I think I understand what you’re talking about. So even though you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you do?” Now I was confusing myself. “Why not ignore the feeling and do something else?”
Her light blue eyes grew wide with fear. “That would change everything. It would put us into chaos… which your arrival here has done.”
“Look, it’s not my fault−”
“I know that child. Even so…It is as if, now we are off the pattern. None of us knows what to do next. I fear if we do not find Mary…”
“What? What will happen?”
Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes as she met my eyes. “We will cease to exist...”
How is that possible? I thought. A people can’t just…cease to exist because one person goes missing.
“So you mean to tell me that if one of you does things differently, you’ll all die?”
She shrugged and furrowed her brows. “Well, I don’t rightfully know. No one…from what I can remember, has ever tried to do anything differently. We do things the way they have always been done.”
A few thoughts stuck out just then. One, that I was surrounded by a cult of insane people who thought they never aged. Two, that she was telling me stories that belonged in a science fiction movie and she believed them. …But then again, I was fluently speaking a language that I had never heard. How could I explain that away? And three, I was getting the feeling that what she was saying was true. Ever since I had arrived, everyone had been talking about Mary being found and that she was always at that spot. In fact, the search team only looked around that clearing. Now that she was missing, it had pissed Derek and a bunch of other people off. It had thrown them into…chaos. In the big city, when someone runs away, the whole city doesn’t set up search parties or get pissed when they weren’t in some exact spot.
I was thinking over everything that had happened since I had arrived. There had to be some logical explanation for all of this. I had been minding my own business in my apartment, I was pretty sure I dead bolted the door, then I sat down to read. I turned off the light and…that book was in my hand.
My blood suddenly ran cold and the soup turned into a tasteless thing. “What did you say the name of this place is?”
Claire stopped tracing the wood on the table. “Delbrook, why?”
My mind flashed to my apartment and the strange book I had found on the subway. I tried to remember the few words that I could understand. House, snow, man, love…Delbrook!
My heart skipped a beat. This has to be a dream. In school I had never heard of a place called Delbrook, anywhere. The first time I had ever heard that name was when I read that book. I tried to remember what happened just before I woke up in the snow. I was turning off the light, and I got…electrocuted.
My eyes widened as I dropped the spoon. The epiphany rocked me. Perhaps this all really was a dream? Maybe I hadn’t been kidnapped, but had fallen into some sort of coma and now couldn’t get out of my dream state. That would explain me being able to speak some nonsense language that I had never heard.
My hand raised to my cheek and I winced. Only one problem genius, you can still feel pain.
“Are you alright dear?” Claire asked. “You are awfully pale.”
My eyes met hers and my mind scrambled to understand what was going on. Was Claire real? She looked real. The smells in the room smelt real. The pain in my still swollen cheek felt real.
I opened my mouth to speak when we suddenly heard the sound of horses and voices from outside.
Everyone was a blur of motion as Claire stood quickly, her stool skittering backwards across the stone floor. She grabbed my hand, the rest of my roll, and dragged me after her, running to the door.
Without a word, she hurried up the back stairs, a servant’s entrance, and through the living quarters. She stopped in front of the door that held my prison behind it. Opening it, she shoved me inside. “Hurry and eat that before they get here and check on you!” She said quickly, shoving the roll into my hand. With that said, she slammed the door behind her and locked it.
I hurried and put my ear to the door and listened to her quick footsteps disappear down the hall. She was going to meet them outside I was sure. I bit into my roll, but couldn’t chew fast enough. So many thoughts were burning in my mind. I could never get home. If I die here, will my body die? I pinched my arm, trying to wake myself up. Nothing, but now my arm hurt.
I had never been electrocuted. I had also never been in a coma. Was this a normal thing? Was my body in some sort of vegetable state? How did my mind come up with this kind of world all based on a few simple words that I had found in a book?
I ended up wrapping my roll in a cloth I found in the room. I tucked my food into the small drawer in the bedside table. I sat on the huge bed and looked out the huge window in the ceiling. It was a little later than midday. The sun was practically beaming right into my room.
I was restless. I pulled myself up from the bed, pacing, trying to think of ways to escape the room and wake myself up. Nothing came to mind. Tears threatened to spill over. I fought them for as long as I could, but they came in torrents. I miss Grandma, and Maggie. I even miss the stupid men at my job. I just wanna go home. Tears sprung to the surface, sapping my energy. I crumbled to the floor and sobbed. I didn’t ask for this.
Suddenly the door burst open. I discovered Gray standing at the door through my watery vision. He rushed in, searching the room as if someone were hiding in it. I quickly swiped the tears away and cleared my throat, climbing to my feet. “Can I help you?” I choked out.
His eyes met mine in confusion. “Where is he?”
I rolled my eyes, my sarcasm overtaking my sadness. “What, someone else went missing and you think I’m the cause of that too?”
“No. The man that was hurting you.” He walked towards me quickly. His arm snaked out as he grabbed my arm and searched for something on them. I pulled away.
“Hurting me? What are you talking about?”
“You were crying.”
I raised an eyebrow. “So?”
He backed up a step, a look of embarrassment flashing over his face, but it was gone as soon as it came. “Why are you crying if you are not being hurt?”
My heart fluttered slightly as I realized that he had burst in to protect me. He thought someone was making me cry. I smiled a little at him. “Worried?”
“No!” He took another step back. “I just did not want you to die before we find Mary is all.”
My heart sunk. Ouch. “Oh.” I turned away from him. “Well no one is here.”
The next thing I knew, he was gone and the door locked. Why do I care? I yelled at myself. He’s the one keeping you here! In fact he’s not even real! He’s just a dream. I kicked myself and sat on the bed. I couldn’t help the disappointment that raced through me. It was dumb. I shouldn’t like the man who kidnapped me. It must be the stress getting to my head. That’s it. I laid back and shielded my eyes by draping an arm over my eyes. This is becoming so screwed up!