23 - Stella
CHAPTER 23 - STELLA
“Stay here,” his father told her as she ducked behind the bushes.
The patch of land in front of her appeared dry and sturdy but her father told her not to lay a single step on it.
Was it a trap for something? She thought.
The branches and broad leaves above her gave enough shelter from the drizzling rain. She pulled her hood close to her face, she felt the light fabric turn damp. Droplets began to form on the battle armor. Snow inspected her arms where the metal plates moved with the contour of her body. Although there wasn’t much flesh to cling to, the armor fit her snug. It was almost comfortable.
And as she heard the footsteps of her father vanish, Snow began to enumerate in her head the orders she was given.
It was her first day as his beta. She could not afford to mess this up.
She will be introduced to the Crusaders by her father. She will remain hidden, will not speak to any living soul, not even a familiar wolf - which was highly unlikely in her opinion.
The Crusaders will be identified by the number on their dominant arm. I, II, III. - and so on.
They will appear in battle armor much similar to what she was wearing. They’ll keep their faces hidden. Snow was not to ask questions, nor talk to any Crusader if she stumbles upon one.
Her task was simple. Keep an eye out for a Rogue. If she finds one she’ll lead it towards the patch of land in front of her.
Snow already had an idea what the patch of land was. She had to be sure.
She picked up a rock, its edges smooth forming a cold circular weight on her palm. It was fairly heavy.
She tossed it in front of her, being cautious not to rustle the leaves of the bush. The stone landed on the sand. Her eyes widened as it rippled thick waves, consuming the stone whole.
She sunk back into the shrubbery, looking through the spaces between the thin stems. The only thing she had to do now was fight sleep.
The ground was soft with mud, the air reeked of sulfur.
Torryn held the mask to his face, letting the thick fabric touch against his nose. It was past sunrise when he arrived at the Crusaders camp. It rained all night throughout his journey. He extended both palms on the fire and warmed his skin. He’ll be needing a place to dry his armor.
Amarkand is a wasteland. What used to be a fertile haven, now a rotting wilderness. Dispersed in the woods, are swamps slithering with creatures of the dark. The lands studded with quicksand and mud piles. Beyond the remaining tree trunks that stood, a valley wide and barren lay on the far side. The bubbling springs of crude murky water made the air humid. The scent was putrid like rotting flesh. Torryn thought it made breathing difficult. He coughed against his mask as the rest of the Crusaders landed a firm tap on his back. They knew he was a newcomer. His lungs weren’t used to the chemicals yet.
Just as he arrived, the Crusaders were tracking an intruder. The Rogue has reached the woods far beyond the border and it was their duty to either place him back to his territory or dispose of him. The intruder has caused a nearby wolf pack three months worth of produce in the hay fields. Despite Spring Solstice, disruption of property was strictly unacceptable. Crossing the border was only meant for business, trading engagements and nothing more while the solstice lasts.
The Crusaders had ten to twelve wolves hooded and masked. Three she-wolves with hair shaved and cut short joined them. Those guarding the camps allowed Torryn to settle his horse just as he arrived. One of the female Crusaders with a body as big as his, handed a bowl of Hunter’s wax.
Torryn sniffed the white paste and smelled the aroma of herbs and birch sap. It smelled of the forest. As he sat down beside his horse, he took the paste in his fingers and began rubbing the sides of his neck. This cleared his scent so no other wolf would recognize him with it.
The Crusaders foster unity, oneness in diversity. To be a single unit, they demand all traces of self individuality washed clean. The uniqueness of his skill and ability should be the only thing that distinguishes him.
No rank, name, nor position affects how each one is treated.
The wax left a nagging warmth on his skin, the scent of mint and dry bark filled his nose.
Torryn joined them around the fire. All nodded to his presence, allowing him to sit around the warmth of the blazing coals. True enough, Torryn had no means to identify each one that gathered around him. All had a uniform scent, same wavelength of dominance and energy. It took him a while to achieve oneness with them.
The only thing that marked each Crusader were symbols on a red cloth tied to their arm. Torryn observed intently, they were numbers. I. II. III.
One of the men with a mace strapped to his back, tied a red cloth on Torryn’s arm. Paint that glimmered silver formed a V around his biceps. Five. He was unsure what it meant.
The sky was still dark when another growl from a distance alerted the congregation of wolves huddled around the bonfire. The fabric that served a make shift ceiling dripped, as a trickle of rain signaled its passing. The same Crusader that marked his arm, signaled half of them to begin their search once again.
One of the she-wolves tapped his shoulder, it made his legs bolt straight. Communicating was more challenging than it seemed. He only hoped that he’ll get the hang of it soon. Before joining the men in heir search, he reached his horse and pulled out his blades. He sheathed them into a leather belt atop his thigh.
He gained on to the group, half of which shifted to wolf form. He wasn’t sure how it worked. If he was allowed to shift or not, and where or when is it permitted. The raindrops made the fabric on his shoulders damp. He scratched his head and just followed the others. The light of the sun aided the hunt between the marshes. Torryn felt his boots begin to get heavy with wet clay.
One of the men leading the front stopped.
Torryn felt it. The only energy overpowering was that of a foreign source. It was dominating, distinct yet non threatening. Torryn could do better, he chuckled. He clenched his fist suppressing the urge to dominate.
He walked towards the wolf ahead of him. The man signaled him to halt but Torryn was certain with the location of the Rogue. He did not stop. He lifted a blade and threw it from where he stood towards a nearby trunk.
The cypress was rotten. The blade dug through the bark its length almost made the trunk crumble.
Behind the dead tree was a shadowy portion of the swamp. He lowered his mask staring at the darkness beyond it.
A pair of yellow eyes reciprocated his stare. Just as they appeared, a Rogue with fur a mix of gray and brown barred towards him.
Before sharp claws snagged Torryn’s head, one of the Crusaders pulled him through his hood. As the fabric tugged on his body, the hood fell on his back, his face in full display. The tug made him slump to the ground. Torryn landed on his back, his behind cushioned by damp soil.
Three wolf-form Crusaders lunged towards the intruder and began to attack. They were quick to shift despite the armor. Torryn swore they came out from nowhere.
The wolves are uniform in color.
That’s odd. Torryn thought.
Their fur was a lush dark gray, with hues of blue when the light touched it. It is a rarity to have the same fur color with another.
Torryn leaned his head to his shoulder stunned by what happened. It was possible that these wolves are related to have such distinct similarities. You can’t even differentiate one from the other. Still, from where he lay, he saw the markings on each arm, I, VI, X. It was the only way to know which crusader has shifted.
“New guy,” a Crusader with a IV on his arm said, “Want to help us?”
“You can talk?” Torryn asked pushing himself up to a stand. IV raised a metal spear aiming towards the Rogue when he faced Torryn’s way.
“We can read, too.” He replied the sarcasm interlaced in his lips, “Now, cover your face and stand up.”
IV made the metal spear fly, its sharp end landing on a root beside the Rogue. The three wolves surrounded him, each one exuding the same amount of energy to match the intruder’s dominance.
Torryn brushed off the insult and immediately took his place beside IV. Torryn desparately wanted to shift but was still uncertain how these things worked. He took another blade and began to aim. The Rogue swung its head in revolt to the attacking Crusader.
X, a beast of a wolf flung to one side as the Rogue shoved him to a dead trunk. The wolf yelped, a crack sounded from his back. The two other Crusaders pulled X out of the scene. Aiding to the broken spine damaged by the fall. X could not even stand on all four legs, his hinds dragging on mud.
As the rest began their rescue, the Rogue took notice of the operation and began to growl at the aiding wolves. Torryn flicked his wrist, his hands released the blade. The triangular metal, sharpened and heavy against his hand landed on the Rogue’s neck.
It growled and wriggled on the ground, scratching the pierced fur on soil in attempts to release the dagger. Blood pooled against the wet ground. The wolf yelped in the realization that he was doing gave more damage to his body rather than good.
The intruder stood on his legs and began to lunge towards him.
Torryn felt electricity coursing through his legs as he began to run. The woods were foreign, he was bumping into a branch, landing each leg on a mud pile as he took each step. A good distance was traversed before he felt his feet heavy with the mud.
If only, he could shift, his senses could be heightened and his wolf would be twice as fast.
He was so close to the barren wasteland when, he felt his legs sink. The sand rippled. What appeared to be dry firm gravel flowed in thick waves. Torryn felt the ground swallow him whole.
The Rogue growled, its paws right beside where the sand flowed like viscous liquid. The beast roared, bending his head down from his shoulders. He rubbed his claws on the soft clay, readying himself to pounce.
His energy rung a deafening hum on Torryn’s ears. He was trapped. There was no way out.
This is an embarrassing first impression. He told himself.
Just as soon as the quicksand was right up his waist, he began to reach for a nearby shrub. His fingers felt the fragile twigs snap, in attempts to pull himself out.
The surface of the ground already reached his torso when he saw something move beyond the shrubbery.
The shadowy figure leaned closer towards him. He felt his chest grow warm.
This energy was familiar.
He saw her bent down under the bush head. From what she wore, the girl was in Crusader armor. There was one thing missing. Her face from her nose to her lips were exposed.
Those lips. He had to shake his head to wake whatever part of him that was dreaming.
The she-wolf before him reminded him of Snow. The energy they exuded were almost identical. The she wolf however radiated a deafening energy. He could almost feel his vision turning gray.
Snow’s void, no matter how threatening, felt warm and comforting to him. This was different. He sensed contempt which made the air thick. It beared him down.
He was about to ask her who she was. His lips parted, his throat cleared in attempts to speak. The she-wolf had an index finger to her lips telling him to keep silent.
Of which, Torryn followed.
The quicksand almost touched his chin when the Rogue’s growl deepened into a low rumble in his chest. He was ready to attack, probably munching Torryn’s head off before he gets swallowed whole beneath earth.
The she-wolf loaded her arrow with one smooth motion.
Torryn’s had his eyes on her. The bow string touched her chin. Her hand a perfect line, elbow extending to her back. As her lips gaped to let air through, she released a metal arrow as she exhaled.
Its sharp tip slicing through the Rogue’s eye. Before it could launch towards Torryn, the blow sent the Rogue screeching on the forest floor. Its claws dug on the ground making deep marks on wet clay.
Blood tinted it a dark crimson.
Torryn’s face was about to be engulfed by quicksand when he felt a coil of heavy rope hit his temple. He raised his hand an grabbed it.
It took four of the Crusaders to pull him out of the sucking pit. His body was coated with marsh water and gravel when he emerged. He was breathless. IV was carrying a cauldron. White steam emerged from it. The contents were warm almost to simmering water. The liquid landed on Torryn’s body. It helped dissolve the solidifying clay.
The rest surrounded the Rogue. Still unsure what to do with it.
“We still need to interrogate him,” one of them said.
“To think I was going easy on the blasted mutt just so we can ask a few questions.”
“Who in bloody heaven’s shot his eye?” IV asked.
The rest shook their heads. From what Torryn could recall, there wasn’t a Crusader who bore an arrow.
“A she-wolf,” Torryn answered, “It didn’t seem like she was one of us.”
Torryn’s eyes searched for her but she was no where in sight. Before anyone could raise anymore questions, Torryn sensed another familiar energy. It was dominating it made his nose sting a metallic scent.
He thought. Just as he spoke his name, Aragon walked towards the congregation of Crusaders. Each one bowing their heads, a clenched fist on their chests to pay their respects. Aragon waved his hand towards them, walking so only a step was between him and the wincing Rogue.
“We apologize, Sire, we aimed to capture the Rogue alive” VIII walked towards him, his head down below his shoulders.
He was intently bowing towards Aragon. The Grimlake alpha raised his hand, letting his palm face the Crusader. The wolf silenced as the alpha wolf inspected the grimacing beast. Its eye red and swollen, where once an eyeball held between the sockets, now a hollow crevice where the metal arrow pierced.
This wolf was stronger than Torryn thought. But a single arrow took him down. He was certain that the Rogue felt her too. Her energy was distinct. It was hard to miss.
The intruder, now, lay still on the ground The wolf’s chest a heaving tide that rose and fell. It still fought death, refusing to shift back to his human form.
“I know of a way to make him speak,” Aragon smirked.
“Raise him from the dead?” one of the asked.
The crusaders chuckled in unison. Only to see the grim expression on the alpha’s face. He extended his arm beside him. His hand signaled someone from the shadows to come forth.
And there it was again, the same energy Torryn felt that reminded him of Snow. This time it was much stronger. He felt the pull of the energy radiating from the she-wolf that emerged. She still had the hood to her head, obscuring her face as she knelt before the Rogue.
She pulled back her sleeves exposing slender pale hands. Before she touched the beast, she pulled down her hood to expose her eyes that glimmered a bright green.
Her hair was cut to her cheek bones. The wavy tips ended a sharp line marking her nape. A crescent moon dangling from one ear. She rubbed her hands warm as she reached out to rogue.
One touch sent the Rogue trembling. Its skin sagged, bones surfaced, fur shriveled. The wolf’s body decayed to the pull of her void. Snow let the beast have his final breathe before she pulled his soul from the rotting flesh. She closed her eyes, licked her lips damp. Her breathing paced, a curl raising beside her lips to form a smirk.
The rest of them grew silent to witness her power but Torryn did not even flinch. He stared at her with eyes watering, brimming with warmth and joy. How he missed her.
“Crusaders, this is my beta." Aragon said.
With the alphas word echoing through the woods, the crusaders bowed their heads in courtesy to her. Snow, startled and wide eyed stood from where she sat. The kill made her stance unstable. She wobbled, her knees shaking as she waved her hand to the growing crowd.
Torryn chuckled, he felt his chest grow warm seeing her cheeks flush. He was silently giggling but soon stopped when her eyes landed on him. He snapped. His back straightened. Legs parted, head bowing towards her.
He felt her energy grow near. She was right in front of him when she spoke.
“You.” her head tilted, “You’re the one who fell on the quicksand.”
Torryn did not dare raise his head. Snow was only a few steps in fornt of him when Aragon cleared his throat, he must have known who he was. Torryn could only nod his head.
“Are you alright?”
Torryn did not know what to say. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to say anything at all. He could only nod his head again and again hoping she did not recognize him. Her hand landed a tap on his shoulder. It made him want to lunge to her, grab her with open hands and trap her in his embrace.
“Good thing you were stiff as a log,” She chuckled, “If you wriggled too much you might have been dead.”
As she walked back beside her father. The rest of the wolves faced him, as they giggled.
“That Rogue is a prisoner beyond the wastelands,” She said as she sat in front of twelve Crusaders.
There was a feast laid neatly at the center of a specious patch of grass. A tent as tall as Snow covered over their heads. It shielded them from the dripping rain. Just as the rest were devouring their meal, seating around plates of boiled forest greens. Her father ordered her to speak of the memories of the wolf she killed.
She felt nauseous just by talking about it. Still, Snow continued.
“She is a thief. She already stole valuable possessions form sever wolf packs. It’s just for the thrill of it. There were no specific goals of her rendezvous. She was just escaping from encampment, gathering resources.”
The rest nodded. Aragon stared at her with lips a firm line on his face. There was more, Snow though. But her father already knew.
“She wasn’t the only one who is trying to escape. The men with her are taking advantage of Spring Solstice. They aim to cross the border each night as the sun goes down to steal resources from wolf packs. That is all.”
Snow cleared her throat, gulping water as her hands trembled against the glass. The kill made her unstable. She was still having visions of the Rogue she killed. She’d close her eyes and see random faces of his past.
Before, she could finish her drink, she felt the glass break like thin frost on her hands. The beat of her heart made every inch of her body throb. It was like she was overflowing with energy. Her palms where warm. Her cheeks flush and burning. She stood from her seat and bowed to her father.
“May I be excused?”
“Is there anything more you want to tell us?,” Aragon probed.
Snow felt cold sweat drip down her forehead. She cleared her throat unsure of where to begin.
“Her name is Stella. She is a mother of four cubs. She loved the outdoors, adored her children and she liked long walks during sunrise. She used to be a slave of Bu-,” she stopped, “of a... known wolf pack.”
“Which wolf pack?” Snow knew all too well that her father wasn’t asking a question, he was demanding an answer.
“Burnwood,” She said. Snow gulped as the vision surfaced in her head. Her eyes were watery as she recalled it, biting against a pale lip of how clear the memory was.
“She was the nanny of the two sons...” she swallowed hard, “of the pack alpha.”
“What were the names of the two boys?” Snow’s chest rose and fell.
“D-dimitri and,” she paused. Snow felt her head throb.
“Say his name,” Aragon’s voice made her flinch.
Her lips twitched. Bracing an open hand on her forehead with the vision of a young Torryn.
He is real. Warmth radiated from her chest. She rested an open palm on her beating chest. Snow was unsure if she was happy or not. If she has ever met him or not. If he knows about her. If he ever laid eyes on her.
The ifs could go on and on.
She felt bitter fluid coat her tongue. She shook her head, one hand clasping her lips.
Snow ran out of the tent, into the soft kiss of raindrops outside the woods. She could not deny the smell of bubbling spring surrounding the area. It smelled of sulphur and rotting forest foliage. She did not know where to go. She bent down and let the contents of her stomach emerge from her lips.
This left her dizzy as heat rose to her skin. She could almost feel her eyes burn.
She began to follow the nearest stream. It led to a small pond beside a willow tree. Its leaves forming a curtain around the body of water.
She tugged on her hood, released the metal bands on her arms and began to wet her skin. She splashed fresh water on her face. Letting it cool her from the outside in. This offered minimal relief. She then pushed her head into the water, making bubbles as she exhaled with her face still submerged.
With head still beneath the surface, she let the liquid cool her face. She was so close to losing her breath, when someone pulled her from behind.
Now with her back on the ground, she saw the Crusader before her. He had dry clay on his body, it cracked forming a dry brown crust on his armor. He was familiar.
He was the Crusader that fell into the quicksand.
“Hey, it’s alright. I was just washing my face,” Snow giggled.
The poor wolf thought she was drowning herself on purpose. She looked at him and saw him gesture with his hands. He was bowing his head towards her, raising his hand in submission.
“It’s okay,” She tried to ease him.
Just as soon as she became calm, a smile rested on her lips. It made her cheeks strain a little.
“I’m Snow. You seem to be new here, as well.”
The Crusader was silent. He stiffened and was hesitant to reach out to her hand. He pointed to a symbol on his arm where a red fabric was tied.
“V” She said, “Five? V?”
He held out five fingers towards her. Still hesistant to take her handshake. Snow reached out to his palm and clasped it between her fingers before he gets the chance to withdraw it again.
Just as soon as her skin touched the armor gloved on his hand, She felt lightning bolt course through her skin, up her arm and up to her neck. There she felt it burn. She winced and lay a cold damp palm on her neck.
She inspected the Crusader, still with one hand holding his.
“Stiff,” Snow said as the wolf stood blankly before her, “You’re too stiff.”