Snip. Snip. Snip.
The metallic click roused Aleckster from sleep. His eyes slid open to dim firelight illuminating Maverick’s cottage. Usually quick to spring up and start moving once he woke, he found himself in what felt like a drunken stupor. The world around him spun and swayed. A disorienting wave of nausea roiled up in his tummy as he let out a soft groan. When he tried to stand to his feet, he found himself unable to move. Looking down, he saw his wrists had been bound and a silvery strand running to another bundle around his ankles. No thicker than a few rounds of thread, but the spider silk held firm.
The furniture had been cleared. In the corner, Malyn and Jessa sat tied together, spider silk wrapping their wrists and ankles as well. Their stillness and lulling heads turned downward led Aleckster to believe them still asleep.
Snip. Snip. Snip.
“Lift up your arm.”
The sound of crying followed soon after.
“Lift up your arm,” the voice repeated.
Aleckster beheld Maverick and Ryon at a high table set up in the center of the room. His friend lay on his back while Maverick hovered over him with a scissors. Slicing the fabric away from hem to sleeve, the woods witch pulled the shirt away.
“Tsk-tsk! You haven’t been using the razor I gave you.”
Ryon made no reply save for a few stifled sobs. Maverick ran his fingers over the ginger hair sprouting from his stomach, and around his nipples. After making the scolding sound again with his tongue and teeth, he moved the scissors down the trousers and pulled them free too. The crying intensified as Ryon tried to move his arms, probably to cover himself, but his wrists were bound with spider silk too.
“Hold still,” Maverick warned.
He put the scissors aside and traded them for a lump of soap, a bowl of water, and a razor. Its sinister edge glowed dark orange reflecting the firelight. Aleckster tried to move, to scream, to call for help, but found himself too docile and weak to manage even that. Malyn and Jessa were still asleep, and for that, he was grateful. This is not something he’d want either of them to witness.
Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.
The razor’s rhythm working against the hair on Ryon’s body made Aleckster’s skin crawl. Powerless to do anything but watch, he felt a tear roll down his cheek as Maverick continued. After the stomach, he moved on to the groin and armpits. His hand and face were steady, his motions deliberate and careful. Aleckster worried at first the wood’s witch would cut his throat open when he went for the sparse hairs on Ryon’s neck. Instead, Maverick’s razor strokes turned gentler, affectionate even.
“Much better!” the woods witch announced as he set his instruments aside.
He used a fine white towel to wipe Ryon’s body dry. It was too bright and white to belong to a commoner. Some lace embroidered design decorated one side. “You know I prefer you soft and smooth. You need to learn to do this yourself like I showed you. I don’t have time to shave you every time.” After gathering up the excess moisture, he planted a kiss on Ryon’s mouth.
“Let me go,” Aleckster managed to croak.
His blood boiling with black rage gave him the will to take control. Maverick looked over at him with the kind of smile one uses to greet a friend or neighbor.
“I hoped you’d wake soon. I didn’t give you as much as I gave the girls. To be honest, I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do them yet.”
Panic set in, but no matter how hard Aleckster struggled, the spider silk restraints held taut. No amount of anger would give him the strength he needed, and fear took its place.
“Please just let us go,” Aleckster pleaded.
“I can’t do that; I can’t risk you telling anyone.”
“We won’t tell,” Aleckster insisted. “I promise.”
“I’m not going to take a gamble with my life on the word of a boy; especially the son of the High Lord. You and Ryon can never leave, and they—”
Aleckster followed his gaze across the room to where the girls lay huddled and tied together. A mournful expression crinkled Maverick’s forehead into a frown as he rubbed at the stubble gathering at his chin. He finished his thoughts with,
“I just got no use for girls.”
“What are you going to do to them?”
“I can’t afford to feed all of you,” Maverick replied. “I’ll have to kill them.”
A tantrum of rage sent convulsions through Aleckster’s body as he pulled against his ropes. The warm red trickle of blood pooling at the tender skin of his wrists and ankles only gave him determination. If he had to cut through skin and bone to get free, he would. His sword lay atop a bundle in the corner. If he could only reach it. He planned to take it and drive it deep into Maverick’s heart.
His strength gave out as he gasped and cried, still helpless. Maverick ran his fingers over Ryon’s body in a caress. Aleckster closed his eyes, disgusted and terrified. Overwhelming guilt pooled in Aleckster’s soul as he took on the blame. If only he had told someone…if only he had waited.
The howl of a nearby wolf rang out from the woods outside.
Forcing himself to relax, Aleckster moved his awareness to the wolf pacing outside the cottage. Growling, barking, searching for a way inside the cottage, Gemma sensed Aleckter’s distress and came running. With no way inside, she let out long howls to alert her pack, knowing they probably could not hear, nor would they come if they did. She let out another aggravated howl, lifting her head for her voice to carry.
Watching through her eyes as she continued her circuit around the cottage, Aleckster tried to find a way in. All the doors were shut, probably locked, and only the big window in the front was low enough to reach. He wondered if Gemma got a running start if she could break through the glass. Taking his prompt, she hopped up onto the porch and used her front paws to dig at the window. Her nails slid and clicked against the glass, but it was too solid to penetrate.
You have to break it.
Aleckster tried to convey the instructions to Gemma, but she still understood only a few words. Rather than articulation, he tried imagining it over and over. Move back a hundred paces and run. Break through it.
Break through it, Gemma.
She didn’t understand, and the disappointment made Aleckster lose focus. Maverick’s voice and the gentle slap-slap-slap against his cheek brought his awareness back to his body.
“You alright?” Maverick asked. The concern in his eye looked genuine, but Aleckster knew it was a lie.
“Don’t touch me!” Aleckster growled.
Before he could stop himself, he snapped his teeth into the flesh between Maverick’s thumb and forefinger. The woods witch cried out in pain and wrenched his hand away, leaving Aleckster lips wet with blood. Shifting his body, he lifted his head in sit-up, giving slack in the ropes. He used the freedom to try to bite Maverick again, but he stepped back too soon.
“Mm,” Aleckster muttered, licking his lips clean. The blood tasted delicious and gave him a rush of power. His connection with Gemma clarified in an instant, and he found himself able to take control of the wolf. Pushing her aside, Aleckster wrestled her mind into surrender, assuring her as best he could.
He stood on four legs instead of two, and the smell of the forest came alive in his nose. Prey hid within the cover of darkness, but their scents gave them away. Shaggy and strong, he moved away from the cottage, dashing to the mouth of the woods. Padding around to face the house once more, Aleckster fixed his eyes to the window. Off in a sprint, he brought his pace to a full-on run. The distance closed in seconds, Gemma’s instincts firing in the back of his mind. She knew when to jump and how to hit prey with a lunge. Aleckster gave over control to her for a moment as they worked together.
The impact of smashing into the glass sent the wolf into a tumble. Shards of glass poked into Gemma’s face and the soft spots of her underbelly where she fell. The thrill of the hunt chased away any mind of the pain.
Crying out in surprise and cowering in fear, the fat balding man backed away. With a hustle and a growl, Gemma sprinted once more.
Run. Run. Jump. Dive. Bite!
Her powerful jaws caught Maverick on the right side of his neck. Snarling as she knocked him into the ground, Gemma tore and ripped at his throat, chunks of flesh and muscle tore free in spurts of hot red blood. He screamed for a moment before silence fell over the cabin.
Aleckster let Gemma free from his influence, and retreated back into his body. The taste of blood in his mouth and the prickles of pain from the glass reminded him of the cost in sharing sensations with wolves. Maverick let out a few sputters and coughs, his body twitching as a dark red pool gathered beneath him.
Jessa started sobbing, and Malyn screamed. The two awoke at some point during his time inside Gemma. Aleckster started to wiggle his way over to the bowl of Maverick’s instruments. The connection between him and Gemma remained strong, and after she realized what he wanted, she knocked the bowl onto the floor, carefully lifted the razor with her teeth, and brought it to him.
“Good girl,” Aleckster praised.
Careful not to let the edge touch his skin, he slid the blade back and forth against the spider silk. It took several minutes to free his hands, but once done, cutting the bonds from his feet went faster. Jessa breathed so fast she sounded like she was panting, her eyes fixed on the dead body in the middle of the room. Aleckster’s bare feet slipped in the blood when he moved to help her. It was still warm. He choked back a gag as he knelt down next to Malyn to cut her free.
“Aleckster,” she gasped. “Was he…?”
“I want you take Jessa outside, okay?” Aleckster said. She looked down at Jessa, up at Ryon, and stopped for a while at Maverick’s body. Her lip quivered as tears collected at her eyes. “Malyn, look at me. Take Jessa outside, okay. I’m going to help Ryon and then we’ll be right out.”
She nodded, and obeyed when Aleckster cut Jessa’s bonds. Taking the younger girl in her arms, she scurried them to the other side of the room to find their shoes. Careful to avoid the broken glass, she moved to unlatch the door and go to the porch.
When the girls stepped out of sight, Aleckster moved to the table to help Ryon. They said nothing and Aleckster tried to avert his eyes from his friend’s nakedness as much as possible, out of respect and sympathy. Ryon covered himself with his hands and sat up on the edge of the table, silent save for the soft crying and sniffing. Aleckster moved to the edge of the room where one of the couches had been pushed and retrieved a blanket to drape over Ryon’s shoulders.
At first, he thought to give his friend a hug, but imagined Ryon would not want to be touched after what happened. It’s been going on for a while, Aleckster realized with sadness. He said nothing. Ryon may never want to speak of what happened. If he needed someone to talk with Aleckster would be there.
“What do we do now?” Ryon asked.
“We go home,” Aleckster replied.
His friend hopped down from the table into a pool of wet blood. Stepping lightly, Ryon moved to the corner to retrieve his boots. The rest of his clothes lay in bloody piles on the floor. Aleckster looked down at the mess. He’d watch the huntsmen and butchers hack pigs and cows to pieces plenty of times; he was no stranger to blood. Still, looking at the river of red soaking into the floor and knowing it was just inside the body of a living breathing person made it different.
I killed him.
He relied on Gemma’s instincts, but his will was the driving force leading to this outcome. Aleckster knew what it felt like to sink his teeth into the soft flesh of a person’s neck and tear it free. He caught glimpses of the look of utter terror in Maverick’s eyes in the man’s final moments. The coppery taste still clung to this tongue and the back of his throat.
Aleckster retched. It came on and happened too fast to find a good place, so he emptied his belly on the floor. Before he knew it, he was crying too. Maverick might have deserved his fate, but having been the one responsible for his death left Aleckster overcome with emotions he didn’t understand.
How am I going to explain this to Father?
No. There was no need for that. On the shelf, Aleckster spied several jars of lamp oil and knew at once what must be done. Moving fast, he found some more of the fine towels on the counter and used them to wipe his feet clean before donning his stockings and boots. He belted his sword, securing it to his waist and wondered if he would have been able to cut Maverick down instead if things had played out differently. Probably not. Gemma didn’t think twice about bringing down a threat and felt no remorse. That frame of mind transposed itself onto Aleckster in the moment.
“Here,” he said, giving Ryon some of the towels to dry his feet. Aleckster returned to the shelves and opened the first jar of lamp oil. He splashed it up and down the walls in the far corner of the room. He returned to the shelf, got a second jar, and repeated this process until every surface was covered.
“You’re going to burn it?” Ryon asked.
“I think that’s for the best,” Aleckster admitted. “Do you want to tell anyone what happened here?”
“Do you think Jessa will keep quiet about it?”
No. Aleckster did not suppose she would. Not without persuasion. From outside on the porch he could still hear her sobbing. Malyn spoke comforts to her, assuring everything was safe now.
“I still want to burn it,” Aleckster determined.
Aleckster soaked one of the towels in lamp oil and coiled it around the broken end of a broomstick to fashion a makeshift torch.
“You won’t need that,” Ryon said with a sniff. Aleckster raised his eyebrows. “Come on, let’s go outside.”
Ryon secured the blanket around his body and started for the exit. Gemma had gone out into the wood to lick at her wounds. She let Malyn and Jessa pull the shards of glass still stick in her skin and fur free with only a few yelps and growls. Malyn carried Jessa in her arms away from the porch and came to stand back next to Aleckster. Standing a few feet away from the house, Ryon stretched his hand forward.
A whoosh of fire ejected from his hand and flew into the house. It didn’t take long before the inside illuminated with a glowing fire. Aleckster watched as he padded over to where the rest of them stood, and for a long time they watched the fire grow. It grew so fast and so hot they had to move a hundred feet back to escape the intensity of the heat. The flames grew and died and as the sun rose in the horizon the flames became a smoky pillar. The roof collapsed and everything within reduced to a bed of black and orange embers. Made of sturdy brick, the skeleton of the house stood, all black and charred.
Aleckster didn’t like that. When he set out to burn the house, he imagined the whole thing burning down. Some of the bricks crumbled and toppled over, but there was no mistaking a little cottage in the woods once stood there. Maybe one day he’d return and finish the job.
“Let’s go home,” he said wearily.
The return journey passed on solemn silence. Malyn held Jessa’s hand, Aleckster led the way, hacking again at weeds and bramble as they made their way through the Snarl. He hoped perhaps he might stumble onto the path they took the night before, but found hacking at things with his sword to be cathartic. By the time Oakheart appeared before them, the four of them were filthy, their clothes torn and covered with thorns. Aleckster could not say which he felt more, fatigue or hunger.
They went first to the mill to take Malyn home. Her family wondered where she had been, her father threatened to give her a beating for making her mother worry. She lied, saying they got lost in the woods, apologized, and asked if she could rest. Jessa seemed content enough to go along with it, and said nothing of what had happened. Aleckster was thankful for that. ‘Lost in the woods’ sounded a good enough story to tell as far as others were concerned.
After hugging her friends goodbye, with not so much as a word, Malyn disappeared within her house. Aleckster turned down the road to go to Ryon’s, all three of them silent. Only the crunch of rocks and dirt underfoot accompanied them along the way. Edgar, Ryon’s father, met them on the road. He came running to his son, an expression of both anger and relief on his face.
“Where have you been?”
“We got lost in the woods,” Ryon said. “It got dark so we just slept out there.”
“What happened to your clothes?” his father asked. Ryon only shrugged. What possible way could they think to explain why he had returned home naked save for his boots and a blanket? Aleckster wanted to come to his friend’s rescue, but nothing believable came to mind.
“As long as you’re home safe,” Edgar said at last. “Come on inside, you’re probably hungry.”
“Just tired,” Ryon replied. He turned to his friends. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Aleckster and Jessa said in turn.
Once Ryon retreated into his home, Aleckster and Jessa turned to make the long walk back to the castle.
“Will Father be angry?” Jessa asked.
“He’ll be furious,” Aleckster answered. “We’re just going to tell him what we told the others, okay, Jess? There’s no need to explain everything else that happened.”
“I won’t say anything,” Jessa said. “To anyone. Ever.”
Gemma came alongside Aleckster and nudged his hand with her nose. If not for her, the girls would be dead and Ryon and Aleckster would be…he shuddered. Looking down at Jessa, he doubted if she understood the situation. No. She was too young. Too innocent.
“Gemma is coming to live with us,” Aleckster decided aloud. Jessa made no reply, but he sensed her agreement. Returning to Wolf Haven without her didn’t seem right. Her pack had abandoned her.
We’ll be your pack now.
As expected, Terrance was furious. All of his anger fell upon Aleckster as the older brother supposed to have taken care of his sister. The worry at having them missing made his wrath short-lived. Before long, he hugged them both, a few tears even forming in the corner of his eyes. Charlie reacted much the same way, but scolded them for being so irresponsible.
There was a long and heated debate concerning Gemma when Aleckster tried to explain. His father’s first decision was to forbid it, but Aleckster refused to back down, and eventually got his way. He proved she was friendly and called her tame, and finally his father relented.
“You must take care of her and be responsible for her,” Terrance warned.
“I will,” Aleckster promised.
When the chastisement and reunion concluded, Aleckster retreated to his room, pulled off his clothes, and hopped under the covers. He wished his father had agreed to let Gemma come into the castle with him, but this was not Wolf Haven, and Uncle Richard conceded only to let her stay in the kennels with the hounds.
Even with the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions stirring within Aleckster, he found sleep right away. As much as he ever wanted something in his life, he wanted to forget all about what happened. Sleep brought a temporary respite, but the next morning brought him back to reality. When his father announced they were leaving Oakheart to go home, Aleckster was relieved. He didn’t bother telling Ryon and Malyn farewell before he left, and couldn’t say why.
I’ll see them again in a few months. Maybe by then we’ll have forgotten.
He doubted that very much. He doubted he’d ever forget.