Sharp cold. Bitter winds. Frozen ice formations. The snow covered the wasteland. Nothing but blankets of white for as far as the eye could see. Nothing but desolation and bitterness. It wasn’t picturesque and pristine. No, it was jagged and hollow, identical to his emotions. It was empty, offering only loneliness as company.
They said when you crossed the line you would forget. They said you wouldn’t feel anything anymore. They said you wouldn’t recall the memories. They were wrong. He did remember. He remembered everything.
* * *
“Aspen! Come see the robins!” He jogged over, puffing from the exertion of plowing through snow. Soft wisps of his breath cloaked the air, as he gazed up into the glistening crystal coated pines. He watched in awe as a vibrant blood-painted bird twittered in the branches, then twirled away, sending a shower of snow fluttering to the earth.
“That’s not a robin, Vanya.” Aspen murmured cautiously. “It’s a cardinal.” A confused expression passed over her innocent features. “Mother said robins looked like blood and roses.”
He winced, his eyes already tearing up as he glanced away. “Robins are rusty orange, and come with the spring of white roses.”
Vanya embraced him suddenly. “Like the dying sunset, that stole mother away?” He choked on his breath as the tears came faster. “Yes.” They held one another, lost in the memories of a time when life was beautiful and warm.
* * *
He knelt in the snow to inspect a lifeless print. Wolves. He glanced around, the cold seeping inside like parasites. No. He corrected himself. Lone wolf. He was getting closer.
It was isolated and hollow, miles of icy patches and deep banks of powder. Nothing but lonely white and this minor footprint. He glanced back for the first time, noticing that his prints were disappearing, along with his life. Then another wave of memories slammed into him– stronger this time–as he glimpsed the translucent border line shift in the weak lighting.
* * *
“Aspen, wake up!” He blinked sleep from his eyes, his body quivering at the urgency in his sister’s voice. “What? What has happened?”
Vanya wrapped her arms about her thin body, her chin quivering. “Grandmother is–”
“Not dead!” He cried, alarm rippling through his chest. “No.” She managed. “Is summoning you.” Aspen studied her, while pulling a shirt on. They half ran through the small cabin while he raked his hands through his golden mane, heart pounding in anxiety. Passing his father’s bedroom he glanced inside. It was empty. “Where’s father?”
Vanya trembled, tears dripping down her rosy cheeks, as they were flicked away from her long lashes. “Grandmother will explain.”
His heartbeat slowed, a chill of ice slipping into his bloodstream. Something was wrong. As they padded into the warmest room of the house Aspen felt a wave of despair descend on top of him. “Grandmother?”
She rested in a treasured rocker by the hearth, her arms wrapped around a precious book that couldn’t help falling apart. The twins came to stand in front of her, while overwhelming grief embraced the room. “Aspen,” she rasped, her voice cracked with age and sorrow. “You’re father has been executed by the wolves.”
Vanya broke into sobs, her slender hands covering her face. Aspen replayed his grandmother’s last sentence until his mind was screaming in agony. His eyes leaked in desolation, as he gazed into the distance. “Why?”
She shook her head, cradling the old manuscript like it could heal her brokenness. Aspen narrowed his eyes, fighting the pain that was shredding him into thousands of pieces. “I thought you said the wolves never cross the line.”
“When the robin calls, and the white roses bloom, the wolves will hunt, the night of the moon.” She spoke the rhyme with a mixture of eloquence and sorrow, her pain evident. “They cross the line on the first night of spring.”
His defenses crumbled, the agony stripping his soul bear. He wrapped his arms about his sister, sharing the grief, and begging for what little comfort she had. She responded in the same manner as they entwined, bonding and promising never to let go.
His father was gone forever. He wouldn’t come walking back through the door at the end of the day. They wouldn’t share meals or have nice long discussions. They wouldn’t play seekers finders or plant gardens. His father wouldn’t chase them around the house any longer or relinquish his bubbly laughter. He was gone from this world, slipping away from them suddenly–harshly. He was dead.
* * *
Receiving a mouth full of snow, after slipping into a deep ravine, he struggled to rise, his leather boots refusing to grip the slick ice. He cursed, spitting the liquidy substance onto the frozen lake. Then he dusted off his face, smearing snow everywhere, and causing a new level of chills to begin racing through his body. When he regained his sure footing he began climbing up the other side, before the dark thoughts of hopelessness could consume him.
He tumbled backward just before reaching the top, the ice cracking beneath his body, and knocking the breath from his lungs. Swearing loudly, he scooted off the frozen lake, and back into the stubborn powder, then began to ascend again. This time he didn’t make it even halfway before he started dropped again. The crack of the ice was sharper this time, sending fissures throughout the lake. If he were to fall one more time he would sink below the frigid waters.
Determination drove him back up the steep wall, placing his feet in safer locations, and giving him an energy boost. As he crested the mini mountain–after a pelerious journey–a wave of victory coursed through his limbs just before a black blur slammed into him, sending him freefalling down the ravine.
His body tensed with the fall, preparing for impact. The moment his back hit the fissured lake he crashed through, the waters surrounding him with their murky darkness.
It was so cold. So dark. So hopeless. So empty. Numb bitterness enveloped his being. He dropped to the bottom in overwhelming despair, his limbs freezing over as another memory sank its teeth into his flesh.
* * *
“Vanya, just leave me alone for once!” “Please Aspen, don’t push me away! Just tell me what’s wrong!” Her mournful pleas cracked through the air. “You promised you’d never do this to me!”
He paused, a war of uncertainty playing across his face. She came to stand beside him, both gazing–in sorrow–out across the grasslands that hid their mother’s body. The silence seemed to be friendly, and allowed Aspen to work out his difficulties before softening.
The pain hadn’t gone away. He didn’t think it ever would, but standing here with his sister made it easier to bear somehow. “The year of the white roses comes soon.” He whispered finally, shattering the quiet.
“We will see robins.” She added in heartache. More silence followed, leaving them to bath in the agony of their losses. “Grandmother says mother was born a white rose.” She stated somberly. “Perhaps the Comforter allowed her to give birth to us to continue on the legacy.”
“The year of the white roses comes every ten years, correct?” He queried softly, lost in another time.
“Yes.” He shook his head, coming out of whatever trance had enraptured him. “We will be twenty soon.” Aspen turned to her, grief in his eyes. “It has been nearly ten years since her passing, and yet, the pain still hasn’t dimmed. It should have vanished by now!”
Vanya grasped his face between her hands. “I miss her too.” They touched foreheads, and clasped hands. “It hurts, and I don’t think it will ever stop hurting. But we can bear it, together.”
His eyes darkened as he looked away, breaking their embrace. “Why us, Vanya?” “I don’t understand it either, but you’ve got to promise me that I won’t lose you. You’ve got to promise me that I won’t be alone, ever.”
He grabbed her hands once again, searching her eyes. “Only if you promise me the same.” “I do.” She wilted into his embrace.
* * *
He gasped for breath, jerking his eyes open. Cold. Burning cold suffocated his lungs. He panicked, struggling to rise above the surface. He couldn’t breath! He couldn’t move! He couldn’t do anything! The memory of his heartbroken sister enclosed him to the point where he couldn’t think. He had left her to face the darkness alone. He had broken his promise.
Hopelessness compressed him from all sides as his heart slowly shut down. Something inside of Aspen flipped. A darkness that had yet to be seen–a savagery that had yet to be known–tore out of him, dragging his golden eyes open. The energy he lacked before, bolted through him as he fought to get out of the arctic water.
He twisted out of the frigid coldness, landing on the surrounding ice with a light thump, then the energy deserted him. He vomited mouthfuls of water, collapsing into a fit of trembling afterward. His body was so cold it burned.
He jerked upright, gaping at his shaking hands. This proved everything he believed in. He had inherited the dominant wolf gene. The unknown energy source, the powerful swimming ability, and the changes that had been occurring for the last year all pointed to one thing. I am a wolf.
He rose on trembling legs, then clambered into a snowbank. He wanted to just stay here forever and sleep in peace. He wanted to just let go; forget about his insistent questions, he was done. His eyelids were droopy, his legs weak, his stomach ravenous, and worst of all his heartbeat was slowing down.
Forcing himself to stand, Aspen began to crawl up the slope that he had unsuccessfully crested before. It took him an hour to make it to the top, then another couple of minutes to make sure no wolf was waiting to knock him back. Blinking slowly, he let the bleak wasteland refocus before clambering onto solid ground.
He just laid there, lost in the wild, broken recesses of his mind. The areas where darkness had gathered and bitterness had surfaced in place of innocence.
* * *
“What’s wrong Aspen?” “Nothing’s wrong.” He replied, sheathing a dagger, that had once been their father’s.
“I sense change.” Vanya whispered. “You are not the same.” He glanced at the old tree that had withstood their childhood rompings. “Can anyone be the same after losing both parents to the wolves?” “Am I not living evidence?” She shot back. “Vanya,” He started, turning to face her. “In two days we will be twenty. We have to decide what we want to do with our lives. I’ve been considering crossing the border, and getting some answers. Do you suppose it is possible?”
“No Aspen! You cross that line and those wolves will destroy you! You promised me I’d never lose you, you can’t just jump into the arms of death!”
He studied her face, memorizing her upturned nose, deep round eyes, and full lips. Soon some young man would come for her; soon he would be alone. “Will you at least ask around the village when you go to market next?”
A frown creased her forehead. “Fine, but I’m not promising answers.” She paused. “Aspen?” “Yes?”
“What happened to your hair?” His brows lowered. “What do you mean?” “It’s nearly black as midnight. Did you dye it?” He ruffled his unruly locks, causing a sudden change to cascade over his body. Vanya shrieked, and stumbled backwards as her mouth dropped open in horror. “Aspen, what’s wrong with you?!”
He had increased in stature, his eyes glowing, while the hair all over his body thickened. The blonde mop that used to sit on top of his head vanished into thick dark curls. His eyes flashed in understanding, before they faded into a deep midnight. He scrutinized his enlarged hands, his shoulders weighed with burdens of suffering. “I think our destinies are beginning to seperate us.”
Vanya rushed to him, grasping his shoulders. “Do not think that for a moment! We were born in the year of the white rose, so we must be here to see the coming of the robin. Our destinies are entwined.”
They looked deep into one another’s eyes. The pain of years gone by still fresh in their hearts, like a ruptured seem, although sown together again it would never hold with the strength it once did, and could be easily broken.
They clasped hands, but Aspen refused to embrace. “Father was a wolf.” Her eyes went wide as shock coursed through her limbs. It couldn’t be!
* * *
He stumbled through the deceptive arctic world, his bleary eyes catching sight of the forest on the horizon. I’m close now. The warm thought did little to adjust his gloomy mood. He
needed to reach the forest before he slipped into a sleep, that would never let him awake. Everything slowed him down, the snow, his shoes, even his thoughts. It was like a battle of wills, between his urgency to live, and his desire to sleep. If anyone else had to cope with such difficulty they would certainly have just let the darkness take them.
It was miles of treading through frigid piles of crystal flakes, and fighting to stay focused until he finally collapsed inside the beginning of the forest, entirely spent. The last thing he remembered before surrendering to the captivating darkness, was a giant wolf-man snarling above him, and the terror of death.
* * *
It was freezing outside, and father had yet to return from his hunting trip. The twins sat by the large window at the front of the cabin, content to watch the snowflakes melt on the glass as they awaited the much anticipated return of their patriarch.
Their grandmother called them from an adjacent room, a crackling of excitement slipping through her voice. “Come sit by the fire, children. Let me tell you a story.”
The siblings each grasped a cup of hot cocoa, and a fuzzy blank before kneeling by the fire.
Their grandmother began by speaking in soft whispers. “One day, in a location not far from here, a lone wolf crossed the protective border, seeking his revenge. He met a fair young maiden, who was born in the year of the white rose. They were destined to be sworn enemies from the moment they were born (one birthed to protect life and proclaim the Comforter’s message; the other birthed in anger and bitterness for the life that was stolen from him, and his ancestors). This wolf was sent to destroy her, but instead he fell in love.
“As the relationship developed and years whispered by, it turned into marriage. This young woman became pregnant with twins, and excitement blossomed within their house. The children were born in the year of the white rose as well! However, their mother never learned of her husband’s heritage until too late. It was her lover’s relations that killed her, destroying her family forever.” As their grandmother whispered the tale the children hushed, a sense of wonder in the mystery of this tragic adventure.
“What happened to the children?” Vanya inquired, her eyes pierced by sadness. “They lived out the rest of their life with their grandmother in a cabin, surrounded by trees.” She replied easily.
Aspen narrowed his eyes, screwing up his lips in a way that made him appear condescending and adorable at the same time. “That sounds too much like our story. Are you sure you made this up grandmother?”
“I never said I made it up. Every story is based on truth, but some truths are more twisted than others.”
* * *
He flew from hidden memory to hidden memory.
* * *
It was a lazy afternoon, and the twins had decided to go adventuring in the peaceful woodlands. They had almost finished preparing when a sudden thought occurred to Aspen. “That old story grandmother used to tell us…I think it’s true.” He murmured, while pulling his boots on. Vanya nodded, brushing her golden locks. “It has to be, but,” She paused, looking down at him. “why do you think the wolves were separated from us in the first place? And how? What made the border line?”
He rose, slipping a satchel over his shoulder. “I don’t know, but I mean to find out one day.”
“We you go, you must take me with you!” She stated enthusiastically, tying off the end of her braid.
* * *
They swirled in uncontrollable patterns. Turning from joyful to sad in an instant. Always changing; switching scenes, promises, and feelings.
A sudden, burning sensation in his lungs awoke him. He jerked up, coughing heavily before vomiting more water and the last small meal he ate. When he had finished hacking he was able to glimpse his surroundings beneath the feverish haze decorating his eyes. It appeared to be a hollow cave with two patches of dying ivy clinging to the frost-covered walls. Out of the corner of his right eye a dark blur shifted through the shadows. He bolted to his feet as the hair all over his body rose. His legs wobbled, and it seemed he couldn’t stop swaying no matter how hard he focused.
A deep, intimidating voice growled from the surrounding darkness. “Why are you here?” “I want answers.” Aspen replied hoarsely. The beast padded out of the corner, his glowing yellow eyes inspecting Aspen. “You crawled out of that icy lake, over the bluff, and through miles of desolate nothing for answers?”
Aspen fought to keep his eyes open. “Yes.” A strange snorting snarl reverberated through the cavern, expressing the beast’s mirth. “You must be Ekon’s son.”
He narrowed his eyes, allowing his hand to openly rest near his dagger at the scathing way his father’s name was spoken. The beast just chortled intimidatingly. “If you want answers boy you’ve got to prove yourself as one of us.”
“Didn’t I already do that?” Aspen snapped, his eyes beginning to glow a soft yellow as hidden energy revived him.
The dark wolf seemed to smile, his fangs glistening, while his eyes twinkled. “You’re Ekon’s son, you don’t have to prove anything to me. But if the rest are going to accept you then you’ll need to demonstrate a resemblance.”
Aspen narrowed his eyes. “Why have you accepted me?” The beast moved toward the exit, flicking one last glance at him before disappearing. “Ekon and I were best friends…once.”
He inhaled sharply, allowing his heart to pick up speed. His father had a best friend in the midst of this coldhearted wasteland?
He sank back into the old cornstocks, causing the darkness to drag him under.
* * *
“I can’t continue on like this anymore! I quit!” “Aspen, your sister and I both need you.” “It hurts too much, grandmother. I want to be with the wolves; I don’t want to feel pain.” She looked up suddenly. “Why do you wish to abide with those who have made you an orphan?” Aspen studied the snowflakes dampening the windowpane, trying to sort his thoughts. “They don’t feel anything,” He started, then abruptly finished with. “It’s complicated.”
She rose from the rickety chair, then limped over to him, placing her withered hands on his broad shoulders. “My child, you are not one of them. You are as your mother.”
He pulled away, shaking his head. “Look at me and tell me I’m different.” He sighed, sorrow leaking through the cracks in his deep voice. “It’s genetic grandmother, I cannot avoid my heritage or my father’s roots.”
“My grandson, it is the heart that determines what you are. If you allow darkness to grab ahold of you without turning to the Comforter for help, then you will become like the wolves: merciless, vile, angry, selfish, prideful, jealous, wicked, murderous, and everything that abides inside darkness.”
“Is that what Vanya did? Turn to the Comforter for help?” “Yes.” His grandmother rubbed his shoulder then went to fetch her ancient treasured book. “Is it not evident how much Vanya has changed since letting the Comforter do His job?”
Aspen frowned thoughtfully, while rubbing his head. “I suppose she is different. She handles the agony of death much better now.”
“Here, my child.” She murmured, handing him the old manuscript. “This is the Comforter’s words to us. Read it, and treasure it forever.”
He scrutinized the cover, one brow raised while he accepted the offering. “Will it give me the answers I seek? The question as to the beginning of time between our lands?”
“I’m afraid you will not find those specific answers in this book. However, you will find answers to much better things.”
“Thank you for the gift grandmother, but I believe Vanya would appreciate this more than I. I will pass it onto her.”
She exhaled softly, sadness rooted deep in her milky blue eyes. As she watched Aspen walk away something inside of her wilted, then died.
* * *
“What must I do to prove myself a wolf?” It was the first thing he said upon waking, and finding his rescuer studying him.
The dark beast turned away, gesturing for Aspen to follow. “It takes a wolf to know a wolf. You will understand what you must do when we reach Alpha’s home.”
Aspen transformed into his wolf form, and followed the beast down tunnels of darkness, retreating deeper and deeper into the cave. Their eyes adjusted to the absence of light immediately, allowing it to be a simple journey.
“What’s your name?” Aspen’s rescuer flicked his ears back and forth before replying. “I am called Branko.” They padded along in the small tunnels, squeezing through tight areas, and trotting side-by-side in others. They reached one place where Branko started snarling, his hackles rising. Aspen’s hackles rose as well for an unknown reason. Branko mumbled something, and kept snapping his jaws until whatever it was that had bothered him had moved away.
Eventually they made it into a wider area, allowing the wolves to trot side-by-side the whole time. Branko spoke softly, startling Aspen. “Border guard passed us back there. She needed to be convinced that I was still in charge.” He snickered quietly, before adding. “My home in the underground caverns is near the opening, because of my rank as general of border patrol. That’s why I found you. I was patrolling our grounds.” His deep, unnatural voice rumbled through the cave.
“I didn’t see anyone.” Aspen began hesitantly. “Where did she go?” “You can’t see border guards when their on patrol.” Branko snapped impatiently, winding around a corner.
Two turns after that they entered into a large open space where hundreds of wolves waited. Aspen lowered his ears, keeping on Branko’s tail so no one could separate them. A hushed snarl arose within the cavern, and whispered through the crowd as he passed by. He felt the eyes of hundreds of man-like beasts glaring at him in fury, tempting him to unleash an
unnamed instinct. Somehow he managed to clamp his jaws shut, and block out the hateful words that tried to devour his heart.
It seemed like they had to push through thousands of bodies before they finally arrived at the front where three wolves stood on an overhang. He followed his father’s best friend up a natural stone ramp to where the leaders stood. Branko bowed his head then went to stand by the Alpha.
Aspen lowered himself to the ground respectfully and waited. Silence like he had never heard descended upon the savage pack, chilling him to the bones. A sharp, dominant voice cracked above him. “What are you doing here, son of Ekon?”
A shudder rippled down his spine as he rose to face the Alpha. He determined to speak with confidence, then looked up at the giant white wolf. “I have come for answers.”
“What kind of answers?” The scarred wolf snapped back, his ears flattened against his neck as he advanced.
“I want to know why both my parents are dead, and what caused the separation between our lands.”
The Alpha took multiple steps forward, his ears standing on end. Aspen refused to cower, but turned his eyes to the ground to display respect. “You must join my pack to receive those answers, boy.” Saliva dripped onto the tip of Aspen’s nose.
“I will join. All I want is to have my life questions answered.” The giant white wolf stepped back in satisfaction. “Then you must give me your memories.”
Aspen hissed inwardly. “Answer my questions first.” The Alpha lifted his head, glancing back at his closest comrades as if amused. When he refocused on Aspen a dangerous light had entered his golden eyes. “Deal.”
He moved forward, coming to sit beside Aspen. “The border was created by our worst enemy–the Comforter–when one of our ancestors disobeyed. Years of dark loneliness, and bitterness have morphed us into killing beasts. We desire to have what was unjustly stolen away. We sent Ekon–one of our finest manipulative warriors–to destroy the last of the white roses, (who are the Comforter’s most loyal servants) after a long war. Instead he fell in love with one. We had no choice but to destroy his mate, however the border prevented us from crossing to kill him in the same night. Ekon came to us and offered himself to save his children.” He paused, a malicious snicker escaping his jaws. “I bet he never imagined his sacrifice would be wasted.” The Alpha rose slowly. “It’s too bad you didn’t promise not to destroy your sister.”
Alarm spread through his body, but it was too late. The three warriors beside the Alpha pounced, tackling him. He was pinned down as the giant white wolf stared into Aspen’s eyes, slowly stealing away all his memories with fiery golden orbs.
He fought, trying to protect his brain. He didn’t want to lose his memories! He didn’t want to forget Vanya or his grandmother. The last memory that remained of his home replayed over and over in his mind as he battled to save it.
* * *
Vanya darted inside, squealing. She danced around the room, her violet dress swaying in sync with her legs. “I’m the leader for the white rose assemblies! Can you believe it?! They put me in charge of all the Comforter’s messages!”
Aspen smiled, but only because of his sister’s excitement. “That’s wonderful news, Vanya.” She burst into a fit of giggling happiness. “I know.”
He wrapped her in an affectionate hug, smiling softly. Her concern for him melted her joyful sphere. “What’s wrong, Aspen?” He held her gaze, convincing her that he was fine. “Just thinking of father, but I’ll be alright.” She sighed, then slipped back outside. Then he darkened the door of his grandmother’s room, no longer pretending to be ecstatic. His grandmother sensed his presence immediately. “What is on your mind, my child?”
“I must leave. I need to go find answers.” “The Comforter has all the answers we need.” She responded quickly. He exhaled, speaking in terms she would better understand. “The robins have called for a whiter rose, and they have found Vanya, but I will go, grandmother, and make our name great again among the wolves.”
She pleaded with him in sorrow. “This path you’re on will bring you much more heartache, my child. Please, reconsider.”
He narrowed his eyes in defiance. “It is the path I have chosen.” She wept. He darted out of the house, slinging a leather pack over his shoulder, and heading for the trees. Vanya caught him at the edge of the forest. “I knew something was wrong!” She exclaimed, terror in her deep grey eyes. “What are you doing, Aspen?”
He clenched his hands, then wrapped her in another hug. “Fare well, Vanya.” She clung to him, the tears already beginning to flow. “You promised me–” He interrupted her, sliding her arms off his shoulders and stepping away. “Stop. Just stop, okay? Our childhood is over now, Vanya. It’s time to grow up. Find a nice husband, settle down, and forget about me. I’m not returning ever.”
Then he took off running, and didn’t look back.
* * *
They were always destined to be rivals, and nothing he could have done would have prevented their future war. He and Vanya were on opposite sides of the border now, making them nemisises forever. It was the last thing he realized before his mind shattered.
His eyes went blank, his body relaxed. He was done fighting. It was time to serve his Alpha.
The leaders gathered in a circle as Branko muttered. “He fights as hard as Ekon did.” “That’s good. He won’t fail us. The white roses will be annihilated in his determination to win.” His Alpha stepped up to the edge of the platform, announcing to the waiting pack that they had received another member. A chorus of howling broke loose in the cavern, and excited yapping resonated within the walls. “He will destroy our enemies!” The scarred wolf added savagely. The howling and yaping increased tenfold. The excited baying caressed his ears like water cleansing skin–a passionate kiss between lovers.
Aspen waited, bitterness and anger clouding his vision. The white roses needed to die. They served a master who had destroyed his life and his home. If they perished then the border would come down, and he could destroy as many people as he wanted.
Revenge. Anger. Hate. The words pounded through his skull, until all he could hear was the basis of those emotions.
Those outside the border didn’t deserve to live. They had made him suffer in this hellish place his whole life. No one would be shown mercy.
The Alpha trotted over to Aspen, a crazed expression covering his wolfish face. “Son of Ekon, are you ready for your mission?”
Aspen bowed low. “Yes, Alpha.” “Kill Vanya, leader of the white rose association, and bring her body to me.” A red haze hovered across his vision. “With pleasure, Alpha.”