15. Snowbell

As time turns,
Seas will run red.
Will you be shattered?
When I am dead.

Emmy was dreading the hunt. She was sure she would feel no pleasure in shooting arrows at woodland creatures that were probably cute and homely. She wished she could have thought of a plausible excuse to miss the little trip. But she could not think of a decent one and thus found herself atop her grey stallion in the forest with the rest of the Curia. They were all dressed in their best clothes, the gentlemen wore leather hunting jackets and trousers that were supple and yet offered protection from stray arrows. Emmy, Aurelia and Leidon wore elaborate dresses of rich hues that ruffled at the skirts and draped perfectly over their horses. Over their dresses they wore leather coats as well, that hugged their figures, making Emmy feel rather hot and cramped. The Prince rode at the front of the party with Metheus and Hans flanking his either side. The rest of them rode their horses at a short distance, keeping their eyes peeled for any movement. Emmy held her bow loosely, she had never fired one before, or at least not that she could remember. She wasn't planning on actually using it and so just let it hang from her elbow. Luckily she had another weapon that she did know how to use. She had a small sword at her side, this one sharpened and deadly, unlike the sparring sabers she and Aurelia had used yesterday.

Aurelia rode next to Edward and sat alertly on her horse. Her eyes doing meticulous scans of the forest before her. She reminded Emmy a bit of a hungry lynx, only too eager to pounce on anything that could resemble a meal. The first kill was of course for the Alasdair, but Emmy could feel the others itching to chase after prey. She was content to lag at the back of the group, happy to just enjoy the horse ride and admire the forest around her. It was thick and dense with large old trees whose canopies rose high into the skies, letting through only the thinnest of sun rays, even though it was just approaching noon. The forest floor was dark and covered with vines that crawled across tree roots and logs like serpents. Only the tiny flowers that sprinkled the vines made them seem a little less sinister. There was a quiet hush in the air, that made the silence heavy and Emmy could not shake the feeling that they were being watched by the beasts of the forest and perhaps even their guardian witch. Metheus' story had seemed ridiculous, but now that she was in the forest itself, she could almost belief it. It was easy to imagine great creatures and monsters lurking in the dark shadows and Emmy felt suddenly glad to be carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows, as well as her sword. Even their hunting dogs, which were large and almost like small wolves when Emmy had first seen them, seemed like small toy lap dogs in the vast forest.

Suddenly Metheus held his hand up and the party came to a halt. The dogs all had their ears point ahead and Emma nudged her horse a little further to see what they had spotted. As she strained her eyes, she could make out a large pair of glowing amber eyes in the shadows just ahead of her. The eyes were about the same level as her horse's chest and this made Emmy take a few steps back. Whatever creature it was, it was sure to be huge and ferocious. They all waited in a tense silence as the creature slowly stepped into the clearing. Emmy's horse made a soft whinnying noise and Emmy couldn't blame it, for the animal was terrifying. She wasn't quite sure what is exactly was, but it was huge as a bear with beautiful thick dark grey fur. It looked something like a wolf, but no normal wolf would be that large. It seemed completely unafraid and languidly walked up to them like they were some sort of interesting new plant specimen that it had never smelled before. Their hunting dogs looked like rabbits beside the beast and Emmy was glad to be at the rear of the party. The Prince already had his bow strung and his arrow was pointed at the beast. Metheus and Hans seemed equally ready, because surely a single arrow would not be enough to fell the great animal.

For a moment the creature stood still and stared directly at them, and for a split second Emmy saw a clear intelligence flash in the beast's eyes. It was considering them, wondering whether they were prey of predator. But the animal hesitated a moment too long and the Prince released his first arrow. The arrow hit the monster's shoulder and it howled in annoyance and jumped back. Soon a whole volley of arrows flew at the animal, now that the prince had had the honours and the creature turned into a large pin cushion. In return it snarled and lashed out in return but was kept at bay by their own dogs who nipped at it and protected their horses and riders. Emmy felt an odd sense of sympathy for the beast, as its howls rang eerily throughout the forest. She only silently hoped that it would warn all the other creatures to stay away and prayed that its agony soon end.

Minutes seemed to drag by and she was sure that most of the Curia had at least lost half their arrows to the creature. Every now and then the animal would look her way, its eyes were glazed in pain, but underneath that, it seemed curious as to why she was not attacking him. As the creature kept glancing at her, amidst the attack on it, Emmy felt a sick realization dawn upon her. Its eyes weren't that of just an intelligent beast, just like how her horse at times had seemed to be particularly clever. Its gaze was almost human-like.
This beast had a soul.
Emmy could feel the bile rising to her throat and she clutched the reins of her horse a little tighter. Slowly the words of Metheus' story seeped back into her mind, and she felt the urge to run away or vomit.
She was always furious at my father for killing the beasts of the forest, saying that he was slaughtering her friends.

The old witch had known that these creatures weren't just animals, and killing them would be like murder. Emmy felt her gut coil, but her heart thudded with a strange determination. She dug her heel into the sides of her steed and pushed her way to the front of the party. She shouted at them to stop and pulled the bow from Metheus hands. They all froze and looked at her with a wild surprise.
"Emmy! What are-" she hear Edward or Metheus call out, but she didn't listen and nimbly dismounted her horse in one swift movement. The beast, too, had stopped it howling and looked at her with big mournful eyes. She shut out the shouts of those behind her and slowly approached the injured animal with her sword drawn and ready. Her other hand she held out towards the beast in offering. The beast whined and with great difficultly lay down, resting its head on its bleeding paws.
"You only missed being amongst other people, didn't you?" Emmy said softly and let her hand trail over its soft fur. "You were lonely." And at this the beast looked up at her again and then turned its head slightly to bare its neck.
"May you be at peace at last brother." she muttered and in a quick motion brought her sword under it throat and slit it cleanly. Instantly the beast's body slumped and the air grew still. Emmy stooped down and kissed the animal's forehead and stood to face the Curia, barely noticing that her hands were sticky with blood.
"We're done hunting." she said with a hoarse tone of authority that even surprised herself, "Burn his body. We're done here. We do not kill beings with a soul." she spat with disgust. And with that she walked back to her horse and mounted it and charged out of the cursed forest leaving the Curia to stare dumbly at her wake.

Emmy headed in a beeline toward the library. She didn't even bother to remove her hunting coat as she charged through the big double doors, and ignored the fact that her boots were probably leaving a trail of mud and dirt on the rich carpets.
She had to know.
She had to confirm whether if her instincts were right. Had she really just ended the pain of another person? Another human being who was trapped in the physical body of some sort of monster? Somehow she knew Metheus' large library would hold the answers. She only wasn't sure in which book she would find them. The aisles of books seemed never ended and with each book cover she scanned, there only seemed more and more to follow. After a while of frantically tossing aside books that were useless, Emarin closed her eyes and wrecked her mind. Following a few moments she opened her eyes in a snap and headed toward the back of the library. There, at the very back, stood an iron fence that separated a small section of books from the rest of the library. She pressed her face against the bars and tried to make out the titles of the volumes resting there. Most of the manuscripts were extremely old and their gold-leafed titles were peeling away. A thick layer of dust lay on most of the books, and the shelves seemed to be rotten with neglect

Finally after carefully observing the books, her eyes caught a small black leather-bound volume. It was lying on its side, rather than standing with the other books. She could just make out the words and shaped on its cover. There were only three small words written in a fanciful silver lettering, Legem Curia Penitus. Below the title was a strange shape. It looked a little like a pentagon, but with lines travelling inwards from each of its corners and coming together at its centre around a small circle. Emmy's heart suddenly started racing. She was sure she had found the right book.
Emmy was staring at the book so ardently and trying to figure a way to retrieve it, since it was behind a locked and bolted iron gate, that she did not hear the footsteps behind her.
"My Lady," Mrs Praddor said, trying to sound completely uninterested and polite, but some surprise was betrayed in her voice, "I thought I heard you return. Are you unwell? Did you not return with the rest of the party?"
Emmy stared at the woman for awhile, and composed herself quickly. It was so odd to be faced with something as mundane as a nosy housekeeper when moments ago she had killed a man trapped in the hide of a beast.
"Yes. I was not feeling so well." she said calmly and inconspicuously hid her blood-caked hands in the numerous folds of her skirt, "Hunting does not quite agree with me. I was on the way to my room, but I thought I would stop by here first to get something to read. Perhaps you can help me with that."

"Of course, my Lady," the housekeeper replied courteously, "which books shall I send to your room?"
"All those on the first shelf behind the gate." Emmy said, hoping it sounded like an order. She did not want the housekeeper to know exactly which book she was reading. Somehow she felt like she should keep it all a secret for a little while longer.
"But, my Lady, that is Lord Metheus' private collection, I will have to ask him first." the housekeeper said uncomfortably.
"I thought every book in here was at my disposal, Mrs. Praddor." Emmy shot back condescendingly, "Weren't those the very orders of your master?" And she lifted her chin slightly and looked the poor old lady straight in the eye. She could see the housekeeper consider it for a moment and then wring her hands with a sigh.
"Very well, my Lady," she said finally, "I will have them sent up to your room immediately."

After changing out of her ridiculously lavish riding dress and scrubbing the blood from her hands Emmy quickly snatched up the small black book and headed out of the house. She couldn't bear to be in it any longer, now that Metheus had told her to story of his family. All the paintings were of Metheus' family. They seemed to stare at her with a deep sadness and pain, it made her feel claustrophobic. And all those treasures and trophies were his father's pride and joy. She felt a little nauseous just being surrounded by them.
She snuck out through the back door, hoping that the rest of the Curia would not see her and made her way towards the lake. There was something calming and restful about it. Large dragonflies buzzed lazily across its smooth silver surface and she settled herself comfortably under a large willow.

After about an hour of reading she confirmed all her nagging suspicions. The language of the book was ancient, and Emmy had a bit of difficulty deciphering the exact meaning of certain sentences, but after a while it all became chillingly crystal clear. Hunter Forest was like a jail or purgatory, but far more horrifying. Emmy had always thought that she was being punished by being born an orphan, alone in the world. But those poor souls in Hunter Forest were the ones being truly punished. It made her birth as an orphan seem like just a small trifling misfortune. People who had hurt others in a most grave nature were reborn as beasts and monsters, creatures properly reflecting their blackened souls. They lived in Hunter Forest, wallowing away in their sorrow and going mad with repent and guilt. No wonder the old woman had been so furious with Metheus' father; she could not bear to see anyone add to the suffering of the poor souls. The Legem Curia also told her more about other laws of the Curia. How they were bound by duty to serve the Crown and protect the keys. They were also sworn to secrecy and would never be able to escape being bound to the Curia. Emmy was not sure how all the laws were enforced, but the horrors of Hunter Forest were enough to hint as the dire consequences of breaking the Legem Curia.

Emmy stared out onto the silver surface of the lake. Letting her eyes follow the erratic darting flight of the dragonflies. She could no longer read the book. With each page she studied, her dread for her own fate and that of the Curia grew a hundredfold. A soft breeze played across the lake's surface and rustled the weeping branches of the willow in soothing manner. Slowly, Emmy felt her eyelids grow heavily and she fell asleep to the lullaby of the wind.

When Emmy awoke, she blinked a few times, for she was still sitting by the lake under a willow tree, but the lake itself was frozen and its banks were covered in a soft powdering of snow. Even as she looked up she could see small pods of white fluffy flurry resting on top of the dried leaves of the willow's branches. She knew she should be panicking. But somehow Emarin felt peaceful and almost giggled as she stumbled through the snow to the edge of the lake. The bent down and wiped her hand across the frozen water forming a smooth mirror. A fair girl with pink cheeks looked back at her. Her hair was dark, almost black, and curled in big ringlets over her shoulders. Her eyes were thickly lashed and shone a beautiful deep green, like the grass fields in the height of the summer. Presently another reflection joined the girl's in the lake, and Emmy felt her heart start to race, though the girl in the lake looked only pleasantly surprised. The image was that of a disfigured man, with a big hideous scar running from the right side of his forehead all the way down to his chin. His nose looked broken and his left shoulder was higher than his right, and seemed mangled and stuck out at an unnatural angle. Yet there was something in his dark blue eyes that seemed tender and gentle and Emmy found herself smiling shyly.

"I brought you your cape, Emma," the man said with a low gentle voice, "I was afraid you would be cold, and Mrs. Praddor said you forgot it. You shouldn't come out here to read, my little snowbell." And he gingerly placed the thick velvet cloak around her shoulders with great difficultly as his hands were twisted and his fingers crooked.
"Oh, my Lord," Emmy found herself saying back, "that is very kind of you. But you need not have, sir. You must not come out in the cold. Think of your health!" She placed her hand on his arm affectionately and went to stand next to him.
"You must love to read very much." he stated, indicating to the books that lay below the tree.
"I love reading!" Emmy gushed, "When we used to live in the capital, I had so many books. But father had to sell them when he lost his ships. I felt like I was parting from my most beloved friends."
"Well, you can have any of the books in the library, if you love them so much. But please read indoors. I could not have you catching a cold." the man, or more like beast, replied. "I would not know what to do if you got ill, snowbell." Emmy felt herself blush and she looked down at her feet and clutched at her skirt. The man took a step closer to her and hesitantly placed his fingers gently under her chin and she lifted her eyes to look at him.

"You are not afraid of me? Don't you think I am a beast? A ferocious monster?" he asked with a disbelieving carefulness, "Don't I repulse you?" Emmy found herself violently shaking her head.
"How could I find your repulsive or ferocious, my Lord?" she almost cried out, "You have been nothing but kind to my family and I. If not for you, without your money to pay for the medicine and the healer, my brother would be dead. And father finally has enough wood to keep the house warm during winter. And all the books you let me read! You have saved us, when all was lost." The man looked a bit abashed by her praises and smiled a little.
"I would do anything for you, my fair snowbell." he said quietly, so softly that Emmy almost thought she had imagined it. "Surely you must know that." She felt herself take a step closer to the man and placed her small hand in his twisted one.
"Well, perhaps you could tell me your name at least?" she said shyly, looking down at her feet again and blushing, "It feels so strange just calling you 'sir' or 'Lord Hunter'."The man grew quiet and stared out at the lake for a long moment, a quiet sorrow settling over his features.
"Metheus." he said after awhile, as if he had almost forgotten his own name, "My name is Metheus Hunter." And he slowly closed his hand around hers. Emmy felt a warm glow spread throughout her arm and it wrapped snugly around her heart. She smiled up at the man and sighed at his beautiful dark eyes.
"Metheus." she repeated his name lovingly, "Metheus, my hero."

Emmy felt her body move as if it had a mind of its own and yet at the same time she felt a sense of excitement thrill through her veins. Nimbly she tipped up onto her toes and pressed a soft kiss on the man'smouth. To her surprise his lips were soft and warm. A small low growl escaped his throat and he took a step back and gazed at her with utmost shock. Emmy felt herself blush once more and looked down to her feet in shame.
"Forgive me, my Lord," she hastily whispered, "I should not have done that. I am so sorry." Metheus moved closer to her and placed his hand against her cheek.
"Please don't apologize, my little snowbell." he said softly and pulled her into an embrace. Emmy exhaled and let herself lean against his chest, breathing in his scent, that reminded her of the air just before a storm. She had never felt more safe or happy. She looked up at him again and started to smile, but to her horror his face was contorted in pain and suddenly he collapsed. His left hand clutched his heart, while his right still clung on to her arm.
"Metheus," Emmy cried out, "what has happened? Oh, please be alright. Tell me how to help you!"
But he only shook his head at her sadly, and stroked her cheek lovingly.
"Don't mourn for me, my fair snowbell." he whispered, "You have set me free. And I promise I will find you, I will search the whole land." And with that his eyes fluttered close and his hand dropped like a deadweight from her cheek.