As soon as her feet touched the gravel of the street, Gracelyn Clarke took off for the trees. The now empty school bus wasted no time closing its doors and heading back toward civilization. God knew the girl's family was the only one crazy enough to live this far out of town, where the woodland creatures lurked and the nearest police station was twelve miles away. Of course, the woodland creatures consisted of nothing more intimidating than a raccoon or a stray cat. There was always the occasional grizzly bear, but they never came near you unless you invaded their territory, which was a good five miles into the actual forest, closer to the mountains.
Grace preferred the open space and fresh air anyway. It was a good escape from the pressure of teachers and the threatening heavy hand of her father that always seemed to be heavier as each day went on.
She slowed to a stop when she reached her usual spot, not too far from the house, but you wouldn't be able to find it right away if you weren't already familiar with the woods, which her father was not. She'd showed her sisters this spot so that if she was really needed they could come find her, but her presence wasn't really ever required unless her father needed someone older than thirteen to take out his frustration on, whether it be from work or just agitated drunkenness.
Her arm still ached from when he'd grabbed her last night. He'd been angry that she'd been home ten minutes after she said she'd be, having lost track of time exploring a new area of the forest. That wouldn't happen again today; bruises weren't exactly the best accessory to pale skin. Thank God for cooler weather; T-shirts could only cover so much.
She dropped down onto a rock beside the tree she'd been working on. It was dying - the bark was peeling and every time she visited her spot a limb seemed to be missing from it, probably having broken off and then been concealed by fallen leaves. The forest itself hinted at autumn, the green decreasing and warmer colors becoming more apparent as October creeped up on them. It was a refreshing change, and the crisp air became even more appealing each time she stepped outside.
Grace's little clearing wasn't really anything special. The majority of the forest floor was covered with dead leaves, oranges and browns mingling with the dirt and weeds. A few large rocks littered the ground, serving as seats to her and her sisters, and an old tree stump sat in the middle. It'd been there for as long as she could remember, the rest of it nowhere to be seen, and she'd counted around forty circles along its surface.
She turned back to her tree, tracing the outline of the little bird in flight she'd been carving into its bark-less surface for the past couple days. Sneaking a knife out of the house had been worth it, but she'd gone straight here today so the only thing she'd be able to use would be an exceptionally sharp #2 pencil out of her bag, which was hanging halfway off her shoulder, grazing the forest floor. She dropped it with a thud, settling onto the rock and letting out a small sigh. The peace she'd been anticipating all day was finally in front of her, but she couldn't help but feeling unsatisfied.
She looked down and inspected her nails, her mouth twisting into a curious frown as she realized they had grown longer again ever since she had chewed them down to nubs just too nights ago, after she'd woken up from yet another nightmare - darkness, howling wolves, and yellow eyes. Her nails always seemed to grow back extremely fast, just like her bruises seemed to disappear within a few days. Not that she was complaining, really. Less likely for her friends to question anything that way.
She tore her eyes away from her nails, busying her hands by redoing her side braid, finger combing the tangled mess of white-blonde waves that was her hair. Having pale skin didn't seem to be enough; her hair had to match. The darkest thing about her had to be her eyes, which varied daily between a pale cerulean blue to a deep indigo-purple color, although the latter only seemed to appear around a certain time of the month, when she was the most emotional. Despite that, she happened to like her eyes, but hiding them behind thick prescription glasses was what seemed to keep most of the attention at school off of her, which she didn't mind one bit.
After finishing her braid - a thick, messy fishtail - she stood, dusting off the back of her jeans and picking her bag up from the ground. She was still for a moment, tilting her head toward the sound of rustling underbrush and leaves being blown across the ground, soaking up a few more moments of peace before heaving a sigh and turning back in the direction of her home.
The slamming of the front door nearly shook the entire house, and Grace rolled her eyes. Another rough day at work, Dad? she thought to herself, but she knew she would never dare say that aloud. She looked up from her spot at the kitchen table where she'd been doing her physics homework and watched as her father, Travis Clarke, tossed his keys onto the counter and headed straight for the fridge, ignoring her completely. He grabbed a beer off the top shelf, popping the top off by using the edge of the counter as a bottle opener, and took a long, apparently much needed, swig. Grace chewed on her bottom lip, waiting for him to ask her about school and then make a crude remark on how she wasn't doing all she could for this family, like getting a job or helping out around the house, which was rich of him to say considering she was the only one who cooked or cleaned anything. But she would just shrug, making excuses about there not being anyplace hiring in town, even though that wasn't true at all. She in fact had to quit her secret summer job at the animal shelter when school came back around, partly because of the hours, but mostly because she didn't trust her sisters alone in the house with him for longer than a couple hours, which hadn't been a problem when he worked all summer.
Travis grunted as he fell into a chair at the head of the table, two seats away from Grace. She glanced up at him, taking in the unkempt brown hair and ever-present stubble, attempting a feeble smile before returning her attention back to her work. She was tense, and she knew it was obvious, but it was hard to relax in a house where you grew up with more bruises on your skin than goodnight kisses. Love was hard to attain in a house full of hate.
Travis eyed his daughter for a moment, taking in the messy hair and unusually long nails, the eyes she'd inherited from her mother, along with the fierce determination to prove him wrong about anything. He cleared his throat, nodding to the notebook in front of her.
She glanced up again. "Physics homework."
He scratched the back of his neck and took another swig of his beer, then grunted in acknowledgement. He didn't seem to know how to reply to that, so he stood up and gestured to the hallway that led to her and her sisters' bedrooms. "Finish it up in your room, will ya? I've got some of my poker buddies coming over later. Try to stay out of the kitchen."
After pausing to soak up this new information, Grace nodded and gathered her things, partially relieved that he had decided she wasn't worth his anger tonight, and partially annoyed that he was having his loud-mouth, vulgar friends over on a school night. Their little poker parties lasted well into the night, their shouting and laughter tending to keep up the twins as well as Grace. It was a Monday night; didn't they have anything better to do then sit around, drink, and take each other's money?
"Move it, Gracie."
"I'll be back to get dinner for the twins later," she muttered, and then hurried down the hall to her room.
She shut her door quietly and then leaned back against it, holding her homework up to her chest as she surveyed her bedroom. It was the smallest in the house because the twins had to share, and she didn't really need much space. The walls were a nice olive green color and pictures of she and her friends covered a decent portion of the wall by her bed. Her bed, covered in a dark blue quilt, was a twin size, pressed up against the wall underneath a string of Christmas lights she'd hung up a couple months ago, ironically in the dead of summer. At the end of it was a sliding glass door that led to the backyard. This was the only other backyard entrance in the house other than the one in the living room, and Grace was, of course, the only one who used it. On the wall next to it sat a little wooden four drawer dresser (two of which always got stuck) where she kept anything she couldn't put on a hanger. Her closet was on the same wall as her bedroom door, and inside it held the usual neutral toned t-shirts, stripes and denim that seemed to make up most of her wardrobe. There was a small table beside her bed made of dark cherry wood, and it was by far the prettiest piece of furniture in the room. Grace had gotten it at a yard sale last year for ten dollars after bargaining with an old woman for well over fifteen minutes. On it sat a small lamp, which was turned on, a sketchbook, and a couple of pens. Inside the drawers was a bunch of miscellaneous things that had collected over the years, and she never really felt like cleaning them out. Above the table to the left was a small window covered by sheer navy curtains.
She set her homework down next to her bag on the dresser and then collapsed onto her bed, looking up at the ceiling. She'd stuck little glow in the dark stars up there when she was little - you know, the ones that you could get a packet of for pretty much a dollar at the store? - and had never taken them down, so they glowed dimly in the soft sunlight coming in from the glass door. She reached over and plugged in her Christmas lights, and they illuminated the rest of the room.
She turned over, too comfortable to change out of her skinny jeans and black and white plaid button up. She could've fallen asleep right then, but she knew her sisters were bound to come into her room and bother her about God knows what, so she just lay there and stared at the door.
Sure enough, not five minutes later, there was a knock.
"Come in," Grace called, pulling herself up into a sitting position and adjusting her glasses. The door opened, and in stepped the twins.
At first glance, the girls looked nothing alike. Isabelle, whose long, dark hair reached down to her waist, wore a white t-shirt tucked halfway into a pair of high-rise denim cut-offs with tights underneath. She had several rings on her fingers, which were painted a deep red, and her expression was one of pure mischief. Her hazel eyes glittered with the same light as her sister's, who could almost be considered someone who wasn't actually related to her at all, if it wasn't for their similar - but not completely identical - facial features.
Elizabeth was shorter by a couple inches with glossy, honey colored hair that reached about mid-shoulder. Grace was envious of it, and she was thoroughly surprised when Izzy had traded hers in for a black-brown color last year and refused to change it ever since. Elizabeth wore a skirt, a pretty floral one, with a chunky green sweater that seemed to swallow her petite frame. She had a faint, pretty smile on her face, her fingers playing with the many layered necklaces that adorned her neck, most of which she'd gotten as birthday presents from Grace over the years.
It was astonishing how they shared no features with either Grace or their father, but they had all decided a while back to blame their physical appearances on their estranged mother.
"Homework done?" Grace asked them as a greeting, cocking an eyebrow. Elizabeth bobbed her head up and down before giving Izzy a look, followed by Izzy giving her older sister a sheepish grin. Grace sighed, rolling her eyes, and then gestured for one of them to shut the door. Izzy did so while Elizabeth joined Grace on the bed, the other twin instead choosing to hop up on the dresser, crossing her legs underneath her. The oldest sister grimaced.
"The day you break that is the last day you ever set foot in my room," she threatened, giving Izzy a pointed look, who just shrugged, leaning back against the wall. Elizabeth laughed.
Grace settled back against a pillow, crossing her legs like Izzy did. "How was school?" she asked, her eyes flitting back and forth between the two thirteen-year-olds. Izzy shrugged, as indifferent as always, but Elizabeth answered for the both of them.
"It was fine," she said, which was the normal response. "Same boring classes, same boring people. What about you?"
"Nothing new," Grace replied, playing with the end of her braid. "Classes were okay, and so were the people."
They chatted more for the remainder of the hour, and Grace knew she should probably get up and go find something for them all to eat before her father's friends got there, but she felt rooted to the spot, talking to her sisters like nothing was wrong with their family. This was where she felt most comfortable: in her room, with the two people she could tell anything to, despite their age difference. Leaving this room meant leaving behind the comfort.
Sighing, Grace slid off the bed at last. "Grilled cheeses?" she asked, tucking a lose strand of hair behind her ear.
The girls nodded, Izzy adding from her spot on the dresser, "With tomato!" Grace smiled and left the room.
She hurried to the kitchen, getting out a pan and then the ingredients for the sandwiches. It was six thirty already. She didn't know when her father's poker buddies would arrive, but she wasn't exactly anticipating a confrontation with them. They would undoubtedly make an enormity of sexists jokes about her being in the kitchen and then demand she bring them a beer, if they didn't already bring their own. It wouldn't be the first time.
As soon as she was starting on the second sandwich, a loud knock came from the corridor, sending her heart into a wild frenzy. Her fight or flight instincts were screaming flee! as her dad answered the door, greeting his already seemingly intoxicated friends with loud words and an open door. Three burly men entered the kitchen, one of them dropping a poker set onto the table, another setting down a twelve pack of beer, which had already been opened. Grace did her best to ignore them, hurrying to finish the second sandwich and starting on the third. She almost stopped at two, not wanting to stick around for any longer than she had to, but her own stomach was gnawing at her, having eaten only a small portion of her lunch that day. She chewed on her lip as her father caught up with everyone, and they all took seats at the table.
"Hey, Gracie," one of them called to her, a heavyset man whose bulging arms were decorated with tattoos. She shivered at the nickname, thinking it too intimate for someone she hardly knew to even utter. She turned her head slightly in acknowledgement, giving him a small smile, as she did not remember his name. She didn't remember any of their names; she didn't want to.
"Put this beer in the fridge, Grace," her father said, making her bite the inside of her cheek hard so she wouldn't tell him where exactly he could put the beer himself. Instead, she turned down the heat on the stove and and did what her father asked, avoiding the unwavering eyes of everyone at the table. She could feel them watching her as she carried the pack of beer to the fridge, shoving it in beside the beer that was already taking up too much space. She returned to her sandwich, finally finishing it up, and then placed all three on a plate, balancing it on one hand as she grabbed a couple bottles of water from the fridge with the other. Still ignoring the men in the room, she hurried back down the hall, determined to do nothing else but eat, send her sisters to their room, finish her homework, and then sleep.
And it wasn't even seven thirty.
"We've lost ten."
Santino Draveden slammed a fist against his desk as soon as he heard the number, making everything jump, including his daughter, Marianne, who sat curled up in a light blue armchair in the corner of the room, a thick, leather bound book in her hands. She blew a strand of ash blonde hair out of her face, slightly annoyed at being interrupted from her reading, and glared at the back of the man who'd made her father suddenly so agitated - her brother.
"Damn savages," Santino swore, forgetting momentarily of his daughter still being in the room, her expression, once content, now turned sour. Their similar hazel eyes were both narrowed, hers at Koda Draveden's head and her father's at the floor he had begun pacing.
"Half the bodies were very mutilated, but we have managed to identify them all," Koda continued, voice tight and businesslike, his hands clasped behind his back as he tried to keep himself under control. His family being killed off by Southern wolves did not bode well with him at all, especially knowing he could've been there to protect them. "Two of them are Great Aunt Clara's children, Lily and Jack. Two belonged to Jack and his wife, who was also one of the deceased, and two belonged to Lily. The rest were Claws." He spat out the last name, as if they were the reason more Dravedens had died, but he knew that wasn't the case. Ever since the alliance, both packs had become more comfortable with each other, like those who died. They had probably been out teaching their children to hunt, since the three Claws he'd found consisted of a man and a woman of Jack's age, and a young boy. Despite the growing friendship between the two packs, Koda didn't take to newcomers that easily.
Santino stopped pacing, shoving a hand through his ash blonde hair, not unlike his daughter's. Everything about him right then resembled his son - his temper, his towering height, his aura of power. And his physical features - the stubble on his face, his mussed hair, his strong jawline. But that's where it ended. Koda had his mom's striking amber eyes and raven black hair. But unfortunately, that didn't mean he carried her gentle heart and forgiving nature. Koda was just as angered as his father; he just knew better than to show it at the same time he did. The world, at the moment, could do without two angry Draveden men with bloodlust in their eyes.
Koda shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, rolling his neck to take away some of the tension. The room was starting to feel warmer with all of the sudden unsettlement, and he suddenly regretted wearing both a long sleeved shirt and a leather jacket. But the chill outside was real, and the warmth in here was caused by his mind; his pissed off, burning mind.
Back in the corner, Marianne was staring at the ground, a frown etched on her face. She hadn't really known Jack and Lily's children, for they were all younger than her and she preferred books to other kids her age, but she knew Jack and Lily, the only twins in the family, now dead. She could only imagine how devastated Great Aunt Clara was right now. She stood, determined to find her and offer her what little comfort a ten-year-old could.
Koda sensed her movement and stared at her, finally realizing he and his father were not alone. She gazed at him cooly, as she always did, resenting him for being the older, more trusted child, but Koda always saw right through the little ice princess facade she had going on. She was genuinely concerned and upset, and for someone as young as she was, she was damn good at hiding it. Koda watched her leave, slightly rueful at her hearing the news so soon, but shrugged it off; she would've figured it out soon enough. The whole pack was talking about it.
Santino watched her leave and cursed again, apparently also oblivious to her presence. "Your mother's going to kill me."
Koda let a smirk grace his lips, rocking back on his heels like he used to when he was Marianne's age. It was still the only habit he had yet to kick. "Mom? Ah, she wouldn't hurt a fly."
Santino grimaced, and Koda sighed, the smirk falling from his face. He paused for a beat of silence and then said, "What are we going to do?"
His father collapsed into the chair behind his desk, leaning forward with his hands clasped together. He stayed in that position for a long time, just staring at his hands, and Koda's patience was beginning to wear thin, but he waited for his father to speak, being able to understand the insane amount of thoughts probably going through his head at that moment.
Santino finally looked up, meeting his son's eyes. The tension in the room was still there, but it eased up a bit as the two Draveden men had a chance to simmer down. Koda stared back at his father, already knowing what he was going to say.
"We need to merge with another pack."
"Dammit, Dad," Koda exclaimed, turning around and raking a hand through his unruly curls. The mention of a merger always made him agitated and uncomfortable, but most of all, angry. The pack was fine. It was fine now, and it would be fine when he led it one day, with or without a damn mate. He whirled back around to his father throwing his hands in the air. "Don't tell me you're losing faith in your own pack, Dad. I'm not merging with another pack over a loss of faith."
"I'm not losing faith!" It was Santino's turn to hold in his frustration, but the edge in his tone was biting. "I'm facing the facts. A pack of nineteen now cannot survive on it's own at a time like this, with the Southern wolves moving in on our territory. We've lost enough wolves; I'm not losing any more."
"It's those damn Claws," Koda snapped. "They're no help to us; that alliance was a mistake."
"The Claws have always been good friends of ours, Dakota," Santino replied. "Whether or not you think they are of any help, they are good to keep around. Northern wolves need to stick together."
"We're holding up just fine on our own," Koda insisted. "We can handle the Southern wolves."
"Go tell that to your Great Aunt Clara," Santino snapped. "I'm sure your independent nature will make her feel all better about losing every one of her decedents."
Guilt struck Koda like a brick, a stone laying heavy in his chest. He sighed, running a rough hand down his face. Deep down he knew his father was right; he just wasn't ready to accept it.
There was a long pause before Santino spoke again. His voice was low and controlled, but his next words were like a thunderstorm in Koda's ears. "Emmalie Prevot. She would make a fine mate to you -"
"No," Koda said, crossing his arms over his chest like a defiant child. "I'm not mating with a girl I've never even met."
"She's a beta, like you, next in line to be alpha. Her pack consists of twenty-six -"
"I said no," Koda interrupted again, his amber eyes burning yellow as the wolf inside of him woke up, reacting to Koda's emotion with an equal amount of fire.
"The Prevot's Alphas and I agree that this is for the best -"
"For the best?" Koda laughed, throwing his hands up in the air. "Well, if you say it's for the best, then of course, Father, I'll mate with a girl I've never met; join the packs…and lead it straight to hell." He spit out the last word with the same tone he'd used when discussing the Claws - contempt.
Santino lost his patience, his skin becoming agitated with the need to turn; to spend time as a creature of the wild to let off a little steam. He stood. "Enough with the scorn, Koda. It's been decided. Be prepared to meet with her in two weeks. Now -" He gestured to the door. "Go offer Clara your condolences. God knows she's in a hell of a lot more pain than your ego is, son."
Koda's lips drew back in a canine-teethed snarl, and then he left, slamming the door behind him. The bookshelves shook.
Santino sunk back into his chair, wondering why on Earth his only son couldn't have ended up more like his mother.
Hi! I'm officially back with the new and improved Sticks and Stones! Updates will be weekly, every Saturday or Sunday. To my old readers: Be ready for a completely new plot line and totally revamped characters! I really, really hope you love them like I do. And to my new readers: Hi there! I hope you enjoy this story as much as I enjoy writing it and you stick around to see what happens next.
See ya next week.