It wasn’t the sort of place that she normally found herself, nor was it the sort of place that she was supposed to be anywhere near to begin with.
Branches slumped over the crumbled wall before her like tired, overworked men. Cracked bricks peeked through snarls of dark green, stubborn bits of the dilapidated wall showing through.
She walked carefully, mindful of the prickly grass high enough to poke her knees. If she kicked hard enough, she’d see clouds of red dust billow between the blades.
Put up after somebody else’s war and neglected once those sides had reconciled, the wall had been left to the whim of the elements. They didn’t need it anymore, so why maintain it? What had once been an impressive imposition, something that could function as a blockade stretching wide and far, was now a pathetic pile of bricks that nature was in the midst of digesting.
Swallowed up by nature, it was a border known more by name than anything else.
Shreya knew it best by the sharp warnings her mother Pravaah gave her about it. Don’t go near there. I better not catch you near the border. You remember what happened to your sister, don’t you? Shreya remembered the fat lip Shanti got for that better than her sister did. Then again, Shanti had a tendency to conveniently forget anything that got in the way of her having fun. Punishments didn’t work on her.
Shreya, like others of her kind, was expected to stay on their side of the border. Few were brave enough (or careless enough, in Shanti’s case) to cross it alone. Although a nonaggression treaty existed between her people, the Marjani, and the humans of nearby Stockbrunn, there wasn’t much trust in it. Humans were notorious for going back on their word.
…which was why she wished she’d brought a knife with her. All she had was the dried gourd she kept her water in, the one with her father’s etchings carved into it. Shreya hadn’t exactly prepared for this border-hopping trip. She’d pulled a Shanti—got angry, said damn-it-all to the consequences, and did something she was probably going to regret later.
It was one of Pravaah’s rants that drove her here. She’d been talking on and on about how it felt like Shreya was some place else lately, like she was floating away without her body.
If that sort of thing could happen, then, believe her, Shreya would let it. She’d float up into the clouds and never come back. She’d give nothing more than to be away from Pravaah, away from the other Marjani wolves, and away from what they were and who she was. Things weren’t that easy.
Knowing her luck, even if it were possible, she’d probably get tangled up in a tree on the way up and never reach the sky.
Her wolven ears laid flat to her skull, hidden beneath her cap. The flaps on the side of it were long enough to reach her jawline, a string dangling from each one. Her dark, thick hair was just long enough to go past her chin, flipping outwards slightly from its volume. Over her shoulders, she wore a deer-pelt cape to further protect her from the wind. From what the Marjani Elders were saying, they were on the edge of a cold season.
It wasn’t until she made it out of the tall grass that she stopped moving. She took in the sights. Tall trees, some with branches knotted together, others reaching out to the sky. Trampled plants. Bushes stripped of their fruits. The tiny bones of an animal, picked clean. Her ears picked up on flapping wings, no doubt belonging to the scavenger that finished off the animal.
A path of dirt and gravel stretched leftwards and rightwards, cutting through the woods. Where it’d take her was Shreya’s guess. It didn’t matter to her. She knew her fit of rebellion was going to end here, with her doing nothing more than just standing in a spot where she wasn’t supposed to be.
So much for that consequences-be-damned rebellion that she was going for. Too much of her anger had faded, leaving her in her natural state. She could hear her sister’s chiding already. You hopped the border and only rubbed your shoes in the dirt? You’re pathetic! Who does that?! There was enough material in that to keep Shanti laughing for weeks.
Doing anything more than messing with the dirt would be risky. Standing in the path was more than enough of a risk. Anything could happen, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to save her.
That’s why she was doing her best to ignore the body laid out prone, face-down in the path. She tuned in to the soft sound of breathing. Whoever it was was alive. Unconscious, but alive.
She didn’t need to get herself involved in whatever had happened. It had nothing to do with her. What Shreya needed to do was tip-toe out of there. Someone else would have to be that person’s hero. She needed to go home and get an earful from both her mother and sister, and go back to her every day life.
But what if something bad happened because she left this person in the woods? Clad in a red cloak, the passed-out human girl was a clear target. Any animal could come by and take her, and it’d sort of be Shreya’s fault in an indirect way. Shreya would be the last one to see her alive. If that was going to happen, Shreya didn’t want anything to do with it. Let it be known that she tried, and didn’t give this human up as a forest buffet.
“Hey! Wake up!” Shreya cupped her hands around her mouth. “You can’t sleep—oh, um,” she realized mid-sentence that she needed to speak in a language the other girl could actually understand. She switched over into the Casternian Common language, the words feeling clunky and unnatural in her mouth. “Up, please. You can’t be here.”
To her surprise, that’s all it took to get the girl to roll over, finally awake. Her face was dirty, no doubt from face-planting to the ground. The otherwise clean dress she wore had a streak of dirt smeared down the front. Sweat painted her chestnut brown bangs to her forehead, the rest of her neck-length hair sticking out in multiple directions. From what Shreya guessed, this girl had been running, and running hard. The girl’s wide-eyed stare further tipped Shreya off that this girl didn’t belong in this part of the woods as much as she didn’t.
“What are you doing here?” Shreya looked away from her eyes. She didn’t want her to think she was going to fight her. Eye contact was a challenge.
“I’m from Stockbrunn,” she answered, an unexpected edge to her voice. “If you do anything to me, people are going to know. The entire village will come for you, and you’ll be sorry.”
Perhaps she’d said the wrong thing. It had been some time since she had a conversation in the Common language. She tried again, “why are you here?”
“I’m picking flowers.”
“What’s wrong with that?” She brushed her fingers through her hair, fixing it into a cleaner style.
“Nothing. Goodbye.” Shreya turned to leave. She’d done her part in making sure the girl wouldn’t be easy prey. The red-wearing girl and all of her tartness along with her could make it home on their own.
The girl struggled to stand up. She took a couple of steps, then stumbled back down to her knees. Maybe Shreya had thought too soon.
Not off the hook yet, Shreya stopped. “Are you sick?”
“I feel a little dizzy, that’s all.” She reached into the bag she had slung over her shoulder. “I lost my water when I fell.” Shreya took note of how scuffed her boots were.
“Here, have some of mine.” She hoped the offer would put her at ease. Shreya undid the straps that kept her water gourd tied to her and passed it over. The girl held it, too unsure to raise it to her lips. “If you don’t drink it, you’ll stay sick. I’m trying to help you.”
She gave Shreya one more narrowed-eye look before she tipped it back, downing most of what was inside. “Thank you… Sorry about the attitude. You never know who you can trust, you know? I’m Ellie, from Stockbrunn.”
Ellie stood up, her demeanor entirely different. It was as if a little water had been enough to transform her into a new person, or at least wash away her bitter, tough-girl facade. Judging by how quickly she discarded it, it wasn’t a very good facade to begin with. She leaned back on her heels, a bright smile lighting up her features.
“I’m Shreya, from…the forest?”
“You’re a woods dweller?” Ellie asked. “You don’t look like how I’d imagine. I thought you’d look all scary or something, I don’t know. Big and brawny.”
“Not big and brawny in a bad way! Whoa, not in a bad way, sorry.” She waved her free hand, trying to dispel her words. “I mean, you live in the woods with all sorts of animals so I just thought that you’d look huge or be carrying a bunch of weapons…unless you’re hiding something under that deerskin you’re wearing. Nice cape, by the way.”
“Nope, I’m not,” Shreya said, quick to stomp out Ellie’s suspicions. “I’m not hiding anything.”
“Right, because if you were, I’m pretty sure you would’ve robbed me for everything I have by now.”
“Why would I rob you after giving you water?”
Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just saying. It’s not like I have much stuff with me, anyway.”
Shreya had a better question to ask. “Why are you really here?” A girl as overly trusting as her had a death wish traveling into the woods alone. Not only were there animals lurking around, but there were also whatever these wood dwellers were. The latter would’ve stolen from her and the former would’ve eaten her. Flower picking wasn’t worth losing her life over.
“There’s a rare flower that’s said to grow along this path. I would’ve prepared for this trip a whole lot better but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I just had to go for it. I had to get out of Stockbrunn fast.” Ellie said. “They don’t like people being this deep in the woods, me especially.”
“For good reason. You should go home.”
“Not without the flower.”
“There aren’t any here. Look around.” Shreya gestured towards the weeds. None of the plants looked healthy or pretty enough to be considered flowers. “What does it look like?”
“It’s black-centered with dark blue petals. We call it a leven-tinte. It looks kind of like this, like curled fingers.” She squinted, looking for any signs of blue. “Maybe the guidebook was wrong… Have you ever seen one around here?”
“I think we call that azura. I don’t think this is the season for it. Azura grows when the cold ends, not when it starts.”
Ellie lost her smile. “Are you telling me I’ve been walking around for hours for nothing?”
Shreya had to repeat what she said to understand her question. “Walking around for hours for nothing. Yes. All the azura are dead. Go home.”
Her shoulders slumped. There wasn’t anything else she could do. Her flowers weren’t here. Poor girl. Shreya almost felt sorry for her. She would’ve died for absolutely no reason. “Alright, thanks for the help.” She took a step and nearly fell, still unsteady on her feet. The water may have been a good start, but what she needed was rest.
Shreya was a wolf. She could defend herself unarmed if need-be. Even at full strength, this girl didn’t stand a chance making it back on her own. Foolish…
as foolish as you were, charging into the woods the way you did. What if you were in her place?
“Where is Stockbrunn? I can lead you part of the way there, then I’ve got to get back home.” Shreya wasn’t going to enter the village for obvious reasons. She knew more than enough about Stockbrunn to know that if her ears were showing, she’d be killed on sight. Dozens of arrows would be shot into her.
Hell, her ears would’ve been enough reason for this girl to turn around and try to kill her. Something about Ellie told Shreya that she’d be stupid enough to try it if she had a knife.
Ellie grinned, reinvigorated. “Thank you so much! You really don’t have to.”
Oh, yes, I do, Shreya thought to herself. “Which way is it?”
Shreya made sure to match Ellie’s slower pace as they walked, ready to catch her if she needed it. She hoped that her wolfish scent would be enough to ward off any other animals. Wolves were normally something to be feared in the forest, but she was young and alone, with a more than vulnerable human. She could run but there wouldn’t be much she could do to help Ellie.
Not that she had to help her. Shreya didn’t know Ellie from any other human.
“This is your last time going to the forest alone,” Shreya warned her. “Don’t do it again.”
“You sound like my mom.” She grimaced. “Ugh, I’m not looking forward to going home.”
“Same. My mama’s going to be angry.” Angry didn’t cover it. Pravaah was going to have Shreya’s head for this. Crossing over into human territory was one thing. Helping and interacting with a human? That was on another level of things-not-to-do. Shreya widened the distance between them, trying to avoid getting any of Ellie’s scent on her.
“Mine will kill me. It’ll be like, good job surviving, Ellie, it’s time to die.” She mimicked a stabbing motion.
“She’ll kill you?” Maybe Ellie would be safer in the woods. Shreya’d have to teach her how to survive.
“No, not really.” Her grin widened. “She’ll probably yell at me and make me swear to never do this again.”
Shreya hoped that Ellie’d keep that promise. “Heh, I’ll be lucky if Mama only yells at me. The last time my sister wandered away, things got ugly.”
“Ah, you have a sister? I always wanted one. Older or younger?”
“We were born together.”
“Twins!” A bounce entered Ellie’s step. Shreya stared at her, puzzled at the word. Twins? There wasn’t an equivalent for it in her tongue. She played it off as confusion towards her exuberance. “Do you look the same? There are twins like that in Stockbrunn.”
“No, she’s bigger than me.” Not by much, but enough to be twice as strong as Shreya was. She hadn’t bested her in a play fight since they were pups. Shreya only had her beat in speed, and even then her sister was catching up to her since she was slacking off on her training. “Be glad that she didn’t find you. She’s not nice.”
“She’s more like the stereotypical woods dweller, huh?”
“Yeah…” Shreya had no idea what Ellie said.
Ellie shook what was left in the dried gourd, the water sloshing. “Do you mind?”
“You can have it.”
“Thank you,” she said, before drinking the rest. “So what made you run away from home?”
Shreya figured there wasn’t any harm in telling her the truth. It wasn’t like they’d ever see each other again. Why not commiserate on a topic it sounded like they had in common? Venting may do her some good. “Mama was mean. I was tired. Frustrated.” That was the word.
“I hope she’s not too mean to you when you get home. I don’t want something ugly to happen to you, too.” Ellie frowned. “Tell her you were helping someone important. I meant it when I said that the entire village would be after you if something bad happened to me. I’m very important.”
“You’re too young to be important.”
“Um…you’re not old. You’re not important.”
Ellie spluttered. “W-well, okay, maybe, but my parents are. And because they are, so am I, so there.”
Being an Elder’s child didn’t make someone special. Shreya wondered what mental somersaults Ellie had done to get to that conclusion. “Alright.”
“Anyway, you can tell her that you helped me, and she shouldn’t be so mad at you.”
“That’s not a good idea.” Shreya said. “Me meeting you. That’s what she’s afraid of.”
“Because I’m from Stockbrunn? If money would change her mind, I can bring you some. I’ve got money.”
“We don’t want your money.”
“Then what? I don’t want you to get in trouble for helping me. That’s not fair.” Ellie said.
“I’ll live. You don’t have to worry. I’m unknown.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ellie paused. Not knowing where they were headed, Shreya had no choice but to stop too. She listened out for any approaching animals, glad to discover that no one was tailing them.
“Unknown. A mystery.”
Ellie got it. “A stranger. Okay, you might be a stranger but so am I. You helped me, so now I want to help you. You practically saved my life.”
“Is your village close? We should keep moving.” She tried to change the subject.
“I could write you a thank you note. Can you read Casternian?”
Shreya said, “a note’s not going to help me. What will help me is you getting home safely. That’s all I want.”
Out of options, Ellie started walking again. Shreya followed her, not liking how her head was tilted down in thought. She was wasting her time. There was nothing that she could offer that would appease Pravaah. If anything, a gift from a human would incite her rage ten times worse.
Shreya wasn’t a good liar. She couldn’t just say she killed someone and stole all her things… The gift couldn’t be passed off that way. Besides, that was something wolves only did in the leanest of times. Things were getting better for them, or so the Elders said. They didn’t have to resort to their old ways of thievery, and if they ever had to do those things again, Shreya wasn’t joining in. She wasn’t like the rest of them. She had integrity.
Integrity didn’t breed survivors. Survival meant no limitations. The wolves who survived did anything it took to do so. They were the smart ones. The harsh ones. The cunning ones. The brutal ones. The ones that her sister was growing up to be like. The kind that her mother was.
And as special as Shreya pretended to be, she knew she wasn’t that much better than them. She ate the same food they did, lived in the same lean-tos, relied on the same base instincts, and listened to the same stories they did. She was a wolf through and through.
Ellie was going to prance back to her Stockbrunn life, not knowing a single thing about survival. She’d go back to her mother and father and whoever-else and they’d be too happy to see her to scold her. Cheer. Giggles. Celebration. They’d prepare a bath for her in a real tub, not in some stream somewhere, and give her a fresh dress to wear out of the hundreds she probably owned.
They’d gently remind her not to go back into the woods, that she got lucky this time, and then she’d go to bed on top of five sheepskin blankets. The next day, once her parents’ backs were turned, she’d wake up, and sneak off to get some other type of flower, maybe a cousin to the leven-tinte or whatever she had called it. This flower would be as red as her poofy skirt, because, why not?
Their precious daughter’s importance would be tested after that.
Maybe she’d be important enough for Stockbrunn to burn down the forest to avenge her.
Everyone would suffer.
Or maybe Ellie was a liar, and was as common a person as Shreya was a wolf. That whole self-importance thing could’ve been a bluff so Shreya wouldn’t mess with her. Ellie’s only weapon had been her word. Humans will say anything when they’re desperate. They always like bringing up money and family, like money matters at all to wolves and hearing about their family will make their hearts bleed. Wolves have their own families to take care of.
“I think this is far enough. I can make it back from here.” Ellie said. “Thank you so much, Shreya. I owe you.”
“I’m going to try getting back to the path tomorrow. Ianes’ Wall. Will you be there?”
“No, I won’t, and you won’t.” Never mind Shreya’s second guess about Ellie bluffing. Ellie was pampered. A headstrong and pampered fool.
“I won’t be alone. I’ll bring friends.”
“So more people can die?” Shreya asked.
“Lots of people survive in the woods. You’re proof of that.” Ellie said. “The woods aren’t just for woods dwellers. Stockbrunnians are allowed, too.”
Shreya hoped beyond all hope that Ellie’s mama would talk some sense into her. “You’re not leaving Stockbrunn. Didn’t you say this was rare?”
Ellie smiled in a way that made Shreya wince. It reminded her of one of Shanti’s calculating smiles. “I’ll find a way. I’d just like to give you a thank-you present. I won’t be able to sleep until I do. It won’t be money or a letter.”
“I can’t say I’ll be there.”
“I’ll keep coming by Ianes’ Wall until you show up.”
“You should do something else. I won’t be there.”
“You’ll be there, trust me.” Ellie said. “Then I’ll give you your gift and we never have to see each other again. It’ll be that simple.”
Shreya decided to settle for that. “Fine. Gift. And you never come back to the woods.”
“Yep! See you later, Shreya. Get home safely!” Ellie needed that last exclamation more than Shreya did. She reached over and patted her on the arm, a gesture that Shreya guessed meant goodbye in Stockbrunnian culture.
Shreya watched her go, making her way down a fork in the path.
She didn’t realize until Ellie was long gone that she still had her dried gourd with her. Insurance that they’d meet again. Ellie may have been more clever than she gave her credit for. How Shreya was going to explain how she lost her gourd to her mother, she had no clue. She knew she was going to be in for a long night.
Making it back to the place that Ellie called Ianes’ Wall didn’t take Shreya long at all. She didn’t have a human or conversation to slow her down. She was in the tall grass, back on her people’s side when she ran into the last wolf she wanted to see.
Shanti’s dark blue eyes had a glint to them, the kind she got when she was hunting. Her long dark hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. She showed her teeth in a wicked grin, fangs gleaming. “My, my, my. What do we have here?”
After spending so much time speaking in the much stiffer Casternian Common language, Shreya was glad to switch back into her native tongue. “I took a walk.”
Her nostrils flared. “Not alone. Where’d they go? Did you kill them?”
“Get your nose checked.” Shreya glared right into her eyes.
Shanti didn’t back down. Her ears twitched. “Of course you didn’t kill them. There’s no blood. So what were you doing out there, dear sister?”
“I’m not repeating myself.” Shreya tried to walk past her. Shanti stood in her way. “Move.”
“Mama’s going to smell that stink on you. You should do something about it.”
Oh, the arm pat. Shreya tore off some of the tall grass and rubbed it where Ellie had touched her. It wasn’t the best cover-up against an expert’s nose, but it was better than nothing. “Is that better?”
“Ooh, that confirms it!” Shanti laughed to herself. Great, once she started cackling it was hard to get her to stop. “You were with a human. Close enough for them to touch you. What happened?”
“I helped her get home.”
Shanti laughed harder. “Stockbrunn of all places!” Shreya must have missed the joke.
“She says she’s important to them. I don’t know about that.” Shreya said. “Shanti…I don’t know what’s so funny but don’t tell Mama about this. I might go see her tomorrow.”
“You plan on seeing her again? Why’s that?” Shanti sobered up, amusement still flaring in her eyes.
Shreya sighed. “She took my gourd. I need to get it back.”
“Who cares about a stupid gourd? We make ’em all the time.”
“It was Papa’s.”
“Why the hell did you have his gourd?” Shanti shoved her shoulder.
“I don’t know. Just don’t tell Mama, okay?” Shreya said. “I’ll be in enough trouble for being out here. She doesn’t have to know I met a human on top of all of that.”
“But this is my chance to finally see you in big time trouble. I never get to see what it’s like from the other side.”
“Don’t tell her. I’m…” Shreya had to come up with something fast. “I’m going to use the girl for info. Okay?”
“Stockbrunn info! If she’s that important, I can get some info out of her that’ll be helpful to Mama. Then she won’t be so mad. But all that’s going to get messed up if you tell her anything, Shanti, so you better not.”
Shanti’s expression was too difficult for her to read. “Okay. You wanna get Papa’s gourd back and you wanna be a spy. And you want me to keep your secrets for you…but I want to see you suffer. This could be my only chance. You’re puttin’ me in a real tough place.”
“You’d be doing me a favor,” which was rather dangerous, seeing how it was Shanti. Nothing good came out of owing Shanti a favor. Paying her back was going to be a pain and a half.
“Ha, I’ll think about it.” Shanti said. “C’mon, let’s get home before Mama gets the both of us.”
Shreya could only hope that her sister would buy the spy idea.
Who knew what would happen if she didn’t?
A/N: Thanks for reading! I’m glad to have you here. Here we go with the very first chapter and the first choice in the story. The adventure begins. Will Shanti tell on Shreya or not? How much trouble do we want to get Shreya in? Your choice determines the story. :O
Voting will end this Sunday at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 2 will be posted next Thursday, the 21st. Feel free to leave a comment.
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