If it hadn’t been for Shanti, Shreya wouldn’t have been there at all.
It was her that took the fall. She came up with a story about Shreya bringing her back to their side of the forest. Shreya, the good, well-behaved sister who wouldn’t have dared traversing the border for anything else but saving Shanti’s life. Shanti said Shreya kept her out of trouble, but that didn’t spare Shreya of anything.
Pravaah punctuated her verbal lecture with a round of punishment for both of them. Heavy-handed discipline delivered by force. They weren’t allowed their nightly rations, a consequence that they were all too familiar with during leaner months.
Huddled against her for extra warmth, Shanti whispered get-away plans to her: act like it’s an ordinary day. Mosey on out when no one’s looking. It’s not like anyone would be keeping track of her. That’s what Shanti did whenever she wanted to border-hop, and it worked for her pretty much every time.
The words “pretty much” hadn’t escaped Shreya’s notice, but she put her faith in Shanti’s plan regardless.
And it worked when she tried it the next morning, after her mother had gone hunting. Shreya walked. She made it out into the forest, wearing the same hat as yesterday, back to the old wall where she’d met Ellie.
Things would’ve ended differently if they’d been any further away. The pig—Marietta, was it?—would’ve been eaten and the bear would’ve had Ellie between her jaws. They were all more than fortunate that she’d been a young bear, hurt and frightened out of her wits.
The bear’s back leg had been crushed, as if something had clamped down on it and she’d shimmied herself free. The bear couldn’t pivot. Shreya had exploited that disadvantage during their fight, attacking her from behind and staying out of her range.
Shreya reached down and shut her eyes for her. In terms of mouths the bear could feed, Shreya hazarded a guess of two families. Her weight would be too significant for her to carry back on her own, though, and there was the greater issue of her having to explain why she’d been in human territory. She wasn’t supposed to be here, let alone hunt here. It was better to leave it, as wasteful as it was.
“One of you will take her.” Shreya said.
“Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do.” Ellie turned away. She fought against the bile rising in her throat. Her father’s side of the family were hunters, but it had been some time since she’d joined them. The stench of death reeked something awful. “We’re trying to take Sunflower out of the hole.”
“Shreya’s talking about that.” Marietta toed the bear’s side with her shoe. It impressed Shreya how fast she’d recovered from the squealing mess she’d found her in.
“I can break her down for you.”
“No, don’t. There’s no need.” Ellie spoke fast. “Let’s get Sunflower.”
“Oh, but your friend’s offering. Why pass up on a good offer?” Marietta smirked, enjoying the way Ellie squirmed.
“Because Sunflower needs us! Let’s go.” Ellie walked ahead.
“Yes, friend, let’s go.” Marietta followed after her, Shreya doing the same.
From what little Shreya knew of Marietta, it seemed like toying with people was a part of her personality. She doubted that her earlier threat had any weight behind it. She’d tried playing the same game that Ellie had the day before—a whole lot of talk about being important. How important could an animal be to a human? Not that Shreya wanted to test her statement, but she was less under the pig’s hoof than Marietta wanted to believe.
“Here she is!” Ellie got down on her knees and leaned over the edge of the hole. “Are you okay?”
She’d fallen a good six feet down, if not more. Her nails were caked with dirt, from desperate attempts at climbing up the walls. It was her foot that prevented her from getting a hold. The impact had jammed it, making shooting pain jam up her ankle every time she bent it.
Sunflower’s whimpers turned into growls as soon as Shreya joined Ellie.
“She’s weird with new people, sorry. She’ll warm up to you.”
A dog. A creature that could trace its ancestry back to weakness and cowardice. They were the ones who turned their backs on their brethren to hitch themselves to humanity. When other animals were starving, they were cozying up to the very people who had once been their enemy. Shreya wasn’t so sure she’d be able to warm up to something so…so traitorous.
She’d never seen a dog before but now that she had, it made her stomach turn.
“If only the bear had fallen into this…” Marietta whistled.
“I know, right? I’ve seen something like this before.” Ellie said. “You use it to hold animals and kill them from a distance. It would’ve definitely taken care of the bear.”
How many others had died in traps like this one? Abandoned. Alone. Unable to defend themselves without so much as a fighting chance. Even an intelligent animal would have trouble making it out.
“Good thing this one didn’t have any spikes at the bottom,” she continued. “Someone might’ve made it in too much of a hurry to set it up properly.”
“Or they wanted their kill to be as hands-on as possible.” Marietta said.
“That’s nasty. It was probably because they were worried a person would wander into it.”
“People aren’t supposed to be here.”
“People are here. People live and survive in the woods.” Ellie glanced over at Shreya.
Shreya needed this information. “How does the trap work?”
Ellie spread out her arms. “They lay a blanket over the hole and cover it with leaves. As soon as someone steps on it, they fall through.”
That was exactly the kind of intelligence Shreya needed to gather. To come back empty-handed after Shanti sacrificed herself for her would’ve been insulting. This made everything, including all of that nonsense with her gourd, worth it. Ellie was a treasure trove of secrets waiting to be spilled.
“We should find a rope,” the human girl said.
“We’re in a forest. We’d have to go back to Stockbrunn to get one.” Marietta shot her down.
Shreya added, “we shouldn’t separate. It’s not smart to do that. Everyone stay together.”
“Yeah, and I don’t wanna leave Sunflower, so that’s not happening.”
“Oh, like how you left me?”
“I said I was sorry, didn’t I? If I didn’t, I am, I’m real sorry.” Ellie said. “I thought I drew the bear away but I didn’t, and I’m sorry. I came looking for you. I never left you.”
Marietta wasn’t buying it. “Okay.”
“Anyway,” Ellie said. “I’ve got a new plan. Since we don’t have a rope, why don’t we be the rope?” Pride for her cleverness lit up Ellie’s features.
“We be the rope…” Shreya parsed out the meaning. “How does that work?”
“Easy! I’ll hold a branch for Sunflower to grab, you grab me, and then Marietta grabs you. We can reach her like we’re the rope.”
“There’s a good chance that’s going to lead to all four of us in the hole,” Marietta said. “We’re not going to have much leverage.”
“How strong are you?” Shreya asked Ellie, sizing her up.
“I’m plenty strong. I’ll have you know I’m the hardest worker you’ll ever meet. Manual labor’s in my blood.” When Ellie caught Shreya’s eyes wandering, she grinned. “Are you checking me out?”
“Yes. You’re fine.” There wasn’t anything outwardly wrong with her.
Her cheeks reddened. “Um, thanks! Uh, I’m going to go find the stick, then, yep.” She left them to go find one strong enough.
Marietta chuckled to herself. Another joke that Shreya didn’t understand.
Once Ellie returned, they got into formation. Ellie laid down on her stomach, holding the stick for Sunflower to grab. Her upper half dipped into the hole. Shreya crouched over her, her feet planted near the edge. She kept her arms tight around Ellie’s waist, straining not to drop her. They didn’t need two accidents today. Marietta wrapped an arm around Shreya’s middle, ready to assist in pulling Ellie and Sunflower up with her.
Sunflower reached for the stick, her fingers only brushing it.
“Lower me a bit more.” Ellie called out.
“Okay, lowing you.”
“Lowering,” Marietta corrected.
It wasn’t the time for grammar lessons. Not when one slip meant Ellie potentially breaking her neck. She felt so fragile in Shreya’s arms, like something that could be crushed with an accidental flex. Soft. Vulnerable. Every ounce of this breakable girl’s trust was in Shreya at that moment. What if she did let go? Using Ellie as a measuring stick, humans weren’t nearly as hardy as wolves. She wouldn’t be able to bounce back from a falll like that. The difference was fascinating.
Ellie said something to Sunflower to get her to stop growling. “Good. Sunflower, take.” There was a slight pull on the line. “Alright, guys, let’s bring her up!”
Marietta took a step backwards, not letting go. Shreya followed suit, one foot following the other for balance.
If she dropped Ellie…she’d be left in the hole like so many other animals before her. She’d learn how it feels to be hopeless, at the enemy’s mercy as spears endlessly prod at her.
The thought didn’t bloom any further.
The strain on her arms doubled. Sunflower must’ve been off the ground. Marietta kept backing up, a steady force that helped Shreya from tipping over.
Bit by bit, Shreya dragged Ellie out, getting her back to safety. When the dog got close enough to the surface, she let go of the stick, leapt for the edge, and hauled herself up on her own. Unable to support herself on her bad foot, she sat on the ground. Fury began to pool in her eyes.
Ellie held her. Sunflower’s head rested over her shoulder.
“Bad.” She growled the word, her pronunciation of it so poor that Shreya thought she said something else at first.
“She can speak?”
“She’s a dog.” Ellie rubbed circles into her back. That appeased her enough to keep her from growling, but not enough to remove her death glare.
“Dogs can only say so much.” Marietta explained. “Let’s say that they’re limited in certain departments.”
That was what those turncoats got for bowing their heads in subjugation. Domestication ruined them. Shreya almost felt sorry for the poor thing. Its clothes, a one-piece shirt-and-shorts combo, looked like it was stiched together from discarded fabric, leftovers that no one knew what to do with. It didn’t even have shoes, the bottom of its feet crusted with dirt.
No shoes, no proper clothing, no language ability. Stockbrunn treated its pigs better than its dogs.
And yet, in spite of its treatment, Sunflower’s tail still wagged from being in its master’s grasp.
“What does Sunflower do?”
“She’s my companion. We travel together. We protect each other.” Ellie squeezed her tighter.
“If she’s hurt, does that mean you won’t be coming back here anymore?”
Ellie loosened her hold. “You sound a little sad about that. My, my, is someone having a change of heart from the whole just-give-me-my-stuff-back-and-I’ll-go thing?”
“Um…” Shreya didn’t know what to say. “Her foot’s red. We should tend to it.”
Ellie let her go to check on her foot. Sunflower whined as she manipulated it, checking it for the extent of her injury. “She’s going to have trouble walking.”
“We need to tie her foot with that.” Shreya looked over at the big bow on Marietta’s head.
“No! Obviously you don’t know quality when you see it.” Marietta huffed. “This ribbon’s rare. It doesn’t deserve to get soiled by being wrapped around a dirty paw.”
“We can use hers.” She undid Sunflower’s wide ribbon, letting her reddish-blonde hair loose. Ellie fluffed it out, causing joy to intermingle with the anger still lingering in Sunflower’s eyes. “Pressure on the wound’ll help, right?”
“It keeps it from…” Shreya made a circle with her hands, then expanded it to a larger size.
“It keeps it from enlarging, or getting bigger.” Marietta said.
“Yes, thank you. Enlarging.” Shreya said. “And we need something cold. A river.”
Ellie wrapped the ribbon around Sunflower’s foot and ankle, tying it tight. Sunflower whined when she pulled it. “We should let her rest. I don’t think she’s ready to walk. Why don’t we eat and chat a bit, you know, get to know each other more and stuff?”
“Right here? Where a bear almost killed us?” Marietta reminded them.
“If there’s anything coming, you’ll let us know.” Shreya said. Since she was with them, only the bravest of creatures would come near them. A wolf, a dog, a pig, a human. They were too much of a threat (and an oddity, too) at this point to be worth contending with. Scent-wise, at least. Sight-wise told a different story. “I know how to hide us. We’ll be okay.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Ellie took off her bag. She took out three jars filled with light brown mush, followed by an apple and some wrapped-up, dried-out meat. Muttering something about payment, Marietta grabbed a jar, the fruit, and the meat, and then got right to eating.
“Yes. I learn something new every day.” Shreya said. “I have to know a lot in my life or I won’t have one anymore.”
Ellie popped the lid off of one of the jars and handed it over to Sunflower. She passed the remaining one to Shreya.
“You should keep it.” Accepting the jar meant that Ellie wouldn’t have one.
“It’s okay. I owe you so much already. Seriously, this is the least I can do, and—and your gourd! Wait here, I know where I dropped it. Sunflower, stay.” Ellie hurried off to get it. Knowing that they were in a relatively safe place, Shreya didn’t go after her.
Marietta spoke through a mouthful of apple. “Well-played so far, wolf.”
“What are you referring to?”
“You haven’t given yourself away.” Marietta said. “I thought Sunflower would ruin everything for you.”
The look of pure hatred in Sunflower’s eyes only seemed to grow the longer Shreya stayed with them. She scooped out her porridge and spooned it into her mouth, her gaze not leaving Shreya.
“Sunflower, Miss Wolf here is our friend for now. Do her a favor and lighten up. She’s not going to hurt Ellie since she knows what’s good for her.” Marietta tossed the finished apple core behind her shoulder.
“I’m not going to hurt her because I don’t want to.”
Sunflower shook her head. “Bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad.”
Ellie showed back up with Shreya’s father’s gourd, ending their little conversation. She shook it. Something sloshed inside, an odd grape-like drink. “I brought you a present. This is something that they give to really important people as a gift. It’s home-made.”
“Important people like you?”
“Yep. It’s a classy and amazing gesture. Consider yourself lucky.”
“I take it you’re showered in gifts, then, since you’re so important.” Shreya said, amused by the thought of it.
“Heh, more like my family is.”
“Ellie’s at the top of the food chain,” Marietta clarified. “You can think of her as elite, which makes the two of us elite by extension. Only, Sunflower’s not as elite as me seeing how she’s a dog and all.”
Elite. Literature had created a different image of the elite for Shreya. Elegant dresses. Ball gowns. Grand displays. Wealth pouring out of pockets. Stunning castles and banquet halls. Poise, and a refined way of speaking and carrying one’s self. Ellie seemed too down-home for that, especially considering who she kept as friends and all of her forest-wandering. Shouldn’t elite people stay in the company of the elite?
Maybe this was all a clever ruse, some type of game a farmer girl liked to play. It could be one big joke, a fantasy for them to all play into so they could keep their minds off of the realities of their life.
Shreya undid the cork and sniffed the drink. The sweet, fruity aroma hit her. “What’s this called?”
“Riesling. It’s a white wine.” Ellie said, smiling. “Go ahead and try some. We usually have it with dinner.”
To her surprise, it was refreshingly light-tasting. She expected more of a grape taste, but it reminded her much more of sweet pear juice. A mild kick followed on the way down. “It’s nice. Thank you.”
Marietta cleared her throat. She’d finished her jerky and was working on her porridge. Shreya passed the gourd along. She took a gulp of it then passed it back.
“Is it okay if she has some?” Shreya asked.
Shreya passed Sunflower the gourd. Sunflower accepted it warily, then took a small swallow of it. She gave it back to Shreya, her glare relaxing into neutrality. There was an unspoken respect in that exchange, an agreement that neither of them would harm the other.
She tipped her head back, pouring some of the porridge into her mouth. “This is nice, too.” Sugar, some kind of spice-blend for added flavor. “What’s in it?”
“It’s bulgur wheat porridge. I added cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Isn’t it great?”
It could’ve just been because Shreya hadn’t eaten in some time, but everything tasted wonderful. The Riesling wine bursted with fruity flavor. The porridge had the right amount of sweetness to it to keep it from being bland.
“Is this the kind of thing you have for breakfast?” Ellie asked.
“No, nothing like this.” Shreya said. She took a long drink out of the gourd. “We’re more plain. Most spice is expensive or hard to find.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. We’ve got to import it. Do you guys have a trading network or anything like that?”
“It’s small. I’m not involved in it so I can’t tell you about it.” She handed the gourd over to Marietta. Marietta took another swig of it, and passed it to Ellie.
“It must be hard living in the woods without a village, huh?”
“It’s so-so.” Shreya shrugged. “I wouldn’t say I live without a village. It’s a village, yeah…”
“Sorry, I wasn’t sure what you’d call it.” Ellie took a long sip from the gourd. Sunflower turned down another turn with it, so it went to Shreya next.
“Clever,” Ellie said. She looked up at the sky. “We’re going to have to get going soon. Sorry about all that drama with the gourd, by the way. I wanted to get to know you better and I didn’t know how else to guarantee that I’d see you again.” She smiled softly. “But now that you’ve got it back, I guess this’ll be some weird thing we can both look back on. You and me, and our tiny adventure.”
“Don’t forget about us.” Marietta said. “Your tiny adventure almost got us killed.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that. We can see each other again.” Shreya said. “It might not be tomorrow but it’ll happen.” She capped the gourd. The rest of it would go to Shanti.
“Next time, if there ever is a next time, we’re following my directions, instead.” Marietta chimed in.
Ellie clapped her hands together. “Let’s make it three days from now! Because you know, if we leave without setting a real day it’ll be like we’re never gonna meet again.” Ellie helped Sunflower to her feet. She got the stick for her, letting her lean against it for support.
“Okay, I’m fine with that.” Shreya said. “Three days.”
“Try not to miss us too much.” Ellie laughed.
“I won’t. Marietta, can you get them back safely?”
“Of course I can. Leave it to me. See you later, friend.”
“Bye. It was nice meeting you.” Shreya waved them goodbye.
She watched them go, letting them get a good distance away before she headed in the other direction.
Maybe she would miss them, too.
Just a little.
A/N: Thank you for reading the fifth chapter! The poll results for last week were 1 for No Injury, 7 for Mild Injury, and 4 for Severe Injury. We also got to see the results of the very first poll in this chapter, which were 5 for Shanti telling Pravaah and 8 for her not telling Pravaah. This poll will be open until Sunday, February 14th at 11:59 PM EST.
Vote for RWC on TWF to help us get and stay on the charts.