Dragging the carcass back was harder than Shreya thought it would be.
She had to burrow her knife through its muzzle, baring a hole for the stick she wedged into it. It went clean through. After testing its security, Shreya used the stick as her handle for pulling the bear along behind her.
By the time she got it into Marjani territory, her palms were pulsing. She brought them up to her face to check the damage. Her arms shook from the effort. The stick had rubbed the uppermost part of her palm raw, her skin a split pink color. She was too caught up in her hands to notice exactly when the hush fell over the nearby wolves.
She’d come in through the artisans’ area, where people were working on their various crafts. Her presence paused them. The row of weaving women stared at her, their intricately patterned looms before them. Black diagonal lines intersected squares on white textiles. Pulled taut, the threads stretched from the loom posts to the backstraps the weavers wore, maintaining tension on the loom.
The doll makers that sat by them were transfixed on the bear, mouths as wide open as the toys in their grasps. Hands pulling strings through beads hovered in the air. The painter’s brush froze mid-stroke. Someone crawled out from under the crafters’ lean-to.
A pup squealed in delight. Her breaking the silence gave everyone else permission to. The weavers clacked their combs together. The doll makers shook jars of beads. Everyone cheered in celebration of the haul. For one brief moment, Shreya felt like a celebrity. A real hero.
They were going to eat well tonight.
Tadeas, the painter, and Maysa, one of the doll makers, came over to take the bear. Shreya gladly handed it over. The thought of dragging the bear anywhere else made her feel faint. Together, Tadeas and Maysa hoisted it up and carried it off towards the village storehouse. A weaver, Oydis, unhooked herself from her loom, and ran over to Shreya.
The rest of the artisans returned to their work with renewed vigor. They chatted animatedly about what the bear would taste like. Tough; fatty. Tender; sweet. A couple of them hadn’t ever had one before, too young to know. That sparked up a debate among the older ones who insisted they were right, and that was enough for their attention to switch off from Shreya.
Oydis hugged her, her slight form feeling like bones more than anything. Shreya was careful not to accidentally crush her. “This is such a gift, Shreya. How did you find it?” Oydis held her at arms’ length. “And are you alright? Are you hurt in any way?”
“I’m alright.” Shreya said, glad to not have to speak in Casternian anymore. Her mother language felt like home to her. “The bear was on its way to death when I got to it. I only put it out of its misery.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen one.”
The hunters weren’t having much luck. Game was scarce in their territory. Animals weren’t repopulating the area fast enough. For fear of overhunting, the Marjani people had to diversify their food sources. They grew a limited number of crops. Poor soil conditions prevented them from expanding their fields.
In the distance, a thick, billowing tower of smoke scraped the sky. A mourning fire. Shreya’s stomach dropped. Mourning fires were growing more frequently as of late.
Oydis followed her gaze. “It’s Galo and Kachina. Kachina gave birth this morning.”
“I’ll pay my respects when their mourning period ends.” She wondered if the fire indicated that their children failed to survive, or if they had to make a hard decision. Faced with the current Marjani reality, those kinds of decisions weren’t uncommon. Keeping one or two mouths well-fed was a more attainable prospect than multiples. It put less of a strain on the overall community. Pragmatism didn’t make it any easier of a decision, though.
“Thank you. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.”
“I’m going to go freshen up a bit. Take care, Oydis.”
“You, as well.”
Shreya took her hat off, freeing her ears to the air. She tied the strings around her neck so she wouldn’t lose it. It hung loosely against her back as she walked through the village. As customary, she exchanged warm greetings with every wolf she passed along the way.
The afternoon hour meant that everyone was scrambling to finish their daily tasks. A wolf leaned over a stump, carving a figurine under her mentor’s watchful gaze. A second pair were sharpening their knives, the clacks and streaks of metal-on-metal filling the air. They were having a good laugh at another wolf’s struggles to get a fire pit going. The spark refused to happen.
Satchel-carriers headed for the storehouse, their bags full of leafy greans they’d gathered. Barrels of grain balanced on shoulders going the same way. Hefty weights. A small family followed the procession, both fathers proud of the haul. One of their two puppies held a writhing sack. Shreya’s nose told her that there were fish inside, nice ones, too. The other one called out to Shreya, complimenting her deer cape.
In another area, tanning took place. Wapasha, an older wolf, brushed dirt from the raw hide. He had it stretched between posts. Cured with a thin salt layer, lean meat jerky dried in the waning sun. The strips were suspended, looped and tied to hang off of tree branches. Wapasha dabbed at his forehead with a balled-up piece of cloth.
“Would you like some help?” Shreya walked closer. The other tanners were running wire brushes over their hide skins to soften them. They worked in a vocation that required patience and an eye for detail.
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m fine. I just had a little too much sun today.” Wapasha blew his black-and-gray fringe out of his eyes. His hair was longer than hers. “Did something happen to you? A little roughhousing gone awry?”
She realized he was talking about the blood streak on her pants, from when she wiped her knife off. “I was out hunting.”
Wapasha grinned. Smile lines crinkled his eyes. “Jumped right into the fray, did you? I did a lot of that when I was your age. Sometimes I miss it, but then I remember that my Elder years are around the corner. I look forward to moving into a resting home more than anything else. Hope I’ll age up wise.”
“You’re wise. You just have to wait for your age to catch up,” Shreya assured him. Well-built with a towering figure, Wapasha was only intimidating when it came to his looks. He hadn’t lost any of his muscle mass from when he used to hunt with Shreya’s mother and the rest of the hunters.
“You don’t need to flatter me, Shreya,” he said. “What I need from you is for you to talk to Shanti for me. She needs to return The Shaded Grove to the library. It’s the final book in the Bzherkan trilogy. Have you read any of them?”
“It sounds familiar. Who’s the writer?”
“Ward Marjani Fielaan. The Bzherkan trilogy is a masterpiece.” Wapasha closed his eyes as he spoke, as if he were picturing the pages. “It’s a romantic political drama with nods to classic literature. Love blooms in a war cabinet.”
What was Shanti doing with a book like that? Shanti preferred reading what Shreya liked to call liars’ books, rewritten tales of greatness, of wolves besting humanity. They were page-turners starring genius action hero protagonists. They were smart, strong, and hot to everyone but themselves. That last point was supposed to be their one fatal flaw. Terrible modesty. Those books were absurdly popular with wolves their age—the more “wolves, hell yeah” moments in the book, the better.
“I’ll be sure to tell her.” There had to be a good reason why she checked The Shaded Grove out. “I’ll leave you to your tanning. Take care, Wapasha.”
Wapasha gave her a nod. “You as well.”
She left him. She passed by more people packing up their things. The nightly gathering would be happening soon. It was a traditional time for Marjani wolves to join together to eat, talk, and discuss what was going on in their lives if they wished to. Sometimes there were even performances…music, storytelling, dance, and so-on-and-so-forth. The most important part of the gathering was the Elders’ announcements.
The black mourning cloud made a somber mood hang in the air. Shreya wasn’t sure what the gathering would be like tonight because of it.
Her ear twitched as she listened out for her sister. She could hear her laughing somewhere over there. Drawn by the sound, Shreya made her way to the crèche, the daycare and playground area for the younger pups. Caretakers watched over them, not interfering with their explorations.
One of them reminded her of a little Shanti. She kept smacking a log with a stick, somehow not hitting her brother who jumped up and down on it. A small cluster of children whittled sticks into spears, carving the wood with tiny knives. Learning tools at an early age was important, and their red-faced focus told her they knew that.
A mother breastfed her baby, her back to a tree that some children were scrambling up. They urged each other along, yelling out words of encouragement all the way to the top. An adult wolf lounged in the sun. Pups took turn jumping over him, challenging each other to twirl as they did so. From the open doorway of the center, Shreya could hear children being read to in Marjanian and Casternian.
Shanti held a child by her arms, and her friend, Danilo, held the same child by her legs. They swung her gently between them, the three of them all laughing, as happy as can be. They looked like a glimpse into the future. Shanti. Danilo. A pup of their own. Shreya off to the side as the single aunt. Shreya wouldn’t be surprised if that future came true. Shanti looked at Danilo like the artisan wolves looked at the bear.
“Hi, Shreya!” Danilo greeted her. He and Shanti gently put the pup down.
She kicked at the ground. “Not fair!”
“We’ll play more tomorrow. I promise.” Shanti ruffled her hair. “Now why don’t you go play with your friends? Show them who’s boss.” Happy to hear that, the pup bounced off to play with a group of play-wrestling pups.
“What are you doing in the crèche?” Shreya didn’t know Shanti was this interested in children.
“I was paying Danilo a visit and got roped into helping him out,” Shanti said. “It’s not a bad gig.”
“The kids loved having you around,” Danilo said. He smiled in a way that made Shreya wonder if the kids weren’t the only ones who loved having Shanti there.
“Wapasha asked me to tell you to return The Shaded Grove. He wants to read it.”
“That’s my fault, sorry.” Danilo frowned. “I was already at my two book maximum so I asked Shanti to borrow it for me.”
“I had a feeling that was the case,” Shreya said. There were few things Shanti wouldn’t do if Danilo asked. Her sister saw something special in him. What that was, Shreya had yet to understand.
“Did you have fun today? You sure looked like you did.” Shanti raised her eyebrows. The blood again. Shreya clapped her hand over it.
“I had to put a bear down. We’re going to have it tonight at the gathering.”
Danilo pumped a fist into the air. “Splendid! I can’t wait!”
Shreya’s face burned with secondhand embarrassment. Splendid? Shanti was into someone who had no shame in saying “splendid” without any irony whatsoever.
Shanti said, “I’ll have to hear more about that after the gathering.” She looked up at the sky. “We’ve got to round up the kids and get all the supplies put away. Save us some good seats, Shreya.”
“Will do. Take care, you two.”
~ * ~ * ~
Fire torches bordered the wolves from corner to corner, providing ample light. What was left of the bear hung over a pit. The servers were down to the bones, trying to scrape off what they could for the wolves that hadn’t gotten their plates yet. The queue moved slowly, plates outstretched to get their share of meat, fish, leaves, berries, and grain.
Shreya didn’t spot Galo and Kachina in the crowds. Their mourning clothes would have made them stick out. She trusted that someone delivered them their plates. Shanti, Danilo, and her had already got theirs. Their portions were meager. It was difficult keeping stomachs full when everyone was rationed to an age-appropriate serving. Pups and Elders were prioritized.
“If you’re not going to eat your taekalb, can I have it?” Shanti shook her arm for attention.
Shreya passed it over, more than happy not to eat it.
Danilo moved his plate towards her, and asked, “do you want any grain? It’ll make the trade fairer.”
“I’m okay. I’m not that hungry,” Shreya said. Sharing food with Ellie had taken care of most of her hunger pains. The porridge had stuck to her stomach well.
Her mind wandered. What was Ellie having for dinner? It had to be something hardier than what they were having. Probably something spiced and flavorful, if that porridge was anything to go by. Had she made it home okay? Her well-being should’ve been Shreya’s first thought. Three days was going to be a long time to go without knowing how she was doing.
…Not that worrying about someone she hardly knew was any of her business. Ellie had that dog and that pig with her. They’d make sure she got back safely.
“Shreya, this bear is divine.” Danilo sighed happily. “The taste will stay with me for days. No, weeks. Years.” He’d only gotten a sliver—as much as Shreya and Shanti—but it was enough to say that and mean it.
“Eh…it didn’t taste like anything to me.” Shanti shrugged.
“That’s because you didn’t chew it,” Danilo said.
“I’ll savor it more next time, then,” she said. “There’ll be more bears.”
The wolves sat in a wide circle around the stage where the performances took place. Shreya had managed to get the three of them seats close to the front. Plates in laps, all of the wolves eagerly looked forward to what would happen. The schedule was kept a mystery.
Two wolves stood up from the circle and got onto the stage. They were dressed in loose, vibrantly-colored clothing. They raised their hands together, a signal for everyone to stop talking and pay attention. Shreya leaned forward to get a better view. A wolf she couldn’t see laid down a drum beat for them to dance to.
At first, the dance was chaste. Simple twirling, no real touching other than the occasional brushing of fingers. But then the beat grew faster and the male dancer grabbed the female dancer’s waist and Shreya had to tear her eyes away at that, too embarrassed at whatever was going to happen next in the dance.
She played it off, whispering to her sister. “You and Danilo should go up there next.”
“No thanks!” Shanti said it louder than she meant to. A wolf sitting behind them growled. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Danilo laughed nervously.
Once the performance was finally over (and Shreya’s face felt like fire to the touch), one of the Marjani Elders took the stage. Ilkay Marjani Gavi. Her eyes pierced through the crowds, daring anyone to speak. At least three minutes had to have gone by before she starte her speech.
“Thank you, everyone, for attending, and for maintaining your spirits in these hard times,” Elder Ilkay said. Shreya wanted to gag. Elder Ilkay relied on buzz words for her speeches. There wasn’t much substance to them, but she said things that everyone wanted to hear so no one ever complained. Plus, she was an Elder. An Elder could burn down a building, call it art, and everyone would still celebrate them.
Elder Ilkay continued, “this is a testament to what makes wolves wolves. Resiliency. Strength. Determination. A trust and pride in our abilities.” She lifted her arms. “I send praise to your reliance upon one another. I implore you to never forget your bonds and connections to each other as Marjani wolves.”
A typical, wooden plug-and-play speech. Shreya glanced around. The wolf she sat next to had tears in her eyes. Give me a break.
Elder Ilkay bowed. “If anyone has an announcement to make, please do so. After the announcements, we will hear three songs from the talented Hasna Marjani Taruh.”
Someone pipsqueak-voiced got onto the stage and started talking. Their big, grand announcement that everyone had to hear was that they were putting the finishing touches on their kite project. They had stitched together a kite so large that it required four people to hold it. The crowd cheered louder for the kite project than they did for the dancers.
“I saw that kite. It looks like crap,” Shanti whispered. “It looks like a stuffed worm.”
“It’s not that bad. It has its charm,” Danilo said with a smile.
“Sure, if you like google-eyed paper creatures.”
Hasna’s songs were exactly what Shreya expected them to be—songs praising the glory that was being a wolf. It was the nationalistic subject matter that got people excited, not her voice. Shreya was over it before she’d sung the first note of her second song.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around to come face-to-face with her mother, crouched down so they would be at eye-level. Pravaah’s bad eye was hidden under a black eyepatch. She wore the emblem that represented Shreya’s father, a symbol of strength and loyalty. Shreya’s tail lowered on instinct.
“Mama,” Shanti greeted her with a toothy grin. Pravaah didn’t return it. She barely acknowledged her. Danilo was smart enough to look away, to give them their privacy.
“Shreya. Shanti. How did you get the bear? Did you pass over the wall again?” Pravaah’s tone was as cold as the look on her face.
“Shanti wasn’t with me this time.” Shreya came clean. It would have been wrong not to. “I went by myself. The bear was almost dead when I found it. I finished it off and brought it here because I thought it was the best thing to do.” Wasn’t it?
“Come to the Elders’ Hall when this is over.” Apparently, it wasn’t. Pravaah got up and left them.
When Pravaah was out of earshot, Shanti nudged Shreya. “You are so in for it.”
“Did you really go over the wall by yourself? That’s…that was so bad of you to do. You know it’s against the Elders’ rules.” Danilo shook his head. The way he talked meant that he didn’t know anything about Shanti’s own adventures over the wall. That cinched it. Danilo was too clean and too innocent for her. “A bear’s not worth your life.”
“Good luck at the Elder’s Hall.” Shanti patted Shreya on the shoulder.
~ * ~ * ~
Shreya needed all the luck she could get.
She kneeled down before the half-circle of Elder wolves. They were dressed in their ceremonial robes, their hoods pulled up over their heads. The hoods were cut in a way that let their ears poke through. Pravaah stood among them, with the worst glare of any of them. The disappointment coming off of her made Shreya’s ears flatten to her head. She wanted to run far, far away.
She’d never gone before the Elders before.
“Your disobedience can not go unpunished,” Elder Ilkay said. “Shreya Marjani Azima, you have made an egregious error in judgment by doing what you did. Our rules are set in place for a reason. It’s not only your life that you put at risk, but the lives of all wolves here.”
Pravaah spoke next. “The requirements of the treaty we have with the humans dictates that we don’t cross into their territory without a proper and agreed upon reason. You had neither. Stealing food from them is an outrageous offense.” She tilted her head. “I’m granting you permission to speak, Shreya. Explain yourself.”
Shreya’s throat went dry. “The bear would’ve been rancid by the time any human came for it. Someone had to eat it. I couldn’t…I couldn’t just leave it, not when we need it.”
“We only hunt and scavenge on our own lands,” Elder Ilkay said.
Elder Haneul cleared his throat. “Shreya has a point. We do need it. Being wasteful in this instance would have been regretful,” he said. “Shreya was putting the needs of the Marjani people before her own. She could’ve left the bear and not gotten caught, but she brought it here to help us.”
The newest addition to the council, Elder Calanthe, grunted at that. “Just because the crime was selfless doesn’t make it any less of a crime that she was in their territory in the first place. If a thief breaks into a house with the intent to steal but ends up saving a choking child, do you just not punish the thief?”
A few of the other Elders murmured in agreement. Elder Haneul spoke again, “I propose that we have Shreya take responsibility and choose her punishment. We’ll give her options that fit this crime while still keeping in mind the good that she did. I for one don’t want to see her unnecessarily suffer for this.”
Elder Ilkay considered that. “Pravaah, what do you think?”
“It feels appropriate to me, but it’s ultimately your decision as Elders on what to allow,” Pravaah said.
“Shreya may choose from these two options,” Elder Ilkay said. “One day of exile or three days of silence. If any of you have issues with this proposal, then please say so.” Silence. All of the Elders were in agreement. “Shreya, the decision is yours.”
An entire day of solitary… Shreya wasn’t sure how she could handle that. The things she had heard about the exile punishment weren’t pleasant. She’d be taken somewhere and be forced to stay there alone, to get a taste of what it’d be like without her community.
Three days of silence would overlap with the day she agreed to meet with Ellie. Assuming she’d even be able to sneak out again, that could pose a problem. It was better than being alone but not being able to talk to or interact with the other wolves would be its own kind of pain.
Shreya bowed her head. Which punishment did she deserve?
A/N: The result of last chapter’s poll was 14 yes and 1 no for Shreya bringing home the slain bear. That was the closest vote to 100% we’ve ever had. The voter who voted no deserves a special prize.
I’m still taking wolf suggestions. Name, age, description. I could only incorporate one of them into this chapter, but we have a couple more chapters to go here. Let’s meet more wolfy friends.
Voting ends this Sunday at 11:59 PM EST. As always, please vote on Topwebfiction to help us get on and stay on the charts!