The simple, comfortable fabric of her night clothes. The welcome roughness of the flooring and the weaving consisting of their bedding. The walls that surrounded them. Shreya willed her surroundings into her memory, burning their images so she could recall them later when she’d need them. Pravaah hadn’t come home yet, likely too busy making arrangements with the Elders as to the details of her punishment.
“You missed out on Loupe freakin’ out,” Shanti spoke to her in the darkness. Lying on their sides, they faced one another in their shared sleeping corner. “He was rantin’ and ravin’ about the full moon happening tomorrow night.”
“What did he want?” Shreya leaned up on her arm. Loupe was a subject she didn’t want to miss out on.
Shanti pounded her fist in her palm. “He demanded we tie him up so he wouldn’t sneak off and return to his real people when he changes. He really said that! Eyes poppin’ outta his head. A lake’s worth of sweat pouring down his face. Loupe was that scared of what’d happen when he changed back in the morning.”
“If they were his real people, he wouldn’t have anything to be afraid of,” Shreya said, amused. “They’d leave him alone. So much for real people.”
“They’re the ones that would be afraid. We’re wolves, remember? We’re something to fear,” Shanti said. “And he’s an idiot. There’s no such thing as were-humans, and if there were, he wouldn’t be one.”
“Because he’s got human fever. Miracles don’t happen to people who want to mingle with humans that much. They just don’t. Hanging out with humans too much makes you cursed.”
“You know that’s a myth.” Human contact hadn’t ‘cursed’ Loupe. His own twisted thinking had done that.
“Name any good things that have happened because of humans and wolves intermingling.” When her sister didn’t say anything, Shanti took that as a victory. “Thought so! Loupe’s so obsessed with them that he thinks he’s one of them. It’s disgusting. I don’t get it.” Shanti shuddered. “Their ears are on the sides of their heads. That’s gross!”
“It’s not gross on all of them.” While Shreya preferred not to see their ears, she didn’t mind them. “Some of them make it work.”
“Like that girl who stole Papa’s gourd?” Laughter played at the edge of her words. “How’d that go? How’da bear get jumbled all up in that?”
Shreya avoided the baiting question, the first one that was sure to set Shanti off on a teasing gigglefest if Shreya went anywhere near it. “I saved her from the bear. She had some friends with her and they needed my help.” She kept the details close to her chest. Shanti didn’t need to know that Ellie kept animals in her company. What had she called her dog? Something ridiculous like a companion. What the pig was to Ellie, Shreya wasn’t sure, but calling them both her friends was the easiest explanation.
“You should’ve let the bear get ’em. Imagine the haul you would’ve gotten.” Shanti grinned. “That’s a lotta meat.”
“No. The bear was more than enough,” Shreya said. Her stomach turned at the thought.
“You’ve always been a bleeding heart when it comes to these things.”
“That’s not why. Letting her die would’ve defeated the purpose in talking to her,” Shreya deflected. “She’s my information.”
“Oh, yeah? What information did you get?”
Shreya drew out a square in the air. “Humans use traps that look like this. They dig out a hole, cover it with a tarp, and when an animal steps on it, they fall right in. There’s spikes at the bottom so once they’re trapped in the hole, they bleed out and can’t fight back.”
Shanti gasped. It was exaggerated, but there was some genuine shock in there. “Only they’d come up with something that… Ugh, I don’t even have a word for it.” She slapped the floor. “Good work, sis.”
Shreya had to admit that there was something clever about that idea. Traps would make it easier for them to get food. The problem was that something like that went against their culture. The underhandedness was too disrespectful.
Shanti reached over and squeezed her hand. Her voice got heavier. “Hey, if you get scared tomorrow—”
“I’ll be okay.” Shreya wiggled her fingers free.
“I’m being serious for once!” Shanti tried again, “if you get scared, just think of me. It worked when we were pups. It’ll work now, too.”
“You think highly of yourself, don’t you?” Shreya teased.
“Yep. Just wait and see. When you need a little mental boost, think Shanti. I’ll be thinking of you, too, and keeping you safe.”
They wouldn’t let her bring along any clay dolls to her punishment. The Elders didn’t allow any helpful objects, not even spiritual ones. Shreya would have to call on her sister’s qualities to give her strength. Her humor. Her steadfastness.
Shreya drifted off to sleep some time after that. She woke up at the sound of Pravaah and a few other wolves entering the room. They were members of the hunting party, strong and broad-shouldered.
It was time to go. Shreya glanced over at Shanti one last time. She’d turned in her sleep, her back to her and her face turned away.
She thought of her sister as she was led out of her home, still wearing her nightwear. They hadn’t let her grab her shoes.
The sun peeked over the horizon, its rays painting the sky a burnt orange. It’d be some time before the morning communal meal, one that Shreya wouldn’t take part in. Exile being her punishment meant that she couldn’t partake in their daily and nightly food.
Pravaah bagged her head. The burlap stung her eyes. She squeezed them shut. The hunters marched her forward. Her mother gripped her arm to steer her along, something that she didn’t have to do. Shreya wasn’t going to break away and run. She couldn’t. They’d prepare a worse punishment for her if she did. She’d chosen this and she was going to deal with it.
The walk went on so long that she lost track of time. No one said a word. Blinded, she had to settle for listening to birdsong and the wind whipping against leaves. One of the wolves with them had a limp that caused him to shift his foot along the ground. That had to be a test, to see if she’d resist tracking her way back based on his drag marks in the dirt.
She counted her breaths, each one deliberate. In and out through the nose, nice and easy. The hot air within the sack dizzied her. It was her mother’s hand on her arm that kept her from stumbling.
Finally, they stop. Pravaah pulled the bag off of her head. Free, Shreya took a gulp of welcome air. “Clothes,” her mother said.
Shreya slipped them off and over her head. She handed them over. Her cheeks burned, not from the shame of being seen, but from the realization that she had nothing to protect herself with. No shoes. No clothes. No knife or gourd.
“We’ll come from you at the next sunrise,” Pravaah announced. Shreya listened to the rules that weren’t spoken, as well. Attempts at getting home wouldn’t be tolerated. Even if the sun had set a second time, she was not to try to get back to the community. Whether or not to pick her up was their decision. Shreya’s choice had only been a suggestion, after all. “Turn around.”
She turned on her heel to look at a tree. Shreya stared so hard at it that her vision blurred. She didn’t turn around until Pravaah and the other hunters were out of earshot.
Shreya slapped her hand over her arm, crushing a bug dead. She hoped that wouldn’t be a common occurence. If she didn’t get herself a shelter, they’d chew her up. Protection from them and other creatures had to be her first priority.
Warmth in the night would be a struggle. The cold season was creeping in. Stripped of clothing, she was at the risk of the elements. She had to do something about that, too. Material for a fire. A proper shelter. …Which first?
She took a step and jumped onto the other foot as soon as she did. Something stuck her right in the heel, bad enough to make her bleed. Shreya twisted the barb out of her foot. It belonged to one of the plants that hung off of the tree. That was another thing for her long list of things to take care of: shoes. And more importantly, she needed to find a water source. But not having a gourd would make carrying water a problem.
A day without food… She could live through that. Not having a knife meant that she couldn’t make a spear for herself. The best she could do was arm herself with a heavy stick. It’d work as a crude club weapon. She’d be able to bash an animal to death if she needed to, although the odds of that were unlikely. It seemed like they’d taken her to a part of their woods that was devoid of life.
It wasn’t like this sort of area was rare in their territory. Even the plants were losing their luster. The treaty they made with the humans meant that they were stuck with empty places like this one, where not even insects sang. The humans took the best parts of the land and left the wolves with a pathetic bit. It wasn’t like the wolves didn’t deserve it, though. They earned their place at the bottom.
A/N: Sorry about this. The next part will be up in a few hours. I wanted to at least get this part up before midnight so I don’t miss my Thursday update. Voting this week will take place from Friday to Monday in order to compensate for this.
Don’t forget to toss us a vote over at TWF. Being on the main rankings page helps new readers find this serial.
Edit: The next part is now posted. Click here to read it.