She checked the quality of the nearby bush leaves. They bent in her hands, cracking off in the middle. They’d be too weak on their own. Thatching them together would require doubling up. Not wanting to agitate her wounded heel further, she tip-toed around to find shelter-worthy sticks. As long as she could find something suitable to secure it with, she could create a lean-to for herself.
Shreya got to work. Gathering what she needed turned out to be more difficult than she expected. Too many of the sticks she found were either too thin or too short to support one another. It kept falling, the sticks sliding out of formation. On the third time the structure crashed, Shreya switched to interweaving leaves for the rooftop.
Breathing in, she caught the scent of running water. She could almost taste its dirty, murky smell on her tongue and regretted it. River water was lousy with sickness. Shreya had learned that the hard way when she was younger. Desperation had driven her to drink from a lake that stole her strength away. Too weak to fend for herself, she had to have her food brought to her. It wasn’t an experience she wanted to relive, especially here when she didn’t have anyone to help her.
Heat would take care of the water’s toxins. Boiling it over a fire was a solution that came with more problems. Shreya didn’t have anything that could function as a pot. No gourd meant that she couldn’t store any of the water she made. She’d just have to ignore the dryness building up in her throat.
Shreya sat down against a tree to take another look at her foot. Tender to the touch, it pulsed with pain. How could one little barb do so much damage? She swatted at her arm. Another bug bite. The old one had turned into a bright red splotch that stood out on her medium-brown skin. She itched at it.
Her shelter was only half-built. There was so much more work left to be done, and yet she still hadn’t gotten started on the fire. The flames would have the dual job of keeping her warm and keeping the bugs away.
The sun’s placement in the sky told her that the communal morning meal was behind the wolves. They’d be doing their daily work and contributing to the good of the Marjani community. The hunters would hunt. The weavers would weave. Danilo and Shanti would be at the crèche. Shanti…she should be glad that their mother didn’t say anything about her to the Elders.
Shanti always seemed to get a pass. She’d been wandering in and out of Stockbrunn’s territory for a long while now. Shanti was good at not getting caught, but on the few occassions when she had been, their mother had only beat her or forbid her from eating. The Elders had never gotten involved.
“But they did for me. Bullshit.” Shreya spat into the dirt. She would’ve gotten her face cuffed for saying that in the village. Without anyone around to hear it, Shreya could let her blasphemy fly free. That may have been the only upside to her situation.
The roughness of the bark behind her back got to her. She leaned away from it, and then slapped her other arm. Something felt like it was creeping along her skin, but it turned out to be her imagination. Being this bare for so long wasn’t something she was used to. The sun exposure worried her.
Led by the river’s scent, she headed for it. By the time she made it there on her limping foot, the sun had reached its highest point. Without the shade of trees, it glared down at her in full-force. Crouching at the river’s edge, she scooped up mud and painted it all over her body. Down her arms and legs, all over her torso, what she could reach of her back, and more.
Shreya gave into the river’s temptations and opted to stay there for a bit, basking in the cool air it gave off. She peered into the water. Her reflection stared back at her. Adolescence had narrowed out her face and given her an effortless scowl. Her ears, the same color as her hair, came to rounded points. Thick, neck-length hair framed her face. She’d shed the baby weight she once had as a puppy.
She’d been the smallest of her litter mates. Big, blue eyes. A natural pouty expression. She looked like something that needed to be protected, a tiny, easily-crushed thing. No one had marked her down as a survivor.
Those predictions had gone to the ones they’d lost: Sharmila, Sher, and Sheela. Not Shanti, the unfocused one, and especially not Shreya, the fragile one. The one who never ran as fast as the others. The one whose arms got tired at the lightest of loads. The one who never got the crèche lessons on the first try.
But, somehow, they both survived. Shreya had lived while the others had succumbed to illness. First, had been Sher. His body gave up on him months after their Papa passed. It rejected all of the food he tried to eat. Nothing stayed down. That was during a particularly hard time in their community. He hadn’t been the only one to struggle that way, but it was his face that she’d never forget. The gaunt tone to his cheeks. The nothingness in his eyes.
Sheela’s death, she hadn’t been there for. According to her sister’s friends, she’d collapsed and never woke up. That’d been a couple years after Sher’s death. And then a couple months later, a coughing sickness struck the community. It squeezed its victims of air and forced blood from them. Shreya and Pravaah had been spared. Sharmila and Shanti hadn’t been so lucky. The former perished, and the latter recovered.
Later, Shanti told Shreya that she’d survived because she kept telling herself that there was no way she’d let Shreya live longer than her.
So, that was how the least likely to survive lived beyond the rest. Luck and stubbornness.
Back in her childhood years, Shreya’s innocent look had been useful to her parents. They exploited it. Those had been the days before they had their community meals, when food was so hard to come by that it was every wolf for themself. Not having a treaty meant that they could hunt wherever and whatever they wanted.
All through her puppyhood and her early adolescence, the Elders turned a blind eye to what their community members did. They kept their blind eyes even now. Telling stories of pride and resilience, they reworked their history in their favor. Sometimes, she wondered if she could even trust her memories of the past—that was how strong their propaganda spinning was. Hammering them into the public over and over again, they structured new truths out of their lies.
Shreya was a child of the Starvation Era, born into a time when their conditions were much worse than now. It was a time when bringing back a bear would’ve earned her a clay doll of herself. A few years into her life, the Elders signed a treaty with Stockbrunn, much like the one they were currently under, that ensured the wolves and humans would be at peace with one another.
It was easier to believe that the humans had done something to break the treaty, that they had been the ones to start attacking first. That’s right. The humans were the ones in the wrong. They drove the wolves out of what was once their territory. They reduced the supplies they were giving them to a share so pathetic that the wolves didn’t have a choice but to do what they did.
The Elders emphasized that the wolves struck second, because they had to. Their actions had been in response to the unfair conditions imposed on them. That wasn’t quite the way Shreya and so many others remembered it.
Movement behind her pulled her out of her thoughts. Shreya reached for her knife. Or rather, she patted the spot where it would’ve been. She stayed frozen, listening out for anything watching her.
Nothing. No more movement.
Shreya relaxed. She heaved a sigh, then left the riverside for her shelter. The sticks had fallen down yet again. Security issue. Better it fall now than later when she was sleeping under it, she supposed. Shreya tried assembling the sticks another way, making them lean together in an A-like formation. She retied the long grass she used for twine. The knots weren’t holding.
Time was going by faster than she realized. How was the fire plan going? It wasn’t. The shelter? Getting better. Shreya crouched down as she worked. She leaned her weight off of her bad foot. It was smarting. Every little movement made her cringe.
Another noise drew her focus away. As soon as her head turned, parts of her shelter slid away. The foundation too shakey, it tumbled down once more. No more shelter. Shreya scrunched her hair in her hands.
“Why is this so hard? This shouldn’t be so hard.” Shreya whined. She fell over onto her side. She needed a break.
Her eyes closed, her mind taking her somewhere else, back to a time in another part of the woods and back to a face. A young girl’s laughter. Red hair. Green eyes. Shreya had gotten the laughter out of her with a joke that didn’t make sense. Something about the shape of a leaf.
Shreya had always been the talker of their group. Cute face and a soft voice, the role fit her the best. Talking hadn’t been a job that any of the others were suited for, especially not Shanti. Shanti always made it too obvious that their family was waiting in the wings, listening out for the best time to get their prey.
She’d followed the script she was given. Acted like she was lost, like she didn’t know where her home was. Wore a scarf to hide her ears from view. Shreya got the girl to let her guard down. She made her lay down her weapons, by acting like her bow and arrow made her nervous. The girl had been smart to take that with her, but she’d put her trust in the wrong child.
And then… Her mother took care of the rest, while her father led her away and back to where her four other siblings were hiding.
Their family slept with full stomachs that night.
She snapped out of the memory, awoken by the sound of wood hitting wood. Half of the shelter had gone one way, and the other half another.
Shreya rubbed her eyes.
She got back to work on fixing it.
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A/N: And here’s Part 2! Thank you for your patience. Last week’s vote was 14 for Exile and 1 for Three Days of Silence. Another person who deserves a prize for being the only voter on an option. Whoa! Because this second part was put up on a Friday, the voting this week will end on Monday, March 28th at 11:59 PM EST.
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