“You’re lucky that I didn’t go to the crèche today,” Shanti said. She coaxed the bindings around her sister’s arm, shushing her as she hissed in pain. “You messed yourself up pretty good, didn’t you?”
They sat together in their room, a fabric bundle and a wooden pail to their right. The water had been dyed an off-color red. Cleaning her arm wound had been an ordeal, one powerful enough to have Shreya biting on a stick to keep from screaming.
Shanti finished the bandages off with a knot. “That must’ve been one hell of a tree.”
Shreya let the stick drop from her mouth. The teeth marks were apparent. “I was careless.”
“Sounds like they’ve got deadlier trees than we do,” her sister said. She took a spare cloth and scrubbed at her hands. “Did you fall face-first or back-first?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’d like to be able to picture it better, that’s all. You, falling so miraculously out of a tree.” Shanti grinned. “It’s hilarious.”
“If it’s so hilarious, you should give it a try,” Shreya said. She looked over at her torn cape. Getting a new one wouldn’t do. Other than the hole, it had kept its integrity. She’d have to patch it up with something else, some other animal’s fur. The patch would serve as a constant reminder of what happened that morning.
At first, she hadn’t known what happened. Ellie and another woman had been standing there, both holding the same T-shaped objects. Intricate-looking things, crafted out of wood and metal. Ellie leveled hers at her. Took aim. Something shifted on the object.
And then, there’d been a noise akin to an arrow cleaving the air. She couldn’t get that sound out of her head.
“I’d do it if it weren’t for that little deal of ours. Without that, I’d be all over their territory,” Shanti said. “What’s going to happen next, a head wound?”
“Nothing’s going to happen to my head.”
“Your arm’s awful. Y’said the branch impaled you? It went through your cape and all? Any closer to the left, and you would be dead,” she observed.
“I’ve lived through worse,” Shreya replied.
“When? You’ve only started getting messed up ever since you went over the wall.” Shanti counted off the instances on her fingers. “Exile. Tree. These things come in threes, you know. Something worse is yet to come!”
“This could’ve happened in our part of the forest just as easily. Don’t blame this on her.”
“Huh? Who said anything about a her?”
“I meant it. Don’t blame it on the forest.”
“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Shanti said. “That girl’s got you falling out of trees now? What the hell, Shreya?”
“It was an accident. I wanted to impress her, and I fell.” Shreya came up with the best lie she could. Something compelled her to cover it all up. Embarassment that she’d allowed herself to get tricked, perhaps. The shame at herself for believing that all of the Marjani texts had been wrong.
How long had Ellie wanted to kill her? She’d gotten too comfortable with her, and let her guard drop. The plan must’ve been set in motion when they found that house together. She’d brought her friend along to confirm her suspicions, to make sure she wasn’t about to kill a fellow human.
Whatever she and Ellie had been building together had come tumbling down. It’d been a lie all along.
“You’re not made out of stone,” Shanti said. “You couldn’t have come up with something better than that?”
“I thought it’d help me win her over.”
“Did it work? Was it worth the trouble?”
Shreya held her hand over her bad arm, making sure not to press down. She didn’t give her an answer.
~ * ~ * ~
It had been Shreya’s fault when Loupe’s bucket fell from his head. Lost in her thoughts, she’d walked straight into his back. Shreya jumped out of the bucket’s path, green herbs bouncing out of it as it met the dirt.
“Sorry!” Shreya bent down to pick them up. Forgetting her two day old injury, she grimaced as she moved her arm the wrong way. She made a pile of greens and placed them back into the bucket.
“It’s okay.” Loupe got down to her level. He smiled, his eyes wrinkling at the corners. “We should put the bigger ones on the bottom first.” He undid all the help she’d done so far.
For someone who considered himself a…were-human, Loupe looked like any other wolf to her. His ears were the same jet black as his hair. He wore a loose shirt, stained with dirt from a recent trip to the fields. Facial hair shadowed the lower half of his face.
Shreya mumbled another “sorry” towards him, knowing full-well her attitude wouldn’t be acceptable with any other older wolf. Was it more polite to treat him like he was a human? Drop all of the cultural niceties around him? Shreya didn’t know what to do with him, and she wasn’t the only one in their community who felt that way. She was actually surprised that someone let him help out with the herb garden today.
“I said it was okay,” Loupe said, keeping his good-natured smile. He put the last plant back inside the bucket. “Take care.”
“Please wait,” Shreya requested. He stayed at the ground with her, one of his ears tilted in confusion. “Why did you say that?”
“You made an honest mistake. I’m not going to hold it over you.”
“No, I meant ‘take care.’ Humans don’t say that. We do.” ‘Take care’ was a special send-off in their language, a sign of utmost love and respect. The Casternian Common translation of it didn’t hold the same amount of weight. She switched to the Common language, “they say goodbye and see you later.”
Loupe kept up with her, no longer using their native tongue. “I’m human and a wolf.”
“How do you know that? You are human, how?” Speaking Casternian to someone other than Ellie or her friends felt strange to her. The strain and mental acrobatics of talking to her had been worth the effort.
“You know it. You can feel it. Humans are different.”
Shreya narrowed her eyes. “Yes. Yes, they are different. How? What is it like not being a whole wolf? Incomplete wolf?”
“I think differently from the rest of you,” Loupe said, having no trouble at all with his speech. “I don’t see things the same way. When everyone goes left, I go right.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “The Elders aren’t right about everything. There are inconsistencies in our historical books.”
“You noticed?” Shreya’s heart jumped.
“So many wolves have pride in non-truths. I’m awake. I know what’s real,” Loupe said. “They try to make it seem like humans aren’t smart, but they are. They’ve got logic. They’ve got smarts. They’ve got intelligence.” She wondered if he realized he said the same thing three different ways. “Did you know that our metal blades were repurposed from theirs? The Elders don’t want us to know that. Humans are at the pinnacle.”
“What?” The last part was too far-fetched for her to believe, nevermind the rest of what he was saying.
“Above all else, humans are good people. We’re the traitors. It’s our fault things have never worked out. It’s all hidden in the books.”
“They are as bad as we are. They will turn on you as fast as we would,” Shreya said. “And logic? What logic is there in betrayal?”
“Humans are too pure and kind-hearted to do a thing like that,” he replied. Loupe shook his head dismissively.
She went back to speaking her mother tongue, tired of the Common language’s ugly sounds. “You’re wrong. They’ll do whatever they need to do to put themselves ahead. If they see something to gain, then they’ll do it.”
What did Ellie have to gain in shooting her? Killing Shreya wouldn’t accomplish anything. She was just another wolf in the community. She had no reason for it.
“That goes against human nature!”
“I have to go,” Shreya said, getting up. She couldn’t take another minute with Loupe. “I’m expected at the crèche. Take care.”
Talking to him had done nothing to answer any of the questions that had been haunting her since the last time she saw Ellie. Loupe insisted humans were built out of some combination of high intelligence and kindness, that there was a logical goodness to them. Where had that been when Ellie shot her?
Right before Ellie did that, she’d looked like she’d seen her worst nightmare. She’d gone from all smiles and jokes and casual conversations, to a look of all-out fear. Shreya had seen looks like that before, in those starving days when her family had used her as a pawn…but this time, the fearful girl could fight back. The fearful girl could kill.
What changed overnight?
~ * ~ * ~
It was on the third day after the shooting that her resistance crumbled. She went to the woods, to the place where she’d first met Ellie. What had once been a separation point meant so much more now. This was their meeting place.
Not now, she thought to herself. Shreya pulled her hat down, making sure it was snug to her head. Now this is a memory.
In time, she’d forget all about Ellie, and move on. She had too much going on back at home to keep coming back here.
Shreya needed to stop pretending she was something more than another wolf. Thoughts like those would lead her down the path of destruction, to a fate like Loupe’s. She needed to act more like her mother’s daughter: a dogmatic, hateful wolf.
That was what the exile was supposed to teach her, wasn’t it? There was no turning back from her people.
She was ready to toss off her hat and leave it behind as a final farewell when she spotted a book. It laid against a brick pile, its cover written in silver swirly letters. Cavalier.
Shreya picked it up. Noticing a piece of paper sticking out of it, she opened it and started to read…
This is difficult for me to write. I’ve tried so many times. Nothing sounds right. It’s as if this paper and all of these letters are conspiring against me. But I digress!
“Sorry” isn’t a strong enough word for what I did. You deserve more than a “sorry.”
I never intended to hurt you. I was scared of what may have happened if you met the woman I was with. I acted on impulse, and for that, I genuinely apologize.
Forgive me for the assumption, but I feel that you would’ve done the same to keep me from meeting your sister. The woman I was with is similarly dangerous. Regardless, that doesn’t excuse what I did.
I wasn’t thinking clearly in that moment. I feared for your life, and it was that fearful feeling that overwhelmed me. The shot was to keep you away. I was trying to protect you, but I went the wrong way about it. I’m paying the price for that now.
I understand if you think of me as strange for writing this letter. Why try at all? Why not walk away from this blunder? I suppose this is my stubborn way of trying to hold on to you. I’ve failed to do that in the past with someone important to me, and I refuse to let history repeat itself here.
I don’t want to have to miss you too, or imagine what could have been. I’m fighting hard for this. I’m doing everything I can, short of finding you myself. I’m not letting you go so easily.
I plan on coming to the wall every day for a week. If you don’t want to see me, we can communicate through paper. There’s room on the back of this for you to write.
If you don’t want to see me or write to me, then… Just know that I’m sorry, and that, should we meet, I swear I will never hurt you again. I hate myself for hurting you.
Isn’t it terrible how we tend to harm the very people we’re trying to protect from harm? Life is cruel in that respect. I’d say more but I’m running out of space.
Please know that the brief time we have shared has meant a lot to me. I’d like to continue that. Please give me a chance to make this all up to you. If the week ends without any contact then I’ll stay out of your life.
I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me.
~ * ~ * ~
It took the sixth day for her to catch her alone.
On the fourth and fifth days, she’d been with her Zinnia friend and her Sunflower dog. Shreya’d watched them from on high, up in a tree. Fortunately for her, they’d never thought to look up. In her watching, she figured out their pattern. They showed up at the same time every morning, looking all glum and disappointed.
Ellie’d check the book, thumbing rapidly through all the pages. Zinnia’d give her some words of encouragement. The dog would stand there, barely able to comprehend what was happening. Then, they’d all leave.
They broke that pattern the third time she saw Ellie. She came alone. No dog. No friend to talk to. Ellie leafed through Cavalier, reread her message, and started to walk away, shoulders humbled. Shreya shimmied down the tree she was hiding in, making sure to keep quiet.
Ellie kept walking, oblivious to the girl stalking behind her.
Shreya unhooked her knife from her belt.
Ellie stopped. Shreya stopped, too. Ellie looked in every direction except behind her. Seemingly safe, she decided to continue going forward. Shreya timed her steps with hers, taking full advantage of the clumsy, clunky way the human girl walked.
She closed the distance on her. Shreya reached out, one arm snaking around her waist and the other around her shoulder to smother the scream that threatened to spill from her mouth. Ellie bent forward, trying to throw her off of her until she felt the knife against her stomach.
“Tell me why you’re not dead,” Shreya said. She pulled Ellie back up straight, the tension in the other girl’s body loosening.
Ellie spoke against Shreya’s hand, her words muffled into gibberish. Shreya removed it. “Because you won’t hurt me. Because that knife’s still in its holster,” Ellie said. Shreya felt her take a deep breath. “A-and because we’re friends.”
Shreya released her. She shoved her, hard enough to make her stumble. Ellie turned to face her, her face reddened. “So why did you hurt me?!
“I should hurt you for what you did to me! You think I have not thought about it?” Shreya gripped the knife, her hand tightening around the leather sheath. “You are intelligent. You are logical. You are pure-hearted.” She echoed all of Loupe’s words. “Are you not all of those things? You should be afraid of me, but here you are, all alone like you want me to kill you. What are you doing?”
“I saw you the other day,” Ellie said. Her voice was the weakest Shreya had ever heard it. “I guessed you wouldn’t come down from that tree unless I was alone, so I took a risk. What was I supposed to do?”
“Didn’t we talk about you never coming here alone?”
“I’m not alone. You’re here.” She tried to smile, as if desperately grasping for something to appease her with.
“I shouldn’t be,” Shreya said. Why was she here in the first place? “A letter and a book…they are not good enough. They need to be better. You need more.”
“Why did you show up, then? If you weren’t going to accept my apology, then why did you get my hopes up?” Ellie took in another deep, shuddering breath. “What the hell? What the hell?” She looked down. “You don’t do that to people.”
Shreya gripped the scabbard harder, to remind herself not to break. She had to remain the strongest one in this. She wasn’t going to let Ellie’s imminent crying get to her. Following Ellie’s lead, she also looked down and away from her. It made talking easier.
“You’re making a mistake. Walking away from this…it’s a mistake,” Ellie said, her words partially seethed. “You…jerked me around, made me think you wanted to make up and now you’re just…doing this to me. O-okay…”
Shreya struggled to understand her. She charged on ahead, anyway, not wanting to lose her momentum. “I am not saying this is the end. I am saying you will earn my forgiveness. Work for it.”
“Of course! Of course, I’ll do that. I’ll do anything. I meant every word in my letter.” From the sound of her voice, she’d stepped closer. Shreya kept her gaze on her shoes, not daring to look at her. “I swear I’ll never hurt you again. I screwed up so, so bad, Shreya. I’ll never forgive myself,” Ellie said. “…Please look at me. Please?”
“Sorry, I can not,” Shreya said. “You are ready to cry. If I see you cry, I will cry.”
“I’m trying not to,” she laughed breathily. “It’s just hard to come so close to winning and then lose. I know this is forward of me, and I know it’s weird to miss someone you barely know, but I missed you. I don’t know. Is that weird? You can tell me if it’s weird.”
“Missed? Is that thinking of me? The word is close.”
“It was the same with me. I thought a lot. I thought of everything to say to you but now that you are here, it is like my words have flown away,” Shreya said. Her anger. Her frustration. It was like all of her resolve melted away.
“We should talk at our house. I brought food,” Ellie said. She stepped away. “If you don’t mind, that is. If you’d rather go home, that’s okay. I understand.”
“No, you are right. Let’s go.”
Shreya was glad that when she finally looked back up, Ellie was already walking ahead.
This poll is staying open through Wednesday.
I’m going to put up a survey tomorrow. This survey will help me with my presentation on Wednesday, the 1st…yeah, that’s right, I’m presenting RWC very soon, and then graduating the week after that. :O Be sure to check back on the site to take the survey! The survey is up now. Please take it!
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