All the other tasks having been claimed already, there wasn’t much else for Shreya to do besides sit by the fire. She was fine with that. It allowed her to remain mostly unnoticed by Shanti and her friends. If she stayed still for long enough, maybe she would blend in with the shadows cast by the early morning sun.
Shanti, Danilo, and Adikavi were waist-deep in the river, stretching out a net to catch another fish. Built as solid as a tree trunk, Adikavi made Danilo look like a sapling next to him. In Shanti’s eyes, however, Adikavi might as well have been a piece of grass. She looked at Danilo, that tiny sprout of a wolf, like he was every tree in the forest. Shreya dreamed of being adored the same way—to find her match and just…be with them. She was never good at figuring out what happened in the “ever after” part.
Chinaza, Oydis’ sister, handled the cooking. She rotated the fish skewers, the fire crackling beneath them. Shreya turned away from the smoke stinging her eyes. Had Oydis been there, she’d at least have someone to talk to, but Oydis had gotten held up with her weaving. For sisters, the two of them weren’t much alike at all. Where Oydis was friendly and lively with everyone, her sister was as dull-toned as a walking corpse.
Firouz was reserved in a different way. He huddled by the shoreline, washing his knife in the water. It was thanks to him that the fish had been descaled and debarbed. Adikavi had made fun of him for wanting such a soft chew to his food, but Firouz took the insults in stride. He caught Shreya looking at him, and smiled. She looked away, feeling mildly embarrassed.
“Watch out! Flying fish!” Adikavi bellowed. He launched a fish out of his hands. It hit the grass, its mouth gaping for water. He and Shanti roared with laughter, Danilo’s much quieter laughs covered up by theirs. “Lookit the way it’s flapping around.”
“Don’t play with food like that,” Firouz chided him. “Kill it or put it back in the water.”
“Let the bear killer get it,” Shanti said. “Do your thing, sis.”
Firouz looked Shreya up and down. “That was you?”
“It was nothing. I was lucky,” Shreya said. She went over to the thrashing fish. It didn’t deserve this much humiliation. She lifted it up, careful not to get stuck by its barbs, and placed it back into the water. Shanti groaned in disappointment. “We have a fish for everyone already. We don’t need more.”
“There’s nothing wrong with having a little extra,” her sister said.
Shreya flexed her fingers into her palm, making sure the fish’s spikes hadn’t stuck her without her realizing it. “We have to be mindful of the forest. We take what we need, and that’s all.” It was bad enough that they were out here on this selfish little excursion with no plans of bringing any food back for the others.
“Agreed. If we take and take when we don’t need to, we’ll deplete the woods,” Firouz said.
Adikavi laughed. “One more fish isn’t going to empty the river.”
“It’s the principle of it.”
“Whatever,” Shanti said. With Danilo’s help, she gathered up the net. “Chinaza, is the fish cooked and ready yet?”
Her voice sounding as dead as her expression, she answered, “it’s been ready for a while. You were just too busy dicking around in the water to notice.”
“Wow, Chinaza,” Shanti said, placing a hand over her heart. “You’re truly the sunshine of my life. Promise me you’ll never be anything other than an emotionless bitch.”
“See this fish? It’s yours.” Chinaza proceeded to lower the fish-on-a-stick closer to the flames. “Hope you like your fish black.”
“…I’ll take that one,” Danilo said. “You can have mine, Shanti.”
Chinaza pulled it away. “I’m only taking this out of the fire because Danilo’s a good person. I don’t want him to suffer for your sake.”
“Thanks!” Shanti grinned.
The three of them waded their way out of the water, not giving up the chance to splash each other as they moved. Shanti put the folded-up net by their clothes pile, then ran around in a circle to dry herself off. Danilo and Adikavi were more practical. They used their capes to wipe themselves off.
“Stop wasting our time before I change my mind,” Chinaza warned her. That was enough to bring Shanti back in line, in a Shanti-ish way. She flopped over on top of her cape, rolled a few times, and then changed back into her clothes not too long after Danilo and Adikavi.
Shreya wondered if Shanti, Danilo, and Adikavi consulted one another for their outfits today. They all wore what looked like to be variations of the same sleeveless theme. Shanti wore a high-necked top and loose pants held up by a rope string belt. They reminded her of a pair Danilo used to wear. In fact, those might have been those pants. Danilo kept things simple: a shirt that hung loosely on his frame and some shorts. Adikavi opted for a vest string-tied closed and a dark knee-length skirt.
At least Chinaza and Firouz had worn sleeves today. It helped Shreya feel like she hadn’t been left out of something.
Everyone gathered around the fire. Shreya sat between Firouz and Shanti, a small part of her hoping that some of her sister’s sociability would rub off on her. Chinaza passed everyone their skewers. Shreya turned the stick over in her hand, and grimaced at the fish’s unblinking head. She wished Firouz had gotten rid of that part.
“Are you and the crèche a permanent thing now, or what?” Adikavi asked Shanti. “Been some time since I’ve seen you in any hunting parties.”
Shanti shrugged. “I’m bouncing around. I dunno what I wanna do.”
“How ’bout the rest of you? What are you thinking of doing?”
“I’d like to stick with the crèche,” Danilo said. “I know I don’t have to stay locked into that, but I like it way more than I thought I would.”
“Weaving’s easy. I’ll do that,” Chinaza said before chomping down on her fish.
Firouz replied, “I haven’t stuck to anything. I’ve been doing odd jobs here and there, wherever I’m needed. I don’t think I’m going to settle for one task. It’s more fun when things change from day-to-day.”
“I’m the same way,” Shreya said. “I don’t like being pinned down to one thing. I might stay as a floater.”
“I would’ve expected you to say hunting. You seem well-suited to that, considering how you took down a bear,” Firouz said.
“The bear was close to death, and a young bear at that,” Shreya clarified. She needed to squash the rumors of her grandeur. “If the bear had been at full strength, things would’ve turned out differently.” She probably would’ve saved Ellie at Marietta’s expense. That pig would’ve been the bait that allowed everyone else to live.
“Don’t be so modest!” Shanti slapped her on the back. Shreya tightened her hold on her skewer to keep from dropping it. “Tell him how you took that bear down with your bare hands. Tell him exactly what you told me.”
“What? I didn’t do that.”
“You so did!”
“I improvized a spear and took it down that way,” Shreya explained. “No one can kill a bear with their bare hands.”
“I accept that challenge,” Adikavi said.
Chinaza threw her empty skewer over her shoulder. “Finding a bear here will be harder than killing it. You have to have a bear to kill a bear.”
“I’ll go into Stocky territory to do it,” he replied. “They’ve got bears there.”
“And face exile, or something worse for breaking the rules?” Danilo shook his head. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“Yes, definitely, don’t go anywhere near there,” Shanti said. If it weren’t for Danilo being there, she may have egged Adikavi on. Shreya was grateful he’d taken a day off from the crèche to come along.
“What’s it like over there?” Firouz asked. “Is it that different?”
She couldn’t tell him the truth. She couldn’t do so much as even hint at its beauty and liveliness. “You’re not missing anything. It’s not worth any punishment you’d get for going over there,” Shreya explained.
“Would it be worth it if you weren’t caught?” Chinaza wondered.
“We should stop talking about this,” Danilo said. He finished off the last of his fish. “No one’s going over there.”
“And what if I do? What are you going to do about it?” Adikavi challenged him.
Shanti glared. “Danilo doesn’t have to do anything about it. If you go, I’ll make you wish you never thought about it in the first place.”
He grinned at that. “I’d beat you down so easily. Don’t try me. I can have you pinned in half a minute.”
“Wanna bet that you’d be the one pinned, big guy?”
Adikavi caught the last piece of his fish between his teeth and yanked it off the skewer. He swallowed it without chewing. “Loser has to do whatever the winner says!”
“Within reason,” Danilo added.
“Ha! He’s saying that for your sake, you know,” Shanti said. “Y’sure you wanna play with your life like that?”
“First to two points wins. Chinaza can be the judge. She’s the most nonbiased,” Adikavi said.
“I’ll pick out the spot,” Danilo said. The other three followed him further into the woods, in search of a prime wrestling location. Firouz stayed seated, poking at the rocks laying by the fire.
Shreya turned to him. “You didn’t want to go?”
“It’s not my thing,” he said, “besides, staying back here reduces the chances of them somehow dragging me into the fray. Adikavi tends to lash out after he loses.”
“Shanti’s a sore loser.” No doubt she’d take the loss out on Shreya. “I hope she wins. Please tell me Adikavi’s got an exploitable weakpoint.”
“She’ll find it. It’d be good for his ego if he lost,” Firouz said. He smoothed back his gray-brown hair, moving his bangs out of his eyes. “Since no one else is here to stop us from talking…can you tell me what it’s really like over there?”
“I don’t know…”
“I won’t tell them. I’ll keep it to myself.”
Something about his smile made her lower her guard. “Okay, I guess I can tell you a little bit,” Shreya said. “It’s one of those places that constantly surprises you. There’s always something new to discover.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’ve got things over there that we don’t have. Berries, food, wildlife. It’s beautiful over there, and the humans don’t even know how rich they are for what they have,” she said.
“Beautiful, huh? I might have to see it for myself.”
Shreya warned, “you better not. I’m on Danilo and Shanti’s side about that. We have rules for a reason. Like I said, it’s not worth the trip.”
“I pegged you as someone who’s too cool for rules. A real rebel with a real cool hat,” Firouz said. He mimed getting stabbed in the chest. “Ouch. It hurts being wrong. Look at what you’re doing to me. I’m dying!”
A rebel. Ellie had called their trio—her, Zinnia, and Shreya—that before busting into the house they reclaimed as theirs. “We do what we want because we’re rebels. Tell us what to do and we say screw that,” Ellie had said.
Firouz fake-stabbed himself again. “And now you’re smiling about me dying. Finish me off quickly, please. I can’t take this torture.”
“Stop that.” She moved his hands away from his chest. “It might be pretty over there, but it’s boring. Why go over there when there’s so much for us here? Here’s company.”
“You’d be a lot more believable if you did a better job of acting like you believe that.”
“No, it’s true. There’s nothing going on over there.”
“I was talking about the company part,” Firouz said. “You don’t seem like you enjoy it all that much.”
“I don’t like being in big groups,” she admitted.
“Same here. I prefer one-on-one conversations. It’s easier to get to know people that way. They’re more honest the less people there are around.”
“It depends on the person. There’s more vulnerability when you’re one-on-one. Some people become honest, and other people put walls up to protect themselves,” she said. “On second thought, I might like big groups better after all. I don’t like having a lot of attention on me.”
Firouz laughed. “I hope I’m not bothering you, then. If you’ve had enough of me, I can go watch the wrestling match.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind you.” He wasn’t so bad, as far as wolves went.
“I don’t mind you, either. You should show up to our next get-together.”
“Why?” Shreya hadn’t added a whole lot. They would’ve had just as much fun without her there.
“You’re fun to talk to. You’re different,” he answered.
“If you’re bad different, then I’m just as bad,” Firouz said. “You kill bears and hate wrestling. I haven’t done anything as extreme as kill a bear, but I’ve had my fair share of close calls while hunting, and I also don’t like wrestling. We’ve got that in common.”
“Hunting alone or with a group? Because I killed that bear by myself,” she said, smiling. “Do we have that in common?”
“I killed a hawk the size of my head by myself once. Does that count?”
A loud whoop and cheer interrupted their conversation. Game over. Shreya held back her answer to Firouz’s question, too eager to see who won the match. They raced over to the other four wolves.
Chinaza stood by, hands in her pants pockets and looking as bored as ever. Danilo used the end of his shirt to blot at the bleeding scratches on Shanti’s arm. Adikavi smeared the bit of blood on his forehead with his bare arm. He hocked up a spit wad and spat it into the grass. From the looks of it, they’d put each other through the ringer.
“Who won?” Shreya asked, hoping that the worst hadn’t happened.
“Me!” Shanti pumped her fist into the air.
“Barely,” Adikavi added. “You barely won, and you know it.”
“What do you want for your prize?” Chinaza asked, ignoring Adikavi.
“I’ll think about it,” Shanti said, “I’ll save it for when I need him to do something real good.”
Danilo pulled his shirt away. He frowned. “We should go home and get you looked at.”
“He just got me with his nails. I’ll be okay,” she said.
Chinaza sniffed the air. “Did you guys remember to put out the fire?”
“Sorry, we rushed off without thinking about it,” Shreya said.
“It’s not like you to be forgetful. You’re usually the careful one,” Shanti said. “I wonder what had you so distracted.”
“It was my fault, not hers,” Firouz said, taking the blame. “I’ll go back and put it out.”
“Nah, I’ll do it.” Adikavi stopped to spit again. Shreya cringed, glad for the distance between them. “Some walking will do me some good.” He left the group to take care of it.
Shreya winced at her sister’s wounds. “Did you have to go that far with your game? He messed you up real bad.”
“So what? I messed him up, too. Winning doesn’t count if you’re not both trying your hardest,” Shanti said. “It’s gotta be a prize worth fighting for.”
“There’s less violent methods than drawing blood.”
Shanti tapped her bottom lip. “Hmmm…like hand games?” And just like that, Shreya regretted telling her sister about what happened yesterday.
As usual, she’d skimmed the personal details of her meeting with Ellie, but she’d taught her how to play Slaps to prove she was still garnering new information as a spy. Unfortunately, Shanti played dirty. Instead of following the rules, she kept grabbing Shreya’s hands and trying to throw her to the ground.
“Hey, do you guys smell that?” Danilo threw his head back.
Chinaza’s ears swiveled towards the direction of the campfire. “We’ve got a guest.”
“Lookit what I caught snooping around!” Adikavi called them over. They joined them, their senses alerting them to his find before they laid eyes on her. He had a rabbit by the arm, held so tight her skin had paled where he gripped her. She was young, about their age, with big blue eyes and her gray hair in fluffy twintails. Her ears stood straight up in fear.
Adikavi shoved her forward. The rabbit was off the ground as fast she fell to it, but there was nowhere for her to run. Without realizing it, Shreya had become part of a circle trapping her on all sides.
“I-I don’t want any trouble,” the rabbit stammered in Casternian.
“What were you doing spying on us, then?” Shanti asked, not bothering to switch tongues. She cracked her knuckles, grinning.
Shreya translated her question. “Why are you here?”
“Passing by,” the rabbit answered, her voice wavering.
“She could be a decoy,” Danilo supposed. The group stuck to their own language. “She might be distracting us from the real trouble.”
“What if she’s a scout?” Chinaza asked.
“We should let her go. If she said she was passing by, then she was passing by,” Shreya reasoned. She tried moving aside. Shanti put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
Firouz replied, “she’d say anything right now.”
“What can she do? She’s a rabbit,” Shreya said. “She’s harmless.”
“I’m not as worried about her as I am of all of her friends who could be hiding,” Danilo said. He glanced over his shoulder.
“We’d smell them,” Shreya replied.
“There are ways around a wolf’s nose,” he responded.
The rabbit spoke up, not understanding what they were saying. “If you let me go, I’ll pretend I never saw you. I swear!” She dropped to her knees, pleading with them. “I swear I never saw you. I swear; I swear.”
This time, when Shreya tried to move, Shanti pointed her knife at her. “You stay right there, Shreya,” she said. And then, to the rabbit, she said in Casternian, “no move. Move and die.”
“I like the way this is going,” Adikavi said. Excitement danced in his eyes. He drew out his knife from its scabbard.
“Please—” The rabbit’s eyes widened, tears gathering in the corners. “Please don’t do this.”
“We should bring her back to the community,” Chinaza suggested.
Firouz scanned the rabbit over. “There’s enough of her to feed a family.”
“No, no, no, please, no.” They continued to ignore her.
“Who wants to do the honors?” Adikavi passed his knife back and forth in his hands.
The rabbit screamed, cowering into a ball. She started chittering away in what Shreya could only assume was her native language.
“Shut up!” Chinaza shouted at her. It did nothing to calm her down. She continued to sob loudly, her body hiccuping from her cries. “Tell her to shut up!”
“What’s wrong with you guys? She didn’t do anything to us!” Shreya yelled at them, trying to wake them up from whatever it was that possessed them. “She was passing through.”
“She’s a prey animal, Shreya,” Shanti said. She hadn’t lowered her blade, keeping it steady and aimed at Shreya.
“You’re going to hit me with that?” She looked at her sister’s friends. “You’re all going to let her stab me?”
“We’re not going to let her go,” Shanti said. “We’re wolves. As soon as she came near us, she was as good as dead.”
Shreya ripped her knife free of its sheath. She raised it towards her sister. “Let her go.”
“Or what? You’re going to fucking fight me to save her? This is the baby deer all over again,” Shanti said. “You chose a deer over the lives of our people. Don’t make the same mistake again.”
“This is different from that! Look at her.”
“It’s the same. This is hunting. This is providing for the people who need it. Killing this rabbit could mean one less family having to choose which of their babies they have to put down so the others can live. One less couple like Galo and Kachina,” she said. “Less mourning fires, less death in the community. Bear killer, you should understand that! How heartless are you?”
Shreya looked at Firouz. “You can’t be on their side.” He was supposed to be different.
“This is about the community,” he said. Firouz was the same as them. He took out his knife, Chinaza and Danilo doing the same.
“Do it, bear killer. Kill the rabbit and show us you’re one of us,” Shanti said, her eyes cold.
“No! I’m not killing her. You can’t make me kill her.” Shreya’s hand shook around her knife.
“Do it, you fucking traitor! What’s stopping you?”
“She didn’t do anything to us.” Shreya had to raise her voice over the rabbit’s sobs. “She was only passing by. She was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, that’s all. This is wrong, Shanti, this is so wrong.”
“Wrong?! There’s something wrong with you!”
“Hey!” Danilo’s shout interrupted them. “I’ll do it. I’ll do it, and we’ll all go home, okay?”
“You’re pathetic,” Shanti shot at her. She put her knife away, standing down from their confrontation. Shreya backed out of the circle. She didn’t want to watch this.
“No pain if you do not move,” Danilo told the rabbit in Casternian. She’d folded herself up, giving him clear view of the back of her neck. He switched the way he was holding his knife, and approached her. “Will be fast.”
The rabbit jumped up, raising her fist in an arc. Blood followed her hand. Danilo’s blood, coming from his chest. They missed the dagger she’d had on her. She took advantage of everyone’s shock, and bolted out of the circle through the gap Shreya had left. Danilo clutched at his shirt, trying to hold it against the slash wound. It didn’t work. It continued to bleed.
Firouz moved into action first. “I’m going to the village! I’ll get the healers ready for him!” He ran off, as fast as he could.
Shanti couldn’t speak. Her mouth opened in a soundless scream. She rushed to him, managing to catch him before he fell. Chinaza helped her prop him up. Adikavi, face full of rage, started to go in the rabbit’s direction, but Shreya stopped him.
“Carry Danilo back. He needs you,” Shreya said.
Adikavi growled at her. He untied his vest, shrugged it off, and pressed it to Danilo’s wound. Shanti got out of their way, letting Chinaza help Adikavi get Danilo into his arms. Chinaza took Danilo’s hand, and pressed it against the vest.
“Stay with us, Danilo,” Chinaza said. “Keep talking to me.”
They hurried away, off to the village, leaving Shreya and Shanti in the wake of what happened. Shanti sunk to the ground, in much the same way the rabbit had. She beat her fists against the grass, taking in deep breaths. Shreya didn’t go near her.
“He’ll pull through,” Shreya said. “Chinaza and Adikavi will get him there in time.”
Shanti didn’t acknowledge her words. What she did instead was take out her knife, and stalk towards the direction the rabbit had gone in. Shreya followed after her. Finally speaking again, she spat at her, “you can’t stop me! Go away!”
“You’re not being smart about this. That rabbit could be alerting her whole village or a group, or something. Danilo could be right. This could all be a trap.”
That got Shanti to stop. She shoved Shreya, knocking her off-balance. “Be smart about this? He could’ve died because of you, because you pretend to be so high and mighty!”
“It was all on you and your friends. No one had to get hurt,” Shreya said. “I wanted to let the rabbit go.”
“A harmless, little rabbit passing through…” Shanti tightened her grip on her knife. “Like hell she was!”
“She wouldn’t have hurt Danilo if we let her go. This isn’t my fault!” Shreya backed away from her, putting more distance between them.
“You’ll save some girl and her friends from a bear, but you won’t save our people.” Shanti moved towards her. Shreya took more steps back. “There’s something wrong with you. You’re messed up.”
Shreya realized she hadn’t put her knife away. “The rabbit didn’t provoke us. The baby deer didn’t, either.” She raised it for defense. “This shouldn’t have happened.”
“It should’ve been you. Maybe that’s the lesson you need to start caring about someone other than yourself.”
“I… We need to go home,” Shreya said. She backed up, trying to get out of Shanti’s range. Her sister stayed within the edge of it. “We need to be with Danilo.”
“What’ll it take to get you to care, huh? Something just as bad?” Shanti swung. Shreya twisted away.
“Stop it! You’re not thinking straight.”
“You’ll never put us first. You’re supposed to be a wolf!” Shanti lunged for her. Shreya fell backwards, out of the way. Her knife dropped. Shanti stood over her, snarling. “What is wrong with you?”
Shreya crawled backwards the best she could, her cape getting in the way. Shanti stepped on it to stop her. “Shanti, please… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Shanti leaned in, her blade taking over Shreya’s vision. “You’re not a wolf.” She pulled her hat off of her head, and tossed it off to the side. “Are your ears for show?”
“I’m a wolf! I am!” Shreya wailed. She’d be anything if it meant she’d let her go. Shanti grabbed her head with her free hand, her knife hand moving upwards and out of view. Shreya tried to wiggle away, but Shanti’s grip became stronger. “Shanti, Shanti, don’t do this. Please!”
“Only wolves have these ears,” Shanti said. Shreya felt the dull side of the cold metal press against her ear.
Tears poured out of her eyes. She shook. “Y-you’re my sister. Don’t do this,” she choked out in desperation. “I love you, Shanti, please don’t do this to me.”
Shanti stared at her. “Shreya… What the fuck are you?” She let her go, then stood up and started walking away. It was over. She hadn’t hurt her. Would she have? Shreya scrambled to get up and go after her.
“No,” Shanti said as she turned around. Shreya wiped at her eyes, trying not to cry anymore. They were going to go home together, and she’d have a chance to fix this, and everything would be alright. “You go out there.”
“Go be with that rabbit! Go be with your girl. I don’t care.” Shanti grabbed Shreya’s hat from the ground and threw it at her. It hit her, and fell to her feet. “Just stay the fuck out of my sight. I’m done with you.”
Shreya snatched her hat up, and ran.
A/N: For our last vote, we had 8 votes for Shreya having a negative experience with other wolves and being on time to meet with Ellie, and 7 votes for Shreya having a positive experience with other wolves and being late to meet with Ellie which would’ve put Ellie at risk. And what a negative experience that was…
Voting will last until Tuesday, June 28th at 11:59 PM EST. Sorry again for the late chapter. I hope having another huge chapter in a row will make up for it! While last week’s chapter was the hardest one to write, this one was the hardest one when it came to getting me to STOP writing. Whew.
Don’t forget you can subscribe to get updates in your mailbox.
Vote for us on Topwebfiction to help us get on and stay on the charts. Every vote counts!
Comments are encouraged and appreciated. 🙂