“Is he dead?” She gasped for air in the spaces between her words. “Tell me!”
Healers surrounded his bed, walling him off from her view. Their efforts were apparent in the frantic movements of their arms and the bobbing of their shoulders. They didn’t look up from their work.
“Danilo, it’s me. I’m here,” Shanti said. She’d ran with everything she had to make it in time.
“He can’t hear you. We’ve put him under.” The head healer approached her from the corner of the room. As customary, he donned a half-mask and shawl to cover his hair. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I tried to stop her,” said a familiar voice from behind her. “I’m sorry.”
She whirled around. “You can’t stop me. None of you can stop me!”
“Remove her,” the head healer instructed. “Her presence may be detrimental to his care.”
“Shanti, if you want him to have the best chance at fighting this, you’ll leave,” Adikavi said. He stepped in front of her, his wide frame difficult for Shanti to see around. “Don’t make me drag you out of here.”
She did. She kicked and screamed the whole way.
Her shirt tore in his hands.
Dirt and leaves tangled in her hair.
Her arms bled worse than when they’d wrestled earlier that day.
A circle of well-wishers had gathered outside the healers’ hut. They watched. They handed over their piteous stares to the miserable girl. In the midst of her thrashing, she felt their eyes searing her.
Why weren’t you there for him?
It was Oydis who applied her bandages. Her sister Chinaza took care of Adikavi’s.
Propped up against the wall of her home, Shanti could hardly keep her head up. It rolled to her shoulder, her eyelids fluttering. She didn’t have the strength to fill Oydis in on everything that happened. Firouz took care of that. He’d been spreading the news of Danilo’s injury to everyone relevant.
“Where’s Shreya?” Firouz asked, having gone hoarse from talking so much. “You were gone for a long time.”
“You chased the rabbit, didn’t you?” Chinaza finished the wrapping on Adikavi’s arm. He cried out when she pulled it tight.
“We did,” Shanti imagined. She’d gone woozy, her speech slurring. “The rabbit and her friends are on the move, but Shreya’s there. She’s watching them.”
After driving her spineless turncoat of a sister away, Shanti had stalked them by herself. She followed the gray-haired rabbit’s trail. Her scent led her to an encampment hurriedly left behind, and from there, their possible directions forked. Shanti picked the one that held her target and gave chase.
“What will we do?” Oydis brushed her fingers through Shanti’s hair. She eased out bits of foliage.
Ready for anything, Shanti’s four friends waited for her to give them the word.
At the nightly mealtime gathering, the Elders spoke of Danilo’s accomplishments. They praised him for his work at the crèche, his gentle demeanor, and his giving spirit. His mother and one of his brothers asked everyone to lend their energies towards him pulling through.
Children cried on stage while talking about him.
Shanti ate, her teeth tearing into a helping of taekalb, to keep from doing the same.
Prayers and tears wouldn’t help save him.
Her mother woke her in the night.
“You’re having a nightmare,” Pravaah said.
“I know,” Shanti said.
All she could see was Danilo and the face he’d made when he’d been struck. The pain, agony, and horror of it. How much she wished it’d been someone, anyone else.
Shanti sat up in her cot. The second half, Shreya’s side, was empty. Her blankets were kicked aside and her sleepwear was askew from her fitfulness. Calm sleep was difficult for her to attain alone, but she’d learn to manage. She had to.
“The healers will do their best.”
“What if they can’t save him? What if I lose him?”
“Your doubts will ruin his recovery.”
“Mama…” Shanti bit back her whimper.
Pravaah forced Shanti’s chin up to look at her. “This isn’t a hopeless situation.”
“They wouldn’t let me near him. Isn’t that wrong?”
“It isn’t. The room must have the right balance,” she said. “You can’t interfere in the healing process.”
“I don’t wanna interfere. I just wanna see him.”
Her last memory of them together couldn’t be of him hurt and dying. Him needing her, while she was too consumed by the fires of revenge to carry him home. What if hearing her voice in those moments would’ve soothed more of his pain? What if her holding him close would’ve benefited his treatment in some way?
He needed her, and she hadn’t been there.
It had happened slowly. It creeped up on her, the feeling that plumed within her whenever she interacted with Danilo.
They’d been friends first. What caused the shift from acquaintanceship to friendship happened the day Shanti decided to help her sister haul some goods to the crèche. Toys, books, cloth diapers, and spare clothing for the messiest ones.
She saw him reading to a group of tiny kids, his hands trembling as he held up the picture book. Danilo was losing the crowd’s attention, fast.
Shanti knew the story. It was a classic tale of a hardworking pup beating an adult human in a race. The human beat the pup on the first and second laps in record time. Smug and full of himself like a typical human, he decided to take a nap. While he slept, the puppy ran the rest of the race, won, tied up the sleeping human, and brought him home for everyone’s supper.
It was supposed to be a riveting tale, but the kids listening to Danilo looked bored out of their minds.
So she did the sensible thing. She took the book from Danilo and read the story the way it was meant to be read. Her sister watched from the doorway, her ears flat with embarrassment.
The kids loved it. They whooped and cheered for the pup’s victory.
Once it was over, Shreya went to Danilo to apologize for Shanti’s behavior. Danilo told her it was okay, and then thanked Shanti for the help. He asked if she could give him some pointers. Shanti agreed, and then they’d started spending more time in each other’s company.
Their first kiss had been a disaster.
They’d talked about it days beforehand. They were experts in hugging and hand holding at that point, but they wanted to try something new. Something new and exciting and scary. The next step. The big K.
Shanti had never figured herself to be the kind of girl who’d go weak in the knees for anyone. She thought of sweetheart romance as somebody else’s genre.
Danilo proved her wrong. He radiated warmth and comfort and whenever he was around, it took all of her control to keep herself from falling into his willing arms. It was difficult for her to fathom how someone like her and someone like him worked together so well, but they did.
All her stress and worries faded away when she was with him. On her low days, he’d assure her there was nothing wrong with her boisterousness (in fact, that was one of the things he liked the most about her). He’d confess that he wanted to be a little more like her, and she’d reason him out of that thinking.
It became hard to focus on anything but him and what he might have been doing at any given moment. She was wrapped up in Danilo. Sometimes, she’d keep her sister up through the night talking about how wonderful he was and how much it hurt not being with him.
So how did she repay the boy she cherished during their first kiss?
Well, for one, it wasn’t done to completion, because Shanti wound up shoving him to the ground in a nervous fit.
He hit his head and fell unconscious.
Their second kiss hadn’t been much better. Maybe it was worse, actually.
He had been lying in her lap. She’d been sitting in the grass, paying attention to a bird making its nest.
Danilo moved up to kiss her just as she was turning to say something.
The worst nosebleed of Shanti’s life.
They got it right on the third attempt.
“Wipe your face,” Mama said.
It was still the night of the tragedy. The healers were still working on Danilo. Shreya was still gone, wherever she was. And Shanti was still doing a poor job of not becoming a sloppy mess in front of Pravaah.
Shanti used her blanket to blot at her eyes. “Yeah.”
“You should be grateful that there’s the possibility you won’t lose him,” Pravaah said.
“What do I do if I do? What did you do after Papa…?”
“I lived for you, Sher, Sharmila, Sheela, and Shreya.”
She and Danilo hadn’t gotten that far. They planned on it, though. They were going to grow up, continue their work in the crèche, and have puppies of their own. Two litters’ worth, if they were lucky. They’d have their children in a time free of hardship and tragedies, so they’d be able to keep everyone.
Lots and lots of little Danilos and Shantis, running around everywhere and playing on everything and having so much fun every day. They’d never know what it was like to struggle or have to bury a loved one, and they’d certainly never know the strike of a hand.
Shanti and Danilo would give them the very best lives they could.
“That doesn’t help me any, Mama,” Shanti said.
Pravaah put her arms around Shanti. She cradled her head close to her chest. Shanti had to adjust to avoid having her cheek crushed against Papa’s talisman. It hung around her Mama’s neck, an intricate engraving representing his dedication to his family.
Without his sacrifice, they wouldn’t be alive. Papa died saving them.
Shanti hadn’t seen it, but she’d heard it. The sickening crunch and squelch of the humans’ axes as they hacked at his flesh and bones. He had fought back to buy them time, always getting back up until they made that impossible, or so the sounds had led Shanti to believe.
Face masked in red, Mama had scooped Shanti and her siblings out of their hiding place, and ran to safety. A thrown axe had torn Mama’s face, ruining her eye and leaving a scar. Some might call it horrific. Shanti saw it as a symbol of honor.
Normally, Mama would wear her eye patch, but since it was sleeping time, she left her disfigurement on full display. The bad eye winced permanently, resembling a cloudy glass ball.
“You will have to be less selfish than I am,” Pravaah said. “Live for this community. Live for your sister. And live for yourself.”
Days passed by.
The healers wouldn’t allow anyone to see Danilo. They continued their work.
Shanti didn’t have the heart to visit the crèche, let alone get out of bed.
Her friends visited.
They devised plans.
At night, Shanti would act in Shreya’s stead. She tracked the rabbits and observed them from a distance.
What would Danilo say of their ideas? He was the most sensible one. No doubt that he would try to talk them out of it. He’d cite the Elders, warning them that they’d never approve of such a thing.
Then, he’d say that he didn’t want to see anyone get hurt. What was a team of six wolves to herds of rabbits? The rest of their friends would laugh at the thought.
Well-fed. The answer was well-fed.
And Shanti would know that wasn’t what Danilo meant, so she’d take his concerns under better consideration.
Another night; another nightmare. Mama holding her since Shreya wasn’t there to. Shanti trembled in Pravaah’s arms as badly as a leaf in the wind.
“Why didn’t you kill them?” Shanti asked, face wet from crying. “Why didn’t we get rid of Stockbrunn for what they did to Papa?”
“The Elders forbade it. We had to take care of the problems happening within the community.”
“What about now?”
“We made our negotiations after Stockbrunn’s Gift. It’d be unwise for us to directly break our pact,” Pravaah said. “It’s in the Elders’ hands, however. When they decide we need to, we will. I suspect we’re the pup in the race, working steadily as Stockbrunn sleeps.”
Shanti sniffled. Her tears dampened Pravaah’s shoulder.
Pravaah asked, “are you planning on taking revenge for your partner? Is that the real reason why your sister hasn’t come home?”
“Shreya’s hunting the rabbit who hurt Danilo. I don’t think she’d be stupid enough to take them on by herself, but she’s been so defiant lately… Mama, you need to talk some sense into her when she gets home.”
It surprised her that Shreya took as long as she did to come home. Shanti had predicted she would’ve come crawling back in three days, tops. But there she was, standing at the edge of the community and being greeted one-by-one by Oydis, Firouz, Chinaza, and Adikavi. They hugged her and congratulated her on her good work.
Shreya hid her bewilderment well.
When it was her turn to hug her, Shanti made sure to put on a good face. She whispered to her:
“Mama’s going to beat the shit out of you. Play along.”
Shanti followed Shreya to the nearby riverside.
Shreya dipped her week-old clothes and hat into a bucket of soapy water.
Shanti kicked it over.
“You’re still angry,” Shreya said. Her face was shaded around her left cheek, the makings of the bruise she’d earned the night prior. Shreya’s silence and confusion only worsened the ordeal.
“Oh, yes, I am.” She regretted spilling the bucket onto the dirt and grass. She should’ve poured it on Shreya, instead.
Shreya refilled it. She broke off a chunk of soap into the water. It powdered, turning the tub murky.
“I went to see Danilo. They wouldn’t let me inside,” Shreya said.
“That’s how it is for everyone.”
“How sorry can you be? You took your time. You lived the high life,” Shanti said. “I’ve never seen you look so glowing. What did you do? Were you with her the whole time?”
“I wouldn’t say the whole time.” Shreya lowered her clothes into the basin. “We mainly explored the forest.”
“Did she feed you and take care of you?”
“How happy does she make you?”
Hesitation. The splashing of water. “Why are you asking me this?”
“Because while you enjoyed yourself, I suffered. Not a second went by where I wasn’t in pain, and you, you just—”
“I did what you told me to do. You told me to stay out of your sight.”
“I was furious!”
“Would you rather I go again?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? More time to spend with your darling.”
“I’d be leaving because of you, not her. Because you’d want me to. Shanti, you’re my sister. I’d do anything for you.” Shreya blinked back the tears springing at the corners of her eyes. “I’m so sorry. It was my fault he got hurt and I’m so sorry.”
Shanti pressed her finger into the bruise on Shreya’s face. Her sister shut her eyes, letting out a low whistle. “It was your fault?”
“Danilo didn’t deserve that.”
“But you did, because you’re defective. Danilo’s perfect. Everyone loves him,” Shanti said. “You’re a broken wolf who has to get cared for by a human. How pathetic is that?”
“I know,” Shreya said.
“I was hoping you’d have fixed yourself, but I’m starting to wonder if you’ve gotten worse. Relax and don’t fight.” Shanti moved her hand to the back of Shreya’s head. She gripped her hair and leaned her sister over the bucket so she could see her reflection.
Shreya’s ears twitched. “What are you doing?”
“Showing you something. On the outside, you’re a wolf. On the inside, you’re a mess. Would you like to change that?”
“Which one? It’s not like I can change either,” Shreya said. “I just…I just want you to stop hating me. I need to be able to talk to you. If there’s anything I’d like to change, it’s you hating me.”
“We’re going to kill the rabbits. Me, you, Oydis, Chinaza, Firouz, and Adikavi. I know where they are. I’ve been watching them,” Shanti said. “This will be your chance to prove how sorry you are. Kill the rabbit like you were supposed to.”
“Don’t you want to make everything up to me and Danilo? He could die hating you. Imagine if we’d told everyone the full details of what happened, that it was your fault. Everyone really would hate you, then. Your punishment would be worse than exile.”
“Is this fair?”
“Fair would be far worse. This is a small camp of them, an off-shoot group. They’ll die and the rest will learn from it. We’ve got it figured out.”
“…Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll help you and keep you safe.”
“Show us you’re a wolf. Heal every broken part of you. Do this the right way and this will save you, sister.”
Shanti forced Shreya’s head into the water.
Shreya didn’t struggle.
The nightmares didn’t stop, but now Shanti wasn’t alone.
A small comfort.
Preparations were underway. Dagger sharpening. Procurement of a curved, flat-blade sword. A bow and arrows borrowed from the community’s hunting supplies. Stake-outs of the area. A single bag bulging with fire powder and kindling.
“What’s this?” Shanti pulled it out from under Shreya’s pillow.
She’d found it along with bundles of multi-colored string.
“It’s from a peafowl,” Shreya said. “She said it’s a beautiful bird.”
Pravaah wasn’t home. They listened out for her approach, ready to hop back under their covers as soon as she entered the door. They were supposed to be sleeping.
Shanti tickled her wrist with the feather. “Did she say ‘a beautiful bird feather for a beautiful girl’ when she gave it to you or was this a friendly gift?”
“No, she’s a little more charming than that,” Shreya said.
There it was. Shreya’s glow returned. She was trying to suppress it, but Shanti knew that look. She’d lived it on the inside and seen it on the outside.
“You mean a lot to her. Say something if I’m wrong,” Shanti said.
Shreya rolled over to face the wall.
“And you? What do you think of her?” Shanti asked. “It goes both ways, doesn’t it?”
Shreya curled inwards, tucking in her knees. She nodded.
“Shreya, no, you can’t.”
“Stop it. I think I’m gonna be sick. You have to be lying. I know I teased you about it, but I didn’t think you’d actually…”
“She helps me forget how messed up I am.”
“Anyone could do that! What about Oydis? You get along with her. Something could come of that. Or, or, you could try Firouz. You’d make a good couple. You two are a lot alike.”
“I don’t want them.”
“Someone new, then. There’s lots of people here,” Shanti said. “You can’t be with a human. There’s only room in their hearts for themselves.”
“She’s not like that. She’s different.”
“You’ll be cursed!”
“I’m sure I already am,” Shreya said. “If this ends, it’s going to be her doing. I can’t stop.”
“Where’s your rationality? You’re supposed to be the rational one. What’s the matter with you? This is so wrong. You can’t throw everything away for some girl,” Shanti said. “Yeah, she makes you happy, but just because she’s the first girl to do that doesn’t mean she’ll be the only one.”
“I’m broken, remember? Broken and rotten and a real coward. I have no rationality.”
“Dammit, why are you like this? Did me and Mama not give you enough attention? What happened?”
Shreya’s answer came out in unintelligible sobs. She flipped onto her stomach and hid her face against her pillow. Her body tremored as she cried.
Shanti rubbed her back in circles, not stopping until Shreya calmed down and seemingly drifted off to sleep. She slipped the peafowl feather under their cot for safekeeping.
She failed her.
She wouldn’t fail Danilo.
They slipped away from their village as the nighttime meal started.
They painted their faces for added power.
They took their posts around the rabbit camp.
Armed with the bow and arrows, Chinaza hid in a tree that had decent visibility of the area. She’d pick off anyone who tried to escape.
Adikavi had the fire powder bag. Everything would begin once he lit and threw it. After that, he’d control the northern part of their circle.
Shreya, Firouz, and Oydis stuck to the daggers they were most comfortable with. West, East, and South, respectively.
Shanti wielded the hooked sword. Free-for-all center position.
Their largest tent erupted into flames.
The wolves moved in.
Their screams echoed in her skull.
It became clear to Shanti that these sacrificial rabbits had been chosen for a reason. They were old and frail. Expendable. No weapons or strength in their hands to fight back with. It wasn’t a fair fight.
It was a slaughter that left her covered in their blood.
Every rabbit she got close to would fall to their knees and put their heads down.
Make it fast, she guessed their squeaky chattering meant. Fast and painless.
A whole line of them, giving up and laying down.
The others finished off the ones who’d gotten caught in the fire. The acrid smell of their burning flesh stung Shanti’s nose.
At the end of the line, lay Shanti’s target. The blue-eyed rabbit with the gray hair, the youngest in the batch. The rabbit who may have killed Danilo. Shanti couldn’t stop the smile forming on her face. By saving her for the finale, she’d let the rabbit witness death after death.
“Do you regret what you did? Did you know they died because of you?” Shanti asked.
The rabbit cowered, not understanding.
Shreya placed her hand on Shanti’s shoulder. “I’ll take this one.”
Shanti handed Shreya the sword.
Shreya said something in Casternian. Shanti couldn’t decipher it over the crackling flames.
It took Shreya more than two tries to behead the rabbit.
She dropped the sword when she finished. She had trouble catching her breath.
Shanti hugged her. “I love you, Shreya. We did it.”
Although her voice was muffled into her shoulder, Shreya said it back and hugged her tighter.
The healers allowed Shanti into the hut the next morning.
No one knew of what transpired the night before. Everyone involved agreed to keep silent about it. They did what they could to stomp out the fires and ate what they could of the bodies. Most were left for the wilderness to take.
They had taken a river bath in silence, changed into the dry clothes they’d stashed away, and made their way back to the community village.
Everything worked out. She could finally see her Danilo.
He was stretched out on the operating table. Leaves and herbs covered his chest, resting over cloth bandages wrapped around his middle. He’d never looked this small and lonely. Whatever the healers had done had caused some of his weight to wither. It wasn’t right, but…he was alive, and that was the most important thing to her right now.
“Danilo, I’m here.” Shanti covered his hand with hers. She looked over at the head healer to see if that was okay. He nodded in approval.
“Shanti?” Danilo had lost his usual timbre. He was so quiet that she had to lean in to hear him. “They said you caused a ruckus. I said to them…’yeah, that’s my Shanti.'”
“Oh, Danilo, we’ll never go fishing again! We’ll stay at the crèche forever from now on.”
“That’s no way to live.”
“I’d rather be boring and alive with you than risk losing you again. Danilo, you’re okay, you’re okay.” She had to say it multiple times to believe it.
And now that he was alright, she could help her sister by any means necessary. She refused to let her curse overwhelm her.
You’ll be okay, too. We all will be.
A/N: Voting on this chapter will end Friday, November 4th at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 36 will be out on Friday, November 11th.
We had 9 votes for Shanti welcoming Shreya home with open arms (good feelings), and 13 votes for Shanti still having problems with her (bad feelings). That’s 22 votes total.
We finally got to see the result of our Chapter 23 poll way back at the end of June. We had 17 voters. The question was “will Danilo succumb to his injuries?” 8 voted yes and 9 voted no. Very close one!
Thank you for reading today’s update! We did a fantastic job of making it up the charts last week. Let’s show everyone our power once more! Please vote for us on TWF.