The methodical fwip, thud of arrow striking strawman post filled Shreya’s ears. The nighttime’s low visibility further honed her senses in on the noise—the soaring, then the hit. It was a mechanical process, a mindless practice where Shreya would become the system in her hands. She was the bow, the bolt, the focused arm, and the guiding sight line.
The target’s head sprung an arrow. The second shot split a spot already taken. Her third sunk into its chest. She’d turned the dummy into a jumble of jutting lines. Its straw and bramble body sloughed off in places, pieces sliding off in clumps. Despite its abuse, Shreya loaded and fired another arrow into its form.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding all day.”
Shanti’s arrival hadn’t surprised Shreya. She’d sensed her before she’d said a word.
“I wasn’t hiding,” Shreya said without looking at her. “There’s nowhere to hide here.”
“I just didn’t think you’d be over at the training posts. What’s with the sudden interest? Lookin’ to impress that tree climber of yours?”
She hoped her sister wouldn’t pick up on her inhale, her breathing through her teeth. “No. I was thinking of joining Mama on the next hunting trip. I’m going to ask her about it when she comes back from this one.”
“Hunting’s such a pain.”
“Many things are…”
…Like that flurry of hope whenever she crossed the border, full of imagination. She’d reach the broken-down wall and then the house they once shared, all while picturing things that wouldn’t happen. Sometimes she’d go back twice in the same day, just to rest her palms on the door and pretend there was someone else doing the same on the other side.
She couldn’t blame Ellie for never being there.
She hadn’t forgotten the way she looked at her after her confession, that marked shift from affection to detestation. There were times at night when Shreya struggled to fall asleep because of her memory of it. Shreya was the strawman and Ellie was the arrow every time Shreya relived that moment.
And there were worse times, too, like when her confusion rattled her trust in reality. Who was the real Ellie? Was the Ellie she knew nothing more than a projection conjured up by her mind? It was possible Shreya constructed her out of things she’d wanted to find in a person.
Acceptance. Reassurance. Reliability. Using Ellie as a base, she could’ve fooled herself into thinking she’d found that. She’d been using pieces of her to plug up the holes she carried. Had she been forcing a fit when there wasn’t one?
I’m not as great as you think I am, they’d both repeated to each other in so many different ways. And in return, they had said that that didn’t matter. I still care for you, regardless. Now, when they had to put action and power behind their statements, they were revealing the depth of their honesty. Shreya may have been winning on that front, but even she was beginning to wonder if she needed to give up before she did herself in.
Feeling that disappointment whenever she went to Stockbrunn’s forest was taking its toll on her. Going away on a hunt would force her to stop refreshing the same wound.
“Danilo’s going to eat with us,” Shanti said. “He’s getting his strength back.”
Shreya and Danilo had yet to speak about the rabbit incident. She’d apologized for it, but that was about where the conversation ended. She hadn’t wanted to impede his recovery so she didn’t push it. The healers stressed the importance of avoiding negativity during those times. Maybe Shreya needed to apply that thinking to her own situation.
“That’s good. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him,” Shreya said.
“You should put this shit away and hurry up. I want to get good seats for tonight’s performances. One of the kids from the crèche is putting on a kite show.”
“When there’s no wind?” Shreya held up a hand to feel for a breeze.
“That’s how it goes. Hey, I think you got yourself a bit with one of your arrows.”
It was shallow, an accidental swipe near her knuckles that Shreya hadn’t noticed. Shreya brought it to her mouth to soothe the sting of it.
“You go on ahead without me,” Shreya said. “I need to finish up here.”
“With what? That thing’s way past finished. You’re gonna throw your shoulder out if you don’t take a break.”
“I need to gather the arrows. I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself. Just don’t be too late.”
Shreya was late enough to only be able to get a spot in the back of the crowd. She could’ve pushed through to where Shanti and her friends were, but she wasn’t in the mood for their cheer nor was she up to facing Danilo after so long. She liked being able to blend in and just take in the upcoming stage shows without interacting with anyone.
Her plate was less than it’d been the night before. Shreya prayed that her mother and the other hunters would bring home a successful haul. She took her time chewing the side-scrapings of meat and herb roots, hoping that prolonging her eating would quiet the gnawing in her stomach.
A sharp, foreign odor pulled an instinctual growl out of her. The small family of wolves sitting near her had trouble getting their pups to stay still. Tension picked up in the community, splashing in waves as they reacted to the stranger in their midst. Shreya had to move to a different spot to see the source of their agitation.
Standing on the stage beside Elder Ilkay Marjani Gavi was a ginger-eared fox. There was a distinct lack of fear in the fox’s eyes. He kept his hands behind his back and his chin held high. His tail swished behind him, perhaps hinting at what he may have been feeling as he stared everyone down.
“I thank everyone for being here tonight,” Elder Ilkay announced. Out of respect, no one talked when she did. All other conversations instantly died. “As you can see, we have a guest with us. We will be conducting this meeting in Casternian in order to accommodate him.”
“Thank you,” the fox said. His smile looked rehearsed.
“We value openness and oneness in our community, which is why we have allowed this fox to relay the Fox King’s message to everyone here. We demand your silence and respect while he talks. Those who do not hold their tongues will be dealt with. Fox, you may speak now.”
“Our forest won’t survive without balance and care. The Fox King has been made aware of something that took place which threatens that balance and care,” the fox said. “That something is a burning and a slaughter. It’s been reported that a group of wolves were responsible for it.”
Elder Ilkay held up her hands to stop the crowd from rallying against the fox’s claims. “Who reported it?”
“We received word from a Forest Keeper.”
Shreya froze, now especially glad that she wasn’t with the others. She kept her face as neutral as possible. The Forest Keepers were a group of animals responsible for moderating the woods. It was rumored that there were at least one or two Forest Keepers secretly hidden in every community, and that was how they were able to keep an eye on everything. They only got involved in serious offenses that held widespread repercussions.
The fox continued, “that slaughter had its consequences. Those dependent on those rabbits for food have suffered. The rabbits have their place in this forest, and with their numbers down, things have been…thrown off.”
He made it sound like they’d mercilessly killed a large batch of them. It wasn’t like that. Save for the rabbit that kicked off everything, the rabbits they’d executed had been feeble. They were the old and the sick, the non-contributors. The rabbits chose to sacrifice them for a reason. By losing them, they’d lose the least.
How could their deaths have thrown off the forest’s balance so badly? The Forest Keepers had it wrong.
What if he’s lying? This could be a trick.
Feeling herself overheat, Shreya pushed up her sleeves.
“The Fox King demands reparations for those affected by this serious offense to order. The retribution will be food, to be personally delivered to his den. If you choose not to voluntarily do this, then we will have no choice but to take what is owed by force,” the fox said.
Her tail wagged so hard that it thumped against the dirt. Luckily, she wasn’t the only one sitting in her section that was taking issues. Her ears picked up on back-of-the-throat grumbles, anxious tapping, and shifting around from those who had trouble staying put.
“The Fox King has given you a deadline. I hope you won’t refuse it.” The fox’s tail sped up its waving.
“What is the amount your king asks for?” Elder Ilkay asked.
The answer the fox gave was appalling.
Things were bad enough as it was for the Marjani community. Their food was stretched to its thinnest limits. But if they didn’t comply, they faced a possible raid. They were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. All of this for killing a bunch of rabbits… Did we really kill that many?
Shreya bristled. She wondered how Shanti, Adikavi, Firouz, Chinaza, and Oydis were handling this. It had been their need for vengeance that led to this. Now, the Forest Keepers were trying to over-fix things. They were going to starve them to supposedly change the scales. It didn’t sit well with Shreya.
What if…what if this is all a ploy, and the rabbits are working with the foxes to get back at us? Shreya didn’t know what kind of trade the rabbits put in place to make that possible. If the Elders had the full details of what happened that night, then would they be thinking along similar lines as Shreya?
To tell them would be signing herself up for exile. Not implicating the others in any way would probably make her punishment even worse.
The Marjani wolves would learn the Elders’ decision on the matter in due time. The Elders said they needed time to deliberate. Could they trust in the Elders’ wisdom when they didn’t have the full story?
She was lost in her thoughts as a few wolves escorted the fox off their stage. An Elder, a different one than Elder Ilkay, announced the first performer, the child with the kite that Shanti wanted to see. Shreya imagined it would be difficult to perform under these circumstances. The Elders should have postponed everything.
Shreya returned her empty plate to the dish pile set up a ways away from the activities. She couldn’t stick around any longer. The mounting guilt was too stifling. And she wanted to put some more distance between her and the others, in case they wanted to talk about their role in all of this.
She needed silence and that bow back in her hands.
A/N: Started a new medication yesterday so I’m feeling really drowsy and meh… Please bear with me as I try to adjust to it. Thank you for all of your support, everyone.
We got to see the result for the question of if Shreya will tell Shanti about what happened with her and Ellie. We had 29 voters back then. 13 for yes and 16 for no.
Voting this week will end Friday, the 14th at 11:59 PM EST.