TO SURVIVE THESE WOODS, A MAN HAS TO BE strong as the trees, Papa had said. The memory is a whisper compared to the attention my cramping stomach demands.
I try not to think of him or my trembling legs as I dust my boot prints from the path with a broken branch. Every starved scrap of me begs to stop and hunt here on the foot trail in the Ever Woods. Only the danger of getting caught propels me onward, boots stumbling over rocks and dirt.
Weak as I am, I won’t make it through the craggy Malam Mountains to where King Aodren’s land edges the lowlands. It’s a two-day walk. Two long, grueling days. Spots dance in my vision. Seeds, I need food. Papa’s old training spot will have to do. The king’s guard, the eyes over the royal city of Brentyn, aren’t likely to catch me there. Through a pinched, rocky canyon, the remote site has only been used by Cohen, Papa’s former apprentice, and me. A spasm racks my insides, and the decision is made. To the practice clearing.
The sun’s halfway to its peak when I stumble into the glade. Heady, sweet pine scents the brisk air. The leaves on the white-barked quaky trees around the nearby lake glow like embers, fiery gold and auburn against the evergreens. The sight is a warm welcome home.
Though starved and here to hunt, I cannot stop myself from finding our tree and tracing the carved names: Britta & Cohen.
Nor can I swallow the emotions that lump in my throat.
Since Cohen left last year to work for the king and Papa was killed two months ago, I’ve kept the pressing loneliness mostly at bay, managing it in little pieces. But this morning, it’s like isolation up and walloped me in the face.
I swipe a sneaky tear away and ready an arrow to my bow.
My body resembles a freckled skeleton for how thin I’ve become. Not much will change my paleness, but catching a squirrel or grouse will satisfy my hunger. Something to strengthen me. Later, I’ll bag a larger beast. Winter’s not far off, and I desperately need a decent kill to trade for lodging. The king’s guard will soon seize my land—?no, Papa’s land—?now that my mourning is over.
Bludgers will be pounding on my door in a couple days, foaming at the mouth over my cozy, one-room cottage. I pull back on my bowstring, testing the pressure, needing to shoot something. Anything. To keep a Malam tradition—?home isolation for two months of mourning—?I nearly starved, and now must break the law, since no one brought food after Papa died. Never a kindness for me—?Britta Flannery—?daughter of a Shaerdanian and, therefore, an outcast.
A year before my birth, the king regent closed the border between Malam and Shaerdan. Since then it seems all of Malam contracted amnesia; nobody remembers the good that came from the neighboring country. Once, we prospered from Shaerdan’s trade and relied on Channelers’ healing salves. Now we shun them for their strange Channeler magic. We fear what they can do.
With a huff, I push down the anger and focus on the hunt.
That’s when I discover the print of an elk hoof, two half circles with pointed ends. The moisture puddling inside the tracks reveals that the elk was here recently. My pulse quickens at the promise of a good catch as I stand stiller than a tree to listen for the elk’s movement. Birds whistle; leaves swish. All normal sounds of the Ever Woods, but something is off. That something abruptly tugs inside me, and an invisible finger skitters unease up the back of my neck.
I’m not alone.
My eyes ricochet from the branches to the shrubs to the sky, seeing everything and nothing. I spin around, expecting to meet the red coats of the king’s guard, and only find pine trees. I bite my lip. Swipe ghostly blond strands of hair out of my face.
Who else could be here?
No one dares hazard a hunt in the king’s Ever Woods. Hunting is only permitted where royal land ends near Lord Devlin’s fiefdom. That’s two days west in the Bloodwood firs or three and a half days south. On a rare day, poaching will get a man whipped or tortured. Most days, death.
I clench my bow and push myself to search for signs of an intruder: broken tree limbs, prints in the soil. It’s frustrating to abandon the elk hunt, but safety ensures survival—?Papa’s first lesson.
An hour of combing the underbrush passes before the strange sensation disappears. Which in a way is more unsettling, since my instincts have never led me astray. Perhaps hunting without Papa has me on edge. Perhaps being alone—?
A shadow shifts a few lengths ahead.
I dash behind a rotted trunk. My fingers contract and relax around the bow’s well-worn grip. Flex. Release. Papa would clap my ear for acting like a skittish girl. Stay in control, he’d say. Focus is a weapon as much as your bow.
I draw a breath, slow and calm, and force myself to lean away from the decaying wood to get a look.
Whatever I was expecting to see, it wasn’t a six-point bull elk. A king of the forest, he struts into the glade. Proud shoulders, sturdy haunches. It takes a beat to remember this elk means my survival. From where I’m crouched, the angle makes for a tricky shot. One knuckle-width too high or low will hit bone or cartilage, seriously wounding but not killing. Torturing, if my aim is off.
I shoot. The arrow thunks deep into the bull’s chest, impaling the vitals in a killing blow. The elk starts, jerks to a run, staggering a few steps before his eyes roll white. He thuds to the needle-covered ground.
I stare blindly at the beast, my bow arm falling to my side. A touch of sadness, a trickle of unworthiness beats through me as blackbirds flap out of the branches. An absurd reaction for a hunter, I know. His husky, labored breaths echo around us, to which I whisper shapeless, calming words as the beast accepts death. The life left in the animal struggles, a ravaged soldier fighting his way off the battlefield, having no hope of survival.
My hunter’s instinct always recognizes the cusp of passing. The awareness you possess is a talent only the best hunters develop, Papa said. Except, how can it be a talent when it’s only ever felt like a curse? I give the elk a quick end, slitting his throat.
My grip tenses over the intricate etchings on Papa’s dagger, my knuckles a match to the ivory handle. I force the blade to the animal’s belly to begin gutting and quartering. Stick to the task. Cut through the fur. Slice the skin. Roll out the innards. I’m good at pressing forward, always moving onward.
While some elk is curing and drying, other pieces roast over a small fire. It’s the same way...