By Rachel Anne Marks
The hare is tough to spot in the snow, white against soft white, but I see her. I have this sixth sense, an awareness of them, these little creatures that seem so scarce now. But so vital. My brother Jimmi was a trapper. The best.
The hare nestles just at the base of a tree about ten paces off. It’s white-grey fir shivers as I raise my bow. The sound of snow shifting in the early dawn crackles at the air. Mist drips from the dead branches above me onto my shoulder.
I let the sounds of the forest sink into me and look down the shaft of my arrow, aiming at the hare’s tender spot, below the front leg, and wonder if she has a knowledge like me. That it’s almost the end.
I breathe out and release the arrow.
It hisses through air and finds its home in flesh. Instant kill.
I take a weaving from my pocket, a small one. It’s just an offering of thanks for what’s being taken. Thread is scarce and needed for mending and patching the warn clothing supply, but as the Crone would say, if the ways of give-and-take are left behind, then what remains except chaos?
I pick the limp body up, place the weaving of thanks on the ground, in the blood, and then pull the arrow out. It goes back in my quiver. The hare goes in my bag for later. It’s my second kill this morning. One more and we should do well enough for our supply of dinner and breakfast tomorrow, even though they’re boney things, living off bark mostly, maybe thin ailing roots beneath the constant blanket of snow.
We all do what we have to, to survive.
I should be apprenticing with the Crone, finishing my learning of runes and medicine, of bone magic and weaving spells. But when Jimmi went missing, someone had to take his place in the trap—to find the meals and fir to trade. And there was only me and Nessa left. It certainly wasn’t going to be Nessa.
Has it almost been a year now? Nearly. Beltane came and Jimmi went out after the feasts—after the seven-day fires had turned to embers and ash—he went into the wood, a simple hunt, as always. But he never returned.
I watched him walk into the bone trees at the rim—I always did, it was tradition, good luck. Nessa stopped once she had the first baby but I still followed ‘til that last day. I stood at the wall, and watched his form fade into the shadow of the forest.
I sat with the radio by my bed for weeks, hoping to hear his voice. Still, every time I come out here, I stop, click the signal on it and listen for an answer. Or try to see if I can find a strip of cloth left behind. Any clue of him. Anything would set my heart at ease. It’s the empty nothing, no information, the void, that keeps me awake in the night. That makes me imagine I can feel him pulling at me—begging me to save him.
I’d woven a blessing of return into his coat and everything. I’m not sure why it failed.
But I know he wouldn’t have abandoned us for the Hidden Places.
He loved us. And he wouldn’t have left me like that, without a word, unless he didn’t have a choice in it.
The sound of a wren chatters in the far off brush. I walk on the path and listen to the trees. Dark limbs reach to grey skies against stark white backdrops, with silver briars speckling the underbrush. The branches moan and creek and I have to keep reminding myself the trees are dead—the way they sound off, it’s like they have souls. But they’re supposed to be green, not all sharp edges and colors of ash. I've only seen a few living trees, here and there, by the river, where the rocks hold enough warmth for the willows to take root. But once they were all green. Long ago, in the Before.
Mamma told me the tale, passed from her mother and her mother before, of thick emerald canopies and rich dark earth, of flowers speckling the valley in a blanket of violet and orange, of fruit that tasted of sunshine. There were even buildings full of so much food it could feed a whole village for weeks.
Not now. Not anymore.
Now everything’s rusted and threadbare. Ancient objects fill the barn behind The Great Kean’s hearth-home and no one can decide what the point was for half of them. The other half are useless.
One more hare, that’s all I need. Then I’ll take them to Jimmi’s hunting cave, skin and gut them, before heading home.
If only I could find a wolf. One of their pelts would be very useful for when Nessa has her new baby. I’ve been trying to track one for weeks and haven’t had any luck, though. I thought I found a trail yesterday, but it went off too far into the Deep. And it would be stupid to break a vow for comfort later. Certainly a pelt isn’t worth the danger of what might be that far into the forest. Where the briars and silver underbrush thicken even more, blocking any path, tricking the eyes. Where the trees seem to whisper and warn you to turn back. Where spirits of the dead guard the Hidden Places. And no human returns with their mind in tact.
The Crone tells bone-chilling tales of the beings in the Deep that even I’m not desperate enough to follow those pathways. “If we leave them be, Nora, they leave us be,” she says. “They’ve got their own trials. But don’t be believin’ that poking at their boundaries won’t leave them sore. They’ll come for reparations. They always does.”
And so I steer clear of them.
Okay, I admit, I might have ventured close before. Only once. I took a thin path a few feet—a few yards at the most—and I called out to Jimmi.
But he’d just gone missing, and I hadn’t been straight in the head. Mama kept weeping, saying he’d betrayed us. And the rest of the clan...all they could do was sneer and spit on the ground when I passed. I couldn’t take it anymore.
So, yes, I stepped closer and closer, I pushed the thick silver brush aside and once I saw the speckles of moss, the places in the trees where the life seemed to magically appear, I called out. “Please come home! We need you!”
And then I turned back and ran to the dead places again. Where it was safe. Nothing followed me. I didn’t hear the trees hiss or feel the spirits tug on my coat. There were no golden eyes in the mist. The only thing that I saw that matched the tellings of the fire-stories was the moss, orange and gold and green, in the crevices of the bark.
Otherwise it was a wholly disappointing venture.
But I wouldn’t go in for a wolf. That would be nonsense.
Instead I slink my way through to the west end of the forest and look for more signs of life in the underbrush. It takes several minutes, maybe an hour, before I find something. A rubbed-on branch here, a scratch in the snow there. A tuff of fur.
But not rabbit fir.
I pick the tuff up and study it, smell it. Get a whiff of that heady oil smell.
My heart speeds up in excitement.
What’re the chances? My wolf?
I scan the trees, then, excitement tinging in my numb toes. All I need is a small sign, just a broken branch, a paw print. I listen with that other place inside me, I reach out, hoping to catch the feeling of warmth, breath, the pulse of blood. I reach into my pocket and rub my thumb over the weaving I made after Jimmi left, the prayer in criss-cross blue and knotted green, that asked for me to earn his gift, asked the trees to favor me, like they did Jimmi—well, at least they had until that last day—
A streak of grey moves to my right, in my peripheral.
I stay utterly still, not even moving my head to look. I know it’s there. Like I sensed the rabbit, I feel the beast’s slick energy in the ground, distant, faded, but it’s there. And this time it’s not getting away.
Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to have noticed me.
I breathe out, slow. And then I pick a tree, press myself against it, take up my bow again, notch an arrow, and allow myself a look beyond, into the trees.
The form blends into the surroundings like it’s made of them. If it weren’t for the puffs of breath in the cold air, rising from the briars ahead, I wouldn’t see it at all. And this is the same one. A male, I think. He has a thick line to his shoulders, but his nose is narrow, ears regal and tipped in silver.
He’s going to look lovely on Nessa’s bed.
I raise my bow and aim.
At the neck.
The wolf’s rhythm slinks over the ground.
And as I release the arrow a thought passes through my mind: the energy feels off.
But before the idea can take hold the silver arrow-tip hits its mark and a yelp echoes off the trees.
Cont. in PART TWO
Cont. in PART TWO
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