Poaching in these forests would get me killed.
In the northern territory of Orbis, snow was never far away, dancing and falling in lazy swirls. Flakes hovered as if choosing where to land, which patch of wet dirt to seek solace. A tendril of frosted air caressed my cheek above the leather wrappings. If the landscape had been barren white, I’d have no chance at my prey. The brown wrappings blended into my skin. The deer might smell me but it shouldn’t see me.
I didn’t draw the bow string just yet. In the empty forest, the creak would echo as startling as a blade striking wood. Silence was a hunter’s best ally yet worst enemy. Breathe, Ash. You’re seventeen. This isn’t your first kill.
The deer stripped sheets of bark from a leaning tree. It should have had more fat beneath its hide. My stomach turned inwards, grumbling like a vicious badger. I tensed, but the deer didn’t startle, still didn’t seem to notice me. I couldn’t recall when I’d eaten more than scavenged mushrooms. My mouth watered, even in the cold.
Death or an empty stomach. What a hard choice.
That did it. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, sneer at the stingy meal.
Just one more blighted step. Lungs, liver, heart. If I hit the chest, the deer might run a few feet before collapsing. I couldn’t afford a long chase. Crossing the valley into these woods, ruled by the family Gens Silvanus, had drained too much of my strength. If I killed the deer, I still had to gut it, save the hide and haul the meat to my secret larder. That took energy I might not have.
The deer took two steps. I flexed my frigid fingers and the bow creaked as I drew the string. My breath caught as the deer raised its head, nostrils flaring.
No! It pivoted into the twisting underbrush. That quickly, my only chance at a decent meal for my sister and father disappeared. The string relaxed, my shocked fingers barely keeping it from firing. The deer shouldn’t have smelled me.
Maybe it didn’t. In the distance, wood cracked beneath boots.
I ducked behind the tree trunk and adjusted my grip on the arrow. Someone, something, was out here with me. The deer would live another day. I might not.
Brash steps drew closer. My arm shook, from the cold and from terror known to me since birth. A wild animal wouldn’t be so careless. I knew what I’d face when I turned. And I had one chance to take him or her by surprise. I needed to fire between the beats but my pounding heart echoed the snapping of twigs. I had no time to aim, just follow my instinct. I exhaled.
A last twig cracked to my left. I broke my cover and the arrow soared.
The Therian, the shapeshifter, moved just enough. The arrow grazed his arm, tore through his sleeve and left a seam of blood. In the setting sunlight, greasy hair fell around eyes ringed with silver. All shapeshifters had the same mark.
The silver meant the end to those like me. I was Anthron. I couldn’t shapeshift and my life was all the more horrific because of it.
He clucked his tongue, eyes like bristling fire. “Carrion boys in these woods are up to no good.”
Good. My first horrified thought. He didn’t know I was a girl. If he did… all he could see were my green eyes and I hoped they blazed with the hatred stoking in my chest. But I backed away. Those silver rings contracted.
I only knew he was a Silvanus soldier by the leaf and sword stitched on his tunic. “Nothing to defend your crimes, carrion?” he taunted. “No Silvanus slave would dare be out in these woods. I’d bet you belong to Canis.”
He had that right. Canis was another noble family and I lived in their valley. But crime? My poaching?
“Not that it matters,” he continued. His head lowered, predator staring at its prey. “We’ll catch the filth you’re helping.”
A plan tried to form in my mind but the soldier shifted forms with a snarl. Fabric ripped. Fur replaced skin. A tan wolf, shoulders as tall as my hips, stood in the mud. His lips peeled back, fangs glistening.
Far away, a crow’s caw filtered through the darkening forest.
The soldier tensed, distracted from his lunge. I fired my last arrow and ran for everything I was worth. Dense air choked my lungs as I dodged stumps dotting the muddy ground. A howl sounded. Brush gave way as he barreled after me.
Thank you, Ryland! My crow, watching from above, had given me a small chance. Frigid creek water soaked my knees. Through it. Up the rise. Around the boulders. The terrain of the forest was seared in my memory, but the crashes behind me magnified. I stumbled, right ankle screaming. A heavy weight slammed me into the mud, on my back. The paw pressed on my throat, on my shoulder. Pinned. Fangs snapped in my face, a thread’s width from my covered nose. I screamed. Not because of a wolf who could rip my throat apart but because, at any second, he could shift back.
The ring of death, we called it. Shapeshifter eyes gleamed down at me. I wanted to close my own. See nothing but oblivion before I met it. The last little bit of my courage refused. Caws echoed again but were different. This time they sounded directly above us.
An arrow punched into the wolf’s shoulder.
His piercing yelp penetrated my senses. My hands fumbled in the mud. I gripped the first solid thing my palm touched.
Another arrow slammed into the shapeshifter near the same spot. I knew one person who could shoot like that. I screamed again, in terror that wasn’t for me, and swung the heavy stone. The wolf went rigid, yelps cut off, and collapsed to the side. I clawed at the wrap over my lower face. Sweet air suddenly flooded my lungs.
Small but strong hands dug into my clothes. Gemina hauled me close and shook me until her face swam. My sister’s brown eyes were probably as wide as mine.
“Gem,” I sputtered. “Gem, stop.”
Her thumb absently brushed against the trio of scars on my right cheek. It always helped me focus. Gem was three turnfalls younger but her eyes were always so solemn.
“Are you all right?” She glanced at the ground near us. Her bow rested half on her knee, half in the mud.
I surged up, pushed her away. The soldier! He didn’t move. My palm still cradled the stone. I’d gotten him good. But not good enough, the little voice whispered. He’s still breathing. Hot fury roared to life and a stuttering sob escaped my throat. Ignoring Gem’s cry I scrambled forward and raised the stone. One less thing to hurt us if I brought it down. Again and again. Until blood soaked the thin layer of snow.
“Ash,” Gem pleaded. Her arrows quivered with each halting breath the shapeshifter took.
The stone thudded to the ground. I was a coward. I just couldn’t do it, because nothing except pain and death came from killing a Therian. The shapeshifter shuddered and skin flowed to replace fur. Naked, he lay twitching, blood streaming down his face.