I trudged through the ankle-deep snow; felt it biting at my bare skin and seeping into the marrow of my bones. The heavy lumps of coal in my pockets weighed on my soul like an anchor.
I took so many risks in stealing a few hunks of black rock. But they burned longer and warmer than the twigs I scavenged in the woods.
I couldn’t stand the thought of my sisters sleeping through another freezing night. Especially not Elise, she was barely four seasons old and I feared her chronic cough would claim her life soon.
I dug my teeth into my cracked bottom lip and pulled my tattered cloak tighter.
The route I took was familiar to me, it was hidden away from the frequently traveled paths. Those were far more dangerous to take, what with the soldiers who all felt entitled to pillage from any person weaker than them.
I grit my teeth, those damned brutes, if only the war had never been waged. Maybe then our crops would grow instead of being trampled under their iron heels.
I’d much rather be taken by the monsters and faeries who prowled in the deep wood. At least then my death would come swiftly.
I shoved my shaggy hair from my vision. It was far longer than I’d have liked, but I wouldn’t waste the sharpness of the hunting blade by my side. I’d rather have a clean kill than preserve something as insignificant as my masculinity. Even if the slightly wealthier males my age mocked me incessantly when they weren’t crying to their mothers about how cold it was.
I rolled my eyes. They’d never truly understand what I had to go through. Considering it was almost always them who ratted me out when they found stolen goods in my pockets and boots.
I couldn’t risk being whipped for theft again, not with the cold winter bearing down on us. Besides, it had been weeks now since I had been so foolish and took care to be more cautious. Even though the sting and the crack of the whip still echoed in my skull and plagued my dreams.
The soldiers delighted in breaking the pale skin of my back and while most of the lashes healed, some cut too far and too deep. The proof still showed on my malnourished body.
But I couldn’t be bothered by my own shortcomings. My mind had to stay clear for my family. My sisters. I had one goal, and it was to keep them safe and as well off as I could.
Tomorrow I’d try to barter for a few stale rolls to give them.
I could see the small square shack that I considered home. Even though it was hardly more than scraps of tin and rotting wood. I pushed through the flimsy door and found Callista reciting nursery tales to Elise and Juno.
Callista was almost thirteen seasons old and acted as a mother to Elise and Juno in place of their real one. She was not yet big enough to wield a bow efficiently, and instead took to household chores. Cleaning, cooking and distracting the little ones from their endless hunger.
Juno shivered at the cold draft that blew into the room upon my entrance but embraced me all the same.
“Kellen! You’re home!” Juno squealed in excitement and hugged me tightly, her round cheeks red from cold. Callista hefted Elise into her hip and looked at me expectantly. I nodded and dragged the black lumps of coal from my pockets.
“Coal? Kell, you could’ve gotten caught,” Callista scolded me but took them from me all the same. I knew she expected food of some sort, anything really, but what was the point of food when we were too cold to eat?
“But I didn’t,” I remarked and took Elise from her. Callista’s shoulders slumped as she placed a small piece of coal onto the pile of sticks that burned faintly in the center of the room. She set the rest aside for later. “I’m going back out soon, I saw some tracks on my way here.”
“It’ll be dark soon,” Callista replied when she really meant if you couldn’t be bothered to hunt on the way, then don’t bother now. I knew she was just bitter over our circumstances. We weren’t always dirt poor, when our parents were still alive, our father had been better off, not rich but not poor either. At least we’d had a real home then.
“There’s still daylight, I promise I’ll make it back,” they were hungry and I certainly wasn’t going to waste what little time I had left. Elise was becoming heavy in my arms so I gave her a kiss on the forehead and set her on the ground. She smiled and gave me a wet smack on the cheek.
Elise was always smiling, it seemed, even when her condition brought her to near death. No one knew what plagued her, numerous physicians had looked and found nothing wrong. The townsfolk blamed magic and called her bewitched, most shunned us save for when we had a few coins to spare.
I gave her golden head a gentle pat before leaving their familiar company once more.
It was a lie.
I hadn’t really seen any tracks and it was cruel for me to give Callista hope. But I couldn’t help it, I just wanted my sisters to be happy.
And so here I was again, ankle deep in dense snow. The tops of my knees brushed the surface as I crouched behind the cover of a thick tree. A daerna had passed by recently, it was obvious from the condition of the tree trunks. The bark was scuffed and torn off in some places where it had scraped its antlers.
Daerna were fascinating creatures, with the grace of a predator and the build of prey. Their thick fur was grey-white in the winter and ruddy brown in the summer. I still remembered the feeling of its claws digging into my calf when I failed to hit a vital point in its body. I shivered at the memory.
Even though the daern were small, they were vicious.
I hoped it hadn’t gone far.
I stood and followed its tracks, they were slightly blemished from the falling snow, but still there.
My eyes scoped the silent forest, thick with the cover of trees. From the corner of my eye was a slow glance of movement. I immediately crouched and twisted my head toward it.
It stood majestically in a small clearing rummaging through the snow. My breath caught, it was far larger than most, but I could still count the ribs poking from its side. I gulped and stalked toward it as slowly and quietly as possible.
I knocked one of my two arrows and pulled back the drawstring. It still didn’t know I was there.
My breathing stopped almost entirely as I focused on my task. Let my body bleed into the snow and the trees and the bitter cold. I felt my soul meld with the tip of the arrow as I let it fly.
The daerna reared up but not before the projectile lodged itself between its ribs with a sickening thunk. I cringed as it swayed and fell to the ground. The animal stared up at me with a pleading look in its eye as I stood over its body.
Do it quickly.
I removed my dagger and slit its throat, trying to ignore the hot blood that soaked my cold fingers.
I hated hunting. Hated the way the animal would always look at me and seem to beg for death.
I would never beg.
If ever came the fateful day that a soldier killed me, I would fight till my dying breath. I wouldn’t allow him the satisfaction of stealing my life. Never.
I squeezed my eyes shut and ripped out the bloody arrow.
It found its place in my quiver as I hauled the dead animal over my shoulders and began the long trek home.