[1]

169 19 8
                                    


Maren crouched high in the crook of an old oak tree, the branches split and fraying so strongly that she had to take care where she placed her hands so as not to cut herself. Shifting carefully, she stretched her aching leg along one of the branches. She hadn't counted how long she'd been sitting, but the few hours of daylight they received was almost over, and she didn't want to return to camp empty-handed.

She had roamed farther than usual, for multiple reasons. The first that the few hunting patrols her mother had sent out that week had returned empty-handed. Maren didn't know why the animals weren't awakening now that the winter chill was lifting from the landscape. The second reason (which she would never admit to anyone, not even Frida), was that she hoped the white-antlered deer she had hunted for months might cross her path, if only she wished it hard enough.

Frida would have told Maren the goddess would send the deer her way only if the goddess wished it.

A rustling sounded from the snow-covered undergrowth, deeper into the trees. Maren reached into her quiver and drew out an arrow, nocking it quietly in the bow she wore slung across her wrists.

She tuned into the rustles. Not nearly loud enough for a deer, but perhaps something bigger than a rabbit. A fox, maybe. Maren didn't like the taste of fox—too metallic—but she liked the fur, and she supposed suffering through the meat would be better than any alternative.

Maren drew back the arrow. The snow pulsated again.

Voices. Definitely not an animal.

She recognized those voices. Sighing, Maren let her bowstring fall slack as her mother and Brenna pushed around the melting pile. They both had bows slung across their backs. Maren wondered if they had been practicing or hunting, or if they had finally gotten to the point where practicing was hunting. Brenna had never had as much skill with the bow as Maren.

"This is ridiculous, Mother, we're not going to find anything." Brenna staked the end of her bow into the mud and leaned against it. "We should have headed north. That's where the others had luck last week."

"And that means that the animals will have surely learned and will have moved on, as is common sense!"

Maren smiled and shifted into a more comfortable position, with her feet resting on the branch below. She did enjoy the rare moments were her mother chastised Brenna without also chastising Maren.

"Perhaps we should try near the stream that feeds into the river near the bear rock or the frozen lake by—"

The Matriarch squeezed her eyes tightly shut and tightened her grip on her bow, bending it precariously to the point of breaking. "No! None of those will work! We're staying here, and we're going to find something, you just have to work harder." She faced away from Brenna and Maren.

For the first time, Maren almost pitied Brenna. Her sister's face crumpled, and she looked confused. Almost.

Another rustle from the berry bushes close to the Matriarch. Maren sucked in a breath and redrew her bow. Her mother hadn't moved. Brenna still scanned the other side of the forest, as if an animal would approach simply because she willed it into existence.

Maren focused on the bushes. Loud enough to be a deer, she was sure of it. What a wonder it would be if she killed the white-antlered deer right in front of her mother.

Instead, a man leaped from the bushes, arms covered in mud and eyes bloodshot, cheeks gaunt and hallowed. He sailed toward the Matriarch, a sharp stick in his outstretched hand.

Maren fired her arrow without thinking.

It arced through the almost dark trees and struck the man in the neck, just above his collarbone. His scream resounded against the ancient tree bark.

The Matriarch whirled around. Her eyes glazed over the fallen roamer, across Brenna's stunned face, and then up to the tree, where Maren still crouched. "Get down here."

Maren slung her bow over her back and leaped from the tree, landing neatly on the slick icy ground. She quirked a smile at Brenna as she passed. She knew her sister never would have made that shot, though, she supposed, Brenna could have done it with a dagger instead, a weapon Maren had never taken the time to learn, though she always carried both a dagger and a skinning knife with her, just in case.

Or maybe her mother had just never taken the time to properly teach her.

Brenna skirted the blood pooling from the roamer's neck and leaned to touch the ragged clothing that encased his body. It wasn't like any furs Maren had ever seen—though she had never been this close to a roamer before.

"Get away from that thing." The Matriarch grabbed Brenna's shoulder and hauled her back. "He could give you the disease."

"Frida said the disease the roamers have isn't contagious. It's just something the roamers are." Maren almost expected her mother to hit her for speaking, but her mother only kicked at the roamer's foot, as if checking to make sure Maren's shot had done its job.

Maren's hand started shaking. She moved it behind her back.

"What do we do with the—" Brenna glanced at Maren.

"No." The Matriarch nocked an arrow onto her bowstring and turned to the west, away from camp. "No one does anything with the body. The two of you will head back to camp."

"But—"

"Now!"

Maren grabbed Brenna's wrist and pulled her away, but their mother had already disappeared into the trees, off to do stars knew what.

Brenna didn't let go of Maren's hand, so Maren knew her sister could tell that she was shaking, but she almost didn't care, because her mother hadn't yelled at her for eavesdropping. She had saved her mother's life, and the feeling lifted her high above the trees.

"I've never seen a roamer that close to camp before. Have you?" Brenna tore herself away from Maren.

Maren shook her head. She could count on one hand the number of times she had actually seen roamers, but she had avoided them, no matter what Frida told her about their disease not being contagious. She found their bodies often enough, scattered about the landscape. The last thing she needed was to turn into that.

--------------------

Hope you all enjoyed this short introduction to the novella!

The WinteringWhere stories live. Discover now