Illya steps out into the cold night and is immediately hit with the saccharine scent of caramel, so heavy in the air that her mouth waters and her mind recalls simpler times. Trying to ignore it, she closes the door behind her. Its thin wooden planks do not quite settle into the jamb, leaving just enough space so that she can still hear her mother’s laboured breaths and her brother’s frantic murmuring as he runs from whatever terror stalks his dreams tonight. Their voices mingle with the faint music and laughter that bubble from the nearby town, and there is something sad about it; something that makes the melody harsh and the laughter as cold and unfriendly as the full moon that leers from above.
Careful not to jostle the quiver and bow on her back, Illya pulls her cloak tighter. Ice and snow crunch beneath her steps, and the thin soles of her boots are unable to stop the cold and damp from creeping in. She lets out a shivering breath, and for a moment, the air crystalises before her. It is colder than it was the night before, and it will only get worse. Soon the bears will disappear into their caves and the deer will retreat deep into the forest – too deep for her to follow alone and with what few resources she has left. Tonight is her last chance. Tomorrow the villagers will comb through the first few miles of forest, hunting any lingering animals to top off their salted food stores. Then there will be nothing left, except maybe a few ground herbs and mushrooms, but they would certainly not be enough. Her mother would not survive the winter on such a sparse diet, and her brother would likely crinkle his nose and turn away. He would eat eventually. Hunger would make him. But, it would weigh too heavily on her to make him go through that. Even Illya does not think she can tolerate another spoonful of sour wild growth stew.
The edge of the forest seems to grow out of the darkness. Each tree is a column of shadow, deepening the closer she gets. Branches claw at the sky, reaching and reaching until even that unsympathetic moon is lost to them – its light caught and snuffed out so easily. Illya can no longer hear anything, and even the sweet scent of the town festivities is lost to the dark presence before her, overcome by the aroma of the wild and the untamed.
It is strange, she thinks as she passes through the trees, how much the forest has changed. Or, maybe, she is the one who has changed. She recalls a different time, a different forest; one full of light, where ice covered branches curve overhead in beautiful arches and a carpet of feather soft snow covers the ground, beckoning her deeper. Frozen fractals creep up each tree and, if she squints her eyes, they are almost like knights, resplendent in whites and blues. And beside her, the never wavering reassurance of her father. He is smiling, and she is content.
Illya banishes the memory as the brand on her wrist stings, reminding her of exactly where she is and what she is here to do. It has already been years since she was branded, but now and then the skin itches and aches, as if remembering the press of that unbearable heat.
Deeper into the forest she goes, navigating the path with her own muscle memory and the help of the feeble moonlight that manages to break through. She checks the snares and traps first. She had set them up the week before, but each passing day had yielded nothing. She feared she had put them in a bad spot, and that the small creatures of the woods were already snuggling together in their warrens and burrows near the heart of the forest. But she could not risk the townspeople finding her meddling in the forest. In their territory.
The first few are empty. She had expected it, but a tiny voice had whispered hopeful nothings into her ear, and so she still feels a twinge of dismay each time she finds a snare sitting empty. The little voice is almost non-existent by the time she approaches the last one, and the unsuccessful snares slung over her shoulder are heavy with the weight of disappointment.
But there, blending into the white around it, is a small hare. It struggles feebly against the snare around its neck, and Illya rubs her eyes to make sure she really sees it. Meagre as this single hare is, she cannot stop the feeling of elation that overcomes her. She thrills in the feeling, letting it dispel the cold and the discomfort briefly before sobering up again.
Without pausing, she takes her bow and presses it to the hare’s neck, pinning it against the ground. Its eyes are full of fear as it struggles vainly. One twist is all it takes. The tiny snap of bones could almost be mistaken for twigs crunching underfoot. It is so simple now, the life of this hare for the survival of her family. But back then, it had seemed almost impossible.
‘Nothing wants to die, Il,’ her father had told her the first time he had taken her to check the snares. He was a hunter and a trader, and she was to take over the business one day. ‘And to feel sorry for the suffering of others is what it means to be a good person.’
He knelt next to her and took her hand in his.
‘But some things need to be done. We do them and continue onwards.’
‘I can’t, Pa,’ she had said between sobs. The creature in the snare was small and innocent. How could she ever hurt it? It would have been like hurting her weak and defenceless baby brother.
He had sighed, though not in annoyance, as he smiled and brushed his thumb over her hand. His eyes were patient as he said, ‘You will get used to it. But that doesn’t mean it gets easier. Remember, Il, I do this for our family, and someday you will need to as well.’
The following month her father had disappeared, gone with half the town’s gold to seek his fortune elsewhere. She had held on to the hope that he would return, even when the town punished her family for her father’s crimes, but soon even that idealistic hope withered away. Had he done that for his family as well?
Illya ties the hare to her belt and continues onwards. The trees grow closer together and the air seems to hang dead, almost as if the forest itself is holding its breath. The festivities would have stopped for the night by now, the town’s folk likely drunk and asleep on full stomachs. Same as the night before, while Illya had ventured into the forest, her eyes straining as she followed the tracks of what was likely the last herd of deer that remained so close to the forest’s edge. She had not been able to find them then, not with the heavy snow, but she had been able to ascertain the direction they had been moving in – towards a clearing where herds of deer are known to bed.
Soon enough, the trees begin to thin. The moon bathes the clearing in a pool of light, and there, lined in silver, are the sleeping forms of at least a dozen deer. There are also a few bucks, and near the centre is a calf big enough to yield enough dried meat for a while but small enough that Illya could carry it back.
She stalks around the edge of clearing until she is in a better position. Careful not to rattle her quiver, she unslings her bow and notches an arrow. She pulls back, feeling the tension in the weapon and the bite of the string against her finger until it grazes her cheek.
Breathe in, breathe out.
She shifts her stance, aiming for the calf’s side. It will be a difficult shot, especially since it is lying down, but she will make it. She has to.
Somewhere behind her, a branch falls to the ground. She starts, the sudden sound loud amidst the complete silence of the forest. There is a crack from below her and she looks down in surprise at the twig she has just stepped on, half hidden in snow. Too late she realises her mistake; her surprise led to hesitation, and those seconds were all it took. The herd has awakened.
One of the bucks calls to the herd – a loud guttural sound – and charges towards her. She lets loose the arrow and leaps aside, her elbow jarring against a nearby tree. There is a cry of pain, but amidst the chaos she cannot tell if she has hit a deer or if it is hers. Biting through the pain, and with her back against the tree, she nocks another arrow.
The herd stampedes past her, parting around the tree. She takes aim once more. Even if she does not hit a deer in the vitals, she will at least slow it down. She will not go home empty handed.
But it is too dark, and the herd is too fast. She watches in despair as they run deeper into the forest, their forms melding into shadow. There is silence once more.
Illya sinks to the ground. She has failed.
And then, she hears a low whimper, a strained breath. She pushes herself up, her arm sore, and turns around. There in the clearing is the form of the calf with her arrow sticking out from its side. Her first arrow, though not perfect, has flown true. She cannot contain her euphoria as she stumbles towards it.
The calf is dead by the time Illya is beside it; drops of its blood are a brilliant scarlet against the white of the snow. Little flowers blooming against all odds.
She has done it.
Once she had thought that the forest itself was beautiful, a palace just for her. She had loved her little dolls and the quaint festivals of the town. But, now, all of that is nothing. It is all so mundane, so pale.
Now, there is nothing as beautiful as survival.