Kestrel stared through the barren trees. Her footsteps, and Robin’s behind her, rustled the frozen ground. Sunset taunted them from the west, setting paths of shadow into the forest. Kestrel watched the dusk. A dwindling flare of orange blush washed through the wood, as if a torch held just beyond a cage.
They wouldn’t last the night. No matter how many prayers they offered to the deer-god of the forests, or the four winds, or any other spirit they could imagine.
“Robin,” Kestrel said, pausing and eyeing her friend. A shiver wracked through her. “How much water do we have left?”
The darker-haired girl adjusted her furs and shook a leather-bound canteen. It sloshed back and forth. “Water’s not our problem.” She tightened up her tunic and grimaced.
“We’ll find something.”
“I don’t know.” Robin’s eyes faltered and threatened to close. “We must be the only living things out here.”
Kestrel thumbed the fletching of her nocked arrow. “Which arm would you rather give up?” She scanned the horizon again. A thousand rows of trees lifted against the dreamlike pinks and yellows of the sunset. “If you’re giving up, I might as well just eat you.” She grinned at Robin through the corner of her mouth. “There’s food out here, somewhere.”
She knew something would be near. Something smart, and quiet enough to live in the empty woods. Kestrel tightened her grip on her flatbow. Her quarry-to-be wouldn’t be anything so loud and clumsy as a human. She and Robin grew up on the hunt, trained in the bow and spear, and knew how to step in the snow—but even a lifetime of human effort would never approach the calm expertise of a creature born of the forest.
She answered with a silent raise of her brow.
Robin blinked and looked to the ground. “I don’t know how much longer I can go.”
Kestrel took a slow breath. The other girl’s hands shook, and she wobbled on her feet. “Neither do I. But we have to.”
“I know.” Hunger hollowed her out, scraping what energy Kestrel could muster and salvaging it all to keep her blood flowing. “Have faith,” she said, offering a smile. “Pray a little louder. If you’ve been good, the spirits of the forest might offer a sign.”
But they wouldn’t. Kestrel knew the fireside stories Robin was too young to have heard yet. If they made it back, maybe she would be ready for those tales.
Kestrel led the way for another hundred steps. She would have walked a hundred more, but Robin interrupted her with a nudge to the shoulder. The younger girl glared into the woods, wide-eyed. Her lips parted in what must have been a silent prayer.
It stared back at them: a doe, tawny pelt melding into the trees, black eyes and nose almost floating in the twilight. Its ears flopped forward, revealing snowy white fluff within. A dark arrow of fur ran between its legs into a fringed white underbelly. The creature stood so still, Kestrel wondered if it was real, or just a trick of shadows and branches.
Kestrel shot a hand out to cover Robin’s mouth. Even that slightest word startled the creature, spurring it to bend its legs, ready to leap away. But it stayed.
“Your prayers worked,” Kestrel said, so quiet as to barely speak at all. “But the spirits insult us.”
The girl arched her eyebrows. Her eyes glistened. “Maybe it’ll lead us out of the wood.”
“No. The forest is too deep. We would still starve before getting out.”
“What do we do?”
Kestrel raked a slow breath in through her nose. She tugged on her bowstring. “What else can we do?”
“No! You can’t!”
The whispers bordered on audible. The doe twitched, but still kept its eyes locked with Kestrel’s. “We’re going to starve,” she said. “The spirits will forgive us.”
Robin looked around, sending her hair bobbing against the fur on her shoulders. “There has to be something else.”
“Do you see something else?” Kestrel pushed her brows together and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I think I saw an owl earlier. That’s it.”
“But we’ll be cursed.” Robin looked up at Kestrel, nearly-blue lips quivering.
Kestrel switched her gaze to make eye contact with her friend. “Have you ever actually seen somebody get cursed?”
She pinned her focus back on the doe. “The spirits don’t curse wolves. Our dogs hunt deer, too. And they’re fine.”
Robin let out a breath. “They don’t know better.”
“I think they know better than we do.”
A shrill wind coursed through the wood. Swaying trees locked against each other, growling and scraping into the falling night. The doe’s ears swiveled to pick it all up.
Kestrel’s stomach pulled at her muscles. She drew the bowstring farther. “Another sign?”
“I don’t think the forest likes your idea.”
“Well, the spirits can send us another animal if they don’t want us to eat this one.”
“I don’t understand. I said all the right prayers.”
“Maybe the spirits want to test you.” A grin slipped across Kestrel’s face. “They want to make a hunter out of you.”
“I am a hunter.”
“No. A real hunter.”
Robin flicked her attention between Kestrel and the doe. “A real hunter wouldn’t kill a sacred animal.”
Kestrel took a deep breath and pulled her flatbow to full draw, holding her right hand by her earlobe. “A real hunter survives.” The frosted winds calmed, letting silence fall between the trees again. Twilight glowed from the west.
Robin tensed. “Kestrel, you can’t.”
“We’re not dying out here.” Kestrel extended her left index finger, letting the arrowhead rest on her glove. She aimed, struggling against the shivers. “Don’t look away. You ought to learn.”