فصل 2

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Chapter 2

The sun had set by the time I exited the forest, my knees shaking. My hands, stiff from clenching the legs of the deer, had gone utterly numb miles ago. Not even the carcass could ward off the deepening chill.

The world was awash in hues of dark blue, interrupted only by shafts of buttery light escaping from the shuttered windows of our dilapidated cottage. It was like striding through a living painting—a fleeting moment of stillness, the blues swiftly shifting to solid darkness.

As I trudged up the path, each step fueled only by near-dizzying hunger, my sisters’ voices fluttered out to meet me. I didn’t need to discern their words to know they most likely were chattering about some young man or the ribbons they’d spotted in the village when they should have been chopping wood, but I smiled a bit nonetheless.

I kicked my boots against the stone door frame, knocking the snow from them. Bits of ice came free from the gray stones of the cottage, revealing the faded ward-markings etched around the threshold. My father had once convinced a passing charlatan to trade the engravings against faerie harm in exchange for one of his wood carvings. There was so little that my father was ever able to do for us that I hadn’t possessed the heart to tell him the engravings were useless … and undoubtedly fake. Mortals didn’t possess magic—didn’t possess any of the superior strength and speed of the faeries or High Fae. The man, claiming some High Fae blood in his ancestry, had just carved the whorls and swirls and runes around the door and windows, muttered a few nonsense words, and ambled on his way.

I yanked open the wooden door, the frozen iron handle biting my skin like an asp. Heat and light blinded me as I slipped inside.

“Feyre!” Elain’s soft gasp scraped past my ears, and I blinked back the brightness of the fire to find my second-eldest sister before me. Though she was bundled in a threadbare blanket, her gold-brown hair—the hair all three of us had—was coiled perfectly about her head. Eight years of poverty hadn’t stripped from her the desire to look lovely. “Where did you get that?” The undercurrent of hunger honed her words into a sharpness that had become too common in recent weeks. No mention of the blood on me. I’d long since given up hope of them actually noticing whether I came back from the woods every evening. At least until they got hungry again. But then again, my mother hadn’t made them swear anything when they stood beside her deathbed.

I took a calming breath as I slung the doe off my shoulders. She hit the wooden table with a thud, rattling a ceramic cup on its other end.

“Where do you think I got it?” My voice had turned hoarse, each word burning as it came out. My father and Nesta still silently warmed their hands by the hearth, my eldest sister ignoring him, as usual. I peeled the wolf pelt from the doe’s body, and after removing my boots and setting them by the door, I turned to Elain.

Her brown eyes—my father’s eyes—remained pinned on the doe. “Will it take you long to clean it?” Me. Not her, not the others. I’d never once seen their hands sticky with blood and fur. I’d only learned to prepare and harvest my kills thanks to the instruction of others.

Elain pushed her hand against her belly, probably as empty and aching as my own. It wasn’t that Elain was cruel. She wasn’t like Nesta, who had been born with a sneer on her face. Elain sometimes just … didn’t grasp things. It wasn’t meanness that kept her from offering to help; it simply never occurred to her that she might be capable of getting her hands dirty. I’d never been able to decide whether she actually didn’t understand that we were truly poor or if she just refused to accept it. It still hadn’t stopped me from buying her seeds for the flower garden she tended in the milder months, whenever I could afford it.

And it hadn’t stopped her from buying me three small tins of paint—red, yellow, and blue—during that same summer I’d had enough to buy the ash arrow. It was the only gift she’d ever given me, and our house still bore the marks of it, even if the paint was now fading and chipped: little vines and flowers along the windows and thresholds and edges of things, tiny curls of flame on the stones bordering the hearth. Any spare minutes I’d had that bountiful summer I used to bedeck our house in color, sometimes hiding clever decorations inside drawers, behind the threadbare curtains, underneath the chairs and table.

We hadn’t had a summer that easy since.

“Feyre.” My father’s deep rumble came from the fire. His dark beard was neatly trimmed, his face spotless—like my sisters’. “What luck you had today—in bringing us such a feast.” From beside my father, Nesta snorted. Not surprising. Any bit of praise for anyone—me, Elain, other villagers—usually resulted in her dismissal. And any word from our father usually resulted in her ridicule as well.

I straightened, almost too tired to stand, but braced a hand on the table beside the doe as I shot Nesta a glare. Of us, Nesta had taken the loss of our fortune the hardest. She had quietly resented my father from the moment we’d fled our manor, even after that awful day one of the creditors had come to show just how displeased he was at the loss of his investment.

But at least Nesta didn’t fill our heads with useless talk of regaining our wealth, like my father. No, she just spent whatever money I didn’t hide from her, and rarely bothered to acknowledge my father’s limping presence at all. Some days, I couldn’t tell which of us was the most wretched and bitter.

“We can eat half the meat this week,” I said, shifting my gaze to the doe. The deer took up the entirety of the rickety table that served as our dining area, workspace, and kitchen. “We can dry the other half,” I went on, knowing that no matter how nicely I phrased it, I’d still do the bulk of it. “And I’ll go to the market tomorrow to see how much I can get for the hides,” I finished, more to myself than to them. No one bothered to confirm they’d heard me, anyway.

My father’s ruined leg was stretched out before him, as close to the fire’s heat as it could get. The cold, or the rain, or a change in temperature always aggravated the vicious, twisted wounds around his knee. His simply carved cane was propped up against his chair—a cane he’d made for himself … and that Nesta was sometimes prone to leaving far out of his reach.

He could find work if he wasn’t so ashamed, Nesta always said when I hissed about it. She hated him for the injury, too—for not fighting back when that creditor and his thugs had burst into the cottage and smashed his knee again and again. Nesta and Elain had fled into the bedroom, barricading the door. I had stayed, begging and weeping through every scream of my father, every crunch of bone. I’d soiled myself—and then vomited right on the stones before the hearth. Only then did the men leave. We never saw them again.

We’d used a massive chunk of our remaining money to pay for the healer. It had taken my father six months to even walk, a year before he could go a mile. The coppers he brought in when someone pitied him enough to buy his wood carvings weren’t enough to keep us fed. Five years ago, when the money was well and truly gone, when my father still couldn’t—wouldn’t—move much about, he hadn’t argued when I announced that I was going hunting.

He hadn’t bothered to attempt to stand from his seat by the fire, hadn’t bothered to look up from his wood carving. He just let me walk into those deadly, eerie woods that even the most seasoned hunters were wary of. He’d become a little more aware now—sometimes offered signs of gratitude, sometimes hobbled all the way into town to sell his carvings—but not much.

“I’d love a new cloak,” Elain said at last with a sigh, at the same moment Nesta rose and declared: “I need a new pair of boots.” I kept quiet, knowing better than to get in the middle of one of their arguments, but I glanced at Nesta’s still-shiny pair by the door. Beside hers, my too-small boots were falling apart at the seams, held together only by fraying laces.

“But I’m freezing with my raggedy old cloak,” Elain pleaded. “I’ll shiver to death.” She fixed her wide eyes on me and said, “Please, Feyre.” She drew out the two syllables of my name—fay-ruh—into the most hideous whine I’d ever endured, and Nesta loudly clicked her tongue before ordering her to shut up.

I drowned them out as they began quarreling over who would get the money the hide would fetch tomorrow and found my father now standing at the table, one hand braced against it to support his weight as he inspected the deer. His attention slid to the giant wolf pelt. His fingers, still smooth and gentlemanly, turned over the pelt and traced a line through the bloody underside. I tensed.

His dark eyes flicked to mine. “Feyre,” he murmured, and his mouth became a tight line. “Where did you get this?”

“The same place I got the deer,” I replied with equal quiet, my words cool and sharp.

His gaze traveled over the bow and quiver strapped to my back, the wooden-hilted hunting knife at my side. His eyes turned damp. “Feyre … the risk …” I jerked my chin at the pelt, unable to keep the snap from my voice as I said, “I had no other choice.”

What I really wanted to say was: You don’t even bother to attempt to leave the house most days. Were it not for me, we would starve. Were it not for me, we’d be dead.

“Feyre,” he repeated, and closed his eyes.

My sisters had gone quiet, and I looked up in time to see Nesta crinkle her nose with a sniff. She picked at my cloak. “You stink like a pig covered in its own filth. Can’t you at least try to pretend that you’re not an ignorant peasant?” I didn’t let the sting and ache show. I’d been too young to learn more than the basics of manners and reading and writing when our family had fallen into misfortune, and she’d never let me forget it.

She stepped back to run a finger over the braided coils of her gold-brown hair. “Take those disgusting clothes off.”

I took my time, swallowing the words I wanted to bark back at her. Older than me by three years, she somehow looked younger than I did, her golden cheeks always flushed with a delicate, vibrant pink. “Can you make a pot of hot water and add wood to the fire?” But even as I asked, I noticed the woodpile. There were only five logs left. “I thought you were going to chop wood today.” Nesta picked at her long, neat nails. “I hate chopping wood. I always get splinters.” She glanced up from beneath her dark lashes. Of all of us, Nesta looked the most like our mother—especially when she wanted something. “Besides, Feyre,” she said with a pout, “you’re so much better at it! It takes you half the time it takes me. Your hands are suited for it—they’re already so rough.” My jaw clenched. “Please,” I asked, calming my breathing, knowing an argument was the last thing I needed or wanted. “Please get up at dawn to chop that wood.” I unbuttoned the top of my tunic. “Or we’ll be eating a cold breakfast.” Her brows narrowed. “I will do no such thing!”

But I was already walking toward the small second room where my sisters and I slept. Elain murmured a soft plea to Nesta, which earned her a hiss in response. I glanced over my shoulder at my father and pointed to the deer. “Get the knives ready,” I said, not bothering to sound pleasant. “I’ll be out soon.” Without waiting for an answer, I shut the door behind me.

The room was large enough for a rickety dresser and the enormous ironwood bed we slept in. The sole remnant of our former wealth, it had been ordered as a wedding gift from my father to my mother. It was the bed in which we’d been born, and the bed in which my mother died. In all the painting I’d done to our house these past few years, I’d never touched it.

I slung off my outer clothes onto the sagging dresser—frowning at the violets and roses I’d painted around the knobs of Elain’s drawer, the crackling flames I’d painted around Nesta’s, and the night sky—whorls of yellow stars standing in for white—around mine. I’d done it to brighten the otherwise dark room. They’d never commented on it. I don’t know why I’d ever expected them to.

Groaning, it was all I could do to keep from collapsing onto the bed.

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We dined on roasted venison that night. Though I knew it was foolish, I didn’t object when each of us had a small second helping until I declared the meat off-limits. I’d spend tomorrow preparing the deer’s remaining parts for consumption, then I’d allot a few hours to currying up both hides before taking them to the market. I knew a few vendors who might be interested in such a purchase—though neither was likely to give me the fee I deserved. But money was money, and I didn’t have the time or the funds to travel to the nearest large town to find a better offer.

I sucked on the tines of my fork, savoring the remnants of fat coating the metal. My tongue slipped over the crooked prongs—the fork was part of a shabby set my father had salvaged from the servants’ quarters while the creditors ransacked our manor home. None of our utensils matched, but it was better than using our fingers. My mother’s dowry flatware had long since been sold.

My mother. Imperious and cold with her children, joyous and dazzling among the peerage who frequented our former estate, doting on my father—the one person whom she truly loved and respected. But she also had truly loved parties—so much so that she didn’t have time to do anything with me at all save contemplate how my budding abilities to sketch and paint might secure me a future husband. Had she lived long enough to see our wealth crumble, she would have been shattered by it—more so than my father. Perhaps it was a merciful thing that she died.

If anything, it left more food for us.

There was nothing left of her in the cottage beyond the ironwood bed—and the vow I’d made.

Every time I looked toward a horizon or wondered if I should just walk and walk and never look back, I’d hear that promise I made eleven years ago as she wasted away on her deathbed. Stay together, and look after them. I’d agreed, too young to ask why she hadn’t begged my elder sisters, or my father. But I’d sworn it to her, and then she’d died, and in our miserable human world—shielded only by the promise made by the High Fae five centuries ago—in our world where we’d forgotten the names of our gods, a promise was law; a promise was currency; a promise was your bond.

There were times when I hated her for asking that vow of me. Perhaps, delirious with fever, she hadn’t even known what she was demanding. Or maybe impending death had given her some clarity about the true nature of her children, her husband.

I set down the fork and watched the flames of our meager fire dance along the remaining logs, stretching out my aching legs beneath the table.

I turned to my sisters. As usual, Nesta was complaining about the villagers—they had no manners, they had no social graces, they had no idea just how shoddy the fabric of their clothes was, even though they pretended that it was as fine as silk or chiffon. Since we had lost our fortune, their former friends dutifully ignored them, so my sisters paraded about as though the young peasants of the town made up a second-rate social circle.

I took a sip from my cup of hot water—we couldn’t even afford tea these days—as Nesta continued her story to Elain.

“Well, I said to him, ‘If you think you can just ask me so nonchalantly, sir, I’m going to decline!’ And you know what Tomas said?” Arms braced on the table and eyes wide, Elain shook her head.

“Tomas Mandray?” I interrupted. “The woodcutter’s second son?”

Nesta’s blue-gray eyes narrowed. “Yes,” she said, and shifted to address Elain again.

“What does he want?” I glanced at my father. No reaction—no hint of alarm or sign that he was even listening. Lost to whatever fog of memory had crept over him, he was smiling mildly at his beloved Elain, the only one of us who bothered to really speak to him at all.

“He wants to marry her,” Elain said dreamily. I blinked.

Nesta cocked her head. I’d seen predators use that movement before. I sometimes wondered if her unrelenting steel would have helped us better survive—thrive, even—if she hadn’t been so preoccupied with our lost status. “Is there a problem, Feyre?” She flung my name like an insult, and my jaw ached from clenching it so hard.

My father shifted in his seat, blinking, and though I knew it was foolish to react to her taunts, I said, “You can’t chop wood for us, but you want to marry a woodcutter’s son?” Nesta squared her shoulders. “I thought all you wanted was for us to get out of the house—to marry off me and Elain so you can have enough time to paint your glorious masterpieces.” She sneered at the pillar of foxglove I’d painted along the edge of the table—the colors too dark and too blue, with none of the white freckling inside the trumpets, but I’d made do, even if it had killed me not to have white paint, to make something so flawed and lasting.

I drowned the urge to cover up the painting with my hand. Maybe tomorrow I’d just scrape it off the table altogether. “Believe me,” I said to her, “the day you want to marry someone worthy, I’ll march up to his house and hand you over. But you’re not going to marry Tomas.” Nesta’s nostrils delicately flared. “There’s nothing you can do. Clare Beddor told me this afternoon that Tomas is going to propose to me any day now. And then I’ll never have to eat these scraps again.” She added with a small smile, “At least I don’t have to resort to rutting in the hay with Isaac Hale like an animal.” My father let out an embarrassed cough, looking to his cot by the fire. He’d never said a word against Nesta, from either fear or guilt, and apparently he wasn’t going to start now, even if this was the first he was hearing of Isaac.

I laid my palms flat on the table as I stared her down. Elain removed her hand from where it lay nearby, as if the dirt and blood beneath my fingernails would somehow jump onto her porcelain skin. “Tomas’s family is barely better off than ours,” I said, trying to keep from growling. “You’d be just another mouth to feed. If he doesn’t know this, then his parents must.” But Tomas knew—we’d run into each other in the forest before. I’d seen the gleam of desperate hunger in his eyes when he spotted me sporting a brace of rabbits. I’d never killed another human, but that day, my hunting knife had felt like a weight at my side. I’d kept out of his way ever since.

“We can’t afford a dowry,” I continued, and though my tone was firm, my voice quieted. “For either of you.” If Nesta wanted to leave, then fine. Good. I’d be one step closer to attaining that glorious, peaceful future, to attaining a quiet house and enough food and time to paint. But we had nothing—absolutely nothing—to entice any suitor to take my sisters off my hands.

“We’re in love,” Nesta declared, and Elain nodded her agreement. I almost laughed—when had they gone from mooning over aristos to making doe-eyes at peasants?

“Love won’t feed a hungry belly,” I countered, keeping my gaze as sturdy as possible.

As if I’d struck her, Nesta leaped from her seat on the bench. “You’re just jealous. I heard them saying how Isaac is going to marry some Greenfield village girl for a handsome dowry.” So had I; Isaac had ranted about it the last time we’d met. “Jealous?” I said slowly, digging down deep to bury my fury. “We have nothing to offer them—no dowry; no livestock, even. While Tomas might want to marry you … you’re a burden.” “What do you know?” Nesta breathed. “You’re just a half-wild beast with the nerve to bark orders at all hours of the day and night. Keep it up, and someday—someday, Feyre, you’ll have no one left to remember you, or to care that you ever existed.” She stormed off, Elain darting after her, cooing her sympathy. They slammed the door to the bedroom hard enough to rattle the dishes.

I’d heard the words before—and knew she only repeated them because I’d flinched that first time she spat them. They still burned anyway.

I took a long sip from the chipped mug. The wooden bench beneath my father groaned as he shifted. I took another swallow and said, “You should talk some sense into her.” He examined a burn mark on the table. “What can I say? If it’s love—”

“It can’t be love, not on his part. Not with his wretched family. I’ve seen the way he acts around the village—there’s one thing he wants from her, and it’s not her hand in—” “We need hope as much as we need bread and meat,” he interrupted, his eyes clear for a rare moment. “We need hope, or else we cannot endure. So let her keep this hope, Feyre. Let her imagine a better life. A better world.” I stood from the table, fingers curling into fists, but there was nowhere to run in our two-room cottage. I looked at the discolored foxglove painting at the edge of the table. The outer trumpets were already chipped and faded, the lower bit of the stem rubbed off entirely. Within a few years, it would be gone—leaving no mark that it had ever been there. That I’d ever been there.

When I looked at my father, my gaze was hard. “There is no such thing.”

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