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.