If he was a faerie, I should already be running.
Yet maybe … maybe it would be a favor to the world, to my village, to myself, to kill him while I remained undetected. Putting an arrow through his eye would be no burden.
But despite his size, he looked like a wolf, moved like a wolf. Animal, I reassured myself. Just an animal. I didn’t let myself consider the alternative—not when I needed my head clear, my breathing steady.
I had a hunting knife and three arrows. The first two were ordinary arrows—simple and efficient, and likely no more than bee stings to a wolf that size. But the third arrow, the longest and heaviest one, I’d bought from a traveling peddler during a summer when we’d had enough coppers for extra luxuries. An arrow carved from mountain ash, armed with an iron head.
From songs sung to us as lullabies over our cradles, we all knew from infancy that faeries hated iron. But it was the ash wood that made their immortal, healing magic falter long enough for a human to make a killing blow. Or so legend and rumor claimed. The only proof we had of the ash’s effectiveness was its sheer rarity. I’d seen drawings of the trees, but never one with my own eyes—not after the High Fae had burned them all long ago. So few remained, most of them small and sickly and hidden by the nobility within high-walled groves. I’d spent weeks after my purchase debating whether that overpriced bit of wood had been a waste of money, or a fake, and for three years, the ash arrow had sat unused in my quiver.
Now I drew it, keeping my movements minimal, efficient—anything to avoid that monstrous wolf looking in my direction. The arrow was long and heavy enough to inflict damage—possibly kill him, if I aimed right.
My chest became so tight it ached. And in that moment, I realized my life boiled down to one question: Was the wolf alone?
I gripped my bow and drew the string farther back. I was a decent shot, but I’d never faced a wolf. I’d thought it made me lucky—even blessed. But now … I didn’t know where to hit or how fast they moved. I couldn’t afford to miss. Not when I had only one ash arrow.
And if it was indeed a faerie’s heart pounding under that fur, then good riddance. Good riddance, after all their kind had done to us. I wouldn’t risk this one later creeping into our village to slaughter and maim and torment. Let him die here and now. I’d be glad to end him.
The wolf crept closer, and a twig snapped beneath one of his paws—each bigger than my hand. The doe went rigid. She glanced to either side, ears straining toward the gray sky. With the wolf’s downwind position, she couldn’t see or smell him.
His head lowered, and his massive silver body—so perfectly blended into the snow and shadows—sank onto its haunches. The doe was still staring in the wrong direction.
I glanced from the doe to the wolf and back again. At least he was alone—at least I’d been spared that much. But if the wolf scared the doe off, I was left with nothing but a starving, oversize wolf—possibly a faerie—looking for the next-best meal. And if he killed her, destroying precious amounts of hide and fat …
If I judged wrongly, my life wasn’t the only one that would be lost. But my life had been reduced to nothing but risks these past eight years that I’d been hunting in the woods, and I’d picked correctly most of the time. Most of the time.
The wolf shot from the brush in a flash of gray and white and black, his yellow fangs gleaming. He was even more gargantuan in the open, a marvel of muscle and speed and brute strength. The doe didn’t stand a chance.
I fired the ash arrow before he destroyed much else of her.
The arrow found its mark in his side, and I could have sworn the ground itself shuddered. He barked in pain, releasing the doe’s neck as his blood sprayed on the snow—so ruby bright.
He whirled toward me, those yellow eyes wide, hackles raised. His low growl reverberated in the empty pit of my stomach as I surged to my feet, snow churning around me, another arrow drawn.
But the wolf merely looked at me, his maw stained with blood, my ash arrow protruding so vulgarly from his side. The snow began falling again. He looked, and with a sort of awareness and surprise that made me fire the second arrow. Just in case—just in case that intelligence was of the immortal, wicked sort.
He didn’t try to dodge the arrow as it went clean through his wide yellow eye.
He collapsed to the ground.
Color and darkness whirled, eddying in my vision, mixing with the snow.
His legs were twitching as a low whine sliced through the wind. Impossible—he should be dead, not dying. The arrow was through his eye almost to the goose fletching.
But wolf or faerie, it didn’t matter. Not with that ash arrow buried in his side. He’d be dead soon enough. Still, my hands shook as I brushed off snow and edged closer, still keeping a good distance. Blood gushed from the wounds I’d given him, staining the snow crimson.
He pawed at the ground, his breathing already slowing. Was he in much pain, or was his whimper just his attempt to shove death away? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
The snow swirled around us. I stared at him until that coat of charcoal and obsidian and ivory ceased rising and falling. Wolf—definitely just a wolf, despite his size.
The tightness in my chest eased, and I loosed a sigh, my breath clouding in front of me. At least the ash arrow had proved itself to be lethal, regardless of who or what it took down.
A rapid examination of the doe told me I could carry only one animal—and even that would be a struggle. But it was a shame to leave the wolf.
Though it wasted precious minutes—minutes during which any predator could smell the fresh blood—I skinned him and cleaned my arrows as best I could.
If anything, it warmed my hands. I wrapped the bloody side of his pelt around the doe’s death-wound before I hoisted her across my shoulders. It was several miles back to our cottage, and I didn’t need a trail of blood leading every animal with fangs and claws straight to me.
Grunting against the weight, I grasped the legs of the deer and spared a final glance at the steaming carcass of the wolf. His remaining golden eye now stared at the snow-heavy sky, and for a moment, I wished I had it in me to feel remorse for the dead thing.
But this was the forest, and it was winter.
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.