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.
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.