Legend said that giants had lived in the forest once, long before the Wild Scrat had even winked into existence. As Lowen stood before the towering boulder, sunk into the soft ground and covered with thick moss, she remembered the stories her grandmother had told her as a child. Stories about how these boulders had once been giants, turned to stone by a spiteful witch eons ago. If the light was low and golden, as it was now, and if Lowen squinted hard enough, she fancied she could make out a nose worn smooth by centuries of rain and snow and an anguished expression etched upon the boulder-head. Grandmother had insisted the rest of the giants’ enormous stone bodies were hidden below the ground, long since swallowed up by the earth.
“Would you stop staring at that rock and help me?” Jenifer called from behind her.
Her sister was hunched on the ground, attempting to build a small fire. She never had displayed much talent for building anything. She fought and she hunted, she did not create or construct. Lowen walked towards her, bending to retrieve the bundle of sticks Jenifer had thrown to the ground in frustration.
“You haven’t used enough kindling,” she said.
Jenifer ignored her. She sat back and indicated that Lowen should continue building the fire. Lowen shook her head in mild annoyance but she complied, adding the dry twigs clasped in her hand to the mound of haphazardly placed firewood before pulling a small flint rock and a dirty piece of steel from her pocket and coaxing a small fire to life. Lowen gently blew on the flame until it spread and caught the rest of the kindling.
“I see now why Mother asked me to bring you,” Jenifer said. She laughed her echoing, braying laugh. “It was so I would not starve to death.”
She reached for the large squirrel lying dead beside her, a broken-off arrow tip driven straight through its tiny heart, and slipped a jagged-edged hunting knife from a sheath on her belt as she prepared to skin their dinner.
“I didn’t think Mother asked you to bring me,” Lowen said, “I thought she insisted you bring me. I had no idea either of us had any choice in the matter.”
“Come now, stop this childish sulking,” Jenifer replied cheerfully. She was a different person away from the village. She smiled easily and her eyes shone gold in the evening’s fading light.
Lowen settled herself amongst the mossy roots of an ancient shaggy beech, rearing from the hard-packed earth as though trying to make an extremely slow escape.
“Why shouldn’t I behave childishly?” she said, holding her knees to her chest. “Mother is treating us like children, sending us away to the forest in an effort to force our reconciliation. As though we had been caught fighting over a toy and need to be taught how to play nicely together.”
“What is the harm of Mother’s meddling if it means we get to spend more time hunting?”
“We haven’t even caught anything to bring back,” Lowen said, smiling despite herself. Jenifer’s enthusiasm was infectious. “Only that fat squirrel we are about to eat.”
“I would be carrying a beautiful deer on my back if you had not startled it,” Jenifer countered.
“I lack the patience for hunting,” Lowen mused. “I never excelled at fishing either, despite the fact that Cade spent that entire summer of my fourteenth year attempting to teach me. My feet would ache, I would shuffle and fidget, disturb the fish and come home empty handed.”
“I remember. Cade persevered as long as he could stand it until eventually he marched you home, presented Mother with your empty basket and begged her to find another occupation for you.”
Jenifer laughed again but Lowen was unable to join in this time. Disappointing her mother and leaving Cade exasperated had been deeply humiliating. It had not been long before Lowen had begun to spend more time with Koth Conwen, finding a strange peace away from the village amongst the drying plants and tinkling glass bottles that filled her hut.
For the umpteenth time that day, Lowen wondered about her grandmother. Koth Conwen was still weak after being pulled from the inky grip of the bitterblue, sleeping for many hours at a time and then waking dazed and glassy-eyed. A few nights previously Lowen had been dozing at her bedside only to be startled into wakefulness by a sudden strangled sob. She rose to inspect her grandmother and found her clawing at specters only she could see, floating above her bed in the twilight. When she tried to soothe her, placing a damp cloth on her forehead and smoothing her long white hair across the pillow, Koth Conwen had gripped both her hands in hers, so tightly it hurt, and began asking for Kenever, Lowen’s long-dead grandfather.
“Come into the light, Kenever,” she had called, her voice breaking. “Come stand by the fire where I can see you. I want to see your face.”
Lowen pushed the memory away and watched Jenifer spear the squirrel, naked and horribly pink, with a sharpened stick. She carefully held it out over the fire, roaring now beneath the canopy of trees.
“How do you not starve on your regular hunting trips?” Lowen wondered. Jenifer looked up, her face creased in confusion, and she quickly added, “I mean, how do you cook if you are unable to make a fire?”
“I am Scrat,” Jenifer replied, throwing two matted locks of thick red hair back over her shoulder. “Of course I am able to make a fire. I would have built it eventually if you had not been here. Although,” she added, “Brylen does usually tend to that sort of thing.” Brylen was Jenifer’s string-sister, a fellow Mistress of the Hunt and her constant companion.
“Was Brylen angry to be left behind?”
“No. She understood her Chieftain willed it so.”
The sisters sat in silence for a while as the squirrel cooked, its skin splitting and blackening over the fire. They had not spoken about their public argument at the Changing of the Moons but still, they had fallen into their usual companionable, if not especially close, relationship. Lowen found herself feeling grateful for it. The thought of discussing the events of that night, of perhaps letting slip her deeper worries, still horrified her. The last of the day’s sunlight slipped behind the trees in a flare of brilliant gold that Lowen had to shield her eyes against and she stretched where she sat cradled by the tree roots, her legs stiff and cold.
When the squirrel was finally cooked and had been left to cool, Jenifer removed the spear and began tearing strips of meat from the carcass. She handed a sizable portion to Lowen.
“You leave none for the koskin?” Lowen questioned.
Jenifer snorted rudely. “That is what children do.”
It was a Scrat tradition when eating beyond the village to leave a tribute for the koskin, the small creatures of faerie often indiscernible from the trees, streams and rocks of the forest; the true children of Nymed. That was if you believed in such things, of course. In recent centuries the koskin had been glimpsed less and less until even those who spent their lives hunting in the deeper parts of the forest, as Jenifer and her Mistresses and Masters of the Hunt did, often dismissed dim and distant accounts of mysterious forest creatures as little more than children’s stories. Still, Jenifer glanced again at Lowen, her forehead creased, before carefully reaching for the squirrel’s tail she had left discarded beside a pile of its greasy bones. She laid it out on a flat stone beside the fire. As Lowen watched it gleaming in the firelight, a long tapering plume the colour of an autumn sunset, she wondered what it was like to be Jenifer. To never see a giant’s face in a rock or watch for koskin in every flicker of a bright river on a summer’s day. Jenifer was firmly wedded to the rational world. She was only interested in what she could see, track and aim at with a cocked arrow.
Later that night, after the sisters had spread their bedrolls beside the dying fire and drifted into sleep, a fleeting noise her dozing mind could not quite hold onto woke Lowen with a start. She lay listening in the purple dark, idly scanning the plateau of stars arching overhead. Aikana was waning, a thin purple sliver hanging suspended before the silver ghost of Mamai. A faint breath of wind whispered about the highest branches of the trees. She wondered what had woken her.
Lowen lurched into a sitting position when a second ugly, throaty sound called out into the night. It almost sounded like an incantation. Then, beyond the line of trees surrounding their camp, deep in the thick darkness where her night sight failed, she heard the unmistakable sound of feet crunching on dry leaves.
Wild-eyed, her quickening heartbeat pulling every nerve in her body taught, Lowen reached for her sister’s turned shoulder and shook it firmly, rousing her from sleep.
“What is it?” Jenifer grumbled, still halfway inside a dream. A soft, melodic chanting, half song, half lilting wail cut through the clearing and Jenifer rose immediately, her face pale and stricken.
“The keening wraiths,” she whispered. She seemed to be finding it hard to catch her breath.