Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Clara Markel! Clara finished 7th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “The Huntress” Clara’s story is a fun twist on a classic fairy tale. Enjoy!
My family has always been out-of-the-ordinary. We’ve never been like the village girls, always worrying about this dress or that boy. We worry about how to keep Maman well and alive.
See, Maman has been sick (with what we suppose is Neurasthenia, since she’s gone a bit mad) since my darling baby sister was born, and we don’t have the money to have a medical examination done. Papa left Maman for a younger woman before Lyra, my littlest sister, was born. I won’t forgive him for that, for he is the main reason we have gone starving so many nights.
Me? Well, I’m Ro. To the outside world, I am Rosalina, but I completely and utterly despise that name. It sounds all flowery, just petals and a stem. I am definitely not a flower. The only thing I like about roses are their thorns.
My name brings back memories of Papa, too, which makes me hate it even more. Papa used to bring Maman roses of all colors. He said that each color meant something; sometimes he’d bring red, for love. Or lavender, for love at first sight, pink for perfect happiness, or (my favorite), blue for the impossible.
Stupid Papa and his stupid roses.
Some compare me to him; broad shouldered with chestnut hair and blue eyes, an upturned nose, and bow-shaped lips.
Blue eyes—pfft!—my eyes are gray. I will not look like my deserter father.
If not for my eleven little sisters, I most likely would’ve fallen into a horrible state by now. Kat, Bronwyn, El, Izzy, Aurelia, Joss, Gwen, Cass, Sage, Jaid, and Lyra—they keep me sane. Especially Lyra, who’s always in the midst of laughter. She can throw fits worth a hundred francs, and can scream like a banshee, but she’s sweet. My sisters are the reasons for everything I do– I stay in this God-forsaken place for them.
I couldn’t leave my dear, sweet Lyra.
The problem is that Maman can’t see Lyra’s smile or hear her laugh—she only sees and hears a girl who caused all of her sicknesses, a demon. Maman definitely isn’t quite right in the head anymore.
Soon I’ll have saved up enough to help Maman in the only way possible. I feel horrible for thinking it, of course, but it’s also the only thing that will save us. Some days I don’t have enough food for my girls and myself, much less Maman, but she still begs us to give her some. And what does she do with that hard-earned food? She throws it against the walls! So what am I to do but give her sleeping pills? She sometimes begs for death, in her sleep, so why does it matter? It’s what Maman would want– what she needs. So why does it sound like I’m trying to convince myself?
I’m so close to having the money. I’ll have to go back to the woods to hunt.
There are bad things in these woods, like wolves and bears. I haven’t seen a bear, but I’ve heard that they exist. Wolves in these woods are a different story—they’re rumored to be enchanted.
“They can speak! They’re almost human,” the townspeople say. Stupid villagers with their rumors. Actually, I don’t believe in a lot of rumors the villagers spread. There was one rather pungent rumor about a month back, where a Prince Dexter of Andorra was rumored to have been in these woods, hunting a talking wolf.
And who is Prince Dexter? I’ve heard of Andorra, since it’s always super sunshiney and “fabulous” twenty-four-seven. I’ll bet he doesn’t understand what it’s like to starve and watch your sisters starve, too.
I travel deeper into the woods than I’ve been before. I’ll be fine. The woods are just trees, and the trees are just woods. I shiver and look up. Then I panic. I panic because– well, the moon’s out, and I certainly haven’t been out for twelve hours already.
My neck tingles. This usually happens when animals are near. Great, I think. I hear a growl, and then a voice. I sneak closer to listen through a bush.
“Hello, Monsieur Loup! I’m searching for my grand-mére’s house, which my mother has told me is north of the big spruce down by Bouleverser stream. But I’m not positive where that is.” The deepness of the speaker’s voice startles me. Who is this man? He’s much too perky.
Through the bush’s foliage I see apple red fabric. It’s such a vibrant color in this decrepit forest, missing it is impossible. A boy around my age with jet black, side-swept hair, with a brown wolf hunkered down in front of him, has the hood pulled up all the way, partially masking his features. The boy is facing away from me, but I can see that the material of the cloak is rich– brocade, maybe? I’ve never owned brocade, being as poor as we are, but I’ve seen it at the market.
The wolf replies, making my heart fly into my throat. It replied! How? Then I understand—one rumor the villagers spread is true. His voice—I’m assuming it’s a male wolf—is gravelly like pebbles rubbing together.
The boy sounds offended, and replies hotly, “I am definitely not a ‘little boy,’ for your information.” He sighs. “I’m Prince Dexter of Andorra.”
This is Prince Dexter? He is a moron.
The wolf laughs throatily, making me shiver. A laughing wolf is the creepiest thing I’ve heard, and it looks as disturbing as it sounds. “I don’t care about titles, Dexter Philippe Juste Rei.”
“How do you know my name?” Prince Dexter asks. “Only my parents know that!”
“I have my ways. Listen to me. Your grand-mére’s house is west from here. Go! But, perhaps…” The wolf snickers slyly. “She may want a bouquet from her grandson, no? There are plenty of delphinium flowers in these parts of the woods, and they taste good, too.”
Delphinium? Oh, Dieu! Those are poisonous enough to make you pass out for a few hours. And people with sensitivities– Delphinium can be deadly. One time Gwen and Cass ate one. That was a bad day—I need to protect them from things like that. I tremble, trying not to move the bush. Don’t trust the wolf!
“Good idea! I appreciate it. Will you show me a Delphinium plant?”
Trusting a wolf! Unbelievable.
Then I see a glint in Prince Dexter’s hand. It’s a knife. I grin. He follows the wolf, and I creep along behind the two unwitting males. When the wolf turns around, seeing a blue Delphinium bush, Prince Dexter slashes it across the throat. The wolf slumps to the ground, crimson blood pooling around its body, matching Prince Dexter’s cape.
Creepy thinking, Ro, I chastise myself, shuddering.
I’ve never killed a wolf before. Especially a talking one. That wolf had a personality!
Prince Dexter turns and runs into the forest, and soon his cherry-red cape disappears into the silent forest.
The wolf gurgles words, and I creep out.
“Save me,” it says.
I feel sorry for the poor wolf, so I take out my water skin and gently rinse the gash that’s along the animal’s neck. I cringe. I’m no doctor.
I rip off a strip of my poor-quality farm-girl top. I wrap it gently around the wolf’s neck, and he closes his eyes.
“Bless you, child,” he rasps. “Although it won’t help for long.” I almost cry at the pain in the wolf’s voice. Coming from a girl who barely ever cries. What has gotten into me?!
“I’m sorry I didn’t stop him!” I sob, barely keeping my eyes from filling up.
“It’s not your fault. I’m an old wolf, I knew it wasn’t completely safe,” he whimpers.
I gag. “It’s his fault! Why?”
The wolf’s lips pull back, and I almost leap away until I realize he’s smiling. “Self defense, of course.”
“Do you have a death wish?”
“No, Ro.” His ears twitch. “You know, your spirit animal is a wolf.”
I almost laugh hysterically. “You’re talking about my spirit animal when you’re… dying?”
“Little Rosalina… I may be dying, but you have a big life ahead of you. I could tell you what you’ll name your children, the time you’ll get married, or the day you die. But I won’t.” He shudders, and I can tell his life is almost over. “Rosalina, my child. I promise that no wolf will ever harm you, child of Colette and Jean Fabian—”
“He’s not my father.”
“Keep your sisters safe, keep your heart safer. Do not forget this, pup.” He breathes deeply. “Be kind, Ro. Be kind and wary. And be safe.”
My cheeks are wet, tears streaming down them from who knows where, waterfalls that I can’t stop no matter how hard I try. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He closes his eyes. “Don’t be.”
I whimper. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be, child,” he says, and rolls over, slowly turning cold in my arms.
Prince Dexter will die for this. I will get revenge.
I find a wolf in the woods; my spirit animal, according to the old wolf, who died just a few hours ago. Her name’s Shiva. It’s reassuring to have a wolf loping by your side, and I feel like she’s ready to protect me. Shiva can’t talk, but I do talk with her. Shiva’s eyes, the shade of a polar sky, lock onto that little rabbit and those hemlock plants (I steer clear of those).
I can feel Shiva’s emotions, clear as the ice that gathers in the yard at home on a wintry day. I can feel her curiosity. We both turn our heads to smell the air at the same time– a hint of thyme and chamomile entwines with our breaths. We are tracking the same big, manly footprints. It’s almost as if he isn’t being careful at all, like he thinks he could beat anyone or anything. Such a prideful prince, isn’t he?
Not for long, I think.
I can tell that Shiva feels the same way because she growls appreciatively when I think such thoughts. I start a fire, leaning against Shiva.
“Shiva, what is your story? Who are you?”
When I was born, I was cast out as the youngest of five pups. My mother did not want to leave me, but her true love was for my older siblings. So one day, my father brought me into the woods to play Hide and Seek. I hid for hours, but he never “found” me. I searched and searched for my family, but they had left the den so I would not follow. All to keep the other pups well-fed. I am not mad; it was necessary. Bairn took me in—the wolf you talked to and held in your arms as he died.
“Oh, Shiva. I’m sorry.”
Now I will get revenge upon Prince Dexter for killing my adoptive father. He’ll regret this.
I am silent. What do I say to that? Nothing that will sound sympathetic. I fall asleep to the sound of the fire crackling, the trees shifting in the wind, night owls, and Shiva’s breathing. We will track Prince Dexter in the morning.
In the morning, while I stretch and wipe the sleep out of my eyes, Shiva starts to growl; her hackles rise and her teeth clench.
“What is it, Shiva?”
I can smell him. The prince.
Due north. Hurry! We will lose him!
“Coming, Shiva! I need to pack up our things!”
Shiva just growls. I rush around the camp in a flurry to pick everything up and quench the fire.
“Coming, coming!” Picking up my things, I break into a run, following Shiva.
North, known as a place of cold and darkness. Wisdom and thoughtfulness, for some. Adventures for all, I think.
Am I superstitious? No, not really. Not as much as Maman is—was?—I don’t know. Oh, to be home with my sisters, not worrying about a man or a wolf or a messed-up mother.
I nearly trip over a branch, and now I’m paying attention.
I remember the words Prince Dexter said. Due north of the big spruce-fir down by the Bouleverser Stream.
“Shiva, look for a spruce tree, a big one. And a stream.”
I can smell the spruce! We are close, Ro. Very close.
“I can tell,” I replied hotly. “You may have a super canine nose, but I have one, too.”
Humans have lousy noses.
“Just— let’s keep going. I don’t have time for this.” I sigh. “And I still haven’t gotten anything I can sell! Maman’s pills will have to wait. I’m sorry, girls,” I mutter to myself.
Suddenly, the birds go silent. Oh, no, I think. This is anything but good.
I hear every crack of the branches beneath Shiva and my feet. I cringe at the noises.
I whisper, “Shiva, shh! This feels wrong somehow..”
Then, from behind me, a twig snaps. And all of a sudden, I know what’s wrong. It’s a trap! My brain screeches to a stop, and I scan the surrounding area for a sign of what is going on.
“Shiva,” I warn her. “Shiva!”
I turn to Shiva. She’s gone.
“Shiva! Where are you?” I cry. All alone in the world. But now, with a murderer on the loose, who probably stole my wolf! I again follow the footprints of Prince Dexter. He has big hunting boots. And what do I have? My stupid flats, which are very difficult to run in. I updated them a while ago so they wouldn’t fly off whenever I take a step, but I still want those boots. And his cloak. Mon Dieu, his cloak alone would get us enough money to pay for Maman’s pills and provide for the girls!
I hear a voice.
“Where is she?”
Silence. My heart pounds, and I swear everyone on the face of the planet can hear my breathing.
“My grandmother isn’t there. She’s gone, wolf! I know you understand me! Where is my grandmother?!” More silence. I know Shiva’s there, and for Prince Dexter not to be wounded, she’s probably tied down.
“Lead me to her! I demand to see her!” Prince Dexter’s voice breaks. He sounds near tears. “I need to know where she is. Please. She’s dying. I… Please,” he begs.
I creep closer, bewildered by how broken he sounds. He clears his throat. I push the bushes aside. Yes, crimson cape. Yes, black hair. Even the eyes. Prince Dexter. It makes it difficult to hate him when his voice sounds so raw.
I step forward. “Unhand the wolf, Prince Dexter Philippe Juste Rei.”
“Um, do I know you? How do you know me?”
“Long story short– from a wolf. A wolf that you killed.”
“You saw that? Oh, my lady, I don’t think you understand.” He holds out his hand.
I just look at it.
“A few things. One, I am most definitely not your lady. Or a proper lady at all.” I pause, and I can see his eyes taking in the hunting bag strapped across my shoulders, my lousy mismatched rabbit-hide flat-turned-boots, and my manly attire. I practically traded and arm and a leg for my crossbow and for good trousers that actually fit me—money I could have spent on Maman’s pills, or food for the girls—I felt bad about that, so I made it up to them by splurging on a scone from the bakery.
And now a prince is looking at me. Gah. Stupid princes.
I continue. “Secondly, yes, I saw you murder a wolf in cold blood. A wolf who later died in my arms, your Princeship.” I crinkle my nose. “Third. Don’t touch me. I am most certainly not a prissy little princess who flounces around in pink, ruffled, sparkly ball gowns and flirts with every boy, handsome or not. I am not a girl you can charm with a snap of your fingers, so there.”
He looks so offended I almost laugh. Actually, I almost giggle from the absurdity of it all.
“Fourth. I know what I saw. Don’t try to correct that. Sure, I’ll listen to you. But,” I say, seeing him about to interrupt, “I will choose whether to listen or believe you.” I smirk. “That’s all I have to say.”
He gapes. “You certainly aren’t an average young lady.”
“No way, Sherlock. What was your first clue?” I smugly remark.
He rolls his eyes. “You’ll listen to me?”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?”
He sighs. “Well, mademoiselle…” He stops. “What should I call you?”
“You really shouldn’t feel obligated at all to know my name, your Highness. After all, I’m only a lowly peasant girl.” I smirk.
“I’d still like to know.”
“Ro… As in, what?”
“Ro as in none of your business.”
He looks embarrassed. “Uh, sorry–”
I interrupt. “The story, good sir?”
“Right.” He sits down on a fallen log. “So. I’ve been sent to see my dying grandmother,” here he shoots a glare at Shiva, “Dying, mind you, and this wolf and a different wolf came up, and the older one asks me, ‘Where does your grandmother live?’ I answer him, because I’ve heard that talking wolves are wise.”
Wonder where he gets his information...
“So, they bound away. And the next thing I know, I’m at grand-mére’s house, but she’s not there.”
I raise an eyebrow. “You looked everywhere?”
“Of course I looked everywhere! She wasn’t there. And you want to know who was there instead? That wolf! And where is my grandmother?! Nowhere to be found,” he huffs.
“And I suppose you want me to believe that the wolf ate her? Yeah, right. Your Highest Princeship, wolves don’t eat humans.”
He runs his hand through his hair. “Well, these aren’t normal wolves! Have you heard them? They can talk, Ro! Talking wolves. Am I crazy?”
I think about that. “Yes, probably.”
“I can’t thank you enough for that.”
“So, changing the subject. What brings you to these parts of the woods?”
“I followed you,” I sigh. “I was told to get revenge. Well, actually, I decided to all of a sudden after that wolf– Bairn– was killed. By you.”
He cringes. “Oops.”
Why was I so upset over that wolf? I didn’t know him. I don’t know Shiva, for that matter. But I still was upset. I don’t know!
“Yeah, that wasn’t received well with other wolves. But I came into the woods before the whole fiasco because… because I have to get my mother sleeping pills.”
Prince Dexter is silent.
I continue, “Terrible, I know. But, I have eleven younger sisters to take care of, and I can’t feed my mother. She just throws it onto the walls, since she’s… She’s been mentally ill since Lyra, my youngest sister was born.” I laugh wryly. “Crazier than you, actually.”
He squints at me. “Why do you do that? Why do you try making jokes when you’re uncomfortable or nervous?”
Nervously– oh, the irony– I say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He wraps his cloak around himself. “What about sleeping pills?” He pauses. “Why don’t you just buy them?”
I bark out a laugh. “I know you’re a prince and all, but I somehow thought that you’d realize that poor people can’t buy whatever they want whenever they want. I’ve been saving up for those sleeping pills for a year, plus.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize.”
He smiles. “I can help, though.” He fumbles around at the base of his neck. “Here,” he says, holding out his cloak. His cloak!
“You.. you want me to take this? No, no, I can’t!” I refuse.
“I insist, Ro.”
I look at the cloak. His outstretched hand holding it. His eyes begging me—beseeching me—to take it. I hesitantly reach out my hand, and grasping the brocade fabric, I hold it.
“You’re sure, Prince Dexter?”
“Would you call me Dex?” he sighs. “And my grandmother made that for me.”
“Then it must mean something to you. I wouldn’t give this away for practically anything in the world!”
“That’s why I’m giving it to you, Ro.” He chuckles. “Now just accept it gratefully, for goodness sakes.”
He turns around slightly, enough so I can see the empty ropes behind him.
“Uh, Prince Dexter?” And then, looking into his brown eyes, deep as the forest depths, I see Shiva. I see Shiva reflected in his eyes— behind me! I panic and duck, crouching to cover my head. Shiva sails right over me and onto Dexter’s chest. And then Shiva eats Prince Dexter. She eats him, whole.
Oh, my goodness. “Shiva! I… You… You can’t eat people!”
Don’t be so whiny. He was annoying, admit it. And he killed my foster father!
“We don’t eat people, Shiva!” I hesitate. “And he wasn’t that annoying.”
Eh. Humans don’t eat people. I’m not a human.
“What!? Oh, my goodness… You ate a prince! Shiva, spit him out!” I’m in shock. IN SHOCK. The man I was just conversing with is now being digested. In a wolf’s stomach. Dear goodness. And… I hate to admit it… But he was nice! And chivalrous. And a prince!
“Shiva, spit him out.” Oh, that sounds so strange. “Or I swear I will cut you open.” I shiver. Please don’t let it come to that.
I won’t. I refuse, Ro. It doesn’t matter that his grandmother’s been eaten too, or that he’s been eaten. All that matters is revenge.
“Shiva, who ate his grandmother?”
Me, of course.
Magic. Even though I can’t talk aloud like Bairn, I have other magical properties.
“Shiva, he practically just saved my family!” I take out my spear point dagger threateningly. “Please, just spit him out.”
Not until I tell the whole story. So–
If you’d listen, you’d know by now. The only reason you felt so strongly for Bairn was because he put a spell on you. That’s part of his magic.
“Oh good Lord, Shiva. It was fake?” I need to hurry up. Prince Dexter– Dex– is dying!
Yes, Ro. It was all fake. Your precious prince is almost dead by now, he’s almost stopped fighting. What are you going to do? she taunts me.
Wolf or human. Human or wolf. This is all a lie. A lie. Benefactor or liar. Prince or animal.
I slash open Shiva’s stomach.
I choose prince. Shiva doesn’t even whimper.
“I’m sorry, I am, I’m so sorry,” I murmur, but I don’t cry. Beneath the blood, there is a human. Inside the wolf, there is a prince.
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