"Get off that cot, you lazy piece of bones!" Her stepmother's shrill voice broke through her haze of unconsciousness, at the same time a kick met her back and the sleep instantly vanished from her eyes.
Islinda would have blinked against the faint sunlight filtering through the window if it wasn't for the angry-looking woman hovering over her. The bloody look on Madam Alice's face hinted that it would be the end of her life if she dared to give a cheeky response.
Hence she bit the inside of her cheeks and tamped down the anger surging through her veins, saying instead,
"Good Morning, mother."
But the woman scoffed at her.
Perhaps, she has come to realize how ridiculous it was to refer to her with the title of "mother" when she wasn't.
Her stepmother, Alice, seemed to let go of that because she announced the next minute, "There is nothing to eat."
Islinda winced inwardly, holding back the words she wanted to hurl at her. Of course, there was nothing to eat because she and her daughters exhausted the remaining grain in the house last night and she didn't even have a taste. They claimed that it was too small; it barely fed the three of them.
But Islinda knew better, they were lying and this was not the first time she was at the receiving end of their cruelty. They didn't care about her, not at all. To them, she was nothing but a burden left behind by her father to take care of. How ironic since she was the one taking care of them instead.
"I have nothing left." Islinda croaked, her voice hoarse from the thirst burning in her throat. She needed water, but most of all, food. The worms in her belly were beginning to riot and she feared just like Alice, she would become irritable from hunger soon. If it wasn't happening already.
Her answer was a wrong one because Alice reached out without warning and clutched a fistful of her hair drawing a yelp from her lips.
"Do you think that is the answer that I want to hear?" She sneered in her face, tightening her grip on her scalp, "I don't care if you steal bread or beg in the streets or do your hunting thing, I simply want a meal on my table and you better hurry because I'm not far from butchering and making soup out of you." She threatened her, finally letting go of her hair forcibly.
A gasp tore from Islinda's lips from the release and she knew while the threat was exaggerated, the woman would come close to trying. If not for anything, but the pleasure of inflicting pain on her, the scars on her body being evidence of them.
Tears slid down her cheeks but she wiped them away with the back of her hand. She has been through enough maltreatment over the years to know that crying never solved her problem. Hence, Islinda had no choice but to get on her feet knowing Alice wouldn't be so kind if she found her doing nothing a second time.
Her room was so small that it might as well be a storage space, but then, the cottage wasn't spacious in the first place. However, her step sisters occupied the two largest rooms in the house when they could have at least shared. It might be hard to believe but they didn't live miserably like this in the past and had once been rich.
Islinda's mother died at a young age which prompted her father into marrying another woman that would take care of her. Her stepmother Alice was a widow with two children and her dear papa thought it a good idea to have sisters that would be her playmate.
Alice and her children were quite nice to her and she believed they accepted her as a family until her precious papa died and the love vanished with it. Her father was wounded severely on his farm by a wild boar and though he was rescued by his workers, he never recovered from the injuries.
After her papa's burial, she began to sell off his properties, starting from his many farmlands, and did not invest a coin in trading. Alice and her daughters squandered all, till there was nothing to give out anymore.
They then took to selling off their pieces of jewelry and expensive gowns father bought them when he was alive -including hers- and the last thing to go was the mansion they once lived in, settling for this cramped and deficient cottage instead. At least, she had a roof over her head, however small it was.
Islinda picked her bow and quiver from where she had dropped them after the last hunt. They had been surviving from the yield of the bountiful hunt she had the last time before winter came. It was supposed to last them for the season but her Alice and daughters did not exactly know the meaning of rationing. They exhausted everything!
Her stepsisters were in the fore room when she came out and their heads snapped in her direction, eyes looking up at her in expectation as if she held the solution to their food problem.
"I heard you are going to find us something to eat," said Remy, the oldest and most shameless of the siblings. It was not a wonder no man in the village wanted her hand in marriage - at least, there would be less mouth to feed.
But then who in their right mind would marry from this household? While her stepmother and children try to portray a good and innocent personality, the villagers already knew how evil they were.
"I'll try." Was the curt response Islinda gave her before picking her worn-out coat from the hanger and wearing it. Finally, she slung her bow and quiver across her shoulder.
"You want to hunt?" Lillian, the younger one asked. Though she was petite and looked kinder, that was only because she was trying to get on her good side. The girl was hungry and would suck up to her to get scrapes until she was filled and then turns on her. In one word, Lillian was even more dangerous than her older, obnoxious sister and Islinda has learned her lesson the hard way.
"Yes." She grumbled, putting on her boots that have seen better days too.
"It's winter. All the prey would have hidden deeper in the woods already." She said.
"At least, you know that." Islinda retorted, testing out the boot by stomping it hard against the floor hoping that the soles would hold till she was back.
"Be safe," Lillian said, surprising Islinda.
Was that genuine sincerity on her face? Not at all, her stepsister was probably hoping that her food source comes home safely. With a huff, Islinda stepped out of the cottage and the winter wind enveloped her at once.
This was another reason she couldn't beg on the street, she would probably die from the cold before she got enough scrapes to feed the family. Moreover, this was winter, which meant other poor families were into begging already and that would make a tight competition. Not to mention that her pride would not allow it. Also, stealing was out of the question, while death seems like a kinder alternative to her reality, Islinda didn't relish the bloody beating.
Winter was not a good season for hunting because all tracks have been covered and the animals moved on for safety from the harsh weather. Hence, she walked deeper into the forest, hoping to hunt down stragglers that might come her way.
She was hungry and cold, both not a good combination. Her breath turned into mist and her old coat could not fight off the cold as much as it could in the past, worn out already. At this rate, she might freeze to death before she gets a chance to hunt something.
But Islinda had not given up hope, there would always be that one animal that leaves the group. The only problem was "when". It would not be long hours till the sunset and she was as good as dead if found in these woods.
There was far more prominent dangers lurking in the dark than wild animals, and beyond the winding paths to the woods, stood the Divider and the dangerous predators that lived behind it. No, she would not think about that now so as not to jinx her luck. She had to focus on how to get food.
As if knowing that she was thinking of food, her stomach grumbled angrily. It needed to be fed and by the gods, she was hungry. Very hungry. To make it worse, she waited for hours without catching a thing, not even birds or the usual rabbits!
The grumbling in her stomach got worse with the cold now sinking into her bone. Islinda knew she would die at this rate, so she made up her mind to leave if she found nothing in an hour when she heard a rustle in the woods.
She crouched at once, hidden behind the snow-heavy hydrangea shrubs. Her pulse raced and she was careful of making a noise as she peered out and caught sight of the small deer. Tears of relief gathered in her eyes knowing if she caught that, not only would there be meat, but she could sell the hide for money - and maybe buy herself a new coat that would keep her warmer.
Thank the gods, they were on her side today.
Careful not to make a sound and scare the deer away, Islinda pulled an arrow from her quiver and eased into a comfortable position. She did not decide to be a hunter because she wanted to, but out of necessity. But then, she has come to love the art.
Arrow drawn, Islinda maintained her breathing and movements amid the hunger pangs that made her weak, not to mention low visibility from the unyielding snow. The deer stood about twenty paces away and she was determined to take the shot. Islinda could not say she was an expert shooter but she was pretty decent and refused to miss. Her life depended on this.
She fired the arrow at the same time the deer moved, having sensed it was in danger. The arrow caught its side and she celebrated inwardly. She did it! Even with the arrow buried at its side, the deer trudged away, but Islinda was not worried knowing it wouldn't make it far.
Moreover, with its bright crimson blood staining the snow-covered floor, it was not difficult to track down. By the time Islinda found the deer, it was already dead.
Islinda was just about to pull out her arrow from the body of the deer when she caught a blurry silhouette from the corner of her eyes and went rigid. She wanted to believe that whatever she saw was a product of her imagination, but Islinda knew deep down that the woods were dangerous and now, she was caught off-guard.
Was that human or a fae?
There was only one way to find out.
But before she could pull out the arrow and defend herself, it knocked into her, throwing her to the ground and expelling the breath from her lungs.
Was this how she dies….?
So close to her food…