I open my eyes slowly. Bluish sunlight is pouring through the holes in our raggedy curtains, forming dapples on the wooden walls and floor. It must be well past sunrise.
I carefully inch my head downwards to see if Telari is awake. She's still asleep, which is surprising. Hunger has normally woken her by now. Even so, the growling of her stomach is deafening in the silent room. She's snuggled up next to me, with her head on my shoulder, and my arm is numb from where she's been lying on it. Her ears twitch in reaction to a dream she's having. She looks so peaceful; it would be a shame to disturb her, but I have to go and hunt. Still, I'd feel guilty if I jolted her from that peaceful dream world of hers.
Don't tell me you're gonna let yourself starve because you don't want to wake some sleeping brat? The Voice sneers at me from the dark recesses of my mind.
"I'm not. I'm getting up now, and don't call my sister a brat." I speak softly so I won't disturb Telari or Mother, who is fast asleep on a thin mattress on the floor.
Why whisper? Disturbing Mummy would probably be a good thing, then maybe she'd get up and do something for once.
"Mother does plenty for us," I hiss as I ease my arm out from under Telari's tiny frame, but even as I say it I have doubts. The truth is—and I know this sounds awful—but I don't know what Mother does for us. Since Father went missing while he was out chopping wood, she just lies on her mattress, dead to the world. Nothing Telari or I say can bring her back. We used to spend the money Father earned from woodcutting to buy food, but now it's down to me to do all the hunting. It was a huge piece of luck that Father taught me to set traps and throw knives with at least some accuracy. He taught me to read and write a bit too, but the traps and knives are the important parts.
As I go to buckle my belt, I realise that I've been lost in a daydream for at least a few minutes. The only thing that brings me back to reality is the gap between the belt and my concave stomach, which is when I remember I've not eaten in two days. I grab my knife and bag from their hook on the wall and hurry outside.
The First Sun has just cleared the horizon when I slip out of the door. A thin layer of snow coats the ground, adding to the clean bluish effect from the Sun's light. I'll be lucky to catch anything today; most of the forest creatures will either have migrated or will be hiding from the cold. My heart sinks as I imagine the look of despair on Telari's delicate face when she sees that we'll be eating nothing but tree bark for the next few days.
It's still quite early, so there aren't many people about. Good. I'm not in the mood to face their stares and whispers today.
The narrow dirt path which connects our hut to the village square is mostly free of snow, so I manage to prowl down it without making a sound. It wouldn't do to go crashing down it like a crazed beast; people don't usually rise until late in the winter, as there's no farming to do, and they do not take kindly to being disturbed. I think it's a miracle I don't wake anyone, as my stomach is snarling like a caged animal.
The square is almost as silent as the path leading to it, save for two gossiping old women who glare at me as I walk past.
Just ignore the old crones, the Voice whispers.
"I am. Anyway, it was you who started this in the first place!" I hiss under my breath. Since people noticed me whispering to myself and having conversations with someone they can't see, I've been the subject of rumours and prejudice everywhere I go. There was even someone who wanted me executed when our crops failed, because apparently I was the reason we all went hungry.
Unfortunately, my voice carries across the eerily quiet square. The women stem their never ending torrent of words to glower at me. I glance at them, then turn my back to them and continue on towards the forest. I can feel their cold eyes trained on the back of my skull, but I don't look back.
When I cross the threshold of the forest, I reflexively reach for my knife and slide it out of its sheath. I grip it in my fist, ready to throw it at a moment's notice. I slip into a large clump of bracken and crouch among the twigs, my light brown hair providing the perfect camouflage. My whole being quivers with anticipation; every muscle in my body, from the tops of my ears to the tip of my tail, is tensed to spring at the first sign of game. I become as still as the bracken I hide in.
I have no idea how long I stay there—it could be minutes, it could be hours. My muscles are no longer rigid with suppressed energy but with cold. Snow has started to drift down between the gaps in the trees, and it settles in my hair. I can't stay out here for much longer, so I'm just starting to clamber out of my bush when I notice something that makes my blood turn to ice.
The forest has gone nearly silent. This is not unusual, of course, but it's a different kind of silence to the one I'm used to. It's not a natural, foresty silence, and just not hearing it makes me uneasy. What really scares me, though, is the stillness of the place. It's as if all the remaining life in the vicinity has bolted. I know it's not safe to stay here, so I begin to head home, moving through the trees like a shadow, always watching for predators.
That's when the buzzing begins. At first I wonder if I've disturbed a nest of insects, but then some distant memory puts a picture to the sound, which is growing louder every second. The Voice echoes exactly what I'm thinking.
I break into a run.
A/N: This was expanded from another story I wrote, called "Running". Thanks to Minastauriel Dragonfriend for suggesting it! :D