Sirma

Read chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1

Summer, 1783

“To the big tree!” shouted Ognian.

Sirma raised her head and stared at the group of boys who ran up the mountain trail. Eight-year-old Ognian was at the front and had already gained a big lead. The boys did this every time—they waited for Sirma and Ruzha to get distracted with wildflowers so they could run off. God forbid anyone saw them playing with girls.

Sirma lifted her skirt over her knees and ran after them. Ruzha shouted after her, something about forget-me-nots, but Sirma ignored her. Right now, it was more important to teach the boys a lesson in running.

She quickly caught up to the last boy, but the trail was too narrow and two people couldn’t pass each other. So, Sirma let go of her skirt and climbed up the steep side of the slope. She grabbed onto the exposed tree roots, her bare feet stepping on rocks covered in moss.

She climbed up onto the trail above and demonstratively patted her hands, allowing Ognian only a second to see her smug smile. Then she ran ahead. The boys shouted behind them, something about this not being fair. It was fair, and very much so.

The trail led to a dense forest, and Ognian quickly caught up to Sirma. The other boys remained far behind as the two eight-year-olds continued running with all their might. They avoided thick trees, jumped over dense bushes, and even stumbled at times.

Nobody gave up.

The trees thinned out the farther they got, and an extensive sunny meadow awaited them out of the woods. It had rained a lot these days, and the grass was taller than they were. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. The sun shone in their faces and Ognian squeezed his eyes shut.

When he opened them again, Sirma’s long chestnut braid fluttered before him. Something happened then. This single moment in time extended excruciatingly slowly and while staring at her back, Ognian realized he couldn’t catch up to Sirma. The chestnut braid floated before his eyes in the dazzling sun, teasing him.

He reached out to grab it. That was all he could do. Pull the girl back and surpass her in this spontaneous race. But the braid was as elusive as Sirma.

The moment passed, time continued with its normal feverish pace, and the children got lost in the grass. The big tree was very close. It was the only one, grown tall at the end of the clearing. Sirma was so close. She made one last effort and finally embraced its rough trunk.

She didn’t notice how she kicked a pebble over the edge of the cliff, and it dropped straight down to where the village was. If it weren’t for the tree to stop her, Sirma would have followed it. But her untimely death wasn’t a cause for concern in her childish mind.

“I win!” she yelled, just as Ognian reached their final destination.

“Sirma outran you again!” the boys behind him shouted.

“She outran you too, stupid!” Ognian said, obviously not thrilled about losing to a girl, but at least he took it calmly, like a man.

In a few more minutes, Sirma’s best friend Ruzha appeared in the field. Little Ruzha wasn’t competing in the race, so she walked up to them with a calm stride, wildflowers and twigs in her hand. While the boys poked fun at each other and laughed loudly, Ruzha took a seat in the shade and started arranging the flowers she gathered.
The so-called big tree was the favorite gathering spot for the children in the village of Tresonche. From here, they had a perfect view of the village and all its people. The farthest building was a small church with a large wooden cross, and after that, there was nothing but greenery.

Further on the horizon were the potato and wheat fields, as well as the high mountains where the goat herders spent most of the summer.

“Let’s shoot something!”

Ognian once again decided on the next activity and pulled a slingshot out of his pocket. The boys pulled out their own, ready for action. Ruzha didn’t even bother to look at them. By now, she had arranged the flowers into a gorgeous wreath and put it on her head proudly. Sirma pulled out an old, larger slingshot with a thicker rubber band.

“Where did you get that?” The boys gaped at it.

“From my big brother,” Sirma said.

“You stole it?”

“No! He gave it to me.” The girl straightened her back, insulted by how they dared to consider she could be a thief. “He doesn’t use it anymore. He has a pistol now.”

“What kind of pistol?”

The girl made an approximate estimation of its size with her fingers. “This big.”

Everyone knew Sirma’s big brother and what an accurate shooter he was. He was sixteen years old and a better hunter than all the adults. A few months ago, he joined the local haiduk gang.

This brought a lot of mixed feelings through the village. Most people said the haiduks were terrible people, but the children had a different opinion.

A year ago, a gang of Albanian outlaws stole a dozen sacks of grain from the village barn. Everyone panicked, someone yelled they were going to starve to death in the winter. Luckily, the haiduks ambushed the thieves and returned the grain to the villagers. This was the first time Sirma knew the haiduks were good.

The second time, she and a few of her friends saw a haiduk from up close. A man with a woolen cloak entered the village. He wasn’t from around here, and he didn’t give the impression he was someone’s out-of-town relative. Naturally, they followed the suspicious man. He talked with a neighbor behind his house and then hurried to leave.

As he was about to leave the village, the haiduk urged the children to come out. He knew he was being followed the whole time. They obeyed, and he stood in front of them like a towering pillar. He told them to listen to their parents and not to go around looking for trouble. The same words every other adult had told them, but coming from a haiduk, they sounded way more meaningful.

Ever since that encounter, it had become easy for Sirma to recognize a haiduk.

“I’m shooting!”

Ognian aimed with his slingshot at a tiny sparrow perched on a tree branch.

“No!” Ruzha screamed. “Don’t shoot it!”

Her high-pitched shriek spooked the sparrow, and it flew away. The boys moaned in annoyance, but soon caught sight of other small creatures.

Luckily, the wildlife wasn’t such an easy target for a group of loud children. None was an accurate shot and at some point, the boys dropped the slingshots and hurled pebbles at anything that moved. Ruzha shouted at them to stop, stomping her foot angrily, but she might as well have been invisible.

Sirma did not take a shot yet. She had a pebble in her hand prepared while patiently observing. Her eyes locked on a small bird that was about to land on a branch.

Without giving it time to rest, Sirma pulled the thick rubber band as far as her strength allowed, and then released. The massive slingshot sent the pebble through the air like a speeding bullet. It hit its target, and the bird dropped to the ground.

“I hit one!” she yelled victoriously.

“Not fair! You have the best slingshot!” a boy exclaimed. “Let me try it!”

“You’re not touching my brother’s slingshot!”

“Then I’ll ask your father to make me a better one.”

“And I’ll tell him not to!”

The noise quickly died down when there was a sniffle. Everyone turned their attention to little Ruzha kneeling before the prone bird, with tears sliding down her red cheeks. The boys looked at Sirma in silence, and just like that, her achievement didn’t feel like something she should be proud of anymore. She rushed to her crying friend and fell on her knees.

“It’s dead,” Ruzha said.

The bird wasn’t moving. Sirma pushed it with a finger. No response. She took it into her hands, amazed at how light it was. She had never seen a bird from this close before. Birds don’t usually let anyone approach them. This must be why. It finally dawned on her—Sirma had taken a life.

She didn’t even stop to think about such a consequence when she was aiming. She didn’t expect someone would cry for the loss of this innocent life.

The boys didn’t feel like staying here now that it had become so depressing, so they headed back to the village, leaving the two girls alone.

Ruzha sniffled one last time before she dug a small hole in the dirt. Sirma waited patiently before gently placing the bird inside. Ruzha filled the tiny grave, making a smooth bump over it. Finally, she brought her hands together and said a prayer. Sirma looked at the ground in respectful silence.

When Ruzha was done, she stood up and dried her tears. Sirma followed, wondering if she should apologize. But to whom? The bird would never hear it. Her deed was irreversible.

“Sirma, please don’t kill anymore,” Ruzha said.

The wind blew the tiny flowers from Ruzha’s wreath upon the grave of the unfortunate bird. Overwhelming guilt stabbed Sirma’s heart mercilessly, bringing tears to her eyes.

“I promise,” she said.

There was no one else here, but somehow Sirma knew the mountain, heard and remembered these words.
As the people of Tresonche saw the boys coming back from the forest, they immediately scolded them for leaving the boundaries of the village. Children were forbidden from roaming the woods alone. The boys ignored their elders and ran by, successfully spooking the free-range chickens around the houses. Sirma and Ruzha followed not long after and were greeted by an outraged lady, threatening to tell their parents where they’ve been.

She didn’t have to, though. Sirma’s mother, Angelina, was pacing towards them with a deep scowl on her face.
Angelina grabbed her daughter by the arm, yanking her away from her friend. “I told you not to leave the village! Outlaws lurk everywhere!”

“There were no outlaws, Mother,” Sirma said quietly.

The neighbor lady started saying something about having to keep the children busy, so they don’t run off in the mountains when no one’s looking. Angelina gave her a nod, but nothing more.

She hadn’t had the strength or desire to deal with neighbors lately. Ever since Sirma’s brother left home to join the haiduk gang, she’d been having trouble sleeping. He’d been gone for months, and Angelina was becoming more irritated with each day.

Ruzha politely excused herself and ran home, where a good scolding was awaiting her as well. The talkative neighbor walked away too, and Sirma was left alone with her mother. She was used to being scolded, but right now her horrible deed weighed on her heart and she couldn’t think about anything else.

“Mother,” Sirma spoke up quietly. “Just now, at the big tree…”

“What?”

Silence. How could she even explain? She never stopped to consider how fragile life could be. Everything was so different now that she knew.

Angelina looked at her daughter, awaiting an answer. But as she saw Sirma’s desolated eyes, her face paled, and she dropped to her knees in panic.

“What happened, Sirma?! Tell me what happened!”

She stared at her daughter in horror. The dark circles under her eyes had become more visible. Her shouting drew a few curious gazes from the neighbors, but at this moment, they didn’t exist for her. Sirma shivered at her mother’s intense reaction, ready to burst into tears all over again.

“I killed a bird,” she said.

Angelina waited to hear something else, something much more terrible than what her daughter confessed. But no, that was all. Her shoulders relaxed, and she let out a sigh of relief. She stood up, took Sirma by the hand, and walked her home, ignoring the still lingering stares of the neighbors.

That night, the village priest was a guest at the dinner table. Sirma’s family was quiet, as usual. There was only the clanking of plates and cutlery, and the loud chewing sounds her grandparents made. It used to be a lot livelier when Sirma’s brother was here.

Grandfather would tell stories about his adventurous youth when he was a haiduk. Grandmother would mention how his stories contradicted each other every time. Mother would laugh. Father would try to discuss something Grandfather would take offense to, and they’d start arguing. And Sirma’s big brother would talk about his latest hunt.

But those days had vanished.

“How’s your shooting?” Sirma’s grandfather broke the silence.

At first, Sirma’s father Strezo was the first to look up from his plate, thinking he was talking to him. But the old man was looking at Sirma instead. It didn’t look like he was scolding her, either. He was smiling, his eyes were full of excitement. That pride emerged from the little girl all over again, and Sirma returned the smile.

“I’m better than all the boys,” she said.

“Of course you are! Our family raises warriors!”

“Stop it, Dad.” Angelina glared at him.

The heavy air weighed on everyone once again. Well, everyone but their guest. The priest didn’t pay any attention, as he gobbled up his food. Every household in the village invited him to share their dinner table out of respect for his spiritual work. And he acted as though everyone owed him something. Sirma doubted this man was ever uncomfortable in his life.

“I killed a bird with the slingshot,” Sirma said.

“Well done!” the grandfather was quick to praise. “Birds are hard to shoot down.”

Not exactly what she hoped to hear. Sirma observed everyone else at the table, and it didn’t seem they cared about her horrible deed. No one was telling her she should be ashamed, and no punishment was coming, either. As comfortable as this acceptance was, it was heartbreaking to know that the loss of life simply didn’t matter.

“Ruzha cried,” Sirma said.

“Why?”

“Because the bird died,” she sighed and looked at her plate sadly. “I killed. God said not to kill, and I killed. What do I do now?”

Now, her family paid attention. Sirma’s parents and grandparents looked at each other, then all eyes moved on the priest. Surely, he could give a wise answer to this dilemma. But the man kept eating and ignoring everyone. Maybe his ears weren’t working.

Realizing they wouldn’t get anything from him, Strezo stepped in.

“That’s right, you shouldn’t kill,” he said. “You’re big and strong and the birds are weak. Strong people shouldn’t trample the weak to prove themselves. Strong people should protect. If you want to atone, be good and protect the weak.”

Sirma had no idea how much she needed to hear these words. It wasn’t just about the birds, this wisdom concerned everything. The strong should protect those who cannot protect themselves. It was so simple. Sirma was going to engrave these words in her heart and remember them for the rest of her life.

“It’s words like those that made your son leave home.” Angelina’s bitterness brought back the uncomfortable silence. Somehow, everything came back to Sirma’s missing brother.

“He’s a grown man,” Sirma’s grandfather said. “If he wants to be a haiduk, let him. I used to be a haiduk and look at me now.”

As a former haiduk, the old man had a lot to be proud of. Haiduks mostly lurked in the mountains and life there was harsh. It was cold most of the time. They had to hunt for their food. Wild animals could attack, not to mention they fought armed and dangerous outlaws.

Being a haiduk wasn’t for everyone. Many never returned home. Few survived. And even fewer made a family and lived to the respectful age of seventy-five as he did.

The priest put the cutlery down once his plate was empty, his mind finally present to join the conversation. Even from across the table, Sirma could smell her father’s homemade rakia on his breath.

“If someone slaps you, you should turn the other cheek,” he said, waving a finger. “Violence only causes more violence. It’s a waste to throw away a young life in the mountains. If that boy had read the Bible, he’d still be here.”

“He can’t read,” Strezo said, rubbing his left temple, knowing well what would follow.

“Ignorance is also a sin,” the priest said. “It’s never too late to learn literacy. Even for you. Why don’t I teach you, Strezo?”

“No.”

“May I learn to read?” Sirma asked.

The priest laughed. “You don’t need to.”

She pouted. There was a Bible in every house in Tresonche, but no one in the village knew how to read. In the past, the priest offered to teach the boys literacy, but when he asked for payment, the parents declined. In the end, the priest was the only literate person in the entire village.

Tonight, the moonlight sneaked through the cracks in the wooden window, playing on the wall as though beckoning little Sirma to go out to play. She had a hard time falling asleep after such a dynamic day. She learned so much.

Strong people protect.

Sirma knew what kind of person she wanted to be from now on.

She was close to drifting off to sleep when a sudden pounding noise brought her back to full wakefulness. Someone was at the door at such a late hour. Sirma sat up in bed and heard her father’s footsteps carefully walking to the front door. The door opened and an unknown male voice said something she couldn’t quite catch.
Silently, Sirma climbed out of bed and peeked behind the corner. Her father was standing at the door, blocking the visitor from view and holding a bludgeon in one hand.

“We couldn’t predict the ambush,” the unknown voice said. “I’m sorry, Strezo, your son is dead.”

The bludgeon dropped noisily to the floor. Sirma knew how death looked, but she had a hard time imagining her older brother in the place of the little helpless bird. He was strong, but the outlaws must have been stronger. And just as Ruzha cried for the bird, people would cry for him.

Death was the same everywhere.

Chapter 2

By the time she was seventeen, Sirma became aware of the expectations for the young people in Tresonche. The old folk never stopped discussing who should get married next, why some newlyweds did not have a child yet, or which stubborn girl didn’t want to accept any marriage proposal.

As a child, she never paid attention, but with each year, the focus of these discussions shifted to her and it became increasingly suffocating. Many of Sirma’s friends forced themselves to meet their parents’ expectations, mostly because the old folk were especially good at shaming those who weren’t eager to start a family.

No wonder Sirma’s parents were devastated when her brother left home. His funeral was the saddest day of her life. By now, she couldn’t even recall his face. Her brother was an embrace, a smile. He was the back of a dark silhouette, walking towards the blinding light of the door.

No one found out who defeated the local haiduk gang. The survivors, if there were any, had scattered into the mountains. Sirma’s grandfather said haiduks could be found everywhere—from here all the way to the Black Sea. But people continued accusing them of theft and murder and condemned anyone who dared to say a kind word about them.

This infuriated the old man.

“We need the haiduks!” he yelled in the street. “Who’s going to protect this village? Me? I’m old! And you’re spoiled! You don’t know the devastation that can fall upon us!”

He spent most of his free time like this, but no one took him seriously. The neighbors walked by, usually ignoring him, but sometimes laughing at him. Years ago, he used to tell stories about outlaws who ambushed the villages. The last time that happened was before Sirma’s parents were born. And no one fears something they haven’t seen.

Today was Sunday, so no work in the field. Sirma put on her favorite dress. Unlike her work clothes, the dress was snow white with red and black floral embroidery on its long sleeves. Over the dress, she put a red apron with a big flower on it—her personal creation. She was bound to attract a few jealous looks, but the day was too bright for old rag clothing.

The morning dew felt refreshing on her bare feet. Her family headed to the church. If they were late, the old-timers would never let them hear the end of it.

The men entered the church, while the women sat outside on the grass. It was much better to be in the sun than in the gloomy chapel, anyway. The priest started his sermon, though it barely reached the group of women outside. Nevertheless, they sat there humbly looking at the ground.

Angelina was lost in thought and Sirma suspected her grandmother was secretly taking a nap.

She heard rustling in the grass. Someone crawled behind her, stopped, crawled closer, then split into two people. Yana and Ruzha made themselves comfortable, one on Sirma’s left and the other on her right. They both had a serious look on their faces, backs straightened like good girls. It made her feel sloppy, so she straightened her back as well.

Yana, from her right, slowly leaned over and whispered, “We’re going to pick mushrooms after Mass.”

“And cranberries,” Ruzha added from the left.

“Count me in!”

“Hush!” a lady hissed at them.

The girls straightened their backs anew and quieted down, letting the barely audible singing voice from the church be heard again. A moment later, all three of them burst out laughing. The children followed their example. Most of them did not know why they were here, anyway.

“Shut up over there!” an old woman snapped at everyone. “Have some respect for the priest!”

It took too much effort to keep a straight face until the end of Mass. Once it was over, Sirma, Ruzha, and Yana ran out of the village, just like they did when they were little. Today, they traveled deeper into the woods than usual. The treetops were so thick at this time of the year that no sunshine graced the ground. It was cool and peaceful up in the mountains.

Ruzha stumbled upon the first cranberry bush. She picked a berry and tasted it for good measure. Then she started gathering more in her apron. She had turned into one of the most beautiful girls in the village. Her braided blonde hair flowed to her lower back, and as always, a wreath of wildflowers crowned the top of her head.

Yana was two years younger than Sirma and Ruzha. Unlike most girls, she didn’t bother to braid her long, raven hair, only tied and covered it with a white headscarf. Yana’s mother was the village expert on mushrooms, so she was following in her footsteps. At her age, she could already distinguish the delicious from the poisonous ones. Though she still asked her mother to take a look before cooking them. Just in case.

Sirma pulled herself up on a tree branch. Climbing trees felt right, no matter how much she grew up.

“Why don’t the boys hang out with us anymore?” she asked, looking at her friends from above. “I miss playing hide-and-seek.”

“They barely talk to us, and you want to play hide-and-seek?” Yana said. “Remember the other day? I thought some of them would faint.”

The other day, several girls gathered on a hill to talk and share a few secrets, all of them young, pretty, and unmarried. Of course, the young unmarried boys ended up looking at them from afar. The girls pretended they didn’t notice and waited for the boys to make a move.

And some of them did. One by one, they came, said hello, and left without another word. It was amusing the first few times, but later it became uncomfortable.

Childhood used to be so simple. But after a certain age, even talking to the opposite sex attracted all kinds of stares to the point where it felt like a crime. This made the boys nervous every time they neared a group of girls. And the girls didn’t make it any easier, as they always laughed at them.

“They’re not all shy,” Ruzha said. “Things are expected of them, just as things are expected of us. We have to help carry each other’s burdens. Only then can we live a happy and fulfilling life with our chosen one.”

This came out of nowhere. Yana and Sirma looked at each other cluelessly. Then, they looked back at Ruzha, who was back to picking berries, as though she hadn’t just exposed the juiciest gossip of the week.

“Who approached you?” Yana asked as she walked up to their blonde friend.

Sirma leaped from the tree branch, cornering her best friend from the other side. “Who was it?”

Ruzha’s cheeks flushed in a charming shade of pink. The double pressure from Sirma’s and Yana’s intense staring made her shrink a little. And a few seconds later, she cracked.

“It was Ognian! I’m marrying Ognian next Sunday!”

Sirma and Yana let out high-pitched shrieks, successfully scaring all the wildlife away. They jumped excitedly and hugged their friend from both sides, while the poor girl hid her face behind her hands in embarrassment. There was a smile on her face. She must have secretly wanted to share this with someone.

“Where did this happen? I never saw you together,” Sirma said.

“I’m not telling you that!” Ruzha scowled in outrage, but then her face softened and she looked away. “It was here in the woods.”

“What else did you do in the woods?” Yana asked, and Ruzha slapped her shoulder for the inappropriate question.

Sirma was used to seeing the boys stare at Ruzha from a distance. She attracted a lot of attention, but Ognian’s eyes noticeably lingered on her longer than everyone else, and more intensely than everyone else. Ruzha’s eyes were usually cast downward, as any humble maiden should, but even she stole the occasional glance at him.

Sirma should have figured it out sooner. The signs were right there before her.

“I can’t imagine our Ognian courting you,” she said.

“He’s more mature than the others,” Ruzha said with a bashful smile. “Please, don’t tell anyone. He hasn’t asked my father yet. He will tomorrow. Though, I don’t think Father will oppose it. So, on Sunday you can come to the wedding.”

“Don’t invite people before the wedding is announced. It’s bad luck,” said Yana.

“Everything is bad luck to you,” Sirma shook her head dismissively. “Love conquers all, even bad luck. And I’ll prove it. I’ll make you a wreath.”

She turned her back and started looking for wildflowers.

Ruzha chuckled. “You’re going to make me a wreath?”

Sirma was not the kind of girl who often spent her time on flowers. She didn’t decorate her hair with wildflowers, as Ruzha had done since she was a child. She knew how to make a wreath, although she didn’t always succeed. But now she had a good reason to make one brilliantly.

Sirma turned back to her friends and pointed to the sky. “God is my witness. If I succeed in the making of a wreath, you’ll have the most beautiful wedding with Ognian.”

“And if you fail?” Ruzha challenged.

“If I fail,” Sirma gave it a deep thought. “If I fail, then your wedding will be the second-best. After mine.”

With this, she ran looking for flowers. Her friends laughed behind her back. Ruzha and Yana continued to pick mushrooms and berries while Sirma gathered everything she needed.

She wasn’t famous for her skilled hands back in the village, and she didn’t want her friends to see her work. So, she hid behind a bush while making the wreath. The last thing she wanted was for Ruzha to come up behind her and teach her how to bend twigs. Sirma had to do it herself.

As she struggled, she imagined the wedding that awaited them next Sunday. So, Ruzha would be the first to get married. Someday soon, Sirma and Yana would have a wedding of their own, too. Then they would become young brides, and this wreath would mark the end of their childhood.

It was done. Sirma had done it. It was the finest wreath that had ever come from her hands. She even finished it faster than any other time. Maybe because this was the first time she had truly tried hard. Because she wanted Ruzha to have the best wedding with all her heart? She couldn’t wait to show it to her best friend.

A stick broke from behind. Ruzha and Yana froze. Slowly, they turned around to see three rough older men in dirty clothes looking at them like wolves would look at prey. Mushrooms and berries scattered at their feet as the girls dropped whatever was gathered and ran away.

“Si—”

Ruzha stopped before she uttered the whole name. Sirma was behind the bush and the unknown men did not see her yet. They must not see her. She looked at Yana and, without saying a word to each other, they knew they had to lead these men away from their friend.

Meanwhile, Sirma stood up and saw three strangers chasing her friends. They got caught. Ruzha and Yana struggled in their grasp and shouted in fear. One of the men glanced over his shoulder and Sirma quickly ducked back behind the bush.

Another one grabbed Ruzha’s chin and roughly turned her head to the left, then to the right, examining her face as if she were cattle. He nodded with approval.

“This one is for Hamza Bey,” he said.

He struck her across the face, and Sirma flinched at the sound of the blow. Ruzha went limp in the man’s arms and he tossed her over his shoulder like she was a rag doll.

Where were they taking her?

Sirma opened her mouth to shout after the man. Make him stop. Tell him to leave her best friend alone. But Sirma’s hand clasped firmly over her lips on instinct. Something primal told her to keep quiet and not to move. She watched as this stranger took Ruzha away. The trees hid them from view and Sirma’s friend was gone.

Meanwhile, a sharp tearing of fabric sounded through the air, and Yana screamed. She was struggling against the other two men who stayed behind. They shoved her to the ground, where she kicked one of them in the face.

She must have broken his nose because the man groaned and Sirma saw the blood on his face from a distance. The other one swung his large hand and nearly took Yana’s head off.

Blood spread on the grass, and Yana stopped struggling. Weakly, she tried to crawl away. The one with the broken nose grabbed her bare ankle with one hand, while the other covered her foot, and Sirma shuddered at the sound of a breaking bone. She covered her ears, barely keeping herself from screaming out in unison with her friend.

The sounds that followed tore her heart, resembling two vultures gnawing on something that wasn’t dead yet.

Sirma had to do something, but she couldn’t move. Her body and mind were frozen. And even if they weren’t, what would be the point? She couldn’t stop them. The village was too far away to get help. If the men see her, she would only share Yana’s fate.

But maybe this was precisely what she should do. The three girls came here together. They should be hurt equally. Living as the only survivor would be unbearable.

Sirma had to stand up right now.

But she wasn’t standing up. Her body didn’t listen to her and kept hiding where the beasts couldn’t see. Sirma couldn’t do it on her own. Yana had to do it. Sirma would let the monsters chew her up and spit her out for their enjoyment, but Yana had to point at her hiding spot.

She didn’t.

Once the men left, Sirma found the strength to stand up. It was amazing how slowly time could pass. The sun was still in the same place in the sky, but it felt like hours. Ruzha was gone. Yana was curled in a ball, with her dress torn and her ankle twisted in an unnatural position. Sirma rushed to her broken friend.

“I-I’m…” Her voice came out in stutters. “I’m so sorry!”

As she dropped to her knees, Yana grabbed onto Sirma’s dress and sobbed. Sirma hugged her tightly, shoving her face in her chest to muffle her voice. She was too loud; those monsters might come back. They could be hiding anywhere, watching, preparing to come out and strike again.

This was the same forest where the children of Tresonche played and laughed, and now it was such a frightening place. Sirma pulled away from Yana and turned her back.

“Climb on,” she said.

They weren’t staying there another minute. Sirma would take her friend home, whatever it took. Yana calmed down a little and moved closer to grab on Sirma’s shoulders. She howled in pain, as every movement made her twisted ankle hurt.

With great effort, Sirma rose to her feet with Yana on her back. Yana bit her shoulder to stifle a painful cry. Sirma gritted her teeth, a part of her wishing Yana could bite harder.

She looked around to make sure no one was coming and headed towards the village.

At first, walking wasn’t that hard. Sirma was used to carrying water from the river, so she wasn’t weak. But the distance was the problem. Yana grew heavier with each step. It wasn’t long before Sirma’s legs trembled under the load.

She leaned on a tree for a few seconds to catch her breath. Sweat was making her hair stick to her forehead. Sirma used the break to adjust her hold under Yana’s legs. The last thing she wanted was to drop her and give her more pain than she already endured. In the meantime, Yana sobbed quietly in her ear.

“I’m sorry,” Sirma said. “I couldn’t move… I’m sorry.”

“At least one of us was saved,” Yana said.

These words were more heart-wrenching than her sobs. Sirma didn’t deserve this comfort. It would have been easier to be hated for escaping unhurt.

Sirma pushed herself off the tree and continued onward. Her legs were shaking, her arms ached, the strain even made her head hurt. With every new step, her legs threatened to buckle under the weight. But if she gave up now, it would be a double betrayal.

Tresonche was close. In a few more steps, Sirma left the shadow of the forest and the sun shone on the girls’ faces. They could see the roofs of the closest houses. They’d almost made it.

But then, Sirma felt Yana tensing on her back. Her sobs stopped, she didn’t even breathe. Suddenly, the girl struggled out of Sirma’s hold, stepping on her good foot, and violently shoved her friend into a thorny bush.

Sirma hissed and pushed herself up on her hands as the bush scratched her all over. Then she saw Yana running back into the woods.

“Where are you going?” Sirma yelled. “Come back!”

She rose on her feet, only to fall back into the thorns. Her braid had tangled in the bush and this time, a thorn barely missed her eye. Untangling it was impossible. She couldn’t even see what she was doing. In the end, Sirma growled in frustration and harshly yanked the bush off, plucking a large strand of her hair.

By the time she was free, Yana had an impressive lead. She stared ahead without seeing anything, carelessly stepping on her broken ankle and barely registering any pain.

Sirma ran after her friend as fast as she could. She didn’t need much to catch up to her, but just as she was about to grab her, Yana tripped and slithered down a steep slope. Sirma stopped at the edge and watched her friend rolling downward, hitting rocks and exposed tree roots, leaving trails of red. Yana stopped at the bottom of the creek and didn’t move again.

Sirma stood there, waiting, hoping to see her friend get up on her own. But she lay motionless, her face shoved in the dirt.

Sirma took a deep breath and carefully climbed down. Her heart raced with every step and her hands trembled. Tears tried to bead into her eyes, but she forced them down. There was nothing for her to cry about. Only weak people cry. The strong ones protect. They bring their injured friends back to their families.

Once Sirma reached the bottom of the trench, she fell on her knees and gently placed her hands on her back.

“Yana,” she called quietly.

No response. Sirma carefully turned her friend on her back, only to reveal a head covered in blood and lifeless, wide-open eyes.

Dead bodies were so alike. Be it a dead bird, or a dead person—a shell that once contained a soul gave off a dreadful lack of presence. It awakened one of the most fundamental instincts to put as much distance from it as possible. Every child could recognize death.

Something inside Sirma broke, and she screamed for the whole village to hear. She ran through the forest with all her might and once she was out in the open. She dropped on all fours, gasping for air. Familiar faces gathered around her, asking what had happened. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t stop crying. She just pointed to the woods.

Find the full book, on the following retailers.