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Her father did not mention her extended absences throughout the days, or the food that began to appear on their once barren table. Her mother would worry, but once Tashiya reassured her that she was fine and unharmed, the worry lines would fade.

Tashiya knew that when she entered the woods, she would be safe. Charon had told her that he had marked her as protected that first night, and that no creature of his woods would harm her. The wolves watched from the treeline, but never in hunger. Instead, they would tilt their heads at her, and sniff at her tracks. Never a growl, never a snarl. She had once left two rabbits that Charon had gotten her behind in the snow for the pack, and she was graced with harmonious howls as she scuttled away.

Charon gave her extra meat after that.

Charon, the guardian of the woods, had become an easy and close friend to her. He always greeted her in the woods when she was far enough in, and would show her the hidden wonders, or let her warm in his home.

The one day, she showed him how she carved it. The next day, he showed her a nest of fox kits.

“You are a curious creature, Charon,” she told him once with a smile. “You are also by far the kindest.”

He responded with a low purr and pointed at her. “And the same can be said for you, sweet Tashiya.”

Weeks, and then months flew by quickly. He told her many secrets of the woods, and in return she would tell him of the village and all of it’s wonderful inhabitants. Their bonding was easy and strong, with conversation and emotions easily shared between the two of them. She spent what time she could in the woods with Charon on his patrols and general walking, but some days she stayed home. These were the days her father was home as well - she could not meet Charon in the woods with her father’s watchful eyes on her.

And then, Tashiya grew ill. Her cough was violent, and her fever was high. She grew dizzy the moment she stood. For days, she laid in bed as her mother cared for her. At night, she heard through her daze the mournful call of wolves echo from the forest.

It was the sixth day of her sickness that brought her father into her room with something clutched within his white knuckled fist.

Her mother was frazzled behind her, her face pale in fear. When Tashiya realized what was within his hand, she felt bile rise in her throat.

Her basket. The one she lost in the woods that very first night. It was filled with herbs and berries of all kinds, dried leaves she knew hung from Charon’s rafters for soothing teas.

“Who have you been sneaking off into the woods to, Tashiya?” Her father’s voice was low and dark, and she wanted to shrink at his glare. “Don’t. Lie. I am not dumb. I know how you disappear behind my back.”

“Father, it’s not-”

“Not what I think?” He cut her off and threw the basket to the ground, berries scattering and rolling around. He advanced and her mother whispered a pitiful ‘no!’ Tashiya backed up as far as she could from his advancing, but his fist closed around her nightgown and jerked her forward. “You are my property, Tashiya. You know the rules, don’t you?”

“Father! I-I promise it’s not like that!”

He snarled and jerked her again. “I am no fool, stupid girl! I told you that you aren’t allowed to accept any courtings. You are mine, and I will give you away as is intended! You come home with bounties of food during a famine, you disappear for hours, and now, you receive gifts on our own doorstep?!”

He shoved her hard against her headboard and she cried. His face was red with anger. “If you try to sneak behind my back one more time, I’ll cut your face and make you hideous. Is that what you want? No man will want you, except for the one I sell you to.”

He released her with one more shove and stormed from the room. As soon as the front door slammed, her mother rushed forward and gathered the sick and sobbing Tashiya into her arms.