Chapter 1: Hunting

“I don’t care if you spent one hundred hours hand-carving that bow. In fact, I don’t care if you thought of me every moment you spent designing it. I refuse to touch it!” I insisted as I shoved the offending object away. I tossed my head to the side, refusing to maintain eye contact with the bow’s creator.

He had, after all, dragged me into the middle of nowhere despite the fact that the autumn morning had turned my nose into a dreadful shade of pink and my breath billowed in white clouds. As if the cold was not bad enough, he had the audacity to wake me before dawn to go on this “hunting” trip.

I had rejoiced when he’d signalled a cessation of our peregrination, thinking that a warm breakfast might yet be had. But instead of offering nourishment, he had unhooked his cloak to reveal a short bow strapped to his back. Shrugging off the small quiver that had remained concealed alongside the short bow, he placed it beside me.

It was then that I knew this was a trap.

It did not take him long to string the bow and test its draw. Satisfied with his work, he had smiled and attempted to hand me his gift.

There was no way I was going to accept it.

“I’ve had enough of bows,” I elaborated. “And you should know that.”

His smirk never left his visage as I crossed my arms, raising my cold nose into the air.

I don’t know why he always persisted with this bow nonsense. We both knew that I was far more stubborn than he was. I wouldn’t yield.

His wrist flicked. Something hurtled toward me. My hand snapped out to halt its trajectory. As soon as my hand closed around the bow, I cursed my reflexes.

My eyes flashed at him and I wanted to throw the weapon down…

But I couldn’t bear to damage it. Even though it was a spiteful object, it had been artfully made.

“Take it back,” I insisted, shoving it towards him.

I couldn’t use the same gimmick on him, if I tossed the bow at him, he would let it drop and the guilt of damaging it would flay my conscience.

Instead of accepting it back, he fled away from me. When he reached a tree, his foot planted on the bark and he leapt upwards, rebounding so that his hand could reach one of the lower branches. In a fluid motion, he swung himself up onto the branch and then began to ascend.

“Where do you think you are going?” I called up to him. “Get back down here!”

He never bothered to reply. Merely reached a satisfactory perch and began to unpack his satchel. I couldn’t see what he was so busy with, but he didn’t take long to complete it. He strung a rope from his perch. I peered at the end of the rope trying to decipher what he was plotting. Something dangled from the end of that strand; it spun as the rope was jostled about.

My eyes went wide as I recognized what he was lowering. It was a very large target.

“I’m not doing it,” I insisted. “You are never going to make me. Every time I handle a bow, I get injured. My pride cannot take that sort of humiliation!”

His eyes met mine and I saw his smile renew. He shrugged in a carefree manner and then leaned back against the tree in a lackadaisical posture.

It galled me that he had grown so bold as to defy me. I refused to be taken in by his machinations. “You can stay in that tree all you like,” I shouted to him. “I’m leaving.”

I may have been rubbish at archery, but I knew a thing or two about tracking. Not real tracking, but I could at least decipher my tracks in the damp autumn ground.

I matched my boots to my former steps and traced the line of their path. Or, at least, I would have if there had been a single trajectory to follow. Alas, my prints were all over the place: moving east to west; north to south; northeast to southwest; and northwest looping back around northwest again.

I cursed under my breath as I realised that in my morning lethargy, I had not noticed that he’d tracked us through this part of the woods half a dozen times. If I was going to escape him I’d have to pick a set of prints and follow it however many times it looped until it led back home. In the meantime, he’d be in that tree, watching me loop through the woods over and over again until I caught the true path home.

I felt my face rouge with frustration. Then my stomach gurgled with hunger and I knew he’d won – he had my breakfast in the satchel on his back. The very satchel he’d carried up into the mammoth tree he’d ascended. “Now I know why you offered to carry the supplies,” I muttered as my nose crinkled in a frown.

Six months ago, I would not have tolerated such belligerence. I would not have called up to my lofty companion and spoke as I did, “I concede, but you get one quiver worth of practice and that’s all. Then you’re making me breakfast!” But then, six months ago the man in the tree had been nothing to me but a customer. I hadn’t even known his name then; I just called him “Tunic” like the rest of my friends.

Now, however, his existence had become something more than a friend. Not able to bear the embarrassment of self-inflicted public humiliation, I had fled my hometown only to be pursued by the persistent Bramwell. I had befriended him as a balm, or perhaps in spite of, the rocky relationship between myself and my childhood friend Ladd. I regret to say I had even considered my patronizing affections to Tunic – for he insisted I call him that – as something of a charitable work. But when I fled my home in shame, Tunic abandoned his own responsibilities to accompany me. Neither demanding my return nor dissuading me from my suicidal notions to combat a monster, I eventually conceded to his companionship. It was a decision that affected the entire province. Blundering as our efforts had been, we unleashed the very monster we sought to destroy. And though it was I who wished to end the villain, it was Tunics’s unique partial-elven heritage that allowed him to slay the dragon. In the end, Tunic and I remained in our hometown to resume life. Caught in the mediocrity of day-to-day happenings, we had easily slid into a pattern of stagnancy and so remained as something other than friends, but at the same time not.

Clutching the bow between my legs, I ran my hands through my hair, grabbing hold of my long bangs. In a fit, I had sheared off my hair at shoulder length. Only my bangs had retained their original length, now twice the length of the rest of my hair. I braided those long strands and tossed then to the back of my head, out of my vision. It was, by no means, an attractive style. But it had become my own and I was proud of it. Plus, it kept my peripheral vision clearer than a curtain of hair.

I nocked my first arrow – muttering a stream of unladylike terms – took aim and fired. That I had spent long moments considering my target, gauging the distance, and testing the wind was not evident in my accuracy. The projectile whizzed past the target, not even hitting the girth of the mighty tree Tunic had climbed.

I took up the next arrow and fired without aiming, determined to end this trial hastily. There was a pop as the arrow grazed the target.

“No way!” I exclaimed, suddenly excited. “Did you see that!?” I called up the tree.

I grabbed another arrow and breathed in, allowing my shot to fire as I exhaled. It missed the target but hit the tree. It was not exactly what I was hoping for, but better than I expected. Trying to recall precisely how I had drawn the last two shots, I aimed the next arrow. It fluttered to the ground near the tree. I was probably getting worse but the illusion of victory was addictive. I nocked my next arrow without delay. Another miss. Two more misses and then one shot planted itself into the tree just below the swaying target.

“Can you try to still the target?” I called to my friend. The wind had picked up and it caused a pendulum motion, tossing the heavy target back and forth. Being able to hit a stationary target was hard enough. A mobile one was likely impossible. And yet, I had grazed it.

There were only a few more arrows in my small quiver. I wasted another one but managed to refocus myself for the shot after that. It hit the tree exactly at the target’s height; if the target hadn’t been swaying, the arrow would have found a home near the middle. I was nearly jubilant with my progress.

The world faded from my perception as I concentrated on the next arrow. It was my second last. I emulated my previous actions, waiting for the target to swing back to where the former shot had penetrated the tree.

My fingers loosed the feathered shaft. It hurtled forward and a satisfactory crack signalled my victory. The force of the impact spun the unbalanced target as I leapt up in victory. “Did you see that!?” I called out. “I hit it! I actually hit it!” My feet took a few light steps as I danced around triumphantly. My excitement was only slightly hampered as I considered the final arrow in my quiver. Did I attempt to recreate that miracle or did I let that triumph remain the end of my archery career?

I was still pondering that dilemma when it approached. Larger than a normal wolf and far more vicious, the dire wolf was the spawn of some vengeful magic-user. This was the real reason Tunic and I had travelled into no-where first thing in the morning; we were determined to eliminate the threat of this creature. Dire wolves were bred to not only destroy humans, but also to terrorize them. And it didn’t matter how many of them I had seen, they still elicited a frisson of anxiety.

Silent in its steps, this wolf could have assaulted me from behind and I would have been unaware of its presence. But that was not the way a dire wolf hunted; they desired screaming, squealing, trembling prey. No, this wolf had not snuck up on me; it emerged from the woods at a sauntering pace, sneering at my missed arrows.

As it neared, I could smell the sickly sent of blood and decay that seeped from the beast like miasma. My hand rose towards my mouth as I gagged. In hindsight, I should have been drawing my last arrow. But, even after months spent hunting with Tunic, I lacked a warrior’s instincts. Not that being a hunter was my role in this drama. I was the bait. My job was to scream and flee as if my life depended on it; it wasn’t a hard role to get into.

Preparing for my debut, I sucked in my breath. I traced out the course of my flight; the ground was even and, aside from a slight dampness, tractable. It would be easy to scamper away in our game of cat and mouse.

Or, at least, it would have been if I had not underestimated my opponent.

Before I let slip my first squeal, the dire wolf attacked.

I hardly knew how to react. This was not how it was supposed to be! I stumbled backward, tripping on my own feet. Rolling to my hands and knees, I scrambled away from the monster. A real scream escaped my lips as I turned towards the predator and found it eye to eye with me.

Its fanged mouth opened as it snapped its head towards my neck. My hands rose up in defense, not that they could stop that wretched muzzle from ripping out my throat.

My eyes closed.

Hot liquid gushed over face and the hands protecting it.

The dire wolf whimpered and then I felt its weight drop on my lap. The shock of the touch jolted my senses. I shoved its heavy head off my lap and rolled away. I sprang to my feet and crouched in a defensive posture.

The dire wolf didn’t move.

I felt my knees give way as I sank to the ground again. There was an arrow lodged deeply in the wolf’s eye. I let myself fall forward, placing my face into the soft cold earth and uttered a few unladylike terms.

Behind me, Tunic dropped to the ground from his lofty perch. Leaves crunched as he neared. I turned my stained face towards him as he came to stand between myself and the dire wolf. His bow was drawn as he shuffled towards the predator.

It was a useless precaution on his part, the dire wolf had perished the moment the arrow had pierced it. But Tunic was never one to relax his guard until he was certain danger had passed. He prodded the deceased beast with his foot – arrow ready to be fired at the first flinch.

I shut my eyes and focused on calming the short gasping my body had taken to doing instead of breathing.

Tunic and I had undertaken the task of hunting dire wolves and over the course of the winter we had managed to fell a couple dozen of them. As such, I had begun to grow confident in the wolves’ strategy. However, the suddenness of this wolf’s attack was startling. I focused on my breathing, trying to calm myself.

I’ll not deny I felt an unjust sense of outrage at Tunic for allowing me to fall, yet again, into such a defenceless position. Even though it was I who volunteered for the role and it was I who had scolded him when he had grown concerned from the unpredictable nature of our task. I trusted him to protect me and intellectually I knew nothing ill had befallen me, but still I could not release my anxiety.

I felt the pressure of Tunic’s hand on my shoulder. In truth, his hand was what stilled the remainder of fear that was flooding through me. I took a deep breath and felt my heart slow to a normal pace. But I did not acknowledge his presence, keeping my head down.

I suppose his concerned gesture should have pacified me – and it did, to some extent. But rather than evaporating, my fear had transformed into something else. I could feel it welling just below the surface – a lecture was coming. I bit my lip trying to contain the brobdingnagian pressure to scold. Old habits began to surface and I sought to fight them. Tunic was wise though, he would know I was trying to contain myself. He would know that this level of anxiety would have strained my self-control. He would ensure he didn’t push me beyond my–

Tunic’s hand withdrew from my shoulder and I lost it.

My eyes flashed, a raging conflagration directed at him. “You!” I pointed my finger at his nose. “How could you bring me out here into the middle of nowhere first thing in the morning and deprive me of breakfast? How dare you trick me into this archery ploy and make me embarrass myself!” I swiped my sleeve across my forehead; the wolf’s blood on my brow had started to stick in the lines of my wroth. “Why didn’t you tell me a dire wolf was nearby? Why are you not making me breakfast right now? And why is it so cold? Gah! How could you make me use a bow again? And how dare you hide in that tree!” The words just flowed from my mouth without ceasing. Tunic took it all without flinching so I just kept going. “And, most importantly,” I prodded his chest with my accusatory finger, “you haven’t praised me for hitting your awful target!”

I shoved him backward and grunted in disdain. Then I rose and stomped away from him, tossing my hair.

He didn’t let me escape far, his arm wrapped around my shoulder bringing me to a halt. I crossed my arms in defiance, but my heart had leapt at his touch.

I could hear the smile in his voice as he said my name, “Nari?” His voice was soft as he spoke and his breath tickled my ear.

“What?” I responded vindictively, allowing none of the sensitivity he showed for our near-proximity to inhibit the volume of my tone.

With a slight pressure on my back, like that of a dancer guiding his partner, he spun us towards the arrow-embedded target.

“If you’re going to apologize, I won’t have it.” I scolded with ersatz frustration. “It’s too late now. I’m never going to use a bow again. You won’t be able to make me.” It piqued me that I was aware of everywhere we were touching: his arm around shoulder, his hand on my back, and his face inches from mine. “And I know I’m just saying things, but I’m angry so you have to put up with it. It’s your fault.” It wasn’t. “And I’m not going to forgive you.” I already had. “You are so mean to me.” He never was. “And…” I trailed off, feeling the need to scold dissipating with his patience. “And why won’t you say something?” I ended my tirade.

I held my tongue – Tunic rarely spoke without great consideration for his words. Thankfully, he didn’t make me wait long, he merely paused to ensure I was finished my farrago of accusations.

Before he spoke, the hand he had placed on my back was removed. I felt its absence for but a moment and then it traced along my hairline, tucking loose strands behind my ear. He stepped into the space immediately before me and caught my gaze in his own. “Nari,” he said in his soft voice, “you are amazing.” Then he pressed a whisper of a kiss on my cheek.

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