I hate kisses from Tunic; they’re always so unfair. My skin enflames and my thoughts freeze while my heart undulates so fiercely I fear it will stop. And just when I think I can survive his nearness, he withdraws and I wonder if I can persevere in his absence.
Then he takes off his hat and runs his hands through his hair, a blush rising to his cheeks with a maidenly modesty that always leaves me with the notion that I was the one violating him.
And, of course, by then I want to.
It’s so infuriating.
“Don’t do that,” I scolded.
“Sorry,” he apologized while placing his cap back on his head and subtly ensuring the tips of his pointed ears remain nestled under it. His eyes met mine and he realised I had deduced his attempts at concealment; embarrassed, he briskly turned away.
I felt a chill as he left. Without thinking, my hand touched my cheek, feeling the lingering warmth of his lips.
Realising the childishness of my action, I snapped my wrist down to my side. Forcing myself to regain my composure, I pushed past Tunic and trudged over to the dire wolf corpse, anxious to focus my mind on something else. I prodded the wolf with my foot. “It’s a lot younger than the others we found,” I observed.
Tunic nodded his agreement.
“Does the wolf’s youth bear positive or negative consequences for our efforts?” I inquired.
He shrugged to indicate his ignorance on the matter and began to unpack the straps from his pack
“May I assist you in anything?”
Tunic smirked and shook his head. He withdrew the flute from his belt and rocked it back and forth in way of an explaining his rejection of my offer.
“Yes, yes, of course.” I sighed. This was, after all, not the first time we had to cart a dire wolf back to Kennbridge. Tunic would be summoning the horse – a vile ungulate who would not tolerate my presence, even at the cost of disobeying its beloved master. At such a time, my duty was to retreat and allow the prideful beast the sole attention of my companion. I trotted off to collect my arrows while Tunic played a short summoning melody on his flute.
The horse was never far from its master; it had even followed him to Keegan Heights when we had ventured there. It trotted over, ignoring my distant figure. “Hi horse,” I vociferated with the intent of disturbing the sable mare. She snorted her displeasure and then knelt beside Tunic, easing his work in securing the wolf to its back. The horse watched with haughty eyes as I gathered my failed shots.
With the quiver replenished and Tunic tightening the final strap on the horse’s back, I skittered out of sight; with silent steps I approached the kneeling horse. My hand snapped forth, looping the bow and quiver to one of the straps securing the wolf – the bow would not be coming home with me. But there was scarcely time to release the quiver before the horse leapt to its feet and bolted from me. Chuckling at its displeasure, I remarked, “I love you too.”
Tunic chuckled, his eyes lingering on my face.
“You need a new horse,” I remarked crossly.
Tunic rolled his eyes at my not-infrequent complaints about his animal. However, as an appeasement for his taciturn companion, he tossed me a parcel.
I’ll not deny that Tunic had grown better at understanding my moods. When I opened the parcel, my irritation dissipated. There, in that package, was the reason I had been convinced to march out into the woods hours before I needed to awaken. “Oh, yes!” I exclaimed, “This makes up for your cruelty,” I informed him.
His arm hooked into mine and began to lead me away. I suppose he realised I would have been content to perch right where I was until the contents of the parcel were consumed. Fresh scones and jam, there could be no greater surprise than that! And not one or two, but half a dozen. I could have ate them all, but deigned to share at least one.
“Jam?” I asked Tunic as I selected one for him. He answered with a nod. Careful not to spill the gelatinous substance, I prepared his breakfast. He accepted the pastry, releasing my arm. I smothered my own scone in jam and attempted to keep pace with him. After all, a good scone deserves one’s full attention. This nonsense of walking about was unworthy of such a treat.
Tunic declined a second scone, but I could not resist – not that I had any intention of surrendering the remaining ones to him. When I had finished my second, I safely stowed the leftovers into my pouch.
“We’re returning home along a different way,” I noted once my attention was removed from the comestibles. “This route is less circuitous, I have noted. Perhaps you had sought to execute your archery ploy by muddling our tracks? Or did you know there was a dire wolf nearby?”
Tunic shrugged, and I figured it was his voiceless way of saying, “You’ll never know.”
“I shall remain alert for further treachery,” I warned him.
We reached the top of a hill and our lofty position granted a vantage point. “Is that the road to Oxtown?” I inquired of the oft-travelled dirt path ahead of us. Tunic pointed in the direction of the town I had just mentioned. Having travelled there once, I recognized its walls in the distance. “And look there,” I gestured to a covered wagon moving along the trail. “Isn’t that Weston? Is he finally returning?”
Weston and I had a colourful history. I’d met him when I was attempting to evade Tunic during my flight from Kennbridge. Figuring a caravan was the safest way to escape pursuit, I had been hired by a clothing merchant in Oxtown to accompany Weston north with a cart of merchandise. Weston had been led to believe I was protection for him. When Weston and I parted at Dinsmore, he joined a group of refugees that sought safety in Kennbridge. He settled in my hometown and never left. Resuming his trade of hauling cargo, Weston became an asset to our community. Were it not for his frequent trips to the other remaining settlements, Kennbridge would not have recovered at its current rate. But Weston had left weeks before on a regular supply run and not returned.
Peering at the hunched over driver and recognizing his bulk, I charged down the hill hoping to intercept the wagon before it rolled by. “Weston!” I called, my voice undulating with my rapid steps. “Weston!”
My efforts were rewarded as my friend heard my cries. He pulled on the reigns and waited for my approach. “Miss Nari, I am glad to see you!” He greeted.
“Weston!” I shouted again as I grabbed the sides of the carriage and threw myself up onto the driver’s bench. Wrapping my arms around him in an embrace, I said, “We’re so glad to see you safe. You can’t just disappear like that without telling anyone!”
Weston was pink with embarrassment when I pulled myself from the embrace. “I’m sorry Miss Nari. But something came up and I–“
He wasn’t able to finish; there was a rustle from the curtains covering the entrance to the wagon. I was startled as a head popped out from the wagon’s enclosure. “Wessy, why did we stop?” said the child whose face protruded from the wagon.
As if that were not startling enough, the shrill voice that followed the girl’s sudden appearance was enough to elicit a spasm of surprise. “Get back inside Michelle,” the voice scolded from inside the wagon. “The wind is getting in!”
Paying no heed to the cross voice, the little girl crawled out of the wagon to seat herself between Weston and I. She turned on her seat and pinched the enclosure curtains closed. “No more wind,” she announced.
Having forgot my presence entirely, the girl and Weston exchanged threatening glances. “Shell, I told you to stay in the back,” Weston glared.
Alas, this girl was well trained. The hostility drained from her expression as she changed tactics. Her face softened and her cheeks grew rosy as she spoke in a sweet voice, “I wanted to know why we’d stopped.”
Weston rolled his eyes, knowing he’d been outmanoeuvred. Who could remain angry at that sugary face? “You always want to know what’s going on,” he muttered.
“It’s boring sitting in there with nothing to do but stare at Gertie,” the girl commented; she kicked her short legs back and forth as she spoke.
No longer able to contain my curiosity, I interrupted their parlance. Having deduced the identity of the spritely lass so amicably seated next to me, I desired confirmation of my assumption. “Is this, perhaps, your sister?” I inquired, knowing that Weston bore the guardianship of his orphaned sister.
Clearing his throat, Weston made the introduction, “Miss Nari, this is my sister Michelle.”
“Hi,” the little girl said without a hint of coyness. She grabbed my hand in hers and stroked the back of it tenderly. “You’ll be my friend, right?” It was a bold move for one so young. Testing her resolve, I stared into her eyes, feigning severity. She emulated my seriousness, remaining unblinking. I felt the corners of my mouth rise as I put my other hand on hers. I wore a grin by the time I spoke. “Of course,” I promised. Then facing Weston I said, “I like her.”
The girl giggled at our exchanged. I caught Weston’s eye and we shared a smile. When the laughter passed, he asked “What are you doing out of town this morning? Are you returning to Kennbridge?” He gestured to the reins, “Do you want a ride?”
“Stay with us!” Michelle pulled my hand close.
Apparently, my newfound friendship was not wholly appreciated by the third wagon traveller. “Shell, that’s enough of your foolishness. Get back into the wagon before you grow ill,” the gravelly voice in the wagon called.
“Ah, yes,” Weston scratched the back of his head as though he just remembered their other traveller. “And that is Michelle’s nanny. She was a spinster friend of my mother’s,” He leaned in closer to me and concluded the introduction with a whisper, “We call her Gertie.”
“Nice to meet you Gertie,” I called back towards the wagon, though I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be a pleasant acquaintance.
“That’s not the proper way to introduce oneself,” Gertie snapped.
I bit my lip to silence a chuckle. “Is she scolding me?” I whispered conspiratorially. “She’s still hiding in the back.”
“Never mind Gertie,” Michelle told me. “She’s just old and grumpy.”
“Shell,” Weston said her name with a hint of disapproval. But only just a hint.
There was a brief silence and in the quiet I heard Weston’s stomach gurgle. My brow rose. Weston was never one to permit a sensation of hunger. “Have you breakfasted?” I inquired.
“No!” Michelle groaned. “And I’m starving.”
“I told you,” Weston muttered to his sister, “I don’t have anything to give you.”
I sighed. So much for my plan to relish the rest of my scones. I turned to Tunic, who, like my shadow, had come to a halt beside the carriage. “Do you mind if I share our scones?”
He gestured with his hands to tell me I was free to do as I pleased.
I suppose Weston had not noticed my silent companion for he started when I turned towards Tunic. “Bramwell, what are– how long have– err… how are you?” He stammered. I thought it peculiar, it was not often that Weston fumbled his words around Tunic. The two had been amiable for as long as I had known.
But Weston was not the only one startled by Tunic’s presence. Little Michelle froze up. Her hand tightened on mine, her fingernails digging into my flesh. “Hey, hey” I soothed as I attempted to relieve her grip on my hand. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. This is just my friend Tunic.”
“What’s going on?” Gertie called from behind the curtain. “Are we besieged? Is Michelle safe?” Despite the worry in her voice, the lack of movement in the wagon betrayed that she had not even arisen.
“Here,” I continued, having finally freed my hand. I placed a scone in Michelle’s empty palm and offered her jam and the small knife we had used earlier to spread it. Though her hand closed on the food, Michelle’s eyes did not leave Tunic. He waved shyly to her and she ducked behind my arm.
“Do you want to climb up too?” Weston asked, though the bench could hardly support us all. “I could give you a ride back to town, if that is where you are headed.”
Tunic shook his hand indicating a negative. And then he gestured for us to proceed.
Weston looked to me for instructions. But before Weston had time to lead his horses forward, Tunic jogged up to them. He held out a hand to the creatures and they moved alongside him.
As our trek to Kennbridge resumed, I passed Weston a scone. His eyes glistened as though he could weep with gratitude. “They’re from Tunic,” I informed him.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Weston cried. “I was starving.”
Raising my voice I called into the wagon, “Gertie, do you want a scone?”
“Is there butter?” She rasped back.
“I suppose it is bearable. Very well, you may bring me one.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You can get it yourself,” Weston instructed. “Don’t be bothering Miss Nari.”
I can’t be certain, but I think Gertie groaned something about the injustice. Nevertheless, the wagon shuddered as she moved towards the front and then a hand was thrust from the cover of the wagon. I placed the scone in her hand. She pulled it back. “I thought you said there was jam,” she complained.
“It’s coming,” I told her as I passed the jar and knife into the concealed area. There was no gratitude from Gertie.
With the unpleasant Gertie grumblig from within the wagon, I thought it best to ignore her dissatisfaction through conversation. “So, Weston is your sister–“ I was about to begin, but Weston hastily diverted me.
“Were you hunting this morning, Nari?”
Not accustomed to Weston being that impertinent, I gave him a quizzical look, but answered his question. “Among other things.”
“Great hunting weather today, neh? Lovely weather… yes, yes. Such great weather.”
“I suppose… hey, Weston–”
“Nari, did you see the parade just a while ago?”
“There was a train of carriages bearing the king’s banners that passed us. All dressed in blue, they were. It was quiet the sight. I’ve seen such a passing in Dinsmore before, but not in the outlying communities.”
“Well, I’m sure we will hear of it when we get back.” I smiled. Even with its newfound notoriety, Kennbridge was largely uneventful. As far south as we were, those bearing the king’s banners only passed through to get to the coast. We mattered little on the grand scale of things. Just another back-woods community to gather taxes from.
“So–“ I was about to ask a question when, again, Weston interrupted me.
“Did you catch one, then? A dire wolf, I mean.” He asked, a hint of desperation in his voice.
That was enough. It was not like Weston. He had always shown me some measure of deference; clearly, something troubled him.
“Is everything alright?” I asked him in a don’t-you-dare-deny-it tone.
“Uh… yeah, of course,” he lied.
“You’re acting peculiar.”
“Aw, don’t mind him.” Michelle piped in. Her voice was quieter than it had been earlier and a bit less confident. And though she spoke to me, her eyes remained fixated on Tunic. “He’s just nervous around pretty ladies.”
“Shell!” Weston protested.
He wasn’t the only one distressed by the little girl; the hidden traveller called from within the carriage, “You’ve had your fun now Michelle. Get back here before you get a chill! I’ll not be taking care of a sick child.”
“I don’t want to,” Michelle whined. “I’m warm enough here with Weston and Nari.”
“Don’t you be a bother,” Gertie persevered.
“I want to see our new home–“ Weston’s hands closed over his sister’s mouth, silencing her.
“Shell!” Weston exclaimed as his eyes flicked to Tunic.
I crossed my arms. “Weston,” I addressed him with a disapproving tone. “What are you hiding?”
“Nothing… that is to say, I, uh, I… Well, I didn’t know what to do. I received a letter from Gertie saying they were being removed from their residence so I went to fetch them. But, I didn’t… That is to say, I…”
“You don’t have anywhere for them to stay,” I finished for him, tired of his stammering.
My eyes flicked to Tunic. Weston was, after all, staying with him. But while a single man might permit another single man to stay with him in tight quarters, what would the likelihood of that man permitting a whole family to move into his one-room home? No wonder Weston had grown nervous seeing Tunic.
If Tunic had noticed our attention to him, he did not display it. He merely continued leading the horses.
“We cannot continue living in this wagon,” Gertie piped in her opinion. “It’s no way to survive.”
Weston’s shoulders slumped, for her knew he had not the money for a home and even if he did there was none to spare. Too many had been damaged by the monster. Almost every home had taken in a few extra residents until new structures were built.
“What’s wrong, Wessy?” Michelle asked.
“Yosh!” I cried, appointing myself to the challenge. “Don’t worry Weston! I shall aid you in your quest.”
“Eh? Miss Nari, there is no need to trouble–”
“Nonsense! You need help and I hate when people ignore the suffering of others. Leave it to me.” I know I was being arrogant, but this was something that I, as a lifetime resident of Kennbridge, could do for a friend. I’d find somewhere for Michelle and Gertie to stay, I was certain of it.
“Really, Miss Nari, we’ll–“
“Can we stay with you?” Michelle piped in.
“Honey, I wish you could. But my friend Addie and her mom are staying with us. We’re tripping over each other as is.”
“Oh,” Michelle sighed with a downcast expression.
“But fear not, for the great Nari will find you a home! Oh look,” I pointed ahead. “We’re almost in Kennbridge. It’s just around that corner.”
“Really?” Michelle teetered forward as though leaning would bring her there faster. “What’s it like? Is it big?”
“Ahahaha,” I chuckled, “No, Kennbridge is a small town.”
Though Kennbridge just barely bore the population to be considered a “town,” we had our share of amenities. Or, at least, we did before eight of the buildings had been destroyed by the monster. Our community was divided down the middle by Glass River, named because the water moved so slowly it appeared as a pane of glass. There had once been a bridge spanning the hardly-insurmountable gap between banks, but when the dragon had landed in our town, it did so atop our town’s namesake. Nearest to the farmlands, the west bank housed labourers and hunters. The east bank, closest to the main road connecting Oxtown to the southern coast was host to the shopping district. Of course, owners of east bank shops resided above their stores. All, that is, except for my family. We were the only residents who possessed a building on both sides of the river. Originally, we had only the west bank home, but when my uncle passed away, we inherited his general store. Father had converted the extra rooms into a storehouse, making us the most amply stocked supplier of goods outside of the big cities. Though, with the lack of housing this winter, a space had been cleared for Ladd to rent. He had opted to permit his room be used by a family that had lost their home.
Our store was near the north edge of town so as we neared it, I pointed it out to Michelle. “My father owns that shop,” I told her. “I’m there five days a week and you can come visit me whenever you want.”
“Can I?” Michelle asked, eyes wide.
Weston did not share her enthusiasm. “Hey Nari,” he spoke tentatively, “do you think your father will be upset about the delay? I mean, I didn’t warn him I was going to be late.”
My mind flashed back to the dinner conversations where father had expressed his frustration at Weston’s delay. I cringed thinking of the lecture that awaited my friend. “Well, he’ll forget in time…”
Weston cringed. “Maybe I won’t charge him for this one; perhaps it will appease him.”
Tunic led the carriage to the supply door at the back of our store. He gave the horses a final pat and then turned to me. We exchanged smiles and I knew he was saying that he’d be taking the wolf pelt to the hunting lodge to collect our fee. For each pelt we brought in, we were paid a sum. I waved him goodbye, knowing I’d track him down after work. Unlike the previous year, I was now confident in travelling to his home. I’d walked the path often enough that there was a trail forming.
Tunic waved to Michelle and then nodded a farewell to Winston before playing a few notes in his flute. His horse came galloping from where it had been trailing us, slowing as it came to its departing master. Happily, she kept pace with him as they disappeared between the buildings.
I looked to the little girl at my side, seeing her mouth opened as she watched Tunic disappear. “Come with me and I’ll get you a treat,” I told her.
She hesitated for a moment, but as soon as she realised what I had said, she hastily accepted my hand and bounded off to the storefront with me.
I led Michelle into our store and had her wait while I snuck behind the counter. I grabbed a few candies from the jar and placed them in her hand. “You can wait in here where it’s warm until your brother is ready to leave.” Though where he would take them, I wasn’t sure.
“Are you going?” Michelle asked, suddenly sad.
“I have to attend to business yet. And then I’ll be back here in an hour for work.” I looked begrudgingly at my dull apron hanging on a peg behind the counter. Yes, I would be back soon enough.