Though I was glad to see Ladd return to work on Zweiday, I doubt he cared to see me. I had a litany of things I wished to say to him: how I had missed him and wished things could return to the way they were. But whenever I got to talking seriously, he would chasten me saying, “Not at work.”
After father handed us our wages, Ladd slipped out the door and was down the street before I could even remove my apron.
Though it was another beautiful afternoon, I went home and lay on my bed miserably until dinner. By the end of the meal, I had persuaded myself that I would not sleep until I had spoken to Ladd. When excused from the table, I slipped on my boots and hastened to Ladd’s house.
His mother opened the door. “Nari!” she greeted me warmly. “I have not seen you about for days.”
I kicked my foot around nervously. I supposed she didn’t know I’d broken her son’s heart. “Is Ladd home?” I inquired.
“He’s in his room,” she invited me in with a gesture. I knocked on Ladd’s door and it felt strange to do so. Normally I would just invite myself in. He opened it, expecting his mother. Sighting me, his expression dropped.
“We need to talk,” I insisted.
Ladd opened the door further, permitting me to enter. Normally I’d sit on his bed. It felt wrong now. He shut the door, not wanting his mother to learn about our struggles.
He remained silent, waiting for me to speak. I weaved my fingers together, trying to find the words that I had planned. “I miss you,” I began quite lamely. “I know I can’t undo the hurt I caused you, but can we still be friends?”
Ladd walked to his table and retrieved a ball. He tossed it in the air – something to look at other than me. He still hadn’t breathed a word.
“How can I make things right?” I pleaded.
Something shattered in him. “You knew I loved you,” he began. I braced myself. “You knew I’d die for you and you dared to compare me to Cade. That drunken lout who’d make you sport if you’d had just a shred less pride. I waited for years for your answer and you shoved it in my face. I figured if I gave you time, you’d see how I loved you.”
“I know,” I said softly. Tears were falling down my face.
“And you still don’t see,” he accused.
This offended me. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“You come to me asking to just be friends,” he spat.
“I…” I hadn’t expected him to want to marry me still. I hadn’t even considered the notion. I wanted to offer him a “Maybe someday,” but the words choked in my throat.
“Just leave,” he whispered.
I nodded. I wasn’t prepared for this. I didn’t even say goodbye to his mother. I hated him by the time I left his porch. This was his fault for trying to force a decision. How could he think to marry me if he didn’t understand how difficult the decision was?
I collapsed in misery in my bed. Tomorrow was Dreiday; I didn’t even have the monotony of employment to look forward to. I tried not to think, staring at the pattern of my quilt over my head until I slept.
When I awoke the following morning, I lay in my bed for at least an hour. Eventually I was disgusted with myself and rose to wash my face.
There was a knock at the door. “One minute,” I shouted. I hadn’t seen mother around the house and I was still in my nightgown. After hastily dressing and ripping a comb through my hair (I often slept with it braided in a way not fit for public viewing), I opened the door.
“What are you doing here?” I exclaimed.
Tunic smiled content with my surprise.
“Did you have business with my father?” I dared not hope he’d come to escort me to his valley paradise.
Tunic flashed me that not-so-amused face which seemed to say, “You really think that?”
“Did you come here for me?” My voice squeaked a little in excitement.
He offered his arm like a gentleman.
“Just a minute!” I squealed. I ran back to my room. Realising my rudeness, I called for him to come in. I grabbed my boots and purse. I checked myself in the mirror, ensuring my hasty dressing was sufficient, and then sprinted into the kitchen to grab a few biscuits and fruit. I stuffed the morsels into my purse. I devoured one of the biscuits and guzzled down a glass of milk.
Tunic’s foot tapped on the floor as he waited for me. “Sorry!” I called. “I wasn’t expecting to leave the house today. I just got out of bed.”
I was still hungry, so as we set out from my home I offered him a biscuit and took one for myself. He declined so I ate his as well. Mother makes the best biscuits I’ve ever eaten.
“This is such a delightful surprise,” I exclaimed as I pirouetted. I was so excited that I was not going to insist we take the longer perimeter road, but he led me in that direction anyways. I felt guilty; he’d understood I’d wanted to keep our association unknown. I’d prefer that he’d consider himself a privileged secret friend, but there was no way of saying that.
I must have spent half the walk biting my lip. I wanted to ask him if he had planned anything for us to do, but didn’t want him to feel obliged to entertain me. I cycled through various ways of asking indirectly. I’d open my mouth to try one of my devious questions, but silenced myself by discovering some flaw at the last moment. Eventually I sided on, “I don’t imagine that you can have a day off today. There must be an awful lot to do all year living alone and father tells me you do all our fletching. We must go through three dozen arrows a week in the summer. So, can I help you with any of your chores or something today?”
He blinked with surprise.
“What?” I asked. But of course, he couldn’t reply, so I supplied him with possible responses. “Do you think I wouldn’t be helpful?”
The expression he returned was one of indecision.
“I’m offended! You don’t even know me. I could have a plethora of talents. Maybe I am a proficient seamstress.”
He gave me a look that said, “Are you?”
“Well, no,” I responded to his unspoken question. “But you didn’t know that.”
He mimed milking a cow.
“Uhh…” It took me a minute to understand his question. “No, I’ve never milked a cow.”
His charades continued, this time with a slicing motion of his right hand.
“Did you just ask if I could chop wood? Of course not!” I was a girl after all, and girls cannot wield hatchets.
Next, he held his left arm out horizontally. He drew his right fist next to it, but pulled it back slowly until it was in front of his chest. After a second, he opened his right fist as though letting something go.
I studied the motion for a minute, trying to think of a chore that required that sort of action. My confusion or lack of response made him resort to a second form of explanation. He drew his bow from his back and I felt a fool for not guessing his meaning earlier.
“Archery? I wish!”
I believe his response was something along the lines of, “Tell me more.” Even if it wasn’t, I was going to anyways. “Cade told me he went to an archery contest in the city once. Apparently, the victor was a woman. She had on chain mail and cut her hair to her chin! I fancied the idea of being an archer too, but Cade said he’d stop seeing me if I dressed like a man.” I giggled at the idea of wearing chain mail with my hair short and showing off to the men. “I asked father to show me how to use his long bow, but I could not even draw it. Can I see your bow?”
Tunic handed me his prize and I inspected it thoroughly. “Did you make it?” I asked. He affirmed with a nod. “It’s beautiful,” He had carved symbols down the whole length of the bow on one side and the other had a vine pattern. I handed it back to him without bothering to try the draw. I had no desire to humiliate myself in front of Tunic.
Then I remembered the origin of our conversation. “And I get your point,” I told him, “I’m probably not any use to you.”
He rolled his eyes, a familiar gesture by now. I had no idea if he was mocking me or if I had missed his meaning altogether.
I snapped my fingers with an epiphany. “I’m not totally useless to you,” I proclaimed. “For you’ll find no greater company in all of Kennbridge than myself,” I chuckled. “And no matter how little you talk, I’ll always talk enough for the both of us.” I rather enjoyed thinking of myself as having a special bond to my mute friend. I’d be the voice he didn’t have.
He conceded that I could indeed serve as that purpose with a gracious nod.
I didn’t mean to over-inflate my value, but his life must have been quite boring without me. No wonder he didn’t mind escorting me to his home.
My presence, however, was not universally appreciated. I swear not a minute after we’d come into view of his valley the jealous horse took note of me and bolted for the woods. “Still skittish around me, eh?” I commented.
Tunic waved his hand, telling me to ignore the fickle animal. I was more than happy to oblige. There were plenty of other horses that would have me; I’d not be upset over that one.
“So, what are you working on today?” I asked.
He gestured for me to wait, so I seated myself on the hillside in the sun. I lay back, savouring the warmth on my skin. Tunic rustled through his woodshed until he found a long, thick branch he’d cut to about a meter and a half length. Next, he pulled out a large board about forty centimeters by fifty. He nailed the board to the top of the branch and then took it a fair distance from either the house or the shed. It was most peculiar work and I couldn’t figure what he was doing.
Next, he returned to his shed and retrieved a spade. He set to work digging a hole out where he’d deposited the board and branch. When the hole was of a significant depth, Tunic stood the branch in it, like a post. He filled in the soil around his makeshift post and still I could not reason what he was doing.
When the soil was returned, he considered his creation for a minute. He pushed on the board and it moved a small amount. He returned to the woodshed and found another post-like branch. This he propped, at an angle, behind the board. When he pushed the board now, it did not move.
“What are you up to?” I called as he returned to the shed. I am pretty sure he heard me, for it seemed a smirk had made its way onto his face, but he said nothing.
He reached into the outside fire pit and retrieved a burned piece of wood. Returning to his creation, he drew a series of concentric circles on the board. I was beginning to guess his meaning and wasn’t sure if I should be happy or embarrassed.
He disappeared into his cottage and returned with two short bows and a quiver of arrows. I had my hands gripping my hair nervously as he beckoned me over. I gulped and went over to him.
The bows in his hand were different sizes, both beautifully made. The bow in his left hand had a serpentine dragon etched across its length. The other bow had a faerie carved onto the bottom. The ornamentation on the faerie bow was not quite finished though. I was pretty sure he was adding another faerie to the top, there was an outline already pieced in. I wasn’t sure which to pick.
Tunic’s gaze moved up and down my figure, sizing me, and then handed me the faerie bow. He shuffled the dragon bow to his other hand and grabbed the spare quiver’s straps, which had been slung on the crook of his arm. He led me closer to his target and then placed the quiver on the ground, laying the spare bow beside it. He plucked an arrow from my quiver and then pulled his bow from his back.
He glanced to me, ensuring I was watching as he slowly went through the motions of fitting the arrow on the string and then mimed loosing it.
“Okay,” I muttered. I cursed myself for saying I wanted to learn archery. This was going to be embarrassing, but I couldn’t go back on my word now.
He handed the arrow to me and I took it with a shaking hand. I tried to hide the tremors, but that was not possible with him studying my form. I did not even have the excuse of having exerted any effort to cause a muscle shake. Somehow, the arrow just did not fit properly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t complain that the bow was deficient.
Finally, I thought I had the arrow properly nocked and I looked to Tunic for confirmation before drawing. His expression was not comforting.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked.
He pointed at me and moved his right hand in a scribbling motion, then the left.
“I’m right handed,” I replied.
His expression seemed to say, “I thought so.”
He removed the arrow I’d nocked and grabbed hold of the bow. He passed the bow to my other hand and then gave me the arrow back. I blushed. He gestured for me to try again.
I attempted the procedure again, but he still found my effort deficient. He drew his bow from his back again and pulled an arrow from the quiver. He set the arrow into the initial position and I mimicked him as best I could. In this slow process, we gained some progress. He fanned the fingers on the hand that held the arrow, drawing my attention to his grip. Satisfied that I’d knocked the arrow properly he raised the bow and slowly drew back on the string.
He waited in that position as I repeated the motion. The short bow was definitely manageable for my strength, but the motions weren’t natural for me. My hand slipped and loosed the arrow. It flew forward with a bit of a hobble and skittered across the grass. I slapped my hand over my mouth, “Oops.”
I took a step forward, intending to retrieve my failure, but Tunic passed me another arrow. “This is not going to get any better,” I promised him. “Just because I want to be able to do this, doesn’t mean I will be able to.”
He stowed his bow on his back and gestured for me to try again. I nocked the arrow and checked for confirmation that I had done it correctly. He nodded with a patient smile and then reminded me how to draw.
I began to pull on the bowstring when I felt his left hand cover mine. The sudden sensation of his near presence gave me a fright and I dropped the arrow. It clung to the string for a second before tumbling to the ground. He had another one drawn before I could even think of picking up the first. He reached around me and guided my hand into the correct position. With his hands over mine, we executed the perfect draw. I looked over my left shoulder to make eye contact. I didn’t know if I was supposed to loose the arrow or not. I’d forgotten that it was he who was the speechless one.
I hoped to find him as flushed as I was, but he wore a stoic mask. This was all business to him. I steeled my gaze on the target, refusing to sink to a lower level than him. If this were schooling, I’d act as such. I would not be the one to take this the wrong way. He exerted a small amount of pressure on my right hand, gently releasing the draw, but not the arrow.
He released the bow and stepped away from me. The void left by his absence was nearly insurmountable. I hated myself for having fallen so far.
He gestured for me to draw and release the bow as he’d just shown me. I did my best, but you could not tell at all. I’d not come within twenty paces of the target. He decided to move us closer.
I was indignant. Though I attributed my feelings firstly to his patronizing treatment and secondly to my inferiority, I was mostly upset that I wished he’d come close to me again. He handed me another arrow and I quickly nocked it and sent it on its way into nowhere. The next arrow was coupled with a gesture to go slower. I heaved a great sigh. I tried again and though I was nearer, I had no strength in the shot.
“I can’t do it!” I complained. He handed me another arrow without comment. I scowled at him. Robotically I loaded and fired. This hit the bottom of the post and bounced off.
He applauded my failure. “Don’t do that,” I snapped. “I was nowhere near the middle.” He handed me another arrow.
I tried again and again, but never came closer. I emptied the quiver with failure. On the last shot though, I declined the arrow. “You do it,” I insisted.
He frowned and tried to pass me the arrow. I handed him the bow instead. “I give up. I want to see you try.”
He weighed my decision in his head and conceded with a sigh. He gave me back the faerie bow and retrieved his own.
“Actually,” I grinned mischievously, “I want you to try from here,” I informed him as I pushed him back twenty paces.
He drew in one fluid motion and released. There was a crack as the projectile entered the board. He did pretty well by my estimation; the shot was in the second ring of his target.
“Try again,” I encouraged. He hesitated, but did as I bade him. There was another crack as his arrow buried itself in the top right corner of the board.
I shook my head, “Not as good as last time. Again,”
He pulled the arrow from the quiver on his back so quickly I don’t know how he strung it accurately. This arrow was a bit nearer to the center, but not satisfactory. He seemed to take his failure with grace.
When he offered me another arrow, I showed him what poor losing looked like. “Absolutely not,” I told him. “My whole body is tense and my hands are in too much pain. I think I’ll just have to remain a professional archer in my mind.”
He gestured for me to show him them and I thrust my palms towards him. I guess he hadn’t considered that my hands would become so mangled. “Don’t worry about it; they will be fine,” I asserted, seeing guilt and horror intermingle on his brow. To prove the insignificance of my irritation (though I’d hardly have declared it insignificant to anyone but the embarrassed Tunic) I ambled over to his target. My hand closed around one of the arrows and I attempted to pull it free.
Alas, Tunic’s three shots had weakened his makeshift supports and when I tugged on the arrow both posts fell down. “Your shot is quite formidable,” I commented. I resumed my effort to pull the arrow from the target, but it was lodged in too firmly for my delicate hands. I let it go and fanned my hands in front of me.
Tunic had to withdraw the arrows from the target, but I helped him collect my failures. A few of them required us to venture quite far; it was embarrassing.
Tunic began replacing the arrows into the quiver and I handed him the ones I’d collected. “Well,” said I, “Thank you for trying. It was a lot of fun, regardless of my aim.”
He fixed me a skeptical look. I’d scowled and cursed most of the time. “I did have fun. I swear!”
We returned to his house and he bandaged my hands. I had protested at first, but he mixed some herbs or something and put them on my hands. They felt cool on the burning skin. I eventually showed some gratitude by offering a, “Thanks.”
Tunic always seemed to ignore my boasting and prideful independence. I was not sure if I liked that about him or hated it. I figured I would hate it later, but right now, with my hands feeling infinitely better, I loved it.
I made the assumption that I had taken up too much of Tunic’s time already and so asked if I could read outside. My gracious host had no qualms with that. I picked up the book on faeries I had been reading earlier and leaned against a tree near the creek. I propped the book on my knees and ever so carefully used the tips of my fingers to turn its pages.
I’d only gotten a few pages in when Tunic joined me. He had removed the bowstring on the faerie bow. He pressed his back against the same tree, sitting at a ninety-degree angle from me and began carving the unfinished faerie. I glanced over quite frequently, fascinated with his patience.
“Would you like me to read to you about faeries while you carve one?” I asked, half teasingly. He gestured for me to do whatever. I decided that we had spent long enough in silence and so told him the locations of faerie springs around the Glass River area. I was shocked to learn there was one not far from Kennbridge.
It was not long before the day was spent and Tunic brought me home. I had forgiven him for the archery embrace now that I was even enough of temper not to be affected by it. I left him with an embrace of my own, along with a vengeful kiss on the cheek. Let him suffer through that for the next several hours after what he’d done to me!
If my kiss had any effect on him, he didn’t show it. I had to make a conscious effort not to be angry at him for his casual dismissal of my affection. I reminded myself that he was just a fill in for Ladd.