Chapter 11: Evading Tunic

When it grew too dark to continue, I rested. I had originally planned to sleep, but adrenaline coursed through my veins. I was anxious to distance myself from the home where I had been shamefully rejected.

I suppose a part of me realised I was overreacting. I didn’t allow those thoughts to linger though. I was afraid that in a couple of days I would wake up far from home and regret my flight. Something was wrong with my life and I needed space to figure it out. If I could just manage to escape Kennbridge for a while, I would figure it out. Or, perhaps, Kennbridge itself was the problem.

I could maintain those philosophical and neutral contemplations only so long though. They always led me back to replaying the horrible events leading up to my shaming. How I had allowed Cade to compromise me. How I had flirted with and baited Ladd. And then I could feel that last kiss with Cade. The horrible, messy, tear-stained kiss that made me want to hurl. As soon as I remembered that I was on my feet again, wanting to be as far as I possibly could be from home.

The sun eventually lightened the sky and though it was still too dark to travel, I rose and moved around. The morning had brought a cool dampness that caused my body to shiver.

I knew little of hunting, except tales traded in our shop but I remembered that prey travelling on the river was harder to follow. As I was already damp, I decided I should travel through Glass River for a distance and then cross to the other bank. As soon as it was light enough to see the river bottom, I did just that.

Though chipper, the river water was not unbearable. Nevertheless, I did not detain myself long in its cool embrace. I walked along the east bank until ambushed by my own hunger. I stopped only to withdraw a light meal from my stores and then resumed my march.

I’ll not bother to describe the journey for it was uneventful. There were hilly areas and there were flat. Sometimes I was amidst trees, sometimes not. I saw no others except a deer and a dozen squirrels.

By the mid afternoon, I was damp with sweat and decided to continue my peregrination in the river. I was going to cross eventually, but decided it would be sneakier if I remained on the east bank. Eventually, however, the water grew deeper and I could not continue forth without submerging myself. I returned to the east bank and continued that way.

The sun reached its zenith and I grew wearisome with the heat. My hair stuck to my forehead with beads of sweat and caught itself under my arms. I contemplated tying it back but decided it would be worse for me to seen alone in the wilderness so exposed.

“I could cut my hair though,” I said to myself. My voice sounded peculiar without an audience. I tried it again, saying, “It would be lighter that way.”

I puzzled at the foreignness of my contemplations. As far as I could recall, this was the longest I had ever gone without companionship. It should have bothered me to be so alone with nowhere to go, but I was strangely comfortable with it. Even more enigmatic was my calm acceptance of the necessity to toss aside my vanity and cut my hair.

I thought perhaps I was delirious and forestalled any action.

Something was happening to me. Or rather, had been happening to me over the past days. I could not explain it, but it was as if I was on the brink of understanding something.

I shook my head and chuckled. No, I couldn’t think like that. If I did, I would be confessing that I had been mistaken about something and I would never admit to that.

And yet, even the smallest remembrance of yesterday’s events was a testament to my failure. I realised I did not resent what had happened. If I permitted myself to be wrong, then I could see myself as the source of all that had transpired. It was my cruelty and dishonesty to Ladd that made him despise me. It was my selfishness that brought Tunic into Cade’s aggression. Even Addie’s hostility could be sourced to me. I had constantly belittled her out of jealousy. I couldn’t rightly blame them for what happened yesterday. Not even Cade.

My hair was bothersome again. I pulled at it until it evenly covered my head and then grabbed the strands that covered my face. I pulled them together and braided them until they hung down my back instead of my face.

Ladd. Addie. Cade. Tunic. They were my friends and I had treated them with scorn. I was disgusted with myself as I considered how I’d manipulated them. I had thought I was so clever, that I could move them and make them do what I wanted without consequence. They had loved and respected me and I had treated them like inanimate objects.

The knife was in my hand. I grabbed a bundle of hair sheared it off just below my shoulders. I tossed aside the clump of hair and grabbed another bundle until all but the braid hung at that ugly length.

I felt remarkably better. My head was lighter and cooler. I fancied myself the ugliest girl who ever crossed Glass River and somehow I was fine with it.

As the afternoon dwindled, I began to need to break frequently. The excitement that had kept me moving earlier was all but diminished. I’d not lost my resolve, just my endurance. I was, after all, only a shop girl. My days were spent sitting behind a counter, not trekking across the countryside. Alas, when I paused for supper, I found myself unable to move on. I was stiff and tired. I hoped that an early rest would mean an early start and so allowed myself to succumb to my lethargy.

I was nearly asleep when I heard the voices.

“Do you really think Nari could have come this far?”

“She’s been gone a day.”

“But she’s only a girl.”

I identified the voices as belonging to Rowan and his father. I scrambled for cover in a thicket. Branches stabbed at me from all angles, but I moved forward regardless. If my hair had been its usual length, I would have had to untangle it in the mess. As it was now, my hair pulled through it like an old comb.

“Do you think we’ll find her alive?” Rowan continued.

“It’s hard to say,” his father responded.

I frowned. They expected me to die out here? Their voices were hushed and I strained to hear them, but feared any motion to move closer would alert them to my position.

“You think a dire wolf will get her?” Rowan asked.

Dire wolves? My heart pounded in my ears. There were dire wolves out here?

Rowan’s father’s words gave me some peace. “I doubt there are any dire wolves around this close to the Kennbridge.”

“I don’t get your meaning then, father. Do you think she will end her own life after what happened yesterday?”

“Maybe… But there are plenty of other ways for a person to die out here. Especially for someone who has never left the village before,” he paused. “It’s getting dark. We should return. You’re probably correct; I doubt she’s gotten this far.”

I heard the whinny of a horse as they turned their beasts around and galloped off. I waited to crawl out of my hiding place. I’d gotten this far on foot and they just turned around. How incompetent did they think I was? And worse than that, they did not seem to care. They’d been sent, obviously, on an official search. They probably loathed me for forcing them to abandon their work schedules. Everyone would be behind now and would blame me for the missing income. If I was hesitant about whether they hated me before, I was certain they did now.

I didn’t even notice tears were falling down my cheeks. I decided that perhaps I had the energy to continue walking for a while.

I awoke the next morning at daybreak. With a few bites of breakfast in my stomach, I set out again. I was careful to impede any motions that drew unnecessary noise and kept my mouth shut the whole day. I was stiff from exertion and sleeping on the ground, but I managed to keep my spirits high.

About midday, I reached a fork in the river. The water had slowly been growing more turbulent and consequently noisy. I determined that if anyone were clever enough to be following me, they would believe I would hold my true to my original course. I doubted they would consider that I turned down the westward fork. So, after making some northward footprints in the soft bank, I backtracked to the western fork.

The water was more forceful down the fork; apparently, it got the bulk of the river’s water while Glass River remained a small offshoot. Luckily, I was walking with the flow. I followed it for fifteen or so minutes and then set out north. With the river no longer placid, I could follow its sound from a distance without fear of losing my way. There would be no tracks near the river to mark my passage.

I figured I ought to travel on the western side for a few days to take advantage of my cleverness.

Twilight came and passed and I heard not a sound from my pursuit. Either they had given up searching for me or I had outsmarted them. I would have been proud of myself if I were not so cold. The night had been heralded by a mountain wind I was not prepared for. I leaned against a tree so my whole body would not be exposed to the cold ground and tried to sleep.

Alas, slumber I did not. My nose burned with the cold, so I buried into the crook of my arm. I pulled out my braid and let those long strands cover me as best as they could. That was the first time I doubted my journey.

“You have nowhere else to go,” I reminded myself audibly. To wish for anything other than my current path would be of no aid.

They were the first words I had spoken all day and they led my pursuit, which I had succeeding in hiding from, right to me. I heard his approach before he came into sight, but he identified me from far off. Those few spoken words identifying my position amidst the nightly noises.

My sleepless eyes opened, though still buried in the crook of my arm. I lifted my head and parted the veil of my hair, but it was too late. I had been sighted. “I’m not going back,” I called out to the approaching shadow. I willed myself to my feet. I’d not be taken without a struggle.

There was no response from my pursuit. He never responded.

“Tunic?” I exclaimed as I recognized the silhouette. My senses were flooded with antipodal sentiments. I thought that, of all people, Tunic would be the most glad to see me gone from Kennbridge. After all, I had thrown him into hell after he had been so kind to me. I was ecstatic that he had not truly abandoned me. On the other hand, he meant to bring me back to Kennbridge.

I could not make out his expression in the darkness. Was he glad to see me or disappointed? We stood facing each other for many long moments.

Then my self-preservation instincts melted and I threw my arms around him. I risked a rejection that would destroy me. In my fragile state, all it would take would be for Tunic to step back, out of my grasp, and I would have slain whatever hope I had left in myself.

He didn’t move.

I buried my head into his shoulder and began to tremble violently. I wasn’t crying, but I was cold and scared. I suppose I had just learned that some things were more important than the perpetuation of my own existence. I doubt I had ever desired anything more than I desired for Tunic to forgive me at that moment.

It did not matter that he did not return my embrace. I knew I would never deserve his friendship again. I just needed him not to despise me.

His hands closed on my forearms. The touch made my breath hitch. They lingered for a moment; I could feel my frigid body stealing his warmth. Then he stepped away from me.

I couldn’t bear to look at him. My head sank into my hands and I think time stopped. I couldn’t blame him. This is what I deserved. This is what I’d done to him, after all. He’d respected and befriended me. I’d brought him to the Rafferty doorstep and left him to Cade. I’d flirted with him and then betrayed him with the very enemy who had taught us to mock him. No, I deserved worse than being jilted. I sank to my knees, oblivious to everything but my agony.

Were I not absorbed in myself at that moment, I would have seen him remove his pack and unhook the fur cloak he had belted to it. But I had sunk to the ground in self-pity, oblivious to his kindness until he had draped the fur around my shoulders.

I looked up as he offered me his hands. I put my frigid digits into his gloved palms and he pulled me to a standing position. His merciful arms tightened around me and remained there until I had ceased trembling – and that was no short time.

Eventually his grip lessened. Before he wholly released me though, his finger tilted my chin up to him. I don’t know what he saw in my face then, but I was sure it wasn’t pretty. He felt confident enough, however, to release me.

I sank to the ground again, this time out of sheer mental exhaustion not desperation. Tunic wandered about the area, stopping here and there. He had left his pack, along with his bow and quiver, so I knew he was not leaving me. Not that I thought he would; he had to bring me back to Kennbridge after all.

That reminded me, there were two things I needed to say to him. “Tunic,” I started. My voice was barely a whisper. I cleared my throat and repeated his name. “I am so sorry.” I wanted to say more, but somehow there was no way to expand on my apology without making it worse. Neither of us needed a reminder of the tragedy that was Vierday.

He returned, dropping to the ground in front of me. I heard the clatter of dry tinder dropping to the ground followed by the scratching of hands shoveling soil aside. Meticulously he worked despite the darkness of the night. There was a flash as Tunic split a spark seed and dropped its contents onto his kindling. When the liquid hit a fuel source, it burst into flame. Tunic skillfully fed the spark with twigs until it had grown large enough to handle a heartier branch.

The conflagration danced with the frigid wind. I shuffled closer to it, relishing the warmth. Tunic disappeared again, seeking additional fuel. While he hastened about, I considered how to broach the next topic. I knew I was about to betray him again, but it was a necessity. What I could not reconcile was whether to explain my plan for redemption or to leave my reasoning oblivious.

“Thank you,” I smiled wearily to him as he seated himself across the blaze. I went to return the fur cloak, but he gestured for me to keep it. “Thank you,” I repeated.

I ran my hands through my hair, feeling the strangeness of its length. “Did you come here to return me to Kennbridge?” I asked.

Tunic nodded.

“I can’t go back,” I told him.

He frowned. I suppose he wanted to tell me that my mother and father missed me, or something of that nature, but of course, he could not say anything.

I was going to add more. Alas, that would have been misleading – portraying a hope to prolong the relationship. I knew I had to leave him before dawn and somehow escape his tracking capabilities. I wanted him to remember me as thankful, not full of excuses. I swore this would be the last time I took advantage of him. I lay down and rolled so my back was to the fire. Then I closed my eyes. If he had wanted to reply, I could not see it.

I barely slept for I was fearful he would awaken before me. When, at last, the sky filled with colour, I twisted to observe my companion. He leaned against a tree, bracing himself against the cold, but his eyes were closed in sleep. It took all my strength to leave him then. I summoned my arrogance and conceit in an attempt to manipulate a firm mind.

The cloak I left folded alongside him. It seemed evil not to wrap it around him, but I feared to do so would awaken him. I did, however, add the remaining wood to the ashes of the fire. They’d catch and, hopefully, provide him with a small amount of heat.

As I made my first step away from Tunic, I knew there would be nothing to dissuade me from my quest anymore. I couldn’t return to Kennbridge until I had redeemed myself. Until I did something to make myself worthy of Tunic’s forgiveness.

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