Of all the events that had culminated in the past month, or rather, throughout my whole life, there is none I would describe as more overwhelming than the day after I was attacked by a dire wolf. That day superseded the terror of Cade’s spiteful accusation the day I fled Kennbridge. It outweighed the surprise that I was considered valiant enough to serve as a mercenary. And it even surpassed the impact of the great faerie Imena and her magnificent fountain.
It started as a typical morning, with birds chirping and squirrels chattering. I had, perhaps, slept a tad later than usual but I had never been attacked by a dire wolf and then kissed on any previous night. To my dismay, my companion remained unmoved from his uncomfortable-looking sleeping position.
I rekindled the fire to ward off the morning chill and fixed breakfast. Still Tunic did not stir and I decided it was best to leave him rest. I wandered down to the stream and removed my new tunic, finally being given the opportunity to evaluate it. It was made of a beautiful sky blue fabric; the hem was decorated with embroidered designs.
The hue of the garment, along with my flight yesterday, reminded me of my love of heights. I climbed a mighty tree until the branches grew too small to support my weight. When I was fully steeped with the lofty scenery, I descended to the lower branches.
This was, perhaps, my first morning of idleness and I did not quite know how to occupy myself. I supposed riddling out Imena’s words would be sufficient employment, so I set out to make myself comfortable. Using a “Y” shaped branch and my bundled cloak as a pillow I reclined on the tree.
I wished my thought process had been more productive, but I really had no idea where to start understanding the faerie monster enigma. After a time, I started to study the map Imena had bestowed on me.
I suppose my incompetence resulted from the nervous anticipation that I had to, once again, disappoint Tunic. He had come this far and saved my life to return me back to Kennbridge. I absolutely could not return there, not after I had come this far. But I owed him an apology.
Around noon, Tunic finally descended to the stream bank. “Hey,” I greeted from my lofty position. “Did you sleep well?”
He nodded guiltily. He gestured that we should be leaving and I shook my head in a firm negative.
“No sir,” I said, “I am not going anywhere with you until we talk. Besides, anyone who needs to sleep until noon is in need of a day’s rest.”
Tunic shook his head, assuring me he was ready to travel.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. Removing the harshness from my tone, I asked, “Did you have breakfast?”
He shook his head and I rose from my lackadaisical posture to retrieve sustenance for him. I tossed a pair of apples and the rest of my bread down, and then returned to my reclined position.
“So,” I began as he accepted the comestibles. “Firstly, I need to say something.” I wish I had the courage to say it on level ground with him, but I figured looking elsewhere would be best. I had never been good with confessions. “I know I apologized before, but I need to again. I regret every moment of that day… And I am sure you meant well trying to retrieve me when I fled Kennbridge, but I couldn’t return. And I regret leaving you, though I had no choice,” I swallowed as I realised the truth of my words. I did regret leaving Tunic, but I had known that then. What I needed to stomach was the idea that I could not return to my old home.
“I wish there was some way to compromise, but I cannot return with you to Kennbridge,” I told him. But then quickly added, “I will always remember how you saved me and am so thankful that you were willing to pursue me thus far, but I cannot…” I had already said it thrice. There was no reason to say it again. I gained the courage to look at him; he had ceased eating and was studying me.
I supposed I had said enough, though I was displeased with how inarticulate I sounded. Speaking clear-headed arguments had always been my specialty. But I had never been this emotional about my subject matter before. It was not just Tunic I was surrendering, after all. I was dismissing my entire previous existence.
I think there was some part of me that had always hoped that I could eventually go home and everything would be well. I just needed to prove myself and earn my respectability back.
Yet, the further I got from who I had been, the less possible that seemed. Truthfully, I could not fathom returning to who I was. I had become so repulsed by my own actions that the notion of returning to those who would treat me as that person seemed impossibly cruel. I would have to relive the same curses, for people are slow to change their opinions of others. It did not seem worth the effort to make amends.
I was not telling Tunic I needed to mend the circumstances so I could return. I was telling him goodbye.
My mind was firm though, I had set my course. I had one regret though; I desired to know his response by something other than a facial expression. “I wish you could say something…” I whispered.
I turned away from him, peering into the treetops. I could not bear to see the disappointment I knew would be written on his face. There was silence for a long moment.
Then my request, whispered from a cowardly heart, was answered. A wholly unfamiliar voice responded to my plea and asked in a hesitant tone, “Are you finally going to let me?”
I nearly fell out of the tree!
“Tunic?” I gasped as I steadied myself. When my balanced regained, I swung myself down from the tree.
From his seated position, Tunic gazed up at me with a wry smirk.
“You can talk?” I exclaimed.
“This whole time?”
It was an exciting revelation and yet, colour rushed to my face as I considered how I had thought myself something of a voice for him. How I answered my own questions to him. I must have appeared so smug to him! My hands tugged at my hair in embarrassment. I had to ask: “Does anyone else know?”
Nod. But, with this, he grew embarrassed on my behalf.
He was silent for a long moment, as though carefully arranging his words. “Your father,” He began his list.
“My father!” I echoed.
My mouth gaped. Ladd knew and he’d never said anything? I had thought myself a fool when Cade exposed me to public scorn, now I realised I’d set myself up for private humiliation as well. Did they laugh at how I had paraded myself as Tunic’s only friend when he had not even spoken a word to me?
“Cade,” Tunic continued.
“Cade!” I shouted. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you act… mute?”
Now it was Tunic’s turn to be ashamed. “I did not mean to,” he assured me. He halted again, searching for words. And therein, was the issue. He was not a quick speaker and I was always anxious to slide in words when the opportunity was afforded. I remembered how often he had opened his mouth, as if to speak, but shut it when I interjected something. This time I waited though, until he had said his fill. “I am not… loquacious,” he concluded.
He rose to his feet, suddenly alert to my tone. His expression begged the question, “Are you angry?”
I let out a deep breath and turned my back to him. I ran my hand through my hair and considered his unasked question.
Yes. I think I was angry. How could he possibly justify being silent all this time? I probably should have asked him his reason, but I didn’t want to know it. Or maybe I was just looking for an excuse to cut him out of my life too. I didn’t consider the grief it would cause him if I left then, I just wanted to take the opportunity to exit his life without the fault being wholly my own.
I considered my pack, regretting that it still hung suspended in the tree I had been perching in. My cloak, however, was reachable. I donned the garment with a great flourish.
“I am going for a walk,” I declared, with no intention of returning. I had my purse attached to my hip. I could leave the pack and only be somewhat inconvenienced. I didn’t face him, lest he read my resolve to abandon him again. This would be the last of my relationship with Tunic.
I was absolute in my decision this time. There would be no regrets, I told myself. I had to abandon everything if I was going to move forward.
I passed our campsite and felt a clawing sensation that dragged me to a halt. I lingered there. It had only been last night that I had felt such relief, not just for being saved from death, but also for having Tunic’s company. This morning, even, I had rejoiced with his presence.
“No,” I told myself, “Don’t think like that.” I couldn’t return to Kennbridge with him and I couldn’t ask him to leave his home for me. Somehow, the thought of Kennbridge without Tunic was devastating. He belonged there in ways I had never understood: Father depending on his fletching, the village for his hunting, and even the cantankerous old Mrs. Shara relied upon his kindness.
No. Tunic needed to return to Kennbridge. Of that, I was sure.
At last, I dragged myself from the camp. (Not that you could tell it was our camp – Tunic had buried the ashes of our fire and he had retrieved all his belongings). I pulled out my faerie map and ascertained the direction to the next faerie. It was too far from a settlement. I would have to return to Dinsmore to purchase a new pack and supplies.
Alas, it was midday already, so I would not reach Dinsmore until tomorrow. It would be a miserable night without spark seeds or food. Perhaps I would be able to recognize something edible on the way there, but I did not remember having passed any comestibles.
It seemed a miserable expense of time to be returning to Dinsmore. I had rationalized forestalling the journey for Tunic’s health, but this was unnecessary except as a cowardly escape from my past mistakes.
I doubted Tunic would follow me again. Even if he was concerned for my welfare, he had sense enough (and courtesy enough) to retreat when unwanted. This was truly the end of our relationship.
“And you are fine with that,” I assured myself. “Besides,” I argued, “what you thought he was, is not who he is. You don’t even have a real relationship; just a figment you invented. Your relationship is with someone who looks like Tunic, but never spoke. Leaving this ‘speaking’ Tunic is not of consequence.”
Following my path back to Dinsmore upset me more. I could see my tracks moving in the opposite direction. I pulled out the faerie map and decided if I directed myself due south, instead of taking the arduous journey to the faerie cave, I could potentially save time. There was a peculiar marking on the map in that direction though, but I supposed whatever it was, I could deal with it at the time.
No longer following in my footsteps, I managed to shove Tunic from my thoughts. Instead, I filled my mind with speculations of what scenery was awaiting me. The markings on the map seemed to indicate that whatever was ahead had a road leading to Dinsmore. I wondered why the fellow who had drawn the map to Imena’s cave had not told me to go that way if there was a road.
It was not a mountain ahead, for I saw no peaks. Perhaps it was a valley of some kind. The map seemed to have blotted the area out, so I supposed it could be a lake. But, perhaps, not a typical lake – that would account for the darker hue on the map. It could also be, I supposed, a dense forest. There was only one similar marking on the map and it was much further north and several hundred kilometers east.
“I should be seeing it soon,” I told myself.
Strangely, the land did not seem to be shaping up to some geological phenomenon. It seemed, rather, that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the land.
I thought perhaps I had gotten my directions muddled again. That is, I thought so until I actually reached the area.
The trees parted, making way for a village. It was a quaint looking community, not unlike Kennbridge. But as I trod into the perimeter, I saw why the faerie map blotted out the area.
A swath of destruction had triturated the village. Bodies lay scattered about: half-decayed and festering with flies. The smell was far worse than that of the dire wolf.
Buildings had crumbled under the impact of whatever caused the destruction. Some, like the one I had first sighted, had nothing more than a single wall standing. Scavengers skittered by as I entered the horror.
Imena’s sister had done this. It was not even a day’s travel to Imena’s cave, and her sister had dared decimated an entire population. Infants rotted alongside their mothers. Husband and wife were cleaved in twain from a single strike. The very air seemed filled with the laughter of the Keegan Height’s monster.
The misery was inescapable.
Death itself seemed tangible, as though it wished to add me to the decor of this morbid landscape.
This was the future of Dinsmore. The future of Oxtown. The future of Kennbridge! Ladd’s corpse would be left to rot; Cade’s body dismembered. Our store would burn and shatter. My parents disappear. Everything would be gone. Truly gone. Not just out of my memory.
My quest suddenly became real. I had not even realised it was an abstract coping mechanism until faced with the reality of the destruction. My quarrel with Tunic and willingness to part with him were no longer relevant. I needed his help to stop this evil.
I wanted to bury the dead here. But there was no time, not with the monster still free. I hoped they would forgive me for leaving them as they were. Perhaps if I stopped the monster, they could be satisfied.
I couldn’t stay any longer either way. I needed to return to Tunic and beg his aid.