I found my way back to our camp without trial, but Tunic was not there. I feared he had left already and I did not have the skills to find him in the twilight.
When I ceased moving to survey the camp, I heard a faint melody. It sounded like Tunic’s flute, or so I figured. I ventured around until I found the source of the music.
He was seated on a tree stump with my pack beside him. To my surprise, his horse sauntered around. I did not realise the beast had followed him this far. Though I supposed it should have been evident. How else would he have kept pace with my ride to Dinsmore? Though the man did not notice my approach, the horse did. And the fickle animal trotted away as though I repulsed it. Tunic ceased playing as the horse fled.
Our eyes met and, to my dismay, he looked utterly dejected. “I thought you had left,” his eyes seemed to say.
I wasted no time. I knelt at his feet, in the best imitation of a gesture of obeisance, and pleaded with him. “Tunic, I know I don’t have a right to ask, but please help me defeat the monster of Keegan Heights.” The words tumbled out of my mouth at such a rapid pace that I hoped they were intelligible. “I cannot do it on my own. I wouldn’t ask you to put yourself in danger unless it was absolutely necessary. But, I have seen a village that has been destroyed by the fiend; it was worse than I could have imagined. And I am so frightened the same will happen at Kennbridge. Please say you will help me stop that monster!”
Having spoken my plea, I waited in silence for his reply. As before, he was not quick in response. I pulled on my hair nervously as I waited.
“Before I answer,” he began, “I wish for the opportunity to make amends.”
I nodded for him to continue. I would do whatever it took to ensure his aid.
He slid off his seat and met my height, kneeling before me. “I deeply regret having misled you,” he told me as we both settled back on our heels. “It was not my intention. I thought you knew otherwise, but I had not accounted for Cade’s influence.”
He had somehow figured out that Cade had altered my understanding of him. I supposed there was more to their history than was self-evident. Though it piqued my curiosity, I determined not to be distracted by such superficiality until I was dead or the monster defeated.
He continued. “If I had known what Cade would do that night… What Ladd would do…”
I stopped him right there. “Oh no,” I shook my head. “You do not get to be sorry about that night. That was my fault.” I was going to continue, but Tunic had stifled himself and waited for me to be finished. I gritted my teeth and held my tongue.
“I patiently bore your apologies, though I wished to protest them. Please allow me the same privilege,” he pleaded.
I swallowed my disagreements and nodded for him to continue.
“I thought by leaving I would assuage Cade’s hostility. If I had known he would harm you, I would have never left. It is my fault he treated you as he did.”
I suppose Tunic saw I was itching to put a word in for he waved to me to speak.
“You cannot bear the blame for Cade’s hostility towards me. I suppose I had never understood his intentions and allowed myself to be baited by his flattery,” I replied.
Tunic shook his head and continued, “Cade has been searching for a way to hurt me for a long while now.”
Again, my curiosity at their past flared up. I had to ask, “What do you mean?”
Tunic paused to consider his words. “I saw him once, in Myrtle.” I could see it was agonizing for him to speak. Why he should be remiss to speak ill of Cade was unfathomable to me. He certainly did not owe Cade the mercy.
“He was in a… compromising position,” Tunic continued. “I had no intention of interfering with his business, but he panicked. He attempted to purchase my silence and this betrayed his… ill intentions. My concern was for his victim… she was young and anxious. Needless to say, Cade was not pleased with my rejection of his proffered ale.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
Tunic blushed. “I asked if she wanted an escort home.”
“And she did?”
“I suspect Cade was not pleased.”
Tunic shook his head. “He…” Tunic started to say something, but could not get the correct words out.
I guessed his meaning, “He tried to fight you.”
“And he lost horribly,” I surmised.
Tunic seemed displeased with my presumption. “I would not have traded blows with him. But that girl wished to be taken home and Cade would not allow it.”
I smiled at this. Tunic would rather be painted a coward than provoke a fight. With the divorcing of my affection to Cade, I found I respected Tunic’s response far more than Cade’s necessity to defend his pride. “You escorted the girl home safely?” I asked.
“What did she say to you?”
Tunic blushed. “She was… grateful. Apparently Cade had been courting her for weeks, but made his true intentions known that night.”
I gritted my teeth. I’d fallen for the same wit and flattery. “Well,” said I, “I am glad you rescued that poor girl before something regrettable could happen.”
“I fear,” Tunic interjected, “That it was because of those events that you were harmed. Cade worried his father would learn of his out-of-town agenda, which is why he had involved me. He feared I would reveal the truth and when I refused to swear silence, he sought revenge. I had no intention of causing him trouble at home, but I was not going to offer an unconditional pledge. Without the security of my word, Cade attempted to discredit me throughout Kennbridge.”
I smiled weakly, knowing where this was going. “And then I got involved.”
“I did not think he would attempt something foolish with his father in town, otherwise I would have intervened,” Tunic explained. “And, it appeared the affections were… mutual.”
My gaze sunk. I could not refute it.
He continued. “But then, you were not altogether deceived by Cade. I assumed that, given enough time, you would discover Cade’s intentions and make a decision of your own accord.”
He gave me more credit than I deserved. I had not been consciously aware of Cade’s intentions; my self-preservation was entirely the by-product of a sense of self-respect deriving from self-importance. I had loved the game, the flirting and flattery, but I was no wiser than the Myrtle girl was. I had been naive enough to think everyone adhered to the propriety set forth by the teacher.
“I had not accounted for one outcome however,” Tunic smirked.
“What was that?” I asked.
“I never suspected that Miss Nari would request my company… Not after Cade had so efficiently reduced my credibility.”
That was the first time he had spoken my name. He spoke it with an inflection divergent from most others and I fancied his pronunciation best. I tried to ignore the catch in my breath as he spoke about me. It was like the solution to a mystery, where, after peering at the clues in his expressions, I was finally able to know truth.
“I knew that if Cade learned of our relationship, he would likely exploit it… I should have, for your sake, made an effort to ward you off.”
“No,” I disagreed. I couldn’t say more, but I dared not comprehend how much worse I would have been without his camaraderie.
“As I said before, I am not… prone to conversation.”
“And I hardly had the patience to let you continue,” I added.
He shrugged, obviously not offended by my presumption. “But I began to sense that Cade may have influenced your understanding of me.”
I nodded, disgusted in myself. “He suggested you were mute.”
“I was determined not to disparage Cade and you never outright spoke your assumptions for me to counter… Truthfully, I doubted you would request my presence twice and not desiring to embarrass you, I remained wholly silent.”
“What a horrible mess,” I commented. “Here you were, attempting to protect my pride even though I was conceiving of you according to Cade’s aspersions.”
Tunic chuckled. “After your second request, I knew not how to explain my silence.”
“What a horrible mess,” I repeated.
“I believe, when Cade learned of our association he determined to repay me for the Myrtle incident. I hoped he might label me a coward, for refusing to fight, and be settled with that. I would never have thought he would scorn you instead.”
“Do not think you are to blame for that,” I remarked. “I had refused Cade earlier. He was just as vengeful against me. I suppose he fancied we were against him.”
“Perhaps he did…” Tunic concluded.
“Well,” said I, “Though I do not agree you are to blame for those events, I wish you to feel reconciled. So, for whatever consequences resulted from your actions, I relinquish you of responsibility by accepting your apology.” (I was slightly pleased that my eloquence had returned).
Tunic evidently accepted my response, for he did not protest again. Rather, he responded by saying, “There is one more… misunderstanding I wish to clear.”
I gestured for him to continue, though I could not fathom what else he had to say.
“When Ladd informed me of the events of that night–”
I cut him off and injected, “Ladd told you about that night?”
Tunic nodded. “He reported that, upon learning of your disappearance, he hastened to find me. He was regretful of his actions and requested I find you and express as much.”
“I had thought he hated me,” I muttered. Tunic fell silent, allowing me to absorb this news. I felt something shift in me. It was as though I had been clutching an agony that could not be released without Ladd’s forgiveness.
“That is not all,” Tunic continued eventually. “Ladd guessed you would not wish to return to Kennbridge. He predicted you would seek the monster of Keegan Heights.”
Ladd knew me too well. I suppose, even after our quarrel, I should have remembered that he still understood me better than my own mother did.
“I suppose he guessed my intentions as well, for he assured me that if I accompanied you, he would tend to my home.”
I had entirely forgotten about Tunic’s responsibilities! He had abandoned his home, his business, and his animals to bring me back. I could not decide if this was something to celebrate, that I had such a precious friend, or something to regret.
“He promised to do so if I would bring you back to Kennbridge.”
I gulped. Here came the rejection. Tunic would insist I return with him for the sake of his promise. For the sake of my closest friend.
“But, Ladd knew you would not be willing to come immediately. I never had any intention of returning you to Kennbridge until you were ready. I hoped, rather, you would allow me to accompany you… But you fled before I had decided how to explain this. It was my fault for not being forthcoming and I felt I was betraying you by following, but I needed to convey Ladd’s message. And, I wished to clarify my intentions.”
“I’m sorry,” I added meekly. If I had not been in such a hurry to dismiss him, I might have had an easier time.
“So,” Tunic straightened, “Miss Nari, will you allow me to accompany you until you are ready to return to Kennbridge?”
I swallowed. I had no intention of returning to Kennbridge. “Will you accompany even if I doubt I shall ever be ready to return to Kennbridge?”
“Your life could be in danger,” I reminded.
He seemed fine with that.
“Why were you so eager to find me?” I queried.
That wry smile of Tunic’s found its way to his features. “We both know you are rubbish with a bow,” he teased. “I thought for sure you would starve.”
I gasped at his jest. “How dare you! I have survived just fine. I don’t need your hunting skills.”
“So you will be content on apples and bread while I dine on rabbit tomorrow?”
My mouth watered with the idea of a warm meal. I fixed him a mock-glare. “I liked you better when you were silent,” I teased.
He gestured with his hand as if to say, “By all means, I can continue in that manner.”
He rose to his feet and offered a hand to help me rise. “Thank you,” I said. He nodded in response. My words sounded weak though. I threw my arms around him as he tucked his flute away.