Travelling with Weston and travelling with Tunic were antipodal experiences. Weston had been impossible to awaken in the early morning. He seemed impervious to the world when slumbering. One morning I even had been forced to drizzle cold water down his face to awaken him at a decent hour. Tunic required no such assistance. It would be hard to determine which of us had actually awoken first, for we both seemed to rise and complete our morning rituals simultaneously.
I handed him the faerie map, for he was least likely to misdirect our course. But, he refused the privilege. I suppose he wished for me to become more confident.
He withdrew his flute and played the short melody that would summon his horse. The animal trotted over to us, but retained its distance.
“Are we riding?” I inquired.
He shook his head. Apparently, the horse was just being notified that we were travelling. It lingered as we ventured forth, but kept within a five-minute distance of its master. I had never seen a horse trained as such.
Despite the newfound discovery that my companion was capable of speech, we were mostly silent. When I did inquire of something, he often slipped back into his gesturing language. I reasoned that, perhaps, living alone this many years had truly made him more comfortable with voiceless communication.
As we drew northwest, the land grew less wild. Fenced grazing areas and crop-filled plots became more common. I snagged a pair of corn ears to roast with our evening meal.
The only excitement on that first day together concerned our dinner. We were passing through an orchard when Tunic whipped out his bow and fired before I could even register he had ceased walking. He had promised a hot meal after all.
Though I adored rabbit, I could not bear to see the body in anything but meat form. I tried to look elsewhere as he carried it. Though I was squeamish about the contents of our meal, by the time it was roasted I was starving.
The following morning was heralded by dark clouds. I grimaced with the prospect that we might have to continue our journey being perpetually wet. Throughout the morning, I glanced often at the heavens, awaiting their tears. But it was not until midday that the clouds finally unleashed their load.
The sky was not even merciful enough to intensify gradually. Rather, the rain poured as though we trod under a waterfall that spanned the whole horizon. The precipitation juggernaut coated the world and us in a slick, damp coating. Though shining with rainfall glaze, we were not able to cease our march. I was inconsolably miserable and begged Tunic to halt, but he insisted we continue a while longer. After an hour of travel, I contrived that he was promising refuge as a means to persuade me to endure greater distance. I halted and refused to go beyond our current location.
“Please,” he pleaded. “It is not much further.”
“What is? Do you know this area?”
He gestured for me to follow him and like a fool, I did.
I had always enjoyed the rain in Kennbridge, but I suppose that is because I always had the consolation of a warm, dry hearth to seek refuge at when I had finished with the weather. In the wilderness, there was no hope of so much as a fire to warm our chilled bones. Perhaps we could get a spark seed to flare into existence, but with wet fuel, it would never last.
The rain beat thrummed with an intensity that required my face to be turned to the ground. Water trailed down my forehead and caused my long bangs to stick to my face. I had no idea where Tunic was leading me, for I never looked up. I kept his heels in front of me and followed them as best as I could. He leapt gracefully away from the great puddles of muck that I had no choice but to slosh through. There are, I realised, some advantages to having extra height.
Water squished between my toes with each step whether I was in a puddle or not. Tunic’s boots must have been as wet for they were leaving damp footprints on the dry porch… Dry porch?
I looked up. Tunic had brought us to a farmhouse. He knocked on the door.
A sunburned old man opened the door cautiously. He peered at Tunic and then me, though I was mostly hidden behind my companion. There was silence for a long time. Far too long for my comfort. I considered perhaps speaking, but decided that Tunic should if he had any intention to greet the man. Eventually, however, the old man spoke.
“What’s your grandfather’s name son?” the man questioned.
“Targon,” Tunic replied without hesitation.
“Thought it might be you,” the man replied as he opened the door wider, but did not admit us. “I suppose you want a roof tonight.”
“I still only got the barn for you,” he replied.
Tunic nodded his acceptance of the terms. I could have danced in celebration; we were going to be able to sleep indoors that night!
“I see you’re as talkative as your grandfather,” the man commented.
Tunic smiled at him and shrugged.
“You kids wait here,” he told us. He shut the door and left us on the porch. He returned five minutes later and led us to the barn. It was, by no means, a large building. It housed a dozen or so cattle, but the entry way had been turned into something of a smithy.
Tunic removed his fur cloak and hung it on one of the pins on the wall. I emulated him, delighted at the weight removed from my shoulders. I dropped my pack immediately too. I thought he would remove his hat, but he kept it atop his head. Next, we shucked off our boots.
I cringed at the damp scent of our clothes and feet, but it was heavenly to remove the outerwear.
The man built a fire in the forge and stoked it until it was roaring. Tunic and I moved our boots to its heat and watched as steam rose off all our damp garments.
“Thank you,” I managed to say between chattering teeth.
“By the teacher, you folks are foul smelling,” he commented. I felt my temper rising, it was not like we could help it. Plugging his nostrils with pinched fingers, the man exited the barn.
Tunic gestured for me to calm my temper and I conceded to his wisdom. We were being allowed to sleep out of the rain – if that man decided to spend the entire evening complaining about me, I would let him.
The man returned a while later bearing two pails of steaming water. He dropped one in front of Tunic and then passed him a bar of soap and a cloth. “C’mon,” he instructed me. He led me to an empty stall near the back of the barn and dropped my bucket.
“Thank you,” I replied again as he handed me the soap and cloth.
“Hold yourself for a moment,” he instructed when I moved into the stall. I waited for him as he dug into a chest at the other end of the barn. “Here we are,” he muttered to himself as he drew two articles from the contents. The first he tossed to Tunic and the second he passed to me.
I unfolded the bundle to find a dress.
“It was my wife’s,” he answered my unasked question. “I ‘spect you will want something dry to wear for the night.”
I echoed my appreciation and disappeared into the stall, closing the door behind me. I peeled and pulled and tugged my wet garments off, hanging them over the stall door. Then I dropped the soap into the bucket of steaming water. I drenched the towel and wrung it out. Dabbing my body with the warm moisture made me shiver more. I had to let the cloth cool so it would not feel like it was burning my skin. But I managed to soak my skin enough to lather it with soap and then rinsed. I did my best to splash the soapy water into my hair and then emerged from the stall in the foreign dress.
I felt quite uncomfortable with the ancient garment, but I did not fancy spending the night in the privacy of the stall. With a final adjustment to the itchy dress, I prepared to emerge. As I left the privacy of the pen, our host was not to be found. I carried my bucket and placed it beside Tunic’s then moved towards the fire. We did not say anything to each other and I suspect he was feeling as uncomfortable with his attire as I was with mine. Tunic had been given trousers that were too large for him. So large, in fact, I wondered where they had come from. The old man who owned this barn was smaller than Tunic. The shirt, which Tunic had attempted to wear, was obviously the slight old man’s; it could not even fit over Tunic’s shoulders and he was forced to decline it. We were thankful, of course, but that did not take away the sensation of foreign clothes.
Our host returned with a pair of bowls. “It’s not how my wife would have made it, but it is edible,” he informed us as he passed us each a bowl of stew. “Now then, boy, why don’t you tell me how your grandfather is faring?”
Tunic had to make the awkward announcement that his grandfather had passed on years ago.
“I see,” the old man replied. “I had feared as much. It’s been getting progressively worse.”
“Because of the monster of Keegan Heights?” I inquired.
The old man fixed me with a curious expression. “No,” he shook his head. “Dire wolves,”
“Dire wolves?” I echoed.
“Of course,” the man replied.
I blinked. It occurred to me that, perhaps, it was not just Tunic who was a mystery. “Tunic,” I said, “What did your grandfather do?”
“He was the best dire wolf hunter south of Keegan Heights, of course,” the old man answered.
Before I could stammer out my surprise, Tunic spoke. “I have tried,” he admitted, “to come north on several occasions, but the south is far worse. I fear they are being aided in their breeding.”
“That would be a wretched state of affairs for us humans,” the old man commented.
Tunic nodded gravely. I was flabbergasted. “Of course,” Tunic added, “I am not nearly the shot that my grandfather was.”
“I doubt anyone could surpass him,” the old man added.
The both paused in a moment of silent remembrance. I rudely broke it, unaware of the sacred nature of the moment. “You hunt dire wolves?” I exclaimed.
Tunic looked embarrassed for my ignorance. He nodded his head.
“I thought you were a fletcher,” I continued.
He gestured to indicate he did a bit of both.
“But, how could you? You would have to spend all your time fletching to fill our summer orders.”
“How do you kids know each other?” the old man queried.
“We grew up in the same town, in a manner of speaking.” I replied. Then I remembered my manners, “I am Nari. My father is the general store proprietor.”
He shook my hand, but did not offer his name. “What brings you this far north then, if not hunting?”
“We aim to stop the monster, of course,” I replied.
The elderly man’s face hardened. “What foolishness do you speak?”
“I am not lying,” I countered. “I saw the destruction the monster caused to a village, not even three days journey from here. We cannot just sit back idly while that thing is free to cause further mayhem.”
“It’s because of fools like you that the monster attacked in the first place,” the man roared in anger.
“That’s right. An intrepid fool decided to halt the monster himself and in retribution, the beast destroyed his hometown. If you fools would all just cease to aggravate it, you could avoid inciting the monster.”
“Is that true? The monster was only attacking in retribution?”
“Every fool who passed through here seeking the monster has never returned and their village is the next to be attacked.”
This brought considerable doubt to my question. If the monster were left to idle, perhaps it would not attack further. I certainly did not want to be the cause of the destruction of Kennbridge.
Tunic put an end to my meditations by speaking. “The monster may choose its targets based on those who seek it,” he countered, “But it has no desire to be idle.”
I was glad of Tunic’s reassurance, though I did not know the source of his assurance. We were doing the correct thing. Ignoring the monster would not make it disappear. It would only leave others vulnerable to devastation.
The old man was not pleased with Tunic’s conclusions though. “I ought to toss you out of here, like I exiled those other two,” he growled. “But for the sake of your grandfather, I will let you stay the night. I want you gone by morning.” Then he stormed out of the barn.