“Why haven’t we been riding before?” I asked as we continued our flight. I could feel his chuckle as I held on to him.
“She doesn’t like you,” he said, in reference to his horse. “I promised her I would only call if it was an emergency.”
“Fickle horse,” I muttered under my breath. So it was still true that she would rather carry a wolf corpse than me.
When we stopped and descended, she disappeared. No doubt ensuring I understood her disdain for me.
I wanted to ask Tunic his perspective on Felina and Felan, but I could not erase the image of Felina’s familiarity with him. It was as if her hand still lingered on his face, playing with his hair.
“Are we going to talk about what happened?” Tunic asked.
For once, it was Tunic who was impatient with my response time. “What did Felan say to you?” he inquired after I had deliberated too long asking him the same of Felina.
“He was quite insistent that I take your bow from you,” I replied.
“Did you tell him about the arrows?”
“Of course not! But while we are speaking of them, what happened to those arrows?” Tunic had been interrupted before he could explain what Layla’s sprites had done to his arrows.
“She gave them the ability to defeat the monster,” he replied.
I pondered that for a minute. While it was good to be empowered with a weapon that could defeat the destructive faerie, it really did us no good. Imena had said no human could defeat the monster. Perhaps we needed to find a faerie that could do it.
“Did Felan have anything else to say?” Tunic pressed.
Though I didn’t want to, I remembered Felan’s insistence that I should not trust Tunic. “Well,” I replied, “He was almost certain we would be abandoning him so he encouraged me to try and beat the faerie myself.” I left out the part where he had told me to be suspicious of Tunic. “What did Felina say to you?” I asked.
Tunic grimaced. “She didn’t say anything really.” His hand instinctively reached for his hat, checking that it was secure.
“She was pretty close to you,” I remarked.
“Too close,” he agreed.
“So our consensus is that those two were false,” I clarified.
Tunic nodded heartily.
“I think they meant us harm,” I replied. “I don’t understand why, but I think Felan was hinting to their motives. I can’t figure it out though. It makes no sense. What benefit would there be having me try and fight the faerie?”
“We still need to learn a lot more about this monster before we battle it. I hope the next faerie is more informative,” I said.
“We should make haste,” Tunic interrupted my thoughts. “Whatever plot those two have conspired to, I doubt they were unprepared for our escape.”
“We should have asked Layla to revitalise us,” I suggested. “We could have run then.”
Tunic shook his head. “There are consequences to faerie magic. In the short term we may have optimised our efficiency, but when the magic began to wear off we would have depleted energy in an equal amount.” I looked at him with bewilderment. How did he know so much about faerie magic? I had read most of his book on faeries and it said nothing of the sort. “I also met Imena,” he informed me. “She found me searching for you around Dinsmore. She blessed me with her power for she feared you would be assailed.”
This was news to me. “You ran from Dinsmore? That was almost a full day’s travel for me.”
Tunic nodded. “I had lost your trail when you departed Oxtown. She found me before I even got to Dinsmore.”
“Why,” I thought to myself, “Even if you were running full speed, that would have meant you were more than a day out. Imena must have found you before I came to her.”
I shuddered to think how long he had run to find me. And he had barely made it in time. How terrible it must have been for him to spend that effort only to find me at the mercy of the dire wolf. He might not even have seen that I was alive still; he would have seen me on the ground and likely despaired. I was fortunate he acted so instinctively. No wondered he had collapsed in exhaustion after. “That is why you slept so late,” I guessed. “The faerie magic required recompense.”
“I suppose because I had not taken advantage of it to quite the same level it had less of a drain on me. Though I will admit, waking that morning had been a struggle. I guess that means we should not ask the next faerie for power.”
Tunic shook his head. Not if we were able to avoid it.
“We can still run though,” I replied. “In short bursts, at least. Though, I have a feeling if those two want to catch us, they will prove our betters. There was something peculiar about them. I have never met folk like them… Though, I suppose you might be their match.”
Tunic did not like being compared to them, but I could not shake the association. I did not want to end the conversation on that note though. I flashed him my vainest smile and flicked my hair like I used to when flirting with Cade. “Fortunately for you, I prefer your company.”
He rolled his eyes and jogged off.
“Hey!” I shouted as I scrambled to catch him. He increased his pace, taking advantage of his longer stride.
It was two days of alternating between jogging and walking before we discovered Kiho’s pool. I was quite proud of my endurance, though it was probably only average.
Like Layla, Kiho’s pool was alfresco. However, it was much harder to find. We descended into a valley in the early morning and were mired in such heavy fog I could hardly see Tunic next to me. It was as if the entire valley was an ocean of mist. Not even the sun could break its damp clutch on the land. I think even Tunic was disoriented in the thick of it. Gone were the usual signs for reading direction.
We diverged at one point and were reduced to shouting out our position until we reconnected. After that, I ensured he was always in arm’s reach.
It was I who found the pool, stepping into it without noticing. We could not be sure, however, that it was the faerie’s. The fog was so dense that its shape was veiled. So, we walked along its perimeter searching for some hint.
Our answer came in the form of a font. I pointed to some of the strange symbols Tunic claimed were his language. “Do you need to say something again?” I inquired.
It would be frustrating not being able to understand the faerie again, but at least I had Tunic along to actually speak to her. I would have been in trouble had he not joined me.
Tunic studied the letters and then began searching around for something. He frowned as he considered the message again. “What is it?” I asked.
“There should be a blade here,” he told me.
I looked into the font and discerned a piece of flint at its base. I pulled it from the water. “You mean this?”
There could be only one reason for a knife to summon a faerie. It seemed to me barbaric that they should require blood, but I had read it was not uncommon. I pricked my finger with the blade and let the blood drop into the water.
That’s when I noticed Tunic had tried to stop me. I thought he was being a gentleman, trying to save me from pain or something. “It’s just a few drops,” I told him. “It does not bother me.”
Tunic’s face turned crimson. “It won’t work for you,” he replied hesitantly.
“What?” I frowned.
He gestured for me to hand over the knife so I did. He held his hand over the font and cut a shallow line on his left palm. He squeezed his hand and allowed three droplets to fall in the water, then released the knife back into it.
As the knife dropped, the wind began pushing the fog towards the center of the pool. It whirled centrifugally, relieving the edges of their cover. The vortex of mist, however, became opaque. It shot into the sky and slowly fell back to earth about a kilometer around us. As the fog ascended, Kiho appeared. She had pale white skin and silvery hair that seemed to glimmer with a blue hue.
As with Layla, Tunic dropped into a respectful kneeling position. I emulated him. Tunic and the faerie exchanged words in their musical language and I kept my shopkeeper’s smile plastered on my face.
Why didn’t it work for me? Was there something special about me that I didn’t know about? After all, Imena had arranged for Tunic to protect me. I was not sure if I should be afraid of having a destiny or excited. I rather fancied the idea that I was somehow special.
The faerie disappeared and the fog returned. All the statuesqueness in Tunic faded into embarrassment as he returned his attention to me.
“Why didn’t my blood work?” I asked as we departed from the pool. Tunic’s face grew ruddier when I asked. “What is it?” I continued. I tugged on his arm, pulling him to a halt.
He took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair. He looked at the cap for a moment as though pondering something, but decided to replace it on his head. “We should depart from Kiho’s pool,” Tunic whispered as he gestured for me to follow his departure. I observed that his fingers tapped anxiously as he walked, betraying his unease.
This was thoroughly confusing to me. I had never seen him so nervous before. If, as I had thought, the blood issue were because I was somehow special, why would he be so nervous? We both know my vanity appreciated uniqueness. So then, if it were not a particularity to me, it must have to do with him. And what could Tunic be nervous about telling me? If it were something good, he should be free to speak of it. But, what if it was something malicious?
I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help but remember Felan’s warning about Tunic. Perhaps Tunic had been plotting something all along. He could be buying time to make an excuse. Maybe the faerie told him something he did not want me to know. After all, he had this “special” connection to them: speaking their language and having blood they accepted. Felan had insisted Tunic wanted to harm me, that I must stop him. I doubted he had wanted to hurt me in Kennbridge, but I had no comprehension of what had been exchanged during his conversations with all three faeries. Perhaps they were evil, leading me to my doom at the monster’s pool. Maybe that is why Imena had sent Tunic to my aid, to ensure I was brought to that beast’s lair and slaughtered there. Perhaps Felan and Felina were actually intending my perpetuation by warning me about my “friend.”
I had caught him unawares by offering my blood and now he was hastening to find a plausible excuse for the event. But I would not allow him the luxury. “Tell me, right now,” I demanded, grabbing his arm and forcing him to face me. I wouldn’t let him have any more time. I caught a glance at his palm as I detained his arm; it was wholly healed. My own wound remained scabbed and tender. Something was definitely going on.
He was quick to respond this time. “Kiho told me how the monster was awakened,” he replied, hoping to divert my question. He began to walk again, but I remained rooted. It was a classic attempt to avoid answering and I would not allow him to defend his secret longer.
“Don’t attempt to escape the question.” I stamped my foot down. “If you do not answer now, we are no longer travelling together.” I drew my father’s hunting knife to prove my point.
My hostility made things worse. Tunic grew wholly mute.
“What are you hiding from me?” I demanded through gritted teeth. I could not relinquish the doubts that had begun to flourish. He was good – at everything. Even deceiving me.
Like clockwork, my mind began churning out horrible scenarios. What if, and this infinitely disturbed me, his “silence” act had been a prank? What if he had been wantonly deceitful? What if he had been playing me from the start? It was not as if I had no evidence that he was attempting to disguise things.
“You’ve been concealing something,” I accused. “Felina did say something to you; you just don’t want me to know. Felan warned me something like this would happen. He said something would be revealed about you and it would relate to the monster. He was convinced you meant me harm. And he was right, wasn’t he?”
It was Ladd all over again. I felt my tongue move of its own accord, hurling accusations that I had no choice but to cling to. If I were mistaken about his motives, I would have been peppering him with anguish he did not deserve. Yet, instead of calmly discerning the situation my instinct was always to accuse.
Sure enough, he stumbled back as though I had stabbed him. I suppose I had. The horror on his face wrenched a blade in my own viscera.
“How could you say that?” he said in a voice so faint I could barely make out the words.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat; that I should be the one crying seemed ridiculous. After all, wasn’t I the victim here? What was he hiding? Why wasn’t my blood good enough for the faerie? “You’ve been disguising things since we met. You pretended you couldn’t speak. You never told me you knew my father, or my best friend, or Cade. You never told me you spoke other languages. And your horse hates me. Why does your horse hate me? Why is nothing easy with you? Who are you, really?” I was gone by then. The words just kept falling and I could not stem the flow. “How do I know you’re not another Cade? You could be worse than Cade. I never trusted him, not really. It was all flirting with him. But, with you… With you, I shared joy and hope, disappointments and anguish…”
I fell silent. I suppose remembrance of our friendship settled me. Or perhaps, I still clung to some hope. Whatever the case, I fell silent and remained that way. If Tunic were who he had always claimed to be, he would never have interrupted me. So I had to endure the sound of my echoing accusations while he found his words.
When he did speak, Tunic did not attempt to defend himself by denying my accusations. And what he did say, did not hardly answer my questions. Though, I suppose it was the center of the issue for him. He seemed almost to tears that I should be so harsh on him, but his voice was clear as he pronounced his response. It was not what I had expected and I could not believe it.
His eyes lifted to meet mine, their piercing depths made me feel vulnerable. Those eyes, which I had always fancied I could understand, seemed to scream, “I could never willingly hurt you.” I turned away from their pronouncement. And then his words completed what his eyes tried to say. “I have loved you since my tenth year.”
It was my turn to stagger back. My fickle gaze snapped to his eyes and locked there. He was lying. “We have only known each other for three years.”
Tunic shook his head, dropping his face. He could not even meet my eyes as he began to explain. “My parents passed away in my tenth year and because of… because of who I am… No one wanted the burden of raising me.”
I frowned. Did he expect to be able to deceive or distract me with this foolishness?
Tunic continued, “The elders summoned a stranger I had never met and told me I was to go with him. The man could not even speak my language and he took me away from my life.”
I should probably have stopped this nonsense, but I listened anticipatorily.
“We travelled for weeks and at the end of our journey we stopped in a small town. It was nearly dark and the wind was cold. The man carried me into a building and sat me on a chair in the corner. He disappeared in the back and I succumbed to tears.
“I didn’t remain alone for long though. My cries had drawn the attention of a girl. She emerged from behind the counter, curious about me. I stopped crying for a minute, but when she spoke, her words were foreign. She continued to say things and I fell to weeping again. Eventually, the girl grew silent and moved away from me. She peered over the counter, checking to see if we were alone and then opened a jar. She plucked two candies from within and then replaced the container where it had been. She handed me a candy and held a finger to her lips. This time, when she said something, I committed it to memory. I replayed the sounds in my head until I could never forget them. I couldn’t respond to her so I just nodded. Then she leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. She returned to the back of the store, but I repeated her words over and over: ‘You don’t have to cry anymore, we can be friends.’ I didn’t understand the words themselves, but I knew what they meant.”
“When I learned to speak Andra,” Tunic continued, “My grandfather explained everything. He had loved an elf maiden and they had a son, my father. But he was never allowed to see the child, for the elves resented his marriage. My mother had married my father despite his mixed heritage. I was only quarter human, but when my parents died, there was no one willing to take me. Grandfather had been summoned to remove me and bring me to his home outside of Kennbridge.
“We hid my heritage knowing Kennbridge would reject me… After all, have there ever been worse persecutors of the human race than the elves?” Tunic finally met my eyes. “Your blood did not work because it is human blood.” His eyes fell back to the ground in the utmost shame.
I awoke from the spell his words had put me under. I wiped my damp cheeks. I had not even realised I was crying again.
“The girl…” I asked, “That was me?”
Tunic nodded. I felt wretched not remembering such a poignant moment in his history. But how did he know it was me? At that time, my uncle would have been alive and I would not have frequented the store often. Though I was definitely guilty of thieving sweets when I was alone there.
Merciful Tunic, though miserable with his own grief, sensed my reticence and sought to clarify my unspoken question. “There was one word,” he told me, “The girl had said that I understood. In my tongue it means ‘Thunderpeal,’ and it is pronounced ‘Nari.’” He allowed a ghost of a smile to briefly rest on his features before reminding himself of his shame.
Tunic had elf blood; that was the truth Felan thought would terrify me? Everything fell into vivid clarity. That fiend, Felan, thought the exposure of Tunic’s heritage would frighten or anger me. And Tunic, a victim of that feud, had lived under the same assumption. Felan had hoped to use age-old prejudice to tear us apart. It was utter nonsense and I was ashamed to fall into his trap. Tunic’s reserve wasn’t sinister; he was frightened he would be turned out of his home the way he had been cast out as a child.
Standing there, pondering these events was not helping the situation though. I saw, in Tunic’s expressive eyes his self-loathing and a bracing for further offense. Knowing him as I did, he would endure it all without quarrel. He expected my accusations, my evil, horrid accusations to continue. At once, I hated myself and my inability to check my speech. It was not Tunic who was the sinister one here, it was I. I had slain many, not just he, with my wicked tongue. Tunic, Addie, Ladd, and others were all victims of my undisciplined speech. And there stood Tunic, who remained unmoving, awaiting another barrage of verbal assault.
It need not be mentioned that he could have fled at any time. He could outpace me without doubt, whether on horse or foot. I could not track him; he had ways of concealing his passage that I could not fathom. Or, he could out-power me. There was nothing to restrain him from ending our quarrel violently. I could not evade either his bow or his brawn. It was hopeless for me to contain him or defend myself against him, were he to choose either course. I was at his mercy.
But he remained to become a victim of my scorn. He awaited his sentence for a crime of heritage.
There was but one mystery more foreign than his willingness to endure my wrath. He had, after hearing my accusations, after all my patronizing treatment, and my willingness to abandon him, told me that despite it all, he loved me. My body fell breathless as I considered it. What had I ever done to deserve the continued love of this steadfast man?
He was not a charmer, like Cade, nor did we share camaraderie the way Ladd and I once had. Our mannerisms were so nearly antipodes, his being the better. He had qualities and skills, but lacked pride in them. I had little talent but arrogantly boasted as though I had the greatest. He had no reason for his endearment and yet he waited for my sentence.
At the thought that my prolonged response was agonizing him, I shucked off my pack and ran to him. “Why would you ever think that would bother me?” I whispered. Encircling my arms around his neck, I kissed him – and not on the forehead.
I should have kissed him weeks ago…