Miran was ready.
All that mattered now was shaking off this head injury, Nessa told herself, so she could make a run for the hills. She had to wait a week of so for the headaches to subside.
Nessa decided to broach the subject with Miran. Hunter was always nearby, which made communicating openly difficult.
"I think you're ready," Nessa told the older girl.
"I don't feel it," Miran admitted. She was doing the bulk of the work in camp now. She walked during the day and made Nessa and Hunter ride the horses. She chose campsites and scrounged for food.
"The fact that we're not going hungry means you're decent with a bow," Nessa grinned. "And the stuff you gather in these woods isn't any different up north. You'll stay well-fed if you have to make your home elsewhere for a night."
"What about jousting? And sparring?"
"You need to work on your reaction time," Hunter spoke up.
Both girls turned to glare at him, "I—" Miran had words but Nessa just shook her head.
"It's fine. We all freeze at some point or another. It's good you learn that feeling of helplessness now so it doesn't show up later. Do you know what you'd do next time?"
Miran nodded earnestly. She hadn't made a move because she didn't know what to do. She didn't expect someone to drop Nessa to her knees from a distance. She should have. No one had been able to get close enough to her. It was the only avenue that made sense. "Expect the unexpected," Miran said aloud.
Nessa nodded. Hunter gave a snort of derision. The redhead wasn't having any of it, "Why don't you go make yourself useful?" She barked at the Courser. "Collect firewood, or see if you can bust your stitches using the bow because you're such a man. The only person pulling their weight around here is Miran."
Hunter jumped to his feet like he'd been shot and took the bow with him into the woods, rising to Nessa's challenge.
This time, the glare came from Miran.
"You can't prepare for the joust," Nessa admitted honestly, ignoring the look completely. "There's no guarantee it'll be an event this year. The only thing you can do is keep your seat and hold the lance. You can hope to strike your opponent, but I don't have any lances to offer you to practice with. As for sparring, I can't. Hunter's not at full speed either. You can practice your moves on an imaginary target. It'll look foolish, but if you put your heart into it, I promise you, it's exhausting." The redhead fell silent and Miran knew she was listening for Hunter in the woods.
Miran knew what the next topic was going to be. "You're not ready," she said.
"I know. I was going to wait another week."
Miran nodded. She accepted this knowledge.
"We'll be at the Cataire border by then," Nessa continued.
That was cutting things close. They both knew that. Another week or so after that, they'd be at their destination, if everyone stayed in good health. Nessa's window of opportunity to escape was narrowing.
The plus side was that since her head injury, they hadn't encountered another Courser. Hopefully that meant everyone was filtering out of the woods and hunting down other bounties.
"How do you intend to get rid of Hunter?" Miran wanted to know.
"That's why we're having this conversation."
Miran nodded, She didn't know what to say. Since Nessa's injury, the Courser had been watching her like a hawk. She wouldn't be able to run without attracting notice, unless—unless, the Courser thought she had no desire to run. Miran began with, "Have you noticed how he watches you?"
"Coursers, like all good hunters, keep a steady eye on their prey."
"That's how it started," Miran agreed. That was no longer the case. Before, he watched her because he was expecting her to bolt. Now, it was because he was concerned for her well-being. The interest was more than making sure his bounty fetched a good price. He wanted her to make a full recovery because he cared about her. The transition had been so subtle, it might have escaped observation entirely, if Nessa hadn't gotten injured. That was when Miran noticed.
Nessa's eyes narrowed, sure of an insinuation, but unable to comprehend what it was.
"Have you ever thought about how he might respond if you make him think you have no intention of leaving?"
"I don't follow," Nessa admitted.
When Miran struggled to phrase what she wanted to say next, Nessa knew.
"You think he's attracted to me?" Nessa looked revolted and sounded disgusted. "If he is, it's because I am woman, nothing more. Have you not—?"
Miran made a face. If he had such basic standards, why wasn't he paying both of them the same amount of attention? Miran didn't voice this thought. Instead she said, "I understand that you don't like Coursers because you don't perceive them as being honorable. Hunter is, however, a professional. He would not be foolish enough to make a habit out of tainting his livelihood by developing a personal interest in his bounties."
Nessa still wasn't having it. "I'm not like his other bounties," the girl huffed. She didn't want to go into the details and sordid history of Coursers and Rogue Peacekeepers. It was an ugly piece of Cataire's past. "If there is an attraction, it's only because I am such a difficult bounty. He is a man who likes a chase. I have led him on a rather good one, besting him at every turn. That doesn't happen often."
It was possible she was right. Miran was familiar with men who thought the fun was in the chase and once they got what they wanted, they lost interest. Miran was also, by no means, an expert in men. There was no saying Nessa wasn't right. He could lose interest if she got compliant. They had already met a few of the women he had bedded. He didn't seem to have a type, so long as they were female. He was cocky and prideful and wild and charismatic enough to draw women to him. In their company, he seemed to be taming.
The girls were silent for a time, reflecting on this.
"You asked for my opinion," Miran said, standing.
"Your opinion on what?" Hunter asked as he strode back into camp.
"How long I want her to stay off her feet for," Miran answered quickly, knowing better than to sneak a look back at Nessa. She could feel the redhead watching her. Hunter had his mind on his own business. He didn't appear suspicious.
Hunter nodded as he dropped his catch onto the ground, "You can do what you want Nessa, but I think you should listen to Miran."
Nessa cocked her head to the side and answered flippantly: "You don't." She followed Miran with her eyes as the girl made her way over to Hunter. It was the only way to catch a glimpse of the Courser and not have it be suspicious.
When had he started calling her Nessa? She hadn't noticed the change until now. Before, he only called her Lightfoot. Using Given names was easy and indifferent. Hunter had even started calling Miran "Tolin" to compensate for the fact that she had no Given Name.
Why the change?
Nessa felt her gaze drag over to Miran.
Nessa knew she didn't tend to pick up on social cues. It was because she didn't encounter people until age ten and interact with them until age twelve. Complex emotions were hard to pick up on. Ones that had visual tells were helpful, like when Tyr got red in the face with rage.
The redhead knew how she felt about people. Love was a strong emotion, reserved for an elite few. She wasn't sure she knew what it was, but there was maybe one person in her life that she might feel that way about. Loyalty came next. There were a handful of people Nessa appreciated enough to defend. Miran was one of them.
Those were difficult emotions to observe.
Nessa was a hunter from the mountains. She'd been taught how to fight at the Academy. What Miran was asking of her required intrigue. Nessa didn't have any experience in such matters. That wasn't part of the Peacekeeper code. That was more up the alley of a Courser.
Nessa couldn't do it. She knew what Hunter did to women. She didn't want to be another name he could brag about.
She was just a girl. She didn't know where or how to begin.
He had at least five years on her and a lot more experience in the real world. Nessa hadn't even so much as kissed a boy yet. She was too shy. She felt she didn't know enough and it felt weird to ask. It was why she hadn't before.
She regretted that now.
Even if Miran was right, Nessa couldn't do anything about it. She wasn't going to play on Hunter's feelings. First, she had to accept that he had them.
This seemed more up his alley and it was wrong.
Unless...you could justify it with the idea of revenge.
That was something Nessa could work with.
It didn't make her any more qualified.
Why was she still considering it? Nessa blamed it on her—what had Miran called it?
Miran seemed to know something about intrigue. Perhaps the fact that she was two years older had given her the wisdom to be knowledgeable of such a topic. Maybe, with her help, Nessa could pull this off.
Miran seemed to think it was necessary. Nessa recalled people in her own life who had an affection for others. She tried to think of their habits. Because of their softness, they often ignored or overlooked details they didn't want to see. How many times had Nessa ignored that Hokan was a son of Tyr, a man who had brought her nothing but grief? She ignored it because Hokan was not his father, and unlike the controlling High King, Hokan made her happy.
Because of his own affection, he probably hadn't anticipated her reaction to his marriage proposal.
If she was thinking about Hokan, she was never going to be able to pull this off, Nessa scolded herself.
If Hunter felt strongly enough about her, he might be happy enough that she was paying him any attention at all that he might ignore subtle indicators that she was planning to run again.
Nessa was going to need some time to think about this.
She wanted to discuss it with Miran, but Hunter was always around. She hoped for some pointers from someone with more experience. She planned to ask later, when Miran was practicing her moves.
The Tolinese girl still refused to hit Nessa. The tiny redhead stood off to the side, watching Miran fight her imaginary foes.
Miran was a skilled conversationalist. She made it seem completely easy to discuss tactics in plain sight. Maybe if Nessa hadn't been raised in the Academy, discussing boys would have been something she did as casually as she talked about weapons.
"What are the men like in Cataire?" Miran wondered punching and dodging the air. "Back home, men like to think that women exist solely to fawn over them."
"Cataran men aren't like that," Nessa made a face.
"Are you sure?" Miran cast a glance in Hunter's direction.
"Hunter's from Magen," Nessa explained. "They view women differently there."
"I was raised in Magen, but trained in Cataire," Hunter spoke up. "Don't lump me in these backwoods thinkers."
"That's rich, coming from you," Miran remarked.
"What?" Hunter sounded offended.
"Men understand that women are equal to men in Magen," Nessa explained. "They don't mind working alongside them, they just don't want to fight alongside them. They believe women are more useful elsewhere, taking over the workload while the men are off at battle and raising little ones."
"Men can't raise little ones?" Miran asked.
"They can," Hunter allowed, "but they can't give birth to them."
"Women can't give birth unless there's a man around to procreate with. I'd say they are equally useful."
Hunter made no attempt at a rebuttal, but he knew this fight was far from over. "Say what you're going to say, Tolin."
Miran bristled at this new nickname,"You say you understand the worth of women, but you don't respect them."
"I appreciate every aspect of a woman's body," Hunter said.
"What about their minds?"
Hunter seemed to sense that there was no way he could win this argument so he changed gears, "Girls know what they're getting into with me. I'm a Courser. I'm exotic. I pass through towns, I don't hang around."
"That doesn't exactly match up with the twins' account of you."
Hunter blew out a breath, "The Stone girls were looking for something serious. I'm not. I'm more of a one night, last chance kind of guy."
"It has nothing to do with the fact you slept with both of them?" Miran pushed.
"Listen, you're not from here," Hunter said. "The way us Coursers live, we take our lovin' on the run. Those girls were willing. That's all it boils down to. I moved on like I always do. Maybe it'd be something if we were both after the same bounty...but there's also the matter of sisters. You don't date one when you've slept with the other. That's just bad news."
"Then why did you sleep with the other one?"
"Because I believe in honesty and fairness," he huffed. "Don't get all high and mighty on me, Tolin. We've all got dirt in our pasts. I'm no exception. Why do we have to examine mine? We don't talk about why you left Tolin, or why Nessa there's on the run."
"We're talking about men," Nessa spoke up at last. "And what goes on in their heads that makes them mistreat women. We've analyzed it from a societal point of view. You had the unfortunate luck of being the only man in the vicinity and walking into our conversation."
Some of the anger seemed to dissipate from Hunter. He was getting red in the face, and his chest was puffed up. He didn't like being the center of attention. He cast a suspicious look on Nessa, "Why are you being nice?"
"Because Miran's tearing you to pieces. Would you rather I wasn't?" Nessa's tone was even, but he could hear the edge in it.
"I don't like the role reversal," Hunter admitted.
"Fine. I don't like the way you treat women, but I'm willing to let it slide because you're from Magen," she said.
"You're in no place to scold me, Lightfoot," Hunter's temper was heating. "Way I hear it, you've broken hearts too." His grey eyes bored into her.
Nessa suddenly found she couldn't breathe.
Hunter seemed to realize that this was too bold of a statement to make. When he looked away, Nessa shot into the forest.
"Do you make friends everywhere you go?" Miran wondered sarcastically, halting in her practice to survey the Courser. His shoulders were hunched. He looked ashamed.
She saw his feet start to pivot, "Are you sure you want to—?" Nessa had chosen to run. She could have hit him.
"What if she runs away?"
"She probably just needs space."
"I have to make this right," he said and dashed off after the redhead.
Miran made a face to herself. Not bad for the first go round. More than that, she was intrigued by the turn of events. Hunter knew something about Nessa's past and he had used it against her.
Nessa claimed to not know much about intrigue or acting, but she'd performed perfectly, coming to Hunter's rescue. She hadn't anticipated Hunter getting so riled up, but hopefully, they were making amends out in the woods somewhere. Miran knew Nessa wasn't going to run. She was in no condition to do so. And she'd left without her pack.
Nessa was the first of the two to return. She attempted to make things look casual by collecting a few pieces of firewood on her way out of the woods. She refused to make eye contact with Miran, and her cheeks were noticeably red. It wasn't from the glow of the firelight.
As the days passed, Miran practiced fighting as much as she could. She knew her time was running out and she was determined to ask Nessa everything she could before the girl took off.
Nessa was back to her usual self. She sparred with Miran in the mornings and the evenings. They had nothing but time on their hands. They avoided head shots, but discussed their importance in every other situation. Nessa divulged which parts of the face wouldn't break your hand, though she was a huge proponent of kicks. Sometimes, Nessa bullied Hunter into letting Miran try to beat him up.
"It'll do her no good if she's only ever fought one person," Nessa told him when his expression was an unequivocal "no".
"You're supposed to be the unbeatable one," Hunter grumbled. "What do you need me for?"
"So Miran can finally win one," Nessa grinned. "So she can know variety," Nessa answered honestly.
Hunter was getting to his feet.
"If I'm so unbeatable," Nessa remarked walking past him, "Why am I letting you collect the bounty me?"
"Could be any number of reasons," Hunter admitted, twirling to face her. A genuine grin was pasted on his face, "You knew I wouldn't stop pursuing. That's the story you like to tell. I think it's cuz you got soft and wanted me to catch you."
"Only because I felt bad," Nessa said, pushing him away.
On the day that Nessa was ready to run, she encouraged Hunter to spar with her so Miran could have a break. The Academy wasn't that far away, but they still had a couple weeks until the Entry Games. It was good that Miran was working hard, but Nessa didn't want her to work too hard.
Hunter strode over, "It's about time we had that epic fight everyone will ask me about when we get back."
Nessa grinned, "Don't go easy on me."
The boy and the girl dropped into fighting stances. The height difference was typically what determined the winner in a boxing match. Nessa was a head shorter than her opponent, but she was used to fighting Hokan, who had another six or eight inches of height. She knew how to use her opponent's bulk against him.
Hunter started things off with some punches that Nessa easily darted away from. She went for a leg sweep that caused him to stumble. She threw in a few punches that were nowhere close to making contact, and then kicked. She caught him in the gut and they both stumbled away.
Hunter lunged, thinking he would abandon his form and overpower the tiny girl.
She threw him over her shoulder and pounced.
They wrestled for a long while in the dirt, trying armbars and chokeholds. None seemed to stick. Sometimes Hunter seemed to be dominating, other times, Nessa looked like she was going to win. There was another scuffle, clouds of dirt kicked up and you could hear someone trying to speak.
As the dust settled, Hunter was tapping on Nessa's forearm. She had him in a chokehold. He appeared to be losing consciousness.
The tapping stopped, but the girl held on. "Chokeholds are dangerous," Nessa panted. "There's a fine line between unconsciousness and death." She let go and slipped out from underneath the unconscious Hunter.
"Like head injuries," Miran nodded.
"Only use it if you're in a desperate situation."
"And you need a headstart," Miran observed as the redhead flew to collect her pack and mounted a ready and waiting horse.
"In a more stressful situation, you can kill a person on accident. I don't recommend it. I just wanted to show you it—as a final lesson," Nessa dug her heels into the horse and the pair galloped out of sight.
Seconds later, the Courser's head lolled, and he rejoined the world of the living. He massaged his neck with a curse, "Damn it all Lightfoot, why didn't you let go?"
When he had recovered enough to look around, he saw why.
His curse was more foul this time. He honed in on Miran, "Which way did she go?"
Miran almost pointed in the wrong direction. Instead she said, "Can you please not take the horse? I might need it."
"Which direction?" Hunter growled, pushing to his feet.
The Courser nodded and collected his things. He passed the horse by as he set off down the road at a jog, grumbling that there was a town nearby anyway.