He runs for miles and miles. Never stopping. Never taking a breath. I don’t even hear a pant escape his lips. He knows exactly where to go, exactly which paths to take and which ones to avoid. I’m getting annoyed by only having a view of the ground and occasionally the back of his ankles. He hasn’t said a word to me for what feels like half the day. He takes me up hills, along streams, across streams and through pretty meadows.
He slows down. His jog coming to a steady walk as we approach something. He swings me from his shoulder and plants me on a wooden log. I look around at his camp. His real camp. I thought he was lying about it, that it never even existed. I wonder if that’s why he brought me here backwards, so that I couldn’t see where it was. Not that I’d even remember the way.
The camp is entirely made of wood. It's small and intimate. It doesn’t have doors or windows, it’s open with wooden planks providing shelter as the roof. There’s a small table that he walks over to, full of boxes, pans and cloths. He opens a box and retrieves another stainless bottle, throwing it towards my stomach. I narrow my eyes at him as I catch it and take a sip of the water.
The camp has a bed but it’s flat with a thin quilt and no pillow. It’s like he doesn’t spend much time in it. I stare at the weapons on the quilt. I catch a glimpse of a jagged blade before Thorn pulls a thin curtain across and blocks the bed from my sight.
It’s quiet here. Peaceful. My life was nothing like this. My life was noisy and chaotic. I was woken up every morning at dawn, forced to have breakfast with my parents at seven without being allowed to speak and then I’d have lessons.
My lessons ranged from music to languages to poetry. If there was a high-born teacher within a ten-mile radius of us then I’ve met them.
Thorn doesn’t have to worry about things like that. He can wake up when he wants, do what he wants. I envy that.
He turns his back to me as he empties one of the bottles of water into a small bowl. “I haven’t seen a single human in these woods in over ten years and then an army turns up,” he says. “I don’t take kindly to my peace being disrupted.”
I straighten my body as he turns around with the bowl and walks towards me. He sits right next to me on the log and his hand stretches out to my face. I instinctively panic. He watches my reaction with confusion as I turn my face away and I push myself away from him, keeping my hands firmly on my knees. He looks down at my hands, understanding flashing in his eyes.
“I’m not going to. . . what did they do to you?”
I don’t give him an answer. That seems to be enough.
“They really did a number on you,” he says quietly, stretching his hand out to my cheek again. “Cowards.” He touches my face for merely a second before I wince and lean backwards. “They broke the skin. I need to clean it. I promise you that I’m just as uncomfortable as you are.”
I smile. He smiles back. I keep my face turned away as he dabs a cloth of cold water against my cheek. I wasn’t even aware that it was bleeding. He places the cloth back into the water, rinses it and then holds it against my jaw.
“Keep it there,” he says. “It’ll help with swelling.”
I move my fingers to the cloth and our fingers touch for a second before he pulls his hand away. He stares right into my eyes and twists his head a little bit, every time he does that he looks confused. He drops his attention to my bruised wrist and he picks my hand up, rubbing over it gently.
“I can see why you ran away,” he says. “Did he do this to you?”
“I’m sorry. If I knew he was going to hurt you then I wouldn’t have left.” He sighs and stands to his feet. “Now I have to decide what I’m going to do with you.”
My eyes follow him as he walks back over to the table. “What do you mean?”
“I meant what I said, you can’t stay here.”
“I am staying out here with or without your help,” I say.
He bangs the bowl onto the table angrily and rubs his head. “Why here? Isn’t there some nice family you can sponge off for a while until it all calms down?”
“How many times do I have to say this? I am never going back.”
He turns with his arms folded. “Because of the wedding? Your future husband is lying in the forest with his skull smashed in. I’ve not been in society for a while so I’m a little behind with the laws and rules but I think the groom has to be conscious.”
I laugh. “You don’t know my family. If Lyle dies then they’ll just marry me off to another potential. They’ll chain me up so I can’t run away again and that’s assuming the King doesn’t execute me.”
“You can’t survive out here,” he says. “You’re human.”
“So are you.”
He smiles just slightly. “No, I’m not.”
I squint at him. Has he been out here for so long that he doesn’t even consider himself human anymore?
“I stopped being human a long time ago,” he says. “This is my home and you are bringing a shit storm into it!”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “But you are the one that hurt Lyle. I tried to warn you.”
“You really won’t go back, will you?”
I shake my head. “You don’t have to stay with me or help me. I am just asking that you teach me a few things so that I can do this on my own.”
“Fine,” he grunts. “You can stay here for a week and I’ll try and teach you as much as I can. Just as long as you promise to stay clear of that mountain.”
I nod. “I promise. Thank you.”
“And another thing,” he says. “Don’t be alarmed if you wake up in the night and I’m not here. I. . . sleepwalk.”
That makes sense as to why he keeps clothes around the woods. If he sleepwalks then he really doesn’t know where he’s going to wake up in the morning. I have experience with sleepwalkers, my brother used to do it. The doctor called it stress. I called it my parents.
Thorn opens the curtain and grabs something from the bottom of his bed. He emerges with one of the jagged blades. “I’ll catch you something to eat. If you need me then call my name.”
“But what if you’re-?”
“I’ll hear you,” he says, before he jumps down and takes off into the woods.