I sit very still for a while, thinking deeply about my decisions as I wait for Thorn to return. The bruises around my jaw and wrists are stinging brutally. I make circular motions with my hands, testing if they’re broken. I clench down on my teeth and I tuck my hands into my shirt.
Thorn was right. I can’t survive out here. He doesn’t even know me and he already knows me better than I know myself.
I have nowhere else to go. I grew up around other high-born families and I have ‘friends’ I suppose but they wouldn’t dare hide me from the King. My family would have already spoken to them, everyone will be on the lookout for me.
That leaves the low-borns. The people my parents called ‘an insult to society.’ They live in smaller homes, mostly cabins or cottages. There are tens of thousands of them and it makes me feel incredibly uneasy that I have never met them. I have seen them of course but the moment any of them tried to approach me, my parents or friends would intervene and lead me away.
They are the workers, the providers to the high-borns. They farm our food and hunt for our meat and stitch our beautiful dresses. This new world is much like the old one, the one that existed centuries and centuries ago. After the war, control was the key to maintaining a peaceful society. There has always been division between the rich and poor but this change meant that the poor couldn’t progress. We were born high-born. We didn’t earn it nor work for it.
I should feel lucky. I should feel grateful. I’ve always had food and shelter. I’ve always had education and materialistic things at my disposal. I had everything that the low-borns didn’t have. Except one thing. I never had my parents’ love.
The first time my father hit me was when I was six. He smacked me so hard that I still remember the fear my child-self endured. The second time was when I was twelve. We attended another high-born family’s party and I tried to have a conversation with a low-born servant woman. She was starving, my heart ached for her. I stole money from my mother’s purse and I gave it to her. She refused it and tried to give it back to me but my father caught us. He told me to never disobey him again. I never did.
I have always been afraid of my father. My mother, however, was more complicated. Sometimes she loved me and sometimes she suffocated me. The one thing that I do remember is that she never raised her hand to me. She always consoled me after my father’s outbursts and wiped my tears away. It was only when I became older that she became distant, more cold, more determined to marry me off.
And then there’s Coan. Without him, I think I would have ran away a long time ago. The thought of never seeing my brother again is what hurts the most. Coan is an experienced tracker and hunter. I’d like to think he’d find me one day. I will hold hope for it no matter how bleak.
The entire kingdom is screwed up. Anger has been building in my heart for a long time. All of them are prisoners, abiding to the laws and social dynamics like good little sheep.
Out here there are no walls. No pens. For the first time in my life, I am not trapped. I close my eyes and breathe in the fresh forest air.
“Have you even moved from that spot?”
I snap my eyes open. Thorn appears suddenly, I didn’t even hear him approaching the camp. He holds a dead rabbit in his hand, dangling it upside down beside his leg. I’ve never seen a rabbit or any other animal out here except for the wolves, how did he find one so quickly?
“You can move you know,” he says.
“I know,” I say. I move my eyes down to the little thing in his hand. “I hope you made it painless.”
Thorn squints his eyes and looks down to the animal. He rolls them as he approaches the stack of wood in front of the camp. “Don’t tell me you’re one of them.”
“One of what? I care for animals, is that surprising?”
“If you care for animals then you should probably look away,” he mutters.
He positions the dead rabbit onto a small log and holds the blade in the air before he starts to gut it. The sound makes me feel queasy.
“How can you just casually do that?” I say, covering my mouth as I turn away.
“Because I’m a predator,” he says. “If you want to learn from me then you’ll have to be one too. And to answer your question, yes I made it quick and painless. I always do.”
He’s right. I have to face it. How am I supposed to survive without hunting? I grimace as I look back to the gutting. I see the blood running down the log and the severing of the rabbit’s feet which starts to make me a little dizzy but the moment the blade slices across its head, I turn around and I throw up onto the ground.
Thorn finds it amusing. Despite my reaction, he doesn’t stop. I hold my stomach and I take a long sip of water, pushing the next wave of bile back down.
“You okay?” he calls after a small bout of laughter.
I wipe my mouth and I stand up slowly. I don’t look at him as I lower myself back to the ground and I head away. “I’m just going to. . .”
“I’ll shout you when it’s ready then.”
I drift into the trees. I take a small walk around the perimeter of the camp, shaking my head at myself. He’s probably still laughing at me. He probably thinks I’m pathetic. The high-born, pampered princess that he already thinks that I am. I want to prove him wrong but I have no idea how. I can’t even watch the gutting so how am I ever going to do it?
I stay close, peeking around a tree to see him holding a long piece of wood up to his eye level as he slides pieces of the meat onto it. He’s started a small fire but he sits directly over it as though the flames don’t bother him. He knows that I’m watching him but he doesn’t take his attention from the meat. I walk back over as he positions it over the fire.
He starts grinning. “Feeling better?”
“Yes.” I clear my throat and I sit on the log beside him. I can’t see the other parts of the rabbit that he removed, he’s hidden them somewhere, which I’m grateful for.
“I haven’t cooked meat over a fire in a very long time,” he says. “I estimated twenty minutes the other morning and it didn’t give you poisoning, did it?”
I stare at him.
“What?” he says, staring back.
“You don’t cook meat?” I say in confusion.
“No. I eat it raw.”
I widen my eyes. “How raw?”
He chuckles. “Relax, I don’t just go around biting into animals. Obviously I skin them first and then I eat the meat raw. But even that is rare. I don’t usually eat in my human. . .” He turns and looks at me, my reaction of complete bewilderment makes him swallow. “Never mind. Twenty minutes should be fine.”
Stranger and stranger. I edge closer to the fire, gently placing my hands out to warm them up.
“Are you cold?” he asks.
“There’s a sweater in that chest,” he says, looking back to the table.
I return a couple of minutes later with the sweater on. He looks over it for a moment before turning back to the fire. The scar on his cheek keeps demanding my attention and I feel rude for staring at it.
“That’s nothing,” he says. “Did you see my stomach?”
He leans back and lifts up his shirt with one hand. My eyes fall to his chest first that is coated in hair, like a thick rug. I glance down to his hard stomach that is covered in several slashes, like he was sliced with a blade over and over again.
“What happened to you?”
“Wolves,” he mutters, dropping the shirt. “I got into a bad fight with one once. He was an asshole.”
“There are no bite marks,” I say.
“I killed him before he had the chance. But . . . his friends still blame me for it.”
Oh, he really is crazy. I shift back uncomfortably, trying to discreetly put distance between us. I knew that he wasn’t exactly normal but I’m starting to question just who I’m spending my time and nights with.
“Is that why you keep the wolf around?” I say nervously. “For protection?”
“Something like that.”
“How did that even happen? I mean, you have a wolf as a pet, that’s not exactly-”
Thorn chuckles and I narrow my eyes.
“Pet?” he says. “Wolves are not pets. Trust me, he does what he wants. He sticks around because we respect each other. It’s nothing to do with control.”
“Oh. Well he saved my life. Those wolves would have torn me apart.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of grey wolf packs out here,” he says. “You’ll be safe in the camp. They won’t come anywhere near my scent.” His eyes look up at the slightest noise, he follows the direction of a bird that releases itself from a tree and then he narrows them into the woods. “The bears, however, are a different story. I’m surprised you haven’t seen any yet.”
“I thought you said the bears were on the mountain?”
“Most of the predators moved to the mountain when I arrived here,” he says. “But occasionally their food source runs low and they come back. I can hear around four of them right now. They’re within five miles but the vibrations are different weights. Probably a mother and cubs.”
“Why would the predators move to the mountain because of you?”
He smirks at me. “Did I say it was because of me?”
“No.” I twist my head at him.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he hisses.
“Something about you has been bugging me since I met you,” I say. “Your accent.”
“What about it?”
“It’s British. I recognize it from television.”
“Immigration hasn’t existed in over a century. How did you get into the country?”
He takes a long pause. He has been confident with every answer he has given except this one. It makes him uncomfortable slightly. He turns away and studies the meat.
“It’s ready,” he says.
I don’t pressure him for an answer. He’s already doing so much for me and I don’t want to risk angering him. It’s just so bizarre. I’ve never heard anyone with an accent like that in this part of the country, at least not in person. It’s possible that a small faction of immigrants remained isolated and passed on the accent down through a couple of generations but Thorn lives out here alone. Who are his parents? Where are his parents? Does he even have any family at all?
I continue thinking about it as I pick the meat from the stick and we both eat in silence. He allows me to have most of it, only taking a couple of pieces for himself. He keeps his eyes on the sky as it starts to gradually darken, he almost looks paranoid.
“You should go to sleep,” he says. “Take my bed until I build another.”
“Are you sure?”
“Where will you sleep?”
“I’ll sleep on the log.”
“The log?” I turn around, glimpsing the hard and uncomfortable seat. “But-”
“Devon, I don’t care. Just take my bed.”
“Okay,” I say. “Goodnight then.”
He doesn’t say anything. He still continues to sit there, occasionally throwing more sticks onto the fire. I’m exhausted but this is the first time I’ve felt safe in three or four days. I can’t keep track of how long it’s been. I don’t want to go sleep yet but I feel like I have no choice.
I drag the thin curtain over as I step into the small space. I turn around, glimpsing him still sitting by the fire with his back to me before I pull the curtain across. The bed is a square-shaped wooden coffin with a thick and comfortable quilt over it. I curl up inside of it, watching the sky get darker and darker through the open wall until I sleep.
I wake up with a start from a nightmarish dream. I dreamt of Lyle. His hands grabbing my body, pulling my pants down my legs. It takes me a while to adjust to reality and that it wasn’t real. I’m too afraid to go back to sleep so I decide to get up.
I open the curtain slowly and I step out to the front of the camp. The sun is just starting to rise and the sky is lighting up with a beautiful orange colour. I look to the log first but Thorn isn’t there. There’s no sign of him anywhere.
I probably shouldn’t snoop around but I can’t help it. I want to know more about the mysterious man that saved my life. I walk over to the table and I open the chest that I retrieved the sweater from. I root through some weapons and folded blankets before my fingers grip something hard. I bring out a small stack of books. They look really old. The covers are dusty and worn out. I have no idea how long he’s going to be so I decide to read one.
I take a seat on the log and I open the first page. The paper is rusty and yellow, most of the writing is unreadable and stained but I squint through it. I read for a while until the log starts to hurt my back and I place the books back into the chest.
I fold my arms and I stare out at the calm and silent woods. Bored and wanting to do something nice for Thorn when he returns—to say thank you—I go in search of some breakfast.
I don’t venture too far but fruit is surprisingly hard to find. I circle around the whole camp and I travel down a pathway towards a few bushes. I study them closely and I pick a handful of berries, stuffing them into my pocket.
It’s even lighter when I reach the camp again. I tie my hair up into a ponytail and I cringe as I feel the grease against my skin. I should probably wash it today.
I sit down beside the burned-out fire from last night, sighing as I look up at the sun. I watch some squirrels run up and down a nearby tree, that becomes great entertainment for a few minutes. This is my life now. Fascinated by squirrels.
I hear footsteps coming from my right and I tense for a moment, relaxing when Thorn walks around a tree and approaches the camp. He stares at me as he walks towards me but he looks distressed about something.
“Good morning,” I say.
“I’m going to sleep for a while. Don’t disturb me.”
I turn away but he stops suddenly. He backs up, spinning around to stare at me. Our eyes meet and he looks really alert, as though I’m an intruder.
“What’s that smell?” he says.
“Smell?” I pick the sweater from underneath my armpit and sniff it. “It might be me. I was sweating quite a lot last night.”
“No,” he says. “Not that.” His nose sniffs around me and then a look of complete terror flashes across his face.
“Hey!” I shout as he bends down and yanks me to my feet. His fingers push into the pocket of my pants and he takes out the berries, he looks down at them and then his hand flings through the air, throwing them far over my head and into the distance. “What are you-?”
He drags me away from the camp and pushes me down onto my knees. I feel a tight grip to the back of my neck as he flings my head down so far that my nose is almost touching the leaves.
“Thorn, I didn’t-” I squeal.
He sticks his fingers down my throat before giving me the chance to tell him that I haven’t eaten any! He restrains me tightly as his fingers move further down my throat. I start gagging until I cough up the meat from last night. He releases my head and steps away. I breathe heavily as I wipe my mouth with the end of my sleeve and then I turn with watery eyes and I jump up, slamming my hands against his chest. He doesn’t even move.
“I didn’t eat any!” I shout at him, fighting the urge to punch his face. “What is wrong with you!”
“Are you completely stupid?” he says. “I can’t even leave you alone for a few hours!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that they were. . .”
“Poisonous?” he says. “Deadly to humans? If you want to eat berries then tell me and I’ll get you some. When are you going to learn that everything in these woods wants to kill you?”
“I got them for you,” I say, holding my throat as I swallow uneasily. “I just wanted to do something nice for you. I shouldn't have bothered.”
He calms himself, taking deep breaths. “Oh. And you didn’t eat any? You’re sure?”
“I guess it’s an easy mistake to make,” he says. “Just don’t pick anymore fruit without my knowledge, okay?”
“I’m going to sleep,” he mutters. He shakes his head and walks away.
I rub my throat gently. “Apology not accepted,” I whisper sarcastically. “Jerk.”
“I heard that!”
I flinch and return to my previous position on the log. Thorn lays down on the log inside the camp and keeps turned away from me. I push my knees to my chest and I play around with some of the sticks. If I had eaten the berries then he would have just saved me from a severe and painful death. I guess I can’t be mad at him for that. I want to be though.
I want to be mad at the entire world.