I munch on some apple as I follow him away from the camp. Despite what he thinks, I am learning. I can recognize the nutshells in each tree, some are even in my reach. And I’ve also gotten better at spotting apple trees. He describes the berries as we walk, telling me in detail of how to spot poisonous ones. Green, white and yellow berries will kill me in larger doses, the ones I picked the other day would have killed me in a small dose. He makes me repeat those colours to myself over and over.
He tells me to avoid red too until I’m better trained and to only focus on black ones. Black ones are apparently the only colour that are edible out here. I remember how delicious the berries were when he left them for me a few days ago and I’ve been eager to try some again.
He observes me as I find a blackberry bush and I take a handful of berries excitedly, looking back at him for confirmation.
“Good observation,” he says.
I eat them as we continue. We stop abruptly beside a tree and he pushes me behind him. I don’t understand what’s happening until I see the cute little rabbit in the distance, nibbling on a piece of plant.
“Follow your instincts,” he says, pushing the handle of the blade into my palm.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Approach it and kill it,” he says.
My hand starts trembling as I walk around him. The rabbit has its back to me, its ears start twisting as I near it. I get around halfway before it hears me and shoots off into the plants. I lose sight of it but I break out into a run to try and catch up with it. I stop at the barrier of plants.
Thorn breaks out into laughter and I scowl at him as I turn back around.
“Did you really think it’d be that easy?” he says between his laughter. “You will never be able to match the speed of a rabbit.”
“What the hell?” I groan.
“You can’t approach anything without it hearing you and you certainly can’t chase it. So how do you kill it?”
I narrow my eyes at him. “Get a gun?”
“Meh. That’s for cheats.” He walks towards me and positions himself behind me, gently twisting me until I’m looking at a tree. “Target practise.”
“Really?” I mutter.
“Blade throwing is made up of three things. Sight, speed and power.” He holds my shoulder before trailing his hand down my arm. The contact is making me flush. I wonder if he can hear my racing heart. He doesn’t comment on it, he gently moves my arm back until it’s almost painful. “The power and speed comes from the shoulder but it matters little without sight. Seeing your target and understanding everything about it is crucial. Look at the tree, study it, your mind will simultaneously connect your sight with your arm.”
I stare hard at the tree. It isn’t that far from me, it looks easy. That’s probably why he chose it.
“Keep the blade tilted back,” he says. “So the edge is facing just above your shoulder.” He adjusts the blade in my hand and our bare skins graze for a few seconds. “When you release, you’ll want to put as much power into your shoulder as possible. There’s no point in throwing it if you’re just going to injury the animal and it runs off with the blade inside of it. It needs to be a quick and deadly blow.” His hand falls to my other shoulder and I stare at it for a moment before turning my attention back to the tree. “The blade should follow your line of sight. Your arm should be parallel with the side of your cheek. Take a deep breath.” I follow his instruction. “And release.”
My shoulder is pushed forwards and the blade flies out of my hand. My hand drops downward slightly and the blade sticks into the ground just a mere few feet from where I’m standing. I fold my arms in disappointment as Thorn yanks the blade out of the ground.
“Keep your hand straight,” he says. “Watch me.”
He does everything that I did but so much better. For one, he has confidence. He doesn’t second guess anything. He rolls his shoulder back and holds the blade downwards and then his arm moves powerfully forwards. The blade travels so fast that I don’t even see it until it lands into the tree. Perfectly in the damn centre.
He flicks his eyes to it. “Try again.”
We do this for hours more. I became so tired and frustrated that I had to resist stabbing him with it. I couldn’t hit the target for a long time but I finally got the hang of it. I jumped and squealed with excitement when the blade landed in the tree. I was ninety percent sure that it was an accident but Thorn didn’t know that. I hit it again on my second try and then my fiftieth.
I had to keep taking breaks because of my wrists but Thorn understood and waited patiently. He never gave up on me, even when I had pretty much given up on myself. I never believed that I’d be able to do it but the way he teaches is incredible.
We stalk the rabbit later in the day. He shows me the droppings on the ground and how to look out for them. He is a natural hunter. A natural predator. He is dumbing down his senses to show me this. I know that he can probably hear the animals anyway.
We locate an oblivious rabbit a few miles away. I become nervous again. Stabbing a tree was fine but hurting that little creature is bringing on a panic attack. Thorn watches me as I roll my shoulder back and my hand shakes so badly that I almost drop the blade. Thorn reaches over and places his hand over mine.
“What are you doing?” I whisper.
“You’re not ready yet. It’s okay. You will be.”
I surrender the blade over to him and I look away as he throws it down at the animal. It makes a loud squealing sound and Thorn races over to it. The squealing stops. He lifts the animal by its legs and we walk back to the camp in silence.
I know what the next part of the training will be and I’ve been dreading it all day. I just hope that I don’t throw up this time because I really can’t afford to empty my stomach again.
“Before we prepare the food, what do you think we have to do?” he says.
“I don’t know.”
“How are you planning on cooking it?”
“Start a fire,” I say.
He nods. He drops the animal onto the log and then clicks his finger at me to come closer. I kneel down beside the nest of twigs and frilly stuff.
“This is called tinder,” he says, picking up the frilly stuff. “It’s broken up dead bark from trees. It’ll be difficult to start a fire without it but it’s very easy to find. We don’t get much wind down here but if you’re trying to start a fire on higher ground with bad winds, don’t. It’d be pretty pointless.” He starts smiling at me. “That also applies to rain.”
“I’m not that stupid,” I snarl.
“Really? So how do I make the fire then?”
“Uh. . .”
“Come on, you’ve watched me do it for two nights.”
“You rub the rocks together.”
“Friction,” he says. “And they’re not rocks, they’re flints. The friction is what makes the spark. It can be flints or rocks or even wooden sticks. Watch closely because you’ll be doing it tomorrow.” He arranges the tinder into a high pile and fiddles around with the twigs.
He takes two sharp flints and places them above the nest. He keeps one pointed downwards while he rubs the other one against it strongly. There’s a spark straight away but it doesn’t last. He continues scraping the flints together until a spark jumps onto a piece of the nest and then I smell burning. He bends down and blows against it softly. Just like that, a small fire begins, heating my skin.
He makes it look easy. He makes everything look easy. It’s infuriating. Within minutes, the fire becomes bigger and then he starts placing bigger pieces of wood into it.
“Starting a fire is easy, it’s keeping it going that’s hard,” he says. “If you don’t give it things to burn then it’ll die out. Luckily, there’s no shortage of wood in the woods.”
I laugh quietly. “Who knew?”
“You can go for a walk if you want,” he says. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
“It’s okay. I want to watch.”
He cocks an eyebrow. “If you’re not ready to kill it then you’re not ready to butcher it.”
“I want to be,” I whisper.
“Well, if you’re sure,” he says. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He takes the blade out which is already coated in the rabbit’s blood and I move to the side of the log as he kneels down in front of it.
“You’ll want to remove the limbs and head first,” he says. “My blade can cut through bone but you might struggle if you’re not strong enough.” He starts sawing the blade against the neck. He positions it so that the eyes are looking directly at me. “Then you’ll need to remove the fur and-”
I hold my mouth and run away. I escape into the safety of the trees and I pace for a while until I send myself dizzy.
Nope. Can’t do it.
I fall to the ground and I place my head between my knees. I take deep breaths. I don’t throw up this time but I am very close. I can only imagine that Thorn is finding this hilarious again. He warned me and I didn’t listen.
I only have a few days left to learn from him and I am nothing close to prepared to do this on my own. He knows that too. Will he let me stay longer until I am prepared? That could take weeks or months.
And there’s still the possibility that the King’s men will find me. If that happens then I will not be taken alive. I do not care what it costs me, I am never going back to my past life.
I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting and sulking for but I flinch when Thorn yells my name. I walk back into the camp with my arms folded. He is carefully placing the pieces of meat into a bowl and then he sprinkles something over it, it looks like chopped nuts.
“I need more time,” I say. “I can’t do this in a few days.”
“We agreed one week.”
“No, you agreed one week. I didn’t get a choice.”
“Too right you don’t get a choice,” he mumbles. “This is my home.” He lifts the bowl into the air and I snatch it out of his hand. My aggression startles him. “You can cut the attitude.”
“Please,” I say. “I don’t have the skills like you do. They’ll find me.”
“They won’t find you. I can promise you that.”
“How can you promise that?” I demand. “You don’t have any idea what it’s like to be a female. I have been looked at like an object by men for as long as I can remember. You are the first man—you are the first person—to ever treat me like I’m human. There is only one thing that men want from me and if Lyle is alive then he will never stop until he gets it.”
Thorn glares at the meat in his fingers and his jaw clenches. “You are talking about sex?”
“Yes,” I say. “He assaulted me and he almost raped me and I cannot allow him to find me. Please, I am begging you. Let me stay here.”
Thorn lifts his eyes and looks at me. “Why do you feel so safe with me?”
His question startles me. I can’t quite explain why I feel safe here, I just do. I’ve felt safe with him since the moment I found him sleeping outside that cave. He protected me from Lyle and his men. He has protected me from a lot of things. I owe him my life at least five times over and I might never be able to repay him for that. I am asking him to surrender his peace and gain nothing in return.
“Because you don’t look at me like that,” I say. “You treat me like I’m more.”
“You are more,” he says. “You doubt yourself but there is strength in you. I can feel it. What that coward did to you is his weakness, not yours.”
“Can I stay?” I whisper.
He looks away as he considers it. It is the longest wait of my life. It will seal my fate. I know what I am asking. He’s been alone for a long time and he didn’t prepare to share his home and his life with a stranger. Let alone someone like me.
“You have to understand something,” he says quietly. “I am not. . .” He stops and rubs his chin as he glares at the fire. “You are. . .” He sighs.
“What?” I say.
“There are things about myself and these woods that you don’t know,” he says. “Things that, if discovered, could lead to consequences that you couldn’t imagine.”
“There was a curse placed here over a century ago, long before the war began. She said that a descendant of hers would one day be the key to breaking it. But to break it the descendant would have to. . .” He looks at me and swallows as my freaked-out stare paralyzes him. “You are looking at me like I am crazy. Trust me, I wish I was.”
“I don’t think that you’re crazy but if you don’t want me to stay then tell me. Don’t make up some weird story.”
He laughs to himself. “It’s not a story, Devon. I have been cursed to live in these woods for a very long time. I can never leave.”
“That makes no sense.” I rub my head. “Of course you can leave.”
He shakes his head. “There are things keeping me here. Things out of my control. I wasn’t the only thing that was cursed. My entire. . .” He bites down on his teeth. “My point is that if you are found with me then your life will be in danger.”
“By who?” I say.
“By very dangerous people that will do anything to stop the curse from being broken.”
“What?” I say. “You think that I’m the descendant of someone that cursed you?”
I can’t listen to this anymore. It’s madness.
“Yes,” he says. “They live on the mountain. They will not think twice about killing you.” His voice growls as I walk away. “Devon.”
“I’ll eat this in bed. Goodnight.”
I chew on my dinner nervously. I fear he might follow me but he leaves me alone. Why couldn’t he just say no? That he’ll teach me as much as he can and then I must leave? Like a normal person.
I knew there was something strange about him. Stranger than his heightened senses or his pet wolf or his ability to take out Lyle and his men without even suffering a bruise. But this?
There’s a part of me that wonders if he’s telling the truth. I’ve been disconnected to the real world for so long now that I’m becoming open to weird and impossible things.
All I know is that whenever he looks at me, I feel grounded and in control. I feel stronger than I am. I don’t want that feeling to end but it looks as though he’s going to force it one way or another.