Light coughing wakes me up in the early morning. Devon starts stirring and her hand gently whacks into the side of my face. I’m kneeling down at her bed with my head next to her leg. I slept through the transition.
I look up at her. Her eyes start to open slowly. She blinks for a few moments before she rests her gaze on my face and then she looks down at my chest. I’m so relieved that she’s awake that I don’t care that I’m not wearing clothes.
Her hazel-brown eyes are sparkling with life. They are beautiful. Every inch of her is.
“You’re naked again,” she whispers.
I laugh and take her hand, rubbing against it softly. “You really scared me.”
She raises an eyebrow just slightly. “Why?”
“You just did. How do you feel?”
“My arm hurts,” she says, trying to turn her head to look at it. “What is that?” She stares worriedly at the thick, green paste.
“It’s a very rare herb used to speed up healing. It worked, your wound is almost closed.” I look around the floor for my clothes. “Hang on a moment.”
I start dressing myself with my back to her. I turn around to see her staring at the ceiling and then she looks all around the hut with confusion.
“Where are we?” she says. “Did I hit my head?”
“No. I brought you to some people that helped.”
“What people?” she says frantically, trying to push herself out of the bed. “You can’t trust anyone. We have to leave, we have to-”
“Woah. Calm down,” I say, walking to her side. I push her back into the bed and she scowls at me. I’ve missed that scowl. “We can trust them. I promise.”
“Drink this,” I say, forcing the cup to her lips. “Three sips.”
“What is it?”
“A painkiller. It’ll help.”
She accedes and relaxes back into the bed as she takes sips. Her face cringes at the taste and she almost spits it back out. I pass her the cup of water and she gulps so fast that I have to take it away from her. I hear someone approaching the hut. Her eyes go over my shoulder and she starts to panic.
“Who is that?”
“Her name is Balan. She’s going to look over you.”
Devon nods but she keeps her distrustful gaze on Balan as she walks over to the bed. I can see in her eyes how confused she is. I don’t think she realizes just how close to death she was.
“Hello,” Balan says. “What’s your name?”
“Davina,” she says.
I bite on my lip. “Devon, you can trust her.”
“Can I?” she mumbles.
“It’s okay. I have trust issues too,” Balan says as she picks Devon’s arm up and slowly twists it. She places it back down. “It’s healing nicely. I’m going to check there’s no nerve damage, can you move your fingers?”
Devon’s fingers move slowly and then she cries out. She wraps her fingers around her arm and rocks slightly.
“The opiates will help with the pain,” Balan says. “Take three sips every few hours. It’s very strong so you should start to feel its effects soon.”
“How long until she fully recovers?” I say.
“Well, given that the herb is working, as long as you keep applying it to her chest and wound then she should be fully recovered in a couple of days.”
“Good. Bag me up some of those herbs and painkillers. We’ll be leaving soon.”
Balan straightens tensely. “Does Lucias know?”
“No. I’m not one for dramatic goodbyes.”
“So you plan to slip out without offering us any explanation or closure?” she demands. “What about Kiara? Have you forgotten that she exists too? She’ll be back from her hunt any minute, are you really going to leave without seeing her?”
“I don’t owe her or you or anyone else anything!” I hiss. “Now bag up those herbs and do your job. That’s an order.”
She laughs as she moves towards the door. “For someone that was so keen to run away from being our leader, you certainly still act like one.”
She can’t even say the word.
I fall back into the wall of the hut as I rub my chin. I turn to see Devon’s reaction. Her mouth is open but she cannot form words. We haven’t had the chance to speak about the curse since I dropped it on her the other night. She thinks I’m delusional and I don’t blame her but this bond of bizarre trust that we’ve formed is stronger than anything else.
I consciously and unconsciously ache for her. All I want to do is take her hand and never let it go. I can’t resist these feelings no matter how hard I try but she can. Being chained to this bond is exhausting.
“Thorn, we can’t go back,” Devon whispers fearfully. “They found the camp.”
“They’re not alive to tell anyone about it,” I say.
“How do you know that?” she says. “What if one of them saw me and then ran back to-”
I shake my head. “The wolf would have heard them. He’ll protect us, don’t worry.”
“The wolf isn’t there every day!” she yells. She exerts herself too much and she leans back with shallow breaths.
“Take it easy. Look, I know that you’re terrified of Lyle’s men finding you but we can’t stay here.”
“Why?” she says. “You trust these people. Whoever they are. And they seem to care about you.”
“They won’t protect you,” I say. “If the King’s men came close to this community then they’d rather tie you up and throw you at them than face exposure.” Her face goes white with terror. “Devon, will you just relax? They’re not going to tell anyone that you’re here. They don’t talk to people outside the community. They live in the wild because they have no choice, like myself.”
“But they’d sacrifice me to maintain their secret lives here?”
She gasps. “The savages.”
That word makes my nose wrinkle angrily. “Excuse me? The what?”
“I grew up hearing stories among the high-born about savage humans that live out in these woods. People would come into the woods to hunt and never return. Some of the high-born claimed to have seen them stalking the roads. People were going missing. The King even sent an army to hunt them but they were never found. Is that them? Are they killing people?”
“No,” I say. “They leave people alone unless they feel threatened. They’d only kill if it was necessary.” Or what Lucias constitutes as ‘necessary.’
“Then who is?”
“Did you listen to a single word that I said to you the other day?” I growl. “About the dangerous people on the mountain? They’re the ones grabbing people from the roads, slaughtering them and dragging them back to the mountain.”
“They come down here?”
I nod and clench on my teeth. “They’re not shy about it either.”
She leans her head back thoughtfully. “It’s not safe anywhere.”
“Thorn.” I hear my name being called from outside the hut and I turn my head to see Kiara standing against a fence.
“What is this curse?” Devon asks. I charge towards her. “Are you-?”
I clamp my hand around her mouth and she scowls at me. “Shush,” I whisper. I lean my lips down to her ear. “Don’t speak about it here. Promise me.” She nods her head, her eyes narrowing as I remove my hand. “Get some rest. I’ll be back soon.”
I duck my head as I leave the hut and enter the wolf’s den. I already know what’s going to happen and I am anticipating it. Facing Kiara was something that I had to mentally accept and prepare for since the moment that I made the decision to come back here. I got lucky that she wasn’t here yesterday. I don’t think I could have handled her anger then.
She looks the same as the day I left. Which should be impossible but because of the curse none of us have aged in a very long time. Her black hair is tied up tightly at the back of her head, the way she always wore it. She hated hair being in her face. She looks a little bigger, more muscled and toned.
Kiara’s hand clenches into a fist as I walk closer to her. I become very aware that she’s got a blade tucked into her trousers. Other members begin to crowd us but I ignore them.
“Were you really going to leave without facing me?” she hisses.
“Kiara. Don’t do this.”
She swings her fist at the side of my face. The impact makes me stumble. She’s gotten stronger. I’m proud of her.
“How could you leave us?” she cries. “How could you leave me?” Another blow to the jaw. I take the hit. I deserve it.
I spot Lucias and Dara walking to the front of the crowd. Lucias folds his arms as though he’s waiting for an answer.
“Fight back!” she yells.
“I’m not going to fight you.”
“Coward.” She extracts the blade and holds it to my throat, yanking my head back by my hair.
“Kiara,” Lucias says in a low, cautious voice. “Enough.”
“This doesn’t concern you, Lucias,” she says, her eyes flashing hazel as she snaps her teeth at me. “This is between me and my brother. Answer me!”
“They would have come down here and slaughtered all of you if I had stayed and you know that,” I say. “I had to suffer and they had to see me suffering.”
“Bullshit,” she yells. “We could take them. You have no faith in us, you never did. You left because you’re a coward. Say it.”
“You’re not going to kill me,” I say. “Stop pretending to be something that you’re not.”
She releases my hair and steps backwards. “Don’t act like you know who I am,” she says through her teeth. “I am not the same, scared girl that you abandoned. I’ve changed. We’ve all changed. Did you even think about me once? Because I thought about you every day. Every day for a century. Can you even fathom that in your tiny head?” I try to answer her but she moves on quickly before I have the chance. “Do you know how many times I tried to track you down? You could actually win an award for the most creative ways to disguise your scent. But I still tried. I tried for years. Because that’s what you do for family.” She pushes her hands against my chest.
“You can hate me but it won’t change anything.”
“You’re stupid,” she says before turning and running through the crowd.
“Wow,” I shout. “Great insult.”
I rub my temple as I stare after her. I shouldn’t leave it like that but Devon and I need to get going if we’re going to make it back to the camp before nightfall. She is the only reason that I am here and I remind myself of that as all of the familiar ghosts stare at me.
“Anyone else want to have a go?” I say, spinning around the crowd. My eyes land on Maria, my previous companion, and I swallow as her eyes bore into mine. I don’t linger on her for too long but I have a feeling that our staring competition isn’t over. “How about you, Pal?” I say to the tall, broad man-child that is bouncing like this is the most exciting thing he’s ever seen. “Anything hilarious to add? You were always the joke of the group.”
“No,” Pal mutters shyly, looking at the ground to hide his shame.
“You’re all hypocrites!” I say. “You think that I’m a coward but I don’t see any of you running up that mountain and taking them on. The curse doesn’t prevent us from going there so what’s stopping you?” I glare at Lucias. “Or does that conflict with your honourable image?”
“Remind me again why we are helping him?” Daria looks to Lucias for an answer that he isn’t interesting in giving.
“There are children here, Thorn. We cannot just declare war,” Lucias says.
“There is no war to declare,” Daria says. “They have left us alone and we show the same respect. Like you said, if you had stayed then it would have been a different matter and still might be.”
I smile to myself as I interpret her real meaning. She doesn’t care that I left, she only cares about her position. The longer I stay, the more that is jeopardized.
“Don’t worry. I’m leaving.”
I intercept Balan on my way back to the hut and I yank the bag out of her hands. The opiates have put Devon back into a deep sleep and I’m relieved that she didn’t hear any of that. She stirs slightly as I bend down and pick her up.
“So what’s so special about her?”
I straighten my back and I turn to meet Maria’s hard gaze. She folds her arms as she studies the sleeping girl in my arms.
“Well for one she isn’t a stone-cold bitch.”
Maria laughs. “Tell me how you really feel.”
“I don’t have time for this.” Maria blocks my way purposely. “Move.”
She twists her head as she slowly moves her hand over Devon’s forehead and plays with her hair. “She’s lucky to have you looking out for her. A girl like that won’t survive out here for long.”
“She’s doing just fine,” I say.
“You’re teaching her,” she says, snapping her blue eyes up. “Why?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Come on, Thorn. We have history you and I. You can trust me.”
“Ancient history,” I say.
“Who shot her? Hunters? Did they mistake her for a wild deer?” She grins to herself and pulls her hand back. “Does she even know that she’s in a community surrounded by dangerous, meat-eating predators? Rather careless of you to bring food here.”
“How have they not hung you from a rope yet?” I say. “Lucias’ decisions baffle me.”
I barge past her and I take pleasure from knocking her into the wall. I stick to the path confidently. I’m surprised Lucias doesn’t offer any parting words but he’s learned that efforts to sway me will be pointless.
I pause at the end of the long path and I look up to the hill as the wind blows her scent towards me. Kiara’s teary eyes glare down at me before she wipes her cheeks and disappears over the hill.
I don’t have the time to feel bad about it. I hold Devon a little tighter and I run.