Chapter Four: The Runaway
20 Years Ago
Shale pushed through the heavy branches with gloved hands. Her feet squelched in the mud, toes numb from the cold. Her cloak lay heavy on her shoulders as rain poured ceaselessly from the murky skies. It was nearing dusk, and she knew she could not push on much further. Ahead stood a wide oak tree with branches extending in every direction. She moved toward it with difficulty, shivering, and curled up at the base of the trunk where the rocky ground was relatively dry. With a shudder, she pulled back her hood, allowing her frizzy black hair to find freedom in the freezing air. Her breath puffed out in front of her, revealing her stupidity in full clarity. Yet, in her chest burned a determination that would stop short of nothing except death, she thought proudly. I did it. I ran away.
She pictured for the thousandth time her parent’s reactions when they awoke that very morning. They probably assumed she had gone out early to do her chores. By mid afternoon they may have grown suspicious and checked her room and seen some of her clothes were missing. Perhaps they noticed some of their food supplies gone. Shale had packed lightly and was now beginning to regret it as she pulled up the sopping wet blanket from her pack and wringed it out. She draped it over one of the branches and dug through her pack for a strip of dried meat and a heel of bread. She ate ravenously and was unhappy to see how quickly her portions waned. She looked over at the bow she had taken. She’d practiced the bow and knew a few things about hunting. She was no expert by any means, but she was a quick learner and determined not to return home.
It took nearly an hour of pulling up dry twigs from the base of the tree and striking her flint before giving up in a fit of shivers, accepting that she would have no fire. It was fully dark now, and the rain had not subsided. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a roll of canvas to keep her dry? Why hadn’t she brought more blankets? Was this who she was, really? Useless without her parents?
“No,” Shale said aloud, pressing her hands up under her armpits and leaning back against the tree trunk. “I’m not helpless. I can do this. I know the forest. I won’t be defeated.” She said it through gritted teeth, closing her eyes and repeating the mantra over and over again. “I can do this.”
Finally, exhaustion and cold overcame her, and she nestled under her damp blanket, drawing up leaves and branches around her and burying her face for warmth.
Shale awoke to the cheery twitter of birds above and the buzzing of insects as they zipped past in search of late-season flowers. Her entire left side ached as she pushed herself free of the leaves and other debris. Her blanket was still damp, and she put it up on a branch again to air out. She laid out her cloak and the spare clothing from her pack, which had also been thoroughly soaked the day before. Satisfied, she stepped out of the cover of the large oak and allowed the warm morning sunlight to bathe her face and exposed arms. She chewed on an apple as she surveyed the trees around her. She could hear the rushing of the nearby river, proof that she was headed in the right direction. See, this isn’t so bad, she thought, casting away the apple core and returning to her tree to pick up her bow and quiver.
She had travelled quickly the day before and was certain her tracks were covered. That would give her enough time to hunt. The key to hunting, her father always told her, is patience. Patience was not normally her strong suit, but this wasn’t the Shale Dominai of Triel. This was Shale of the Forest, Shale of Freedom, Shale of… snap. A branch nearby had broke. She ducked, notching an arrow to her bow and creeping as quietly as she could through the leaves. Another snap to her left. She spun around, weapon raised, heart fluttering in her chest. She squinted her eyes, trying to make out exactly what was pushing through the bramble. The shape was large and dark.
Bear, she thought frantically, dropping her bow and ducking behind a tree just as the creature came into full view. It grunted and sniffed the air and Shale could hear it pushing its nose into the leaves. It was coming closer. She held her breath, unmoving. It sniffed some more, snorted, then lumbered past. She waited until it had pushed through the trees on the other side of the clearing before she dared to move. The beast was heading in the direction of her camp. She waited in cover for a full half hour before returning to her belongings.
She cursed her stupidity for leaving her pack on the ground. The bear had torn through it for the food. Going through her meager belongings, she saw that nearly all her food was taken except for a hunk of cheese and a small jar of jam, both of which had been wrapped up and stuffed inside a hat. The pack was as good as ruined. “Great,” she muttered. She only had a few silver coins with her. She hadn’t dared steal coin from her parents, so this was from her own stash of earnings. She was weeks away from any other towns, so she would need to improvise a pack. She pulled out the tie from inside her cloak and wrapped her belongings in her blanket, which was now close to dry, and created a loop she could string it around one shoulder. It wasn’t perfect, and she would have to unpack everything whenever she wanted to get in it, but it was better than nothing.
With a sigh, Shale picked up her belongings and headed toward the river, the opposite direction of the bear tracks.
Two miserable weeks passed, and the weather grew cooler, the leaves turning browner each day and eventually shaking free of their perch to make a new home beneath her weary feet. Shale had grown used to the feeling of emptiness in her stomach. A few times she had found a bush full of overripe berries and she picked it clean, barely exerting the willpower to save some of them for her next meal. That was one of her first lessons: to plan ahead. It was something she’d never needed to do until she was on her own. Her parents had her entire life planned out for her, including who she would marry when she was of age.
I hated that life, she thought. I’m more interesting than that.
The day passed like any other, and she found herself being caught up in dreams and imagined conversations. Suddenly, she stopped. Something was off. The forest was missing a sound. The river! She gasped, whipping around to see her path through the leaves. She couldn’t hear the river anymore. How long had she been walking away from it? She never walked alongside it, for fear of wild beasts and bandits. Now, it seemed she had completely abandoned the trail.
There was a slight rustle of breeze through the trees, but nothing else. I’m lost, she thought with despair. Was it better to turn around and retrace her steps? That could take her an entire day from her travels, and she was already nearly starving, not to mention the turn of the weather. That morning she had awoke to a few falling snowflakes. Her hunting skills left much to be desired, and though she had mastered starting fires, she had only cooked a few small squirrels in all her weeks of travel. She felt suddenly vulnerable. What am I doing out here? I’m just a kid. This was dumb. This was so stupid. She was panicking. She felt dizzy. Shale crouched in the leaves, bending her head between her knees and forcing herself to take deep breaths. The panic refused to subside. She stood and began to run desperately, blindly through the trees, leaving her path behind her. She ran and ran until her lungs burned and threatened to collapse.
She fell to her knees in front of a tall birch and began to beat the tree with her fists. She was weeping. When had she started that? She beat against the bark until her knuckles were bruised and bloodied, then collapsed back into the grass and pulled herself into the fetal position. Lost. I’m lost. I’m starving, and no one knows where I am. I’m alone.
There was a faint humming sound, and she opened her eyes, wiping them with her fingers. The white bark of the birch tree was streaked with drying blood, but beneath the marks she’d left behind, a new mark had appeared. And it was glowing.
“There now,” a soft voice said behind her.
Shale scrambled to her feet and threw her pack in the direction of the voice. A tall figure stood, cloaked in green. It raised its hand in a soothing gesture, dropping the hood. Before her stood a genderless person with point-tipped ears and a shaved head. They tilted their head, gazing at her gently with ageless eyes. Their skin was tanned by years spent in the sun.
“Who are you?” Shale asked, her voice stronger than she felt, which surprised her after weeks of rare use.
“You think you are lost, but that is not the case.”
“No?” She asked uncertainly, shifting her eyes from side to side to see if the traveller had companions at hand. They were no bandit, she was sure of that. They seemed to float there, so gentle was their presence.
They shook their head. “You found this place.”
They smiled, then, and a light seemed to fill Shale with a warmth she hadn’t felt since back home at the hearth, the smell of fresh bread and stew, and her mother’s lavender incense. A culmination of safety and the promise of a full belly. “I am here to give you the tools you need to survive, and the direction you desire.”
She squinted at the figure, straightening her shoulders and examining them in full. “Who are you?”
“An excellent question, Shale Dominai. Come, let me show you.”
They know my name. Shale pushed back a strand of frizzy black hair from her eyes and followed the strange figure as they turned and walked away. She picked up her makeshift pack and tossed it over one shoulder, feeling oddly at ease as she tromped through the forest after the cloaked figure. Soon, she could hear the familiar sound of the rushing river ahead.
“Here,” the figure said slowly, turning back to her, “is where your training begins.”