I manage to cut off every form of communication Nathaniel throws at me. The constant ‘how are you doing’ and ‘the weather’s nice’ and the questions about the tree and Sky only makes me want to punch his face more and more into a pulp. I concentrate on the trees, the feeling of the bark and the sounds of nature around me, and slowly Nathaniel’s bickering feels distant and out of mind. I trail my hands along the rough bark of passing trees, trying to feel its sap, its lifeblood course through the wooden sinews that provide the homes of millions of insects and other animals. I turn away from the tree and Nathaniel’s voice becomes flooding back into my ears as I pull a map of Kiloft from my pocket.
‘How far have we got?’ he asks, looking over my shoulder.
‘We should be at the tree by tomorrow, but it’s getting dark,’ I note, looking up at the pink stained sky. ‘If we set up somewhere and leave early the next morning, we’ll get there quickly if there aren’t any complications.’
‘We’re sleeping outside?’
‘Well, depends, did you pack your house with you?’
‘Then I guess it’s sleeping under the stars – men like doing that, right?’ I look around for a suitable spot to settle down, somewhere not too exposed but not too difficult to pack up and leave. After a few minutes, I finally find a small spot away from the main path through the woods, between two trees, almost too perfect to build a tent.
I retrieve the pancho from my rucksack and two long pieces of rope that I cut to two metres each with my knife, and then use another long strand of rope to tie off the hood of the pancho. After I locate the centre grommet on each end of the poncho, I tie one long piece of rope to each grommet, and then tie their ends, waist high, on two trees, like supporting poles. I grab three sticks, from a pile all around me, and sharpen them to a fine point in order to drive them through the grommets and firmly into the earth, and spread out the poncho in order to it to become taut. I repeat with three more sharpened sticks on the other side, until I produce a two sided tent. Sky taught me how to do this when I was nine.
I turn to Nathaniel, who watches me in awe. Was it so unusual for girls to know all this? Or maybe was it embarrassing that a girl is in charge of our survival? If it is the latter, then it is only half true. I’m in charge of my own survival. I kneel down and brush out the leaves and rocks from inside to lay a sleeping bag. I climb inside the tent and then into the sleeping bag. I wait for Nathaniel and ponder over what to talk about. I certainly don’t want to talk to him, but this would only make talk inevitable. OFFHH! A sleeping bag hits me square in the face. I growl, and throw it to the side, and watch as Nathaniel struggles to get into the tent. It is almost insulting that I start to think he can’t get in because I’m taking up much of the space, but he gets in and awkwardly gets inside his sleeping bag, that stinks of dust and ill use with several holes dotted around. The insects will definitely have a party with him. I pull my bag towards me, just in case something or someone comes along, and keep myself busy by searching the side pockets. I shiver when our arms touch. His skin is unusually warm and I regret to say that I wanted to wrap my arms around his to keep warm, but his heavy breathing puts me off and I reach for a small stick and concentrate on tomorrow’s expedition.
‘So how do you know all this?’ He asks. I roll my eyes. It is impossible to ignore him forever.
‘What do you mean ‘all this’?’
‘Well, you’re only twelve, right, and you’re like monkey survival chick. I can just keep my room tidy.’
Hmm…there are a lot of names I’ve been called over the years, and ‘monkey survival chick’ is certainly up there with the most, I must admit, original. The idea that Nathaniel could call me a chick is completely out of the question, but I let the temptation of hitting him pass.
‘My dad…taught me. He said girls are easier to teach because boys just wanna pee all over everything. Girls just accept that there naturally are limitations, then focus on overcoming them, however long it takes, while boys think the world is naturally theirs so they don’t bother.’
Talking about Sky makes a smile appear across my face. It makes this entire expedition worthy of continuing as I rest my head on my arms to reminisce on the good times: when Sky first taught me how to use a sword with a wooden one at seven, then a gun at age ten, because he told me children have to be armed especially in times of war. I remember the warmth of his large hands supporting my sword hand or when they covered my ears for gun practise. Sophie wouldn’t allow it and introduced me to dresses, make up and all the girly stuff I should really like. But Sky encouraged me to practise, but when the cancer grew worse, the lessons became shorter and shorter every day until I had to learn on my own or with Sophie watching.
Nathaniel shakes my shoulder, jarring back to the present. I look to him, and my brows narrow. He looks panicked, his eyes wide.
‘What is it?’ I whisper. He gestured to something outside with his hand. I pause for a moment, my ears searching for sounds like satellites, and I can hear something not too far from the tent. Footsteps? Paws? Slowly, I lean forward, shuffling forward and going as slow as possible as my boots brush loudly from within my sleeping bag that may give away our position. I poke my head out of the tent.
Two full grown wolves wander around the main path through the forest, ten, maybe, eleven steps away from us. I wish it had be a person, at least I’d know how to deal with them if they became hostile. All we have to do is wait for the wolves to leave. I watch them for a moment, hoping they would pass, but two more wolves, then three more. This is a pack.
I can hear Nathaniel’s heavy breathing, but I place my fingers against my lips for him to be quiet.
‘We are going to be okay,’ I mouth, and this seems to have given him confidence. His breath starts to slow down to a normal pace so I return to my thoughts. I look around and see my bag. There is a gun in my bag, but if it fired, they may attract more and more wolves. It isn’t a problem for me, as I could climb trees, but Nathaniel might find it difficult. I was wrong about before: we had to look after each other and whatever happens to us happens to us. Biting my lip, I pull myself from my stomach towards my bag and try so carefully to open the bag and take out the gun. I press the cylinder release latch and slip two fingers through the frame, and find four rounds. Not enough but maybe I’ll be lucky to kill the alpha and scare the others away. I slowly turn back, keeping the barrel down, and return back to my space. I keep the gun close to me, but Nathaniel jumps at the sight of it and grabs my wrist.
‘What-?’ I keep the gun close and pin his arm down with my elbow, adding more pressure until he finally lets go of my wrist. He flexes his hand as he pulls away.
‘What did you do that for?’ I growl under my breath.
He points towards the pack again, and I follow his arm to see two wolf cubs run towards their parents, yapping happily and play fight with each other and their parents. Oh, the Gods…I lower my gun down. I would have shot the wolves and orphaned the pups, like a monster, but…
‘If they attack us, we’ll have no choice,’ I finally say, and raise the gun once again.
‘If we show we don’t want to blow their brains out then they may not attack us.’
This is a very different side to Nathaniel, or maybe he has always been like this and everyone, including me, has been too ignorant to find out. I keep the gun raised for a moment, but then put the gun down and watch the family. After a few more minutes, the family gather together and move on.
I’m running…running…running…along a rushing river, everything is a dull grey, even the water, even me. I don’t know why I’m running, but my feet seem to have a mind of their own.
‘Arianna!’ a voice cries. It’s male. It’s now that my feet decide to stop, and I look towards the origin of the voice.
And then I see him. Sky stands on a gondola, pushing his oar and increasing his speed along the river. He wears a straw hat, where his beautiful blonde locks flow in the wind along with his beard that connects to his sideburns. He waves to me, but then turns back to what he is doing. My feet start running again the second Sky passes me.
‘Dad!’ I call out. ‘Dad! Wait for me, please!’
He doesn’t hear me. My voice has been beaten by his own laughter and the river’s rushing waves. My feet finally stop, allowing me to pause for breath and watch to see where he has gone. He goes on and on until he vanishes. I blink twice, but all I can see now is sea foam shooting in the air. My feet start again, sprinting towards where Sky had gone, but I notice the river slowly curving downwards. Oh, the gods! I try and stop my legs. I hear it now. The waterfall. My legs refuse to tell my feet to stop. I scream at them! Stop! Stop! Stop!
But it’s too late. I am launched over the cliff, a mighty steep fall that would kill me before I hit half way. I scream, my hands now scrambling on their own for something to grab.
‘Arianna!’ I look instantly to my left. Sky is falling with me, a wide smile on his face, and waves at me.
I wake up, screaming loudly, and find myself back in the tent. I’m sweating, breathing heavily, trying to remind myself that this is just a dream. My breath shudders.
I look to Nathaniel, rubbing my sweat away with my arm. He looks at me fearfully, his hands up.
‘Arianna, put down the gun.’
‘What?’ But then I look down and find the gun held tight in my hand, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. ‘What happened?’
‘You nearly shot me.’
I sigh, and put away the gun now into the bag. Nathaniel still remains stiff around me, as if I would return back to my frenzy and shoot him.
‘I’m sorry, Nathaniel.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Round about seven,’ Nathaniel says, looking at his watch.
‘Then let’s go.’
In a normal world, I would have been worried if someone suddenly woke up and pointed a gun with the intentions to fire, but the journey ahead takes precedence. I pull myself out of the tent, with Nathaniel following, and dismantle the tent and put it back into my rucksack. I look over my shoulder to Nathaniel for a moment and see him spreading his arms and legs out, a click following each stretch that makes me cringe. His shirt rides up, showing navel and below, with fine hair that stretches down and into his pants. He catches me watching, and I swiftly return to untying the supports from the trees. I hear a laugh, but I choose to ignore it.
As we walk, the dream keeps lingering in my mind. Sometimes I jump when I recollect the fall, but pretend I’ve tripped over a branch. Nathaniel is elsewhere, however, admiring the landscape but I have to stop him from inhaling anything hazardous. I hear the sound of running water close by, returning me back to the dream from last night, but I move quicker towards the sound until we reach a rope bridge hanging low over a small river.
I jump with excitement and make my way across the rope bridge, until my leg gives way on a weak step. I scream as my leg falls through, scraping my skin against the harsh wood, as my leg start to dangle loosely, advertising a free meal. Splinters dig into my thigh, and I feel my blood starts to seep down my leg and drip into the water below. Nathaniel darts after me and pulls me up to safety, brushing away any loose splinters. I hug him tightly, but then I look on towards the tree, and continue my way across the rope bridge.
At the end, there stands the withered tree, its roots snarled and twisted; its last leaf must have fallen decades, maybe centuries ago. The sweet smell of rotting wood and pine needles invigorates my nostrils, and I know this is it. We did it! I feel so close to Sky now, I could burst! I storm across the rope bridge, and face a small slab of marble with a golden plaque before the tree:
The Tree of Neveah, Heaven bless it,
hath questioned the deities and persons,
that hath left this realm,
and that doth confer with mortal kind, if they
command the greatly valued to discover them.
“No. Be them at peace.”
I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but I step over it and proceed towards the tree. I think gleefully of what I’m going to say to him as I take out a clipping of Sky’s tulip then place it against the bark of the tree. Nothing happens, so I press my ear against the tree, listening closely, but I only hear the insects that roam inside.
‘Sky? Sky Lockheart? Dad?’ Nothing. Tears start to pour from my eyes as I pull away from the tree, and look to Nathaniel who is now stood at the foot of the bridge, behind me. He smiles weakly, his hands tucked into his pockets.
‘Are you okay, Ari?’ he asks.
I don’t reply, mostly out of embarrassment, and shove him out of the way as I make my way across the bridge to return home. This was a waste of time, like Sophie said, a pipe dream.
‘Don’t call me, Ari!’ I roar. ‘Why did you come with me on this?’
‘Was it to gloat that this whole thing was just some pointless expedition? Well start gloating because you’re right, so go back to your stupid little life, you little freak! If you knew anyone who died then you’d do anything to just have a conversation with them.’
I turn away and continue to walk back, my body tense and flaring, my hands clench into fists, into white knuckles. There is silence from then on, until:
‘My dad’s dead.’ This stops me in my tracks, and I growl at myself for staying such horrible things to him. He didn’t deserve this. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I didn’t take out my frustration on Nathaniel. This is why I wanted him with me. He didn’t deserve it. I turn to him, tears welling in my eyes. He stands in the middle of the bridge. Still he follows me after all this.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mutter. I walk up to him, our feet touching, and I hug Nathaniel.
‘I’m alright. It happened a long time ago, and did you just say you were sorry? How did that feel coming out of your mouth?’
‘Like lemons.’ I pull myself away to look up at him. I forgot how tall he actually is.
‘I just…I’ve already lost my real parents. I wanted this one to last. It’s like it’s happening all over again,’ I explain. My mind immediately finds an argument to this. I didn’t know my parents. I was only a baby when they died. I barely remember the orphanage, only Sara, my stand-in mother, but the Lockhearts took me in. They’re the only concrete memory I have of a family. I suppose my idea of real parentage could have been open to interpretation.
Nathaniel’s fingers start to wrap around mine. I furrow my brow at this feeling. My mind says no and my heart remains indecisive, but I let him wrap his hands around mine. That softness, like Sara. I tighten my fingers around his and then press my head against his chest. He doesn’t smell as bad as rumoured. Like flowers and pine needles. I smile, and then look back up to him. My head’s a mess right now, a mental war between my mind and my heart that I hope would meet a ceasefire. Reluctantly, I lift my hand to stroke his cheek, and in return I feel his hand move my rucksack to stroke my back.
I lean in slowly, and there I have my first kiss. With the boy whose face I wanted to punch. I break off, blinking twice and trying to realise what just happened.
‘I…’ but my voice trails off when a strange sound calls from behind me. Nathaniel must have already seen it as his grip on me grows tighter, like a human shield.
‘It’s the wolves, Ari.’