Three days on the run, leaving behind the inferno of the castle. Three days of thrashing about through swampland and marsh, of whistling trees and thorny branches. Three days of uncomfortable sleep, every nook and crevice of the dirt poking spikes into his back.
With every additional, sloggy step, the questions grew. And Nara wasn’t helping.
“Come on, Mistral.” She spoke now, behind her back, as Mistral’s energy flagged for the umpteenth time on the afternoon of the fourth day. “Keep up.”
Mistral had had nearly enough as he shoved yet another branch out of his face, but he was too winded to speak; physical exercise was a foreign notion to him, the boy who had spent his entire life within four walls with his every need taken care of. It was bad enough that he had to make his own bed; what else kind of torture was Nara planning for him?
Perhaps sensing his mutinous feelings, Nara suddenly stopped. “Let’s take a break,” she said, stretching her arms above her head. Her hazel eyes crinkled slightly as she took in Mistral’s state, his body nearly bent over double and trying hard to not dry heave. “Five minutes.”
He was just about to mutter a thank you when she suddenly stood up straight, tensing. “Wait. Hold on.”
“What is it?”
For a second, everything was quiet, her eyes darting back and forth. Then, they both heard it: a rustling in the bushes. A few yards away. Then a low, steady growl.
Nara’s eyes grew wide in a panic. “Run!”
Scarcely understanding what was happening, Mistral let himself be dragged along, Nara pulling him along at a frantic clip. He chanced a glance behind him and caught sight of a mountain lion, its blonde fur rippling, sprinting closer. And closer. And closer.
“Nara, it’s – ”
“I know.” She spat. Mistral saw her eyes narrow slightly; then she broke into a smile. “There.”
He followed her line of sight, but before he could see anything, he heard it: a waterfall. And he knew what Nara was planning.
“No.” He found himself saying between breaths. “I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it. I’m not – ”
Mistral jumped, still holding tightly to Nara’s outstretched hand. The ground vanished beneath them, and they fell, together, into the frothy waters below. For a few seconds, the world was a tempest; he could barely open his eyes, yet he instinctively swam upwards, fighting against the buffeting of the current.
When he finally broke the surface, his first breath came back up, laced with water – but the second one was clear, and he gratefully gulped down the sweet oxygen while his vision came back into focus. He realized he was no longer holding on to Nara’s hand, and was struck with a sudden panic.
He squinted, trying to make out any bubbles or waves that could evidence an arm, a leg – anything. There was nothing, except the continuing roar of the water and a few stray strands of long grass. Mistral’s breath quickened, and he started to get dizzy. “Nara!” he yelled again; still nothing. Until –
He saw the hair first: the auburn hair floating at the waterline, and the rest of Nara’s body came up a second later.
“I’m here! I’m okay!” She sputtered, grinning. “Well done, you.”
Despite everything, Mistral smiled. “I thought you were gone.”
“Yeah, me too. For a second.”
Their feet found purchase on the ground and they waded their way to the riverbank, the echo of the waterfall fading fast behind them. The solid ground was a welcome relief after their last couple of minutes.
Mistral sank to the ground, too tired to discern just where, exactly, was a good resting spot for his bottom. He was just thankful to get off his feet – and be alive. He was acutely aware of his heart trying to thump its way out of his chest; combined with the waking effects of the ice-cold water, it was as if he’d been bombarded with more sensory stimuli than his life had given him at any point thus far.
Nara sat down on the opposite side with much more grace than he. She dug around in her pouch, brushing her wet auburn hair out of her face. “Here.” She held out a square something wrapped in linen, miraculously somehow still dry. Mistral gingerly accepted it; it was bread. He bit into it, and nearly spat it back out – it was a far cry from the fluffy, sweet bread he was used to back home. But he still chewed gamely, partly because he was hungry, and partly because he didn’t want to make Nara angry. He still didn’t know her too well – she stayed quiet when they were on the road – but he had a feeling that her temper would’ve been on the shorter side.
And besides, she had saved his life. (He put aside the niggling idea that his life wouldn’t have needed saving if he had just stayed at home.)
“So I have a question,” he asked, a bit dryly, for he was still chewing.
“Mmm,” Nara replied, with the dismissive fortitude of a woman who had heard this phrase several times already over the past few days.
“This one’s different, actually,” Mistral continued. “I’m not asking about who you are, or where we’re going, because I know that you’re not going to say anything about that. And believe me, I tried.”
“You would be correct,” Nara answered. “On both counts.”
It seemed like he was correct re: short tempers. But he pressed gamely on. “Well… I’m curious. Why me?”
He blurted it out, almost nonchalantly, but it had been a question stewing in his mind for the last several days. How had she found him? How did she get past everyone?
Most importantly, how did she know he was craving excitement, adventure? How did she know that Mistral’s life had turned into a daily round of tedium followed by melancholy?
How did she know that he would follow her?
Nara tilted her head, although Mistral suspected she knew full well what he was asking. “How do you mean?”
“I mean… there are millions of people. With millions of windowsills. So why did you show up on mine?”
She nodded slowly. Mistral took this as an invitation to continue. “Do you remember what you said? When we first met during the fire?”
Nara chuckled. “I told you to jump off into the great unknown.”
“Did you know I would?”
Mistral watched as she absentmindedly poked at the ground with a stick, then take a breath. “Well… I actually need to confess something to you.”
He tensed. “What is it?”
She bit her lips, and for the first time in the short span Mistral had known her, she seemed vulnerable.
“I set that fire.”