Chapter 6 - Desertion (part I)

Toric gazed out at the great Eastern Ocean. He wasn't happy. Floundering through the bush, he'd followed the high cliff of the Escarpment all the way down to this stony beach and had still seen no sign of that little harridan, Harta.

He sighed and sank heavily onto a large chunk of driftwood that stuck up out of the stony strand. In the failing light of day it resembled the leg bone of some prehistoric animal instead of an old piece of wood but upon closer inspection he could see the lines and swirls of wood grain. Just an ancient piece of tree after all.

Toric sighed again.

What was he going to do now? The girl had disappeared into thin air. He supposed that she could have gone the other way but that didn't make any sense. All along the cliff-base that headed inland there was nothing but an impenetrable tangle of bush and jungle. A chipmunk would be hard pressed to find its way through it. Slight and nimble Harta might be but Toric seriously doubted that even she would be able to get through the snarl.

This whole island is nothing but bush and rock, Toric thought disgustedly. He longed for a civilized town. Why his mother had ever insisted that they come to this forsaken part of the world, he couldn't guess. Clarissa was very closed mouthed about the whole thing.

Had Harta gone inland? Toric had kept a sharp eye on the rock face of the Escarpment as he had followed it down to the sea and he was fairly certain not even his tree-climbing, nimble little step-sister could scale those impossible crags.

The sheer cliffs were never lower than seventy feet high and in many places, soared to well over a hundred. They seemed to brush the clouds. Sometimes a few strangely twisted trees or stunted bushes grew out of fissures in the rock along with great quantities of grey-green lichen. He had even seen a few eagles nesting high overhead.

He had heard that the Great Escarpment stretched clear across the island of Tibel. Impossible as the notion was, he wondered if the girl had somehow found a way up the cliff. At this point, it seemed to be the only explanation.

It was nearly nightfall. The eastern horizon had all but disappeared in the lowering darkness and Toric couldn't tell where the ocean left off and the sky began. He turned south. The best idea would be to follow the beach down to the coastal town of Arnos where he might be able borrow a lantern with which to light his way home. He certainly did not relish walking through the forest in the dark of night. Better to spend the night on the beach than face that.

Toric was exhausted. He was not an athletic lad and his floundering trek through the forest left him wanting to curl up beneath the nearest log and fall asleep. On top of that, a deep, dull ache still lingered in the pit of his stomach, an aftermath from the blow that Harta had struck him with her fist. True, she probably hadn't done it on purpose. Part of him knew that, but she would pay all the same. Oh, yes, she would pay!

His stomach growled and he put his mind on the good meal his mother would be sure to have made for him. Toric wasn't used to going hungry and he smiled at the thought of food as he trudged down the beach.

The smile faded after a moment. Clarissa would be angry that he had failed to bring back his step-sister. Vaguely he remembered his mother being flung across the yard. Had that really happened? He had been rolling on the ground at the time; his perception of the world might have been somewhat skewed by the blinding pain in his groin.

He looked out over the ocean to his left. It was darkly smooth and glassy. Gentle waves lapped the beach and small tide-washed stones crunched beneath his feet. He found the whole environment calming.

As he walked in the dimming twilight, Toric thought about Harta. Really, really thought about her.

His basic feelings for the girl swung between bright hot hatred and bewildering puzzlement as to why she didn't like him. Then back to hatred again... because... because she didn't like him?

In the manner of teenaged boys and raging hormones, he was confused. Not that he had ever made friends easily. He and his mother had moved around so much that he had grown used to having no friends. When she had married Harta's father, Toric had actually looked forward not only to settling down in one place, but to having a step-sister. He had fully expected that she would be his friend as well as his sister.

Alas, it had not turned out that way. From the first moment, it had been clear how the girl felt about her new mother and brother. Not that he could blame her, when he supposed. At least, not in regard to his mother. Toric had to admit that, as much as he loved her, Clarissa could be a very difficult woman.

From the first, his mother had treated Harta badly, making her drudge all day long and upbraiding her at every turn. He believed his mother when she explained that the girl had been spoiled. Clarissa had even made Harta stay home from school sometimes just to make her do laundry or muck out the donkey's stall or clean the chicken coop.

Toric had been delighted at first, for it meant that he didn't have to do it. Still, in retropect, he realized it was all a bit unfair.

After a time, he had even caught himself wondering if his mother was overdoing it just a tad. He had wanted to tell her to stop but the uncomfortable truth was... he was afraid of Clarissa. She had the weirding ways. And he suspected that she might be a spellcaster, as well. In fact, he was certain of it.

Toric had found this out by accident one night just recently this past winter: He had been unable to go to sleep and had heard his mother rise and slip out of the house. Curious, he cautiously followed her to a moonlit clearing in the woods. Although it got cold on Tibel, snow is usually sparse. Toric shivered as he hid behind a clump of leafless elkwood, watching horrified and afraid to move, as she began to cast a shimmering magic circle, calling upon spirits to attend her. He finally managed to get his limbs moving and flee, afraid that the spirits she called would discover him spying and turn him into a toad or something equally nasty. What would his mother say if she discovered that he knew? He shivered.

So he had sat sullenly but silently by as Harta carried and fetched. He could see the resentment in her eyes. She only ever complained once when she had tried to tell her father how his new wife was treating her. That was when Toric realized his step-father was almost certainly under the influence of one of his mother's spells; a thrall with no will of his own. He became even more fearful of his mother.

Artix the Woodcutter moved about in a daze most of the time like a man under water. He said little. When Harta complained, however, he spoke harshly to the girl, threatening to beat his own daughter if she ever "gave her lovely new mother any further trouble."

Harta had not said a word after that but the resentment grew and Toric could see that it was directed at himself as much as at his mother.

In an effort to befriend her, Toric had teased Harta and pulled her hair. It was all in fun but she had not seen it that way. She had screamed at him. Before he knew it, he had grown angry too and screamed back. He had kept on pestering her, hoping she would... what? Laugh? Tease him back? Grow to like him?

It had not worked.

To Be Continued...


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