You ran as quickly as you could, not bothering to try to be silent. There was no one to hear you anyway, no one but the wind and the creatures of the forest. The beat of your heart raced with your footsteps, threatening to burst out of your chest. You didn’t know where Alfred was or what you would have to do to rescue him, but it didn’t matter. You would do anything you had to.
Reaching the edge of the forest you paused, struggling to catch your breath. A shadow caught your eye, and suddenly you saw a male figure darting towards the tree line, right at you. Instantly you shrank farther into the shadows before your mind registered who the familiar figure was. That gait and that cowlick was unmistakable.
“Alfred,” you whispered, and smiled. “Alfred!” You launched yourself from the trees and raced across the grass. He slowed, surprised for a minute, and you’d reached him before he realized what was happening. The moment you got to him you threw yourself at him and wrapped your arms around his waist.
“_____!?” he finally gasped, returning your hug. He then pushed you back, his eyes scanning over you quickly. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”
“Me? You one that hurt!” You quickly examined him in the moonlight. He was bruised and his hand was bleeding, but other than that he seemed alright, you noted, relieved. “Must go now. To home.”
“Home? You mean your village?”
“Yes,” you gasped, nodding. “He told me….” Your mind flickered back to the meeting with Dusk Runner’s spirit. Alfred was sweet, but you didn’t know if he’d believe you. Even if he would, you very much doubted that you knew enough English to convey your thoughts. “Bad things happening. We must hurry. Can’t stay here an-anyway,” you struggled with the last word but he nodded to assure you it was right.
“That’s true. But how do you know bad things are happening? Your people can take care of themselves, and my town is doing pretty good job of taking care of itself too. There’s no reason to think they’re in trouble.”
“I not can… It is…” you groped for words but nothing came. You knew far too little English, and you felt nothing but frustration and anxiety bubbling inside you. Every moment that passed wasted more time. How many people could have died already? Four, five? More? Maybe… Maybe everyone was dead already. “Go! We must!”
“Okay, okay…” Alfred, still confused, just nodded. “But first we have to go tell Belle and Abel. My mother would kill me if I didn’t thank them for their hospitality. Besides, we’ll probably never see them again, and I want to say goodbye.”
You nodded and he took your hand and began leading you to the house by a back route you’d never been on before. On one hand, you really didn’t want to leave without seeing them again and thanking them for everything they’d done. After all, they’d possibly saved you from bleeding to death, given you shelter over the winter and taught you how to communicate with Alfred, at least somewhat. You’d grown fairly fond of them as well, and you would miss them. But on the other hand, your worry for your family and tribe gnawed at you, and the desire to see your village again had grown a great deal and you wouldn’t be happy until you were on your way home.
The house was lit when you arrived, and the moon was high in the sky. Usually, Belle and Abel would already be asleep by now. You could only assume they had stayed up on your account, and you felt somewhat bad about that. They worked hard and they needed their sleep.
Without a word of warning, Alfred opened the door and barged in, and you followed close behind. They both stood in the candlelit kitchen, and Belle clapped her hands together at the sight of you. “Oh, I had hoped that you would come back!”
In a moment she was by your side, fussing over you. When she was certain you were okay she moved to Alfred. The combination of candle and moon light helped you see the full extent of the damage to his hand. He had several splinters and was bleeding.
Quietly, Belle pulled a roll of cloth and a needle out of a box and made him dip his hand in a bucket of water to clean the blood off, then began trying to get the splinters out. You were watching her deftly pull the tiny shards of wood out when Abel motioned for you to follow him. He had never been one to speak more than absolutely necessary, so you chose not to question him. He would show you what he wanted soon enough with no prompting.
He made his way to the living room and picked up a bag that he offered to you. “Take this. It contains supplies. You have a long journey.”
You took the bag. It was made of animal skin, and it was clearly full. “Thank you,” you said, barely above a whisper. Abel had a good heart, but most people didn’t notice it under his quiet demeanor and penny-pinching tendencies. He nodded and one corner of his mouth pulled up in an almost smile before he picked up his candle and led you back to the kitchen.
“Ouch!” Alfred cried. “Be careful where you poke that needle!”
“If you would quit squirming I’d be done already! It’s hard enough to see as it is,” Belle retorted, not looking up from her work.
“There. I got the last one.” Belle placed the needle to the side and picked up the cloth, which she began wrapping around the jagged cut in Alfred’s hand. “Be careful with that hand. It’ll be a while before its normal again, and don’t do anything to hurt it until it’s fully healed. If you hurt it more, I’ll have to hunt you down and punish you, alright?”
“Alright,” Alfred said, examining his freshly bandaged hand woefully. “Thank you for taking care of us.”
“It was my pleasure, truly,” Belle replied, trying and failing to blink away her tears before turning to you. “And you, _____,” she took the few steps separating you and grasped your hands. “Come with me for a moment,” she said quietly, and pulled you to the stairs.
When you reached the bedroom you’d been staying in she released your hands and picked something up off the bed. It was a simple dress made of sturdy brown material. “I knew you would leave sooner or later,” Belle sighed, the tears welling up in her eyes again. “I made this especially for you.”
You opened your mouth to protest but she cut you off. “You need better clothes than those ragged, oversized things you are wearing. You have a long journey, and I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if you left without so much as a decent set of clothes. It isn’t as sturdy as your animal skins, but it will hold up fine.”
Silently you examined the dress in your hands before looking back to Belle. She was strange. Her home was strange. Her people were strange. At first, it all scared you. Now though, you had come to love her. With every reason not to trust you she’d taken you into her home, gave you food and dressed you, and had even stood up for you. Could there be a better pair of siblings in the entire world? You doubted it. “Thank you,” you finally whispered, and grasped her in a tight hug. “Thank you.” The tears came before you realized it and you didn’t fight them. “For everything.”
Belle returned your hug and for a few minutes you stood quietly like that, holding each other and crying. Both of you knew that this goodbye would be final. You would never see each other again.
“Take care of yourself,” Belle said, stepping back and wiping away her tears. “I know you love that klutz, but he can take care of himself. Remember you need to take care of yourself too, not just him.”
“You take care too. Not forget me. I not forget you.” You grasped the dress close and sniffed, blinking away your own tears.
“Never, not in a thousand years,” Belle replied, nodding. “I’ll let you change now. Come down when you’re ready.” With that Belle left, closing the door behind her.
After she left you stood unmoving for several minutes, grasping your dress and looking around the room. This was the only place you had ever lived aside from your father’s teepee. It was exotic and strange and very comfortable. But still, you ached for the grass and the trees; for your father’s horses and the exhausting chores of everyday life in your village. As much as you would miss Belle and Abel and their comfortable home, it was time to leave. You were ready, both physically and mentally, and you didn’t believe it would be safe in this village anymore, not for your or for Alfred. You only hoped that these siblings’ kindness to you wouldn’t ultimately cause them harm.
Shaking yourself from your reverie, you slipped out of the worn clothing you had stolen so long ago and into the dress Belle had made. The skirt was wide so you wouldn’t have a problem moving your legs, and the material wasn’t too heavy or too light, and seemed much tougher than any of the materials Belle’s other dresses were made of. You wondered how much Belle had given up to get the materials for this.
Thanking the spirits for guiding you to such kindhearted people, you made your way downstairs. Alfred had also been outfitted in clothes made especially for him and the material was similar. You smiled and stood by him, clutching the satchel Abel had given to you. You noticed that Alfred had a similar one, and it was lumpy as well, betraying its contents.
“I wish we had a spare horse to offer you,” Belle said, looking truly sorrowful. “I hope that these clothes and supplies will suffice. We will both pray for you every day.” Belle grasped your hand and looked into your eyes for a moment, then did the same with Alfred.
“Moge God met jou zijn,” Abel said, his voice low. You didn’t know what it meant, but you felt it was some sort of blessing, so you simply smiled.
The four of you made your way to the door and the siblings watched as you and Alfred made your way to the woods, heading south. You weren’t sure exactly where to go, but you knew you had come north, so logically you should head south.
When you reached the trees the two of you turned and looked at the house one last time. Abel and Belle stood in the doorway, the moonlight shining down on them. Belle waved heartily, and you saw something glistening on her cheeks. “Vaarwel!” she cried. “Stay safe, and don’t forget us!”
“Goodbye!” both you and Alfred returned before walking into the forest.
The journey would be dangerous. You didn’t even know for sure that the direction you were going was the right one. But you believed you and Alfred could survive anything. Finally, finally you were on your way home. Finally. You had survived enslavement, and traveled vast distances over winter, when food was scarce. And now, you’d even survived persecution from the dreaded white man but more than that, you’d seen things from his perspective. You’d managed to understand why some of these people did what they did, and to you that was a valuable thing. It would be the main tool you would need to save both your tribe and Alfred’s village. After all, if you couldn’t understand both sides, neither you nor Alfred would ever be able to create peace.
The journey ahead still frightened you though, no matter how optimistic you felt. The two of you had traveled quite some way, and home seemed an impossible distance. You didn’t know if you could even find home again. But spring was nearly there and food would be much easier to find. The spirits were on your side as well, or at least that’s what you believed. What could possibly go wrong?
That, you decided, was a very foolish question to ask.
You were cold and felt a bit damp, and there was something warm pressed against you. Your groggy mind scrambled for an explanation for why as you opened your eyes. Dirt was the first thing you saw, and instantly the pieces clicked into place. You were in the forest, that’s why you were cold, it was morning and you were covered in dew, and that’s why you were wet. The warm thing was Alfred, still sound asleep next to you. Your body ached from sleeping on the ground, and you ruefully realized you’d been spoiled by Belle and Abel’s soft beds and chairs. That was something that definitely had to be corrected. It wouldn’t take long; at least you hoped it wouldn’t.
Sitting up, you stretched and attempted to work the cricks out of your body. Alfred didn’t wake up, unsurprisingly. You’d learned on your previous trek that Alfred could sleep through nearly anything if he was tired. If anyone had a right to be tired it was the two of you. After a full day and a frightening encounter with men who wished you harm, you’d began a long journey with no rest to replenish energy. You’d only walked for about five hours before settling down between the roots of a particularly large tree for a few hours of much needed sleep.
You sat quietly for a while, breathing in the fresh morning air and listening to the wind. It no longer carried its accusations, instead whispering soft, unintelligible encouragement into your ears. “Thank you,” you whispered in return, “for guiding me to Dusk Runner.” You continued sitting in peace for a while, reflecting on the past day and praying to the Creator, as was your duty. It felt good to be close to nature again, though you would have preferred your father’s teepee to the massive oak that now sheltered you. You paused at that thought, and quickly and respectfully thanked the oak for the shelter it had provided.
Deciding to leave Alfred where he was for the moment, you climbed to your feet and walked a few feet away before attempting to brush the dirt off of your new dress. You did a pretty good job and decided to look at the dress again, twisting this way and that to get as good a view of it as you could. Belle was a very good seamstress, you decided. The dress fit you well and you thought it was very pretty while also being practical. You had never owned anything like it before, and you quite liked the sturdy brown dress.
Impractical thoughts aside, you hoisted the satchel Abel gave you and settled the strap over your shoulder before walking farther into the woods. You needed to try to figure out for certain what direction to head in order to get home. If you were off, you could end up even further away. Examining the trees and the sun it was easy enough to figure out which direction was which, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that you weren’t exactly sure which way you’d ran when you left the village of your captors. You had to head south, you knew, but aside from south you had no idea where to go. It would be horrible if you were too far east or west to recognize the land around your home. If that were to happen you’d overshoot your goal and be no better off than you currently were.
Finally, you decided you’d probably come somewhat east as well, though you very much doubted whether this was accurate. There was no choice however, so you decided the wisest thing to do would be to head south and perhaps a tiny bit west, and simply hope the spirits would find it in their hearts to guide you.
“_____?!” Alfred yelled your name with a definite sound of panic in his voice and you smiled. He was worried for you. How sweet.
“I’m over here!” called, then quickly amended your mistake and repeated in English, “I here!”
There was a loud sound much like a wild bear crashing through the brush before Alfred appeared, looking bedraggled and relieved. “I uh… worried… was,” he attempted clumsily in your language. You could barely understand him through his accent but smiled at his attempt anyway. You’d made much more headway in learning his language than he had in learning yours.
“You English speak,” you said. The poor guy looked so pained when attempting to speak the language that confused him so.
“No. Um, need…. Uh…” he trailed off, looking up at the sky as if it contained the word he was missing.
“Practice?” you suggested.
He nodded excited. “Yes!”
You giggled, happy the language barrier was slowly but surely shrinking. Generally speaking, you could communicate with each other alright. You’d managed it all the way to Belle and Abel’s village. However, being able to actually speak to each other and something actually get through felt much more rewarding.
“So…” Alfred said in English before switching back. “Where we go?”
“South,” you said, feeling the smile slip from your face as you turned in that direction. “But we’ll eat first.”
He nodded excitedly and pulled out a loaf of bread from his satchel, and you did the same. He was just about to bite into it hungrily when he noticed you splitting yours into three pieces. Sighing, he did the same. You were inclined to agree, you thought, placing two pieces back in your well stocked bag. You hadn’t been hungry a single day since Belle started feeding you, though for the first month the food had been nearly revolting. Later Belle explained, as best she could, that your body wasn’t able to handle normal food for a while after spending so long eating so little. Biting into the bread you sighed. Having to ration food again was going to take some getting used to, but at least this time it shouldn’t be so hard to find.
In far too little bites the bread was gone, and you and Alfred stood to begin the journey in earnest. Leading the way south you walked past a tree and froze. A deer stood in a bush, barely five steps away. It had magnificent antlers and large, black eyes. For a long moment you stared into each other’s eyes and then the deer turned, glanced over his shoulder at you, and then leapt into the brush and quickly vanished. You stood there for a while, staring at where the deer had vanished.
“_____? What you doing?” Alfred poked your back and startled you out of your thoughts.
“Sorry,” you said in English, not bothering answering his question. Moving forward once more you smiled to yourself and silently thanked the spirits for showing you the way. You would make it home, you knew without a doubt.