Essa sat on the ground beneath the oak tree by the bend in the path, waiting. Her legs were pulled up against her chest with her arms wrapped around them as if she were trying to curl into as small a ball as possible. Her long, black bangs had been brushed into her face so they hid her right eye and cheek. As she waited, her sensitive ears caught the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. On any other day, those footsteps would’ve been cause for her to jump to her feet and run to great the approaching person. But today she just curled up a little tighter and buried her face in her knees.
A few minutes later, a concerned male voice echoed through the woods. “Essa? Essa, are you there?”
She didn’t respond.
The call came again a few minutes later and a third time after that. Then a tall young man came around the bend in the path. He grinned at Essa, his bright smile contrasting with his dark skin. “There you are, Essa. I was wondering when you didn’t answer. Sorry for missing our meeting last night. You’ll never guess who’s visiting the village!”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t even acknowledge he was there.
The young man didn’t seem to notice. “You know Father’s friend, Narion? The wandering bard? He arrived yesterday afternoon; apparently he’s staying here in our village for a while. He said that maybe I can apprentice for him after I turn sixteen. Think of that, Essa! Me, Aedon the swordsmith’s son, a bard’s apprentice!”
At this, Essa did look up for just a moment. Her lips twisted in an attempted smile, but sorrow and bitterness lingered in her eyes. “Congratulations,” she murmured, her tone strained.
“Thank you.” Aedon didn’t seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm. “His daughter’s traveling with him too this year, since her mother died and she still has a year before she can apprentice. Her name’s Iris. You should meet her; you’d like her. She outshot me when I challenged her to an archery match; I think she may even be better than you! She- Essa? What’s wrong? You’re crying.”
“I’m not.” Essa swiped angrily at her eyes, pulling the sleeve of her overlarge tunic over her hand. “What were you saying about that girl who’s visiting you?”
“Iris. Bard Narion’s daughter.” The grin reappeared on Aedon’s face. “You really would like her. She says she’s going to train as a huntress when she’s old enough to apprentice. I can believe it- I told you how good she is with a bow. She’s got a tame wolf instead of a dog. She says that she found it when it a pup and raised it. Having it around drives Father crazy- you know how he is about wolves- but since she’s a guest, he can’t do anything about it.” His grin widened. “We’re planning to go out to the lake tomorrow; you should come with us.”
“Why?” Essa muttered. “Why would you want me around when you’ve got her instead?”
Aedon frowned. “Why would I- What are you talking about, Essa?”
A hint of bitterness flavored Essa’s voice. “You’ve got Iris now. Iris the future huntress. Iris the amazing archer. Iris the wolf tamer. I’ll bet she’s pretty too. Incredibly beautiful, even. Isn’t she?”
Aedon shrugged. “She’s pretty enough, I guess. But what are you getting at, Essa? Iris can’t replace you. You’re my best friend.” A hint of anger appeared on his face. “If this is about me not being here last night, just say so and stop this . . . this . . . this jealous nonsense!”
Essa’s voice dropped to an almost-whisper tinged with both anger and hurt. “It is about last night. If I’m your best friend, why weren’t you here when I needed you?”
Aedon crossed his arms. “I had guests, Essa. It would’ve been rude to leave.”
“That’s never stopped you before.” Essa glanced up, a hint of cold anger in her eyes. “Every evening, unless one of us is sick, injured, or away from the village. That’s how often we meet here. We agreed to it. You’ve slipped away from guests plenty of times to be here for me, and I’ve done the same for you. I trusted you to be here for me when I needed you. But you weren’t. You were off with some oh-so-amazing bard’s daughter. Did you even bother to think about me? Or did I never so much as cross your mind?” She swiped at her eye once more, wiping away tears before they could fall. “I needed you. But you’ve obviously found someone else to care for.”
Aedon stared at her for a long moment. Then he reached out to brush her bangs away from her face. She slapped his hand away, but not before he caught a glimpse of black-and-blue bruises on her pale, scarred face. The anger in his face grew. “What happened last night, Essa?”
She looked down again. “Father. He came back. Caught me outside. Told me I belonged with him, not Uncle Tyr, and to come with him or else. I said no. He told me again, and when I tried to go inside, he grabbed me and started saying things. And then he started hitting.”
Aedon looked her over. “How badly are you hurt?”
She shrugged. “Not too badly this time. Lots of bruises, and he gave me a nasty black eye. But he didn’t have his knives with him, and Uncle Tyr came out and stopped him before he could break any bones.” She paused for a moment. “The hitting didn’t hurt as much as the things he said. Or as much as when I thought you’d be here, but you never came. It made me wonder if . . . if some of the things Father said were true. And now I can’t help wondering even more.”
Aedon scowled deeply. “And what did he say?”
Again Essa shrugged. “At first it was just the usual: I’m worthless; I never should’ve been born; I deserve everything he’s ever tried to do to me. I told him what you and Uncle Tyr have said about caring about me, and me not being worthless and all that. He just laughed and said that you both were lying, you especially, Aedon. He said you really didn’t care for me at all, and you’d desert me the moment someone smarter and stronger and prettier and not so broken came along. That you were just pretending you cared so you could earn my trust and take advantage of me later.”
A hint of angry fire glinted in Aedon’s eyes. “Essa, he’s lying. You know he is. When has he ever told you the truth? I would never desert you for another girl, and I’d definitely never take advantage of you. I can’t believe you think I would.”
“But you did, Aedon.” Essa shook her head. “You did desert me for another girl. You picked that bard’s daughter over me. If you’d had any other guest, if it had been Bard Narion and not his daughter too, would you have missed our meeting?”
“Well . . . I . . .” Aedon’s scowl grew. “I can’t believe you’d believe your father over me. When has he done anything but hurt you?”
Essa looked at Aedon with a mixture of sorrow, hurt, and anger. “I believe the people who tell me the truth. You can’t even deny that you chose her over me. That you saw she was better than me and decided I wasn’t worth bothering with anymore.”
Aedon shook his head, seeming to recover somewhat. “That’s not what happened, Essa. I was enjoying myself, and I just forgot-”
“You forgot?” All the sorrow suddenly disappeared from Essa’s voice, leaving only hurt, bitterness, and ice-cold fury. “You forgot your “best friend”? If that doesn’t prove you don’t really care, I don’t know what else would.” She looked away. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. I know the truth now, and I won’t let you hurt me any longer. This is goodbye, Aedon. As of now, you’re free to forget me all you like. You’re free to do anything, really. Just don’t expect me to be friends with you any longer.”
Aedon stared at her for a long moment, his expression going from shock to hurt to, finally, anger. “Fine. I don’t care. I can’t believe you’d take the word of your lying skunk of a father over me, or that you’d overreact this much to a simple mistake. But if this is how you’re going to act, you can believe me that I won’t ever make the mistake of caring about you ever again.” He paused, waiting for a response. She gave him none. So, he turned and stalked off into the forest.
And Essa, alone once more, curled up and began to weep.