He had heard her crying. Gaelin nearly ran back to the cabin through the melting fog. When he reached it, he checked on Dion and immediately reeled back outside and began slapping his palm against his head. He wished he had a good plaster wall to beat his head on. His hand was too soft and the trees and rocks around here were all too hard.
I’m such an idiot! Why did I do that? It wasn’t her fault, and I just had to go make fun of her and hurt her to cover my own lousy backside. An imagined picture of Trista’s backside floated through his mind. Too hard or not, he strode to the nearest tree and knocked his head against the ridged bark. He felt like a jerk, and an immature one. So this was how he dealt with a little embarrassment? And this was how he dealt with his thoughts about Trista’s body? Gaelin paced back and forth across the clearing, wearing a line through the grass. The white fog lifted totally and the sun shone as he paced, but his thoughts did not mirror this. They swirled darkly through him.
Girls hadn’t paid attention to him at home. He was too quiet. He was reduced to watching them out of the corner of his eyes, from the sides of the room. It had never felt fair. He felt that he should follow the golden rule and do to others as they did to him. They didn’t notice him, so what business did he have looking at them? But I was never able to live up to that standard. And I still can’t treat my equals as my equals. What I said to Trista was wrong. No, the questions he had asked were legitimate. Husbands and wives should be able to bathe together. They should be able to do a lot more; he wanted to do a lot more. He had always wanted so much more than he ever got. And now look at me. I’m married and I still don’t even get to look at the woman I am married to without feeling like a pervert. What am I doing here anyway? What right did they have to stick me in this? I bet it wasn’t even legal. I could walk away.
Gaelin paused and looked at the faint trail leading out of the clearing into the woods. His body turned to face it fully, drawn by the lure of freedom. He realized that he was standing in the ring of bare dirt. The circle was still drawn, and dew glistened on a couple black-charred sticks at his feet. He took a step and kicked the remains of the fire. Anger built in him. He scuffed at the drawn circle, obliterating a part of it. He stared at the ground, focusing on erasing the ring; until Trista’s shoe stepped into his line of sight, right onto the line across the circle from him. He looked up at her, feeling guilty.
Her face was closed to him. She just looked at him, and he wondered how much she guessed of his thoughts. She was back in control, and Gaelin felt like he had been caught cheating at a test. But he still felt cheated and resentful himself.
“I want to leave.” He caught himself before he blurted out why he wanted to leave. I’m no good at this.
“I don’t even know why I’m here. Sure, it was fun for a couple days, and it was nice to meet you, but I don’t think this was supposed to happen to me.”
“You can’t leave, Gaelin.”
“Oh, yeah? Why not?”
“Because you rubbing this circle out of the dirt doesn’t change what was done.” Her own toe twisted on the ground, erasing a few inches of the ring. “We were given as a sacrifice to the land. I have heard of this tradition, but it hasn’t been done in a long time. You and I are actually lucky that we were given as much help as we were…”
“What are you talking about?”
“We have been ritually cut off from our families and left with each other to the mercy of the woods.”
Gaelin didn’t believe it. He knew of his family’s religion. He had observed the more major festivals with them, but this was insane. He had never heard of people being given to the woods. They had controlled nature, even as they worshiped it. Gaelin had been taught the ways of the woods and stars. He hadn’t cared much for the mumbo jumbo part of their faith but he had seen it work. He had seen magical cures and curses. He had seen one woman prophesy when a spirit entered her. But it had never applied to him. He only learned it because that is what his family had done for generations. But this was suddenly going way too far.
“I’m not staying here. I don’t believe this, and I don’t owe you anything.”
“You owe me an apology”
“And what about what you owe me? I have my rights as a husband, and you haven’t been holding up your end of that deal.”
Trista laughed. “I thought you didn’t believe in this. What makes you think I owe you anything a wife owes her husband?”
Gaelin swore. The corner of Trista’s mouth twisted upward. She was mad, but she had obviously enjoyed scoring that point on him.
“Fine, just fine! You don’t think I can leave? Well watch me.” Gaelin stalked past her and to the cabin. He grabbed the blanket he had used the night before and rolled it up with some flint and a knife. Taking a piece of bread left over from last night, he bit into it and crouched to tie the blanket with a piece of rope, still chewing. Gaelin was painfully aware of Trista watching him in the doorway. Anger and worse, shame, burned in him; his fingers fumbled at the knots he was tying. When he rose to leave, he saw Dion awake and watching him with wide eyes. He almost lost his nerve, right there, but Trista was still watching, and he needed to escape. He looked at the bread in his hand, and set it back on the table. He had been going to take it, but couldn’t bring himself to do that now.
With barely a glance at Trista, Gaelin pushed past her. He headed across the clearing and into the woods, slinging his make-shift pack around his shoulders as he went. For a few minutes he walked in a hot daze, then he regained his senses and began paying attention to his surroundings. He had lost the trail already. He sighed and back-tracked until he found it, but this brought him close to the edge of the woods. Through the brush, he could see into the clearing. Trista stood in the door of the cabin, Dion in her arms. He could hear the little boy crying. His gut twisted, but he turned and followed the faint trail away through the forest.