Paul Kemp: Shadowbred

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Paul Kemp Shadowbred
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Shadowbred: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Aril felt dizzy. His heart beat so hard and fast he thought it might jump out of his chest. His breath left him. He could not breathe. He could not breathe! Panicked, he squirmed and his body pressed against one of the branches Mother had used to cover him.

It cracked.

The troll near them went still.

Mommas hand squeezed him. Both of them held their breath.

More screams from the village, and a long, high-pitched wail of pain.

Aril pressed his face into the dirt to muffle any more sounds but that only made it harder to breathe. He wished so hard for his Papa. He wished that he was one of the bole slugs so he could burrow into the ground under a tree where no troll could ever find him. He wished he could hide in the earth and never come out again. He promised Yondalla that if she made him and Momma into worms he would live in the ground and never bother anyone ever again.

His mother gave him another squeeze. He felt her tears warming his ear. A limb broke right behind them. He heard sniffing, then a rumbling, curious grunt.

The troll started tearing through the debris under the pines and he knew, with perfect clarity, that he would die.

"Stay here," Mother whispered, and jumped to her feet.

The troll roared.

Aril immediately ignored her words and squirmed out from under the log. He stood, raining dirt and leaves and twigs. He was already on his feet before he thought about what he had done.

"Aril, no!" Mother said, and he heard despair in her voice.

A troll stood five paces from them. Though hunchbacked, it still looked as tall as a tree. Warty green skin with patches of coarse black hair wrapped a frame that looked to Aril to be composed solely of muscle, claws, and teeth. It looked at them and inhaled deeply, as if testing the air for their scent. It smiled a mouthful of fangs, and a low rumble emerged from somewhere deep in its throat. Moonlight gleamed on the drool dripping from its lips.

Aril wanted to scream, but no sound would come from his mouth. It just hung open, waiting to be filled by mosquitoes. He was frozen.

The troll stared right at them. Its eyes were as black as the night.

Mother held out her arms to shield Aril. "Into the woods, Aril! Run! Run now!"

But Aril could not run. He could not move.

The troll cocked its head at Mother's audacity. It flexed its claws and took a step toward them.

"Now, Aril!" Mother ordered. She picked up a stick and brandished it at the troll. "Here, creature!"

Aril was tempted to run, but only for a moment. He would not leave his Momma. Papa would not leave her, and he was Papa's son. He grabbed a skipping stone from his pocket.

The troll growled and took another step toward Mother.

Aril hurled the stone and hit the troll squarely in the chest. It sounded like it had hit a log, and the huge creature barely flinched. Its eyes fixed on Aril, and it said something in a foul language and licked its lips.

Mother exclaimed, "No! Here, beast!" She waved her makeshift club and tried to charge, but slipped and fell on her stomach.

Aril did not think. He did what Papa would have done. He jumped in front of his prone mother, planted his clubfoot in the earth, and prepared to stand his ground. He took another stone from his pocket and prepared to throw.

"Leave us alone or I'll hit you again!" he shouted.

The troll bounded forward with terrifying speed and Aril knew he had made a mistake. His arm went limp. His legs weakened and the stone fell from his fist. He screamed in terror.

Mother pulled him to the ground and threw herself over him.

"I love you, Aril!"

Aril hit the ground on his back and could not help but stare, eyes agog, as the troll loomed over them. Claws, teeth, and a wall of green flesh filled his vision. The night grew darker. The troll stank like rancid meat. Sounds faded. Aril's vision blurred and the darkness swirled. He was spinning, spinning.

The troll opened its mouth.

The night clotted into a blackness deeper than pine pitch.

The troll reached down for them, its claws as long as Aril's fingers.

Shadows haloed the troll like black fire.

The troll's mouth was so wide Aril thought it would swallow him whole. He saw its black tongue, its sharp teeth. He could not close his eyes. He wanted to, but he could not.

A man appeared beside the troll, a dark man with a dark sword.

Aril knew the man had come to carry him away to death. He realized that all of the Hearthmistress's sermons had been a lie. Yondalla had not come for him. There were no Green Fields. There was just a dark man with a dark sword.

The troll took hold of Mother's arm and she screamed. The sword flashed and the troll lurched and released Mother. Aril screamed as the massive body of the creature fell to the ground.

Fell to the ground.

Fell to the ground.

Aril blinked, confused. He stared wide-eyed at the body of the troll. This did not make sense. Wasn't he dead?

Still lying atop him, Mother was crying wracking sobs that shook her whole body.

Black blood pumped from the stump of the troll's neck. Aril watched it soak the forest floor. The headless body still scrabbled at the ground near them, as though trying to reach them-or dig its own grave.

Next to the body, the dark sword pierced the troll's severed head, pinning it to the forest floor. Pennons of shadow twirled around the blade. The troll's jaws gnashed futilely in an effort to reach the steel.

Aril still did not understand. He blinked rapidly, unconvinced that he was seeing something real. He closed his eyes, held them shut, opened them.

Everything remained as it was. Mother continued to cry. The troll continued to bleed.

Aril forced his stare away from the troll's head. His gaze wandered up the blade of the sword to its hilt, then to the dusky, shadow-enshrouded hand that held it, and finally rested on the face of a tall, dark-haired human man. Aril met his eyes and they flared yellow.

Aril realized what had happened.

The shadowman had saved them.

"Back away," the shadowman said in the halfling tongue, and he nodded at the twitching body of the troll. His voice was deep, and it scared Aril.

Aril had never before met any big folk who spoke the language of halflings. But the shadowman did.

Mother, still shaking and crying, was beginning to bleed from where the troll had grabbed her arm. She scooted backward and pulled Aril with her, away from the body of the troll.

Blood soaked Aril's trousers, but it was the troll's blood. Or maybe Momma's. It was warm and sticky. He had not noticed it at first.

"Thank Yondalla," Mother said through her tears, the words barely recognizable. "Whoever you are, thank you. Thank you."

"He's the shadowman," Aril tried to say, but the words did not come out.

The shadowman did not answer Mother, did not even look at her. He removed a small flask from his cloak and soaked the troll's body with the contents.

Lamp oil. Aril knew the smell.

The shadowman took a tindertwig-like the ones peddlers sold in the village-from a belt pouch, ignited it on one of his boots, and tossed it on the troll. As flames engulfed the body, it thrashed in agony. The skewered head twitched and gnashed frenetically as the body burned. The shadowman held an open palm over the blaze. Darkness shrouded the fire and masked its light. At first Aril did not understand why he did it. Then he remembered the other trolls. The shadowman did not want them to see the flames.

The shadowman pulled his sword free to toss the troll's head into the fire. It gnashed as it burned. Then its eyes popped.

The man-he was so tall!-looked at Aril and Mother. Shadows wrapped him. Aril could not quite tell where the man ended and the night began.

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