Paul Kemp: Shadowbred

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Paul Kemp Shadowbred
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Paul S. Kemp



23 Eleint, the Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR)

Aril could not contain a smile. Five good skipping rocks filled his pocket and a pouch of squirming bole slugs hung at his belt. And there was no better bait for catching greengills than bole slugs, especially fat bole slugs like the ones he'd just caught.

When the sun rose, he and Mother would take the path to Still Lake. Aril would skip some rocks, and they would catch a few fish, always a welcome addition to the supper table. It would be the best Nameday ever. Aril only wished Mother would have let Nem come along, too.

Mother walked beside him, slowly, to accommodate Aril's awkward gait. As always, her right arm hovered near his back.

"I won't fall, Mother," he said. She was always afraid he would stumble or fall, but he never did. He was awkward on his clubfoot, but not clumsy.

"Of course not, sweetdew."

Her arm dropped for three strides before drifting back to its usual position.

A yawn snuck up on Aril. He had not been awake so long after moonrise in a long while.

"Sleepy?" Mother asked him.

Aril was sleepy, but did not want to say so to Mother. He did not want her to think him a wee.

"No, Mother," he fibbed, and turned his head as another yawn tried to betray him.

"Well, you should tell your yawns that, then, or they'll soon have your mouth filled with mosquitoes. And I know how much you like that."

Aril winced, in part because Mother had caught him in the fib, and in part out of disgust. He knew exactly what a mouthful of insects tasted like. Once, on a dare from Nem, he had run through a cloud of gnats with his mouth open. He'd spent a good long time gagging and spitting out gnat fragments. Nem had nearly split his sides laughing. Thinking back on it caused Aril to giggle. Mother smiled, too. Then a thought occurred to him.

"Hey! How did you know about that?"

She looked down at him and winked. "Mothers know everything, Aril. How do you think I knew where to look for bole slugs in the middle of the night?"

Aril frowned, his mind racing. She could not know everything, could she? What if she knew about Matron Olem's pie? Or that time he and Nem had hidden in the peddler's wagon and ridden halfway to Ashford?

He decided he should tell her the truth from then on, to be safe.

"Maybe I am a little sleepy," he acknowledged. "But only a little."

Mother smiled and tousled his hair. "There's a good boy. Maybe you can sleep late tomorrow, before we go to the lake."

"Do you mean it, Mother?"

The next day was the last of the tenday, and even though it was a day of rest in the village, Mother never let Aril sleep late. Usually, she took him to hear Hearthmistress Millam give a sermon about Yondalla. And the hearthmistress said the same thing every time: the harvest would be better next year, the drought and wild weather could not last, the dragons had all gone back to sleep. Millam's voice always made Aril drowsy.

"It's your Nameday," Mother said. "So if you like, you can sleep in."

He knew what she wanted him to say, so he said it, though without much enthusiasm. "No, Mother. We should go to temple and hear the hearthmistress. We can go to the lake after that."

Mother smiled and took his hand in hers. He did not resist. He still liked holding Mother's hand when they walked. If his friends had seen it, they would have laughed and called him a wee. But his friends were not around. It was just him, Mother, the Old Wood, and the night.

A full Selune floated in the sky, but her light fought its way through the forest canopy with difficulty. Aril was not usually afraid of the dark, but night in the tangled Old Wood was a little scary. He knew it was safe, though. Halflings had been hunting game and chopping timber in the Old Wood for generations.

"Look, Mother!"

He grabbed her cloak and pointed up through an opening in the trees. A shooting star chased a glowing path across the sky. He watched it until it faded to a pale scar, then vanished.

"Did you see it?"

"I saw it, Aril," Mother said, and she offered a brief prayer to Yondalla.

Aril remembered the previous autumn, the night that a whole rain of flaming stars had streaked from the dark sky. He'd heard from a peddler that the falling fire had destroyed villages and burned down forests and caused destructive waves and made the drought, but he doubted it. They had been too beautiful. He wished with all his heart that he could find a piece of one of those falling stars-he imagined they were probably orange, or maybe red-and carry it around in his pocket with his skipping stones. But none of them had struck near his home. If one had, he and Nem could have found it and taken it out to look at it anytime they wanted. That would have been wonderful. And Jase would have been so jealous.

Thinking of his friends, Aril decided to ask Mother just one more time if Nem could accompany them to the lake on the morrow. He held his tongue for a time, thinking to wait for just the right moment.

They picked their way through the trees and brush in silence. Quiet shrouded the wood. Even the insects were sleeping. Aril could hear himself breathing. He and his mother moved lightly through the undergrowth-quiet and light was the halfling way, his mother always said. Aril could have sneaked up and touched the three brown hares he saw nibbling on foliage near the base of a pine. He was hardly quick or graceful on his clubfoot, but he was quiet.

Fighting another yawn, he suddenly longed for his bed. He asked, "How much farther to the village, Mother?"

"Not far, Aril. The edge of the forest is just ahead."

Aril was glad of it. He decided the time was right to ask about Nem. He clasped his mother's hand a bit more tightly and adopted his wee voice, the one that usually got him what he wanted.


She looked down at him.

"May Nem-"

A sound from ahead of them rushed through the trees and bit off the rest of his words. As one, he and his mother crouched in the undergrowth and froze. Aril was glad they had relied on only the moon for light.

"What was that?" Aril whispered.

It sounded like a growl, but unlike any growl Aril had heard before. His heart beat fast. He reached into his pocket and clutched a skipping stone in his fist. Mother's grip on his hand tightened and she shushed him.

The sound had come from the forest's edge, from the direction of the village.

Mother stared into the trees, her head cocked, worry lines creasing her forehead. She caught Aril looking at her and forced an insincere smile.

Aril opened his mouth to speak but she shook her head and put a finger to her lips for silence. That made him more nervous, but he held his tongue and nodded.

They stood as still as the shrubs. Time passed slowly, but when the sound did not repeat, Mother's grip on his hand loosened. She visibly relaxed. Aril took a sweaty hand from his skipping rock and let out a breath.

He pulled Mother down by her cloak to his level, leaned in close, and whispered, "What made that sound, Mother?"

He imagined in his mind a passing bear, or maybe a wolf. Two months earlier a bear had killed Matron Ysele and her dog. Aril had not seen her body but he had heard enough from Nem that for a tenday he'd had to sleep in Mother's bed with his feet touching hers. Sheriff Bol had said the bear was just hungry, the same as the villagers, and that he would not return.

"I don't know, sweetdew," Mother answered. "Let's be still for a bit longer. To be sure it's gone."

Aril nodded.

An autumn wind rustled through the trees. Limbs rattled. Aril wished for the thousandth time that his father was still alive, that the red pox had never come to the village. Father would have come with them into the Old Wood. Father would have protected them from any old bear.

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