Authors: Paul S. Kemp
The Twilight War, Shadowbred
By 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? Wharif 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
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.
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 starshe imagined they were probably orange, or maybe redand 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 undergrowthquiet 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, Mothers 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.”
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.
He leaned against Mother. Her warmth and smelllike fresh breadcomforted him. She crouched and put her arms around him.
A limb cracked sharply somewhere in the woods behind them. Both gave a start and looked about. Aril’s heart raced anew. He saw nothing through the filtered moonlight but trees and undergrowth. Aril had heard that dwarves could see in the dark. He wished with all his might that halflings could.
Mother was breathing fast and Aril did not like it. He tried to swallow but his mouth was dry; he clutched a handful of Mother’s cloak and bit his lower lip.
Another limb cracked behind them, in the dark.
Mother put her mouth to Aril’s ear. “Quiet. We must hide.”
He still saw nothing, but he knew something was out there. Mother was afraidhe could feel it. He started to shake and Mother hugged him tighter. He was breathing as fast as she.
“It will be all right,” Mother whispered to him, but he was not sure if she was really talking to him. She half-stood out of the undergrowth and looked around the forest for a better hiding place.
Aril wondered if maybe they should dash for the village. Or shout for help? Surely someone would hear them. Maybe even Sheriff Bol. “Momma…”
He had not called her Momma since he was a wee, since Father had died.
“Momma, shouldn’t we”
One of the village’s dogs barked. Another joined it. Soon it sounded as if every dog in the village was barking.
Aril looked to his mother for reassurance but she was not looking at him. She was looking through the trees, toward the village.
A shout of alarm soundeda man’s voicethen another, and another. Before Aril could ask any questions, a woman’s scream tore through the night. Aril did not recognize any of the voices, but he knew they were his neighbors, his friends.
Growls answered the shoutslots of growls. Worse than before. They sounded like Aril’s stomach after he ate too much rhubarb pie, only worse. A man’s voice shouted for arms and Aril thought it might have been Farmer Tyll. There was fear in his voice, and the sound made Aril’s skin turn gooseflesh.
Mother squeezed him so hard that he could hardly breathe. Aril’s heart beat so fast it hurt his chest. His stomach fluttered.
“What’s happening, Momma?”
“We stay right here, Aril,” she whispered. “No matter what.”
The growls turned to roars and Mother paled. More shouts answered. The dogs barked themselves into a frenzy, doors slammed, wood cracked. Aril could not see it but he knew the village was in tumult.
“What is it, Momma? What is it?”
“I do not know, Aril. Cover your ears. Don’t listen.”
But Aril could not help but listen as the shouts turned more and more to screams. He heard a dog yelp in pain and go silent. A second dog did the same. A man screamed, then a woman. He thought he heard Sheriff Bol barking commands. And throughout all of it came the roars, the terrible roars.
He buried his face in Mother’s cloak.
Mother picked him up, stood, and started back into the woods.
Fear seized Aril. He did not want to go back into the woods.
“Where are we going?!” he said, too loud.
From the trees behind them came another growl, almost thoughtful. Saplings snapped, and the sounds came closer.
Mother froze in her steps. Aril felt a tremor run through her body.
Something was moving through the brush toward them something big, snapping trees.
“No,” she said, so low that she probably had not thought Aril would hear. “Please, Yondalla, not my boy, not my son.”
Terror rooted in Aril’s chest. Whatever monsters were in the village, more of them were in the woods. He wrapped his legs around his mother’s waist and buried his face in her neck. Tears filled his eyes.
“What do we do, Momma?” he whispered through his tears. “I want Papa. Where’s Papa?”
The words made no sense but they poured out anyway.
“We must hide,” she said again, her voice a hiss. “Yes, we will hide.”
She whirled a circle and fixed her eyes on a stand of pines near the edge of the forest, off to the side of the village. A dead log lay near ita good hiding place for them.
Mother balanced his weight in her arms and ran. She sometimes struggled to carry him lately, but at that moment she bore him as easily as a babe.
The creature behind them in the woods growled. Mother stumbled and Aril squealed in terror, but her grip on him never faltered. She kept her feet, crashed through low-hanging tree limbs and undergrowth, and fell to her knees under the pines, near the log.
They both turned to look behind them, breathing heavily. Aril saw nothing but trees and darkness. Perhaps the creature had not seen them?
Another crash sounded from the trees, so loud that Aril thought the creature must be not more than a stone’s throw away. More roars from the village. Aril covered his ears and squealed.
Mother pried his hands away and put her mouth to his ear. She spoke in a whisper.
“I don’t think it has seen us, Aril. Squeeze under the log and do not move. Like when you play hide and find with Nem.”
Her voice calmed him and he nodded, though the screams from the village made him think of his friends. He was worried for Nem.
With Mother’s help, he hurriedly squirmed under the log. It was a tight fit, but the hills and hollows of the ground gave him space. The earth filled his nostrils with their loamy scent. Dry pine needles poked his flesh and made him itchy. Mother laid herself behind him, like a pair of wooden spoons, sheltering him. She pulled armfuls of leaves and branches over them both. He could feel her breathing in his ear, feel her body trembling. He worried that she was not well hidden.
“Do not move, sweetdew,” she whispered. “No matter what happens. No matter what. Nod if you understand.”
He nodded and got a face full of pokey pine needles for his trouble.
“Momma loves you, Aril. More than anything. Papa did, too.”
Aril tilted his head to get a needle out of his ear and saw that a thin gap between the log and the ground offered a window through which he could see part of the village commons. He pressed his cheek into the ground so he could see better…
… and wished immediately that he had not.