0012 – Stem & Mother: Idyll, Part 4

Preparations for the Hunt Festival were starting to take shape. Dark Hollow was not a large settlement by any stretch of the imagination, but it looked crowded and busy now. Bunting on strings was hung between the thatched cottages, criss-crossing the street in a web of little blue and white flags.

The village’s population was not, reasonably speaking, large enough to support that traditional model of festival, whereby most of the occupants take to the streets running a huge variety of stalls. If they did, there would be nobody left to walk around buying from them. This did not stop the population from having a damn good go at making it work.

Stem’s mother always viewed the Hunt Festival as an opportunity to make as many cakes as possible, and foist them on as many people as possible. For the simple reason that Stem was a girl, she was contractually obligated her to help her mother, even when she would much rather be running around the streets getting dirty and generally making a mess out of everyone else’s hard work.

Stem sulked as she stirred the thick, beige batter. Every time her mother’s back was turned, she would lift the still-coated wooden spoon to her mouth, licking a huge amount of the sweet, raw mixture from the flat of the spoon, before plunging it, unwashed, back into the bowl. It was her all-important act of rebellion against both hygiene and common sense. Plus, it was absolutely delicious.

Not being an idiot, Stem’s mother knew that she was doing this. She was simply good-natured enough to find it charming.

“Grazer’s leading the Hunt up the hill this time.” Stem idly commented. She knew better than to complain about baking the cakes, but still possessed enough petulance to speak with the most bored tone imaginable, making her distaste clear despite the neutrality of the topic at hand.

“Mhm,” her mother began, preoccupied with trying to level out the severely reduced cake batter into something that would fill the tin to a decent degree. “He’s the only one, too.”

Stem suddenly realised that she didn’t actually know the rules. “Does that mean he has to kill his Lurker alone?”

“Oh yes. All the boys do. When it was your father’s turn, there were three other boys, all waiting for him to finish. They do it one after another – like a relay race.”

Worry had begun to show in her voice.

Stem sighed. “It’ll be Cap’s turn sooner or later. I wish I could go, too.”

“No, you don’t.” Her mother had broken her usual kind and patient tone. She was being firm now. Almost angry. “It’s not a game, Stem.”

“How hard can it be?” Stem mused. She had finished the heavily plundered bowl of cake batter she had been stirring and stealing from, and was now greasing yet another tin automatically. “Lackspores killed one, and everyone knows he’s a wimp. Grazer pointed it out.”

For just a second, her mother stopped, still. She seemed to be coming to a decision.

“Can you keep a secret, Stem?” She asked her own daughter.

“Even from Cap?”

“Especially from Cap.”

Stem blinked. Mum had never asked her this before. To be blunt, she was used to being treated like a beloved, slightly patronised child. But lately, her mother had seemed troubled. Something, clearly, was on her mind, and Stem was seeing a new, restless side to her now. She wondered whether she was simply getting old enough to perceive something that had always been there.

“I can.” Now was not the time to play the brat. “I promise.”

Stem’s mother wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her sleeve, took off her oven gloves, and lowered herself into an armchair. Due to the tight quarters of their little home, this did not involve a great deal of walking, and after a few short footsteps, Stem had followed her.

She sighed. “Lackspores never killed a Lurker.”

Despite her opinion of Lackspores, this actually surprised Stem. “Why didn’t he get banished, then?”

“Your father killed it for him.” Her mother explained.

“But that’s against the rules!”

“It is.”

“But dad was a man of honour!”

“He was also a very kind man. He killed two Lurkers. Himself. With his own hands. And then he left one just beyond the threshold, for Lackspores to bring back. All the boy had to do was sit by the carcass for an hour or two, and then haul it to the village. Even being near it scared him.”

Stem thought on this. It was actually such a simple explanation that she was surprised nobody had tried it before. Perhaps they had.

“With his hands? Really? Just his hands?” Stem had to ask.

Mum gave her half a smile. “No, your dad was a clever man. He made traps and weapons out of what he found in the forest. But the boys do go in with nothing, it’s true. You’ll see them charging up the hill with a spear, but it’s only for show… they give it back before they cross the true threshold.”

Stem tried to imagine Grazer fashioning tools and traps from branches, stones and other foraged bits and pieces. It was impossible. Grazer was big, but he was all fat and no muscle, and definitely no outdoorsman. He could pick the right mushrooms, even if some of them did seem to make him lazy and nonsensical, but that was as far as it went.

“He’ll get killed.” Stem stated flatly. “Grazer is going to die.”

Her mother simply looked at her. She wasn’t smiling now.

Dark Hollow’s population wasn’t what it used to be. Lots of people had left the village in the last few generations, and few babies were born to the handful of settled couples young enough to birth them. A boy hadn’t run the trial in quite some time.

“We have to stop it,” said Stem. “We have to stop the whole stupid thing.”

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