0014 – Stem & Cap: Idyll, Part 5

Stem’s mother had forbidden her from letting Cap know their father’s secret, so she had just finished telling him.


Cap’s face, already bone-white, had managed to go even more pale as he put two and two together.


“Grazer doesn’t stand a chance.” He stated.


Stem nodded. “He’s fat.”


Grazer wasn’t Cap’s role model, but he was unpopular amongst the adults, and that was enough to make him worth looking up to. Cap was about to speak up in his defense, but Grazer was fat, and there was no getting around it. Instead, he meekly said “Yeah.”


“And he never takes anything seriously.” Stem said it as though it were a problem, much to Cap’s chagrin.


“We have to help him.” To Cap, it was the obvious conclusion.


“What? What can we do? We’re just children!” She exclaimed.


“Then what do you think we should do?”


“Stop the whole stupid thing!” Stem shouted. “There’s no point getting people killed, just for a stupid trophy!”


Cap furrowed his brow. This was a new idea to him. He wasn’t sure he liked it much.


“It’s not stupid. And nobody would listen to us anyway.”


“We’ll make them listen! Make them listen to how Grazer’s going to die if they make him do it!”


Cap shook his head. “He’d be the first man in Dark Hollow not to have done it. He’d never live it down. Even Lackspores has done it.”


“No, he hasn’t.” Stem reminded him.


Cap thought back to the story of their father. “What if we do what he did? Leave him a dead Lurker?”


“We’d have to kill a Lurker first, you IDIOT!” The last word was punctuated by a punch. He returned it. It didn’t count as hitting a girl if it was your sister.


“Shut up! I’m going to help him.”


“And I’m going to stop it!”


Why?


“Because I don’t want you to die either, when you’re fifteen, you moron!”


For just a moment, the adult realisation that his sister was legitimately worried for his wellbeing settled itself in Cap’s mind. It was quickly buried behind pride and obstinance.


“I can do it! I can! You’ll see!”


Cap kicked Stem in the shin, and ran out of the empty, pristine sty as fast as he could. Their mother still hadn’t bought them a new pet.


Stem rubbed her shin, allowing herself a delayed wince of pain now that she was alone. She hated to admit it, but her brother had a point. She was a ten-year-old girl, single handedly campaigning for a beloved – and very manly – tradition to be abolished, in a matter of days, less than a week before its much anticipated biannual re-enactment. She had no chance whatsoever.


Sinking into a knock-kneed sitting posture on the rushes of the sty floor, she stared out across the silent, still, dark lake. Almost imperceptible ripples lapped microscopically upon the little ramp that Clod had used for climbing in and out of the water.


Abolishing the initiation was a lost cause. Sabotaging the initiation? That was far more likely to succeed.


————————-


Cap needed to know what he was up against. With this in mind, he had slipped up the rich, dark earth of the slope that led to the forest. The sun overhead was already darkening, and he knew he had only a matter of hours before the tame hunting grounds – let alone the tangled, gnarled, primal woods beyond – would be too dark to navigate.


He paused at the little platform of bright wood where he had sat with Grazer only yesterday. The older boy had seemed so self-assured, and his confidence had proved contagious, successfully convincing Cap that his victory was certain. It was remarkable how one revelation could shift perspective in such an agonising way.


Cap climbed onto the little platform from the side, rolling onto his belly, peeking his head over the edge to regard the village below. It did not occur to him that showing a sudden regard for camouflage at this late stage, after huffing and puffing loudly up a hill in plain view, would do little to shield him from the attention of anyone below. What mattered now, though – now that he was looking – was that nobody was looking up at him. This, he reasoned, meant that he was completely undiscovered. He’d be in the Lurkers’ domain in no time.


“Cap? That you, boy?”


He flinched as he heard the voice from behind. Discovered, he rolled onto his back, his stomach to the twilight sky, and realised that the speaker had been only a few feet behind him.


The hunter looked bemused. “What you doing up here, boyo?”


Cap thought quickly. Unfortunately, this meant he didn’t think very cleverly. “Picking mushrooms,” he blurted out.


“On a hill?”


“Yes.”


“With no trees on it?”


“Yes.”


“And no basket to put ‘em in?”


“… Yes.” Cap was sticking to his story.


The hunter sighed. He was a rough but amiable man in his late thirties, by the name of Biter. Cap did not know him well, since the village’s hunters spent daylight hours out in the forest. Most of them kept to the company of their own kind, gaming and drinking loudly into the night, sitting together around the roaring fire, well away from the houses. Their wives were known for their loneliness.


“I’m not bloody stupid.” Biter stated.


“I just,” Cap stammered. “I just wanted to ask you a few things. You, or one of the other hunters.”


Biter had been expecting to catch the boy at some mischief, but he found himself looking Cap up and down now, trying to anticipate the body he would gain in adolescence; whether he would grow into a useful physique for tracking and fighting. He was still five years from his trial, but with just one of the hunters being aged under thirty, young blood was always worth encouraging.


“Ask away, lad.” Biter chewed the inside of his cheek, sitting himself down on the edge of the platform.

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