0023 – Stem & Cap: Idyll, Part 9

The gathering hut of the elders of Dark Hollow consisted of a single circular room. It was orientated around a large open fireplace in the middle of the floor, from which thick smoke arose. It seemed to fill every inch of space before escaping through a hole in the middle of the tall cone of thatch. This was, supposedly, a very traditional style of building, reminiscent of the village’s first settlers, and was nothing at all like the multi-roomed, broadly rectangular cottages that now housed most of the population.
Cap and Stem were kneeling respectfully on the floor of the hut, sitting back on their feet. Despite their small bodies being low to the ground, both of them still found their eyes stinging and streaming from the pungent fumes.
On the other side of the open fire sat three wizened, liver-spotted elders, each on a large and well-worn, but comfortable looking cushion. Two were female, and one was male. Beside them sat one more cushion, identical to the others, conspicuously vacant.
All three of them wore grim and scornful expressions.
“Do you have any concept of the gravity of what you’ve done?” Asked the male elder. Despite being excessively wrinkled, his posture was perfect. His skeletal body sat bolt upright, his long features fixed in a mask of disapproval.
“You’ve left us defenseless!” The smaller of the two women, round-faced but with eyes of blazing fury, pounded her fist on the ash-strewn floor with surprising force, sending a small cloud of dust up into the smoke. “Against our greatest enemy!”
“Stillpond. Crag. Please.” The other woman, kindly-faced with her spine almost bent double even as she sat, was imploring her peers. “How could they possibly have known? Only those who have faced the trial could have realised the importance of polearms in keeping the Lurkers in check.”
The angry woman, Stillpond, paused dead still in the middle of some furious posturing to give this some consideration. “That only makes it worse!” She cried, eventually. “Random, wanton vandalism, that’s what it was!”
The old man, Crag, raised an eyebrow, alternating eye contact between Cap and Stem. “Well?” He asked. “Was it?”
Stem looked like she was about to speak, so Cap spoke first. He was still intent on taking all of the blame.
“No. I didn’t know you needed spears to fight the Lurkers. I just knew you needed one to start the trial. I don’t want Grazer to die.”
He had done a good job of adopting Stem’s thought process.
The stooped woman, who Cap remembered now was named Long-gill, responded in a kindly tone, turning awkwardly between her two fellows in an imploring gesture. “You see?” She asked. “The boy was motivated by kindness. He sought not to hurt the rest of us, merely to protect his friend.”
“Rubbish!” Stillpond was still incensed. “A ten-year-old boy, and you’d have me believe he didn’t know that sawing fifteen spears clean in half would have consequences for the hunters?”
“Indeed.” Said Crag. “Even if he acted with the best of intentions, he should have realised the dire ramifications.”
“I did.” Cap fixed each of them with a stare, in turn, as only a liar can. “I just didn’t care. The spears can be fixed, I know you can just put the heads on new shafts later. But you won’t have any in time for the festival! Grazer doesn’t have to do his trial!”
“Of course he does!” Stillpond looked fit to explode with wrath. “He won’t be a real man until he’s done it.”
“No!” Stem called out. She had been fidgeting already, and had now sprung up slightly from her seated position, albeit still on her knees, restlessly bouncing. “You can’t make him! He’ll die!”
The slightest shifting of Crag’s sombre features indicated that he had realised something. However, he said nothing at all.
“We can and we will!” Stillpond retorted. “There’s not a man in this village who hasn’t killed a Lurker. Do you think Dark Hollow sprang up peacefully? That a thousand years ago, a bunch of wishy-washy farmers and their wives came out here, built a couple of houses, and the monsters kept themselves to themselves? No! We took this territory from them. We made it safe. Our men fought the beasts off, our women made the homesteads, and they worked side by side on the land. Any man who can’t hold his own against one of them should bugger off to the City like the milk-drinker he is!”
Stem’s eardrums were ringing. She was quite sure that everyone in the whole village could hear the old crone’s incredulous rambling. She was sitting again, now, slightly more meekly than before.
Long-gill sighed, placing a hand on Stillpond’s knee. She looked at the children in turn.
“I’m afraid my sister has the right of it.” She conceded. “You’ve seen all the empty houses. Even though you are both so young, you must know that we number less than a quarter of what we did even one generation ago. With so few of us, every man and woman must be prepared to pull their weight. For the men, this means being ready to fight.” She looked directly at Cap now. “I am sorry, young man, but your friend must prove his worth.”
Crag spoke authoritatively. He seemed eager to be the one to pronounce judgement.
“Cap, you may have acted out of concern for Grazer, but you have committed a most grave offense. Although you are young, and brave, we have no choice but to imprison you for a short while. Fifteen days, one for each spear you broke. You will, I fear, miss the festival.”
Undetected by all but the children, Crag gave Cap the subtlest of winks. He admired a young man who was willing to bear undeserved punishment for the sake of his sister.
Cap and Stem bowed, their heads almost touching the floor before them, and left the hut in silence.
Stem was shaking with rage.

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