0024 – Stem & Cap: Idyll, Part 10

At last, the Hunt Festival was upon the village of Dark Hollow.
Stem had done her level best to halt the the Trial, that part of the festival which would see the fifteen-year-old boys of the village – of which, this year, there was but one – pitted, unarmed, against the dangerous Lurkers of the deep forest. Despite her efforts, all she had actually achieved was the disarmament of her village’s regular complement of hunters, and the imprisonment of her brother.
The village was abuzz with activity. Some of the adults, particularly those in their middle years and beyond, had complained that the drop in overall population made the streets feel decidedly empty compared to the festivals of their childhood. None of this mattered to Stem, who had always enjoyed the festivities, providing she could get out of helping her mother on the cake stall.
This year, that would prove harder than usual.
Cap’s imprisonment had put their mother in an icy mood, or as close as possible for such a gentle and considerate woman. She had seen right through her son’s attempt to shoulder the blame for his sister, but had come to the erroneous conclusion that both, working together, had been responsible for the sabotage at the village’s armoury.
Usually, the understanding and child-loving nature of Stem’s mother meant that she would acquiesce to her daughter’s obvious excuses after a mere half an hour, quietly amused as the desperate girl ran off to enjoy the fun of the fair. This year, though, Stem was quite firmly in the doghouse.
“Please. I really feel sick. Please, mum.” Stem implored, faking a weak and pathetic tremble in her voice.
“Sit up straight, young lady.” Her mother admonished her. “It’s your job to take the money.”
“It doesn’t take two people to run this stall! We’re just sitting here!”
“I need your help. Especially now your brother’s gone and got himself in trouble, and left us alone to man the fort ourselves.” Her mother’s chin was lifted in a show of scorned pride.
“He never helps anyway! You never make him!”
There was no response.
“It’s just because I’m a girl! It’s not fair!”
“No,” her mother explained, her mouth unsmiling. “It’s not because you’re a girl. It’s because you’re a girl who helped her brother to sneak into the armoury and destroy some very important things, leaving the village vulnerable and the hunters – who are supposed to be doing more hunting than ever today – without their weapons.”
Stem tried to protest, tried to shout that she didn’t do that, to go along with the lie that Cap had so determinedly woven to protect her, but she simply couldn’t.
Instead, in one fluid and slippery motion, she slid from the high chair, down under the tabletop of the stall, and darted through the tablecloth, out into the street.
Behind, her mother was calling her name. Stem could tell from the tone and volume of her shouting that she had risen to her feet. A plump homebody was no match for the lithe figure of a mischievous child, and her darting escape through the streets proved simple.
What would be considerably less simple, she thought, would be getting herself lost in the crowd, and shaking the pursuit. Dark Hollow’s population numbered but fifty, young and old.
Her feet scrambling, her strides lengthening, Stem ran for the one place where she knew, at this time of day, there was bound to be a massing of people.
She rounded the corner into one of the small hamlet’s impromptu squares, a product of coincidence rather than good town planning. In this one, as she had expected, twenty-five or so of the village’s more spiritually inclined residents had gathered for the priest’s invocation.
Stem slipped into the crowd between two particularly tall men.
The priest in Dark Hollow did not proselytize. He did not preach. He did not pass judgement, or hear confessions. The village’s residents were unfamiliar with concepts such as these. The simple, functional pantheon of gods that they acknowledged was not concerned with, or designed around, punishment or absolution. Their spiritual situation was somewhat unique, in that their low population meant that a single man took on multiple roles and invoked multiple gods and rites, but this had little bearing on anything but the look of the ceremonies.
None of this exciting theological revelation was of any interest or consequence to Stem, who was just looking for a place to hide.
“HUNTER!” The priest bellowed. Shouting seemed to feature heavily in religious affairs. The convened villagers echoed his cry. They were addressing the sky above, and the dim sun that shone through the valley’s perpetual cloud of indigo spores.
“Hunter! This day, our men hunt in your honour,” the priest began. It was not a particularly imaginative invocation. When you simply wanted to ask that nobody should die a gory death at the hands of a Lurker, and that the villagers should have rather a lot of meat to last them through the coming months, artistic flourish was rather unnecessary.
Stem peeked out from between the well-built torsos of the bellowing men, plugging her ears and wincing. She caught sight of her mother, hands on hips, waiting a cautionary distance from the throng. Having already endured the embarrassment of an errant son, she was not about to compound her scandal by interrupting an important rite.
Stem knew this, and slipped quietly out of the other side of the crowd. By the time they were finished, and her mother felt justified in pushing her way in to drag her daughter out by the ear, she would be long gone.
There were no crowds by by the small, underused jailhouse. The distant roar of prayer and revelry echoed from between the houses.
On a calculated hunch, Stem put her hand up against the small, barred window.
“Open.” She whispered the command.
“Stem?” Cap called from within, too short to reach the window.
But this time, absolutely nothing happened.

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