0048 – Gareth & Stem: Departure, Part 4

Gareth had not allowed the book to respond to him. He had sworn, in a moment of righteous indignation, never to practice Sermomancy again. He knew exactly what the book would have to say on the subject, if he were to open it and give it the chance. So it lay, impotent and seething anger, atop his pack as the sun waned, its dark side almost fully turned toward Gareth and Stem.

The fire was roaring nicely. Despite the encouraging demeanour he was putting on for the little girl’s sake, his irritated mind toyed, once in a while, with the idea of frivolously tossing the Sermomantic texts he carried into the flames.

Even his living familiar aside, there was one book which he could not possibly afford to discard.

“Mr. Gentle, are you listening?” Stem asked him, craning her head down into his field of vision.

Gareth snapped out of his train of thought, turning his gaze up from the roaring fire to meet her eyes, spots still dancing before his vision.

“Sorry.” He confessed. “My mind wandered.”

She puffed her cheeks out. “I was telling you about Grazer!”

Gareth tried to put together the fragments of what he had heard with what she had just said.

“So.. Grazer was the one who had the Age book?”

“Yes!” She exclaimed, realising only now just how much of the story he had apparently missed. “He killed the Lurker with it! Shouted at it until it shrivelled and died!”

“But where did he get it?” Gareth asked, cutting straight to the point.

“Oh, he never told me.” Stem said nonchalantly.

Gareth groaned. “That’s the entire reason I asked you to tell the story in the first place.”

“No, it isn’t!” she corrected him. “You asked where Grazer was now. I can answer that. I think. Probably.”

“Go on.”

“Well, when we crept back to the village with the dead Lurker, we saw the soldiers. Loads of them. All dressed in black, with funny masks on their faces.”

Gareth had been wondering when the invasion was going to feature in this story. “What did you do then?” He asked.

“I wanted to go down and find out if my brother was okay.” Stem looked down at her feet guiltily. She still blames herself for him being in prison, Gareth realised. Even though I’m probably the reason the soldiers came at all.

“But Grazer wouldn’t let you?” Gareth asked.

“That’s right. How did you know?”

“Well, any older boy worth his salt would go down there alone and leave you somewhere safe.” He stated.

“I shouldn’t have let him go on his own. He’s probably dead now.” She fidgeted.

“Why do you think that? Were there signs of violence? Bodies and such?”

Stem cast her mind back. “No, nothing like that. But if Grazer went down there with the Age book, and they didn’t kill him, wouldn’t he start using it on the soldiers? Sneak around, getting ‘em one by one, like a… like a sneaky hero?”

Gareth shrugged. “So he didn’t come back?”

“No.” Stem told him. “I waited for a long time. I slept up at the treeline. I kept watching whenever I was awake. Eventually, I got so thirsty that I had to go, I had to. I went to a little stream in the woods.”

She had started shaking. He let her talk.

“I drank and drank, my stomach was nearly bursting, and it made me a little bit less hungry, but not much. I picked some mushrooms. I know some that are good to eat, but if I’d listened to my mum more….”

She trailed off briefly. Gareth was starting to get the picture.

Before he could interject, she began again.

“I was up there for a day or two. I ate mushrooms and drank water, but I was too slow and too weak to catch any of the animals.” She gave a rueful little laugh. “I don’t really think I could hurt them anyway.”

Gareth stood up, and moved around the fire to sit next to her. She didn’t move an inch.

“I realised he wasn’t coming back. I thought if I went down there, they’d kill me too. So I just walked away from the village, and kept walking. I got so hungry that I couldn’t sleep, so I ate some of those mushrooms Grazer likes, the ones that make you sleepy. That helped me when night fell, but I got so cold.”

He looked down at her half-starved body. Her ragged clothes were loose on her. She was the only Shrouder he had ever seen, but he was sure her collarbones weren’t supposed to be jutting out so violently.

“After a few days, I got out of the forest, and instead of the trees there were these weird… green trees. And there was no more misty cloud up above. The sun hurts sometimes, it’s so hot here, and I didn’t know what was good to eat, so I just kept walking and walking and walking… and I was… so hungry….”

Gareth couldn’t listen to another word without hugging her. He enveloped her tiny, pale body in his huge grey robe, clutching her tight, her head to his thin chest.

He had never comforted a child before, and it made a warmth spread inside him. He vaguely recalled the feeling, experienced once before when he had held a baby rabbit, handed to him by a smiling, kind-eyed Pam.

Stem began to sob into his robe.

Gareth stroked her matted, filthy white hair.

“It’s alright.” He reassured her. “You’re safe now. You’ve had it hard, but I won’t let you starve, okay? I’ll find you somewhere good to stay. I promise.”

She said nothing. Her tiny, emaciated body was shaking. Her filthy-nailed hands clutched at his robes as she cried endlessly into him, great heaving sobs jolting her.

I did this. Gareth thought. This is my fault. And I can’t do anything to fix it without making more victims.

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