Read Shadowbred Online

Authors: Paul S. Kemp

Shadowbred (2 page)

BOOK: Shadowbred
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His view was limited but he caught a glimpse of long-limbed, lumbering creatures loping across the green, tearing at any halflings within reach. In the village torchlight, he saw flashes of claws, huge mouths full of teeth. He knew what they were, and the knowledge made him sick to his stomach.

Trolls. There were trolls in the village. And there were more trolls behind them in the woods, hunting him and Momma.

He knew what trolls did. He’d heard the stories. He knew they could smell as well as Farmer Tyll’s hounds. He and Momma would be caught. He knew they would be caught.

And they would be eaten alive.

Tears flowed anew but Aril bore them in silence. He clenched his eyes shut and wished the horrible images away but the sounds coming from the village, the screams, the roars, preyed on his imagination. He saw with his mind what he no longer saw with his eyes: trolls killing and eating, claws and fangs dripping with the blood of friends and neighbors. He imagined Momma screaming. …

He heard a rush of motion behind them, the slow footfalls of something large prowling the undergrowth nearby. He heard heavy respiration. It was sniffing for them; a troll was sniffing for them.

He felt Mother tense.

Aril felt dizzy. His heart beat so hard and fast he thought it might jump out of his chest. His breath left him. He could not breathe. He could not breathe! Panicked, he squirmed and his body pressed against one of the branches Mother had used to cover him.

It cracked.

The troll near them went still.

Momma’s hand squeezed him. Both of them held their breath. More screams from the village, and a long, high-pitched wail of pain.

Aril pressed his face into the dirt to muffle any more sounds but that only made it harder to breathe. He wished so hard for his Papa. He wished that he was one of the bole slugs so he could burrow into the ground under a tree where no troll could ever find him. He wished he could hide in the earth and never come out again. He promised Yondalla that if she made him and Momma into worms he would live in the ground and never bother anyone ever again.

His mother gave him another squeeze. He felt her tears warming his ear. A limb broke right behind them. He heard sniffing, then a rumbling, curious grunt.

The troll started tearing through the debris under the pines and

he knew, with perfect clarity, that he would die.

“Stay here,” Mother whispered, and jumped to her feet. The troll roared.

Aril immediately ignored her words and squirmed out from under the log. He stood, raining dirt and leaves and twigs. He was already on his feet before he thought about what he had done.

“Aril, no!” Mother said, and he heard despair in her voice.

A troll stood five paces from them. Though hunchbacked, it still looked as tall as a tree. Warty green skin with patches of coarse black hair wrapped a frame that looked to Aril to be composed solely of muscle, claws, and teeth. It looked at them and inhaled deeply, as if testing the air for their scent. It smiled a mouthful of fangs, and a low rumble emerged from somewhere deep in its throat. Moonlight gleamed on the drool dripping from its lips.

Aril wanted to scream, but no sound would come from his mouth. It just hung open, waiting to be filled by mosquitoes. He was frozen.

The troll stared right at them. Its eyes were as black as the night.

Mother held out her arms to shield Aril. “Into the woods, Aril! Run! Run now!”

But Aril could not run. He could not move.

The troll cocked its head at Mother’s audacity. It flexed its claws and took a step toward them.

“Now, Aril!” Mother ordered. She picked up a stick and brandished it at the troll. “Here, creature!”

Aril was tempted to run, but only for a moment. He would not leave his Momma. Papa would not leave her, and he was Papa’s son. He grabbed a skipping stone from his pocket.

The troll growled and took another step toward Mother.

Aril hurled the stone and hit the troll squarely in the chest. It sounded like it had hit a log, and the huge creature barely flinched. Its eyes fixed on Aril, and it said something in a foul language and licked its lips.

Mother exclaimed, “No! Here, beast!” She waved her makeshift club and tried to charge, but slipped and fell on her stomach.

Aril did not think. He did what Papa would have done. He jumped in front of his prone mother, planted his clubfoot in the earth, and prepared to stand his ground. He took another stone from his pocket and prepared to throw.

“Leave us alone or I’ll hit you again!” he shouted.

The troll bounded forward with terrifying speed and Aril knew he had made a mistake. His arm went limp. His legs weakened and the stone fell from his fist. He screamed in terror.

Mother pulled him to the ground and threw herself over him.

“I love you, Aril!”

Aril hit the ground on his back and could not help but stare, eyes agog, as the troll loomed over them. Claws, teeth, and a wall of green flesh filled his vision. The night grew darker. The troll stank like rancid meat. Sounds faded. Aril’s vision blurred and the darkness swirled. He was spinning, spinning.

The troll opened its mouth.

The night clotted into a blackness deeper than pine pitch. The troll reached down for them, its claws as long as Aril’s fingers. Shadows haloed the troll like black fire.

The troll’s mouth was so wide Aril thought it would swallow him whole. He saw its black tongue, its sharp teeth. He could not close his eyes. He wanted to, but he could not.

A man appeared beside the troll, a dark man with a dark sword.

Aril knew the man had come to carry him away to death. He realized that all of the Hearthmistress’s sermons had been a lie. Yondalla had not come for him. There were no Green Fields. There was just a dark man with a dark sword.

The troll took hold of Mother’s arm and she screamed. The sword flashed and the troll lurched and released Mother. Aril screamed as the massive body of the creature fell to the ground.

Fell to the ground.

Fell to the ground.

Aril blinked, confused. He stared wide-eyed at the body of the troll. This did not make sense. Wasn’t he dead?

Still lying atop him, Mother was crying wracking sobs that shook her whole body.

Black blood pumped from the stump of the troll’s neck. Aril watched it soak the forest floor. The headless body still scrabbled at the ground near them, as though trying to reach them—or dig its own grave.

Next to the body, the dark sword pierced the troll’s severed head, pinning it to the forest floor. Pennons of shadow twirled around the blade. The troll’s jaws gnashed futilely in an effort to reach the steel.

Aril still did not understand. He blinked rapidly, unconvinced that he was seeing something real. He closed his eyes, held them shut, opened them.

Everything remained as it was. Mother continued to cry. The troll continued to bleed.

Aril forced his stare away from the troll’s head. His gaze wandered up the blade of the sword to its hilt, then to the dusky, shadow-enshrouded hand that held it, and finally rested on the face of a tall, dark-haired human man. Aril met his eyes and they flared yellow.

Aril realized what had happened. The shadowman had saved them.

“Back away,” the shadowman said in the halfling tongue, and he nodded at the twitching body of the troll. His voice was deep, and it scared Aril.

Aril had never before met any big folk who spoke the language of halflings. But the shadowman did.

Mother, still shaking and crying, was beginning to bleed from where the troll had grabbed her arm. She scooted backward and pulled Aril with her, away from the body of the troll.

Blood soaked Aril’s trousers, but it was the troll’s blood. Or maybe Momma’s. It was’warm and sticky. He had not noticed it at first.

“Thank Yondalla,” Mother said through her tears, the words barely recognizable. “Whoever you are, thank you. Thank you.”

“He’s the shadowman,” Aril tried to say, but the words did not come out.

The shadowman did not answer Mother, did not even look at

her. He removed a small flask from his cloak and soaked the troll’s body with the contents.

Lamp oil. Aril knew the smell.

The shadowman took a tindertwig—like the ones peddlers sold in the village—from a belt pouch, ignited it on one of his boots, and tossed it on the troll. As flames engulfed the body, it thrashed in agony. The skewered head twitched and gnashed frenetically as the body burned. The shadowman held an open palm over the blaze. Darkness shrouded the fire and masked its light. At first Aril did not understand why he did it. Then he remembered the other trolls. The shadowman did not want them to see the flames.

The shadowman pulled his sword free to toss the troll’s head into the fire. It gnashed as it burned. Then its eyes popped.

The man—he was so tall!—looked at Aril and Mother. Shadows wrapped him. Aril could not quite tell where the man ended and the night began.

“You are safe for now. I will do what I can for the village.”

He looked past them to Oakthorne, where screams, roars, and shouts of combat and slaughter continued. The shadows around his body alternately coiled and flared.

“You are the shadowman,” Aril said, finally croaking the words out.

The man regarded Aril with narrow eyes. The wind stirred his long hair.

Mother drew Aril close. “Thank you for saving us, goodsir. Please, help our folk.”

The shadowman ignored her. He had eyes only for Aril. “What did you call me?”

His sword was as long as Aril was tall. Darkness poured from it like steam off the lake on winter mornings. “He meant no offense,” Mother said.

Aril said, “The shadowman. You don’t like that name? That’s what Nem said the peddler called you. Hunters have seen you, too. In the forest. Some said they spoke to you but I thought it was all a tale. Nem said he heard you rode here on a shooting star. He said you came here to protect us because …”

Aril trailed off, suddenly nervous about continuing. He did not like the frown on the shadowman’s face. The dark eyes—they weren’t yellow anymore—bored into him.

“Because?” the shadowman prompted.

“He meant no offense, goodsir,” Mother said, her voice quavering. “Please … leave us alone, now.”

Aril summoned his courage and said, “Nem said he heard you protect us because you had a friend who was a halfling and you … could not protect him.”

The shadowman’s face was frozen. Aril could not tell if he was angry or sad.

The shadowman appeared next to him—had he moved?—reaching to touch Aril’s head, maybe to tousle his hair, but he stopped short. He studied Aril’s face and said, “Your friend has the right of it. My name is Erevis. Erevis Cale.” He paused then said, “But I like ‘shadowman,’ too.”

Mother audibly exhaled.

The roars and shouts from the village drew the man’s attention back to the slaughter. Without another word he was gone.

Aril twisted in his mother’s grasp and looked about. He did not want to be left alone in the forest.

He spotted the shadowman not far from them, crouching in the undergrowth, looking toward the village, and said the first thing that came to his mind.

“Tomorrow is my Nameday.”

“Let the man go,” Mother said to Aril, in the tone she usually reserved for telling him to do chores. “He’s going to help the others.”

The shadowman turned so that Aril saw his face in profile. Darkness gathered around him.

“I do not want him to go,” Aril blurted. “I’m afraid.”

Aril did not see the shadowman move. The man looked back on Aril, the darkness blurred, and he was suddenly kneeling at Aril’s side. Mother and Aril gasped.

“Everyone is afraid,” the shadowman said, his tone soft. Ribbons of shadow leaped from his flesh and touched Aril with cold fingers. “Even me. There’s no shame in it. Do you really want me to stay

here while the trolls attack your village?”

Aril understood the question. It was the same as when Mother had offered to let him sleep in the next day. He was supposed to say no. He struggled to find words.

“I was just… I was praying for Papa to come, and you came. I thought…” He trailed off. He did not know what he had thought.

The shadowman stared at him for a moment. Finally, he asked, “What number Nameday is it? Eighth?”

Aril felt indignant that the shadowman had taken him for a wee. “My tenth,” he corrected, and his tone made the shadowman smile.

“You are small for your age,” the shadowman said. “But only in your body, not in your heart. What is your name?”

“His name is Aril,” Mother answered. Aril frowned that she had stepped on his answer.

The shadowman nodded. “Aril is a good name. My friend’s name was Jak. And he was a halfling like you. Not from this village, but from another like it.”

The screams from the village continued.

“Can you count, Aril?” the shadowman asked.

Aril nodded.

“To one hundred?”

Aril nodded again.

The shadowman stood and looked down on them. “When you reach one hundred, this will all be over. Those trolls will never bother you or your village again.”

Aril nodded, wide-eyed.

The shadowman looked at Mother. “This is nothing you’ll want to see. Same for the boy. Trust me, and stay where you are. I’ll save who I can.”

Mother just stared.

The darkness around them began to deepen. Before it was too dark to see, Aril took a skipping stone from his pocket and tossed it to the shadowman.

“You might need it,” he said.

The shadowman caught it, smiled, and slipped it in a pocket. “I might at that. Your papa would be proud of you, Aril.”

The shadowman vanished as the darkness grew impenetrable. Aril held his hand before his face and saw nothing. His mother’s arms were around him though, so he felt safe enough.

The shadowman’s voice cut through the darkness. “Start counting, Aril. Aloud.”

Aril did. “One, two, three, four…”

By ten, he heard roars of surprise from the trolls. By fifteen, he heard the first of them die. Others followed quickly—at twenty, twenty-three, thirty-one. Roars of pain came one moment from Aril’s left, then from his right, one moment nearby, the next farther away. He imagined the shadowman stepping out of the shadows, killing, and disappearing, only to materialize across the village and slay again. By sixty, Aril stopped counting. The surviving trolls were trying to flee. He could tell by the way their terror-filled shrieks grew more and more distant.

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