Chapter 6: Encounter with Malice
Stranth and Onar put the animals in their pens, filled their troughs with water and the bins with winter-feed. Gathering up the duffels their mother had packed, they began their hike to the cave. They felt a sense of pride and independence as they went; being entrusted to set off on their own was a turning point toward manhood. Just passing the gate felt like an adventure. Each pretended not to be pondering the occasion precipitating this opportunity.
They avoided the subject of their mother’s instructions should she not return in a few days, choosing to believe that she would be there. She had made many trips to the trade post before now, all without incident, as far as they knew. That this was the first time she did not first head east to leave them with Farmer Harris’s wife was not particularly pertinent. Stranth wondered aloud if they would soon get to cross that distant mountain, imagining what awaited them on the other side. They were filled with the spirit of exploration and yearned to chase the very wind, to follow its path!
With bravado they talked of hunting parties and wild animals, battles with bandits, and the discovery of ancient landmarks; yet their senses were on high alert for fowls and other malefactors. Stranth’s countenance and posture were an exhibition of determination, while Onar displayed his usual aplomb; yet, hardly a leaf fell to the ground without his silent notice.
“Do you believe Farmer Harris’s stories about living shadows?” Onar asked his big brother.
“Maybe. Some of it might be true.”
“If they’re real, why wouldn’t Ma tell us about them?”
“I don’t think she likes to scare us like old Mr. Harris.”
“Would you be afraid of a shadow?”
“One with a mean face that was moving toward me? Yeah, I’d probably be a little afraid.”
“I don’t think I’d be scared. I’d set it on fire.”
Stranth just smirked at his brother who was never afraid of anything.
“I’ve never seen you act scared of anything, Stranth. How come you always say you might be afraid, but when the time comes, you never are?”
“I don’t know,” he pondered. “I guess I don’t want to end up afraid of something I already said I wasn’t scared of. I’d rather think I could be scared and find out I wasn’t after all when it’s over.”
That gave Onar something to think about as they made their way toward the ashen forest.
“Why didn’t Ma just take us to Mrs. Harris again?” Onar asked after a long time.
“I think we’re only going to be staying at the cave for a few days before we set off toward that eastern mountain. Maybe she doesn’t want anyone to know which way we’ve gone, or where.”
“Even Farmer and Mrs. Harris?”
“If they don’t know where we’ve gone, then they don’t have to lie and say they don’t when they really do. They really won’t.”
“Who’d ask ’em?”
“Do you think he’ll even care we’ve gone?” Onar blurted out.
“No. But he might want to drag us back all the same.”
“Why?” The thought seemed absurd to Onar.
“I don’t know. Why does he stay gone all the time? Doesn’t he know what a dangerous world we live in? Why doesn’t he stick around to protect his family?”
“You don’t think he’d care if something bad happened to us; do you?”
“If he cared about that, he’d stay around to make sure nothing did! He wouldn’t have brought those vile men home with him.”
Onar said nothing after that. He just quietly mulled things over in his head for a while. They continued their journey in silence until Onar thought about something different.
“Why doesn’t Ma ever seem to get mad at Father?”
“What makes you think she doesn’t?”
“You think she does?”
“Sure, she does!”
“Why doesn’t she act like it— or talk about it?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t figured that one out yet,” Stranth answered, coming to a sudden stop when he realized his brother had stopped. “Do you feel something, Onar?”
Onar wiggled his fingers at his sides. “It’s— like a patch of cold,” he answered with a sudden shudder.
The two boys stood silent for a moment looking around. They had passed the fowl rock and hence, were not far from the cave.
“Stranth, I think I’m scared,” Onar confessed, surprised at the unfamiliar emotion.
“Hush. You are not,” Stranth encouraged. “You’re never scared, remember?”
“I think I am this time.”
“It’s just a cold spot, that’s all. Let’s just keep moving.”
“I’ve got a bad sort of feeling, too,” Onar added. “Like something different is watching us. It’s awfully quiet. And I can hear my heart pounding in my ears.”
Stranth put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and stepped around behind him, peering in every direction.
“I don’t know how you could hear anything over all that yammering you’re doing,” he whispered, pulling a light stick out of the duffel strapped to Onar’s back. He dug around for a flint and set to lighting the torch when a sudden gust of cold air shot past them. Curious. Stranth was beginning to feel more than a little unsettled about their surroundings. He didn’t want to show anything remotely akin to fear to his brother whom he had been given charge to watch over. He tried to light the stick again.
“Stranth,” Onar whispered.
Stranth looked first at his brother whose eyes were fixed in one direction with a look of utter astonishment on his face. He turned his eyes in the same direction and found himself quite astonished as well. A patch of darkness hung in the air and appeared to be spreading out and growing. As it grew, it came closer to their location. They found themselves turning in a circular motion as they kept their eyes fixed on this dark cloud and its fluid movement in and around the trees close to them, circling them, drawing nearer.
At last, following some nervous fumbling, Stranth was able to get the little torch lit. The dark mist hanging in the air would be in the midst of them momentarily. Was it moving through the trees or around them? He could not determine which. He realized that he was looking very hard at this entity with its purposeful movements. Not fully understanding his own thoughts, he searched for a face, for an expression of intent. He noticed that Onar still stood in front of him and his light stick with its modest flame. Stepping in front of Onar, he pointed the flame toward the shadow which came to an immediate stop. Indeed, it even seemed to flinch. Surprised, Stranth took a step toward the darkness, pointing his light stick directly at it. That’s when he saw it! The face. It was an evil face, full of malice, and angry that Stranth should point this flame directly at him. It bowed up at Stranth, who then realized Onar had thrown down his duffel and dug another light stick out of it. Touching the tips together, they now had two lit torches. For an instant, the boys thought the shadow was going to charge them. Together they instinctively lunged toward the dark phantom which let out a piercing squeal and dissipated before their eyes.
The boys stood motionless for a time, eyes darting about to see if the cloud were merely lingering out of range. As they continued to process what they had just witnessed, they looked down, since the entity seemed to fall to the ground like water from a bucket. Yet, nothing was on the ground.
“We killed it?”
Turning to look at his younger brother, Stranth asked, “How did you know a shadow could be killed by fire?”
“Farmer Harris,” he shrugged.
The landscape seemed to return to its normal state with crickets croaking and distant crows cawing. Onar picked up his duffel and headed for the peak. He wondered if he could swing down on the vine while carrying the duffel. He wondered if his brother had felt scared.
“I didn’t have time to think about being scared,” Stranth answered, knowing Onar’s thoughts by the expression on his face.
“You know what? I don’t think I was scared either.”
“Yes, you were.”
“No, I wasn’t!”
“Yes, you were! You said you were.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“Yes, you did.”
And so the evening went. They made their way to the cave and had a fine meal of bread and cheese and the sweet water from the underground spring. When it was time to turn in for the night, they each crawled onto their cozy bearskins and exchanged thoughts of their mother and hopes for her safety and quick arrival.
“Good night, Onar,” Stranth said to his younger brother. “It doesn’t matter now that you were scared earlier. We’re safe here.”
“Good night, Stranth,” Onar returned, then added in a whisper, “I wasn’t scared.”
“Yes, you were,” his brother whispered back even more softly.
Softer still, Onar replied, “Was not.”
The whispers grew softer until they finally became nothing more than nodding and shaking heads. In the end, only their eyes continued the game of repeating their argument, until at last one of them closed his eyes and fell asleep.