By Aoikami Sarah
You see a small hut, nestled in a small clearing, just enough for a puddle of sunshine to grace a patch of dirt and moss in front of the door. The thatched roof is in need of repair but a steady tendril of smoke curls from a fieldstone chimney. Birds chirp all around and a few light on the ground in front of the door but scatter as a figure rounds the right side of the hut. A woman wearing a long unbleached woolen skirt and a tunic tied with a sash of forest green comes from the woodpile on the side of the house carrying a bundle of kindling. She is thin, of average height, and her skin is a rich plum color. She wears a head wrap of finely woven wool and some strands of dark violet hair have come loose around her ears, which are also covered. Her golden, pupiless eyes gleam as she cursorily scans the dooryard before pushing the rickety door open with her knee. A long, ridged tail with a spaded tip trails behind her.
From the edge of the clearing, something moves through the brush, causing it to shake.
When she emerges again, the scene is still once more. She puts her hands on her hips. "Lucien!" she calls. There's no answer. She calls the name again and the brush in the near distance moves, catching her eye. A third time she calls, this time, adding one important and additional word in the infernal tongue. "Lucien! Dinner!"
There's a pause before something large and grey erupts from the brush and bounds toward the woman—a sheepdog with a filthy, corded coat covers the distance quickly, and a little lavender-skinned barefoot tiefling boy follows soon after.
"Coming!" he calls back in the same language.
He's got the hem of his shirt stretched out in his hands to carry dozens of large, pale, tan nuts and beams with pride as he sees her. He trips over a jutting root and tumbles forward, falling hard on his face and scattering the nuts everywhere. The woman gasps and starts to run forward and the dog quickly ascertains that the boy is hurt and does the same, spinning almost in place and charging back toward him.
He pushes himself up, a bit dazed, and tears come to his eyes, but he doesn't cry. He fights the pain, sucks in a breath and pouts heavily at the nuts that rolled in every which direction.
The dog pushes at him with its nose, urging him to stand and the little boy grasps the corded fur and pulls himself up.
"Lucien!" the woman cries. "Are you alright?"
"Fine, Mommy," he says, wiping the dirt from his nose. There's a bit of a scrape above his eye that is starting to bleed.
His mother pulls a handkerchief from her bosom and starts to fuss over him, but he wriggles out of her grip and starts to collect the nuts. "I got so many, Mommy," he says.
She crouches down and picks some up as well. "I see that. Good job."
"You can have as many as you want!"
She smiles. "Thank you, my brave provider."
The sheepdog wags its tail and waits patiently for them to finish their task, then all three enter the hut, the mother opening the rickety door for her little one and his beast.
Inside is just one room, about twenty feet square with one small, mica-paned window on two opposite walls and a hearth opposite the door. A mattress of woolen fabric stuffed with straw covered with woolen bedclothes sits neatly in the corner, and a huge loom, spinning wheel, and baskets, some of which are full of wool, make up much of the rest of the space.
The boy called Lucien deposits the nuts on the bed, reaches up, lifts a hammer from a peg on the wall and sits at the edge of a braided rug. The floor is made of poor-quality wood planks that are patched in places, but it's far better than an earthen floor. He gathers a flat stone and a rough-hewn wooden bowl and proceeds to crack some of the nuts while his mother tends the fire and stirs a little cauldron of stew. She ladles it out for them giving a larger portion to her boy. It's rabbit with herbs and root vegetables, the usual meal when times are good in their household. The boy hands her shelled nuts and she takes a few pieces, but tells him that if she eats too many she'll get an upset stomach.
After the mid-day meal the dog curls up at the hearth and the boy plays quietly with some rough wood blocks and his mother sits down to work once more, carding wool and spinning it into yarn. There's already a good pile of it in a basket to her left when the dog's head comes up and it barks a few times. She lifts her chin and listens. "Lucien, look to the window. Is that the shepherd?"
He beams and bolts to the tiny, dirty, brown mica window. "It's him!" he cheers and turns to run for the door. The woman shouts at him to stop and he freezes in his tracks. "You know better!" she scolds him.
"Yes, Mommy." He pouts and waits for her to go first. She rises slowly from her work and lifts a floorboard near the treadle of spinning wheel. From this hiding spot she retrieves a few coins from a small, iron box then cracks the door open enough to survey the area.
A horse-drawn cart with a large man at the reins trundles up to the hut and the woman tightens her head wrap and steps out into the yard to greet the shepherd—a large half-orc with grey beard and slightly hunched posture who nods in greeting. Wordlessly, he accepts the coins, counting them before unloading three large bags of wool. He touches the brim of his hat to her, never once looking on the small, round face that peers through the half-open doorway. He mounts the buckboard and drives the horse and cart back down the narrow lane.
Lucien ducks out of sight before his mother calls to him to come help bring the wool inside. When they have finished, she sits down, breathless, on her stool. She tugs at her bodice, loosening the ties and pulls her headwrap off revealing two thick horns that arch back from her forehead, but end abruptly in ragged stumps near the top of her head. Her son leans against the dog by the fire and watches her intently. He nervously runs a hand through his unruly violet hair, pushing it behind his own horns which are tiny and only just beginning to curl back. It's several moments before she composes herself and returns to her work.
"Mommy," he says meekly. "Is the shepherd a bad man?"
She seems to consider her answer carefully. "Perhaps not to us. He's different, like we are. The humans don't like him, either."
She looks away. "They just don't like things that are different. It scares them."
"It is also that, but you must remember, they mean us harm." She straightens out the fabric in her hands. "Never forget, they took your father. They will hurt you if you are not careful, my son."
"I know, Mommy," Lucien says softly.
She winds the fabric around her head, covering her ruined horns once more and sets to spinning. Later, she will begin to card the new load of wool, then switch to some weaving before bed, a typical day's work for the widowed tiefling mother.
You see the little boy and his mother waiting outside the hut in the early morning light, surrounded by several bags tightly stuffed with woven wool fabric. The half-orc shepherd rides up in his cart and loads the bags into the back. Lucien gives the big sheepdog some pats then closes it inside the house and runs to join his mother. They both wear gloves, scarves, long skirts, and hoods so that only the bare minimum of purple flesh is visible. The shepherd helps them up into the back of the cart and they sit on the bags of fabric. Lucien's mother fusses over him, adjusting his cloak and pulling the hood down further over his head. He squirms but lets her do it, and they ride off down the path.
They arrive at the outskirts of a small town in the early afternoon and the shepherd helps them unload their wares. He mutters in an impossibly deep baritone in common that he will meet them by the town well in an hour. Lucien's mother thanks him with a silent bow. Wordlessly, the pair unpacks bundles of woolen cloth and almost immediately patrons approach. The fabric is for the most part unbleached and undyed, but of the finest quality around. Light arguments sometimes bubble up between prospective buyers as to who got there first. In a half hour, every bolt of fabric is sold and they proceed to do their own shopping, gathering their supplies for the month.
As they are waiting at the well for the shepherd to return, Lucien kicks a stone around between his feet and the wraps that cover them come loose.
"Ew, there's something wrong with his feet!" a human child cries and points at Lucien's lavender, clawed toes. The child's mother looks where he points and gapes, disgusted by the strange pair.
In a flash Lucien's mother has her arm around his middle and he is lifted into the air and swung around behind her. "Apologies," she says softly in common language, head bowed, posture demure.
The human woman pulls her own child quickly away from them, muttering to him to stay away. Her actions alert others in the area to pay attention, and soon two town guardsmen are approaching them.
"Move along, now," one says, lazily waving a polearm at them.
"Apologies," she repeats and uses hand gestures to aid her broken speech. "Wait here. Horse. Leave. Apologies."
"What's it saying?" the other asks.
"Who knows. I said move along, devil," he says, louder now. People are stopping. Staring.
"Pick up all that you can," she whispers to her son. "We must go."
"But what about the cart?"
Her eyes flash and she grasps his arm. "Now." "Apologies. Go now."
The supplies are not meager—flour, rice, and dried meat meant to last the month. She struggles to lift the rice. Her six-year-old son has slung the flour over his back and does his best to help support the other end of the heavy burlap bag. They walk slowly under its weight, but they are headed out of town, and that is good enough for the guard.
Once they are out of sight of the two men she stops and lets the bag drop to the ground. She gasps for breath, motioning to Lucien that she needs to rest before sitting heavily on side of the dirt road and panting. He arranges their purchases close together and crawls into her lap. She pulls him close. "I'm sorry," she says as she exhales. "My wind, is not, so good, today."
He nods but is quiet, head bowed against her chest. He grips her cloak tightly and fights tears.
"I know," she whispers. "You're so angry you could scream, but you know better. You're so good, my Lucien, light-of-my life. Be small. Be invisible. Be safe."
"I'm sorry," he squeaks, trying so, so hard. "I was just playing."
She presses his head to her chest, covering his ears. "Oh, my sweet little son," she says softly. "What will you do?"
A few minutes later a cart comes to a stop and Lucien looks up, but as usual the half-orc does not meet his eyes.
"Why were you not there?" he asks, gruffly.
"Guard. Danger. Apologies."
He sighs heavily (annoyed or frustrated, it's a fine line between the two) and helps them into the cart.
They arrive at dusk, but all three are dark-sighted so the lack of light matters little. The shepherd helps unload again, is given some coins for his trouble, and they are left alone once more. As his mother struggles to drag the supplies toward the house, Lucien runs for the door. She barks at him to stop. "No!" she shouts. "Wait for me!"
"Wait. Please, Lucien."
He demures at the plaintive tone and acquiesces. "Mommy," he says and points. "The door is open."
She drops a burlap sack and motions for him to get behind her. A rustling comes from the brush behind them and the corded sheepdog bounds out toward them and circles them happily before tearing into the house. She withdraws a small piece of bluish colored wood from a pouch on her belt and mutters an arcane phrase. Four small globules of light emanate from her fingers and sweep after it through the door. The dog returns a moment later, still happy they're home, but its mistress is less than pleased.
"You useless creature," she hisses and kicks the door open. It slams against the wall. There is no one in the well-illuminated room, but the scene is one of chaos. Her loom and spinning wheel are overturned and damaged. The wool she had yet to work is gone. The nuts Lucien had gathered are gone, as are some of their better pots and bowls. She dashes to the hidden vault and breathes a sigh to see that it remains untouched. "My alarm spell must have scared them off," she mutters and pushes herself to her feet. "Miserable cur," she growls and glares at the dog.
"He didn't mean it!" Lucien cries, hugging the dopy animal tightly. Its tongue lols as it pants, dumbly. "Please, Mommy. Ropi's too nice is all."
His mother looks to the ruined machinery of her only means of income and sighs. She sits down on a reed-covered stool. "My son, the shepherd gave us Ropi protect us. He does a poor job at it." The sheepdog lopes over to her and licks her face and she does not push it away. "We are lucky they didn't take everything. It will be a long while before I can get the loom and wheel fixed. We will be poor for a while. We will be quite hungry. We must make these supplies last, Lucien."
"I'll go get more nuts!" he shouts turns to run from the house.
"No!" she cries and he freezes. "It's dark, Lucien. No. Not now. Tomorrow." She's getting winded again. "Please."
"I'm sorry, Mommy," he says, sniffling a little, eyeing the empty bowl that had been full of nuts that morning. "I'll do better. I'll get so many tomorrow. We won't be hungry at all."
She opens her arms and he runs into her embrace.
You see the tiny hut in the clearing. No smoke rises from the chimney. The little tiefling boy stands sentinel in the doorway. His sheepdog lays at his feet, looking up occasionally in the direction of the chattering of a squirrel or the creek of branches as a raven takes flight. The dog gets to its feet and its tail wags slowly as the shepherd's cart pulls into the clearing.
The half-orc scans the area and, for the first time, his eyes rest on the barefoot tiefling boy. "Where is she?" he asks.
"Please help. I can't wake her up," he says quietly in the infernal tongue.
"I can't understand you," he says, but doesn't exactly mean it. He has a hunch. He jumps down from his seat and marches to the door, gently pushing the boy in front of it aside. The hut is dark and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust, but his nose has already assessed the situation. Her body lies on the straw mattress, cheeks sunken, golden eyes dull, half-open and vacant.
"Please, Mister Shepherd?"
"Det?" he repeats, his innocent face searching for meaning.
The shepherd sighs heavily (sad or frustrated, it's hard to tell which) and wraps her body in the soiled bedclothes.
"What are you doing?" Lucien asks, voice squeaking with fear, but the shepherd does not answer. He easily picks her body up and carries it out to the cart where he nestles it in between the bags of wool he had brought to sell to her.
"Mister?" Lucien asks again, voice increasing in pitch and agitation. "Can you help her? Is that what you're gonna do?"
He turns and in a smooth motion picks the boy up and deposits him on the seat behind the buckboard. He climbs up, snaps the reins and drives the cart back down the path. Ropi the sheepdog barks as it trots after them.
You see rolling hills, dotted with a few shrubs, some jutting rocks, but mostly short-cropped grass. Dozens of white sheep with black faces and legs graze to the southeast of a homestead, half built into a sort of cave in the hillside. Ever-present wind whips the grasses, and the boy's hair and loose, woolen clothes. The cuffs of his shirt and trousers are rolled, designed to last for a few more inches of growth—the last thing his mother gave him. He stands several feet from the shepherd as he lowers her body into a hole in the earth. Before he covers the grave, he pauses.
"Do you have religion, boy?"
"I don't understand you," he whispers.
The half-orc sighs. "Oh, Wildmother, I give you this woman's body. Don't know who's she was. Shame she's gone so soon. If you can, pass a message. Watch over her little one," he says quietly and quickly sets to filling the rest of the hole with dry, brown soil, and for preservation's sake, rolls a few small boulders over top. He crowns the site with a large, roundish, white-colored stone.
The boy does not protest. Tears and snot run down his face as he cries, but he does not make a sound. He leans against his loyal sheepdog.
You watch as the half-orc finishes his somber task, then resumes shepherding his flock of fat, white sheep. Lucien stares at the grave for a long while, then goes to the mouth of the cave, sits, and watches the shepherd, who is nearly a pinprick now as he follows the sheep across distant rolling hills.
You see a soft, orange glow coming from a gap in the crude wooden door that covers the mouth of the cave belonging to the half-orc shepard. Night has fallen and smoke winds its way through a vent into the sky. The boy is sitting in the same place, watching the sheep—ethereal white shapes that huddle together near the cave under the moonlight. The moon is nearly half-full in the starry sky. He shivers as the night air chills him to the bone.
The door opens and the shepherd looks down on him for a moment. He bends and hands him a bowl of stew. "Eat."
"I'm not hungry."
He takes the bowl, but does not lift it to his lips.
The shepherd sighs and retreats back into the cave.
The boy's dog whines and as soon as he places the bowl on the ground it hungrily laps up every bite. He watches it with a vague curiosity as if he's never seen an animal eat like that before, as if he doesn't understand hunger. He gets to his feet and starts walking down the hill, out of the valley, and toward an uncertain future.
The dog looks to the moon, then follows.