(Finalist for the 2021 Aurora Awards, Best Fantasy Short Story)
Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus.
What you shout into the woods, the woods echo back.
With mother gone, the house falls to silence.
Shon knows silence well. He and his father—just the two of them, now—live on what would have been called the edge of the woods, if it were possible to pinpoint where the village ends and the Black Forest begins.
In truth, the woods begin in the heart of the village. There, in the square, an ancient oak bears witness to every coming and going. Beech limbs brush the steep jumble of houses surrounding the commons. Beyond those streets, the buildings dwindle, gradually relinquishing the land to the trees. The world becomes a press of green, interrupted only rarely by a cottage—and then, for quite a way, not interrupted at all.
Just a little further still, Shon’s home stands.
The cottage is taller than it is wide, with a roof that bows like an old nag’s back. Shon’s bedroom nestles in the angled attic space beneath the worn-out thatch, where a single window offers vigil over the trees. He knows the silence outside the house well. The silence inside the house is altogether new.
His mother taught music to the wealthier children of the village, who came traipsing through the woods to make their din far from busy parents. When the children went home, she played the clavichord or sang as she worked at her chores. The rhythm of her song filled the house like a heartbeat.
But his mother is gone now, and so are her instruments—sold to pay the doctor, the apothecary, the gravedigger, and the priest. Sold by Shon’s father with haste and something like relief.
Shon’s mother called his father Schatz, and the Hunter-Prince calls him Benoit when he stops by to take his share of meat and pelt. Shon’s father is a trapper, and that is how Shon thinks of him, as Trapper. Now his mother is gone, and nothing stands between trapper and boy. They see each other clearly for the first time.
“He will not speak.” Trapper sits opposite Aunt Hette at the heavy wooden table in the kitchen, half-heartedly repairing a net.
“He speaks. I’ve heard him.” Aunt Hette’s eyes are red, though she has never once cried where Shon could see.
“Singing!” Trapper was born beyond the southwest borders. His soft rolling accent is the only musical thing about him. “He cannot get a word out but to sing it, like a child!”
“He is a child.”
“Not anymore. With Elsbeth’s income gone, it is time he starts pulling his weight.”
Shon hears all this. He is sweeping the kitchen floor, at Trapper’s command. People say all sorts of things around him, as though having a tongue that won’t let words out means his ears don’t let them in.
“Doing what? Trapping?” Aunt Hette’s small plump mouth turns down at the corners.
According to the taunts of his mother’s students, trapping is a lowly habit practiced only by those who lack the skill to hunt and the honour to give an animal a good death. Shon learns a great deal from other children. They know far less than adults, but they hold none of it back.
“Oui, if he is not too slow to teach,” Trapper says. “God knows he has learned nothing from me yet.”
“That is probably true,” Hette murmurs.
Their words scurry back and forth like wild mice: careful, soft, sharp-toothed.
Shon remembers sitting under the table playing as Aunt Hette raged to his mother about her—Elsbeth’s—choice of husband.
Lazy. Frivolous. Superficial. And nobody who speaks a Romance language will ever understand a thing about our forest. That man is not a woodsman. He is an axe.
Yes, usually Aunt Hette is more badger than mouse. She wants something from Trapper, but Shon can’t guess what. He opens his ears and lets the world pour into him like water into an empty cup.
Trapper abandons the net for his beer. “He is not even a good singer.”
“Heaven forbid,” Hette says, “that the child do anything that doesn’t turn a coin.”
“Heaven help me teach him something that will!”
“And when you are educating him, will he learn to offer the Hunter-Prince his rightful share?”
“That was one time! One small boar.”
It was not one time, Shon knows. Nor just one boar. He says nothing.
“If he catches you even once you will lose access to his land—at best! And how will you feed your son then? Will you beg in the streets?”
“I’m already a beggar to the Hunter-Prince,” Trapper spits. “That glorified bandit-chief! Striding about swinging his shiny matchlock, indulging his menagerie of wild men with crumbs from his table.”
“Yes, yes, I know. The world is so cruel and unjust to you, Benoit.”
“You are a wealthy widow sitting comfortably on money you did not earn. What do you know of injustice?”
“I am a woman. And injustice or none, you have a child to raise.” She hesitates. “Unless—”
Trapper slams his cup down on the table. “How long were you planning on staying? The funeral is over. Your sister is dead. There is nothing left for you here.”
Hette pushes her chair back slowly and stands, the colour in her cheeks vivid as the mark of a slap.
Shon’s broom stops, and the terrible silence falls once more.
Shon thinks of the world as a series of nested layers. First and innermost is the jumble of noise in his head, and outside that, the quiet muffling envelope of his body. Beyond that, the music of his home—when his mother was alive. Beyond that, the silent forest. Then the huge noisy world. And then... he doesn’t know, but he expects it must be something very big and very quiet indeed.
Now one of those layers is cracked. The music inside it has trickled away. And the silence-silence-silence of body-house-woods makes the roaring in his head so loud.
Shon sits on the edge of the bed in his triangular room, swinging his legs back and forth, watching Aunt Hette bundle her clothes.
“When I was a little girl we planted whole forests on the borders to keep his kind out,” she says darkly.
Shon says nothing.
Hette crouches in front of him with a soft pop of old joints. “Liebling, come live with me in town. I have the room.”
She does, Shon knows. Not much, but enough. Her narrow house is wedged in a row of narrow houses. The view from her attic window is mostly other windows—he can’t look at that world without it looking back. It all seems very far away from the forest.
“I could send you to school,” she says softly. “Would you like that?”
Shon’s breath catches in his throat. School is not for boys like him. But before his mother died and keeping the small farmstead running swallowed all his time, Shon spent many mornings huddled beneath the windows of the monastery, silent as a mouse, straining to hear the lessons given only to the sons of merchants and lords.
It’s as though Hette has reached into his head and plucked out his most secret wish.
But Trapper will never let him go. And he can’t imagine life away from his father and the house that is all he’s ever known.
And there’s something else. Something in the miserable hunch of his father’s shoulders when he thinks Shon isn’t watching. Perhaps there is a person in there Shon hasn’t met. Someone kind. There must be. Otherwise how could his mother have loved him?
The weight that builds in his throat when Trapper looks at him eases under Hette’s gaze. Shon says, “He... nn... nnneeds me.”
She snorts. “That man has no idea what he needs. He looks at a net and sees only holes.”
Aunt Hette says a lot of things like that. She is Educated, which according to Trapper means she knows nothing at all.
Shon is silent.
Hette sighs and engulfs him in her considerable softness. “If you need me, liebling, I will be there.”
Shon says nothing.
Weeks pass. The money left over from the sale of Elsbeth’s instruments dwindles. Winter drags well into late spring, and snow still patches the ground when Trapper finally takes Shon into the ice-rimed woods.
Trapper swears someday he’ll catch a rare beast in the forest—it’s not unheard of—and they will barely know what to do with all their riches. For someone with so little money, Trapper speaks of little else.
The first three snares lie undisturbed. The boar pit holds only leaves and worms. As the early morning grows lighter, Trapper’s expression darkens, and his fist clenches tight on the grip of the short hunting sword he wears at his hip. The grip is an intricate arrangement of stag horn, leather, and brass studs, a design echoed in the trousse scabbard on his other hip, which holds his cleaver, carving knife, and other necessary utensils. Trapper had the set custom-made when, in a stroke of great fortune, one of his traps netted an exceptionally unwary red stag. These tools are so expensive as to be almost lordly. Shon is not allowed to touch them.
Shon learned long ago that money is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the weather. It comes rarely, and it slips like rain between fingers and down throats. This has always been so. The months the pits and snares brought in good pelts and bountiful coin, Trapper strutted about the village and lavished Elsbeth with gowns and gifts. The months the traps remained empty and only the meagre coin of Elsbeth’s students trickled in, he grew sullen and resentful—but he took the money anyway.
Something else is missing too. Shon treads soft in his father’s bootsteps, listening hard to the quiet of the woods, trying to decode the tree-whispers he’s heard through his window all his life. Searching the silence for some greater absence.
Trapper’s tuneless whistle cuts the velvet air, the smallest quaver revealing him.
Shon isn’t afraid. This isn’t the stark silence of his empty home. This living quiet conceals the stretch of new leaf to sun, the rustle of the worm, and the squirm of pink pinioned baby birds. It is the held breath of small lungs in small bone cages around small swift hearts that beat a little faster waiting for the listener and the whistler to pass by.
The thought slips out of his mouth before he knows it. “Birds.”
Trapper starts at the sound of Shon’s rusty voice.
But Shon is absorbed in this new puzzle. There are no birds. Not one warning call, no flutter of hurried wings. Nothing.
“What do you mean, ‘birds’?” Trapper says.
Birds are rarely silent. Deep down, all mammals remember being small and feel the ancient urge to hide. Birds, on the other hand, have never forgotten how it felt to be enormous, unstoppable, and they proclaim their lordship to one another still.
Just not today. Shon’s breath plumes in the still morning air.
“Idiot boy.” Trapper shakes his head and stalks on.
In the next snare, the one by the lake, they find the lindwurm.
Utterly still at first, she looks like a patch of spring snow spread alongside the taut rope, luminous in the early morning light. She is wolf-sized, hawk-sharp, white and regal as a swan. The trees thin out at the lake’s edge, admitting a seep of rising sun between the narrow trunks that traces her motionless form in pale gold and rose and snow-shadow blue, from sleek head to arrow-tipped tail.
The exhausted creature lifts her head and blinks the black eyes of a midnight cat.
“God in heaven,” Trapper whispers.
Old Greatfather Weide in the village, who is nobody’s grandfather and thus everybody’s, still talks about lindwurm and the fortunes they netted when he was a boy. Every strand in their pelt was as silk, he claimed, and the whole—densely packed, snow-white, and tipped in an icy blue—was far finer than the best Muscovite sable.
The lindwurm rises on two powerful legs, trembling. White pelt thins to blue-black scales just below the grip of the snare around one taloned foot. Her serpentine body is difficult to see, cocooned in the clawed wings that form her forelimbs. They are like the wings of a bat, if a bat were the size of a wolf.
Shon has never seen anything so beautiful.
Beside him, Trapper’s sword whispers free of the sheath. The lindwurm hisses a reply, flashing icicle fangs.
Shon freezes, terrified Trapper will make him do this unthinkable thing, but he strides past and with a swift jab sinks the tip of the sword into the creature’s throat. Shon turns to blink at the trees, forcing back ugly relief and the tears his father must never see. He hears the fall of the lindwurm. The sound splits the quiet of the forest like a stone shattering the surface of a pool.
Silence flows back in, and after a moment, a distant raven calls.
When Shon looks back, Trapper is on his knees, stretching the limp neck of the lindwurm long to keep her blood soaking into the snow, away from the lustrous pelt.
“Magnificent! She is magnificent!” He sits back with a thump in the snow like a child, exultant. “I told you, boy! I told you this forest would give me my fortune! We will be rich—and not just by the pelt, oh no! To the apothecary goes the bile duct. To the jewellers the claws and teeth, to make charivari for lords who don’t deserve to wear them...”
Trapper’s smile falters, then hardens into a satisfied line. He scrambles to his feet.
“...and to the Hunter-Prince, nothing. Untie the snare.”
Shon crouches by the motionless lindwurm. Her body radiates fierce heat. He could not have stopped his father—the idea of even trying is unthinkable—but he ought to do something. He has heard the talk of the sons of lords at their music lessons and he knows what a hunter would do: the gentle placing of a leafy twig in the creature’s mouth to symbolise the last meal; the weaving of the same twigs through one’s hair as a sign of respect. He itches to do it, to give this creature the honour it deserves, but he knows too well what his father would say.
“I’ll skin it here and bury what we can’t carry, and ride to Freiburg to sell the spoils.” Trapper paces. “You’ll need to look after the place while I’m away.”
The lindwurm’s wing is moving. Shon holds his breath.
“The Hunter-Prince cannot know. Nobody can know. Do you hear me, boy?”
Shon eases up the heavy wing and peers beneath.
Six tiny lindwurms twist around one another in the shelter beneath their mother’s wing. They are hairless, their sleek dark scales translucent as smoky quartz. The boldest blinks up at Shon and reaches out a small, delicate wing. Smiling, Shon offers his finger. The pup grips it and shimmies up his hand to wriggle into his shirtsleeve. Small claws prickle his skin as a warm tail wraps securely around his wrist.
“Boy! Are you listening t— What is that?” Trapper’s shadow falls over the huddle of pups in the hollow of the wing. “Ah. Dommage. They’re too young to be of any use.”
Shon opens his mouth. His throat closes. He says nothing.
His father toes the pups out onto the thin snow. They squeak in protest. He brings the heel of his boot down hard, five times.
Shon’s stomach surges. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes the cold clean air.
His shirtsleeve chirrups.
Trapper glares at him. “Do you take me for a fool? You are not keeping that. Drop it.”
Shon takes a quick step back. He clutches his sleeve tight to his chest.
“It’s a wild animal. I’ll not have it in my house.”
Trembling, Shon shakes his head hard.
Trapper sheathes his sword and laughs. “For god’s sake, boy—we’re rich now. I’ll buy you a hound. I’ll buy you a whole pack of them!”
Shon forces two hoarse words up his strangled throat. “Hunnn...ter... Prince.”
Trapper stills. His eyes dart over Shon’s face as though he’s seeing the boy for the first time.
“Well,” he says at last. “Not as stupid as you look, are you?
Shon says nothing.
“Keep it, damn you. But you’ll feed it from your own share.” Abruptly disinterested, Trapper turns back to his kill. “It makes no difference anyway. Without a mother it won’t live.”
The lindwurm doesn’t die. It grows.
Trapper leaves for Freiburg two days after the cold morning in the woods, astride the old swaybacked hackney, Belle, his saddlebags stuffed with illicit treasures. He says he’ll be back in a month. This isn’t the first time Trapper has travelled, and Shon knows it will be longer.
Life goes on, though with more peace and less glowering. Shon obediently feeds the chickens and milks the cow and sweeps the cobwebs and brings the animals inside to ride out spring storms. The weeks pass, and it is the best spring Shon can remember—not because he is alone, but because he isn’t.
At first he dribbles milk and chicken blood into that tiny toothless mouth, then feeds her—for he thinks she is a she—a mixture of cow milk and pig blood and raw eggs from the chickens. When her tiny needle teeth come through he catches beetles and live worms for her. Soon she is chasing spiders and mice on her own. There is little she won’t eat.
She grows fast, sprouting her distinctive blue-tipped white coat. At the beginning she lives in Shon’s pockets, then in his hood, and finally she learns to flutter from his shoulder to the rafters and back, though this is less true flight than the scattered airborne fumble of a startled hen.
She trills in a register somewhere between cat and bird, and she mimics sounds. When he sings to her, she sings back.
He names her Echo.
She nuzzles under Shon’s chin when she is happy to see him, especially when he returns after leaving her alone in his attic room so he can gather eggs—the chickens disapprove of this new interloper. She thrusts her nose into everything he does and slips sinuous about his feet when he cooks. When he picks her up she folds her wings neat about herself and permits him to stroke her smooth back, squinting her black eyes in deep satisfaction, compact and fat as a duck.
Summer arrives. Trapper doesn’t.
Echo, now the size of a hunting dog, grows powerful—and clumsy—and Shon imagines her barging between Trapper’s legs and sending him sprawling. The thought chills him.
He trains her. Training her means speaking, and it has never been easier. “Hold,” he says when she rushes to startle the pigs or tease the goat. And she does. When she sees a mouse, he shouts, “Fast!” and she leaps like water from the mill, her teeth and claws icicle-sharp.
Each morning Shon wakes to the sound of Echo chittering out the window at birds. As he dresses, she gallops circles around his feet, her claws tik-tik-ticking across the uneven wood floor. When Shon returns from the outhouse he hears from the attic the thump-thump-a-thump of her tail like a big bass drum. In the depths of the night she is a hot weight across his feet, sprawled on her back with wings outstretched, claws in the air, belly to the sky. She snores with the breathy flutter of a beginner’s flute. She is the percussion and melody he missed; the heartbeat and breath that stirs the dead house back to life.
By midsummer, Trapper is months overdue.
In his absence, Shon goes to the village for supplies. He behaves normally, and nobody asks after his father. Nobody expects him to answer.
And in his secret heart Shon begins to hope that Trapper will never come home.
Trapper returns in the last days of summer.
Shon sees him through the warped glass of the kitchen window, and the silence of the cottage fills with the rapid knocking of his heart. The copper kettle he’s washing falls from his fingers with a crash that sends Echo skittering under the table.
Almost unrecognisable in an embroidered tunic and new boots, Trapper rides a fine chestnut palfry the likes of which a young lord might own. His saddlebags are laden, and across his back he wears a gun unfamiliar to Shon. He glows with new fat and good health.
As Shon stands frozen in the kitchen, Echo nudges his back and almost knocks him over. Her powerful shoulders reach Shon’s hip. She tilts her sleek head, listening.
Shon’s throat closes.
“Hold,” he croaks, and runs outside alone to meet his father.
“So, the place still stands!” Trapper is all jolly smiles and broad gestures as he leads his new horse into the yard and unsaddles her. “Come and see what I have bought!”
Shon edges closer, fighting to free his voice.
“This is a wheellock rifle.” Trapper flourishes the gleaming new weapon. “A new invention from Italy, though the finest models are produced in Tschinke. Much finer than the matchlock carried by the Hunter-Prince, don’t you think? I had this one inlaid with lindwurm bone.”
Shon stares at the intricate clockwork exposed on the side of the rifle, sensing the power coiled within the metal. He says nothing.
“Here, this wheel and these springs work together to spin against the pyrite flint—fool’s gold, you see?” He touches a bright wedge of stone clamped between tiny metal jaws. “This sparks the powder to fire the ball. A self-igniting gun!” Trapper looks expectantly at his son for a moment, then sighs and straightens. “The road was long and I am tired. Let’s go inside.”
Shon is first through the door, his breath held. Inside, nothing moves. Trapper pushes past him and drops a saddlebag to the table with the musical clink of full bottles.
In the rafters above, something clinks back. A pale pair of wings spread wide as the lindwurm compresses her powerful legs, preparing to leap.
“My god!” Trapper shouts, fumbling the rifle from his back.
“Hold!” When the word bursts from Shon with no stutter, no delay, he almost sobs with the relief of it. “Hold! Hold!”
Tilting her head to the side, Echo folds her wings and sits back on her haunches and makes a low whining growl in her throat.
“Is it tame?”
“Yes,” Shon gasps.
“Incredible.” Trapper surveys the creature in the rafters with a sour smile. “It survived. You know, boy, the moment anyone sees it, it is as good as dead.”
Shon says nothing.
Trapper turns away with a grunt. “Keep it clear of me.” He settles down in his armchair by the fire and hefts an amber bottle from the saddlebag.
The knock at the door the next morning comes as no surprise. Word travels like wildfire in the village when one of its less respectable citizens returns astride a rich man’s horse.
When his father flicks an impatient wrist at him, Shon is already headed for the attic. He closes Echo in his room and creeps back to lay on his belly at the top of the stairs, spying as his father opens the door to the grey rainy morning and the straight-backed silhouette of the Hunter-Prince.
Tall and hale, the Hunter-Prince strides into the house, shaking rain off his cloak and exchanging polite greetings with Trapper.
“It is said about the village that you have come by some fortune, Benoit,” the Hunter-Prince says without further preamble. “I thought I should stop by and offer my congratulations.”
“I received an unexpected inheritance,” Trapper says. “A distant uncle I had not seen in many years. I have been over the border sorting it out.”
“So I see.” The Hunter-Prince looks at the rifle hanging in pride of place over the mantel. “What an extraordinary piece!”
Flushed with pride, Trapper takes the rifle down and shows the Hunter-Prince.
“That inlay,” the Hunter-Prince murmurs, “What is it? Such purity of colour.”
“Stag ivory, my lord.”
“Really? It must have come from a particularly fine specimen. One of yours?”
Trapper laughs loudly. “If it were, you’d have known! No, no, I purchased it as-is.”
“Of course, of course.” The Hunter-Prince gives him a fatherly smile. “This must come as some relief after the meagre prey your traps yield.”
Trapper’s smile freezes in place. “Not so meagre, my lord.”
“Meagre enough. There is no need for pride, Benoit; you forget I know how much you catch—and how little. This long winter was hard on everyone.” The Hunter-Prince lays a hand on Trapper’s shoulder. “After Elsbeth died I worried for you and the boy. I’d planned to tell you to keep my share of your next few catches, but you made none. How relieved you must be that you needn’t struggle in vain anymore!”
“Actually, I plan to take up hunting now that I have adequate equipment.”
“Yes, my lord,” Trapper says between his teeth.
“I see! Well, now that your fortunes have changed, may you best us all!”
Trapper smiles sourly.
“Perhaps you can send that boy of yours to school now, too,” the Hunter-Prince goes on cheerfully. “Hette tells me he is very bright.”
On the stairs, Shon holds his breath.
“There would be no point,” Trapper says. “That woman is mistaken. The boy is slow.”
The drop in Shon’s stomach takes him by surprise. Suddenly weary to the bone, he picks himself up and creeps back into his room. Echo rests her silky head in Shon’s lap and they sit there together until the front door closes behind the Hunter-Prince, leaving the house silent once more.
When Shon slips downstairs some hours later, Echo in tow, he finds Trapper in the armchair by the fire, bottles strewn on the floor around him. The gun rests across his lap. Shon freezes.
“I captured a lindwurm,” Trapper mutters, and empties his cup. “That fool could not even imagine such a thing. I captured a lindwurm, boy! On my own—no hounds, no hunters, no expensive toys! And he will never know... None of them will ever know! They all think me a lucky, idle fool.”
Trapper is drunk—too drunk to heft himself out of the chair to strike him. There is no good time to ask the question lodged in Shon’s throat. Now is as good a chance as he’ll get.
“I would... luh... lllike... school,” he forces out.
“Hah! Spying now, are you?” Trapper squints into his empty cup and tosses it aside. “We haven’t as much money as everyone seems to think. I had to sell parts of the lindwurm at discount to undesirables to avoid word getting back here. And fine tools such as this do not come cheap. No. It is out of the question. It would be wasted on you anyway.”
Shon says nothing.
Weeks pass. The forest sheds a dry rain of leaves as fast as Trapper’s purse sheds gold. The house fills with fine clothes and tools and playthings, but the roof still sags and the thatch still rots.
Trapper goes to the village often, and especially to the tavern, but after the Hunter-Prince, nobody else comes to visit. Folks in the market gossip freely in front of the boy who does not speak. Shon learns his father is less liked than ever for his undeserved good fortune.
Shon doesn’t mind. He stuffs his pockets with pebbles from the yard, and throws them for Echo, and laughs as she scrabbles after them through drifts of dry leaves.
The gun gleams over the mantel. Trapper is yet to go hunting.
It is late afternoon, and Shon and Echo are playing in the leaves scattered across the yard, practising tricks. Echo can fly short distances now, and Shon is teaching her to land where he points with a shouted, “Up!” and “Down!”
Echo freezes. Staring back at the house, she growls softly.
Trapper stands in the open door, watching.
In Shon’s stomach there is a pit that sits mostly covered, mostly concealed. Now he falls into it.
Trapper is leaning on the gun.
After a moment, Shon raises a hand to give his father a polite wave.
“Beautiful creature,” Trapper says.
Echo’s growl tapers into a soft whine.
“Is it full grown now, do you think?”
Shon says nothing.
“So,” Trapper spits, “you will speak to that dumb beast but not to your father?”
Shon opens his mouth to beg forgiveness, but his throat closes. He says nothing.
Trapper snatches up the gun and starts towards him. “Don’t defy me, boy! Speak!”
“I—” Shon manages, and then his father’s open hand catches him hard across the cheek and he tumbles to the mud, blue-black stars blossoming over the world.
Something whistles past him like a cold winter wind, and when Shon can see again Trapper is struggling on his back under the spitting, screeching weight of Echo.
“Hold!” Shon wheezes. “Echo, hold!”
Echo backs off, her bright teeth bared.
Trapper lurches to his feet and stares from the lindwurm to his hands, where blood beads like pearls along the deep gashes in his palms. His face purples. He opens and closes his mouth, too apoplectic to speak.
Shon snatches up Echo’s awkward weight and drags her inside, and they scramble together up the stairs to his room.
He stays awake late into the night, sitting on his bed with his arms around Echo, watching the bedroom door. His father is drinking by the fire. Eventually, the fear ebbs from Shon. He succumbs to exhaustion and falls asleep fully clothed on his covers.
He is dragged back to consciousness by a piercing shriek.
The light in his room is sickly predawn grey, and by it he sees Echo tangled in a net. Trapper is dragging her towards the door.
Shon jerks upright, and his arm wrenches so hard he sees stars. His wrist is tied to the bedpost with a length of the cord his father uses for snares.
“Be still! This was inevitable, boy. You knew it. This is a wild animal—and we need the money.”
“Hunter-Prince!” Shon yells.
Trapper stops at the door and smiles unpleasantly. “Oh, he’ll have his share this time. And I’ll have my recognition.”
Then he is gone into the hall, gone with Echo, and the door slams behind him.
Shon screams. The sound bounces off the walls of the silent house and is lost in the quiet of the woods outside.
Pulling and twisting and wriggling, Shon quickly realises he will not be able to free himself this way. He stares wildly around the dim room. There is nothing in reach of his bed, and the frame is solid wood.
The light through the window above his bed grows brighter.
Shon clambers to his feet, bent almost double. His trapped wrist won’t let him go any further. He snatches the itchy wool blanket, wraps it double around his free hand, and strikes the thick pane of window-glass again and again until it cracks, then shatters. A few shards jut like teeth from the frame. Sobbing, Shon fumbles a shard into his blanketed hand and begins sawing at the tough snare.
Shon is bleeding when he stumbles out the door into the chill late autumn dawn, but the blood on the frosted ground isn’t his. He follows the trail.
Around the corner of the barn he finds the torn net.
At the edge of the woods, a ghostly hint of white moves slowly, low to the ground. Shon runs faster than he thought possible, the cold air burning his lungs.
Trapper is huddled on the edge of the wood, his back to an old oak, his forearm bleeding from a bite. He clutches the gun, winding the intricate mechanism with trembling hands.
“Don’t!” Shon cries.
“Then call it off, boy!” Trapper whispers. “Call it off and I won’t shoot.”
Shon says, “Hold.”
Echo stops and sits. She raises her liquid eyes from the gun to Shon, trills softly, and thump-thump-thumps her tail on the ground.
With a triumphant smile, Trapper lifts the gun, flips the pyrite to the wheel, and pulls the trigger.
Night has fallen. Hidden at the top of the stairs, Shon sits and listens, turning a small stone over and over in his fingers.
“And he told you it was a boar attack?” The Hunter-Prince paces in front of the fire, which Aunt Hette has stoked high.
“Yes,” she says. “He saw it happen.”
“Poor lad. Has he said anything else?”
“No. The boy is exhausted. He ran all day to reach me.”
“Strangest boar attack I’ve ever seen,” the Hunter-Prince murmurs. “An unpleasant business. It seems Benoit’s new rifle malfunctioned.”
“Well,” Hette says, “it is as they say. A poor craftsman blames his tools.”
“Hette,” the Hunter-Prince says reproachfully.
“It is a common way for a woodsman to meet his end, though,” Hette says. “He died doing what he loved. And Shon is strong. He will be fine with me.”
“I know. The cottage belongs to him now, of course.”
Through the closed door at Shon’s back, Echo tik-tik-tiks across the attic floor. Shon holds his breath.
“What on earth is he doing up there?” the Hunter-Prince says.
Hette gazes at the ceiling and says, calmly, “You know these old houses. Noisy things. I expect I’ll hear all sorts of strange sounds, living here.”
The Hunter-Prince fastens his cloak. “I must go. Do let me know if anything else comes to light.”
Hette smiles and says nothing.
When the Hunter-Prince is gone, Shon makes his way silently down the stairs, his fist clenched tight around the stone. Hette is clattering about in the kitchen, her back to him.
Unseen, Shon slips outside and crosses the yard to where the woods wait in silence. The earth beneath the old oak is still disturbed. He opens his fist, and moonlight sparks on the fool’s gold in his hand.
He buries the stone at the base of the oak and rests a leafy twig on the spot.
Behind him, the swayback cottage crackles with sound: the rhythmic rap-rap-rap of Hette chopping carrots, the sizzle of fat in the pan, and a tik-tik-tik of eager claws at the attic window. Shon follows the music home.