Launi’s head snapped around. Swift seemed to sense her rapt attention and came to a halt. Gripping the reins, Launi slid from his back and landed soundlessly on the ground. She stared into the trees to their left, trying to see through them. She wanted to have an idea of who the person was before she had to face them.
Another twig snapped, this time, farther away from the trail. Launi hadn’t heard any footsteps to suggest the person had moved. There was more than one person out there. She quietly placed the reins on the ground, letting them drag so Swift wouldn’t wander off.
Launi took a few soundless steps forward, trying with each step to see who was lurking in the trees. She couldn’t make anyone out; the shadows cast by the sun danced, obscuring whoever was there.
There was another snap, a moment of silence and then the pattering of feet. Shouting and jeering roared into life making Launi jump. The sounds were moving away from her. Launi broke into a brisk jog, following the noise.
They sounded like children.
The noise soon became louder, she was catching up. A small clearing, only a few yards across, opened up before her. Launi came to a stop just inside the tree line and caught her first glimpse of the lurkers.
There were four larger children, all wielding sticks, and a fifth child who was significantly smaller and unarmed. The small boy was stuck in the middle of a circle the others had formed a circle around him. His expression was one of fear. Launi noticed that he was clutching something to his chest. It was bread.
“Give it to us!”
“Yeah, come on! It’s ours! We should be the ones to get it. Not you!”
“Please, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry…”
“I said give it to us!” The girl who spoke prodded the boy with the tip of her tattered boot.
Launi was unsure what had happened between the small boy and the other children, but she didn’t care. She had experienced enough hungry winters to understand what hunger could make a person do. She had known children in her village who had become nasty and started fights just to forget their empty stomachs.
“I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry,” the small boy said again. “I didn’t know it was the last one.”
“Sure you didn’t,” said one of the older boys, obviously not believing him. “Everyone knows that the last loaves are gone by now.”
“I swear I didn’t.”
“We don’t believe you.”
“We don’t care anyway. You aren’t even from Cadron. That bread doesn’t belong to you. You don’t deserve it.”
Launi had heard enough. She ran her fingers through her curly hair, causing it to stand up. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out from behind the trees.
At first, the children didn’t notice her. But then the girl who had demanded the bread saw her and scrambled back from the circle.
“What do you want?” She snarled, her tone counteracting her sudden retreat.
Launi didn’t say anything. She waited for all the other children to turn around and see her.
“I was wondering,” she said calmly, trying to imagine how her father would handle the situation. “What you’re doing.”
“Nothing that concerns you,” the girl spat at her, stepping back to where she had been standing.
“Are you okay?” She asked the boy. She didn’t think she would have been alright if a group of older kids had chased her through the woods wielding sticks. The boy just stood there.
“Leave us alone,” the girl said. Launi guessed she was the leader of the group.
“I don’t think I will,” Launi said calmly. “I don’t like it when older, bigger kids pick on younger ones. If he’s not from your village, you should treat him with respect until he gives you a reason not to.”
The girl glared at her and clenched her jaw. “He did give us a reason.”
“Really?” Launi said raising an eyebrow. “What reason was that?” Launi was a little shocked at how much like her father she sounded. She’d even raised her eyebrow like him.
“He stole the last piece of bread.”
“I didn’t steal it,” the little boy piped up. “No one told me I couldn’t have it. No one told me anything.”
“Is that true? Did no one tell him the bread was yours? Is it even yours?”
The girl scowled at her, “yes, it’s ours.”
One of the older boys gave her a quick glance. He was the only one who hadn’t been shouting at the little boy.
Launi looked at him. “Is that true?”
He glanced again at the girl, then at the little boy clutching at the bread. “No, it’s not.”
If the girl’s gaze could cut, the boy would have bled to death.
Launi stepped forward a few paces, coming close enough to the group to see the tears streaming quietly down the little boy’s face. Her heart went out to him. He was just hungry and had been lucky enough to find some bread. Now here were four older children trying to scare him into giving it to them.
“Did you pay for it?” Launi asked the little boy, ignoring the others; all of whom backed away except the boy who had spoken up.
“Yes, Mother gave me a coin to go buy bread. I didn’t know it was the last one. I didn’t do anything wrong.” A sob escaped his throat.
Launi reached out, and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him towards her. He was tiny, only coming up to her waist. She hugged him. He continued to clutch the bread.
Launi glanced around at the other children. All of them except the girl who had done most of the talking looking sheepish and embarrassed. “Did you know he’d paid for it?”
All of them shook their heads. The boy who had spoken up before glared at the girl.
“You said you’d seen him steal it! You said that the baker had agreed to give it to you! You didn’t see anything, did you. The baker probably never said anything to you. You just wanted the bread for yourself.”
“I would have shared it with you,” the girl shot back, not bothering to deny his claims. “You know I would have.”
“But he paid for it Nauce! We don’t steal from little kids. We don’t steal from them, especially if they’ve paid for it to feed their family! What’s wrong with you?”
Launi continued to hold the little boy, watching the scene unfold around her.
“I’m hungry and so are all of you. I was just trying to help,” the girl said folding her arms protectively across her body.
“But he paid for it to feed his family. This is just wrong.”
Launi suddenly had an idea. “You know, if you’re really hungry. I might have some food you could have.”
All the children stopped bickering and stared at her. They instantly agreed.
Launi led them back to the trail where she had left Swift. The little boy held her hand the entire way.
When they broke through the trees and back onto the trail, they found Swift grazing.
Pulling what food she would spare from the packs, Launi handed each child an equal amount. They barely thanked her before they began to scurry away back into the trees, leaving the little boy behind.
“One moment!” Launi called after them, all of them stopped where they were. “Make sure to take him back with you,” she indicated the little boy. “Make sure you bring him to his mother. He deserves that much from all of you.”
The children nodded and gestured for the little boy to join them. He did, but not before thanking Launi and giving her a quick hug.
Launi watched as they disappeared back in among the trees. For a split second, she thought she heard the sound of someone breathing before a strong breeze rushed the sound away.