The crackling of the leaves made him jump, though staring deep into the beckoning darkness of the forest had yet to yield any sinister monsters. He dared take a breath and relax for the moment, though his tiny heart continued to beat rapidly in his chest. The Baan’Sidhe had always had a particular sense of foreboding that the boy did not quite understand at five years of age. He had been warned of the ghasts that haunted the shadows of the trees, but with his mother Fau’nai, so close by, the arduous task of gathering kindling while she checked their traps wasn’t as daunting as it might otherwise have been.
He looked behind him where the warmth of her torchlight lit the stump that she sat at, untying a rabbit’s foot from a snare. She mopped the sweat from her brow, and, as if sensing her son’s concern, looked up and waved to him, a tired smile on her face. He could feel the restlessness of terror worming its way into him, but his mother seemed so serene as she bent over in the dusk while her fingers worked, that at once he questioned his own uncertainty and turned again to the work at hand.
Calmer now, he bent to lift another branch when a soft crack echoed through the small glen between the trees, its sound everywhere and nowhere all at once. Jumping back, he landed firmly on his backside and dropped his bundle of twigs, his trembling fingers clawing for purchase in the thick loam of the forest floor. The figure, stepping cautiously out from behind a tree, did not supplant in him the need to flee. Instead, he stared, frozen and uncertain as it approached, gently smiling at him and extending a helpful offer to assist him in standing.
“It’s all right, Jlon,” the figure said softly, his voice sure and calming. “Did you miss me? I missed you.”
Jlon nodded his head slowly, tears pooling at the corner of each eye. The figure took another step forward, his smile never wavering. Jlon found himself smiling back, his fear gone. He raised his hand to accept the offer, his anticipation almost consuming him.
“Daddy,” he whispered, disbelief in his voice. It had been so long since he’d seen him! Why had he stayed away for so long? Unable to formulate the relief of knowing that he was safe, Jlon began to cry, sniffling piteously, anguish in every note.
The figure smiled knowingly and stopped its approach, kneeling and extending both arms to scoop the crying child into his comforting embrace. Jlon lifted his hands, reaching to find that comfortable resting position behind his father’s neck, but he was lifted away and backwards instead. Fau’nai’s hands wove around his waist, dragging him to her hip around the swell of her belly, and then they were running, his father’s form staring after them with surprise in his face as they retreated. For a moment, Jlon himself could not even react.
“Daddy! Daddy!” he cried, reaching for the faint outline as they raced past, but his mother only ran faster, her breath in short, fearful gasps. A scream echoed out of the woods after them, and finally, they broke through the tree line and headed for town, never once slowing.
“That’s not Daddy,” Fau’nai gasped out as she ran. “Daddy isn’t…” she squeezed the tears from her sight. “Daddy’s dead,” she told him flatly, sobs catching in her throat. “Daddy’s dead, Jlon. That’s not him.”