“My son is dead.”
“My deepest sympathies lie with your family. May you find peace and wisdom in this trial.”
Eles raced to old age in the few weeks since her son fell ill. Far more than 40 years of farmer’s wife stood in my door, hunched and intermittently weeping in the dawn’s light. Homespun clothing clutched with grief and anger soothed her need to act. To do something.
“Will you come, Prothes? We had a bad season and we do not have much …”
Mask now, always the mask. Gently, kindly. Physical contact increases perceived empathy.
“Of course,” a warm hand on her shoulder, “I will prepare your son. He was a kind boy that deserves the final honors. There are no debts in Ellomyr, only neighbors.”
Neighborly kindness elicited more tears and a few quick words set Prothes arrival time later in the day. Preparations came first.
Sending Eles back into town Prothes stepped out of his small cabin of wood and synth shingles and headed for the paddock. Stopping only briefly in the spinning shed for armor, helmet, shield, and harvester. Overlapping synth plates sewn into a dril-cloth garment provided a level of certainty should shield skills fail. Thick scars reminded him of the learning days. The days of pain.
Armor donned, helmet seated, shield grasped in the left hand and the harvester in the right. Its arm-length wooden handle worn with use and the thin blade, barely a thumb-width wide stretching nearly the length of the harvester. That sliver of metal cost a month’s spinning from a passing trader, but it was ever sharp, ever ready. The dril demanded readiness.
The paddock set a few hundred paces from the spinning shed and the cabin. Close enough to observe, but far enough for the harmonics to fade into the wind. A sturdy wooden stockade, taller than a man enclosed a small field, perhaps 300 paces in diameter. The man-sized synth door lashed into the wooden stockade the only visible ingress. Dril crowns peaked just above the wall, swaying gently, generating a peaceful hum. Several produced magnificent flowers of fluorescent greens and deep blacks. Others sported only the small, pale yellow leaves common to the species. Needed to watch the blooming ones, they tend to be more aggressive during the rut.
Prothes unlatched a tiny panel in the door and peered inside the paddock. No dril stood ready to ambush him. It had not happened in years, but caution prevents scars. Softly lifting the bar and opening the door, he stepped in.
Dril hum filled the field and filled Prothes with dread. He knew it was not the peaceful song of nature, but the song of a hungry predator. Saliva dripping from its jaws in sound.
Thirty-five dril filled the paddock. Each one 22 paces from the other, carefully spaced by some natural logic to respect each others territory. Thick grey trunks pushed their reproductive crowns toward the heaven. Thin, yellow roots constantly twitched and moved in and out of the earth, seeking meager sustenance among the subterranean life. Prothes kept his herd healthy, but hungry. Hunger made them more aggressive, more dangerous, but it made for a better product.
Turning towards a large specimen immediately to his right, Prothes raised his shield and slowly approached, keeping the harvester held low, preventing its capture. Lean forward, left leg in front, right behind as a brace. Almost there…
The larva struck perfectly center on the shield, its newborn-sized body writhed and twisted. Rows of teeth from its central mouth ground against the synth shield with a soul-shredding screech. After a few seconds, four tentacles emerged from the grey ball of flesh. As the larva began to quiver and pulse, the hypodermic-like fangs at the tip of each oozed a bit of white ichor at first that quickly became a spray. The spray solidified into nearly transparent sheets of dril-cloth that threatened to cover Prothes completely.
Quick, practiced swipes with the harvester’s blade sent the cloth floating to the ground. After perhaps 30 seconds, the larva dropped away, spent. Twitching for a few moments more it lay still. Prothes grabbed the dead flesh and threw it back towards its parent tree. Dril are not fastidious eaters. The offspring is now food for the parent. A larva-wound on the side of the trunk, still weeping fluids from its powerful expulsion, stitched closed with a wet sigh. Normally Prothes harvested multiple trees per visit to minimize time away from the project, but the prospect of procuring another human specimen excited him. Besides, this harvest was more than enough for the shroud.
Gathering the dril-cloth in his arms, Prothes nearly floated back to the spinning shed in his joy. An hour’s work created a beautiful, thin sheet of dril-cloth. Perfect in size and shape to disguise his work and give his neighbors their pointless death ritual.
Eles’ son is dead and the shroud is ready.
Today is a good day.
Trask, a legend in his own mind and scourge of puzzles everywhere.