Chapter One — The Bullbeast
The children ran as fast as their abnormally short legs would carry them to the edges of the Terrible Forest and there crouched among the brambles in the thicket. Once down, not a leaf stirred from place—these children were adept at making themselves invisible to Human eyes. Bobakin lay still and silent, watching the townspeople growing larger as they neared, when from the other side, the forest side, something else caught his eye—a boy, quite close and quite conspicuous.
“Get down!” hissed Bobakin from the brambles. The boy was a Halfbreed, judging more by his ragged attire and mud- streaked face than his stature, which was upright and fearless. Yet the boy, though he heard, did not respond; there seemed an air of defiance about him in his straight back and fiery, orange eyes.
“Get down or they’ll see you!” said Bobakin again, and this time the other boy saw the townspeople, quite near now, and the fire in their eyes, so he disappeared in the brambles as effectively as a magician.
Carl Drax, the leader of the town, was ahead of the others and paused before the brambles where the children hid. He surveyed the bramble patch with his stern, blue eyes and handsome brow, seeming to meet the gaze of each fugitive there, and then turned to look over the wheat field on the other side of the road. It was tall, plenty capable of concealing even the tallest of their band, but the man could see nothing.
He whirled back to the villagers, with their axes and pitchforks and knives, and declared, “Halfbreeds have made their escape! For now.”
Disappointed and grumbling, the people turned back to the village and went away. Carl glanced again over the cornfield and then looked over his shoulder toward the Terrible Forest, knowing wherever the children were, they would see the leer of hatred and resolve on his face and know they were not safe.
Bahia breathed a sigh of relief and picked herself up from the thicket. “Bobakin,” she said—he was the oldest and they all looked up to him. “What do we do now? Where do we go?”
“See here!” broke in the newcomer, pointing an accusatory finger at them. “You can’t expect to escape men if you’re all together. It’s only on your own you won’t get caught.”
Bobakin saw some of the littler Halfbreeds’ eyes fill with tears, and in indignation, turned on the naysayer. “We just did. And we’ll do it again. There aren’t so many of us—only ten or twelve—and it’ll be no use being alive if we’re alone!”
All the Halfbreeds plucked up courage and grinned at each other. Even the newcomer shrugged his thin shoulders; maybe this tall Halfbreed had a point.
“We can’t stay here,” said Bahia, glancing over her shoulder.
The village huts were still in sight.
“But we can’t go too far,” said Nappy, an unusually short Halfbreed—shorter even than the children of the Schumps, but bright for his eleven years. Everyone always listened when he had an idea. “If we keep going this direction we don’t know what we’ll find; it may even be the Schumps. And if we go into the woods it definitely will be.”
“Then what do you suggest?” asked Bobakin, and the newcomer was impressed to see someone so tall deferring to someone so little.
“The lake. There are two of them, and the villagers never use the smaller one on the backend. We’ll need water and the stream nearby is as good a place as any to get it. The buildings are all abandoned, some even say haunted, so not even the children will be out that way, running into us.”
“But it’s so close,” whimpered Fafolio, her brilliant orange eyes filling with tears.
“Would you rather be close to the Schumps?” demanded Nappy, and Fafolio shook her thick brownish-green curls.
“Maybe the Schumps aren’t as bad as you all think,” said the newcomer.
Before the children could rebel at such a suggestion, Bobakin interjected, “Alright, we’ll go where Nappy says. He’s right, you know. We have the best chance there. We’ll go through the wheat field, where we won’t be seen, but stick together or someone will be lost. Once we’re on the other side, we make a break for the Rosenchanz Barn. Everyone take a partner and let’s go.”
As the children paired up, he turned to the newcomer. “Coming?”
“You don’t want me,” he said defiantly.
“You’re a Halfbreed, aren’t you? You belong with us.” Then the tall boy flashed him a smile and said seriously, “Just learn to curb your tongue when the little ‘uns are around.”
And they made their way through the wheat field.
Bobakin was wrong when he said there where ten or twelve in total. He had never counted them all before. There were seven.
Yet if anyone had ever gone missing, he would have noticed instantly, knowing each child by name ever since most were old enough to toddle.
There was Bahia. She had been the first, and they knew each other best of the whole world. She was twelve with dark, straight, brown hair and stubby, bowed legs. Her eyes were the color of the sky at midnight, and her face ruddy and rosy when not drained from hunger.
Next came Nappy, the smart, little one, with his owly- orange eyes and short stumps of legs. His arms, which were just a bit too long for his body, gave him a gangly look despite his short stature.
Then there was Fafolio. She was holding tight to little Kaka as they made their way through the field. They were both from another village, a foreign world it seemed to the others, but were accepted since they too had been ostracized as Halfbreeds. Fafolio was nine, with the orange eyes and green hair of a Schump but the graceful figure of a lady, and Kaka seven with wistful, orange eyes yearning for a mother he still remembered.
The last two were held fast by Bobakin and Bahia and were the littlest of the group: Bebbin and Brine. Bebbin did not look any way at all like a Schump with his yellow curls, brown eyes, and chubby little body not yet rid of its baby fat. But he walked different, almost as if he were bowlegged. But Brine was different and might have been supposed, had he not been witnessed to issue from a Human mother, to be a full-blooded Schump. He had been the first to join Bobakin and Bahia.
They reached the edge of the wheat field, and Bobakin looked out from among the golden stalks. The distance to the barn was only fifty yards; they could make it at a run. So everyone grasped tight hold of their partner and made off.
But then Kaka cried out—two farmers had seen them and were running their way.
“Run! Run! Go faster!” cried Bobakin, but what could they do? If they made it to the barn, they were still discovered. There was no sanctuary and no means to defend themselves.
Then Bebbin tripped, and Bobakin lost hold of his little hand. Bebbin, in blind terror, swerved, making for the animal pens. Bobakin cried out and went after him, but Bahia was faster. With her skirt whipping behind her and her legs pumping like a locomotive, she screamed for Bebbin to stop. But the little boy was flying on the wings of panic and could not listen. He was already closer to the two men than to the other children.
He reached the pens, which rose chest-high to a man, and leapt over them. Even the men did not have the height or ability to accomplish such a feat, and they swerved to circumvent the fences.
Bahia reached the first pen and started climbing it with Bobakin close behind.
The little boy was possessed of a reckless disregard for all and anything that could harm him. He aimed toward the pens on the outer extremity of the fields. These pens were known to the little boy in his rational mind, and normally, nothing would have tempted him toward them. Now he fled there as toward life itself.
Bahia saw where he headed and tasted tears in her mouth though she did not know she had been crying them. But her whole heart ached with despair for his little life as she saw him vault into the pen of the Manticore.
The Manticore lay in his golden glory at the back of the fenced pen, sleeping. And when Bebbin landed inside, Bahia knew he was doomed. But the beast awakened slowly, and blinked slowly, and slowly raised his head, and by then, Bebbin was through the pen and into the next one. Bahia came to the fence of the Manticore and wanted to cheer when she saw the boy was through, but there were still the men.
And she did not see what was in the very last pen.
When Bebbin landed in the final pen, his only thought—the thought that had driven him across the fields, over the fences, and through the pens—was escape. He must escape. He had run far but never saw what he encountered until he ran up against the giant wall of the barn. It blocked his path, forming an insurmountable barrier and an endless partition to freedom. And so he stopped. Right in the center of the last pen.
Something growled close by. His little four-year-old body, breathless and shivering, quaked to hear it. He turned around and saw the Manticore which was still asleep and in the next pen over. Then he looked around and met the eyes of the Bullbeast.
The Bullbeast was unlike anything mankind had encountered before. Like the Schumps which resembled Humans, the Bullbeast resembled a bull. But ever so much mightier and frightful, with tusks like a boar and a mane like a lion. It was vicious and wild, with a queer, caged look in its eyes. Now, it stared at Bebbin.
He stood a moment, frozen with fear beneath its gaze, waiting for it to pounce. But it only lay still, watching him. The little boy backed up and climbed over the fence on the side with the barn. The men had paused in their chase when they saw him enter the pen of the Manticore, but now that he was safely through, they advanced. And there were more men now, a quarter of the village it seemed, and they were all making their way toward Bebbin.
But then something even more extraordinary happened that caused the men to pause again. The Bullbeast, which had never left its enclosure before, climbed the fence and alighted beside Bebbin. And Bebbin was not afraid. Cautiously, he put forth his hand and stroked the Bullbeast’s muzzle. It licked his face and purred.
In their consternation, the men forgot all about the other children as they watched the beast’s actions. Bebbin made his way around the enclosure—not away from the men as one might expect—but toward them, with his little baby hand nestled in the creature’s mane. Two or three of the braver men advanced, but the Bullbeast raged. They stumbled back in fear, watching from a distance. Then it nuzzled the boy. He accompanied the child all the way up the path toward the barn, turning upon anyone who ventured near. Bahia got off the fence of the Manticore, and she and Bobakin met Bebbin and the beast. The Bullbeast did not endear himself to them but was not savage either, simply handing over his precious charge. After making sure the children marched back on their way to the barn, the Bullbeast returned to his pen.
The village men did not dare follow the children after that. They decided, anyway, to put if off for the time being. The Bullbeast’s actions were peculiar and, in the minds of the villagers, a blessing on the children—or a curse. For, to those superstitious folk, it was the same thing. The children were cursed and so were protected by a demon of a creature. There was no other explanation. If these simple people had known of the ancient Human idea that innocence, when abandoned by mankind, will often receive aid from the most unlikely of sources, they would not have given it proper weight to their situation. The children, for the time being, were blessed by a curse.
Chapter Two — Schumps, Humans, and Halfbreeds
The Halfbreeds had been living in the Rosenchanz Barn for a week, and everything was going well. After the event of the Bullbeast, the Humans left them well alone. Their first night, Bobakin built a fire and everyone gathered around to enjoy roasted rabbit.
The newcomer found he enjoyed the company more than he bargained and was easily accepted by the other children.
Brine sat down and offered his carrot. “Here, I don’s need it so much—I’m liddler.”
“How old are you?” asked Bahia of the newcomer, as she served out the rabbit.
“Truth?” she exclaimed. “I’d have put you for older. You’re just ’bout the Human size for your age.”
“Sure.” he shrugged rebelliously. “But I’m a Halfbreed, all the same.”
“No one’s sayin’ you’re not,” said Bobakin. “What they call you?”
“Some’s called me Pincher. But ’riginally I was called Denmin.”
“What’s pincher?” asked Kaka. “That’s a funny name.”
Denmin-once-called-Pincher answered quickly and dismissively. “Means crook stealer thief.”
“Course yer a crook, yer a Halfbreed. It’s all the same.”
“No, it ain’t. Not where I come from. Only sometimes, when a Halfbreed is cast out. Then he’s reckoned to be a thief.”
Everyone was looking at him curiously, and he realized it was not the same for them. “Don’t you cast out Halfbreeds sometimes? Affer all, you’re all out here, running. You can’t be beggars.”
Bobakin leaned forward, curious and anxious to understand. He explained, “We can’t be beggars, you see. Because we’re Halfbreeds. We’re not supposed to be alive, even. So we run, so we’re not caught, so we’re not killed. That’s the way it’s always been. If you’re a Halfbreed, you’ve no right to live amongst Humans.”
“Sure, I’ve heard that. And course, if you’re a Halfbreed, you’re less than a Human, but that doesn’t mean you’re killed for it. Just cast out, or beggerin’, or vagabondin’. Truth is you’ve got it nasty here, don’t ya? Man, I thought something wasn’t right when every folk I see is trying to kill me, but I just figured they reckoned I stole something big. That it would pass.”
“This here is our life,” said Bobakin, “and we’re the lucky ones, ’cause we’re alive.”
“Truth,” said Denmin, more as an exclamation than agreement; he was a bit overwhelmed with it all. “So…” He leaned forward, trying to understand. “When that man Carl came to our village and started preaching his gospel of ‘Humanity ’gainst Schumps’, and his talk about ‘demons living amongst us’ and all, your village does it?”
“Sure. That’s the way it’s been long as I can remember,” said Bobakin.
Kaka snuggled closer to Denmin. “What’s ‘demons’?”
“I think it means Schumps,” the new boy told him.
“Course it does,” said Bobakin. “And they’re evil, worse than Humans, ’cause Humans are only evil to Schumps and Halfbreeds, but Schumps are evil against everything.”
Denmin looked at Bobakin with respect. There was something inspiring and intriguing about this tall lad with his greenish-brown curls and fiery-firm hazel eyes. “So how come you’re alive?” he asked him.
When Bobakin was born, he was as normal as any other boy in the village, only rather bald. He had a loving mother and father and knew nothing of the evils of the world. Then one day, when he was four years old, he saw a child burned in the square. When he asked his father why, he told him the boy was evil, “a Schump.” And from the fear in his father’s voice and the shudder of his shoulders, Bobakin knew he never wanted to meet a Schump. As he grew, he heard tales about the Schumps—how they looked with their eyes the color of hell’s fire, hair the rank growth of green weeds, and short, stumpy legs that caused them to waddle and hobble like a lame duck. Some of the villagers told ghost stories to the children, warning them if they weren’t good, they’d change into a Schump for their sins and be burned to death.
When Bobakin was five years old, his hair finally began to grow in; and one day, after he’d had a bath and was combing it before the mirror, he saw to his horror that his hair was green. Only a small tinge of green in the muddy brown color, but it was there. He was transforming into a Schump for his sins and would be burned to death.
He ran out to the garden and rubbed mud all into it to conceal his disgrace and keep alive. Miraculously, this trick worked, and Bobakin managed to keep his secret for three whole years, often forgetting his shame, and even enjoying life. He went to school to learn his numbers and letters and was a bright child— far ahead of all the others in his class, though his teachers always complained of his dirty hair.
Then one day, and this day did not seem any different from any of the others, his mother walked by him and ruffled his hair.
“You’re so dirty!” She laughed at him. “You always are, and no amount of bathing ever seems to get it out of you.” And on an impulse, she grabbed a jar of water and poured it over his head.
There was a ghastly silence, and Bobakin was afraid to look at her. When he did, her face was white. “A Halfbreed,” she whispered, and it was the first time he ever heard the word. “My only son, a Halfbreed. I swore, I swore it was your father’s—I did— I swore you were. But you’re not—you’re a Halfbreed.”
“I will be burned?” he asked with wide open eyes. She did not answer, but he saw the look on her face.
She ought to have sounded the alarm, as they had done with so many children before, but right then she could not move. Bobakin saw she no longer looked at him as a mother looks at her child, but as a woman looks at a frightening thing: a snake or a rat that has wandered into her kitchen. This gave him the courage to do what he must, the courage to turn tail, then and there, and run away from home forever.
“And so I left,” said Bobakin. “I learned to live in the wilderness, on the outskirts of villages. To steal, hunt, fish, trap, anything to keep alive. I was all alone for a long time; until one day, I met Bahia. And then Brine, and slowly we’ve all come together. And now you’re here.”
“Your own mother would have burned you?” asked Denmin, shocked out of his aloofness and defiant independence.
“It was what she needed to do. But I think…I think she didn’t want to. She wanted me to run away because it would be easier than seeing me die.”
Bahia took Bobakin’s hand.
“We are a curse on this earth,” she told Denmin. “A curse on our parents and villages. But we run away because we do not want to die. That’s just the way the world is.”
Bobakin squeezed her hand and then told all the children to go to sleep.
Nappy, who had been Denmin’s partner through the wheat field, offered the newcomer a space beside him on the ground, and they lay down together. They were the same age and drawn together as children often are by ties indefinable and unseverable, instant and lasting.
Nappy gave Denmin a sharp look as they lay down together. “If you’ve been around Human villages before, have you seen Schumps?”
Denmin, his boyish heart relishing the chance to cause a sensation, raised his eyebrows. “Once, a few years ago.”
“What did it look like?”
A thrill went down Denmin’s spine at the awe in the other boy’s voice. “It was at night, from far away, so I only saw his outline. He was large, with fat, short legs that were bent the wrong way.”
“Was he hairy?”
“Naw, don’t think so. Just on his head. I saw him sneak into a village, and pretty soon there was lots of yelling and screaming and bells were making a racket. Then he ran out, carrying a Human woman slung over his shoulder.”
“A woman? Why? Did he kill her?”
“Don’t think so. Lots of women were taken, but they always came back after a few days.”
Nappy rolled onto his back with a sigh of wonder, and both boys grew quiet. Denmin was pleased with the effect of his tale, but presently, his thinking came back around to Bobakin’s story. Reflecting on it sobered him, and finally, he nudged his bedfellow. “Nappy, I’ve been thinking, and the Schumps are evil, right?”
Nappy opened his eyes. “Sure.”
“But Humans are good?” pursued Denmin.
“Well, if we’re Halfbreeds, then we’ve half the blood of Humans and half the blood of Schumps, so I reckon we’re only half evil and half good.”
“Say!” said Nappy. “I never thought of that. Yeah, maybe we’re not all the evil we’re made out to be. Would be a big relief to be good.”
“Sure. And maybe, if we try hard enough, we can be gooder than the evil in us.”
“Yeah.” Nappy smiled. “Maybe.”
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