A loud squeal.
That was the only warning he had before he was brutally jolted out of sleep. Something had grabbed his ankle – something strong – and yanked him from his perch among the barn rafters. He hit the planks of the rough floor hard, dust and dirt scattering from the impact. Before his body could even begin to register shock, Bobos found himself sliding rapidly across the wood as he was spun in a semi-circle. Small splinters of timber stabbed into his back like needles of fire
The pressure on his ankle stopped as his attacker released his grip; his momentum carried him across the threshold of the barn into the mud of the pen sliding toward the slatted fence. Rain poured down on him from the sky which even now was beginning to brighten with the approaching dawn.
Groggy from sleep and stunned by the ferocity of the attack and the multitude of scrapes and cuts already inflicted, his conscious mind was still struggling to catch up to events that were unfolding. But there was no time. The fence was now looming shockingly close and he was about to hit it head first with the full dead weight of his body behind him.
Deprived of conscious control, Bobos reacted instinctively, automatically, as time seemed to slow down
He threw an arm out, clawed fingers digging into the dirt beneath the mud, flipping his body around so that he was now feet-first heading into the fence.
Powerful leg muscles bunched and coiled as they absorbed the impact, then released the energy in an explosive push.
Flipping around again, Bobos drove his heels into the ground, digging furrows in the muck until the ground finally held and propelled him to his feet. With the force of a cannonball, he alammed into his attacker.
Bobos’ mind was just now finally starting to catch up as he heard the loud oomph, dimly saw a large shadow stagger back and fall to its hands and knees, lungs desperately sucking for air. His conscious thinking mind still disassociated from the rest of himself, his body lurched swiftly to its feet and lashed out with a rapid strike using all his desperate strength.
It was a blow that did not land.
Some part of Bobos registered a sense of shock and bewilderment as he saw his fist frozen in mid-air as if paralyzed, felt his arm trembling with exertion. Then his stupor was snapped altogether and full awareness washed through him as he recognized the face of the Mean Man floating just an inch beyond his arrested hand. As he looked into the bloodshot eyes, he felt fear seep into him as if from the very air, freezing his guts. The stare was primal, the unblinking gaze almost hypnotizing and Bobos found himself rooted to the spot.
Herman found himself momentarily taken aback.
He was an accomplished brawler with years of practice in various forms of combat from formal boxing to the brutal dirty tactics of a veteran of the illegal but lucrative fighting pits, and a huge man to boot. And this – child – big though he was, had knocked him to his knees. It was the first time he had ever found himself at even a temporary disadvantage in a one on one fight.
And he had started this one, had taken Bobos unaware. But somehow the boy had reacted out of pure natural instinct and put him down in the blink of an eye. He realized then that there was something more to Bobos than he had ever realized, a potential untapped and emerging.
He would have to be careful.
But such thoughts were pushed out of his head as his injured pride swelled into anger and then boiled into a rage.
Still on his knees, Herman was now eye to eye with Bobos as the boy stood partially hunched over, frozen as if in a trance, his eyes filled with unspoken terror.
“Thought you’d get away with it, did you?” Herman rasped hoarsely. “Thought you would just sneak in and steal my stew?” His hot breath, foul and heavy, filled Bobos’ nose, making him gag. He leaned in close.
“I spent hours making it, and you…” – his voiced raised to a roar – “you ate it all!”
Then he lashed out with a heavy backhand blow, twisting his upper body and leaning back as his outstretched fist caught Bobos full in the face.
Bobos was lifted off the ground, stretched out to his full height as he spun like a top, landing with a dull flop into the mud. Overbalanced by the sheer violence of his own swing, Herman toppled to the floor, his hand throbbing with unexpected pain. He wondered if he had broken anything; the boy’s jaw was like granite. Carefully getting to his feet, he flexed the hand experimentally a few times and decided that while it would hurt like hell for the next week, there was likely no permanent damage.
Lumbering into the mud of the pen, Herman’s eyes locked onto Bobos’ prone form, thoughts of murder on his mind. Bobos, his paralysis now broken, began to struggle to his feet, to scramble away, but the mud was pulling on him, making him slow.
Now Herman stood over him, a towering beast of a man against whom even Bobos looked small. Herman paused briefly, letting the moment drag out, savoring the dread he could sense condensing in Bobos’ heart.
“That stew was mine!”
Herman’s foot exploded out of the mud.
A shadow suddenly loomed between the two, and the kick meant to cave in Bobos’ ribs instead glanced off something else. Something large.
Whirling around, Mama Pig dashed back to take the next strike, and then the next and the next. Bobos stared at his savior with a mix of both appreciation and terror. Mama Pig was taking damage meant for him, but she wouldn’t last for long under Herman’s escalating onslaught; with each attack deflected, his rage grew, and her energy was waning fast. And Bobos knew she wouldn’t attack Herman directly; she was too afraid after years and years of intimidation.
Bobos’ heart sank as Mama Pig’s movements became slower and slower until she finally collapsed in a heap, totally spent. She was hurt, but how badly, Bobos could not tell. And Herman wasn’t about to give him the time to find out.
By now Bobos had fetched himself up against the fence and managed to stand up on rubbery legs as Herman stepped past his prize sow.
Coming in close, Herman tried another backhand, but Bobos, now fully alert and ready thanks to the time Mama Pig had purchased for him at such a frightful cost, dodged and the blow swung wide over his head. The next blow came for his body and he twisted at the last moment so that it skidded past his shoulder.
Attack after attack rained down on him, but to Bobos’ surprise, none of them were able to hit solidly. Bobos was at a loss to explain, but Herman recognized what was happening, and the realization gave him pause. Somehow, in some way, Bobos had already begun to internalize the lessons that Mama Pig had just showed him: how to soften the force of an attack, how to turn the body just so to absorb the brunt of the blow, how to roll with a punch: it was nothing short of incredible whispered a small voice in the back of his mind.
After a final combination of a jab and a stomach blow failed to land, Herman changed things up and closed with Bobos to grapple him, using his body weight to pin Bobos against the fence until he could get his arms around him. Squeezing him in a crushing bear hug, Herman suddenly upended Bobos into the air and slammed him into the mud head-first.
Blood pounded in Bobos’ ears, eclipsing the peals of rumbling far-away thunder, fragmented drum-beats that pulsed the very air.
Herman quickly turned Bobos over in the mud so that he was lying belly-down, then knelt down to pin Bobos with a knee in his back.
“Always knew you were dumb as bricks, boy,” he began, slurring the words as he added more and more weight to the knee. Bobos gasped in pain. Herman pushed his head in close to Bobos.
“But I thought you had at least a little bit of a survival instinct,” he continued,
He was trying to goad Bobos into a response, but Bobos said nothing.
Herman sneered and dug his knee even harder into Bobos’ back.
Bobos just lay there, trying to keep his head out of the mud, trying to take in air as his ribs creaked under the stress of Herman’s bulk. He was suffocating, now unable to even hear the words the Mean Man was saying as a red haze grew before his eyes and darkness came in from the edges.
A thought finally burrowed through the haze of booze in Herman’s head.
“Shit, do you even understand a thing I’m saying?”
In truth, most of the words were beyond the very rudimentary vocabulary that Bobos had managed to pick up during his occasional excursions to the outskirts of the village.
The pressure on his back suddenly lessened and Bobos took in deep lungsful of breath.
“Well, I’m guessing even an idiot like you can understand this,” Herman said as he shifted and reached for something tucked into his belt. Bobos followed the motion with his eyes as he craned his neck, saw Herman pull out one of the large wooden things that Bobos had seen over the fireplace in the Mean Man’s cottage last evening. The thing for giants.
Herman held the spoon in front of Bobos head so he could see it clearly, then dashed it suddenly against the fence. It made a horrible sharp thwacking sound.
Startled at the loudness of the noise, Bobos began to squirm, trying to get away, but Herman was having none of it.
He raised the spoon above his head and brought it down hard on Bobos’ back. Bobos stiffened as if shot, then writhed in pain as the initial sharp sting suddenly multiplied into an agony of fire along his nerves.
Again and again, Herman struck him with the spoon, rupturing blood vessels and tenderizing muscle. Bobos shrieked.
Finally, mercifully, the assault ended when with a loud splintering crack, the spoon broke; Herman, panting with exertion, was left holding only the handle in his hand.
He looked down at Bobos then, at his bruised and beaten flesh, and said softly, almost curiously “What the hell are you made of, boy?”
Herman’s frame seemed to sag as he sank down to sit in the mud, numb, holding the handle of the spoon in his hand, the target of his anger almost forgotten as unbidden memories welled up inside him.
He held the shattered fragment before him, eyes tracing the decorative swirls and loops carved into the wood, and remembered the day so long ago when he had bought the elaborate decorative spoon from a traveling trader, remembered bringing it home to Hazel as a gift for her, remembered the tears in her eyes. For a moment, he was almost overwhelmed.
But just for a moment, and the moment passed.
Then Herman’s eyes hardened and he looked down at the boy laying in the mud before him: his own son, barely conscious, horribly beaten.
There was no mercy in his gaze.
“If you ever, ever, steal any of my delicious, amazing, wonderful stew again, boy, I swear by the old gods of Azeroth, I will kill you.”
Then he stood up and staggered away into the early dawn mist.