Arden Broderick followed his father into the woods.
The boy carried a bow crafted from a single arched spear of hickory wood. Its string was woven with hemp, and marked by a black bead just above the nocking point. In a flight of fancy, one of his sisters had decorated the shaft with a winding serpent made from a strip of plaster-soaked cloth. Compared to his father's mighty bow, it was small and frail--but its aim was just as true.
"Here," his father said, crouched by a small rock. "The dip in the dirt where the stone was moved by the weight of his foot. When you step on a rock, it is pushed--down and back."
Arden kneeled and observed. When he saw it, he nodded. His father rose to his feet and moved on.
They worked as a pair. His father followed the tracks, while Arden kept an eye out for the thief. The bandit had stolen three pigs from their farm over a period of a month; the last theft had happened the night prior, during Arden's watch. He had fallen asleep.
His ears were still stinging from his mother's hands and his father's stern words.
"The grass," his father said, his voice no more than a whisper. "Tell me what you make of it."
Arden shifted his attention away from the tangle of trees and toward the ground. It was late morning; drops of moisture still shimmered among the leaves. He couldn't make out any footprints, not through the grass, but--
"The dew," he said. "It's been disturbed."
"And what does this tell you?" his father asked.
Arden opened his mouth to say that it told him the man's path, but he knew it wasn't that simple; his father did not ask frivolous questions. He rolled the facts back and forth in his mind. His father had grown suddenly tense, his voice low--he had already drawn and nocked an arrow.
"He is close," Arden said. A shiver slipped through him. "The dew formed this morning. If it is disturbed now, that would mean..."
"He passed through only hours ago, if that," his father said. "We will move silently, now. Follow me. If you see him, touch my back and point. Otherwise, do not speak unless you must."
Arden nodded. His father slipped through the grass, bow and arrow in hand; the boy followed closely behind.
It did not take them long to find their quarry. They smelled the aroma of charred pork long before they saw the smoke. When the fire came into view, they found the bandit asleep, the remains of his recent meal half-finished; what was left of the pig had probably been wrapped in leather and buried somewhere nearby.
"Now," Arden's father told him, his voice a low and soft hum. "Nock your arrow."
Arden's body tensed. He looked back to his father, who stared at him expectantly.
"Me?" Arden asked. "But--"
"This man stole a pig on your watch," his father said. "And without our pigs, we cannot survive the winter." His broad hand dropped down to cover Arden's small shoulder and gripped it firmly. "Do not be afraid. I am here."
Arden swallowed, bit his lip, and drew an arrow. He shifted into stance, nocked the arrow directly below the bead, and took aim.
The bandit slept, unaware of the shaft of wood that, for want of three fingers, would plunge deep into his skull. From here, Arden could not see the bandit's face. He tried to imagine that the man had the most hideous countenance possible.
Arden's breathing slowed. The string made a subtle twing as it was stretched to its full length. Arden brought the shaft to his jaw and the string against his chin.
At the last moment, he nudged the bow slightly to the right, and allowed the arrow to slip from his fingers.
The small fire popped in a bright flash of ash and scattered embers. At once, the bandit was on his feet; when he caught sight of the arrow, he did not pause to contemplate its existence.
Arden's father pulled himself up to his full, towering height. His arrow was drawn, nocked, and loosed in the same graceful, thoughtless motion; two more soon followed after.
All three found their mark.
The bandit was struck--first at the nape of his neck, then, after he fell, at the center of his back; finally, above the base of his spine. He collapsed to the ground, having only managed to run a few yards from his campsite.
The clearing grew heavy with silence. Arden stared up at his father, then at the bandit. The boy realized that his hands were shaking.
When his father at last spoke, his voice was still quiet.
"Arden. Did you miss by intent?"
"I--" Arden turned to the dead bandit's campfire, his eyes searching through the pattern of scattered ash and smoke--as if an answer could be found there. "That is, I--"
"Tell me the truth, Arden."
Arden closed his eyes and grimaced in preperation for his father's anger. "Yes," he said.
Rather than a sharp blow to his ears, he once again felt his father's strong hand on his shoulder.
"You should have told me," he said.
Arden opened one eye. "Told you?"
"That you were not ready to kill," his father said, and then he moved forward, toward the bandit's campsite. Arden slowly followed after.
"You... you aren't angry with me?" Arden asked.
"You had every reason to want to kill this man," his father said. He brought his boot to the bandit's ribs and rolled him over. The man's face was not nearly as horrible as Arden had tried to pretend. Old and stubbled, with sunken, desperate eyes. "And yet you couldn't. I am proud of you, Arden."
"Proud of me?" Arden said. "What if I had killed him? Would you have been proud of me then?"
"Of course," his father answered without hesitation. "To have a son who cannot kill--or to have a son who can. Both are things for which a father can be proud."
His father started the search for the half-eaten remains of the pig. Arden stared at the bandit's corpse, his grip on his bow as tight as stone.