Despite the circumstances, learning he had been called clever by the village’s Scout captain gave Rabin a moment of irrepressible pride. “You’re appointing me the Scout Ranger?” Rabin asked. He ached to learn what had happened to his parents and the rest of the adults in the village. Almost as much, he still wanted to impress Del.
“Well, I know that’s a Gerson Clan job. Besides me, the only other Gerson in this cave is my eight-year-old cousin, Jakon. He and Donie were only here visiting because their papa’s out ranging. He’s almost as big as you and should be a natural Ranger. He doesn’t know the ground like you do. There’s no way he’s as fast or canny as you are in the dark. Can you do it?”
“I will do it,” Rabin had responded solemnly. He picked up the light bow and quiver that his stepfather, Borin Dranath, had gifted him just a quarter of the moon before to mark his twelfth birthday. Called a half bow, the weapon was smaller and lighter than the one Del packed. But it was no toy, and the metal tips could stop a buck if launched by a decent bowman.
Not every boy in The Hills earned a bow like this at twelve, and Rabin had been incredibly proud when he learned Captain Gerson, Del’s own father, had approved of the gift before Borin Dranath had stopped by the bowmaker to order it.
“You’re not supposed to shoot anybody,” Del reminded him. “Just scoot down, see if any Rehan Raptors are about. After that, scoot back. Whatever you do, don’t let them see you. Leading them back here would be some bad rangering. I”m counting on you to use your head.”
“Rabin, don’t go,” Jan pleaded. She hadn’t spoken while the two older boys talked, but he knew she was listening and had soaked up every word. Rabin saw the seven-year-old girl as a featureless shade and supposed she must be nearly blind in the dark. He stroked her slim fingers and felt sorry she was frightened.
“I’ll be careful.” Rabin released her hand and patted her arm. She rose up on the mat and cradled little Kim’s head on her lap. Rabin patted Kim’s tousled hair. His fingers came back damp with sweat. “I have to go. The Gatekeeper’s given me an order.” He smiled thinly in the dark. “A Ranger’s got to range.”
“Enough of that,” Del said. “Go, Grandtree. Be back before we miss you. I’ll sit here and babysit your sister and brother for you.”
Without hesitation, Rabin slid silently out of the cave and peeked around the granite outcropping. He paused to sniff the smoky air and gaze up at a golden moon that seemed to swim in a sea of stars. Then he looked down past the outcropping to try and make out the dim outline of the footpath.
Rabin had been up and down this path countless times. He’d even done it in the dark when the villagers had trained the children in different skills they’d need to survive and thrive. In those days, the only pressure had been trying to keep up with Del to try to earn respect from the Gersons and make his mother and stepfather proud of a good report.