His father had taught him the best places to pick, and it was a point of pride that at just 9 years old, he was trusted to go off on his own to hunt down the little clumps of mushrooms that grew on the forest floor.
Of course, the boy thought that he was a remarkably mature 9 year old. His rough-spun shirt was tucked into a woven belt that his older sister had made for his last birthday. They couldn’t afford the spare iron she needed to make a buckle, so the boy tied it in a knot that dug into his belly whenever he bent to pick up a fresh batch of mushrooms. The boy put his hand on the hilt of his knife as he crouched over the peaty ground so the dangling blade wouldn’t stab him in the leg.
The boy was immensely proud to have his own knife, even if it had been sharpened so much that it looked more like a stiletto than a proper blade. None of his friends were allowed out of the village by themselves, let alone allowed to carry a knife, so he found an old broken strip of leather his father had used to keep his stockings up and fashioned a holster for it. He knew he was showing off, but didn’t care.
His father had told him to always be careful with the knife, and the boy knew that if his father ever saw him playing with it, not only would he take it away from him, but he’d also receive a whipping. It’d probably be worse than the one he’d gotten after his father found out that he was filching dried meat. His rear had been black and blue for over a month before turning a gross yellow color.
The boy was starting to get tired, but his satchel was only half full. He knew that the Forever Stew was going to start cooking in a few days, and they needed to dry the mushrooms to store them for Winter. The boy didn’t like Forever Stew, but knew that during the long cold months ahead, he was going to have more than his fill. Not liking it wouldn’t turn it into mutton.
The thought of food made his stomach rumble, and he realized that it wasn’t just the thought, but the smell of roasting meat that made his stomach growl. Someone was cooking meat, and close enough for him to tell.
The meant brigands. Criminals. Or worse.
The boy felt the wind against his chest, pushing the scent towards him, and making him painfully aware of the sweat that popped up against his forehead. He softly stepped backwards, his ears alert for any sound around him. He cursed himself for foolishly stomping around the forest; his father had told him how dangerous it was out here, but a few trips with little danger had dulled his senses.
He placed his feet carefully, toe to heel, as his father had taught him, until the scent began to recede. He crouched, silent, his ears straining to hear anything out of place. There was only the swaying of branches.
The boy turned and ran.
His feet pounded against the ground, roots and rock be damned, until he found himself in the meadow that bordered the forest. The boy slowed, but never stopped, until he reached the front door of the cottage.
He stood there, hands on his knees, panting, until his father opened the door.
“What the hell are you doing?” his father asked.
The boy stood there.
“Nothing,” he replied.