It's obvious fairly early on who the runt of the litter will be.
Arc is the smallest child in Ur from day one, and a quiet one besides; getting him to venture outside and join the other children in play requires copious amounts of coaxing. A few forced outings later and Topapa figures out why this is, when he catches Arc retreating to his room with a noticeably red face.
Topapa does what he can. He lectures, scolds, simply talks to the other kids in the village. Unfortunately, Topapa understands the mentality of young boys, having been one so long ago, and knows that this is part of growing up. He also knows that for every time he witnesses the results of relentless teasing, there are five other instances he does not see.
Growing boys are perhaps the most difficult opponent Topapa has ever faced.
It has something to do with the village atmosphere, Luneth decides one day. "It's gotta be," he says to himself. "It's the only way it makes sense."
He has a hy--hypotemy?-- hypothesis: Growing up with parents in a village makes kids mean to kids who didn't. He's pretty sure he's got it figured out, especially since the only boys in the village who aren't mean to Arc are himself and, well... Arc. Except his hypothesis doesn't work on girls, and he's pretty sure there are a couple of guys who don't care about Arc one way or another, and for that matter, no one bothers Luneth, and Luneth has the same background Arc does, so...?
It's a work-in-progress.
Luneth trudges through the forest next to Ur, making sure to step on every dry leaf and branch. The undergrowth crunches beneath his feet and announces his presence. It's the middle of summer, and way too hot to be running around the woods like this. Monsters are irritable in this weather, too, Luneth knows, so he's surprised Arc even went this way. He must be really upset.
He tries to make light of the situation. "Ar~rc," he calls, "if you wanna play hide-and-seek, you have to tell someone to seek you! Otherwise, we won't know to look."
"Ar~rc! I'm gonna find you!" He is careful to look up every tree. "Then we can play another round, but first let's get some lunch! Nina made a big sandwich just for you! If you don't hurry back, Alexei might eat it!"
Still no answer.
Luneth tries guilt-tripping: "I skipped my sandwich to look for you. Come on out, Arc, please? I'm hungry, and I'm sure you are, too."
As ever, Arc does not answer his call. Luneth is disappointed, but doubts Arc has ventured far into the woods. His guess proves correct when, upon passing the next tree, he catches sight of his fellow orphan.
With his soft brown hair and green clothing, Arc blends almost perfectly into the leaves atop his hiding place. What gives him away is the World Atlas book in front of his face.
Luneth stifles a giggle. "Wow, what a discovery! I didn't know we had book atlas in Ur!"
The book shakes as Arc stiffens. "... Funny," the other boy says. He sounds sullen and disheartened.
Luneth steps back a little so he can get a better view. "Hey, you aren't that far up, actually."
"I know. I can't climb very well." The atlas remains in place.
The admission gives Luneth cause for pause. Arc has absolutely no confidence in himself. Maybe that's why the kids pick on him so much.
"You can't climb high because your head is full of words," Luneth suggests. "Your brain is too heavy." This actually brings a weak chuckle out of the shy boy. "Arc, what are you doing in that tree?"
"... I'm afraid of bugbears."
"No, I mean -- well, yeah, but why did you run away? Everyone's worried."
Bitterly, "I'm sure, since their favorite target is gone, they're very bored."
Luneth blinks. "Arc, they're just teasing you, right? It's only words, they don't mean anything." He comes up to the tree. "Come on down, okay? We can talk, or something?" Trying to lighten the mood, he reaches up and can almost grab Arc's foot. "Betcha I could pull you down, heh."
Arc recoils. Luneth can't see him as well anymore, but can tell the quiet boy is turning around and getting ready to climb down. Luneth backs off to give him room, watching the green-clad boy struggle with his book and his balance, wondering if he's going to have to rush forward and save him.
One frightened "Ahh!" and Luneth darts over, letting the book hit the ground but saving the boy from a similar fate.
"Oof," Luneth says, but Arc isn't even heavy. "You okay?"
Arc moves away from him a little too quickly. "Yes, thank you, Luneth." Without looking up, Arc retrieves his atlas.
"Eh, no problem." Luneth scratches the back of his head. "Let's go, before we get attacked by bugbears and mandrakes. They're everywhere at this time of year."
At the mention of bugbears, Arc's head snaps up. He looks scared at the prospect of meeting a bugbear, but that's not what Luneth notices. No, what Luneth notices are Arc's red-rimmed eyes. It's like he's been crying a lot.
Suddenly, Luneth is very angry -- at Alexei and the other boys for being mean, at Arc for being so miserable with himself, and at himself for not being around enough to put a stop to it. "Don't worry," he assures the other boy, patting his belt. "I have a dagger. I'll scare any bugbears we see away."
Arc hugs his book to his chest as though it has the power to protect him. "... Okay."
Luneth nods. "You wanna walk in front or in back?" he asks, trying to think if they would be attacked from behind or not.
The other boy looks back and forth. "Um... can I walk beside you?"
"Sure," Luneth replies with a smile.
Topapa doesn't scold him for running away. Arc is part-relieved, because he didn't want to get in trouble. He's also part-scared, because anyone else would have been lectured and now it looks like Arc is getting special treatment.
He looks over his shoulder for the rest of the day, wondering when it's going to happen. When it does, he's sitting under a tree by the item shop reading another book. He can't bring himself to ignore Alexei and Joan's footsteps as they approach; he lowers his book and glances up.
"Where'd you run off to?" Joan wants to know. He's big for his age and his folded arms just make him more intimidating.
"Nowhere," Arc says with a shrug.
"Oh, is that why you didn't get in trouble?" Alexei demands, taking a step closer.
Arc swallows, feeling trapped. They haven't even done anything yet and he feels helpless, like he's lost. "I guess, I don't know."
"What are you reading?" Without preamble, Alexei snatches his book and flips through it. "Bleh, no pictures. What trash."
"It's not trash," Arc says, "it's educational." He regrets the words immediately.
"If I say it's trash, it's trash!" Alexei snaps, and tears one of the pages right out.
"Stop!" Arc cries, lurching to his feet. That book is new! "That's mine!" He takes a step toward Alexei, who takes a step back. Joan steps forward then, and Arc recoils as Alexei rips out another page and tries not to cry.
"Hey, what are you guys doing?"
Luneth's delivery is so casual and almost-bored as the silver-haired youth comes out from the item shop. He stands with one arm on his hip, taking in the situation with calm but serious eyes.
Arc's bullies stop their antics immediately, turning to face the newcomer. Luneth is the anomaly of the Ur children: He is neither a quiet bookworm nor a rambunctious bully; he is the adventurer who fights monsters while the other kids play tag. No one wants confrontation with Luneth.
"Uh," Alexei dithers, "well, we. Er."
Joan continues, "Arc, um, dropped his book. Uh-huh."
"Weweregivingitback," Alexei finishes in a rush, closing the hardcover and shoving it into Arc as they run off.
Arc looks down at his new book, dismayed. Without a sound, he kneels to pick up the torn pages. "Thank you, Luneth," he says for the second time today.
"Just wish I got here sooner," Luneth replies. He picks up the second page and brings it over. "Arc, maybe you should learn how to fight?"
"I know how," Arc replies quietly, accepting the page from Luneth and returning it to the book.
"No, I don't mean the basic stuff we all get in case we run into monsters. I mean, really learn. I betcha you would become more confident in yourself, and Alexei would be scared of you."
Arc stands up, keeping his head lowered. "Maybe." He's more afraid of monsters than Alexei, though.
"Come on," Luneth urges, patting his shoulder. "Let's go home."
Arc and Luneth grew up together, and have always been casual companions. Today, though, Arc feels like they are finally really friends.
The teasing does not stop, despite Luneth's frequent interventions. Neither is there much improvement as far as Arc's confidence is concerned. But it's okay. Now Arc has someone to talk to, at least. Luneth is a good friend, but the two of them have very different hobbies. Arc reads, and Luneth explores and fights and comes home with tales of how he wrestled a mandrake with his bare hands, much to Elder Topapa's chagrin.
Some evenings, though, Luneth shows Arc how to use daggers and short swords and bows and arrows. He teaches Arc to strike a bugbear in the fleshy pectoral or vulnerable hip and render it powerless, how to slice off the invading tentacles of a mandrake before it made contact, and how to properly defend with a shield.
Little by little, Arc is sure he can fight a bugbear on his own, if it came to that.
Luneth has a lot of crazy ideas -- everyone tells him so. But this time, he thinks he's on to something.
"The treasure of the Uran Cave!" he proclaims to Arc one morning at breakfast.
"We don't have a cave," Arc points out, taking a bite out of his scone.
"Yes, we do. I found it." Luneth fits an entire scone into his mouth. "I'no'ar."
"Luneth, don't talk with your mouth full," Nina scolds on her way by.
"It's not far," he repeats when he's swallowed.
Arc answers as he's buttering the other half of his scone. "Okay, but what kind of treasure would you want there?"
"We're going treasure hunting," Luneth informs him.
"M-me?" Arc drinks some tea. "Um..."
Luneth grins. "Come on, Arc. Enough practice. It's time to put those skills to the test!"
He waves the worries away. "I'll be there, too. It'll be fun! And the worst we have to worry about is bugbears."
Arc moans, "That's what I'm afraid of."
Luneth takes a dagger and a leather shield with him. While he's at the item shop picking up some potions, Arc eventually decides on a bow with a quiver of wooden arrows. The farther he has to be from the bugbears, the better.
Arc doesn't know what Luneth tells Topapa, if anything at all. But before mid-morning, the two of them are leaving Ur for the forests.
There are butterflies in Arc's stomach. He isn't sure if they're excited or frightened.
"Great!" Luneth hollers, triumphant. He prances over to the fallen mandrake and picks up the antidote it dropped. "Could always use more of these."
Arc slings his bow over his shoulder and frowns. "Don't you ever wonder why they're carrying items around?"
"Not really." Luneth grins widely, and points ahead. "There's our Uran Cave!"
Arc follows his friend's finger, and blinks. "Luneth, are you sure? It looks just like a tiny cave that's... probably home to an animal."
"Nope, definitely our cave. Trust me!" Luneth takes off at a run, leaving Arc little choice but to follow.
When they reach the mouth of the little cave, Luneth makes a show of pressing himself against the side and stealing peeks in. Arc follows suit.
"Might be monster inside," Luneth whispers. "Let's go in quietly."
He takes the lead, inching into the cave one step at a time. Arc follows more slowly, eyes darting left and right for signs of danger.
After some time, the tunnel widens further into a larger cavern. Remnants of outside light make their way in, but it's still much harder to see.
"This must be it!" Luneth cries, rushing into the cavern.
"Luneth, wait!" Arc calls.
Whatever "it" Luneth was looking for, Arc is certain his friend did not mean the monster that pounces at him from the far side of the cave.
"Whoa!" Luneth shouts, dodging the attack just in time, but sacrificing his shield in the progress.
"Luneth!" Arc cries in alarm, hearing the telltale clatter of a shield rolling across the ground.
Then he hears another telltale sound: The roar of a bugbear.
"Oh, no! Oh, no! Luneth!" His eyes are beginning to adjust to the darkness. He can see Luneth crawling away, and the advancing bugbear.
"Damn!" Luneth curses, struggling to crawl back faster.
Arc thinks, Use your dagger! but is nocking an arrow even as he's trying to figure out why Luneth isn't reacting. "Hey!" Arc shouts, as fiercely as he can manage. "Get away from him!"
He looses the arrow. He misses, but it turns the bugbear's attention on him, so he readies and releases arrow after arrow. Most miss, but one actually clips the bear on the ear. Under the barrage of arrows, the bugbear is frightened and eventually -- much to Arc's surprise -- retreats further into the cave.
It's a few minutes before Arc can blink again, let alone move. He stares at the arrows littering the cavern floor. I did that?
In the meantime, Luneth has recovered both his shield and a bundle of cloth. "Good work, Arc!" he praises, squeezing his arm. "Let's get out of here before it realizes arrows only hurt if they hit."
They turn around and race out of the cave, leaving all of Arc's used arrows.
They're just outside Ur village when Luneth stops. "So, let's open our treasure!"
Arc pauses. "Right here?" He gestures to Ur, pointing out how close they are to home.
"Yup." Without waiting for approval, Luneth kneels down and sets the bundle of cloth on the grass. With a shrug, Arc joins him. "Ready?"
Luneth unwraps the cloth, revealing the gleaming blade. "Ta-da! A genuine mythril sword!" He waits through the silence, trying not to smile.
Arc's mouth works. He's obviously trying to decide how to put what he says next. "... Can't you get these at any weapons shop?"
"Yup!" Luneth agrees.
Now Arc looks at him searchingly. "Luneth, did you set this entire escapade up?"
A gape. "So you faked your trouble with the bugbear?!"
"Not bad, huh?" Luneth rubs the back of his head.
And in the most confident display of his Luneth has ever witnessed, Arc yells, "Luneth! You idiot, what if I hadn't been able to do anything?! You would have been badly hurt!"
"Nah," Luneth waves the notion away. "I know a fire spell."
After giving him a stupefied stare for a few moments, Arc ventures, "Did you do this for me? To help me stop being afraid?"
Luneth grins. "Did it work?"
An embarrassed laugh. "Um... not really."
Luneth just keeps grinning. "Then I guess I'll just have to take you on more escapades."