Chapter 10: Elven Footwear

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Outside the abbey's main gate, Rob waited in the rain for Zev to arrive. His cousin was late, which wasn't even within shouting distance of the unexpected, but Rob still felt annoyed—partly from waiting for Zev in lousy weather, and partly because after a hectic day, he found himself with too much time to think.

That afternoon, one of his students had asked Rob and the rest of the class for guidance regarding a toddler with bowed legs and frequent bone breaks. The boy was the seventh child of an impoverished family, and even in flush times they didn't have much food.

After ruling out child abuse—the parents didn't drink any more than was typical, and the injuries centered on the legs instead of arms and skull—Rob suggested the boy was suffering from severe malnutrition. He needed proper food, including a reliable calcium source, if his body was to ever mature properly.

The student was happy to have something concrete to tell the family, the class was excited to learn a new medical term, and Rob was left to worry about the welfare of his unborn child.

Even if life here wasn't a safety committee nightmare, with axes and alcohol mixing freely with child labor and open flames, there were still dozens of ways a child might die. Rob couldn't help ticking them off while waiting in the rain: Birth complications. Untreated infections. Measles, mumps, scarlet fever.

Hell, the flu could kill someone with a still-developing immune system if they hadn't been vaccinated.

And there were no vaccinations here. There were no booster seats for carriages or corner bumpers for workbenches or child safety locks to keep youngsters from falling through an outhouse's splintery seat. Kids died all the time here, and while the parents certainly grieved, it was just the way things were. Which scared the shit out of Rob.

Yesterday, he hadn't been able to comprehend becoming a father. Today, he didn't think he could face losing a child.

"Hey," Zev said, arriving just as the skies began to clear. "Sorry I'm late. Service at the Chinese restaurant took for-fucking ever."

"Hilarious."

"I know, right? You'd think we were way past the lunch rush. Dude, everything all right? You've got that wavy thing going on around your eyes."

Rob shook his head, hoping to shake off his dark thoughts as well. "Just remembering some stuff we talked about in class."

"Spare me the gory details, okay? Let's roll."

After a few minutes of silent walking, Rob turned to Zev. "Did you say Chinese restaurant?"

Zev winked at a pretty girl passing by. "More of a noodle house, really. You haven't tried them? Not as spicy as I'd like, and they don't give you nearly enough dumplings to justify the price, but what are you going to do around here."

"Are you joking?"

"Dude, like, for realsies."

"You just ate Chinese food."

"Yeah, I couldn't get through the line at that new taco truck."

"Now you're joking."

"Maybe a little, but only because you're so easy to wind up. Now, where are we headed?"

"To see about a pair of shoes," Rob said.

* * *

The Shoemaker straddled a workbench, carefully sewing the leather top of a shoe onto its slightly thicker sole. He greeted Rob and Zev by jabbing a finger in the air as if to say, 'one moment, please,' while a boy of not more than 10 years old stood by the Shoemaker in silent attendance. The child didn't so much as look Rob's way, but remained focused on the Shoemaker's hands.

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