Some times Riff would wake to hear Master Cain talking in his sleep, begging for forgiveness or crying for help. On those occasions he would gently shake the boy’s shoulder until Cain roused, wild-eyed and babbling about his father. Sometimes the boy could not stop trembling, and Riff would hold him until his tremors ceased. With any other child he would have felt awkward, but in face of Cain’s obvious terror, self-consciousness melted away.
Some nights Cain woke first, and Riff would hurry to calm him before his screaming woke the help. Those nights he heard stammered stories of fear, and guilt, and punishment, and always, always of death. Cain’s stepmother, real mother, his pets, even friends; all seemed to have come to violent, bloody ends. Occasionally the talk turned to ghosts. Riff’s repeated assurances that dead people went happily to Heaven and that ghosts were mere rumors went unheeded, and he wondered rather regretfully if the cause were his own lack of faith in his words.
One night, after Cain’s fears had exhausted him and he simply clutched Riff tightly, struggling not to cry, Riff wondered if supplying a form of self-defense would calm the boy. The next day he went into town and combed the local shops for some kind of weapon that would not look out of place in a home. After contemplating rows of creatively camouflaged knives and firearms, Riff chose a selection of guns (none disguised) with a long wooden cane as an afterthought.
Master Cain viewed the guns with interest, but that night he brought the cane into his bedroom and laid it on the floor next to his bed. Though he considered leaving a pistol beneath his pillow, he allowed himself to be swayed by Riff’s rather nervous arguments that it could lead to an accident.
The brilliant sunset brought with it the first peaceful night in what seemed like years. Cain slept soundly, with one hand dangling off the side of the bed as if reaching for his cane. Riff watched him cautiously for a few hours before dropping off himself, and the next morning they were both a little brighter.
He came across Cain one day in the basement. The boy had unscrewed the top of his cane and was carefully sliding tiny bottles into the hollow shaft; after watching him silently for a few moments Riff realized that they contained poison. “Master Cain?” he asked, and the boy looked up.
“Oh, Riff. Hello.” Cain continued with his task.
Riff considered asking him what he was doing, but decided that it was fairly obvious. He watched for a few more minutes and wandered back the way he had come, having quite forgotten what he had come in search of.
One night Riff awoke to a persistant tugging on his arm, and started when his vision was filled with a familiar pair of green-gold eyes. Cain moved back, his expression slightly abashed, and Riff looked at him inquiringly.
“You’re all right?” asked Cain. “You weren’t breathing.”
“I must have just been breathing very slowly.” Riff rubbed his eyes. “I was asleep.”
The boy looked at him uncertainly.
“I’m fine, Master Cain. No need to worry.”
Cain bit his lip for a moment; satisfied, he wandered back to his own bed and picked up the staff. “I can kill people,” he said conversationally.
“Yes, Master Cain.”
“But only if they try to hurt me. Or you.” Cain ran his hand along the wood, smiling. “Only bad people. The poisons will get rid of them.”
“Yes, Master Cain.” Riff rubbed his eyes again, wondering why such morbid words gave him a warm sense of satisfaction.
Cain glanced back at him. “You won’t die, will you?” he asked, confidence faltering slightly.
“No, Master Cain.” As a medical student, Riff was more than aware of what a lie that was coming from any human being, but he did not especially care.
“And you won’t leave?” the boy continued.
“I’ll always be by your side, Master Cain,” said Riff. Cain smiled sleepily, and he added, “Will you go to bed, now?”
“Yes.” Cain set his cane down carefully and settled into bed, yanking ineffectually at his sheets until Riff rose and tucked him in. “Good night, Riff.” He yawned.
“Good night, Cain.”
Riff went back to his bed and lay down, taking care not to make too much noise and disturb Master Cain. The sound of soft breathing filled the room. He lay still for a long while, staring out the window until morning sunlight filtered through the curtains.