"Come on, Tadpole, put your back into it then. Or do you need me to help you with that mighty bale of hay?"
Kelwyn clenched his teeth at the sound of the familiar voice coming from behind him. His older brother, Bevyn, knew the thirteen-year-old hated being called 'tadpole,' which, of course, caused Bevyn to use the name at every opportunity.
"I'll get it just fine then," he shot back over his shoulder. "And without any help from the likes of you, you clod.” Before he could stop himself, he added, "And stop calling me that.” He ground his teeth, hoping Bevyn hadn’t heard the last remark.
The laughter burning his ears assured him his hope was in vain. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Tadpole. Do you need me to get a youngling cloth to wipe your tears?"
"You can get the cloth if you like." Kelwyn dropped the bale on the stack. "But I’ll not be the one needing it.” As soon as the words left his lips, he turned and launched himself at his brother.
His shoulder landed squarely in Bevyn's chest, catching his sibling mid-laugh, and the two went rolling through the hay outside the barn. Contrary to the diminutive nickname his brother enjoyed tormenting him with, Kelwyn was only half a hand shorter than Bevyn, and was a bit stockier, which made for a fairly even match. The two brothers, separated in age by four years, had tested this on more than one occasion.
A cloud of dust and flying hay marked their progress as they rolled across the yard. "And do you think you can beat me this time, at long last?" Bevyn asked, still wearing his infuriating grin. He shoved his knee into Kelwyn's stomach, driving him off and into the dirt.
"Aye," Kelwyn answered, as the two scrambled to their feet. "I'm thinking you owe me a few years’ worth of apologies, and I'll be collecting them today."
"You think so, do you?" Bevyn said, as the two circled one another. "Well, I'll tell you what, Tadpole. You'll get those apologies when they're written in berry juice on my handsome backside.” A shocked expression crossed his face. "Oh my, I am so sorry! I called you 'tadpole' again, Tadpole.” He gave Kelwyn a sorrowful look. "Can you ever forgive me, Tadpole? Please, Tadpole? Be a good little tadpole and show mercy to your brother."
Kelwyn tried to resist, but finally couldn't hold himself back. He charged at his brother again. Too late, he saw the grin on Bevyn’s face and realized what was about to happen. Arms flailing, he tried to stop, but couldn't slow his charge in time.
Bevyn fell backwards, grabbing two handfuls of Kelwyn's shirt as he dropped, planted his booted foot in his brother's stomach, and neatly flipped Kelwyn through the air. A resounding splash reported that his aim had been perfect. The previously full water trough that had been behind Bevyn was now half full of water and half full of Kelwyn.
Kelwyn flailed about in the trough, gasping at the shock of the ice-cold water and trying to get a grip on the side to pull himself out. The sight of Bevyn smirking as he struggled to gain purchase on the wet wood did nothing to improve his mood. After several moments of splashing and calling his brother every name he could think of, Kelwyn finally flopped out of the trough like a wet rat, turning the ground beside the trough into a morass of mud and hay.
With fresh mud clinging to his hands and knees, Kelwyn climbed to his feet and glared at his older brother through dripping tangles of reddish-brown hair.
“That’s another you owe me,” he said.
“Aye,” Bevyn said with a grin, “and that’s another you’ll not be getting.” He spread his arms and braced himself for Kelwyn’s next attack. Before they could resume their battle, a third voice interrupted them.
“And what have we here? Two little boys playing in the water and mud?” The voice had an authoritative ring to it, stopping both brothers in their tracks.
They straightened and looked over at their oldest brother, who had just come around the corner of the barn. Donell stood like an oak tree, watching them with his muscular arms folded across his chest. He towered two full hands over Bevyn, and outweighed both of his brothers by at least four stone. His size plus his dark blonde shoulder length hair and chiseled features made all the town girls giggle and whisper to each other when the brothers went to market.
Donell was twenty and had been watching over the two of them since the trio's parents had disappeared four years earlier. Now he stood in front of the barn, shaking his head as he saw Kelwyn’s sodden condition. He sighed dramatically.
“Will you two whelps never learn to play nice?”
Raising an eyebrow, Kelwyn looked over at Bevyn. With a glance, terms of truce were agreed to, treaties were drawn up and signed, and an alliance was formed. Together they turned back to their older brother.
“We’re sorry, Donell,” Bevyn said.
“Aye, Donell,” added Kelwyn. “We’ll try to do better.”
As one, they charged their older brother, yelling at the top of their lungs, and drove him backward into the bales behind him. The three landed in the pile and, amid flying hay and bits of mud, began struggling for dominance on the haystack. After several minutes of scuffling, punctuated by occasional yells or grunts, the hay and dust began to settle. As the air cleared, it revealed Donell sitting on a bale of hay, with one brother in a headlock under each powerful arm.
“How many times must we repeat this lesson?” he said. “You’ll ne’er be able to best me, no matter how much you try.” He spoke in a singsong cadence, lightly tapping their heads together to an imaginary beat.
“Ow! Stop it, Donell,” Bevyn said, trying futilely to free his head.
Donell laughed. “You know what you have to do.”
After one more tug in an effort to escape, Bevyn said, “All right, all right, you great lummox. I yield.”
“And you, Kelwyn?” Donell asked. “You know you both have to yield before I release either one.”
Kelwyn didn’t answer. Although his head hurt from the tapping, it gratified him to know that Bevyn was sharing in his pain.
“Kelwyn!” Bevyn shouted. “Say it, you stubborn mule. Ow! Or next time it won’t be water you land in.”
Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, Kelwyn pushed into the next one of Donell’s taps, butting solidly into the top of Bevyn’s head.
“OW!” Bevyn yelled again. “You did that on purpose, you little dung beetle!”
Kelwyn smiled, satisfied that he had done all he could get away with. “Fine then. I yield,” he said.
Donell released the two, and they sat beside him on the bales. Bevyn massaged the top of his head as he glowered at his little brother.
“You’ll pay for that last one, Kel,” he said. “Learn to sleep with one eye open I would, if I were you.”
Kelwyn just smiled.
Donell chuckled. “All right, you two miscreants,” he said as he rose to his feet. “It’s time to get ba—” He stopped mid-sentence, head cocked as if listening for something, the smile fading from his face.
“What’s that?” he asked.
The younger pair stood as well. “What’s what?” Kelwyn asked. He looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“Shh! Do you hear that?”
Then Kelwyn heard it. It was a low, subterranean rumble, almost more easily felt through the soles of their feet rather than heard through their ears.
"Horses?" Kelwyn asked.
Bevyn nodded. "Aye," he said, "and a great many of them."
Donell didn't say anything, but ran around the corner of the barn. The two younger brothers were close behind as he came to a stop, scanning the horizon.
Donell pointed. "There."
The three brothers watched as a flood of horsemen, a few bearing blood-red standards, came pouring over a hilltop less than a quarter-league distant. The lead riders disappeared behind the crest of the next hill, but the last rider did not top the first hill for several seconds.
"Who are they?" Kelwyn asked.
"I don't know," Donell said, "but I'm getting our swords in case they mean us ill.” He turned and sprinted for the small cottage they shared.
Bevyn grabbed Kelwyn's shoulders. "You need to hide," he said. "Get in the barn, under the hay."
Bevyn looked him directly in the eyes. "You will, Tadpole," he said, "or I'll hog tie you and stuff one of my socks in that flapping mouth of yours until they leave or Donell decides it's safe for you to come out."
This time Kelwyn didn’t protest Bevyn's use of the hated nickname. He knew his brother only used it for two reasons: when he wanted to get a rise out of Kelwyn, and when he was showing genuine affection for his little brother.
Donell returned as Bevyn finished. "He's right, Kel," he said in a tone that allowed no protest. He carried a longsword in each hand. "Until we know why these riders are here, we dare not take any chances. Into the barn you go." He walked over to the barn entrance and set the swords just inside the half-open doors where they would not be seen. The horses were in the corral and the cows were out to graze so there was no worry about the animals getting lose. “Up in the loft with you and be quick. They'll be here any moment. And give me your word of honor that you will stay put and not make a sound, no matter what may happen, until I say," he added.
"Fine," Kelwyn said. He kicked hay out of his way as he walked into the barn. "I'll be quiet."
"Word of honor, Kel.”
Kelwyn rolled his eyes. "Oh, aye, word of honor then.” He climbed the ladder and moved into the shadows of the loft.
"Not a peep, Tadpole," Bevyn said. Kelwyn turned in time to catch a wink and a smirk from his brother.
"Clod,” he replied.
Donell and Bevyn stepped out of the barn just as the first riders crossed onto their land. From his vantage point, Kelwyn could see most of the barnyard through a wide crack in the east wall of the barn, and the pasture through a knothole in the north side. The mass of riders reined in as they entered the pasture, the horses stamping and blowing noisily after their run. The afternoon sun cast every muscle and sinew of the powerful animals into sharp relief. A light breeze carried a hint of horse sweat and worn leather to his nose.
A smaller group of a dozen riders came forward into the yard where his brothers were standing just outside the barn doors. One of the riders carried a crimson standard. A gray sword surrounded by black flames blazed upon it. Most of the riders wore basic hard leather armor, but in the back of the group a lone figure sat decked from head to toe in dark plate mail with a blood-red helm obscuring his face from the nose upwards.
As the smaller group entered the yard and came to a stop, Donell took a step forward.
"Hail and greetings, strangers," he said, raising a hand. "What brings you to our home, and what can we do for you?"
One rider urged his horse forward a couple of steps and leaned forward. “What brings us here is destiny,” he said. “And what you can do is kneel before your new lord and master, Warlord Jeron.” He indicated the plate mailed rider.
Donell’s eyes narrowed as he and Bevyn took a step backward to the barn doors. “Lord and master? I think not. We serve no man.” He waved a hand toward the hills. “Perhaps at the next cottage you may find willing servants, but not here.”
“We find willing servants wherever we go,” the man said. "You’ll find that the Blood Lord can be very…persuasive,” he finished with a smirk.
As the group laughed, the one who had spoken gestured, and two of the horsemen dismounted. They grinned and drew their swords as they approached Donell and Bevyn.
The two brothers reached inside the barn doors and retrieved the swords Donell had placed there. As one, they brought them to the ready.
“Come on, lads,” one of the approaching men said. “Let’s just put those swords down. We wouldn’t want this to become unpleasant, now would we?”
“If you’re not wanting it to become unpleasant, why don’t you get back on your horses and leave?” Donell said.
The man shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” His sword flashed in a gleaming arc.
Kelwyn flinched as the sharp ring of steel on steel assaulted his ears. Through the crack in the wall, he watched as the four combatants engaged in a deadly dance of thrust, parry, swing and block, with the clashing of the swords providing the rhythm. It took all the strength he had to do no more than watch as his brothers fought for both their lives and his. But he had given his word of honor, and nothing would disappoint Donell more than if he were to break that word.
Although he would never admit it to Donell, Kelwyn idolized his oldest brother. The thought of disappointing him was simply not acceptable. Donell had been his champion even before their parents had vanished that chill autumn day four years ago. He had served as mediator between Kelwyn and Bevyn, and confidant as well during the somber moments. And since their disappearance when Kelwyn was nine years old, his oldest brother had taken on their parents’ roles of provider and protector too. Doing nothing but watching as Donell fended off the thirsty steel of his adversary was almost more than he could bear.
As the battle raged on below, Kelwyn had to confess, if only to himself, that he cared equally as much about his usually infuriating brother, Bevyn. For each blow they’d given each other in their “fights,” two more were dealt in defense of each other.
A memory came to his mind of a trip to the nearby village when he was eight and Bevyn was twelve. A group of seven boys, one or two years older than Bevyn, started picking on Kelwyn. He knew he couldn’t defend himself against such odds, so he had stoically endured their taunts. Bevyn, however, would have none of it. When he walked around the corner of the market stall and saw the boys shoving Kelwyn back and forth, he hadn’t hesitated for an instant. He charged like a bull into the group of boys and started swinging at any within reach.
Bevyn beat three of them to the ground before the other four finally dragged him down and started punching and kicking him as he struggled to get up. Donell had arrived within moments and drove the remaining boys off, but not before Bevyn ended up with a bloody nose, a split lip and a black eye. Donell helped Bevyn to stand, and Bevyn limped over to Kelwyn and put a hand on his shoulder.
He had looked Kelwyn square in the eyes, his own black eye already starting to swell. “Remember this, Tadpole,” he’d said. “Bullies may knock you down and they may beat you down, but never just lie down for them. Make them pay for every bit of it.” He winced at a twinge of pain and took a shaky breath. “Besides,” he said, “no one does that to my brother.”
Then he’d rapped Kelwyn’s forehead with his knuckles and grinned.
“Well,” he said, winking his good eye, “no one but me, that is.” Then he turned and made his limping way back to the stall where their parents were buying food and supplies.
Kelwyn never told his brother how much that moment had meant to him, watching as his oft-adversary had come sailing into the fray like a hero of old from one of the tales of valor their da had told him. Through eight-year-old Kelwyn's eyes, Bevyn almost seemed to be surrounded by a glowing radiance as he fought off his little brother's tormentors.
Now, watching the scene below him, he fervently hoped that if there were any gods left in this world, they would grant him the chance to change that. But as he looked on, that hope slowly faded. Donell and Bevyn had trained with practice swords against each other for years, but it was always just against each other. Even to Kelwyn's untrained eyes, it was painfully obvious the men they now faced were expert swordsmen simply toying with their young opponents.
The two brothers’ thrusts weakened as they tired, their blocks coming more slowly. It was just a matter of time before the warriors would grow weary of the game and deal the killing blow.
Without warning, the crimson-helmed warlord urged his horse forward. The other riders gave way like water before him.
"Enough," he said in a baritone voice. "Finish this."
The two swordsmen nodded, and, within seconds, they disarmed Donell and Bevyn, who stood panting and gasping at the points of the warriors' swords.
Kelwyn didn’t want to watch his brothers die but couldn’t tear his eyes away as he waited for the swords to pierce their flesh. But the warriors merely stood, holding the two young men captive, as Jeron and two more of his men dismounted.
The riders who had dismounted with the warlord carried short staffs and took up positions behind Donell and Bevyn, while the dark lord stopped in front of them and studied them in silence through the eye slits of his helm.
After several moments, the lips under the helm spoke a single word.
Donell lifted his chin. "We kneel to no man."
The warrior behind him swung his staff, delivering a vicious blow to the small of Donell’s back, drawing a grunt of pain from him as he dropped to his knees.
"The master said kneel!"
Before the other rider could strike Bevyn, the warlord held up a hand, forestalling him. Then he waited.
Donell gritted his teeth, and slowly climbed to his feet. "To no man," he whispered.
Kelwyn could see a slight smile playing about the corners of the warlord's lips.
"You will kneel before me, willingly and adoringly, before we leave this place."
"We will die first," Bevyn said, spitting at his feet.
"No," Jeron said, ignoring Bevyn’s defiant gesture, "you will kneel."
Getting no further response from the two brothers, Jeron stepped back and slowly drew his sword from its sheath. The sword was crafted from a dusky metal Kelwyn couldn’t identify. Intricate etchings covered the blade from point to haft. The runes almost seemed alive, appearing to shift and change constantly.
He leveled the sword at Donell, who stared fixedly ahead. “My brother spoke true,” Donell said. “You may run us through with your steel, but we will never serve you.”
Lord Jeron gave another slight smile. “You have spirit, I’ll grant you that. You will make excellent additions to my forces.”
“Perhaps you would like your brother to go first?” Jeron asked, shifting his sword to point at Bevyn, who tried to look unmoved but Kelwyn could see him eyeing the sword apprehensively.
“No,” Donell said quickly. “Please. Let him go. He is but a youth still. I will go with you willingly.”
“No, Donell!” Bevyn said. “I won’t let you do this.”
“Keep your place, Bevyn!” Donell snapped. “I am the oldest. I make the decisions for us.”
The warlord chuckled. “How very noble of you.”
Donell looked at the dark lord, “Please, Warlord Jeron, I beg of you. Release my brother and I will gladly serve you.”
“And would you kneel to me?” Jeron asked.
Donell nodded. “If it will save my brother, then aye, I will kneel.” He started to drop to his knees, but Jeron’s next words stopped him.
“It will not. For I will not release either of you. You will both be my willing servants ‘ere this day is through.”
Donell looked confused for a moment, and then his face hardened. “Then know this,” he said. “I will fight you at every opportunity, while life and breath remain in me.”
At this, Jeron threw his head back and burst into laughter. “Many men have made that claim,” he said. “And the strongest of them had to be restrained from kissing my feet after I had…enlightened them.”
He moved over to Bevyn. “Now,” he said to Donell, “watch and observe your fate.”
The warlord moved his sword forward until the point came to rest just below the hollow of Bevyn’s throat and then began to apply pressure. Kelwyn saw Donell try to jump forward, but the swordsman in front of him and the warrior behind restrained him. All he could do was watch as the sword tip pierced the skin of his brother’s chest.
Bevyn grimaced as a small blossom of crimson appeared on his skin. The warlord did not push the sword any further, however, but merely stood there, with the sword shallowly embedded in the young man. Blood from the wound ran down the sword, tracing the lines of the runes on the blade. The sword began to give off a dark radiance, as the blood flowed along the blade. To Kelwyn’s eyes, it looked like the runes were absorbing the blood.
Suddenly, Bevyn stiffened, his mouth open as if he were trying to cry out, although no sound came from him. His face was strained, every tendon in his neck standing out like ropes.
Kelwyn heard a low hum, like a distant swarm of bees. Looking around for the source of the sound, it didn’t take him long to realize it was coming from the dark sword. As he watched, he saw the runes on the sword glowing with a sickly pale light, serving as a ghostly counterpoint to the sword’s dark penumbra. The blood had vanished.
The shadowy aura of the sword piercing Bevyn's skin flowed toward the warlord, caressing his hand and forearm. Bevyn’s head dropped forward, his chin coming to rest upon his chest, as if he were studying the sword.
Jeron stepped back, pulling his sword from Bevyn’s chest. He placed the tip of the sword under Bevyn’s chin and lifted his head up. Bevyn’s eyes were glazed and empty. Then they focused on the warlord.
Jeron pulled the sword away. “Who am I?” he asked.
“You are the great Warlord Jeron, my lord and master.”
Kelwyn couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The voice sounded like his brother, but it was impossible that those words were coming from his mouth.
“Who are you?” Jeron asked.
“I am your humble servant, Bevyn.”
The warlord indicated Donell. “And who is that?”
“That is my brother, Donell.”
“Indeed,” said Jeron. He glanced at the men who had been guarding Bevyn. “Return his sword to him,” he said.
The warrior who had originally disarmed Bevyn, retrieved the sword from where it had fallen and handed it to him.
“Bevyn,” Jeron said, “I want you to do something for me.”
“Anything, my master.”
The warlord looked at Donell, who appeared visibly shaken at the turn of events.
“I want you to kill your brother,” Jeron said.
“Gladly, my lord.”
Bevyn turned to Donell and shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, Brother,” he said. He raised the sword and drew it back. Clearly in shock, Donell did not move as the sword began its descent.
“Stop,” the warlord said. Bevyn froze, and then lowered the sword.
The warlord turned back to Donell. “Now you see, my young friend,” he said. “All who come before me, serve me. None can oppose my will.”
Donell stared at his younger brother as if Bevyn had transformed into something unrecognizable. “What did you do to him?” he demanded. “What foul sorcery is this?”
Jeron chuckled. “The kind that will lay a grateful world at my feet,” he said, raising the sword toward Donell.
Kelwyn watched from his hiding place as the bizarre ritual took place once more, this time with Donell as the victim. Within a matter of seconds, it was over. Donell’s sword was returned to him, and, at a word from Jeron, both he and Bevyn kneeled before the warlord.
“Excellent,” Jeron said. “Now tell me, is there anyone else here?”
Kelwyn prayed to whatever powers that might be listening that his brothers would be able to resist revealing his presence. Apparently, none were paying attention this day.
“Yes, lord,” Donell said. “Our youngest brother hides in the barn.”
The warlord glanced at the barn. “And how old would this brother be?”
“He is but a boy of thirteen, Master,” Donell said.
“I have no use for such,” Jeron said, glancing at the barn. Kelwyn could almost feel the cold gaze penetrating his soul. Then Jeron looked at Kelwyn’s brothers. “I want you to burn the barn down. See to it that your brother does not escape. Once that is done, get horses and meet us at the next farm.”
“As you wish, Lord,” Bevyn said. “It shall be done.”
The warlord and the men with him returned to their horses and rejoined the larger group waiting in the pasture. With a rumble like a distant storm, they turned and headed for the next farm.
The two brothers stood watching as the horsemen rode off. They exchanged a few words and then Donell turned toward the barn while Bevyn went inside their cottage. Donell took a saddle from inside the barn and tossed it out the door. As he started to grab a second saddle, Kelwyn moved toward the ladder. Donell raised his sword. "No, Kel," he said. "You need to stay right there."
Troubled, Kelwyn backed away from the ladder, waiting to see what would happen next.
Bevyn returned carrying two burning torches apparently lit at the fireplace inside. Donell met him outside the barn and took one of the torches. Then he carried his torch to the back pair of doors while Bevyn went to the front pair.
"Farewell, Brother," Donell said. He set the torch to the hay by the back entrance while Bevyn lit the hay at the front entrance.
Kelwyn couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Donell! Bevyn!" he cried out, moving to the edge of the loft. "What are you doing? Why?"
"The warlord commands it," Donell answered. "That is all the reason we need."
"Look on the bright side, Tadpole," Bevyn added. "You won't have to worry about losing any more fights to me.” His usually impish grin now appeared twisted and evil.
They closed both sets of doors, leaving Kelwyn trapped inside. The fire spread quickly through the hay and began licking at the dry wood of the doors and walls.
Kelwyn retreated a few steps back into the loft as the flames spread across the only two exits from the barn. Things were happening too quickly. He couldn’t believe his brothers could be so easily and completely enslaved; couldn’t believe they would stand by and watch as their own brother burned to death. He peered through the crack in the wood to see what his brothers would do next.
As the flames grew, Donell and Bevyn went to retrieve their horses. They mounted up, and then watched as the inferno moved deeper into the barn. Tendrils of flame reached fiery fingers towards the hay at the edge of the loft.
Kelwyn backed away from the flames until he was against the wall of the barn. All he could do was watch as the flames crept closer. The crackling of the hay as it burned combined with the roar of the growing blaze was deafening. Peering through the crack, he saw his brothers still watching impassively as the flames devoured the wooden structure.
Pressing his back against the rough slats of the barn, Kelwyn felt one of the wide boards give a little. He turned and saw that this board also had a large crack, this one running across the width of the wood. It bent outwards under the pressure of his hand. He knew he could probably break it and escape from the barn, but he also knew that, as long as his brothers maintained their vigil, any escape would simply be exchanging death by burning for death at the ends of his brothers’ swords.
The heat grew more intense, and still his brothers watched. Desperately, he pushed hay as far away from him as he could, exposing the wooden floor of the loft. He could feel the heat underneath him, and the sound of wood popping in the flames joined that of the crackling hay. Smoke-filled air, heated by the fire, burned his throat, making it difficult for him to breath. The fire crept up the front and back walls of the barn and licked at the roof overhead. He knew he wouldn’t be able to last much longer, and soon would have to break through the wall of the barn. He just hoped he could make it to the shelter of the trees before his brothers caught him.
The flames were creeping toward his feet when he looked through the crack and saw his brothers finally spurring their mounts after the group of horsemen. If he could just hold out for a few more seconds, they wouldn’t notice him breaking out of the barn. A searing pain in his calf tore his attention from the retreating backs of his brothers. His trouser leg was on fire. Quickly, he slapped at the burning cloth, feeling the heat biting at his palm and fingers.
He knew he couldn’t wait any longer. Trying to ignore the burning pain in his leg and the smell of roasting flesh, he put his back to the board and braced his feet as well as he could against the floor of the loft. He felt the board give a handspan on his first push, but his feet slipped before he could break through. His trouser leg was burning again, but he didn’t have time to deal with it.
As he reset his footing, a loud crack from overhead made him look up. The beam directly above him was sagging toward him as the flames ate away at the dry wood. Bracing his feet, he shoved as hard as he could against the board. Under his pressure, the board suddenly gave way. He didn’t have time to catch himself and fell backward out of the gaping hole in the side of the barn. As he landed heavily in the shallow bed of hay against the base of the structure, he heard the beam he had been under give way, crashing through the loft. Not even bothering to stand, he rolled away from the barn as quickly as he could. As he rolled, he heard another crash, and a scorching gust of air, loaded with hay, dust, and ash, told him the wall of the barn had collapsed.
He rolled a few more paces before allowing himself to stop and catch his breath. His rotations had put out the fire on his trousers, but the back of his leg still felt as if it were ablaze. Struggling to his feet, he looked in the direction his brothers had gone. Now they were nothing more than tiny figures in the distance, growing farther away by the moment.
As he watched his brothers disappear over the distant horizon, a lone tear left a trail through the soot covering his face. “I don’t know how he did that to you,” he whispered through his smoke-filled throat, “but I’ll find you. I’ll find a way to free you. I swear it.”