The chimney was still; no fire burned in the hearth. The job was supposed to be a breeze, in and out and off they would be. Four horses would carry them all if the lightest of them doubled up.
Not to mention they hadn’t had meat in months.
Tucking his hands into his pockets and biting his lip against the urge to suddenly grow four legs and scurry away, Bren peeked around the corner of the barn, silently urging his companions to hurry up before they were caught.
He caught sight of a huge, bearlike man carrying a thin, dark-haired girl through the trees. The child’s laughter rang out, free and happy.
“Oh, Da! The flowers were so pretty! And the butterflies! And that little baby deer.”
“Fawn, baby girl. It’s called a fawn.”
The pair was heading directly for the cabin, directly for the animals, directly for them.
He swallowed, trying to find breath to call out and warn those inside the barn. His eyes shifted from the bearded man and his girl to the barn and back again.
Finally he found his voice. “Achen. Someone’s coming.” He hissed the words as loud as he dared.
The man entered the clearing and, as the sun lit upon his nut-brown skin and turned his braid to bronze, his nostrils flared as if he smelled something, sensed something off. He put the child down slowly, keeping her close to his side. Squinting for a moment, he suddenly frowned and began to lumber toward the barn, pulling a heavy axe from his belt.
Oh, goddess, they were in for it now. No longer caring about being heard, Bren banged against the barn door. “Get out, get out!”
The wide barn doors shot open, sending him onto his backside as a horse came barreling out, carrying Achen and Sern. Behind them ran Danid and Sulli, each with a bleating goat in their arms. Zindel brought up the rear, burlap bag over his back, long legs quickly overtaking the other two.
“Da!” The young child’s scream was piercing, startling the animals.
“Rian, get back!” The huge man rushed forward, brandishing his axe and roaring. “Thieves! I’ll split you all in half!”
“Achen!” Bren shouted as he tried to scramble to his feet, calling for the leader of their ragamuffin group to turn the horse and help him. But the horse kept moving, far ahead of the boys running after it, all leaving him to scramble as best he could out of the way of the big man heading toward him.
He wasn’t sure which frightened him most, the man himself or the axe that glinted in his hand, but never in all of his eighteen summers had he been as scared as he was now.
A huge hand snatched him up by the scruff of the neck before he even managed two steps. Bren found himself shaken roughly, feeling much like a rat captured by a large dog. “What’re you up to? Do you know how hard we worked for that mount? This is my home, you little bastard!”
He shot a longing look down the road, but his “friends” were gone, obviously leaving him to take the heat for the theft. He let his eyes drop closed, hunching in the solid grip, hoping this was a man who believed in clean kills, waiting for the axe to fall.
“Da! Don’t hurt him! Don’t, Da!” A soft, devastated voice came from close by, the girl’s breath hitching in her chest. “Please don’t chop him up, Da.”
“Rian, I want you to go into the cabin.” Fury and outrage bled from the deep growling voice. “Go, child.”
“But what if there’s bad men in the house, Da?” asked the girl, who couldn’t have seen more than six summers.
Bren found himself slammed hard against the barn, stars swimming behind his eyelids.
“Is there anyone in my house?” Another jerking slam against the rough wood. “Tell the truth, or I’ll beat you to death with my bare hands.”
Bren swung his head, eyes kept tightly shut, fingers scrabbling at the wood behind him. He’d never been so scared in his life, except maybe when his mam and pap had left him all on his own and he’d realized they weren’t coming back. There was no coming back from this either; he could feel the finality of it settling in his stomach, making him want to throw up. All he could hope for was a clean death.
“We was just after the animals.” His voice was choked with tears and any minute now he was going to piss himself, but he figured those were the least of his problems.
“Oh, they took my Bop, Da. The mean men took my Bop pony.” The little voice was shattered, sobs filling the air. “Oh, Da, are they going to hurt my Bop?”
Bren felt hot breath against his cheek and then heard a fierce whisper. “You tell her the pony will be fine. You tell her, and you make her believe it.”
“No.” The word was little more than a croak, and he cringed as he was shaken again. Forcing his eyes open, he looked down at the little girl, her big brown eyes full of tears, and she looked about as scared as he felt, only he knew that she had no reason to be scared, the big, angry guy with the axe was on her side.
“We just needed them to ride, I swear. We’ve been walking forever and just wanted a couple of ponies to save our feet.”
“See, baby girl? The stupid, shiftless, lazy, thieving, worthless, mean men will take good care of your pony.” Each adjective was punctuated by another slam against the wall until Bren’s teeth clattered. “Now get into the house. Your da will be in shortly.”
The little girl nodded. “You’re not going to chop him up, Da? He looks so scared.”
Dark eyes glared at him for a long moment, hard and furious. Bren couldn’t stop shivering, couldn’t stop the slow leak of tears. Eyes trailed over him, over his ragged clothes and thin frame. Then the big man shook his head and sighed. “No, Rian. I won’t chop him up. Get on in.”
Once the child was gone, the man sighed again. “So, what do you figure I should do with you?”
He blinked up into brown eyes, rattled and shaken. A single thought went through his mind, over and over, blocking out everything else. He wasn’t going to get axed.
Of course that didn’t necessarily mean that the man wasn’t just going to beat him to death, especially if he continued to stare, stunned and dumb.
He licked his lips and wished he could have some water. His mouth was so dry. “Kick me off your land?”
“Do you know what those kids were worth? What that mount meant to my girl?” The big head shook slowly. “Damn you and your friends. Haven’t you heard of working for what you need like an honest man?”
He didn’t dare venture a guess, and he could only imagine that they cost more than he was ever likely to be able to earn even if his life extended past the next few minutes.
“Tried that—nobody’d have me, not for more’n a day or two.”
“When’s the last time you ate?” The question came from out of nowhere, startling him.
“Ate? You mean food? We had some berries with our tea this morning.”
He watched the bear of a man warily, waiting for the hands on him to loosen, wondering if he should risk turning. If he knew for sure it would work….
“Don’t think about running, or I’ll give you a good slice and drop you to the bears. I’m in no mood for games.” The big man shook his head again. “Well, let’s see what your friends took off with.”
The man grabbed Bren’s wrist and began dragging him toward the barn door.
Bren tried to hang back, convinced suddenly that the big man was taking him out of sight of the house to do away with him: kill him or beat him or worse.
“Come on. I want to get back into the house. Rian’s upset enough. Move.”
He tried to hurry, but wound up tripping over his own feet, slamming into the big body in front of him.
“Winds and sun! No wonder they didn’t let you do the stealing! Are you normally so clumsy?” Another frustrated sigh and big hands steadied him.
“Are you going to kill me?” The words blurted out, and he bit his lip, looking down at the big hand on his waist, feeling the solid weight of the other on his shoulder. This man could probably snap his neck in two as easy as breathing, and if it was going to happen, he’d rather just get it over with.
“Is killing you going to get my girl’s Bop back? Or the goats?”
He shook his head. “They’re gone—the boys ain’t coming back for me.” He whispered the words, admitting the truth. He’d been the most expendable, and he’d been left behind.
“Well, then, there’s precious little use in killing a perfectly functional man, isn’t there?” Another sigh and the man shrugged. “I need to think on it. I can take you over to the town; turn you over to the watch. Or maybe you can consider working it off.”
“W-work it off?” He wasn’t sure which option sounded more ominous.
“Yes. You know, that thing that honest men do?” They entered the barn, the big man ducking through the door, his shoulders seeming to fill the available space. He wandered forward, murmuring and checking his three remaining horses and the small herd of milk goats carefully. “Mucking stalls, milking goats, hoeing. Work.”
“I can do that,” he said, suddenly deciding that this was likely the lesser of two evils. Towns and the watch weren’t known for their kindnesses to orphans, much less ones who were also caught thieving. “I did that for a while after my mam and pap were… didn’t work out very well, though.” He followed along as they moved through the barn, the man straightening and mending almost absentmindedly as they went.
The truth was likely to get him sent off to the watch, so he just shrugged. “I didn’t steal or nothing like that—they just didn’t like me in the end.”
“Well, I need to think and, given the look of you, son, we all need to eat.” Brown eyes blazed at him for a moment. “You come into my house and you don’t scare Rian, do you understand? Not even a bit. It’s by her word that you’re breathing.”
Bren nodded, unable to believe his current run of luck: he was still alive, he wasn’t being sent to the watch, at least not for now, and the big man was going to feed him. “I won’t do nothing to scare her, I swear by the goddess.”
“See that you keep that vow, or you’ll find yourself a head shorter.” A few more touches of the huge hands to the mounts and Bren found himself dragged back out into the sun and headed for the little cabin. “What’s your name?”
He immediately cursed himself. A name other than his own might have been more prudent. On the other hand, he had a feeling if the big man found out he was lying, he’d be that head shorter.
“I’m Iral. My girl’s Rian.” Bren found himself deposited in front of a rain barrel. “Go ahead and wash your face and hands, lad. Rian won’t thank you if you mess her house.”
“Wash?” He blinked at the big man—Iral—and then turned to the barrel and gingerly dipped in his hands. It was cold, but a sideways glance at Iral convinced him to dunk his face and scrub at it with his hands.
He came up, spluttering and dripping, wiping his hands on his tunic.
A soft snort sounded behind him. “Ah, but you’re a natural at this washing business. I swear—to have been a crueler man or blessed with a less interesting life.”
Iral stood beside Bren and washed his own big hands quickly, the movements oddly efficient.
“Da? Da, is that you?” Rian came rushing around the side of the house, her simple dress rumpled, cheeks stained with tears.
“I told you to stay in the house, baby girl,” Iral rumbled at her, the cloth across his shoulders creaking as he bent and scooped her up.
She wrapped her thin arms around his neck, eyes fastening on Bren for a moment. “I was having a little weep, Da, and then I needed you.”
“Come on, Bren.” Without looking back, Iral started toward the house, speaking gently to his daughter. “Did you happen to stir the beans when you were in having your weep?”
Bren hung back, not trying to run away, he just felt like an interloper. He felt bad, making the little girl cry and intruding on this family. And he felt jealous. Rian had a father who obviously adored her. He had nobody.
He hung his head, scuffing his feet as he slowly followed.
“Yes, Da. And I sliced up some bread and heated some greens like you showed me. Is the mean man having supper with us?”
Iral chuckled, tickling the child’s neck with his beard. “His name is Bren, baby girl, and he’s not mean, just not having a very smart day. I’m hoping if we feed him and give him something to do tomorrow, he’ll get smarter.”
The child nodded, looking as if that made perfect sense to her. “Did you tell him my name, Da?”
“Yes, baby girl, but you can again, if you’d like.”
She lifted her head and fastened a fierce look on him from across her father’s shoulder. “You’re Bren. I’m Rian, and this is Da. We’re good people. Be nice, okay?”
Bren had to fight down his grin. He had a feeling Rian wouldn’t take very well to thinking she was being laughed at; there was no doubt where she got her spirit from.
“I’ll be good, I promise.” He bit his lip and plunged on. “I’m sorry we stole from you, Rian, especially your Bop. It was a pretty bad thing to do.”
“Yes, it was. Shame on you.” The big, dark eyes filled with tears again, but she blinked them back, lifting her chin. “But it’ll be okay. Da will fix it. Da fixes everything.”