Violence Advisory: This scene will contain violence. Discretion is advised.
Vangeron yanked on the reigns, biting back a gasp of dismay. His heart plunged to his stomach.
His boy Zaelor reigned in beside him, clambering off his large steed and tumbling to the ground. “Father, what—” but he stopped mid-sentence as he glanced around Vangeron’s mare to see what had frozen Vangeron’s blood.
“LEIGH!” Vangeron yelled before leaping from his unicorn and running toward Broak in a full sprint. He was only dimly aware of the footfalls stumbling behind him as Zaelor followed as fast as his smaller legs would carry him.
Why run? Hissed a voice in Vangeron’s mind. You know it’s far too late.
|Fire, bonfire, flame|
and forest fire [sic]
by Birgit L. on Unsplash
His family. His wife, his elder son. What of them?
Zaelor pulled up at his side, tears streaming down his face, gasping for air but covering his nose from the smell.
Vangeron glanced down at his younger son. He whipped off his cloak and pulled it around and over Zaelor’s head. “Close your eyes, Zaelor,” he whispered breathlessly, taking the boy’s hand and leading him past the ruins of Broak’s walls, deeper into the city.
Or at least, what was left of it.
Buildings everywhere had collapsed: some still burning, others burned to the ground. More corpses lined the streets and filled the houses.
It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be happening. This was all a dream!
His family. He had to know what had happened to his family.
And then Vangeron stopped dead in his tracks. For the first moment, words ceased to exist. Shock screamed through his head, blinding him, dulling his senses. Vangeron took one step toward his house before his shriek came: loud, rending, tearing through air and rubble and vocal chords alike.
It couldn’t be. But it was.
The world tilted madly, and Vangeron put a hand out to stabilize himself against a pile of tumbled stones as he rushed to what was left of their house: up the two familiar steps to the front door, over to the thin, limp body that lay at an odd angle, draped over those stairs.
Zaelor looked on with wide, terrified eyes… and then turned away, trembling.
“Leigh! LEIGH!” Vangeron sobbed as he gathered his wife’s limp body up in his arm.
Stabbed. Blood. A deep wound across her neck. No one could have survived that.
He buried his face in her lifeless chest and wept. And then he heard Zaelor shriek and begin to sob as well, heard the scrabbling of hands and knees on rubble.
Zaelor was clambering up a hill of rubble to get to him and Leigh’s body.
And despite the overwhelming sorrow, the crushing weight of tragedy that made him want to stop living, Vangeron gently set his wife’s body down as Zaelor came bounding up to try to hug his dead mother’s body too.
“Mother! Mother!” Zaelor shrieked shrilly.
As he caught the boy with his good arm, pressing him against his chest, Vangeron’s senses began to return through the emotional cloud. Zaelor kicked and screamed, fighting against Vangeron’s clutch.
“Shh, boy. Shhh… I know. I’m sorry,” Vangeron whispered in Zaelor’s ear as he lurched against his arm. “I’m sorry, boy. She’s gone.”
Fear was slowly trying to crowd out the crushing sorrow.
“Who has done this?” quickly turned into “Where are they?”
And worse still… what had happened to his other son?
Zaelor had finally calmed, enough at least that he was sobbing into Vangeron’s chest instead of writhing against him. Vangeron loosened his grip. “That’s right. That’s it, boy. We’ll get through this,” he said, hardly knowing what he was saying as he reassured the boy when he himself knew his life was over. He was moving and speaking without thinking.
Zaelor launched himself out of his father’s arm and onto his mother’s dead body before Vangeron could stop him. The boy sobbed, inconsolable.
Leave him be. He had to find Daenel. “Daenel?” Vangeron called, nowhere near as loud this time.
Surely if Daenel had heard his cries for their mother before, he would’ve responded by now. It’s too late…
But he had to know. He ducked under a fallen threshold beam into the ruins of their house. “Daenel, can you hear me?!”
The wreckage would have brought a fresh wave of sorrow had his goal to find his elder son not been so affixed in his mind. There was burnt rubble everywhere; he could hardly recognize the articles and remnants of furniture and burned-down four walls that had once made up their home.
As he sifted through the wreckage, his heart sank every time he saw some new item. He prayed he could find his son. He prayed he wouldn’t. No one would have survived under this much debris, under the flames that had consumed his house.
Shattered potshards. Melted pans. Burned wooden beams. Plaster sizzled into ash.
But no body. No sign of his son.
Wiping tears from his eyes, Vangeron made his way out of the house, grabbing the still-mourning Zaelor by the shoulder and toting him down the steps, away from their home. “Come, boy.”
“We can’t leave her like this!” Zaelor shouted, his voice hoarse from crying. He lurched against Vangeron’s grip toward Leigh.
Vangeron felt his heart lurch against his chest in the same way. But he held his grim firm, then crouched down to eye level with Zaelor. “She’s gone,” he said, and he hardly knew the cold man saying these words. He didn’t want to utter them, but there was no choice. “We’ll come back and bury her anon. But first, we need to find out what happened to your brother.”
Zaelor sniffled. His brown eyes reflected back all of Vangeron’s own anguish. But he too was beginning to understand. He was a sharp lad.
Vangeron pressed, before he himself lost his nerve to leave his precious Leigh like this. “If there’s any chance your brother is still alive out there, the longer we tarry, the less likely he’ll survive. You know this. I’ve taught you.”
At last, Zaelor dipped his head into a nod. And the steely look of determination appeared in his eyes.
Vangeron finally released his son’s shoulder, clapping his hand on Zaelor’s head. “Come, boy,” he whispered again.
Vangeron knew how to travel and how to hunt. He knew how to survive in the wilds if he got lost. He knew how to look for signs and clues.
But in this wreckage, there were so little clues to find. There were bootprints—hundreds of grown men. Soldiers. The ones who had torched his city. The ones who had killed his wife.
But there was no sign of Daenel. The trail was cold in the midst of smoldering houses.
Whether the soldiers had killed him or kidnapped the boy… there was no way to know for sure.
Vangeron had lost his wife and son in a moment.
Zaelor looked up from the small alcove his father had formed out of rubble for them to shelter from the bitter wind that blew through their leveled city. It was made of the overturned pieces of rock from the city wall. It was hard to believe this was really his home.
The boy closed his eyes, trying to block out the horrifying sights and smells and trying to imagine what it had looked like just a few months ago. Where the merchants would set up their stands. Where the houses on the outskirts of the city, including his own, were. How everything looked with the safety of the wall’s shadow over them.
Zaelor choked back a sob as he heard boots scuffling in the debris.
His father emerged from the rubble, covered in soot and dirt and a shovel with a broken handle in his only good hand. He stabbed the shovel in the dirt.
So she was buried, then. Zaelor hadn’t been able to look; he’d run off sobbing as soon as he’d helped drag mother’s body over to the grave they’d taken turns digging.
He almost missed the digging; then, at least, he’d had something to keep his hands busy. Waiting in the rubble, listening to the howling of the wind, was unbearable.
His father stopped, sitting down heavily beside him. And then his father buried his head in his hand and hunched over, completely silent.
But this silence of his father’s was far worse than sitting there alone, listening to the wind. Zaelor curled up beside Vangeron, resting his chin on his father’s limp arm.
Vangeron glanced out from between his blackened fingers. Shifted to take his son’s hand. Squeezed it. And then heaved a sob.
But they both froze as they heard footsteps in the distance.
[Excerpt from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]
From Him, To Him