The snap of the woman’s neck dropped the crowd into silence, all but the three youngsters tied and standing below the gallows. A scream broke louder than the youngest’s sobs. A bellowed promise that they would all pay.
“You hear that?” Uncle asked, his face painted with lines of anger and contempt.
Eagan peered up into his father’s much gentler eyes, eyes that mirrored the will for mercy.
“Brother, they’re just children,” Father said.
A sneer angled Uncle’s jaw strangely. “Every enemy began as a child,” he said. He turned and descended the stairs, shouting out to the young girl, then ordering her instant death.
Eagan dashed to the left, following the twin set of stairs out the opposite side, ignoring his father’s shout.
The girl was not much older than he, maybe thirteen, but she was slighter, small and thin like all the woods people. Her hair was dark and tangled, as dark as her eyes. Uncle said their eyes were black like their souls, but Eagan had gotten close enough to see the irises, which appeared black, were truly a rich deep brown. When he asked his father, he learned it was a very normal eye color in some areas, not at all indicative of the soul like Uncle claimed.
He ran faster than his uncle walked, shouted at the unsheathed swords and raised rifles, and leaped from the lowest landing to take a stance before the girl who shepherded her two younger siblings behind her despite her bound hands and being trapped between the weapons and the gallows where their mother still hung.
His young legs were not fast enough. The air was still heated from the laser blasts when he whirled to face the girl. Her expression had softened to a wince of pain. Tears still dripped from her lashes and beautiful eyes so deep and full. Instinct had him clutching her shoulders when she faltered. The two youngest lay dead behind her, their souls already lost, but she remained standing, her hands clamped around his wrists. He sank to the ground with her, nothing else existing but her. He didn’t even know her name.
Her tears dried, her full attention only on him.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “Please, don’t go.” He wanted to help, wanted to take the pain away, wanted to stop the leaking of her life. He held her, gripped her more tightly when she could no longer stay upright, willed her life to remain even as her gaze wavered, locked on his, but then went blank with no light within. He clenched his eyes against the sight of it, but even in the darkness he saw her.
Anger grew through him, worming deep to his gut, fraying his young mind. The vicious grip of a large hand around his collar, yanking him away from her, snapped him back to reality. He shuddered at the hateful expression on his uncle's round face.
“Put him down, Amras.”
Eagan pulled his head to the left, startled by the stern look on his father’s face. Whispers rose up from all around.
“Of course,” Uncle said.
Air rushed down Eagan’s throat so quickly it nearly choked him. He fell to his hands and knees only to be pulled upright a second later to peer up at his father and away from the dead girl.
“Never falter,” his father said. “Keep your feet, keep your head.” Then Eagan was gently nudged behind him.
Other things were said between the brothers, none of which Eagan heard. Father guided him back up the stairs with an apology for subjecting him to such an event. It was just to be a lesson in law and consequences. Father had no idea the woman had children or that they would be involved.
Eagan snuffed out the bedside lamp that night a different boy with new understanding and the memory of the girl with beautiful brown eyes.