She tried leading the horse and rider to the front door of her house but the horse was weak and rider unstable, and it took the woman considerable effort just to keep the man from crashing to the ground.

She grit her teeth and called out sharply for her sons, "Brountache!  Calaerc!  Out front, boys!  Hurry!"

Brountache, fourteen and stocky, appeared first in the barn door.  Moments later, his little brother Calaerc poked his head out from behind the house.  Both boys recognized their mother was in great need, so neither dallied in their race to her side.

"Brountache," she instructed, "help me guide the horse.  Calaerc, go inside and tell your sister to get the big pot to boil."

"But Motheeeeerrrrrrr," the boy whined, "I wanna help."

"Go fetch Latryx, boy!  Run!"

Calaerc darted off and the mother and older son maneuvered the steed closer to the house.  As they approached, Brountache asked, softly, "Is he alive or dead?"

"I think he yet still breathes.  Help me get him to the porch.  Careful now.  Push him toward me."

"Mother," Brountache argued, "I am stronger than you; push him to me.  I will catch him and burden the load."

In the end the bickering didn't matter because, even encased in multiple layers of clothing, cloaks and even leather armor, the man weighed nearly nothing in the boy's arms.  Brountache looked nervously at the man as he dragged him up the steps.  He wanted to make sure the man's breathing didn't suddenly cease.  Despite a wheeze as he set the man down on his back, all seemed normal.

The man's cloak was in tatters, but upon closer inspection, the woman found it to be of the highest quality, and once cost a large sum, no doubt.  An ornate clasp fastened the raggedy garment at the man's neck, and it took the woman a moment to figure out how to disengage it from the crusty material.  When she did, the cloak parted and fell to the porch floor in a heap.

Brountache said nothing, to his credit, but he did suck in a quick amount of air through his teeth, which hissed sharply.  Now more fully exposed, the unconscious man's injuries were much worse than the woman could have anticipated, and they seeped a steady flow of blood into an already crimson shirt.

The thundering of Calaerc's running footsteps echoed to the front door, where he exploded from it with all the energy that only an eleven-year-old could muster.  He immediately skidded to a halt and swore, "Kroshe!  He's all dead but for the rotting!  Dump him in the river before the forest spirits smell him!"

"Calaerc, could you really do that to a man in need?"

Calaerc relented his stance, but still muttered as he shuffled his bare feet, "What that man needs is a grave."

The front door opened again, though this time with a little less haste and much less clamor than when Calaerc had used it.  Out stepped the older daughter Latryx.  She was only Brountache's senior by a year, but where he grew broad she grew tall, and her long mane of dark hair was pulled behind her with a delicate ribbon.  Like her little brother Calaerc, she was aghast at the gruesome sight on her front porch, but all she said was, "What manner of corpse is this, then?" before rubbing her chin in thought.

The mother whirled angrily and gave Latryx a hard stare, "I had hoped you would lead the boys by example.  Are you going to give me grief over this as well?"

Latryx barely made eye contact with her mother because she was already lost in thought on how best to treat their "Guest."  She gave a small shake of her head, then replied only with, "I'll need some herbs from the garden."

As Latryx retreated back inside the house, Calaerc picked the stranger's cloak pin from the wood at his feet.  He tumbled it over in his hands for a moment before his eyes widened with horror, "Mother, did you know this man is a soldier?"

The End

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