They were coming. Argyle’s men weren’t here yet, but Daniel knew they were coming. Actually, he was surprised they hadn’t shown up already. Pulling the deerskin coat closer around his shoulders, he sat in a chair by the fire and watched the flames dance slowly and methodically over the dry logs and sticks. The house was dark and quiet except for the crackles and pops from the fireplace, yet his heart raced.
He’d been waiting, waiting for them to arrive. He was sick with dread knowing they were coming, coming for him this time. They would take him, and Aidan would be left alone. Knowing this was to be their last day together, Daniel had tried to make it as normal as possible for his younger brother. He hadn’t even mentioned his birthday, his fourteenth birthday. Until a few years ago, that wouldn’t have had a great significance. Times change. Now, fourteen years of age was when they came and took you.
Tears fell silently down Daniel’s cheeks at the thought of leaving, of being dragged from his home, never to see his brother again. His chest ached as he tried to stifle the sobs building up inside of him. It had been bad enough when their parents were taken to the slave camps and he and his brother had been left to fend for themselves. Now Daniel was to be taken, and he feared for how Aidan would survive on his own.
Aidan was only eleven and would now be alone. Though they both knew how to collect food and water and the like, who would take care of Aidan if he got sick or injured? Ever since their parents had been taken, they’d been there to take care of one another when the need arose. They’d never really searched out neighbors, keeping mostly to themselves instead, relying on their own skills and knowledge. While it had been the easy thing to do at the time, Daniel now questioned the logic of isolating themselves so thoroughly.
There was nothing he could do about that now. It was too late. He’d failed his brother like he’d failed his parents. Fresh sobs rose in his chest. Daniel tried to be quiet as he wept, being careful not to wake his younger brother, but a few strangled cries escaped his lips anyway as he fought to ignore his breaking heart.
Aidan, for some reason, had retired to bed unusually early. Daniel wondered what he’d been up to. He’d acted strangely all day, speaking very little to Daniel and seeming to avoid eye contact with him. While Daniel knew Aidan was having a difficult time with what was to come, he’d hoped their last few days together would be happy ones, something to look back on with fondness after being taken away. Instead, he felt almost completely ignored by his younger brother. Aidan had spent most of the last week off in the woods somewhere, leaving the house early in the morning and not returning until well after dark. Even then, he usually just grabbed a bite to eat and went to bed, giving Daniel little more than a grunt of acknowledgment before he disappeared into his bedroom.
Daniel thought about how much he would miss his younger brother and wished he’d been able to spend more time with him over the last few days—that Aidan had been around the last few days to spend time with. That time was now lost, and the only thing the future held was a life of slavery in Argyle’s mines. Pulling his feet up to his chest and wrapping himself even tighter in his coat, Daniel finally cried himself into exhaustion and slumped back into his chair, the need for sleep overcoming his fear of what lay ahead.
A sound outside startled him awake. Rubbing the salty remains of tears from his eyes and dropping his coat from around his shoulders, Daniel rose and moved quickly around the supper table to the front door and looked out. There was nothing to see but the dark forest that surrounded their modest house. He heard no voices, no torches were visible in the surrounding trees or further out on the rising hills. Not yet. Only the moon pierced the blackness of the night that closed in on Daniel.
A scratch on the roof made him jump, and Daniel stepped outside to see what was making the noise. A fat raccoon froze and stared at him for a moment before continuing across the roof and jumping to a nearby branch that crowded the corner of the house. The animal waddled cautiously along the branch before disappearing into the leaves. Daniel turned his gaze toward the path that ran from the house and disappeared into the shadows of the forest and shuddered.
He could run, but that wouldn’t do any good. If they showed up and he was gone, Aidan would be punished. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—allow his brother to be hurt because of his own cowardice. “I won’t run from you,” Daniel muttered to the empty woods.
Scowling, he shuffled back inside and eased the door shut. He ran his fingers over his short, dark brown hair and stretched his aching neck from side to side as he made his way back to his chair. Daniel collapsed into it, emotionally drained from a long day of worry and fear. He covered himself once again with his coat and shifted uncomfortably before settling in. Falling into a fitful sleep, his dreams were filled with violent visions of the past.