(Ten years ago . . .)

          Until his dying day, Liang, tutor and bodyguard to young Lord Tyrian Southerwind, would never forget his first sight of Ben, the boy who would shape Tyrian's future.

          It was summer. The sun rose high and so did the heat. The small town of Teasarn sat in the middle of the desert and claimed few trees to give it shade. Buildings stayed small and unadorned. Roofs were built extra-long to provide shade around the edges of walls. It was a town for peasants, though it housed a noble family.

          Riding down the middle of the street, Liang held onto Tyrian with one hand and the reins of his horse with the other. At twenty, Liang was twelve years older than Tyrian but he loved the young boy as a father would. The gods only knew that Tyrian's birth father was rarely around. Oh, Donald Southerwind certainly loved his son, but he served as the High General to the Emperor. His duties bound him to the capitol.

          Tyrian didn't mind. He was mature beyond his tender years and held a bedrock seriousness that baffled everyone who met him. He could be coaxed into mischievousness by his cousin, Marian, but he could more often be found studying anything he could get his hands on.

          "Liang." Tyrian looked up at his mentor. "You went away."

          Liang hugged Tyrian tightly. "My apologies, Tyrian."

          A smile brightened Tyrian's handsome face. "You didn't call me 'lord' Tyrian!" he noted somewhat triumphantly.

          "What would be the point? A certain little terror ordered me not to." Liang's voice was equal parts affection and amusement.

          Tyrian suddenly went very still. "Liang." He tugged on his mentor's tunic sleeve. "Liang! Look!"

          Liang looked and promptly stopped the horse they rode. Before he could blink, Tyrian had clambered down and ran across the dusty street. Liang cursed and followed swiftly. "Don't move him!" he ordered.

          Tyrian skidded to a stop next to the prone figure lying on the side of the road but didn't move him as he knelt down. He spotted a dagger sticking out of the boy's shoulder and didn't hesitate to grasp it and pull it out.

          "Tyrian!" Liang rebuked.

          "If it stays in," Tyrian said reasonably, "then we can't heal it." He put the dagger aside and took off his vest to fold it up and press it to the wound. It was bleeding sluggishly, and that was a good sign. It meant the boy hadn't yet died.

          Did nothing shake Tyrian? Liang just sighed and looked around. They stood in the middle of a road on the outskirts of the town. There were no people around. No way to know how the boy had come to be there or even why. "We need Marian," he said firmly. "She's a fine Healer."

          At thirteen, Marian had just turned old enough to wear a relic and had taken to Medicine Relics instantly. In a few short months, she had become an incredible Magician who specialized in healing magic. Tyrian nodded immediately. "Then we'll take this boy to her."

          Liang didn't argue. He simply took off his cloak and wrapped up the wounded boy safely. The boy's skin looked pale and at the same time flushed with fever. He weighed almost nothing, a stark statement about his current health since he was bigger than Tyrian and should have weighed significantly more.

          "You ride," Tyrian ordered Liang. "I'll lead the horse."

          Again, Liang didn't argue. Tyrian was a natural born leader and issued orders with the maturity and skill of someone thrice his age. If he didn't grow up to follow in his father's footsteps, the Empire would miss out on the greatest general of all time.

          Liang got onto the horse and held the boy tight as Tyrian led the horse through the town. As they went, many people stopped what they were doing and turned to watch. "Is something wrong?" a flower seller called.

          "A boy was left abandoned near the edge of town," Tyrian told him. "He had been stabbed. We're taking him to Marian."

          "Poor child," someone else murmured. Anger sparked in her eyes. "We'll look into where he came from and who attacked him. Teasarn is peaceful. It'll stay that way. We don't look kindly on cruelty."

          "That's why Lord Donald wanted his family to live here," Liang murmured.

          "Pardon?" Tyrian glanced over his shoulder.

          "Nothing."

          "No it's not." Tyrian frowned. "I thought the Emperor worried that Father would be distracted by me and Mother."

          Liang hesitated. Very slowly, he said, "That is part of it. But it is also true that Lord Donald wanted you to grow up in a place that would love you for you and not because you were a general's son."

          "I see. I suppose that almost makes up for him never being home."

          The words were said without bitterness. As far as Liang could tell, Tyrian held no grudges and no resentment for anyone or anything. He was a rare, rare child. His green eyes burned with an indomitable spirit and iron will that could not be bent or broken. He would lead millions one day. Of that, Liang felt sure.

          The door to the house where Tyrian lived suddenly flew open and a pixie-sized female wearing a Healer's jacket and leggings stormed out, her rusty colored pigtails bouncing merrily. "Alright," she said briskly, "who was hurt?"

          "We don't know him," Tyrian apologized. "But you'll heal him."

          It wasn't a question, but Marian answered anyway. "Of course!" She pointed at the house. "In! It's too hot out here anyway."

          Tyrian linked his hands behind his back as he followed Liang into the house. Another servant took the horse to the stable, and Marian shut the front door to keep the heat out. That she took orders from her younger cousin surprised none. She was nearly as protective of Tyrian as Liang.

          Annareal Southerwind came rushing down the stairs, and her dark green eyes held concern. "Tyrian! I saw the commotion from the window! What is going on?"

          Tyrian sighed and pointed toward the guestroom that Liang had entered. "We found a wounded boy. He had been stabbed. And abandoned." When his mother hugged him tightly, he found a smile for her. "I'm fine, Mother. I'm more worried about the boy."

          Annareal was used to her son. "As we ought to be. I'm going to send a message to your father. He will want to come home to hear about this."

          Tyrian waited until she had hurried down the hall before going to the guestroom. He peeked inside and saw Marian busy using her relic to heal the boy. Liang stood near, and his face looked carved in stone. When Tyrian walked over to join him, he saw why. The boy's back had been liberally covered with scars from beatings. Without any hesitation, Tyrian said, "He's not going back to where he came from."

          "That is for Uncle Donald to decide," Marian reminded him.

          Tyrian arched a black brow ever so slightly as if to disagree. He didn't say anything further though, his mind already gathering his arguments if his father disagreed.

          It was night by the time they all heard the thunder of hooves outside that meant Donald had returned. Tyrian had been sitting with the boy just in case he woke, but when he heard his father, he brightened and hurried out of the room and the house.

He got to his father just as Annareal did. Donald Southerwind just smiled and caught both of them close. He had missed them madly every minute. "If that was all I was called home for, then I call it a successful trip," he teased. Despite the tone, his blue eyes looked serious. "What's going on? Your message said it was urgent."

          "Tyrian and Liang found a wounded boy," Annareal explained as she led her husband into the house. "He had been stabbed and abandoned. When Marian was healing him, she noticed that he had been brutally abused. He rests now, and hasn't woken yet. The wounds that could be healed are gone. He has a cracked rib that should mend soon enough."

          Magic could only heal so much, unfortunately, Donald thought. Any anger remained carefully hidden as he went to the guestroom and looked inside. Something sparked inside his eyes as he saw the boy's thin face. "He has to be at least thirteen," he said succinctly. "And he's thinner than Tyrian."

          "That isn't saying much," Marian noted. "Tyrian doesn't look eight."

          "Fair enough, but it's still evidence that he's been long neglected." He walked over to the bed and looked down at the boy. There was a deep wellspring of magic capacity inside the boy, so he had to be at least thirteen. Magic capacity was what allowed people to wear and use relics. The deeper the capacity, the more output potential you had. It only started to manifest after thirteen years of life, though there were occasional exceptions for early bloomers.

          The boy began to stir, his brow wrinkled by a fretful frown. Donald instantly reached out to cover his hand. "You're safe," he said calmly. "You rest in the home of High General Southerwind, right-hand to Emperor Albanion. No harm will befall you here."

          The boy's lashes lifted slightly. His brown eyes seemed slightly disoriented, yet nonetheless alert as they met Donald's gaze. "You won't send me back?"

          Donald pulled up a chair and sat down. "Why don't you tell me where 'back' is? And your name as well, lad."

          The boy hesitated. Tyrian promptly walked over and looked down at him. "You don't have to trust us," he said calmly. "But you could at least give some courtesy to the person who took the dagger out of your back."

          A rapid blink was his response. Then, hesitantly, the boy asked, "How old are you?"

          Donald muffled a laugh. "This is my son. Tyrian is eight years old. I'm afraid that he is far advanced for his age. He issues orders without question." He sighed. "Takes after his old man."

          The boy suddenly smiled at Tyrian. "I don't know why, but I feel safe with you. So I'll trust your father as well." He let out a breath. "My name is Ben. No family name."

          Donald nodded. That wasn't unusual. Last names were a luxury. Some people had them, some didn't. If a couple married, they often took entirely new last names for their new family. His last name from birth had been Phiriead. "Alright, Ben. Now what happened?"

          "I lived in an orphanage in a small town in the woods far from here." Ben's eyes closed. "It was . . . okay. But we were attacked by an army from Foresalia and everything was burned. I was taken prisoner."

          Tyrian looked at Donald. "We're under attack from Foresalia?"

          His father shook his head. "Not exactly. They periodically try to take towns just as we try to take theirs. We've been enemies since before even I was born."

          "So how did you get away?" Tyrian asked Ben.

          "Ran. Someone tried to catch me but I lost him. I really don't remember much after he tried to kill me." His eyes opened slightly. "I'm thirteen. Even if I get independence, I can't make it on my own. Are you going to send me to another orphanage?"

          It was a justified question. Independence could be petitioned for by anyone of any age under adulthood, but no younger than eleven for combatants and thirteen for civilians, and the one making the petition had to be able to prove they could support and provide for themselves. Ben, lacking any practical or combatant skills, was required to either gain a legal guardian or return to an orphanage until he reached adulthood at eighteen.

          Tyrian narrowed his eyes at Donald. The general sat back, thinking quickly, and then said absently, "To my memory, there is no law against adopting homeless children escaping capture. And since there's no law against it, then I can't be doing anything wrong by keeping you, can I?" He got to his feet and gently ruffled Ben's hair. "You've got a home here. You won't go anywhere."

          The door shut behind him as he left, and Ben looked at Tyrian in consternation. "You did that," he accused.

          "I didn't do anything," Tyrian defended himself. "I would have, if needed." He crossed his arms on a scowl. "And I don't like that we've been at casual war for more than thirty years. It's wrong."

          Ben studied Tyrian's face intently. In particular, he studied his eyes. He could see it, let alone feel it. The fierce, burning determination to protect others and the powerful iron will that would make him a force to be reckoned with. Nothing would break Tyrian. He would fight to his last breath . . . and win.

          Ben closed his eyes on a sigh. Finally, at last, he had found the person he needed. "Can I ask for a favor?"

          "Of course. We're brothers now." Tyrian smiled as he said it. "I've always wanted a brother."

          A smile touched Ben's lips. "Then repeat after me. Askandi repulsin Devourer."

          Tyrian didn't hesitate; he recognized the language of magic. "Askandi repulsin Devourer." He tilted his head as he felt a curious sensation inside his soul, almost a tingling as if something had awakened or taken root. "What did I say?"

          "It broke a curse on me, that's all."

          Curses were as common as magic, and easily repelled in many instances. They existed as two sides of the same coin. "Oh. Well, are you hungry?"

          "A little."

          "Okay." Tyrian got to his feet. "Then I'll get something." He paused at the door and looked back, and his dark green eyes burned fiercely. "I won't let anyone hurt you, okay, Ben?" That said, he headed out of the room and let the door swing shut behind him. Ben was family now, and Tyrian protected his family.

          It was that simple.

©S. J. Garrett. All rights reserved. Do not reprint/publish without permission.

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