Munjin stiffened as his name slithered over the grass, and rattled the length of his spine. He knew the voice—Silas—and it packed his belly with dread. Not the biggest of the Kolva brothers, but Silas possessed an unerring ability to find Munjin when he was alone.
Munjin pushed himself up from the tree trunk and adjusted the sheepskin hat that might have fit a larger boy. He cut his gaze to the nearby creek as it burbled past him. He preferred a cold swim and a lecture about dripping clothes to the mercy of the Kolvas. Like wolves, they traveled in packs. Together they made a savage fist that hammered unlucky dogs and lone boys.
Munjin knew he could run for the forest, but Silas was fast too. He could climb the tree, but--too late.
“You should have jumped when you had the chance, Munji,” said Silas. His shadow fell across Munjin’s face.
“You know he can’t do that, Silas. Can’t swim. Got that bad arm,” said the Kolva brother with the missing teeth: Bulvar.
“Yeah,” said a third Kolva, the freckled one, Yesev, with a chuckle, “he’d sink like a rock.”
Munjin judged his prospects with a poise that only emerged from long years of wretched practice. Only three of the five brothers … but plenty for him. His stomach clenched with the memory of his last encounter. Still, he could take a drubbing from them as well as he could from his own brothers. Munjin sneered at Silas, and wished for the courage to smash his awful face.
“What’s that on your head?” Silas pointed to Munjin’s hat. The eldest Kolva jabbed his brothers for support.
“Covering his devil ears, most like,” said Yesev.
Munjin’s eyes grew wide with a new fear. They could not take his hat. Let them blacken both his eyes and knock out a tooth. His Aunt Riza had given him the cap. His father had not approved, but he had been allowed to keep it.
Munjin glanced rabbit-quick to his sides, and backed up a step. He could still flee.
Silas did not move closer, but the unmerciful flint in his eyes darkened. “Are you playin’ the high lord with your fancy hat? Is that what you’re doin’?”
Munjin backed up a step, turned, and ran. Before he made three steps, Bulvar and Yesev tackled him. Munjin struggled against the older boys, but they knew their work. They hauled him to his feet. Munjin’s proud face, dirty and bloody, stared defiance.
“Hold him tight. He’s a squirmer,” said Silas. He chewed a strand of wheat grass, and grinned.
Munjin pulled and pushed, and tried to bite, but the Kolva boys knew his tricks. They too had years of experience, under their father’s roof, pummeling each other.
“Our Pa says you shoulda been let out to die on the mountain like any malformed baby. That’s what he says. Mal-formed.”
Munjin hacked up some phlegm to spit into Silas’s smug face, but Silas rapped him in the stomach. The eldest Kolva picked up Munjin’s hat.
“I’ll make you a wager. You reach up and grab your hat with your right arm, and I’ll give you free hits on Bulvar here.”
Any boy with a working right arm could do it easy. Munjin heard Bulvar grunt with satisfaction. Munjin poured eleven years of cold anger into his gaze and stared at Silas.
Silas grinned. “I hear your Pa’s gonna trade you in for a poxy goat.”
“You win, Silas,” said Munjin, sagging in their grip. His thin arms and legs, dangerous when backed with a fierce will, now hung limp. He would give them no pleasure in his frailty.
Silas spit out the grass and rolled up his sleeve. He approached slowly, rubbing a fist into the opposite palm.
Munjin wished he had been born whole and strong. If he was like the tree with hard bark and strong branches, he could crush these two vermin. He wished that the tree would reach down and grab the two that held him. He felt like the trees listened sometimes.
Nearby, roots broke the ground. Above, branches bent down. No one noticed.
Munjin decided to use an old trick that worked on his brothers. He yanked his arms up as much as he could muster. Naturally, Bulvar and Yesev pulled him down. So, when he dropped to the ground, he surprised them, and they lost their grasp. They expected him to run.
Instead, he kicked at Silas’s groin. Silas twisted just like Munjin knew he would. Then he threw an elbow into Silas’s face. He split the older boy’s nose, but Munjin didn’t stop moving.
He twisted past all the Kolvas and ran.