Dartmouth rocked back startled. Of all the tasks he had ever been given over the years this was a first. Foster care? Did that mean an orphanage?
He narrowed his eyes studying the children more attentively. A disturbing pattern quickly revealed itself.
The girl Serena, had dark circles under her eyes that couldn't be hidden by her massive spectacles. Her nails were chewed to the quick and her thumb was bleeding.
The youngest Whit, had one hand curled in his sister's hair and the other clutched a raggedy blanket with purple stains.
He stood very carefully inside the lines of the floorboards, avoiding cracks. Eli, for all the bravado he showed earlier, jumped at every floorboard creak. His fingers drummed against his thighs as his eyes darted to every floating dust mote and shadow.
Behind them Dartmouth could barely make out the outline of a door behind a pile of junk shoved against it. These children were nervous wrecks.
Dartmouth stepped closer to the edge of the circle, casting them in shadow. "I will ask one more time," his voice barely rose above a whisper. "What is going on?"
Three faces stared up at him, devoid of life. He tried not to flinch away from the hollow stares. 'Show no weakness' he chastised himself.
Serena's bottom lip trembled. "Mom and Dad died three days ago." tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. More fell down Whit's chubby cheeks, following a track on his dirty face.
"We don't have any other family," the girl admitted, defeat etched in every line of her body. Eli spoke up, his voice cracking. "They want to take our house, and put us in different families."
Whit's fingers curled tighter in Serena's hair making her wince. "I don't want to go." It was barely a whisper.
Serena wrapped her arms protectively around her brothers and met Dartmouth's eyes.
"We heard the police talking about what to do with us in that other place."
Dartmouth had no idea what that other place was but it was clear these children did not like it.
"When we heard that, we ran away and came here," Serena concluded as Whit dried her eyes with the corner of his blanket. Dartmouth's heart twisted, though he kept his expression neutral.
He twisted his head, taking in the dimly lit room. "Where is here?"
It was Whit who answered, surprising him. "This is our house," he replied puffed up, pride spilling out of his tiny frame. Dartmouth refrained from commenting even as a line of ants marched over his big toe.
Instead he nodded towards the book. "Where did you get that?"
Serena picked it up again. "This? Mom and Dad's office. They have a lot of magic books."
Dartmouth rubbed his beard, pondering the implications of that statement. Magic had never been in high supply throughout history.
It didn't help that practitioners themselves didn't like sharing magical knowledge. Or bloodlines. The last time he was summoned it took the entire population of trained practitioners.
Only a few of those survived that war. But the ones that did survive.... His eyes narrowed in thought.
"What did you say your name was again?" he asked abruptly, causing Eli to jump. Serena huffed. "I'm Serena. That's El-"
"No, I mean your family name." Dartmouth interrupted. Serena's brow scrunched together. "Our last name? Devant."
Dartmouth's eyes widened slightly at the familiar name. Devant. A memory fluttered. A grinning woman winking at him with glowing amber eyes "That explains a lot actually," he murmured.
The memory faded, leaving him staring at three pairs of eyes that glowed faintly in the dark. His mouth twisted ruefully. Of course.
Serena opened her mouth. Whatever she was going to say was cut off by a thundering knock.
Dust rained down from the rafters as the pounding continued, settling on the children's hair as they huddled together.
"They're here." Serena whispered horrified. Pale faces eyed the door as a splintering sound echoed up to them.
Dartmouth squared his shoulders, decision made. These children needed someone more than a warrior.
Stepping over the sugar circle (I guess sugar and salt aren't the same, Eli whispered to Serena), he swooped Whit up and settled him on his shoulders.
Tucking Eli under one arm (hey!), he pulled Serena behind him and made for the door. Kicking aside the debri, he shoved it open. The sound of voices drifted up to his ears.
Clattering down the retractable ladder with ease he followed the hall until he came to a staircase. People in uniforms milled below him. Dartmouth took a deep breath.
Sensing what he was about to do Eli stuffed his fingers in his ears.
"WHAT IS ALL THIS UNHOLY NOISE?!" Dartmouth bellowed. The reaction was instant. Uniforms poured in from different corners of the house. Objects he assumed were weapons were leveled at him. He sneered.
Being threatened palled after a few centuries of staring down enemies on various battlefields.
"Drop the children and identify yourself!" Dartmouth shifted Eli higher.
"I am Dartmouth Devant, and these children are my niece and nephews."
This uniforms stared up at him, bafflement clear on their faces. One closest to the foot of the stairs lowered her weapon slightly. Behind him Dartmouth could feel Serena press closer to his back.
"We were told they have no surviving relatives." "You were misinformed." Dartmouth cooly replied.
The spokeswoman wasn't convinced. She craned her head, trying to see past his massive frame. "Serena, do you know this man?"
Seizing the opportunity Serena wrapped her arms around his waist. Squeezing tight she chirped "Yep. This is our uncle Dart. Right guys?"
Eli's head bobbed rapidly while Whit wrapped his arms and legs around Dartmouth's head, squeezing hard enough to cut off air supply. "We love uncle Dart!" he crowed.
More weapons were lowered. The one at the foot of the stairs thrust her chin out rebelliously. " We can't just hand you over to a complete stranger," she argued with the girl. "You're government wards now."
Serena shrank against Dartmouth's back, hiding from the cruel label. Dartmouth glared down his nose at the woman near the stairs.
"Because the government takes such excellent care of its wards," he remarked sarcastically.
"Tell me woman, " He sneered, "what did you have in store for these children? An orphanage attached to a plantation? A mill? Perhaps the docks?"
The woman swelled like a toad, her face purpling. "I don't know what century you think this is but the children will be placed in approved homes until they reach of age-"
"Alone?" He interrupted, his soft voice carrying through the house. "When they could just as easily stay, Together with me; In their family home?"
Silence hung thick in the path carved by his words. Feet shuffled, throats were cleared, but none challenged him.
Even the woman who led the charge was left with her mouth flapping as she failed to mount a counter attack. Finally she squeaked "You can't do that..."
Dartmouth laughed. A great booming sound that stole the warmth from the room. Men shrank back as his presence grew, the pressure of his will bearing down on them.
It was time for the killing blow.
"You cannot stop me."
Just like that his words became law. Uniforms threw down their weapons and fled with jerky motions, streaming out the door and into vehicles with flashing lights.
The defiant woman tripped over her feet, falling with a thump. Eyes wide with disbelief, she fled on her hands and knees. Within minutes the house was empty except for the four of them.
Eli craned his neck to look up at him. "How did you do that?" he exclaimed, eyes shining. Dartmouth gently placed him on the ground.
"I am Dartmouth the Indomitable." He reached up to disentangle Whit from his shoulders.
"What does indomitable mean?" the small boy demanded, clutching Dartmouth's forearm. "It means I can never be beat."
"Do you mean it?" he almost missed the quiet question from behind him. Dartmouth turned with a frown, Whit still swinging from his arm.
Serena stood with her shoulders hunched, arms wrapped around herself. "Of course." Dartmouth replied, mildly insulted. " I've never been defeated in my life."
"Not that," Serena replied exasperated, standing up straighter. "You mean you'll stay? We don't have to leave?"
Guarded hope peeked out from behind the shield of her spectacles, like she couldn't believe this scheme of hers would actually work.
Dartmouth considered her for a moment before kneeling on the ground, bringing himself to face to face with her. Witch eyes to witch eyes. He placed his right fist over his heart.
"I promise to stay until I die of old age. I will always have a home waiting for you."
That was all they needed to hear. Three mops of dark curls crashed into him. Chuckling he wrapped his arms around all three of them as they burrowed deeper in the hug.
Resting his chin on one head he commented drily "Besides, someone needs to teach you the distinct difference between salt and sugar. That summoning circle could have been a disaster."
Peals of laughter echoed out the open front door. Fin.