Acrid smells on the air were not unusual in Ethayn’s world, and he knew them for a sign that he was safe to come out of his hiding places. On this occasion, it was the kitchen table that had been his refuge, and he crawled out and ran to the window, clambering up onto the wooden-topped counter so he could get a good view outside. A cousin, Esthelle, ran up too, but she went to the door to look, instead. Her little gasp of half-excitement and half-contentment rang into the empty kitchen air almost in sync with the sound of horses’ hooves shaking the ground.
The riders came in little clusters, most heading towards the main stable. There was something terribly grand about the men on horseback to young Ethayn’s eyes. The youngest was his cousin Telfer, who did not even have a beard, and the oldest was his father’s uncle Grenden, his hair all salt and pepper. Ethayn’s avid stare sought out one man who stood out instantly – a tall man on a deep bay stallion, who had reined his horse in already, in the yard, and had dismounted. The boy checked that the man’s face did not contain rage, and then he got down from the kitchen counter and ran out with the outpouring of children and women that greeted the riders’ return.
They stood around the riders, most of them dismounted now. Some of the children ran to their parents. The women who had started to appear did not share the children’s excitement, although they wore, for the most, fond, content expressions.
Ethayn did not run to anybody. He remained carefully at a distance. His nose picked up another familiar smell: that of violent death. There were extensive stains on every man’s clothes. The man who had dismounted from the bay stallion had bloodstains up to his elbows. He wore a satisfied expression and was gazing into the distance, as if lost in his own thoughts.
And then his eyes suddenly alighted on Ethayn, and he beckoned to the boy. Ethayn cautiously advanced forward, his six-year-old eyes full of animal wariness.
He was snatched by the shoulder as soon as he was within reach. His nose was pressed into the worn leather of the man’s jacket, into the stench of smoke and burnt flesh and cloying blood. He didn’t struggle. And when he was allowed to draw his head back, the man said, quietly, but in the kind of voice that remained branded within your memories forever, ‘Do you smell it, boy?’
Ethayn looked up with the innocence of a child and the brownish blood of dead men smeared on his face, and made no reply.
‘This blood is as old as ours,’ the man said, and there was a gleam of triumph in his eyes. ‘And today it’s fallen. This is the last of their blood and it stains Ephrin clothes.’ He raised his voice to the rest of the people around him – men, women and children. ‘The Greithens are dead!’
Carried by his strong voice, it was a war-cry in the air, and cheers greeted his words.
For Ethayn, it meant nothing new. This was a routine in his childhood – as familiar to him as the beatings his back was well-acquainted to, as familiar as the sight of rage within his father’s eyes – as familiar to him as his mother’s skirts in a faded distance as he lay on the floor after a physical scolding from his father.
He knew nothing else, so he had no inkling that his life was unusual in any way whatsoever. He did not know the protective embrace of a father’s arms, nor did he know the comforting warmth of a mother’s presence. Ethayn had a mother but she acquiesced to her husband’s authority, and his view was that sons were brought up by fathers, not mothers. Ethayn had a younger sister, a baby of four, and he did not often see her. He never saw her receive what he never received from his mother.
Ethayn’s world was empty of love, but he didn’t know it because he never saw love.
He saw blood and smoke, he smelled blood and smoke, and he knew that one day he would wreak blood and smoke on the world. Such was Ethayn’s fate: the fate of every Ephrin man. Ethayn watched the men around him and felt a pang of longing, of something he could not fathom. He realised he didn’t belong yet, and for the first time, as the cheering deafened him, he began to have doubts. Was he ever going to be this strong? His gaze travelled slowly up the relatively prodigious height of his father’s body, and he looked within that proud face, searching for any affinity.
Ethayn, in that moment, yearned to earn his birthright with a desperation that etched itself painfully on his small, round, dusty, blood-smeared face.
The smack that landed on the back of Ethayn’s head made him yelp as he fell forwards, face meeting grass in a painful thwack. He sat up, dizzy but re-orienting himself rapidly, wooden sword still clenched determinedly within his grubby fingers.
‘Next time you block properly,’ the man behind him growled.
Ethayn clambered back upright, feet slightly apart, sword raised in a two-handed grip, his eight-year-old face determined. Opposite him was his cousin, twelve-year-old Fennis, a freckled, normally good-natured boy, and within his grasp was another wooden sword. In his hands, the weapon looked natural. At the tip of Ethayn’s twig-like arms, the wooden instrument looked impossibly huge and clumsy. It was easily the same width as the boy’s body.
Ethayn had none of the chubbiness of a child – all of it was devoured by a feverishly intent, skinny arms-and-legs boy with green eyes.
Fennis moved, sword a blur in the summer air. Ethayn’s eyes were intent on him but he responded too late. There was a meaty sound as the older boy’s sword connected with the younger one’s ribs. Ethayn stumbled back, winded, right into the legs of the man who was watching with a grim face.
His green eyes, identical to Ethayn’s and yet completely different in their coldness, were expressionless as he slapped the boy in the back of the neck once again. Ethayn tumbled downwards and with visibly gritted teeth hoisted himself back on his feet.
The sword had not left his grip for one second.
On it went, this dance of sword and fists, and the boy at the centre of the maelstrom stood his ground and did not back down. Time after time he got back to his feet, eyes even more determined. Fennis did not falter, did not slow down for him. The only thing that changed was the force of the blows he received, and the state of his clothing and knees as he met the ground more times than was worth keeping count of.
It was the sunset that put an end to the session, not the boy’s exhaustion.
‘We’ll continue tomorrow,’ was the curt dismissal from the man, except that Ethayn was not dismissed, and he knew it.
Reluctantly he lowered his wooden sword. He didn’t feel relief that the exercise had ended for today, did not pay heed to his complaining stomach and most certainly did not nurse his bruises. He was consumed with disappointment in himself. He felt even more worthless than the dust beneath his feet. This was his second session with a sword and he could not even defend himself against his own cousin.
The man grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him bodily along. Another man might have caught hold of the boy’s shirt, but why would the head of the Ephrin clan bother with cloth when skin was available? Behind them, Fennis followed in respectful silence, reflecting on the dinner waiting for him.
They made their way to a small cluster of houses to their right, the firelight from the windows guiding them in the twilight of the abrupt summer dusks of the South. There were many houses around them – if one had not known better, one would have mistaken this place for a village. It was no village. It was merely the settlement occupied by the Ephrin clan. It was land that had been passed down within the family for as long as memory stretched. Nobody remembered a time when the Ephrin had not lived on the outskirts of Arnmere, a village in one of the Realm’s bigger Southern provinces.
Ethayn was pushed violently forwards when they stepped through the doorway of one house, and he stumbled and pitched to his knees for the umpteenth time that day, this time in the midst of the hum of voices and human presence. Nobody paid attention to his landing. Some eyes went to the man behind him, some nodded a greeting.
‘Last week’s bread for him tonight,’ the man said, coldly, to one of the women at the table. She nodded and passed the message on to the other women.
They were in a fantastically massive room, the kind you would only expect to see within a castlehold. The roof beams stretched from one end of the room to the other, thick and imposing, and from them hung many lanterns that illuminated the room – a sign of the Ephrins’ prosperity. Most people could only afford one lantern in their house, if that. A dining table ran the length of the room, and it seated some forty people easily: men, women and children of all ages. Some held babies within their arms, some served food, and some had almost finished eating.
Ethayn’s father went to the head of the table, at the other end of the room, and was immediately served. Ethayn sat himself near the foot of the table and was also immediately served.
Except that he was served greyish-looking bread and a cup full of water. Nothing else made its way to him. He glanced with vague enviousness at the meat in the plate of the older girl opposite him, but made no request for any. Fennis had found himself a space further along the table and was tucking into his meal with heartiness. Ethayn looked back down at his stale bread and began his meal.
Perhaps you would expect the bedroom of the heir of one of the richest families in the Realm to be duly fitting to his rank. Perhaps you would expect it to contain a lushly attired bed, complete with plump pillows and embroidered hangings. Perhaps you would expect a carpet on the wooden floor, and a fire in a hearth.
But perhaps you have simply realised by now that Ethayn lacked all the things you would expect the only son of a ludicrously rich man to have.
The narrow floorboards creaked underneath Ethayn’s bare feet as he crept into what he called his bedroom. The only light that fell within the room was from the corridor, and he made no attempt to light a candle or lamp within his bedroom. With the precision of one who did it often, he went to a small trunk in the corner of the tiny cupboard-like room, pulled out a change of clothing, and pattered his way back outside, to a makeshift bathroom he shared with cousins. Nobody else was there at the moment – most still tucking into a wholesome dinner. There were big tubs filled with water, and Ethayn picked up a small bucket, scooped some water out, and then stood within the bucket, using a sponge to clean his feet and knees. The water was ice cold despite the warm, sticky summer air, but Ethayn did not shiver even as he stripped of his dirty clothes and washed the soil from the rest of his body.
It was a sorry excuse for a body, but he had no means of making comparisons since he had never glimpsed a reflection of his own body. He had no way of knowing that he sported far too many scars and bruises and that he was too gangly for his age. He was a scarecrow with a wild shock of black hair topping an ungainly figure.
When he made his way back to his room, in clean clothes, he crawled within the rugs on the floor, curled up into a little ball and fell asleep with the immediacy of habit.
It was a very hot summer day, which in the Southern provinces meant crippling heat for anybody not accustomed to the climate. Today was no exception. A heat haze shimmered the air just above the ground, so that if you looked into the distance, the world appeared to swim as you got closer to the horizon. The sun cast almost blinding light, bleaching the rich earth of its browns and greens. But the sky, as cloudless as a sea, was a deep blue colour, and if you stared up long enough you might begin to believe that you were enclosed within a glass ball. The province of Cellendale had the heat of hell itself but the sky of heaven. Poets had attempted to describe it and failed to do it justice.
Mucking out empty stables and sweating a gallon into his thin cotton shirt, Ethayn was oblivious to the innate beauty of his homeland. You needed to have experienced something else to appreciate that where you are is a special place, and Ethayn had never left Cellendale. Instead, the singing of the summer crickets filled his ears, interspaced with shouts from the stable boys in the distance and the neighing of horses and, now and then, a hoof landing in the straw.
Ethayn was ten years old and mucking out was now his favourite occupation. It was a task carried out in relative solitude and was sufficiently hard that it excused silence, even if somebody had been there to chat with him. More importantly, however, was the fact that it was a task that kept him out of his father’s eye. The head of the Ephrin family didn’t spend much time in the stables. He had stable boys to take care of his horses and saddle his favourite horse for when he needed to ride. You might wonder why his son was involved in mucking out the stalls – but hopefully by now you’ve stopped wondering.
To be fair, Ethayn was not the only Ephrin occasionally up to his knees in horse dung and wee. Most of the Ephrin boys had spent sufficient time bending their backs to the labour of mucking out – but few enjoyed it as Ethayn did, and for this reason few had clocked as many hours as him at the job. The simple truth was that this was a very peaceable occupation. Nobody shouted at Ethayn, nobody expected him to outdo his older cousins, and better yet… nobody beat him. There were no mistakes you could make while mucking out. You simply needed to filter out the wet or soiled bunches of straw, keep the straw that was still fresh, and if needed wash out the floor. Horses didn’t complain that another stable hand had arranged the straw in prettier fashion.
Ethayn tackled the trampled straw in this empty horse stall vigorously. It was a strange sight to witness, because he was as skinny a ten-year-old as he had been as a small child. His expression betrayed that he was about as interested in his task as one would be in scratching an itch: he was physically focused and mentally a million miles away.
There was not much hope in young Ethayn’s mind. His fate had been mapped out for him at birth when he was discovered to be a boy. The smell of dank hay and dusty horses was the most comforting factor in his life – it allowed him to take a break from being his father’s son, which was the same as being his father’s punchball, as far as he was concerned. And sometimes it meant that he was his uncles’ punchballs, although they were less liberal with their fists and only used them when there was good call for them.
Ethayn was just turning over a particularly wet patch of straw when one of his cousins ran into the stables, looking in through the big doorway. It was Fennis, face tanned so dark that his green eyes looked luminous in the midst of his cake-brown skin. He saw Ethayn and called his name. A couple of horses flicked their heads his way, but overall nobody paid him much attention. Neither did Ethayn, lost in a little heat-haze of his own.
‘Hey!’ Fennis called, louder, and this time the shout intruded on Ethayn’s thoughts.
He was two stalls away from the door, so all he needed to do was look up over a horse’s rump to see his cousin. ‘What is it?’
‘We’re going hunting squirrels,’ Fennis replied. ‘You’re coming along with us because you’re better with the sling.’
‘At this hour of the day?’ Ethayn looked expressively at the sky visible behind Fennis’s head. ‘You’ll be lucky to see one, forget kill one.’
‘We’re going squirrel-hunting, just come along,’ Fennis said, impatiently.
There was something about the way he spoke that told Ethayn instantly that they were not going squirrel-hunting. Fennis was fourteen, old enough to go riding with the older Ephrins when they went out – he did not often play about with the younger ones anymore. Ethayn was on the edge of being one of the older ones, but he was still far below Fennis.
There were no further questions asked. There is one thing children have aplenty which adults do not: instinct, and instinct tells you when it’s best to keep quiet. Ethayn just carefully put away the pitchfork he had been using, explained to one of the stable hands that he was needed, and ran off after Fennis, who had taken off towards one of the storage sheds round the back of the main stables.
‘Who is going squirrel-hunting?’ he asked, simply, when he caught up with Fennis.
Fennis pushed open the heavy oak door to the shed and stepped into the building. ‘You. Me. Reth and Frela.’
Ethayn stared at him in the relative darkness of the room. Reth and Frela were twins, but more to the point… Frela was a girl. The girls never went hunting with the boys. Ethayn had heard that Frela and a few of the other girls did know the basics of hunting, but Ephrin boys and Ephrin girls did their own things separately.
‘Listen up,’ Fennis said, and there was a tinge of a threat in his newly-broken, scratchy voice. ‘You don’t ever breathe word of this to anybody, okay?’
Ethayn looked at him, at the way the shadows played on his face with its new, sparse stubble – if those few odd stubs of hair counted as stubble – and said nothing. Silence was one of Ethayn’s stronger attributes. It was best to say nothing if you were not ready to commit yourself to something.
The twins were inside, as it happened. They were thirteen-year-olds, the children of Ethayn’s father’s cousin. They were both standing with identical unrevealing expressions, Frela in short trousers and shirt identical to her brother’s. She had the more forceful personality and it showed in the lines of her brow and mouth.
‘You stink of horse dung,’ she said, nose wrinkled up as Ethayn came in behind Fennis.
‘I didn’t ask myself to this party,’ Ethayn pointed out.
Reth had already picked out weapons from the shed – this was what it stored: rows upon rows upon shelves of knives, swords, quarterstaffs, bows and arrows, even shields – it looked like an army’s collection of weaponry, so heavily stocked was it. Ethayn took a glance at the room and realised that some weapons were missing from it. More than what Reth had taken.
This was his first inkling to what was going on.
Reth handed him a small dagger in its sheath. ‘Take a bow that fits your height if you want one.’
‘What are we hunting?’ Ethayn asked, quietly.
Nobody replied. It was clear that they all had a very clear idea of where they were going and did not wish to discuss it. Ethayn did not feel frustrated – he was far too used to not knowing why he was expected to do something. He simply buckled the dagger into his belt and picked a short bow and five arrows. When he was done, the four left the shed, discreetly. There was nobody to avoid on this summer day because most of the clan were out – some on a business trip, others on a ride which had taken them off the estate sometime in the early morning.
The Ephrin clan did run a business. They traded in spices, although they tended to do the overseeing rather than the actual trading. Being notorious for looting and violence was a peculiarly good recipe for lucrative business-making, because nobody dared cross you and everybody tried to get on your side of the game. The Ephrins were always successful and nobody dared attacking any of their shipments or caravans. Not even somebody insane would try it.
Not even Upholders crossed the Ephrin.
The four children – for children they were – made their way furtively through the estate, taking care to encounter no one, which was not a particularly hard task given the extreme heat of the noon sun. They didn’t leave through one of the gates – that would have been far too conspicuous and was a route they would not have chosen even if they had been going to hunt squirrels. Instead they climbed their way out over a part of the wall that was crumbling down and was next to a stout cherry tree.
For the first half hour they waded through waist-tall grassland. To clarify, it was waist-high for the others, but for Ethayn it was chest-high. He was not small for his age. It was just that the others had hit growth spurts already.
Fennis led the way. He seemed to know where they were headed, and the twins likewise were confident in following him. Ethayn followed a few steps behind, assessing their direction and speculating on where they were headed. There was a copse ahead, and soon enough they reached it and were under the cover of trees. There was of course no search for squirrels – they continued walking straight on, or perhaps scurrying would be a better description. They were like mice infiltrating a room in the dark.
And then they neared their destination. Ethayn knew because Fennis slowed down and gestured for silence – not that any of them had been speaking. Ethayn tried to picture a map of the region in his head and bull’s-eye their location, but try as he might, he could not even vaguely pinpoint where they were. The Ephrin children were not supposed to leave the estate unsupervised, although they frequently did. But this meant that they were like children discovering a new world, with no idea of any background information pertaining to it. Oh, they learnt the geography of their land. But geography remains on paper, in a study room, whereas the world is a very alive, very real, very big place that does not match a little piece of paper with some coloured lines on it.
They were at the glade of the copse and they were on higher ground. Beneath them was a farm of moderate size, with at least as many sheds as there were on the Ephrin estate. Further beyond this farm was a village. From the height they were at, it felt almost as if they could peer into the very centre of the village and spy onto its people. It was like a miniature model of a village instead of a real thing.
But the farm below them was very real – perhaps even more so for the fact that most of it was going up in smoke. Thick clouds of grey smoke billowed up from the sheds, some in open flame, some still smouldering, and the ash rose straight towards the children as they perched themselves around the last of the trees. Reth was coughing, trying to keep the sound low – not that anybody paid him any attention. Thin shrieks rose into the air from below. In Ethayn’s ears, these intermingled with Reth’s harsh coughing, into an overload of noise.
There was no word exchanged between the four for a very long time.
Then, finally, simply, Ethayn announced, ‘I’m going closer.’
All three others turned to face him with looks of horror. Frela was the first to speak. ‘Are you mad? They’ll see you.’
Ethayn met her gaze with a strange look – something that bordered on pity, as if he spoke a language none of them could ever understand, and he was going to make no attempt to explain it because he was resigned to them never understanding it.
Fennis grasped that their point was making no impression on Ethayn, and he grabbed the younger boy’s arm just below the elbow, as hard as if Ethayn was actively pulling away. ‘We’re not supposed to be here, don’t you get it? If they find you, they will find us, and the punishment we will receive –’
There was absolute calm in Ethayn’s green eyes, in perfect opposition to the growing panic within his cousins’. ‘… Will be worse than the usual?’ he said. ‘So what, Fennis? They won’t kill us. Life will go on.’ The truth was that punishment was no longer a deterrent to committing the forbidden if you were too used to being punished for no wrong deed. By force of habit, it ceased to act as a warning, and became instead a routine.
‘What is it worth?’ Frela demanded, angrily. ‘What will you be doing it for? Haven’t you seen enough?’
Ethayn shook his head and shrugged. ‘Go home. If you have seen enough, go home. They won’t catch you if you’re quick about it.’
‘They’ll know you’re too young to find your way here,’ Reth pointed out, and Fennis’s fingers dug into Ethayn’s arm in agreement.
‘We shouldn’t have brought him along,’ Frela spat. ‘I told you he’s too young to understand.’
Ethayn stood up, tearing his arm out of Fennis’s grip. ‘That’s your problem, Frela. I don’t need to understand. I need to see. Go home.’
He left them gaping at his back. He started to clamber his way down the slope at the top of which they had been nestled. He heard Fennis hiss his name furiously, but he did not turn back because there was no turning back in life, and Ethayn was young enough to know it. Just as a child reaches towards a flame to discover for itself what the meaning of fire is, Ethayn advanced painstakingly down the hill of dry earth, holding on to the shrubs that peppered the slope.
Ethayn’s logic was simple. You could never understand all the things that happened in life, so there was no point trying to. Could he understand the things that were done to him? Could he understand why this was the way they had to be? To wonder why was to jump into an abyss from which there was no return, and Ethayn’s powerful sense of self-preservation – the same tenacity that pulled him through every beating and every trial in life – could not jump into that abyss. You could not understand, and therefore there was no need to try understanding. But you could see. Ethayn’s instincts had this curious need to see all that there was to see – as if, somehow, if he saw enough, it would all make sense in his mind, like a puzzle where all the pieces tumble seamlessly into place.
At the bottom of the slope, he found himself at a wooden fence. Once he climbed it, he would be in the open. There was smoke trailing thickly around the place, but Ethayn was too world-wise to hope that it would hide him. He hesitated for a moment, but he was unable to see properly even from where he was. He looked back up the slope, but his cousins were gone.
There was no going back. But then, there had never been any going back.
He climbed over the fence with the ease of a ten-year-old, and darted forwards. Through a field he went, round a shed, and then he was upon the scene he wanted to witness.
That day, ten-year-old Ethayn witnessed rape, torture, wanton destruction and murder. He learnt the ins and outs of what his family did, as a bystander. He remained standing silently next to the grey, smoking shed, as motionless as a ghost, his thin face as perfectly expressionless as a doll. He didn’t flinch. Ethayn’s young life had contained so much violence and the smell of blood was such an integral part of his childhood that he stood in the midst of the carnage as if he was at home.
Eventually his uncle Fenril spotted him and with an exclamation of anger strode forwards to him, grabbed him by the collar and shook him, shouting. Ethayn did not register the words. The screams had died for the most by now, and the world was simply a cacophony of lowing cows from one of the sheds and the crackle of flames, interspaced by shouts from some of the Ephrin men as they communicated between each other.
At Fenril’s shout, Ethayn’s father appeared out of the smoke, leading his bay horse by the reins. The animal was wild-eyed from the stench of smoke and trampled its way along, clearly wishing it was back in the stables.
Ethayn watched his father make his way to him, his dark face livid, but curiously, he knew no fear. Yes, something inside of him clenched painfully and he knew he had committed the sin which should never be committed, but he had accepted the cost to be paid for his decision when he had walked away from his cousins. He didn’t run away – where would he run to?
‘Found him near this shed, Everil,’ Fenril said, grimly, his hand still fisted in Ethayn’s collar.
Ethayn’s father stopped a few paces away from the boy and looked silently down at him. They had identical green eyes in that instant – both cold, both unreadable. Fenril let go of Ethayn’s shirt, almost contemptuously, dusting himself off as he stepped back, as if soiled by touching the boy. Ethayn paid him no attention, though, his focus rightly on his father.
Wordlessly, Everil switched his horse’s reins to his left hand, closing a fist around the leather braid, then he drew back his right arm and slapped the back of his right hand across his son’s soot-stained face.
Ethayn was experienced enough to save his nose from being broken, but he was still toppled to the ground like a log sent flying.
In this situation, he knew that to get back onto his feet would be a show of defiance, and therefore he remained in the muddy, ash-streaked ground, raising a blood-stained face to meet his father’s gaze. As he had when he was six, he waited uncomplainingly, unflinchingly for his father’s verdict. He had already resigned himself to this, all that remained now was to pay the price.
Something wet landed on his leg, and he looked down to see blood. He raised a hand to wipe his nose, realising it was bleeding, but the blood flow was too profuse for the wiping to make any difference, so Ethayn let it bleed.
There was a long silence between father and son. Fenril was forgotten.
Ethayn’s father knelt in front of him. His expression was unreadable. He reached out towards Ethayn, who did flinch this time, at this gesture he could not interpret. All his father did, however, was lay his hand almost tenderly on the boy’s head, fingers tightening viciously on the black locks of hair beneath. Ethayn remained frozen, staring back, unable to save himself from whatever was to happen to him.
In one abrupt motion, his father straightened, pulling Ethayn up with him by the hair, and pulled him around so he faced the carnage that had just been completed. Ephrin men remounting their horses could now be seen. Most had realised what was going on and were looking Ethayn’s way, silent witnesses to the little ghost who had watched their deeds.
Everil thrust the boy forwards and then drew him to a stumbling halt by a jerk on his hair. Ethayn stood there, head painfully tilted to better adjust to the pressure on his hair, his face blanched of colour and streaked with blood, soot and mud, green eyes swimming with tears from the pain and the acrid smoke, his clothes mud-stained and dung-stained from the stable work he had been doing, and now copiously coloured with blood.
‘Mark this, boy,’ his father’s voice spoke, softly, so that these words remained between the two of them. ‘One day this will be your legacy. Know it.’ He shoved the boy forwards and let go of his hair, and Ethayn staggered off-balance for a few steps before landing on his knees. Behind him, his father’s voice was relentless, raised for him to hear it. ‘But not yet. You’ll go to the Towers first.’
Thus was Ethayn’s fate decided, on a blisteringly hot summer day, in the midst of a massacred family, smoke in the air and cows screaming in agony in the background.