TRIGGER WARNING: This scene was the original Sword of the Guardian prologue.
It depicts the rape and murder of Talon’s mother, and may not be suitable for all readers.
Outside their small hut, she could hear the sounds of fighting, the screams of their clansmen. It was summer, and the tinkers’ encampment was small. They were artists and craftsmen, not warriors, and few among them were any match for the barbarian brute squad that had swept down upon them without warning.
Talon put her arms around her sisters, trying to comfort them as best she could. They were too young to understand what was going on, but Talon watched their bloodmother as she lifted the skins that covered the door and peered outside. She’d never seen her look so afraid before, so grim. She eyed the bone-handled knife that was gripped in her mother’s hand. It didn’t seem like much of a weapon.
Her mother turned to her, and her knuckles went white around the knife. “Talon, come here. Quickly.”
She rose to her feet, and searched her mother’s face in worry as she approached. Somehow, her mother’s calm was too surreal to be reassuring. It didn’t feel right, somehow, and deep down Talon felt something was very wrong.
How had this happened? She’d been outside playing with her sisters when the ground began to shake, and then so many things happened so fast… She remembered her bondfather yelling at them to get inside, and her mother grabbing her arm, slinging tiny Bria on one hip and shouting at her to grab Lyris’s hand. They’d run into the hut as fast as her sisters’ short legs could carry them. Her bondfather entered after them, but it was only so he could grab the axe that he kept against the wall of their small living area. The ground was still shaking, and there was a thundering sound that was growing louder. Talon’s bondfather knelt and gathered her and her sisters into his arms, and the smell of fear assailed her nostrils. He kissed each of them on the head, said something to their mother that Talon couldn’t quite hear and kissed her as well. Her mother’s face had gone as white as the ash lying in the hearth. And then, he’d brushed the skins back from the entrance and was gone.
He hadn’t come back, and the sounds from outside had grown more and more terrible. She could hear horses screaming, the clanging of metal, and her sharp nose picked up the scent of smoke. Whatever was going on outside, it was more terrible than anything she’d seen in all her nine winters. If only her bloodfather had traveled with them this year – he was a hunter, and would have had a better chance at fighting their attackers off. But the hunters were gone, deep into the Outlands hunting grounds, and they would not see her bloodfather until winter.
With trembling fingers, Talon’s mother brought the knife up. “I’m so sorry, Talon. But there’s no other way.” Talon felt the edge of the blade against the skin of her throat. “I promise it won’t hurt… I love you.”
Talon blinked up at her. Did her mother need to cut her? Sometimes the shamans used people’s blood in their spells, though she’d never known her mother to work in magic. Still, if her blood could protect them, she would be brave no matter how much it might hurt. “I love you, Mother,” she replied, reaching up to pat the hand that was holding the knife.
Her mother’s calm broke. She gave a little cry and tears spilled down her face, and her fingers shook so badly that the knife fell to the dirt floor. “I can’t do this. Oh, my sweet girls, forgive me. I don’t have the strength…” She turned away and buried her face in her hands.
Talon reached down, picked up the knife, and held it out. “Mother?”
The sounds from outside were getting louder. Talon’s mother lowered her hands from her face, staring at her with a helpless expression. She couldn’t bring herself to take her children’s lives, even knowing it would be a far kinder fate than what awaited them at the hands of the barbarians. Talon held the knife out to her in one hand, handle first, her thin fingers pinching the blade to avoid cutting either herself or her mother. Her beautiful daughter, so strong and wiry. During pregnancy she had been so certain she would give birth to a boy. All of the shamans had predicted a boy, too. If only they’d been right. If only Talon had been a son, then perhaps Lyris and Bria might have a chance…
And then she suddenly had a thought, one so ludicrous and desperate that had the situation not been so dire she would have laughed. Yet it might be her children’s only chance. Snatching the knife from Talon’s hand, she spun the girl around so that her back was facing her, and grabbed a fistful of long dark hair. “Talon, listen to me very carefully,” she ordered as she began to saw at the hair in her fist. “No matter what happens to me, you must take care of your sisters. You must protect them, Talon.” The dark waves began to fall in piles around the child’s feet. “There are bad men outside who will hurt you and your sisters if they can. They hurt people, especially girls.” She turned the child back around, searching her face. Her shorn hair curled impishly around her ears, tumbled into her eyes with a satisfyingly boyish effect. Talon’s features were delicate and sharp, like a woodland creature, and androgynous enough that this might very well work, if she could keep up the pretense. “They must believe that you are a boy. Do you understand? You must protect your sisters as only a brother can.”
Talon’s brows contracted in confusion. The request was bizarre, but her mother’s tone meant that it was gravely important. She nodded.
There was a bang outside, as if someone were trying to knock the walls of the hut in. Talon’s mother put her fingers under Talon’s chin and looked straight into her eyes. “There are so many things I should have told you,” she whispered. “And not enough time. Be strong, Talon. Make me proud.”
The door shattered inward with a bang, and three burly, smelly barbarian warriors barged through it. Talon’s lip drew back in an instinctive snarl at the stench that rolled off them; they reeked of blood and danger, soaked in sweat, covered in facial hair and heavy leathers. One had a rope in his hands, and the other two held curved swords. She was certain that the dark stains covering the metal blades was blood.
Talon’s mother rose to her feet, putting herself between her children and the intruders, spreading the edges of her cloak to hide the girls behind her.
Bria, scarcely two winters old, began to cry with fright. Talon turned and grabbed her sisters’ hands. “Shush, Bria,” she hissed. “Come on.” She dragged them toward a large chest set against the wall. “Both of you, shush. Get in here, quick.” The chest was no bigger than a wine barrel, used to store dried beans and rice during the harvest season. It was empty now, and all three girls could fit if they curled up together. Talon pushed her sisters inside and then climbed in herself, pulling the lid down over their heads. She was too tall, and it couldn’t quite close all the way. It was a terrible hiding place, and she knew it, but there was nowhere else to go. She pressed her sister’s heads down as far as she could, cuddling Bria’s small toddler body to her chest.
The barbarians were delighted. This Outlander encampment had turned out to be quite a profitable raid. Children, and of course young women, always pulled the best prices at auction, both in their homeland and here, where the Ithyrian’s system of indentured servitude was essentially no different from the slaves they held at home. The biggest of the three eyed Talon’s mother as she brandished a small knife, holding one side of her cloak out like a bird with a broken wing. He laughed, a sharp, barking sound, and said something to one of the others in a guttural language. The cry of a child caught his attention, and he glimpsed a dark headed kid ushering two smaller ones along the wall and into what looked like a storage chest. His eyes lit, even as the woman stretched out the cloak to block his view. Now he understood why she was trying to distract them. But the little brats weren’t going anywhere for the time being, and… his eyes raked over the Outlander woman, her olive complexion still unlined with age, and noticed how her full breasts heaved with every quick breath. The tribemaster had strict rules about spoiling the merchandise, but this bitch had been had before, if those three mewling spawn were any indication. The rules didn’t apply to her.
His companions were having similar thoughts. For a moment all three stood leering and jostling one another, but after a bit of grunting back and forth, it was the biggest one who advanced first. The woman slashed at them with her knife, but clumsily, and the one on the left reached out and grabbed her wrist so tightly that she was forced to release it. The big one took it from her and ran the edge of the blade along his tongue, taunting her. Oh, this was going to be fun. He threw the knife to the ground as his companion, with the rope, seized her arms and tied her hands behind her back.
Talon watched from their hiding place, the blood pounding in her ears. Once her mother’s hands were tied, the big man kicked her so that she fell, face-first, into the pile of fur blankets that served as their family’s bed. He grabbed her skirt and flipped it up. Talon’s face flushed. She wanted to leap from the pantry and claw his eyes out. She wanted to look away, as if she could stop this from happening if she chose not to see it. But fear and humiliation froze her body like stone. Somewhere in her young heart she realized that something awful was happening, and as she watched what happened next she understood what her mother had meant.
They hurt people, especially girls.
The Outlanders were not a shy people. Outlander children played naked in the summer, climbing trees and swimming in ponds, horrifying the Neighbor villages with their wild disregard for the Neighbors’ sense of modesty and propriety. Talon knew how boys’ bodies differed from girls’, knew that as they grew up boys usually became bigger and stronger. But she had never realized that those differences could give a man such power over a woman. Her mother did not make a sound as the smelly invader jerked against her, but Talon knew he was causing her pain. The other two were standing to the side, laughing. She felt tears burning her face, a hot, painful pressure spreading through her head and around the back of her neck. For the first time in her life, she realized why the Neighbors found nakedness shameful. Her mother’s vulnerability was unbearable. She had no power over her own body, could not stop these monsters from doing whatever they wanted.
They hurt girls…. Would they do this to her, because she was a girl? Would they do this to her sisters? Talon glanced down at the two small faces next to her, keeping her hands pressed against their heads, holding them down so they couldn’t see what was happening. She understood, now, why her mother had cut her hair. They have to think I’m a boy. I have to make sure they don’t hurt my sisters.
When the big one finally grunted and got up, the other two stepped closer. For a moment Talon’s view was obstructed by their backs. Then she realized that one of the others was now lowering his pants. She felt like throwing up. She didn’t know how long they sat there in that small dark space, but by the time all three men had finished what they were doing, they seemed to have forgotten about the children hiding in the chest. They left Talon’s mother lying motionless on the blankets, and laughed and grunted to one another in that strange, harsh language. One scuffled around the hearth until he found the small wooden box containing her bondfather’s beloved pipe and small, carefully wrapped paper of tobacco. The sounds of the battle had died down outside, and they seemed to feel they had time to relax before rejoining their comrades.
Talon’s gaze remained on her mother’s prostrate form. At first she thought perhaps her mother was sleeping, she was so still; but after a few minutes, when the men were engrossed with the pipe and their own banter, one of her mother’s fingers moved. Then another. She wiggled her arm, just slightly, and one wrist came free of the rope that was binding her. Talon couldn’t figure out what she was doing, until she saw what was lying on the ground, just inches from one of the barbarians’ filthy boots– the knife. Talon held her breath, watching her mother move ever so slowly toward the blade on the floor. Agonizing seconds ticked by, and Talon’s lungs started to burn. Almost there… and then suddenly she had it. The handle was in her hands, and Talon let out her breath with a tiny squeak of excitement.
Almost instantly she clapped her hands over her mouth, as the men looked in her direction. The one nearest the door looked down, saw the knife in her mother’s hand. He barked a warning, and his two companions were on their feet. She rolled, bringing the knife up. One of them reached down to take it.
She kicked him, hard, between his legs, the very spot that he’d been using just a short while earlier to pleasure himself at her expense. Talon gloated at his howl of pain, but her glee was short lived. The big one had grabbed her mother around the waist, trying to seize the hand that was now flailing with the little knife. The remaining man lunged at her and received a slash across the face. His face contorted with fury and he punched her in the middle, so hard that Talon could hear the gasp as the air was knocked out of her lungs. For a second she stopped struggling, and that second was all the big one needed to grab her wrist. This time, though, no matter how he squeezed, he could not get her to drop it. He yanked her arm, forcing it to bend at the elbow, and suddenly the knife was stuck in her stomach, squarely below the ribs. A scarlet patch began to spread across the front of her dress.
Forgetting everything else, Talon screamed. She stood, throwing back the lid of the chest, and leapt toward her mother. One of the barbarians grabbed her by her newly-cropped hair and slapped her across the face.
The big one grumbled, and though Talon couldn’t understand the words she suspected he hadn’t meant for their mother to die just yet. He tossed her body aside, as if it was a useless bit of trash, and turned his attention to Talon. His companion had a hand up, preparing to hit Talon again, but he reached out and stopped his arm with a gruff command.
The third man reached into the chest and dragged Lyris and Bria out of it. They were trembling and crying. The big one looked them over and clucked his tongue in a way that sounded pleased. He glanced down at the lifeless body of their mother and twitched his mouth to the side, but then shrugged, motioning to the other two that they should bring the children along. Talon’s captor tightened his grip on the back of her neck, and hauled Talon out of the hut after him. His friend followed behind with Lyris and Bria.
Talon tried to struggle, but it was no use. The barbarian holding her was at least twice as big as she was. Outside the hut, smoke blew into her eyes and face until she coughed. They were burning the camp. The ring of round, mud-and stick huts and colorful wagons on all sides were ablaze. Here and there on the ground were the crumpled bodies of her people, mostly men but there were one or two women too. She twisted around in her captor’s arms just long enough to see someone toss a torch through the door of their hut. Her mother was still in there, but it didn’t matter. Her mother was dead. And Talon knew, without needing to be told, that her bondfather was dead as well. As her captor yanked her away, her eyes went to her two little sisters being carried alongside her, their frightened faces streaked with tears and soot.
Talon felt her jaw clench, and she blinked until the stinging in her eyes was gone. She was all the protection her sisters had. No matter what happened to the three of them now, she could not fail them. So she could not cry, she could not give in to grief or despair. All that mattered now was that they stayed together, that they stayed alive. And she would do whatever she had to, to make sure that happened.
But, she vowed silently, someday I’m going to make these barbarians sorry they ever set foot in our camp. Somehow, I’ll make them pay. Even if it takes the rest of my life.