DISCLAIMER: This story does include a rape and an attempted rape that some readers may find disturbing. These scenes are not gratuitous and do have valid plot significance; however if you are offended by such material it is recommended that you either skip the Prologue and the second half of Chapter Sixteen, or else refrain from reading altogether.
"Talon! Talon, come here, quickly." Outside their small hut she could hear the sounds of fighting and the screams of the hapless villagers. They were simple people, farmers, no match for the slavers' brute squad that had swept down upon them so suddenly. There had been no warning, no chance to flee, and now it was only a matter of time. She gripped the knife in her hand more firmly as her gaze fastened on the three small faces huddled in the corner, confusion and fear written plainly across their little features. Her precious daughters. She knew all too well what awaited them once the slavers made their way into the hut. They were her children, and it was her duty to protect them. She was all they had left. Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks, but she choked them back.
The oldest, Talon, obediently rose to her feet and approached her mother. Her dark eyes searched her mother's face fearfully. She'd never seen her mother so afraid. She didn't know what was going on outside. All she could remember was that she'd been outside playing with her sisters when suddenly the ground had begun to shake… and then so many things happened so fast…
She remembered her father yelling at them to get inside, and her mother grabbing her arm, slinging one of the little ones on one hip and telling her to take the other's hand, and they'd run into the hut as fast as the children's short legs could carry them. Her father had entered after them, but it was only to grab the harvesting scythe that he kept against the wall of their small living area. The ground was still shaking, and now there was a pounding sound that seemed to get louder and louder every passing moment. Talon's father had knelt down and gathered Talon and her sisters into his arms for a moment, and the smell of fear assailed her nostrils so strongly that she'd pulled back in surprise. 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 opened the door and was gone.
That had been less than an hour ago, and since he'd closed the door behind him he hadn't come back and the sounds from outside had become louder and louder, and increasingly violent. She could hear horses, screaming, the clanging of metal, and her keen sense of smell picked up the unmistakable scent of smoke. Whatever was going on outside, it was certainly more terrible than anything she'd seen in her few years.
Talon's mother looked down at the child, her oldest, nearly ten winters in age. Her long dark hair curled impishly around sharp elfin features. Such a handsome child, with a strong chin and bold gaze; what an impressive and attractive woman she would have grown to become. But she had no choice. With trembling fingers she brought the knife up. "I'm so sorry, Talon." Her voice quavered. "There's no other way." She pressed the point of the knife to the soft tanned throat, and fought to keep her hand steady. "I promise it won't hurt… I love you."
Talon blinked. She wasn't sure what her mother was talking about. "I love you, Mother," she replied earnestly, reaching out to pat the hand that was holding the knife to her throat.
Her mother gave a little cry and tears spilled down her face, and her hand shook so badly that she had to drop the knife. "I can't do this. Oh, my children, forgive me, I don't have the strength..." She turned away and buried her face in her hands.
Talon reached down and picked up the knife, and held it out. "Mother?"
The sounds from outside were getting louder. She lowered her hands from her face, staring helplessly at her daughter. She couldn't do it, couldn't bring herself to take her child's life, even though she knew it would be a far better fate than the one that awaited them at the hands of the slavers. Talon held the knife out to her in one hand, handle first, her slender fingers pinching the blade firmly to avoid cutting either herself or her mother when it was taken from her. Her beautiful girl, so strong and wiry. Talon's preferred play clothes, which consisted of a loose pair of boy's pants and tunic, had been adopted as her usual attire years ago when her mother caught her climbing a tree in a dress one day. Not only had she ripped the skirt material beyond repair on the branches, she had also treated the entire village to a good look at her behind. Knowing she couldn't dissuade the girl from climbing trees, she did the only thing she could do, and made a much more modest and sturdy pair of pants. It wasn't as shocking as it might have been; Talon had been particularly precocious from infancy. During pregnancy she could have sworn she was going to give birth to a boy, from how active the infant had been even in the womb. The tribal holy woman had predicted a boy. If only she'd been right. If only Talon had been a son…
And then she suddenly had a thought, a thought so ludicrous and desperate that had the situation not been so dire she would have laughed. It was insanity. It was foolishness. And it might be her children's only chance. Snatching the knife from Talon's hand, she spun the little girl around so that her back was facing her, and grabbed a fistful of long dark curls. "Talon, listen to me very carefully," she ordered as she began to saw away at the length of hair in her fist. "No matter what happens to me, you must take care of your sisters. You must protect them, Talon." The curls 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 made a few more cuts and then turned the child back around, surveying her critically. "They must believe that you are a boy. Do you understand? You must protect your sisters as only a brother can."
Talon's liquid black eyes fastened to her mother's face. She didn't understand, exactly, but from the tone in her voice she knew that somehow it was important. She nodded.
There was a bang outside as if someone were trying to knock the door of the hut in on itself, and the walls around them shuddered with the impact. Talon's mother put her fingers under the child'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 creatures 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 protective leathers. One had a rope in his hands, and the other two held curved swords, the likes of which Talon had never seen before. She was quite certain that the dark substance covering the metal blades was blood.
Talon's mother had risen to her feet, putting herself between her children and the intruders. One of the little ones in the corner began to cry with fright. Talon turned and grabbed her sisters' hands. "Shush, Brie," she hissed. "Come on." She pulled them both up and dragged them out of the corner and towards the small pantry built into the wall a few feet away. "Both of you, shush. Get in here, quick." The pantry was no bigger than a wine barrel, as they only used it to store dried beans and wheat during the harvest season. It was empty now, and all three girls could fit into it easily if they curled up together. Talon pushed her sisters into the back, and then ducked in herself, pulling the flimsy canvas curtain down to conceal them. It was a terrible hiding place, and she knew it, but there was nowhere else to go. She peeled the edge of the canvas back just a bit and peeked out.
The slavers were delighted. The whole village had turned out to be quite a profitable excursion. Children, and of course young women, always pulled the best prices at auction, and this village seemed to be teeming with both. The biggest man eyed Talon's mother as she brandished a small knife in shaking hands. 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 watched a dark headed kid, probably the oldest, ushering two smaller ones along the wall and into what looked like a storage niche. His eyes lit; now he understood why the woman seemed so intent on holding him off. Never mind, the little brats weren't going anywhere, and… his eyes raked over the children's mother, her pretty features still unlined with age, and noted how her full breasts heaved with every quick breath she took, in a most alluring way. There were severe laws among the slavers about spoiling the merchandise, but this bitch had obviously been had before, if the three mewling spawn hiding in the pantry were any indication, so the rules didn't apply to her.
His companions were obviously having similar thoughts, and for a moment all three stood leering and jostling one another slightly, but after a bit of grunting in whatever language they spoke, it was the biggest one who broke out in a huge grin and began to advance. The woman slashed at them clumsily with the knife, 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 mockingly. This would be fun. He threw the knife to the ground as the other man with the rope moved forward and quickly tied her hands behind her back.
Talon watched from her hiding place behind the canvas, the blood pounding in her ears. Once her mother's hands were tied, the big man grabbed her and spun her around, bending her face-first over the long wooden table, the biggest piece of furniture in the hut. He grabbed her mother's dress and flipped it up, exposing her loose white undergarments. Talon's face flushed red as the man ripped them off none too gently. She wanted to look away, to hide. She wanted to leap from the pantry and claw his eyes out in rage. But fear and humiliation froze her muscles like stone. Somewhere in her young heart she realized that something very bad was happening, but she could not take her eyes off the horrifying scene, and as she watched what happened next she understood what her mother had meant. They hurt people, especially girls.
Talon knew about the differences between men and women. She'd had playmates of both genders throughout her life, and often she and her friends would sneak down to the riverbank to swim by moonlight, and they would stand and inspect one another's nakedness with children's innocent curiosity. But she had never imagined that those physiological differences could give a man such power over a woman. Her mother did not make a sound as the smelly invader jerked inside her, but Talon knew he was causing her pain. The other two slavers were standing to the side, nudging another and laughing. Tears coursed down her cheeks, burning with shame for her mother's vulnerability, this violation of her body that Talon didn't fully comprehend.
They hurt girls…. Would they do this to her, because she was a girl? Would they do this to her sisters? Talon turned and glanced back at the two tear streaked faces behind her, grateful that they couldn't see what was happening, and suddenly she knew 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 suddenly gave one last hard jerk, he grunted loudly with satisfaction and pulled away. The other two stepped closer and for a moment Talon's view was obstructed by their backs. Then she realized that one of the others was now lowering his pants and grinning to his friends as he prepared to repeat the first man's actions, and she thought she would be sick. 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 all about the children hiding in the pantry and were busy chuckling amongst themselves as they yanked the woman upright. She hadn't been that much fun after all, didn't even make a sound, but it didn't matter. The big one shoved her backwards to the floor to make room on the bench for all three of them to sit, and one scuffled around the hearth until he found the small wooden box containing Talon's father's beloved pipe and small, carefully wrapped paper of tobacco. The sounds of the battle had died down outside; undoubtedly the slavers were regrouping now to count their captives and evaluate the profits this afternoon's exertions were likely to bring. They had time to relax, and maybe have a little more fun, before they'd need to join up with the rest.
Talon's eyes remained fastened on her mother's prostrate form on the floor. 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 the sound of their own raucous voices cheerfully bantering with one another, one of her mother's fingers moved. Then another. And then she actually wiggled her arms, just slightly. Talon couldn't figure out what she was doing, until she saw what was lying on the ground, just inches from one of the slavers' filthy boots-- the knife. Talon held her breath, watching her mother move ever so slowly closer and closer to the blade on the floor. Agonizing seconds ticked by, each seeming like an eternity, 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 relief.
Almost instantly she clapped her hands over her mouth in horror as the men at the table looked up at the noise. The one nearest the door noticed her mother for the first time, trying to free her hands from the rope that bound them. His eyes narrowed and he barked something, and immediately his two companions were on their feet surrounding her. She backed away slowly, but before they could take the knife from her she'd succeeded by some miracle in cutting through the rope at her wrists. She held the knife out threateningly, and one of them reached out to take it.
She kicked him, hard, between his legs, the very spot that he'd been using only a few minutes before to pleasure himself at her expense. Talon gloated at the satisfying howl of pain this elicited from the invader, but her glee was short lived. The biggest of the three had grabbed her mother around the waist, trying to seize hold of the hand that was now flailing frantically, stabbing at anything that got in its path. The remaining man lunged towards her cautiously as his buddy did not yet have her completely under control, and got a shallow but long slash across the face for his efforts. Apparently this only served to anger him, because he then stopped trying to get the knife and instead punched her in the abdomen, so hard that Talon could hear the hiss of air as the breath was knocked out of her. For an instant she stopped struggling, and that pause 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 embedded in her stomach, squarely below the ribs, and a scarlet patch began to spread across the front of her dress.
Forgetting everything else, Talon screamed and darted out of the pantry towards her mother, but one of the slavers grabbed her by the back of her newly-shorn hair and slapped her across the face.
The big one grumbled in disappointment. He hadn't meant to force the woman to stab herself. What a waste of profits. He tossed her body aside in distaste and eyed the child who'd come screaming out of the pantry. A boy, about ten or so, with wild dark hair and fury in his eyes. His buddy was preparing to give the kid another sound whacking, but he reached out and stopped the other man's arm in midair. The boy would be more valuable without bruises and black eyes, and they both knew it.
The third man reached into the pantry and dragged out the two little girls, who were trembling and crying. The littlest couldn't have been more than about three winters, and the big one clucked his tongue approvingly. They'd bring an excellent price, being so young and healthy, and they were good looking kids, to boot. They'd sure hit the jackpot today, even if-he glanced down at the lifeless body of their mother-they'd had a few mishaps. He motioned to the other two that they should bring the brats along, and they followed him out of the hut.
Talon tried to struggle but it was no use; the man holding her was at least twice as big as she was. As they left the hut, drafts of smoke blew into her eyes and face until she coughed. They were burning the village. Already the longhouses on both sides of her family's hut were ablaze. Here and there on the ground was the crumpled form of a villager, one of the men that the slavers had killed in their assault. She heard the biggest slaver call something out, and twisted around in her captor's arms just long enough to see someone toss a torch through the door of their hut, and another onto the roof. In moments the straw thatching caught fire, and the flames ate away at the flimsy walls. Her mother was still in there, but it didn't matter anymore. Her mother was dead. And Talon knew without needing to be told that her father was dead as well. Her parents had died and left them alone. As her captor roughly yanked her forward and away from the burning hut, the only home she'd ever known, her attention fastened on her two little sisters being carried ahead of her, their frightened faces streaked with tears and soot. Her eyes narrowed. She was all they had now. She would not fail them. And she promised herself fiercely that someday, somehow, she would make these barbarians sorry they had ever set foot in her village.
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