It started like any other day.
After lessons, Tabitha finished her chores early and went to play knights and princesses with the other children until supper. The others had long ago learned that she was a knight, not a princess. That lesson had required a number of bloody noses and black eyes, but it was well learned.
When her mama called her in, Tabitha rolled down her sleeves to cover the red welts that she had earned sword fighting. They hurt, but she had given her opponents back the same or worse.
Tabitha and her papa came in together.
“Read me a story tonight, Papa?” she asked, doing the little-girl voice that she saved for home.
“Not tonight, Tabitha,” he said. “Something’s been stealing Stepford’s sheep, and some of us are going out into the fields tonight.”
“All right,” she said, though she huffed and put on her best pout.
“Tomorrow night, I promise,” her father said as he ruffled her hair and they sat down for supper.
They had stew eaten with trenchers of bread, hearty and filling in Tabitha’s belly after a hard day of battle. By the time they were finished the sun had set.
“Reba, darling, I’m off,” Tabitha’s papa said to her mother, kissing Tabitha on the top of the head as he left.
“You be careful, Carlin,” she called after him with a fond smile. He returned the smile as he shut the door behind himself.
Tabitha and her mother did the washing up and then settled in by the fire. Reba took up some weaving while Tabitha found her worn doll and started playing pretend. In her mind, she continued the game of knights and princesses from earlier, with the doll being the princess she had to rescue. No, a prince she had to rescue. That was so much better. Mother and daughter sat in a gentle silence broken only by the odd crackle or hiss of the fire in the hearth.
Then the door exploded off its hinges.
Tabitha and her mother both shrieked as a figure loomed in the doorway, dark against dark. Then it stepped into the light.
A filthy man with big shoulders and broken teeth looked at them as if they might be good to eat. Tabitha’s first thought was she had to protect her mother somehow, but her body betrayed her and froze with terror.
“What you find in there, Cham?”
“One hen, one chick.”
“Pluck the hen, and bag the chick then.”
“Will do,” he said as he reached for Tabitha’s mother, who lunged at him. He backhanded her with a meaty fist.
“Mama!” Tabitha screamed as her mother went to the ground. Tabitha went for the man, trying to scratch his face but not being tall enough to reach.
“Look at this!” the man said as he wrapped a big hand around her arm. “Little chick’s got claws!”
“We don’t got all night, Cham,” said the voice outside. “Put her in the bag and finish up.”
The one called Cham jerked Tabitha’s arm. In response, she wrenched her arm up with all her strength and bit him in the hand as hard as she could. She tasted blood.
“Little bitch!” he shouted, pulling his hand back and dropping Tabitha. She hit the ground hard enough to stun her. “She bit me!”
A head poked in around the corner. “You gonna take that from the little chicky?”
“Void, no.” He grabbed Tabitha again, rougher this time, and struck her hard across the face. He did it with an open palm, but with enough force to rock her head back and make her vision break apart.
Everything was fading to darkness, but she caught a few more words as if from a great distance.
“Now time to pluck the hen,” the far-away voice said, followed by the ripping of cloth and a panicked scream.
That scream almost sounded like her mother, but before Tabitha could be sure the world blacked out.
It had been days since he had slept. Whenever he closed his eyes, the darkness closed in on him. When sleep overtook him, it was foul smelling and cold. His dreams were all flickering shadows and whispered voices. He knew they were only the voices of the dead, but he was terrified of what they might say if he listened.
So instead of sleeping, he let his rage and the trail pull him onwards through exhaustion.
His quarry had come through here, that was clear enough. One hardly needs to be a woodsman to follow this destruction, but he was afraid that their trail out would be lost in the general devastation. He did not want to have to visit his informant to find them again.
As he stood on a rise overlooking the farming hamlet, smoke drifted through the ruined market square. Several other plumes of smoke in the distance coiled up into the early morning sky, presumably from farmsteads set to the torch. The sound of chanting emanated from the village shrine to the Five Pillars, but beneath it the wind carried faint wails of despair.
A shout rose up from the base of the hill. A knot of townsfolk had noticed him and were moving toward him with angry strides, gripping farm tools as weapons. It had taken them long enough.
The hunter adjusted his bow and quiver then raised his gloved hands above his head to appear as non-threatening as possible. He needed information, and it would be easier to get it from willing townsfolk. By the look of things, they may even have need of his services.
Besides, it was too early in the day to start killing people.