Blood sprays into the dust.
Lord Osdath and Hayrolf wheel on their horses, trying to see where the arrow came from. The animals neigh in fear. Perhaps they smell the the fallen soldier’s blood.
Hayrolf points toward the fields south of the village. A large number of men are spilling swiftly down the slope where the land ascends toward the wooded hillsides. They do not move like farmers.
“Brigands, My Lord.” Hayrolf says it calmly, as though he was remarking on the weather.
“The savages from the Thorns,” Lord Osdath says.
Shouting erupts in the distance. “Raid! Raid!”
The men and women working in the field cast their tools aside and run. A man staggers, trying to reach his back with his hands, and falls.
“Take the boy to safety,” Lord Osdath commands. “Then bring in your riders.”
“We’ll have no trouble with this rabble,” Hayrolf replies. “Do you wish any to be held for questioning?”
“They have nothing to reveal that we desire to know. See that all are slain.”
“It will be done, My Lord.” Hayrolf spurs his black stallion.
The soldier carrying Till follows him closely. Their horses bound across the yard and over the fence.
Stellia catches one last glimpse of her brother, hazy and nebulous in the cloud of dust kicked up by the horses. He looks back at her, tears streaming down his cheeks. His lips move, she faintly hears him call her name. Then the riders turn right, away from the fields, and gallop swiftly out of the village. Within an instant, the tall hawthorn bushes that line the North Road swallow them up, and Till along with them. Stellia stares at the spot where they disappeared, bewildered by how quickly it all happened, how suddenly her brother is gone from her life. She remembers what she told him before, moments ago only, and tries to find in the thought the same comfort she hoped to offer him: Whatever the Guardian wants from you, it can’t be bad.
The Parson kneels beside the fallen soldier. Blood spurts from the man’s neck. So much of it is already on the ground, more than Stellia has ever seen in her life. The Parson looks up at Lord Osdath and shakes his head. Lord Osdath nods briefly in response. The Parson reaches into his habit and retrieves the Shard on its fine silver chain. Stellia’s heart grows heavy at the sight.
The Parson holds the Shard suspended over the dying man’s forehead and begins to speak the Words. The pendant sways gently back and forth. The tiny sliver of crystal at its center glints brightly as it catches the afternoon sun.
The Parson says the Words in a rapid murmur, without catching his breath, too fast for Stellia to understand them. She has heard them before, and more clearly, at her grandmother’s deathbed two years ago. They all spoke them together then, her father, her mother, her uncle and her two cousins; even little Till mumbled along with them as best he could: an orison to guide the departing soul to the Light that shelters the souls of the faithful in the Beyond and ensures their rebirth into the Faith. Without these blessings, the soul may become lost in darkness and reenter life as a heathen, or worse. Nothing is more feared than the thought of death far from a Parson and his Shard.
The Parson finishes speaking the Words. With a delicate gesture, he closes the dead soldier’s eyes.
The ground throbs underneath Stellia’s feet. A man bellows commands, and many voices respond as one.
The soldiers she spotted waiting on the North Road rush like a torrent into the village, led by Hayrolf of the red belt, to meet the attackers in the fields. With their rough cries and their gray cloaks flying behind them, the riders resemble a flock of vengeful hawks swooping down on their prey.
Lord Osdath looks after them, right hand raised in the Sacred Gesture, with his thumb laid across his open palm, and in a quiet but firm voice intones the Parting. “Joyous to the errant soul is the day on which is it is parted from the flesh, that it may be gathered into His mercy, which is Forgetting, there to be blessed with a new beginning.”
“And I shall be the path on which it travels, and the light that guides it,” the Parson replies, completing the invocation.
Lord Osdath turns to Stellia and her parents. “My soldiers will protect the village, as is their duty. You had best stay inside until their work is finished.”
With that, he rides out of the yard, and swiftly away on the North Road.
“You heard the Lord!” Stellia’s father tears the door to the house open. “Get inside!”
Her mother quickly disappears into the house, but the Parson shakes his head. “I must hurry to the battle. Our soldiers can show no mercy to the wicked, but it is my duty to do so.”
Stellia’s father, his expression grim, gives the appropriate response. “May the Currents of Heaven guide you to Grace, Parson.”
The Parson bows his head in thanks for the blessing, then he turns and walks briskly toward the fields, and the fighting.
Stellia still stands under the mulberry tree where she said farewell to Till. She can see the raiders now, they have reached the outermost houses of the village. Their faces are filthy, as is their cloth, and most are too lean to be healthy men. As she looks on, a soldier rides down one of the attackers. The man falls, and tries in vain to get back on his feet. He is on his knees when the rider comes around and thrusts his spear through his head. The leaf-shaped blade cuts through the man’s skull as though it was a pumpkin, splitting it apart. Her stomach lurches. The Parson runs to the spot, his Shard catching the sunlight as it dances on its silver chain. She never imagined that he might be so fearless and brave.
“Stellia!” Her father extends a hand toward her as though she were drowning in a river and he means to pull her out. She can see the fear in his eyes, fear to lose a second child in one day.
A man bursts into the yard. He is clad in rags, and armed with a stout cudgel. Stellia cries out in terror, and presses against the tree. The brigand stops, and spots her. A wild grin spreads across his grimy face, and he charges toward her.
“Leave her be!”
Stellia has never seen her father move so fast. With huge steps, he moves away from the door and into the brigand’s path. But the filthy-looking man moves faster still. Never breaking his stride, he swings his weapon. Stellia’s father tries to duck, but he is too slow. With a sickening thud, the cudgel strikes him on the side of the head. He gives a startled cry, then he collapses, blood glistening brightly in his silver and black hair.
His eyes are open, he looks more surprised than hurt. But in the next instant, his eyes close, and he lies still.
“Father!” she cries again.
The brigand looks at him briefly to make sure he will stay down. Then he renews his charge toward Stellia.
She has no time to think.