She was only fourteen, but who would know it, since she already stood as tall as the average grown man. Her whole form spoke little or no femininity, but she was not an ordinary scrape-kneed tomboy, despite it all. And the boys she spent her days with revered and feared her. Mostly the latter. Perhaps it had to do with the calluses on her brown knuckles, or the two sharp daggers she wore on her belt.

When she entered the room, eyes turned to her, dark and light, all glancing warily out of dirty, tanned, scrawny faces belonging to dirty, tanned, scrawny young boys. Only a very few lived past boyhood, in their world. Slumped backs straightened, chatter died, expressions changed. All for the entrance of a teenaged girl, wide-set and dark, with short hair and a square face and her sleeves rolled up or ripped at the elbow to reveal brown, well-muscled forearms. "C'mon," she would say, "give it up."

At her word hands delved into pockets, bringing up the day's loot. They would stand in a row along the long, narrow room, as straight and proud as thieves ever could, and she would pass from one to another, reminding them that she was taller than most of them, and stronger than all of them, and they would giver her her share, however large or small she chose to make it. They called her the Hawker, and some dared to call her by her name, when she let them. Rou Hawker, the notorious steel fist who ruled the biggest thief-band of Sentry.

Pickpockets and petty burglars, lock pickers and young cutthroats answered to her. Like all her counterparts, she had a pet tavern where silver and steel bought her the keeper's allegiance, drinks, and spare back room. This was her throne room and her treasure chamber, and of course the dueling arena. Rou could duel, and she taught most her boys everything they knew. With a dagger in each hand and a look of ruthless amusement on her face, she was the greatest terror any thief in Sentry knew could exist, the terror that had gutted the last leader of her band, much more worthy of dread than the city guard.

Fist and blade ruled the dark, grimy alleys and had since beyond memory. Rou Hawker had the keenest blade and the roughest fist, a strength that mocked even as it bent others to its violent, inexorable will. She would smile from yon high on the rooftops as she watched her boys mug some wretched nighttime traveler, and stab an opponent in the back with a cynic's snort of short laughter. This carelessness, bravado conviction in her mastery doubtless helped instill the fear that fed it. Her reputation preceded her in the darkest sense.

One day she stood at one end of the long room that was her fortress, torches at her back and her loyal troops lining both long walls at either side of her. "Marrow, dear," she said in a tone that sent chills up spines, crossing her muscular arms on her chest, "you've been a very bad boy. Come here!" A boy detached himself from one of the walls, afraid to obey the command but terrified to defy it. He had wide, light hazel eyes, and looked no more than twelve.

"What's this, Marrow," said Rou heartlessly. "Have you been talkin' to the city thieves?" A murmur rose among the crowd.

"Naw, I didn'!" said Marrow, shrinking back a step.

"What do we think of the city thieves?" asked Rou. The murmur took on an angry tone, and rose in volume. "Exactly," said she in satisfaction, smiling.

"I didn', Rou, I swear!" stumbled the boy, his dark brown hair flopping on his forehead, damp with sweat.

"You'll never get on with us Sentry folk if you go consortin' with the rich bitches up inside the walls, Marrow," said Rou, shaking her head. "What were you thinkin'?"

"By Death, I swear I never did!" continued Marrow, almost sobbing.

"No use, boy, we got it all. Lamp and Kitten saw you," said Rou carelessly. "Ain't that so?" Two boys, one tall and lanky and the other very small, perhaps eight years old, nodded, gloating smiles playing at the edges of their mouths.

Marrow's lip trembled but for once he said nothing.

"So who's gonna teach Marrow not to double-cross his family?" asked Rou. More than half the boys raised their hands, a row of long, skinny arms from the lit end of the room to the nightly dusky one. "No one?" exclaimed Rou with mock-astonishment. "Guess I'll have to do it myself," she said with a grin, one dagger already playing between nimble fingers.

Marrow started retreating, a few quick steps back, but the boys that were once his brothers closed in on him, rounding off a circular arena.

"Daggers out, Marrow," commanded Rou in a hard voice, pulling out her other weapon.

He was doomed from the start. They circled, her blades flashing in every direction in a myriad moonbeams and sharp shards of glass. Her movements betrayed years of skill and practice, her ruthless smile sheer enjoyment at the torment of the other. She could have ended the match with a single stab to the chest or throat, instead she moved like lightning, shallow swipes and straight slashes covering his every part with cuts from which drops of blood welled and gathered, spattering the floor in a swirl of scarlet. He only managed to deflect one in three of her blows, even working with all his might to be swift and watchful.

When finally she chose to end the battle, his body lay on the floor, oozing blood both from his still-open cuts and from the gaping stab-wound that had killed him. Rou stood cleaning her daggers and her right fist, which was coated with blood, so deep was her lunge. Not looking up from her water-basin she ordered, "Get out as much of that as you can, and someone get rid of my stupid brother's body. Safely, mind! No trail."