Part Three: Mother

It was dusk. Betha sat on the doorstep, enjoying the evening summer's breeze. Her children slept already, for once without a fuss. Most of the day's work was done, and she had only to finish the evening sweeping, milk the cow and await Declen's return from the fields. The harvest was coming in, and a rich one, this year. Good grain grew in the fields, beets and cabbage in the garden behind their house, apples in the village orchard. Betha felt free to sit idly for a few moments, watching the stars come up in the beautiful, dark crimson sky. She got up, and was just about to go in and get the milk bucket, when a sound on the wind caught her sharp ear.

Screams were coming from the village, horrible frightening screams. Trying her vision, Betha saw glimmers of orange light on the horizon, about where the village was, or rather the outskirts of it. She put the milking out of her mind, and her round face wore an expression of grim determination. Hiking up her green skirts, she hurried to the shed and grabbed the first thing that occurred to her, a sickle that wasn't in use. It was unrusted, and though rather long for her short stature, she felt she could manage it with her villager's stoutness and working arms. Hauling it over her back, she rushed back to the house.

Wasting no time in false attempts to keep quiet and not wake the children, Betha huffed and puffed and put up the heavy wooden shutters over the two windows. She thought of barring the door from inside, but feared being smoked out or just burned to death. For a moment she stood and shivered in the wind that came from the open door. Then she shook herself well and truly. "Pull yourself together, Betha! You've three children to think of!" she said to herself sternly.

"Ma?" came a voice from the little bed.

"Stay there, Deni, and keep your brothers there, too!" ordered the girl's mother. Leaning her makeshift weapon against the wall, Betha hastily rolled her long auburn hair and tied it in a knot on the back of her neck. She pinned up the skirts of her dress and chemise at knee length with sewing pins. Then she took her sickle and stood guard before the half-open door, waiting.

The wait was wracking her nerves. Beads of sweat hung at her forehead and temples, and her mouth was dry. She kept watching, mostly in the direction of the village, but casting the odd look towards the dark fields. Now the sky was a velvety dark purple, rich as sweet autumn plums, star-studded and flaunting a rosy half-moon. Betha's hands grew clammy when she heard the approaching sounds of bandits or raiders, their hollers riding the wind.

With swords and axes they came, and heavy crossbows. Fierce cries of battle mirth and wild eyes that seemed to shine, unearthly came towards her, and she was but one woman, rather short and stocky, with an old harvesting tool. All she had to defend her daughter and sons with, beside the knowledge that she was all that stood between her babies and the River Death. And that knowledge, the sure feeling that a bandit would have to step in her blood to reach her children, was what gave Betha her strength, that night.

She may have yelled as she defended her home with controlled swings of the long sickle. Certainly she gagged and retched at the sight of what the sickle's sharp blade made of the men before her, gore and entrails even a butcher's daughter could scarce withstand. And more than anything she was afraid, not for herself, but for Deni, who was not yet five, and had bright green eyes and a stout little body and heart; and Pero, who was three, with a shock of red hair like her own father had, who loved nothing more than chasing butterflies; and baby Ryn, whom she'd borne last summer, and had not yet learned to talk.

Maybe half-a-dozen bandits had come to her house, all in all. None of them expected the little farmer woman whose husband was still out at the fields to fight so fiercely. None of them had children, and perhaps they couldn't remember their own mothers. When Declen came in from the field with ten village men, all carrying torches and pitchforks, silence fell over them for a moment, before they finally internalized what they were seeing.

A small, wide-set farmer's girl, reddish brown hair tumbling all over her shoulders and her green skirt hiked up, was waving a sickle to and fro, keeping three armed raiders at shaft's length from her door. Her expression was bear-like in its wild ruthlessness, and at her feet lay three or four bodies, slashed like wolf's prey.