Rena cradled her baby in her arms. He was a grasping, crawling, babe, his first words gurgled just two months before, though he had since fallen silent as though those first few words tired the child out. She named him Tarn after the last of the Sturman Kings – Rena’s husband, and little Tarn’s father.
Rena’s mother, Mia, who bustled by the fire in the middle of their shared hut, frowned and stopped her chores to wipe her hands on a cloth, cleaning off the bright yellow pollen of a carmillion blossom which sank slowly into a mixture she heated over the fire in the circular hearth.
‘Someone’s coming,’ said Mia.
‘Who?’ asked Rena.
‘I don’t know...’
Footsteps crunched through the snow until whoever came so long after dark reached the door. Rena half-rose to answer.
‘No,’ Mia told her. ‘Tend the child.’
Mia opened the door before the callers could knock. A flurry of snow blew in.
‘Who is it?’ Rena called.
Mia stumbled back from the door, the bloody point of a sword jutting from her back, dead before she hit the dirt.
Rena screamed, but still she laid her child down before she rose. She did not panic. She was a witch.
The closest thing with which she could protect herself and Tarn was the heavy pot over the fire. It burned her unprotected hands, but she did not notice the pain, or the weight. For a moment she was blind to everything except the sudden threat to her son.
A warrior pulled the dripping sword free. Rena flung the burning mixture in the pot in his face. He cried out, skin hissing, and fell back. She took two steps forward, swung the cauldron, and caved in the man’s skull.
Five more men in dark garb stood before the door to the hut, weapons drawn, faces masked.
‘Kill her,’ said one, ‘and make sure of the child.’
‘No!’ She shouted. ‘No!’
The first man advanced and she raised the heavy iron in her steaming hands. Only cold alien eyes showed behind his mask. He did not reach her. With a soft sound breaking the night, an arrow thudded into the killer’s neck. The missile travelled in and through, the steel arrowhead protruding. Breath gurgled through bright blood, then the assassin was silent.
Nobody moved, for just a moment, then that stutter in Rena’s night moved on and everything seemed to happen at once.
Another of the masked killers turned to face this new threat and was taken with an arrow through his eye. In the time it took for Rena to switch the pot for the dead man’s sword in her burned right hand, two others fell to arrows loosed from the darkness.
The last made the fatal error of forgetting the witch behind him.
Rena swung the blade up over her head and down into his skull. It stuck fast and was torn from her grasp when the assassin fell. She stood defenseless, blind in the dark and the snow, looking into the blackness for the archer.
‘Easy now,’ said a man from the forest. She heard his footsteps through the high snow before she saw him; a long man, holding a curved horn bow. On his back was a quiver with two arrows. At his hip he wore a short sword and a dagger.
He bowed, and then took a knee in the blood-stained snow.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I was too late.’
Rena, too, fell to her knees and sobbed. Her son cried from beside the fire in the hut, but she did not look. She could not. The man still knelt, head bowed, his hair crusted with snowfall and the grime of the road.
‘My lady, you must come now. There is no time for mourning.’
Rena wiped at her eyes. ‘My mother...’
‘The ground is hard and she is dead,’ said the bowman, but softly.
‘You know me?’
‘Only by name,’ he said, ‘a friend sent me to bring you. We need you...have need of your kind...and we need of the babe...’
She stood, turned from the man and shook her head, no.
‘I will tend my child and my mother,’ she said, still shaking her head as she pulled Mia from the doorway and away from the cold.
‘Roskel Farinder sent me, lady. Please.’
That gave her pause and cut through the numbness. ‘The thief?’
‘No longer, lady,’ he said. ‘People call him Steward, Lord Protector of Sturma, now. Some of us that know him as the Thief King.’
‘Since your husband fell, Lady...of a kind. The Thief King is a nickname, nothing more. Lord Protector is true, however. It was your husband’s wish.’
She shook her head again.
‘No. I will see to my mother,’ she said shortly.
‘There is no time. Danger comes from every shadow.’
He bowed his head once more. Sighed softly. ‘Then may I help?’
‘Watch the night. This is my business,’ she told him.
‘As you wish,’ he said. He turned to face the night, as though he took her word as an order.
‘Your name?’ she asked.
‘My name is Asram Fell, and I am your servant.’
‘Thank you, Asram Fell,’ she said, then turned to her business - that of a witch in mourning. He stood out into the falling snow with no complaint.