Content Warning: Violence, theft, scarring
The band of five soldiers hovered around a sixth, who stood over a prostrate form—the farmer who owned the house, she suspected. The man on the ground lay bleeding in a state of merciful unconsciousness, unable even to moan as his tormentor aimed one final kick at his ribs. She winced as she heard the dull cracking sound, and the soldier looked up at her. He seemed about to challenge her open disgust for his actions, but something in her cold stare dissuaded him. Instead, he left the farmer lying in his own blood and rejoined the others.
At the same time, two more soldiers emerged from behind the house, each leading behind him a cow. A woman followed them, wailing and pleading despite the red face and swollen lip where one of them had already struck her.
“Please no, we will pay! We will pay, we will, we will! Don’t take them, please, we’ll starve without them!” She clutched at the lead of the nearest cow, and the soldier holding the other end of the rope turned and backhanded her across the face again without any sign of emotion. She fell upon the doorstep, momentarily stunned.
“Pray that your crops grow faster next year, unless you have other livestock to offer,” said the soldier who had beaten the farmer. He led his companions back to the road, marching off in the opposite direction from the caravan.
Twisting around in her saddle to look back as the house receded, she saw the farmer’s wife slowly drag herself to her feet and examine her husband’s prone body. Turning him over, the woman wrapped her thick, well-muscled arms around his hips and heaved him over her shoulder with a grunt. Then she trudged back into the house, allowing herself only one more brief glance up the road at her stolen livelihood.
The heat of the day had faded as the caravan reached the Oak-House of Wanderers, but while the rest of the household welcomed the cool breeze blowing up from the lake, the chill within her own heart proved the colder. With a grim face and a furious vigor, she pounded the stakes of her tent into the ground, and when the last one met the earth she rose, looking up at the moon shining down on the Tree and fighting the knowledge that her days of peace had ended. She reached up her right sleeve and ran her left hand over the scar on her chest. It was beginning to fade; she could hardly feel the raised tissue beneath her fingertips.