“Tara! Tara!” Samuel called for his daughter, angrily chasing away the animals from their stolen supper.
“What is it, Father?” Tara asked, emerging from the trees behind their house.
“It’s your rabbits, girl! They’ve eaten half the garden again while you were out wandering around doing who knows what. How many times have I told you that they are your responsibility?”
“They didn’t mean to, Father,” Tara said, trying to calm him, as she picked up one of the offenders and cradled it in her arms.
“They’re not meaning to isn’t going to bring our garden back.”
“I’m sorry,” Tara said. Then she gathered up her rabbits and put them back into their cages.
Being sorry is not good enough. I’m afraid they’re going to have to go.”
“No! Please don’t,” Tara wailed. “I promise I won’t do it again.”
“That’s what you always say. This time it won’t work.” Then, seeing the look of dispair on his daughter’s face, Samuel softened somewhat. “They are still going,” he said, “but I will let you set them free in the woods. After that, if they come back, I won’t hesitate to make them into rabbit stew.”
“Do I have to let them go?”
“You’ve got too many animals the way it is!” he yelled again, his moment of understanding gone as quickly as it had come.
“All right, Father,” Tara agreed sadly. She hadn’t given up hope of talking him out of this idea, but she knew better than to cross him when he was angry. “I’ll take them deep into the woods, so that they won’t trouble you anymore.”
“Fine. You better get started, though. Your mother’ll be starting supper soon, and you ought to be helping her.”
With a heavy heart, Tara gathered up her three rabbits and put them into an old sack. After calling for Zed, her pet Shivaree, to follow her, she headed off into the trees, leaving her father to assess the damage the rabbits had done to the garden.
After Tara had disappeared into the trees, her mother came out of the small farm cottage, and asked her father what had happened. “I made Tara get rid of her rabbits.”
“But she loves those, Sam,” her mother started.
“She loves every animal in the forest, Sansela, but that doesn’t mean we have food enough to feed them all,” he growled. Realizing how angry he was, Sansela decided not to protest further and to go back into the house.
Walking through the woods cheered up Tara n’ha Sansela. She had loved these woods as long as she could remember. They seemed to strengthen her and it was hard to feel sad as she walked along the path, feeling the sunlight sift through the trees and smelling the fresh scent of the firs around her.
As always, Zed, who was tagging at her heels, enjoyed being in the woods. Tara had found the young Shivaree several years ago when she had been out for one of her walks. He had been caught in an abandoned hunter’s snare, and although he had not been severely hurt, he had been on the verge of starvation and had been very weak. She had taken him home and had nursed him back to health. Her father had only rarely ever seen a Shivaree and he had heard that these large, ferret-like creatures were impossible to tame, but Zed had never been any trouble. By the time the animal was healthy again, he had become just like one of the family. Tara had begged her father to let her keep Zed, and although Samuel had been skeptical at first, he had finally consented.
Tara was a small girl for her seventeen summers, standing just a little over five feet tall, but she had worked on her father’s farm since she was old enough to walk. She was strong for a girl her size and carried the rabbits about half a league into the woods before she grew tired and decided she had taken them far enough. From here, they wouldn’t find their way back to the farm too quickly.
Setting the bag on the ground, she let her rabbits out into the open air. Nestling one in her strawberry blond curls before setting it free, she knew deep down that they would be happy to be free again, but she would miss them. The rabbits gradually scampered off into the woods, leaving her and Zed alone. Then, knowing she was already late for supper, she headed back home with Zed scampering a few feet behind her stopping now and then to investigate various scents which caught his attention.
After Tara left, Sam busied himself with the garden and wondered if he had been too tough on his only child. Of course not, he decided. She loved animals just too much. After all, his farm was beginning to look like a menagerie. She had adopted all kinds of birds: Doves, robins, and even a baby hawk. She also had a pet squirrel and a fawn, which she promised she would let go once it was grown. The girl just doesn’t know when to quit, he thought, finishing his work with the garden.
Then as he turned to take the vegetables he had gathered into the house, he heard horses in the distance. He should have heard them sooner, but he must have been too lost in thought. He bounded quickly into the cottage. “Sansela, there’s riders headed this way. Maybe ten or more. You stay in the house until I find out what they want.” Sansela nodded in agreement, looking worried as Sam grabbed his sword and rushed back outside.
As he emerged from the house, he saw the riders. He counted about fifteen of them as they rode across the small patch of farm ground to the east of his house. Then, as they drew near, he noticed a wisp of smoke rising from the other side of the hill behind the men. That was about where Myridon, the local village was located. Something was burning, and in these woods, people joined together to fight fires. Men riding in the wrong direction was a certain sign of danger, but there was little that could be done about it now. Sam stood defiantly in front of his home, bracing himself for the worst.
The men rode up and were brought to a halt by a very large man, with a bow slung over one shoulder. This man then made a motion, and the rest of the men circled Sam, a few of them drawing their swords. Once they were in place, the leader spoke.
“I can see by your sword that you knew we were coming, and you knew it wasn’t going to be a friendly call.” Samuel remained silent, studying the situation. The leader of the group wore furs, made after a fashion common to an area east of here. He was a large man, and he wore a scar on his left cheek, indicating he had seen his share of fighting. He would not be a pleasant man to fight, Sam thought, and then the leader spoke again.
“You know what we want. We’re after your gold. Your friends there in the village decided to fight. They’re all dead.” As the leader said this, a few of the other men laughed and smiled. “As you can tell, my men want to kill you, but if you cooperate, I won’t let them. Now, drop your sword, gather every bit of gold you’ve gotten hidden away in that little shack of yours, and bring it out here.”
Sam was in a bad spot, and he knew it. His honor demanded that he fight, but he realized with him gone, Sansela would be helpless. Perhaps, if he gave them the gold, they would leave, and his family would be safe. Then he could go for help and chase the bandits down. As Sam considered his options, the bandits grew impatient, and one of them behind him rode forward, planting a foot in Sam’s back, knocking him down. Sam flashed the bandit a glare from his fiery eyes, but when he got up, he left his sword on the ground and disappeared into the house.
Sam found Sansela hiding in the bedroom. He explained the situation very quickly to her in quiet whispers and promised that things would be all right. Then he got his small sack of gold from under the bed, and went back outside.
As he stepped out of the door, one of the bandits, grabbed the sack from him, and brought it to the leader, who examined the contents. “Is this all you have? Something tells me you are holding out on us, farmer. Kork,” he said to the man beside him, “go and search the house. Make sure our friend isn’t hiding anything from us.”
Sam started to stop him, but Kork kept him at bay with the point of his sword and went into the house. Sam considered distracting them by telling them about the gold hidden in his cellar, but before he could, he heard Sansela scream, and saw the bandit at the doorway. He was dragging Sansela outside by the arm, and Sam saw that her dress was torn. He started for her, but one of the larger bandits grabbed him from behind, putting an arm around his neck to hold him motionless.
“Lookie what I found,” Kork called. “She ought to make for lots of fun,” he jeered, and then grabbed the top of her dress, tore it down to her waist to expose her breasts, and pulled her to him for a savage kiss. Samuel could stand no more. He popped his elbow into the ribs of the man holding him and spun around, knocking the man to the ground. Grabbing his sword, Sam charged Kork, knocking another bandit out of the way as he did. Kork reacted quickly, tossing Sansela away and raising his sword to defend himself, but Sam was on him too quickly. After one blow, Sam had him decapitated and turned to face two other bandits which had charged him.
Sam was not a skillful swordsman, but he had been strengthened all his life from hard work, and with the help of his anger and his adrenaline, he was more than a match for the two bandits. He killed the first one immeditatly, and turned on the second. The bandit tried to defend himself, but Sam put him off balance with one powerful blow, and then split him open with a second. Then, before Sam could turn around, an arrow whizzed into his back, its head pushing out from the front of his ribs. Samuel managed to turn around before falling to knees, cursing the leader who had shot him with the arrow. Another bandit stepped forward and grabbed Sansela, who was trying to run to her husband.
“You are a strong one, farmer,” the leader said respectfully, “but my men still should have been able to kill such an unskilled fighter.” Then the leader smiled, “But as they say, if you want it done right….” With that, he notched another arrow, and let it fly. Samuel gasped as the second arrow landed in his chest, and then he fell forward, dead. As he fell, Sansela managed to struggle her way free and run to her husband. As she bent over him and began to sob, the leader notched another arrow and shot it into her bare back.
As she slumped over her husband, one of the bandits complained, “Why’d you have to kill the woman?”
“You would have fought over her, and I’ve lost enough men for one day.” The other bandit did no more than grumble, not wanting to die this day.
“All right, someone search the house, and the rest of you, take those animals along. We’ll need meat for supper, and there’s no reason to hunt when we have this nice farmer’s generosity.
One of the bandits emerged from the house. “There’s nothing inside of any value. I guess the old man was telling the truth.”
“That’s what I hate about these peasants,” the leader growled. “All of them are too honest.” Then he laughed loudly, and turned his horse back in the direction from which they’d come. “Ride,” he called. The other bandits followed, the last throwing a torch onto the thatched roof of Samuel’s hut before riding hard to catch up with the rest.
Tara was busily picking the mushrooms she’d found by the path on her way home. She was hoping that the mushrooms would make up for her being late for supper. She realized too late that she really shouldn’t have travelled so far to release her rabbits, but she hadn’t wanted them to become rabbit stew, either. As she picked the last of the mushrooms, Zed began to prance nervously about, sniffing the breeze in a frenzy. “What is it, Zed?” she asked, looking up from her work. At first, she didn’t see anything. Then, climbing on top of a nearby rock, she spied what had made Zed so nervous. There were two streams of smoke, one of them rising from somewhere quite near. “Fire, Zed, come on,” Tara called, throwing the bag over her shoulder and racing down the trail for home.
As Tara came closer to home, she realized the smoke was coming from her own farm. Terrified, she ran even faster, finally coming to the edge of the woods. As she stepped out of the trees, she stopped, turned to stone by the shock of what she saw. The house was burning, filling the air with smoke, and the farm was deserted. Her parents were gone. Even all of her animal cages were empty. Zed stood in the trees behind her, snorting nervously, being torn between his instinct to run and the need to be near his master.
“Father! Mother!” Tara finally called out. Tara could feel her stomach tieing itself in knots. She tried desperately not to panic, but it didn’t work. She called for her parents again and then circled the house, searching for them. As she rounded the front corner of the house, Tara saw the dead bodies and ran over to them. Bending over, Tara lifted her mother to her breast, sobbing uncontrollably. As she held her mother, she ran her fingers across the arrows sticking up from her father’s body. “Oh, papa, papa,” she said in between tears, pulling her father a little towards her. Then, putting her arms around both of them and laying her head on her father’s shoulder, the sorrow overtook Tara, and she lost her last thread of thought, slipping into a shrieking, sobbing delirium.
Tara was never sure how long she sat beside her parents, crying over in mourning. Finally, shock from what had happened numbed her, allowing her to regain part of her senses. Hardening herself against her feelings, she drug herself to her feet and left her mother and father for the moment.
The house was gone. Judging by the smoke coming from over the hill, the village of Myridon was gone, too, probably suffering the same fate as her parents. She had nothing left. Tara experienced the lowest point of her life as she stood on the devastated farmstead where she had grown up, trying to see some glimmer of hope on the horizon. There was none. Thoughts of ending her life crossed Tara’s mind. She probably would have killed herself, but her father had always taught her that people who take their own life are never granted another, but instead suffer eternally for refusing to meet their destiny.
As Tara struggled with her situation, the sun sank low in the sky and a north wind began to blow. She was sober now, her temporary loss of sanity due to grief being completely gone. She realized that there was much work to do before nightfall, and she had better get to doing it.
Tara’s first concern was her parents. If she left them where they were, their bodies would be defiled by animals during the night. She considered digging graves for them, but decided that she didn’t have time. Then she realized what she needed to do.
Tara went to the cellar and began to bring out the things she might need. Luckily, whoever had killed her parents hadn’t found the bag of gold which her father kept here. She also found some dried fruit and meat along with a couple of blankets. She gathered all the things together and hauled them up out of the cellar.
Tara decided she had salvaged everything usable from the cellar. Now she had the hardest part of her duties left to do. Tara first dragged her mother, and then her father down into the old cellar. When they were first married, Tara’s parents had carved this farm out of the woods, they had built the house which was now little more than ashes, and they had dug this cellar. It would make a fitting tomb, Tara thought. Then she paused to say a few silent prayers before shutting the door on the cellar, effectively shutting the door on her childhood and the only way of life she had ever known.
By the time her parents were buried, it was almost dark. Tara knew that it might be dangerous to stick around, but she didn’t want to travel at night, so she loaded up the things she had taken from the cellar and carried them into the woods. Then she whistled for her horse, Boxter. He emerged from the trees on the other side of the glen, but wouldn’t come any closer, because he could smell the smoke from the house. Tara walked across the clearing to the with a rope in her hand. Soothing the old animal as she talked, she managed to put the rope around his neck and lead him into the woods near the smouldering house. There, she tied him to a tree and went back to the house to see that she had everything she needed.
She looked around the farm, realizing again that all her animals were gone. She hoped that they had escaped, but there would be no way she would ever know. Then, seeing her father’s sword laying where he had fallen, she picked it up and headed back to the woods where she had left Boxter and her things.
Once Tara was back in the safety of her woods, she considered lighting a small fire. It might get very cold tonight. However, tonight she would make a cold camp, in case the people who had attacked her parents were still in the area. Zed had come into the camp with her, and he sniffed hungrily at her pack. She took some of the dried meat out of the pack and gave it to her pet, although Tara couldn’t find the will to eat herself. Then she gathered some pine needles together, forming a cushion which would make a soft bed for the night. Once her bed was made, Tara settled down, covering herself with blankets. Zed came over and stretched out beside her. He will warn me if anyone comes near, Tara thought. Then, much to her surprise, she fell asleep.
Tara was suddenly awake. It took her a few seconds to remember where she was and what had happened. Then she heard the same noise again which had disturbed her slumber. It was a voice, coming from the trail which led to the house. At first, Tara couldn’t see anything. Then the voice spoke again, and she saw a form step from the trees into her small camp. Tara couldn’t believe what she saw. She wheezed, trying to make herself breathe. She shook her head and looked again, convinced the shadows from the full moon were playing tricks on her eyes. When she looked again, she was positive who it was. It was her father.
Tara was sure her mind was playing tricks on her. Then her father spoke her name. “I’m here father,” she said, pulling herself to her feet. “Oh, papa,” she said, taking a step toward him, and then she stopped. She could see an arrow protruding through the front of his chest, which was caked with dried blood. Then she realized that she could see the trees behind him through his body. Before she had time to react to any of this, he spoke again. “Tara, my daughter,” the vision began, “I have come to help you.” Her father’s spirit took a step closer to her, and Tara noticed that although his body was still maimed, the look on his face was no longer full of pain but instead was peaceful. Then her father spoke again. “Your mother is with me, and we are happy. It was our destiny.”
“Take me with you, Father,” Tara pleaded, reaching out for him. As she put her hand out to him, she watched helplessly as it passed through his body. He appeared not to notice. Then he smiled.
“Our work in this world is finished, my daughter, but you still have much to do. Travel to Dargon, and there you must seek my brother. It is this path on which your destiny lies.” Then the spirit began to fade.
“No, Father,” Tara begged him. “Let me come with you.”
“Travel to Dargon, my daughter, and do not grieve. Your mother and I will be here when you have come to the end of your road.” Tara reached for him. As she did, she was suddenly sitting up on the spot where she had gone to sleep, her arm clutching nothing but the empty night air in front of her.
A dream, Tara thought. I had a dream. She looked again where she had seen her father, but there was no one there. This time Tara did not fall asleep so quickly.
In the morning, Tara saddled up Boxter, loaded her gear onto the saddle, and then before leaving forever, she walked back to look once more at what was left of the only home she had ever known.
Tara had always assumed that she would live out her life as her mother had done, living on the farm with her parents until her father gave her away in marriage to some local farmer’s son which had impressed him. Then she would spend the rest of her life raising children and working on the farm. Now her destiny had been mutilated by strangers in a single afternoon. It was almost too much for her.
She let a tear come to her eye, and then she turned her back on the the farm and headed back to where she had made camp. As she moved off the trail to go to her little camp, something on the ground caught her eye. Bending over, she found a set of tracks, leading from the trail to where she had slept. She had seen tracks like these for as long as she could remember. They were her father’s. She followed them into camp, and there, they stopped.
So, it was real, Tara thought. Then she reminded herself that her father walked these woods all the time before he died. He probably made them yesterday morning, she convinced herself. Still, the possibility gave her courage to do what she needed to do. She would go to Dargon to live with her uncle. Even if it had only been a dream the night before, she had decided that it was the only alternative she had. Tara had never met her uncle, at least not when she was old enough to remember, but he was her father’s brother. Surely he would take her in and help her decide what she needed to do. Then, strengthed by the knowledge of what she was going to do, she set about getting ready to leave. She would head first to the village of Tench. From there, she would be able to send word to her uncle to let him know she was coming, and perhaps she could buy a map or hire someone to take her to Dargon. Then, filing her father’s sword into a sheath on the saddle, she started to leave, but before she could, Zed came bounding up on his short legs, snorting and grunting. “It’s all right, Zed,” she said. “You can come along. After all, you’re all I have left.” Then, giving the Shivaree a pat on his head before climbing onto her horse, she realized how final this leaving would be. She had never been more than 10 leagues away from home in her life, and now she was headed for a place she had only heard of. Then, overcome by the emotions of the moment, she had to fight to keep from sobbing at the realization of what she was doing. Finally, she forced herself to calm down. She was going to Dargon and everything was going to be all right. But first, she would need travel to Tench, over twenty leagues away, and she wasn’t going to get there by staying here burning daylight. “Com’on, Boxter,” she urged, pushing her heels into the horse’s ribs, “we’re going to Dargon.”
She left the farm with the morning sun on her back, heading west to Tench, to Dargon, and to a new life.