It was the glint of sun off steel that caught her eye. Rose stopped, basket of freshly picked herbs in hand, and stared into the Whit family's barn door through which she had seen that misplaced sliver of light. While metal was common enough on a farm, most farming tools were made of dull iron, and Rose had only seen light reflected so sharply off honed steel—like a sword blade. Inside the barn, she thought she glimpsed a bulky shape, moving with stealth and speed. A thief?
Her first thought was to run for help. But how long would it take to get back? Likely too long, for the Whits. She should go warn them, she thought. Yet she worried to let the burglar out of sight, and perhaps give him a chance to catch her off guard later. What if the Whits weren't home? If so, she would have to confront him alone anyway. She would not escape herself only to leave him here, free to ambush her neighbors.
Rose set her basket down in the grass and crept towards the barn, knowing now what she meant to do. It wasn't that she wasn't scared; her heart pounded in her chest, and sweat moistened her scalp and tunic. Though she had long played at being a warrior with her friends, to confront real danger was an altogether different matter. But she would do all she could to protect the Whits and their innocent child. So she entered the barn, carefully picking up the hoe just inside the door.
The man's broad back came into view to her left, and Rose raised her hoe to strike. Then she hesitated. What if this was no thief, after all? Despite his armament, he could be a family friend, or even an agent of the crown on legitimate business. She could not just attack, with no knowledge of his intentions.
"You!" she said in what she hoped was a commanding voice. "What are you doing here?"
He turned, and immediately she realized her mistake. The feral gleam in his eyes, the smirk that pulled at his thick lips—he could be nothing else but the kind of villain she had suspected and feared. "Are you the daughter, then? A big one you are, but I don't mind. All women scream the same." His huge sword came up, gleaming like flame.
On the verge of panic, Rose swung at his face. He parried easily, and countered with a slash she barely managed to deflect. The hoe was poorly balanced for use as a weapon, and she was hardly an experienced warrior in the first place. The robber pressed his assault, battering relentlessly at her, and she found herself retreating across the hay-strewn floor. She felt her back bump up against the far wall, and in desperation tried to force him back with a sudden burst of offense.
For a moment, he seemed to falter against her flurry of quick pokes, and she thought she had a chance. But then he cut through the hoe's shaft with a well-placed blow, and the next thing she knew an impact like a heavy punch slammed into her middle. She felt herself shoved back, driven against the wood behind her. Then the pain hit, a world-shattering explosion tearing through her body. For a moment she was blind, but stubbornly she blinked her vision back. Slowly, her attacker came into view.
Rose stared at the man as he loosened his belt, his wide, greasy face split with a lusty grin. His breath reeked of rotting meat, and she ached to run screaming out of his reach. But she couldn't scream because her mouth had filled with blood. And she couldn't run because his sword impaled her just below the ribcage, nailing her to the wall.
She could barely breathe, and when she inhaled blood spurted out around the edges of the wide blade. The wound should already have killed her, she knew, but the freakish vitality which kept her alive now prolonged her suffering. She wasn't just going to die, but her killer would also rob her of her last dignity. He dropped his trousers, and his smile widened while he watched her squirm. He reached out to pull her pants down, and blood ran down her chin as she hissed with outrage. She did not know if the sword would get in his way, but he would surely just pull it out if it did. As his fingers brushed her waist, Rose made her choice. Her hand snaked down, snatching the paring knife from her belt, and she plunged it into the side of his neck.
He stumbled back, eyes bulging, and fell clutching his throat. A choking gurgle accompanied his feeble twitching, and then he was still. Rose wanted to retch at the act, but nothing except blood issued from her mouth. She looked down at herself and swallowed. It was tough to do with the liquid continuing to well up in her throat. Damnit, she didn't want to die! Her wound was surely mortal, but she would never give up as long as she drew breath. She was too young to die, nor would she burden her parents with the grief of losing their only child. Resolving to get free, she grabbed the hilt of the sword skewering her and hesitantly gave it a tug.
It had barely begun to move when her blood-slick hands slipped along and off the hilt. The sudden motion jarred the blade, and more blood gushed out around it. She would have fallen from the pain, but the sword held her upright. It hurt like a hot coal inside her lung... but if she stayed here, she would have no chance at all to live, and she pulled again, harder this time. The world blurred into a red haze. And then the sword came free of the wall. Rose stumbled forward and fell, her face smacking against the packed earth below. She hardly felt that, though; the sword twisted inside her as its hilt hit the ground. Now she knew what real agony was like.
Rose put her palms against the ground and pushed, raising herself to her hands and knees. She began to crawl forward, her body protesting with every move. Okay, at least she was moving—she just had to hang on, somehow. Her legs slipped and slid in warm wetness she knew had leaked from her body. She couldn't even breathe without pain, and flecks of blood flew into the air as she exhaled.
No, she didn't want to think about what that meant. So instead, she concentrated on finding something to help her stand. She'd never get anywhere crawling like this. Turning back towards the wall, she groped at it and pulled herself up to lean with her shoulder against the wood. It felt solid, as she wished she did. She was a big girl, but right now felt weak as a lamb. Even so, it surprised her to be able to do as much as she did. She'd always had a hearty constitution, but now it was proving stronger than she ever imagined.
She took a step. Damn, it made her feel dizzy. She took another, and another. Her ears picked up the sound of footsteps, carrying with them a morsel of hope. She would surely welcome the arrival of a member of the Whit family right now. She'd saved them from the marauder who had stabbed her, and if they could just get her some help she might have a chance. One hand clutching the hilt of the sword in her trunk, she staggered towards the sound.
A small figure stepped into view and stared at her with wide eyes. Rose felt instantly sorry for being here, wondering how many nightmares the child would have over the sight of her transfixed body. "D-Danny?" she found herself spitting out. "W-where are your parents?"
He yelped and dashed away. Rose kept walking, impossible as it seemed that she would find help before passing away. But then, the boy reappeared and said in a voice small with terror, "Lady, help. Mom and dad are hurt."
She didn't ask him how or why, but followed him dazedly to a sparse bedroom. There, she realized she had arrived too late. By killing that villain in the barn, she thought she'd kept him from doing harm. But he had only gone to the barn after visiting the main house. Before her lay the slashed corpses of Danny's parents, and Rose covered his eyes though it was far too late.
She led him from the room, the world spinning around her. "D-do you have a wagon, or a cart?" she asked as she tried to fight off the dizziness.
"The cart's broken. Are my parents going to be okay?"
Rose didn't know why she wasn't crying. She should have been crying. Maybe her body knew it couldn't take the strain. Not knowing how she was supposed to answer, she said, "I'll keep you safe."
"You got stabbed," he observed, reminding her she should have been dead.
"Yeah, I did. Come on, let's go."
He tried to resist her feeble pull on his arm and whined, "But what about my parents?"
"They're dead," she finally said, unable to think of any better wording. Though she had not known them well, her heart broke for the anguish in Danny's eyes. He remained tight-lipped for a moment, sniffing softly, then started to wail. Though she knew there was little comfort she could give, Rose hugged him and began to stroke his hair.
When Rose arrived half an hour later in her hometown of Hullel, many a villager greeted her with shocked gapes and piteous stares. "This is Danny," she gasped to no one in particular. "He's an orphan. Somebody needs to take care of him." She reached out towards a young woman nearby, who screamed just as her strength gave out and she fell to her knees.
"Help her, someone help her!" the woman cried. Rose felt two men take her arms and legs, shouting unintelligibly, and the world blurred around her as they carried her away.
"What on earth happened to you?" the surgeon they brought her to asked while they laid her on her side upon a cot. The air smelled of blood and sickness, and the little infirmary seemed darker than she remembered. "Did you have an accident playing with your father's crafts like last time?"
Rose would have smiled, if only she had the strength. Glen, he was named. He had treated her two years ago, when she'd sliced her forearm playing with one of her blacksmith father's swords. "No, I made the mistake of thinking I could fight."
He looked at her wound and shook his head. "I assume you saved the boy; I applaud you for that. It was a good thing to do."
The sadness in his eyes frightened her more than a bit. "What's wrong?" she asked in a quivering voice.
"You're wounded very badly."
Well, that was obvious. She could barely stay awake. "Am... am I going to die?"
He frowned, hesitating, but replied at last under her insistent gaze, "This isn't something a person can survive. I'm amazed you've lived this long."
Her heart sank as she took in his words, and realized everything was getting even blurrier. Was it the tears in her eyes, or something worse? "It's really that bad?" Glen nodded, and Rose exhaled a red mist. A spasm wracked her body. "Pull it out. I want to be able to lay on my back."
"It'll kill you faster," he whispered.
He extracted the sword from her body, and despite the hopelessness of the situation stitched closed both sides of her wound. "Maybe the gods will look after you, Rose."
"I haven't done nearly enough for that. Call my parents here, will you?"
To his credit, Glen got Rick and Lise to her bedside with fair haste, and they looked at her with stricken faces as the doctor told them of her injury. Soon, Lise began to sob. "You stupid girl," Rick said with desperate force, his large callused hands clenched tight with fear. "How could you let this happen to yourself?"
She cringed at her father's distress, but said, "I didn't try to get hurt—I was just taking a walk when I saw this ruffian snooping about a farm, so I decided to try and stop him. Maybe if you had actually let me carry a sword, I wouldn't have a hole through me right now."
"You cut yourself open the last time you had a sword."
"Yeah, but I've been practicing."
Lise looked at her husband and choked out, "At least she would have had a better chance than unarmed."
Rose squeezed her mother's plump hand and smiled. "I killed him anyway, you know. Just took more out of me than I'd have liked."
"Please don't leave us, Rose. You're our little light."
She resolved then not to die, no matter what medical knowledge had to say, and nodded. "Mom, I'm not going to. Promise, okay?"