• David Darling

The Guards of Twilight: Book One, in the Lunar Order Trilogy




Introduction

Summer, King’s Cycle 3149

Greystoke Province

The young girl stood firm as the bandit’s horse galloped through the yard and veered toward her like a specter of death. The chestnut mare’s eyes were wide, and she couldn’t look away or move. Not yet. The reins sawed to one side as the horse began its turn. Straight toward her. The pounding hoofs mirrored the fast pace of her heartbeat, and adrenaline made her muscles twitch. The screams of her family and the attackers faded as Kerrigan remembered to breathe—slow and steady.

Dressed in a simple white-cotton dress and belt, Kerrigan looked older than the average ten-year-old—it may have been her height or the way she stood with shoulders back and the tilt of her chin. Her long brown hair hung in a thick braid down her back, and life on a farm had given her a deep bronze tan. Despite her internal screams, her face could have been chiseled from stone. There was no time for emotions, and it wouldn’t help.

The invader screamed and whipped his sword down in a crescent arc designed to cleave through her neck. The momentum of the charge and weight of the weapon would be enough to shorten her. Even if he missed, the danger of being trampled to death was real.

The bearded man had already dismissed her for the next target when Kerrigan sprang into action. An oak quarter-staff leaped from the ground with a flick of her right foot and slapped into the palm of her hand. After the morning practice session with her father, the weapon had remained in the short grass.

She stepped to the side, and the staff's tip made the blade ring like a bell as the sword was redirected. Before the bandit could turn, the five-foot length of wood slid through her right hand. The rounded end struck with precision behind his right ear. The horse continued several feet before the man fell out of the saddle into a crumpled heap in the short grass. A sound like a chicken bone snapping reached her ears—he would not be getting up again.

Twenty feet away, the man’s partner had dismounted and tried to shoulder his way into the cabin. The stout door held firm against his attacks. He swore under his breath and pounded on the door with the pommel of a long dagger. “Let’s just make this quick. No need to struggle.”

He made enough noise to cover Kerri’s approach, and she didn’t hesitate to take advantage. Despite the tremor in her hands, the staff blurred and clipped the skinny youth behind the knees. It sounded like a hollow log as it connected, and deprived of his balance, the man fell back. The death blow came across his throat. Kerrigan had been warned never to use that strike unless her life was in danger. There was no recovery from a crushed windpipe. The bandit thrashed as he struggled to breathe. Eyes were wide in fear as he clawed at his throat. The dagger landed near his feet, and she kicked it away before his twitching ceased.

The young girl shifted her attention toward her family.

Four bodies lay in the dirt, spread out in front of Kerri’s father. Despite his abilities, she wanted to scream. Scream until she woke up from this horrible dream—the nightmare. An afternoon of chores had quickly turned into a fight for her life as eight men descended on the farm. Rumors of bandits were all over town, but they were easily dismissed. Nothing could be done in any case.

As Kerrigan hid in the hayfield, her mother had time to drop the plank in the brackets from inside. Her father screamed for her to run, but there was no way she could let that happen. Her father stood firm in front of her brother, solid as a mountain. Despite a cut on his shoulder, the farmer’s quick movements and his staff held off two more bandits. The blood-soaked shirt clung to his right side. Her older brother knelt in the dirt, held two hands over his side, and screamed in pain. The raider’s horses clustered at the edge of the field and pranced back and forth with nervous energy.

A deep bass roar echoed across the fields, sounding like drum beats. She ignored the sound of distant thunder and circled behind the attackers. Kerrigan stepped over the bodies of the fallen men. It was all she could do to hold back a cry of fear as her knuckles whitened on the staff. It wouldn’t help, and she bit her tongue. Despite the terror that clutched her heart, her movements were steady and sure.

As she crept close, her father’s eyes widened, but he never let his gaze leave the two men. His staff blurred and wrapped the knuckles of the shorter man when he stepped within striking distance.

When the taller bandit lifted his sword over his right shoulder to attack, Kerri darted forward and placed her staff between his legs at the back of one knee. With a quick movement, she crouched to brace the length of wood.

It took her father a split second, and he struck the man across the chest. When the man took a step back, he fell in a tangled heap. The second raider’s eyes followed his companion's fall, which was the only distraction her father needed. His staff clipped the man in the left temple, and he was unconscious before hitting the ground.

Kerri slid her staff out from the fallen man’s legs and rolled clear when a second later, her father ended his life, and he joined his cohorts in death. Her father leaned wearily on his staff while he tried to get his breath, and his gaze rose above her head. His head cocked as he strained to listen. A few seconds later, she heard it as well. It sounded like a rainstorm, but there were no clouds in the sky.

The thunder grew, and Kerri recognized it for what it was. Horses running together.

She stood beside her father and brought her staff across her body in a defensive position, ready. Her one hand straightened out her homemade cotton dress and adjusted the rope belt. On her right side was a small sheathed knife. Kerri tested the draw.

“It’s okay.”

Despite her father’s reassurance, she never relaxed her hands on the smooth length of wood. Over the mid-summer hay crop, a plume of dust rose along the lane-way to their property. When the horses turned the corner at the barn, Kerri finally relaxed. She allowed the staff to slide through her hands to rest on the ground. The Baron’s Guard patrolled the highways and enforced the King’s Law, and while late, they had arrived. Twelve horses came to a stop, and the large man in front dismounted and sheathed his sword as he approached.

“Goodman farmer, is there more?”

He was one of the largest men Kerri had seen, taller and broader than her father by almost twelve inches. His beard was short, nearly stubble, and he radiated an aura of authority and competence. His black uniform of mail and leather gleamed in the morning sun, and he bristled with weapons thrust through his belt. Kerrigan spotted a pair of daggers peeking out of the top of his black leather boots. The ruby pommels were the only splash of color.

Her father shook his head, “I think there may have been more, but they continued down the road. These men stayed.”

The tall guard surveyed the ring of bodies that surrounded the farmer and across the yard before he spoke, “You were not always a farmer. You’ve also trained your daughter well.”

Kerri glanced at her father, and she saw his shoulders straighten and his chest swelled with pride. When he smiled at her, she could feel his love. His strong hand felt good on her shoulder when he gave her a gentle squeeze.

“We will help you and treat your wounds. Their horses and possessions are yours.” The remainder of the guard dismounted and tended her brother and father. The cabin door burst open, and her mother stepped outside with her little sister on her right hip. She held back her cries of fear as she rushed over to her husband and son.

Kerri still felt on edge, and despite the flurry of activity, she couldn’t help but scan the area. When the hay rustled twenty yards away, she calmly stepped around the large guard who tended her father’s injury.

She couldn’t say why she didn’t raise the alarm or draw attention. Kerri operated on instinct. The nightmare wasn’t over. When the bandit parted the tall stalks of hay, she saw a crossbow in his hands—the older man aimed and fired with one smooth movement.

The bolt wicked through the air toward the large man’s back. Kerri’s staff blurred, and her hands felt the vibration as the bolt punched through the oak, inches above her right hand.

The large guard spun around at the sound. As he moved, a dagger appeared. It turned end over end toward the last bandit. The blade whistled as it crossed the distance. The rogue never had time to move or reload when the dagger found its mark deep into the right eye socket. Before the bandit fell, the tall guard was already giving orders.

“Sweep the area, look for others.”

One man stayed with her brother, and the remainder spread out to search the grounds and the immediate field. Kerri looked at the large guard and her father. Both men stared at her, then at the ruined staff, surprised. The crossbow bolt had split the wood, and four inches protruded on either side. The staff, now useless, fell to the ground from numb fingers.

At her father’s side, she buried her face in his shirt. Her arms encircled his waist as she leaned against him and drew strength from his presence.

The large guard looked at the staff and the fallen bandit before he knelt. “You’re quite impressive, and I believe I owe you my life, little one.”

He pulled one of the daggers from his leather boot and spun it in the palm of a calloused hand. It was presented to her, hilt first. Tentatively, she let go of her father and reached out. Kerri’s fingers barely reached around the wrapped handle, and it resembled a short sword in her grip. When she held it firmly, and one hand rested on the pommel, a light shock ran the length of her arm. Kerrigan drew in a sharp breath and stared at the large man. Confused and excited. The sensation reminded her of running across the cabin floor in her socks then touching the metal wood stove. The ruby in the pommel flashed once, and a feeling of warmth ran along her arm.

The large guard tilted her chin up. Despite the attack and close call, staring into his eyes calmed her. Kerrigan was sure he had missed nothing of what had just happened.

“When you’re ready, come and find me at the Baron’s keep. This dagger will grant you access. Keep training, little one. The Guard can use you, and I owe you my life. That’s something I place great value upon.”

As he stood, Kerri stared at the blade in her hands, and she recognized the symbol etched along its length. It was the crest of the Baron’s son, the Earl of Greystoke. Flames encircled a shield with the crossed arrows in front.

“T-t-thank you.”

“I should be thanking you, young warrior.”

She tucked the dagger into her rope belt at her left hip. Her hand automatically rested on the pommel and felt the strange warmth from the ruby. A new world of options lay before her. She knew then, at ten years old, what she was going to do with the rest of her life. Kerri helped her brother stand as the patrol’s medical officer helped him inside the home. He would need several stitches, but he would recover with care.

Kerri ignored the fallen bandits' groans as the guardsmen dispatched them before they tended to her family. She finally relaxed and allowed a little sob to escape as she buried her face into her mother’s dress.

Strong arms held her close as her mother whispered, “I’m so proud of you, Kerrigan. Everything will be okay, I promise.”

She would never forget the moment when her life suddenly changed that midsummer morning. The warmth from the dagger pulsed in time with her heartbeat and calmed her. No matter how far she would travel or end up in the seven Kingdoms, she would recall her family's love and the feeling of her mother’s arms around her. It gave her an inner strength that allowed her to overcome many difficulties.

With what awaited her in the future, Kerrigan Greene would need it.


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