A woman lay fully dressed on a straw stuffed pallet on the floor of her hut in a tiny farming settlement and stared into the darkness of its single, dirt floored room. Beside her, her small daughter was sleeping curled up like a kitten with her doll in her arms, but the mother lay rigidly alert to every soft night sound. Life in the village of a dozen or so sod huts and barns was generally promising and secure. The early spring weather was pleasant and dry, the crops were greening the fields, and the Ants in the Antlands—as the woman reminded herself—were said to be going about their work nearly naked and wholly unshod.
This reassured her. Men who had nothing, having nothing to lose, might be driven by desperation to acts of aggression. But Ants judged that the time was right to make war on their neighbors when the harvests had been sufficient to feed workers to ret flax and weave linen for clothes, and cattle were plentiful enough that there were hides available to make shoes. A bare, hungry Ant worked passively all day in his colony’s fields, and Men in their own countries had nothing to fear from him.
The Ants were not insects, of course, despite their name. In fact, it was said that very long ago they had been man’s own creation, made to labor for him. Physically, they resembled man, though the Ancients had, by means no longer understood, made every Ant entirely like every other one, so that all were identically short-statured, blue-eyed, and fair. But in that past age something had somehow gone desperately wrong; man’s creation (made in his image), was now man’s feared enemy.
Because the night was one of no moon, the woman was afraid. The watch in the watchtower had been doubled, of course; but if one pair of eyes could make out nothing in the blackness, twice nothing was no improvement. In another hour or two, perhaps (she had no clock to tell her how many), the sun would rise and all would be well again. But while the dark persisted the mother lay without sleeping, and almost without breathing. The villagers were so few that their only hope in the event of an Ant raid lay in the Ants finding them wide awake and forearmed.
A sound outside the shuttered window: A footstep. An early rising neighbor? The woman sat up, and willed her heart to beat more softly so she could hear. No second step followed the first, and she had lain down again and drawn a breath of relief when the unmistakable metallic whisper of a knife being drawn from a sheath brought her bolt upright again. More footsteps, a grunt, and the jostle of one body against another, and then a sound like heavy raindrops pelting to earth. When a head is struck from a body the heart does not immediately know to stop pumping, and blood spurts from the severed neck in a gory fountain. The sound was that of great gouts of a watchman’s blood falling from the watchtower where the Ants had surprised him onto the ground below.
“Anne,” the woman whispered urgently, shaking the little girl awake. “Up, up!”
The child stumbled sleepily from the pallet. She knew instinctively not to speak.
Dragging the rough mattress aside, the woman felt for the hole dug in the earth beneath it.
Into her daughter’s ear she breathed softly, pushing her down into the cavity, “Here. Lie here: That’s right. Make yourself as small as you can.”
The child still clutched her doll. “Mama…” she whispered—just that one word.
Dawn was breaking at last—too late!—and mother and child could just see by it the gleam of one another’s eyes.
“Stay here, stay covered. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, don’t move. All right? Not until you’re sure it’s safe.” But how would such a little one know? “I’ll come for you, if I can,” the woman whispered.
A glint other than her mother’s tear-bright eyes caught the little girl’s attention—that of the knife, a big one, in her mother’s hand.
The noises outside were growing louder and more frenzied. Gods! A child’s cry!
“Stay here, stay still; all right, Anne?”
The little girl nodded soberly.
A scrape at the door—
With a mother’s hungry eyes the woman devoured her child’s face one last time. “You must live,” she murmured, touching small Anne’s cheek. “You must try to live.”
The pallet in place again, the woman ran to the door and listened. She was waiting for the Ant outside to move away. She had already decided she must not be taken inside the hut. She must get out somehow, clear of the door, and then run and run as hard as she could, and at last, when she was caught—she knew she would be caught—she must fight. Every step she ran led the Ants further from her child; every Ant she tired by running was an Ant who would search the hut less carefully. And any Ant she killed was an Ant who wouldn’t kill Anne.
In one swift movement, the woman threw aside the bar to the door and burst out.
She made it as far as the clearing surrounding the watchtower, twenty steps or so from where her daughter lay shivering with fear, huddled in a hole in the ground with her doll in her arms. Eyes closed, the child kissed the doll’s face repeatedly, seeing in her mind as she did so her mother’s loved one—but she made not a sound. She was trying to live.
As she lay hugging her rag baby, an Ant whose feet were bare and who wore only the ragged remains of what had once been a roughly-sewn shirt caught her mother by her long hair and flung her to the ground, and her mother, making good on her promise to herself, sprang up again slashing wildly with her knife. She fought her attacker until another Ant, coming behind her, struck off her head with his great iron sword.
As soon as he had done so, both Ants immediately lost all interest in the woman. A dead Man was neither a threat nor plunder. As her body fell, Anne’s mother’s head rolled a little way, to the feet of another Ant. He kicked it casually aside.
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