First of a planned fantasy duology from Bujold (The Curse of Chalion, 2001, etc.).
Young farm girl Fawn Bluefield, pregnant and unmarried, runs away from home, hoping to find work in the town of Glassforge. On the road, she’s grabbed by a mud-man, the slave of a “malice.” Malices are weird, evil entities that apparently come up out of the ground, with the ability to transform animals into human semblance, then enslave them, along with real humans. Lakewalkers, dedicated warrior-magicians, patrol the hinterlands, destroying malices with their “sharing knives,” made from human bone and charged with a Lakewalker’s energy (to charge a knife, a Lakewalker must be stabbed through the heart with it). Giant one-armed patroller Dag, hearing Fawn’s cries, rescues her from the mud-man. He leaves Fawn at an abandoned farmhouse in order to help his band track down the malice, but while he’s away, more mud-men capture Fawn and drag her into the malice’s lair. Just as Dag arrives, the malice rips out of Fawn her unborn child. Dag has two knives, but only one of them is charged; as Fawn stabs the malice with the uncharged one, Dag kills the creature with the other. Later, Dag finds to his astonishment that Fawn’s knife is now charged. This unprecedented development must be reported to Lakewalker headquarters; after Fawn recovers, they hit the road. Soon becoming lovers, they decide to swing by Fawn’s home despite the unlikelihood of a friendly reception.
Flurries of action early on, devolving into stock fantasy-romance; overall, just about noteworthy enough to bring readers back for the promised conclusion.