and the fact it rains
rating: +30+x

You had given yourself four days.

This was not as arbitrary a measurement as it may seem - that was your estimate of the time it would take until your journey reached an end unchosen, until hunger and thirst dragged you down into the ditch for good. The group of small, thatched buildings that passes for a town here is too widely-dispersed to have gutters where refuse might be thrown - half-rotted fruit, scraps of silverskin, boiled carcasses with bones still full of marrow - and you do not know which of the foreign plants that grow here can be eaten.

And it has now been three and a half of those days, and you have found nothing. The people here - from what you have seen of them, hiding among the trees and behind outbuildings to avoid their blades - are farmers and herders, pale-haired and stocky. They herd around deer, and sheep, and goats, chop wood with muffled blows; none appear prepared to don armour, draw sword, and proclaim themselves the liberation of mankind.

You pull your arms more tightly around your knees. At least the river is familiar - slow and turbid as the one that was the aorta of your homeland, if fringed in hoarfrost rather than mud. A dry leaf drifts into sight, and continues out of it. Not even a breath of wind stirs the heavy-bowed heads of the fen-grasses.

Understand - it had not been clear, the vision. A flicker of scents and tastes, a garnet-coloured sunrise, jubilations and libations and it had wheeled like a hawk that sights a rat amid the stubble and fallen in a rain of glassy ornaments to show you a slight figure pinned between the teeth of the mountains and the teeth of the stars, and where those jaws had pierced them they only grinned and pried them apart again, blood running down to flood the world and finally, finally clear the taint of human doom -

Or, rather, would have. For now all your strength is spent, and you have found only winter and wasteland, and the water, limned in ice.

Somehow, you feel, you should have known.

You have been told that it is not painful. That the cold does more work than the water, sucking the strength from your marrow so gently that you do not notice it happening, and it will bear you into death as easily as drifting into sleep. Perhaps those you have loved will wait there for you - your family, and perhaps they will kiss you as when you were young and not yet broken, wipe the scars from your arms in their embrace.

Or perhaps there is simply nothing beyond it. But even that - what remains for you in life?

You go to stand.

“Uncle?” A shadow falls over you, and you look up. “Are you well?”

The man standing there is - well, you are tempted not even to call him that, he is so young. A quiver hangs at one hip and a slender hunting-bow in one hand - you do not know what game can be found in these forests, nor whether it is more typical, here, to hunt for meat. In your home, those who could not afford livestock were pitied, considered poorest of the poor.

He won’t have any struggle, in handing down your mandated punishment. Those arrowheads are probably quite sharp. And besides, at such close range it wouldn’t even matter if they were but fire-hardened points - he could pierce you through and leave you with the terrible task of breaking the embedded shaft, pulling it from your own body. Although - if you are fortunate, if his aim were to waver, even slightly - that same closeness of range could be a mercy instead, could ensure he fully cut your veins and you bleed out even more quickly than drowning.

But the man does not, as he is required to, draw any weapon. Instead, he drops down to a crouch, bringing his face level with yours. Pity contracts his face as his gaze ranges you over; then he holds out a hand, palm-up, like an offering to a spooked foal. “Come with me,” he says. “We can give food. Shelter. We can help you. Let me help.”

You ought to fight. You know it would only delay your death. But the exhaustion has stripped you bare of all but instinct, and to your everlasting shame that only obeys orders, and since nothing matters anyway it doesn’t bother to fight as the man’s hand closes around your wrist and pulls you on.

The use-trail - so lightly trod that you can only mark it squinting sideways - spills out into a clearing in which an encampment is set up, with a disturbing quantity of people. They must be relatives, or at least fairly close kin, for all share the same look as the bowman - light skin, ochre-coloured hair, clothed in hides and heavy undyed wool. You are led over to a domed and bark-thatched shelter, and he drops your hand to speak to a woman plaiting a length of cord, her hair similarly braided into a high coil on her crown. You do not understand the language, but the gestures and facial expressions indicate well enough that he wants her assistance.

They make you sit down upon a bedroll, give you water and some kind of sour green broth. Don’t, you want to tell them, don’t waste your time, your energy, your resources. Not on a madman such as I, for you have poured out all of yourself, sacrificed all hope of ever finding even a sliver of safety, abandoned your homeland - and for what? Nothing. A dream that burned off like mist in the harsh glare of waking life, that you’d only believed in because you wanted it so badly - like the way you could convince yourself, in the middle of the dry season, that you had heard a drop of rain.

They seem to take your inability to argue as implicit consent to try and physic you as well. The bowman has to wet your clothing to make it come free from the scabs, and the braided-woman gasps. For a moment, you are confused at her surprise, and then remember that other people don’t see such things every day, and might feel pity.

But then she pulls something musky-scented from a pouch at her belt and there are suddenly too many hands and you can’t, you can’t let them do this, can’t let them feign their kindness and tell you it will be all right when you know it won’t, it never can be, you never can be - you jerk to your feet, make to flee.

The man catches you before you fall, drags you back down. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Stay. Stay. It’s safe. Stay.”

No, you want to say, I cannot, I must not, don’t you see there’s nothing left to me but dying?

Please just leave me to it.

It is only when you wake that you realize you may have stumbled into a warband. Everyone in Daevon has, if not encountered, at least heard of such groups - those who cannot bear the rule of the Daeva, who wander in the wilderness like wild beasts.

Every day for five days, seven, two whole hands full, you tell yourself you must leave. For one thing, such groups tend not to have long lifespans - a band that lasts until the next season is considered tenacious, when gossiped about with cautious disinterest. (You remember your sister laughing, taunting that if one of her friends was that worried about a cousin who had joined one she would go and find him for her, would learn all their secret roads through the jungle. To creep about as silently as an owl, she had said, and they would never know I was there. I could do as I wished, then. I wouldn’t have to pay taxes - and she had been grinning even as her friend hastily shushed her, saying that the paying of taxes was right and good and the soldiers skilled enough to find anyone.

You wonder what she would think, had she lived, to see you now.)

They treat you with a vague sort of acceptance, as though you are of no more import than a pitch-sealed basin of water. The bowman grins sharply at you each time he passes, but nothing else; the braided woman tries her best to make conversation, but between the two of you you speak an average of less than one language, and she eventually gives up.

(And for the second thing, your presence shortens lifespans dramatically.)

Most groups nonetheless have a single leader, the first seditioner to forge her pruning-hook into a spear and her sickle into a sword and raise them against the servants of your matriarch. You spend the time trying to work out who it is, for this one. The braided woman? But her crown is ungolden - it may symbolize something else. There is another woman who is armoured, in patches of beaten copper sewn to a jerkin, but none obey her requests more than any others.

Or perhaps she is not yet near, but perhaps - but no, no, you are only tricking yourself. There is no sense of expectation floating between them all like spiderwebs. She is not just going to ride up, armed with bronze and haloed like the sun, having merely been away managing another faction in her following. That is a beautiful concept, but it is a fiction.

(By now you know not to trust your expectations, who have misfortune’s eye ever turned upon you. You had expected the tax-collectors would take your neighbour’s horse to satisfy her debt, not her son at swordpoint; it was not so. You had expected that when you called this out as not only savage, but uselessly so, someone would listen; it was not so.

And you had expected no-one had seen that last unlawful act - the thief-girl chained to the pillar at the crossroads, bare flesh scored with whip-marks and inscriptions of her crimes. What had struck you most had been the bloody cracks on her lips, already attracting flies, and you had pulled your waterskin from your belt and crouched down and gently held it to her mouth. She had only suckled instinctively at it, but you had not hoped for more - only that you could relieve this single atom of her suffering, could show her she remained a person, even unto her death.

And it was not so.)

And you were halfway right - it is no liberator that finally rides the use-trail, bearing open weapon. You hear hoofbeats along the road only heartbeats before a spear slashes through the drooping boughs and clatters into the midst of the camp, knocking over baskets and scattering ash from one of the firepits. Everyone leaps to their feet and bolts, some grabbing for weapons, some hauling along children or siblings to the shelter of the trees. You do not know if there is some second hideout to which they flee, but you too are instinctively standing, pushing through brush, before you realize how little point there is to it. The soldiers are not going to kill you. In fact, you are the only one here who need not fear that.

What a blessing.

You could go back, you think wildly, stumbling over mounds of moss. Give yourself up - they might have mercy on this tiny warband for their absence-of-cruelty -

But it is immediately swamped by an incongruous, hysterical amusement. There has never been mercy, either.

A movement among the undergrowth sucks your vision sideways. It becomes the bowman who drew you into this doom, who ducks behind the tangled roots of a fallen spruce as an arrow slashes above his head. A clump of soil twists under your foot - you fall to all fours, breathless and vulnerable, and he looks over and sees you; his eyes widen, and he goes to stand, and the loss of your ability to scream is an knife-blade agony to you now as you hear the soldiers shout, the bowstrings loose, they’ll kill him and it will be your fault -

And then there is an arrow in the bowman’s hand.

Not piercing it: grasped, between fingers and palm, like a sceptre.

And he lifts his left hand and begins to speak, again in that native tongue you do not know, but the meaning is clear enough. As the soldiers emerge from the brush he curses them, and they stumble and drop their weapons, try to cry out - but there is blood filling their throats, tendrils of shining scarlet weaving in and out of nostrils and eyes and ears, and you hear the vegetal tear of cartilage, and the syncopated thud of bodies falling.

You shut your eyes a moment too late, and suddenly, the loudest noise in the forest is your breathing.

The bowman has not moved; his right hand still holds the slender stem of an ash sapling, its bark smeared with glistening streaks of red ochre and green algae.

You are probably supposed to feel… something. Joy, or awe, or even terror might be appropriate - but your heart refuses to accept them all, lets you be swamped only in a sudden biting anger. Not now! you want to scream. How dare you - do you know how long I have sought you? Do you know how many people, throughout all of Daevon, have suffered and starved in your long absence? Do you know how many of them you have left to be stripped, not even of land and goods and family, but even of the two unaffordables, their deaths and their hope? (Like me threads selfishly through your mind. Ever-hurting, never-dying.)

How dare you be this - this small, this mortal, how dare you not have pressed evidence of yourself across creation? If you can slay with a will why have you not risen already, why do you hide here with your hides and your yarrow and pretend one ounce of kindness makes any difference in the face of all that? How dare you live like this, be this, as though you are daring me to give up on you - which I could tell you I already have, I think even before I fully realized it. For in all the lands I passed through seeking you, there was no less pain. The hand of the oppressor was no less heavy.

You were supposed to have made yourself known then. Not now, when it is already too late. For what good is the rain once the fields have already withered?

But, because you cannot voice any of this, when he releases the sapling and turns to you his face contains no shame, only concern. “Are you injured?” You shake your head. “Then stand up.” He makes to take your hands, help you to your feet, but you flinch back.

“Forgive me,” he says, and you know it only means for touching you thus without permission, only that you had to witness that violence without warning. It is not even an apology, not even an admission that there is any fault borne, when he should have rescued you and didn’t.

But when was the last time you dared to think of forgiveness?

The oppressors had not let up. The slave-drivers had not stayed their rods, and the debt-collectors had still torn screaming children from their parents’ arms. Such blinkered monstrosity was unforgivable, and your principles got you nowhere but dragged into the square and bled like a slaughtered goat, and so forgiveness is a power you forgot you could wield.

He is still waiting expectantly, but blurred, now, and you realize that there are tears on your face. It hurts, it hurts, you are dying with it, but now you understand why the vision was aflame; if you have learned anything coming this far into the north, braving for yourself the snow and the bitter cold, it is that frozen flesh thinks everything is fire devouring it. Even if the warmth is all that is keeping it alive.

Deliberately, you nod, and hold out your hands.

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