i say this that you suffer
rating: +25+x

There’s this girl.

(No, she would say, if any dared to ask. There was never a girl. Would tear the words off tablet or stone with razor-sharp claws, then the thought out of the mind of whoever had written them in a spray of lipid and CSF. Perhaps a sword-blank, if thoughts of origin must be endured - but to be a girl implies softness, sweetness, implies the existence of a family and of something other than pure single-minded tempering, rasping to the point of the scale and the spear -)

(but -)

There is this girl. She is born into the late summer, her cradle the curve of the mountains and the first noise in her ears the river, running down westwards to a sparkling sea. He is not among the highest chieftains, her father, but he rules a goodly space of land; enough for their entire tribe to farm upon and fish upon, to herd their flocks of sheep from mountain to meadow upon. Enough to provide for a thriving population, a population that can pay enough taxes to support its nobility and provide enough bodies to make full use of the resources that Batoni had given unto them.

Enough bodies to support the yearly tribute.

It is voluntary, the empress in the east insists. Intended to foster a closer relationship between their nations, and to help ensure that the children of Colchis are as invested in the state that rules them as their own small tribes.

So each year, 50 daughters, of an age to be married, are sent east over the mountains. 50 sons. What is done with them is unknown; none are returned nor ever send missives back. The emissaries always come at the beginning of the spring, when they ought to be celebrating the sowing and the quickening of the soil. Perhaps it is out of spite, or perhaps they just want to prove their superiority that much the stronger: see, we can order you to give us even your joy, and you obey.

So there is a peculiar type of tension that takes form in every person that reaches maturity; on the one hand, they have outlived the sicknesses and accidents that fell many children, and they may soon become the lord or lady of their own household, to command their own servants and beget their own line just as their parents did before them.

But on the other hand, all of those things may simply never come to pass. They may be dressed in their finest clothes, and paraded before the women from the east, and simply… disappear.

(The ones who are taken are not grieved. They are not dead; so rather than bear that uncertainty eternally, their families just allow the disappearance. That which is not, if it cannot be proven to have ever been, leaves no emptiness behind itself.)

Are you… worried? one of her friends asks, on the eve before she is to reach the age of womanhood. Even though I know that there is only one chance in hundreds that I am chosen… they say that they sacrifice them, you know. On altars to their gods.

(And that they bait monsters with them in the woods, and replace their limbs with bronze and their eyes with rock crystal and use them for soldiers in the vanguards of their armies. There are many rumours about the inhumanity of the Daeva, each worse than the last.)

But even so, it feels like… I know it, in my bones. That I will be one of the ones taken, this year. Do you?

The girl shakes her head. Her braids are piled atop each other like the bricks of a fortress-wall, that looks out over the water; they do not shift with the motion. My father would never allow that, she says.

At least, he would not have. Until the year that the plague comes. Unlike most, this one does not disproportionately target the children and the elderly, clip off the already-ill like one who prunes a grapevine to coax a greater harvest from it next year. This one spares the grandmothers, and the mothers, and brings down daughters in their youths and young men in their time of strength. (The ditches and hedgerows are, within the space of one moon, emptied of altamisa, if anyone wonders how bad it is.)

So the emissary of the empress comes to a much-diminished population to demand her hundred heads. The girl’s father pleads for mercy. He attempts to explain that with so many ill they will not have enough able-bodied to take care of the old and of children. If she takes her hundred there will be no-one left to tend the fields, to harvest the firewood. Perhaps she could take a token number this year, to be fulfilled once their population has recovered?

The emissary waits until he has finished speaking. She does not laugh. She does not smile. She makes no pretension of mockery (would it have been easier if she had? Would that hatred have hit its autoignition point in that one moment and leapt into flame, rather than its months-long smouldering, draining growth?), and yet she refuses the plea. Her compatriots enter the crowd, pull out boys trying to hide behind their mothers. The deputy counts, as they line them up like nerve chords through the center of the square - twenty-and-nineteen, two-twenties, two-twenties-and-one.

And then they come and point to her.

The girl wants - something, for her mother to grasp her arm or her father to draw her to him, something to prove that they care, that they won't just lie down and let her be stolen like this.

But the deputy beckons with two fingers. The set of her brown eyes and olive lips indicates that it will go much harder for the girl, should she refuse.

The emissary and her deputies did not bring carts; they walk the pass through the mountains. Not roped together, for where could they possibly run?

The path has been turned into little more than a streambed over the winter, as the rains took the easy route down from the highlands rather than percolating slowly through the trees and the tundra, all matted together with roots. Her ankles roll over the loose stones and gullies; her feet blister, tear open, and bleed through her sandals within the first day.

The second is worse, as the trees thin further and leave them exposed to the biting sky. One of the deputies carries with him a fire in a little birchbark box - of course, he only ever lights one, outside the animal-hide tent they erect and too far from his captives to lend them any warmth at all, even when the sky is cloudless and thin films of ice fall from the stars.

The girl has her own box, inside her heart. And into it she puts the cold, and the pain. She puts the image of the welts on her cohort's hands, and the muffled sounds of hands over lips and knees on arms as the deputies cross nightly to where the boys lie in a line at night. She puts the white shard of bone standing out against the dark void of rent muscle when the girl two spaces ahead of her misses her footing on a stone and falls, tumbles down the slope into a steep ravine gouged through the mountains on their right hand. Her screams and wails sound like a rock-spirit, echoing between its walls, and the girl mumbles a quick invocation as the deputies, ears seemingly stoppered with wax, herd them remaining along.

She locks the heart-box tight each sunset, and binds it around with her chordae so that not a single fragment could escape. These things are for later. The girl walks.

After all that - what blows her ashes back into flame is not a threshold of cruelty, when they arrive at the empire's closest trade hub, but a threshold of banality. For this is the terrible secret of the tribute the empress takes: they are married off, as appeasement and as rewards to minor nobles, allies, and militia-leaders. A clever way for the empress to assert her power over her vassal-states and gain a rare resource (for of course no-one of pure blood could be given in such a fashion) with which to ensure the fealty of her other lords.

The man to whom the girl is given is one of these - many times removed from the royal line, and owner of a moderate span of land and several vassals to manage it. He tells her all of it as they ride through the bee-filled scrublands. His silver-ringed fingers sit calmly on the reins, and she thinks she would rather forge them into spearheads than receive even one upon her own hand.

The servants, though, are sympathetic to this withdrawn foreign bride. The head cook allows her to sit on the hearth-stones and drink glasses of milk and weak mead; the maid teaches her what Daevic words she does not know, and sings her songs in the northmen's tongue. But nonetheless, they all flee at her husband's arrival.

By the time she begins to feel ill, she has already not bled for two months. Her maids coo over her, rub her back when she is sick, offer sweet teas and rich cakes. To feed the baby, they explain. Her master husband puts his hands around her waist and says my daughter, bending to kiss her there on the diaphragm.

(Daevite women don’t bleed at all - these same maids had worried in the first moon of her marriage until she had explained that she was not dying, gotten the human slaves to corroborate. That twists her gut up even more - her husband, stealing nine months’ worth of humanity from her, continuing to mould her into an alien shape.)

Her mother would have helped her, were she still in Colchis. She would have told her all to expect, and made her tisanes and massaged her limbs where they ache. But here in the east, alone, she has no-one.

She takes to meandering around the orchards and the gardens, talking to the wind and the sun, hoping they will convey her prayers to her gods. I do not want to give the world more Daeva to abuse it. I don’t - why do my sisters and brothers get to be at home, be free, when I am hostage here?

It is not fair. It is not just.

She looks for the small, yellow flowers of rue every time, and does not find them.

But in the absence of yellow, she finds rosy pinks and cool purples - slim-leaved oleander and racemoid aconite sprouting as weeds at the edges of the gardens and in the ditches at the roadsides. And the house has a well in the courtyard, that supplies most of the water for drinking and cooking and bathing.

Her hands are stained green by the time she pushes the last stalks into its mouth and makes her way up the stairs to her own chamber. It is not even yet dusk, but surely no-one will question her retiring so early - after all, it is a great endeavour to gestate and bear a daughter, and her serving-women have been constantly saying she needs rest.

(There is a certain lack of satisfaction in it - the savage thing that coils inside her heart wants blood and violence, wants to see the shock and betrayal on her husband’s face as she dismantles him piece by piece. His body could be just as useful to her as hers has been made to him. She could string harps with his sinews, split arrowheads from his bones, a waterskin from his stomach so she could cross more wildernesses and this time without torment -

But one must be practical. It will do.)

She spends much of the next day abed, watching the rays of sunlight creep across the floor and up the wall. One of her ladies-in-waiting comes in the morning, but leaves as she feigns sleep.

By evening, no-one comes.

The girl rises. She gathers her few supplies - waterskin, cloak, jewelry to trade. And she slips down the sooty servants’ staircase to the kitchen, and out the door, and barefooted onto the empty road and the oncoming dusk.

The girl doesn’t really know where she wanders, the next few days, and doesn’t care to know. The brushland is eternal, marked only by wells and fences that appear and disappear at seeming random.

Men and poems have spoken of the pangs of guilt - that when one has destroyed with one’s actions something one held dear, the suffering of that could be worse than a wound. This cannot possibly be it - they were nothing to her, it is good that they are all dead, and she knows this, deep in her bones - but then what? What explains the ache that melts out through her back?

She has retreated so deeply inside herself that she almost trips over the people resting at the side of the road in the shade of a thorn-tree. The one looks up, a sudden, alien twist of the head, and stands, wetting its lips; the other’s face is veiled, and only its eyes slide to fix on her.

Sister? asks the standing one, in a woman’s voice. Are you - is everything all right?

No, she wants to say, nothing is, not the whole world over, but the tension growing in her back chooses that moment to tear its way free from her, and the last thing she is aware of perceiving are the woman’s hands closing around her wrists.

They all fall away from her - the awareness of time, location, situation. None matters - she is being rent apart, a single pine-needle floating upon an ocean of pain. Its waves crest and break like in the bitterest of storms, scouring the shingle, tearing away every barnacle of thought that attempts to take root in her mind.

Whoever it was that screamed in time with each surge has stopped, now, from either hoarseness or exhaustion. Fragments of the outside world slide in: red light through dark-veined tentcloth, gentle words in a tongue she does not understand. Someone holds a cup against her mouth, but the bitter liquid just dribbles down the side of her cheek as a spear drives through her gut and her throat closes up again.

Something is wrong. She knows this from the tone of the foreign voices and in her bones, her instincts impotently beating on the inside of her skull - we have to do something, we’re dying, we’re bleeding -

Her minute planktonic consciousness thinks it might welcome death, at this point. And then there is a sudden cartilaginous crack, and both instinct and consciousness sink mercifully down out of the light.

She comes to to softness and musk, and even before her eyes open her left fingers close on the fur that drapes over them. Her hips and back still feel like they have been pulled apart at the joints and used for knucklebones, then reassembled wrongly. Every breath sends a stab of pain through her belly.

What has woken her? It is not bright - she has a vague sense of being inside an enclosed space, as the air feels warm and stale and confined. The light seeping through her eyelids is a mustard, buttery yellow.

She opens her eyes. She is supine on some type of makeshift cot. To her left, a glacier of white fur tumbles onto its edge; laying camouflaged among the strands are ash-coloured plaits and matted cords of hair, revealed only by the jet beads keeping the ends from unravelling.

I am telling you, your assistance is unnecessary, the fur cloak’s owner is saying; she feels the vibrations of the voice in her fingertips.

It takes three breaths before the voice returns.

Do not concern yourself with that, the speaker says, evidently in answer to some silent response. I have borne much worse, and you know it.

Another meaningful silence from the interlocutor.

I will not - no, stop - The silent one must make to grab at the other, for they step back, jarring her cot. Do not touch me!

In shock, her fingers release, and the cloak slides free.

The speaker must feel it, for they turn around. I did not mean you, čakargu.

And now two sets of eyes turn to her, and she feels the second even if she only sees the first. If only she had the strength to feel more than mildly embarrassed.

Presumably, a question is posed by the other, for the speaker answers: She is the one who poisoned Subandhu’s household. Did you not wonder why they did not raise up a militia against us? She said she had slain them all; and we came and found it was true, that they were all dead, or dying.

I wanted to make them bleed, she complains. For all the blood Subandhu had stopped her from shedding, these months.

The speaker’s lips twitch. Do not question your victories, čakargu. You achieved your aim - or I presume so. The manner in which you did so is immaterial.

But she hasn’t, not yet. There are still forty-nine other offerings in the same position as she was, and the uncounted many since Colchis had sworn vassalhood to the Empire, and it’s not right it’s not fair it’s not enough, that she be here and they be there and everyone of her childhood still unmarred and ignorant, over the mountains. There is a hole in her pelvis and that others have it filled incenses her, she will rupture like a fresh empyema under the unequal pressures. It cannot be cured with waiting, with altamisa; the one, and only, thing she needs is the lance.

So when seven days later she walks on thorns (always will, she will take no pain-free step again) to their red-walled armoury and, clinging to the ribs of the wall with one hand, draws from its glutinous sheath a spear, straight-shafted and sturdy -

- then, perhaps, is when she steps from the umbra of girl.

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