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You had nothing more to lose.

(Not that you had ever necessarily had that much to lose in the first place - a mother, with long dark hair and kind eyes, who told you stories about far-off lands and far-distant times and about clever girls and wise men who had tricked or fled from the masters and mistresses. A sister, the pewter in whose hair shone brighter than the stars and who hummed all the time, as she cooked and wove and even as she died of fever five years ago now. A brother, young enough that you remember his birth, remember your small hand placed on his tiny damp skull like you could keep him as he grew. Your clothing. Your boots. Your knife. There was nothing more you were permitted, and nothing more you could earn, and yet even this you had managed to have torn away from you, when -)

This does not seem like it should be enough justification. You have heard how the priests speak in their devotions, and you have heard the words your mistresses and masters say when they make offerings at the household shrines and to the household idols, and there is great honour within them. They call upon gods whose might is unquestioned, who reign on realms above those of you mortals, special, divine, and untouchable.

(Not that you ever really believed in the gods, either.)

If you had asked your mistress why she left her sacrifices to the Mother, if you had asked the priest why he gave the blood and grain daily to Tívash Iron-Crowned, what made it worth it, they would have said “she is glorious.” They would have said “he is mighty and free with favour, and bestows upon me and my family blessing and honour in return for this devotion”.

They would not have said “What had I to lose?”

But how could you ever have expected? The day must be a day unlooked for, not least because every day is.
But you are so tired. And who unto you will ever call "get up"?

You hadn’t believed it, at first. Not when you had first woken in the darkness, face pressed against the clammy stone, and wondering what you had heard, if you had heard, or if it had just been a dream, because no-one was going to call for you, traitor, murderess, no-one would try to hold you back from the axe.

You had not believed it when he called you up again, somehow convincing your bruised body to rise and stumble to face him through the bars of the cell door. And scarcely when he spoke, either - it sounded like what you remembered of your family, that had remained through the long years since you were sold away. You came close to rejecting him just for that, for turning away and curling up again and closing your eyes against this trick, if not for -

You had not believed it seeing the metal broken on the ground, torn ends glittering in the one sputtering torchlight. Because you had known that was not possible, that nobody could break iron with their bare hands, and so it could not have happened. Soon, the dream would, must shiver apart and prove it all untrue.

But, because you had nothing more to lose, when he said “Follow me” and turned to leave, you had gone. Had scarcely even hesitated before running out barefoot after him, through the twists and turns of the cell-lined corridors that honeycombed all the space beneath the city wall, the stone bruising your feet to the bone but you hadn’t cared about that, just desperate to keep up with his retreating shadow as it led you through waves of torchlight and blackness, past guards and through gates, until your lungs were burning and you had turned a corner to see -

And you had still not believed it at the door, with the black-blue sky and the soft dust-animal scent of the steppe drifting in. Sky. Quiet. You could run out there, you had thought, if - and he was there against it as a silhouette, and laid a warm hand on the back of your neck.

Something had clicked, just under your ear. And your collar had split into its three pieces, and slid.

The bronze fell onto the floor, ringing like coins into a coffer.

Your ribs hurt, from that floor. And keep hurting, for two days longer, until the bruises heal. That's the thing, though, that nobody ever seems to get right. It's not - there are no doorways to duck through, no lines in the sand to cross and suddenly you will be made right, suddenly everything is perfect and there is no crying and the sun shines every day except when the crops need water. Before and after are both inexact, messy, full of endless spiralling lines that no-one could ever fully trace.
You don't come out of that door into a new world. Not yet, anyway. After all, isn't making it the battlecry?

You had not believed it. Not until you woke up, the next day, in a shelter woven of living branches and shining web-veined membrane, and it was still real.

At first, you wonder whether you could return home. Whether if you lifted the bar on that worn door, peered into that single firelit room, they would receive you. Could it all be like it was before, warmth and tales and the memory of laughter? (How long has it been since you've last laughed?)
Or would it be locked and barred and shuttered, no mother willing to take back a daughter who would poison her entire home in the eyes of the mistresses and masters, who could never be trusted again? To them, you would just be dead, wouldn't you?

There is nothing special about the the first time you realize just what he is. Nothing but that you have been loitering vaguely about the camp for days, waiting for someone to come and give you an order, prove that you ought to be there and are not thieving the food that is offered you, the spaces the other women open for you around the fires.

So you are almost grateful, when the lord asks you to fetch one of his councillors from her shelter (he walks the camp among them, lets them clap his shoulders and laugh with him, and yet they call him lord. Another thing you do not understand, another way you do not fit).

You genuflect. “Yes, ma-”

A hand clamps around your wrist, wrenches you back up to your feet. “You do not call me that.” Your breath reacts before you do, sticks within your throat. Bone creaks - faintly, you wonder if he’s going to break your arm, and what you’ll do if he does. Is there anyone in his band who would help you set it?

“And you do not bow,” he snarls. The ground before you should be crackling and dissolving in the venom that falls from those words. Why does it not?

“That is not what I am,” he says more gently, grip loosening. You feel the blood flood back into your flesh, your hands start to shake, will he not kill you, will he not cast you away, for you have disappointed him, haven’t you?

Your lord brusquely drops your hand and turns away with a sharp breath, and - leaves. Just leaves. With you remaining staring after, not dead, not injured, not anything, but -

The five crescent moons, red as skinned salmon, where his nails bit into your skin linger, the rest of the day.

A memory: one of the boys of the house is sitting on the step, clutching his hand to his chest and, you can see, struggling not to cry. And when you bend down and ask "what's wrong?" he shows you two fingers almost black with bruises, and bent wrongly.
There is relatively little you can do - bind them to the ones beside with linen, and hand him your last slip of willow bark - and you don't bother to ask how that was earned.

The first time he calls you ‘sare, it steals your breath away. ‘Sare, sasare, little sister - you had said that before, to the new children of the household when they came to you weeping for loneliness, for loss of kith and kin, when you pressed rags soaked in cold water to the boys’ weals and helped the girls clean away the blood, when you replaited their hair in the dull light from the kitchen-hearth burned down to almost nothing. Yes, yes, little sister, you would whisper, sitting on those warm stones and letting them weep into your shoulder, rocking like that would help, like you could do anything to protect anybody from their cruelty.

(You think of your sister-by-water, burning away inside her own skin. You think of your brother, last seen as they pulled you up from the dark building behind the market square to stand upon the block and be cried, who by now has been probably broken down under the burdens they would fling upon him, while he is young and can work. You had never been under any impression that you could keep them.)

But your lord calls you sister in the voice that commands armies, and smiles at you, and -

He is gone before you convince yourself to move, reach out. You do anyway.

Another memory: when you asked your mother to tell you about your father, all she said was that he was gone now. When you asked your sister, she added: but he promised to find us one day, when he worked himself free. For three days you dream that, someone coming to swing you up laughing in his arms and love you with no conditions.
On the fourth day you stop. There is nothing to be gained from dreaming.

The shrine is now nothing more than shattered stone walls and thatch scattered through the grass - its priestesses and defenders all dragged away to be piled where some of the others are digging a shallow grave for them at the edge of the clearing. All the tribute, gold plates and jewelry and linen and leather, have been dragged out from the vaults and piled on the grass, with others of the host picking through them for spoil.

And someone gasps, and then all heads turn, a slow wave, to see your lord leave the fractured sanctuary - well, no longer now, you suppose, now that there is no goddess to inhabit it. His arms are reddened to the elbow and his face to the eyes, and there is something in his hands, something dark red and mottled with vein and pale drops of fat.

The host all steps back, as he passes, a subtle shift that forms a path for him to go out upon. It goes untaken.

Instead, he turns and holds the thing out to you.

You take it. (The blood runs hot and viscous down your wrists, and you remember how it had felt, the youngest son’s body going limp under the dagger you had stolen from the eldest, how their sisters had begged and their cousins had tried to tear your hands away from their throats, and when their grip had faltered you had crushed their wrists to be sure. The air had been thick with that coppery smell, and your steps had dripped behind to mark your path.

You remember how empty you had felt, afterwards.)

And you eat.

Arise, Saarn.
Will you doubt that I have chosen you?


Courtesy of niramniram

The first time you call him welye, you do not remember what road you are on. Some road, to somewhere, that needs to hear what he has to say - great city or small village, it is not something you have asked, for it is not your place to ask these things. And it would not have mattered anyway - it is your place to follow, anywhere your feet may still lead you, in word and in deed. Your place to stand at his left hand, as you march among the emerald and umber of the forest, needles bending beneath your boots.

(There is more power in the blood of an oath than there is in water, after all. You have fought together, eaten together - the memory of the scarlet thread of sorcery humming through your veins when you bowed still sweet and sharp and clear-edged. More than enough to claim flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.)

And he laughs, and takes your face between hands with the dust of mountains and the blood of monsters still caked under the fingernails, and kisses your forehead.

There are knives within your mind now, and not just within your hands. There is sugar and protein there too, and not just dripping from your fingertips.
Being alive is a complicated thing - odd that no-one ever gets a choice in the matter. But now, you feel like you may have got something right.

Another man drops to your left, a spear of bone protruding from what had been an eye. You know you still live only by comparison, the entire battlefield soaked in mud and blood and poison - a hand appears from behind in a clumsy attempt to drag you down, and your fangs sink down to the bone in return.

Here, it is acceptable to demand that no-one touch you, to meet any attempt with force to spare. Here, untouchable is glory and not insubordination. You hadn’t thought you were made for battle, but perhaps that was only because you had never seen it.

Is this happiness? you think. And as another spray of red lashes itself over your face you correct yourself, no,

it’s joy.

Arise, Saarn, you are told.
Slay, and eat.

“Are you afraid?” he asks you once, in your encampment around the walls. Tomorrow the city will fall or you will, and there has been so much for you to plan, the movements to be organized and delegated - the stars already ride high in the sky and still you are scratching and brushing away spidery words on your tablet, bending over the stretched membrane of a table to sketch walls and streets, movements and defences. The edges of your knives have been scraped until you can catch your claws on them, and the last captain come in to speak with him has left, and the quiet drops down on you heavy as a layer of ash.

Yes, you would say. But not of death. Not that we may lose and be ground down into the dust, our bones hung on the walls as a warning to the next conqueror and our spirits fertilizing the weeds in the gutters below, I would take that, but -

I love you, you want to cry. And I have never loved anything this way before. I have never believed in anything before, but around you, it is so hard not to. Because I was a city, once, too, I had barred my heart with walls of iron and basalt, and you clawed them open as you clawed open that door, and have left me soft and empty and undefended in trusting you.

You raised me up, you would say. You lifted me from my knees and set me upon my feet, you took me from the darkness and have set me upon the city walls, upon the summits of the greatest mountains by your side. Do you not see how much further the fall may be, from such a height? Do you not see how much more I may lose, having gained it?

And yet…

And yet. The brazier casts the tissue of the bowed roof in amber, sets sparks in the curling ends of your hair. He has opened for you ways in the void where there are not even stars, and your feet have not slipped when you trod them. He has given you teeth and claws, fed you on blood and wine, neither harmed nor betrayed you in all this time.

It still feels like stepping off a precipice, hoping the ground will not be that far away. Trusting your scales will elongate into feathers and you will fly.

You never believed in the gods. But then, they never did anything to earn it.

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