With thanks to my beta, mikeneko. ^!^
There was a family with three sisters, in a land of criss-crossed rivers, leading to the sea. The winds blew every which way, and carried strange sounds, and the moors and the fields were full of rabbits and owls, mice and frogs, and a thousand other creatures.
The eldest sister was the brave one, and the youngest sister was the laughing, mischievous one, and the middle sister was the tender one, quick to forgive.
Every year in the winter, in that country, there were raiders, and sometimes in the summer too. Usually they passed by the village in which the sisters lived, but one year they did not. They killed two harvesters to get at their stores. They came a second time, and burned a hut, and stole the loveliest books from the house of prayer.
In the house of prayer, after that attack, the villagers converged. The building was strong, but the size of its windows, with their narrow mullions, made it seem lacy and let in daylight, and the light shone on angry, worried faces.
"These are strong fierce men, who raid for their livelihood," said one woman. "We have no time to gather an army, and tend our animals, and grow our crops. We cannot build walls across our land of rivulets."
"Is there anything our spirits can do?" said another villager.
But the holy scholar who kept the house of prayer shook his head. The only spirit which the village honoured was the spirit of the Rabbit, to whom they gave offerings in spring to make the crops grow well. The Rabbit was the spirit of mischief and fertility - not of war.
"The Rabbit has served us well," said the village blacksmith, whose family kept chickens and sold their eggs. "Could we attract the patronage of another spirit to give us a berserker strength and favour us in battle when raiders attack?"
"It isn't something I have considered before," said the holy scholar, who kept the house of prayer clean and read books all day, "but surely I must have made a note about it somewhere."
In a week, they met back again, for the scholar had news.
"We may attract the spirit of the lion," said the scholar, "but only by a terrible means. I will tell you, and let you decide.
"If we sacrifice a brave child to this spirit, and he goes to his death dedicated to the lion, then the spirit of the lion will fight for us.
"But the child must die, and, too, the spirit of the rabbit will be offended by our better devotion to the lion, and our crops will not grow well the following spring."
Horrible mutters started up around the hall, and the villagers looked at the families with children, and then, few by few, the villagers bowed to the holy scholar, and left the hall. And the scholar stayed up all night, a foul-smelling candle of tallow at his elbow, searching for another charm to perform by which nobody must die.
Three days following, the village met again.
"We shall vote on the question of sacrifice," said the weaver, the unofficial leader of the village. "If our vote is yes, we then choose a victim."
In the family with three sisters, the youngest sister looked around the hall, remembering the mutters, and was afraid, and the middle sister smiled, and put a hand on the youngest sister's arm. And the oldest sister pushed her chest out and stood straight and tall and smiled proudly at anyone who would catch her eye.
Each villager above fifteen years of age was given a wooden roundel, and cast it into either of two boxes, and when the votes were counted, the decision was against the sacrifice.
The mother of the three sisters said, "I am glad. I would not like to think that our weaver would choose to kill a girl; or that our blacksmith would offer up his brother's boy, or that any of us at all would spill another's blood," and the younger two sisters and the father nodded firmly.
But the eldest sister said, "I would have gone. I'm not afraid," and she wore a furious frown.
A moon passed, in peace and hard work, and raiders attacked again. They took two households' pigs and loaded them onto their boats, and because the eldest sister had been guarding her family's pigs that night, they took her too.
"I know she is gone forever," said the youngest sister, and her sibling and her parents clung to her and cried.
Late the next night, the youngest sister went to the house of prayer, where the scholar, as usual, was sleepless. "Scholar," she said. "My sister would have died for the village, and now she is dead anyway. Can you make any meaning from her dying?"
"Are you sure she is dead?" the scholar asked.
"My sister would have struggled," said the sister known for mischief and laughter. "My sister would have given them too much spite and trouble for the raiders to keep her as a slave."
"You may be right," said the scholar, and on the wind, over the stench of the candle, they both smelled a faint touch of smoke from a village burning far away.
"I am right," said the youngest sister, "because she is my family, and my friend, and I know. Is there any way to make her death the dedication she wanted it to be?"
"Yes," said the scholar, "but it is more terrible than the first."
So the youngest sister went to the weaver and gave her the pieces saved in her wedding chest in trade for a single beautiful gown. She did her chores for her family and hugged her remaining sister, who might forgive her. She walked in the sunlight and the grass and felt the kiss of all four winds.
Then she went back to the scholar.
The scholar put two gold rings on her fingers. One showed a rabbit in profile, with a single garnet eye, and one had a snarling lion's face, with bright carnelians. "Give the lion to your sister when you find her," said the scholar, "and I hope you shall."
Then she kneeled at the altar, and drank from a cup he gave her, and shortly her breathing stopped.
The youngest sister's spirit flew along the path of the raiders' boats: down the rivers, past the lookout post where the rivers met the sea, and over the water. And at a certain point she stopped, and dove to find her sister's body on the sea floor.
But that was just the beginning, for she must follow her sister's spirit on the journey it had taken. She flew further down, following stranger rivers, and a river that grew colder and colder and colder and still flowed.
She found her sister in a miserable crowd, whose cheeks were all pale in a land without sunlight.
"I'm sorry you have joined us," said the elder. "We are the victims, those who died without any purpose and without resigning ourselves to our deaths. We went to our deaths resentful, and we do not make each other good company."
"You may leave here with me," said the younger, "if you wish to continue work on earth. None will see you; some will fear you; others will die in your name, and be glad of it."
"If you ask it," said the elder, "I will come."
When the raiders next attacked, the villagers beat them off with fearsome strength and bloody grins. Another attack ended the same way. The holy scholar told the villagers to send their thanks to the spirit of the lion.
And so the village was protected from bandits; but one of the scholar's warnings did not come to pass. Every autumn, the villagers welcomed again the spirit of the lion, and every spring, the villagers welcomed again the spirit of the rabbit, and the crops still grew under the Rabbit's favour as the sisters balanced their duties at the turning of the year.
Of all the villagers, only the couple who once had had three daughters did not worship, but stayed in their huts on feast days, and bowed their heads in their grief.
But the middle sister kissed them and went out to the ceremonies, and talked with the holy scholar, and made herself his apprentice, because if anyone was suited to be the intermediary for the Rabbit and the Lion, it was she, who had known them so well, and could forgive them what they had done.