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Against the Odds

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Some days, Colonel Glokta still wasn't sure that he wasn't dreaming. He had dreamed a lot during those last two years, and in retrospect, the dreams in which he had been free had been the worst – they meant that he would be waking to a nightmare from which he could not wake.

In those dreams, though, he had been truly free, able to go about his life, admired for the feat of surviving the Gurkish prisons and torture chambers, his scars tidy badges of honour.

Reality was nothing like that.

The looks he got were, either full of pity or disgust at what was left of him. The whispers he heard from time to time said the same. Several weeks into his freedom, his body was still covered in wounds that wouldn't heal as they should.

They had given him a room to himself. He tried to tell himself that it was for his rank and standing, and not because he kept everyone awake when he woke screaming from nightmares, or because they did not want to impose the stink that emanated from him on anyone else – not always, of course, but just like back in his filthy cell, he would wake covered in his own shit – more often than he used to, because food came regularly now.

There, the matter had been dealt with by emptying a bucket of cold water over him, if it had been dealt with at all. Here, some poor nurse was ordered to clean him up. They tried to do so gently and without betraying what they really thought of the task. Glokta thought that he might have preferred the wordless bucket of water. If he heard another reassurance that they didn't mind, while their eyes said the opposite, he would—

He would do precisely nothing, except in his thoughts. He might yell at someone, but it wasn't as if he could follow up on any threats he might utter. Just like in the Gurkish prisons, he was at the mercy of his keepers.

His bed had been put by the window, but the curtains remained drawn so far. He did not know how much time he had spent in the dark towards the end, but his eyes were keenly sensitive to light now, and the sun had caused him agony when they had carried him out, unable to even think of standing or walking himself, to take him to be exchanged. He could bear the dimmed light in the room now, and he no longer winced and had to close his eyes when the physicians and the surgeons striving to put his broken body back together brought in stronger lamps to see what they were doing – his eye, really, since his left was still swollen shut. They assured him that no permanent harm would be done by denying him light, that he would not find bright lights painful for ever – or even for long. They didn't admit that they had no idea what was going on with his other eye, but he could see enough to notice the looks they gave each other.

Knowing that at least some things would heal could have been some consolation, if it didn't drive home the many other aspects of his condition that they said no such thing about. His back hurt even while lying down. Even the idea of sitting up for more than a minute or two at a time was unbearable.

There had been talk of cutting away the scar tissue between his legs and stitching him up properly, hoping that there was enough of him left to give him back some measure of an ability to control his body's wastes. It had been decided against, without consulting him on the matter. The pain would be immense, infection certain and, in his current condition, his death likely. Too much risk, with too little to gain from it, and only a fleeting chance that it would do much good to begin with.

They had recommended amputation of his left leg close to the hip following one of the first examinations they had conducted.

He had objected to that, vocally and with all the energy he could muster, until they had had to restrain him lest he do himself further damage. Even the pain that accompanied nearly every movement had not been able to keep him from fighting at that prospect.

In the end, they had promised him that they would do what they could to save the leg. His foot, though, was throbbing with fresh pain now, the old, familiar agony of crushed toes replaced by a fresher pain that drew a clean line maybe an inch away from where his toes had once started. Rot had set in there, and cutting away the front part of his foot had been unavoidable to save the rest of his leg.

He even believed that. He had seen it.

He suffered through the daily cleaning of his wounds, biting his lips and tongue bloody with his remaining teeth or not bothering to conceal his pain.

Dressing and undressing was exquisitely painful, with every movement pulling on fresh scars, healing and open wounds. It would have been easier for the people taking care of him to just let him lie naked, with nothing but the bandages to cover him under the blankets. The nightshirt felt strange on him after the long time spent naked in his cell. Taking away a prisoner's clothes had been part of their routine. The things they had put him in to exchange him had felt like a kind of torture of their own, chafing and scratching skin no longer used to being covered by fabric.

Glokta had been unable to fight helpless tears when they had first proposed not to force him into and out of a nightshirt every time they changed his bandages and monitored progress of his wounds. He felt somewhat ashamed with himself for it, having such a reaction to such a minor thing, but at least they had relented.

His mother had been in and out of the room several times, crying over him and then going on at length about the terrors of armies in general, war in particular and treatment of prisoners by the enemy most specifically. He ended up doing his best to console her, even though all he wanted to do was scream at her to get out and leave him alone.

She thought he should come home to recover, that her money would buy him better physicians, better treatment, faster healing. He could hear her berate one of the surgeons through the closed door, feeling strangely relieved that she was being told in no uncertain terms that he was not fit to travel and would not be for a while.

Chapter Text

He would have liked to have his old room back. It was upstairs, though, and the bathroom was downstairs, and carrying him up and down the stairs every time he needed a bath would not have been feasible.

So his mother had had a chamber cleared out for him on the ground floor, towards the back of the house. It was quieter there, she said. He would have liked to have something more interesting to watch through his window than the every-unchanging view from here, but he didn't argue. The room had been decorated by his mother as well – but without much thought to what he would have liked to see from his bed.

The drive here in a closed coach, bundled up in a heap of blankets to cushion the blows dealt by the condition of the roads, had been a torture in itself. It had taken days before he had been able to sit up for a meal, supported by thick cushions.

He hadn't had a single real visitor since he had arrived here – a thought he quickly pushed from his mind. He couldn't let himself dwell on that. He had things to do.

His mother had stayed true to her promise, bringing in physicians and surgeons to look at him. He knew that minute shake of their heads, that twitch of their lips and that look in their eyes by now. They all came to the same conclusion: the damage was too severe, his body healing as well as it could, but it would not be enough. It would never be enough.

A week ago, he had heard one inform his mother that she had to reconcile herself to the fact that her son would never leave his bed under his own power again, never be able to even sit upright for more than the time of a meal without being in agony.

They hadn't told him any such thing, of course. They didn't talk to him about such things. To his face, they merely told him to give things time, to be patient… he wondered when they would finally stop that.

He, however, had no intention of spending the rest of his life in this bed. He was Sand dan Glokta, not yet 30 years old, and he had too much of his life before him to reconcile himself to the future his mother surely had in mind for him.

He felt tears trickling down his face – not at the memory, not at his prospects, of course. It was just that his eye, with the swelling finally down enough to see through it – though still blurrily – kept tearing up without any reason.

To get out from under his mother's eye and command, he needed to be able to get around under his own power. To get back any semblance of a life of his own, he had to be able to leave this bed – or any bed, really.

Glokta pushed himself up, refusing to acknowledge the pain that was searing through his back and neck. If the pain was not going to go away, he would have to get used to it.

He froze, waiting to see if it would grow any worse. Then, satisfied that it remained at its current level, he reached for the handhold over his bed, there mostly to help him raise himself up a little to make the servants' work easier, and dragged himself up all the way.

With a series of tiny movements, he shifted his body towards the edge of the bed. His right leg went over the edge, and he put his foot on the floor. It took some juggling before he could reach out for his other leg with a free hand to carefully manoeuver it where he needed it to go, and to slowly lower the foot down. The moment of contact with the carpet was painful anyway, but at least this way it didn't make him want to scream.

Dressed in loose trousers and a tunic as he was – he had insisted on proper clothes during the day once they had brought him home and he had been coherent enough after the ordeal of the trip –, his garments hid most of the deformation of his leg, and he could look down at it without wincing.

The door to his room opened, and Glokta cursed himself under his breath for not having paid attention to the sounds outside. Not falling over – or out – had taken all his focus.

He looked up, noting with some surprise that his servant was closing the door firmly behind him. "Where are you going, Sir?" he asked neutrally.

"For a walk in the garden," Glokta returned, a sneer on his face. It should have been quite obvious that he wasn't going to go anywhere – and he was not looking forward to the discussion he would have with his mother when she heard of this.

"Very well, Sir," the servant said, unfazed by Glokta's tone or expression. "Would you like a hand with that?"

About to decline, Glokta reconsidered. "Steady me. I'm getting up." He hated what his missing teeth did to his speech.

The man came over, reaching out. "Ready, Sir?"

"Ready." Glokta barely remembered, not to nod.

Pushing himself up with his good – or better – leg, and using the other man for support, he felt the blood rush out of his head, sudden dizziness warring with the pain in his back, his legs, his neck – why his neck? He wasn't standing on his neck, was he?

He closed his eyes, letting the dizziness pass, trying to gauge if the pain was ebbing at all. He wouldn't be able to keep this up for long.

He should already be lying down again. He probably shouldn't ever have stopped lying down.

"Just … a step or two," he ground out, not sure if he was talking to himself of the servant.

The hold on him shifted, a strong supporting arm resting across his upper back.

His teeth clenched on empty gums, Glokta tried to move his left leg forward. He had little control in the knee or the ankle – he knew that because he had tested it in bed, trying to figure out his chances.

Sliding his leg forward from the hip, he stubbed the toeless stump of his foot on the floor for the first time.

Pain shot up through his foot into his leg, continuing up along his spine, fresh, raw and with the intensity of a well-trained torture master. Glokta just managed to muffle a shriek with the back of his hand.

He felt his other leg give way under him. Before he could crash to the ground, however, he was swept up, lifted as if he weighed no more than a child, and gently deposited back on the bed.

"Once more tomorrow, Sir?" the servant asked, as if what had just happened had been nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Glokta stared at him.

"Tomorrow," he repeated once he felt confident enough that he could take his hand out of his mouth without giving himself away. "And the day after. As long as it takes."