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this one's for the torn down, the experts at the fall

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You’re five summers old when your father allows you to travel with him; he’s a whip of a man, tall and narrow, and he ghosts through your life once or twice a year. Your parents never stayed, not like the other families in the village—you mother was a woman who only showed her face at night, and always with a new nameless man and your father is the rickety wheels of a merchant caravan and a tarnished golden necklace. The orphanage says you’ll be a healer, or a farmer—but you want to be like your father. You want to wash away into the afternoon sun, and always be greeted with a smile—small villages would die without the seasonal trade caravan, without the ridiculously overprices goods and the cutthroat business man who ran it.

It isn’t until you’re tall enough to reach the rings at the top of the cart, or strong enough to direct the massive horses that you’re allowed to join him—not as his daughter, he’s insistent that he doesn’t have any of those. But as his apprentice—his second you chirp too helpfully, a term you’ve heard around the older boys, who practically salivate when warriors come back from the skirmishes on the far borders. Stopping briefly to get a hot meal, and a good night’s sleep.

“No,” he’s insistent again, not his second. His apprentice. His accent is rough, from far north, and his hair is pale, the color of wheat and the sun, and when it’s hot and bright in the summer, you compare the streaks of color that tangle through your dark strands. Sun bleaching, an old woman croons while petting your head like an animal—she’s haggling over wolf pelts, and your father is all crooked smiles and shrugging shoulders. He asks for ten, she promises eight and a meal—he then asks for twelve, and somehow ends up with ten and a meal.

You wonder why they always agree—your father is hardly intimidating, and he never raises his voice. It’s something in his sharp green eyes, something that makes people nervous, and yet still wish to be around him—a healer supplies the answer. It wasn’t something in his eyes—it was something that was missing, that common courtesy, the ability to worry for others. He was a profoundly selfish man, and selfish men are dangerous, because there was no depth they wouldn’t reach for gain.

But that can’t be all, you wonder, isn’t everyone greedy now and again?

You wonder if it’s the large men who lumber beside the carts, guarding it from quick hands and careless drunks. They’re brash and rough, and they tend to shove you around like another piece of the merchandise they’re meant to protect. “Little sparrow,” they call you, due to your sharp elbows and quick eyes. “Fly away,” they drawl, and you stand your ground for as long as it takes them to take a threatening step forward—one day, you think when scrabbling into the dark back of a cart.


Your father calls you a body seer; and you don’t know what it means. But you think it has something to do with the questions he asks—how many children did someone have? What was their hobby? How many coins in their purse? Were they willing to negotiate? It was the little things you noticed—the limp in a farmer’s leg, the smudge of ink on a painter’s fingers, the notches in a family walking stick. Little details that presented a story for you to follow. Your father’s always nicest when you’re right—so after a while, you refuse to be wrong. You grasp for the hardest clues, and you squirrel away the rare golden toothed smiles he offers you.

It only takes a few months before the village merchants are watching you with caution, pulling their cloaks tightly around themselves, leaving all personal affects far away from your sharp eyes. Your father has become your keeper, and guileless as you are, you’ve become the danger. You pick apart the facts because you’d do anything for the scraps of affection your father shows when you solve the walking puzzles that are the merchants of flahkkru and whetkru, and the highbrow business men of Polis.

The merchants of the capitol look down their noses at your bare feet, and the stiff clothing your father makes you wear when you go to the big city—the clothing is expensive and new, and is hardly comfortable. And it is noticeable. The way you shift, and pull at the fabric, unable to sit still for even a moment. It marks you as different, as not belonging in the loud bustle of the city.

“Legitimacy,” he whispers to you one evening, swirling the foul smelling drink he drowns himself in almost every night. “Legitimacy is what matters. Beyond the breath in your lungs, and the sun in your hair, and the ground beneath your feet—legitimacy is what rules the wills of lesser men.” He’s grinning sharply at you, bent close to toy with a blonde highlight in your hair—telling you secrets because though he says he has no daughter, you’re his apprentice, and that’s almost the same thing.

“Men are sheep,” he whispers while laughing to himself, “they follow even a wolf if they’re told to.” You wonder if he thinks you’re a sheep, if he thinks himself a wolf—his green eyes might frighten others, but you think they just look sad. He’s alone in a room of people. It isn’t until it is far past your usual bedtime that you ask him—tucked under his arm, holding up his weight.

“Not at all, dear heart.” Now he does seem sad, his voice softer than you’ve ever heard. “You’re a wolf if I’ve ever seen one.” You don’t understand, but you don’t disagree. You have nothing against wolves, but why does it feel like your shoulders are just a few pounds heavier—like a weight has settled.


 

You’ve been with your father’s caravan for one summer when you meet Enrik; he’s a large square boy whose voice is soft, with eyes even softer. He shows up that first night, when even your father’s guards are out drinking before he asks how much a booklet of paper is. His large hand is curled into a fist around rusted copper chips, and you know they’re worthless—hardly worth the dirt beneath the wheels. But you lean over the rail, a wooden hilted dagger waved wildly, like somehow the boy twice your size will be frightened—he does take a step back, but then he asks again. “How much for a booklet of paper?”

“Why?” You ask, head tipped because you can’t fathom why such a brutal looking boy would want something as useless as paper. The swords and daggers in the next cart, surely, or maybe even the farming equipment they’d just purchased from the crumbling farm at the end of town.

“I’m a writer,” the boy supplies, nervous dark eyes skipping to everybody that stumbles out of the tavern drunk and loud—it was the first time you saw how someone so big, could look so small. It was the curve of his shoulders, and the fidget of his fingers on the useless copper. Your father called you a body seer, regaled customers on how your eyes missed not a thing—such a sharp little sparrow he had—and it isn’t until now that you wished you could look away. That you didn’t notice the faded bruise at the collar of his shirt, or the almost healed split to his lip.

You ask him what he writes, because while you have a cart full of books, you’ve never opened one—never even thought to learn how to read.

“Stories,” his eyes brighten, “of places far from here. Of heroes.” It’s the witching hour, and the moon is already beginning to sink when the pelt of the tavern is thrust open and your father leaves with a ravaged man of many scars—the golden sash around his waist says he’s important. But it’s your sharp eye that sees the boy’s features mirrored in this harsh man. They’re laughing loudly enough to disturb the quiet, and your father’s golden tooth matches too well with the savage man of war he slings his arm across. The boy flinches, and your mind it made up.

“Write me a story,” it’s a demand, thrusting a bound set of paper into his hands, refusing the useless copper; a story about adventure, and danger, and most importantly. “About a sparrow.”


 

You’ve been little sparrow longer than you’ve been anything else—the women at the orphanage called you many names, they could never keep all the children straight. Balti, Richme, Lina, Quinta—it was harsh eyes and sharp tones that called to you, not any particular arrangement of letters.

You never wonder why you didn’t have a name; it’s because you didn’t have a family, no one was there to give you one. You’ve heard of name day celebrations; the bright fires and the gathered people on a child’s first winter. Your village didn’t have many, because very few children lived to one—too far north, the women who ran the orphanage would mutter when another family began their mourning.

Enrik is almost twice your age, but he never listens when the other boys tease him. He’s a second now, his green sash tied across his barrel chest, his face bloodied and broken. But he always smiles for you, always sits in the shade of a tree when he’s given a moment between beatings to guide your finger across the words of yet another book. He’s learning how to speak English, and though he can barely understand it, he tries teaching you.

You’re reading about Alexander the Great—a man from many seasons ago, before the bright sky and the blood rain, before the towering clouds and the acid fog. A man who conquered the world, all of it—his horse black as night, and his shadow so frightening even the beast couldn’t face it. So instead, they rode toward the sun.

You try saying the name, butchering the syllables until they’re jumbled and ruined—the strange mark twisting your tongue impossibly. But Enrik says is perfectly, the ridiculous letter hard and strong—“Aleksanda.” You like how it sounds; like everyone had to pause and really think about the letters. On how they smashed together to make a name. You want to make it yours.

“Alexander,” he ponders, “isn’t that too long for a little sparrow?” You know he says it with something akin to affection, but you shove his shoulder nonetheless. You haven’t been little since last time you saw him—you can jump from the highest roof and hardly stumble. You can carry a full arm load of swords without effort. You’re practically grown—it doesn’t matter that you’re just over eight summers old.

“Lexa,” you settle for the best part of the name right now—the part that makes even Enrik pause to corral the sounds. He says the name and smiles, nodding—you like how he says it. His mentor hollers for him to stop lazing about, and you shove him away, cradling the book in your lap.

“Toward the sun,” you remind him; because that was how Alexander conquered the world, toward the sun. Surely your namesake had everything figured out if he conquered the whole world—Enrik was just trying to win one fight. Or maybe, just not lose so badly.


Ambushes happen; bandits and rogues cast out of their villages hunt the dark paths in the deepest parts of the forest. They linger for caravans and slaughter everyone within—you’ve been through a few, but your father’s men are hardened warriors from battles on the worst of the borders. They don’t flinch when howlers fall from the trees with sharp blades, and black painted faces.

This time is no different, you figure, tucked away in the darkest corner of the weapons cart—your small, narrow hands wrapped around your favorite wooden dagger. The sounds from outside are sharp and the taste of copper in on your tongue—you don’t like how quiet it’s gotten. You don’t know what the silence means, because your father’s men are loud brash men. They cursed and insulted, and desecrated the men they kill—this quiet was bone deep and frightening.

With the silence still ringing in your ears the cart’s cover is tossed back, and you flinch forward, and not away—dagger thrust with the loose knuckled grip Enrik had taught you, forward and twist. And suddenly you can’t move any more—your blade is stuck between a man’s ribs and his eyes look black in the dark. You tip forward off the lip of the cart, half pulled by the man, until you’re barely supporting both your weights.

The dagger slid in too easily, his red, red, red, blood spills over your hands and you see too much of the whites of his eyes. His pupil swimming like muddy brown frogs on a too large pond—he looks surprised, your brain will supply later. His mouth gaping like a caught fish, his large, large, large, fingers scrabbling at the fur line of your collar to drag you to the ground as he crumples.

You’ve seen dead men before, many actually—but you’ve never seen a dying man. You didn’t realize how important this distinction was until this moment—until you watched the glaze sluggishly pull at the color of his eyes, and he stops. Everything, just stops. He’s too heavy to move, his frame set upon yours and you’re left to stay there. Pinned beneath a dying man in the cold of a northern winter.

You tell him how sorry you are, that you hadn’t meant to—that he’d simply startled you. But you stop apologizing when you see the strewn frame of your father across the path in an embankment of snow. His body lays strangely, and you can just make out the glint of his golden tooth and necklace in the moonlight. He looks so small dead—more a little sparrow than you ever were, because you could still grow—and he was dead. He would never grow again.

The second half of your father’s men find you in the morning, the body upon you stiff with death, and you’d run out of tears by the time you were pulled gracelessly to your feet. Nothing. You feel nothing—as dead as the men laying on the ground. Your once light colored clothing are now rusted with dried blood, your hands shake, but you hadn’t realized you’d taken the dagger from the man’s chest, had it curled tightly in the grip of your left hand.

They ask you what happened, shake you until you can give them an answer—you tell them how quiet it was, how so many people died silently. About how the man had gurgled in his own blood before he’d died—you haven’t even seen ten summers yet, but you know what a dying man looks like—you know how warm blood melts snow, and light colored fabric hides nothing.

“Little sparrow,” they begin, but you stop them—that wasn’t your name, never had been. But your new name had belonged to just you and Enrik before now, it had felt like the world’s biggest secret. But you’re not a brittle little bird anymore, no. You’ve darkened your hands with blood, and you think this may have been how Alexander felt, when he took his first step toward the sun. A blistering heat in his chest, and an impossible cold in his bones.

Aleksanda,” you supply while wiping your blade on your already ruined shirt. “Lexa,” you settle. You try to close your father’s eyes, but they are stiff and the green eyes that match your own stare sightlessly at the sky. You place two golden coins over his unseeing eyes, because even in death he wouldn’t settle for useless copper.

“It’s a two day ride to the next village,” when you say this the living men start and are confused. Their employer was dead, why did it matter how far it was? You’re not a child anymore, you don’t think you ever were—just pretending to be. You father had called you a wolf once, had seen something below the flesh and bones—some hidden thing lurking in your heart. This delay will be a problem, especially with winter chasing you tail so closely—you need to get moving.

The men don’t know how to handle a small girl clambering up onto the lead cart, you imagine, they seem almost numb as they filing into position. The monster of a horse at the front of the caravan has always given you trouble, tossed his head with a demon in his eye, refused to budge for you. Alexander had a mighty horse, a monster with such a frightening shadow that even he flinched away—you wonder if they had a moment like this. A horse knows a person, really knows them—you’d heard an elder say when a colt bolted away from your father, but had muzzled into your chin.

“Do you know me?” You ask him, hoping beyond hope that he had an answer, because you’re lost—a wolf, a sparrow, a conqueror. He doesn’t answer, and you don’t really expect him to—but he tosses his head, and starts forward.

Not toward the sun, as the blanket of night has fallen—but you chase the moon toward the horizon.


The ambush had shattered the order of the caravan, the unrest was felt all the way to that first village—the horses moved, the men walked, and you—remained. Sat at the front like you had any notion of what you were doing—not even ten summers, and everything already seemed so heavy.

The sell swords had tried their hand at bartering, tried to take up your father’s mantle of silver tongued snake, but they were slow brutes kept on the ground by muscle alone. Not a working brain between them. But people recognized you—you were your father’s leashed body seer, your eyes as sharp and green as his had been, and you’ve learned how to mimic his smile. All tooth, wide and unsettling. You slip into a guard’s deal, asking about his mother’s health—you see a glint of poppy powder at the bed of his nail, and a woven necklaces decades older than he.

“She’d do well with a night-leer mixture,” you intone, turning his eye toward the sluggish green bottle in your palm. The sun catching it just right, looking to have a star caught within the muck. “Finest you’ll find this side of the ice,” And he’s sold. Your familiar face makes things easier—you are your father’s wolf, after all. And these men are sheep, just looking for proper direction—they don’t see the sharp line of your teeth, or that something in your green eyes. That’s alright.

“A girl,” a distressed mother of two whispers, “and a gonakru of bandits.” They don’t realize the ugly ruined men lurking in the shade of the carts are yours. That they’d follow a girl if it meant their pockets were full of coin; that you had that something they lacked, the thing that had kept your father in control for so long. Despite being the whip of a man he was, a man who’d never picked up a weapon in his life—yet still a dangerous man.

Unlike your father, you’ve killed a man—the rust had been in the beds of your nails for days, despite how hard you’d scrubbed. Rharn is the oldest of your father’s guards, and he teaches you how to wield you small wooden knife—how to use your small size, and your sharp mind to take down men twice, three times, your size.


 

Home is a foreign word to you, because you don’t believe you have one. You have wagon wheels, and dirt paths and towering trees—the village you lived in until you were five was just a place. One you’d never been back to since you’d left—it makes you think maybe your father had stopped by twice a year just to see you. To catch glimpses of you at the orphanage, to see if his blood kin still lived—not his daughter, his apprentice.

A war at the border just beyond the small mountain village had erupted in the last months, you’d be on the far side of the world gathering delicacies and exotic mixtures. Farther than any other caravan was willing to travel—through battles and across borders. But somehow it brought you back here; ten summers old, just under two from your father’s death. He’d died in winter, and it was now spring. You’re taller, but still as thin, shoulders brittle looking but strong—the ash gray and cold metal of your armor is intimidating. Your wooden dagger settles on your thigh, but a sword has joined at your waist.

“My girl,” a woman croons, “my darling girl!” She’d all elbows and knees, her skin dark from constant exposure to the sun, and you hardly recognize the woman who was almost your mother—the one who’d left you at the orphanage because she’d been just a girl herself. It’s when she goes to throw her arms around you that your men react, blades already sliding from their sheaths, bloodlust in their eyes.

You catch her by the shoulders, and though your hands are not large, she seems smaller because of the contact—you reach her chin, but she’s bones and paper-thin skin, and her hair is thinning and brittle. She was beautiful once, but a plague had ravished the north. Had torn through the villages at the far border, and threatened to wipe each and every one of them off the map.

“I’m not your girl,” you assure her, voice low, because so much of you wanted this your whole life—for the woman who looked so much like you to give you even a moment of consideration. To just look at you, and realize she’d made a mistake—you would have forgiven her anything, if she’d only asked you to. “I might’ve been,” you try to push her away, to make her take her own weight, “Once.”

She wails, her thin bird like arms spread wide until you’re clasped to her chest—she smells like moss and smoke, and something lingering you recognize. Death.

“My Ailbhe,” she sobs, her large tears getting lost in the dark winter color of your hair, her fingers dig into the rough leather of your armor. Ailbhe, that’s what you would’ve been named had she wanted you. “My precious Ailbhe.” But you’d named yourself—you and a soft warrior boy from the swamps, across the plaines—a boy you missed dearly. You remove her gently, but you know your eyes are hard—you see it in the glee your men display. You’re a wolf, and this brittle little sheep wishes to know the real you—

But you can’t. You see the hollows beneath her eyes, and the yellow tilt of her skin. You know she only has days, no more left in her—she’s grasping for strings that she’d long since cut. Nothing tethered you to her anymore—but you can’t let her die alone, it unsettles your stomach and locks your bones. So you guide her to the hall you and your men intend to stay at for the night—tuck her into the bed you’d rented for yourself, and brush her hair back.

“My Ailbhe,” she murmurs, her dark eyes already losing focus, the manic glint she’d had outside fading away as her energy leaves her. You don’t tell her that you aren’t Ailbhe, because that girl had never existed. You’d been Balti, Richme, Lina, Quinta—Little Sparrow, and Alexander; though you've only ever been called Lexa. But how hard could it be to be Ailbhe for a night? To be the girl who might’ve been a healer, or a farmer, who never left the village and hadn’t seen the world.

“Yes, nomon.” The word is clumsy on your tongue, because you realized you’ve never said it—you’ve never had a mother, and it is sour this night, because you’re pretending. This woman isn’t your mother, any more than you were her daughter. You want to rage, want to toss her shaking pale hand away and leave the inn—want to tarnish this moment with anger, and hate, and everything you’ve learned to bottle up inside.

But she says, “my girl” so softly, so lovingly you lose your flame. She could’ve been your mother, once long ago, but now she’s just a dying woman who had no one else. You don’t like how pity tastes on your tongue, like ash and smoke and the last bitter night in winter.

When her eyes close, and her chest stills, you press a kiss to her forehead and whisper, “My name is Lexa, nomon.”

Your caravan leaves before her pyre is lit.


 

“They’ve found Heda,” you’ve heard the title before, the reverent whispers of warriors and peasants alike. Of a being sacred, and eternal, and cherished—the spirit of their leader had left its last chosen just before you’d been born. A grand battle on mountains and ice rivers, of ten thousand men, and a ultimate victory—a life had ended that day, and the search for the commanders spirit had begun. You’ve heard low stories of how they always found Heda young. Could corner the village, and gather the child before it could be molded by anyone other than the last commander’s generals.

But this time, the spirit was illusive. Spiritual men who’d never failed before traveled to every end of the map, to every village, and they’d yet to scent the eternal soul. They searched the eyes of babes, and couldn’t find a thousand memories stashed away in newborn blue. Your men laugh louder at every perceived failure—you know they say Heda in the same reverent whispers as everyone else, but they need to pretend. That this unusual length without known command is not bothering them; that they hadn’t become bandits simply because the one they followed wasn’t present.

They were loyal men with no one to be loyal too.

Your caravan is stopped on the road just outside Polis, a woman with a golden sash and ashen features stops your massive beast of a horse with just an outstretched hand. She isn’t tall, but there’s something deadly about her posture—something in the way her finger toys with the hilt of her blade. Her hair is light colored, and her eyes narrow—she’s beautiful, you think. Maybe the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen; but that seems like a disservice, so you don’t say it.

“No merchants, not even a goufa.” You bristle, because no one has had the mind to call you a child in years—you’re small, and your face still round from youth, but had you been on the path of the warrior, you’d almost be old enough to be a second. You can see she likes the reaction she got, see it in the quirk of her lip and the tilt of her chin. You’re off the cart’s lip before you can think, and all the warriors at the cities gates draw their blades. You imagine they weren’t used to someone not listening; this woman is imposing, especially now that you’re flat footed and looking up at her.

“Still haven’t found your heda?” It’s a losing hand, you know that from the start, but are still somehow surprised when the hilt of her blade lands swiftly and sharply against the rise of your cheek. Stars burst and darkness swells, but you have just enough mind to bark pleni at your men before they can even think to throw themselves into the mess of an encounter. The blood on your cheek is bright and sluggish, and you have a mouthful of copper to spit on the ground.

“I take that as a no?” You’re cheeky, and for your trouble you get another solid blow from a metal studded fist—this cheek must be your weaker one, because you’re positive you lose a minute or two. Because when you begin the agonizing climb to your feet, there’s dirt in your mouth. The woman is practically growling, and she doesn’t let you say anything else before grabbing you by the collar of your vest, and hoisting you from the ground—you take a moment to marvel at how strong she was. You’re not large by any means, but you’re solid—and she is only a hand taller.

You hear many harsh bellows of Anya, while you get a closer look at her face—she looks sad, and it’s something you’ve become so familiar with over the seasons. The dull edges of her eyes, and the harsh pinch of her lips. She was sad in the same way Enrik was sad, silently and stubbornly—like giving into the feeling would consume them whole, and they would be nothing afterwards.

She sets her knee harshly into your stomach, and you can hear your bones groan in protest—you can hear the creak in your jaw when she carves the shark metal tip of her knuckles into your skin. Your bloody, and limp, and she is so angry. This woman who’s seen a thousand battles, who’d been forced to kill her own brother when he’d be become a reaper, swallowed by madness. She’d held you so gently as you died—cheeks cold from the harsh weather, the snow crimson around you, her hands impossibly small against the rough beard hiding the ruined mess of your jaw. You’d barely been able to see her, your vision foggy and dipping into black.

Her voice had been small and shaking when she’d murmured, “yu gonplei ste odon, heda” and you think she was crying. And all you wanted to do was make her feel better. Let her know that you’d find her again—this bright, strong second of yours. The darkness in your vision was melting and sharp, it dulled and expanded and suddenly you couldn’t tell if you were outside Polis or on the peak of the further mountain north. But Anya was here, and that made it alright—Anya was alive. Your lips were sluggish with remembered cold—and fresh bruises—but you just want her to feel better.

Yu gonplei nou ste odon, Onya. Mebi oso na hit choda op nodotaim.” Your fight isn’t over here, Anya. May we meet again. You don’t know why you said it, because you’ve never met this woman before, but she drops you like your skin has become molten. Like even brushing you burns her, and a hush has fallen over the gathered warriors. You don’t realize, because your ears are ringing, and your eyes are watering, and it takes you twice as long to stand up.

But you do stand up.

“That all you have?” Your mouth is filled with blood, but it feels like cotton—your knees shake, and one arm is useless at your side, but you're standing, on your own two feet. And—the woman isn’t. She’s on her knees, eyes just a little too wide, features contorted into something that looks like awe—or maybe horror. You don’t remember hitting her, but maybe you had, somewhere in the black.

Heda.” She gasps, and it’s a strong sound coming from such a beautifully deadly woman—but the confirmation is all the gathered needed to follow suit. Clattering to their knees in heavy armor, and thumping battle worn fists against their chest. An army, felled by a bloody girl in too big clothes who hadn’t even been able to lift a fist. You’re confused, and swaying, and you can distinctly saying, “No, I’m Lexa.”

Before you fall into darkness.