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A Torment to Herself

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Barranyi has imagined killing Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir since the self-righteous little milksop bewitched Duke Phelan into making her a corporal years before her time. The fantasy has fed Barra on days when her stomach roiled and curled on itself in hunger, warmed her on nights when the wind whipped cold against her skin and the rain dripped icy fingers down her back. The rage filled her up the day Natzlin left, all disappointed eyes and pinched mouth; with her departure Natzlin took away the one good thing Barra had managed to carve out for herself and keep without Paks’ interference. Natz had stopped Barra from eating herself up with emptiness and anger, and without her — well.

Barra has seen Paksenarrion’s demise behind her closed eyelids a hundred — a thousand — times over the years. At first she’d imagined dramatic, poetic deaths: Paks trampled under her mad steed’s hooves, or frozen on a mountainside, skin blue and rimmed with frost; floating facedown in the swollen river after a snowmelt flood, or starved and forgotten out on the barren plains. They’re amusing diversions, but they lack the bite of a personalized victory, and after the first year or so Barra let them slip away like childhood daydreams.

Not accidental deaths, no, those would be too good for their sheep-farmer’s daughter turned paladin of Gird, liar and deceiver and keeper of the hearts of every apparent soul in Tsaia. Barra’s imagination turned to darker, much more satisfying pursuits long before Paksenarrion shook off the rumours of treason and cowardice and returned in ill-gotten glory. Another injustice — those rumours had been no spurious claims, no matter what Stammel or Phelan or Paksenarrion’s legion of fawning admirers might hasten to argue. Barranyi had heard the tales from the people’s mouths themselves, but no one seemed to care.

And so Barranyi had imagined far more intimate matters. Single combat, a sword-thrust through the gut or a knife blade stuck through the soft spot underneath her jaw; Paks’ guts tumbling onto the ground in a mess of pink and brown and red, spooling out like those of a slaughtered sheep she’s now far too important to bother with. Paks on the ground with Barra’s hands wrapped around her throat, pressing down and down while she scrabbles and wheezes but can’t get free, until at last the twitch and writhe of death as the windpipe caves under Barra’s relentless grip.

When Paksenarrion defeated Barra in open challenge then those thoughts lost their lustre; difficult to imagine standing over the blonde wench in triumph when Barra’s actual memories supply images of the reverse, of humiliation and Paks’ hurt, disappointed stare, of Stammel and the Duke sending her away. But Barra has made herself a warrior by her own strength and steel, and she will not be defeated forever. Even Gird has to blink sometime

Not even in her fantasies can Barranyi imagine the great and noble Paksenarrion begging for her life, but that doesn’t mean she won’t suffer first. Barra imagines the long, flowing golden hair matted with blood; those large, beguiling eyes swollen shut and ringed with bruises, her lying mouth split and coughing blood.

Paksenarrion’s death is Barra’s torment and her comfort both. It will happen one day, it will, yet time after time something intervenes to take Barra’s justice away from her — until the day it finally arrives.

The plot with the priests of Liart, the Thieves’ Guild, the ruse to draw out the Fox and his useless cohort — all of that had been of Barra’s devising. She knows Phelan and his men better than anyone, knows their failings and their weaknesses, exactly the sort of trap to set so they’ll walk right in. She weaves her net and it works exactly as planned, and soon Paksenarrion arrives, exchanging her own life for those of Phelan and his men, exactly as Barra knew she would.

It’s sickening, and Barranyi is not the only one to spit on the ground when Paksenarrion makes her bold claims of fortitude and honour like it will make a difference. Soon Paks will see that without her trickery, without whatever deal to whatever god has let her deceive the weak-minded, she’s no better than the lowest, most grovelling thief. Certainly no better than Barra, who’s fought and scrapped and clawed for everything that’s hers. Death takes everyone in the end, and Paksenarrion won’t escape. Not this time.

And indeed she doesn’t.

Five days and nights of torture and mutilation and humiliation, five days and nights of screams and taunts and the High Priest’s offers to end it all if only Paksenarrion will submit to the will of the master. Barranyi watches with all the rest, and Paksenarrion’s torment is everything she ever wanted, all the things she dreamed — except it isn’t.

The priests of Liart the Tormenter do not disappoint; if anything it’s almost too much, too dehumanizing, with Paksenarrion the person disappearing into the nameless victim who’s stripped and raped and starved and beaten. After a while Barra almost forgets that their victim is the bitch from Three Firs under the screams and sadistic inventions; even Barra at her angriest couldn’t have devised the schemes the priests concoct. Barra has killed more men than she can count; she knows the hot spill of blood on her hands, the taste of it as it sprays her mouth. She has smelled the stink of shit as the man she skewered with her shortsword soiled himself in his final moments, but this — this is different.

It’s all wrong. They’re not torturing Paksenarrion; it’s not Dorthansdottir the rightful sheep-farmer whom they keep in mind as they devise their next little game. Instead it’s the High Paladin of Gird, everything revolving around their goal of getting Gird’s warrior to renounce his name and sob theirs out instead. That’s nothing to do with Paks; they could have done the same with any of the High Marshals and had the same amount of fun. It’s the wrong focus, nothing like the personal, brutally satisfying deaths that Barra herself had dreamt of. Barra doesn’t give Gird’s shrivelled testicle which god some paladin follows, and for all her irritating high-handedness, Paks was no worse than Effa with her constant prattling and wide-eyed devotion. What matters is that this is Paksenarrion, and that she knows why she’s here.

The days drag on, and instead of seeing her rival brought low and finally proven the fraud she is, Barra stands in the crowd and watches a paladin refuse to break.

Oh she screams, of course she does, but she never submits. If she kneels it’s because they break her legs and force her; if she drinks, it’s only when they plug her nose and pry open her mouth with burning tongs and pour their concoction down her throat. They strip her, grope her, paw at her with filthy, eager hands, and Barranyi has killed men for taking liberties far less than what she witnesses, surrounded by idiots who shove their hands down their trousers as the priests call on them to join.

A roar of approval takes the crowd and Barra turns in disgust, shoving her way through the frenzied throng and slipping out into the night. She sucks in gasps of frigid air, chest aching, one hand pressed between her breasts as she fights away the imagined sensation of all those greedy hands. Barra’s lungs burn and she squeezes her eyes closed and conjures up every memory of her humiliation under Paksenarrion’s trickery to keep hold on the certainty that now slips through her fingers.

(She killed her first man long before she held her first sword, before Paksenarrion, before Phelan, before anyone but Natzlin. Young Barranyi tasted blood the night she saw a man shove a girl her age against a building in the narrow alley, saw him rip at her dress and cover her mouth with his giant hand and press himself against her. Barranyi — strong, dark, simmering with injustice and unfairness at being the youngest, unappreciated child in a family who cared little — had seen that man, seen the girl’s pale, terrified face, and had not hesitated. She’d killed him with a knife scarce longer than her fingers and flung his corpse to the ground. Barra cradled the girl in her arms while she sobbed that she had a knife, she knew how to use it, but she’d frozen, and Barra stroked her hair and promised it was over.)

(She took over a year before she dared to kiss Natzlin, afraid of awakening old memories, but Natz had smiled and stepped in close and kissed Barra first.)

It doesn’t matter, Barranyi reminds herself, gritting her teeth and pressing her fists to her eyelids. This isn’t Natzlin, and these aren’t the men who saw Barra’s broad shoulders as a threat to their masculinity, the ones who took her sisli status as a challenge. This is Paksenarrion, and whatever befalls her now is only what she deserves.

Still, the taste of bile in the back of Barra’s throat taints the satisfaction she’s meant to feel, and she doesn’t return to the temple that night.

They’ve moved on to other tortures by the time Barra slips back in, but like a bite of rotten fruit can spoil an entire pie, the vindictive glee and expectation elude her. Barranyi forces herself to watch — this is what she wanted, everything she’s done for the past few months has led up to this — but it’s hollow, like eating a loaf of bread made with sand instead of flour. The surety of Barra’s position, the certainty that drove her since joining the Company, that hasn’t deserted her; Barra doesn’t want to see Paksenarrion rescued, but the longer the priests of Liart ply their trade, the stronger the gnawing in her stomach.

At the end of the fifth night, Barranyi is ready for Paksenarrion’s death, but no longer eager. This isn’t her triumph, her revenge; there’s no personal satisfaction for Barranyi the soldier here, in this hall of blood and tricks and torture. Even the crowd has sensed it; they jeer when commanded but their voices fall off almost as soon as the priests’ taunts begin, and Barra has held the line and waited for her lord’s command and knows how to smell when courage and conviction fail. Everyone around her, Barra included, simply wants this to be over.

There is no triumph or glory here, not for the priests and not for Barra; Paksenarrion screams, the room filled with the sizzle and smell of burning flesh and the rapid-fire cracks of breaking bones as the rocks crush her legs, and yet. Barra might have brought her here but she has no part in this. Just like everything else in her life, here she is watching from the sidelines while someone else takes what’s rightly hers. For the first time in days, anger spikes hot and sharp in Barra’s chest. This was her moment, her redemption, and the very priests Barranyi trusted to do the job have taken it from her — but just as quickly it dissipates. None of it matters.

When Paksenarrion falls to the ground — unconscious? dead? Barra can’t tell, and worse, can’t decide which she wants it to be — and the priests raise their arms in triumph, Barranyi feels nothing. She turns away, disgust and disappointment washing over her and drowning anything else she should be feeling, and so she misses whatever it is that galvanizes the entire crowd into a panicked frenzy.

Barra whirls back around, but the men are pressed too close for her to see and so she pushes her way through yet again, resorting to slashes with her daggers to drive them back until she stands alone and stares, uncomprehending, at Paksenarrion’s unmarked body.

Oh there are bruises, yes, and her hair still sits close and ragged against her scalp, but the unnatural angles of her limbs from the crushed bones beneath her skin are gone, the burns along her legs healed. The priests are shouting, calling on their god, but as golden sunlight licks the windowpanes, a slow shiver runs up Barranyi’s spine.

The fifth night is over. Gird’s protection has returned.

Except — no, no, it’s a lie all of it, isn’t it — it has to be — Paksenarrion is no more chosen by the gods than Barranyi is secretly a duchess, but Liart the Tormentor’s arts do not run to healing even if his priests would attempt it. Barra continues to stare, questions whirling in her mind like blades, until at last she does the only thing she can.

“She’s mine,” Barranyi shouts. Her voice rasps, cracks, but she steps forward, fists balled. “You’ve had your chance! Five days you had your way with her and she’s survived. You’ve failed. I brought her here; the right to her death belongs to me!”

The head priest glares at her but Barra holds firm, teeth bared in challenge, and around her the confusion and uncertainty in the crowd mills higher and higher, thickening until it almost takes palpable form. The priests will have a handful controlling their minions today, and at last he flings up a hand. “Go,” he snaps. “Take her away. We’ve done our work; it matters not to me who carries off the leavings.”

Barranyi was the strongest woman in the Company except for Paksenarrion herself, but she staggers under the weight as she throws Paks over her shoulder. The nearest priest hesitates; for a moment she wonders if he’ll try to stop her, whether she can fight him and take her prize at the same time, but when Barranyi glares he turns back to his master instead.

She carries Paksenarrion’s body far away from the temple into the woods. Here, alone, away from the chanting and the cheering and the press of bodies, it’s clear that Paksenarrion is, indeed, alive. Her breaths are shallow but Barra feels the movement across her shoulders, and her flesh warms under Barra’s fingers instead of stiffening and cooling. Barra drags Paks deeper through the trees until she’s sure no priest can get close without her seeing, then dumps her down into the ground and stares at her, chest heaving.

Here, alone in the woods, stripped of her robes and weapons and even the trademark coil of yellow hair, Paksenarrion looks very little like the character of legend she and others pretended her to be. Here she’s human, bruised and beaten, and the worst of the wounds have disappeared but the marks of five days of exhaustion and starvation still ravage her.

This isn’t how Barra pictured it either. In her mind’s eye it had been Paksenarrion in her prime who fell to her knees at the mercy of Barra’s swords (but she’d had her chance, a little voice whispered, and Paks had bested her then, even with surprise and poisoned blades on her side). If she had been humbled it was Barranyi who had brought her there, rather than being a useless spectator on the sidelines.

Well. No matter. Barranyi is hardly going to nurse Paksenarrion back to health just for the pleasure of killing her at full strength; her death will be a disappointment, anticlimactic after everything Barra had planned, but what else is new? Nothing in Barra’s life has gone the way she wanted it to, not her training, her career, not Natzlin.

A hoarse, half-mad laugh tears itself loose from Barra’s throat. Even after days of torture, even lying here helpless in the dirt, a wreck of her former self, Paksenarrion has managed to steal something else from Barra. In a way it’s fitting.

Let it end, then. Barranyi draws her knives and circles the body warily, boots scuffing the dead leaves and fallen needles as she considers the best way to do it. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s slitting the throat of a stag someone else shot first and calling it her kill, but such is life. Here with no witnesses, no fanfare, nothing to mark the occasion but the ripples of sunlight across the ground and the creaking branches overhead, Barra will finally get what’s hers.

The strange man bursts through the trees and breaks into a run, swinging his sword at Barra’s neck. Barra dances back out of range, flipping her grip on the daggers, and snarls at him as he steps between her and her prey. “This is no business of yours,” Barra says. Rage fills her — pure, cold and welcome after days of muddled confusion, like drinking from a mountain stream after slurping from filthy, puddled footprints — and Barra drinks deep, welcoming the clarity once again.

Paksenarrion is hers. No one will take her away again.

“I’m afraid it is,” the man says in a half-lilting, half-shaking tone that marks a quip falling short. He must have been at the temple; Barranyi sees the ghost of the priests’ machinations in the shadows in his eyes. “She’s been through enough because of you. Leave now and I will not follow, but attack her and I will stop you.”

Barra laughs, wild and unhinged. Stop her! What, some thief, some man, come between her and her dreams now? She is exhausted and shaking and he stands straight with the strength of an idiot but what is that to her, what does that matter when for the first time in days Barranyi has recovered her purpose. Kill Paksenarrion, find Natzlin and reclaim her life, that’s what she has to do, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way.

“Try me,” Barranyi spits out, her face a rictus, and charges.

He drives her back, their blades clashing in the early morning silence, and he’s good but Barra’s better. Except that he has a sword and she has only her twin short blades, and if she could only take his weapon from him then this would be over but he dances out of the way every time. Barra growls and darts in close, hoping to squeeze in under his guard, but he shifts his feet at the last second and blocks, pushing her back.

All the while he keeps himself between her and Paksenarrion, and Barra clings to the fury and lets it ground her. She rakes him over with her gaze, takes in the stubble and the wild, reddened eyes and hollowed sockets, and pulls back her lip. “You were there,” she says, flinging the accusation at him like a spear, and he flinches from the point of it though he doesn’t lose the rhythm of the fight. “Why are you doing this? You’re a thief! Why are you protecting her!”

“Paksenarrion is my friend,” the man says simply, and Barra laughs again, the sound screeching up toward the treetops, because of course. Who hasn’t Paks befriended in her holy quest to become better than everyone else? Doubtless she considered the fraternization a gift, proof of her kind and noble heart to trick a common thief into believing she thought him equal. “And she deserves better. I will not let you take her.”

And the worst part is, he doesn’t. Again and again he pushes her back, and if Barra had a sword, if she’d slept more than snatches for the past few days, if she’d remembered to eat and drink enough to keep her strength — but she’s weak now. (“You always have excuses,” Siger said once, giving Barra a stone-faced glare after she’d failed to score a touch. “Sometimes, child, the answer is that you aren’t good enough.”) Rage and adrenaline might have led the charge but they don’t stay forever, and soon her muscles tremble and her footing slips.

If Barra were a Girdsman or a Falkan she might have called upon the gods to aid her, to send her strength, but she will not pray to invisible, uncaring figments of desperate imagination. Effa prayed to Gird with every breath she took, chastised all of them for not following her empty-headed devotion, and now her corpse rots in the ground with a broken back, so who’s weak now? Barra has power in her shoulders, in her limbs, and that means more than any prayer.

No one had followed Gird with more exasperating wholeness than Effa, and he’d let her fall, trampled and broken and cut off from the only thing she ever loved. If Gird could not even keep track of his favourite toys, why should he help anyone else? He certainly hadn’t helped Paks in that long, dark stretch in the temple when her lips formed his name.

(But he had and here Paks is, still breathing, bones healed and burns fading — but no, no, it’s a lie, it’s a trick, the gods favour no one and Barranyi can fight for herself —)

One last lunge from her opponent and he has her on the ground, one foot on her left wrist, pinning her knife to the ground, her other arm trapped beneath his right knee. He holds his sword across her throat, the weight of it pushing the breath from her lungs, and Barra sucks in a mouthful of saliva and spits it out in his face. His expression hardens but he doesn’t move, only leans in and regards her with an unsettling calmness.

“I don’t know who you are,” he says. “I don’t know what you think Paks has done to you, but the entire temple has seen the gods grant her favour. She is a true Paladin of Gird. If the priests of Liart could not kill her, what makes you think you could?”

“I have the right,” Barranyi says. “She has humiliated me, cheated me, time and again —“

“I am a thief,” the man says, an odd non sequitur that makes Barra blink until he continues. “I know dishonesty and defeat quite well, and neither of those has ever touched Paks. I would submit that if anyone has humiliated or cheated you, it has only been yourself.” He cuts off Barra’s wordless growl with an application of pressure to her throat. “I won’t kill you needlessly, girl. Your death means nothing to me, but if you speak true and have known Paks for any time, I think she would not want me to. She would want you to live and make peace with whatever gnaws at you.” His gaze sharpens. “But if you try to kill her, I will stop you. She has been kind and noble to her own folly, as these few days have shown. I am not so good a man.”

He sits back, lets Barra scramble away, one knife still clutched to her chest. They stare at each other, the man impassive and Barranyi breathing hard. Paksenarrion is right there, helpless as she’ll ever be, and it could be over. This entire mad rush, the years of vengeance finally answered in a single stroke and spurt of blood, and Barra will be free to —

to what?

The question blows on the chill breeze, wicking the sweat that stands out on her forehead and plunging a shiver straight through her chest. Would it really answer, to kill Paksenarrion in her sleep, without her knowing who drove the blade? Would her death, peaceful and swift as it would have to be without the time to do it right, really soothe the jagged edges of Barranyi’s soul?

Barra exhales, and slowly the icy inecision in her veins turns to resolve. There is only one answer. No peace for Barranyi can exist while Paksenarrion lives, and so she spins her knife into a firmer grip and —