Content notices for: demographic-targeted violence, mention of demographic-targeted sexual violence, mention of/ideation toward/old injuries from self-harm, trauma-related dissociation.

Another old piece. I don't have any reliable date for this one, but I do know I wrote it during the pandemic, so 2020 earliest.

Unfinished, and distinctly proto-Mother Weep-No-More.

The evening had gone so well, earlier.

With St. Tithenai's feast day approaching, the city was glutted with pilgrims and merchants set to part them from their coin. A few hours in the tavern's taproom with song and fiddle had kept everyone's ale flowing enough for the innkeep to throw in a square meal on the house at the end of it; time well spent.

Now, full and pleasantly tired, the helling steps into the dim of the street for a quick breath of air before turning in. Below the gazelle curve of her horns, her eyes are a deep amber. Touched, before birth, by whatever mystery it is that births a helling; ancient and fearful superstition notwithstanding, no definite trace of the infernal has ever been found to attach to them.

Proof, of course, seldom touches superstition, either one way or the other.

This is no parochial hen-scratch of farmland, where she expects it to always be a problem. There are three of them, however; in their cups enough to drown shame or caution, a slow swagger out of the taproom after her, intent unhidden.

The remembered taste of blood is in her mouth already.

Years-rehearsed pleasantries and smallness are ready at her lips, but wasted; these three are already set on what they're about, without the need to taunt. They spread out to block her from going any which way at all.

She gauges the street. Nobody likely to stop, or mind what happens to a stranger — a helling stranger, at that.

The middle man is heavy, rubbery-mouthed and viciously smug. His idea, she expects. The greasy beanpole to one side grabs at her arm; on the other side, the drunkest, sloppy and snarling, grabs her arm and a horn, twisting her neck.

The heavy man punches her in the gut.

Behind her eyes, she is already in the far-away place, the blank-gazed, unresisting place. Her eyes fix uninterestedly across the street, on a curious one-wheeled barrow, waist-high, with a cloth draped over it. Someone is stretched out beneath it, bundled in a blanket; some kind of vagrant pedlar, perhaps.

Her eyes are pulled away as he punches again, and her distant body retches.

Things jumble after the fist to her face; but even she hears the sickening crunch of the heavy man's bones, and the slam of his weight onto the cobbles. Beanpole lets go of her, and his footsteps go running away. The sloppy drunk is still holding her when someone else reaches out a hand big enough to engulf his, from his wrist to just behind the grip on her horn; and strong enough to squeeze so that the bones inside crackle like dried-out twigs. It's his screaming which brings more men out of the tavern, before he's flung bodily into its wall and goes entirely silent.

The helling slides down the wall to a sitting position. A tense silence surrounds her; she prises open her eyes and squints up.

The first thing she notices is the tattoo of a sword, point up, beneath one eye. It might be invisible in the twilight, if it were not licking with flames — actual flames, lapping over unburning skin. The flickering light illuminates a broad, craggy face; a nose indifferently set from some past break; a mouth set in a hard line.

Some gods don't care enough about material concerns to care that their worship, if they ever had it, died out. That their temples are gone, that nobody knows even their name. They call paladins to service nonetheless, and their champions set themselves about with signs — simple and supernatural both — in the way that a wasp decks itself in warning stripes.

Many gods are angry, given cause...however contrived. This one is remembered, despite its paladins' rarity, for being nothing but angry. Its chosen are, likewise, furious. The god seems to care very little why their mood matches, only to empower them as siege engines.

The paladin's shoulders are broad, arms thick; knotted hunks of muscle. Built like a side of beef. A fist the size of the helling's face is in her line of sight, which she fixes on as a familiar thing. Somewhere overhead, in the far away, the paladin says something in a flat, expressionless voice.

It never particularly seems to matter what people say, once the fists are out.

The fist slides out of view as the paladin walks to one side. There's the faintest background hiss of embarrassed bystander mutters.


After a while, detail starts to creep back in around the edge of things. The embarrassed bystanders, lurking well back, caught out at allowing this to happen and yet still unwilling to make it their business by offering even a hand up. The total quiet, where a hum of human noise used to radiate from the inn.

The paladin steps back out of the entrance on surprisingly quiet feet, with the helling's pack on one shoulder as if it weighs nothing; and in other hand, her fiddle and bow, held delicately by the neck.

Cast out, then, for trouble; a doorway or a bridge's lee for tonight's bed. The helling tries not to stare, tries not to be seen to care, at the fiddle's treatment, sickly hoping it's not to be dashed against a wall as the capstone on here's what happens to your sort here.

Instead, the paladin towers closer and closer, stoops, lays the fiddle carefully in her lap. The helling can't help but curl her arms around it protectively, and misses the first shift in the paladin's weight that sees one arm nudge around her shoulders, the other beneath her knees; she freezes into a lump, an inert presence devoid of additional excuses to provocation.

"The god," the paladin says in a loud, flat sort of way that clearly conveys the threat of further violence, "thinks poorly of places which turn a blind eye to the rape and murder of travellers."

The helling concentrates firmly on clutching, and looking at, her fiddle. And the paladin walks across the street with giant, effortless strides and perches her on the edge of the barrow, then picks up its handles and wheels it away at a measured pace that says the god will turn this barrow ride around at a moment's notice to crack more heads, so help them all.

But nobody dares do anything to warrant turning it around.

Several streets over, the paladin stops and puts the handles down, leaning on them to look at the helling, who has slowly shifted herself enough to look out of the corner of her eye and watch the sword tattoo dim to embers and extinguish to simple ink.

"Doubt you'll find another inn."

It's still flat and near expressionless, but quieter, and the helling risks a more direct look.

The paladin is dark-eyed, hair beginning to silver. A woman, she thinks belatedly, not just a mountain of hard muscle with a hard face atop. Her hands, resting on the barrow, are drenched with the scars of past nicks and a fading rainbow of bruises.

"I won't be any more trouble," the helling promises. "Just passing through."

The orange glare of an unextinguished ember gleams from the sword tattoo. "No," the paladin says. "They're full. The festival."

The wrong thing to say. Always the wrong thing. "I won't be any more trouble," the helling repeats, crouched around her fiddle. Her pack is still on the paladin's shoulder, everything else in the world she owns inside it, hostage.

The paladin looks at her in silence for long enough for her to shrink and start fidgeting; face largely unreadable, eyes narrowed. "You weren't safe in the inn," the paladin says finally. "If not there, alone in the streets? No." She gives a grim little shake of her head. "No. The god won't have it."

There's no good answer to the information that the ancient, nameless god of violence won't even suffer you to wander around a decent peoples' town. The helling clutches her fiddle and stays silent.

The paladin grunts and lifts the barrow's handles. "World bless," she mutters, like a passive-aggressive auntie judging your hemline, and wheels them onward.

There is a hall of the Mission of the Mouth a little across town, dedicated to the works and needs of the mouth — food and rudimentary education for the children of the poor, largely. Technically nondenominational, but usually in practise reliant on whatever local temple has the resources, and wishes to displays the largesse, to fund and staff it.

"The Mouth," the paladin says, as they reach the archway into the hall's courtyard, "has an understanding with the god."

The correct direction in which to respond is unfathomable. The helling nods, meekly, and the paladin's eyes narrow just a hair at her.

"A paladin who's fed and sleeping in a spare cot isn't roaming about smiting anyone," she elaborates, and the helling abruptly understands that she's being offered somewhere to stay for the night — where not only is the paladin a bulwark against random molestation, but the Mission itself in turn is a protection against the paladin.

Under the paladin's eye, she begins to softly cry, turning a little to hide it.

The paladin falls silent again, and turns into the Mission's courtyard, where a man looks up from sweeping leaves.

"Hello!" he says. "Early in the year to see you, paladin."

"The god wants what the god wants," the paladin says.

"World bless," he agrees. "And who's this?"

The paladin looks at the helling, who hiccups. "Jemble," she mutters, face heated.

He leans on his broom, looks at the paladin, and waits for anything further. She simply looks back at him.

"Well," he says wryly. "Put your cart in the shed, then, and I'll find you beds."

"My thanks," the paladin says.

She obviously knows her own way around, wheels her barrow to put it away with a neat collection of tools for the Mission's herb garden.

"I don't know your name," Jemble says tentatively.

"Weep-Beneath-the-Heavens'-Benediction," the paladin says, and although it's as flat and unexpressive as ever, the helling thinks she detects just a hint of shortness.

"That's very...pious," she says.

"Parents." The paladin turns up the corner of the oilcloth draped over the barrow, and Jemble glimpses one end of its load: polished metal, a leather-wrapped hilt, a sword too wide and — judging from the size of the barrow — too long for probably even the paladin to lift, a huge weight of steel.

The god, she thinks. The god must lift it, when the god sees fit. It's one way to be sure that one's disciples of violence don't rampage entirely unchecked.

"Were cultists," the paladin finishes, testing the sword's edge with the pad of her thumb, grunts, and covers the barrow again.

It seems very unlike an invitation to ask further.

The Mission has a dormitory of cots, sleeping whatever collection of local destitutes and unfortunates they are currently bestowing charity upon. They're shown to two free ones, a threadbare blanket laid out for each of them.

The paladin, finally, puts the helling's pack down at the head of one of the cots and steps away. She doesn't spare a glance for what Jemble does, only sits on her own cot to prise off her boots, then stand bare-footed at the head of it, back very straight. She puts one palm to her sternum, the other hand to her face — palm covering her lips, fingers pointed upward to the crown of her head. The tip of her thumb touches the sword tattoo's hilt.

Whatever prayer she says is silent, and not long, before she simply lays herself down, draws the blanket — scant on her frame — tight around her shoulders, and closes her eyes.

Jemble has not prayed for many years, and never particularly seriously. She wonders uneasily if she ought, in such company, and equally uneasily dismisses it; the gods, she supposes, would prefer wholehearted or not at all. She shuffles out of her own sandals, gently touches the pain in her face with practised fingers — nothing broken, probably; curls around the rest of her aches and her fiddle, and attempts to sleep.

There's not much rest to be had, but some hours of wakelessness nonetheless. The downtrodden stir with morning's light; she performs the auguries of slow and watchful rising, to discern the expected rhythm of things without risking any question of anyone. There's a deep, bruised ache in her gut, and every expression hurts in her nose, one eye, and up inside her mouth below it, in the teeth and gums. She folds the blanket and surrenders it to the Mission's attendants, shuffles in line to a room with bars of harsh soap and troughs of cold water. A single large bronze mirror helps her gingerly scrub crusted scabs from her nostrils; she strips and scrubs, licking the freshly trickling blood from the inside of her teeth.

Some kind of priestly enchantment, perhaps in the floor tiles, causes lice from her fellow beneficiaries' bodies to fall dying to the floor. Another attendant in a damp robe wearily fills buckets from a pump and sluices them towards the drains.

Damp and scrubbed, she stands in line again, head carefully down, for a bowl of gruel. Bland; cheap. Breakfast eaten, the Mission's staff start directing the unfortunates to whatever local good works can be accomplished with a force of compliant warm bodies, and she takes the opportunity to slip away, grab pack and fiddle.

She might simply flee. The doors are unbarred, unguarded, nothing keeping the Mission's flock within but desperation. But her steps turn, not undogged by reluctance, to the shed where the barrow still rests, and to which the paladin will therefore return.

People expect payment in kind for not being monsters. But sometimes, you can make the first move and choose which kind. Jemble very cautiously lifts away the oilskin from the entirety of the sword, and marvels at it; surely so much blade must take two, perhaps three strong men to lift it. How can it have been forged? The god must have moved those arms, too.

She rests her pack against the barrow, digs out a rag and polish, for those times when a few coppers or a night in someone's barn might be a few odd jobs away. The sword is a devotion to the god; and tending to its glory is surely ingratiation enough. Surely.

It's well-kept already, but a determined hand can bring a high shine to the surface. Outside, the sun toils toward noon; inside, the helling sweats, moving gingerly around her pains. Sleeves rolled to the elbow, she pauses to rest a moment, eye falling on the contrast of forearm flesh against steel.

Both her forearms, starting midway up from the crease of the wrist and extending to the tender hollow of the elbow, wear a moss of scar tissue. Cut and re-cut, criss-cross over and over old scars, the loving kiss of one's own knife. And the idea roots, shimmering on the keen clean edge of the god's sword.

She tries to ignore it, labour it away. But there's a new tremble in her fingers, from neither fatigue nor pain; she finds herself wiping the blade carefully clean of every spot of polish, buffing it thoroughly, chafing her wrist with nervous energy before reaching to lay flesh against metal....

There's barely a second to register the warm bulk of the paladin looming against her back before a finger hooks under her wrist and lifts it away from the edge.

"Never, ever on the god's sword, helling," the paladin says, flat and matter-of-fact. "A very, very bad idea."

She shrivels in hot shame, stammers.

The paladin reaches beneath the barrow, unhooks a small rolled leather bundle, and the massive presence of her steps away from Jemble's back on her astonishingly quiet feet, around to the barrow's handle end, where she unrolls it, revealing a neatly organised collection of herbs and preparations. Unstoppering a jar, she scoops out a sharp-smelling paste, and smears it across her own purpling knuckles; then reaches out, unhurriedly, and gently lifts the helling's chin.

Jemble daren't breathe as a very careful fingertip applies salve to her own bruised cheek and nose.

"I'm no healer," the paladin says. "If they injured you, you need to say, and I'll ask the Mission to find one. Nor a dentist, though I have some leaves you can chew to numb your mouth if you need."

She manages to shake her head in mute denial. Of need, of necessity, more than to establish any fact.

"I belong to the god, helling," the paladin says. "My favour — or disfavour — cannot be bought or bartered or sought or transferred. I belong to the god. The god wants what the god wants. That' s all." She stoppers the jar. "There's a bed for you here. They won't make you work for it."

"Are you leaving?"

"I'm not staying." The paladin efficiently re-packs her healing supplies.

"I'm travelling myself." What, the helling wonders, is she doing. Why have these words come cautiously from her own mouth.

The paladin grunts. "Where to?"

"Away," Jemble says, and closes her mouth tight.

Dark eyes look at her for a long while.

"I can't tell you what roads to walk on, or not," the paladin says finally. "I can tell you I'm likely to sleep in no more than a blanket on the bare ground for weeks, and eat no more than I can forage. Not likely I'll spend time in any company that a travelling minstrel could make a coin from."

"Nor any that would slit a helling's throat for a copper."

"You're as frightened of me as you are of them," the paladin says.


The paladin taps the hilt of the sword, and lifts her hand to touch the one on her face. "You should be more frightened of me," she says. "The god wants what the god wants, helling. Always. Yesterday, your attackers broken and routed. Tomorrow...." She shrugs.

"And that makes you unlike anyone else?"

The paladin tucks the leather bundle back under the barrow, straightens, and rests her hands, one atop the other, on one of its handles. "You might succeed in running away from someone else," she says matter-of-factly; her eyes are very dark. "But I can't tell you what roads to walk, helling."

Jemble swallows around the weight on her tongue. "When are you leaving?"


She nods and turns to the doorway, head down.

"Your pack's still here," the paladin says, as she reaches the threshold.

"I'll be here for it at dawn," she says, without raising her head or looking back, and the paladin grunts as she crosses the threshold into the yard.

The kitchens are large enough for one small helling to wander in and find somewhere out of the way to sit. Her fiddle is tucked impertinently into the paladin's barrow; she makes do with voice alone. The paladin's word might be enough to pay her way here, but she prefers to feel squared by her own effort.

Enough old hymns and work songs are built on the same bones; a good rhythm to labour to. She starts with some inoffensive ones, nondenominational thanks for the harvest and the blessings of the day; skirts through some thanks to the gods in general. Accepts bread and a bowl of soup, a short rest for her throat, then ventures some old labourers' chants.

Mindful of the goodwill involved in her circumstances, she leaves out the overt burn-your-landlord verses.

The evening meal is cheap ingredients, indifferently stewed and seemingly devoid of salt or seasoning. She dutifully spoons it down, in the manner of someone accustomed to uncertainty over the next meal, seated opposite the paladin at a long table of work-exhausted bodies.

"I hear you've been rabble-rousing," the paladin says, steadily shovelling her own meal with total apparent indifference to its qualities; and Jemble freezes, eyes locked on her bowl. A tremor shakes the slop out of her spoon. "Helling," the paladin adds, putting her own spoon down, then pauses a moment, hands flexing.

One arm reaches across the table, takes the point of Jemble's chin between the blunt tips of thumb and forefinger, and coaxes it up from the safety of her chest.

"This is why I don't attempt to jest," the paladin tells her reluctantly upturned face.

She meets the god-warrior's eyes for a heartbeat, and feels every hair on her skin prickle, in a chill wave from neck to feet, before the paladin releases her face and picks her spoon back up.

She curls around her bowl and her heartbeat and attempts to eat.

Dawn comes after a night of fragmentary, dread-shadowed sleep. Mist is clinging to the ground as the helling walks softly through the quiet Mission and out to the shed. The paladin's bed was already empty when she roused; the helling's heart is fast, and throat tight, half-convinced that the barrow will be already gone, her things left neatly behind for her.

Instead, the paladin is there, calm and quiet, checking over the barrow's fixtures and the belongings tucked away within. A hooded travelling cape is slung around her shoulders, in drab green, as if she can make herself nondescript. She grunts when she sees Jemble, picks up the barrow's handles, and nods toward the door.

"My pack — " but it's atop the barrow, and the paladin is already walking. She thinks she can pick it up when the paladin pauses to close the shed's door behind them, but the large woman is quicker than she supposed, eyes glinting, and Jemble must content herself with tucking her hands into her sleeves and concentrating on the ways it is like walking along with a family wagon, and not like having her belongings held as surety for her behaviour.

Scarcely a street or two go by without noticing that the paladin's stride is very long, and although her gait is easy, her pace is hard to match. So much, she realises, is also apparent to the paladin, as she slows her pace and moderates her stride.

This too, it is apparent to them both, is unsustainable, a far less easy pace for the paladin to maintain.

The helling halts, throat tight, as the paladin puts down the barrow's handles and looks over at her.

"Sit on the barrow," the paladin says.

She was not expecting that. Instantly, she balks.

The paladin reaches under the barrow and pulls out her fiddle, rummaging a little for the bow, and thrusts them toward her. "You prefer to pay your way," she says, the recognition snatching the breath from the helling's chest. "Play a travelling tune."

Jemble clutches the instrument close, unable to quite form any response. The paladin grunts.

"Either way, helling," she says, and steps menacingly close, puts a hand to either of Jemble's hips, and lifts her to perch beside the god's sword before casually picking up the barrow's handles.

It takes a while — rattling along the road beyond the city, with no sign that the helling's weight is even within the paladin's notice — for Jemble's breathing and trembling to ease, and then she falters twice over choosing a song. Finally she settles on a well-worn folk tune, that's had any of a thousand different lyrics put to it; she sings none of them, simply tucks the fiddle under her chin and wrings the notes from it.

The paladin strolls on unstoppably, and so Jemble plays on. It's only when she's forced to rest her aching wrist and cramping fingers that the paladin pauses too, offers her a waterskin and from somewhere unwraps a parcel of crumbly honey pastries.

"What do you call that tune?" the paladin asks, as if idly, when Jemble is delicately licking crumbs from her fingertips, and the helling answers with unguarded freedom.

"Oh, they call it many things. Old Underhill, or March of the Wolf, or Yon the Beehives, or Patrick o' Turnips...."

The paladin grunts softly. "North-east," she diagnoses, and the helling's mouth dries up at the succinct ease with which her origins have been flayed open for inspection.

She starts to stammer something.

"Northern road folk," the paladin adds, as if the inspection isn't pinning open Jemble's chest and rolling her vitals in sharp-edged salt grains, "with a name like Tjeng-bell."

Tjeng doesn't even grow down here. The helling's eyes wetten, at a cruelty that's novel enough to feel unfair.

And still the paladin goes on. "The fiddle's an heirloom," she says. "Nobody else makes them that way. But no forearm tattoos, though you must be of age, so no family. By the looks of you, you'd perhaps be old enough to have seen the fever years in Hassex."

The fever years, and the usual paroxysms of fear. Of blame.

The pogroms.

"Stop," Jemble says, voice a shrill creak, and it barely registers that the paladin does; the helling's feet are already scurrying amidst the trees at the edge of the road.