The sounds of combat have begun to die away when Otter returns to the bunks, a soldier close on his heels. Savren lets out a sigh of relief. “You’re alive.”
“Savi!” Vasuen rushes up to her, touches her on the cheek. “Oh… oh, skies… Otter told me it was bad, but…”
“Hal iene, tirlas?” Savren demands sharply.
Vasuen instantly steps back and salutes. “Area secured, ma’am. Enemy forces have retreated to fortified positions but they’re contained. Friendly casualties were… substantial but there have only been a few fatalities so far.”
Savren exhales raggedly, leaning back against the wall. “At ease, then, Vassi.”
“Does this mean I can tend to you now?”
“Only if you keep filling me in.”
“I can multitask,” Vasuen responds briskly, dropping to her knees and setting a dirty, battered metal case on the cot. “Rosies didn’t have much in the way of medical supplies, but there’s bandages and alcohol. And, uh. Leeches.”
Savren winces. “Let’s forego the leeches.”
“If you insist! Off with that tunic; show me your back.”
Savren dutifully obeys, gripping the metal frame of the cot as she lays face down. Vasuen can’t restrain a gasp as the extent of the damage becomes clear.
“You’re still bleeding— stars; Otter, find me a towel or… a cloth… something sanitary! Oh, Savi, you poor thing. When I get my hands on that intendant—”
She strokes Savren’s neck gently as she works, mopping up blood and swabbing the cuts clean. Savren twitches and shudders at the sting of the alcohol, letting out faint gasps and cries of pain. Otter sits cross-legged on the floor by her, taking her hands in his, squeezing them tightly. Savren flashes him a weak, grateful smile.
“Alright, sit up. I need to bandage you. This is going to be tricky.” Vasuen carefully lifts Savren to a sitting position, motioning for Otter to help. “Keep her upright. I can’t have her leaning on the wall.”
Otter nods quickly and sits behind Savren, taking her by the shoulders. “Is this okay? Is this enough support?”
“You’re doing fine, surin,” Savren murmurs. Her vision is starting to go fuzzy again; she can feel her limbs tingling.
Otter blushes. “I… thank you, surin.”
“Just… sorry I didn’t have the chance… to fight beside you…”
Otter squeezes her shoulders. “Hey, there’s still plenty of time for that.”
The two of them wrap bandage after bandage around Savren’s waist, sealing away the open wounds. Very carefully, Vasuen slips the tunic back over Savren’s head, tugging it down to her thighs.
“How are you doing? Are you feeling better?”
Savren nods, slowly standing, muscles in her face still twitching involuntarily from the pain. “It’ll have to do.”
“Where do you think you’re—”
“The people need a leader.”
The crowd parts as Savren exits the bunks. A lot of these people know her by name. Almost all of them know her by reputation or rumor. A chant goes up as she plods determinedly toward a captured workhouse, climbing the stairs to the balcony. A hundred, a thousand women and men are chanting her name. She grips the railing tightly, and holds up a hand.
As one, the crowd falls silent.
“Comrades!” she calls out, voice still quavering, raising a fist, gazing out across the crowd. It spread out like a ripple, hands held skyward, arms pumping in jubilation. “I wish I was a speechmaker. I wish I knew your tongue better. Because what you have done here today, I can’t say the words it deserves. I’m just a soldier.
“But a soldier knows victory when she sees it. She knows strength when she sees it. And she knows a comrade when she sees her. And you — each and every one you, who answered the call of revolution, the call to take a stand against slavery and violation; who put your lives on the line in the name of your sisters and brothers in chains — you are comrades.” She reaches up, tries to wipe her eyes dry. “The whispers you’ve heard are true. Those lights in the sky mean rescue is on its way.”
Tears are streaming down her cheek now. She feels giddy, faint. She leans into the railing for support. “The Allies are coming,” she calls out. “My people are coming.”
As the cheer goes up, Savren looks down at her feet, taking a few deep, shuddering breaths. The world feels unreal. Dreamlike. Like any moment she’ll wake up back on that dingy cot to the sound of the morning bells.
But this is real.
This is real.
Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up in my uniform.
Tomorrow, I’m going to hold a rifle again.
“You have already done so much,” Savren calls out as the crowd begins to quiet down. “We have all suffered so much. All that’s left to do is wait. Keep the den tsuang pinned in their kennels. Soon, we’ll be free.” She glances around the crowd. “Soon,” she adds, lowering her voice, “we will have justice for the indignities visited upon us.”
A roar of approval from the crowd. Savren holds up a hand. “We have accomplished something truly great today. In the words of my people: sav valari citte!”
Some of them try to pronounce it. Savren can’t help but smile at how the Rosies and Khmai all enthusiastically butcher it. She descends the stairs, meeting Vasuen and Otter at the bottom. The other prisoners of war quickly move to join them, standing in a small circle around Savren.
Savren looks to each in turn. “I’m so proud of you all for making it this far,” she murmurs. “You are the strongest women and men I’ve ever known. You’ve fought soldiers and sickness and torture and… so much trauma. And you survived. You survived to make it to this day. I am so privileged to have such brave hearts to lead.”
Sarshal salutes crisply. “First thing I do when I get back is put in a formal request to transfer to your unit, ma’am. Not like there’s much left of mine, anyway.”
Listar nods, saluting as well. “I couldn’t have asked for a better commander to carry us through, ma’am.”
“Damn right.” Tenuan salutes too. For a moment, he’s his old self again. Fire in his eyes, not fear. His hands aren’t even shaking. His gaze is steady.
One by one, they all salute her. Savren returns the salute, not even trying to hide the tears welling up again in her eyes. “I need each of you to form a unit,” she tells them, lowering her hand. “Lisi, find the power feeds to every building under enemy control that you can and see that they’re cut. Starting with that bunker. Communication lines too, if these barbarians have any. Sar, round up what rations you can, see that they’re distributed as equally as possible. Ten, secure the railway. I don’t want any surprises when the Allies roll in.” She turns to the others. “The rest of you, I want you to put together patrols. Pick up any of the wounded that we’ve missed. Collect all the weapons you can. And kill any den tsuang still breathing.”
She turns to Vasuen. “And Vassi, you and Otter with me.”
Otter inclines his head. “Always, ma’am.”
Vasuen snorts. “Like I’d go anywhere else.”
“Is the fighting done?”
Egret’s hunched at her desk, idly toying with a small jewelled trinket. The captain, clinging to a support column and peering out the window, nods slowly.
“Shit, I see someone. They’re all moving to make way for her.”
“They’ve got themselves a leader?” Egret growls. “How’d this happen, then, Owl? Right under our noses! A… camp full of murderers, thieves, smugglers, whores, junkies, highway bandits, pirates, heretics, and Greens set themselves up a goddamn insurrection and we never even saw it. How did this happen?”
“Don’t matter now, do it?” returns Owl levelly. “Leader or no leader they’ll starve just the same.”
Egret scowls. “So’ll we, if the depot don’t start to talking again soon. A touch worried for that, I am.”
Owl shrugs. “What’s the worst could have happened? It’s that useless bloody telegraph, mark my words.”
“Here’s to hoping.”
Owl suddenly lets out an oath. “It’s her!”
“Their leader! It’s that Green bitch from earlier.”
“…the one you whipped ’til she couldn’t walk?”
“That’s the one.”
Egret scowls. “Unbelievable.” She stands up suddenly, walks to the balcony doors, wrenches them open. “It’s time to put me an end to this nonsense.”
A bullet pings off her armor almost immediately as she steps outside. She flings her hands protectively in front of her face. “Parley!” she shouts. “Parley, you barbarians! I only want to talk!”
The Green girl turns, clasping her hands behind her back, and gazes levelly up at Egret. “Intendant Egret Sunshield,” she calls up, her tone faintly mocking, “by my authority under the Treaty of Mill Creek as an officer of an Allied Power to enforce the martial law of the Provisional Government of the Northern Territories, the Free Khmai State, the People’s Republic of Westcastle, the West Plains Protectorate, and the Society of Worlds…”
She pauses, smirking, savoring the words. “I name you subject to the jurisdiction of the Society of Worlds and place you under arrest pursuant to the Uniform Collectivization Code, the Uniform Code on Crimes of War, and the Society Theater Charter on Enemy Combatants and Prisoners of War. You will surrender your arms and person and desist from any further resistance or you will be liable to summary execution.”
Egret blinks. “‘The Treaty of Mill Creek…’ Good God, are you for real? Grow up, girl! There’s no escape for any of you. You’ll never reach your precious Allies.” Her breathing is ragged, eyes wild. “The rail is the only way in or out!” she screams down at Savren. “And there will come no more trains ’til my say-so. Now I’m going to give you one chance to surrender and get back to work, or we’ll leave you to starve in the snow!”
For the first time in months, Savren Shalsheni laughs. She turns and walks towards the rail depot.
“Ma’am…” Owl calls to Egret from the safety of the office. “You’re needed.”
Egret gives Savren one last frustrated scowl and walks back inside, slamming the doors after her. “What is it now?”
“Word from the lookout tower.” Owl fidgets nervously. “Someone saw a train coming.”
Egret blinks twice.