I fell at the very walls of the city, by the Salient Gate. Whoever struck me down must have moved on quickly to the next, because they left me alive.

But now our land has spent years under the enemy's sway, and we are no longer warriors, but slaves.

The day I was recruited, I was bartering for grain in the village square. I wasn't sorry to receive my gold crown and my sword; what was there in a farmhand's life to hold me in the place where I'd been born?

Now I fear to see that place again. The few stone-built houses that mark the square, the huddles of wooden dwellings behind them. The pillar from which news is cried, and where the Harvest God is sacrificed come the end of the year.

Our land, this land that was ours, but is now a mere province, brutally annexed, has thousands of such small villages. Since the war was lost, I'd almost swear we've visited them all. There is a dreary sameness to the villages, to the dusty or rutted or muddy paths along which we trudge, heads down, while our captors prod us with sticks. The paths go, we go, villages come and go, and there seems no pattern to our going.

Had I a map of this land in my head, it would be criss-crossed with the tracks of our going like a child's first attempt at a fishing net. But there are no maps; our captors find the next village by walking us until it's reached. They never ask directions.

Always I seek among my fellow prisoners for a familiar face. There must be someone else here from my village, surely; I cannot be the only one. Our train of slaves is hundreds strong.

I seek him daily. But all eyes are cast down, all faces are muddy or dusty or burnt by the sun. All hair is bleached blond or rain-darkened or the colour of mud. We have followed these trails among the villages for years, or so it seems. Without a reason to mark the seasons, to know ploughing time from planting time, time's beat has lost its rhythm.

A year or ten years, what is the difference? Each of us knows how it may end.

Another village is reached, and all I care about is that it's not mine. There's enough that's similar to stop my heart for a second, but here we are on lowland, not upland, on rich, dark earth that's fit to grow grain. Not stony enough for home. I draw a breath.

We stand around the square, several men deep; it's always the same drill. The villagers are watching us from the safety of their homes. The weight of their gaze sinks our heads even lower; we don't want to be recognised.

The enemy bring everyone out of their houses, one way or another. If banging on the door doesn't do it, a torch to the thatch will. Fires burn, dogs bark and are casually killed, children cling, silent and wide-eyed, to their mothers' skirts. Eventually everyone is gathered in the square, or everyone who can be found, at least.

The enemy drag the women into the centre of the square. There's fear, and tears—they don't know yet that no harm will be done to them. They have a lesson to learn, that's all.

We don't look into the women's faces; we avoid their gaze. There's a message in that, if only they could read it.

One of the enemy grabs the nearest woman and grips her tightly by the arm. Does she see her husband anywhere, he wants to know. A brother? Her father? She denies it, shaking her head. I try not to feel hope. Maybe these people have been warned.

All around me are bowed heads and averted gazes. Our enemy drags the woman through the crowd, demanding that she point out a familiar face. When she doesn't do so, it's on to the next.

Darkness falls, and the inquisition continues by torchlight. The village children are tired and hungry, but the enemy don't heed their complaints, and their mothers daren't. There are few men here—only the very young and the very old. It's the same everywhere.

Watching the moon rise, I try to feel lucky to be alive. I'm glad this is not my village.

At long last, an older woman identifies her son. He seems resigned. I'd be angry, or at least I think I would be. As it is, I'm relieved and apprehensive at the same time.

He doesn't wait for the enemy to seize him, but strides to the pillar of his own will. That's courage, but does courage really make a difference? Perhaps he finds it makes this easier to bear.

I don't think I'm brave; in battle I fought just to stay alive.

His mother is crying. He strips off his clothes and stands waiting for what we know will happen. We are so accustomed to this sacrilege that we just wait, too.

The enemy tie him to the pillar. He keeps his head raised. Perhaps as a child he wanted to be the Harvest God. I never did; never thought the honour worth the price.

As always, I puzzle over the enemy's intentions. Have they misunderstood the Harvest God's significance? Are they making some point regarding the triumph of their own beliefs? Are they taunting us?

Once the man is tied to the pillar, we set off again. We none of us look back, although the glow of the burning houses still warms us for a while as we move on.

The villagers stand and look from us to the pillar to the enemy to us again. Whatever they're going to do, they're waiting till we're out of sight.

Soon there will be another village. I hope it isn't mine.

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