Disclaimer: I don't own Fire Emblem. I just like playing with the characters.

Summary: FE6,7. One-shot, tie-in with "Days of Waiting." She has never met a more insufferably indecipherable man. Nor a more persistent one.
Pairings: Sain/Fiora, implied/mentions of others
Rating: T for language and wartime violence.

Notes: Because Sain/Fiora is a gazillion times more interesting than Kent/Fiora (which is really the only pairing in all three FE games I've played that I actively dislike, for whatever reason). And it's not necessary to read "Days of Waiting" first. All I'll say aside from that is, ARGH WTF THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HUMOR. (I never know how to label my fics anymore...) 3/29/2008: EDIT FOR EFFING SCENE BREAKS


A Thousand Snows

You cannot know Ilia until you have lived through a thousand Ilian snows.

- Ilian proverb

Four years after Nergal's defeat, Fiora was shocked when she received her newest mission and found an unexpectedly familiar face in her assigned company.

"Lovely Fiora! How long it has been! How I have missed you -- your dazzling smile, your sparkling eyes, the sight of your silken blue tresses flying back in the wind --"

If she were Farina, she would have confronted him immediately, growling, "What in the name of great Barigan are you doing here?"

If she were Florina, she would have died of shame on the spot.

Seeing as she was neither, she simply brushed past wordlessly, ignoring him.

"My most beauteous Fiora! Do you not remember me? Ah, my poor heart! It breaks at the cruel whims of fate that have thus erased my visage from your memory --"

The rest of her company, another cavalier and four recently promoted pegasus knights, were either too well-trained or too polite, or even perhaps, she liked to think, too respectful to break into snickers. But Fiora could see them struggling to hold back smirks anyway.

"That's enough, Sir Sain," she snapped, perhaps a bit more curtly than she had intended.

To her surprise, the knight clammed up immediately, looking rather sheepish, and she found herself regretting her harsh tone.

Still, she thought, she had to maintain order, and already she was off to a bad start. First impressions were everything, and she did not want to know what kind of an impression she had just made on her company now, thanks to this rambling dolt. And so, though she felt a twinge of guilt, she did not speak to him again. Instead, she outlined the mission's objectives and her own expectations of the group, learned the names of the rest of the company, and was more troubled than she liked to admit at his presence.

o-o-o

"What on earth are you doing here?" she asked at last, later that night, when the rest of the company had gone to sleep. He alone lingered awake by the campfire, moping. "Are you not a sworn knight of Caelin?"

If they had been employed by Caelin, she would not have been so surprised, but their employer this time was not even Lycian, for that matter, but strangely enough, a Bernese man who had preferred to remain anonymous. The Ilian Union was not in the habit of accepting such missions, but it was a simple enough job, not at all suspect, and Fiora had heard that much money had been offered, with more to come upon the mission's success. Were she a prouder woman, she might have even been insulted that she, former captain of an entire wing of fully fledged pegasus knights, had been reduced to such menial tasks. But Fiora knew better than others the importance of every single mission, no matter how simple or trivial. And after four years of building her reputation back up, it was indeed an honor to be assigned a team of six, four of whom had only been trainees just months ago. It was a gesture of trust in her abilities as a leader, and she was determined not to let the Union down once more.

Before that, however, there was still the matter of Sain.

"Why, I thought you'd never ask, my sweet!" Sain exclaimed in response to her question, perking up instantly. Fiora was reminded of the small lapdogs that had been in fashion among the Etrurian nobility some time ago: eager to please, desiring only love and attention in return. "But the truth is, I am bound to Caelin's service no longer! Instead, now I am free to fo--"

Fiora interrupted him before he could continue further. "You mean you were dismissed?"

"Of course not!" said Sain, actually looking hurt at her assumption. "I resigned myself."

"But --" Fiora could not understand how anyone could so easily, so recklessly toss aside their duty; not even Sain, whom she had known, or at least thought, despite everything, to be a true knight after all. But then she remembered Florina's most recent letter, which had spoken of Marquess Caelin's passing, her dear friend Lady Lyndis's abdication, and her husband's new responsibilities. Fiora had been more interested, at the time, in her sister's news regarding her pregnancy.

"-- Because you would not serve Ostia," Fiora concluded.

Sain looked confused. "Why would I not? Marquess Ostia is a good man. Any man who could capture the heart of your fair sister would have to be, after all!"

She was surprised that he remembered. Then again, he'd probably kept tabs on all the women who had been in the army during these four years since the war's end.

"Then why did you resign?"

"Because I felt I was needed more elsewhere, now that rule of Caelin has changed hands, of course! After all, I did promise that I would protect you, did I not? How could I have remained in Caelin, knowing that you were out there somewhere, facing all manner of hardship and danger on your own --"

She did not bother pointing out that he had made similar promises to all the other women of the army, four years ago, and that she had been doing perfectly well on her own, thank you very much. She had already tried too many times before, to fool herself into thinking that it would be of any use now. At the same time, she felt a rising sense of something vaguely resembling embarrassment as she realized that what she had been suspecting was, in fact, true: he had left and come north for her.

"You should not have assumed so. Even if Lady Lyndis herself granted you your freedom, your duty should have ever been to the people. What will they do now, abandoned by their marchioness, left to their own devices under an unfamiliar rule? You should have stayed, to grant them at least that comfort of a familiar face."

"You sound just like Kent!" said Sain, laughing. "He chose to remain as steward, you know."

It was a comparison Fiora had heard made far too many times to count, ever since she had first met the Lords Eliwood and Hector, and she had been pleased at first to find another like-minded individual in an army of... of young men and women who hardly knew the meaning of honor and duty and had not even the slightest idea of proper behavior as soldiers. But now, she was just annoyed.

"But I doubt he'll still think the same in a few years!" Sain prattled on, blissfully unaware.

"What do you mean?"

"He won't at all be happy, while his lady love's so far away..."

His flippant remark troubled her, though she could not say why. "When you are a knight, your duty to the people you serve comes before even your personal happiness. I believe, in this case, that Sir Kent's decision is quite admirable."

"Ah, but as for myself, I have always found that I cannot do my duty unless my heart lies in it! But... you think that I am wrong to think this way, don't you? You would rather that I had not left." He wilted visibly, and Fiora sighed.

"No, that's not what I meant. I..." She hesitated, trying to figure out how to best phrase her next words. "I do appreciate that you decided to come..." Though she still had no idea how he had managed to ensure himself this particular assignation.

She knew she would regret her words as soon as they left her mouth.

"My lovely Fiora! I --"

She had to shut him up before he roused the rest of the camp.

o-o-o

She soon found him going out of his way to heed her every beck and call, no matter how trivial or tedious.

"He's besotted with you, Captain," one of the girls giggled. Lissa, thought Fiora. She had always taken pride in the painstaking care she took to get to know each member of her assigned companies as individuals, though there were times, like now, that she wished she did not allow herself to get so close to them.

"Any idiot can see that," Rod the cavalier replied dismissively as he groomed his horse, in a tone that brooked no nonsense, and Fiora almost hugged him, until he added, "Though frankly, I think the fool is besotted with anything that has a pair of tits."

Then Fiora just wanted to smack him.

"That's not true. He --" She stopped when she realized with some horror that she was actually defending Sain.

"He what?" asked Mimi, another one of the girls, with unabashed curiosity.

"I think Rod's right," said June, the quietest of them (which wasn't saying much). "He tried singing my praises just this morning, before I told him where to stick it!"

"Yeah!" chimed in Viola, who was the youngest. "He tried me, too, last night. I kept hinting to him that I already had someone, but he just didn't get it! I finally had to tell him outright, but even then he was undeterred!"

"I want to know what the Captain was about to say," said Mimi.

"Yeah, how did you know him, Captain? Where's he from? Has he always been like this?" asked Lissa.

"He is a former knight of Caelin. We fought together four years ago. As for his behavior, why don't you ask him yourself?"

In response, the girls only burst into more giggles. Sir Rod groaned.

"Captain, can you please tell them to shut up?"

She sighed, and found comfort in the fact that she would likely never have to deal with the same group ever again, once their mission was complete.

o-o-o

After a week of suffering through both complaints and teasing from Rod and the girls, Fiora finally confronted Sain about his ways.

"Lords Eliwood and Hector and Lady Lyndis allowed you to run around freely under their command, but here, it is different. We are a small group. We cannot afford to be disrupted by such behavior, lest it jeopardize our mission."

"Now, Dame Fiora! Do not be jealous! I may say many things to the other lovely members of our little company, but I mean nothing by them -- I am merely treating them as a knight must treat a lady! You know I have eyes only for you!" Then he added, as an afterthought, "Besides, it is only a simple scouting mission. Information gathering -- what could possibly go wrong?"

Fiora closed her eyes and bit down on her lip, willing herself not to explode unnecessarily at the knight's ignorance or dwell upon her own past failures.

"Fiora?"

"It's nothing."

But something must have gotten through to him, for she received no more Sain-related complaints for the duration of their journey.

o-o-o

Whatever had made him stop harrassing the other girls didn't stop him from harrassing her, however.

In the mornings, as she blearily ran her fingers through the tangle of her hair, he would greet her with an "Ah, Dame Fiora! You are even more radiant than the rising sun, dazzling my eyes with your sublime beauty --"

At noon, it was, "This midday sun burns hot indeed, but it does not burn hotter than my love for you, whose beauty scorches my heart with the strength of a thousand, nay, a million suns --"

At sunset, he would sigh, saying, "Alas! The last light dims upon the land and upon your visage of perfection, bringing darkness to my heart... But one glance at you sets my soul alight again!"

At night, serving as entertainment for Rod and the girls, he would declare, "Oh fairest Fiora! The moon's cold beauty pales to yours! Your eyes are like the stars above, and yet more vibrant, more luminous! Your --"

Indeed, every time they passed some grand scenic location on the way to the Etrurian border (which was often; the route they traveled was quite renowned for its lovely year-round scenery) he would spout copious comparisons between her and the landscape until she grew sick of being likened to flowers and celestial objects. When she told him this, he merely gave her a brilliant smile and began comparing her to butterflies and birds. Rod found no end of amusement over this, and spent his free time, of which he had plenty, coming up with crude and outrageous metaphors involving bears and mosquitos and rocks and other things not fit for polite company. Sometimes the girls would scold him, and sometimes one of them -- usually June -- would throw back an equally crude retort. Their exchanges always ended in giggles and laughter.

Fiora watched them with a strange, quiet sense of distance, and was reminded often of her sisters and herself when they had been younger, more innocent. The last time all three of them had been together had been during the quest against Nergal, and even then the time they had spent with each other had been too little, too rushed, and not always as happy as she might have liked. They had all grown up now, even little Florina, and though they had all chosen the way of the pegasus knight, the paths they walked were their own. By then she had spent so much of her life taking care of them, watching over them, that the realization sometimes made her feel lost, like a rider in the fog, drifting about aimlessly without any sense of direction. Just like the way it had been, back then, back at the Dread Isle, when death had enfolded her within its dark, clammy grasp, and yet still she had struggled on blindly, even as her fellow knights dropped all around her, plummeting to the earth like so many falling stars. Then as now, only her sense of duty alone remained to keep her anchored to the path, continuing to drive her forward. Duty, even now, was all she had left to cling to.

But sometimes, just sometimes, as Sain recited yet another gushingly horrendous love poem, or Rod started up another round of bickering and joking with the girls, she allowed herself to remember freer days, under Lord Eliwood's command, with her sisters fighting at her side, and good men at her back, and thought that maybe, just maybe, life held something more for her.

Some nights, unable to sleep, she paced about, looking over the others, often watching over Sain in particular. His face as he slept lost all hints of its usual goofy aspect, turning serious and handsome in a way that sometimes terrified her, for it made him seem like another man entirely.

He could be sweet when he was not being utterly troublesome, she thought one night, remembering his dedicated attempts to protect her when they had both still followed the banners of Lord Eliwood. Perhaps she knew nothing of burning passions and undying love, but she could not deny that he aroused a strange, fierce sense of protectiveness in her, one that she had always thought reserved for her sisters. Barely conscious of her own movement, she reached out and brushed a few loose brown strands of hair from his forehead with a tenderness she had not felt in years.

He stirred at her touch, and she jerked back her hand as if she had been burned.

"F-Fiora? What -- uhh -- erm..."

She could have sworn he was blushing, but it was too dark to be certain.

"You were snoring," she said brusquely, thankful for the darkness.

"Oh. My apologies," he mumbled, and promptly went back to sleep.

o-o-o

They had been asked to survey a certain secluded Etrurian university located near the border, and collect information on the spells it was rumored that the mages there were developing for the Etrurian military. The mission went quite well, almost suspiciously so. They had already begun heading back across the border into Ilia when they were attacked at last.

The squad of mages and mercenary swordsmen who confronted them moved in an unexpectedly efficient, organized fashion. Fiora ordered Rod and Sain to take care of the mercenaries while she herself and the other girls flew in to take out the mages. Since pegasi had naturally high resistance to magic, she was confident that the girls would be able to manage. And indeed, for some time it seemed that they would be able to make an easy escape.

Fiora had just run her lance through the man who seemed to be the leader of the group, a high-ranking mage by the looks of his robes, when she heard one of the girls scream.

It was Lissa. The girl and her pegasus were trapped in the middle of a raging vortex, and Fiora watched in horror as the swirling winds transformed into a thousand feathery blades, cutting, slicing...

Then the winds vanished, and the pegasus crashed to the ground, and from her position in the skies above Fiora saw Sain atop his horse, sword in hand, the headless body of a mage stretched out on the ground before him. His face was spattered with blood, and he looked more furious than she had ever seen him before. It was, in fact, she realized, the first time she had ever seen him angry.

The remaining attackers fled, and Fiora swooped down immediately, landing by where Lissa had fallen. The girl lay pinned beneath her pegasus's body. With the help of Sain and Rod, Fiora pulled the pegasus off the girl. But it was too late. Lissa was dead.

They buried the girl that very night, alongside her pegasus, and crossed the border the next day. There were no more jokes or banter, no more teasing or laughter. Mimi, who had been particularly close to Lissa, cried herself to sleep every night; Viola clung to her older friends like a shadow; and June and Rod got into a violent argument some days later, and would not speak with each other again. After that, no one wanted to talk, and even Sain was silent.

When they returned to the headquarters in Edessa at last, the mission was declared a success, and the second half of the promised pay distributed. Their group was disbanded, and each member went their separate ways. Fiora and Sain stayed together at an inn while awaiting their next assignments. Sain flirted shamelessly with the innkeeper's daughter and the various other women working there, and for some time, it seemed that things had returned to normal.

After supper one night, Sain pulled Fiora aside. She could smell the alcohol on his breath, and almost recoiled but for the silent desperation in his eyes.

"We were used," he said. "Those utterly... ruthless..."

Even intoxicated, he would not resort to uncouth language in the presence of a woman, thought Fiora. And she said, as gently as she could, "Sain... You're drunk."

"Look at this! Look at this." He shoved a battered tome at her, and as Fiora flipped it over to look at the cover, she realized that it was the spellbook for that terrible new magic that had turned the wind against them and killed an innocent girl.

Aircalibur.

Her first thought was that he must have taken it from the body of the mage he had killed. Her second thought was that they had not done their duty to their employer, by keeping such a valuable piece of information to themselves.

"We were used," Sain repeated, before she could think of anything further. "Used as -- as test subjects, so they wouldn't have to test it on their wyverns instead..."

"Sain, what are you talking about? That spell was invented by Etrurian mages. Bern knew nothing of this. It's what they sent us to find out about in the first place --"

"That mage spoke with the accent of Bern! They used us --"

Shaken, she said without thinking, "Yes. As mercenaries, that is our lot in life. We are paid to do the dirty work. We fight. We die. Or did you expect otherwise?"

"But that's dishonorable!" he yelled, his words slurring, and grabbed her shoulders so tightly that she winced from the pain. "To accept such missions, to make such deals with such employers..."

"And do you think we can afford to turn down any mission that comes our way?" she shouted back, pushing him aside, uncertain of why she was suddenly so upset.

"So that's it, isn't it? All you care about is the money! You don't care if what you're being paid to do is right or wrong; all that matters is that you're getting paid..." He broke down into incoherent sobbing.

She could not leave him, though every fiber of her being screamed with discomfort and upset, and she wanted nothing more than to fly away on her pegasus, alone. So she stayed, ignoring the clamor within her chest, waiting until exhaustion overtook him at last and he fell asleep.

Something had changed, she thought then, heading back to her own room. Changed, and irrevocably so.

But afterwards, when he went back to his usual ways, simpleminded and eager and unheeding of the world as ever, she thought with some bewilderment that perhaps she had been wrong. For morning came, and he greeted her with a bright grin and a new ode to her beauty, a slight wince at the sunlight streaming in through his window serving as the only sign of the hangover he must surely be suffering from, and he spoke nothing of the exchange that had taken place the previous night.

She realized then that she simply couldn't figure him out. It was as if the four years since they had last parted had never passed. He was still an utter paradox within himself, just as she remembered him, his contradictory behavior a conundrum she could not decipher despite all her effort. She despaired then of ever coming to understand him, and did not question why it suddenly seemed so urgent that she reach such an understanding.

o-o-o

Afterwards, they were often assigned together. Though most pegasus knights retired in their early twenties to settle down and start their own families, Fiora did not set aside her lance, and in time, she was reinstated as captain of the reformed Fifth Wing, and once more allowed greater autonomy in the missions and teams she chose to accept. But even then their mutual assignations continued. They worked undeniably well as a team, and despite everything, he was not an unreliable man. And so Fiora did not complain, though she was often sorely tempted to.

"Don't be so reckless!" she found herself scolding him often. "Always rushing in like that without a second thought --"

"I'll be fine!" he would always reply. "After all, Lady Luck herself is on my side! But how glad my heart is, to know you worry so for me --"

Other than that, life went on as usual. Fiora received missions; they completed them, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. They saw Ilia rarely, and never stayed for long, and the money they earned was donated to the villages who needed it most. Farina sent a scrawled, rushed letter perhaps once every few months if she remembered to, while their youngest sister wrote more regularly.

Sain, on the other hand, received no correspondence whatsoever.

"Do you have no friends, no family back in Caelin?" Fiora asked him, when some two years had passed like this.

"Nope!" he replied cheerfully. "I was a fourth son; my family turned me out to seek my own fortune years ago. I doubt they care what's become of me since then!"

She had heard of the custom in noble Lycian families: the first son inherited, the second son went into the Eliminean church, which had been steadily gaining influence in Lycia in recent years, and the third was sent off to join the army of their respective marquesses. The remaining sons were left to their own devices. It did not make her any more comfortable with Sain's admission, or the flippant ease with which he spoke. There were no issues of inheritance among Ilians, for whom such matters were silly and trivial in face of their common struggle to survive and eke out a meager existence upon the frozen wastelands. Fiora could not even begin to comprehend a society that thought nothing of breaking apart entire families for the sake of power and wealth, and ties of blood meant nothing but a threat to the status quo.

"You ended up as a knight despite that, though."

"But of course! The ways of the world are strange, are they not? I must have been destined for this path -- just as I was destined to meet you, dearest Fiora!"

She ignored him. "What of Sir Kent, then? Would you not write to him?"

"Whatever would we write about?" laughed Sain. "He is busy with his duties as steward, duties I understand absolutely nothing about, nor do I particularly care to -- and I doubt he has the time to worry about our boring little missions!"

"He is your friend, is he not?"

"And who says that friends are obligated to write one another? Is it not enough to cherish each other within our hearts?" Sain laughed again. "But enough of that! To be quite honest, the time I might spend writing long, insufferably dull letters, I'd much rather spend with you, my dear Fiora!"

Why? she was almost tempted to ask, but did not. She knew well enough that she did not make good company, and though she had never quite had the heart to spurn his advances completely, she had not encouraged them, either. Above all, she could not, would not believe that it was for her alone that he lingered here in the desolate north. Indeed, in the back of her mind, she did not believe he would last. Sooner or later, she knew, he would tire of the endless tedium of missions, of Ilia and the bitter cold. And when that time came, he would leave, and she would never see him again.

It was during a mission another two years later that she received the dreaded black letter, that simple, impersonal will every Ilian mercenary knew to write before they ever set out on their first mission. She thought first that it came from Juno or Sigune -- they had been the most talented trainees she had ever mentored, and had only just become fully fledged knights. But when she opened the letter at last, after they had finished the mission and were heading back to Ilia, she knew the handwriting within at once.

Something must have shown on her face, for Sain, who had been lounging by the fire, sprang up at once.

"What's wrong?"

She handed the letter over silently, schooling her expression into a rigid mask. She had not cried since she was a girl -- even at the Dread Isle the tears had not come -- and she saw no reason to start again now.

"Your sister!" Sain looked at her, shocked. "Sweet Florina! But --"

For once, it seemed, he was at a loss for words. Fiora shook her head. "We all knew this day would come. From the moment we joined the Order of the Pegasus Knights, the moment we made the decision to become mercenaries... This is a day we are all prepared for."

"But she didn't die in battle -- it was illness that took her --"

She let his anger and confusion wash over her. "Does it make a difference whether my sister died fighting soldiers or disease?" she said, quite calmly.

"What will you do?" he demanded.

"What is there to do? She was a true Ilian to the end, and she will be laid to rest like one. I am sure her husband has already made the proper arrangements." Florina would have been sorry that she would never see the soil of her beloved Ilia again. But that was the fate of Ilian mercenaries, to be buried where they fell, in strange, distant lands, far away from home. That was the fate they all knew and accepted, and Florina, she knew, was no different.

But Sain could not accept it. "She's your sister!"

"Yes, and this is the way she would have wanted it. Even knowing how things must turn out in the end, she chose to marry Lord Hector. I believe it was a decision she made without regret."

"That's not what I'm talking about."

"You know as well as I do that our duty as mercenaries does not allow us to go gallivanting across the continent on personal business," she replied stiffly, after a long silence.

He opened his mouth, eyes blazing, but seemed to think better of what he had been about to say, and instead stalked away into the night.

He would leave now, she thought. He would saddle his horse and ride away, returning at last to Lycia, where the winters were not so harsh, and men and women still wept for the dead, instead of growing colder with each passing year. But to her surprise, instead of the sound of fading hoofbeats, she heard his voice raised suddenly in song. His voice was not unpleasant, and the melody was faint and mournful -- a dirge, she realized, though she could not make out the words.

He sang all through the night; she fell asleep to the soothing tones of his grief, and awoke the next morning to an obnoxiously silly ditty about three mice and a rooster.

o-o-o

That same year, Fiora was elected general of the pegasus knight division, equivalent in status to Zealot, popularly styled Lord of Edessa, who led the men's knight brigade and the other landed troops of the Union. Like Zealot, she continued to take on missions as well, always making sure to leave the most difficult ones for herself and Sain. So time passed, and still he remained at her side, showering his attention upon her with undwindling enthusiasm, doing his duty with the same sheer passion that had so startled and caught her, so many years ago.

Some months before she reached her thirty-ninth year, she received a letter from Farina, the first her sister had sent in all the years since Florina's death.

Take care, General, read the letter, and Fiora could not tell whether the title was meant in mocking or belated congratulations. Knowing Farina, it was probably both. Bern is coming.

Zealot was away, and Fiora knew it would be near impossible to reach him. She did not fully understand Farina's letter, and yet knew that a warning from her wayward sister could not be taken lightly. In the end, she set aside two pegasus knight wings and three landed troops, hoping it would be enough.

It was not. Bern's invasion came like a fierce, sudden storm, and despite Farina's warning, the Ilian troops were taken by surprise. Edessa was the first to fall; Fiora and Sain escaped only through the fact that they, like Zealot, were away on a mission when the Bernese wyverns arrived. With the headquarters of the Union taken, and both its leaders gone, everything fell apart. Fiora soon heard that the White Devil Sigune had turned to Bern, along with her entire wing, and even knights from other wings and troops. Even the loyalties of the people themselves were divided.

Fiora wondered then if this, after all, was what she had spent more than twenty-five years of her life fighting for. And yet she could not blame those who now welcomed Bern. For Ilia had ever been dependent on other nations, and ever had they been a nation where sister fought against sister, husband against wife, friend against friend. Why should they not welcome Bern, who promised power and stability and an end to the uncertainty that defined their very lives? Were they not Ilians, for whom survival mattered above all else? If they had any pride left, it was in clinging stubbornly to life in a land where life was unsustainable.

But in the end she could not stand by. While Bern plotted out its next move, using Ilian mercenaries like pawns in their game of conquest, the very mercenaries whom all Ilia had relied on for income, Fiora saw that the people starved. The coming winter promised to be the worst they had seen in almost twenty years. And above all, Fiora thought, she could not stand the idea of Ilians fighting Ilians on Ilian soil, of being used by a nation who could not care less about the people they had conquered, save in terms of their own goals. Mercenaries they might be, but Ilian mercenaries, with their own terms, their own honor. And what Bern had done went against everything Fiora had ever believed in.

On the strength of her name and former position, she mustered together the remaining troops who would not see Ilia under Bernese rule. Most chose to remain neutral, but there were a few who shared her views. Perhaps it was not enough, she thought, but the soldiers of Bern had never seen an Ilian winter. And winter was coming.

The night before their first battle, she noticed Sain lingering by the campfire.

"You should go," she said quietly.

He looked up, eyebrows raised quizzically. "Why?"

"You... your place is not here. Go back to Lycia. You have no more reason to stay here."

He just stared at her, with that familiar, pleasantly idiotic grin plastered on his face.

She was exasperated. "Do you intend to die here, die fighting for a land that means nothing to you? Go home."

"Ilia has been my home for the past sixteen years," he said then with a quiet stubbornness so unlike him that she was taken aback. He grinned cheekily at her. "I'm afraid you aren't getting rid of me just yet, oh lovely one!"

But she knew the truth. He would never -- could never love the land the way she loved it. Ilia would never be home for him the way it was for her, for Farina -- even if she would never admit it -- for everyone who had been born and raised here, in this frozen, desolate land. Despair meant nothing to him, nor the hardy endurance of struggling through winter after winter, never knowing if tomorrow would come, or if darkness and hunger and bitter cold would prevail.

"If it weren't for me, you never would have come," she whispered, but if he heard her, he did not show it, and there was nothing more she could do.

Two new arrivals greeted her the next morning.

"Hey, Captain. Er. General."

"General Fiora. Remember us?"

She did. In all her years as a mercenary, Fiora had never forgotten a single name or face. And though those faces were grim and haggard now, aged considerably from when she had last seen them, she said, "Rod. June. What are you two doing here?"

"What kind of a question is that, General?" said June, while Rod simply shrugged.

"Ain't that often we get a chance to die on Ilian soil," he said.

"I thought you would have retired by now," said Fiora, mostly to June.

"What about you, General?" June shot back. Then her tone softened. "Mimi retired. She got pregnant. But she's dead now. Me and Viola, well... I guess it always felt like we'd be letting down Lissa if we didn't keep fighting."

June was right, Fiora thought. She was old now, older even than the previous general had been when she had stepped down from the position. By all rights she should be long retired. But duty or perhaps habit had never let her set aside her lance. And yet, as an Ilian, it was as much her duty to raise a family as it was to fight: to help rear a new generation who would take up swords and spears in their place, when they had grown too old for battle; a new generation of mercenaries to send out and make a living for their fellow Ilians.

But in all those long, unending years of mission after mission after mission, the thought of settling down had never really occurred to her. She had known many men over the years whom she had respected and admired, and perhaps a few of them had respected and admired her in turn, but in the end, she had carried too many responsibilities and burdens, burdens she could not just push carelessly onto anyone else. There had never seemed to be an appropriate time to leave behind her unfinished duties, and so she had shoved aside all else, thinking to deal with everything in its own time. And now it was too late.

"Where's Viola, then?"

June's expression then was one Fiora had seen on her face only once before, when little Lissa had fallen.

"She turned with Sigune when Bern came," said June, and would say no more.

o-o-o

Afterwards, they fought. They engaged in minor skirmishes here and there, driving back Bern where they could. But while the Ilians only lost more soldiers with every battle, Bern simply sent in more men to replace the ones who fell, and at last Fiora realized that they could not continue on in this manner. They were getting nowhere, accomplishing nothing. They needed a more definite goal to strive toward.

There had been news of a joint Etrurian and Lycian army heading to Ilia, led by the young son of Lord Eliwood, and though Fiora had her doubts about the Etrurians' motives in coming to their aid now, she had faith in the son of the lord she had once followed to the very crossroads of two worlds, would have willingly followed even into the depths of hell, and indeed, very nearly had. If his son was indeed leading an army to Ilia now, perhaps there was hope yet for victory.

They would march to Edessa, she decided, and take back the castle, or die trying.

But when they arrived in the area, Fiora heard rumors that the Lady Juno had been taken captive in the castle, and hesitated. Juno had retired some years ago to start a family with Zealot, and in the end, Juno was still her former student, and she could not so easily sacrifice the life of a civilian. At the same time, news came of the approach of the Etrurian army, fresh from a victory against Sigune at Carrhae. The tides were turning, and Fiora knew she had no time left for hesitation.

That night she sent a messenger into the raging blizzard to offer an alliance; a few nights later, the gesture was returned, and an agreement reached. The forces of General Roy would storm the castle, while the Ilian troops, who better knew the lay of the land, engaged incoming reinforcements in the surrounding mountains.

After the messenger had left, Fiora turned her gaze outside. Swirling white flakes filled the darkness, and the biting wind swept through the cracks in her hastily set up tent, chilling her to the bone. There was the sound of a man singing mixed into the howling of the wind. Soon enough, a familiar figure emerged from the storm, covered in snow.

"Forgive my intrusion at this late hour, my dear Fiora. Ah, my dear, you look especially lovely tonight -- so lovely that all thoughts of this storm outside dissipate at once!" He managed a grin despite his chattering teeth.

For some time she did not reply. The words he tossed so carelessly at her were, as ever, pretty but devoid of meaning. Since Bern's invasion, it had become a ritual for them to meet every night before retiring. There were times otherwise now when she was so busy she might go days without even seeing him. It had been only natural that he would come seek her out himself in turn, and only natural that their meetings should then turn to habit. Duty and habit were comforting in the face of uncertainty, and in all her years Fiora had never been as uncertain as she was now.

"I was wondering if you could send a messenger to Sacae," he said abruptly, disregarding her silence, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to say.

It startled her into a response. "Sacae?"

"My good friend Kent is there, last I heard," he said. "I know not his fate, nor that of our former lady liege -- but I imagine, if they still live, that they will be glad to hear of Lord Eliwood's son."

She knew very well that Sacae too was still overrun by Bernese forces, and knew too what his words truly meant. And so she did not question him further. Nor did she stop to wonder at his knowledge, when he had always claimed he had neither the time nor desire for correspondence. Instead, she said, "Very well," and strode toward the entrance of the tent.

"Fiora --"

Something in his voice made her stop. But she did not look back. She did not trust herself to.

" -- Thank you," he said, and somewhere in her heart she knew that it was not what he had meant to say.

A few days later, the blizzard cleared up to a light fall. Orders arrived from the Etrurian army indicating that the attack would commence the next day; Fiora accepted the message, then flew off on her old pegasus for some time alone. Light streamed down from cracks in the smooth slate sky, playing oddly upon the silent, deathly snowfields, and in one particularly strange moment she found herself reminiscing of her childhood, a faded gray scene of her younger sisters running about catching white flakes upon the tips of their tongues, repeating over and over again in her mind. The wind whipped back her hair, and at her side, her pegasus gave a low whinny, nudging at her with his nose. She murmured softly to him in response, quietly stroking his neck.

Then she headed back.

At the edge of their encampment, she spotted Rod and June, speaking alone together. To her surprise, June reached out suddenly, cupping Rod's face with her hands, and pulled him into a fierce kiss. Fiora pulled away, thinking to give them their privacy, but the wind carried their voices to her anyway.

"I like you. I've always liked you. And I don't want to die with any regrets!"

"Aw, come on. Don't say that like we're going to die."

And then she was too far away to hear.

She dismounted in the middle of the camp, and gave the orders to move out.

o-o-o

The men of Bern fought with a peculiar desperation, as if they knew the end was coming, as if no hope for victory remained for them, and yet they would not, could not surrender. As Fiora flew across the battlefield, she saw the bodies of men and women from both sides scattered across the snow, some of whom she recognized, and some of them beyond all recognition. Every evening she sent reports to General Roy and his tactician, who was rumored to be a blind Etrurian bard, and in turn she would receive word of the situation at the castle, and new orders for the next day. Within less than a week, the Bernese forces in the surrounding areas were almost completely routed, and Fiora knew it would not be long until the castle itself fell too.

On the day the Etrurian army planned to storm the castle, Fiora and the troops directly under her command encountered the last organized remnants of the Bernese army in the Ilian mountains. Though the promise of victory spurred them on, endless fighting on low rations in the middle of winter had wearied even the Ilians themselves. Fiora herself in particular had not been able to get much rest since the battle for Edessa had begun, and she no longer had the stamina of youth that had once allowed her to fly through fog and arrows and shadow for days with minimal sleep.

Perhaps that was why she did not notice the archer aiming at her until it was too late. She saw the arrow flying at her and veered away desperately, but when her pegasus let out a frantic neigh and she saw the ground closing swiftly in upon them as they swayed here and there in jerky, erratic movements, she knew that her pegasus had been hit. More from instinct ingrained from years of experience than from any conscious effort, she managed to keep astride her pegasus even as she guided its downward spiral toward a relatively safe area. But as they fell, she caught sight of the same archer, taking aim again.

Everything after that seemed to happen in a blur. A mounted knight garbed in familiar green colors charged forth, javelin in hand. The archer fell. A half-dead mage crept forward, calling out his final words. The knight and his mount burst into flame.

She screamed.

She tumbled from her dying pegasus and ran across the snow, still screaming, though she hardly understood what was coming out of her mouth.

Somewhere in the back of her heart she had always thought him invincible, that he would conquer everything that came up against him with nothing but strength and sheer will. He had been one of the strongest men she had ever known, despite his looks; more than once she had watched him clear away an entire rockslide with his own hands, for nothing but a single tearful look from a pretty village girl. And every venture he had ever set his mind to had always seemed touched with luck, as if even the gods above would not hinder his way.

But Lady Luck was a jealous woman, and now she had betrayed him at last.

She was still screaming when she reached his side. She screamed and cried and screamed until her voice grew hoarse and no sound would come from her throat, and then retched and cried some more. It was as if everything that she had kept bottled up within her over all the long years had burst suddenly to the surface, exploding into a million tiny fragments. She cried out of exhaustion, out of anger, out of grief, for everything and nothing, for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and for all the days that had gone.

The cold had taken her parents first, she thought, and it had taken her girls, one after one, over the years. Then it had taken her sister. And over the years it had steadily been taking her.

But now the cold had taken him too, he who had never belonged to the cold.

After some time she began to calm. The sounds of battle had long ago faded, and she knew her troops would come looking for her soon. She wiped away her tears, and partly out of a vague sense of duty, and partly out of ritual, from having seen to hundreds of dead comrades throughout the years, she reached for his pouch, carefully keeping her gaze from his burned, disfigured face. Soon enough, her hand, steadier than she thought it would be, drew out the black letter she had both expected and not expected to find.

It was addressed to her.

For a long time she knelt there in the blood-soaked snow, his head cradled in her lap. She gazed at the distant peaks to the south, older than time, shining white in the pale light. Then she tucked the letter back into his pouch, unread.

She would bury him with her own hands, deep beneath the frozen Ilian soil, and welcome him home.

The End