A/N: Long time no see, huh? I could give you the whole school-rant, but I'm sure you've seen that from enough authors to have had your fill. Another short chapter (well, short for us), but like its predecessor, it holds some pretty valuable weight to the story. Also yay adventure! Before I stop harassing you, huge thanks to my beta LeMasquerade as always, who endured me hunching like a polite vulture over her shoulder even as she was buried alive under course work. Hurrah for her!
but as the water filled my mouth
it couldn't wash the echoes out
September 29th, 912
Dawn has settled in a soft mist about the city. The centaur are not a nocturnal race, and very few walk the pathways at such an early hour. Though the air is crisp, all are safely huddled away from the dew upon the grasses, their slumbering breath a backdrop to give this place a pulse all of its own, their hidden roots the lungs that give it the life with which it thrives.
Santana's breath is hot against Brittany's shoulder as she sleeps, her lashes fluttering against the hardness of her collarbone. She has sprawled herself over Brittany in the dead of night until she covers her entirely with her own weight; she is nearly nothing in comparison and Brittany hardly notices. Santana inevitably wakes first, always opening her eyes and rolling away, bashful of her body's subconscious need. Brittany will chase her, grumbling, until she presses against Santana's back and keeps her from moving until dawn has long since passed.
But this morning is different. There is a vague pressure against Brittany's fingers that brings with it a sharp sting; she goes to bat it away but it simply becomes more insistent. It is far too early to wake, and yet she does so anyway, dragging herself into the waking world and rolling her head to the side to view the cause of her discomfort. She frowns as she grasps at the pelts and comes up with a single black feather, glossy even in the gloom. When she looks up by her pillow, she's met with a pair of curious black eyes staring back down at her.
Her breath stutters for a moment as her other hand tightens over Santana's back. The raven is huge so close to her face, taking up nearly her whole vision; she can see the cracks in its beak and the swivel of its eyes. Its barrel chest sways ever so slightly when it breathes, feathers ruffling along the sprawling length of its wings. She cautiously raises her hand to touch it, but yelps in pain when it snaps at her and splits the tender skin of her fingertips. Blood seeps down her wrist and she frowns at it, managing to bring her fingers to her mouth to halt the flow.
It seems hardly concerned—in fact, it has already forgotten her, hopping closer. Its claws are sharp against her unprotected arm as it climbs over her body like nothing more than an inanimate obstacle, finally nestling itself between the curve of Santana's shoulder blades. From there it peers down at her, almost daring her to move.
Ravens have long been a contradicting symbol in her people's history. They are the worshipped birds of Odinn, but their consumption of carrion has turned them into omens of death. Wherever they roam they are assumed to bring both wisdom and disease in their wake.
"What do you want?" She hisses, careful not to wake Santana, still slumbering atop her. Her fingers run coppery blood down her throat.
The bird watches her with beady eyes—eventually its head swivels towards the lurking shadow of the room where another form is seen moving about in the darkness. Brittany instinctively reaches for her axe, placed to the side of their bed, but relaxes when she sees it is simply the raven's mate resting atop Santana's feathered cloak. Its bulk covers almost the entire crumpled garment.
Santana frowns and burrows deeper into Brittany's warmth, attempting to chase away the odd itch that has settled itself on her back. The raven croaks and hops away, fluttering until it rests upon a branch within the depths of the tree—the sound makes Santana's eyes open slightly.
"Was that you?" She mumbles sleepily, rolling away and to the side. She sniffs lightly and raises her head when she detects the scent of metal.
"Noh," Brittany says, her speech garbled with half of her own hand stuffed into her mouth, "it whaf 'em." Santana follows her pointing and peers into the darkness where nothing but an empty branch remains. Brittany frowns. "Ah' thwear dey were juth' dere."
Santana rubs her eyes and blearily looks at her companion, suckling awkwardly on her fingers. She can't help but smirk as Brittany looks back with a pale blush, rolling her eyes before glancing away from Santana. Her eyes naturally draw back when she feels weight settled atop her hips, and her other hand instinctively goes to the strong curve of Santana's thigh from where it is bracketed over her own navel.
"What have you done to yourself now?" Santana teases affectionately, tugging upon her wrist until she can view the damage. Brittany huffs and pinches her side.
"I get no thanks for protecting you?" She pouts, tilting her head slightly. From here Santana can see the red marks left by her mouth the previous night, nestled in the hollow of her jaw. It sets her body aflame until even the tips of her ears burn in remembrance.
She lowers herself down so her hands sink into the furs on either side of Brittany's head—she sees the flutter in her throat as she swallows heavily. "I believe thanks can be given..." she breathes, tipping her head so their lips brush, "for saving me from mean ghosts."
It takes her a moment, but Brittany rolls her eyes and snakes a hand over the back of her neck. "Stop being smart and kiss me."
Santana grants her wish—when can she ever resist Brittany?
It always surprises her how her heart pounds from her chest whenever they touch. Every caress of Brittany's sword-worn hands over her skin is a thunderbolt that causes her to seek deeper, harder, longer. There is still the trepidation within her whenever she gives herself like this, wanting and willing, but in the receding darkness of their room she can push her thoughts away to be dealt with another time; thinking has no place when she can so feel every muscle of the girl beneath her. The inside of Brittany mouth is so hot it scalds, yet soft like a petal unfurling into bloom. Brittany smiles into the kiss and hisses when Santana takes one of her lips gently between her teeth, tugging lightly before drawing away.
They hover even as Santana's breath fans hot over Brittany's face and she wordlessly searches oceanic eyes for something she doesn't yet know.
"Why did you stop?" Brittany murmurs lowly, her voice hoarse. It sends a chill straight down through Santana until the hairs upon her arms stand to attention.
"You taste of blood." She says, licking her lips slowly.
Brittany's nose scrunches. "Sorry. I tend to forget things when I touch you."
Santana blushes slightly and clears her throat, oblivious to Brittany's twinkling eyes from below. "Yes, well... let us see that hand, Britt."
It is adorable how she cannot take a compliment with any form of grace, Brittany thinks with a smile, offering up her hand. The blood flow has slowed to a trickle, but the cut is deep, down to the fleshy tendons. The raven must have been mature to deliver such power. Santana clicks her tongue and turns the appendage over in her hands, her fingers brushing against the creases of the broken flesh.
"Only a skin wound, Santana. Stop fretting so." Brittany curls her fingers over Santana's own, but Santana sees the faint grimace such a movement presents. "Bandage me up with your strange smelling herbs and give it time, and I will be good as new. Like the aurochs that get gored for protecting their mate."
Santana's eyebrows raise. "An auroch pecked by a raven."
"When you put it that way, it seems a bit sad." Brittany pouts. "Just fix me?"
Santana rolls from her briefly to search in her medicine horn, unplugging the mouth and shaking out its contents. Her fingers comb through the contents, but she frowns as she holds up nothing but a single brown sprig. "I've no knitbone with me... I must have never gathered more after I used it on Gynna."
Brittany peers over her shoulder. "Oh. Well, use... that one?" She points to one laying in the dirt with bright yellow flowers.
Santana picks it up by the stem and twirls it in her fingers. You wish to have your bowels forcibly expelled from your rear? She asks silently. I could make that a reality, though it would do nothing for your hand. Brittany recoils with a shudder, unseeing of Santana's smile from the front. "You should leave the healing to the healers, Britt."
"You told me you loathed being a healer, San! Last I checked you said people make you want to pull out your own eyes with a pair of blacksmith tongs."
"They still do." She admits, turning slightly to face her. "But... I rather like being your healer."
"Is that so?" Brittany chuckles, winding her arms around Santana's midsection. Her large palms cover the sharp inclines of her hipbones, lips pressing hot to the juncture of her neck and shoulder. She feels the shudder run through Santana as clearly as if it had come from her own body. "Why is that?"
Santana tilts her head back slightly. "Brittany..." She whines, unwilling to look her in the eye. It is strange how Brittany can still bring out the bashful side of her she thought she had long since pushed away, even as she has touched places of her no other being ever has. Before Brittany can anchor herself to her back she worms away, once again pushing her onto her back. "Stop distracting me when I have a job to do."
From her position on the floor, Brittany peers back curiously. "If you use those yellow flowers, my body will be right mad with you."
Santana rolls her eyes. "I promise to stay away from the yellow flowers." She gathers Brittany's injured hand in her own. "Sophias taught me her ways, you know."
"Oh?" Brittany has only seen the old centauress once or twice, passing through the sheltered pathways as silently as a ghost. The vines wreathed over her torso let her blend into her surroundings until one can see naught but the shift of her white hide in the trees.
Santana hums her assent, pressing Brittany's palm over her sternum. "What kind of ways?" Brittany asks, bending her knees so Santana lowers slightly and nestles in the crook of her hips. "Magic ways?" A moment later there's a finger tapping her nose.
"Hush, you ruin my concentration." Santana says, attempting to sound irritated but coming out more fond than anything.
Brittany grins. "Not my fault you deem me irrefutable."
Santana pauses for a moment before frowning. "I think you mean irresistible."
"Possibly... hey!" Brittany brightens. "You caught that!"
"So I did." Santana smiles warmly, shifting. Perching upon Brittany for such a long time stirs strange things in her gut, absorbing the heat of the sun into a coil deep in her belly. It scares her—almost as much as it excites. "Now sit still else I give you another arm."
"Truly?" Brittany sits up a little bit in excitement, propping up on her elbows. "Can you do that? Would you? Just not on my forehead, it might be a bit unseemly to have a hand between my eyes. Perhaps by my hip, or on my chest—" She splutters as Santana stuffs the leather of her belt between her teeth, smothering any remaining sound from her. Above, she sees the laughter in Santana's eyes as she cradles her hand and fills the silence Brittany has left with a low, crooning melody that spreads from her in a slow swell.
Invisible fingers track over Brittany's skin until whole hands cover her wrists; she shivers as the air turns cold even as Santana's heat is warm over her. The words sound different than the snippets she's heard across the city, fractured. It can't be Spanish either, not with the way Santana's mouth curves around them and turns them with a foreign lilt. When she attempts to move her hand, she finds it trapped in a dark, crystalline substance. Her questions are stark in her eyes but she dares not interrupt.
Something else is in the room with them. Sandalio bristles as he glares into the shadowed curves of the space and her breath frosts with each pant. Yet Brittany is struck complacent by the awe of seeing Santana fully in her element, eyes strong and confident. Brittany lays there, arm immobilized, until the shadowy stone melts away and she's left with nothing but a small, black scar. She draws it to herself, turning her hand over carefully, touching the sewn flesh. "How did you do that?"
"Galdr can do many different things." Santana reveals with a small smile. "Healing is one of them."
"It sounded nothing like their language, though. Was it your own?"
The other girl stands up from where she was balanced on Brittany's hips, offering out a hand to haul her to her feet. "You could say that." She finds her robe and pulls it hastily over her head, taking the belt given to her and wrapping it around her waist. Her herbs are shuffled back into the medicine horn, turning just as Brittany shrugs on the thick cloth gambeson over top her undershirt. Santana helps her strap her axe back onto her long belt, shoving her skullcap into her pack.
"Quinn said that Philokrates will tell us his decision today." Brittany exclaims with excitement, quickly pulling on her boots. The city has settled to their presence, but they still create an undercurrent of tension whenever they pass through. Centuries of living with nothing but your own people must prompt a certain wariness that can only be broken with kindness.
"About time." Santana grumbles, clasping her cloak around her neck and upon her shoulders. "We lost more than a fortnight here." She pauses, bending down to pick up a fallen feather. "Has Sandalio been sleeping on my things again?"
Brittany glances over, eyebrows raising in triumph. "That was from the raven who bit me!" She comes close to shouting. "See? I told you I was speaking truth."
Santana twirls the massive feather in her fingers with pursed lips. "So it seems."
She scans the rest of the room but finds no others, and glances up at the patter of feet leaving the room. "Come on, San! She said there will be a feast!"
Always thinking of food. Santana reflects fondly, going after her. Before she exits the tree she looks around cautiously, bending over to scoop up a handful of leaves. The cough she'd been holding in for what seems a lifetime comes forth and spatters them with sticky black.
"I told you that I will not give in." She mutters angrily, wiping her mouth before disappearing after her companion.
All eyes turn to them as an obscene moan floats over the dining hall—if she could, Santana would blush crimson. The perpetrator is too busy stuffing her face full of another delicacy to notice.
"Is she well?" Quinn asks dubiously, eyeing how Brittany's face has started to turn an unhealthy shade of red. Her hands seem to grab anything within sight and stuff it into her mouth; skin shiny with grease, she currently cradles a large leg of what Santana believes to be auroch, undoubtedly meant for more than one person. It deters her none, and Sandalio happily licks at the scraps she lets fall from the bone.
"She does this." Santana sighs, sharply elbowing her companion in the ribs. Brittany seems to have an eternal weakness for food—it matters not what it is nor where it came from, she will eat it even if the taste isn't particularly pleasing. Not even hakikarl is safe—and she fully believes it is the most repulsive thing she ever had the displeasure of being around. Seeing a dead shark buried underground only to be disinterred, dried and eaten months later does things to her stomach she'd rather not say, and the stench lingered in Brittany's clothes for weeks. It took three baths in the freezing waters of the fjord before Santana allowed her near again.
The ravenous sounds coming from the sole eating occupant still before stopping completely; Brittany peers over her massive meal at all the mildly horrified faces staring back.
"Oh, is there a ritual of some sort?" She asks, discreetly lowering the bone to the floor where a delighted tongue laps at her fingers until it is taken entirely from her hand. Brittany wipes her hands on the underside of her breeches and clears her throat. "Apologies. I, uh, enjoy food."
Seeing regular colour beginning to filter back into her guest's face, Quinn turns to the head of the massive table. What could be the whole city (though Brittany assumes not all of them are here, they wouldn't fit in the tree) gathers around a giant, rectangular bench that overflows with exotic dishes in all varying smells and flavours. They had to build special chairs for the two wanderers as their height stopped them from being able to see over the lip—in fact, Brittany's feet happily swing in the air as she shifts in all different directions for her next conquest. She eyes a steaming pot of soup, almost reaching for it before Santana smacks her thigh and she retreats back with a muttered ow.
Philokrates emerges and nods at Quinn who bows as he passes, making his way to the head of the table. There is silence as he scans the crowd, eyes inevitably settling on his foreign guests for longer than the rest. Even if it has been only a fortnight he has undoubtedly aged a millennia (but who know what such profound years would look like on a centaur?). Grief hangs heavy on such majestic creatures.
"As you know, we have received word over the fate of my son."
His voice is grave as he sweeps his gaze over his people—beside them, Hypotas murmurs his translations.
"Pantheras was a kind being. Foolish, as any young stallion is, but he held the path of goodness somewhere in his heart, even if it was blinded by the ways of his ancestors and the thirst to reclaim such ancient practices. His want to see the world led to his death, and this is yet another way for the gods to proclaim mortals are not yet ready for our presence."
Something cold settles within Brittany. Does this mean they will be denied aid in such need?
"Tonight is not a night for mourning. Though his body has not been yet laid to rest, we take this night to honour his life in the perideipnom of the ages that will please him and his kin so that they may bless us with a next generation as prosperous as the last!"
The table erupts into cheers. Brittany, closest to Hypotas, leans over to whisper in his ear. (Even if she talks to his shoulder, he doesn't say anything.)
"A peri—what?" She enquires, brows drawn. Such a magnificent feast is usually for times of victory, but no battles have yet been won. She hopes Kaupang prepares itself for war.
"Perideipnom, warrior." He whispers back, taking a handful of meat as he goes. "It is a feast that the deceased hosts to thank his loyal relatives for taking such care of him after he had passed on."
Brittany's eyes track around the room, lingering at the empty head of the table. "How may a dead man be present at a feast?" She asks, puzzled. "Has he not gone to Valhalla or taken another body through Ataecina?"
"Our underworld is not the same as yours. These feasts summon him where he greets us for the last time before being ferried over the river Acheron by Charon to wander forever in the meadows of Hades. It is an empty existence, warrior. Be glad you will not go there when you die." She stares at the head of the table for what seems like an eternity, but nothing manifests.
Santana seems untroubled by whatever spectres must linger in this city, so she shrugs and goes back to her meal. Her stomach yearns for all the delights these people seem to offer—her hands close around the bunch of strange purple fruits she's seen many a centaur eat, popping them curiously into her mouth. Sugar blooms on her tongue and she quickly stuffs the rest of them into her mouth, juice dribbling down her chin.
Hypotas smirks at her puffy cheeks, and she vaguely hears a sigh from beside her. "What are these?" She asks, barely managing to hold in the mouthful before swallowing.
"Grapes." He informs her. "We brought branches of them from home and wove them into the earth until they could survive your brutal winters. In ancient times we made wine from it." At her questioning look, he elaborates. "A type of drink. We were infamous for it, as it made us into barbarians. Nikostratus forbade the making of it, and Philokrates agrees."
"Like mead?" She questions, taking a gulp of her own cup that holds nothing but water. She misses the burn it gives on cold nights.
Hypotas twists a chunk of leg from what appears to be a goose and brings it towards himself. "Somewhat, yes." He agrees, taking a large bite. The honey smeared upon it sticks to his lips. "A bit more refined."
He loses her attention as she delves further into the various platters presented, all of it being sucked deep into where he assumes an abyss awaits. Once she chokes and he goes to try and aid her, but notes the dark hand high up against her thigh and the smirk subtly playing against full lips as Brittany's eyes water helplessly. His own hand draws away, knowing the redness on her cheeks isn't simply from the burning heat of her meal.
When nothing remains but bones, Philokrates asks to speak with them. Brittany hastily wipes what grease she can from her hand and hops down from her chair, turning to aid Santana from hers before following the elder centaur who has left once again without a word. From the clicking of hooves behind them, they know Sophias follows.
They climb the spiralling platform until they breathe noisily in the silence that surrounds them, ducking in through the large doorway at the top. Philokrates awaits them; from this perch one can see the whole city splayed out before them in a wash of filtered green light and twinkling charms. Upon a nearby branch, two ravens croak.
He studies them for small eternities. In his hand he winds his son's pendant over and over in his fingers, the bloodstained metal cutting into his flesh only to be released a moment later. The action is almost hypnotic and Santana has to jab another elbow into Brittany's ribs to stop her from falling into the unintentional spell.
Finally, he sighs. "I apologize for being so harsh at our previous encounter." His voice is gravelly in the way when one hasn't used it for many suns, rough with disuse. One of his hands sweeps back his thick, white hair. "I am protective of my people, as you can so obviously tell. It is difficult for me to even think about putting them in harm's way."
Eagerly, Brittany leans forward. "You could keep them out of danger while helping us!" She's stayed up many a night with Santana, brushing over the different tactics that would appeal to both sides of the army. "If you were to simply disrupt their ships and supplies—"
"You jump to conclusions, warrior." Philokrates looks out the window, clenching the amulet in his palm. From between his fingers the eyes flash. "This is not to be taken lightly. It is possible they will discover us if we are to leave the forest."
This time, it is Santana who cuts him off. "And you expect to stay here forever?" She scoffs, her hand sweeping around the room. "You will be found eventually, centaur. Nor Veg will be explored."
His hooves snap on the ground as he turns to her, eyes narrowed. The gall of one so young! She knows nothing compared to his ageless experience. "How do you know this, skoúro énas? Have you a link into the minds of men?"
Brittany and Santana both share a knowing glance. "Close enough."
Sophias approaches behind him; Santana has never once heard her voice like this, soothing and soft in a way that makes them all sway drowsily on their feet. "Come now, Philokrates," she coaxes until she can lay her hands on his arms, "be reasonable and listen to them. They may be young, but they have much to offer."
Philokrates waves his hand around, disgruntled. "Enough with your magic, Sophias. I will listen to them."
"He seems to go back on his word often enough." Santana grumbles under her breath, and Brittany gives a warning nudge to the girl beside her.
The older leader turns to them. "What would you want of us?" He will hear them out, listen to their plans on the chance they may prove themselves with a modicum of worth. His eyes stay resolutely fixed on Brittany's blue gaze, for the abyss hidden away inside her companion's dark stare sets his soul into vicious coils.
Brittany shifts on the spot, casting her eyes about. "They might have horses on their ships, and we move slower on foot. Our grounds are high and difficult for animals to climb, but their sheer size outweighs the advantages. My people are stubborn and would refuse to simply climb to the mountains and hide. However, such an army requires food... if you could raid their supplies, perhaps at moon-high, it would help. Morale is core to a force of such size and taking away a meal will hinder them."
You make a good leader, Brittany. Santana smiles at her, and Brittany beams in return.
Truly? Her grin dims a little. I've the impression that the remainder of the village thinks otherwise.
She hears a scoff in her head. Then think them fools! They know nothing of you.
The venom surprises her, and she turns enough to watch Santana's brows fall into a deep frown. Sometimes Brittany finds it strange that Santana cares more than her about what the others whisper behind her back (not that it doesn't, no, but one learns to grow a thick hide when the only other option is to crumble), but it causes everything in her to warm until the tips of her ears pink in delight.
And you do? She asks fondly, smiling again as Santana's eyes dart away hastily.
I would... like to think so, yes. Santana eventually relents with a nervous roll of her eyes, tightening her fingers around her staff. From here, the ruby shines to cast an almost malicious glow about her face; Brittany thinks her breathtaking.
Her littlest finger finds Santana's. I would too. You certainly know my mouth better than any.
A sputter is heard from beside her and she feels the joint chagrin flow into her chest, but she manages to keep a straight face as she turns expectantly to Philokrates, who watches them with the utmost curiosity.
"Apologies, did you say something?" Brittany enquires innocently, raising both eyebrows and swinging her and Santana's conjoined hands.
He studies them for a moment longer, eyes flitting from Santana's staff to her dark cheeks, their grasp, then back, before shaking his head slightly.
"I asked where these supply ships would be." He responds, taking a few paces from Sophias who watches with a knowing smile.
At this, Brittany shrugs. "That is still unknown... they have yet to move from Taunmark, though their missionaries continue to parade around with their silly flags and heavy armour. I believe they refuse to grasp the idea that we are happy with who we are."
(But is she?)
The elder purses his lips and looks beyond. Within his hand the snake comes alive and uncoils itself in a flash of gold, winding slowly up his fingers and the strength of his arm until it comes to rest with a rattle upon his shoulder. He glances to the side silently at the jewelled caress to his bearded cheek. It watches him with its ruby eyes and he stares back until he must see something within them, for he exhales heavily and begins to nod.
"On one condition." He hastens to add, voice stern.
Brittany grins from ear to ear, bouncing on her feet. "Surely! Name what you would want!"
"You need to recruit more allies. I will not put my people in direct danger simply because you lack the power."
He has points, and we have ways. In her head Santana's voice is thick and satisfied, velvet in ways that makes her skin crawl pleasantly. He will have his stipulations.
"Of course!" Brittany shrieks, jumping forward before she can stop herself and flinging her arms around the old centaur. He smells like the massive groves of his ancient home and tenses for a moment before relaxing to her insistent pressure, hesitantly but gently squeezing her arms in return as she disentangles herself to stand once again beside her companion.
A moment of comfortable silence reigns before her brow creases. "But how are we to find aid?"
Almost forgotten, Sophias smirks.
"I have a solution to that."
They all turn to her slowly as she makes her way to the far corner of the room where a lone table stands. Brittany has to pop up on her toes to fully see over the edge and Santana finds it impossible to do even that, instead awkwardly scrambling on the supports for a better view. Quinn, silent from where she has crept in, snickers at her troubles.
Sophias spreads out her hands—there is nothingness for a beat before a fine mist begins to accumulate over her palms, stretching the longer she holds it. Words are murmured under her breath as it thickens and deepens, twining in on itself until it runs across the table. From it, life blooms.
"This is Nor Veg." She reveals wisely, forming the tips of mighty mountains. "That, upon the edge, is Kaupang." They see little ships being cast from the fjords, a cluster of villages to form a town that seethes with little moving figurines. Brittany spies her house upon the hill, hidden by grass and trees. "And here..." she moves them upwards to where icy winds howl even in the heat of summer, "is Finnmörk. You will find great allies here, such as the sibling giants rumoured to bring about earthquakes with the stomp of their feet. Bond with them and no foreign sword can bite into their flesh."
Two shapes appear, what must be deafening steps silent from the overhead view. Their eyes glow in the dimness of the room.
"You want us to do what?!" Brittany screeches so loudly Santana fears a vein will pop under her skin. Sophias looks up from her magic-woven map with raised brows.
"Was I wrong in assuming such a journey would be no trouble for the two of you?"
"No, not that." Brittany stresses, her hands flailing as she points to the one section of the world Sophias has brought into great focus, every glittering stream a snake that winds through the towering mountains. "You want us to bring jotnar to fight for us! The beings that will bring about the death of the gods?" She looks around at the array of blank faces before her and groans. "Does nobody see a problem with this?"
"These are frost-giants," Quinn says helpfully from the edge of the long table, having moved to the front some time ago, "they appear harmless, if rather large."
Santana rolls her eyes, eyeing the outline of the creatures that Sophias has conjured. They easily dwarf young trees—the troll they had met in their early journeys would not amount to half their size. Her fingers pass easily through their ghostly forms, vanishing into soft smoke. "Why would they help us?"
From his position at the head of the table, Philokrates shrugs. "Why not? They know of the dangers the invaders from across the sea present. They, like us, will not remain hidden forever."
How they haven't yet been discovered is a peculiar question, what with their bulk and breath of winter storms. She sees Brittany's clenched fingers from the corner of her eye and skims her hands over her own, teasing the tension from her touch.
What is wrong?
Brittany anxiously blows out a gust of air, tugging on the ends of her braid. Too many things are happening at once. The jotnar are supposed to stay out of Midgard... what does it mean if they are here? She turns nervously to Santana, bottom lip sucked between her teeth. Is it the end-days?
Part of her thinks it ridiculous to believe the appearance of a mythical beast as the cornerstone for the destruction of the world, but her whole existence has been built on the premise of rebirth and a cycle that will never cease.
If it is, Santana finally concedes, I will try my best to stay by your side until the final sun.
It's not what she wants, what either of them want, but it's all she can offer. Brittany tries for a faint smile, and Santana doesn't pull away when she laces their fingers together.
"Where would we have to go?" Brittany asks quietly, voice subdued as she looks upon the sprawling map of forests hovering in the old mystic's right palm. Little villages dot the roadside, but none offer enough girth to be of any use to their cause.
Quinn steps forward and peers into the shadowy forests, contemplative. "Do you want to cross the mountains?"
Brittany considers it before shaking her head. "It would take us too long... too many bandits, too."
The centaur nods, tracing one finger in the swirling landscape. Wherever she touches lights up into a million stars. "Then you have to cross through Sviar." She reveals instead, curling a path out of Nor Veg and into unknown territory. Through this she avoids the imposing mountains and all their sheer glory, trekking instead through dirt pathways or sometimes pure bush to eventually surface at the frozen tip of the kingdom. "Perhaps they are of a different king, but they will unite with you. Your father's name carries weight."
"Once we reach our destination?" Santana asks, warily studying the frozen wastes. "Do we make a moon's journey simply for a couple of giants?"
"Not entirely." Philokrates says—Sophias pulls them forward into the crags of the mountains, their snowy steppes home to a wandering tribe of fur-covered people. Their faces all but obscured by the clothes they wear, they trudge through the sinking snow in hunt of game for their families. "These are the Sami. They see you as strangers—foreigners—but not as enemies. If you can convince them the armies are a threat, they could be of great help. No one knows these mountains better than they."
Santana frowns, looking closer. "I remember these people." She murmurs quietly, eyes skating over their reindeer knives and thick furs. "I saw them with Harald. They ally with the enemy."
"Luckily, that is not entirely true." Sophias interjects quickly. "There are two different types of Sami... the mountain tribes, and the coastal tribes. Those upon the coasts are more affected by the goings of Nor Veg and have decided to fight for Harald so that he will leave them in peace, but those that live in the cliffs and valleys have no such qualms."
"But..." Brittany hesitates, looking at the spectres of little children running about their mother's legs, "we will be turning a people against each other. Is that fair?"
"There is no time to be fair in survival." Philokrates mutters gruffly, swiping his hand angrily through the image. It shatters and disperses into the air as a million twinkling lights. "If you have any hope of being a leader like your father, remember that. Advantages are everything... attempting to be kind will result in defeat. Kindness does not win wars."
Ignore him. Santana whispers quietly to her, but Brittany cannot rid herself of his words.
Does she truly wish to be like her father, when he finally passes to Valhalla and the task of carrying his legacy falls to her? Will she be the one committing warm strangers to death for a god that, as she's found, may not be the sole Father-God (what about a Mother-God that has done more good in moons than she's seen in years) roaming about the skies?Can she, phantom child of a slain shield-maiden, lead a people who scorn her faltering tongue and the body she was given by fate?
(What if she does not wish to rule? The world calls to her in a song that is loath to be ignored; war may be in her blood, but certainly not in her soul.)
"Kindness wins favour." Santana snaps in her defence. "How do we convince Sami to be our allies if we are cruel to them?"
They lock eyes for a moment and between them passes fire, but Sophias sets herself between her volatile protege and impatient ruler. "We have no time for this." She hisses scornfully. "They must set out as quickly as possible before the snow begins to fall."
Philokrates nods his consent. "They will set out tomorrow at first light, just after dawn. I will get the craftsmen to see to their provisions. Sophias, can you teach the girl how to create the map?"
"Certainly. It would do them no good to get lost before leaving the city."
"I will guide them out." Quinn says hastily, stepping forward. "We can move faster."
Her father frowns. "You most certainly will not, child." Who knows what awaits past their well-defined boundaries?
"Sending them out without help will cause nothing but problems." She argues calmly, crossing her arms over her swooping jerkin. "We want this to run as smoothly as possible."
Santana and Brittany both watch the old leader clench his teeth, the muscles jumping angrily in his jaw. For once Santana stays silent, content instead to watch the outcome.
"You are my daughter, not a scout. You will do what I say."
"On penalty of what?" Her voice has turned cold, hazel eyes narrowing. "I can make my own decisions without a male presence. Just because I refuse to marry does not make me any less competent."
Brittany feels sympathy for her, remembering one too many complications with her father. Despite their rough standings, she misses him greatly.
Philokrates bares his teeth; his hand slams down on the great table and a fracture forms in his wake. "Your brother wanted the same thing, and what is he now? A body rotting alone in the ground!"
"Pantheras stood for what he wanted, and it would be disgracing his memory if I did not do the same! We are done with the old ways, father! We have lived in Nor Veg for hundreds of years, and I know I am not the only one who feels the winds of change. We must adapt into a better people if we are to survive." Quinn runs her hands angrily through her short hair, turning to leave.
"I will meet the both of you at first light tomorrow." She says quietly, making only brief eye contact with Brittany before descending the long, winding ramp back down to the center of the tree.
The silence is deafening as she leaves, and Brittany hesitantly tries to repair the damage. "Philo—" But his hand raises, his face suddenly tired.
"It would be best if you leave." He says solemnly, refusing to meet their gaze. "You have done enough."
Santana bristles from beside her, but Brittany nods and quietly tugs her from the room. In the days they've spent here Santana's grasp on her language has seemed to accelerate at a bizarre rate, and Brittany no longer trusts that her lack of experience will hold the acidic thoughts in her head. (She's seen a growing anger in her, swelling, choking her with its size. She fears that Santana will be swept under the tide the longer she lets it grow.)
They wind through the shrouded pathways silently, the steps of their feet muffled by falling leaves. Autumn comes, and with it the trees take on the old bones of their own skeletons once again, shedding themselves to bloom anew once they can shake the snow from their branches. The pines are lonely green giants amongst the bursting colours, singing a mournful song to the gusts that murmur through their dry needles.
As soon as they duck into their hollow, Santana wrenches her hand from Brittany's grasp. "Santana, please—"
"Why do you let him do that?" She snarls angrily, clenching her fists by her side. Still her mind is swollen with images of his face, the disappointment that seems to follow her always. "Why do you let him walk all over you?"
"It was a family affair." Brittany says calmly, unwilling to rise to Santana's tone. "We had no reason to intervene."
"Not just that!" She's baffled with how quickly her companion's presence sways, unwavering one moment and meek the next—almost as if two different spirits live within her. Where is the Brittany that refuses to back down to her own father, jarl of Kaupang? Where is the warrior? "Before, and even when we first met them! You submit to him without a word like... like he is better than you. Is that what you think?"
She knows Santana is being unreasonable. She does. She sees it in the wideness of her eyes and the trickle of sweat that runs down her temple. But it doesn't stop the twinge of irritation in her chest, nor does it quell the beginning of a pounding headache as she feels the whirlwind of her thoughts crash into the barriers of her mind. "I am trying to be likeable." She hisses back, wary of the people that may still mill about. "If we are mean to them, what do we have? An unwilling ally with no means of aid."
Santana scoffs, offended. "I can be likeable."
Here, Brittany rolls her eyes. If it wasn't so tense, she'd note the action seems strangely like something Santana would do. "Are you sure? The first time you met him you called him a coward and used his dead son as guilt."
"And it worked, no? We would have been turned away if you kept on like that. The dead stop meddling with the affairs of mortals when they pass."
"Hypotas would have stopped it." Brittany sighs tiredly, beginning to unbuckle her belt. Arguing takes so much out of her, but it seems that whatever has been hounding Santana for the past moons refuses to settle down. She reminds her of a coiled snake, tense and ready to strike. (What happened to paying tribute to the dead?)
"See?" Santana exclaims, beginning her eternal pacing. "You are too trusting of people, Brittany! These things are strangers, not friends. They will turn on you if you show them kindness."
Brittany pauses in unlacing her shirt. "That was how we met." She finally manages to lock eyes with Santana, frowning. "Are you saying I made a mistake in trusting you?"
Santana's face softens slightly. "No, of course not." She would never take back wandering into that forsaken town, not when it's delivered such richness to her. Brittany carefully takes her hands, turning them palms-up to where she can trace the thick, black rings where the flesh has been healed anew. "Then come to bed." She says quietly, her thumbs smoothing the thick skin. "We can talk about this when we both have lighter heads."
Brittany guides Santana down into the pelts, gently removing her robe as she goes. She runs her fingers under Santana's eyes, searching for the pupils that have been almost utterly swallowed by the darkness underneath. "You can be so angry sometimes." She murmurs to her, winding black tresses in her hands. "It scares me."
Her companion looks away with guilt, sucking her lower lip into her mouth. Sometimes she forgets that Brittany has insight into her that nobody else does—not even Ataecina, who she can hardly hear anymore. Her brain is filled with the white noise of their troubles, followed always by the obscuring buzz of the darkness until anything else is drowned out and destroyed. (She hasn't told Brittany that her rune, once safe by her hip, came out of her pocket in a black, gooey mess that clung to her fingers and corrupted the meaning. She buried it under a birch tree to leech the darkness from the stone, but its taint lingered on her hands and brought with it the whisper of a hundred voices.)
"I just want things to be easy for once." Santana says softly, curling into a little ball. "And I want to be the one that eases the journey for us. Is that too much to ask?"
Brittany shrugs slightly, settling down under the thick fur. "Sometimes things are hard, and that is all they can be. You have to take it and move on." She pulls on it until all but her eyes and halo of light hair disappear under the shoulder of brother-bear. "Things will sort themselves out eventually."
Santana frowns. "How do you know?"
She smiles a secretive smile, her blue eyes twinkling with the bathing light of the moon. "Because I've you, and you've me. You like to make things hard, you know." Brittany doesn't see anything more profound in the harder things, only more tiring.
Pausing, Santana studies her for a moment before nodding slowly. "I can believe that."
The moon floats behind a stretching branch yet to lose its leaves, and they are shrouded in darkness. Though the silence claims their wakefulness, it is the first time in moons they've slept without touching.
Your abyss is interrupted by a presence.
You feel it slide along your arm and curl in the soft cup of your palm, wrapping itself and its endless embrace over the tender crook of your elbow and the protrusion of your shoulder. Its skin is fleshy and oozes dark matter, instinct causing you to flinch away before its mind fully touches yours, instilling a sense of passive want to counter what should be unnatural. Something cold and wet strokes your cheek before draping itself behind your slender neck. It smells like bitter bile and brings a strange sense of sensitivity to your exposed skin. But... you still wear your robe. How?
Do not think. It whispers quietly and you allow yourself to relax again, the confusion falling away. Wind now touches your free arm where it has not yet covered, crawling up your body as it howls around you in a dark gale; it must be night for it to be so dark. You see nothing ahead of you but echoing blackness, as reaching as the universe you used to know. You walk but nothing touches your feet—each step brings you nowhere but propels you forward until you see the shadows of trees rushing past with swiftness never seen. Everything in your head is shrouded with a thick fog—all you know is the weight around your shoulders and the voice murmuring in your ear, driving you on without a goal.
There is a tugging in the center of your chest. Something pulls you from within, but its touch severs the ache—the taste in your mouth is comforting, embedding strength in your shadowy muscles. Nothing is greater than whatever has wrapped itself around you, nothing more important. You are its willing vessel and in return reap the rewards such an infinite being can give. It guides you to a small copse of trees, and through its stench you can smell the rich pull of the earth. (It reminds you of something, but the thought is soon cast away.)
Why are we here? You ask, but your voice is dreamlike, echoing in your own head. It does not answer but instead urges you onwards with a growing sense of excitement, its ancient body shifting and coiling against your skin. You are utterly silent as you ghost through the brush; branches pass through your body like mist descending from the skies in early morning, undisturbed in your wake. A puddle of rainwater lays upon the ground and you catch the barest glimpse of two pinpricks of eerie light in the darkness before the image disperses and you are left adrift once again. There is a crest that you reach upon a small hill—you halt as if struck and stare down at the tiny little houses with smoke pouring from their rickety chimneys.
Whatever you search for is here—you feel their fragile dreams on your tongue and ache to shatter them, to touch and splinter until nothing but a mockery remains. Such nubile things have no place in this world. Soon, girl. It soothes your growing anxiety with a soft whisper of sound, skating alongside your jaw. There is something you must do for me.
It guides you down the hill; time warps and suddenly you stand on the streets and your breathing is deafening to your ears, laboured as its weight begins to press down upon you. You are bound; through your body filters the ebb and flow of eternities, giving palpable form to what was once nothing but primordial smoke. Distantly, you feel the thing curled around your body rejoicing at tasting matter for the first time. Though their fires offer feeble light, nothing evades the shadow... there is something you are missing. A light, a body with snow for skin and oceans for eyes. The thought haunts the deep recesses of your memory that has not been overtaken by the thick, paralysing sludge it has cast upon you, taunting you with fractured pieces of disquiet.
Nothing of your past life comes to you, save for that one thing—one person—and you let it sit to take root.
Slime nudges your free hand and you look down in time to see a figure perched by your feet. It looks almost as a small human would, stripped of skin to walk around in nothing but blackened flesh. Your hand rests upon its head—a skull, devoid of anything save for that layer of crisp, weeping muscle—and it awaits patiently for a command. The rasping breath pulled from its mouth is jagged through rows of broken, pointed teeth. From inside voided sockets, two eyes glow.
It looks to you with a fondness, an affection strange in a thing so monstrous. You are its guidance and keeper through the darkness of this world, shielding it from the light that would pain it so. Unbidden, your lips curl into a fragile, confused smile.
The creature leads you through the sleeping town in an awkward limping gait, using its spindly arms to skitter along the ground. Its claws create deep grooves in the earth.
A heartbeat raises higher than the rest, screaming to your sensitive ears. There is a boy in the shadow of two houses—you call and the darkness bends to you, exposing him and his useless body. A flicker of unease runs through the thing attached to your arm. Dispose of him.Its voice flows through your mouth and the creature (your servant?) cackles as it scuttles towards him, mouth devouring the shrill scream as those massive fangs find purchase in his tender throat. You move as the sound of a feast fills the air.
Your feet rest upon the hallowed grounds of the village's small cemetery. It is a strange mix of wooden crosses and burial mounds to mark the passing of ancestors, two religions clashing to morph into one. You pass effortlessly over the undisturbed graves, feeling the bones of the deceased under the ground as they slumber on, their souls long departed for the afterlife. They will be of no use. It takes you to the edge by the forest, where the dirt is new and freshly turned.
Here. It commands you to kneel and you do, your hands ghosting along the raised mound of the grave. A body rests here, no more than a few suns dead. Perfect. You lay your palms upon the dirt and for the first time you notice you have no colour to your skin other than the darkness that takes everything you touch, all features absorbed by the abyss that swirls. It fascinates you endlessly, but the tug in your mind shifts your thoughts to greater things. The heaviness along your shoulders uncoils and slithers down your right arm until it touches the very earth you do, its tendrils stroking the grave almost fondly.
Come to me. You hear yourself whisper with your stolen tongue. It is not yet time to sleep. Your fingers sink themselves into the ground until you feel the very first hint of his rotting flesh, cold and clammy underground. Come serve your master.
Nothing moves for endless minutes but eventually something twitches, the dirt shifting slightly in an undulating wave. Showers of earth fall as you become aware of another moving thing besides yourself, a grey hand tunnelling through until it pulls free into the open air. A body follows, clothes filthy and skin fallow until the thing bursts from its grave with a hunger for the life it had been so unfairly denied. He sits silently, little streams of dirt coming from his hair as a dribble of thick spittle falls from his mouth.
The hunched little creature from before returns, dragging a broken corpse behind it. It heaves and rattles until it manages to throw the massacred boy at your feet - it coos in delight as your hand distractedly rub its charred scalp in thanks. Whatever newly formed hell in front of you turns to the scent of fresh blood - one heavy hand reaches, clumsily dragging forward the body until it can bring the new flesh to his hungering mouth.
The sound of bone splintering apart forms your lips into a smile, and the backs of your fingers stroke his limp cheek. Welcome back to the world, my beautiful draugr.
Brittany wakes at darkest night to warmth over her fingers. She frowns, stirring quietly, pulling away to tuck her limb underneath herself and try to fall back into strange dreams. It's so cold she thinks her skin has frozen solid, and shudders when something wet prods her palm.
"Wha..." She cracks one eye open and squeezes it shut immediately when a hot tongue swipes over her face anxiously, followed by a snuffling nose under her chin. Sandalio whimpers with both front paws on the bed; in the dark, she can see the outline of his small ears pinned back over his scalp. Thinking it to be nothing, she attempts to roll back around only to yelp in pain when his sharp teeth find the hinge of her jaw.
Brittany scowls and kicks the pelt from her, fumbling any source of light. "What is your problem?" She snarls groggily, staggering to her feet and reaching outside their room for the lantern set upon the side. Her fingers find the hollow horn, flame making long arcs in the air as she brings it back to bed. Sandalio watches her cautiously, tail tucked between his legs and sharp eyes unusually worried. Brittany frowns at him and places the torch upon the holder above their heads, crawling back in with a sigh.
"Go take care of your dog, Santana." She grumbles, shifting back under the pelts. Why is it so cold? "He keeps me awake at night." No response. Brittany rolls over and nudges her still body with her foot, ever aware of the intelligent gaze on her back. "Santana, wake up." Still nothing. Curious now, Brittany props herself on her elbows and peels back the coverings. "Santana?"
Sandalio, circled now to the other side of the bed, flinches and whimpers as his mistress' limp hand falls from the bed and touches his nose. She smells of death and rotting earth, nothing like the warm blood that so often pounds through her veins. He watches as her companion's eyes widen until the whites of her eyes are showing, scrambling to her knees and cupping her pale face in her palms. Her breath, heavy enough now for them both, fills the room.
Brittany hastily crawls up next to her, fingers desperately skating over every inch of skin she can reach. Santana's body is so cold she feels ice formed in a slippery layer over her right side—frost clings to her lashes and rims her open eyes. Laying on her back, she stares sightlessly at the ceiling. Her chest doesn't move.
"Oh gods, Santana, no," Brittany whispers, pulling herself over her companion's body until she rests just over her hips, "don't you dare do this to me, not now." She searches for any remnants of the girl inside this body that looks like a stranger, but those haunting eyes remain unmoving. From this angle, she can see the dark that lingers so often at the center of her gaze has spread out and streamed in all directions until no colour has been left at all. Brittany touches her caramel skin and swallows down a sob. "I told you that you have to be stuck with me now." She chokes out, lowering herself down until she hovers just over Santana's face, her hot breath ghosting through her lips and warming her frozen throat. "You have to come back to me, okay? I know you can."
Her head drops to her sternum as she desperately searches through her own frenzied thoughts for a hint of the girl she's come to love.
No time to think about that. She shakes her head furiously and holds her breath instead as she seeks wherever Santana has gone, assaulted at once by that familiar stench that seems to linger in the exhaling pant of Santana's breath and the hollows of her ears. It seethes about the room—how she didn't notice it before baffles her, but she grits her teeth as those unnatural shadows yearn to extinguish the sole lantern in the space.
Where are you, Santana? The ruby burns in the dark as Brittany sails through the recesses of her broken mind, clawing through the night as she finally finds the trail she has left behind. No matter where she goes, Brittany will find her.
Almost as if coaxing a scared animal from hiding she teases the threads of Santana's consciousness back to her until it can be wrapped around her fingers, pulling gently back to their bed. It comes willingly, listlessly, exhausted by such a long journey. She feels a different presence about her—lighter, calmer—that banishes the shadow just as Santana's chest expands and she pulls in a sucking, heaving breath.
Brittany whimpers in relief as the corruption in her eyes drains away as black tears running down the sides of her temples; she looks up hazily, shivering violently as her blood warms once again and the ice begins to melt. Sandalio laps frantically at her fingers, his hot tongue bringing feeling back to her skin.
"Britt..." she mumbles groggily, eyes rolling around in confusion, "what..." Her speech is cut off by desperate lips against her own, and she tries her best to reciprocate the kiss through the weariness that has embedded itself into her bones. Santana frowns at the tears she can see shining in Brittany's eyes, reaching up with one hand to brush them away. "What happened?" Brittany takes her cold palm and presses it firmly to her cheek, leaning into the shaky touch.
"You forget?" She asks quietly, almost as if it would break the palpable relief in the room. Her fingers smooth away the rivulets of slime still caught in Santana's eyelashes, creating black marks on her pristine skin. It has warmed with the returning heat of her body.
Santana looks off to the side in thought. Nothing but a void in place of her dreams. Strange... she almost never forgets where her sleep takes her: such are the qualms of being a priestess. "Everything." She reveals with a frown, relaxing again into the furs. Now awake—she remembers being caught up in something deep and dark, ensnaring her and dragging her under—with nothing but the dim lantern to reveal her surroundings, she sees the dark circles under Brittany's eyes and the shakiness of her breath. There is a distinct feeling she's missing something vital. "How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough to nearly have started calling for Sophias." At Santana's confused look, she elaborates. "Sandalio bit me and I woke up—" her hands catch Santana's face in time to stop her from rolling to the side to scold the dog, "no, San, listen to me. He woke me up because you stopped breathing and something was obviously wrong. A—and I waited, and waited, but you refused to wake up. Why do you always have to be so stubborn with everything?" She attempts a smile but it's forced, and they both know it.
Santana reaches up and Brittany comes willingly, rolling them until they're both facing each other on their sides. She presses herself up against the taller girl, all memories of their earlier argument forgotten. "I have no idea what happened, but thank you for saving me." She murmurs, brushing her nose against Brittany's. "I felt you. That is all I remember... so really, it was a good dream for me." She smirks, but her companion doesn't look amused. Her arms wind tighter around Brittany's waist as she sighs, resting their foreheads together. "What is it?"
Brittany bites her lip hesitantly. "Your magic is making you sick," she complains softly, lacing their fingers together. "Why do you still do it if it hurts you?"
Santana blinks in thought, discouraged by the fact that there is no reasonable answer. She could blame it on her impatience for nature to run its course or her constant crave for knowledge, but it goes further than that. Further than this war and these people and this country. But she doesn't know how.
"I need to be strong to help you." Santana finally settles on an answer, though it eclipses the whole truth. "I cannot be strong if I have nothing to use. You have your spears and your swords... what do I have? Nothing except a power that sometimes decides not to work. I need better than that." If she burns her hands to nothing every time, her aid will be short-lived. What is a little regeneration if it can help win a war?
Brittany frowns, dragging the bear pelt over them so it shields them from the world. Neither of them scold when Sandalio worms his way between their legs, his heavy head a comfort against her thigh. Brittany must remember to give him extra hugs in thanks. (Sometimes, that dog is too smart for his own good.) "But you are already so strong, do you really need to hurt yourself to get better?" She asks rhetorically, snuggling deeper into Santana's once again scorching warmth. "What about that blue magic? It was so pretty."
She feels Santana's muscles tense for a split second, her fingers playing distracting patterns over her spine.
"It... does not come as easily anymore."
(Truthfully, it does not come at all.)