Seasons of War

by Haitoku no Honou (背徳の炎)


Dearest Leah,

I hope this finds you well. The news we have says things are moving forward; just last week I heard we took half the plain towards Isttyl. Are you eating enough?

My studies proceed apace – yesterday the Professor told me I was one of the most gifted students she has ever taught. I hope to be able to send you something soon, to remind you of home.

I’m waiting for you.

It’s cold here, a bitter cold that whips through cloaks in freezing gusts and sinks into bones. Sometimes she feels as though she can’t remember ever being warm, no matter how many coals she heaps in her tiny brazier. It’s making her slow, making them all slow, and they might be making progress but they’re losing nearly as many to frostbite and the cold as they are to the enemy.

The letter arrived this morning, and she’s waited until now, until she had a chance to be alone, to open it. Even though the letter is short, there’s something of home in Veria’s elegant script. She can imagine it; the sun, breaking through the clouds, the warm spring breeze, and Veria, just as she’d left her, blonde hair tumbling around her face and a smile lighting her eyes.

It cuts through her almost as deeply as the wind – it’s been six months since she saw Veria, six months since they made their promises to each other, and it might well be another six months until they meet again, the way the war is going.

It’s not fair.

Dearest Leah,

I hope this finds you well. I heard about the battle of Isttyl – are you all right? I understand we lost a number of soldiers, but no-one has come to call on me yet, so I–
I am sure you’re well. I think I would know, were it otherwise, but it doesn’t stop my fears.

The Professor told me today that the College is sending another thirty mages to the front to aid the war effort. Half the teachers are going – I don’t know how they’re going to keep classes running properly, let alone what the students whose mentors are going forward will do. I’ve heard some of them are just returning to their homes, but I know many are volunteering. I know they don’t have enough training – I have to wonder, will they make it back home? Please, do your best to take care of them.

I made you something. Please wear it, and think of me. I miss you.

I’m waiting for you.

The letter feels heavy, tucked close in her tunic for the day, and it’s not until she’s alone at the line of horses, Cian whuffing at her side, that she lets herself open it. It’s been another long, cold month, and nothing is any easier. The battle for Isttyl was hard, and they all have scars, even she – the healer said she was lucky not to lose the eye, jagged line down the side of her face still raised and sore to touch.

Cian leans against her, his warmth a welcome change from the wind, and she pulls the letter out. If her fingers are shaking, it’s because of the cold, not because of what might lie inside.

She lets out a breath as she starts reading – if Veria had had enough, of the waiting, of the not knowing, she would begin with it. But there’s nothing of the sort, and she has to feel a bit foolish. She might think it unfair, and wonder whether Veria deserved better, but to believe the same of Veria unprompted was a disservice.

She unfolds the last side of the paper, and something that gleams in the torchlight slides out. She makes a quick catch, crumpling the letter a little in the process, and lifts her hand to the light.

It looks delicate, fragile, but when she leans in for a closer inspection she realizes it’s not, at all – it’s actually made of metal, intricately worked into the shape of a flower. A thin metal chain runs through the tiny loop at the top, and the whole thing feels slightly warm to the touch, even through her gloves.

She strips one off with her teeth, and touches the petals-

-It’s the height of summer. Veria leads her laughing through the field of wildflowers, the blossom that she had picked for her tucked behind her ear. The air is warm and the sun is shining, and she can feel the heat, welcome after so many months of unending cold. Veria finally stops, tugging her down into the flowers, and she sinks beside her, can’t help but smile at the look on her face.

“What is it?” she asks, and she hadn’t thought that Veria could smile wider, but she manages somehow.

“I’ve been accepted into the College,” Veria says, and before she can say anything in response, offer her congratulations, she says, “and the Professor has taken me on as her personal student.”

She can’t help sit for a moment, in awe – the Professor takes only one student for her own at a time, and might not take even that if there was no-one who met her standards. For Veria to be chosen – no wonder she’s smiling fit to burst.

“That’s wonderful,” she says, and clasps both of Veria’s hands in her own. “Truly – what an honour.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Veria says, and falls back to lie in the flowers, hair spread across the petals in a golden wave. “I had to read the letter twice. The Professor signed it with her personal seal.”

She smiles up at the sky, joy radiant in her expression, then turns suddenly, tugging at their clasped hands to draw her down beside her. “And what about your news?” she asks. “You said you had something to tell, also.”

It pales in comparison; a promotion to Captain is nothing compared to being hand-picked by the Professor, and here she had thought she might finally be secure enough to ask for Veria’s hand. More fool she; Veria was worth far more now than what a Captain’s salary could provide.

She smiles anyway, because she can’t deny Veria anything, and frees a hand to pull out her new tag, engraved with a Captain’s insignia.

“Oh, Leah!” Veria exclaims, like it means everything in the world to her. “That’s wonderful news!”

“Thank you,” she says, but she can’t get her tone quite right, and suddenly Veria is rolling, up on one elbow and leaning over her.

“Leah,” she says, “Leah, what’s wrong?”

She can’t deny her anything. “Veria, I–” she turns her head away. “I had hoped, with my promotion – but you’re the Professor’s student now. How can I–”

“Oh, Leah-” Veria says, like she’s heard and understood everything she couldn’t say, and maybe she has, because gentle fingers are at her jaw, turning her head back. She meets her eyes, and they’re the deepest blue she’s seen, surer even than the sky. “Leah, you could be the lowest footsoldier in the world, and I would wait for you.”

She smiles then, radiant, and she can’t help but smile too, there in an ocean of flowers under the clear sky, because Veria has promised, and she might only be a Captain but that doesn’t matter, not anymore.

Veria will wait–

Cian nudges her, and she jolts back to herself, bare fingers clenched tight around the flower. It doesn’t feel unnaturally warm now, just adjusted to the heat of her body. She slips the chain over her head, and tucks the flower next to her skin.

For the first time in months, she doesn’t feel cold.

Dearest Leah,

Are you well? I’m worried- I’m- I didn’t get your usual reply last week, and then I heard about the battle. Are you-

Please tell me you’re okay.


Time is something she doesn’t have, at the moment, not with supply lines disrupted and the healers’ tents full. They’d pushed too far too quickly, and the soldiers had paid the price. She has Commander’s tags at her throat now, a battlefield promotion, but she barely has a moment to think about what that means; she’d wanted the position, certainly, but not like this. She’d put the younger mages together, an experienced unit of soldiers to keep them safe; that squad had been right in the middle of the enemy ambush, and the mages who aren’t dead are wounded. Every time she closes her eyes they’re wearing Veria’s face. She’d asked her to keep them safe. She’d asked.

She wishes, sometimes, that she has the luxury of grief.

Dearest Leah,

I’m sorry. I know you’ll be mad, but I can’t- They’re sending the Professor. Or rather, they requested the Professor attend the front, and she’s agreed.

I’m coming with her.


She arrives before the letter does.

She’s at the horses when the messenger finds her, nothing but a salute and that she’s wanted in the command tent. When she pulls the flap aside, she’s expecting the other commanders, the General; what she sees is an unassuming woman in nondescript travel leathers, and a pace behind, Veria.

It hits her with almost physical force, and for a moment she can barely breathe, her hand tightening on the flap until the leather squeaks in protest. She’s managed to separate things in her head, most of the time – her old life and Veria mostly an abstract, something to remember late at night when she’s drifting to sleep, clutching her flower. It hits her sometimes, of course; when she’s watching another soldier die under her command; when she thinks about what they’re facing; when it’s cold and she’s tired and she just wants to go home. But Veria doesn’t suit this war, doesn’t belong in the blood-drenched snow and misery; she might be fighting for her, but she’s fighting to keep her safe. Fighting to keep everyone safe, and she can’t do that while she’s distracted, can’t give her all to the war while she’s thinking of home.

Seeing her here, in the middle of everything she’s tried to keep her away from – she doesn’t know how she’s thinking, how she’s feeling. She knows she’s staring, but can’t help herself, frozen in the doorway to the tent.

“Come inside,” the other woman says, and without thinking she takes a step forward, then another, hand releasing the tent flap to fall closed behind.

“Veria–” she whispers, and Veria’s nervous, she can see, standing with her hands in front of her and twisting her fingers around and around.

“I sent you a letter,” Veria says, and it’s really her, the sound of her voice something she’s been missing for most of a year.

“The mail was delayed,” she says, and she still can’t stop staring. She feels like she’s in a dream, like she’ll close her eyes and Veria will be gone. “It was supposed to arrive today.”

“I thought you’d be angry,” Veria says, and she looks shy. She looks like not a day has passed, like they’re still back in that field of flowers, although her hair now is caught in a long tail, back from her face. “I was prepared for you to be angry.”

“Why are you here?” she asks, and her voice comes out quiet, completely without her permission. Maybe later she’ll be angry, but at the moment she just feels numb. “You should be safe, at home, with the Professor.”

“She is with the Professor,” the woman says mildly, and she has to blink in surprise – she’d barely registered the presence of the other woman at all, and it wasn’t just because she’d been so focused on Veria.

She takes a breath, looks away from Veria and towards the other woman. She looks ordinary, feels ordinary, and it’s only because Veria’s still standing a pace behind her that it finally clicks.

“You’re–” she says, and then cuts herself off, because the most powerful mage in the kingdom is standing right in front of her and she’s proving herself a fool. “My apologies,” she says, and drops to one knee, bowing her head. “How may I serve?”

“Please don’t do that,” the Professor says, and her voice is still that mild, even tone. “You are Veria’s Promised. There’s no need for you to kneel.”

“Professor,” she says, head still bowed, “Promised or not, I am only a commander, and one among many. Special consideration would not be just.”

“Very well,” the Professor says, and there’s some kind of change to her tone, so small she nearly doesn’t notice. “Please, stand.”

She rises from the ground, shifting one foot out into parade rest, hands at the small of her back. When she lifts her eyes back to the Professor, she can see that she’s smiling. It’s barely there, just a tiny quirk of the corner of her mouth, but she’s definitely smiling.

“Commander,” the Professor says, “I have had the formal reports, but those were from palace officials; you have been here, fighting. I wish to hear your perspective of the conflict.”

She spares a moment to think about how plainly she can risk speaking, but for all the stories about the Professor, all the battlefield legends, the woman in front of her seems worlds away. She’s Veria’s teacher, and she deserves to know what she’s walking into.

“We were going well enough until just after Isttyl,” she says. “We were losing soldiers, of course, and mages, but not too many. Morale was high and we were winning all the major skirmishes.

“Isttyl–” She can’t help the way her face closes off, her voice dropping into a flat tone. “Isttyl was hard. The resistance was strong. We lost more than expected, and nearly everyone came away wounded.

“Since then-” She swallows, straightening a little in her stance. She lets her eyes drift away from the Professor’s face, staring over her shoulder at the wall of the tent. “We’ve kept losing soldiers. They’re ambushing us, harrying us at every turn. Our supply lines aren’t secure, so the soldiers are short rations. Our progress has slowed to a crawl.”

The Professor nods. “In your opinion, what’s the reason for this change?”

She doesn’t need any time to think; she already knows why. “We went too fast,” she says. “After Isttyl we should have paused to recover, regain our full strength before pushing further. Instead we–” Her throat closes over as she thinks of the mages, those children from Veria’s school, and how they died, cut off from the bulk of the army and alone in the snow. “We paid the price,” she says instead. “We’ve lost more of our forces in the past two months than we had in the previous six.”

“And what’s the troop response?” the Professor says. “How are they feeling?”

This is the first time any ranking superior has asked her about the soldiers as though their feelings matter, and she jerks her gaze over to meet the Professor’s eyes. She’s not speaking in jest, though – her expression is solemn, intent.

“We’re cold,” she says, the words spilling out without her really thinking about them. She’s still using “we”, but she can’t bring herself to care. It’s how she’s feeling, too. “We’re always cold. We know what we’re facing, but at the same time we’ve been most of a year away from our families. We’re all exhausted.”

The Professor nods slowly. “Thank you for your candour,” she says. “I’ll be meeting with the General shortly; I expect that to take several hours, at which point you may visit with Veria.”

She’d very nearly forgotten, Veria’s presence pushed to the back of her mind, as caught up as she’d been with the Professor and her questions. She glances over to see Veria to all intents and purposes still composed, but despite their long separation she knows better; there’s a sadness around the corners of her expression that hadn’t been there before.

“You are very kind,” she says. “I thank you for your consideration.”

The Professor acknowledges the thanks with a nod. “That will be all, Commander. You may go.”

She leaves the tent in a daze. She returns salutes from passing soldiers absently, and finds herself back at the horses without any real idea of how she’s gotten there. She locates Cian in the line and moves to stand at his head, leaning back against his shoulder and letting his warmth soak through her. It’s only when she lifts a hand to rub her face that she realises she’s holding something; she has only the haziest of recollections of being handed something along the way.

It’s a letter, a little crumpled already from her grasp, and it’s addressed to her in Veria’s hand. She slides it open with hands that are most definitely not shaking, but it’s short and to the point, nothing she doesn’t already now know. She’s not sure whether she would have preferred to get the letter prior to Veria’s arrival or not; she thinks she would be angrier, had she had more time to dwell on it, and that’s not fair to Veria, coming in to a war zone untrained. They’ve been apart now nine months; it wouldn’t be fair for either of them for their reunion to be overshadowed by anger.

She turns her face into Cian’s neck, closing her eyes. At the end of it all, underneath everything, it’s not anger she’s feeling, after all. It’s fear.

Veria’s in danger now too.

It’s very nearly full dark by the time she makes her way to where the Professor and Veria have been quartered, the last strains of light just fading from the sky. By all accounts the Professor’s meeting with the General had lasted until after sunset, concluding with the General himself storming out of the tent.

The Professor has been given a tent near to the centre of their encampment, the most well-defended position possible. She’s pleased to see that while there are soldiers taking a long time to walk past, proper discipline is still holding; there’s no-one overtly loitering around, trying to catch a glimpse of the Professor and her student.

She steps up to the tent flap and pauses. With any other soldier, she would just walk in, but this is the Professor. This is Veria.

She clears her throat, but before she can announce herself the Professor speaks, soft but clear even through the thick material of the tent. “Come in, Commander.”

She pulls the flap aside and steps in, blinking to adjust her eyes. There had been only the dimmest of lights from outside, no shadows on the walls of the tent, but now that she’s inside it’s much brighter. The Professor is sitting cross-legged on a rug, book open on her knees; opposite her is Veria, sitting perfectly still. She’s also cross-legged, and her eyes are closed, hands relaxed in her lap.

“Veria will be a few more moments,” the Professor says, and gestures to a third rug, the point of a triangle. “Please, join us.”

She folds a little stiffly onto the rug, leather creaking with her movements. She settles her hands on her knees, and the Professor closes her book, setting it aside.

“Commander,” she says, “as Veria’s Guardian, I must know. Veria talks often about you. She cares for you a great deal. Are her feelings returned?”

Whatever she expected when she’d come in, being grilled by the Professor about her feelings for Veria wasn’t it.

“I–” she says, flustered, and then takes a breath, pulling together her scattered thoughts. “Of course,” she says, and reaches to her neck, to pull out the flower charm, the gift from Veria so many months ago. “I plan to ask for her hand, when circumstances permit.”

“When you’re not at war,” the Professor says, and she nods.

“Also when my own situation improves,” she says, and looks down. “With her selection as your student, her estimation has risen highly. I must work harder to be able to give her the life she deserves.”

“You think your suit will be rejected because of your status?” the Professor says, and her tone still hasn’t wavered, her voice still mild.

“Not that,” she says, “it’s – Veria is going to be a great mage, with your teaching. And she doesn’t deserve to be a laughingstock in society with a Captain for a wife.”

The Professor nods. “Society can be cruel sometimes,” she says. “But you are a Commander now, are you not?”

She smiles, but it’s without humour – because a Commander may be enough to ask for Veria’s hand, but this war has no end in sight. “The war,” she says, and it’s enough of an answer, the Professor nodding again.

“You should know,” the Professor says. “Veria is a very powerful mage.”

Not ‘will be’, ‘is‘ – and she feels uneasy all of a sudden.

“I had wondered whether you would be angry with me, for bringing her with me,” the Professor continues. “But you don’t seem to be.”

She’s spoken plainly with her earlier; she sees no reason for deceit now. “I’m not angry,” she says. “I’m terrified.”

“Reasonable,” the Professor says. “I brought her with me for two reasons, and as her Promised, you deserve to know why.”

Her throat feels suddenly tight, and she fists her hands on her knees, body tense.

“Firstly, I brought her here because as a powerful mage, she needs to see the potential consequences of her actions,” the Professor says. “Power such as she holds can change countries, start wars. She needs to see what can happen, what the consequences are, so she can work to ensure that she doesn’t cause anything like this in the future.”

Power such as Veria’s can start wars? “How powerful is she?” she asks, voice a fraction of normal. To her right, Veria is still taking slow, even breaths, face relaxed.

“At the moment, I’d gauge her at slightly below me,” the Professor says. “But she’s still growing into her power. When she’s fully trained–”

She doesn’t need the Professor to finish her sentence; when she’s finished her schooling, Veria will be the most powerful mage in the country. It’s not something she can reconcile with her memory of Veria amongst the wild flowers, relaxed and laughing.

“What’s the other reason?” she asks, an effort of will to keep her voice steady.

“If anything’s going to make you angry, this is,” the Professor says. “I brought her here to draw out the enemy mage.”

There’s a moment where she almost can’t believe what she’s heard, because the Professor just said that Veria was bait. And then the anger surges through her, and she fights to keep her breathing even, stay as calm as she can. “You brought Veria to a warzone,” she says. “You brought her to the same warzone where a month ago I watched half her classmates slaughtered, and you plan to use her as bait?”

“Leah,” Veria says, and her head snaps around; Veria’s eyes are open, and her expression is sad, but there’s something more; she’s almost resigned. “Leah,” she says, “don’t be mad with the Professor. It was my idea.”

In an instant, the anger turns cold; it feels like her blood has just turned to ice. “It was your idea,” she repeats.

Veria nods, face serious. “She’s a bad mage, Leah. She’s hurting people, she’s making it cold, and she loves most of all taking young mages under her control.”

When she tries to speak again, her voice comes out half strangled. She feels like she can’t get enough air. “So you thought you’d come to the front,” she says, “and draw her out in the open.”

“It’s perfect,” Veria says. “I’m exactly who she wants, and when she comes to collect, the Professor will be waiting.”

“And you’re – okay with this?” she says.

“People are being hurt,” Veria says. “I’m not – it scares me, what she can do. What might happen. But I can’t sit by month after month waiting for the letter that says you’ve been killed. Not when I can do something about it.”

At that, the anger drains away; she can’t be angry at Veria, not when she’s doing the exact same thing, just in a different way. They’re both risking their lives to try and stop others being hurt. “Okay,” she says, “okay.”

“You’re not mad?” Veria says, and she looks uncertain again, fingers twisting in her lap.

“Not anymore,” she says; she’s just tired, now, tired from a long day full of emotional upheavals; from the months and months of unending cold and war.

To the side, the Professor lifts to her feet smoothly. “Well,” she says, and Veria nearly snaps to attention, looking up expectantly. “Veria, you have my blessing,” she says, and Veria’s uncertainty washes away into a shy smile. “You may work your magic.”

“Thank you,” Veria says, and she sounds relieved. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” the Professor says, and then she’s smiling too, a soft, gentle smile that tugs at the corners of her mouth. It’s the first real emotion she’s seen her display. “I will return in a few hours,” she adds, and before she can say anything, do anything, the Professor has swept out of the tent.

When she turns back to look at Veria, she’s nervous again, her hands in constant motion. She’s not really sure what’s happening; as Veria’s Guardian the Professor is supposed to be her chaperone, and for her to leave them alone together is a major breach of society protocol.

“Leah,” Veria says, and then takes a deep breath and lifts her eyes. “May I work magic on you?”

She swallows. Veria’s gaze is hopeful and scared all at once, and she doesn’t know what this is about. Veria’s never worked magic on her before. “What kind of magic?” she asks.

“Protection,” Veria answers immediately. “It’s defensive magic for you, and if I work it the right way it also protects me.”

“What way is that?” she asks, because if it will help keep Veria safe, even for a moment, then she will contemplate almost anything.

Veria’s cheeks pink, but her voice is even when she says, “I will need to lie with you.”

She has thought, of course, of what their first time might be like: the evening of their wedding, Veria in purest white with her hair spilling down, the first brush of their lips slow, cautious. She thinks their first time would be gentle, Veria’s laugh turning to gasps as she runs her hands over her skin, and Veria, never one to be shy, touching her in return. She hasn’t minded waiting; she wants the time to be right. She wants it to be special.

She wasn’t prepared for this.

“I–” she says, and she can already see Veria’s face start to fall. “Veria,” she says, “I – I don’t know what to think.”

“Do you not want to?” Veria asks, and before she finishes her sentence she is already shaking her head.

“That’s not it at all,” she says. “Of course I want to, but I–”

She doesn’t know how to say it, but Veria’s face suddenly clears in comprehension. “Oh, Leah,” she says, reaching out a hand towards her. “I don’t want to rush anything either. But this magic – it’s old, and powerful. And it will keep you safe, keep us both safe.”

The touch of Veria’s hand against hers is warm, grounding. “And if we don’t,” she says, “it won’t work?”

You will be protected,” Veria says, and the corner of her mouth is curving up but it’s not a smile, not by any stretch. “But that’s where the protection will end.”

She doesn’t know why she’s still arguing, if this could be called an argument. Any other hot blooded woman would be halfway out of her armour by now, would jump at the chance to lie with her Promised ahead of schedule. But she’s never been normal, and while she might be used to the split-second thought-into-action of battle, when she’s not in a skirmish she likes to take her time. And really, it comes down to one thing.

“I want our first time to be special,” she says, and Veria’s kind-of-smile grows into a proper smile.

“Leah,” Veria says, and pulls her hand back, pushing up from her cross-legged seat on the rug onto all fours. “If that’s your main concern–”

Veria fairly stalks forward, planting one hand firmly on her knee, one hand on her hip, and she doesn’t realise she’s leaning back until her elbows hit the ground, Veria looming over her with a hand on her shoulder.

“Leah,” she breathes, and the look on her face nearly takes her breath away. “It will be special.”

“Veria–” she whispers, and then Veria puts one hand at the base of her neck, over her flower pendant, and they’re–

It’s bright.

She blinks to clear her eyes, and the sky comes into focus – a bowl of deep blue, not even the hint of a cloud, and the sun blazing warm, the kind of heat she hasn’t felt in forever.

“Leah,” Veria says, and she blinks again, turning her head to the side; Veria is beside her, head propped up on one hand, and around them as far as she can see is an everlasting field of wildflowers.

“Where are we?” she asks, and Veria smiles, small and secretive.

“Somewhere things are special,” she says, and leans forward, pressing her back into the flowers.

“Veria–” she says, and then Veria is kneeling beside her, sun catching her hair and haloing her in gold.

“Leah,” she says. “May I work magic on you?”

She closes her eyes, opens them to Veria’s smile. “Yes,” she says.

Veria smiles wider, places her hand back on the flower pendant, and closes her eyes.

When she opens them, they’re glowing, pupils tiny pinpricks in a sea of blue. She opens her mouth, but what comes out isn’t any language she’s familiar with, consonants and sibilants all together, hard in the back of her throat. “,” Veria says, and there’s a flare of heat, a circle of pressure bending the wildflowers outwards as it passes.

“Leah,” Veria whispers, and she realises that she’s staring, eyes wide. She’s seen Veria work magic before, but they were all small things, nothing on this scale. She’s never seen Veria’s eyes glow, never heard her speak in tongues, and she doesn’t know what to think.

“Don’t be afraid,” Veria says, like she can read her mind, and maybe she can. One of the Professor’s battlefield tales had been about her reading the minds of the opposing army, after all.

Half-sentences run through her mind, but she doesn’t know how to end any of them. “Your eyes,” she says instead, lifting a hand to touch Veria’s face near the corner of her eye. There’s no heat; just a vague static in the air, the herald of an approaching lightning storm.

Veria turns her face into the touch, smiling a little. “I’m used to them now,” she says. “The first time it happened I couldn’t look at myself in a mirror for days.”

She runs her fingers over Veria’s skin, sliding up to curl into her hair. “I’ve always thought you were radiant,” she confesses, and pink tinges Veria’s cheeks.

“Leah,” she says, and leans in.

The first touch of their lips is slow, gentle. Veria’s mouth is soft against hers, and a thrill runs through her as they pull apart, come back together. Veria’s hand is still resting against the dip between her collarbones, and her fingers are moving, tiny little motions back and forth that nonetheless stir something low in her stomach.

“Leah,” Veria says, lips brushing against hers as she speaks. “I’m going to work the magic on you first. Are you prepared?”

“I am,” she says, and Veria nods solemnly, leaning back and sliding her fingers down to the centre of her chest, over her heart.

“May I undress you?” Veria asks, and she gives a short nod, not expecting the warmth that rushes to her cheeks.

,” Veria whispers, and the words this time seem to curl off her tongue. The flare of heat this time is gentler, more subtle, almost like a caress that starts at Veria’s fingers and circles out, running over her entire body. She can feel her clothes, her armour getting lighter and lighter, and then there’s nothing but the breeze, something soft underneath here and flowers tickling her legs.

Veria spreads her fingers out across the top of her chest, blushing herself even though her eyes are on her face, holding her gaze.

“I must mark you for the magic,” Veria says. “May I touch you?”

Just the thought of Veria’s hands on her has her breath coming quicker, her stomach tightening. “You may,” she says.

Only once she has permission does Veria turn, let her eyes wander down her body. “Leah,” she whispers, “you’re beautiful,” and under her gaze it doesn’t seem much of a stretch that it could be true, battle scars and all.

Veria slides her hand back up, fingers just brushing the edge of the flower pendant. “,” she whispers, and slides her fingers sideways across her collarbone. A shiver of heat runs through her, pooling low in her stomach, and something of the feeling seems to stay, marking the line on her skin where Veria’s fingers have touched.

,” Veria says, and her other hand touches lightly at the base of her throat and slides the other way, out to her shoulder. The heat runs through her again, rising in a line across her collarbone.

“Veria,” she whispers, and above her, Veria smiles.

,” she says, and lifts both hands, drawing them together down the centre of her chest and then out across her ribs, circling her breasts. She can feel goosebumps rising on her skin, and she’s suddenly acutely aware of her nakedness, that Veria’s hands are only a few inches of skin from touching her breasts. The heat raised by Veria’s touch this time gathers lower, between her legs, and she shifts one foot restlessly.

“The magic makes everything more,” Veria says, low. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Well enough,” she says, and her voice comes out a little hoarse, lines of heat across her skin and Veria’s fingers warm on her ribs.

“May I continue?” Veria asks, and she nods, swallowing. She would be lying if she said she wasn’t nervous, but that doesn’t mean that she wants Veria to stop.

“Thank you,” Veria says and draws her hands in, fingers brushing her nipples. She feels weak all of a sudden, hot between her legs, and then Veria breathes, “,” and does something, sharp pressure on her nipples, and the heat floods through her, from Veria’s fingers all the way down.

She gasps in a breath, and then Veria does it again and she arches into it without conscious thought, hands clenching into fists at her side.

Leah,” Veria breathes, and strokes down her ribs, the heat pouring through her gradually easing, leaving her aching for more.

“Veria-” she says, and she’d tried for an even tone but it comes out as more of a moan, voice low and broken.

“You’re so-” Veria says, and brings her hands down, drawing lines across her hip bones. “.”

She’s gasping now, and it feels like her back has a permanent curve, head tipped back into the flowers. The heat is growing, gathering between her legs and she’s aching, needs something, needs Veria to–

,” Veria breathes, and slides her hand between her legs.

She’s slick, Veria’s fingers sliding a little, but they find something and press and it’s like she’s been struck by lightning, heat boiling up within her. Her eyes are open but she can’t see, nothing but her body and Veria and the rush of feeling overwhelming her.

When she blinks back to herself, Veria is murmuring low, “-” as her fingers make tiny circles, little jolts of feeling that spark through her, but nothing like before.

Veria breaks off after another moment, her glowing eyes moving to her face. “Leah?” she asks. “Are you well?”

Another little rush of heat runs through her, and she shudders out a breath. Veria is holding this conversation while her fingers

“I’m well,” she manages after a moment. “How is your magic?”

“You are protected,” Veria says and indicates with her free hand up and down her body.

She cranes her head up, and blinks in surprise; pale markings glow from her skin, a circle over her heart and lines of symbols branching off across her chest. A line marches down each arm, across the backs of her hands and down her index finger, while another runs to her navel before splitting in two and running down each leg.

“Will they always–” she says, but Veria is already shaking her head.

“They will fade after the magic is finished,” she says, “and then only glow when the protection is needed.”

She nods, eyes turning back to Veria’s face. “And your protection?” she asks.

Veria slows her hand, but the thrum of heat she’s stirring still waits, just under her skin. “There are some words,” Veria says.

“What must I say?” she asks.

Veria closes her eyes; when she opens them they seem to be glowing even brighter. “For your protection, I give myself to you,” she says, and she can hear the other words underneath, sounds almost meshing together.

She lifts her hand from the ground, and sets it on Veria’s knee. This spell is for Veria’s protection now; she won’t let it fail. “For your protection,” she says, “I give myself to you,” and there’s a flare of heat, Veria gasping with her.

“It’s strong,” she says, and finally pulls her hand back, fingers glistening. “Leah,” she says, “will you undress me?”

She pushes herself up to sit, Leah still kneeling beside her. “I have no magic to vanish your clothes,” she says.

“Just put your hand-” Veria says, and catches up her hand, fingers slicking together, and presses it to her chest, over her heart.

,” Veria breathes, and she can feel heat rush through her and into Veria from her fingers, feel Veria catch in a breath and shudder beneath her as her clothes thin out into nothing.

It’s too much to look at, all at once – Veria’s slender, skin pale and unmarked beneath her clothing. She is wearing a necklace though, hidden beneath her clothes – a metal flower on a thin chain, the twin to the one that hangs around her own neck.

“You must mark me for the magic,” Veria says, and despite what has already happened, where she has already touched, her cheeks are pink. “Will you touch me?”

“Where?” she asks, squeezing their fingers together.

“Anywhere,” Veria says. “You may touch me anywhere and the magic will take.”

She loosens her fingers and Veria’s hand falls away, leaving her fingers faintly sticky, resting on Veria’s skin. She’s smooth under her fingertips, warm, and she runs her fingers to the side, mirroring Veria’s first stroke on her own skin.

,” Veria murmurs, and then shivers.

“Are you well?” she asks, and Veria nods immediately.

“It’s strong,” she says again. “I didn’t expect-” Veria breaks off as she lifts her other hand, running her fingers across her other collarbone. “–”

This time, she can feel the heat running from her fingertips, and Veria shudders, breath coming faster.

“Will it be easier if you lie down?” she asks, and Veria swallows, nodding. She leans sideways, a controlled fall into the flowers, and she follows her down, keeping one hand on her skin. Veria’s hair has spread out around her face, catching the sun, and she’s beautiful.

“Please,” Veria says, and her voice is shaky, “continue.”

She slides one hand down, up the rise of Veria’s breast and around underneath. Her skin here seems softer, and underneath her Veria arches up, her words of magic coming out in a hiss. She rings her nipple with a fingernail, standing tall, and then carefully squeezes it.

“Ah-” Veria gasps, something unintelligible, but she can feel the heat leave her fingers anyway, the magic building. She tries again with her other hand, and this time Veria arches up into it, her shoulders almost leaving the ground. “Leah–” she groans, and she shifts where she sits, the sight of what her touch is doing to Veria enough to spark the heat between her legs.

She drags her hands lower, fingers spread across Veria’s stomach, coming to rest on her sharp hipbones. She seems to have given up speaking her magic, taking gasping breaths, chest heaving on each inhale.

She slides her hand down further, fingers brushing over coarse hair, and then she’s into warmth and wetness and Veria moans. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, if there’s anything Veria needs, but she knows what felt good for her. She moves her fingers in tiny circles, and Veria’s back arches again, head thrown back and gasping for air. She can feel heat pulsing into Veria from her fingertips and she moves faster and faster – and then Veria’s whole body convulses, Veria crying out, and her fingers are suddenly much slicker. She slows her motions as Veria’s breathing starts to ease, and as she lifts her eyes to Veria’s face she can see glowing symbols rise on Veria’s skin, the same pattern as hers.

“Veria?” she asks, and Veria smiles, even though she’s still breathing fast.

“I am well,” she says. “The marks have been made.”

She doesn’t really know how to ask her next question – whether anything more needs to be done for the magic to be finished. She doesn’t want Veria to think she believes this a chore; she’s never felt sensations like this before, and she’s sure it’s not just all the magic’s doing. Just thinking about it is enough to stir the heat between her legs.

“I–” she says, and then Veria reaches for her, pulling her down to lie facing her.

“Leah,” Veria says, “one more thing remains for the magic to be complete.”

“What do you need me to do?” she asks.

“Touch me,” Veria says, reaching down to catch her fingers with her own, and guides them lower. Veria’s more slick here, and then she pushes and she slides inside, Veria hot and tight around her.

,” Veria gasps, and trails off into a moan. A moment later Veria’s fingers touch her hipbone, a little jerky, and slide lower, and then Veria is pressing inside her, slick making it easy. It’s an odd sensation of pressure, and then Veria gasps, “,” and a wave of heat floods through her, pulsing from Veria’s fingers out.

Oh–” she gasps, and then Veria wriggles closer, pressing their breasts together, breath hot against her shoulder, and her fingers move.

She’d thought the first part of the magic had been overwhelming, but it’s nothing compared to this – wave after wave of heat that crackles over her. She can barely keep her own hand moving, but every breath of Veria’s is coming out on a moan so she must be doing enough. It’s hard to think, everything she is wound up with feeling as the sensation keeps building, every motion from Veria, every press of their breasts against each other another wave to drown her.

She’s aware when Veria shakes violently against her, muscles clenching and fluttering around her finger, but that doesn’t stop Veria moving even while she gasps for breath, her fingers pressing faster and faster into her. Her free hand squirms up between them, curling around the curve of her breast, and then she whispers, “,” into her shoulder and pinches hard at her nipple and she’s gone, wave of sensation rolling over her as she shakes and shakes, head thrown back.

When she comes back to herself, Veria’s hands are warm against her but not moving, her head resting against her shoulder.

“Veria?” she murmurs, craning her head back, and Veria looks up at her and smiles, her eyes normal once again.

“Leah,” she says. “The magic is finished. We are both protected.”

She carefully works her hand free, bringing her arms up to cradle Veria against her. The heat is fading from her body along with the glowing marks, but the sun is warm against her bare skin and Veria is soft and smooth. “How long do we have?” she asks.

“We must return soon,” Veria says, “but there is time enough to rest.” She curls up a little, wriggling as close as she can, and she tightens the circle of her arms in response. At least for now, she’s not thinking of war.

When they return to the tent – thankfully fully clothed again – the Professor is waiting for them, seated back on one of the rugs with her book.

“Welcome back,” the Professor says, glances up, and blinks sharply.

“Did I work it correctly?” Veria asks, stiffening next to her.

“Oh, you worked it correctly,” the Professor says, and smiles. “Congratulations, Commander. You and Veria are now bound by vows deeper than marriage.”

Veria’s hand tightens on hers. “What did I–” Veria says, tone of voice almost panicked, and the Professor waves them down to the remaining rugs.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the Professor says. “The magic is for protection, yes, and it functions by working magic on the first party, then linking them to the second party.”

Veria is nodding along. “Yes,” she says, “that’s what we did.”

“Yes,” the Professor agrees. “But you’ve also gone a step further. The magic hasn’t just linked you and the Commander – it’s bound you together. For that to happen, there had to have been an extreme emotional response along with the magical response. One fed into the other, and instead of laying the link on the surface, it’s bound you together much more deeply.”

“What does that mean?” Veria asks. “For Leah?”

“Don’t be concerned,” the Professor says, and she has to wonder whether the Professor is always calm, always this unconcerned. “There shouldn’t be any ill effects. In fact, in the situation we’re in, any fallout from this binding should be quite useful. Commander, I would imagine that you will be able to tell when Veria’s protection magic is activated, for example.”

“That does sound useful,” Veria says, stealing a worried glance sideways.

She smiles back and squeezes her hand. “If there are no ill effects then I am content,” she says. “After all, I have no intention of calling off my suit.”

“I should hope not,” Veria says hotly, and smiles.

“Well,” the Professor says, closing her book, “in your absence the midnight watch has come and gone; it is time we were all abed. Tomorrow is an important day.”

Veria nods, shifting forward on the rug and throwing her free arm around her. “Goodnight, Leah,” Veria says. “May you sleep well.”

“Goodnight, my Veria,” she says, clutching her tight. It seems foolish, after all that has happened today, after such a long separation, to be distressed over a few hours apart; but perhaps it’s not so foolish after all, to not want to relinquish Veria after only just finding her again.

The next day dawns cold as usual, and her breath is misting in the air as she stumbles to the mess tent. The tent is full of chatter as usual; Smithy lost a dice game to Paul and owes him a week of latrine duty; had anyone caught a glimpse of the Professor, because he’d heard she was eight feet tall but he’d only seen two ordinary-looking women; the Professor’s student had ridden out this morning with not even a guard to protect her.

She jerks awake at the last, leaning back in her seat. “What did you say, Captain?”

“Uh, sorry sir, I was passing by the horses this morning and Rory was manning the guard – she said the Professor’s student took two horses and rode out of camp – Commander?”

She’s already tearing out of the tent and towards the line of horses, grateful for the months of battle that have her trained to leave her tent fully armed and armoured every morning. She should have pressed further; should have queried the Professor as to what was happening today that was so important.

She hopes desperately that it’s not true, that Veria’s just left camp on her own for some other reason, but she knows better, knows what they were planning. Veria has gone to draw out the mage, which means she’s out there alone in the snow.

She skids to a halt at the line of horses, hailing the guard. “Are you Rory?”

“Yessir, Commander,” Rory says, saluting, and she waves her down.

“The Professor’s student – you saw her leave this morning?”

“Yessir,” Rory says, and she nods.

“Good,” she says, and heaves the saddle over Cian’s back. “You can show me which way she went.”

There must have been fresh snow overnight; Veria’s trail is easy to follow, the pair of horses leaving a clear trail through the mush. It leads due east towards the low mountains, winding only slightly around obstacles in the way.

By the time Cian crests the first foothills, blowing hard, she’s been riding over an hour. She has to wonder what time of day Veria woke to be so far ahead, or whether she was working magic to aid her speed. She’s been riding Cian as fast as she dares – she must be catching up.

She would also have expected to encounter enemy soldiers by now, a scouting party, sentries, anything. Most days their scouting parties were intercepted much closer to their encampment than she is now, and yet she’s seen no hide nor hair of anyone at all, the whole landscape frozen white. She doesn’t like this situation at all, doesn’t like that Veria has gone off alone without telling her. If things were so important that Veria needed to work protection magic on her, on them both, why wouldn’t she tell her? And why would she go alone? The Professor was supposed to go with her, so that when the enemy mage came, she would be able to strike.

She rounds the crest of the next foothill to see two horses nosing around in the snow. They’ve trampled around a fair amount of snow, and for a moment she thinks she might have lost the trail – but then she gets closer, can see where a single set of footsteps leave the flat area and head off over the next ridge.

She has no way of knowing why Veria left the horses here; whether it was part of her plan, or to avoid detection. But she can’t afford to blunder in to anything; she needs to be just as careful as Veria has been.

She slides down from Cian, looping his reins back up over the pommel of the saddle. He is, at least, a proper warhorse; he should stay where she leaves him.

She follows the tracks up the ridge, keeping low. Veria’s footsteps are even and shortly spaced – she had been walking, and not in any kind of hurry.

The next valley is also empty, but from just beyond the next ridge comes a flash of light, and abruptly she feels cold, and sick to her stomach. Veria is there, she knows she is, even if she doesn’t know how or why, and something is happening. She doesn’t know how she’s supposed to feel when Veria’s protection magic activates, but she thinks there’s a good chance that’s it.

She nearly tumbles down into the valley, stumbling through the deeper snow at the bottom and starting up the other side. She starts to slow, picking her steps more cautiously as she nears the top, trying to listen.

At first there’s nothing, and then she gets closer, close enough to hear a low crackle, kind of like a fire. It comes and goes in intensity, sometimes louder, sometimes soft, and then there’s a sharp crack, like a whip, and Veria screams.

She nearly screams herself, something that’s not quite pain shooting through her. She staggers, catching herself against the rocks as she struggles to keep upright. Veria is being hurt. Veria is being hurt.

Veria is gasping now, her breaths sounding more like moans.

“Come on, sweetheart,” someone croons, and even the voice makes her skin crawl. “Just stop fighting and let me in.”

“No,” Veria gasps, and she risks a split-second glance around the rocks. The ground is fused and shiny, two columns of the stuff standing not particularly straight in the centre. Veria is strung between them with thick strands of glowing rope. She’s facing her and hanging in her restraints like she’s got nothing left, but more tellingly to her, the glowing symbols are nowhere in evidence. Has Veria somehow undermined the magical protection? Has the enemy mage overwhelmed it?

“You should think again, little pretty,” the crooning voice says again, and the enemy mage strolls into view. The Professor had looked ordinary. This mage – doesn’t. She has long blonde hair tumbling around her face and down her back, and her eyes are glowing green. She’s wearing bright silks and satins, even though it’s winter; if she sent the weather, as Veria had said, perhaps she is somehow immune. But the part that fills her with dread is the glowing magic coiled around one arm, the glowing magic with a crackling kind of hum like lightning.

The mage reaches out a hand – the one with the magic – and caresses the side of Veria’s face. She can feel it like a phantom touch from here, crackling over her skin, and shudders. Below her, Veria is shaking in the restraints, turning her face away.

“No,” she says again, and the mage sighs.

“You’ll change your mind, sweetheart,” the mage says, and she takes a few steps back, lifts her arm, and brings it sharply down.

The magic lashes out and slams into Veria, and she chokes out a scream, rocking in the restraints. “No,” she moans, and she can’t watch anymore; can’t watch Veria hurt.

She draws her sword from the scabbard slowly, carefully. Blade in hand, she creeps to the edge of the rocks, waiting for her moment.

The mage paces back, shaking her head. “Dear, dear, dear, when will you learn? You know I’m going to get in your pretty head eventually. You might as well make it easier on yourself.”

No,” Veria snarls, gasping, and the mage sighs, moving back the other way.

“You’re wasting your potential,” the mage says, and lifts her arm.

She moves, as silently as she can, dashing forward and keeping low. The snow muffles her footsteps, at least, and then she hits the glassy surface of the rock and starts sliding, the surface slick to her boots. She stumbles, losing her balance, and the mage whips around, the magic blast that was meant for Veria catching her off her feet and hurling her to the ground at the base of the pillars.

Leah!” Veria nearly screams, and she can barely breathe, but she scrabbles for a grip on the pillars, dragging herself up inch by inch.

“What have we here?” the mage is saying behind her. “An uninvited guest!”

“Veria,” she whispers, finally pulling herself to her feet. With Veria hanging off the ground, they’re nowhere near even in height – she leans her shoulder against Veria’s hip, her head tilting against her ribs.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers through the pain in her head, “the magic doesn’t seem to be working.”

“What are you doing,” Veria gasps. “Why did you come?”

“You were being hurt,” she whispers. “Of course I came.”

“You could feel it?” Veria gasps, then, “your hands, touch me-”

She turns, dizzy, and nearly stumbles, but manages to get her hands on Veria’s waist.

“Not enough-” Veria gasps.

Behind her, the mage says, “You’re not useful to me,” and the crackling increases.

She’s so very tired, vision blurring, but she manages to cling to Veria with one hand and shove the other hand up the back of her shirt, fingers dragging over her skin.

, ” Veria screams, and then there’s a crack and the mage’s magic comes slamming down.

It feels like coming up for air after being underwater. Her head is suddenly clearer, and she leaves her hand on Veria’s skin and half-turns to look behind.

The mage is furious. “How dare you,” she snarls. “Foolish, ungrateful – your apprenticeship is over.” The mage raises her hand, the magic around her arm uncoiling and rearing up, like a snake about to strike.

There’s a flash of light, and something slams the magic to the ground.

The enemy mage screams, high-pitched and shrill, and she turns her face away, into Veria’s shirt. There’s another flash of light, and the mage’s scream abruptly stops.

She’s suddenly supporting Veria’s full weight, and they crash to the ground. She ends up staring blankly at the sky, one of the black shiny pillars stretching up like it can touch the clouds.

“Veria,” the Professor says, and for once she doesn’t sound calm; she’s nearly frantic. “Veria, Leah, can you speak?”

“Professor-” Veria murmurs from somewhere above her, and she blinks at the sky and manages something inarticulate.

The Professor lets out a shaky breath, and then she’s in view, leaning over them. Her eyes are still glowing gold, but the light is fading – she’s nearly back to normal.

“Let me assist you back to the encampment,” she says, and then the world fades away.

She wakes, and the first thing she sees as she blinks open her eyes is Veria’s smile.

“Leah!” Veria says, and leans down to hug her. “You’re awake!” She releases her, leaning back, and smiles wider. “I want to show you something.”

It takes her several tottering steps to reach the entrance to the tent, still weak, but Veria helps support her. When they step outside, the first thing she notices is the breeze – it’s warm.

She looks up, and the sky is mostly clear of clouds, a few scraggly white ones down on the horizon. It’s a pale blue, but blue nonetheless, and the sun is shining.

“What’s happening?” she asks, and Veria smiles.

“Leah,” she says, radiant. “It’s finally Spring.”

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