CW: Smut Mention, Alcohol.
Overlooking the cliff drop on the opposite side of the hill to the camp, leant back against a tree and wrapped in furs together, drinking hot mead and poring over the star-bright sky, Issané and Tristin sit, while he rests his chin on her head, just as wrapped up in her company. This, he tells himself, this is his new favourite place to be.
How easily her friendship comes, with the beam she always wore – the one that widened a significant amount whenever he spoke to her – always made him feel welcome. Her platonic-ness enthused him. Acknowledgement and affirmation made him resilient. He revelled in it, and made sure she recognised how he appreciated being able to chase the clouds away from himself again. He loved the way she just got Jed. Even Reed approved of her.
Never not in her armour – to a level of captivation he kept to himself – she'd challenged them all to race their horses, to fight, and train. To move and keep going. He suspected she was pushing them forwards, urging them on to where they were supposed to go, according to her information – the overblown impatience she showed in cursing the cart every time a wheel became stuck in the mud the giveaway. Rarely still for more than five minutes at a time, she'd fidget, cleaning her blades or tending the horses, turning her attention to anything that would keep her warm in the increasingly cold winter weather. It was an added bonus it sometimes included him.
He drifted away, thinking back to the camp, and about her in it. Comfortable in his own senses, as though he could take pride in himself again, he basked in the returning thought that he’d every right to. As though certain parts of him should be left firmly in the past, and he could at last stop dragging his history out of hiding and leave it behind while he focused on her confidence rubbing off on him.
She’d a sharper eye than any of them for foraging, making it plain to them how she saw the contrast between leaves and fruit, and Axel hadn’t been wrong about her knife skills, either. More often than not she was covered in mud and blood, and she’d adopted the word ‘Butcher’ in her own language for the second name she'd made herself, her own lost to the years she'd spent away from home. Holding her hand up high whenever he came back with a kill – no matter how small it was – and each time he did, she'd indicate he should smack her on her outstretched palm. Holding her thumbs up to Reed, she'd congratulate his kills too, but certain things were reserved for him alone.
Always ready to take care of the animals with him at his return, she waited for him at camp, catching on, adapting to gut them as fast as he could so they'd be stored quicker. Unsurprised by the way the hunters blessed their passing, she joined in with them when he and Reed would thank the animals for giving up their lives so that they could go on, a throwback to the old ways they still believed in and intended to bring into the future with them.
Back on the road, he'd been annoyed that she was taking the piss out of him when she signed “Cute”, after he’d said not to kill a fat, female rabbit they'd seen. Even a hungry enough Reed would have picked it off in an instant, and he'd guessed she was laughing at him for holding back – until he realised that the way she eyed him meant he was cute, not what he’d said or his reason for saying it. She’d turned away from him though, scratching out a crude drawing of the thing he was trying explain, to check she was understanding him. The picture was barely a few basic lines, but it had depicted the young mama rabbit versus an old, crotchety one. For some reason, the young rabbit wore a bow in her hair, but the old rabbit had a walking stick and shook her fist. She gave mama rabbit all of her babies to mind and then crossed it out, drawing an oversized tick mark next to the older, with many arrows pointing to it.
“In case of kits. That’s right. There won’t be any in the spring if we eat all their mamas now.” He'd nodded, and she’d pulled a face and a sign that indicated that that was what she had just said, and flapped her hands at sharing the dandelions she liked in her tea, surreptitious in scaring the animal away from the nearby flowers and shoving some into a pocket for later. A black cloud had turned to a blush that day, not something he was used to, but something that he had grown to like.
Clouds cleared in his head now, as more and more piled up in the sky around him. Tonight will be a cold one, rain for a few hours, and if it cleared in time a frost in the morning he supposes. The second he thinks it, a reflex presses Issané's body even closer, and she shivered against him. Pulling the fur tighter around herself, it made him wonder for a second if he’d said it aloud.
“Comfy? Warm enough?”
Issané nodded. Tristin was still annoyed that Kayn had given his map away without a trade, with him stubbornly attempting to justify himself by insisting that it was all good exposure for his work. Backfiring, they’d yelled, Tristin telling him that people would die from exposure and needed food in their belly and clothes on their back to live. Accusing him of a deeper meaning behind his obvious disdain for art, it had led to a vicious argument when it became clear that every insult Kayn had used in the cell had been passed on to him. Close to throwing fists at each other, neither could settle after, trading snarky put downs which cut progressively deeper, and she was glad for the quiet up here.
Still irritable, relaxation took a while to come to him, retreating together around the hill as far as they dared go, their own fire and the view of the ribbon enough to soothe. She wished Kayn would come here himself, just to see him shut his damn mouth for once. Unhappy herself with the flippant way he spoke about his cards, as though they meant nothing, she disliked the way he showed no respect for the things other people held dear. She hoped Cúdgel and Moord were right. Someone else would catch up with him.
Sun almost set, gusts of a storm of one kind or another chased in, the trees alive with it. Taking this last opportunity to view the last stars together before they are blanketed with cloud for months, she wanted to concentrate on them, not his mood, or his disrespect. A night like this was important. The changing of seasons was happening now, tonight, a show put on just for them, another thing she was acquainted with from the time before Albion had amassed their armies. She needed no contraption to tell her what was happening in the sky. She'd learned just by looking.
Obbé and Sina were high, and Issané stared at them as the tale of the two, fated to race one another for all eternity, came to her. Obbé, the gold, lived on the inside track and would leave everything in his dust, forging ahead and using his position only for his own gain. Nothing stood in his path. He burned all who came near, and so Sina came second, guarded, at a distance. Ever on the outside of everything, Sina focused inwards, always behind. Learning from Obbé's mistakes, he picked up the pieces of his burned bridges, and used opportunity to his advantage. The underdog. The one you actually cheered for.
Moons and stars in the sky the basis for all creation, round and round the watchers went, and together, these escort moons kept the glitter of the ring system around them in check. This was where souls collected after their latest incarnations had perished across the world. On the ribbon, they would debate going another round on the same planet, or decide to take their chances on another. Maybe a spirit waited up there, the first of them to leave the world, and more than one would go on together. Maybe they'd wait for someone else instead.
The Moons accounted for Hessonia's obsession with the sky – the ribbon itself, along with Axel's mother's fabled stories about it – and had been the reason for the theory The Sanguine wanted to prove now. A rainbow of glitter, the ribbon of myriad colours beautiful to look at, the halo of their planet's loved ones determined where in the universe they'd go next. Shooting stars told of their return. In any case, death wasn't the end.
Not like these new gods would have you believe.
Kayn had his own ideas. He said that if all the stars in the sky outside of their ribbon were other homestars, and if it was proven that their homestar was star number 8, then there must be infinite names and numbers for all the faraway homestars in the sky at night. And if that were true, then every homestar had worlds to go with it, just as theirs did. All you needed to make a new one was two space rocks in the nothingness out there to hit each other hard enough to create the spark of life in the dark. That meant they couldn't be alone in the universe. And that meant there were infinite Sanguine Outliers that would join them. Even more reason to prove their continuum was sound. Unbreakable.
Telling them they'd better check on the stars regularly to make sure none of them were getting any closer after all, Axel had joked, a childhood tale no one expected was based in truth. After all, as everybody knew, a shooting star went across the sky, and a meteor always came towards you. Reed agreed and said it was better to know impending doom than not know in good time. “If it's entirely possible that we're all standing on a bit of shit floating in space, and, say, that star up there is just another bit of shit, and we're all swirling around in the shit-liquid together, you're right Kayn. We could possibly hit each other. And boom. Life. Or not. It's all up to the will of the crapmosphere...”
Jed, in a particularly bad mood, had scoffed and said there were no old ways and new ways, just the same ways as there ever was – ever since the cave painting days – and argued that time and people on the whole never changed. Individually, yes, it was possible. As a group? No. In malice, he'd spat that he believed no souls were in the sky, and that all the stars up there reminded him of what the world would be like if every coin rose up, out of the world, and went back into the universe again, so that no one had anything left to argue over. He's sniped, declaring that it didn't matter where you were, it was sheer greed over power that drove it all to spin, not coin, or 'ridiculous space rock theories', and that all humans were arseholes because of it. And so, then, according to Kayn, it was proven that the same was probably true for the rest of the universe too.
But whenever Tristin peered up there, he tried very very hard not to imagine all the pairs of eyes gawking back at their planet and puzzling over who they were or what they were doing right now. He pondered what it is she thinks, as she stares, knowing better than to ask her when she'd floated away from him. Still there, but not quite, inspecting the great beyond, her own eyes were alert, and Issané read the sky as though it were a specific message just for her.
Might as well be for all he could tell. She loved to study it, and he liked being with her when she was doing something she liked, but letters and stars were as alien to him as each other as far as he knew. He'd distinguish between every colour, though, as they blended from x through y to get to z. The way the light environment interacted to change them, how and why the dark made them stand out, and how one could not exist without the other. Space was the same to him. Light made life, but it was nothing without the dark.
He'd driven Reed to consider that there might be more than one kind of science after all, after a long, long explanation of why his books weren't just 'picture books'. The sky was to her as illustration was to him, and somehow, in the same way, he found he understood her. The way she'd told him her name stuck with him in a way nothing else had done before. The way she could use the light and the dark together was a physical, tangible thing he could know.
There were her other quirks too. More often than not her foot would swing to and fro, as it was now, stuck out in front of her, her boot out of the fur covers. He’d got used to that quickly after it hit him how often she did it, after he’d watched her concentrating on gutting a pile of rabbits the first time he saw. Waiting for the rhythm of it to begin when they would settle together at the fire, the longer they spent together, he found he wouldn’t be able to relax himself until she did.
He’d chuckled to himself once while riding on through the woods, enjoying the familiarity of watching her slip her feet from her stirrups to ride without them. Crossing them in front of the saddle, she’d a habit of dangling her legs as her horse walked, wiggling the tension from them. He hadn't wondered what she was doing, hadn’t needed to ask her. He’d just known. Understood. The twitch she had was different, a blink, which was a touch harder sometimes. That’d taken him longer to notice, but watching her talk to him, he had all the same. And you definitely could not approach from the rear without saying so first.
She told his heart, as plain as day, 'Move up. I'm coming in.' and he was shaken by this barely there whisper. Usually, he'd every idea of what was approaching, his Echo bringing sound waves to himself faster, louder than everyone else. A constant radar ping in his brain. An awareness that changed colour depending on his mood or imminent threat, and lately it had been an interesting shade of yellow. Sun where there was none before.
He'd laughed to her and said that everyone told him he was a good listener, but really, it wasn't like he had a choice – and she'd said she knew exactly what he meant. She knew how it was to not be able to shut things out. She'd been quick to let them all know when to leave her alone and that when she'd told them to, she meant what she said. Sometimes, entire days would pass until she'd allow touch or even conversation again.
Once, she'd one morning clutching at her belly and complaining of starvation, Tristin had simply brought food from the pot and asked if she had anything to add to the pile of things he was collecting to be washed in the river. She did, and when she offered to give him a hand with them, he told her to stick her things in with all the other stuff they'd used for butchering the latest deer, and then they'd go down together. She didn't shy away from blood and guts and gore, so why should he?
And that was his first mistake. Telling her to hurry up then, and that they'd better get going before they attracted a bear, it was the little laugh that followed his joke that was the second.
Her expression told him three things.
Chief among them was that they would not be hurrying the fuck up at any time. Second, she wanted to know exactly who would be letting a bear get to her before him, and lastly, that he'd better shut his mouth until she told him he could speak to her again. Immediately aware of his fuck up, her initial knee jerk anger gave way to an anxiety that had her checking her surroundings every fifteen seconds, and checking for her knife every thirty. In an attempt to reassure her, he'd said, 'Don't worry. I'll keep an ear out.' and her face showed her total lack of confidence in him. It stung.
Pleas for forgiveness on their return to camp went down like a lead balloon when she told him to, 'Behold all of the fucks she gave' in a huge display of chewing him out in front of the others. When Kayn chirped that he'd the face of a man with an, 'I did something wrong' expression, he squawked, 'Oh man, even I know not to say that!' at his admission. For the next four days he'd had to speak to her through Reed, who'd unquestionably sided with her and took huge pleasure in telling him 'No, sorry. She's busy...' even while she was staring straight at him.
She'd left his apology up to the others. If they thought she should accept it, then she would. Quite rightly, the grudge had lasted several more days, so that he could properly stew in the healthy dose of his own embarrassment, and feel what it was to get what he deserved. Her consequences being followed by the group ensured that this would not be a repeated mistake. When she finally allowed him to talk to her, the first thing he told her was that they would all have her back, and not one of them would let anything get to her before them. They agreed, each to their individual extents, but she told him that that was a cute idea too, but her knife would always be quicker, and she'd sooner rely on that if it was all the same.
And he knew that was true, because she still slept with it under her pillow.
Turning to him in her way now, and kissing, she slid herself into his lap, her new favourite place to be. Facing him, she pushed his hair out of the way, almost an automatic impulse by this time, and she wondered about him tying it back, the idea of suggesting it fading away into nothing, while she lost herself in him, in his kiss. Minutes later, her embrace more intense, amber rose to a flicker when her moon blood began to flow. Entwined together, Tristin bit down hard on her nipple, and gasp caught in her throat, not aware of his bite, but...
Her jarring makes him look up, and for a beat, the way she gazed down at him, he thought she would speak. Actuality dealt him a crushing blow. Instead, their eyes locked onto each others, they are violently shifted from their tree on the hill and he is wrenched, coerced by invisible claws into her nightmarish divination. A summoned jumble of images, the scene makes no sense, an abstract kaleidoscope of fire, and trees and smoke, without warning they are up, too, too high in the sky. Not falling from it, but somehow rising higher and higher, up through the clouds, and the illumination they drew strength from became dangerous, too close to them, too cold up here, too sharp.
Forcing his attention downwards, searching for the retreat, in the distance an island within a boiling sea lay endlessly, hopelessly far away before them. Mountains closer by which spewed molten rock. The stench of vitriol, despair, death and decay is all around. Nothing could survive this inferno.
And yet, there is a castle. A burning, smashed ruin.
Despite the choked and spitting brimstone surrounding it, something called this place home. Something unknown, and in the sky with them, out of sight but massive. At last through the terror, a vibration they can place – and a pack of wolves howl, desperate and desolate, while an overpowering scream of rage, or hunger, or dying drowns them out, an agonising cacophony of screeches and baying the last they hear before plummeting back down to earth, lungs exhausted of air, oxygen replaced by sulphur. Every depiction Tristin had ever studied of hell had never been as vivid as this.
Ditched back into the present, atomized against their tree, he held her close, kissing as she trembled, shivering again and again, this time with shock, as the sharpened reflexes in him assess the risk, and he checks them both over, searching for injury. Seeing none, he realises when Issané still struggles to regulate her breathing. Panicked, she flipped between blinking hard, rapid, violently quivering, and sitting stock still, drifting off again, gazing into space.
“Okay, we’re back. Here. We’re on solid ground. Look at me Issané. We’re back. Breathe. Look here. Breathe with me, in for three, out for three...” He helps her to focus, directing her eyes to his, breathing with her, increasing it longer and slower, like he’d seen with Kayn before, and he does not ignore the dwindling power still cast over her. “Fucking hell.” Still hit by the strangle himself, he is hoarse. “That’s what you were thinking?”
Pushing away from him to make enough space between them so he could see her closing her fist and holding it to her heart, she was trying to get to him the sign that she was sorry. His hand over hers, he shakes his head. “Gonnae no? Don’t. You’ve done nothing to be sorry for, okay? We’re not hurt. We’re not dead or anything. We’re okay. Okay?” Reasoning over what he has seen, reflecting how not okay he is, he curses. Shit. SHIT.
Yet she kisses, hard and wanting, needing to feel him, to ground herself, persuading him they should finish what they were doing, and he obliges, checking and rechecking, not wanting to resist her insistent advances. Settling back down after, to watch the first of the flakes fall, both are surprised it is a dusting of snow and not rain, covering the ground and trees below the cliff. Not enough to send them scurrying back to the main fire yet, but surprising nonetheless.
Grinning at the flakes, cheeks flushed pink with the cold, mimicking them with her fingertips, she points, excited by them, squinting up at him, everything forgotten, as if no disruption had taken place at all. A lever flipped, or a candle lit, there was an instant change to her now the danger was passed. Nodding, he is relieved when she turns away again to settle against his shoulder, fidgeting with an itch on her face. Those gold coloured eyes were too intense in this moment for him. Too bright in the shadow settling over him.
Tristin has known Axel for long enough and heard the theory, fables and tales enough times to know that the vision he has witnessed contained dangerous information, the axe firmly over her oblivious head again, and he closes his eyes as his heart sinks. He knows he will have to betray her. He knows he will choose loyalty again.
Thank you for reading, here's my carrd.
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Copyright © 2021 by BB Chapman