Spots shook his head and sent snowflakes fluttering from his mane as they mounted the crest.
"I know; me too," Numair murmured as he patted his mount with a gentle hand. It had been many years since he'd traveled so far north and he hadn't remembered the journey being so long. With their goal in sight, Spots broke into a trot and Numair let him. Since Daine's influence became a factor, it was more often than not beneficial to follow his horse's lead than the other way around.
They moved through the field easily enough. The worst of the winter freeze had passed, and tufts of windswept grass could be seen peeking from between the snow drifts. Despite the first signs of spring the wind moved through the land and carried the remnants of winter with it. The only saving grace was that the numbness in his body helped ease the pain of so much time spent in the saddle. He should have stopped at the City of the Gods, as was offered, to allow himself a break but his eagerness had gotten the best of him.
They came to a halt outside the walls and a guard yelled out an order. The gates opened, straining against the frost that sought to keep them barred and shedding snow as they swung apart. He hadn't expected a town so small to be so fortified.
Numair nodded to a watchman as he entered. The youth greeted him and ran to secure the gate behind him. He dismounted and resisted the urge to stretch out his limbs in a thoroughly unbecoming fashion. Trevdale was small; the interior little more than an expanse of dirt and a smattering of buildings —most small, some not. Every few doorsteps pots steamed over open fires, the smoke moving in ripples with the wind. At a glance there seemed to be more chickens roaming than people, but he supposed he would also be inside if he had his way.
He turned to find a figure leaning against the interior wall, inspecting him. He broke out into a smile.
"Daine," her name fell from his lips like a breath of fresh air.
She pushed herself off the wall, grinning as she closed the distance between them. He pulled her into a quick hug. It did little to reflect how he felt to see her again but they were as public as could be and in such a small town there was little else to talk about but newcomers.
"How was your journey?" She looked up at him with the obvious gaze of someone checking another for injury and fatigue. Her own cheeks were flushed, and curls windswept where they stuck out from her thick wool coat. "Scanran design," she looked down at her attire when she noticed his gaze and ran a finger over the embroidery running the length of the buttons. "It's warm; sometimes too much so."
"I might need one," he shivered for emphasis and pulled his own cloak tighter around him.
"Let's settle Spots and then we'll get you warmed and fed." She turned to the gelding, tilting her head as she listened to what he was sure were complaints about him. "I'm sorry; that was fair rude not to greet you first." She leaned her head against his mane, stroking his neck. " Let's go see Cloud."
She patted Spots and he fell into step behind them as she took the lead.
"How are things here?" He asked, quietly. They'd have time to talk in detail later but he was anxious for the lay of the land.
"Better," she shrugged, "but tenuous. We were right about the Ogres. They were just looking for land to settle and the townspeople panicked."
"Nothing new there."
"No," she scowled, "and it will keep happening unless we can think bigger about how we bridge the gap between them and the humans. Traveling to every town that spots one just isn't reasonable. Not when all they need to do is talk to each other."
"Something to talk to Jon about."
"Yes. Although I can't fully blame them for being on edge. This close to the Scanran border and the mountains—they've had more than their fair share of bandit problems," she gestured towards the walls surrounding them and he could hear the venom in her voice at the mention of bandits.
"I was surprised to find it so fortified." He nodded, taking in his surroundings. The homes were modest, but sturdily built. Here and there strips of colored fabric were strung from doorways and shutters; they fluttered in the wind and the flashes of color provided a reprieve from the expanse of grey and brown.
"They had to. They're more a trading post that's grown than a proper village. If they can't protect the caravans they can't protect their livelihood."
"That would explain why anyone would live up here," he grumbled as they turned a corner and were met by a blast of cold air. "Being on the flats must give them time to prepare for an attack."
"A little, but even if they know it's coming there aren't so many here that can defend it."
"Yes; some good with the land too, but less so with a weapon. Archers more than anything. Helene —she's their head woman of sorts, since her husband died anyway—said that the young and able leave more often than not. Do you remember Renley with the 9th Rider's Group? This is his hometown."
"That boy who tried to give Onua tips on tackle before he knew who she was?"
She laughed, "one and the same. Turned out to be a fine Rider though. Once he learned a little humility."
"I think Sarge instilled a bit more than a little in him." He smirked at the memory and sighed, turning back to the matter at hand. "So what are the imminent threats? Siege?"
She nodded. "Grimhold Mountains in all directions. Plenty of places for the enemy to hide and they won't even know they're surrounded until it's too late."
"Do caravans stay long?"
"A day or two, usually. But if weather turns—"
"Lots of goods stranded for the taking."
"Fire." She put her hands in her pockets, looking around them and he followed her lead. It was well-built—but flammable through and through.
"Starve them out; burn them out."
"The fire, at least, I can help with. It will take at least a week for so much but it should be doable." He studied the structure, trying to create a mental map of the area. "Maybe two if I don't want to strain myself."
"I'd prefer you didn't."
"As for siege," he trailed off. Even with so much power between them there was only so much they could do. Only so much they could save. It was a lesson he wished he didn't have to keep learning. "Is trade their only source of food?"
"Nearly. There's some farmland just outside the North walls. They're working to close them in." She directed him to turn to their right, around a large multi-story building with a thatched roof. "Helene puts aside what she can, but it wouldn't hold long. Plenty of fresh water though."
"That's something." They paused as a group of wool-bundled children ran across their path. They watched them go, Spots shifting from hoof-to-hoof behind them. The gelding nudged Daine's shoulder and she reached back to feed him an apple she had pulled from her pocket. "The Ogres?"
She nodded, knowing his question without the need for him to elaborate. "Willing to help protect the land if they can settle it. They'll trade food for goods as well."
"That will be helpful. For all of them." He pinched the bridge of his nose, and she motioned for him to follow as she moved again. "An alliance with the Ogres, fire protection, and we can ask Myles for defensive supplies to be requisitioned—this is under Trebond's jurisdiction, correct?"
She shook her head, "no. I thought so too based on the maps. Helene said it's Grennich, but besides the bannerman who collects their tithes there's little contact."
"I'm not familiar with that house. Best to make our recommendation to Jon and let him delegate. I'm not sure if we can do more than this, but it should help," he hesitated, "with the bandits, at least." He met her gaze and noticed the small shake of her head. There was more to discuss, but only when they could avoid being overheard.
They had walked halfway around the building when they passed a door. He felt the hint of warmth and the smell of something delicious hanging thick in the air. His stomach grumbled and he realized just how hungry he was. The savory scent was quickly replaced with one just as familiar—horse dung.
Cloud shoved her head over the door of her stall and nipped at his sleeve. He laughed, recognizing her particular brand of affection.
"I've missed you too," he patted her neck but watched her carefully for warning signs of more affection. He was soon forgotten, however, as Spots pushed him aside and the two mounts began what appeared to be a very animated discussion. He pulled his packs and saddle from Spots, dropping his supplies into a pile near the stall door. Gripping the saddle, he moved around his mount to find Daine and ask where it should be stored. He'd walked around a stall, daylight giving way to shadows beneath the overhang, when he was struck by a force and dropped his belongings to the ground at the impact.
Daine held him, arms wrapped tightly around his waist. He lifted her from the ground and held her just as tightly, returning the embrace in full and more. They held one another for a long moment to drag out the feeling of how they fit into one another, and the smell of her curls where her head tucked under his, and how their chests rose and fell in time against each other. Somewhere far off a dog barked and they pulled away, but only enough for her to look up at him.
For a moment they weren't huddled together with the north wind creeping into their bones, but embraced among the fall-scattered leaves. The smell of snow was replaced by that of the dying of a season. They weren't reuniting, but parting. But, like back then, he could feel the way her back arched as he held her and her warm breath against his lips. And, like back then, the moment felt as though it were suspended in time until it wasn't and they were pulling away.
She knelt down to collect a brush that she had gone to fetch. He collected the saddle, clearing his throat.
"Trade?" She spoke before he could, the ghost of a blush on her cheeks. He nodded, taking the brush and she moved away to store his tack. He coaxed Spots into the stall neighboring Cloud's and began to brush down his coat. Daine joined shortly after and they made short work of the task in silence. When they finished Daine split another apple in half, and gave half to Cloud and Spots each. She turned to Numair, motioning towards the building. He picked up his packs—getting all but one before she could grab them—and followed her.
"I won't lie; I'm looking forward to getting to my room." He laughed, "you know how I hate sleeping in the cold."
"About that," she hesitated at the door before pushing it open. Warmth from inside washed over him, along with the tempting scents from earlier, and with it the clamoring of a bustling inn. She ushered him inside and shut the door behind them as she came to stand next to him.
"A caravan arrived earlier today," she bit her lip. "A large one." He turned to look at her, eyebrows raised, and she grimaced. "They're out of rooms. I'm sorry; I should have thought to ask for one to be held but it had been so empty," she sighed.
He tried to keep his annoyance from his voice. "I suppose it can't be helped. I have my gear, at least."
"Odd's Bobs, you're not sleeping outside." For someone who spent half her life sleeping in the woods she seemed oddly scandalized at the thought. "It's freezing."
"You said there are no rooms."
"There's mine," she shrugged but looked away. She must have known he'd take issue with such an arrangement.
"Daine," he dropped his voice, "that's really not appropriate. You know what people will think." He felt himself flush at the thought—an accusation that was once laughable to him.
"I do," she shrugged. "But I care less about that than I do the thought of you sleeping out in the cold. Besides, things are a little more," she paused, searching for the term, " forgiving here. They see all sorts come through." She nudged him, slinging his bag higher on her shoulder, and moved away. He balked at the thought of being seen heading to her rooms by so many, but followed anyway. The battle between protecting her and wanting to be near her was one he felt himself losing ground in as time pushed on.
He passed the blazing fire and felt true warmth embrace him for the first time in weeks. Fatigue settled in quickly as his body seemed to realize that one part of his journey was at an end. Numair followed her up a narrow staircase as he debated with himself what was most important: eating, sleeping, bathing, or arguing with her about their sleeping arrangements.
He dropped his gaze as he passed a maid in the hall. He didn't want to think about what she must think, or what she would gossip to others. Daine seemed unconcerned. They reached the end of the hall where she unlocked the door and gestured for him to enter first.
It was cozy, but larger than many they had stayed in. Room enough for a double bed, dresser, desk and a chair. The far side of the room was concealed by a dressing screen, and a settee rested in front of a dormant fireplace on the right-hand wall. He placed his bags on the floor at the edge of the room and heard the door click shut behind them. He put his hands in his pockets and pretended to be engrossed in studying his surroundings, not sure what to say to her when he turned back.
"You'll want to bathe, I'm sure." She placed the pack she carried with his others and moved to sit on the bed as she loosened the buttons of her coat.
He hesitated, not wanting to kick her out but preferring to retain some semblance of boundaries between them. She followed his gaze which rested on the privacy screen and laughed.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I should have been more clear. There's a public bathhouse here; they built it around the hot springs. It's quite nice actually. They would probably bring up a basin if we asked, but it may take a while," she trailed off.
"Public is fine," he ran a hand through his hair. In truth, he would prefer not to have to deal with people at that exact moment but his desire to rinse the sweat and muck he was covered in eclipsed that particular preference. She stood, shooting him a knowing look.
"Or we could go to the private ones."
"If I have the option I'd rather bathe privately," he shrugged. "Is it an extra fee?" He crouched to pull his purse from his pack.
"Oh, no. The springs are natural. You just have to know where to look." She moved to the window and opened a shutter. Cold air swept through the room as he turned to look up at her with a raised eyebrow.
"This sounds like more wilderness bathing."
She laughed. "I suppose, yes. But far nicer than you're used to. Trust me."
"How far?" He listened to the whistling of the wind. He could think of few things he would enjoy less at that moment than a hike across the lowlands in this weather.
"A few minutes. If we fly," she turned and winked at him.
"I'm assuming there are multiple springs? Nicely separated and far apart?" He asked, only to have his suspicions confirmed when she looked away. He had spent the winter wondering what had possessed him to push against so many boundaries all those months ago, but now another thought occurred to him—had she been testing limits just as much? More?
"They're quite large."
He pinched the bridge of his nose, pitting rationality against desire. "Let's fly out. I'd like to get the lay of the land; you can show me where they are and I'll return after you're done."
"Reasonable as always," she teased. There was just a touch of wistfulness in her voice. So slight that once it was gone it was hard to know if it was there to begin with. He turned the thought over in his mind, trying to identify what it was he was even trying to hold on to and then she was gone. A rufous-colored harrier sat on the windowsill, cocking her head at him.
He smiled, "you know I get nervous when you watch." She fluttered a wing—communicating something he was sure was meant to be rude—and took flight. Taking a deep breath and centering himself, he pulled the currents of black fire that rippled through his skin into a new shape. A shape made for flight, and freedom. For the chase.
It had been a long time since he had taken hawk-form and he made a mental note to change regularly, even if it was just for sport. He would ache from the effort after, but found the form regardless. He hopped to the window sill, finding his balance with some ungainly flapping of his wings. His eyes focused on the harrier far above and he steeled himself as he took flight. His stomach dropped despite his steady-ascent, an automatic sensation he had never been able to shake along with his human form. Soon enough flight would feel natural to him—freeing—but that first leap was always a challenge. He had never mentioned it to her, worried she would tease him.
He ascended quickly, letting himself move from side to side with the wind instead of fighting against it. She circled above, waiting for him to join her. When he did, she let out a shriek, pleased, and soared close enough to brush his wing with her own. It was a throwback to a game they played, sometimes, in the brief, quiet times when they could let other things fall away. Hazy late-summer days rising from golden fields, or rolling oceans scattered with post-storm sunlight. Moments they could steal, or borrow. Rising and falling on the wind to chase one another in dizzying circles and risk everything for a chance to be close to the other. Defeat only meant another round; another chance to chase or be caught.
He rallied, falling into the familiar pattern like a second skin. She was better than him. She knew how to ride the current in a way that he didn't. So well that at times that she led him even as she evaded him, beckoning him into safer pockets of air. Protecting him even as she challenged him. They careened through the air far above the lowlands, moving towards the mountains in an indirect but purposeful path. She was better, but he had tricks and the pursuer changed twice more before she began her descent at the edge of the forest that climbed the mountain range.
She neared the ground, drawing back and extending her wings when a gust swept upward at the last moment before perching on a rock. She cocked her head, watching him, as steam rose around her from the terraced pools nestled among the rocky outcropping. He circled above, memorizing their position and shrieked as he flew off to allow her privacy. He turned too fast and a gust forced him to veer back to take another turn while he steadied himself. He rose higher to clear the treeline, but not before registering her naked form as she stepped into the pool. He thought he had seen her look up at him, knee deep in the water with steam rising up in tendrils to cradle her body. He pushed the thought away and focused on his survey of the landscape below.
He crisscrossed the valley in a way that would do nothing to disguise him as one of the people but was effective in memorizing the land. He could see what Daine had been talking about. The position was certainly advantageous as a trading-post. Any travelers coming off the Great Road North and heading to Scanra would have to come through the town. With one mountain pass behind them and another ahead he was sure any with coin to spare would gladly spend it on whatever comforts could be offered.
From a defensive perspective it was nothing but trouble. Vulnerable, undermanned, and far away from support. If things went as they feared there was little aid that could be offered. To the North he could see mounds of grass he knew to be Ogre huts. He had seen them built that way when he and Daine had visited Hamrkeng years earlier. They were ingenious in that they could be made with materials readily available, and worked with the environment to provide stability. The soft sloping shapes allowed wind to pass over them easily and the root systems of the grass that grew over them held the earth steady over the internal structure during even the worst of storms. From his vantage point he could see where areas had been cleared for more huts and farmland. Several Ogres were transporting felled trees across the camp. He would be interested to see the fruits of their labor should he ever return.
He circled around and flew back towards town. A charm to protect against fire was simple enough in itself, but to create one that would protect the entire post would be complex. It was doable, to be sure, but would require planning. He circled the walls several times, taking note of where the spells should be anchored and where he could connect them to create as much coverage as possible. It was after his second turn, he noted with some amusement, that a man dressed in furs with a hunting dog at his side stood from his seat on the wall to watch him intently. He supposed he could have tried harder to blend in.
Satisfied that he had an inkling of a plan, he turned back towards the springs. He sensed copper fire approaching him faster than he was moving, and his sense was confirmed as a harrier flew past him with a brush of her wings against his. He was tempted to give chase again but the lure of a warm bath beckoned him.
He landed gracelessly, wincing as he resumed his human form. Whether the aches in his legs were from his journey or his transformation he couldn't be sure. He shivered against the frigid air and hurried to enter the pool. The water was almost unbearably hot after the cold air, but he adjusted quickly enough and submerged bit by bit as he did.
He groaned as the water reached his shoulders and chipped away at the aches he had begun to worry would become permanent. He stayed there for a long moment, basking in feeling before dipping his head back to wet his hair. Warm water trickled down his back as he rose back up and ran his fingers over his hair. Something on the far short caught his eye. He moved across the spring, keeping low so as to stay below the water. A small bundle lay untied and in it he found soap and a pumice stone. He grinned at her thoughtfulness. While warmth and privacy were his priorities, he was pleased to have the opportunity to smell more of soap than sulfur.
He took his time and let the heat ease the aches from his body, taking care in scrubbing off weeks of grime that cold mountain bathing had not left him motivated to eliminate. It was only when he looked up from where he leaned against a rocky outcropping to see the sun dipping low in the sky did he draw himself from the spring with a sigh, shifting quickly to begin the journey back.
He could see why she preferred this to the public baths. Seclusion aside, there was no frigid trek back to the inn with wet hair—even a few minutes of which would put a chill back in anyone's bones. He reached town as dusk began to fall and saw that she had left the shutter propped open. He fluttered to a stop on the sill, scratching at the wood with his talon to alert her of his return.
"Come along," she looked up from her seat at the desk where scrolls were spread out across the surface. "No sense staying in the cold."
He dropped to the ground, a feather dropping to the floorboards when he landed, and tried to ignore her chuckle as he hopped his way across the room to seek refuge behind the privacy screen. He shifted back to his form, grateful to see that clothes had been laid out for him in a neat pile. They were the ones he usually saved for their nights inside; a soft set of cotton breeches and a linen shirt. Sometimes he wondered if she knew everything about him. Even the things he had not meant to share.
He rolled his sleeves as he stepped out from behind the divider. Daine had closed the shutter and reclaimed her place at the desk. A fire roared in the hearth, casting a warm glow across the room.
"There's food," she looked up at him and motioned to a covered plate resting on the other side of the desk before returning to her work. He thanked her and moved to his pack, wanting to take care of anything that needed tending before he settled in. He found his packs stored neatly where he had left them, and considerably lighter than before. He stood, looking around and taking in his surroundings once more. His cloak hung on a hook near the door and his purse sat on the dresser. The bed was empty but he couldn't help but raise an eyebrow when he saw both sides turned down. His gaze continued to travel across the room until it fell on Daine.
She nibbled on the end of her quill, studying the scroll in her hand. The end of the feather was mangled as if it had seen many such nights. Her damp curls were swept up and held in place with a pin, but tendrils snaked their way down her long neck and those that were drying sprang loose to frame her face. He noticed that she was hardly decent. She wore a sleeveless shift—a new fashion, tailored shorter to be worn with a shirt and breeches as was becoming more common in Corus—tucked haphazardly into her breeches. The material rested carelessly against her form, fitting loosely and gaping in places while skimming her body in others. She paused, sensing his attention on her, and looked up at him.
"Oh," she pulled the quill from her mouth as she realized where his confusion lay. "I put what was clean—which wasn't much—in the top two drawers." She pointed to the dresser. "The rest has been sent to the wash. It might be a couple days with the Inn so busy." She turned away.
"My bedroll?" He asked quietly, dropping his gaze.
"I can use yours, I suppose."
She glanced at him, quill paused mid-stroke. "Don't fret. We'll sort it out."
He sighed, knowing he wouldn't be able to concern her over something she obviously found no issue with. Another chair had been brought in, opposite hers. He claimed it, delighting in the feel of a real chair, and lifted the cover off of his plate. His stomach growled loudly and he blushed at her laugh.
"Eat as much as you want. I'll have what's left."
"Optimistic of you."
"I can always call for more."
He sorted out his choices, particularly pleased to see a hearty slice of veal among the offerings. He was close to digging in when he noticed the dampness at the back of his neck and cursed under his breath. Setting down his utensils, he ran his hands through his hair, moving slowly and applying just a small touch of his gift to dry the locks as he went. Damp hair was a pet peeve of his and he usually dried it as soon as possible. He was returning to his meal when he looked up to see Daine eyeing him with an expression he knew well.
"Very well," he sighed. "Take out your fastening." He stood with a groan and moved to walk behind her. She pulled the stick from her hair and hung her head back to let her curls fall free. He placed his fingertips at her hairline and threaded them through the strands. He worked in the same methodical way he had tackled his own, but with her thicker hair it took multiple passes to ensure everything was dry. Her head fell back and a soft sigh escaped her, the sound reminiscent enough of a moan that he felt himself flush. He found himself distracted by the way her lips parted as she leaned into the feeling, and how he could feel her shiver as his hands worked through her locks.
"All done," he spoke softly as he reached the ends for the last time. She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. He couldn't help but smile back; she was all blue eyes and unruly hair in the firelight.
"Goddess, I missed that."
"And here I thought you missed me ," he teased, stepping away and reclaiming his seat.
"Of course I missed you, but that doesn't mean I can't also miss the benefits you provide me." She piled her hair back up, enough to keep it out of her face as she worked but not so carefully that it could have been considered neat.
Time passed in a comfortable silence as she continued her work and he savored his meal. When the worst of his hunger had subsided he buttered a sweet roll and passed it to her. She took it with a quiet thank you.
"What are you working on?" With his most pressing base needs satisfied he found his interest piqued.
"Notes on the Ogres," she replied, squinting at her work and crossing out a line. "Well, it started that way. When I went to meet them I saw that they make their homes like the ones we met in Scanra—"
"I saw that, actually." He sorted the food he had saved for her onto one of the plates, keeping the meats for himself and portioning out her favorite morsels.
"But they sound more like the tribe in Dunlath. Their social structure is like theirs too. They have a chieftain while the Hamrkeng Ogres have a—what did they call him?"
"Jarl, if I remember correctly."
"Ah, that's been bothering me." She rifled through the papers, making a note on the corner of one near the bottom. "Well, I started taking notes on them and then I started filling in what I knew about the Scanran tribes and those from Dunlath. Then I got to thinking about all the other Immortals we've met and—" she gestured to the piles around her with a sigh.
"You have notes at home, surely. I've seen you take them."
"Yes, but only when we've specifically gone to study them. All the ones we run into in the course of our work," she made a face, "a lot of that is just sitting up here." She tapped her head. "Seems like it should be written somewhere before it gets lost."
"A Modern Compendium of Immortals," he grinned. "My magelet, penning a definitive text."
"Well, I assume we'll do it together." She said it so matter-of-factly, and he was taken aback by how touched he was. He reached across the table to move a pile of parchment and replace it with a plate.
"I would be honored." He meant it. "Perhaps eat something first though."
She relented, picking at the meal as she reviewed her notes. He was perusing the parchments he had picked up, and mentally compiling a list of notations to make, when her sigh interrupted him.
"I suppose it's also a distraction from what's to come. If I'm being honest." She bit her lip. "Fair hopeful of me to think I'll have time to work on anything of this sort."
"A distraction isn't necessarily a bad thing. You shouldn't put aside your personal goals just because—" he trailed off, the implication hanging heavy in the air.
She put her quill down and leaned back in her chair. Firelight cast shadows across her face and she looked older than he'd ever seen her. She was youthful, to be sure, but beyond the smooth skin and thick curls there was a weight in her eyes. A weariness that only came with too much, too fast, too young.
"Numair," she dropped her voice to speak in a hushed tone. "The charms and walls and alliances; it's all very well and good for bandits but," she shook her head, "we're talking war with Scanra."
"This place won't stand a chance."
"What do we do?"
"The best thing would be for them to move."
"I can't see most of these people abandoning their home."
"They'll have to when it's razed."
"You know it will be too late for them then."
"Is there anyone influential who could be trusted to be discreet? You mentioned someone."
"Helene," she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. "I'm not sure yet. She lives and breathes this town. Some people are like that; made of the ground they walk on."
"It's a start, at least. If you can introduce us," he pinched the bridge of his nose. "I was hoping they had strong ties to a fief but luck isn't on our side. Places like this thrive on a certain level of lawlessness. Even if they were ordered out they'd stay until they were forced, and by the time that could happen," he didn't want to finish the thought much less say it. "Is there movement up north?"
"Nothing that confirms troops heading South, but there's activity for sure. The owls have been especially useful—they have a knack for this work and are as patient as they come but they can be slow to pass word. I hope to know more soon but this isn't like The Swoop. There's a lot of miles to cover, and with each one the time it takes to gather information increases."
"We have some time anyway. Not a lot, but some." He stood and slipped his hands into his pocket. It didn't seem so long ago that they were ending a war. A short, brutal war that he had hoped would be their last. He was sure this one would be brutal but feared it would not be short. In a way it was easier to correct a divine imbalance than the failings of mortals. He studied the fire and wondered how many more times they were fated to bear witness to this—the calm before the storm, a rising tide, and the devastation that followed.
"We can start in the morning." He released a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Fortifying them against their immediate concerns won't hurt, and it will give us time to sort out our next steps." He looked back at her and offered a weak smile before taking a seat on the settee. "Why don't you tell me where you're at with your notes?"
The rustling of papers could be heard from behind him as he closed his eyes and sank back into the cushions, enjoying the heat of the fire. The seat shifted as she sat next to him and he glanced at her when she scooted close enough that he had to raise his arm around her, but didn't reject the closeness. It was a liberty he wasn't used to her taking, but after so long apart he couldn't blame her for wanting a little nearness.
Daine leaned against him, hair draping across his chest, and settled into the crook of his arm. "Killer unicorns."
He made a disdainful noise low in his throat.
"Your least favorite, I know." He could hear the teasing in her voice.
"Spidrens, actually. Can't stand them."
"We can agree on that. Why did I think it was unicorns though?"
"It was; for a while."
"What changed? Did a spidren call your mother something unbecoming?"
"No," he snorted, "well, probably." He gripped her more firmly. "Killer unicorns almost killed you, and then spidrens really almost killed you." His voice was quiet.
"To be fair, the spiders had a very tall cliff to help with that. The unicorns were much more efficient on their own."
"I know you're trying to joke but I fail to see the humor." He shot her a sour look but only received laughter in return.
"An argument could be made that I'm the common factor here. Perhaps I should stop almost dying."
"I would also like to request that you also stop actually dying."
"Now who's trying to make jokes?" She nudged him with her elbow, but smiled.
"Mine was funny."
"Do you want to hear my notes or not?"
He paused, smiling, and dropped his head back again. "I will be good."
"Alright," she relaxed back into him, "I will need your help with the portions on their bile. I know it hurts and that's about it. I've no interest in mucking around with it as you have."
Half a candle mark had passed as she read through her notes and added his comments as he made them. The fire burned a little less bright as his answers became sluggish until she shook his shoulder gently. "Numair," she whispered as she roused him. He opened his eyes, blinking and taking a deep breath. She was still tucked in under his arm, her face close to his. "You're fair tired. Perhaps it's time you turn in?"
She moved to allow him to reclaim his arm as he leaned forward and rubbed his face. A blink had turned into sleep before he knew it. "You might be right."
"I'll be up for a while yet, but go ahead and get some rest." She reached out and pushed an errant lock of hair behind his ear. He hesitated, glancing at the bed and back at her. "Don't worry about it. Just tuck in."
He didn't respond right away, but after a long moment had passed with no retraction from her he stood and stretched. He rested his hand on her shoulder as he passed her and let his fingers linger on her skin. An indulgent move he rarely allowed himself. "Goodnight, magelet."
"Goodnight." She had turned back to her work, firelight highlighting her silhouette. His fingers faltered when they met the hem of his shirt, unsure of where the next line after the one they were about to cross lay. Deciding, he slipped the garment off and slid under the heavy blankets. His head had barely met the pillow before he fell into a dreamless sleep.
Movement roused him just enough to notice the changes. Where there had been the crackling of fire there was the faint whistling of wind, and where there had been firelight the soft glow of moonlight streaming through gaps in the shutters providing the only guiding light. Daine hovered over him, one knee on the bed as she pulled her hair from it's fastening. The silver light outlined her form through the shift that came just low enough to conceal the tops of her thighs.
He turned to face her, half-awake and thinking that he had seen this before—in the kind of dream that left him ashamed and wanting more. She paused, looking down at him, but he couldn't make out her expression in the half-light. Sleep reached for him once more just as he reached out for her. His hand found her thigh and he moved his thumb in small circles against her skin. Something besides sleep pulled at him, something that told him he was doing something he shouldn't.
She moved but not in the way he would have expected had his wits been about him. She didn't recoil or push him away but crawled into bed, sliding under his hand so that it traveled up her body to push beneath her shift and rest on the bare skin of her hip above her loincloth. She pressed herself forward, burying her face in his chest, and breathed deeply. His grip tightened enough to pull her into him before sleep took him once more.