Pre-dawn cast a blush over the crests and valleys north-east of the pass of Healdsmeare and deep into the shadow to the north of the great mountain of Scarosant. Lush shades of apricot and peach, spreading to lavender at its furthest extents coloured the skies and landscape. Occasional white clouds, seemingly on fire from within cut their way across the sky in the crisp air of an early Autumn morning. She could feel them below, in the forest. They were ahead, in the distance and on the next crest. Her keen, steel-coloured eyes picked out the two distinct snow leopards standing at the edge of the forest.
After the meeting the night before, she had worked up the courage to leave in the early morning, in the dark hours before dawn. Flying at night was always a peaceful experience, the stars and the universe stretched out above, the cool air under her wings and the peaceful embrace of darkness. She always found that it cooled her raging thoughts and calmed her mind, allowing her to think more logically and of calmer alternatives. As she had flown over the mountains in the darkness, she had kept to using her natural vision, the influence of the eclipse still holding its chaotic sway over magic until dawn. She spent much of her time gliding after she had climbed to where the air started to thin, her true form naturally resistant to the reduced oxygen and the wind chill. At peace with herself, she occasionally beat her wings.
Earlier in the night when she had met with Antrandis and Sian, she had almost lost her composure. Since Sian had been restored to her true self, that ache in her chest had not left her for even a moment of the last half a decade. Reminding her that despite her perceived freedoms, she would remain imprisoned by her heart and fear, trapped and unable to tear her eyes and thoughts away from the both of them. Tortured that her mistake eons before would forever keep her at arms distance.
She sighed to herself as she looked down, occasionally flapping her wings as she flew closer. She did not have long before dawn and maintaining her more efficient form in the light of day was taxing. Her softer, more feminine body, while not as strong, purposeful or powerful, was always her preferred and most comfortable. She willed the change as she glided, her eyes once again returning to normal from the unsettling steel grey orbs of the other. As her eyes shifted, her body became more soft and feminine, though still that of a seasoned warrior. Her facial features softened, transforming her strange beauty to that of an elegant wilderelf. She smiled uncertainly, both Antrandis and Sian stood as wilderelves below, watching her approach.
She dragged at the air, catching the rising currents off the ridge and hovered in place, it was only then, with the breaking of dawn that she realised where they were standing. While she was lost in her thoughts she had mistaken it for a double crest of the arm of the mountain. Now in the correct light she could see the smashed and broken trees, the missing soil, the initial impact and the track of ruin leading down and into the valley. She quickly flew in closer, passing directly above the missing centre of the crest, before landing nearby Antrandis and Sian.
‘By the will of Lumos, how hard did she hit?’ she remarked under her breath.
‘Too hard, far too hard.’ Antrandis said, hearing her clearly despite the ten or so yards between them, ‘You are earlier than expected.’
Winter nodded as she strode over to them, feigning an air of confidence.
‘I left a couple of hours ago, even without my sight it was not too much trouble.’
Antrandis nodded, a knowing smile on his lips, ‘Silias?’
Winter looked at the wreckage in the forest, ‘She was preparing to leave. They should reach the lower pass of Scarosant around midday.’
She briefly met Sian’s eyes and smile momentarily before looking back to Antrandis.
Antrandis narrowed his eyes as he thought.
‘Antrandis, this wreckage, it is…’ Winter let her words trail off as she looked down into the valley, ‘This is not normal.’
Sian stood beside her, looking far into the valley, following the trail of ruin. She shook her head as she gauged Antrandis’s thoughts.
Sian spoke softly, ‘There are the three of us and we have a few concerns to address. I will immediately head straight to the river below and start the search for Silvast.’ she placed a hand on Antrandis’s shoulder, letting her thoughts and words enter his mind as she spoke to him telepathically.
‘My love, spend a few moments, speak with her.’
Andrandis nodded as Sian smiled at Winter, ‘I am sure it will only take a little time for you and our love to investigate the origin; the rift you mentioned. I shall go on ahead.’
Winter looked at her with a curious expression. Before she could respond, Sian had shifted into a snow leopard in one swift movement and was gone. Winter watched as she leapt off the edge and bounded though the uprooted and snapped trees, before melting into the forest on the other side of the dragon’s impact with the crest of the mountain. The valkyrie looked at Antrandis as he stood there, quietly looking down and into the valley. She stood a few steps behind him, at a loss.
‘What is the matter, Winter?’ he said quietly without turning, ‘Come, stand with me.’
Winter slowly walked forward to stand at his side, ‘My Lord, your bidding?’
He looked at her as she stood motionless, at attention, waiting for his words, ‘Winter, your composure is failing. Let us have a moment to share our thoughts, as we used to, it has been too long.’
Winter looked at him, flustered that he had so easily seen through her, ‘But, Sian. She would not approve. I refuse to cause problems.’ her eyes betraying her words.
‘Is this the way you truly feel, or is this what you consider appropriate? If I am correct, she specifically went on ahead.’ he said.
She looked at him, narrowing her eyes, ‘It is part of my punishment, Antrandis. I must be this way, or I risk…’ she slowly looked away and to the sun as it started to rise.
His eyebrow raised, ‘Your punishment? Winter, it is near to five years since Lumos restored your power and removed the restrictions of your prison.’ he looked at her carefully, observing her, ‘Yet, you are more isolated than before. You may be Lumos’s Handmaiden, but you have deferred almost all your duties to Summer. You have hidden yourself away. Even I have barely seen you in that time.’
She looked sidelong at him, her face aglow with the golden light of dawn, ‘I have been meditating, and most of that time you have been split between Knocht and Scarosant.’
He looked at her, disbelief clear on his face at her reasoning as he held out his hand, ‘All I hear are fragile excuses. Come.’
She tentatively stepped closer, shaking slightly as she rested her hand in his.
‘There is no need to fear, you are safe.’
She looked at their hands, taking a small measure of comfort in it. Feeling his warmth. She frowned, pulling her hands away as if burned.
‘Antrandis, I am not permitted to.’ she tore her steel grey eyes away from his, ‘Please, My Lord, do not tempt me.’
He looked at her, frowning slightly. A sympathetic smile on his lips as he watched her wring her hands nervously.
‘Winter, what have you done to yourself that you are so conflicted?’
She let out a sad chuckle, ‘You are not mine anymore, and neither is Sian. Or rather, maybe you both never were. There are so many,’ she glanced at him quickly, before looking back at her hands, ‘Issues.’
‘Winter, look at me.’ he said calmly, reaching out and tilting her head up so he could meet her eyes, ‘We will talk about this once we return to Meliandra, I want to hear of these issues.’
‘If that is your will, My Lord.’
She looked at him apologetically, ‘Antrandis.’ she said before turning away, a host of emotions playing out on her face.
He nodded slightly, ‘That is only a part of it.’
She nodded her head slowly as she looked out over the mountains, ‘I am a sword, rusted into its scabbard. As you said, I have been freed, but I am…’ she glanced at him, ‘Afraid. I am now burdened by mortal emotions. I now know fear, my insides are twisted up with such indecision and nervous energy that I feel out of control.’
‘Before, my thoughts were pure, no matter how ill-conceived. There was no doubt and uncertainty. I would act without fear.’ she looked at him, ‘And now we have to find Silvast. I just don’t know how to describe it. Last night, I saw the look in your eyes and I felt such pain, heat and anger in here. I found it difficult to remain calm, I apologise if I was untoward.’
She met his eyes, a compulsion to speak truthfully eating away at her, ‘The goddess, she did not come to the temple, she came to my private chambers. She was blunt. So I came at my own insistence, the goddess did not ask for me to be out here. I wished to be here.’
She touched her chest, ‘This is my true punishment. To watch you from a distance. To be made to concede defeat. It is not in my nature to do so. It is a terrible battle, to not follow the desires of my being and to instead force myself to act in a fashion demanded of me.’
Winter looked into his eyes, her face flushed and her eyes aglow, her breath coming in short laboured bursts as panic set in, ‘Antrandis, what is wrong with me? You have known me the longest, something is wrong, I can’t breathe. It is like. I am being. Crushed. Voices inside.’
He quickly gripped Winter’s shoulders and embraced her, holding her as she gasped for breath. ‘Focus on breathing, calm your mind. I am here with you. Always.’
He looked over Winter’s shoulder, across the wrecked crest to see Sian, standing as Snowshadow, the sleek snow leopard form she had lived in for so long, partially concealed by the forest. He could feel Sian among his thoughts, reading them as the scene with Winter unfolded.
Sian watched from the cover of the forest as the proud and strong valkyrie she once knew, crumpled in upon herself in front of the only one she felt she could. Crippled by her emotions as she was embraced by Antrandis. She heard Winter’s words, her plea for help through Antrandis’s ears and felt her shudders as she struggled to fight the anxiety through Antrandis’s arms and chest.
Throughout the millennia she had walked at his side as Snowshadow, Winter had always been there, in the background, content in her position. Handmaiden to the Goddess, Lumos and an occasional lover and confidant to the eternal ruler and defender of Meliandra. Many a time before her own rebirth, she had curiously watched as Winter had shared a bed with him. She had even conferred with the valkyrie as she lounged languidly in his arms, unashamed in their nudity. Sian was accepting of the notion that despite being Lumos’s handmaiden, Winter had chosen to be his and found comfort in their non-committal, respectful and intimate relationship and the feeling of security it offered. Sian knew her story, most of their story that started well before she had encountered him for the first time.
She tilted her head, her eyes meeting Antrandis’s across the way, ‘My love, we must convince Lumos.’ she said telepathically, ‘I feel something is, amiss. Somehow.’