He wakes before her, feeling as soon as he’s conscious how her warmth is all around him, her arm embracing him. There’s a thin hand tucked between his forepaws, a thin body curled against his back, there’s the warmth of friendship in her touch and he can almost imagine that this, this is love. For a few fleeting seconds he allows himself the luxury of simply lying there, eyes shut, letting the dream last one moment more.
The air is ice-cold against his muzzle. It smells of frost and frozen snow, and stillness, and cooling ash.
When he opens his eyes he sees that their campfire has gone out. Pearl-white ashes and fragments of charcoal, a few dark stains on the roof of the cave; nothing more remains. All the heat and the light are gone. But beyond the burned-out cinders, a bar of wintry daylight slides along the rocky wall, and in the curve of the entrance there’s a corner of sky, high and pale, veined with blue. The snow has crusted around the cave mouth and there are icicles hanging from the arch. As he watches, a single drip falls from one. It glints like a crystal for a second, crossing the beam of sunlight, and hits the frozen ground with a hiss like fine glass breaking.
He rolls carefully onto his belly and looks round at Jyn. She’s deep asleep, her head tucked down, nose under the blanket. When her hand slips off his back she draws it in against her body and her eyelids quiver, but she goes on dreaming.
He can see dust in her lashes and a smudge of charcoal on her temple; there’s a delicate line of scalp visible, pale and naked, in the parting of her untidy hair.
He leans in and sniffs for a moment, the familiar smell of her, peaceful and warm and healthy, sleeping, trusting. Closes his eyes as the thought of placing a kiss on her hair rises and must be dismissed. The best he could do would be a wet-nosed snuffle, guaranteed to wake her, and rudely, too. He forbids himself any such luxury. Wriggles out from under the blanket instead and gets up with a creaking north-and-south stretch and a shake of his head that makes his ears flap.
When he looks back, Jyn has burrowed deeper into the blanket.
He wanders over to the cave mouth. Fallen snow has drifted in, piling up to one side, but the entranceway is clear and he steps out into pristine whiteness.
It’s the first time he’s seen their refuge clearly; by the time he’d tracked back to Jyn yesterday, the visibility was poor and his senses entirely focussed on finding her and taking shelter. Even the mysterious pile of firewood had barely caught his attention. He inspects it now, noting how precisely the logs had been stacked, criss-crossed for stability, with thinner branches interspersed through the pile in layers. A strong smell of men lingers about the wood; but though the difference is so subtle he can’t pinpoint it, still he’s sure there’s nothing of the Empire here. Someone else, many someones, dedicated and sweating at their labours, gathered this woodpile before winter came and left it here in the shelter of the cave.
He moves out, crunching through snow that is sometimes ankle deep, sometimes right to his hocks. The day is bright and cold, with a hard clear sky and no sign of more snow to come.
The cave is set into a low rock face, the flank of a slanting ridge that runs up toward a peak a few hundred yards further on. Bulky drifts of snow are piled up against the foot of the rock, but just beyond the snow-capped peak the ground falls away. There’s a clear notch against the skyline as the path cuts through. They’re at the top of the pass.
To the side of the pass, a low mound enveloped in snow has suspiciously squared-off corners. It‘s too low to be a structure; foundations, perhaps, or some sort of platform. Cassian picks his way up towards it and noses around. Ashes and ancient smoke, buried beneath the snow. A beacon-point. So that’s what the firewood is for. But no scent of man more fresh than three or four days ago.
Looking back, the way they climbed yesterday, he can see how they’ve come above the treeline; and the descent is dizzying, a snaking path masked in white velvet. The fallen snow distorts every shape and covers their tracks irretrievably, fills up the gullies and trails they struggled up through. All around him, the world is blinding white, full of hollow blue shadows, of perspectives and outlines transformed, surfaces hidden, everything familiar now draped and blurred and rounded-off. There’s a white haze along the horizon but the sky overhead is wild, frozen blue and the air smells strongly of snow, with overtones made strange and strong by the cold. He smells snow-grouse, sheltering some way off to the north, downslope, and big-horn deer in the woods beyond them; the muted dark notes of the old smoke and fire, and fresher ones from the new wood-ash in the cave; human urine and wolf, well-covered now by the blizzard, and the lingering smell of fish; and Jyn’s warm breath.
A crisp breeze blows down from the pass, air that has travelled hard distances. He’s tempted to trot right to the ridge, sound out their route for the day ahead. But another part of him wants to stay close by Jyn’s side; it was going on ahead that nearly made him lose her yesterday. He turns away from the snowscape and heads back down to the cleft in the rock, and the shelter beyond.
She hasn’t stirred. He sniffs at the blanket, unsure if he should wake her yet. Those minutes of thinking he’d lost her had been sickening, the memory catches at his breath like an echo of the snowstorm. If they had not found one another again – if he hadn’t felt that voice inside, the strange familiar touch of her in his mind – what more might have gone amiss? They might neither one of them have been here to wake and smell the morning.
All the separate scents of her meld, delicate and fleshly, in his nostrils. He dimly remembers having changed in and out of his human form, sometime in the small hours of the night, and is deeply glad she slept through it. He would not give her the awkwardness of that, they have to be shameless enough about one another as it is, he’s naked in front of her almost daily and they’ve had to lie down to sleep under one cover, bodies pressed together. He’d spare her more shame if he can.
He’s leaning in close, his nose a bare finger’s breadth from her hairline. Inhaling the scent of her life and her living energy, and loving them. She smells of everything that is alive and precious, everything that’s strong, that holds faith and keeps it, that remembers hope, that doesn’t give up. He draws in one last sweet breath and then exhales, deliberately hard, huffing out warm damp air onto her forehead. Jyn stirs, sighs, mutters “Whh…”. And suddenly rolls and sits upright, her right hand fumbling at her hip, panic and anger in her face for the fraction of a second before she sees him.
“Wuff,” says Cassian, thinking, Only me, it’s only me, and hoping she will sense his thoughts. It’s an admirable reflex, to reach for a knife when she’s barely awake. If he could speak he’d commend her speed. “Wuff!”
Jyn is smiling already, rubbing grubby hands down her face, blinking sleep from her eyes. “Only you,” she says, and he grins and wags his tail. “Is it day? It is day, isn’t it?... And I can see the storm’s passed. Thank fucking God.”
She hoists herself to her feet and stretches, groaning for a moment. “Ugh, so stiff. Well. So. Good morning. Leftovers for breakfast?”
Half an hour later they move out, with bellies full of cold fish, and Jyn wrapped once more in all her layers of clothing, though still wearing his boots as hers have frozen solid overnight and are swinging from her knapsack like two leaden weights. They move slowly, out from the safety of shadows into the blinding morning. The sun has come over the peak and everything glitters and stares, hard white, soft white, sharp lines and billows, dazzle and beauty and danger. Treading very carefully in the overlarge boots Jyn ventures up the slope, following his tracks from earlier, towards the crest of the mountain. She stops at the top, shielding her eyes from the brilliance. Her stance is poised and tense, but as Cassian comes up alongside her he can see that she’s grinning, taut and triumphant.
“There it is,” she says. “Red Crag.”
Below them the ground drops away in snowy tiers towards a valley and the thin line of a river snaking among trees. On their left, a col joins their ridge of the mountains to the next range, and he can clearly make out the level ground below, and a track that runs beneath the sharp-angled slope of an old rock fall. His eyes follow it round to the chasm of the river, where an arched stone bridge rears above faint plumes of spray from the whitewater below. The path goes down into the treeline and then climbs again to where an outthrust spur of rock stands proud of the next range.
He sees rust-red stone, like old blood spilled on the whiteness; a spine of rock sharp as a knife, broad at the base and rising to a weathered pinnacle crowned with snowy walls. Here and there in the rock face, the dark gape of openings. Windows, maybe? Or passageways, large enough for a troop of horse to enter, or a beast of winged legend.
“The whole crag is a honeycomb of tunnels,” Jyn remarks. “Quite the labyrinth as I recall. Plenty of room for a far larger gang than we ever were.”
A gang. Gang of witches. He hasn’t heard the collective noun used since he was a child. A gang of witches, a blade of mages. Now there are only single hedge-witches hiding out, like her, and exiles like Gerrera; and the Empire’s sorcerers. The Empire, who first sought to ban magic.
We gave up our ability to fight, to mollify them, and then they turned on us with the very weapons they had forbidden. What gullible fools we were. Gullible and fearful. They led us like calves to the slaughterman, and told us was for our own safety, and the saving of our souls.
“Saw is there,” Jyn adds. “And others with him. Some I know. Others not. Well, so. We’ll see what we’re heading for soon.” Her voice brightens as she glances round at him. “A hot meal and a real bed, if nothing else, I hope.”
There’s a silence and then abruptly she drops to a crouch, her skirts belling out in the snow around her. She holds out her hands to him, uncertainty deep in the gesture till he steps forward into her touch. As if he might have turned away. As if I could ever turn away from you.
Jyn’s face is flushed from the cold and her eyes are very bright, lips bitten red, white breath cascading like the rising spray above the river. She rubs the fur on his shoulders, working her bare hands into its warmth and drawing him close. Then she takes his head between her hands, very gently. “Thank you. Thank you for coming with me, Cassian. I don’t deserve all your loyalty. I’m afraid of what’s to come, but having you here gives me hope. Thank you.”
She’s speaking with a solemnity that shakes and unnerves him. He whines anxiously.
“I have to ask you this,” Jyn says. “Are you sure about us arriving today? In daylight? If we hold back, and come after moonrise – you’d meet him as yourself. Your true self, your true form. You don’t have to give that up for me.”
Oh, to be able to speak. He butts forward, pushing his brows against her forehead. To be able to say I am glad to give you what I can. What little I have to give.
To be able to take those cold hands in his, press them in friendship, kiss them in gratitude. I am yours, I am your friend and your ally as you are mine, and I am with you all the way.
His white breath is mingling with hers; he closes his eyes, fighting the upsurge of wolf instinct that wants to lick her face. Suddenly it’s so easy to let that image become one even more impossible, the thought of kissing her on the lips, kissing her mouth; touching her with every want and tenderness in him. Feelings he had forgotten he even had, just a few months ago.
How their cold lips would meet, so shyly, so quickly, but with such tenderness.
He breathes through the fantasy and releases it. Impossible, impossible, don’t waste your mind on regretting the impossible.
He draws back, opens his eyes. Kind, defensive, teasing, determined Jyn, who is so lonely and who gives so generously and wisely, who fights and heals even through her fear. She’s looking him in the eye and her face is soft and grave.
She says “I wish we could stay here. I do know we can’t. We can’t hide away and live up here. Just like we couldn’t have stayed at the cottage. Too dangerous. We have death following us and that takes away all the other choices. But I would have stayed, if I could. I would have stayed here, with you.”
His heart is too full, and a tiny wuff of emotion claws out of his throat. He twists his head and gives in to his animal self, licks her bare wrist for a moment, a feeble attempt to approximate kissing her brave hands. Then looks past her fixedly. Clears his throat and nods towards Red Crag, and the path downhill.
“Yes,” Jyn says softly. “Yes, let’s get moving.”