Dawn was hours away when Lena came to, in the softest bed she’d ever slept in, beneath warm blankets with the sweet aroma of polished wood and a crackling fire. She couldn’t say which day it was, but her body was leaden as if she had been asleep for weeks, buoyed by the soft mattress and stuffed pillows.
To drag her eyes open was an effort, hindered by the fact that the left one was swollen shut. Pain landed through her body, in every imaginable place, and she had to fight the instinct to curl in on herself, knowing her broken bones would protest.
This couldn’t have been death; it hurt too much. There was no dancing in the wind, surging with the waters or singing of the stars. She did not feel like she was in everything, free and safe and full of life, even without a corporeal form. It was too full of pain, an unending suffering that could only be the byproduct of life, and with a listless sigh, she forced her eyelids open a crack and turned her head.
“Kara?” she rasped, her voice faint.
It belied the frantic terror in her heart, the befuddling nature of her mind, shrouded in darkness as the memories refused to surface. She was tired, more tired than she could ever remember being in her life, and Lena would’ve liked to sleep more, if not for the name on the tip of her tongue that superseded all else.
She tried again, more forceful this time, and felt the startling rustle of someone jumping into motion. And then gentle fingertips brushed her bruised cheeks, so achingly soft that Lena’s chest hurt and her eyes smarted with tears.
“It’s me. It’s me.”
Exhaling, Lena’s body went slack and tears traced their way down her temples as she fumbled for Kara’s hand. Those warm fingers closed around her wrist and held her still, quiet hushes stilling her.
“Don’t move,” Kara gently warned her, a brittle edge of anguish in her voice, “you’re badly wounded.”
“I don’t … recall what happened. But … you were there
“I took your memories. I remember that. ”
With a choked laugh, which sounded more like a sob, torn between relief and sadness, Kara gently brushed Lena’s hair, her voice a low murmur beside her ear. She must’ve been kneeling next to the bed, but Lena couldn’t keep her eyes open enough to see her.
“You tried . J’onn had long since warded me against such magic. My necklace. I was … disoriented though. He says you’re more powerful than he is, but the spell held. I was able to recover myself in time-“
“The castle. The forest. My mother.”
“Don’t fret about that now. You must sleep, Lena. We must leave as soon as you’re able. J’onn is not as well versed in the healing arts as you; you will need to recover your strength on your own. As much as you can. It’s too dangerous for us to linger for too long.”
Swallowing painfully, her mouth dry and coppery, Lena’s eyes rolled beneath her closed lids as she tried to take stock of her injuries through the clouded fog of her mind. She couldn’t pinpoint anything specific; it hurt everywhere.
“How much time can you give me?”
“I can feel it approaching,” Lena murmured, her bloodless lips barely moving as she drew in a shallow breath. “Fetch me willow bark. Primrose flowers and arnica. It’s a herb. Devil’s claw if you can find it. Brew them in a tea; it will ease my pain enough for us to go.”
Face pinched with worry, Kara nodded and pressed a tender kiss to Lena’s hair before pulling the blankets up over her and briskly striding from the room. For all his shortcomings in healing, J’onn had a well-stocked supply of herbs behind a hidden panel in the basement, stored in case of such circumstances, and Kara was grateful as she took what she needed.
J’onn had returned hours before, cut up and limping, his dark skin already swelling with bruising. Kara tended him as well as she could, which was even worse than he would’ve fared himself, and, after seeing to Lena, he shut himself in his room and hadn’t stirred since.
Kara was left alone to see the night through, dark circles beneath her eyes and a skin-crawling agitation at being found out. Alone with worried thoughts to keep her company, Kara brewed the tea, hoping she was doing it right, while she considered how they would smuggle Lena out of the town without being caught. Not only that, but it was a long walk to the forest, and they knew that was the centre of Lena’s domain now, where before they had scoured the entire countryside searching.
The forest had been foreboding, much like the mountains and the open plains, each one a potential place for a witch to be hiding under the guise of magic. Even the patrols of hunters hated to get too near the woods, but now, with all that had happened, they would come down on the trees in a relentless wave, breaching through Lena’s wards until they finally had her. It wouldn’t be safe there, but there was nowhere else to go for now. It would suffice, anything better than the cage they currently found themselves in.
Tense and afraid, Kara carried a jug of the tea upstairs once brewed and quietly shifted a chair to Lena’s bedside. With a cheesecloth, she soaked the end in the herbal mixture and let drops trickle into Lena’s mouth, waiting to see the signs that it had taken effect.
Minutely, Lena’s face seemed to relax, the taut hardness of her face softening ever so slightly as her lips parted. Sweat still beaded her forehead from the fever and her breathing was shallow, but she looked more at peace, and it was enough to ease Kara’s worries for the time being.
Lightly dozing in the chair beside the bed, the fire in the hearth burning down to cherry red embers as dawn approached, Kara waited and was awoken by the sound of the door creaking open.
Eyes parting, she found herself looking at J’onn’s swollen and bruised face and eased herself from the chair. Stepping into the hallway with him, she eased the door shut and spoke in a low voice.
“It’s time. We must leave.”
“I will aid you,” he assured her.
His help would benefit them, but Kara was hesitant to take it, biting her lip as her face darkened. “You have done too much already.”
“She is of my clan; it is my duty as kin to help her.”
Nodding, Kara opened her mouth and then swallowed, hesitating before trying again. “Her mother …”
J’onn rested a gentle hand on her shoulder in reassurance, “she will not trouble you for a time, at least. She is in the dungeons, chained and doomed to the pyre. I imagine she will worm her way free - she is wily and cunning - but she will be in no state to bother you until she recovers.”
“She is as strong as her daughter, perhaps even more so for the ruthless streak Lena lacks, or does not act upon. In a fair fight, she would’ve bested me thrice times over. It is good that it was not a fair fight.”
He gave her a smile and winced, holding his ribs, and Kara ushered him downstairs to fetch him some tea to ease his pains. There was little more she could offer him, and in the early-morning dimness, they sat around the table in his comfortable kitchen and planned their escape.
The gap between the closed drapes lightened to grey as the sun started to rise, and Kara grimly went to wake Lena as J’onn set about their plan. Padding upstairs, Kara eased open the door and moved over to the bed, laying her hand against Lena’s cheek to wake her gently.
“Lena, my love-“
Lena’s hand clenched around Kara’s wrist as her eyes snapped open and she drew in a shallow breath, her chest rising and falling quickly as panic set in. There was a haunted look in her eyes, which quickly vanished as recognition lit up her green eyes and her face twisted with pain. Dropping Kara’s wrist, her hand flopped back down onto the mattress and she closed her eyes.
“Forgive me, I am not myself.”
Giving her a strained smile, Kara stroked her hair and sighed. Eyelashes fluttering against bruised and split cheeks, Lena pressed her lips into a flat line.
“It is time for us to go.”
“It is,” Kara regretfully replied, “I wish I could stop all time so that you might rest awhile, but …”
“It isn’t safe for either of us to tarry. Help me to my feet; I will not let a few scratches get the better of me.”
She was already pushing herself up, trying to stifle an agonisingly long groan as her broken bones and aching body protested. Grabbing her under the arms, Kara eased her up and Lena braced her hands against Kara’s shoulders before lurching to her feet.
She stumbled slightly and swayed unsteadily after catching her balance, and Kara’s face was fraught with worry, eliciting a small laugh from Lena, who clumsily patted her cheek.
“Do not fret, my dearest one. All will be well.”
“All will be well,” Kara murmured in agreement.
Lena had slept in her ragged clothes, torn and bloody from the interrogation she’d endured, out of necessity for her to be ready to move if the hunters came banging on the door, so it was quick to ready themselves. Kara laced Lena’s boots on for her and wrapped a spare woollen cloak of J’onn’s around her shoulders, before donning her blue coat and belting on her sword.
Too weak to use her magic, Lena couldn’t glide downstairs and was subjected to the jolting pain of each step as she leaned heavily against Kara. Her bones weren’t set and they scraped and shifted, leaving her grey-faced and perspiring by the time they reached the kitchen.
J’onn was on his feet, dressed to travel in the cold, holding a bulging knapsack in his hands. Lena drew in a shaky breath at the sight of him and returned his nod with a weak one of her own.
“Into the cellar, quickly,” he urged Kara, shoving a cup into Lena’s hands as they moved.
It was the painkiller tea, steeped strongly and bitter-tasting as she downed it, yet mercifully warm and enough to soon take the edge off the sickening agony that wracked her. She set the cup down on a wooden bench before she was ushered into the dark mouth of a staircase leading down.
The air smelled of rich earth, a comfort that eased some of the pressure in Lena’s chest, and the stairs were steep, making it hard for her to descend. J’onn used what little magic was safe for him to do so to guide her down, alleviating some of the effects of gravity, and soon enough, Lena’s feet were planted on the packed earthen floor of the cellar.
One wall held cubbyholes of herbs and tinctures and other such plants and natural materials, and it warmed her slightly to know that even here, beneath the stifling rule of tyrants, her brethren still practised the old ways and the small rituals of the seasons and holidays. J’onn was always careful, that much was evident from the lack of magic that had clung to Kara, and was a weak warlock, for all his knowledge, but now he reeked of magic, of spent power, and Lena fixed him with a piercing stare as he met her eyes.
“Thank you. I do not think I could have faced her in my state.”
“I’ll try my best to keep her away until you’re far enough to be found so easily.”
Dipping her head in thanks, Lena watched as he moved to the cubbyholes and pulled the shelves outwards to reveal a dark hole. It vanished into the wall, and Lena glanced back at the warlock, questioning.
“Where will it take us?”
“Through to the caves just past the harbour. Follow the coastline around to the north until you reach the end. There is a path up to the cliffs; I will wait for you there with a horse.”
Nodding, she stepped into the dark tunnel with Kara following behind, after taking a moment to thank her boss. Reaching for the weak threads of her magic, Lena called on the oxygen around them and the heat within her to form a flickering flame, giving it life as it illuminated a short way before them.
It was an agonisingly slow walk, Lena’s fingers skimming the earthen wall for balance, before it gave way to rough-hewn stone, sloping gently downwards towards the sea. Kara’s breath ghosted against the back of Lena’s neck, close enough to catch her if she should collapse, and she quickly explained the plan.
J’onn would hitch the horse to a wagon full of book supplies and leave the city, free to be searched without fear, meet them at the cliffs and then drive them towards the forest. They’d be able to recuperate then, cobble together a stronger plan once Lena could endure the long trek necessary to undertake it. On the off-chance that he was caught, someone linking him to the events of the day before and the battle with Lillian, they were to make for the road and camp in the sparse copses of trees and hope he wasn’t detained for long.
Still, it was a long walk, the walls suffocatingly close, and Lena’s entire body ached as she shuffled along, the cold emanating from the rock bed making her even stiffer as she shivered.
Eventually, the smell of damp stone was cut through by the freshness of salt, and a distant roar grew steadily louder until the smoothly carved floor gave way to the rough, natural formation and they stepped out into a cave.
Extinguishing the small flame, Lena blinked at the blinding brightness of the pale winter sky beyond the mouth of the cage and sat down on a boulder as she breathed. Pain lanced through her and Kara dropped to a crouch, fumbling for a waterskin, which she offered up to Lena with a trembling hand.
“Thank you,” Lena rasped, taking a large mouthful, soothing her dry throat as she swallowed. Her hands shook so much that it dribbled over her chin and splashed onto the folds of her cloak.
Kara gently took it back and took a sip too, before pushing herself to her feet. Lena tried to stand up but winced and Kara placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You should rest a moment.”
“It isn’t safe,” Lena said through clenched teeth, her ribs aching as she strained to stand up, before collapsing on the rock in defeat.
Her face seemed to drain of what little colour it had, her shoulders rising and falling with the rapid pace of her breaths, and Lena wiped the back of her hand against her warm forehead.
“My ribs,” Lena gasped, “it is my ribs that trouble me.”
“It’s more than your ribs,” Kara sullenly murmured, a foul mood overtaking her as she looked at Lena’s face.
She’d wiped away the blood and sweat and dirt in the night, cleaning beneath what few fingernails were left and wiping blood from the palms of Lena’s hands. J’onn had bound the free-flowing wounds and tightly wrapped Lena’s chest to keep her ribs in place, but it was excruciating nonetheless, and her left collarbone was left unbound, perhaps the most painful of all.
Wiping at her split cheeks, Lena sniffed and cleared her throat, before forcing herself to her feet, teeth grit with determination.
“I can assess the damage later,” she gamely replied, giving Kara a thin smile as she swallowed the taste of bile, blinking back black spots. “For now, we walk on. I should like to be in the woods before nightfall. In my own bed. A winter’s night is a bitter thing, and I’ve had my fill of bitterness. Come.”
She took Kara’s hand and tugged her towards the mouth of the cave, where they ducked through and took the frosted rocky path down to the golden sand. It was a blustery day, the wind so cold that it stole the air from their lungs and burned their throats, yet the briny smell was invigorating, especially to Lena after the dank cell she’d been shoved into.
Sliding down the wet sand dunes, sparse grass and shrubs bowing to the gales blown in off the coast as choppy waves thundered to the shore, she felt better in her soul. The gritty feeling of sand as it splattered her cloak and hands and skirts, the frigid spray of seawater that was carried by the wind, and the cry of gulls wheeling around the bay of the nearby harbour were soothing to Lena’s soul. If she was dead, this would be death. Free, as the natural cycles of life progressed.
She wasn’t dead though, and they lay exposed on the small strip of beach as they bundled themselves up against the wind and pushed through. They would need to hurry if they didn’t want to be caught out in the elements; the sky overhead was steely grey and spoke of snow.
Kara led, following the directions J’onn had left out for them, and they didn’t stop, save for a sip of water each and to split a fruit roll, still warm in the middle. Lena couldn’t remember eating anything so good, her stomach shrivelled to nothing and savouring the sweetness of currants, even as it ached for more.
The weather delayed them a short while, as did Lena’s limping and shortness of breath, but soon enough they reached the steep path cutting through the cliffs, the switchback trail of wild goats and fishermen barely visible against the rough grey stone. It shone with hoar frost from the night, not yet melted in the weak sunlight of the day, and both women were cautious as they climbed, Lena taking the lead, as if Kara would be able to stop her falling to a treacherous death if she slipped off the narrow track.
Cresting the top, Kara scrabbled at the loose shale and tufts of hardy grass as she crawled on all fours, before pushing herself to her feet. Breathless and covered in scrapes, their fingertips raw from the rough rock, they leaned heavily on each other and Kara pressed a gentle kiss to Lena’s temple as a shiver wracked her.
Close to the edge of the cliffs, it felt like the wind might drag them off, and Kara quickly ushered them further away, towards the frost-covered plains of grass spreading out before them. The town was a grey mass on the horizon, and the mountains rose in the opposite direction, white foothills rolling towards them, and Kara narrowed her eyes as she stared at the dark clouds above. Snow would fall soon.
Their breath plumed before them as they waited, scanning their surroundings as they searched for J’onn, and Lena’s knees nearly buckled beneath her in relief as the distant sight of a trundling cart became visible as it rolled over the top of a small hill. It was heading right for them, no soldiers following behind, and with a weak smile, Lena nodded.
They crunched frozen grass beneath their boots as they trudged to meet J’onn halfway, noses red and the cold almost unbearable after being subjected to the wind fresh off the sea for so long. But the sight of J’onn buoyed them and Kara raised her arm and smiled as he neared them, reining in the draft horse.
“Easy, boy,” J’onn rumbled, leaning forward to pat the horse’s thick neck as it whickered and stamped a hoof. With a small smile, dark eyes shining, he smiled. “Took longer than I thought. Had to bribe the blacksmith to borrow his horse and they were searching every man, woman and child leaving. Gates are backed up damn near to the market square.”
“Thank you, J’onn,” Kara breathless said, rounding the wagon and boosting Lena into the back.
It was covered with an oilcloth, bound books in crates hidden beneath and rolls of leather neatly piled out of reach of the damp. Lena lay down in the back, Kara covering her with the oilcloth, a flimsy barrier against the cold, but better than nothing, and J’onn flicked the reins to get the horse going.
“I’m sorry about Comet,” Kara called over the creaking sound of wood and the clipping of hooves.
With a quiet chuckle, J’onn called back, “he’s a smart horse; he’s probably waiting at the woods. I’ll hitch him up on the ride back.”
The flicker of guilt eased slightly and Kara nodded, sinking down in the back of the wagon beside Lena. She kept her head poked up from around the edge of the oilcloth and shivered in silence as she settled in for the trip. It was a relief to her blistered feet and frozen fingers to rest, her aching muscles going slack as she sat and waited, and although she’d meant to stay awake, Kara found herself lulled by the rattling of the wagon as J’onn made for the road.
Progress was slow, but still miles faster than walking, and Kara slept in fits and starts, until the temperature plummeted and the snow started. The first flakes touched her rosy cheeks like kisses of fire, rousing her from sleep. Her eyelashes were already starting to ice together and she looked around with confusion, trying to take stock of their whereabouts.
Climbing out from under the oilcloth, she made sure Lena was covered and climbed over the side of the wagon and onto the bench J’onn was seated on. Jamming her fingers into her armpits, she looked out through the blizzard with a morose expression on her face, teeth chattering as a wind dragged through her old coat.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this? It will not be easy,” J’onn cautioned.
“I have exposed myself now, in front of the King and court. I am as hunted as she now,” Kara chattered, lips trembling. She drew in a freezing breath and expelled it in a gust of white. “If I’m honest, it is almost … a relief. I wish it hadn’t taken such extreme actions to bring it about, but I won’t be frightened anymore. Of being caught. We’ll be together and we’ll keep each other safe and that … that’s enough.”
With a soft sigh, J’onn gave her a sad smile, “Kara, I- you are brave, no one could deny that, but … it will be a hard life. A life of hunger, of danger, of isolation. It isn’t a decision you should make likely, and I’m sure Lena would understand-“
“Of course she would,” Kara scoffed, “I think as soon as we arrive, she’ll try to send me back. She would like nothing better than for me to stay with my family, but we’re past that. I have forsaken my own sister for what she’s done-“
“Do not blame Alex for acting in the only manner she has ever known. You are the one who is seen as a threat - do not forget that. She is complying with everything she has ever known, as unfortunate as that may be. Your sister loves you, Kara.”
“I love her too, but … I cannot stop thinking about how she would’ve sent Lena to the stake, to burn, without even a single hesitation. It feels wrong . I feel as if I don’t know her anymore, that she’s too consumed with anger to be the person I love. I regret that I’ll never have the chance to forgive her, to understand her, but … it’s necessary. I started this by trying to save her life in place of taking Lena’s, and I will end it now, saving Lena’s life in exchange for leaving my sister behind.”
Nodding in acceptance of her decision, he cleared his throat and then gestured with a finger to the first sight of trees, mere smudges through the flurry of snow.
“We should arrive within the hour, I should think.”
Hunger gnawing at her stomach and a stiff, aching shuddering, that seemed constant in the show, wracked Kara as she watched a whiteness blanket the countryside. Winter was a desolate thing in the wilds, she knew that firsthand, and her mind turned to the first time she’d met Lena, out on the plains, the mud sucking at her boots and the chill burrowing into her bones until she felt like she could hardly hold her sword. Lena’s cottage had felt like a haven then, and ever since, and Kara was eager to reach it before nightfall.
As it was, the morning was only half over, and they made good time, arriving just as J’onn said they would. Much to Kara’s surprise, they were greeted by the sight of a dozen horses milling about, chewing at the sparse grass in the shadows of the forest. Amongst them stood Comet.
Jumping down from the seat, Kara rounded the back of the wagon and gently roused Lena, helping her from the back. Then, they faced J’onn, who hauled an even heavier pack than the one handed to Kara earlier that morning off the back from amidst his books. He handed it off to her and then fished a small leather purse from his belt.
“Here. Your last wages.”
“J’onn, I- no, you’ve done more than enough.”
With exasperation, he took Lena’s hand and pressed it into her palm, fixing Kara with a wry look. “You know more of hardships,” he pointedly said to Lena, “perhaps you’ll accept it.”
“If you will accept my thanks.”
He briefly touched her cheek and smiled, before giving Kara a hug. She felt tears prick her eyes and found that she would miss her boss, perhaps more than she’d anticipated. His kindness and loyalty had been gifts, and she was lucky for them.
“Thank you,” Kara whispered.
“Send a bird when you’ve settled somewhere. I would like to hear from you.”
“Of course we will.”
“Good. Then this is goodbye.”
The thought made Kara’s throat close up, the only physical representation of her partings with many that she’d get closure from. There would be no explanations for her mother or friends, no notice, no information about where she was going or what she would do. Alex would know, of course, but she wouldn’t know where. She could search for Kara for her whole life and never find her again, and it weighed Kara’s heart heavily to know this would be her only goodbye to her whole life left behind.
He relinquished her and turned to the horses, his whistle making the ears on his horse flick to attention. Taking Lena’s cold hand in hers, Kara towed her to the tree line, still glancing back over her shoulder as she watched J’onn hitch Comet to the wagon, and then they stepped over the boundary of the wards.
Looking at Lena, Kara’s expression crumpled at the despair she found there. Face slack and pale, eyes wide and tearful, the air was forced from Lena’s lungs as she looked around at the ruin left in wake of the invasion.
Trees were blackened husks, scorch marks marred the earth, and the smell of smoke lingered amidst the trunks, choking and acrid. Kara squeezed Lena’s hands, feeling helpless as she watched tears trace down Lena’s cheeks.
“These trees were my friends,” Lena whispered, her voice breaking with anguish, “they’d been here longer than I’ve been alive, before my mother’s mother. And look at them … such violence born from such hatred.”
Mouth dry, Kara licked her cracked lips and tried to seek out words that would bring her comfort. “They- they will feed the forest, and one day … one day new trees will grow here with new life. We can honour them now by ridding the woods of the malice that lingers within.”
“The soldiers,” Lena rasped. “They will all be dead by now, or mad. The magic here isn’t kind to outsiders.”
“They too will feed the trees,” Kara ominously murmured.
They stood for a moment, in the pale light that filtered down through the sparse canopy, the snow whistling through the trunks, and then Kara sighed. Taking Lena’s arm and putting it across her shoulders, she hefted her weight.
“Come. It’s too cold to be outside, and you must rest.”
It was difficult, moving through the forest, each gulley and hillock arduous, and everywhere they looked there were signs of the invasion. Blackened trunks and churned earth, snatches of fabric from the hunters’ uniforms, brambles hacked back by swords and wilted shrubs and underbrush trampled beneath issued boots. There were even bodies, twisted at the bottom of shallow ravines or ensnared in the roots of vengeful trees, where soldiers had been driven to madness and walked right into their deaths.
It offered Lena no comfort to know that more death had entered the woods, no joy to know that more trees had suffered and the coming spring would be less bountiful for their fires and blundering over slumbering plants that would’ve sprouted forth necessary herbs and fruits. She walked on with a blank look in her eyes, even though she saw everything, every nick, every twig out of place.
The last straw came as she led them upon her cottage, although, it could hardly be called that any longer. It was that final piece of knowledge that shredded any flimsy pretence of safety that they’d harboured, that Lena’s home hadn’t been brutally ripped away from her.
Standing in the middle of the shaded clearing was crumbling, blackened bricks of her cottage. The shingled roof had caved in, the warped yellow windows shattering outwards from the fire that had been set inside. The door had been reduced to charred lumps of black in the doorway, some planks still clinging to the hinges.
Lena’s knees went out from under her as she slowly sagged down to the ground and wept. Kara stood numbly by her side with no comforts to offer, her own eyes stinging with tears as bitter regret closed up her throat.
She knew Lena wouldn’t be able to bear being the first across the ruined threshold, so Kara stepped forward, crossing the few short steps to the empty doorway, leaving Lena to spend all her sobs until nothing remained.
The inside was worse . Everything had been smashed, burnt or splintered. Soot covered the walls and floors, wooden beams crumbled, shreds of paper curled up at the edges, the words eaten away by flame and every single jar and vial had been smashed. An acrid smell lingered in the air, the bitter tang of a hundred types of herbs and plants mingling, and Kara exhaled, her shoulders stooping in defeat.
One section of the ceiling was still raised, the beams black but solid, the stone wall still standing, for the most part, and Kara moved over to it. The bed had been there before, where only wood not even good enough for kindling now lay, and Kara dropped their bags and started clearing the area. The wind whistled through the collapsing roof and crumbling walls, and it would offer very little reprieve from the elements, but it would be better than sleeping outdoors.
At least the canopy overhead blocked out the snow, and the chimney was still standing, for the most part. They could have a fire for warmth, and Kara had enough burlap from the sack of supplies to rig up some sort of tent to keep off the snow and ash that swirled around. Still, it was a desolate sight, all flicker of hope that they’d be able to rest awhile dashed away at the sight of the cottage.
It wouldn’t do to linger on things though, and Kara worked in silence, listening to the mournful creaks of the trees as splinters gouged her skin and her muscles ached from the heavy lifting. Lena didn’t move, shivering in her curled up position, and Kara cast her frequent looks of worry; her main priority now was getting her inside some sort of shelter, and seeing to her wounds. She’d anticipated plentiful stores, but what little J’onn had given them to ease her pain on the wagon ride would have to suffice until Kara could make heads or tails of what grew beneath the frost.
She worked tirelessly until noon had passed, her hands soot-stained and her face covered in sweat. She’d hung up her sword belt on a stump of a post and long-since abandoned her coat to it too, the cold not touching her as she laboured away, pushing detritus to one side of the small cottage until the other half could almost be called clean.
It was as clean as it was going to get, at any rate, although Kara could do nothing for the soot at the moment. Emptying the content of their two bags, she took stock of their belongings, before wadding up the spare clothes in the small knapsack and setting it down. She spread out a thickly rolled blanket below the bag and then rigged the burlap so that heavy bricks that had come free from the wall in the fire held it stretched from the top of the wall, down to the floor in a flimsy lean-to.
Walking outside of the tent, she stopped before Lena and sank to her haunches, clearing her throat. “Lena, you must come inside now.”
Lifting her pale, battered face, Lena looked at her with gut-wrenching devastation as her lips parted and trembled. “There’s no inside anymore. It’s all … gone.”
Reaching out, Kara grasped her biceps and gently urged her to her feet, “it will do. It’s too cold out here. We’ll think on it in the morning, yes?”
Too weary to even argue, and perhaps not entirely lucid from her stint in a prison cell, Lena allowed Mara to guide her inside and set her down on top of the blanket. Fishing the canteen out, Kara put it to her lips and let Lena drink, before finding a strip of willow bark for her to chew on.
It didn’t take long for Lena to slip into a deep slumber, and Kara made sure she was tucked in with the cloak she wore before she climbed to her feet. The snow was sparsely falling through the branches overhead, yet Kara worried for nightfall and made haste to light a fire.
Wandering through the trees nearby, she fetched damp branches and logs, using the head of Lena’s axe - the charred handle crumbling to nothing in her hands - to split the bigger pieces. The wood smoked in the ashes of the fireplace, but eventually, the embers caught and the fire crackled in the silence of the woods.
Covered in soot and ash, her face streaked grey and her eyes reddened from the dust, Kara moved towards the corner where Lena’s pump had been situated beside the wooden counters. Fortune smiled upon her at that moment, the metal a little twisted but still operational. With a shallow bowl, which had bent slightly from the heat, Kara pumped freezing water into it and used a handkerchief in her coat pocket as she washed away the grit and ash and splashed it into her sore eyes.
Feeling more alive, mostly from the sharp chill of the water, she drank until her lungs were burning from the cold as she gasped and spluttered, her throat numbed and stomach aflame, and then Kara allowed herself a break to think.
She didn’t have a clue what to do next. Kara wasn’t the survivalist type, and all thoughts of disappearing into the woods with Lena had been fanciful dreams where they’d had a cosy cottage and spent their days picking wildflowers in a perpetual summer. Winter was not so forgiving and gracious, their food sources gone and nothing but a handful of coins to hold them over until they settled somewhere.
Weary from two nights without proper sleep, Kara pushed herself to her feet and tossed a log onto the fire before she crossed over to Lena, ducking beneath the burlap and stretching out beside her. She pulled the edges of the cloak over herself and lightly rested her hand over Lena’s waist, careful not to hurt her and disturb her sleep, and then, with a troubled mind and heavy heart, Kara drifted off to sleep.
They both slept soundlessly, neither of them stirring as the wind howled through the trees and the blizzard raged on. It didn’t matter beneath the trees, but outside, the landscape was blanketed, hiding their tracks and making the roads impassable. Even the forest was indistinguishable from the rest of the countryside, the trees covered in a layer of frost and snow, nestled in the mouth of the valley.
It was past dawn when Kara roused herself to find the space beside her empty. Throwing the blankets off, she scrambled to her feet and strode out of the cottage, a shout already forming on her lips as her blue eyes scanned the treeline with sharp panic.
There was no answer and Kara plunged into the woods without her coat or sword, nearly tripping over her feet in her haste. The ground was trampled from too many footprints that had muddied the ground, but she plunged onwards, panic making her palms sweat as her pulse jumped, the cold seeping into her bones and stiffening her taut shoulders.
It didn’t take long to track her down, Lena’s injuries binding her close to home, and Kara let out a breath of relief as her shoulders went slack, taking in the sight of the green cloak against the dim light beneath the trees.
“You frightened me,” Kara called out, marching towards Lena with a frown on her face. She shouldn’t be out of bed yet, her injuries too much for her body to bear, but her scolding died on the tip of her tongue as she caught sight of the body on the ground before Lena. “What are you doing?”
“They must be buried,” Lena hollowly replied, raising her hands and crooking her fingers, before making a motion like she was forcing some stubborn thing apart.
As Kara watched, the black earth was gouged by a deep furrow, which only widened, the dirt piling over itself until there was a hole amidst the roots of a cluster of trees. The rich smell was cloying and Kara stepped up to Lena’s side and then ducked down. The body had been stripped of clothes, a pile made beside Lena, and Kara felt almost sick at the thought of looting the bodies of the dead - even hunters - but realised their survival might depend on what they could scrounge up. Silently praying for the soul of the dead woman before her, she helped drag the woman into the hole, shuddering at the cold and bloated feeling of her skin, before Lena tossed in the chainmail and weapons and closed the earth over the pale face below.
“How many have you found?” Kara reluctantly asked.
“Half a dozen so far,” Lena rasped, wiping a hand across her sweat-beaded brow.
Taking her hand, Kara gave her an uneven smile, “come. Let’s break our fast and then we can take stock of things. I find that most things look brighter with a full stomach.”
Smiling faintly at Kara’s unwavering optimism, Lena nodded and raised their hands, kissing her knuckles gentle. She looked thin and far too pale for Kara’s liking, a tremor in her hand, and Kara’s smile wilted as she stooped down to pick up the pile of supplies Lena had gathered so far. Bundling them up under one arm, she held onto Lena as if she was afraid she might drift away, untethered.
Back inside the cottage, Kara set everything down on the blankets and shook through them, finding thick socks and a pair of sturdy boots for them both, leather jerkins which would fare better against time and hard work, and more than enough shirts, breeches and cloaks to be used for bandages, blankets and extra clothes. There were three light money pouches, six daggers, four loads of daily rations and a canteen of what smelled like wine when Kara unstoppered it to sniff.
Glancing back over her shoulder, she watched as Lena reached for a log and tossed it into the ashes of yesterday’s fire, and Kara quickly leapt to her feet. “Let me. You sit. Rest.”
Nodding, Lena winced as she eased herself down onto the floor, and Kara quickly arranged the logs and picked up the flint. Before she could strike them, a flicker of green flame landed amongst the wood and she grinned over her shoulder as Lena wiggled her flaming fingers.
“I forgot you could do that,” Kara quietly laughed, wiping her hands on her thighs.
“It’s handy in the winter; makes lighting the damp wood a hell of a lot easier.”
Dropping a kiss on Lena’s head, Kara made for their stores of food and rummaged around for everything she needed to make them something warm. First, she pumped water from the spout and used it to rinse out the cauldron, which had fared quite well, hidden away in the fireplace. It was a small victory and Kara was able to make a thin gruel from the oats and water, adding dried fruit and leaving it to thicken while she rinsed out the iron kettle and dumped in what was on hand. It would be warm and take the edge off Lena’s pain, and she didn’t have the heart for a herbology lesson at the moment.
While their tea and breakfast simmered, Kara shuffled over to Lena with the twisted bowl and dirty cloth and set about washing some of the grime from her hands and face. They’d need to wash in the stream when it was warm enough, but for now, Lena was weary just from walking a short distance from the remains of the house.
Once Lena was as clean as she could be, Kara rebound her ribs and winced at the purple bruise and swelling of Lena’s collarbone, before she tore a cloak to create a sling. Lena paled as the bone chafed, but soon enough her arm was safely tucked against her chest and she seemed better for it, the weight of gravity no longer sending unbearable pain through her shoulder and chest.
They ate straight from the cauldron after that, using the travel spoons from their stores, and with the chipped wooden cup of a soldier, they took turns sipping their fill of tea poured from the kettle. With full stomachs and the warmth of tea chasing away the cold, they both sat before the fire, deep in thought.
“You’re right,” Lena said after a long moment, “I do feel better.”
With a weak smile, Kara grimaced, “I’m sorry about your home.”
Waving a hand, Lena rolled her eyes, “it was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“I find myself to blame for it,” Kara said with regret, pressing her lips into a flat line as she stared into the green flames. “If we’d never met … none of this would’ve happened. None of it.”
“And I would be worse for it,” Lena bluntly countered, “alone. I can fix my home, I can recover what has been lost. I could not find another that would love me as you do.”
“But … we have to leave now. We have no home, no safe harbour for us. And you … you’re too weak to protect us and I’m useless with a sword.”
Lena let out a loud laugh, startling Kara, and then she groaned, clutching at her ribs. “Don’t make me laugh; it hurts . But you’re right, we wouldn’t fare very well on the roads. Not for a while, I should think. All we can do now is stay. Stay and rest and rebuild what we can in the meantime.”
“We could be found.”
“I spoke with the birds. They say the weather is so bad that no wagons will be able to make it this far for a week at least. Horses … perhaps, but it will not be pleasant. I believe the weather is on our side, for the time being. Winter can be cruel, but also merciful.”
“Will we have enough to eat?”
Pensive, Lena tilted her head to the side, “I will be able to draw creatures in so that we might hunt or trap them. We’ll not starve, my love.”
“I don’t imagine we’ll see much comfort though.”
With a grave look on her face, Lena gave Kara a rueful smile, eyes shining with sympathy, “you don’t have to do this, you know. You can go back, tell them I bewitched you, live out your days in peace with your loved ones.”
Shifting closer to her, until she was nearly on the scorched ground, Kara cupped Lena’s face in her hands and gave her a sad smile. “There is nothing there for me anymore; you have bewitched me, in the best way possible. You have my heart, and I have yours. I will not be parted from you again.”
Covering Kara’s hand with her own, knuckles cut and her fingertips scabbed where the nails should be, Lena’s brow puckered. “I just- I’m afraid one day you will resent me for this.”
“I could never resent you.”
Leaning in, Kara kissed her slowly, savouring the freedom to do so. She would be free to kiss Lena every day from then onwards, as many times as she was allowed. It was just them now, and it didn’t seem so bad. Even in the wreckage of the cottage, with little to get by on, it didn’t seem like the end of the world, only a step backwards.
“You should rest here,” Kara said, pulling back and giving her a small smile, “I’m going back to the horses; there might be things in their saddlebags. I’ll turn them loose afterwards - no one will want to buy a horse in winter. Purses will be tight enough as it is.”
“Keep one,” Lena said after a moment, “I will allow it through the barriers; it could be useful to have one around in case we need to leave quickly.”
Nodding her assent, Kara grabbed her coat off the stump and slung it on before hesitating and reluctantly buckling on her sword too. Just because a snowstorm had blown down from the mountains and driven everyone inside, it didn’t mean those who were intent on finding them wouldn’t do so. With a last smile to Lena, Kara ducked through the empty doorway and set off into the woods.
Her sense of direction was shoddy at best, and even angling away from the cottage, it took Kara an hour to reach the treeline, appearing on the threshold of the forest too far south. Sticking to the shadows, mostly because the forest floor was only blanketed by a thin layer of ice, instead of the mounds of snow beyond, she backtracked until she found the horses tied to the trees. They stamped and snorted at her arrival, but after a few minutes of soothing and patting, they quietened down, one by one.
Making quick work of emptying their saddlebags, taking the thick, rough blankets and draping them over the back of the chosen horse - a large roan stallion - and then shoving as much of the food and supplies as she could into a few saddlebags, Kara freed the horses of their saddles and bridles and freed them in turn. She had the heartwarming thought that they might disappear into the foothills or to the plains near the sea and live out their days as a wild herd.
Hefting the belonging that wouldn’t fit over the horse’s back, she patted his nose affectionately, watching the tail of the last horse disappear through a veil of snow and sleet, Kara took the bridle and led the horse into the trees. He passed through with no protest, although his dark, liquid eyes rolled with panic at the stench of magic emanating from it, and feeling a little more spirited at the good haul, Kara led them home.
She arrived back at the cottage to find Lena kneeling amidst the bricks and debris, sifting through what could be salvaged and tossing the rest into the hearth, which burned heartily, making quick work of the already burnt wood. Covered in soot, she was still beautiful and Kara smiled as she ducked her head through the door.
“Did you get anything useful?”
“A fair bit. We’ve enough blankets to last us a lifetime, I should think. I took the liberty of bringing a few extra saddles - I thought we might strip them of the leather and use it for something else.”
Hesitating, Kara cocked her head to the side, “what’re you doing?”
Frowning at a brick as she listened intently, Lena’s mouth thinned and she tossed the chunk into the corner. “I … am listening to the stone to see if its internal structure is sound. I thought we might rebuild what we could while we’re still here.”
“There are plenty of dead trees to be stripped down for beams and posts,” Lena said with bitterness, picking up another rock and listening. This one she set down on a considerably smaller pile, before looking up at Kara. “I’ve been thinking … I know we have danger on our doorstep, but it would be safer to stay . Out there, beyond the forest, I can’t protect us as well. Not just now, but even whole and hale. In here … they might know where we are, but I can defend us. If not for my blasted mother interfering with your sister, they never would have gotten through my defences.”
Eyebrows rising, Kara blinked, “oh. Then you mean to make this our home.”
“If you would like it to be,” Lena nervously replied, “it isn’t much, I know. I can’t offer you a grand house with rooms . No proper floor, and at the present, not so much as a door or a roof, but … it would be ours.”
“Ours,” Kara murmured, testing the sound in her mouth and relishing the thought. “I would like that, Lena. I would like that very much.”
“Really,” Kara grinned before jerking her head outside. “Come, meet our new family member.”
Smiling, Lena pushed herself to her feet and stepped outside, her eyes shining with delight at the roan horse that made straight for her and snorted before rubbing his nose into her cheek. Laughter fell from Lena’s mouth, a sight and sound that gladdened Kara’s heart, before she pressed a hand to her ribs and softly groaned.
Patting the horse, who was already enamoured with the witch, Lena murmured gently, and he was content to stay there all day as she brushed a hand down his muzzle and rubbed behind his ears. Kara quickly unloaded their new belongings from his back in the meantime, working quickly and then freeing the horse of his saddle, bridle and bit. He tossed his head at the freedom and whinnied softly, and then Lena impressed the need for him to stay in the woods before turning him loose.
They worked tirelessly after that, both of them knowing the risk of exposure in such cold weather. They’d been too tired yesterday for Kara to do more than erect a shoddy lean-to and light a fire, but they couldn’t live like that for an extended period of time, even if the snow was lighter in the trees, dusting everything in a fine coating. The ice and frost would still get them, until they caught the sickness and couldn’t bring themselves to even drink water or muster up a fire.
Morning was still early and there was much to do. Letting Lena lead the way, Kara followed after her as they made for a small ravine where the stream flowed. Refilling their waterskins while there, Kara watched as Lena crouched with difficulty and pressed a hand to the earth. It was mostly rock bed there, moss-covered boulders peeking out from the gnarled roots of the trees clinging to the sloping sides. With a look of awe on her face, Kara watched as Lena’s magic disturbed the ground, coaxing forth chunks of grey stone.
Once they had a decent pile, Lena made it follow after them in a floating pile. Back at the cottage, while Kara gathered white wood ash from the fire into a heaping pile and mixed it with water under Lena’s direction, the witch sat before the boulders and gently teased rough-hewn bricks from the stone, until there was a large pile surrounding her and only gritty pieces of rock in her lap. Those were added to the mortar mix Kara was making, and Lena wiped a trembling hand across her brow as she surveyed their work.
Anxious, Kara washed her hands and guided Lena down onto their makeshift bed. “Rest.”
“I’m afraid it takes more from me than I had thought. I’m weak. This much magic saps too much of my strength.”
“Then I will do it for you,” Kara murmured.
She left Lena resting with the remains of their tea, long-since turned cold, and a lump of cheese and dried meat while she went out into the woods. Kara was reluctant to use the burnt trees closest to them, even as dead as they were, they offered some protection from the elements, encasing them in the shelter of their branches overhead, so she marched further out. It didn’t take long to find a strip of trees with blackened trunks and a wince of sympathy lanced through her.
Despite their looks, she knew that they weren’t dead. Kara wasn’t sure how she knew it, only that she did, and they were suffering. Beyond even the help of Lena’s magic at this point, Kara looked at them and pressed a hand to the trunk of the biggest, an oak that soared high above her.
“Please,” Kara whispered, a lump in her throat, “please forgive me. She will die without a home; she is badly injured too. I know that you’re her friend … I hope that means you will not bear us any ill will for what we must do.”
A low groaning sound filled the trees and Kara jumped back in alarm, her pulse jumping as she stared at the tree with wide eyes, wondering if the roots were about to entangle her and consume her body, much like the old willow had once tried to do. Instead, she was shocked to see the roots wriggle to the surface, thick limbs breaking free of the frozen ground, and the old tree pitch itself forward, towards her.
Jumping out of the way, Kara felt it all the way down to her bones when the tree crashed to the forest floor, the vibrations making her teeth clatter. Its trunk was nearly as wide as she was tall, and Kara pressed a hand to the scorched wood as she bowed her head.
“Thank you,” she murmured, hoping some spark of the tree’s sentience was still there. “Thank you. I’m sorry.”
The tree was far too large for Kara to move by herself, so she set about using the broken axe head she’d brought with her to peel off strips of bark and hack through the thinner limbs, making the work a little easier for Lena, when she had the strength for it. The cottage was small, and Kara thought one tree would suffice to erect new beams and rafters. They would have to see about the door, shutters for the windows and shingles for the roof. It suddenly seemed an impossible task, although she imagined magic would make it infinitely easier, but Kara had very little experience with construction.
Covered in wood shavings, her fingertips redraw and riddled with more than one blister, she drank deeply from her waterskin and made her way home. Lena was shivering, asleep on the pile of blankets and cloaks, and Kara quickly set a fire, before turning to examine the damage. Most of the lower portions of the walls were fine, and it took little effort to gouge the weak mortar from between the crumbling bricks. Adding more water to her damp mix of wood ash to soften it, Kara started the laborious task of building walls around them.
While not very big, the cottage was still sizable for a single room, enough space for counters and tables and cabinets, a bed and armchairs and racks. Kara worked slowly, spreading the mortar over the bricks and wedging a new one on top, working on the far side from Lena, where the roof no longer existed. Soon, she was up to as high as she could reach and had to stop. She’d piled old bricks in with no mortar where the old window had been, leaving the wobbly stack to hold a space in the case that they ever had new windowpanes. At the very least, they would have a window to let in the warm air in summer, to chase out the smoke of the cottage, and shutters to lock out the cold.
Midday was past when Kara stopped, covered in stone dust and grit, her shirt soaked with sweat and a chill in her limbs that she couldn’t quite feel. Lena stirred at the sound of water splashing from the pump, rinsing Kara’s blistered hands, and she sat up in the tangle of blankets and ducked her head under the burlap, blinking at the newly erected wall.
“You’ve been busy. You should’ve woken me.”
“You need your rest for bigger tasks, my love,” Kara smiled crookedly, drying her hands on the bottom of her shirt. “Besides, I’m woefully incompetent at building, and I’m afraid I would’ve cracked another one of your ribs by reducing you to tears of laughter.”
“Them I’m most definitely disappointed that I slept through it,” Lena gravelly replied, rubbing at her tired eyes.
The shadows beneath them were fainter now, and what little colour her pale complexion held had returned. Even some of her bruises were faded, unconsciously healed by Lena’s magic as she slept, and the knot in Kara’s stomach eased slightly to see her more herself. Helping her to her feet, Kara’s fingers brushed Lena’s arm.
“We should eat, and then you can help me with my tree.”
“I’m intrigued to know what trouble you’ve been up to out in my woods.”
“No trouble,” Kara said with a despondent look on her face, “I asked one for help and they willingly gave it - for you. The last act of an old friend.”
Grave sorrow darkening Lena’s face, she nodded, “then we shouldn’t waste time honouring it. Quick, let’s eat.”
Sharing a loaf of bread and two pears, they washed it down with water and Lena chewed on a piece of willow bark as Kara led her to the tree. Lena faltered slightly at the sight of it, felled in between the wreckage of the violence committed, and she let out a heavy sigh as she took in the stripped curls of bark and the broken branches. They would be useful for a fire - she wouldn’t waste a single bit of the tree’s gift.
Directing Kara to carry the branches and bark back to the cottage, Lena sat cross-legged in the dirt and used her magic to split the trunk into even lengths. They were long and tall, big enough to lay the length of the cottage, and tall enough to hold the rafters up. Each one would’ve been too heavy for the two of them to carry themselves, but it was easy enough for Lena to manage, weaving them through the trees with the help of the air.
Kara watched as Lena set them down, the thick lengths clattering as they piled on the ground. They stood shoulder to shoulder while they eyed the cottage, or what remained of it - and Kara’s new wall, a little uneven but standing nonetheless - trying to think of where to start first, when Lena stiffened. She lay a hand on Kara’s arm and kissed her cheek.
“Stay here, I must check on something.”
Disappearing into the trees, she set a brisk pace, following the burning point in her mind as she wound past trunks and struggled over mounds, frost-slick moss slippery beneath her boots and her bound arm slowing her down. She came upon Alex before reaching the edge of her territory, the lingering touch of Lillian allowing her entry without befuddling her mind, and Alex startled at the sight of Lena appearing from the shadowy depths of the woods with a dark look on her face.
“Leave. Now. I was generous to you last time, for Kara’s sake-”
“Is she with you?” Alex anxiously asked, her voice rough and her appearance even rougher.
Her face was swollen and bruised, cuts still bleeding, while the rest of her was covered in patches of dried blood. Her breathing was uneven to Lena’s ears and one hand cradled her side as if she had more bruising hidden beneath her light armour. Even as she hated the danger Alex had led to her doorstep, Lena pitied her in her state.
“I will ask you politely once more before I let the woods drive you out in a less pleasant manner. Leave.”
“Kara!” Alex called out, her voice cracking on the name as it echoed through the silent forest. “Kara, I’m sorry.”
Hurried footsteps came from behind Lena, and, with a sinking stomach, she whirled around to find Kara storming right for her, and then past her as she made straight for Alex. Giving her sister a rough shove, Kara’s eyes burned with tears as shock flashed across Alex’s face and she staggered backwards and lost her balance. Falling to the ground, wincing with pain, Alex sat up and looked at Kara with a pained look, pleading and guilty.
“How could you do that,” Kara shouted, her voice breaking as she drew in a ragged breath, “how could you do that to her - to me.”
“You knew what they would do. I begged you not to and you- you just-”
Struggling to her feet, Alex gasped as she straightened up, her face twisting, before she exhaled sharply. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to-”
“I didn’t know . I didn’t know that she was … different. That she wasn’t like the rest-”
“She is like the rest! They’re like you and me, like our friends, like any other person, for good or ill. And you would be dead without her help. And how do you repay that kindness? By condemning her to the stake, after I begged you not to. You’ve burnt down her home, hurt the trees. Is that really the kind of person my sister is?”
Mouth opening and closing, Alex ducked her head, cheeks red with shame. “I didn’t mean for that to happen, I just- I wanted to keep you safe. That’s all I’ve wanted to do. As soon as I realised … I cut down six of my own men to stop them from chasing you. I’m here now to make sure that you- that you’re safe. That you’re okay.”
“Okay?” Kara bristled with a sweeping gesture towards Lena, “look at her! Do you think she looks okay?”
Grinding her teeth together, Kara balled her hands into fists, “no, Alex. How can I trust you again? How can I trust that you don’t have soldiers following you here now? That you hate so much that you’d come out here in a blizzard to kill a witch who saved your life.”
Swallowing thickly, Alex nodded in acceptance of Kara’s anger and was silent for a moment. “I have been … relieved of my duties as an interrogator for aiding a witch and murdering hunters. I would have come sooner, but I was relocated to the dungeons so …”
“They hurt you?” Kara asked, a bitter taste in her mouth as her anger abated slightly and she stared at her sisters brutalised face.
“They wanted to burn me too,” Alex shrugged, her voice trembling slightly with an edge of fear. “If not for J’onn-”
Raising her head, Alex met Kara’s eyes, her own clouded with confusion, “he snuck in and freed me. He helped me out of the castle. I’m not sure how-”
“He’s a warlock,” Kara flatly replied.
“I know. He explained things to me on the way.”
All three of them were silent for a moment, Lena tensed to attack if she needed to, although Alex looked so defeated and tired that she didn’t think it would come to blows, no matter Kara’s anger towards her sister.
“And what now?” Kara asked.
“I want to make amends. To ensure your safety.”
“I was safer without your meddling.”
“Kara,” Lena softly interrupted, “you cannot blame her for everything. My mother preyed on her ignorance. If not for that, even your sister’s hatred for me could never have caused us this much harm.”
Blinking back furious tears, Kara’s mouth thinned, “that doesn’t change things.”
“I just want to help,” Alex defeatedly pleaded, “that’s all. I can’t return back to the town; I suppose I’ll have to settle down in one of the villages now. I’m no threat to you. I love you. I- I can’t pretend to understand what this is, or how you feel, but … I can’t stand in your way, so I will do my best to help.”
“I don’t need your help. We’ll be fine on our own.”
“Look, hate me all you like,” Alex sighed, “but you said it yourself; you don’t have a house. Don’t be foolish out of your anger towards me. I’m offering you my help freely. There’s no trap in it.”
“Do what you want, Alex. You always do anyway.”
Turning around, Kara strode off into the trees, shoulders hunched with irritation as she stomped over the frosted ground and disappeared from sight. Rooted to the spot, Lena turned to look at Alex and found she didn’t quite know what to say to the woman. She had seemed regretful in the dungeons, and had put herself between Lena and Kara and the guards - although Lena wasn’t deluded into thinking it was for her benefit, only Kara’s - and that was worth something to her, even if she couldn’t bring herself to forgive Alex. As was the way with nature, the only thing to do was to let someone grow, through struggles and hardships or the sunniest day. If Alex truly meant what she said, she would learn from her mistakes in time, that much Lena was sure of.
Turning to go, Lena hesitated and turned back to watch Alex for a moment, taking in her stooped shoulders and bitter hardness of her face. Pity welled up again, for her injuries, which Lena had endured firsthand, for the lost air about her, with no home and no one else, of which Lena could also relate to. Letting out a weary sigh, she turned back around.
“There is tea,” Lena warily called to her. “And I can tend to your wounds, if you’re not afraid I’ll turn you inside out and eat your heart.”
Choking on a laugh, Alex gave her a bewildered look of incredulity. “I’m not afraid of that, no.”
Curtly nodding, Lena jerked her head the way Kara had come, “this way, then.”
She moved silently through the trees, with the grace of someone used to picking paths through ferns and bushes, over twigs and dead leaves, or hiding wherever she went. Behind her came Alex’s lumbering footsteps, crashing through the underbrush as snow dripped onto their heads and shoulders where it melted from the branches high above them. It was peaceful beneath the trees, yet Lena couldn’t relax with the knowledge that the woman who had readily imprisoned her walked a few steps behind.
They walked in tense silence, the walk long and tiring for Lena as her body ached and her head throbbed with a headache from using her magic. Alex carried a bulky pack on her back, weighed down with supplies and her weapons, yet she offered no complaints, despite her injuries.
“I really am sorry,” Alex said after a long while.
“It’s not me you need to amends with,” Lena coolly replied.
“No? Is it not my fault that you’re injured?”
With a breathless laugh, Lena wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, “yes, but you do not really care for my forgiveness, do you? You could live with it either way, if I despised or forgave you, but Kara … you care for her as deeply as I do. Perhaps more, given how long you have known her.”
“Fret not, she will come around with time. And not too much of it, I’m sure.”
“You do not want me here.”
With a rueful smile, Lena snorted, “no. The forest has no love for you and neither do I. If she had not come, I don’t think I would’ve waited to hear you out. Perhaps it’s for the best I did.”
Lena didn’t reply, just pressed onwards, until they neared the clearing. At the sight of the ruined house, Alex sucked in a quiet breath and Lena’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile as she stepped over the pile of wood and ducked through the door.
Kara was angrily trying to tug one of the splintered and burnt pillars from the ground with no luck, a scowl on her face as she cursed at splinters. Her expression softening, Lena smiled and gestured towards the post, clenching her fist and then raising it as the pillar obeyed, freeing itself from the hard ground.
Tossing the pillar out through a half-collapsed wall, Lena gave her an uneven smile as Alex warily peered inside. At the sight of her sister, Kara gave her a cold shoulder and busied herself with the pile of debris.
Moving over to the fireplace, Lena used her magic to light a fire, her eyes glancing sideways to Alex, watching with amusement as she paled and stiffened before forcing herself to relax. Setting tea on to boil, Lena refilled the bowl with fresh water and beckoned Alex over to the fire. Sprawling before the flames, her jaw clenched as she rubbed some warmth into her hands, Alex eyed Lena with suspicion as she dipped a rag in the freezing cold water.
“It’s just water,” Lena said as she pressed the rag to Alex’s cut cheek, biting back a smile as the ex-hunter jumped. Wiping away crusted blood, Lena watched her shrewdly, taking in the way Alex closed her eyes and held her breath, as if waiting for Lena to hurt her. “Does my touch really repulse you so much?”
“No,” Alex snapped, flushing beneath her wounds, “I just- the water’s cold. That’s all.”
Nodding, Lena smiled sharply, enjoying herself as she listened to the ruckus Kara was making in the far corner. “Well, I would’ve been able to heal you better if all my salves hadn’t been turned to ash and smoke, but clearing them out will help them heal better. If you trust me enough, I could even knit the edges back together with a spell - they’re not very deep.”
“You- you can do that?”
“What, heal? With magic? Of course. It’s difficult, and herbs and tinctures work just as well, but that’s what we mostly deal in. Anything related to the natural world and her elements. How else do you think I cured you of the sickness?”
“Did- did you really do that?”
With a scoffing laugh, Lena arched an eyebrow and wrung out the rag, “of course I did. I’ve never seen someone so desperate before. It was painful to see her anguish. I think letting her cut my head off might’ve been more bearable, but alas, I’m far too attached to it.”
Despite her unease, Alex let out a snort of laughter and Lena heard Kara falter, her movements quietening briefly. Glancing over, she caught a look of confusion of Kara’s face, torn between annoyance and delight at the fact that Lena was capable of making even Alex’s scepticism waver in light of her personality. But she also seemed bewildered at how Lena could stomach to be in her presence after what had transpired. Giving her an encouraging smile, Lena turned back to Alex and continued to tend to her wounds.
Bruises less livid as she leached the blood from beneath the skin, cuts scabbed over and left to heal on their own, and looking remarkably less ghastly without the layer of blood caked to her face, Alex seemed younger and drawn. She didn’t falter though, leaping straight to her feet after draining the scalding cup of tea Lena had handed her, and walking over to the piles of rocks Kara was shifting.
Kara’s protests were cut off by Alex seizing an armful of stone and flinging it over the low wall. Neither of them spoke, and Lena watched with curiosity, drinking her fill of the tea as it pleasantly numbed her pain and slowed her mind. She spent her time removing the remains of the rafters and pillars, and once she was done, she used magic to hold the new ones in place, deep enough in the hard earth that they would never keel over on top of her. She caught Alex watching her from the corner of her eye more than once.
With the three of them working in quick, uneasy silence, they made more progress than Lena had anticipated, support beams shored up with magic, and another wall finished as Lena reduced the already damaged wound down to more ash for mortar. They were all filthy, covered in soot and stone dust and wood chips, arms arching and backs stiff, but the cottage looked more like a building than a ruin.
The afternoon wore on and the light waned as the sun sank lower and its rays found it harder to seep through the cracks in the canopy. With a fire in the hearth, they had enough light to keep working, aided by a few witchlights of Lena’s creation, and soon enough, they had four even walls and the support beams laid across them. There was no hope of erecting a roof that night, but the rafters and supports were all shored up - some by magic alone - and Lena was spent, her magic running on the fumes of her strengths.
Collapsing to the floor, she let out a heavy breath and swiped a hand across her forehead before speaking. “I’m done. I can do no more today.”
The other two women paused and shared a look, before Kara walked over to Lena and dropped down to her knees beside her. “Are you okay? Are your ribs troubling you?”
Waving her aside, Lena gave her a crooked smile and touched her cheek, “I’m fine. All will be well. Let’s eat and sleep; the night will be warmer with four walls around us, and for that, I’m grateful.”
“It’s a start,” Kara sighed, climbing to her feet and dusting herself off.
Alex lingered uncertainly in the middle of the house, the shadows seeming darker as they coalesced in the corners of the four walls. Taking what food they had, Kara shared it with Lena and silently offered some to Alex, who waved her aside and removed her own rations from her pack, taking a seat further from the fire as they ate silently.
“It’s warmer by the fire,” Lena loudly said as she stared into the flames, the lines of her face looking gaunt as she chewed thoughtfully.
She heard Alex shift closer and felt satisfaction flood through her as Kara shifted to make room. There was a palpable air of unease around them, and no one seemed willing to address it, and then it was time for bed. With the bedrolls of the soldiers and proper walls to stave off most of the wind, their sleep was far more comfortable than it had been the night before, although they didn’t recall much of it. Alex rolled her own bedroll out before the fire, the dark canopy spread out above her, and they were all left to their own thoughts until sleep took them.
Awaking with the dawn, feeling a little more rested, despite the stiffness of the cold, Lena was up first, brewing tea with their dwindling supply of herbs as she made a thing stew in the cauldron. The bread was harder that morning and they only managed to get it down from hunger and by softening it in the stew, but Lena didn’t mind; she’d had worse and knew what true starvation felt like.
Without talking, they returned to their tasks, and both Kara and Lena were left wondering how long Alex intended to stay. It was clear that she wouldn’t be welcomed there forever, the three of them to cram into their newly erected cottage to pretend as if nought had happened, but while she was helping, they didn’t see a reason to turn her away just yet.
Through the morning, they got wooden planks nailed to the beams of the skeletal roof, Lena using magic to lodge twisted scraps of metal to keep them in place, and she found that Alex was handy with the small hammer she’d brought with her to change the shoes of the horse tied up at the edge of the forest. As Kara split planks of wood into small sections, Alex nailed home the tiny shrapnel to keep the new shingles in place, while Lena set about using magic to shore up the holes where windowpanes would eventually fit.
By midday, they had a house. Rough and mismatching, no fond layer of moss covering the green wood of newly cut shingles, the lower walls black from smoke and soot, contrasting with the grey of new rocks, and the chimney was not quite its full height just yet, but it was a house. There was no furniture inside, and not even a door hanging in the empty mouth, but it had four walls and a roof and Lena smiled widely at both women as she dusted off her hands and used magic to heal her blisters and scrapes.
It was then that Alex spoke, clearing her throat as she wiped at her sore hands with a damp rag, her face set in a frown and her shoulders hunched. “I will leave you now.”
There was a brief moment of silence as Lena looked to Kara, who was speechless as an agonised look crossed her face. “I- where will you go?”
“The closest town. I’ll be close by then, if- if you need anything. I can … bring you supplies. You know, flour and fruit and- and cheese. Books, if you like, and bandages for you too, Lena. I’ll be able to find good work with the blacksmith, I think, or even as a village watchman for, you know, witches. I’ll be able to make sure they don’t take anyone that way.”
“I will,” Alex promised. “Maybe one day I’ll be able to atone for what I’ve done, and with each innocent I save from the stake … perhaps you’ll forgive me a little more.”
“Yes,” Kara muttered, staring at the ground, “perhaps.”
“Until then … well, I’ll come whenever you need me.”
Nodding, Kara turned to look at the house, arms folded across her chest with a stern look on her face that didn’t quite mask the way she swallowed around the lump in her throat or the glassy look in her eyes. Lena stepped inside to don her cloak while Alex packed her things.
“I’ll walk you to the edge of the woods; the trees will listen to me.”
“Thank you,” Alex nodded as she stepped past her.
Stepping outside and into the shadows of the first trees, Lena gave the sisters a moment of privacy as they both stood before the house, neither of them speaking for the longest moment. And then Alex sighed and rubbed at the back of her neck.
“I see now how wrong I was. I see how much she cares for you, how much you care for her . It pains me to have caused you both so much trouble, but … I’m glad that you’ll be happy here. That there will be no more secrets, no more partings from her. I trust her to keep you safe, Kara, but … I also trust her to make you happy, and for that … I cannot bring myself to hate her, no matter what we’ve been taught. I think … you were right. All those people in that town and you were the only one to see things clearly, and if there is one thing I do not regret that came of what I did, it’s that you opened my eyes. I hope one day you will think I’m deserving of your forgiveness, but until then, I’ll be waiting.”
Having said her piece, Alex drew in a deep breath and walked towards Lena, who watched on with a frown on her face, eyes flashing a stern look at Kara, who remained still and silent. And then she closed her eyes and drew in a breath, her face screwed up as if it hurt her to speak.
Alex turned around, a spark of hope in her brown eyes, and Kara gave her a grim smile, “I can’t bring myself to forgive you - not yet, and maybe not ever - but … thank you. Thank you for coming, for apologising, for helping us flee the castle. I know it would’ve been … difficult for you to turn your back on your life. You-” Kara faltered and let out a huff before trying again, “you’re welcome here, if you ever want to visit.”
A tentative smile broke out on Alex’s face and she crossed the gap and wrapped Kara in a bear hug, tight and rough, before pulling back, tears in her eyes. “Thank you.”
Shrugging her off with a clouded look on her face, Kara nodded and fiddled with the cuffs of her blue coat. With that being the end of her limits for the day, Kara turned back towards the house and Alex walked over to Lena, falling into step beside her.
When they made it out of earshot and sight of the cottage, Alex let out a sigh, shaky with relief, and glanced sideways at Lena, giving her a wan smile. “You know, for a moment there, I didn’t think she was going to say anything.”
“You know her heart,” Lena firmly replied, “you know she wouldn’t have let you go while holding onto her anger.”
“I used to know her,” Alex said, a troubled look creasing her brow, “but it seems she’s more stubborn and willful than I’d ever known. Yet, she is still as sweet and trusting as ever.”
“She has not changed from the woman you knew, only … grown, perhaps. As you will too, with time. Trust was not easily coaxed from her either, you know. Although … she was never quite as successful at killing me as you nearly were. It’s hard to believe her heart was ever really in it.”
Choking on a laugh, Alex shook her head, biting back a smile as they forged ahead. They didn’t speak much on the walk, but the air between them seemed less charged with tension than it had the day before, and Lena no longer feared she’d feel the point of a sword between her shoulder blades if she let her guard down. It was almost pleasant, the air bitingly cold and the ground covered in a fresh layer of frost and snow as water dripped from the branches. Spring would not be too far off, and things would be better with the first signs of green pushing up through the earth, but for now, the peace of winter was a welcome friend.
They walked to the very edge of the trees, coming out right where Alex’s horse was hitched to a low-hanging branch, and Lena lingered in the shade as she watched Alex tie her pack to the back of the animal. Fiddling with a strap, Alex lingered a moment with a troubled look on her face before she whirled around to face Lena.
“I was wrong about you,” Alex blurted out, “so very wrong. I see now that you truly to care for her, that it’s no spell, no trickery. I’m not even convinced that magic is capable of that anymore, or that you’d ever use it.”
She let out a soft laugh and Lena gave her a thin smile in return. “It is capable of that, but I wouldn’t. Not on her, or anyone else. Love is tricky enough without meddling with magic.”
Smiling slightly at Lena’s gracious manner, Alex inclined her head, “I hope it will be less tricky for you now. Without my meddling.”
“Oh, I’m sure my mother will pop back up one day, and she is infinitely more dangerous than you. ”
“For what it’s worth, I hope she doesn’t. I don’t know you well, or really at all, to be honest, but I see the goodness in you, and the sorrow. I can’t imagine the life you’ve lived, but I hope … from now on, it will be a good one. I will strive to ensure that for you.”
“It is a kind wish. I’m grateful for it,” Lena murmured.
Nodding, Alex swung herself up into the saddle, having said her piece and accepted what awkward truce had come of it. Before she could kick her steed into motion, Lena stepped forward and lay a hand on his muzzle to stay him, and looked up at Alex with a strained smile.
“I know the offer has already been extended, but you are welcome to visit. If you should ever like to.”
Slowly, a smile spread across Alex’s face, her eyes creasing slightly at the corners as she nodded, speechless for a moment. “I would like to very much. I would like to make amends, to you and the trees.”
At the mention of the trees, something akin to peace settled in Lena’s heart, the knowledge that they really were safe from Alex, that she did regret her actions and would try her best to accept Lena as she was. If Lena was upset about the destruction of her old friends, Alex would not mock it but help, and that was a bigger sign of her intentions than any she’d offered Lena beforehand.
“Then on our next meeting,” Lena said drawing her hand back.
Shrinking back into the safety of the trees and her wards, Lena lingered as she watched Alex ride away, the world an empty whiteness stretching out in every direction as snow came down from the mountains and dipped the whole world in frost. Once Alex was nothing more than a dark speck against the startling white, she turned and made for home, walking through the woods with a heavy mind and a light heart, taking her time as she felt the magic stir in her bones, the threads of everything alive tangled around her as she whispered to the trees and let what little strength she had left go towards the injuries she bore.
When she finally came upon the cottage, it was to the sight of a crudely made door being hung up in the doorway, Kara’s shoulders bunching as she cursed and struggled. With a quiet laugh, Lena used magic to attach the old hinges to the wood and sunk them into the stone, leaving the crooked door hanging by itself. Turning around, Kara gave her an equally as crooked smile as one side of her mouth hitched upwards and her blue eyes softened.
“Now … we rebuild our home.”
Spring came in a flurry of green, welcome and warm as the last frosts faded and their rainy days were spent walking through the new world of green that erupted in the woods. Aided by magic, fruit and vegetables and herbs flourished in abundance, and the woods were filled with the lively sound of leaves rustling as the trees awoke from their slumber and gossiped about the newest resident of the woods.
Off in the northern section, a particularly dank area that was shadowed and wet, Kara crouched as she cut away mushrooms, an eager delight to her lean face as she placed them in the woven basket. It was already overflowing with the things she’d foraged for on her wandering walk, shafts of green sunlight warming her skin as she traversed the now-familiar swathe of trees. Yellow dandelions, the first of the blackberries, sweetpeas and gorse, mint and chamomile. Over the months, Lena had taught her well about which plants were useful and how to identify them, even more so than she had before when Kara would visit, now that their survival depended on it.
The few animals that Lena annually let through her wards were noisy around her, from birds to squirrels to droning bees, all of them helping to aid the forest in its growth, and Kara’s heart was light and filled with happiness as she whistled tunelessly on the walk back to the cottage. It was on the cusp of summer now, the months slipping by with startling speed, and the bitter darkness of winter was long behind them.
Now, their days were spent with shed cloaks, the weather warm enough to do without, and bathing in the frigid waters of the stream, which had swollen with the abundance of snow melting in the mountains, overflowing the muddy banks. Their nights were spent huddled up in the cottage, reading books sent by J’onn as they drank various teas, the spring bringing more herbs for flavour, while Kara spun the wool sheared from ewes that strayed too far from the flock, finding that her time working a wheel to make thread for book bindings had left her with some useful skills. Sometimes, when the skies were clear, they even walked out to the plains, the wild grass brushing their calves as they stared up at the sky and Lena pointed out constellations and told her what the stars were singing.
It was a peaceful life, and Kara found herself content, the hardest part behind them now. There had been attempted raids at the beginning, the soldiers still remembering that Lena had been found in the woods, but from the safety of their cottage, Lena let them cross the wards and then gently eased them back out, cloudy-eyed with forgetfulness until they made the long trip back to the walled town. It had been weeks since the last, and it didn’t trouble them like they once had. Kara had no fear of being found, for now, she was with Lena, and all was well as long as they were together.
Coming upon the cottage, Kara’s face split into a wide smile at the thin trail of smoke from the chimneys and the orange glow from behind the warped windowpanes Lena had made, collecting sand from the beach on one such trip to the cliffs and melting it down until it had turned transparent. They even had curtains now, and a lovely woven rug that filled the earthen floor of their cottage, courtesy of Alex, who visited once a month, laden with gifts and supplies, putting most of her wages into it, Kara thought.
Stepping in through their new door, much less crooked and flimsy than the one Kara had constructed months ago, Kara let out a contented sigh at the sight of Lena sitting before the fire, darning their shirts and skirts and pants, which always seemed to get snagged on something . Her dark hair was as wild as ever, and Kara knew that she’d succumbed to the effects of the woods too, a feral air about her in her patched clothes, leaves and flowers caught in her hair and a hungry edge to the lines of her face. They were a pair well-matched now.
“I’m home!” she announced, kicking off her boots beside the door and holding up her basket, “and look what I found!”
A smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, Lena raised her eyebrows in question as Kara moved over to their table, one leg a little shorter than the other three, giving it a maddening unevenness as it rocked ever so slightly. Setting the basket down, Kara beamed as she displayed her found mushrooms.
“Look! For our tea,” she proudly proclaimed. “I even remembered to bruise them so they turned yellow.”
Climbing to her feet, Lena smiled as she walked over to her, taking Kara’s face in her hands as she kissed her softly. “Perfect. I can show you how to make it again.”
“No luck on the lemon balm, but I did pass a birch tree and got you some more bark, for that equinox ritual you told me about before.”
“You’re too good to me,” Lena murmured, kissing her again. “I found gull eggs while I was collecting shells; we’ll have a good breakfast in the morning, I think, with those sausages your sister brought last time.”
They fell into easy conversation as they worked in tandem to sift through what Kara had scrounged up and store them. The cottage was in stark contrast to how it had looked when they’d come upon it, nearly reduced to ashes. Now, it was overflowing with things, perhaps more than Lena had once owned. New shelves had been erected, jam-packed with clay pots they’d made from the soft clay on the riverbanks when the water had flooded them, little vials gifted by Alex, and dried bundles of medicinal herbs. Soon, they hoped to make jams and collect honey from a good spot Lena knew where a hive had been for the last three years.
They had a chest with all their clothes and new kitchen counters, already worn and stained from Lena’s potion-making and cooking. They had chairs and a bed laden with blankets, rafters filled with strings of wild garlic and onions, dried meats and salted fish and string sacks bursting with leather and wool. Things had not been so hard as they’d thought, with Alex bringing them luxuries they would not have been afforded otherwise. Even their book collection had modestly grown, and they enjoyed sitting by the fire, one of them reading aloud while the other was otherwise occupied by some task.
It was a satisfying life, one that rewarded hard work and was worlds away from the stifling streets of a town filled with hatred. Kara would not have returned for any reason, not even if Lena had been allowed to return with her. They enjoyed their peace, and, together, they were not lonely. Kara could never recall a time when she’d felt such happiness, rising and sleeping beside her love every day, with the knowledge in her heart that she had freely given it to someone who cherished it.
Rinsing her hands of the green sap of the plants, Kara wiped them dry and hefted the kettle onto the table, smiling widely at Lena as green sunlight swept in through the windows and the twittering of birds was just audible outside. It was a good day and Kara felt excitement kindle inside her, right beside the overwhelming love that she felt would burst out of her one day, so much of it that she didn’t know how it fit. And with Lena beside her, it felt even more perfect, the familiar routine settling over them as Lena picked up a mushroom and gave Kara a crooked smile.
“Let’s make some tea.”