It is the twenty first of December, the beginning of the second savaed on the Elvish calendar and traditionally a time of solemn reflection on the longest night of the year. The elvish name, Midinváerne, has fallen into disuse over the centuries, and the celebration is now called the Winter Solstice by the very descendants of those humans who had driven the elves out of their own lands.
The sun-drenched afternoons of summer are a distant dream on this particular afternoon as the lands have been seized by winter’s icy grip. Vicious snow squalls rose from the sea three weeks earlier, crossing the width of the continent to collide with the Blue Mountains. In the short span since, the cold has frozen the lakes with six inches of ice, ruined countless fields of winter crops, and rendered the roads impassable to all but the most determined of travelers.
Despite the miserable weather, the druids are already gathering at the highest peaks and the deepest valleys for solemn ceremonies held around the standing stones of old. Mages are cloistering themselves in secret locations, preparing themselves to explore the limits of their powers, be it a challenging potion or a desired enchantment. This is the longest night of the year, after all, the time when fearsome monsters walk the earth, when magic is at its strongest, and when even seemingly impossible spells might be made manageable.
The esoteric significance of the axis of the planet relative to the position of the sun is lost on the rest of the land, but the holiday offers an excuse for cheer and celebration in this dark world. Lords across the land are holding lavish feasts for scores of guests inside their halls, entertained by hired musicians and mummers. Craftsmen in stone houses are cooking meals of roast pork and vegetables, and breaking open casks of ale to toast the coming year. Peasants in humble huts exchange autumn apples near the hearth, sharing their small spaces with meagre flocks of sheep and chickens. Bonfires light up the valleys; the only time the dispossessed might safely gather as those who hunted them the rest of the year are deep into their mugs of ale.
And there are few who have not joined in the festivities, preferring isolation for reasons known only to themselves.
In the middle of a snow-covered forest, leagues away from the nearest settlement, and further still from any warmth or celebration, a horse and a woman stand silently in the snow, watching the waning light of the sun in the west. The temperature hovers at freezing, and the sky is clear in the way that cold winter skies often are; cloudless and a dusky blue. Although it is only a little after three in the afternoon, the white expanse of the forest floor is streaked by the stretching shadows of the spreading boughs above.
The pair blend well into the dappled wilderness; the mare is the colour of a dove’s wing, with a sloping shoulder and good bone, and is as sturdily built as her rider is slender. The woman’s travelling cloak is a tightly woven blue wool, and the deep hood is drawn up to cover her head. Only her small mouth and sharp chin show from beneath its shadow, the infrequent puff of an exhalation misting in the air, dissipating into nothingness. Her legs hang loose at the mare’s sides; a reprieve from the chill of iron stirrups that readily slips through the leather of her boots, and her gloved fingers twitch every so often, slacking and tightening the reins to maintain contact as the horse shifts position from one side to the other, mouthing at the bit.
The woman watches the forest silently, just as she has for the last four hours.
When the moment she is waiting for comes, it is sudden. The natural sounds of the forest - the faint call of a bird in the distance, the thump of snow slipping from branches to the ground - are disrupted by the decidedly unnatural; the flare of magic and the deep static hum of a portal appearing above the ground thirty paces away.
The horse's ears twitch forwards as a dark-haired woman in a fur-trimmed dress the colour of dusk steps out of the slice in the cold air and promptly sinks up to her knees in snow with a muffled cry of surprise. Grumbling, she brushes off her boots and straightens again to look up at the surrounding landscape, tossing her head so that her long hair tumbles down her back in smooth waves.
‘You’re early,’ she calls out after spotting the shadowed pair under the tree.
‘You are late, Yennefer,’ comes the terse reply. ‘By two hours, no less.’
She holds up a small pocket watch as if to show the lateness of the hour before tucking the device back into the folds of her dress, encouraging her horse forward into the dying sunlight with a shift in her seat. Out of the shadows, lit by the faint light reflecting off the snow, it is easier to see the fine features under her hood: an interesting nose, clear blue eyes framed by expressive eyebrows, and an angular face that is both too young and too old at the same time.
Yennefer’s eyebrows rise as she takes in the saddlebags on the horse.
‘Did you ride all the way here from Gors Velen, Tissaia?’
‘Portals can be tracked.’ Tissaia’s tone edges towards sharpness again. 'Did you not think to bring a mount? The snow is just as deep throughout the forest.’
Yennefer wraps her long shawl around her shoulders and begins to pick her way through the snow, choosing the shallowest places to step. There aren’t many.
‘I was in a rush leaving Toussaint, the details of which-' she pauses, taking a long stride over another drift of snow, ‘-we can explore at another time.’ Another few steps, a grimace as she clambers over a log and lands in a patch of snow. ‘Your mare can easily carry two of us; I’m sure it isn’t far to the clearing from here, or so says my map.’
Almost as if she can understand the words, the grey mare shakes her large head and snorts, warm breath billowing from flared nostrils in the freezing air.
Yennefer pats the horse on the shoulder, and glances up at Tissaia, her lips quirking into a genuine smile. ‘It is good to see you, Tissaia,’ she says softly. ‘Thank you for coming.’
Tissaia meets her gaze for a moment before casting her eyes up to the sky and freeing her foot from her stirrup to allow Yennefer a way up.
The forest is quiet as they ride between the trees, the sounds under the canopy dampened from the fresh snowfall, but their passage is decidedly noisy. The constant creak of leather and the metal bit jingles in a syncopated rhythm to the sound of the mare’s hooves crunching through the harder crust of old snow frozen below new powder. Tissaia lets the horse have her head, only correcting their direction every once in a while with a gentle touch of her leg. Yennefer is perched behind her, gloved hands lightly resting on the woman’s hips to keep her balance on the broad back.
‘I have never been to this part of Brokilon,' Yennefer muses, gazing out into the trees. The trunks of smooth beeches and pale birches glow golden against the snow, extending as far as the eye can see, and tens of miles beyond. She feels herself sliding a little and adjusts her position so her legs won't bounce against the mare’s sides - the flick of ears is telling. ‘It’s surprisingly peaceful for a place called ‘The Forest of Death’.’
‘The dryads set it aside for neutral ground centuries ago - though there are few humans who remember this area as safe, given the fearsome reputation that surrounds it. Their forgetfulness suits its inhabitants quite well.’
‘And what creatures do live here? Basilisks? Alghouls?’
‘Deer, for the most part.’ Tissaia eyes are fixed on the spreading limbs of an oak as they walk past. The hood of her cloak has been pushed back to her shoulders, showing the smooth hair bound up at the base of her neck, the fine hairs reddish in the dimming light. ‘There is a valley to the west where a herd of unicorns spent the winter months.’
'Unicorns, Tissaia? And you only tell me this now?’ Yennefer makes a pleased sound deep in her chest. ‘I don’t suppose we might tempt one out of the woods with promises of a golden bridle and a maiden’s lap to rest its head in?’
Tissaia ignores her, occupied with examining the distant stand of beech trees fifty paces to their left across a frozen stream too wide to jump. Yennefer leans forward until her chin is touching Tissaia’s shoulder, and the timbre of her voice deepens.
‘Truthfully, I doubt I’d qualify as virginal by even the most generous of descriptions, so that particular task might fall into your lap.’
She can feel the withering look that she can’t see - the stiffened spine against her front, the shift in the position of the woman’s head signalling the rising of a chin.
'While I am loath to shatter your presumptions of my innocence in such matters, Yennefer, I shall instead remind you that the last living unicorn was sighted more than half a century ago. You might as well wish for King Foltest to show up with a paper horn on his forehead and have him trade Temeria for a single acorn.'
Yennefer hums warmly. ‘That sounds like a challenge, Tissaia. What will you wager?’
‘Not even you could be that charming. Foltest is much too fond of his crown to give it up to any temptation, no matter how enticing.’
Yennefer rolls her eyes and straightens up again. The shift in her weight causes the mare to hesitate mid-stride, catching a hind leg on a branch hidden under the snow. Tissaia grimaces as the woman’s chest collides with her shoulders as the horse stumbles forwards, barely catching her footing. It is a moment before the horse can be convinced to continue on, shaking her head at the fallen trunk covered in new snow, nostrils wide.
‘Extirpated magical species aside,’ Yennefer continues when they are going forwards again, ‘what are you searching for so keenly, Tissaia? I can feel your head turning every which-way - it’s making me dizzy.’
'My suppliers have come up short on certain plants as of late - the snows haven’t helped. I mean to take some mistletoe back with me to Gors Velen.’
‘Oh? For any particular purpose?’
‘Potions, if you can imagine.’
Yennefer watches slyly.
‘Only potions? Rumours are floating in Beauclair that a certain duchess recently donated a tidy sum to a school of magic after the November feasts. I don’t suppose you had anything to do with her generosity? It is certainly the talk of Toussaint - I know there’s at least three ballads about it by now.’
‘I see your imagination is as colourful as ever.’
Yennefer lets loose a bright laugh. ‘Allow me my wonderings, Tissaia. You’ve held on to your air of mystery more ably than most mages. I’m still never quite certain what you’re thinking.’
'Allow me my secrets, Yennefer,’ Tissaia says tightly. ‘There is no sense in revealing every last detail of my life - nor the minutiae of the present.'
Yennefer clicks her tongue against the back of her top teeth. 'And yet you agreed to ride for days to reach a long-forgotten shrine in the middle of an enchanted forest on the night when magic is at its strongest, all because I asked you nicely.' She strokes a light line down Tissaia’s back with the back of her fingers. 'I think my charms are working quite...shit!'
Yennefer yelps as the mare suddenly surges forward into a lurching leap over a deep snow drift at the bottom of a bank. Yennefer slides back, dangerously close to toppling over the horse's tail, only saving herself from falling with a desperate clutch at Tissaia. There is an instant flush of pain as her muscles are pulled to their limit and she is left with her right leg hanging lower than the other, her left knee hooked unsteadily across the mare’s back as the horse dances sideways.
‘Sit up,’ Tissaia snaps out, stifled by the arm thrown around her hips, the weight of the other woman pressed against her right thigh, ‘or you’re going to drag us both off.’
‘If you were any other person,’ Yennefer grunts out, clutching onto the saddle with one hand, trying to right herself by pushing herself up as the mare sidepasses nervously away from the dangling weight on her side, ‘I would accuse you of having done that on purpose.’
‘And if you insist on sitting there like a bag of potatoes,’ Tissaia retorts, ‘do not be surprised when the mare spooks. The option to get off and walk remains to you.’
‘Not in this snow.’ Yennefer grimaces, having finally pulled herself back into an upright position as the mare settles under Tissaia’s firm direction. Yennefer can already feel the ache setting into her left side and abdominal muscles - and knows she’ll be sore tomorrow. ‘I thought you didn’t tolerate disobedience, Rectoress.’
‘You must have squeezed her flanks with all your writhing about.’
Neither of them makes mention of the fact that Yennefer’s body is still pressing tightly against Tissaia’s, closer even than before, breasts against back, arms wrapped around the woman’s slim waist. Every shift in Tissaia’s seat, the slight movements of her legs to direct the horse, is felt in turn by Yennefer.
‘You insist on a responsive creature under your control.’ Yennefer says softly, stroking her palm in a slow trail across Tissaia’s belly. She feels the shiver against her fingers, the jump of muscles tensing at her touch. ‘How utterly unsurprising. I assume this applies to everything you...’
Tissaia brings the horse to a halt and for a moment, Yennefer thinks she might have pressed the woman’s tolerance just a bit too far. But Tissaia stays silent, and Yennefer looks up past her shoulder to see why they’ve stopped, and then blinks at what she sees.
They are at the edge of a clearing ringed by oak trees, a shallow valley that is roughly three times the size of the great hall in Aretuza, with three steeper sides and one gradual one. The sun is settling below the horizon and the surrounding trees cast twisting shadows across a single dark obelisk standing in the center of the space, twice the height of a tall man, broken off at the top. The fractured remnants of the fallen half lie on the ground, covered by a heavy dusting of snow. It’s a crumbling artifact of the vanished elves, long lost to memory, and known to Yennefer only through a rough sketch in a yellowed tome.
‘Your Witcher is not here,’ Tissaia says flatly.
‘Geralt always arrives in his own time,’ Yennefer sighs, releasing her hold from Tissaia’s waist. ‘We may as well make camp here. If anything is going to show up tonight, friend or foe, it will be best to be close to the shrine, and with a good view in every direction.’
It is a short ride down the bank, the horse’s back legs slipping a bit as she navigates the snow-covered slope. Yennefer leans forward into Tissaia, grasping the cantle of the saddle, and brings her leg over to slide off the mare’s back. She misjudges the depth of the ice below the new snow and winces at the shock to her knees when her boots hit the ground.
Tissaia dismounts gracefully, dropping lightly to the snow with enviable familiarity. She sets to untacking the mare without a word, unstrapping the two small bags hanging on either side of the saddle and moving to loosen the girth. The horse’s head is hanging low, and her dappled coat has darker streaks of sweat. Obviously the ride through the deep snow with two riders has been more strenuous than it had looked.
The clearing is colder here - the air settling as it cools into the basin, and it will be an uncomfortable night if the temperature drops much further. Tugging her shawl over her head, Yennefer trudges off to search for dry wood for a fire, leaving a trail of deep footprints in her wake. It doesn’t take long to gather the lowest branches of a lightning-struck beech, the wood drier than anything she’ll find under the snow.
Yennefer returns to find the tack and bags neatly stacked on the fallen segment of the monolith, the mare occupied with a bag of oats and crushed corn nearby, steam rising from her back. Tissaia is bent over the near foreleg, cleaning out the ice and balled snow from the hoof with an iron pick. Dropping her armful of branches on the snow, Yennefer selects a place ten paces away from the shrine to set up their makeshift camp, and begins walking back and forth until the snow is compressed down evenly. Satisfied, she lays down the stoutest of the branches down on the snow to provide a rough platform on which to build the fire, protecting it from the melting snow that is inevitable. She uses her belt knife to shave some curls off the driest of the remaining wood to use as tinder - the blade slipping a little as she clutches the handle with numb fingers.
The fire is reluctant to light, but after a bit of arranging of twigs, and a whispered spell, it catches. Yennefer watches the fire for a time, feeding it with more branches before she’s certain that it won’t go out, and she unfolds the crimson saddle blanket on the ground two paces away, casting a charm to keep the chill from seeping through the bottom. Finished her preparations - they’ll at least have some protection from the cold tonight - Yennefer tucks her gloves into her belt and retrieves the leather satchel she’d brought along from the pile nearby. From the bag she produces a wrapped linen package, a long loaf of bread, and a corked wine bottle. Yennefer sets the bread to warm on a flat rock near the fire, and tugs the length of linen out from around the parcel.
A sound of crunching snow behind her tells her that Tissaia has moved over to join her.
‘Peppered sausage, meat pies,’ Yennefer says, not looking up, placing each item on the blanket as she removes them from the package, ‘waxed cheeses from the finest Beauclair cheese shop - there’s an Edam that is unparalleled.’ Another parcel is set down, wrapped in brown paper. ‘Cured olives, chestnuts, dried fruits and sweet oranges.’ A small circular box, stamped with a small seal. ‘And a powdered sweet called lokum that tastes of roses from the Ofiri confectioner of the Duchess's. It’s divine.’
Tissaia eyes the packages strewn in front of her. ‘You brought enough for four people, I see.’
Yennefer shrugs. ‘I thought you might like a taste of what you’ve been missing in your cloistered state, cut off from the luxuries of the rest of the frozen world. I had to fight a man for those cheeses - I shan’t let you sleep without tasting each of them.’ She frowns at the dark bottle. ‘We’ll have to take turns with the wine - I didn’t think to bring glasses.’
Tissaia settles down on the blanket, folding her legs to one side, and Yennefer sets to preparing their meal. The food is excellent - it is the best that money can buy in Beauclair, after all - and they take turns passing the bottle back and forth as the stars come out in the deepening sky. The crusty loaf of bread is gingerly removed from the heated rock with quick pokes of the fingers, and when broken, fragrant steam rises from the inside, smelling freshly baked even in the cold air. The cheeses - there are five different varieties in all, each fitting into the palm of the hand - are carefully unwrapped from their wax rinds, and cut into narrow wedges. The sausage is carved into parchment-thin sections, translucent to firelight, and the crushed peppercorns within are hot but not unbearably so.
The horse finishes lipping up her meal of grain and crushed corn and moves over to investigate, stopping near the blanket and nosing at the edge, snorting, nostrils flaring. Yennefer watches as Tissaia takes out a russetted harvest apple from one of her own saddlebags and slices it into sections, passing up perfectly-proportioned pieces to the mare, who arches her neck to gently nibble at the offered treats. Tissaia hands the final slice to Yennefer, supple gloves brushing against cool skin. Yennefer rolls her eyes, but eats it anyway, tasting the tartness of the flesh on her tongue.
When they’ve worked their way through much of the food, and packed the rest away for the morning, Yennefer retrieves a square wooden box from the very bottom of the bag. Nestled inside is a delicate small cake of ground almond flour and egg, flavoured with ginger and cardamom, and filled with a narrow seam of summer honey. It’s a cake in the elven tradition, courtesy of a Toussaint baker. Yennefer breaks the cake into two and offers half to Tissaia while licking the side of her hand clean of the sticky sweetness that seeps out.
‘A fair Solstice, Tissaia,’ she says before the first bite of the cake, as is tradition.
‘A blessed Midinváerne to you, Yennefer,’ the woman says solemnly. ‘May the lengthening days ahead be bright with the returning sun.’
Yennefer’s hand stills mid-air as she brings the cake up to her lips. When Tissaia speaks the words, it is as if there is a significance to them rather than the traditional saying over exchanged food. It makes Yennefer feel as if one of the coals from the fire is stuck in her belly, filling her body with sustained warmth.
(It makes Yennefer feel cared for.)
It is barely seven o’clock now, but the deep velvet of the night sky is now speckled with countless twinkling stars and with the darkness comes the predicted precipitous drop in temperature. Taking stock of their dwindling supply of branches for the fire, Yennefer brushes the crumbs off her skirts and sets off in search of more wood, venturing up the bank and into deeper drifts of snow. It takes time to find another dead standing tree, and Yennefer returns to the clearing to find Tissaia has coaxed the mare to settle down on the blanket and is feeding her the remaining apple piece by piece, a soft expression on the woman’s face as she scratches a particular spot on the top of the mare’s neck. The grey horse is leaning into her hand, upper lip wiggling in satisfaction.
Yennefer weaves a simple spell around the rim of the clearing that will warn of any intrusion into the space. It takes only a moment more to reinforce one edge again where a dense collection of rocks weakens the casting, and she moves back to the blanket, gathering her skirts so they don't pull at her knees before settling down next to Tissaia’s right. Yennefer winces when her abdomen tenses in the motion of sitting - she’s still sore from her riding mishap.
It’s below freezing now, but with the horse’s belly warm at their backs and the crackling fire radiating welcome heat, the chill is made tolerable. Somewhere in the distance, there is the quiet call of an owl from deeper in the woods. It fits right in with the noises of the night echoing strangely in this sleeping landscape.
Tissaia is gazing up at the sky, her arms tightly folded across her chest, her shoulders hunched up slightly, like a bird that’s fluffed up its feathers. Her eyes are unfocused, looking at the faint starlight above. It is only when the owl calls again that Yennefer finally breaks the silence.
‘Tied to your academy as ever, Tissaia?’ Yennefer intones, lips turned up in a half-smile. ‘Even now you’re thinking about the best way to bore a girl with the ambiguous arts of astronomy.’ She plucks at her own shawl, picking at a loose thread of one of the embroidered stars, before readjusting it to covet the uncomfortable gap where cold air seeps down the back of her neck whenever she moves. ‘If it's a theoretical discussion you seek, you'll be disappointed; I recall very little from my schooling when it comes to the stars - I never quite had the touch for prophecy in any form.’
There is the gentle sound of a sharp exhale, and a ghost of a breath condenses in the cool air beside her, before Tissaia says, ‘Margarita Laux-Antille has taken over most of my duties at Aretuza, as you very well know.’
Yennefer watches Tissaia silently, noting the subtle shift in the thin lips, the delicate furrowing of her brow under the hood. Yennefer has learned to hold her tongue when occasion calls for it, and come to appreciate the power of an allowed pause, as others inevitably feel obliged to fill in the space left in its absence. The soft fur of her collar brushes against her chin as she settles back into a more comfortable position against the mare, the fox fur tickling her flesh. It is a lovely coat - the Toussaint market had been flush with Koviri pelts this fall, and the trio of tailors had outdone themselves.
‘I was contemplating the prophecy of Ithlinne.' Tissaia finally says, her mouth barely moving as she speaks, her voice as clear as the snow is cold, 'and of what is to come over the next three thousand years. It is difficult,’ she continues softly, gazing into the coals, the fine angles of her profile cast in the faint light of the fire, ‘not to reflect at what such a world might look like when the winters run longer and harsher.’
Aen Ithlinnespeath. Yennefer is all too familiar with the cold fate that supposedly awaits them. The elven seer Ithelinne had an unsettling ability of accurately foretelling future disaster, and the most significant had been her sight of a terrible age to come; the time when glaciers will move down from the north, crushing the continent under a mile of ice and leaving the world below frozen for tens of thousands of years. No power will save the Continent from this fate, and nothing will be spared. All will be barren and cold and empty, devoid of life.
Craning her neck back until she’s resting against the mare’s withers, Yennefer exhales softly. She knows why Tissaia - ever-resolute, proud, and frustratingly imperturbable Tissaia - is so pensive this particular evening. There were traces of it earlier today; the woman’s refusal to portal to Brokilon, not dressing for the freezing weather, so certain that necessity would spark controlled use. Tissaia is preoccupied with perfection, still clinging tightly to what she was, so certain that through force of will alone she can tamp down the unstable nature that now taints her magic. But all the control in the world won’t stop her powers from blowing out of control after the cruel crippling metal, her chaos now wild and instinctive and frustratingly unpredictable.
The thought of it hurts Yennefer, knowing that on this night when magic is at its strongest, when her own magic feels like it is bubbling over like a boiling pot, Tissaia de Vries, once the most powerful sorceress alive, can’t even summon the simplest of spells to keep herself warm. She is Rectoress of Aretuza in name only, still attending balls and ceremonies as such to maintain the illusion, helped by a small coterie of loyal sorceresses, Yennefer included. Yennefer’s seen Tissaia use magic since Sodden, but she’s seen that same magic go terribly wrong in turn - a spell to light a candle turned into a torrent of flame, or a summoned portal collapsing dangerously within seconds.
Yennefer had clung to a thread of hope that Fringilla, the woman she had displaced all those years ago from her seat at Aedirn, might have a cure to the dimeritium dust she'd inflicted on their mentor, or knowledge of such a thing. She’d been fully prepared to force it out of the Nilfgaardian mage by any means necessary. Her most recent hunt had brought her to the woman’s native kingdom of Toussaint in a stay that spanned the last four months.
Yennefer hadn’t found Fringilla.
She had found something else.
‘Prophecies are always chilling spectres, aren’t they?’ she muses, looking askance at Tissaia’s profile; the sharp planes of her cheekbones, the clear line of her jaw. ‘But the time of the White Frost is far off - beyond either of our lifetimes many times over. We’ll be forgotten, no matter what legacy we leave behind. You are too pragmatic to fall prey to the delusional belief that what we do now will matter three thousand years in the future. Is it not better to live in the present?’
Tissaia remains silent, her chin raised, thin lips pressed firmly together. There’s a touch of a tremor to her body that wasn’t there before. Yennefer’s lips quirk as she stretches out to catch hold of the decorative edge to Tissaia's cloak, slipping the embroidered wool between thumb and forefinger, noting the thinness of the weave. Somehow in the last few minutes they’ve ended up closer together, thigh against thigh.
‘I suspect your dour mood would have been lessened had you dressed for the weather, Rectoress. As beautiful as that cloak you are wearing is, it is much too thin.’ She watches Tissaia’s brows knit. ‘And before you disagree, know that I can see you shivering from here, and if I listened closely, I suspect I’d hear your teeth chattering.’
The woman opens her mouth to dispute this but Yennefer, still prone to the occasional impetuous impulse, gently, insistently, tugs Tissaia tightly into her left side. It’s awkward at first; she’s pulled her off balance, but after adjusting her arm so that the woman is nestled against her left shoulder, the space is filled by two, and Tissaia’s body is lying flush against her own. The mare blinks at the movement against her barrel, a single ear twitching backwards, but does not stir.
‘Too proud to ask me to warm you with magic,’ Yennefer murmurs, her temple against Tissaia’s, soft edge of her hood smooth against her forehead, ‘there really is no other alternative beyond shared body heat, you know.’
Yennefer remembers the bone chilling nights spent on the thin straw bedding in the hovel of a barn, lucky if one of their handful of sheep would come lie nearby. There is a stretch of time, of tension, the war between pride and need, before she feels Tissaia’s muscles relax and the woman sinks into the length of Yennefer’s body. The trembling to her form lessens fractionally.
Yennefer’s own heart races, because she can count the number of times she’s felt this closeless in her life on one hand, with fingers left over. It’s not the first time she’s felt this with Tissaia either, the fragility of a significant moment, the stillness that stretches in a finite space of time. As she breathes in, Yennefer finds the trace of the scent of woodsmoke on the fine wool of the smaller woman's hood, and for a moment she's back in the soot-filled hell of dead and dying bodies, the ruined hillside and the thousands incinerated in a desperate attempt to protect this woman in her arms. The saving of the Northern Kingdoms had been incidental, for Yennefer had been thinking only of one person when she’d drawn the fire from the ruins, filling herself up before unleashing the blaze of chaos on those beyond.
But this spot on the ground of theirs is not the scrap of slippery wet grass in the center of a scorched battlefield, merely a simple blanket on snow.
And Tissaia is alive, if not whole.
A fox with a white pelt floats across the snow near the edge of the clearing, drawn to the smell of the fire. It watches them with dark eyes, sniffing, and then darts off again in search of an easier meal. Yennefer wonders if it will know to watch out for the owl.
‘No sign of your Witcher, Yennefer,’ Tissaia says after one of the branches in the fire has burned through and fallen, broken ends glowing, into the hot coals. ‘And you’ve yet to tell me the importance of this enchantment you intend to cast.’
Yennefer sighs, pulling her knee up from under herself, relieving the leg that has fallen asleep, feeling the cramping in her calf lessen as the tingling muscles regain blood and sensation. 'I would have been very surprised if he had shown up, though stranger things have occurred.’
The sudden stillness of the woman against her body, combined with the stilted hesitation in a breath is all too telling. Yennefer can picture the flash of surprise that will have shadowed Tissaia’s face in the firelight even without looking.
‘I hadn’t arranged to meet Geralt today,’ she says before Tissaia has the chance to speak. ‘He’s overwintering at Kaer Morhen with Ciri and the rest of the Witchers as planned. They won’t be back until summer.’
Yennefer can feel Tissaia lean away, and when she looks to the left she finds the woman staring at her, eyebrows furrowed. It is clear from her face that this has not clarified things.
‘Your letter had said…' Tissaia pauses, lips pursing, correcting to, 'I had inferred that your Witcher would be meeting you here, and that you wished to use my knowledge of elven rituals to conduct a spell, though you have yet to share the details as such.’
Yennefer holds her breath before releasing it heavily.
‘I may have misled you. I wasn’t certain that you’d come all this way if I’d told you it was for another reason.’
A tilt of the head, the arching of slender eyebrows, and Yennefer feels compelled to defend herself, before realizing how silly the urge is. The Redanian spymasters would be envious of Tissaia de Vries’s powers of silent interrogation;
‘I believe I have stumbled across a way to restore your powers,’ Yennefer says carefully. ‘Using the shrine.’
Silence follows this news. The gentle rise and fall of the mare’s barrel behind them is the measure of the time that passes as Tissaia watches her without expression.
It is Tissaia who speaks first in the end.
‘Such a thing is impossible, Yennefer,’ she says finally, her voice quiet in the stillness of the clearing. ‘The dimeritium has adhered to the matrix of my marrow. The chaos I wield is half-formed - an echo of what was. There is no chance of returning to what I was before.’
Yennefer’s eyes narrow, and she leans forward with a faint frown, resting her fingers on Tissaia’s wrist, feeling the slip of bare skin between her glove and sleeve.
‘And I refuse to believe that your condition is irreversible. There are infinite possibilities with magic, Tissaia, endless solutions limited only by our creativity...’
‘It has been almost two years, Yennefer.’ Tissaia says sharply, straightening up, turning fully to look into Yennefer’s eyes. She catches herself, her lips thinning, settling her temper before continuing in softer tones, her gaze dropping to the hand on her wrist. ‘All the exercises, all the incantations and healing elixirs, they have not made one iota of difference. Even the simplest of spells - a charm to light a candle, easily mastered by a novice in her first week of instruction - fails in some way. It would be foolish of me to hold out hope.'
Yennefer shakes her head, the corners of her mouth wrinkling. ‘You seem fully capable of summoning power, Tissaia,’ she whispers, lifting her hand to tilt the woman’s chin up so that she meets her eyes. ‘It is the control you lack.’
Her fingers linger, warm against the coolness of the pale skin. She can feel the firm set of the beautifully-cut jaw, the clenched teeth, see the furrowed brows. There was always a chance that Tissaia might refuse. It was why Yennefer had left the whole truth until this moment. The last moment. She is convinced the spell will work. However unfair the world might be, it cannot stand in her way, not in this instance, Yennefer will not let it. It’s in her very nature to challenge, to refuse to back down, and she has never had a better reason to fight than against this injustice.
From her coat Yennefer tugs out a small roll of yellowing parchment, discovered before she’d sent the letter to Tissaia, before she’d planned this wild arrangement. It had been mere chance that she’d found the spell while browsing through a dilapidated library of a long-dead court alchemist who had happened to be one of Fringilla’s ancestors. The nature of fate to trend towards the satirical is endless.
Tissaia hesitates before taking the scroll. She unfurls the brittle parchment carefully, a piece flaking off from the edge, the thinness of the vellum made all the more translucent by age, and her eyes dart back and forth before widening almost imperceptibly, a flash of hope lighting up the pale face. Yennefer’s own heart clenches at the sight. She has bared herself with this offering; the thick shell of armor she wears against her soul, layered by years of pain, is cracked.
The significance of Yennefer’s offer will not be lost on Tissaia, for she knows better than anyone what power means to Yennefer. To risk the chaos that courses through her veins, losing it for another? She might as well have fallen to her knees before Tissaia and proclaimed her undying love.
The danger is very real. It will mean the end of Yennefer’s own abilities if anything goes wrong, if she isn’t strong enough, if some mistake is made. Yennefer is not a fool, she has thought about the possible consequences of this ritual for most of her waking moments leading up to this night. The give and the take of magic - everything has a price. Four marks for an unwanted cripple of a girl, followed by decades of resentment. A thread of shared destiny for a life saved from a djinn - inflicted on her without a choice.
She’s giving Tissaia a choice. And Yennefer does it selflessly, without expectation of her feelings being returned.
The fire pops loudly as a piece of dried sap heats up, scattering glowing embers on the snow.
Tissaia swallows. ‘The risk,’ she says, her voice rough. ‘Yennefer, I…’
‘Risk?’ Yennefer breathes, her mouth curling wryly. ‘Tissaia. Must I say this out loud? Are we destined to dance around the subject for the next few decades?’ She huffs out a short laugh, shaking her head. ‘Do not pretend that you don’t know how I feel - you rummaged around inside my head long before Sodden. My clumsy, nascent affections - you were likely aware of them even before I was. How I felt in Rhinde. Even in moments before that.’
Her boldness at the Ball of Ascension. Her newfound beauty had been a tool, yes, but she had wanted Tissaia to see her most of all.
Tissaia’s face gives nothing away, a smooth mask in the dim light. No other being Yennefer has ever met has been more capable of hiding their feelings. The dimeritium riddling the woman's body prevents any peeking into her thoughts. It’s made everything dreadfully tricky.
‘Trust in me,’ Yennefer whispers, her voice softer, her gaze flickering down to Tissaia’s neck and back up to her eyes. Her hand slips down to cup Tissaia’s cool cheek, as gentle as the stroke of a feather. 'Trust in my stubbornness, trust the truth that I want and desire you with all that I am, and that I will do anything to make you whole again. Trust that I won’t fail you.’
A soft exhalation, and then Tissaia leans into her hand, her eyes slipping shut. ‘I trust you above any other in this world, Yennefer. The doubts I have concern my own limitations.’
‘Then cede control this one time,’ Yennefer breathes out. ‘I know your chaos all too well, for it is mine also.’
The moment of stillness extends. The singular glow in the snowy cold world, in the dark, this moment of bright light.
Please try, Yennefer thinks, and then realizes that she’s said the words out loud.
Tissaia takes in a long breath and then there is the slightest of nods, one Yennefer can’t see in the dark and only feels against her hand.
Flecks of white are drifting gently down from the sky when Yennefer leads Tissaia over to the broken monument at midnight. The world is still around them, the forest slumbering beneath the pale snow and the black stretch of nothingness above, the stars obscured in places by low clouds. There are no animals now, all have hidden in the deepest valleys and the tallest trees, seeking safety on this night when the dark things roam.
The shrine is smooth and non-descript; unmarked save for the glint of metallic specks in its dark surface. Once it would have stood the height of three men, but now it is only a few handspans taller than Yennefer as she gently turns Tissaia around to face her and guides her back against the standing slab. Standing in front of her, Yennefer’s made aware again of just how small the woman is, so often masked by the presence she exudes. Taking in a deep breath, settling her nerves, Yennefer places her bare hands behind the woman's neck, her thumbs brushing the sides of the angular jaw, feeling the solid bone underneath. She feels Tissaia tense under her cool touch, the long line of her neck held high, and then, slowly, the woman relaxes into her palms, the weight of her head growing heavier. Yennefer strokes the nape of her neck, her fingers weaving into the silky hair, the warmth of the skin underneath.
The incantation is a simple one, belying the great power it gifts, for the real strength lies in the standing stone. The elves had used this place for purposes that have since been lost to time, and it has been drained of any magical powers for a number of centuries now, but the natural properties are still there. The scholars call it chondrite, the metal grains of iron and nickel visible in the smoothed surface.
Dimeritium is faintly magnetic. The clever Toussaint alchemist, his name forgotten save for the patronym of Vigo, had theorized that a large enough quantity of metal might be used to render dimeritium inert, with the application of sufficient heat. His process - reversing the draw, strengthening it with enough magic to tug the particles out into the flow, binding the dimeritium into the iron - was never intended to be applied to dust, nor used on a living being. Vigo’s proposal had been to use a solid slab of iron, but Yennefer knows that this shrine of rock and metal comes from the distant sky above and carries a memory of the magic that once flowed from it. Perhaps, on this night of magical things, it will help them. She’ll take anything at this point, any scrap of favour.
Slipping a thread of chaos through the shrine, she sees the grains of metal flicker and brighten, and the matching thrum of power reflects back at her like a church bell struck by a hammer, reverberating around the clearing.
But Yennefer hesitates, her arms stiffening, the spots of metal in the stone dimming at the disruption in her magic as doubt crawls its way in, hooking her throat, catching her breath in her chest. Yennefer is to be the channel, and her magic will be at risk if things go awry. The uncertainty of how such a mistake might affect Tissaia makes her pause. The woman had been near death after Sodden - she remembers the months of ill health, of weakness. Would Tissaia survive such a thing again? Clots can be deadly, emboli inevitable if Yennefer dislodges even a single particle of dimeritium through clumsiness.
(Is this the right thing to do?)
(Is it worth the risk of having Tissaia gone instead of this faded version that exists?)
Her uncertainty must show, because she senses rather than sees the movement in front of her, the weight of Tissaia’s head shifting in her palms, and then she feels summer heat, the soft afternoons of endless blue skies, the rustling sweet-smelling breeze of the new grown fields. Tissaia’s lips are softly pressing against her own and Yennefer’s fears, her worries, the tightness that has seized up her body - melt away. All she can feel is the light touch, the hand against her cheek, the overwhelming thrill of pleasure and want as the glowing ember in her belly curls into a towering torrent of hot flame.
Tissaia pulls away, and it takes all of Yennefer’s control not to pull her back.
Almost as soon as Yennefer begins the spell, the snow melts in an immediate circle where they are standing, revealing the dark ice below their feet. The shallow pond that fills this sloping valley is frozen solid and clear, reflecting the women standing in the center and the glittering specks of stars above.
The process of changing the particles that riddle Tissaia’s bones into inert flecks of metal lengthens into hours. Yennefer wields heat and electricity, as she’s painstakingly practiced for so many nights now, forcing the polarity of the particles to obey her, and leeching the ore of its absorptive powers. Tissaia hisses out short gasps, the heat of the obelisk at her back, the sparks around them. Her eyes are tightly closed, her brows knit, an expression of pain on her face as every muscle of her body pulsates with each shock.
Yennefer is left panting when she is finished, her lungs strained at the cold dry air, her body exhausted and her magic spent. She falls to her knees, leaning her head heavily against the smooth surface of the shrine, next to where Tissaia is pressed against it.
She feels a trace of hot blood trickling down from her nostril, watches as it drips down onto the dark ice below and wonders if the remains of her chaos leave with it. She breathes heavily for a moment as the chill of the cold night begins to creep back in. She is shivering now, she realises. before shakily wiping at her nose with her sleeve, almost missing her face as dazed as she is.
(Has it worked?)
Weak arms wrap around her, urging her upward and she is guided to her feet. Together, leaning heavily against one another, Tissaia guides them a short ways towards the cooling embers of their camp, and the horse that is dozing nearby. Yennefer frowns as she follows the gentle pressure, because it is Tissaia who she should be taking care of, rather than the other way around.
(She’s too tired to protest.)
When Yennefer opens her eyes again, she sees the fire is burning brightly in the dark, and watches as Tissaia settles next to her. The woman’s right side is firmly pressed against her left, fitting together neatly as a puzzle piece, and when Tissaia rests her face on Yennefer’s neck, her cheek sinks into the soft fur of her coat collar.
Yennefer closes her eyes, arms tightening around the body against hers, and slips into the deepest of sleeps.
She wakes to the soft light of morning slipping past the frozen branches, the faint sun illuminating the encrusting ice crystals into a scintillating spectrum of light. The blue shadows of the trees above stretch across the cool ground, beautifully contrasting against the warmer light.
Yennefer brushes the sleep from the corners of her eyes, and grimaces as she twists her head to the right and then to the left, working out the painful kink that has set into her neck. When she shifts on the ground, she becomes aware of the weight against her, and the solid form behind her. The mare is still lying behind them, her lower lip drooping; the only sign of wakefulness is a twitch of her ear towards the sound of wool sliding over silk as Yennefer pushes herself up slowly so as not to disturb her sleeping companion. She feels the familiar swell of her chaos as she pulls fire into existence in the small depression in the snow, a wave of relief washing over her when her magic comes just as easily as before.
Tissaia, her hood drawn tightly at her neck, shadowing her face, is leaning into her, arms crossed tightly against her own chest. There are spots of colour in her cheeks. Yennefer smiles to herself and shifts, leaning in to nudge the cold tip of an upturned nose with her own. Tissaia frowns, hunching her shoulders under her cloak, still in the haze of waking, her head tilting, following Yennefer’s touch in her drowsy state, curling closer.
‘You slept?’ Yennefer whispers, her lips brushing her cool skin.
Dark lashes flicker at the touch, then open to reveal bleary blue eyes, and the delicate rose-coloured mouth twitches into a frown. Yennefer moves to kiss it away, but before she can, she feels a tingling spark of chaos, the thread of control swept into a pattern much more intricate than anything she is capable of, and then the small fire near their feet flares brightly.
The grey mare opens her eyes at the crackling sound that suddenly breaks the silence, and then exhales in a sharp snort, shaking her mane free of some of the snow that has drifted down in the night. The flames are floating in a writhing mass a handspan above the spent ashes, throwing off welcome heat in every direction. Tissaia regards the sphere of fire clinically, her eyes narrowed, and then Yennefer feels another tell-tale shift of chaos, another weave superimposed on the first, and the fire turns into a ball of blue lightning, arcs of electricity sizzling the surrounding snow. This is followed by another weave - the energy now a hovering sphere of the clearest ice, radiating cold, then, it is turned back again into the first ball of yellow flames. This is gently lowered back to the ground, where it settles into an unassuming campfire again.
‘Your spell worked perfectly,’ Tissaia says quietly, casting her gaze back to Yennefer. She’s more awake now, her gaze sharper, though her voice is still rough with disuse.
‘So I see,’ Yennefer says lightly, her gaze not leaving Tissaia’s face.
There is a comfortable moment of silence. A crimson cardinal whistles its cheery song from one of the nearby oaks before fluttering off to another branch. Tissaia has closed her eyes again, her head settled lightly against Yennefer’s temple. Her body is relaxed, and her breathing slows.
Yennefer can’t contain her smile.
'I stumbled across a bunch of mistletoe in the forest when I was gathering wood last night.’
‘Oh?’ Tissaia hasn’t opened her eyes.
‘Mmm, loads. All within reach, too.’ Nuzzling against the fine hairs of her cheek, Yennefer hums deep in her throat. ‘I do believe you’re entitled to sleep in a little, now that I’ve solved that particular task for you. Think of all the duchesses you can seduce on the flimsy excuse of seasonal tradition.’
There is no reply. The cardinal sings again, the bouncing jubilant call of a fine winter morning.
‘Why, if you kiss enough duchesses you might even be able to afford to allow girls capable of magic into Aretuza instead of the pampered daughters of merchants and nobles who haven’t enough chaos combined to boil a cupful of water.’
Yennefer looks back down to see clear blue eyes leveled at her.
‘Is this an equally flimsy excuse to continue clutching at my person, Yennefer?’
‘I need no such excuse - I met an enchantress in the woods at dusk, saved her from an insidious curse, and plan to live happily ever after with...don’t roll your eyes at me, Tissaia!’
Her mock outrage doesn’t stop the woman’s withering look, and after a moment Yennefer sobers. She carefully tucks the strand of hair behind Tissaia’s ear under the deep hood, searching her face, her own expression open and honest. ‘You took a risk,' she says quietly. 'Thank you for trusting in me.’
Tissaia's answering smile is slow and precious. She leans forward and presses a gentle kiss against Yennefer’s full lips, lightly following the petal-soft seam of her mouth. Yennefer feels liquid heat flood her chest like golden sunshine, pooling further down into her belly to settle there. She cups Tissaia’s face with her left hand to keep her near, the heat of her skin radiating wonderfully through the thin leather of her glove. When Yennefer releases her, hesitant, not wanting to cling too tightly, she sees Tissaia’s irises are now narrow rings of blue, her pupils blown with desire.
Yenenfer’s intentions are disrupted by the horse, who has obviously had enough of all the commotion against her side and pushes off the ground to stand, one of the large hooves landing inches away from Yennefer’s hand. Swishing her long tail back and forth, the mare steps off the blanket and moves to the pile of their belongings, uttering a quiet nicker, making it clear she’s looking for the expected offering of morning grain. Yennefer is left lying on the blanket on her back, holding Tissaia against her body, one of the woman’s knees between her legs, her own arms around her torso in a protective embrace. Tissaia is a small woman, but the solidity of her body against her own makes her feel all sorts of things.
‘You're delightfully warm now, I notice,' Yennefer intones. She ducks her head to trace the woman’s throat, tickling the skin with the lightest of touches of her lips. A firm hand under her chin lifts her away, and she is face to face with the woman again.
‘I’m much too old to be writhing around on the snow.’
Yennefer hums as she strokes the pale skin of the woman’s slender wrist, exposed between the edge of the glove and sleeve. ‘To Toussaint then? I take it you’re not expected back at Aretuza for another few days? I do have a lovely villa there - two hours south from Beauclair - and there’s not a snowflake to be found on the ground.’
Tissaia doesn’t answer, and when Yennefer glances up, she finds the woman gazing down at her, looking faintly bemused.
‘A villa. Newly in my possession, but very comfortable. The finest feather bed you can imagine.’
Tissaia’s pretty mouth has set into a frown. Yennefer brushes away the crease at the center of her brows, a fond expression gracing her features.
‘I may have saved a village or two from a vampire while I was running back and forth across the country looking for a cure for you this past autumn. The Duchess was very grateful for my help, and gifted me my own estate.’
‘You do not strike me as the type to choose country living, Yennefer. Tell me, do you plan to potter around the garden in a dress? Grow herbs and root vegetables?’
‘I’ll leave that to the servants, naturally. I’ve had quite enough grubbing in the dirt for one lifetime. The vineyard will be lovely in the spring, or so I’m told.’
Tissaia looks thoughtful for a moment.
‘There is an old olive tree on the hill, perfect for reading under.’ Yennefer coaxes, her hands drifting down past Tissaia’s waist, pressing her palms into the jut of her hips. ‘You were writing another treatise when I saw you last. Think of how much you could accomplish away from your school for a while? I hear Rectoress Laux-Antille has things quite under control.’
‘At least two days,’ Yennefer coaxes, eyes darkening. ‘I promise you, you’ll want to stay longer.’
She watches as Tissaia takes a steadying breath before sitting back up slowly, freeing herself from Yennefer’s grip. Yennefer follows her to her feet, grimacing at the stiffness to her legs as she moves to stand. Tissaia moves over to the neat pile of their belongings and begins to tack the mare up wordlessly. It is mere minutes before she is finished.
A ripple in the air, and a spark of chaos signals the creation of a portal ten paces away.
‘And where does this lead?’ Yennefer asks, looking quizzically at Tissaia.
‘A road south of Beauclair.’ Tissaia glances over at her, a slight smile gracing her face. ‘The walk will do the mare good.’