They've been travelling now for almost five days, following the river from Rylos as it winds its way through farmland and lightly-treed meadows, stopping to rest at night and continuing on again in the morning. There are few other travellers on the road. Lyn is growing weary. The path is flat and well-travelled now that they've left the Wild Reaches, and the weather has been good, but she isn't used to riding for half a day at a time. It's an effort to remind herself not to wince when the horse jostles her particularly hard.
"It's funny," she says, softly. "I thought that the worst would be over when we defeated Azazel."
She doesn't mean for Cora to catch it, but she does, and turns her head. "Hey. Are you all right? Should we stop?"
Lyn shakes her head. "I'm fine. We can keep going." Night won't fall yet for another couple of hours yet, and there's no point in staying still when they could be travelling.
"All right, then," says Cora, and they fall silent again.
It's been strange between them, since the fight. Cora has given no real indication that she intends for them to stay together. Other than Seere, who had stayed in Azazel's realm to guard against his return, the rest of the group split up upon the return to Rylos. Rain and Maia, both still wounded, left together for her home. Werther stayed in Rylos. The rest mostly went with Marcus. She and Cora just happened to end up going in the same direction. Presumably they are both heading for the coast, but Cora could leave at any time she pleases, and Lyn is unable to find it in herself to ask her to stay.
One of the many ways in which she is still a coward.
They pass a particularly lovely grove of Ancia trees, and Lyn closes her eyes to take in a deep breath of their sweetness. Maia used to make salve from the flowers to soothe her hands after a hard day with the bow. She must contact Rain soon and see if he has made headway in healing her wounds.
"What a smell..."
Startled by Cora's sudden comment, Lyn turns to face her. "I wasn't sure the flowers would ever bloom again."
"But they have," says Cora. "We did it. It's over, and we won. The world isn't going to end." She says the words with disbelief. Then she throws back her head and laughs like a madwoman - but she's not mad, and Lyn knows it because she's been struck by the same feeling on and off for the last week.
Her horse, startled by the sound, slips into a canter. Lyn has to pull the reins back hard to bring her back under control.
Not for the first time, she wishes they still had an airship - but Marcus is far to the south by now, and the Prima along with him. He took Cora's heavy armour, too, when she said she didn't need it anymore, and several of Lyn's books by mistake. Fortunately, he left them some money from the party vault. If they hadn't rented horses in Rylos, they would be walking.
The hours pass in silence. At last Cora points out a spot by the roadside where the grass is long enough for the horses and a grove of trees will provide shelter from the wind. "How about we stop and make camp for the night?"
"Of course," says Lyn. She knows little about travelling; this is one field of knowledge in which it's best to trust Cora's judgement. "Let's do that."
They untack the horses and tie them to trees on opposite sides of the proposed campsite. Lyn opens a pack and pulls out the heavy canvas tent and the wooden pegs. She prepares to pitch the tent, but Cora shakes her head.
"I can do that if you go get us some dinner."
"All right," says Lyn, and she heads off into the long grass, letting her thoughts wander as she searches for any small creatures nearby.
She's been thinking a lot, lately - probably too much for her own good. She knows she's been quieter than usual. For so long, she's been obsessed with defeating Azazel, avenging Yva. Now she has only the future to think about. And that is as terrifying as it is thrilling.
Of course she knows she won't go back to the Tower. Mistress Grey told her never to come back; even now that Azazel is dead, she's unlikely to recieve a friendly welcome. And besides, she doesn't want to see those cold stone corridors ever again.
Maybe she'll just travel as a demon-hunter. But there are bound to be less demons around, and people have little call for a Tower Mage in times of peace. At twenty-four, she's probably not too old to start learning a new trade. But where would she find someone willing to teach her?
The only thing she knows about her future is that she wants Cora to be in it. And that's a dangerous thought. She already bared her heart to Cora that night in Rylos, and received no answer, and there's no use in thinking about it any longer.
When she returns, Cora is using her battle axe to split wood for the fire. She's stripped her overshirt off, and her arms and neck are bare. A trickle of sweat runs down her tanned brow. Lyn averts her eyes.
"Hey," says Cora. She puts the axe down and blows on her palms. "Find anything?"
Lyn holds up her prize - a passel of fieldbunnies. "Just these."
"Just a ghoul. Nothing I couldn't handle."
Cora sighs. "I should have gone with you. I've made a mess here." She gestures to the firewood. "It's been a long time since I used an axe for anything but war." A smile. "Guess I'll have to get used to it again, now."
"I guess you will," replies Lyn softly. She uses her staff to draw a circle in the grass, then casts a small spell to bring a tablet of stone up from the ground. Cora tosses the wood onto the rock, and with another wave of her hand, fire springs up from the logs, throwing a warm glow over the slowly dimming campsite.
"Nice trick," says Cora, as usual. And as usual, Lyn nods and says nothing.
They skin the fieldbunnies, roast them over the fire, and eat them with flatbread from their packs. There isn't much meat on them but they taste good. Lyn never used to eat food like this, or in this way, but she finds that she likes it far more than a feast in a banquet hall.
Cora leans back against the pack behind her. "Not too bad," she says, with a contented sigh. The firelight on her hair turns it from dark brown to red. "But it's a shame there are no fish in the river. There's a lake near Continas Castle, and I always used to go fish there when I was off-duty..."
"Would you like to go back there?" asks Lyn, almost in a whisper. She knows that Cora was a Captain in the Green Knights, before she met Rain and the rest of the group, but the circumstances of her departure were never discussed.
But Cora just shrugs her shoulders. "Well, maybe someday. I don't know if I would feel comfortable seeing the Green Knights again. I guess we're heroes back there, now, but what with -" she seems to check herself. "Well. It's a long story."
"No," and here Cora looks a little sheepish, "I didn't mean it like that. I just - I'll tell it another time."
Lyn gazes into the fire so she doesn't have to look into Cora's eyes. "I'd like that," she says carefully.
The sun sets, and the fire dies down to nothing. At last Cora gets up from her spot by the fire, yawns, and stretches her arms. "I guess we should call it a night."
"I guess we should," replies Lyn, getting up to join her. She lights the lamp and hands it to Cora. Their fingers touch, and she brings her hand away so quickly she nearly knocks the lamp to the ground.
"Well," says Cora, slowly.
They just stand there, facing each other. For a moment, Lyn wonders if Cora is going to kiss her. But the moment passes, and she turns away into the tent so Cora can't see her blush.
This is driving her crazy. Lyn is driving her crazy, and has been ever since they first met back at the Tower. She's impossible to understand and it's a wonder they ever let her join the party.
Not that she hasn't been useful - far from it. Many times they would all have been killed if not for her magic and her knowledge of demons. But Cora never has a clue what she's thinking. Sometimes she's all smiles and shy jokes, and the next minute she's somber, as if she's drawn herself into a shell. Of course, she's had a hard life. She lived her whole life at the Tower, and having met her mistress Cora knows that her strictness would be a poor substitute for a parent's love. And of course there is what happened to Yva.
But that doesn't make it any less infuriating. Or worrying.
The next morning, Lyn is up before her, as always. Cora tugs on her clothes, checks the horses, and goes to look for her.
It's not a long search. She finds her sitting hunched over a pool in the river, ash-blonde hair tied back to keep it from the water, talking to Rain's reflection.
"We're staying at a Woodelf camp on the way," says Rain. His voice comes out somewhat bubbly, like the running of the river - a quirk of the way the spell works, or just the way Rain wants it, Cora has never been sure. "Some of Maia's relatives are here. She's recovering well. I'm not totally back to normal yet, so I've been Curing her a bit at a time, but she's got a lot of her strength back."
Lyn smiles, tenderly. "I'm glad to hear that. I hope you're taking care of yourself, too." She and Rain have gotten along since they met, despite what they say about healers and Tower-schooled mages being natural enemies. There was a time when Cora even thought Lyn might be in love with him.
She turned out to be wrong, of course.
"Of course," says Rain, dismissively. "And what about you two? Are things going we - she's right next to you, you know."
Lyn looks up, startled. "Cora!" Rain's image is swallowed by ripples in the water. "You... I didn't notice you."
"Sorry." Years of training to move in bulky armour have made her stealthy without it. "I haven't been here long." She moves closer to get a better look at the water. "Good morning, Rain."
Rain reappears in the river. "Good morning yourself." He waves to Cora. "I see your hair's getting long."
"Oh, yeah." For most of the time she's known Rain, her hair has been just ear-length, but now it's nearly brushing her shoulders. "I guess so. Glad to hear Maia's doing okay." And she can't help but tease a little. "Let us know when you schedule the wedding, okay?"
Rain blushes to the roots of his hair. But instead of denying anything, he just nods his head nervously and says, "Uh, yeah, we will." Then he looks away to something that can't be seen in the water. "Oh, sorry, Maia's calling me for breakfast. Gotta run."
The reflection vanishes again, for good this time. Lyn stands up and they walk back to camp together.
As they start the fire for breakfast, Cora notices Lyn staring at her.
"What is it?"
"He's right. Your hair *is* getting long."
"Oh. Well, it used to be longer than this. I cut it when I left the Green Knights. This was before we met you." Cora runs her hand through her hair again, contemplating it. "Anyway, it took me a long time to get used to it short, but now Ilike it better that way. I'm going to cut it again as soon as I can find a mirror."
Lyn pauses for a moment. "I could do it."
"Yeah, okay," says Cora without really thinking. Immediately, she starts to have second thoughts, but it would sound strange to take it back so soon. "Just be careful. I like my neck the way it is."
After breakfast Lyn finds, amazingly, a pair of scissors in her pack. "For sewing," she says, shyly. "At the Tower, we always had to mend our own robes." Without saying another word, she kneels behind Cora and takes a portion of hair in her hand.
It seems that Lyn cuts hair the same way she does everything - in fits and starts, hesitant one moment and confident the next. Cora's hair falls in wisps to the ground. Neither of them says anything.
Lyn's hand brushes against the nape of her neck and it takes all her willpower not to shiver.
And still her stubbornness won't allow her to say anything.
Damn Lyn anyway, thinks Cora. Damn her and her stupid, wistful smile, and her blue eyes, and the way she tugs inexorably at Cora's heart, only to retreat again.
She can't take much more of this.
That afternoon they reach the forest. There is no real progression in the landscape; all of a sudden the trees loom before them in an almost solid wall of green. The road through looks less travelled, but the path is still well-kept. The horses should be fine.
"We're more than halfway, now," says Cora. She probably just means to the coast, but Lyn can't help but finish the thought as more than halfway to the end of their journey together.
Maybe it was a bad idea to cut Cora's hair. It probably didn't mean anything to her, but to Lyn it felt strangely intimate, and now she feels too shy to say anything at all.
There's less light in the forest, so they make camp sooner. Dinner - a juvenile boar and some of the truffles it had been searching for - is a mostly silent affair, other than an occasional birdsong or the howl of a wolf, far away.
"Well," says Cora, and they head off to bed.
She dreams of Yva for the first time since they defeated Azazel. Her sister, chained to the Altar of Sorrow, screams herself hoarse and gnashes her teeth. The sounds echo throughout the cavernous room. Lyn is there, but her hands are bound, and just as it was in the real world, she can do nothing as the Demon King descends onto Yva's body.
This time Yva turns to look at her as she lies dying.
"Why don't you look away?" she asks in a tender whisper. And Lyn tries to open her mouth to apologize, but suddenly her mouth is sealed.
She wakes in a cold sweat and it takes a moment to remember where she is. Cora is breathing evenly beside her in the tent. She listens to the sound for a minute or so, until her heartbeat slows, then gets up and stumbles out of the tent.
The fire is long dead. She puts more wood on her stone hearth and casts the fire spell to light it. The flame springs up far too strongly, with a great rushing sound, and it startles her. She has always had trouble doing magic when her emotions are in turmoil.
It seems only a moment before she hears a rustling in the tent, and then Cora comes out, with the lamp in her hand and a blanket around her shoulders.
"Is everything all right?"
She nods. "I'm sorry for waking you."
"No, I was already awake." Cora makes as if she's going to sit down, then seems to change her mind. She walks over and stands beside Lyn. "Bad dream?"
"Yeah. I thought so." She pauses. "You were screaming."
"Was it the same dream? The one you had in Rylos, the night before we fought Azazel?"
Lyn can't answer. Her memory returns to the courtyard in front of the inn, the two of them standing side by side, almost like this. The words they said.
But this isn't Rylos: Azazel is dead, and they don't need to fight anymore. The forest is still around them. She doesn't want to ask, doesn't intend on saying anything. But the silence grows unbearable, and all of a sudden she feels like she needs to know.
"Why... did you decide to come with me?"
"Because we have some unfinished business."
"What do you mean?"
Cora looks uncomfortable. "That night. You-" She stops, then goes on again, determinedly, "said you loved me. Was it true?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"And what manner would that be?" Cora sighs - not just exasperated, but weary. "I'm done with getting the runaround from you, Lyn. I want a straight answer for once. Was it true?"
This is the last thing Lyn wanted to hear. "Yes," she says, spreading her arms in a gesture of defeat, "it was true. But I didn't mean anything by it. She tries to smile, but she's not entirely sure how it comes out, "You see, I rather thought that I was going to die the next day."
"Well, you didn't." Cora turns to face Lyn and stares into her eyes, almost daring her to look away. "And neither did I. So now we have to deal with this, this whatever it is. Us." A sigh. "Lyn, I'm not very good with words. And I didn't have an answer for you back then. But now I do." She smiles, a little wistfully. "I love you too. And I probably have for a long time now."
All of a sudden Lyn finds it hard to breathe. Her hands tighten into fists at her sides. "I... wasn't expecting that," she whispers. "You haven't said anything. All this time... I just thought you wanted to forget. That you didn't want to bring it up."
"I thought you would bring it up, if I gave you space, and time. Then I thought maybe I had imagined the whole thing."
"I didn't know what to do." She thinks of Yva. "You know what happened to my sister. I don't have a very good track record with the people I love. I guess... I was just frightened."
"Then you're a coward," says Cora. "But I've been a coward too."
And before she can respond to that, Cora leans forward and kisses her. Her lips are chapped and rough. Lyn feels like she's going to drift away, and the only thing she can do to keep herself tethered to the ground is put her arms around Cora and kiss back with all her might.
When Cora finally pulls away she is smiling.
"Have you ever...?"
"Um," Lyn knows she's blushing, and the thought makes her want to laugh. "A long time ago."
She's pleased to see that Cora is blushing a little too. "We, uh, don't have to go this fast, if you don't want."
"No. I want this."
They undress by lamplight in the tent. She knows that Cora has seen her naked before. But not like this - and suddenly she feels shy of her body, the long, sapphire-blue Tower tattoo that spirals along her spine to the small of her back. She flinches as Cora unexpectedly reaches out to trace it with her hand.
"This is beautiful," she says breathlessly, pressing her palm against Lyn's back. "How long did it take?"
"I don't remember," replies Lyn. She's trying to remain calm, but she feels a heat between her legs that makes her whole body tense. "I- there's a ceremony. I wasn't fully... there."
Cora removes her hand. A moment later it is replaced with her lips, leaving a slow trail of kisses down Lyn's spine. The strength leaves Lyn's legs and she sinks to the floor of the tent. Cora curls around her, hands cupping her breasts. "Relax," she breathes into Lyn's ear.
So she tries, but it's hard when Lyn's hands move lower. She straightens up and pulls Lyn into her lap, then reaches between her legs with one hand to stroke her there, teasingly. Her other hand stays at Lyn's breast, ghosting over her nipple, making her tremble.
It is good. But it's not quite right. Breaking away, Lyn turns so that she's facing Cora. "I... I want to touch you too," she says, earnestly, a little breathlessly.
"Go ahead," replies Cora, with a smile so lazy it's almost a smirk. She pulls Lyn closer, opening her legs to reveal a thatch of dark hair. At the same time, she slips her fingers inside Lyn and begins to work them in and out of her, slowly at first, then with increasing urgency as Lyn copies her movements.
They shudder against each other. Lyn buries her face in Cora's shoulder to muffle her whimpers as she bucks against her fingers. "Please don't leave me," she says, knowing that this is the only time she can say it - when she's too undone by pleasure to hide from the truth.
Cora nods. "I won't," she replies, hissing the words. "I swear I won't, Lyn, I swear, I... oh..." She tightens around Lyn's fingers. Her expression as she comes is almost a grimace, like she's in pain, and there's nothing Lyn can do but come too.
When they come out of the tent the next morning, mist has settled over the forest. The grass is damp around the campsite. The horses are still asleep.
"Maybe we'd better decide where we're actually going," says Cora. She stretches, using the opportunity to put an arm lightly around Lyn's shoulder and pull her closer.
Lyn leans back against her. "I've always wanted to go back to Parta," she says, a little bit dreamily. "The ocean there was so lovely."
The sea air was so strong in Parta that it had made Cora's armour begin to rust. But she nods anyway. "That's where we'll go, then. As soon as we get to the coast." She turns her gaze to the remains of the fire. "Now, shall we have some breakfast?"
"Of course. I'm starving."
The road disappears almost immediately before them, lost in a dark green haze. There's no way of really knowing if it continues on farther. But they are going to trust that it will.