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The Willow Witch

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.oOo.

 

“No, Majesty, the scouts were unsuccessful.”

The meeting room was tense with the report from the head of the search. Nigel Kipling, the Queen’s right hand, had been entrusted with the duty of finding a witch to help her Majesty procure a magical barrier to protect her kingdom. The Queen was an avid reader and was unprejudiced with whatever text she took fancy in. Recently, it had been a text on protective wards for large estates, anything as large as an entire kingdom. Her options, according to the book, were a love, ever true (her scoff had echoed throughout her apartments), or a spell procured from a wilful witch of the Willow Lands. She obviously sought out the latter of her options, especially as the Belligerent King Irving was moving south with the intention for war.

“What sections of the Willow Lands have you not searched,” the Queen inquired imperiously. Her voice was softer than a princess’ but held more promise in each syllable than any of the greatest kings in history.

“The northern most section, Majesty, on account of King Irving’s scouts having been sighted nearby,” Nigel replied with an ease uncommon to most.

“Then we set out for the northern Willow Lands at sunrise,” the queen declared.

“’We’? Majesty, you can’t mean that you intend to accompany the scouts?”

Bernard, a rotund man with skin of night from the eastern lands had been known for his poor habit of not holding his tongue. It had awarded him several scathing glares in the past, and this time was not different. The Queen, no stranger to battle both on the field and in the council chamber, was seasoned in many forms of self-defence and offensive manoeuvres. The fact she was being questioned by a man who had likely never lifted a sword seemed to be the last straw on Bernard’s end.

“Out of my chambers, Bernard. You are dismissed from your duties here.”

Sputtering as he was escorted from the large, round room, the Queen turned to the other seven faces (she would replace the eighth position on her return from the Willow Lands) and asked, “Any more questions?” Silence, satisfying in its absolution met her. “Wonderful,” she remarked. “Now, get out.” And they did.

 

.oOo.

 

Before the dawn she rose. Miranda of House Priestly, first of her name, Scion to the Noble House Priestly, First Madame of the Scrolls, Protector of the Winterlands, High Authority in the Court of Judges and generally not a morning person. She washed her face in the warm water her maid had left for her and dressed quickly and without assistance into riding breeches, a tunic and an ornate overcoat, all in a style suitable for riding but allowing her her femininity in which she took great pride. She met with fifteen of her scouts, the other twenty having left the night before. Before the sun had truly greeted the horizon, Miranda was on her steed and on her way to finding a way to protect her kingdom.

The Winterlands, named aptly for their harsh climates and its biting cold, was home to the Sceptor, the capital where Miranda’s palace had been built by the first coven of witches and the first king and queen. Now it stood, white stone and stained glass, perched on the side of a slender mountain, hugging Mercept, the great lake of the Winterlands. The Queen had been a wonder when she was born, with eyes as blue as the ice of the lake, and hair as white as the snow atop the mountain. Many said she had inherited the features of her witchy ancestresses, but she had no magic to boast that she knew.

The ride down the base of the mountain and then traversing the great lake took much of the first day, but by the second, Miranda could no longer see the Sceptor when she turned her head. Heading north meant the air would get thicker with warmth, and if they went far enough, no snow would fall at all. Miranda had no intentions of ever getting that far on this journey, hoping that at least one witch still inhabited the Willow Lands. She had not shown even an ounce of uncertainty, but Miranda truly feared that perhaps King Irving might overwhelm her kingdom if she did not procure a ward.

It was on the fourth day that Miranda had realised King Irving’s scouts had ventured closer than she thought.

“Scatter,” she hissed to her scouts. They did as she heeded, scarpering off into the woods in different directions and becoming one with nature, camouflaged. She did the same, but she was not quick enough, if the baying of bloodhounds behind her were any indication. She was quicker than them though, and she had the advantage of knowing the Willow Lands like the back of her hand. She dipped though small valleys, never once being hindered by the snow, she slid around birch trees, following a path only she knew. She did not notice, in her desperation to escape the vicious dogs, that the birch trees grew thicker, more gnarled, ghastly.

She did not stop running even when the dogs quieted, and the sun which had been high overhead had all but disappeared behind a thick canopy of sprawling tree limbs. When she could no longer see her feet, she realised the light had gone, and realised she was in a part of the Willow Lands that she had not been in since she were a child with her teacher. She had been in the Willow Realm only once before, and as now, it was an accident then. She panted harshly but noiselessly, trained in the art of stealth, and slowed to a cautious walk.

The fluttering of a small orb, a pale blue in the dull light of the Willow Realm, beckoned her toward it. She knew to follow but hesitated all the same. A Willow Wisp, as her kingdom called them, only presented itself to someone in need of guidance, and even then, the need for them had to be dire. It had to be a need for something larger than a way home… A need to protect a whole kingdom seemed worthy, Miranda thought.

The orb glowed again, tinging pink around the edges. “Alright, I’m coming,” Miranda said, almost fondly. She had learned from fables as a child never to disrespect anything in the Willow Realm. Stepping firmly in the direction of the glowing orb, Miranda wondered if she would be able to convince the witch she was being led to to help her. All magic had a cost, she knew, and she wondered what the witch would ask of her. She’d be willing to give anything, she realised. Even her first born if the witch asked, because even though it was one of her greatest hopes to be a mother, Miranda was queen, and she had to put her people before anything.

“Are we nearly there,” Miranda whispered to the nearest wisp, watching curiously as it bobbed up and down as though nodding. They were charming in their way, and perhaps she might have openly admired them if the mist on the cold, frozen ground was not growing thicker. If the tree branches were not writhing in the breezeless air. She took another step, then another, and around a vast tree, curled and malformed, menacing, she saw a small cottage of bleak, grey stone and ice.

“There is no light,” she said to the nearest Wisp. Surely no witch lived there? And if one had, they were long gone now. The impatient humming of the Wisp silenced her further complaints and bounced along the cobbled path to the front door before melting into the air and leaving her alone in the silence of the Willow Realm. She shivered which surprised her. She had not been touched by the cold of winter since she was just a child, learning to hunt and rule in the Willow Lands just outside the realm she was in now. But here, she felt the ice try to unbutton her coats, felt the breeze lick uncomfortably at her uncovered neck. She stepped further.

Knocking once on the aged, yet solid door was enough to push it open a fraction. The creaked song from the ancient hinges grated on her ears, but she paid no mind to it once she saw the contents of the derelict cottage. There was glass all over the floor, shards ice thin and glittering in the minimal light from outside. The kitchen area was trashed, pots and pans bent as though crushed, mugs and plates shattered around the basin, the water in which was green with algae but frozen solid. The hearth was barren, not even soot lined the stones. And the air, there was nothing colder than the air in that cottage. Miranda sighed, the cloud of breath unsurprisingly dramatic. She was about to turn around and leave when the blue glow of a Wisp appeared at the base of a ladder in the nondescript corner of the room.

“Up there?” The Wisp, not fully corporeal, simply hummed then vanished. Miranda thanked the Witches of Willow that she had been raised to understand magical creatures.

She did not trust the ladder’s structural integrity at all but the Wisp would not lead her astray, her mother had always told her. She climbed, one rung at a time and pausing to listen for any creaks that meant she might fall to the hard flagstone floors, until she finally made it to the top. It was a dusty attic with one, circular window and white sheets strewn over several pieces of furniture, rugs rolled and stood up against the walls, old candelabras that had not been lit for decades if the webs were an indication. But there, in the centre, was a narrow bed covered by a sheet. Under the sheet was a body. Unmoving.

“What in the Willow,” Miranda murmured, climbing to her feet from the floor and walking cautiously towards the covered person. Perhaps this was the witch? Was she sleeping?

Pausing at each groan of the floorboards, Miranda slowly made her way to the side of the central bed, noting the rigid position of whoever was underneath. Miranda though perhaps they truly had been asleep, but no movement, not even to breathe, was evident as she watched the outlined figure for several long moments.

“I was led here by the grace of the Willow Realm,” she said quietly. “And I apologise, but you must be the boon.” She felt a little ridiculous talking to a petrified figure, but it was better to be respectful when unnecessary than not at all. Taking a deep breath, Miranda lifted the white sheet and peered underneath. In her shock, her surprise, she let out her breath in one large whoosh, disturbing the sable hairs of the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.

“How can that be,” she whispered. Long, black lashes, arched brows, a narrow nose, large, rose red lips and high, sharp cheekbones… Her skin was pale, but she was certainly not dead. As she should have been in such a cold cottage with nary a sheet to warm her. Placing the backs of two fingers under her nose, Miranda deduced that the beauty was not, in fact, breathing. But her skin, Miranda thought as she caressed one of those cheekbones, her skin was still warm, but the dust that had settled around her was decades old at least. Maybe centuries.

“What happened to you,” she mused aloud. Pulling the sheet further away, Miranda uncovered a style of dress that she had seen in her history texts. She remembered the exact style the era was from, and sat herself down beside the prone form before she collapsed through the flimsy floor. The dress the maiden wore, with delicate folds on the skirts and an embroidered bodice with a sewn hood… She was a witch, Miranda knew, but she was an Olde Witch, one born with the first planting of the Willows.

“How can that be?”

Miranda recalled her mother, long since passed, and the tales she told of the Willow Witches and how they were the ones to assist the young king and queen of the first people. A coven on nearly two dozen witches had sworn a treaty with the first comers of the Winterlands, one which had been broken by the Mad King Elias almost five centuries prior.

The witches were our greatest friends and allies, Miranda. And the Mad King forsook them and raged war against the Willow Lands. If you are ever to be blessed by a witch’s presence, my girl, you must show her the utmost respect. Give her three things. Your condolences for her sisters we have killed, your loyalty for the gift of life they have given us, and a kiss to her knuckles.

Miranda had never forgotten that lesson, had had it written into texts since her mother’s passing just a year after that conversation, so that no one would ever forget that they lived by the Witches’ will alone.

“Madame of the Willow Realm, I offer you my sincerest condolences for the lives my people have taken. I offer you my loyalty, that should you ever need shelter, assistance or kindness, you will find it in me and mine,” she whispered reverently. She didn’t know if the woman, achingly beautiful, could hear her, but it had to be said, regardless. The final step in paying her respects was to lean down from where she still sat, to grab the soft, slender hand and place a heartfelt, gentle kiss to the protruding knuckles.

The sharp shift of the air shouldn’t have surprised Miranda, the Willow Realm as far as she could remember governed itself with regard to weather. But the air shifting came from the rosy mouth of the still woman. It was a gasp…? Leaning forward and looking intently at the lovely face, Miranda spied the eyes behind shut eyelids beginning to twitch with activity. Just a moment later and those eyes were open. Miranda was delighted to see they were a honey brown colour, almost melting in the slight light from the outside the window. Bleary eyes traced the weak rays of light from the window to Miranda’s curious, concerned face.

“Oh, are you of the coven,” she musical voice asked. Miranda frowned.

“No, I am the Queen,” she replied softly.

The confusion on the witch’s face was terribly endearing, and Miranda found herself fiercely protective of her in less than a moment after seeing that expression.

“No, that can’t be right. I was just with Queen Leoda yesterday,” the witch replied, sitting up with some difficulty. Miranda paused in shock. Queen Leoda was the first Queen of the Winterlands. She had lived and died over eight centuries ago.

“She asked me to do a favour for her,” the witch continued, frowning as though trying to recall the memory in perfect clarity. “She had seen a vision the other night and asked me if I might offer her assistance when the time came,” she trailed. “I think- I think I’ve been asleep for some time,” she added, noticing the dust and rugs and age stained windows. Her eyes watered for a moment before she blinked, and Miranda watched as a crystal perfect tear rolled down her perfect cheek.

“Yes,” she confirmed kindly, only now realising the implications of waking the witch with her kiss. She had no time to appreciate the irony of having found a willing witch and her true love in one person. She had a kingdom to protect first.

“I must ask you, Willow Witch, if you are still willing to offer Queen Leoda’s blood your assistance,” Miranda said hurriedly. She didn’t know how long she’d been in the Willow Realm, didn’t know if time was moving the same pace outside it. Perhaps it was too late as it is? And her scouts! Great Willow, they must have been frantic when they couldn’t find her…

“Of course,” the witch said heatedly, frowning mightily at Miranda. “Queen Leoda was a friend to my sisters and I. I would never forsake her or her kin.”

“I meant no offence, Willow Witch. Please forgive me.” The witch huffed a breath then relaxed her furrowed brow, looking at Miranda’s attire and tilting her head. It made Miranda’s heart pound.

“You said you are a queen,” she began.

“Yes?”

“Do queens wear trousers and tunics now?” Miranda smiled patiently.

“No, they don’t. I have been looking for a way to protect my kingdom, and a dress and crown was not conducive to my procuring a ward.”

“A ward? I can do that.” The hope welled in Miranda’s chest.

“For my whole kingdom?”

“For any land tied to your birthright. I suspect the kind you need was from either a wilful witch or your true love… oh.

“’Oh’ is right, but please, Willow Witch, the Belligerent King Irving marches south as the crow flies, and I must be prepared for his attempt to decimate my people.”

“What is your name?”

“I am Miranda Priestly, Queen of the Winterlands,” she said, pride and humility warring within her. She knew that compared to the witch before her, she was nothing special, but she had been taught to take pride in her family name and her duty to be queen.

“I am Andréa, Ward of the Willows. And I am your true love,” she returned shyly. Miranda smiled at her, finding it odd to be, appearance wise, the elder of the two, yet chronologically, Andréa was nearly a millennium old.

“Nigel will have a field day,” Miranda laughed, stopping when the floorboards beneath her squeaked in protest.

“Who is Nigel?” The dark tone of inquiry gave Miranda pause, and looking into deep eyes, coloured with jealousy. She felt a soft, warm palm snake to her forearm and hold her closer. Miranda placed her own hand atop the witch’s and stroked the knuckle where she had kissed them.

“Nigel is my most trusted advisor and friend.” She smiled gently before adding, “And his husband might have an issue if I were to lust after him.” The hand on her forearm gentled but did not let go. Relief painted Andréa’s features.

“Witches guard their loved ones, lovers especially, with great jealousy, Miranda. I am afraid I am not prepared to relinquish you to any other now I know you are my intended.”

“The council has been hounding me to find a consort,” Miranda said fondly. And it was true, they had been hounding her to- “Hounds! Andréa we really must be going,” Miranda said, standing from the narrow bed, not even bothering with the floorboards.

“Alright, lead the way,” Andréa said as she stood.

Miranda’s mouth went dry at the sight of Andréa stood before her. Her dress, ancient and still beautiful hugged to her figure, which was quite curvaceous and tall. She was certainly taller than Miranda, which was a point of attraction for the monarch. She shook her head and lead the way down the ladder, faster and less cautiously than she had ascended. She waited for Andréa to join her down the stairs, before grabbing the witch’s hand and leading her speedily out of the cottage, Andréa’s cry of, “Oh, the mess!” going ignored.

Miranda ran with Andréa tagging behind her, not struggling even once for breath even though she had been under a spell for nearly a thousand years. When the gnarled, ugly limbs of the thick trees didn’t thin into the more familiar birch trees, Miranda began to panic. “I don’t know the way out, Andréa,” she panted. She was looking at the snow and the dark bark of the unknown trees and the dull light that seemed darker than it should.

“My love,” the most soothing voice in the world said, grabbing Miranda’s attention and suspending her in honey brown eyes. “I know the way out. All you need to do is close your eyes and hold my hand,” Andréa said. Miranda did just that, trusting the witch perhaps foolishly fast. “We will need to be fast, Miranda, so you mustn’t trip, alright?”

“I understand,” she said quickly. She sensed Andréa nodding.

And then they were running, Miranda with her eyes closed and grasping a soft hand, being careful not to fall. She felt when they stumbled out of the Willow Realm, falling back into the Willow Lands where the sun peeked easily though the trees and birds actually existed. The snow crunched beneath them, and only when they stopped did Miranda dare to open her eyes. She could not hear the hounds, but she did not feel that much time had passed. Barely minutes, her gut told her.

A high pitched whistle that warbled at the end of the tune sounded. To anyone but Winterlanders it might have sounded like any old bird, but to Miranda, it was a location call from her scouts. Pulling her hand from Andréa’s grasp and stepping closer to the tall woman, she held her hands to her mouth and whistled a similar tune back, then another that meant to retreat back to the Sceptor. She received a confirmation whistle, then silence bar the actual birds reigned.

“We must make out way back to the Sceptor,” Miranda explained, seeing the inquisitive face Andréa wore.

“It’s finished already?”

Miranda realised that Andréa had missed practically all of the history of the Winterlands since she was lain to sleep several centuries before. “It was finished thirty-nine years after building began and has stood insurmountable since.”

“You say that like it has been a very long time,” Andréa noted. Miranda opened her mouth, unsure how to reply. “Just be honest with me, Intended,” Andréa said.

“It is the Decade of the Vale, the Summer Moon year,” she said quietly.

“Oh,” Andréa whispered desolately. Miranda did not say anything, for her words could offer no comfort. Andréa’s sisters that she knew then and all their children she knew, were all dead, lost to the sands of time. Instead they walked, until the afternoon sun was on their backs and Andréa halted abruptly.

“Why aren’t we there yet?” Miranda looked confusedly to Andréa, then back to the horizon where they were headed.

“It’s still a three day’s walk, Andréa.”

“Great Willow, I don’t think so. Hold onto my hand tightly,” Andréa ordered. Miranda bristled at being bossed but did as she was told (Andréa was literally the only person she had ever done that for).

“I’m going to Willow Walk us,” she said. Before Miranda could ask, the snow and trees and open valleys and hills were all blurring together until the hollow scratching of the frozen lake’s surface sounded beneath their feet. In just a breath later, Miranda and Andréa were stood at the base of the mountain, startling two guards into falling over.

“Majesty!”

“Your Majesty!”

“You’re brilliant,” Miranda said to Andréa, who blushed prettily at the praise. “Send word to gather the council in an hour and not a moment sooner or later.”

“Yes, Majesty!” the guards cried in unison.

 

.oOo.

 

Miranda and Andréa were not separated once since the witch had woken, and Miranda couldn’t help but notice how pleased by that Andréa seemed. Even when they had entered her own apartments, Miranda had not had the witch sent to a guest chamber to change her clothes (they must have been uncomfortable after a millennium, Miranda thought). Miranda herself could not attend a council meeting in trousers and a tunic, so she had selected a grey gown, lined with furs and a pair of comfortable, heeled boots which Andréa was studying intently.

“Will you tell them who I am,” Andréa asked after Miranda had fastened her dress.

“About you being a witch?”

“About me being your true love,” Andréa corrected a little tersely.

Miranda looked at the taller woman. She noticed the stony set to her jaw, and the erect posture of her shoulders. Moving forward and taking the boots from the witch’s hands, Miranda forced her attention to her.

“I had no desire for a prince or king to marry, or even a princess or a queen,” Miranda began. “I had always thought it was perhaps because I am as cynical as they come, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.” She moved her warms palms up slender arms to narrow shoulders and then to a prominent jawline, cupping the smooth skin affectionately. “I think I have been waiting for my true love, but was too afraid to admit that.”

“I don’t want you to have a reason to look to another for love the way I will love you,” Andréa confessed quietly. “I don’t want you to resent me, so I ask you, Miranda, to answer me true… I will love you as a witch does: jealously and completely and tenderly. I will not be able to stop once I have begun,” she announced regretfully, as though it were something that would send Miranda away from her.

“I am your true love, Andréa of the Willow Realm, and you will not send me away with threats of your love.” The tremulous smile she received made her heart flutter.

“I will protect your kingdom with all the magicks I possess, I swear it,” Andréa said.

“It will be our kingdom, soon enough, darling, and remind me to organise a history tutor for you.”

“Yes, Miranda.”

“Good, now come, we have to let my advisors know that King Irving doesn’t stand a chance against us.”

 

.oOo.

 

The advisors, Nigel especially, had treated Andréa like a goddess among mortals, which she was essentially. It pleased Miranda greatly to see her intended consort accepted without incident by her council.

“But how does the spell work?” Wilhelm asked. Andréa blushed, confusingly.

“I will need to wed Miranda,” she said. “And upon our, um, union, all that is hers by birthright is protected under my magick both as a witch and as her truest love.”

Miranda did not blush in front of her council members, but the idea did put heat to her cheeks.

“King Irving has been spotted two days from the borderlands, Majesty, with an army ten times ours and dragons four. If he breaches the borders then the ward will not work, and it will surely be the end of the Winterlands,” said Seth. Miranda nodded gravely, trying to calculate how much time Andréa would need to be comfortable in the castle to wed her-

“Then we must be wed tonight,” the subject of her thoughts says. Miranda turns to her, prepared to reassure her that they can wait until at least the morning when she is interrupted. “We will be wives regardless, and you are my intended, the one Leoda wished me to help when the time came. It will be a service to her and to me, to become your wife, Miranda.”

And so, they began preparations. The High Priestess of the Chapel, and Nigel, were to officiate the hasty wedding. Emilia, Miranda’s head maid whisked Andréa away to dress her while Miranda was moved to her apartments to do the same, a conveniently light dress ready for her in her wardrobe. Within the hour they had been taken to the Inner Chamber of the Keep and were sworn as wives under the Summer Moon and the stained-glass windows that the First Queen Leoda had made herself. It was a comforting detail to Andréa.

In a whirlwind of activity, they were wed, declared Queen and Consort in a brief coronation (abiding by a law that allowed a coronation under threat of war) and were thrust by Nigel into the official royal apartments. Miranda had not even had to try to tell Andréa they would go at her pace before she was wrapped in long arms and being kissed properly by her new wife.

They both understood that in later moments of their married lives, there would be time for slow and for intimate and gentle, but now, as they sun was only hours away, Andréa and Miranda made love hastily but no less enjoyably. The tingle of Andréa’s magick as she skated her fingers along lightly sweaty skin was a wholly new experience to Miranda, but she could never imagine being made love to differently ever again. And when they crested together, under the bright moon, an outward glow of deep blue flew from them, and travelled as far as the borders of the Winterlands.

For now, they were safe.

 

.oOo.

 

Miranda woke suddenly to loud banging on her chamber doors and the frantic voice of Nigel telling them to be ready for battle as soon as they could. Miranda leapt from the warm bed, followed closely by Andréa, and dressed in a tunic and trousers and another ornate jacket, flexible enough to fight if it came to that. Andréa had found her dress that she had been awoken in and slipped into that, looking like some ancient deity come to save the Winterlands. Miranda supposed that was exactly what she was. They made their way down to the dining hall where many of the officials of state and the council members had gathered.

“Majesties,” the Head of Strategies said, earning a pleased nod from Miranda at his pluralisation. “The Belligerent King Irving is at the borderlands. He is unable to pass the wards that Queen Andréa has erected, but the portion of his army that are magical creatures seem to be able to affect the barrier.”

“Affect the barrier? How do you mean?”

“The dragons particularly seem to be weakening it,” he replied anxiously.

The din in the room seemed to intensify after that, the echoing in the room becoming too loud to what each individual was trying to suggest. Miranda could barely hear herself think never mind consider what everyone was throwing at her. Some were calling for the crypts, their last resort, to hide away. Some were calling for every able man and woman to be conscripted to fight against the enemy. Some were speaking but not saying anything at all.

“Do any of you know how a witch grows her power?”

Andréa’s voice squashed all others and demanded attention with her low tone and stormy expression. No one, not even Miranda, knew the answer, so no one spoke at all, everyone waiting in bated breath for the Queen Consort to speak her wisdom.

“It is matured by age, by the number of years lived, or by certain rituals,” she said, answering her question. “I have been alive for nearly a millennium, and have bound myself to my true love. There is no power in this realm or any other that can rival my own.”

Miranda looked to her wife, speechless and awed by the power that her lover possessed. She felt the spark of magick flitter up her spine and settle in the roots of her hair, she felt the air grow heavy but clean with the intention to protect that Andréa carried. She felt her people, in the castle and out, all sense that everything would be alright.

“Know that I will protect you all from the enemy. Nothing and no one can defeat me.”

It was said with such confidence, such conviction that no one dared to question her, no one dared to go against the resolve in the Consort’s voice. Even Miranda daren’t question her.

“I will go to the barrier, I can allow about twenty people to travel with me but no more than that,” the Consort announces. Miranda immediately begins calling out names of those that will be joining them to the camp grounds where her army waits. All together she gathers a baker’s dozen, including herself and dismisses the rest of her people to begin guiding the women and children into the crypts in case all does not go as planned.

When she stands in front of Andréa, and her wife frowns and opens her mouth, she holds up her hand for silence. “I am going to the borderlands, Andréa. These are my people and I will not be muscled out of this battle by your millennium of witchy powers!”

“I was going to say, aren’t you going to get a weapon?”

Miranda was in love.

Two hidden daggers, a bow and arrow and a light sword later, Andréa let her magick wrap around the small group and blur them out of the large dining hall and into the blistering winds of the camp grounds. The breeze was both from the vale of the Winterlands behind them, and from the four large dragons flapping thunderously just beyond the light blue barrier that flashed at every boom from the dragons’ fireballs. Miranda gaped for a moment at the enormous beasts, and at the raging, rippling army roaring at the barrier.

“There must be double what we thought there’d be,” Miranda said anxiously, but quietly enough that only Andréa would hear. The stony set to her wife’s face did not bode well for her frantic heart, but Miranda hoped it was only the thought of expending her magick so thoroughly that had her pensive.

“The dragons are collared by magick,” Andréa said, “but the rest of the magicals are there by their own will.”

“What will you do?”

“I will open a portion of the barrier to the dragons only, allow them in then uncollar them. Dragons are docile unless their young or their mates are under threat. That they have been collared will be a great offence and shame to them,” Andréa said, not looking to Miranda as she surveyed the sprawling army. In the distance, a great chariot sat, which undoubtedly held King Irving. Miranda could sense his smugness from the elevated hill they were stood on.

“I need you to make the order to evacuate the camps, Miranda. Down through the valley behind us and into the woods would be safest.”

“I don’t understand, will they not fight? What are you planning, darling?”

“The dragons will either go peacefully or they will stay and fight with me, but in either case, I may have to do some… terraforming.”

“What?”

Miranda followed Andréa’s gaze to the snow-covered mountains that straddled the vast field that King Irving’s army was buzzing in. Miranda nodded her understanding then grabbed the taller woman’s hand, suddenly appreciating how beautiful her wife looked, dressed in her ancient gown and allowing her hair to flow down her back and in the wind. The survival of her whole kingdom was owed to the witch before her, and she might never be able to pay back that favour.

“What can I do?” Miranda asks, feeling useless. Just days ago, she was the only one with any idea for a solution to the war they might never win, and now she was as involved as anyone in the crypts back in the castle.

“I want you to go with the rest into the woodlands, guide them further through the Willow Lands. As far as you can go.”

“No. Absolutely not. If you want me out of your way, fine, but I will not turn tail and flee. Not even for you, Andréa.”

“Then you must wait at the tree line. You will still see me, but you will not be in any immediate danger,” Andréa explained. “Understand this, Miranda,” she started gravely, “They have threatened your life and thus, have forfeited their own. Do you understand me?”

The intensity of Andréa’s dark eyes cut through any self-righteousness that Miranda could muster and went straight to her heart. Andréa did not look like all she had to do was raise a hand to raze an army. She looked as though doing this might be the last thing she did. Miranda asked her if it might be.

“I will need to use all of the vast reserves I have, but you needn’t worry, Miranda. I will be fine.”

Miranda didn’t believe her for a second. She told her wife as much, Andréa only laughed. “You mustn’t worry about me, only yourself, and the life you carry,” Andréa said, placing her hand on Miranda’s lower stomach. She had no time to celebrate the news, no time to ask how Andréa knew so soon after their binding. If anything, it made the chances of Andréa’s death more daunting. It made her safety more important to her, too.

“Kiss me,” she pleaded, clinging to Andréa’s arms and raising her head for her tall wife to bend down and fulfil her wish.

“Oh, wife,” Andréa said, bending and capturing Miranda’s lips in a kiss so tender it brought tears to Miranda’s eyes. “Go, now,” Andréa said, pushing her off to the camps to begin evacuating the area of all the troops. Miranda ordered the captains to meet with her and gave them strict orders to have all the troops collect their primary weapons and their ration pouches, leaving anything else behind. It was quicker than Miranda had hoped, she was ashamed to say. If there were no more troops to evacuate then she had no reason to be this close to her wife, who seemed to be chanting a spell, holding her hands to the airborne dragons.

When there was not a soul left in the camps, the barrier opened just enough to accept the four dragons, which, as they passed the barrier, their collars glowed bright red then disintegrated into ashes. The aggravated roar of the four dragons echoed throughout the valley between the mountains, and even from so far away, Miranda could see the fear on the enemy army’s faces. As Andréa said, only two of the dragons stayed, the other flying off into the distance. The two that remained immediately began breathing their heat onto those that enslaved them.

When Andréa collapsed to her hands and knees, Miranda was tempted to run to her, but the hand that had been resting on her abdomen gave her pause and then ultimately stopped her. The vibrations from the mountains seemed bone deep, rumbling through Miranda’s chest until her heartbeat was confused. It seemed only a moment later that the snow from both of the mountains was racing down to the army below it, scattering in a vain attempt to escape certain death.

Miranda watched in awe as the snow flew from the top of the mountain, to the army below, and spread outward, not stopping at the barrier. Miranda took shelter in the thicker trees as the snow settled, not thick enough to suffocate her or any of the troops further in the forest. It was, however, thick enough for Andréa to be covered. What a horrific sight, Miranda mused absently, as the ash from the dragons fell over the snow and made everything it touched grey. She ran forwards, on her hands and feet up the incline to where Andréa was standing and began to dig desperately through the ashen snow.

Her eyes were blurred from her tears, her hair, white as usual from the abnormal colour but decorated by glinting diamonds of snow. The snow was deep, it was so cold too, and Miranda feared that even if she found Andréa, she might already be too late. It felt like a punch to her guts to even consider that her wife of only a day might be dead beneath her, that she was not fast enough.

“No, no, no,” she moaned, digging further, desperately trying to get to her wife. When her hands snagged a beaded thread, she leapt to dig there, uncovering the pale, beautiful face of her wife. It felt a awful irony to first meet her wife from under a white sheet, to uncovering the unmoving form of her wife from under another sort of white sheet. “Oh, please,” she begged, unearthing more of her wife’s freezing body, crying openly. She pulled her wife’s head to her lap and began rubbing her hands over the motionless chest, trying to warm her enough to wake.

“Andréa, please,” she begged into damp, sable hair. “Please, darling, please.”

Stroking her hair away from her face, Miranda leaned down to rest her warm cheek to Andréa’s to chase away some of the cold that had taken root in her darling’s flesh.

“Please, by the grace of the Willows, please spare her. Anything to have her wake, please, any powers in me, please,” she chanted. Eyes shut to the scene of her wife, she missed the soft golden glow of her own magick, reaching out and thawing the frost that had settled in Andréa’s bones. A soft gasp, sounded one so similar to Andréa’s when Miranda kissed her the first time.

“I’m okay,” she rasped. Miranda only nodded and pulled her closer, holding her longer body in her arms as best as she could, clinging desperately to her miracle of a wife.

“You’re not leaving the Sceptor ever again,” she said through gritted teeth, swiping away her tears angrily. “You’re not lifting a finger, not going travelling anywhere, not doing anything unless I am with you, Willows be damned.”

“I’m okay, my love, I’m okay,” Andréa said on repeat.

“You could have died, Andréa, dammit!”

“I didn’t, though.”

No, Miranda thought relievedly. She didn’t.

 

.oOo.

 

It was a month before the celebrations died down and Miranda was, frankly, exhausted. After some lengthy peace negotiations, Miranda and Andréa had finally decided that Nigel, their most trusted advisor and friend, would go and govern the kingdom that King Irving had forsaken in his quest for the Winterlands. The people there were desolate, reports said, and willing to accept any worthy ruler that the Winterlands decided on. In was a seamless migration for Nigel, moving into the position of leader and being a guiding force, as Miranda knew he would be.

It was, perhaps, not their greatest idea to announce Miranda’s pregnancy at the same time as the conclusion to the peace negotiations. The people were beside themselves both with joy from the news of the pregnancy and relief from the ended war and successful talks of peace. Now, Miranda fell back onto hers and Andréa’s bed with an exhausted sigh, and a following groan as the softness of the mattress registered in her tired brain.

Andréa moved over to her, clad in the same style of dress as Miranda woke her in, and began to unfasten the knee-high boots on her feet. Andréa continued to adoringly undress Miranda, her wife’s comfort her only ambition. It was moments like then that Miranda thanked the Willows for guiding her to her wife, thanked her ancestress Leoda for dreaming of Miranda and her need to protect her kingdom. What a blessing, she thought blissfully, as Andréa removed her heavy dress with her magick and left her in her warm slip, fit for sleeping, which is exactly what Miranda intended to do.

“Up, my love, I need to pull down the covers,” Andréa said coaxingly. Miranda grumbled but complied, and soon she was in a warm bed with an armful of wife and nothing to look forward to the next day but a lie in and perhaps some reading she had been too busy for.

“Go to sleep, my love. I’ll be here in the morning,” Andréa said into snow white hair.

“You’ll wake up, won’t you?” Miranda replies. She had been anxious about Andréa falling asleep every night since they returned from the borderlands, not having ever had a good time with Andréa going unconscious for any reason.

“I will,” Andréa says solemnly.

“Oh, good. Love you.”

“I know. I love you, too.”

And the very next morning, perhaps by the grace of the Willows, Andréa, Queen Consort to Miranda, woke up.