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this cathedral where your face stains the windows

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They are many, the hollows and caves in the highlands where a hunted woman can hide. The See’s hounds have maps, each more outdated than the last, but Ysayle and her people learn the land as a fox learns the shape of snares which he might return to feed from. The Riversmeet where barques once ran no better now than a road, and the ice more treacherous beside; the hills near Whitebrim where the snow gathers in pockets and will swallow a man with too heavy a tread.

Clearpool, too, where once she took refuge, her coat laid over the ground as buffer against the cold and her heart on her tongue like a stone. A storm came upon the highlands then, a great wall of white; and then, night. An entire day she waited with nothing in her ears but the slow drip of water, but the next morning there were no traces left of her, nor of the patrol that had been on her heels before.

They are so used to hunting clawed and winged things — the dragoons of Ishgard too easily look to the skies, and the knights only forward. It’s the footsoldiers, often Brume-born and used to walking in the shadow of others, who grow the most quickly used to the unending ice and the way it lends itself to ambushes.

It is not always enough. Under a pall of blue smoke, in the wake of another long storm brought along the Abalathia’s spine, Ysayle helps with cleanup. How quickly do bodies disappear under the eddies of snow! And the trail of their footsteps already forgotten and erased.

“It will be some time before they notice the convoy missing,” Igeyorhm says, admiring the fruits borne of the information she carried to them with no word whence it came from. “Do what you will of the supplies, but keep the crystals somewhere safe.”

-

Tell me of Shiva, Igeyorhm says, and so Ysayle does. Shows her the small altars carved into stone and snow, the icons and the old hidden churches with their rough-hewn pews, their stained windows. The myths and the miracles and finally, as they make their ways between the mountains: the history that was granted to her.

Darkness clings to Igeyorhm wherever they go. Her mouth dry from speaking, Ysayle watches her, the way night falls upon the relief of her mask beneath the glittering arches that bound the amphitheatre.

“How much of her do you remember?”

Very little, in truth, and yet... To speak of it is difficult. How to say it? How to explain? The memory illuminates every moment of her life, in the same way sunlight refracts endlessly on the frost that blossoms now in the place of morning dew. Ysayle remembers: a woman under the shadow of great wings. Remembers: a fierce wellspring of love inside of her, fearless and heedless of any dam.

We have been better than we are now, she thinks. We can be better; and if no one else then I will make it so.

Igeyorhm’s palms are warm even through her gloves. Ysayle minds the claws only when they catch where toil and battle have torn at the fabric of her clothes: she takes the other woman by the wrist when this happens, and moves her hand instead to rest over the jut of her hip, beneath the fall of her coat.

“Enough,” Ysayle replies. “Even a fragment of the truth is better than the lies Ishgard squanders our people’s lives on.”

“I see now why they call you Iceheart.” The beak of Igeyorhm’s mask shadows her mouth, but beneath the smooth river of her voice approval runs in warm currents. “Keep fast to that conviction, and we may yet see Shiva reborn in truth.”

The question must show on her face, for Igeyorhm leans close, her head tilted up. “Gods walk the earth full of wrath and thunder, have you not heard? Mayhap saints could as well, if called upon by the faithful.”

The aurora’s green falls from the sky to stain the hollows of the mask where you might look for Igeyorhm’s eyes. Ysayle does not know what to do or say. At times, speaking with her, she is reminded of Vidofnir, or any of the drakes that rest among the peaks: strange-spoken and unreadable, until you stop expecting her to act entirely as a human would. But the brush of her fingers over Ysayle’s thigh, the appraising cant of her head under the hood — any fool, dragon or man, could read those signs.

Again Ysayle takes her by the wrist. Under her palm the sliver of skin between sleeve and glove, yielding and warm.

“You will tell me more of this later,” she says, and Igeyorhm, following, concurs.

-

By the time autumn turns its leaves over their hoard of crystals has grown respectable. Even spread across caches, there’s enough that Ysayle can feel them resonate when she enters one of the rooms they’ve assigned to that purpose. Igeyorhm waits for her there, pacing between the crates, now and then pausing to sift through the pile of crystals and raise one to the light. Strange, how often they find themselves alone — but not unwelcome.

And they are things they must speak of. Igeyorhm’s thoughts must run the same course as hers: when she speaks she picks up the thread as though it had never fallen from the loom.

“In olden times it would take a sacrifice: a living heart offered along with a people’s hopes and prayers.” She looks back, and though gentleness is not a word Ysayle would think to apply to her she pauses. “Not to fear, my lady. You need only faith, and power, and both of those you now hold in spades.”

A living heart, was it? Hers is a rolling drum under her breast. “You come to me bearing these secrets as though they were the answer to my questions. But are they, truly? When you refuse to tell me of your own history, or even of the place that you hail from.”

Igeyorhm looks at her, quiet. In the ice that coats the walls Ysayle catches glimpses of her own face, remote and adamant. She does not mean to be unkind, not without reason, but there is more than her at stake here, more than just the glittering mirage of whatever it is that lies between them. Even with all the faith in the world, it is a lot of power to be left in her hands. Igeyorhm is not of Ishgard, and of Coerthas neither. There is no dragon’s blood in her. And there is nothing that they can give her, no reward for services rendered, no justice for old wrongs.

Unspoken: why offer me this balm for my hurts, if it did not soothe your own? How can I trust you not to lead me wrong? What cost to me, to my own?

“Do you believe the weight of history to be yours to bear alone?”

The question falls inside of her like a stone and draws her short.

“Mine is not so different from yours. I too remember a great city, and a peace that spanned ages instead of years. I labor towards it always.” There is steel in her tone, but no sting. The crystal in her hand rings clear when it rolls into her claws’ point; she handles it as though it were a memento or a focus as she searches for words. “In a desperate time we drew upon our faith, my brothers and I; we made that sacrifice, and through our god it did bring salvation. But as you must know ‘tis delicate work, to set a world right anew. And what I would have given, someone else did instead.”

She smiles now, and the edge of her mouth glimpsed under the edge of her mask is mirthless. When she turns again to face Ysayle she spreads her hands. The fall of her sleeves changes her shape. In the years since the Calamity there have sprung tales of ghosts caught beneath storm and floe, tempest or ice. Among her people she has heard whispers: that Igeyorhm might be one such lone specter, that followed them back from the darkened mountain passes or the Bed of Bones.

“I cannot return to my city, not yet. And I do not claim to give you answers. It is a path that I show you, which you will choose to take, or not.”

“Why me?”

Again that tilt of the head. “You have will enough to change the world, and I would see my hand in that change, too,” Igeyorhm says, and her voice has turned quiet, almost rueful. “And perhaps you remind me of myself as I used to be, in time far and long ago.”

-

She dreams of Clearpool one night. The stars dim through what little remains of the sky, the howling wind outside silenced by snow. In the dream she fears nothing. Unclasps her cloak, removes her coat, her gloves, her tunic, her shoes. The water is dark, and silent, and cold. Igeyorhm, too. Her hair fans about their faces. There is a sound to the cold when it gets deep enough and Ysayle hears it now. It speaks to her like the last verse of a half-remembered song or her beloved’s voice, hailing from a faraway room.

Her lungs burn. Igeyorhm puts a hand to her cheek and the other to her shoulder. Darkness surrounds her. With guts shining through their skin, the faerie fish flit through the black waters. Is there a light such as theirs inside of her? She can only hope. The cold numbs her ears, her limbs, her mouth. Igeyorhm puts a finger over her lip. Her skin parts. Ice drifts out, and rises, and breaks gently the film of the water’s surface. Outside the storm is still raging. The world is a wash of black and blue and white.

Be very sure of what you want, Igeyorhm says. This is something she has said before. In the shadow of old spires, under the weathered stone faces that overlook their campsites in the highlands. Abrupt at times, brusque, fervent. The metal of her gloves bites with the same chill as the mistral.

To be hunted is to live a very simple life. You are safe until you aren’t. You are a thing that is hidden, until the time comes to go. You live one day at a time. You look to tomorrow and you need to love it so dearly it swallows all: the cold, the fear, the sorrow. You believe and you believe and you believe. The storm that falls on you will keep you safe. Someone will come who remembers the song.

I am sure of it, Ysayle speaks into the black waters. In the way of dreams everything feels very clear, yet at the same time a blur. Where does the ice begin, where does her body end? No light save for what little is held inside the tiny lives that surround them, and Igeyorhm’s dark eyes, her half-answers.

If I could make a lake out of myself, Ysayle says: a cave, a pond, a hollow — if I could bring the people to gather there, if I could pull them together so they could see that blessed past born again tomorrow: I would bring forth staff and sword and bow, and carve the space for it; I would myself wield the chisel.

-

In the morning’s lingering hours she finds herself again at one of the hidden shrines which the ceaseless winter and man’s anger have yet to deface. In her mind’s eye the blue span of Hraesvelgr’s great wings, in her heart that fierce and wild love again. And the way a claw feels over the brim of her mouth, and the low whisper of a voice along the tunnels that run the mountain passes like veins.

She feels light in truth, weightless. What did the Calamity leave her but this? A world made stark with ice, and the truth inside of her like a beacon.

“Igeyorhm,” she says, and before she even has time to turn hears the rustle of a cloak behind her. “I have an answer for you.”