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These Things Which Cannot Be Held

Chapter Text

 

 

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held. Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

 

 

The heavy snowfall that had been flurrying past the window during the afternoon’s interminable conferences has eased to gentle flakes drifting down. In the time it takes Tissaia to gather her cloak and wash bag the snow has ceased entirely and she sets out from Tor Carnedd under clear skies. Nestled between the Kestrel and Dragon mountains on the western bank of the Buina, the Duchy of Carnedd is a well-kept secret. Through Saovine and Imbaelk the snows are thick and soft, the cold winter tempered by numerous hot springs scattered amidst the mountain streams and rocky outcrops. In the summers, the river turns the lowlands lush and fertile whilst the moors bloom in thick carpets of heather, snowy peaks still visible even in the height of Feainn. Widely held to be a remote outpost with treacherous weather, the Hengfors are in fact a flourishing league of duchies remaining neutral in the conflicts that the larger Northern Kingdoms often get drawn into.

Tissaia first landed here by boat from Kovir and Poviss in her early days as an envoy for the newly formed Brotherhood. (Or rather, that is her official version of events. Few people know it, but she was here once before when the tower still belonged to the Aen Seidhe, before Falka turned the snows red with blood.) The Chapter had chosen to lease Tor Carnedd after Falka’s rebellion, the bloodstained hallways and shattered windows too painful to repair in the immediate aftermath. Now the home of the Knights of the Golden Stirrup, it is still available to the Brotherhood should they ever wish to hold Council there, as is the custom for any sites of ancient magic. Most mages grumble loudly and profusely whenever it is announced they are required to make the journey to the Hengfors, but Tissaia loves the place. The tower is well-maintained, the Knights careful not to destroy any remnants of the Elves and First Mages who walked the halls in the centuries before them. And the surrounding mountains are a haven for anyone wanting to escape the walls with ears. After a particularly arduous day of bickering and pontificating, she is light-hearted at the thought of disappearing up into the snowy crags to a pool that only she knows about.

The walk to the spring is fairly long, and steep in places, but there is a path to follow for most of the journey which requires minimal scrambling over boulders or down scree slopes. Her footfalls are muffled in the powdery snow, still unbroken by anyone else’s tread… it is easy to believe she is the first person ever to set foot on this ground. Somewhere unmarred and unblooded, a fresh start. Tissaia’s derisive snort at her own wistfulness startles a nearby hare who twitches her ears then bounds away into the scraggy juniper bushes.

Squaess’me, elaine beag.”

If anyone were to hear Tissaia apologising to a hare for startling it, she would be laughed out of the next Chapter meeting, but this mountain path is one of the few places on the Continent where she is certain of being alone, so she indulges herself. She is breathless by the time she reaches her destination, the dip in the peaks where a small pool is fed by hot springs, deep enough to swim but not so deep that one worries a creature will grab one by the ankle. The snow and chill air are biting cold on her bare skin as she strips, the soles of her feet burning as she pads across the snow to the flat boulder where she always drapes her clothes. Her pendant is the last thing to be removed, nestled carefully in the folds of her gown. Her ribcage expands as it always does whenever she lifts the weight off her neck, a hand twitching momentarily as she shakes the sudden burst of Chaos from herself. It has always been this way – the moment after her pendant comes off is a knife-edge she has to balance on. People, ordinary folk and younger mages alike, assume that pendants are symbolistic knick-knacks. Jewellery to mark a mage out, a token of their power and affluence. They forget the chains’ original purpose, a binding, an anchor. Several decades ago (over ten in fact, she realises with surprise) it had become unfashionable to carry a staff and mages had searched for an alternative vessel to which their Chaos could be tethered. Mistress de Winter’s voice still echoes in Tissaia’s ears whenever she is tempted to remove her pendant for longer periods.

If a spell goes wrong, if you meddle in matters you ought not to, better a piece of metal bears the brunt of your error rather than your own body. This is not a noose, it is a shield.  

It is a heavy shield though, and it keeps feelings in just as effectively as it keeps them out. 

Rolling her shoulders, Tissaia releases the breath she’d been holding, easing into the water with the same cautious relaxation. She swims to the far side where rocks give way to a steep slope, the valley spread out below, and rests her forearms on the edge looking out. The heated water and sunset colours relax her enough that she lets her body float out behind her, pillowing her chin on her arms and closing her eyes. 

The peace is shattered by an all too familiar voice,

“So, this is where you disappear to.”

Tissaia startles and splashes as she whirls round, submerging herself up to her neck even though the water is clear enough that it will do little to hide her from the violet eyes raking up and down her without hesitation.

“What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

Yennefer does not reply immediately, instead reaching up to undo a lace at the back of her neck which miraculously unfurls the gown that had been clinging to her every curve. It is either a spell or tailoring of the highest skill – Tissaia wouldn’t put it past Yennefer to spend Aedirn’s treasury on her own wardrobe. The thought rankles her, the girl knows what it is to be starving, to have nothing… she has forgotten it would seem. All thoughts are wiped from Tissaia’s mind however as the fabric falls from Yennefer’s body and pools at her feet leaving her body entirely bare. In the setting sun, reds and golds, her skin glows like flames, her hair blacker than ever against the snow. Despite this fiery appearance, the cold still affects her, the tell-tale tightening of her nipples making Tissaia swallow hard and flush. She squawks as Yennefer steps into the water,

“You can’t come in here.”

“You don’t tell me what to do anymore.” Yennefer ignores her protests and wades further in, skimming her palms over the surface, “If you’re so concerned about privacy, I’d cover your tracks next time – it wasn’t hard to follow your footprints.”

Tissaia inches further away but feels the stone edge hit her back and crosses her arms across herself, “Why are you here?”

“To bathe.”

“No, I mean at the Conclave. You have avoided all gatherings called by the Brotherhood since Ascending. King Vifuril may appreciate your distrust of mages, he shares it, but it will serve neither of you to continue in isolation. I’m curious why you’ve decided to come to this one.”

Yennefer rolls her eyes and flicks her head in annoyance, as though Tissaia’s words were an irritating fly. She sinks further into the water, letting her hair float out behind her and hums in enjoyment. Some moments later, when Tissaia is still glaring at her with arms firmly crossed, Yennefer sighs and settles against the edge. Whether she does it on purpose or not, when she stretches her arms along the rocks one almost brushes Tissaia’s shoulder who shifts further round the pool’s edge. The smirk on Yennefer’s face makes it clear she knew exactly what she was doing and Tissaia curses under her breath. Just when she is wondering how best to retrieve her clothes without having to walk naked under Yennefer’s gaze, the younger woman speaks again.

“Rumour has it you are seeking evidence to implicate a certain Chapter mage in the deaths of several young girls.”

This gives Tissaia pause, and she turns slowly to face her, “Speak plainly, Yennefer. The atrocities of late are too grave a matter to be tiptoeing around them.”

“You suspect Stregobor is testing his twisted little theories on girls born under the supposed Black Sun. There have been… incidents in Aedirn, I would see the culprit brought to justice.”

Could it be? Tissaia cannot tamp down the hope that flares in her chest. Is Yennefer finally taking responsibility for her Kingdom? Growing up and deciding to use her considerable talents in the pursuit of the greater good? She allows the hope to cloud her judgement, to colour her voice with a softness,

“You need my help?”

If Yennefer sees this for the olive branch it is, she gives no indication. Only scowls and pulls her mouth into an ugly, hard line,

“I want that bastard given a reckoning. Even if it means I have to speak to you to get it.”

Her spine is already pressed against the rocky edge or Tissaia would have stepped backwards at the spite in Yennefer’s voice. Without her pendant it is harder to maintain her customary neutral expression and she cannot keep the hurt off her face. The almost imperceptible widening of Yennefer’s eyes is the only clue that she has noticed the pain she has caused. Not certain she wants to know the answer, Tissaia asks,

“Is it truly so awful seeing me again?”

That horrid smirk Yennefer has picked up somewhere in the years since Tissaia last saw her makes an appearance,

“I grant you, you’re not altogether unpleasant to look at like this, dear Rectoress.”

Heartsore and flushed, Tissaia stands abruptly and steps out of the pool. She grabs her clothes, pulling them on before she’s dried herself. She is still doing up the buttons with frozen fingers as she hurries away down the path, furious at herself for the wet trails on her cheeks that are not from the pool. She was a fool to think anything had changed between them, even more of a fool for wanting it to have.

The spell to dry her skin and the clammy fabric of her gown is a simple one, she could cast it in her sleep. Yet the pit of her stomach lurches and her breath gets snatched away as though she had suddenly stepped off an unexpected height. Dizzy with the wave of Chaos that burst through her she scrabbles at her neck and then understands. 

Her pendant. She must have left it at the pool.

 ----

 

There have been few experiences in Yennefer’s life as satisfying as watching Tissaia de Vries scurrying away half-dressed and utterly discomposed. This Conclave had simply been another officious gathering to avoid, her absence another rock to throw at the Chapter. But then the girls had begun to disappear – dairy maids and nobles alike. Sabrina’s last letter mentioned Tissaia was making discreet inquiries and it seemed too perfect an opportunity to ignore. In one move, Yennefer can win Vifuril’s favour for solving Aedirn’s problems, stick it to Stregobor, and force Tissaia to admit her precious Chapter is a dangerously out-of-touch at best, a fundamentally flawed entity at worst.

She had not taken into account the emotional turmoil seeing the Rectoress again would cause. The rage and bitterness still burns hot and sour in her stomach as it had that night at the Ball. But even more troubling, the old yearning for approval, the inexplicable need to please the woman. The spitefulness is easier to handle than the strange fluttering under her ribs so Yennefer clings to it, focuses on it until it is razor sharp and cutting. Which is why when her gaze catches on something flashing in the last rays of sun and she swims over to see Tissaia’s pendant forgotten on the ground, Yennefer smiles in triumph.

There is a momentary shimmer, a quivering, as she reaches out towards it, but nothing happens and Yennefer clasps it in her palm. Cold and heavy, smoother than she had expected with the runes and raised designs worn away by centuries of thumbing. She barely has time to stuff it under the bundle of her clothes before she hears the crunch of hurried footsteps in the snow. Tissaia reappears and stops short when she sees Yennefer is still there. Dragging her eyes up Tissaia’s form and lingering on the exposed skin where the chain would normally sit Yennefer taunts,

“Rectoress, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you look so… naked.”

Tissaia’s long neck is bare, tendons flexing and throat bobbing as she swallows her irritation when Yennefer saunters to stand in front of her.

“Move aside, I need to get back to the pool.”

“Why? I wonder… what have you been up to that’s made bathing again so soon a necessity? And without your pendant – I imagined you only ever take that off in intimate situations.”

Yennefer wonders if she will be incinerated on the spot but it is worth it for the dark flush creeping across the Rectoress’ pale face, for the way the pulse at the base of her throat jumps, clearly visible without the chain round it. Tissaia sweeps past, Yennefer making certain she has to physically push by her, taking wicked enjoyment in the frustrated shoving and the way Tissaia’s hands snatch away from her naked body when she presses into them. The exasperated noises become tinged with real fear as Tissaia searches in vain for her pendant and when the water in the pool starts to visibly churn with Tissaia’s anxiety, Yennefer relents. (She tries to ignore the concern that flares in her own chest when she sees the desperation in Tissaia’s eyes.)

“Alright alright, calm down, I’ve got your precious necklace.”

Tissaia’s eyes narrow, “You?”

Yennefer quirks her lips in a smirk, “I couldn’t resist the temptation… one could almost believe you’d left it on purpose as an invitation.”

“How? How did you even pick it up?”

Yennefer tilts her head as though Tissaia is being dense, “You’d left it on the edge…”

Tissaia interrupts her with a snarl, “You shouldn’t have been able to touch it! Give it to me, now!”

Yennefer clasps her hands behind her back, adopting an air of nonchalance. “I don’t have it anymore.”

Tissaia’s eyes narrow even further making her look like a displeased cat. Her tail would be fluffed with indignation if she had one, Yennefer smirks at the thought.

“What do you mean, you don’t have it anymore? Where is it?”

“I can’t say for certain, somewhere between us and the void… I never did master teleporting things to other dimensions…”

Tissaia goes even paler which Yennefer would not have thought possible and she watches in fascination as the woman’s hands begin to tremble where she has clenched them in the folds of her gown.

“Bring it back. Now.”

“I can’t. It will reappear soon, a handful of days, no more. Long enough for us to investigate the deaths in Aedirn.”

Tissaia closes her eyes, swaying on her feet and for a moment Yennefer worries she will actually faint. Her hand comes up to clutch where the pendant would normally hang but her fingers close round empty air. She releases a shaky breath then opens her eyes with  grim resignation,

“I will help you trace these killings to Stregobor as you ask. In return, you will stay with me until my pendant has returned – I cannot risk it reappearing in your hands when you are halfway across the Continent.”

“Rectoress, anyone would think you cannot bear to be rid of me.”

“No one can know I do not have my pendant, least of all Stregobor. You must promise me, no one will hear of this.” Tissaia steps forward and insists, “Promise me!”

Yennefer throws up her hands in exasperation at the nagging, “Fine! Sweet Melitele, what an uproar over a silly necklace.”

The shadows have deepened as the sun finally sinks below the horizon, the dozens of pillar candles dotted around the clearing with the pool like stalagmites in puddles of wax lighting themselves with some ancient magic woven into the rocks. In their flickering, Yennefer can no longer see Tissaia’s face clearly, her profile sharp in the play between light and dark. She catches a flash of a strange expression, hears the heavy sigh and sees Tissaia’s narrow shoulders droop a little in silhouette. Her voice echoing through the cold air as the beads of water in her dark hair turn to frost, shimmering as she turns her head away as though wishing she could shield herself from Yennefer’s gaze.

“You do not understand what you have done to me…you never do.”

The woman is silent for the remainder of their walk back to the tower, her arms crossed over herself tightly and Yennefer almost offers her her fur-lined cloak. Almost. She’s not entirely sure it’s the cold making Tissaia hold herself together so fiercely… there’s a strange undercurrent to her Chaos that Yennefer hasn’t felt before. Something untethered, untamed. And, in the tight-laced bodice of her gown, the metal still cold despite being pressed to her skin, Yennefer feels an answering thrum from the pendant she’s lied about having in her possession.

 

Artwork: @ehay