The first light of dawn made a mournful glow off the thick snowfall. Perhaps if she had been less melancholy she would have named it beautiful, but this day, this day, all was garbed in sorrow. The white hills wore sadness, rare pricks of colour from stubborn winter flowers only serving to add to the grieving landscape. They struggled to be seen, forcing their way through the endless white until they burst forth, purple and blue, but their brief radiance would not last long. The snows would come again and bury them, and they would earn nothing for their perseverance save for an icy tomb.
Huddled in the shelter of a rocky outcrop, the woman was a smear of black amidst engulfing white. She wore dark leathers and a sable cloak bearing a heavy hood which dropped low over her brow and tickled pale cheeks. She had burned all her dresses after a madman had ripped her belly open while she wore cloth. She should have known better. Perhaps her snug leathers would have fared little better against the furious hooked weapon, but at least wearing it she would have expected an attack. Dressed for war she would have been ready for it when it came for her. Instead, ten yards of fabric had made her feel like a woman. She could not afford that luxury, even now. Blood had touched her too often to allow her peace so easily. Only the dead have seen the last of war.
The terrible, senseless violence of it had burrowed in deep and refused to be forgotten. It came in her dreams to remind her, time and again. She would awake bathed in sweat and short of breath, heart fluttering. She would curse herself for it, once the panic had faded - she had seen death more times than she cared to count, violence and blood had never been strangers to her.
For a frozen moment in time it was her whole world. She had no past, no present and perhaps altogether no future.
No. Triss shut her eyes, lashes freckled with snowflakes, and shook her head fiercely to throw off the memory.
It was not so easily denied.
The world ground to a halt, cruelly delivering her a truly timeless moment. She remembered distantly wishing the stillness had come differently, close in his arms or in shared laughter. But pain was all she was, all - it seemed then - she would ever be.
She looked into the eyes of the man before her and saw many things, gifted in terrible clarity. She saw agony and fury, vengeance and the edge of fear. There was no remorse though, no pity, no regret.
Time caught up.
She looked down at herself, where the wicked hook was buried in her abdomen, buried deep. It froze and burned in equal, terrible amounts. A cry of agony never had the chance to be born, the man drove all breath from her with crushing blows from his good arm, clubbing her bloodied upper half in an attempt to wrench the stuck steel from where it had hooked against one of her ribs. She felt a shoulder slam out of its socket as he wrenched and tore and battered at her, like a ragdoll in a mastiff's jaws, but it was truly a secondary concern. In a faraway daze, she noted the white pelt of her cloak was quite ruined, stained crimson with her own blood. She remembered trying to grab numbly at his arm to keep him from inflicting more damage, but his strength was great and terrible and far, far exceeded her own. She heard the hook rip out of her stomach with a sickening tear, saw the spray of blood and tissue which followed and knew, knew she was done.
The steel in her belly had been the only thing holding her up and she collapsed onto the floor, folding up like an empty dress in an ever expanding pool of blood.
"Triss!" Deltia's scream was heart-wrenching. "George, kill him!"
Lying there, Triss felt bile in the back of her throat, then strong arms lifted her up into a clumsy half-embrace. She blinked the blackness away from the corner of her eyes and watched as Deltia pushed her hand against the wound, shocked and desperate and stricken. She couldn't help but smile a little, and wet her lips laboriously to speak:
"Deltia," She whispered her sister's name.
The other red-haired Alteractian girl must have read Triss' intention in the tone of her voice, but she would not - could not - hear any last confession, any dying wish or final words. This was not the end, she would not allow it.
"No, you stupid whore," She spat desperately, her eyes wide as she watched Triss start to slip away. She gave her a vicious shake which brought her back, focus snapping back into her eyes briefly. "This is nothing, do you hear me?"
Despite the pain, Triss smiled faintly. Deltia always fought so fiercely.
She dropped in and out of consciousness.
"George, for Light's sake, hold her."
Triss felt his arms around her then and relaxed against him, caught in a weightless moment free of pain. Perhaps she could die here, perhaps it was right. At least she could see him one last time, at least it would be in his embrace. She felt him kiss her crown and murmur words in her ear.
"This is most terrible wound you have taken, but men have come back from worse." He said. "You will live, my darling."
Her legs felt heavy, too heavy. And cold too, as if freezing water was rushing in to fill them up, weigh them down, to chill her bones.
"My whole life, I have loved nothing else." She said as her eyes closed. "I regret nothing. If I am reborn, I will find you. If I am a whisper in the wind, I will adore you forever."
She opened her eyes with monumental effort to look at him, but he was in frantic whispered conversation with Deltia and she realised she hadn't managed to speak her words aloud. A jolt of fresh pain touched her as George carefully gave her back to Deltia, and then her sister was whispering in her ear:
"Don't make fun of me for this."
A song began. Quiet at first, but growing as the singer became more confident. It was a hymn to the Light, a deep and beautiful sound which gave the bleeding woman peace, stilled her furious, strangled grasps for air, touched her with calm. The last thing she remembered was a warmth at her belly.
It was not, to her surprise when she awoke, the last thing she would ever remember.
A freezing whirlwind whipped by and found its way under her hood, throwing it back with malicious glee, making her cloak billow as if it meant to snatch it from her back. The red-haired girl clutched the furs around her and held grimly onto them, shrugging off the remnants of the memory which haunted her. She had recovered, of course, but fear had stolen into her world, grasping and dark.
The wind quietened, reaching to touch her in apology, stirring the sunset in her hair before she drew her hood up once more and huddled into the furs. Across the rolling white hills, craggy mountain goats clung to steep inclines, heads bowed in the face of snow and wind, determinedly trudging on. Their sharp bleats of indignation carried across the valleys, mingling with the shrill cries of hawks and gryphons wheeling as black shapes in a milky sky.
Triss turned for home. The Dog would be stirring soon, and George would wonder at her absence from their bed.
The wolf came out of nowhere, driven half mad by hunger. It barrelled into her, all teeth and claw and desperation. Wolves do not attack humans as a rule. They have learned better.
Hunger, however. Hunger and cold, these are powerful motivators.
Triss went down in the snow with the wolf on her chest, claws scrabbling down leather so hard they would leave deep purple bruises, though the thick hide did not break. She was thankful for that, albeit briefly, as the wolf bore down on her, yellow fangs lunging for her throat, hungry for the tender flesh there and the taste of her blood.
She had no time to be afraid.
Calehan had died like this.
Great snowy hills jutted up all around them, but it didn't stifle the biting wind. Instead, the northern breeze found a clear path through the valleys and careened maliciously through them, picking up speed and chill as it went, knocking snow from burdened boughs and whipping around a small group of people, gathered around a cloak-strewn corpse.
Triss pulled her furs closer and shivered, but the wind could only take half of the blame for the tremble of her limbs. The rest was shock, grief and encompassing sorrow. She'd wanted to take Deltia into her arms - forcibly if needs be - and allow her to break down, to weather some of the storm with her, to carry her share of the burden. One look at the other girl's face had kept her at bay, though, and she'd realised in time that it was selfishness on her part that urged such actions. Death made any sane person look to the nearest living body to remind themselves that they were still alive, but what Deltia needed was time to mourn. True grief was never aloud, it was contained and silent, felt, not spoken.
Deltia had disappeared a few moments ago, and the light fall of snow had already begun to fill up the indents of compressed white she had left behind her. Soon, there would be no trace of her left, no indication she had ever been there, save perhaps, for the husband she had unwillingly left behind.
Saddened eyes lifted to look on her own husband to find he was already watching her. There was a hollow edge to his intent gaze, a sadness which went to the bone, but above all, the underlying need to reassure her. I'm still here. She loved him all the more for it.
"Could you take care of the remains?" George asked her quietly, still watching her fixedly.
She smiled faintly, giving a wan nod by way of reply. He didn't want her with him on the hunt, he didn't want her in danger. It was a touching gesture, and she was struck by an inappropriate desire to kiss him, but that was her selfishness again, her need to remind herself that she lived, he lived. They lived, and lived together.
The wind moaned like a new widow as she watched George and the grizzled old ranger disappear, following the meagre tracks. She turned to look at the shape lying in the snow, covered by rippling fabric. A terrible flash of thought and she saw George in Calehan's stead, lying broken and bloodied in the snow, surrounded by a laughably scant representation of his life - a hat, a pair of good boots to keep out the wet, a coat which had been a gift.
Triss set her jaw tightly in defiance of that thought and threw it away.
Her furs fluttered heavily over the snow as she knelt down and drew George's cloak back over the face of his bastard brother to look upon him. There was little left which marked him as a man, he was bone and skin and flesh and nothing else. No features, no deathly expression of solace which would give comfort to those he had left behind. Triss knew she ought to treat him kindly, offer him the peace a soul which had passed deserved, but she could not find it in her. There was no communion in her to give, no hymn lifted from her lips, no pretty words to say over his corpse. We are all meat when the light goes out of us. But this was something more, something worse, because he had abandoned them all in his selfish desire to end his life on his own terms. Perhaps it was not even so very selfish, but Triss found that in this moment, she could not forgive him enough to entertain such perspective thoughts.
He had been alone. She wondered if he had been frightened at the end, or if it had been a relief. He had died fighting, tooth and nail.
She wondered if, to him, the idea of dying fighting was preferable to merely succumbing to the grasping sickness which festered in his lungs. At least this way he had a choice, a measure of control. He knew he was going to die, but perhaps it was very like him to arrange the end on his terms. No weeping women surrounding him in a dusky room stinking sweetly of death, no, just the fight, the purity of violence. He had been a violent man.
She could understand it, but she did not forgive him for it. She would not forgive him for robbing Deltia of a husband, for chipping away at the little happiness her sister had managed to painstakingly accumulate.
"She'll be all right."
It was a murmur of a thing, out loud. It touched her as she heard it, snatched away by the cold wind, and she wondered if she'd said it out of certainty or to reassure herself, or him even. That last thought made her bristle some; she'd be damned if she offered Calehan McCallen any form of solace or peace, not now, not yet. Anger was preferable to grief because it was easier, and it made her add to her words, bending in to hiss them against the ragged, near unrecognisable stump where his right ear had once been:
"She's better than you."
Triss locked her hands around the wolf's brawny neck and held it at bay, its hot breath furious against her face, teeth mere moments away. She gritted her own teeth in response and tossed a knee into the soft part of its belly, giving it pause long enough for her to snatch a hand away from its matted neck and grasp wildly on the ground.
Her fingers closed on a rock and she could have laughed.
She slammed it against the wolf's head and was rewarded with a crack of bone. The beast yelped and withdrew, but it did not retreat. She scrabbled onto her feet and drew a slick hunting knife from her boot, holding it with the blade out.
Fair warning, wolf.
The creature snarled and leapt.
They went down together again, slashing and clawing, rolling over and over in the snow. Cries of human and beast alike rang out, and great patches of red marked their passage as they rolled down an incline, bumping over hidden rocks and whipping past trees, bowed almost double from past onslaughts of nature.
They landed in a tangle, but Triss was on the wolf's back and she'd mercifully hung onto her knife in the jolting, jarring fall. She locked her arm around its head and yanked it back while it tried to wrest around and bite her, but she drew her steel swiftly over its throat so that the blood ran free and red in the snow. She held on though, held on as its struggles lessened and it grew weak, desperately clinging to the dark fur of the beast.
Finally, it was dead and she let it fall limp in the stained white, sliding off its back and landing on her own, breathing raggedly and looking up at the dawn sky. Stars still pricked the pale, though they did not have the strength to wink at her as she watched them. Her right leg was sticky with blood, and the wolf had torn her more than once with claw and tooth as they'd tumbled, but she was alive.
It seemed to Triss that it took her an unreasonably long time to get back to her feet, groaning and stiff. She was unsteady as she stood, stumbling once and bracing herself against the rock which had halted her fall. She sucked in a great breath and threw her head back, eyes closed, savouring the life she had fought for. The life she had kept. She had to, she wasn't finished yet.
Her thoughts had turned to George and her eyes to home, when a sound carried on the thin mountain air, a woebegone, trilling kind of wail. Faint. Weak. She paused and looked around her, through the snow which had started to fall anew.
Careful of her scrapes and scratches, she climbed down and around the rock, finding a natural hollow beneath it to peer into. A mass of tiny, furry bodies met her searching eyes, wolf cubs in varying degrees of starvation. All were dead, save for one dark pup in the midst, stumbling and pathetic, crying as it strived to climb over the downy bodies of its littermates.
She lifted her head and craned it to look at the body of the wolf she'd killed, but the rock shielded it from her view, and the snow obscured the rest.
A mother then. No wonder she fought so fiercely. It wasn't only her life she sought to preserve.
She bent down and picked the mewling creature up by the scruff of its neck, bringing her bloodied knife down. It yelped plaintively before the blade fell and she hesitated, halting her strike. For a long moment, she merely looked at the freezing, starving thing. George would call her daft and Deltia would call her soft. And yet for a reason she could not put her finger on, she put her knife away and tucked the pup into her furs instead.
The little creature burrowed into the warmth and Triss found a smile in her to give as she turned towards home and limped towards it.
Enough violence for one day.