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until the moss had reached our lips

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Hella Varal, Goddess of Swords and Destruction, approached, a black bird a hulking presence beside her as she rode. It was a sight well-known and to be feared. Hadrian felt glad he was facing her across the negotiation table instead of on the field of battle.

 

He bowed as she slid off her horse, holding the tent flat open for to enter as she approached him. Her horse stayed outside. Her bird did not, it’s huge black wings hitting Hadrian on it’s way in. Hadrian let it pass without comment. He followed, letting the tent-flap fall closed behind him.

 

It was dim inside the tent compared to the bright sunlight outside and Hadrian blinked, trying to force his eyes to adapt to the low lamplight. Without the breeze, the air felt heavy. It reminded Hadrian of Samothes’ forge - not as intense, but there was pressure to it, an edge of expectation.

 

Hella did not wait for him to offer, reclining gracefully on one of the chairs. The bird crouched next to her. She put a hand on its head, petting it almost absentmindedly. It tilted its head, staring at Hadrian with bright eyes. It pulled Hadrian’s gaze to them, catching him.

 

Hella’s gaze had a fire to it, as his Lord’s did, but where Samothes’ heavy gaze made him drop his eyes to the floor, Hella’s pinned him in place. He felt as though his breath was caught still in his chest, a faint buzzing in his ears. His lungs ached to breathe in.

 

And then she blinked, and he could breathe again.

 

“So,” said Hella, “he has sent another.”

 

She seemed to be waiting for him to speak. Hadrian focused on the movement of her hand through the bird’s dark feathers.

 

“Yes,” Hadrian managed.

 

“Your lord Samothes wishes to parlay, but he does not wish it so much that he will come and see me himself,” said Hella.

 

“He is often busy,” said Hadrian.

 

Hella tilted her head to one side. “Fathers often are. I hope you are more involved with your own son.”

 

Hadrian suppressed a flinch at the mention of Benjamin, but it was a near thing.

 

“Still,” Hella continued, “let us see if you can be more level-headed than his other son. He tried to convert a friend of mine, and while I can appreciate his enthusiasm, my companion here was not so understanding.”

 

She scratched under the bird’s chin and it made a quiet noise, strange from such a large creature. Hella smiled down at it.

 

There was much debate and speculation from scholars on the animal companions of Hella Varal. Some said they are manifestations of some aspect of her wildness or animals she could call to her side at will. Some even went as far to say they were old gods, whose names had now been forgotten. If they were old gods there was a lot of them - the creature beside her changed seemingly at random, even during battle.

 

Ephrim had seen the bird when he had come, returning with deep wounds and a wild tale. Those tales seemed less wild now that Hadrian had seen the creature with his own eyes.

 

“I…” Hadrian swallowed, remembering the claw marks on Ephrim’s arms, “Ephrim is a young and passionate man.”

 

Hella looked at him for a moment, then smirked. “As I said. And I have been known to appreciate the young and passionate from time to time.”

 

She nudged the chair across from him with her foot, bringing it to his attention. Hadrian sat down, feeling very aware of his posture. He squared his shoulders, trying to keep himself as still as possible.

 

“I trust that you have been given enough authority that you don’t need to run to prayer after every request,” said Hella.

 

“Anything that could be asked of Samothes can be asked of me,” said Hadrian, “I speak with his voice in these matters.”

 

“Good,” said Hella. Her eyes glowed in the dim light, and Hadrian shivered. “Let’s begin.”

 

--

 

“No,” said Hella.

 

Her voice was tinged with amusement, a tone that had been steadily rising with each denied request.

 

“No?” said Hadrian, struggling to keep frustration from his voice.

 

A slow smile bloomed over Hella’s face. “No.”

 

It was the smile that did it, blotting out Hadrian’s good sense like a cloud.

 

“You have to move on something .”

 

The smile remained on Hella’s face, but the warmth drained out of it. “I don’t have to move on anything. That’s the prerogative of becoming a god. I’m sure your lord Samothes would agree.”

 

“Samothes is at least reasonable with requests,” said Hadrian, “Although I doubt you’ve ever had much time for reason, since you’re about as far from creation as someone could get.”

 

The bird reared up sharply, wings spreading. Hadrian saw its talon’s flash in the light, and he brought his arm up, bracing for the painful bite of its claws. The pain never came.

 

After a moment, he lowered his arm. Hella had a hold of the bird’s feathers from the back, keeping it restrained. It squawked, struggling against her grip.

 

“Fero,” said Hella.

 

Her tone was admonishing and almost fond. It reminded him of Rosana, chastising him in the marketplace when he added extra sweet pastries to her basket for himself and Benjamin.

 

The bird shook itself, body shifting and feathers warping to become a scruffy halfling, his shirt still caught in Hella’s grip.

 

“Well he’s being insulting,” said Fero, “and worse, he’s being boring about it.”

 

“Fero,” said Hella again, her tone sterner this time.

 

Fero took a deep breath in, then let it out. He looked up at her.

 

“You’re not going to make me apologise to this guy are you?”

 

“No.” The fond, amused tone was back.

 

“Oh,” said Fero, “Good. Sorry for interrupting, I guess.”

 

“It was a minor disruption, although-” Hella loosened her grip on Fero’s shirt, bringing her hand up to cup his face. Fero leant into her touch. “No more of that going forward. I am more than capable of defending myself.”

 

“I know,” said Fero, “I’ll just- I’ll sit.”

 

Hella hummed, her fingers playing with the ends of Fero’s hair.

 

“Remember,” said Hella, “Good behaviour is rewarded.”

 

The frames in the lamps flickered, as though blown by a sudden breeze.

 

Fero settled at Hella’s feet in the same position as he had been in before as a bird, leaning back as she ran a hand through his hair.

 

They both looked back to Hadrian. Fero’s expression was slightly smug. Hadrian shifted uncomfortably, hoping his cheeks didn’t look as red as they felt. He’d never felt entirely comfortable seeing the intimate moments of gods.

 

“I hope you don’t mind the inclusion of a third,” said Hella mildly.

 

“I-” Hadrian swallowed, “it’s fine.”

 

“I would have introduced him, but Fero wasn’t the biggest fan of your predecessor-”

 

“I’ll say,” said Fero.

 

Hella tightened her grip in his hair and he fell silent. The candle flickered again.

 

“Apparently your Samothes has an interest in him,” said Hella. Her grin was sharp. “But I found him first.”

 

-

 

It took Hadrian a few moments to figure out where he was after waking, taking in the purple cloth of the tent and letting out a long, shaky breath. Negotiations had turned, going well, and one celebratory glass of wine had turned into two, and really, he should have known better than to try and match a goddess drink-for-drink, and then-

 

Hadrian felt like the rest of night before was only in fragments - the touch of a hand, a low moan in his ear, the slide of fabric on skin - brief images and sensations, as though his mind couldn't fully comprehend it. It felt almost like touching on a sore wound, part pain, part pleasure.

 

Hella was still asleep beside him, her back to him. He bit his lip, thinking, then moved to put a hand on her shoulder.

 

“Let her sleep.”

 

Hadrian recoiled, turning to see Fero, naked apart from the blanket draped over his shoulders and sitting in Hella’s chair and watching him from across the tent.

 

“Sorry, I-” Hadrian coughed, voice rasping in his dry throat, “it seemed like a bad idea to leave without saying something.”

 

“If she wanted you to leave you’d already be gone,” said Fero, “Stay.”

 

“I have to… I mean, don’t get me wrong, last night was… but I…”

 

Fero was still watching him from the chair, looking as though he was suppressing the urge to laugh. He pushed himself out of the chair, pouring something from a jug into a plain metal goblet.

 

“Here, “ said Fero, offering it.

 

Hadrian looked skeptically at the goblet.

 

“Oh for-” Fero snatched it back, taking a sip. “It's just water.“

 

“Are you mortal?“

 

“As mortal as you are,” said Fero.

 

Hadrian gingerly took a sip. It was water, cool and fresh. He tried to sit up slowly, so as not to wake Hella.

 

“Is it always like... that?“

 

Fero shrugged. “You've got more experience with gods than I do, you tell me.“

 

“Not like that I don’t,” said Hadrian, “and you don’t seem…”

 

“Mortal?” said Fero grinning, “I know, I do have an unearthly air about me.”

 

“I was going to say surprised,” said Hadrian, “about what happened last night.”

 

Fero shrugged. “It wasn’t that surprising. She already knew so much of you, and she tells me things.”

 

“She knew of me?”

 

“You’re right in her wheelhouse,” said Fero, grinning.

 

“I don’t- I am a follower of Samothes,” said Hadrian. His voice shook more than he would have liked. “I stand in his light and nowhere else.”

 

Fero waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, sure. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t called on her. Lots of people do, in battle.”

 

Hadrian looked to where his armour and clothing were in a tangled pile on the floor. “Swords and destruction, yes, of course.”

 

Fero made a face. “Yeah, but  probably more from the other stuff.”

 

Hadrian frowned. “Other stuff?”

 

“Quiet regrets,” said Hella from behind him, “Unspoken vows.“

 

Hadrian froze at the sound of her voice. “I meant no disrespect “

 

Hella took the goblet from his hand, drinking from it herself. “And none was taken. Not many remember that about me. Although it seems your Samothes does, since he sent you to me.“

 

“I… he trusts me.“

 

“He does indeed,“ said Hella, eyes gleaming, “but there is a lot of the quietness of battlefields on you. I have come to know you well.“

 

Hella reached over him, handing the goblet back to Fero, her bare chest pressing against his side as she did so. She pressed a kiss to the top of Fero’s bowed head, and from his position between them Hadrian could see Fero’s quick smile in response.

 

“I don’t,” Hadrian swallowed, throat dry despite the earlier water, “I don’t understand.”

 

Hella turned her head to look at him. She ran a hand down his chest, stopping over his heart.

 

“When a prayer is whispered on a battlefield, I hear it,” said Hella, “when a soldier writes a letter home to make a promise he knows he might not be able to keep, I know it. When someone pauses in battle to regret the wounds of others and the harm still left to do, I feel it.”

 

Hadrian trembled under her touch. He couldn’t look away from her eyes, held in place as though she was pushing him down.

 

“Yes,” said Hella, “I know you well.”

 

-

 

Hadrian took a deep breath before knocking on the forge door. He could feel the heat of it already, radiating from the door and making the air in the hallway ripple. The noise was lost in the cacophony of sound that came from the forge, but Hadrian knew Samothes would hear it. He always did.

 

True enough, the sound of hammering stopped, leaving only faint echoes.

 

“Enter.”

 

Hadrian swallowed, trying to get enough moisture in his suddenly-dry throat, and pushed the door open.

 

Samothes was waiting by his anvil, smoke rising from the still-redhot metal. He gave Hadrian a small smile as he approached.

 

“So,” said Samothes, “how was your time with Varal?”

 

Eyes glowing with a deep inner light, a small brown hand running up his thigh, his own breath ragged in his throat.

 

Hadrian cleared his throat. “She… will not take sides. She says it is against her nature to pick and choose on the battlefield. I tried to argue your position but-”

 

Samothes held up a hand and Hadrian fell silent. “You have done well. To get her to commit to neutrality is the best outcome I could have expected.”

 

“You didn't think she would join us?”

 

Samothes gave him a small smile again. “I would have been very surprised. Hella Varal fights for her own interests and no one else's. That you were able to get her to meet with you at all speaks highly of your abilities. I may need you to meet with her in the future.”

 

Fero between his legs and Hella behind him, her nails raking over his skin, her hand buried in Fero's hair, his own helpless, wordless noises, pulled from his throat.

 

Hadrian hoped that blush of his cheeks would be lost in the heat of the forge. “Yes, my Lord.”

 

--

 

Hadrian gasped into awareness. He blinked, frowning as he sat up, looking around him. Everything was indistinct, a hazy grey, like sitting in the middle of a dense fog. The ground underneath him was hard and cold, smooth like the marble tiles of Samothes’s rooms.

 

It took him a moment to remember.

 

He'd been in battle. A sword, swinging towards him, dispatching his opponent, turning and then - pain. Darkness.

 

His hand went to his stomach and he looked down. His chain mail was slippery with blood.

 

“You're dead,” said a voice.

 

Hadrian looked up sharply. Instead of fog was an ornate golden throne, gleaming with inner light. A man slouched in it, one elbow resting on one of the arms, his head propped on his hand. The crown on his head had an old, heavy weight to it.

 

“Sorry to be the one to break the news to you,” continued the man, “but I've found it's better just to tell people straight out.”

 

“I was in battle,” said Hadrian, his hand going to his stomach again.

 

“And you died there.”

 

“What happens now?” said Hadrian.

 

Rosana. Benjamin. It was hard to speak around the lump in his throat.

 

The man shrugged. “That's not for me to know.”

 

“It is not for him to know either. Not yet.”

 

Hadrian gasped as Hella stepped out of the fog by his side, the haze of grey blowing away as surely as fog in a breeze.

 

The man sat up a little straighter, blinking in surprise. “Hella Varal. It's been a while.”

 

“Yes,” said Hella.

 

The man's lips quirked upwards, smile disappearing as quickly as it had come. “Still a woman of few words.”

 

“Yes,” said Hella again.

 

The man glanced at Hadrian, then looked back to Hella, his expression curious. “I wouldn't have expected you to come for a follower of Samothes.”

 

“He's one of mine,” said Hella, “he just doesn't know it yet.”

 

The stared at each other for a long moment. Hadrian's breath felt heavy in his chest, as though the fog had seeped into his lungs.

 

“Ah,” said the man, waving a hand, “I suppose I never was good at saying no to you.”

 

Hella smiled, a sharp point in the haze. “No. You weren't.”

 

She put a hand on Hadrian's shoulder. Hadrian could feel warm spread from it into his body, like stepping into a patch of sunlight.

 

“Come, there is more left for you yet,” said Hella. She turned back to the man. “Until next time Angelo.”

 

“Until next time, Varal,” said the man.

 

--

 

Hadrian awoke, in a room, somewhere. A real building, familiar, although it took him a moment to place it. Next to him on a bedside table was a glass of water and a small portrait of his family. He was... home, in Velas.

 

He looked at the glass of water again before realizing he was parched, and drank all of it in one gulp. He heard laughing from the living room. He had to hear it a second time to recognise it - Rosana’s, bright and cheerful.

 

Hadrian wrapped the white fur coat around himself, steadying himself on the wall as he headed out of the room.

 

Hella Varal, the goddess of Swords and Destruction, was reclining in the couch Hadrian usually claimed as his own when he was home, sharing a bottle of red wine with his wife, and giving his son a look that sent him into a fit of giggles.

 

Hadrian blinked, turning to walk back into the bedroom. He sat down on the bed for a few more moments. The laughter continued after a moment, as if to confirm to Hadrian that this was indeed real life.

 

I’m not dead , Hadrian thought.

 

He slowly made his way back into the living room, this time pausing to first put on pants and a real shirt underneath his cloak.

 

“Rosana,” Hella was saying as he entered, “thank you for dinner, truly. And Benjamin, thank you for helping me out with Velasian table customs. As you know, I come from a more western area than you, a lot more finger eating.”

 

Ben and Hella giggled and Rosana smiled indulgently, a shared joke between them. Hadrian moved silently past them to retrieve another glass of water before joining them at the table. He lowered himself slowly into the chair opposite Hella. Rosana reached for his hand under the table, squeezing it once in greeting.

 

I’m not dead , Hadrian thought again.

 

“Hadrian, you never told me how much of a delight your wife was!” Hella said.

 

She lightly tapped Rosana’s shoulder. Rosana blushed, ducking her head a little in a way that hid her pleased smile, the motion of it reminding Hadrian of when they’d been courting.

 

Hadrian nodded. “Not to offend you, my love, but usually our meetings are of a much more diplomatic and professional manner. It doesn’t often leave room to bring up the lights of my life.”

 

Hella nodded. “It’s nice to not have to go through so much small talk bullshit, but take note that I will always make a special case for you, now. There is much I would like to hear about from your lights.”

 

Hadrian blinked, and glanced at Rosana. She seemed at ease, the wine soothing her shoulders in a way that Hadrian had not seen since the war had been spoken about by the exarchs. Not since the food rationing. He didn't even know there was any wine left in the city.

 

There was a sharp birdcall from outside, and Hella’s head tilted towards it. She wiped her lips delicately with a cloth napkin, before standing.

 

“Rosana, my apologies. I hate to repay your hospitality with stealing your husband, but-”

Hella shook her head.

 

“I understand,” said Rosana.

 

She stood, mirroring Hella’s motion and pulling Hadrian with her. Hadrian and Rosana felt their gazes locked to the way the loose bangs on Hella’s forehead moved.

 

“Time moves quickly for mortals. But before I go,” she took out a small, flat and round medallion that was the same color as her hair. Hadrian could see the indentation of a sword on one side, and a panther on the other, its wings spread wide. “Keep this in the hearth, a sign of my favor and protection.”

 

Rosana nodded, her fingers tracing over the indentation as she looked down at it. Benjamin hopped up, moving to hug Hadrian.

 

Hella left before she could witness such things.

 

Unspoken regrets.

 

---

 

Hadrian followed her as they walked through the streets with purpose, heading to where he knew she had kept her caravan whenever she had to visit for diplomatic meetings. His pack felt heavy on his shoulders as he walked. Hella seemed happy enough to walk in silence, giving him time to build the courage to speak.

 

“I... died?” Hadrian opened with, voice careful and slow, “I remember dying. And then you appeared and pulled me back.”

 

Hella sighed. “The God of Death and I are old friends. It was more calling in a favor than an act of heroics on my part.”

 

“You really didn’t have to-” Hadrian began.

 

Hella put a hand up. “Please, let’s not do this right now. There is not time enough for that. I did, because you are important.”

 

Hadrian blinked, stumbling to a stop. Hearing her say such a thing made it hard to draw breath. Hella waited, looking up to the treeline and the skies beyond.

 

Hadrian swallowed. “Samothes said... My lord said that your neutrality was to be expected. Desired, even. Saving me, saving a follower of Samothes from death seems like choosing sides.”

 

Hella laughed, and it sounded like a crackling fire right before your watch shift, the clang of two swords. Hadrian felt as though the sound surrounded him, curling around his body and leaving him unsure how to move.

 

“Damn that Samothes, and Samot while I’m at it. These boys with their grammar disagreeances that they think it is worth spilling blood to prove who’s right.” Hella sighed. “Hadrian, I am divine in the way that your god, Samothes is. The steel I bless can kill anyone and cauterize the wound so that it is quick for both parties. But I also smite those who break oaths, I receive the prayers of people with regrets. Samothes and Samot, they need me to be neutral. To have me on either side would be... catastrophic. And here’s the thing about those two: gods or not, they are the same as any two lovers in a spat - they just want the other one to apologize first.”

 

“You gave my family a token of protection,” Hadrian said.

 

Hella stood straight, putting a hand on Hadrian’s shoulder. It felt warm and solid even through layers of fabric and armor, the sort of feeling that made Hadrian feel as though he could walk across Hieron with his head high no matter the weight of his pack, the sort of morale that can keep an army marching.

 

“Your wife is not the only one who loves someone who is foolish enough to go into wars that they did not start. Your son is not the only person who misses their father. I wasn’t given these powers from the partners and children of those in war. I am a warrior’s worry of not being able to see their family ever again, given form and voice.”

 

She lifted her left arm out, and a small brown bird landed on it immediately. It let out a stream of twittering until Hella shushed it, fluffing up its feathers and tilting its head at Hadrian.

 

Hella turned back to him. “Oh, Hadrian. You’re not the only one who wishes they could be a shield for all the living.”

 

“That’s Samantine’s job,” Hadrian said, before suddenly remembering who he was talking. Not a friend or a confidante, not even a person. A God. The God of War and Destruction.

 

Hella nodded. The bird turned into the halfling Fero for a moment before shifting into the body of a lean brown cat, curling himself around Hella’s shoulders. Hella raised her hand to pet him, and the cat that was Fero purred loudly, head butting up against her hand.

 

“Who defends the people behind Samotine’s shield? Who cares for them when they don’t work? Who tucks your child into bed every night, Alexander?”

 

Hadrian opened his mouth, and then finding no words, closed it again.

 

“Yes, that is as I thought,” said Hella.

 

She walked on, leading him towards her horses.

 

“Come,” said Hella, “We have far to go. And I need to visit an old friend first.”

 

--

 

It was a long journey, and yet curiously it seemed shorter than it should have been. Hadrian would turn to speak to Hella and turn back to the road and they would be miles from where they had been. It was hard not to feel shaken by the casual power of it.

 

The stopped their horses by the base of an old tower, markings around the door that Hadrian didn’t recognise.

 

“You can leave your horse here,” said Hella, “it will be safe enough. Come.”

 

Hadrian nodded, following her inside. Instead of travelling upwards as he had expected,  Hella walked down a steep, old staircase. Fero hummed to himself as he went, the jolting notes bouncing off the walls. He, at least, seemed excited.

 

Fero huffed as they reached the end of the staircase. “ Finally . I swear this takes longer every time.”

 

Hella’s lips quirked upwards. “That is because you look forward to it more every time.”

 

She pushed the door open, and they were outside again.

 

Or, no, not outside again, to the base of the tower. The was somewhere entirely new, a place where the sky above shifted its colours like the ocean.

 

“This way,” says Hella.

 

Hadrian follows her, feeling as though he’s moving through water, as though he sees everything in patches - they’re in town now, they’re in a forest now, they’re approaching a castle now. He can’t find the places in between them.

 

Fero bounces on the balls of his feet as they wait for the castle doors to open for them. Hella lays a hand on his shoulder and he presses his lips together.

 

“It’s just been a little while longer than usual,” says Fero.

 

Hella nods, the explanation apparently enough for her. The guards nod to her as they pass, businesslike. The entrance hall is busy, people rushing back and forth holding documents and old books. The crowd parts for Hella without disrupting it’s flow and Hadrian walks quickly behind her. The corridors twist more the further in they get, and Hadrian has no desire to get lost.

 

They have to wait at another set of doors.

 

“Do you have an appointment?” says the halfling at the door. Their glasses are so thick that their eyes look like faint smudges.

 

“No,” says Hella,”but he is always expecting us.”

 

The halfling nods, ducking into the room and then poking their head out again.

 

“The Duke will see you now.”

 

The guards pull open the door. Instead of the grand throne room Hadrian was expecting, the room is instead a large study, soft couches pushed against the bookcases to make room for the long table in the middle of the room. Sunlight streams in from the tall windows along one side of the room, although Hadrian isn’t sure how since all the other windows they passed on the way here were in shadow. There’s a few potted plants sitting on the windowsill growing out of old teapots, an oddly homey sight.

 

The orc at the far end of the table stands as the doors close behind them. He smiles.

 

There’s a rush of wind behind Hadrian and Fero launches himself into the air, flapping over the length of the table and transforming as he lands.

 

He grins up at the orc. “Hi.”

 

The orc’s smile grows wider. “Hello.” He looks back up towards the doorway. “Hella. And who have you brought me?”

 

“This is Hadrian,” says Hella, “And I will be keeping him for myself.”

 

“A shame,” says the orc. “I suppose that’s fair. I can’t expect you to share all your toys.”

 

Hadrian swallows, curling his toes inside his boots to distract him from the heat in his cheeks.

 

“This is the Grey Duke,” says Hella, gesturing towards the orc, “Lem King. Fero and I try to visit when we’re in the area.”

 

“And sometimes even when we’re not,” says Fero, grinning up at Lem.

 

“You get so fidgety when we’re away for too long,” says Hella.

 

“Is that so?” says Lem, still looking down at Fero.

 

Fero’s cheeks turn a light pink under his gaze, and he ducks his head, trying to hide a smile.

 

“Well,” says Lem, looking back up at them, “I suppose I had better offer you a seat, if you’ve come all this way.”

 

Hella laughs, walking to one close to Lem. Hadrian follows her. Almost all of the chairs have something on them already - a stack of books, a pile of parchment, a small, travel-worn box. It reminds Hadrian of Samothes’ great library, before Samot got to it.

 

When Lem sits down, a small brown cat leaps onto his lap, circling for a moment before it settles. It looks at him with Fero’s eyes. Lem scratches Fero behind the ear. His purrs are audible, even from where Hadrian is sitting, and Hadrian quickly looks away. Hella smirks.

 

There’s a light knock at the door and the halfling enters, arms laden down with trays of food. They set one down each in from of Hella and Hadrian, and two down in front of Lem, departing as swiftly as they came.

 

“I thought you might be hungry,” says Lem.

 

Hella shrugs. “Not really. But I usually enjoy what you have to offer.”

 

“As do I,” says Lem.

 

They both look towards Hadrian, for just a moment. Hadrian looks down at his plate. The back of his neck burns where he blushes.

 

When Hadrian looks back up, Fero’s small cat head is peering over the plate. Lem tears off a small piece of meat, holding it to Fero. Fero very delicately eats it, leaning back to lick at Lem’s fingers. Hadrian quickly looks back down at his own plate. The food looks ordinary enough, and tastes fine. The roast reminds him of Rosana’s cooking, the special roast she makes for High Sun Day.

 

Lem talks about what’s happened since Hella and Fero were last visiting, most of which Hadrian doesn’t understand, and what he does understand seems highly improbable.

 

“Are you here for long?” says Lem.

 

“Just overnight,” says Hella. “If you’d like.”

 

Lem smiles, scratching Fero behind the ear again. “Of course. You’re welcome to stay wherever you’d like.”

 

Hella nods, smiling down at Fero asleep in Lem’s lap. Hadrian keeps his eyes firmly fixed to his plate until it’s cleared away.

 

--

 

The sleeping quarters they’re led to are simple and clean, the thick rugs on the floor and tapestries on the walls keeping the rooms much warmer than the corridor outside. Hella steps into the room, carding a soft hand through Fero’s hair as she leaves him to walk with Lem. He winks at Hadrian as they leave, and Hadrian looks away, his stomach twisting hotly.

 

He looks towards the tapestry along the walls, a scene of battle, and death, and renewal of life. It seems to be the same woman in each tapestry, red hair flowing wild about her as she charged in on a black horse, was struck down, was reborn with a black bird by her side. Hella steps behind him and Hadrian flinches. He hadn’t heard her approach.

 

“They made it look a great deal more glamorous than it was,” says Hella.

 

“They usually do,” says Hadrian.

 

Hella hums. “I’m going to stay up for a while. You should take the bed.”

 

Hadrian swallows. “I was… the chair is fine, for me.”

 

Hella puts two fingers under his chin, tilting his face up towards her. “Take the bed Hadrian.”

 

Her eyes are so bright.

 

“Okay,” Hadrian manages.

 

Hadrian sleep fitfully that night. Every time he opens his eyes, the only thing he can see in the darkness is the silhouette of Hella, standing by the window, looking out.

 

--

 

Hella spoke privately to Lem before they left, walking with him in the early hours of the morning in the courtyard below their rooms. Hadrian watched them from above, wondering what it could be in Hella’s words that made Lem’s face look so drawn and serious. He’s shuttered the expression away by the time Fero brings Hadrian down to meet them.

 

“I hope we will see each other again,” says Lem.

 

Hadrian isn’t quite sure what to say to that. It’s difficult to imagine what kind of situation would lead him here on his own. So, instead, he nods.

 

Hella drops him back at his doorstep. Rosana left a candle burning for him in the windowsill, as she often did when he was away.

 

Hella looks down at him from horseback, Fero perched on her shoulder as a sparrow. She reaches down and cups his cheek.

 

“I have no doubt I will see you again soon. Be well, Hadrian.”

 

“And you,” says Hadrian, his voice scratchy.

 

Her horse disappears too quickly into the night for him to see it go.

 

--

 

A messenger arrives with a letter from Samothes, three days later, just as they are about to retire for bed. There is a battle planned, another clash in the endless, endless campaign against Samot. He is to lead the charge. It is an honour.

 

Rosana clutches his hand tightly as she reads the letter over his shoulder. Hadrian lets out a deep breath, and Rosana presses her face into the crook of Hadrian’s neck. She doesn’t cry, he’s been a soldier for far longer than they’ve been husband and wife, but still, he feels her tremble.

 

Hadrian pulls her into an embrace, kissing her softly. He sweeps her into his arms and carries her to the bedroom. He has never been skilled at saying goodbye to her, no matter how many times he leaves her, but their bodies speak to each other well enough. He leaves the letter on their worn kitchen table, and tries to put it out of both their minds until the morning.

 

When he goes to retrieve the letter the next morning, there’s a sword lying beside it. The indentation on the hilt has a sword on one side and a panther on the other, the same as the medallion resting on their hearth. It’s light when he picks it up, Ordennan steel shining in the early morning light.

 

Hadrian looks at it for a long, long moment, and then puts it with his pack by the door. He knows better than to refuse gifts from a god, after all.

 

--

 

Battles always seem so clean on paper: the directions clear, the troop movements drawn up into precise lines. On the battlefield, it always immediately becomes a mess. Hadrian feels as though he has been yelling for hours, his throat raw from trying to transform people into arrows on a map.

 

He barely notices when the sound of an animal screeching joins the roar of battle, until a huge black panther swoops down and carries off the archer that Hadrian was just about to face. He fends off the others in the archer’s squadron, and looks up, searching the sky for Fero, tracking him back towards Hella.

 

The flash of her red hair in unmistakeable in between the yellows of Samothes’s forces and the blues of Samot’s, like a fire flickering from one position to the next. She isn’t following any plan he can follow -- now she was on Samot’s side, whispering into a captain ears, now she’s on Samothes’, lying by one of the fallen.

 

She straightens and turns towards him, and suddenly Hadrian can’t breathe. It feels like the moment they met, as though she’s staring into him, heat flooding his body. The battle fades away, until Hadrian can see nothing but Hella, her bright eyes boring into his, making something pulse in him, hot and bright, and powerful. The world around them is silent and white.

 

Someone, just an ordinary soldier on horseback, charges past her, slashing at her as they go. Hadrian doesn’t see their colours, their armour too splattered with mud to distinguish. Hella falls to her knees. Her blood is as bright as her hair.

 

She doesn’t break eye contact with him. When she grins at him, he can see there’s blood on her teeth.

 

Hadrian blinks, and Hella is gone. He can’t feel her in the heartbeat of the battle anymore, no sign of her anywhere, though he spots Fero soaring above, mournful cries echoing over the battlefield.

 

--

 

Fero’s waiting for him when he gets to his tent. Hadrian is so tired, too tired to yell, too tired for questions. Hadrian sits down on his small camp bed, and tries to make his fingers coordinate themselves well-enough to undo the laces of his boots.

 

“She’s gone,” says Fero, his voice cracking.

 

Hadrian stays silent. The knot of his right boot is done so tight it might be better the cut it off and get a new lace. All he wants to do it lie down.

 

“She’s gone ,” says Fero again.

 

Hadrian doesn’t look up, picking hopelessly at the knot with his ragged nails. “That’s been my experience with her. She’s here, and then she’s gone.”

 

“You’re not listening to me,” says Fero, “she’s gone . She told me, before we came, that this would be the last battle and I thought, great, then she retires and we go hang out with Lem for the rest of eternity, but that’s not…” Fero’s voice gets very quiet, and Hadrian has to strain to hear it. “That’s not what she meant.”

 

Hadrian’s nail catches painfully on the lace of of his boot and he inhales sharply. Fero steps closer, kneeling in front of him.

 

“Here, let me.”

 

Fero’s fingers are smaller, carefully working the laces looser. Hadrian’s keeps his eyes fixed on Fero’s hands.

 

“It’s why she kept coming to talk to you, you know,” says Fero softly, “she wanted to make sure she had a good replacement.”

 

“She’ll be back , Fero,” says Hadrian.

 

Fero huffs a laugh. “No. She won’t.” He pats Hadrian’s boot. “There. Done.”

 

He stands, looking Hadrian over for a long moment before he moves towards the entrance of the tent. Hadrian’s hands flex where they’re resting on the bed, but he doesn’t reach for Fero, doesn’t try to pull him back and explain to him all the ways in which he’s wrong.

 

“If you need me, I’ll be down with the Grey Duke. You’ll be able to find your way there, if you need to.” Fero pauses, tilting his head to one side. “And even if you don’t, you should come visit sometime.”

 

The tent flap shut behind him, and Hadrian can hear a flutter of wings as Fero departs.

 

“She’ll be back,” says Hadrian, to no one.

 

His voice sounds very small.

 

--

 

Hadrian can’t sleep.

 

He can hear them clearing the bodies from the battlefield, a temporary truce so both sides can collect their dead and those close to it. It’s miles away, and yet he can hear their whispers, the promises they’re making, the regrets that weigh down their chests, making it hard for them to drawn dragged breaths.

 

If only, if only, if only, please, Samothes, Galenica, whoever’s listening, please .

 

Hadrian listens.

 

The pulsing, crackling heat that Hella’s gaze had poured into him on the battlefield buzzes under his skin, and suddenly he’s not staring at the roof of his tent at all. He’s standing on the edge of the battlefield. People pass right by him, rushing this way and that - water, we need water -- medic, here, urgently-- coming, coming, you there, get more bandages.

 

Hadrian kneels by one of the fallen, taking their hand as they reach out to him. Their name is Ayanda, they have a partner and two little girls waiting for them at home, and the only thing they want in this moment is to see them grow up.

 

Ayanda takes a ragged breath. “Don’t take me just yet. Please. Please .”

 

Their grip is like iron, their nails digging into Hadrian’s hand.

 

“That’s not what I’m here to do,” says Hadrian, “I’m for you to tell me the reasons why you want to stay.”

 

Hadrian listens .

 

--

 

They say at the height of battle, if you have time to look around, you’ll see a man, or a god who used to be a man. It’s an omen, they say, although whether it’s good or bad depends on whether you survive the battle. And if he finds you, afterwards, you must talk. Let him hear your mortal cries, it will will help steel you to survive or guide you into a more peaceful afterlife.

 

--

 

Hadrian is very old, older than any human in Hieron has ever been when he breathes his last. When his eyes open again, he’s in an old throne room. The woman seated on the throne smiles.

 

Her red hair is just as wild as he remembers, but her eyes are much brighter.

 

“It has been a long time,” says Hella, stepping forward towards him.

 

Hadrian smiles. “It has.”