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“You are the Lady of Iron, and you remain unconquered,” Svarah said, blood on her teeth as she smiled around a split lip. She lay sprawled in the dirt, breath pluming in the frosty air as she bared her neck to Vivienne’s spirit blade. The glittering edge drew across her throat, and she gave a coarse chuckle. “You have demonstrated your skill. Am I permitted to rise?”

The gathered Hold murmured as Vivienne vanished her blade, then grew into a riotous cheer as Vivienne offered her hand to the thane. Svarah took it, rising with a grunt as she heaved herself upright, but Vivienne’s spine was unbent, her shoulders unwavering.

In a voice too low for anyone else to hear, Svarah murmured, “There. That should stop their ill-thought tongues.”

“I hope you did not throw this match for the sake of appearances.”

“You won fair and true, Madame de Fer. I am glad we met as allies on the field.”

Vivienne curled her lip. “You are fortunate.”

Vivienne hated the Frostbacks, and was certain the feeling was mutual. It was colder than a dowager’s displeasure, and only the corpse-ridden bogs of the Fallow Mire rated worse. Her silks and jewels offered little protection against the mountain’s chill; she was a peacock among turkeys, and well aware of how little they understood her plumage.

The Inquisitor had suggested—delicately—that a display of martial prowess might ease diplomacy.

Vivienne had suggested—scathingly—that she was not a trained poodle. She had no intention of facing anyone less than their host’s best.

Which, ultimately, meant facing their host.

It turned out that besting their thane in single combat earned respect from Stone-Bear Hold, and Vivienne’s stay grew marginally better. ‘Marginally,’ as she was still in the Frostbacks.

Svarah herself seemed interested in bettering her stay, and gifted her a leather satchel, dyed and carved with the image of a flowering vine. It held cunning pouches which were perfect for seeds and herb samples, and upon learning that Vivienne had an interest in herbs and potions, Svarah offered to guide Vivienne in gathering the rare felandaris.

Vivienne accepted the offer—to have a thane offer her personal guidance was social currency, well worth building—but thought it unnecessary. She was a Knight-Enchanter and a seasoned veteran of both the Game and of the Inquisition. What could the Frostbacks possibly have to throw at her?

“A blizzard! How utterly charming,” Vivienne said through gritted teeth, elbows held tight at her sides as she struggled to stay warm without huddling in on herself like a child. Her nose was already numb, which was a mixed blessing as it could no longer feel the cold, but her chattering lips certainly could.

Svarah snorted, and grasped for Vivienne’s hand. She was little more than a dark mass in motion amidst the veils of snow. “Come. We keep hunter’s huts for just such storms. We can rest until the storm-wings soften their beat.”

Vivienne soon lost all sense of direction, but Svarah seemed confident of their path. They soon found their way to the shelter, little more than a frame attached to a small cave. It was crudely furnished but stocked with food, furs, and firewood. As well as a small broom made of twigs, which Svarah demonstrated was to brush the snow from their clothes and boots, leaving it in a sodden heap at the door. The crude brush removed much of the offending snow, though by no means all. Still, it was better than nothing, and Vivienne tried not to think of how it would damage her embroidery.

Simply being out of the wind was an acceptable start, but as Svarah assembled logs to make a fire, Vivienne decided that a hearth would be absolute luxury. Svarah struggled with flint and steel until Vivienne sighed.

“Allow me, my dear.”

Lighting the fire was no effort for a mage of Vivienne’s caliber, though Svarah’s surprised smile was gratifying. The hut promptly filled with warmth, and the snow already on Vivienne’s sleeves and hood started dripping on the floor. Her nose, fortunately, was soon able to start feeling again. Unfortunately, it was the tingling of blood returning to the surface. Svarah’s own face was doing the same thing, turning from blanched pale to a ruddier flush as the hut grew warmer.

Svarah, unexpectedly, started disrobing.

“Why are you changing?” Vivienne asked sharply.

“Snow is cold, but dry. Once it melts, the cold seeps into the skin. Better to shake it all off, first.”

Svarah suited words to action, shaking off her outermost garments by the door, then hanging them over a frame to dry. This also served the most excellent secondary purpose of stopping up what gaps and seams the blizzard sought against their shelter. Not that there were many; despite their crude ways, Vivienne held a grudging admiration for a people so hardy as to endure these conditions. The thane kept on her breastband and small clothes, though Vivienne suspected that even that much clothing was meant as deference to lowlander sensibilities.

Svarah raised an eyebrow at Vivienne, and Vivienne realized that she was expected to follow suit.

Well. If Svarah expected Vivienne to be modest, she could think again. Vivienne knew her body was nothing to be ashamed of, and if Svarah were expecting some pillow-soft mage, then well. Vivienne already bested her once in the arena, and could do so again.

Vivienne unwrapped herself from her furs and layers, as precise and assured as any etiquette book, until she was in her corselet and stockings. She considered removing the stockings from their garters, but it would be a dreadful bother having to redo everything once the storm passed.

If the storm passed.

“How long must we stay here?” Vivienne asked, trying not to sound perturbed.

Svarah gave a shrug of her admittedly magnificent shoulders. “At least the night. The winter’s wrath may last a week.”

Vivienne did not relish the thought of sleeping in her underthings, but refused to show such weakness in front of Svarah. It was a type of endurance, as much as Avvar hardiness, and it wasn’t as if she had brought any of her nightgowns. With a pang, she thought of her beloved silk slip, a soft ivory with delicate lace paneling that shone beautifully against her skin. It would have been a comfort against whatever crude bedding she must suffer tonight.

Svarah pulled a bedroll from the hut’s supplies, setting it across the floor. When she returned to the supply cabinet, she let out a groan.

“There is only one bedroll,” Svarah said, turning back to Vivienne with an unreadable expression. For a woman with such expressive creases around her eyes and mouth, she could be quite inscrutable when she chose. If she had been born in Orlais, it would have served her well in the Game. “It is far too cold for either of us to sleep without bedding. Do you object?”

Vivienne was too well-trained to roll her eyes at this patent absurdity. Instead, she set herself on the hut’s lone stool and deliberately crossed her legs. “No, I do not object. We are both adults and can deal with sharing the same bed, I assume.”

“I had meant to save this for the evening, but if we are to rest here tonight, perhaps it is best to share.” Svarah pulled a small bottle from her pack, uncorking it before offering it to Vivienne. They were close enough that Vivienne’s toes brushed Svarah’s leg as she took the bottle.

Vivienne made her best effort not to sniff the beverage before drinking, but raised it to her mouth and took a sip. It was surprisingly light, with a dry, floral feel on the back of her palate before settling into a lingering sweetness that invited a second sip. She let the unfamiliar flavor sit on her tongue as she passed the bottle back to Svarah.

Vivienne hazarded a guess. “Mead?” At Svarah’s confirming nod, Vivienne decided that at last, she could afford an unrestrained compliment. “That is quite delightful. I can’t imagine you could grow wine-grapes this far south, but this is better than many vintages I’ve sampled.”

“We hunger not to be Orlesian shadows, but Avvar in blood and bone,” Svarah said. She shrugged, taking a sip from the bottle. Svarah sat cross-legged on the bedroll, mouth wet with mead, and added, “You are correct, the grapes would not grow on our mountains. They are beautiful things, but fragile.”

“What is beautiful does not mean fragile,” Vivienne countered, nettled despite herself.

Svarah lifted an eyebrow, spreading her arms as if to embrace the entirety of the hut. “There are many types of beauty. There is the glacier calving ice in the spring, the dawn rosy-fingered across the new-birthed wave. There is the star-strewn sky of the summer night, the owl’s hunt-cry rising in the dark. And there is the heart-thrill of meeting a well-matched warrior in the field.” Svarah’s eyes shone bright, her face flushed with mead and the orange glow of the fire. “You are the Lady of Iron. Your legend-mark precedes you, and bruises in its passing. It is no wonder you leave tenderness.”

“Hm.” Vivienne took another sip, the mead sitting sour in her throat. Svarah was far too open, her eyes too earnest for one who was normally so reserved. Vivienne narrowed her eyes at Svarah’s carefully-constructed rustic charm, tallying the day’s events: the lonely gathering of felandaris and mountain-flowers, the sudden storm, the one bedroll in the cabin and Svarah’s oh-so-convenient bottle of mead…

Vivienne’s voice was an icicle-drip of calm control. With her legs still crossed, she tightened her ankles. “Did you intend us to share a bedroll when you planned this trip? Or intend anything more intimate than sleep? I may not know your customs, Avvar, but I am no one’s conquest.”

Svarah let out a hoot of startled laughter, gripping her knees. Vivienne kept her expression unmoving as this fit passed, and Svarah’s eyes widened in startled apology.

“Madame Vivienne, I thought—if you were Avvar, a respected warrior of another Hold who bested me in combat, it would have been simple. I would have asked if you wanted company in the bedroll and we would have had it out, one way or another. But by the Lady…” Svarah’s voice trailed, rueful. “You lowlanders distract and divert like fish in a stream. I asked after your customs, and was told to give you gifts, flowers, and wine. You seemed to like the leather satchel, and I thought a mountain’s wealth of rare herbs might suffice for flowers. Any wine I might have found would be inferior stuff—”

“—so you gave me mead,” Vivienne finished. She crossed her arms, watching the firelight play off Svarah’s flush. “You were even less direct than you thought, my dear. I had no concept you were courting me until this moment.”

Svarah sighed, throwing her hands in the air. “So I see. I had no intent to insult or conquer.”

Vivienne studied the flex of Svarah’s shoulders, the muscle bunching beneath the flesh. Svarah was a handsome woman, long-nosed and raw-boned in the way of the Avvar. She was a blade of intent wrapped in skin and sinew, and Vivienne had to admit it was flattering that a barbarian would attempt more courtly airs in an ill-considered suit.

“I am thane of Stone-Bear hold, and your host. I only seek your pleasure, Lady of Iron.”

Vivienne let out a long sigh, setting down the bottle. “You may have had more luck by asking to share my bedroll.”

“Would you have said yes?”

Vivienne laughed. “Of course not! I require greater effort than a clumsy offer. This, though...clumsy as it may have been, the intent is appreciated.”

Svarah chuckled, curling her knees to her chest and smiling. “So. You would have said no, if I asked you then. So I ask you now: would you share my bedroll for more than sleep?”

Vivienne held out her hand expectantly, palm-up. Svarah blinked, then offered her own hand in exchange. Vivienne traced her thumb across the hard calluses of Svarah’s palm, then the lines of dirt beneath the nails, the dark whorls and creases of Svarah’s fingers.

Svarah had strong hands. Powerful hands, and a mind to match.

Vivienne could admire such things.

“Yes.” Quickly, before Svarah could get ahead of herself, Vivienne added, “But only after you wash your hands.”

Svarah stood up, laughing, and Vivienne took the opportunity to pounce upon the unattended bedroll. Vivienne wriggled under the covers which as much grace as she could muster, and the warmth was bone-meltingly cozy after the hard edges of the stool.

“And I am not leaving this bed!” Vivienne declared.

Svarah made a show of pouring water across her hands, lathering them with a hard bar of brown soap, then rinsing them in a back corner of the cave before wiping them dry across her thighs. She then slithered into the bedroll behind Vivienne, and Vivienne bit her lip to resist shivering as Svarah’s damp thighs pressed against the back of her legs, and as Svarah’s icy feet—Maker, how could a woman with such a warm belly have such cold feet!—butted against her own.

Svarah’s hands were cold, but clean, and Vivienne clasped her own hands over Svarah’s as they nested against each other. Vivienne knew she was getting the better end of the deal, able to curl in her own warmth and with Svarah’s reassuring bulk at the back, but felt no guilt over it. She was Svarah’s guest, after all, and Vivienne wasn’t above exploiting that for her own comfort.

“These straps, how do you…?” Svarah grunted, hands sliding down Vivienne’s thighs towards her garters.

“You do not. If you wish access to my private parts, the drawers are separate from the corselet and stockings.” Vivienne exhaled between her teeth, grimacing as she twisted and the boning dug into her back. She could only imagine how that must feel, burrowing into Svarah’s belly. “You will remove the corselet instead, and I shall handle the garters.”

It took both friction and cooperation for them to disentangle Vivienne from her underthings, especially as Vivienne refused to leave the bedding. Svarah’s knuckles dug into Vivienne’s ribs, her elbow jutting to turn the blankets into a small tent, and Vivienne kicked Svarah’s shins with the back of her heel as she unclasped her garters. There was much grunting, but only a few obscenities.

The corselet was eventually removed, the straps flapping as Svarah flung it against the wall, but a sharp word from Vivienne and Svarah groaned and wriggled out of bed in order to lay Vivienne’s corselet across the stool. Vivienne kept her stockings on—they would doubtlessly roll down to her calves come morning, but she didn’t wish to contort herself into taking them off right now—and her drawers as well, since she could not imagine pressing her private parts against an unknown bedroll.

Still—having Svarah pressed against her, bare skin on skin, was quite pleasant. Svarah’s breath was warm on the back of Vivienne’s neck, and as an inquisitive hand skimmed up the length of Vivienne’s thighs. Svarah seemed fascinated by Vivienne’s stockings, thumbing the fine silk and brushing her knuckles across the lace tops. Her calluses caught against the delicate web of the lace as she tried moving farther up, but Vivienne clamped her knees around Svarah’s fingers.

“No.” Vivienne did not bother elaborating; one word was a complete sentence, after all. But she squeezed Svarah’s hand, letting her know the attempt was not unwelcome.

Svarah kissed the back of Vivienne’s shoulder. “My apologies, Lady of Iron. What would you prefer?”

“Don’t rush to the clit. Take your time along my thighs and belly. Breasts are acceptable, but don’t pinch my nipples, they are not toys. I will let you know when I want more.”

“Your nipples are not toys, and you will tell me when you want more,” Svarah repeated, solemn as a dirge. With Vivienne’s back to Svarah, Vivienne couldn’t see Svarah smile, but felt the curve of Svarah’s lips against Vivienne’s shoulder. “Your terms are acceptable.”

“This is not a negotiation,” Vivienne sniffed. “I know what I like, and see no reason to compromise.”

“Mm. You are unconquered, after all,” Svarah said agreeably, before burying her mouth against the bend of Vivienne’s shoulder, breath hot over skin. She nibbled, more lips than teeth, but before Vivienne could chide against leaving marks, Svarah found that sweet junction at the back of the neck that made Vivienne’s toes curl, made her bite her own lip to keep from moaning as Svarah’s hands caressed the curve of her hip. The woman had broad hands, with long fingers, her calluses rough but still gentle over the softness of breasts and belly. Vivienne hooked her foot behind her, the warm silk of her stocking-clad feet sliding across the hard bone of Svarah’s ankle, and Svarah let out a sigh of appreciation. Svarah traced languid circles across Vivienne’s thighs, skirting the lace edges of Vivienne’s stockings, their bodies flush with a full-body press of warmth.

Vivienne called directions with aplomb—”there, good, harder”—her voice steady as Svarah growled frustration in the curve of her ear. Vivienne held herself stiff as she could, knees trembling and rocking her into Svarah’s arms, because the tight bedding gave such little room to maneuver, and Svarah’s elbow was a tentpole as she crooked her fingers, as Vivienne finally let her stroke the silk-clad delta of her thighs, to slide up the soaked crevice of her sex. The hollow darkness of the bedroll bloomed with warmth, sweat-slick and fragrant with lust, and if Vivienne shut her eyes and ignored the damn blizzard she just might be able to forget she’s in the Frostbacks after all—

She gripped Svarah’s wrist as she came, the small bones creaking in Svarah’s hand and wringing out a satisfying grunt against Vivienne’s ear. Vivienne’s drawers were slick, sodden with the aftermath of climax, and both Vivienne and Svarah were dewed with sweat, sticking their bodies together in a blaze of heat despite the raging blizzard.

“No more clever words, Iron Lady?” Svarah asked, entirely too smug for her own good.

Vivienne snorted. Still limp-boned and languid, she said, “I’ll give you a witty rejoinder after you prove yourself, my dear.”

“Prove myself? My lady, I am a thane and a warrior—” Svarah laughed, even as Vivienne elbowed her in the stomach and twisted to face her.

“This was only your first round. Or are you already conquered by lowlander appetite?”

Grinning, teeth shining like pearls, Svarah said, “My lady, you are unconquered.”