Sadja saw her again by the time of mid-winter celebration.
There was not much to celebrate, besides the fact that somehow Belacqua kept holding on, day after day. Each night someone fell to the Eerie, or to a bursting pipe, or to some other accident. The town’s population dwindled and for those who remained, food rationing and the thinning holy water were just as much of a problem as the howling creatures outside.
But week after week, the winds turned and changed and so did the good luck of the people who remained.
They won some, they lost some.
But she still had Hunter at her side, and she still went hunting with him. She could read without a problem and could write a lot better; she was friends with Cloria and she had changed Valeriana’s views on Verna and what she did to all of them.
All in all, there was a lot to be happy about.
And for that night, the town seemed to think the same.
They put up all sort of lights, to chase away the darkness. Not everyone would be able to come, as they still had to man the ramparts and make sure the wave of the Eerie did not spill over the walls and onto the town, but for that night everyone would have a chance at a hot broth and a sip of wine.
Sadja had helped to build up the tables in the main square, lining them up so that everyone could sit down and enjoy a warm meal. A large space in the center was reserved for music and dances. And between the clouds of vapor and the falling sun, celebration started between old songs and cheers and prayers.
Sitting next to Hunter, she clapped her hands and moved her head at the rhythm of music when she felt it.
Maybe it was just her keened senses, maybe it was something else.
But she saw her coming down from the temple. Not on a palanquin and without an escort. Instead, she walked together with Arguta and a few men she did not recognize, one of them bald and still wearing his working clothes. She still wore her blindfold, but Sadja could feel that the mirth she shared with the people around her was far more genuine than usual.
She looked relaxed and welcoming, her body language open as her shoulder rolled back in a quick laughter. She had never seen Elissa like this – gone were most traces of the obsessive, troubled young woman that had pulled her into one of her nightmares.
And they they crossed gazes. Or what they could, given… given what was beneath that white blindfold, which made a shiver run down to the tip of Sadja’s tail.
Elissa’s smile dried on her lips.
Sadja lifted a hand and waved at her.
Weakly, she replied to the greeting.
And then she turned and kept talking with Arguta.
She did not rush at her, she did not use her powers to pull her into her nightmare of a mindscape.
“I guess the Augur is back in town?” Hunter said with a thin smile. He had yet to turn.
“Ah, finally. I was getting really worried.”
“I am happy as well,” Sadja replied, swinging her legs. “Still… it’s better this way, if she keeps her distance.”
“You never told me what happened between you two. Why you had that fall-off.”
“I suppose it’s better this way,” she replied, rubbing her hands together.
“I see.” He let the topic go after that. Elissa went on to talk with the engineers and Arguta, and Sadja’s mind was soon occupied more with food and enjoying herself than the weird Augur.
For the festival, she finally got to enjoy fresh fruits and other delicacies she had not tasted in a long while (though she still preferred canned food over anything else), and she lost herself in the atmosphere. People talking, cheering and drinking – though most of them still showed bandages, cuts, scuffs and bruises from the ongoing attrition war against the Forest, she saw hope painted over everyone’s face. They really believed they’d reach the end of winter.
And she believed it too.
Which meant she’d have to leave. To finally find her freedom.
And it would mean not seeing this place anymore. She could visit her moth-friends in the forest!
But… she’d miss living like this. With Hunter next to her, smiling at the hopeful town, facing down onto the abyss and daring to look back.
Maybe this was the true face of Verna’s obsession, a positive reflection to her twisted plan.
Hunter had told her about the origins of the Tide, and though she had never actually seen the Queen, this Wicked Fae everybody seemed to be so sacred about, she believed it was a lesson to take to heart.
As long as they could share this place together. As long as they could dance and laugh and drink and eat with each other, it would be worth it.
The din and tin of cutlery and chattering died down as every head turned to the square’s honor seat, where the Augur was standing up. It reminded Sadja of sunflowers, an ancient plant that she had seen depicted in Hunter’s books.
“People of Belacqua,” she said, rising a glass of wine to the sky. “We are here to count our blessings. The Forest is pressing upon our walls, and yet we stand. We have seen half of this cursed Winter pass over us, and though losses have been dire, we are still holding strong!”
A round of cheer passed through the crowd and she smiled.
Sadja watched her movements closely. She looked more… real than before. As if she was actually living in the moment and not pretending to.
“May the Spirits smile upon us, and may our hearts be true. Until the end!” She raised her glass in a toast and the tinkling and echoing of glasses reminded Sadja of creaking glass on the frozen rivers. “And now, may the dances start!”
She clapped her hands three times and sat down again, engaged in conversation with Arguta.
As people began to enter the square, she pulled on Hunter’s sleeve.
“Hey, do you…” why were her cheeks so warm again? She did not even touch her wine! This sort of stuff did not happen if she just ate food that made sense, like from a sealed can!
Hunter looked at her, confused. A dark flash in his eyes made her realize he was probably thinking about a very similar night, but the girl asking him to dance would have had long dark hair and a different shade of blue in her eyes. And she would have been dressed in white. And she would have been a Vestal.
And she would have been his wife.
But she still did it. Her hands closed upon his own, her soft skin touching his calluses and wrinkles and battered palm.
“Do you want to dance?”
He blinked again.
The dark cloud passed.
A soft smile spread over his lips and he let out an amused chuckle.
“Why not? I suppose a little workout will be helpful before I freeze my ass off on the ramparts!”
She beamed back at him and pulled him into the crowd – he settled one arm around his waist and she let him take over their dance, moving their bodies in lazy circles as more people dance about, and she laughed and cheered and tilted her head back and flapped her ears and waggled her tail, and all was, for a little while still, perfect.
Pic by Stanakin