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Mado Kara Mieru - Fanfic about Binding Blade's Sigune

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First things first; I haven't been very active around here since I joined besides engaging a bit in some of the discussion of the February Three Houses direct, so, hello. I recently finished this and posted it another (non-FE related) forum I'm on and figured there'd probably be people here who would be interested as well, so I decided to pop back in and crosspost it. Feedback here is welcome if you have any.

Having (somewhat) recently finished a playthrough of Binding Blade, Sigune (the boss of the Ilia route's chapter 19 if you aren't familiar) was a character I was really struck by, particularly her death quote. Between, that her dialogue with Thea and Shanna, and her mention in Juno and Noah's supports, she's an intriguing character; we see that she's a quite cynical person and hear about her relationship with Juno and her sisters, and see that she died with a lot of regrets. This fic eventually came together out of that.

As a warning beforehand, it gets... rather dark, both in terms of violence and just being not exactly uplifting overall. There's also some minor sexual content (I don't think anything that would be inappropriate to post but I don't know the standards here very well; if there's an issue I'll take it down or edit it some) and coarse language. Plus minor spoilers for both Binding Blade and Blazing Sword.

Although it wasn't directly inspired by the song, I used a lot of seasonal motifs in a way that reminded me a little of a song by Christopher Tin (composer of Civilization IV's theme song Baba Yetu), and so I decided to borrow its title for this.

---Mado Kara Mieru---

Chapter 1: Winter (Remembering Spring)

The snow, carried by a freezing wind, whipped at Sigune as she stood at the parapet, unflinching in the face of the Ilian weather. She looked out over the valley, although she could see little through the fierce blizzard that had engulfed it, mentally assessing the state of the battle she couldn't see and filling in the gaps in her soldiers' reports as best she could. No matter what assumptions she made, it was clear that the edge she'd thought her forces had over the approaching Etrurians was almost gone. They still had better than even odds, but her assumption that their knowledge of the terrain, combined with the harsh storm bearing down on Carrhae, would stop the Etrurian Army dead in their tracks here had been proven wrong.

Even despite the numbers still favoring them, her usual confidence had been tempered, the increasingly frantic mood in the castle starting to get to her. That, and the eerie feeling in her gut, that, as much as she tried to push it back – she had no time for such things when her mind knew better – kept bubbling up again.

"Captain! Captaaaiin!", she heard Eira, her lieutenant, shouting from the tower. Sigune turned to face her, into the wind that, mercifully was partly blocked by the tower's position, and, admitting the futility of trying to shout over the howling noise it made, strode over to the doorway, stepping inside. "What is it? Do we have more reports?".

"Y-Yes...", she answered, haltingly. "The reinforcements aren't turning back the Etrurians... VIII, IX, and XII Squadrons were almost completely wiped out, and X and XI Squadrons have taken heavy casualties as well... What should we do?".

The eerie feeling was back. Worse, the numbers were, unmistakably, getting worse. Even assuming the best from now on, if the Etrurian Army had truly cut down the pegasus knights that had flown to their aid from Edessa, her chances for victory weren't even a coin toss anymore. But as long as she still had a chance, she would fight and knew her knights would follow her. Even if there was no longer a chance, though they were not precisely under contract with Bern, to surrender without being released from duty would be a betrayal of everything she held dear as a knight of Ilia.

That said, she had no intention of losing tonight.

"They have heavier troops than we do. They have the advantage if it comes to a siege. The remaining squadrons will meet the Etrurians. Call all the knights to the great hall immedately."

"...Yes, Captain". She raised her hand in salute and took her leave. The trepidation in her voice was obvious, and Sigune felt an odd pang of sympathy for her. There was a time when she might almost have been, like her, idealistic enough to at least entertain the notion that the Etrurians, of all people, would truly plan to help Ilia, although even then it would have been hard to swallow the thought of voiding her duty as an Ilian mercenary and standing down to a backwater Lycian prince almost half her age. And, after all, why defect from the winning side?

She made her way to the hall as well, and upon reaching it, saw several dozen knights already assembled. Soon enough the last few, or at least the last few that could squeeze into the room, had filtered in from their posts, and she stood at the head of the room.

"Knights of Ilia", she started. "The enemy draws close, and it will not be long now before they reach us. Our mobility and our knowledge of the land is our advantage, and we will meet them with it head on. Etruria claims it means to 'liberate' us from Bern. Do not be decieved. Only a fool fights a war for others. Only you can defend Ilia, and she will not survive by bowing to the weak simply as they claim to be our saviors.--". As she spoke, she felt the tiny doubts in the back of her mind weigh on her, and she could barely tell herself how much conviction she had behind her own words.

"--We will defend Ilia with our very lives if we must. May Aenir smile on us as we fly. And may She fly with us. Now, forward!".

They roared in approval, although even still she could tell it was less wholehearted than before. The soldiers dispersed to the armory and the stables, gathering weapons and mounting their pegasi. Sigune ran her hand over the hilt of her saber as she walked to the armory herself, taking a lance and a bundle of javelins from the wall before continuing on to the stables. She opened the stall gate, patting her steed's mane. He whinnied at her touch, and she took the reins, gently tugging on them. "Come now. It's time."

He followed behind, and Sigune clambered up on to the saddle, guiding the pegasus out towards the courtyard. The castle gates had already been drawn open, and she urged her mount onwards, taking their position at the head of the middle column in the wide inverted wedge formation that had lined up. Already, the faint light of far-away torches could be seen ahead of them in the fog.

She looked from side to side at the assembled troops, almost four hundred women, pegasus knights of Ilia, in all, and behind them perhaps another two hundred horse cavalry and troubadors.

"What are your orders, Captain?".

She glanced over her shoulder at Eira. "IV and V Squadrons will take their left flank under Nephele of IV Squadron. VI and VII Squadrons the right under Lunete of VII Squadron. I will lead I, II, and III Squadrons myself and attack the enemy line directly. The cavalry will back up the central column."

"...Understood". She tugged up on her reins, shouting a command to her pegasus, and it spread its wings and kicked off into the air. She flew along their line, barking out Sigune's orders to the squadron flightleaders, before stopping to hover in front of her. "They await your order to attack."

Sigune nodded. The torches were grower more distinct now in the distance. She tugged up on her own pegasus' reins, and he reared up, wings spread. "Charge! For Ilia!".

The pegasus launched itself forward into the air with a kick and a sweep of its broad wings, Eira sounding her bugle, and Sigune spurred him forward. Four hundred behind her followed suit, soaring forward into the night sky to meet their foe. They pushed on through the snow and icey cold, seeing forms start to take shape ahead of them, and raised their lances as they closed the gap with the knights of Lycia and Etruria leading the enemy approach.

As they burst out of the sky all around them, it was apparent the enemy had been unprepared. The line buckled, but did not break, and they quickly fell into a tight wedge formation as they were met on three sides by the Ilians.

Sigune spurred her pegasus on faster, entering a shallow dive. She was almost close enough to strike them now, and with the element of surprise she knew they could crush their hastily adopted defensive position. She could almost taste it. From the flanks, a hail of javelins rained down on the Etrurians, the whistling sound as they sailed through the air and the screams and cries of men and horses as they connected with their targets tore through the sky, and then, an instant later, her column made contact. She hefted her lance, angling it with precision as she closed the last few yards between her and an Etrurian cavalier.

She tugged up on the reins again and gave the lance another heave as her pegasus jerked upwards, the man tumbling off his own, now panicked steed. All around her she heard the awful din of steel clashing against steel and the unearthly screams of the weapons' wielders. She pressed on, the column attempting to pierce the Etrurian ranks and send them into a disarray from which they'd be unable to regroup, knocking several more men from their horses with her lance or with a kick from her pegasus' legs, and dispatching two more, again with well placed lance-strokes piercing gaps in their armor.

Despite it all, the eerie feeling was back. For every Etrurian she laid low, it seemed she saw one of her own cut from the sky by a strike from one of their lances or a slash of a sword. Soon she saw, out of the fog, the unmistakeable shape of pegasi, wings spread and racing towards them. In this line of work, it was inevitable she would cross blades with fellow Ilians. She had long since made her peace with that fact. But this complicated her strategic calculation again.

It really began to sink in when she again heard the whistling sound of missiles far above her. On the horizon now, she could see the bulk of the Etrurian Army, their line of archers readying a second volly. An arrow zipped by her head just to her right, grazing her pegasus' flank, and he neighed in pain. A little ahead of her and to her left, she saw an arrow, then in rapid succession a second and a third, strike one of her knights. She screamed in pain, doubling over and losing her grip on her reins and, despite her desperate grasps, fell from her saddle and plummeted to the earth below, her pegasus then itself being hit by an arrow as if to add one final insult.

And then the enemy pegasus knights were nearly upon them. The tables turned, javelins fell down towards her and her knights, darting past her even as many of her sisters-in-arms were less lucky. She had stopped her advance by now, and her force had visibly winnowed. The casualties their initial attack had inflicted barely seemed to have made a dent in an Etrurian force easily well more than a thousand strong and, seeing the carnage around her, she felt a pain she thought she had became numb to a very long time ago.

Sigune jerked back on the reins, and her pegasus climbed and propelled himself backwards as she rested her lance. In one swift motion, she reached for and grabbed a javelin from her back and flung it towards the approaching fliers. The knights continued hurling javelins back at the foes as they fell towards the castle, knocking down several of the riders racing towards them, but the enemy continued their diving charge none the less. She glanced down at the ground, only to see the Etrurians engaging her clearly outmatched cavalry and steadily pushing the line back towards Castle Carrhae itself. By the time she turned back to face the onslaught flying towards her, in a blink of an eye a pegasus knight had closed the distance between them, her lance raised to strike.

Raising her own lance, Sigune barely managed to bat away her attacker's weapon. The enemy pulled back on her reins, her pegasus neighing as it beat its wings, braking its dive and stopping to hover in mid air. She could get a better look at the other woman now; to her Ilian blue armor she had added armbands in Lycian red, and a matching sash around her pegasus' chest. Her cyan hair and stoicly determined face seemed somehow familar to her.

"...Captain Sigune". She swore her opponent's stare softed for just a second as she spoke before returning to its earlier unreadable expression. The voice jogged her memory at last.

"Thea? What are you doing here?... Well, I suppose I know the answer. No matter...--", she smirked. "You don't need to call me Captain though. Just Sigune, like always. Tell me, how is Juno?".

She felt a twinge of guilt. The change in Thea's face was minute, but she knew well enough to tell what she was thinking.

"She was well last we parted."

"I see. Thank you". Sigune raised her lance again. "I won't go easy on you. You know the code of the knights of Ilia as well as anyone. No matter what happens, no regrets or hard feelings, please."

"...Of course not". Thea raised her lance in turn. "I've become a full-fledged knight since we last met. I'll give it my all as well."

Sigune nodded. "I see. Be assured I don't intend to be the one who dies, though."

She pulled back on the reins and her pegasus beat his wings, moving back and upwards again, and her opponent did the same. She eyed Thea ahead of her, too far away now to make out much of her facial expression.

Thea spurred her pegasus on, and it took off towards her, wings beating and feet kicking against the air. Sigune jerked the reins and dodged to the right as Thea reached her, but was unable to get fully clear of her, and the lance grazed her left arm, slashing through her sleeve. She winced, feeling cold air against the stinging wound, and pushed her pegasus to dive right, away from Thea's second thrust. She glanced up for a split second, seeing Thea pull upwards and then push her pegasus into a dive as well after her.

Sigune nudged her pegasus into a broad, shallowly climbing lefthand turn, forcing Thea to whip around to stay on her tail, and, as she did, a volley of arrows from the Etrurian line narrowly missed both of them. A sad irony it would be if Thea were to be felled by her own allies' arrows. And an unsatisfying conclusion to their duel.

Thea was now fixed on her tail, and Sigune sped up, managing to put slightly more distance between them. She spurred her pegasus to pull up again, her climb getting steeper and steeper as he strained to keep the speed she urged him on to, lest the centrifugal force keeping her in the saddle let up and send her tumbling out of it. She pulled on the reins, and her pegasus rolled upright as they reached the crest of the half-loop. She rested her lance again, grabbing another javelin and readying it before she pushed her pegasus into another dive, plunging almost straight down towards Thea.

She had evidently read Sigune's moves perfectly, already pulling her pegasus up into a steep climb. Sigune let go of the javelin, gravity doing most of her work in tossing it, and it whirled past Thea as it fell, glancing her mount's wing and cleaving a few feathers from it. She readied her lance, eyes firmly trained on Thea, pushing her pegasus to dive faster and faster. In an instant they closed the gap, but Thea managed to narrowly avoid her lance. She wasn't quite as lucky, her right arm meeting the spearhead's steel flange this time, although mercifully it left a shallower cut than on her left. She pulled up hard, her pegasus whinnying in discomfort as they rapidly leveled out and whipped around to face Thea again.

Her knights had all but been routed by now. The eerie sinking feeling was stronger than ever. Sigune, though, ignored it all. The only thing left that mattered to her now was this duel. If nothing else, she would win it. She raised her lance once more, watching Thea smoothly turn her pegasus around, the two of them again facing each other head on. She twirled it above her head and pushed her pegasus onward one more time. Thea responded, rushing forward as well, and they raced past each other. Sigune pulled her lance back, thrusting at Thea and hitting her side, shredding the fabric of her shirt and her vest and leaving a gash.

Both pegasus knights doubled back, not stopping as they made another pass. Weapon raised, Sigune prepared to land a final blow.

Thea was faster. A split second too soon for Sigune to react, she thrust her lance, cleanly striking her. Her pegasus neighed as she reflexively pulled hard on the reins, stopping in mid air with a beat of its wings. Tugging on her own reins and dragging the shaft back, her pegasus coming to a stop and beating its wings to pull backwards, Thea dislodged the weapon from her.

The sensation seemed to lag a few seconds behind the action. As Thea removed the lance, the searing pain in her gut became apparent. She tried to ignore it as best she could, her heart racing and adrenaline clouding her judgement, and she reached for her last javelin, throwing it at Thea point blank. She instinctively dodged, but it still grazed the pauldron on her shoulder. Thea raised her lance again, but hesitated. A sentimental fool just like her sisters.

Sigune took the opening, swinging her own lance, but Thea reacted, driving the weapon into her again and swiftly drawing it back.

She gasped in pain, glancing down at her abdomen where before she had kept her eyes fixed on her adversary and averted her gaze. She was bleeding profusely now, blood pooling in her saddle, and she suddenly felt the tiniest bit faint. Realization dawned on her.

"Well, well...--", she struggled to say sitting upright in the face of the pain and light-headedness. "--So I'm the one to die here after all...". She paused to ponder something, looking up at the night sky. "But maybe I already died... A long time... Ago...". She let out a sigh, returning to look straight ahead again and smiling weakly. "You did well, Thea... Juno must be... So proud of you."

She closed her eyes, and felt herself slipping.

______________________________

The snow was finally gone from the ground, but the spring chill still hung in the afternoon air. Readying herself, Sigune stood up straight, planted her training lance on the ground, and took a deep breath. She was behind the modest, weathered house, standing in a patch of grass between the back door and their sparse garden plot.

"Hah!". She stepped forward in place, whipping the lance around to a thrusting position, and then returned to neutral in a second smooth motion. She continued the drill, over and over.

"Hah! Hah! Hah! Hah! Hah!".

She swiftly turned around and positioned her lance in one motion, continuing the drill.

"Hah! Hah! Hah!".

She mistimed a step and had to catch herself and start over.

"Hah! Hah! Hah!".

"Sigune! Sigune!", she heard her mother call from in front of their home. She dropped her lance and walked up the path around the house. She tensed up a little when she rounded the corner, seeing two people she didn't know standing with her mother. There was a woman with long, purple hair about her mother's age and in similar clothes, white tunic and a blue shawl around her shoulders contrasting with her mother's gray, and the same narrow white headband – a symbol of the Ilian pegasus knights. And next to her was a girl around her own age, the same purple hair but cut short, wearing a blue dress and a brown shawl, a curious look on her face.

"Welcome home, mother", she said, politely but a bit flatly.

"Ah, Sigune. You know I'm always saying it would be healthy for you to have more friends your age, so I thought it would do you good to meet Juno. Ah, be sure to play nice with her. Oh, or if you'd like some tea, I was going to make some for Juno's mother here anyway."

"...I guess I'll play with her", Sigune said, reluctantly. Her mother smiled. "Alright. You two have fun.--", she stepped closer and leaned over, speaking quietly. "--Ah, still just moss-bread for supper tonight. But your mother will be going south again for a contract soon. We'll have more money for good food sometime next month... I promise, Sigune."

She suddenly felt ashamed, hoping Juno and her mother hadn't heard. It didn't matter that, with her mother being a pegasus knight as well, they likely weren't much better off, or that it was probably already apparent from the state of their home how poor they were. She felt something burning inside her, the anger and determination she often felt in the face of this shame to prove to anyone that would listen that she was worth something, no matter how much they looked down on her.

Her mother and Juno's went inside, leaving the two children alone together.

"So... Do you want to play?", Juno asked, seeming slightly apprehensive, probably catching on to Sigune's coldness. "...Sure. Follow me". She led her behind the house. "Umm... My name's Juno... Oh, I guess your mom already told you that, huh?". She looked back over her shoulder at the girl. "Sigune."

"Nice to meet you, Sigune", she replied politely.

They reached the garden, and Sigune picked up her lance off the ground. "Hey... Your mother is a pegasus knight too, right?".

Juno nodded her head yes. "Mhm!".

"What about you? Are you going to be a pegasus knight?".

"Hmmm...--", she paused. "--Probably. My mom and dad are both soldiers. I've already started learning some things... Just a little, but still."

Sigune held out the lance in front of herself sideways. "Here. Show me."

Juno hesitantly took the lance from Sigune. Planting her feet firmly on the ground and holding it at rest, she swung it up and brought it to the ready, swiftly stepping forward and thrusting with it. She reversed her steps and repeated her drill three times, her movement flawless. She turned to Sigune again, handing the lance back to her. "Uhh... Was that any good you think?".

She took it from Juno. "...From now on, you're going to be my rival, ok?".

"Huh?", Juno asked. "...You don't want to be friends?".

"Well...--", she wasn't sure what to say. "--I guess we can be friends too. But I still want to know who's better. I hate losing to anyone."

Juno smiled. "Ok! If you think I'm good enough that you want to compete with me... I'm happy. I don't think I've ever had a rival before!".

"You know I'm not going to go easy on you!", she said back. Even if she had said she would be Juno's friend, it didn't mean she wouldn't see her as a rival first and foremost. With Juno having proven her talent for the lance, Sigune suggested they play jousting, and that afternoon they found blunt sticks in the slowly rotting shed in the garden and set about playing for what felt like an hour or two, although likely well shorter, before Juno's mother called her to the front of the house, insistent they return home before darkness fell.

Their mothers knew each other well enough, so they often had the opportunity to play together, and Juno introduced her to her friends. Every game they played, she always wanted to be on the opposite team as Juno when there were teams at all, and every time she gave it her all, no matter what. At first she still treated it as a rivalry more than a friendship, and she felt out of place with Juno's friends. But, in time, she found herself softening just a little. Eventually, she found herself just enjoying their company, though she still tried to play it cool and act like she tolerated them more than liked them. And throughout it all, she never lost her competitive edge. As she got older, her play jousting with Juno became more serious sparring, even if their relationship had become more of a true friendship and less of a simple rivalry.

It was one winter day, four years and a few months after they had first met, that Juno came to her in tears. It was the first snowfall of the season, and by that standard, even for Ilia, it was unusually thick, leaving a carpet a few inches thick across the ground by that night. She had stepped outside, looking up at the dark sky as it continued to fall when she saw a lantern down the rutted country road, its surface shrouded in white, and out of the darkness and swirling snow she saw her, walking slowly.

"...Juno? You're here at this time of night? You know you've kept me waiting since yesterday. And now it's too late to spar, so...--". She trailed off, feeling a pang of guilt as Juno, silent, came close enough for her to see her face clearly. She had dark circles beneath her eyes, and tears streamed down her cheeks from them. She had never seen her look so pained before in all the years she had known her.

"...Sigune. Oh, gods, Sigune, my... My...".

"--...Come inside". She ushered her in to her empty house. Once again, her mother had gone away on assignment and, by now, figured she was old enough at just shy of fourteen to look after herself. But without her here she had felt lonely and lost, even if she had been somehow making do the past few days. Juno set the lantern down on a table in what passed for a parlor as Sigune stoked the hearthflames and took down from over them the kettle of tea she had clumsily brewed for herself, pouring its contents into a cup and passing it to Juno, who had slumped down on the bench, its hard wooden surface covered by tattered pillows.

"...What's wrong, Juno?", she asked as she sat down next to her. Juno took a sip of the tea, wincing perhaps at its heat or perhaps at Sigune's attempt at brewing it, and turned to face her. "My mother and father, they... They didn't come home...". She felt an awful, sinking feeling. "Oh no... Juno, I...--".

The words eluded her. She tried to think of different explanations. Perhaps she meant what she said literally, that they simply hadn't come home. In the unseasonably heavy snowfall, after all, it wouldn't be unexpected for travellers to be waylaid. She suddenly felt stupid. Juno was sensitive, but was always sensible and level-headed as well. For her to react like this simply because her parents had been late in arriving home wouldn't be like Juno. Her mind drifted to Juno's sisters. Shanna would never know her parents at all, but that seemed almost merciful compared to Thea, who had been just a newborn when she first met Juno, losing them so young.

"--...I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Juno."

Juno nodded in acknowledgement. She felt so guilty that there was nothing more she could do for her than this. She wrapped her arms around her, and Juno slumped towards her, laying her head on her shoulder and quietly sobbing. "...We can stay here as long as you need". They sat almost in silence for a while longer, Sigune's embrace loosening and Juno sitting back up, finishing her tea and setting the cup down on the table.

"Do you want to stay until morning? It's so cold tonight...".

Juno shook her head. "No... I... I need to be back home for my sisters. They're... I'm...--", her tears, newly dried, welled up again. "I'm the only one they have now."

"...You're wrong", Sigune replied. "You're a precious friend to me Juno. Anything I can do to help you I will. And that means they have me too."

Juno's tears kept coming, even faster now, but somehow, she smiled through them this time. "You've... You've never said anything like that to me before, Sigune."

"...Come on. I'll walk home with you. I don't want you to be alone in the dark and the cold."

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Chapter 2: Summer (Together)

A few lonely cicada shrills carried through the air and Sigune wiped sweat from her brow. It was an unusually hot summer day, and she was reminded of her first time outside of Ilia, of the hot nights and incessant, if strangely soothing cicada songs of the Sacaean plains. It had been almost three years now since the day she first left home to join the mercenary company she had signed on with, Rhian's Goshawks, wearing an immaculate new white tunic and gleaming blue breastplate and pauldrons, her lance in hand. An entire life of learning the way of the lance and how to fly, and almost a year she spent taming and training a pegasus of her own, fully realized.

Thea held out the lance in front of herself sideways. "Don't go easy on me this time, Sigune!".

Sigune stopped herself from rolling her eyes. She took the wooden training weapon from her and Thea picked up another leaning against the garden wall, the two of them taking their places across from each other on the lawn behind Juno, Thea, and Shanna's home. Sigune stepped forward first, thrusting her lance, but Thea parried it. She leapt back, quick on her feet, and thrust again. It was closer this time, but still met with Thea's lance.

Another thrust went wide, and a fourth was again barely parried, before one of Thea's thrusts evaded her, stopping just short of her face. Still, she didn't look satisfied at all; she looked truly indignant.

"...You went easy on me again, didn't you?".

"Perhaps... You know what, Thea? Take your stance again."

Her eyes lit up. Sigune stepped back, and the two of them faced off again.

In one motion she strode forward purposefully, brought her lance to bear, and thrusted, stopping just short of Thea. She tried to react, but the outcome was already clear.

"...That's why I go easy on you, Thea. You're still just a little girl". Seeing the humiliation on Thea's face, Sigune's expression softened, and she smiled. "Well, that, and gods know what Juno would do to me if you got hurt while we were sparring. Just don't get discouraged. Keep at it and you'll be fine. You're Juno's sister after all... Just don't tell her I said that, ok?". Thea couldn't help but grin.

Thea had become a serious, strong girl in the years Sigune had known her. In some ways, she reminded her of herself when she was her age. But she was still a lonely child, too; in that, they were alike as well.

She remembered when Juno had left home, almost a year ago now. Eighteen was late for an Ilian knight to sign on for their first contract, but Juno had her obligations at home, and for Thea and Shanna, it had still been all too soon. She had stood at the foot of the short path that lead from the road to their house, watching and holding the reins of their two pegasi. Juno was standing there, Thea tugging at her tunic from the doorway.

"Don't go, Juno... Don't go... P-Please... Don't go...", she sobbed, barely loud enough for Sigune to hear. Juno knelt, patting her head, and whispered something in her ear before finally seperating herself from her. She stood, still sobbing in the doorway as Juno walked down it, reaching the end and giving Sigune a pained smile. They started walking, pegasi following dutifully behind Sigune.

"...How was it for you the first time, Sigune?", she asked. She glanced over at Juno, seeing a few tears run down her face. "Leaving home, I mean."

"...It wasn't easy. I can only imagine it hurts worse for you though. ...I can't make any promises, but if I can I'll visit them and make sure they're well, and if I can't I'm sure my mother will do what she is able". She handed Juno her pegasus' reins and clambered up onto her own mount's saddle. "I'll fly with you to Edessa. I have some business there with the guild. I'll fly back home as soon as that's done."

Juno nodded. "...Thanks, Sigune."

She had sent letters of course; one from Sacae as her company had passed south, from all over Bern and Lycia, and even one from the edge of the Nabata Desert in Missur. But still, it had been such a long time away from her sisters. She had missed Thea's tenth birthday that spring, and it seemed she might not make it home in time for Shanna's seventh either.

Sigune handed the lance back to Thea. "There's something I want you to remember. In combat, the winner is always whoever is faster... Someday, when you're older, we'll spar for real. And when that time comes I won't go easy on you."

"...Promise?", Thea asked.

"I promise", she answered, kneeling down and extending her little finger. Thea extended hers in turn, hooking it around Sigune's. Faintly in the distance, she heard a distinctive bugle call, and stood up. Thea seemed to remember it too; the homecoming call of the Ilian knights.

"Where's Shanna?", Sigune asked.

"She said was going to pick flowers up the hill. I'm going to go get her right now!". Thea had a look of joy on her face, something that she so rarely showed, as she took off running, through the garden and up the path, beaten through the small grove of trees over the years, that lead to the top of the small hill that sat behind the house. It was only a few short minutes before she returned, her younger sister in tow clutching a handful of yellow flowers.

"Auntie Sigune, Auntie Sigune!", Shanna yelled. She couldn't help but wince a bit at being called 'auntie', but when Shanna decided on a nickname or title for someone, there was little use trying to tell her otherwise. "Is it really Juno?! For Real?!".

"Well...", she started, feeling a little bit guilty for having to temper her expectations. Shanna reminded her a little of Juno when they had first met, her short hair styled the exact same way Juno's had been in those days, though Shanna was more energetic and carefree for sure. "It could be, but she didn't say for certain when she was coming home in her last letter. Whoever it is could have news or another letter from her though."

Thea dramatically rolled her eyes. "I tried to tell her that. But when she heard me say Juno's name she just wouldn't listen. You're such a child, Shanna". Shanna pouted. "You're still a kid too, Thea!".

"Am not! I'm ten years old now and I'm the one who needs to be the responsible one when Juno isn't home. Unless you're fine with starving to death!".

Sigune laughed. "Well, we'll see who's right soon enough. Come on, if it really is your sister, she won't like it if the first thing she sees as soon as she gets home is you two bickering."

Shanna dashed down the garden path, around the house and down to the road, and Sigune and Thea followed behind. Even before they got to the end of the path, they heard Shanna' shouting and cheering, and as soon as they did, Thea took off as well, and Sigune even walked a little faster, a bit more of a spring in her step. Sure enough as she stepped out past the hedges, Juno was there, reins in hand and a broad smile on her face as she saw her sisters waving to her, walking up the road with her pegasus trotting behind her.

Shanna and Thea ran up to Juno, calling her name as they did, and she knelt down, hugging both of them. Sigune smiled, walking towards them as well.

"I missed you so, so much!", Shanna shouted.

"Welcome home, Juno", Thea said. Even if her greeting was a bit more blunt than Shanna's, her tone of voice gave away how emotional she was.

"I missed both of you too... It feels so good to be back and to see you again". She patted both of them on the head, standing up.

"Been a while", Sigune said. She knew no matter how cool she tried to play it Juno would see right through her just as well as she could Thea, but still. Juno chuckled. "You haven't changed a bit, Sigune. I'm glad to see you again too."

Sigune nodded, cracking a smile again. "Yeah."

She took the pegasus' reins from Juno. "...Here, I'll take Eamonn to the stable. You have a lot of catching up to do with Shanna and Thea."

"Thank you. I appreciate it."

Juno walked towards the house, her sisters each holding one of her hands, and Sigune followed a bit behind, leading Juno’s pegasus with her to the small stable that sat next to the house and opening the gate. She patted his mane as she closed it again, grabbing a carrot from a sack sitting nearby and offering it to him.

He would be quite old for a horse — Juno had once said he had served her father’s mother before her — but for a pegasus was still firmly in his prime physically, though it was still unusual to see one so old still carrying his rider into battle. For both a rider and her mount, there would be few more dangerous occupations than being a pegasus knight of Ilia even if their employers did not so often view them as expendable.

Sigune stepped out of the stable and walked to the garden. Juno had sat down cross-legged on the grass and Thea and Shanna watched in rapt attention as she showed them a few tiny trinkets, souveneirs she had brought them from Bern and Lycia, excitedly asking her questions about them and about her travels. She leaned against the wall of the house, listening and only now and then jumping in with her own thoughts. Afternoon soon turned into evening, and by then they had moved inside, their conversation continuing over a supper of hard bread and vegetable stew, to which Thea had decided to add a small portion of their stock of salted reindeer for occasion.

It wasn't much longer before Juno put Thea and Shanna to bed, with more than the usual struggle and over their protests that they still hadn't heard enough of her stories. Juno set two cups down on the table and retrieved a bottle from a cupboard, pouring herself and Sigune glasses of cider before sitting down and taking a sip.

"So how is mercenary life treating you?", Sigune asked, swishing her glass and taking a sip herself. Juno sighed, taking another swig of her cider. "It's hard. But I've always known what I was signing up for, and the pay is decent. I'm glad I can finally support Thea and Shanna on more than the guild's survivor's benefit and odd jobs, even if it means being away from home so often. And...--", she paused, looking down into her glass and drinking from it again. "--I can't say I'm not proud to be an Ilian knight and follow in my parents' footsteps. Even if I know it's a job that got them killed."

"I think they would be proud of you too, Juno", Sigune said. "...Though if we sparred I'm sure I would still come out ahead". She smirked. Juno snorted and laughed. "Would you bet on that?".

"Of course not. I wouldn't want to take money out of your pocket."

Juno downed the rest of her cider, leaning over the table and pouring herself another glass. Sigune had also reached for the bottle, and Juno's hand brushed against hers before she pulled it back and let Juno refill her cup first. "Like I said, you haven't changed a bit. Not since we were kids, even."

"You think so?", Sigune asked, finishing off the last few sips of her own drink. "I was a little bitch back then. I suppose I still am sometimes, but I've mellowed some.--", she topped up her cup again. "--A lot of that is thanks to you, I'll be honest."

"It usually takes you more than one drink to open up, Sigune."

"Shut the fuck up."

Juno laughed again. "You know, I suppose we both grew up fast. We had to, after all. By the way... My contract was up, and I saw at the guild hall the company you're with was signing new mercenaries. The pay's a few thousand more than I was getting, so I'm planning on signing on. I guess we might be working together next time."

"Really now? Well, I would be glad to fight alongside you, just as long as you can keep up with me."

"Don't worry yourself Sigune, I promise you I won't have a problem keeping up with you", Juno replied, laying her hand over Sigune's on the table. Soon enough the two of them finished drinking, Sigune taking her leave for the night while Juno, exhausted from travel, went to bed herself. For a few weeks at least Juno would be at home between missions, and she passed the time with Sigune and her sisters, sharing more of her stories and listening intently to Thea and Shanna's, and impressing them with her attempts at replicating dishes from Bern and Lycia.

It was on one of those warm summer evenings that Sigune rapped on their front door and stepped inside, only to see Juno in the kitchen, tossing a circle of dough in the air and watching it spin. She caught it on one hand, and it kept spinning for a few moment sbefore she laid it down on a board of wood.

"Well well, that's different."

Juno looked over her shoulder at Sigune, standing against the wall with her arms crossed. "Ah, you do it to spread the dough out. It's for pizza."

"...Pizza?".

"Mhm... It's another Lycian dish". She started drizzling oil on the dough from a small glass bottle, then began laying cheese over it. "It seemed like street vendors selling it were everywhere in every city there. I ate so much of it when we went in to the cities you'd think I would've been sick of it by the time we left for home, but every vendor has their own unique way of preparing it, and that always kept it fresh for me. It's just too bad the markets here in Ilia don't have the cheeses or herbs that are more typical in Lycia, so it won't be entirely authentic."

Finished with laying out the cheese, she started scattering diced onions over the pizza and then added a pinch of a dried and chopped herb of a sort Sigune didn't recognize. She was lucky she never starved herself when her mother was away from home with her level of culinary knowledge. Juno had been a help with that too, now that she thought about it.

"Even in the biggest markets in Edessa, you can't find mozzarella cheese or fresh basil leaf, and if I hadn't bought a bottle in Caelin it would've cost a small fortune to buy olive oil. But I think it'll turn out well with pegasus milk cheese and some onions from the garden too". Satisfied with her work, she lifted the pizza and placed it in the oven. "Now, that should do it. Shouldn't take long to bake either. Oh, would you mind telling Thea and Shanna it's almost time for supper while I clean up? They were playing outside. You can stay for supper too if you'd like, be my guest."

"I'd like that. Thank you". She stepped outside, seeing Thea and Shanna chasing each other around the garden with sticks. They paused when they saw her, and Shanna took the opportunity to try and knock Thea's stick out of her hand. Even caught off guard though, she couldn't disarm her sister. "Awwww...!".

Sigune chuckled. "Come on now, Juno said supper will be ready soon."

"Mmkay!", Shanna said, dropping her stick and hopping towards the back door and into the house, followed by Thea after she laid hers down next to the wall. After just a few minutes, Juno took the pizza out of the oven, the dough baked golden brown and cheese melted over it. She laid it on her wooden board again and brought it to the table, cutting it with a knife. Thea and Shanna looked at it curiously as Juno lifted slices onto their plates; they clearly had never seen pizza before either.

"What's this?", Shanna asked, poking at it with her finger. "It's called pizza", Juno answered. "Try it, it's good. Although I'm not sure if I really captured it or not". Juno put a slice on her own plate and clasped her hands together. "O Aenir, dragon of ice, we give thanks for Your guidance and Your bounty. Please bless this meal."

Sigune took a slice of her own, blowing on it and taking a bite. She could certainly tell why Juno had become so enthusuiastic for it; between the olive oil, melted cheese, and herbs, it was outright decadent compared to Ilian food.

"...It's delicious", Thea said after taking her first bite. Shanna nodded along. "Mhm, mhm! Pizza is great!". Juno laughed. "I'm glad you like it. It's not quite the same as in Lycia but it turned out good, huh?". She took another bite. "How do you like it, Sigune?". She had already scarfed down almost an entire slice despite how hot it was fresh out of the oven, which was probably enough of an answer itself.

"...Pretty good", she said.

"Thank you", Juno replied, smiling. "I'm glad you like it too."

A few weeks later, a messenger arrived one evening from Edessa, summoning Sigune and Juno for their next contract. That night they gathered their equipment and packed salted meat and hardtack in preparation for their departure the next morning, and Juno said her goodbyes once again to Thea and Shanna.

They reached Edessa late the next night, and awoke early the morning after, assembling for their orders. Their mission would take them to Sacae; the plains were restless as of late, with old rivalries between tribes bubbling to the surface, and the company leader, Captain Rhian, had built strong relationships in Sacae that allowed her to build quite a successful enterprise off of such vendettas. In a region of northern Sacae, in the southern foothills of the towering, snowcapped mountains that lay between Ilia and the plains, a mining district, richly laden with gold and other metals, had come under dispute between local clans of the two largest Sacaean tribes.

She glanced over at Juno next her, listening intently to Captain Rhian's briefing. As far as Sigune was concerned, however, it meant little what sorts of ores were in the ground or even what tribes were party to the dispute. They were details only tangential to their job. She listened more closely as Rhian laid out their objective itself. Warriors of one of the clans had fortified the hills, and the head of their adversaries had hired extra muscle to assist in dislodging them.

They set out from Edessa late that morning. For days on end they rode, by night camping under the clear, starry skies or, on rare occasion, staying to rest at inns in the small towns they passed as they climbed into the mountains, until at last they reached the Soctian Gates, the broad mountain pass that made up the only year-round land route into the heart of Sacae, and passed out of Ilia and on to the plains. Juno stayed near her most of the time as they traveled, not knowing anyone else in the company at the start, but as they went she began to socialize with the rest of the soldiers more. Sigune envied her in a way for how easily she seemed to get along with people.

On the side of the road as they descended into Sacae, only another day's travel away from their rendevous point with their employers, as they prepared to depart from their camp outside a small village, Sigune encountered a strange man, who stuck out in her mind as they began the day's flying. She had stepped away to relieve herself and, after finishing, saw him, lighting a pipe as he leaned against one of the few scraggly trees nearby.

"...I assure you I did not mean to peep, if that was your fear", he said, evidently having noticed her look of suspicion. "I simply wanted a quiet place to smoke, as you can see". He looked weary, with brown hair to his shoulders, clothed in purple Sacaean robes. At his side was a sword, its blade slightly curved and resting in a plain leather sheath. He took a puff from his pipe. "Say... You are Ilian, are you not?".

"I am", she answered curtly. The blue hair surely stuck out here, and her armor and clothes were distinctive as well. "What of it?".

"Nothing. Just curious, I suppose."

"You're curious yourself."

He let out a raspy laugh. "Truth be told I am no longer sure what I am. Simply a traveller for now, I suppose. There was a time I walked a path more akin to yours, but... That may as well have been in another life."

"You were a mercenary?". Letting out a deep, pained sigh, he replied only after a lengthy pause. "...One could call me a mercenary of a sort."

"Then where do you travel to now?".

"They say there is place somewhere that has been forgotten by time. I am searching for it". She would almost believe the man had just gone batty. He took another puff and began to walk away. "Forgive me for giving unsolicited advice, but... Take care of yourself."

"...Advice? I can take care of myself. I'm not weak, old man."

"No, no... I can tell you are not... Though I sense you are afraid, perhaps. And, in the end, your path is is your own to discover. But... All paths of the sword lead to one place". He looked over his shoulder at her. "I wish you luck on your travels". He walked away, slowly disappearing into the distance.

"You look worried, Sigune", Juno said as she returned to the camp and they saddled their pegasi. "Is something wrong?".

"...It's nothing."

Shortly after nightfall, they reached the Kutolah encampment, smoke rising from its flickering campfires, and they set about raising their own tents as Rhian met with the clan leader. They would rise again early the next morning, starting their attack before dawn.

Sigune awoke to the loud, rumbling beat of Sacaean war drums. As she exited her tent, the sun had only just begun to return color to the sky, and the campfires had been relit to cook breakfast, the smell of roasting chevon and mutton carrying on the light breeze over the plains. She sat quietly, eating her meal of salted reindeer and hardtack and, out of the corner of her eye, saw Juno emerge from her own tent, already armored in her breastplate and pauldrons and with lance in hand.

She yawned. "Good morning, Sigune."

"Morning. You already eat?". She nodded. "Long day ahead."

"Yeah."

"You seem down", Sigune said. "...It's still hard for you, isn't it?".

"...Yeah. It is". She paused. "Have you... Gotten over it, Sigune?".

Sigune shook her head and stood up. "Of course not. Even I'm not that far gone yet, Juno. I doubt you ever 'get over it', but it is what is". She held Juno's hand. "We put our lives on the line too. Such is life for an Ilian". The conversation she'd had with the strange traveler the day before came to her mind, for whatever reason. Juno nodded. "I know. This what I have to do, for Thea and Shanna's sake if nothing else."

The tempo of the drumbeat changed, and a bugle sounded in the distance. "Come now. It's time."

Juno nodded, and Sigune gathered her equipment as she ran to get her pegasus. She followed behind her after donning her armor and taking her weapons, seeing Juno already saddled and leading her mount towards where the company was assembling as she made it to the small, lonely grove of trees where some of the mercenaries had tethered their pegasi, for lack of anywhere to properly stable them. She untied the rope and patted her steed's mane, before clambering up on to the saddle and urging him forward, following Juno again.

The porters had begun repacking the Ilians' tents and equipment, while the Kutolah warriors had also begun to gather their weapons and saddle their horses, and the army, as it were, formed columns in a field between the encampment and small stream. With the signal from the Sacaean drums and the Ilian bugles, they set out, riding northeast into the foothills. Sigune and Juno flew ahead, a few knights of their squadron having been assigned the task of scouting the enemy's positions. It was a common role for pegasus knights to play, and at times an exceptionally dangerous one, something only compounded by who they rode against; soldiers of no nation of Elibe could match a Sacaeans' prowesse with the bow, and a skilled archer given a clean shot could cut a flyer from the sky with a single arrow.

They flew onward, over solitary trees and small groves, tents and small earthen houses, the plains turning to hills. As they went deeper into the hills they saw earthworks below them, hastily dug trenches and rammed-earth walls protecting the villages and the mine entrances, and smoke rising from encampment fires. Sigune tried to judge the number of enemy warriors, counting tents and making estimates in her head.

The scouting party doubled back, seemingly little noticed by the defenders, and flew southwest to meet the rest of the army, their pegasi touching down on a hilltop where Captain Rhian and her squadron had paused to await their report.

Sigune dismounted, saluting as she stepped towards Rhian, standing beside her pegasus and looking out over the valley below them. The summer sun was descending in the sky now, but still almost directly overhead. "Captain, my report."

"Let's hear it". Rhian was a tall, imposing woman, a veteran knight visibly weary from years of fighting, with long, icey blue hair. "Yes. The defenders appear to be few in number, although they have dug rudimentary fortifications. There is a hill, around thirteen miles northeast from here, which has been most heavily fortified, with earthen walls and trenches around most of its circumference, and it appears to be the main Djute encampment."

"Alright. I will inform Hetman Batu."

"Captain! Captain Rhian!", she heard someone shouting, turning to see a young woman, looking to be barely sixteen if even, jumping from her pegasus and running up to them, almost getting her legs tangled in her stirrups as she did. She made a sloppy, hurried salute. "Captain Rhian, t-the enemy is almost upon us...!".

Rhian nodded, saddling her pegasus and yanking on her reins. It reared up, spread its wings, and leapt into the air. "Then we fly to meet them at once!". She sounded her bugle, flying down to the hill to where the Kutolah horsemen had been waiting. Sigune mounted her own pegasus, gesturing to Juno, and they rejoined the rest of their squadron. Off in the distance, she could see the approaching cavalry. Presumably, given the state of the fortifications, this was not the main force – they would likely still be behind the several miles of trenches and walls – but neither Rhian nor Batu had, it seemed, anticipated meeting the enemy so soon.

Captain Rhian rejoined them as they flew, barking orders. They were to split up, with half of their squadrons crossing the valley in a wide curve while the other half remained on its southern side, catching the approaching Djute riders in a pincer while they met the Kutolah warriors in the valley below. Sigune looked to Juno beside her as she spurred her pegasus on, the squadron flightleader leading them over the valley. Her expression was one of calm determination now, with little of her earlier worry.

They flew low, with the nap of the earth, as they made their sweep, dashing past trees and along folds in the hills to hide their approach. Orienting themselves with the sun, they raised their javelins and lances as they burst over the ridge and swept down into the valley below them, the rest of the company ahead of them and the Djutes, as planned, trapped between them while they engaged the Kutolah archers.

A scattered volley of arrows came towards them, a few making contact with with their targets, but it was clear that the enemy was outmatched in numbers and ill-prepared for the Ilians' tactic. Sigune ignored the screams and pained neighs of those who fell as much as she could and pushed the inkling of doubt from her head, allowing herself only a split-second glance to her right to see that Juno had not been brought down. She focused her mind on one thing alone, the mission at hand.

Sigune tossed a javelin and it sailed through the air, narrowly missing its mark, and brought her lance to bear as she made up the distance between her and the Djute flank. She thrust, striking a horseman and knocking him from his mount as she pulled back her lance again and dislodged it from his body. The whine of arrows and clang of steel was all around, many of the Djute warriors drawing their swords as the pegasus knights blocked their attempts to retreat.

Off to her side, she saw Juno raise her lance, facing a Djute horseman, his sword raised. She seemed to hesitate a second, and the man spurred his horse forward. Juno panicked, tugging back on her reins, her pegasus rearing up and attempting to back up as her opponent lunged forward, swinging his sword above his head. Sigune stepped in, pushing her pegasus towards them, hefting her lance and running him through.

"Juno!", she shouted, drawing back her lance. "Get a hold of yoursefl!".

"...I--". An arrow grazed her arm and she winced in pain. Another rider galloped at her, hoping to take advantage of her hesitation, but she raised her lance, pushed her pegasus forward, and thrust it, meeting her target with a clean hit to his chest.

"Good job", Sigune said.

"...Yeah. Thanks."

The Djute were all but routed, and it was short work to clean up the remnants who refused to surrender and had not managed to slip away from the battlefield. Thanks to the succesful execution of their pincer movenment, casualties among the mercenaries and the Kutolah had been light, but the valley floor had been never the less left littered with the dead and dying. Although they had little time before moving on, the Ilians took a few moments to lay those they had lost to rest in shallow graves on the hillside.

They rode on through the hills, by evening reaching the first line of earthworks. Over the next three days they fought their way through them until, at last, on the morning of the fourth day, they had reached the gates of the hill fortress. Their assault on it was the bloodiest fighting they had yet seen on their campaign, the Kutolah advancing slowly up the hill to breach each ring of fortifications, though the ability of the Ilians to strike behind the rings greatly sped their efforts and, after a day of fierce combat, the hill was seized and its garrison decimated.

It was not the end of their campaign, but from here on out their progress would be swifter and less bloody, and the clan leader, Batu, saw fit to hold a feast to celebrate the victory. Around their camp, fires were lit and the war drums sounded again, though this time to a more upbeat rhythm and accompanied by flutes. As the sun set, the Kutolah men gathered several cattle, from a herd left behind in the hills by their defeated enemy, and set about slaughtering and butchering them for the night's banquet.

When night fell, invited by one of the Kutolah soldiers, Sigune and Juno, along with a few others of their squadron, joined in the festivities, gathering in a circle around one of the bonfires, the smell of grilling beef and the sound, striking Sigune as slightly ethereal, of Sacaean music greeting them.

"Here", a man said plainly, handing them rough earthenware cups and cracking open a large ceramic bottle, filling them with a clear beverage. He went around the circle, emptying several bottles before finally filling his own cup and raising it. "Mother Earth and Father Sky, bless your children", he said, and drank from his glass. The rest of the circle drank to the toast as well, though some of their Ilian guests reacted slowly, including Juno. Sigune glanced over to her, seeing her eyes widen and her lips pucker as she finished the swig.

She leaned close to Sigune, whispering in her ear. "It's... Unique. And a bit cheesy?".

Sigune laughed. "I suppose it is unique; it's a kind of spirit called arkhi made from mare's milk. It took me some time to come to appreciate it". She downed the rest of her cup, wiping her mouth with the back of her glove and raising it to be refilled, one of the men pouring into it from yet another bottle. Juno took another sip. "I don't dislike it. I just didn't expect something so clear to taste like this."

The toast-master began taking skewers of beef from the fire, handing them around the circle, beginning with some of the older men and continuing down the social ranks. Around the middle of the process, he arrived at Sigune and Juno, offering them each a skewer of grilled beef shank, which they hungrily accepted, famished from a long day of fighting. Though tough and dry as it was, it was a welcome change from the salted venison and hardtack they had carried with them from home.

As the night wore on, the alcohol flowed freely, Sigune and Juno getting steadily more intoxicated to the point where, with the encouragment of both their squadron-mates and their Sacaean comrades, Juno began belting out old Ilian drinking songs, with even Sigune finding herself joining in. Finishing her song, Juno took an unsteady bow, almost spilling her drink and downing what remained of it as she stood up straight again, grinning at the scattered applause from the onlookers. The crowd had thinned some as people had retired for the night, including a few of their fellow mercenaries returning to their tents together. Juno staggered back to where she was standing. "I... May have drank a bit much, Sigune."

"It's a bit stronger than beer or cider."

"Yeah, it is, isn't it, I guess?".

"My, you really have had a lot haven't you?". Sigune downed the rest of her cup. "Fuck. Me too". Juno wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "Mmmaybe I should stop."

"Yeah, probably."

"Gods, Sigune--", she said, giggling. "--Even drunk you're no fun. Maybe you need some more to drink?". Sigune snorted. "You can't make me have fun."

"Are you sure I can't?". She laid one of her hands on Sigune's other shoulder. "What... Are you...?", Sigune stammered.

Juno laughed. "Wooow... I don't know if I've ever seen you flustered like this before! You're blushing."

"It's the alcohol...". That wasn't the whole truth, but it wasn't untrue. She hadn't much thought of Juno in that way before, although it was plain to see that she was a beautiful woman, but now, somehow, she felt like she had noticed something she hadn't before.

Such relationships were hardly uncommon among the Ilian knights. Perhaps it was unsurpising, given so many young women finding their way in the world often without much in the way of male company – even when fighting alongside other armies Ilian mercenaries not infrequently kept to themselves – that it was sometimes seen as almost a rite of passage, although for some, certainly, it could be a life-long commitment as well. And in practical terms perhaps it was better to satisfy such urges in a way that didn't run certain risks. A pregnant woman unable to fight would be unable to provide for her family, after all.

Sigune worried though, whether or not this was something she could do with her best friend without risking painful consequences.

"I'm going to turn in for the night", she said. "...I'll be in my tent if you want to talk more". She set her cup by the fire, with a dozen or so others left as people had trickled away from the festivities, and walked the short distance back to her tent, slipping inside and laying down.

She was a bit surprised when she heard the fabric of the tent rustle not long after she had closed her eyes. Sigune rolled over, opening them again and, sure enough, saw Juno kneeling beside her. "Sooo...--", she said, slurring her words a little. "What'd you want to 'talk' about?". She smiled and pulled the band out of her ponytail, letting her hair sweep down over her shoulders.

Sigune sat up, crawling closer. Her heart was pounding. She'd never kissed anyone before, nor been kissed in this way, and she suddenly felt anxiety over whether or not she would be good at it, even if Juno might not know the difference; she wasn't especially experienced either, at least as far as she knew. She got closer still and pressed her lips against Juno's. She could still taste the alcohol on her lips and her breath.

Juno put her arms around her again. Sigune decided, just for tonight, to listen to her gut and go with what felt right rather than let the doubts in her head get to her. They tumbled over on to each other, laying on their sides. Her head was still asking her questions – was this too far? Too fast? Was she being too rough? Was Juno feeling good? – but she ignored them all.

Juno's reaction felt like enough of an answer to assuage her. It was only a few minutes of clumsy, drunken touching before it was over, but it had felt somehow longer and more satisfying. It was an unspoken decision that they would stay the night together. Maybe, some other night, they would go further still, but for now she was content just to lay there with her.

Sigune groped around for her blanket, pulling it over both of them. Juno had already fallen asleep, quietly snoring next to her. She felt drowsy too and, curling up next to Juno, finally nodded off.

The next thing she knew, she stood under an evening sky, dyed shades of orange, red, and purple as the sun rapidly set, moving unnervingly fast towards the end of the horizon. She was alone, without even her pegasus, facing a crumbling fortress and a horde of figures, shimmering and indistinct as if seen through an intense heat-haze.

Her clothes were tattered and her armor scuffed and scarred. Her whole body felt hot. She gripped her lance so tightly she thought it might snap. The figures were approaching now, moving in unearthly ways, and she raised her weapon.

They were upon her now, but they hovered just out of reach of her, shadowy axes raised to strike a blow that did not come. But the terror she felt did not go away. It was if, any moment, they could break through whatever invisible force kept them there, and the axes would fall on her head. She lunged forward, thrusting her lance. Somehow they still did not move as she feverishly cut through them, the lance ripping them apart.

Then, suddenly, the sun disappeared all together. Darkness swept across the plains, and it enveloped the figures. As the light faded, they faded away into nothing, until only one solitary figure remained, her weapon embedded in its chest.

She pulled it back, and, this time, the figure reacted. It had taken on a more distinct form, and she could tell now it was a woman – and, indeed, tell that it was a human. The woman fell to her knees, blood flowing from the wound her lance had made. She let out a dry, raspy cough, blood trickling from her mouth. Behind Sigune, the moon rose into the sky, casting a ray of light and illuminating them. The gentle face, framed by purple hair, an expression on it more sad and resigned than angry or pained, was unmistakeable now.

Sigune awoke with start, bolting upright and throwing off the blanket. Her head was throbbing. She felt as if she couldn't breathe, and started gasping for air, her throat dry and her breath hoarse. She managed to catch her breath and started violently shaking Juno. She was vaguely aware she had been dreaming, but she didn't care. She had to be sure for herself. She had to see her and hear her voice.

It felt like forever, but at last she opened her eyes, rolling over and rubbing the sleep out of them. She looked at Sigune and propped herself up with her arm. "...What is it?", she muttered. "An attack?".

Sigune threw her arms around her. "Juno... Juno... Juno...", she sobbed quietly. "Oh gods, Juno... You're alright... Oh, thank the gods...".

"...Did you have a bad dream?", Juno asked. Her mind was coming back to its senses and her heartbeat was slowing to a less frenzied pace, and she suddenly felt incredibly embarrassed. She was an adult now, and an Ilian knight no less, and yet she was sitting here, sobbing into her best friend's chest because of a simple nightmare. She felt disgusted with herself.

"...It's ok. I wouldn't think less of you for it, Sigune", she whispered.

"I... Yeah...".

Edited by Snack

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Chapter 3: Autumn (Turn to Winter)

Mist rolled inland off the sound. There was a chill in the air now, the cold winds from the northern sea sweeping across the islands; In Ilia the first snowfall had likely already come. The large peninsula they faced, mountainous, rainy, and windswept, on the western side of Fibernia, southwest of Jutes, was, along with the mountains of Caldonia, the last stronghold in the Western Isles entirely controlled by the rebels, the rest of the islands having long since fallen to Etruria.

The weather didn't faze Sigune in the slightest. It would be treacherous flying in the thick mists, but certainly not unmanageable for a skilled pegasus knight, and her unit was nothing if not skilled; they were battle-hardened and knew the conditions in the Western Isles well by now, after having been on campaign for several months. The Etrurian commanders did not shy from sending their Ilian mercenaries on the most dangerous, hopeless missions imaginable, yet somehow they had made it through even the worst of it relatively unscathed, from the Banbha Peninsula campaign to the capture of Edina.

This too, did not faze her. Not anymore.

There had been a time, long ago, when it weighed so much more heavily on her. It had been almost ten years now, since the day she had left home for the first time. She was scared, although she could hide it from everyone but Juno. She had arrived in Edessa, just sixteen years old, the clothing and armor her mother had saved money to buy her exquisite in white and blue, and only days later set out for the plains of Sacae.

It was a simple mission. All they were tasked with doing was rooting out petty bandits from the foothills on behalf of a merchant's guild, and they had completed it in short order, with the deadly efficiency and unwavering dedication the knights of Ilia prided themselves on. But it had not been easy. As they surrounded the entrance to the thieves' den, a crumbling fortress on the plains, remnant of some long-dead empire, the bandits retaliated, arrows raining down from the parapets to cover their counterattack.

Sigune could remember everything she had felt that day, though the feelings themselves had faded even where her memory had not. The moment's hesitation as she came face to face with her foe. The fear as she saw him raise his axe. The sickness as she thrust her lance and felt it meet flesh. The guilt as she heaved on it, pulling it back and seeing his blood flow as she dislodged it from his chest.

She had cried herself dry that night, and for years after she had seen that scene replayed in her dreams, in so many different permuations. Some were so real it felt like she was reliving it all over again. Others verged into the fantastical and paranoid. That, though, was the past. Over the years since she had worn herself numb and come to accept it. Her hesitation was gone now, and she carried out her duty without remorse. War was hell and she was one of its devils. Such was life for an Ilian. There was no other option for someone like her.

They had made camp near the shores of the Fibernian Sound, at the base of the peninsula, as they prepared to embark on the next campaign. Fires were being extinguished now, and tents packed up by their porters. Soon they would fly into the mountains, ahead of Lord Arcardo's army. There were rumblings lately of a new resistance leader, hoping to galvanize support for their little rebellion, and Etruria wished to put a stop to it.

Sigune saddled her pegasus. "Where did General Zinque say the resistance haven he wanted cleared out was?".

"There's a village, not far from here up on the mountainside", her lieutenant answered. "Our scouts said there were a number of temporary dwellings around the village, and evidence of traps on the toll road leading up the ridge. According to Lord Arcardo's report the village has also not made its tax duties nor sent any laborers to the mines when it was requested of them. Without a doubt they're harboring resistance fighters."

Originally, their orders had been to directly assault the fortress that stood on that toll road, which had been commandeered by the resistance. But evidently General Zinque felt their mobility was better suited to slipping behind the lines and blocking off the possibility of relief for the defenders. She did not especially like the change of plans – killing unarmed civilians was certainly something she preferred not to do, and, ignoring any moral concerns, was a waste of her women's talent – but a contract was a contract and money was money.

That said, the term of the contract was almost up, and she'd had the opportunity to negotiate a more lucrative one in Missur for another Etrurian noble. There was no use renewing a less valuable one, least of all when she had found the lords of the Western Isles to be even less palatable than the Etrurian mainlanders. And given that the next contract would start in the spring, they would be able to return home to Ilia for the first time in many months.

"We'll set out soon", she said. "Tell the knights to prepare to fly immediately". The lieutenant saluted, sounding her bugle as she walked back to the center of the camp. Within the hour, the company was ready to depart. The lieutenant sounded her bugle again, and they set out, flying west into the mountains and the mist. They made good time despite the weather, soon climbing high enough that they were above the fog, allowing them to quicken their pace further.

They met no resistance on their flight, the rebels evidently not anticipating their maneuver. By afternoon they had arrived at the outskirts of the village, built in a shallow valley high on the mountainside where the toll road climbed towards the mountain ridge that carried it southwest. Around it were small farm plots and pastures, as well as the tents and temporary huts that had aroused the scouts' suspicion.

"Captain Sigune", her lieutenant said. "What are our orders if the villagers refuse Lord Arcardo's ultimatum?".

"Occupy the village and kill anyone armed who attempts to resist, man or woman, old or young", she answered. "Anyone of fighting age, kill them if they are armed even if they do not resist. Kill anyone unarmed who resists if they interfere with your mission. Communicate that to the rest of the company."

As she went around announcing the orders, Sigune took her bugle and sounded it, her pegasus touching his hooves down on the earth and trotting to the edge of the village. A few of the villagers had exited their houses, but it appeared most had remained inside. "You--". She pointed her lance at one man, who shrank back in fear. "--I wish to speak with your village elder. I would prefer to settle this peacefully... If possible."

"Y-Yes...", he answered, turning to go and vanishing into the center of the village. She waited for some time, her lieutenant trotting up to her on her pegasus after a while.

"...What's the holdup, Captain?".

"I'd like to know that myself", Sigune replied. "If I don't receive a response soon, we will take the village."

As if on cue, the man came back. With him now was a woman, stocky and perhaps in her late twenties, with short blueish-gray hair tied up in a bandana.

"...You wouldn't happen to be the village elder?", Sigune asked, incredulously.

"Yep, I am", she replied. "What of it?".

"You're quite young for an 'elder'."

"That don't matter. You wanted to speak to the village elder, here I am". Something seemed off, but she couldn't quite place it.

"Fair enough... This is a message from Arcardo, Lord of the Western Isles, and General Zinque of the Etrurian Army; surrender all resistance fighters you harbor, and no blood will be shed here. Furthermore, your outstanding debt to the Etrurian treasury shall be forgiven, as a peace offering. If you refuse, appropriate measures will be taken."

The 'village elder' let out a hearty laugh. "There are no fighters here. And a village as poor as ours has no money to pay taxes. You must be seeking some place else."

"There are dozens of temporary dwellings here. Do they belong to the villagers? Furthermore, my scouts saw evidence of traps placed along the toll road. What do you have to say about that?". The 'elder' looked annoyed.

"There is a war in the isles. We have many here who have fled the fighting. As for traps, I wouldn't know. Perhaps the Etrurians themselves laid them? Who can say?". Sigune was getting more and more frustrated. "Accept these terms or I will have no choice but to root out the resistance myself."

"I don't see how I can help you. There's no resistance here". Sigune thought she saw a smirk on her face. It was clear they weren't going to get anywhere. "Suit yourself, then", she repiled.

"I will". She saw the almost-smirk again. Pulling on her reins, she led her pegasus back to where the rest of the company was waiting, her lieutenant hurriedly following behind her. "Strike at once."

She blew her bugle, and they moved in to the village. At first, there seemed to be no reaction at all from its inhabitants, save for smoke from a small fire rising from the village square. It almost seemed like there was no resistance haven here after all. "Start searching the houses--", she said. "--...But do not attack anyone in them unless you are attacked first."

"...Captain Sigune, look!", she heard a shout from her right. She glanced over, seeing one of her soldiers pointing at the hillside. A number of people, had taken up positions on it. It was clear to see, even from this distance, that they were armed, mainly with axes and bows, and, glancing to her left, she saw more of them on the opposite side of the valley. Neither group carried any banners or standards, and they appeared to be a rather ragtag band for Etrurian soldiers. Between that and the smoke signal, she pieced it together.

"An ambush. Of course", she said calmly. "How crafty of them, signing their own death warrants."

She sounded a bugle call, and her knights raised their lances. "Leave none alive!". The thought crossed her mind how her order could be interpreted. She did not choose to add any qualifications to it. She had already outlined the mission's parameters, and any unfortunate actions that fell outside them could be addressed at a more appropriate time. Her women's safety and the completion of their contract were more important to her right now.

The resistance fighters began their charge down the valley, with more dashing out of houses, including the supposed village elder, now wielding an axe herself. It appeared that the rebels were attempting to cover the evacuation of the remaining resident as well, with dozens of unarmed villagers filing out of their houses and making for the hills.

Barking further orders, she spurred her pegasus on, leading one third of the company into the village while the rest stood their ground against the rebels ambushing them from the hillsides. In the alley she was faced with a group of five rebels ushering a group of villagers out. They were young, appearing to only be in their mid teens, and clearly poorly trained and equipped, with only simple axes and leather armor.

Two ran as she pushed forward again, shouting at their charges to run as well. The next two she made short work of, with thrusts of her lance piercing their leather breastplates with little difficulty, while the last of them attempted to hook the lance's shaft with the beard of his axe, but missed his swing. She thrust again, and he fell too.

She heard a blood-curdling scream. Looking ahead, Sigune saw a young girl, one of the villagers the boys had been evacuating, who had turned back to glance at scene in the alley. She was perhaps thirteen years old at most. She screamed for her brother again, presumably one of the rebels she had just finished dispatching.

An older women attempted to grab her, shouting at her to stop and to not look back as she slipped from her grasp and ran towards Sigune. She took her brother's axe from the ground, holding it shakily and making it clear that she was far from a trained fighter; she seemed to struggle a bit with its weight, looking like she would have trouble swinging it all let alone with any accuracy or force. The girl stared at her, a look of half terror and half loathing in her eyes.

"...You heard your mother, didn't you? Leave this place."

The girl shuddered at her words, gripping the axe's shaft tighter. "......Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!", she screeched and cried, charging at Sigune with unsteady steps, axe held clumsily aloft. She was probably more likely to hurt herself than she was to seriously wound her, if not more. But she had been given fair warning. Sigune raised her lance again, her pegasus stepping forward, leaping into the air with a beat of his wings as she thrust it. For a split second she considered batting the axe out of the girl's hands instead. She did not.

For a moment it occured to her she hoped the girl's mother had at least turned away before the killing blow. She didn't look to see whether she had or had not.

Within two hours, no one, besides her knights, was left alive in the village. They had taken light casualties in the fighting, certainly, but it could scarcely be called anything other than a slaughter. The alleys and paths were littered with corpses, most of them of the resistance fighters, but more than a few of them had, clearly enough, been noncombatants. At first. Sigune trusted her soldiers enough not to second-guess whether or not they had been justified in who they treated as resisters. And yet, a large part of the resistance force had slipped through the cracks, including the woman who seemed to be their commander, the alleged village elder from earlier.

With the village pacified, she had sent a courier to report back to the Etrurian commanders, and soon enough received word back. The Etrurian army had already marched part way up the toll road, and they would assault the fortress that night. Cut off from the hinterland and attacked from both sides, it fell quickly.

And with that, the last major engagement of the campaign was over, the last few days of their contract term passing with little event besides the typical downtime pub-crawling and fucking while Sigune negotiated for a ship willing to take them as far as Remi. It would be greatly preferable over returning home via Etruria proper; the war in the Western Isles was increasingly unpopular with the Etrurian people, and Ilians were disliked in most corners of Elibe even in the best of times. She would just as well avoid the rotten eggs and the slurs of 'vulture' and 'Ilian whore' they had been met with as they departed Aquleia for the Western Isles, if given the option.

Though it took longer than she would've liked, she eventually found a captain in Jutes who would brave the unpredictable late autumn seas in the north, and they at last departed the Western Isles, the wind at their backs as their ship made for Ilia. The wind howled through the rigging as they rounded the tip of Fibernia. As they pressed on, the ship rocked and heaved on white-capped waves, and snow fell on the decks off the northern coast of Etruria and as they sailed through their last night at sea, so close to home now.

That morning, as they arrived in port at Remi, the storm had stopped, leaving the roofs and streets of the town dusted with snow as they stepped foot on Ilian soil once again. It was still a long way to Edessa, the seat of the knights of Ilia. They flew on for days on end as winter fell over the north, their numbers thinning some as a few took their leave from the company to return to homes in the countryside.

Upon finally reaching Edessa, Sigune was left with the thankless task of filing the requisite records of their contract with the mercenary guild. Already tired from travel, by the time she had finished the work she found herself famished and in dire need of a good drink. As she stepped outside the guild hall on to the snow-covered streets, the night sky pitch black with clouds and snow still falling from it, she heard an unexpected but familiar voice.

"Sigune? Is that you?". She turned, and sure, enough, saw Juno standing there. "Gods, it's been so long, Sigune. More than three years already, right?".

"Yeah", she answered. "It has."

At Sigune's invitation, Juno joined her at the pub not far from the guild hall. The room was packed that night with a boisterous crowd, many of them returning mercenaries as well, and they found a small table in a far corner to sit after buying their pasties and drinks, a pint of cider for Juno while she asked for a small bottle of whiskey.

"Stronger stuff than usual for you", Juno said as they settled in, taking a sip of her cider. Sigune filled her glass and took a swig. "I suppose. Well, I suppose my tastes have changed some... So, how has life been treating you?".

"Better than I would have expected", she said, swallowing a bite of pasty and smiling a little. "It was a hard choice to make, but I ended up retiring earlier this year."

"What? Really?". She nodded. "But by now you would've been well on your way to becoming commander of the knights in a few years."

She nodded again. "Oh, I know. I was so conflicted about it, but... If I could help it, Thea and Shanna shouldn't have to worry about their big sister going off to war and never coming home. Especially not when they're almost of the age to leave home and become knights themselves. And besides--", she smiled again. "I met a man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Certainly, of all people I don't want to be dependent on a man or anyone else, but, also... We want to have a child together, and I could never bear to leave a son or daughter behind without their mother or their father like I was. Not if I could ever help it."

Sigune wasn't sure how to feel. Juno was still her best friend, and she desperately wished she could be happy for her. But there was a bit of jealousy there too. Jealousy that she found a way, any way, out of the hell that they had both lived in for their entire adult lives. Jealousy that she found someone who she truly wanted to spend a lifetime with and who felt the same way about her. And perhaps, as a faint flash appeared in her mind of a night spent together on the plains long ago, a bit of jealousy for the man who stole her heart like that. There was a part of her that seethed.

"Well well... Who's the lucky man, then?". Juno suddenly looked a little embarrassed. "Oh, this is going to sound crazy but... The Lord of Edessa, Zelots."

She did a double take, almost spitting out her mouthful of whiskey. Somehow, something about this made her seethe even more. "Well, tell me more", she answered, still incredulous.

"Ah, well, we actually first met in Etruria... We were both leading mercenary squadrons there on opposing sides, but he came to me before the battle to try and negotiate a ceasefire. I'm not sure I'd never met someone like that before, an enemy commander who, not even knowing at first what their employer would think of it, came and tried to settle things peacefully just because he wanted to avoid bloodshed on either side. And somehow... He really did it. He talked the two nobles who had a dispute into reaching a settlement without fighting". She paused, taking another sip of cider. "And, well, I guess eventually he talked his way into my heart too. And we got married this summer."

Perhaps it was the alcohol softening her up – even now, as hardened as she had become, she was more emotional after a drink or two – but it was harder for her to be angry after that. How she talked about him, he seemed like a wonderful man, absolutely someone who Juno deserved far more than she did. And someone who deserved Juno far, far more than she ever could have in a whole lifetime.

"...Congratulations, Juno", she said. "I wish I could've been there... It must have been a wonderful wedding."

"Oh, please don't worry yourself so much Sigune. It was really nothing extravagent."

They finished their food, and Juno finished her cider, buying another pint from the counter and sitting back down to continue their conversation. Eventually, Juno paused for a moment. "Sigune", she started again. "After I left the Rhian's Goshawks, where did you end up? I know you were thinking of finding a new company as well, or starting one of your own someday, so...--", she paused again. "--Did you hear of what happened to Captain Rhi--".

"I...", she interrupted her. "I was there at Caelin. I saw her fall."

"Oh...", Juno said. "I'm sorry if I--".

"No, of course not. It's the way of things in this life". It was a little over two years ago now, the last time she had flown with their old company. A dispute over the succession to the throne of Caelin, which had been left to House Ostia after the death of its marquess and the return of the heir-apparent to the Sacaean plains of her birth. But House Kathelet had claimed a right to the title by blood, and the flames of war soon loomed on the horizon. There were many in Lycia's smaller marches who resented Ostia, after all.

The Rhian's Goshawks had taken the contract offered by the Marquess of Kathelet, and flew under their banner. But, though the Caelinese army was weak, it became clear that Ostia would fight for its claim, and that their erstwhile ally Pherae would back them. The heir-apparent had been a good friend of the Marquesses Hector and Eliwood, after all.

The Ostian and Pheraean armies had marched to Caelin faster than they had anticipated, and the battle of the Enza River that ensued had been a bloodbath. One that she made it through only by the skin of her teeth, and one that had left most of her company dead, including Rhian herself, cut down by a Pheraean sniper's arrow. She had been left the most senior officer of the company alive, and it fell to her to pick up the few shattered pieces that remained.

"Say, Sigune...", she started. "Forgive me for asking this if it's too probing, but... Do you still have those nightmares?".

"No", she replied bluntly.

"...I see."

Their conversation continued, though in a more somber tone after that, for hours as the crowd in the pub slowly thinned out, the whiskey in Sigune's bottle grew lower, and Juno made her way through a third pint, this time a lager, until eventually they were among the last half dozen patrons still sitting around the nearly empty room and the whiskey bottle was almost empty.

"Heyy, say, Sigune", Juno said, her speech just a little slurred. "Tomorrow I was goin' home to the village to see Thea and Shanna... And I wanted to make the pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Ninis. If you were staying in Ilia for a few weeks I would love if you'd come with me... I'm sure Thea and Shanna would appreciate it as well."

Sigune nodded, drunkenly mumbling an answer to her. The next morning, in spite of her splitting hangover headache, she set out with Juno southwest on the road to the village where they had grown up together.

It was a few days later that they arrived. It was an icey cold day, the air crystal clear and the countryside blanketed in the snow that had fallen the night before. In all the years since she had been born there, the village had changed little. For all the violence that was inseparable from the Ilian way of life, it was a peaceful, quiet place, and it felt almost as if it was forgotten by time. A half-formed memory from long ago came to her thinking about it, but she could no longer place it.

It wasn't much longer before they were at the front door of Juno's childhood home, and she rapped on the door. It swung open, and Shanna stood in the doorway. Her face lit up in a wide smile, and she put her arms around her older sister. She was still a bit shorter than Juno, but she had grown so much since the last time Sigune had seen her.

"Juno! Oh Juno, I'm so glad to see you! It's been forever!".

"My my, Shanna, it's only been a few months", Juno replied. "Although I suppose you and Thea have been alone. By the way, where is she?".

"Oh, she was out flying today. She should be home i--". Shanna looked past Juno's shoulder at Sigune. "Oh. My. Gods! Is that really you Aunti-- Uh, I mean, Sigune...?!". Juno stepped aside to let Shanna by, and she dashed up to Sigune.

"That it is", she answered, smiling although she may have had to force it a little. It was good to see Shanna again after all those years, though. And she had even stopped using the nickname that had driven her crazy when she was younger, sort of. Although by now 'Auntie Sigune' would be almost apt. "My, you've grown so much... How old are you now?".

"I'm thirteen years old!", she said, beaming proudly. Honestly, she realized, she would have had to force herself not to smile. Shanna had an energy that was infectous, even for an old soul like her, weary beyond her nearly twenty-six years. Faintly, she heard the beating of a pegasus' wings. The three of them all glanced up at the sky as Thea landed, her steed blowing snow around as it touched its hooves down on the road. She lept from the saddle, whispering a few words in its ear, and walked briskly towards them, a small smile on her usually serious and severe face.

"Welcome home, Juno!", she said, a bit more energy to her greeting than was typical for her. "...And Sigune! It's been a long time, hasn't it?".

"Yep", she answered. "It looks like you're well on your way to becoming a knight yourself. You've been training hard, haven't you?".

"Of course I have. And thank you. In fact, I'll be leaving home for the first time in the spring, as long as I can pass my examination."

"About that, Thea...", Juno said. She produced a scroll from her pack and handed it to her. "From the commander of the knights and the mercenary guild."

Her eyes went a little wide as she carefully took the scroll, and even wider as she unrolled and read it. She had a bigger smile on her face than Sigune had ever seen, even when she was just a small child. Thea threw her arms around Juno, a few tears running down her cheeks. She wasn't sure she had ever seen Thea cry since the day she learned her parents had passed away. Juno wrapped her arms around her shoulders and patted her head. "Congratulations, Thea."

"...Usually you get self-conscious when I pat your head like this", she added, a bit of a teasing tone in her voice.

"...I don't care. Even if you're going to tease me like that I don't care". She broke off the hug. "You taught me so much, Juno... Thank you."

"Hey, so are you gonna stay a while or what Juno?", Shanna asked. Juno shook her head. "Not today I'm afraid. We'll only be staying today and tonight; we leave for Mount Ninis in the morning. But when I'm back from the pilgrimage I'll stay a week or two before I go back to Edessa, I promise."

The evening the four of them spent together was one that wouldn't have seemed out of place at all five years ago either, perhaps save only that now Juno allowed, with her supervision, Thea to share a glass of cider with her and Sigune after Shanna had finally been corralled into bed. But for Sigune now, it felt like a dizzying pastiche of that time, a time that seemed much further away in time than it truly was and that felt like something that could never be again, all of the emotions of those days lost or warped into something unrecognizable. She was almost relieved when it ended and the three of them – or four, rather, as Shanna had predictably returned from her bed no matter what Juno and Thea said to her – finally turned in for the night.

Early the next morning, well before dawn, her and Juno set out for Ninis, the ice dragon's mountain, still more than two days' travel away. The mountains loomned, mist-covered and forbidding, in the distance as the sun rose, revealing the brilliant white of the countryside around them.

On the third day, leaving the old inn on Aenir's Way, the age-old pilgrimage route to the foot of the mountain, after their ample breakfast, Mount Ninis rose impossibly high ahead of them. They left their pegasi in the care of the stables at the base and began the long ascent up the northern face. The trail wound its way through the boreal forest, quickly thinning out into steep fields of boulders and krummholz as they climbed, and then into barren snow and ice that soon forced them to use their ice-axes to assist their ascent.

There were scarcely any other pilgrims on the trail. Winter was the holy season, when, legend told, some two thousand years ago the first human settlers of Ilia began to starve and descend into madness before the ice dragon Aenir taught them how to hunt reindeer in their mottled, white and brown winter coats, to crack holes in the ice to catch fish, and to dig edible mosses and lichens from the snow, but few braved the unpredictable weather and bone-chilling cold to visit her altar past early autumn or before the spring came. Even on her winter feast days, the streams of pilgrims contented themselves with laying offerings at the temples around the mountain's base.

They were lucky at least that today's weather was as good for climbing as they could have possibly hoped for.

The sun began to set once more and the sky grew dim as Sigune and Juno ate their lunch at a bivouac high on the slope, shades of warm purple, pink, and orange cast across the cold taiga far below them. They pressed on still as night fell, one of the few fellow pilgrims helping guide them with the light of his spelltome.

It was night by the time they reached the summit, where Aenir's temple sat, the polar lights flickering emerald green in the sky above them, and they laid out a traditional pilgrim's meal of moss-bread, smoked smelts, and aged pegasus milk cheese, leaving a portion of each on her stone altar before Juno said a quick prayer and they began to eat

"Somehow...", Juno said. "I really feel at peace up here. Even with the wind and the cold and everything. It's as if you you can feel Her presence here, even though...". She trailed off. Not for a thousand years had anyone glimsped the ice dragon herself, since she went far away to lands unknown amid the Scouring. An absent goddess for her harsh country and wayward people.

Sigune almost thought she could fell it too, though she had never before known peace in her life to compare it too.

"...Yeah. Yeah", she replied. She quietly ate her last piece of bread, glancing out over the land below, shrouded in darkness besides the faint illumination of the moon and the northern lights.

"Maybe, just maybe, some day, whether it's in ten years or ten thousand, there will be a time when... No, that's... I don't know."

"What is it?", Sigune asked.

"Well", Juno started. "I just... Wondered if someday She will return to us again, some day when humans and dragons can live together in peace. If such a day would ever come."

"...Humans can't even live together with each other". Juno nodded sadly. "I suppose so."

"Well, though... Perhaps it's good that some people still have dreams". Left unsaid was that she was among those many who had lost them.

They sat there for a long while, simply taking in the views from the summit and feeling the strange energy the place had. After some time, without words, they stood up and began walking, the aurora borealis lighting their way as they descended back to the surface, where time still moved.

______________________________

The sky was gray with clouds, and it looked as if it could start raining at any moment. Sigune sat atop her pegasus at the edge of a bluff, and below her the borderlands of Caelin stretched out, farm fields and scattered groves of trees where two rivers met. To their right, descending the shallower hillside to the west, went the knights of Kathelet. And across the plain, Caelin's army marched towards them.

Captain Rhian drew her saber from its sheath, holding it aloft, and sounded her bugle. And with that they flew, charging down the bluff to meet their enemy at the river crossing. They crossed the plain in a blur, reaching the river and overflying it, the company splitting in two and crashing into the Caelinese flanks as they were forced by the bridges to form a narrow column. Steel lances clashed against each other as they smashed gaps in their formation, the infantrymen all but descending into panic as they were beset by the Ilians. The Kathelet cavalry had now almost reached the enemy lines as well.

Far off in the distance, the bugle call was returned. On the southern horizon, an impossibly large force loomed, seeming to stretch as far as the eye could see. The cavaliers and mages of Ostia proper and the bowmen of Pherae. In an instant the wave seemed to be upon them. A hail of arrows came, so thick they almost blotted out the sky, and the woods burned and lighting flashed from the sky.

At first she no longer recognized this feeling of abject terror, a feeling as if in that in that moment you hung to life by a thin, unravelling string whose decay could no longer be stopped or slowed. All around her, she saw her comrades fall, their bodies and those of their pegasi littered with arrows or being set ablaze by the fireballs that sailed into the air. She felt the heat, singeing her clothes, as she flew on, desperately swinging her lance though no matter how many soldiers she fell it seemed as if there was no end to them.

In what felt like seconds, she was surrounded and almost alone. Only Captain Rhian remained by her side now. The archers raised their bows and drew their strings taut, and before she could react, they loosed their arrows.

She couldn't even count how many arrows had embedded themselves in Rhian's body as her pegasus neighed in pain, several more arrows having struck its flank, and she fell from it. As suddenly as they came, the armies had vanished now, and she was left all alone in the mud churned up by boots and hooves by the banks of the river. As she looked away from the lifeless body of her commander and up at the gray sky, the clouds parted, and the afternoon sunlight bathed her face.

Sigune's eyes flew open. She had become entangled in her dishevelled linen sheets from having tossed and turned in her sleep, her heart racing and her breath short. The morning light streamed in through the windows of her bedchamber. She felt strangely unsettled as the memory of her dream faded away.

Untangling her sheets, she rose from her bed, slipping off her nightgown and tossing it aside, pulling on a blue tunic, blue cloak, and high boots, wrapping a cloak around her shoulders. She made her way to the officer's mess, finding it quiet, Lieutenant Eira being one of the few others here for breakfast this late in the morning.

"Captain Sigune, good morning", she said, flashing a salute and going back to eating her oat pancakes and bacon. One of the castle servants brought around a similar plate for her, and she took a few bites of one of the pancakes, although her mind and appetite were both elsewhere.

"We received word via a courier last night that Castle Tymphi fell... It won't be much longer before the Etrurian Army is here in Carrhae too", Eira continued. She paused. "...Are you alright, Captain?".

"Did you say something? I didn't catch it, I'm sorry."

"Oh, no, it's fine Captain really. I just wondered if you were feeling well since you seem... Distant this morning."

Sigune took a bite of bacon. "It's nothing. Just thinking about an old dream."

______________________________

Having said her piece to Thea, her breath left her.

Sigune closed her eyes, and felt herself slipping, both mentally into a dream-like state, and physically from her saddle. She saw flashes of things she regretted, and of things she never knew she regretted until now, when there was no time left to change even those that could have been changed. She let go of her reins, slumping over, her feet falling from the strirrups, and finally toppled from the saddle into the air. She heard her pegasus whinny and sensed him turn his body in the air, trying to keep her on his back as she slipped away.

It was hard to tell, given her state of mind, how long she fell for, but all too soon she felt the sudden shock as she hit the earth, cold snow soothing her pain and her wounds as she fell asleep.

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Postscript: Winter (Thea)

Thea walked, aimlessly and a bit unsteady, down one of the corridors of Castle Carrhae. She tried as hard as she could not to think about anything. Clearing her mind was the only way she was going to get any sleep. She had been so exhausted after the battle, but none the less it quickly became apparent that this one of those nights where she would want to put off sleep as long as she could, desperate for any sort of distraction from her idle thoughts.

She leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. She saw it again when she did, Sigune smiling at her, telling her Juno must be proud of her, as she bled out. She felt doubly guilty for how much more Sigune had affected her; at least four others had met their end at the tip of her lance that night, all of them certainly with families and friends of their own. When she thought about it she realized that, in just a few years as a mercenary, she already killed more people than she could count. Such was life for an Ilian.

She thought about what the second to last thing Sigune had said to her, and she wondered if she was already as dead inside as Sigune had been.

"Thea?". She opened her eyes. "Oh, General Klein, it's you."

"You look tired... I hope you don't feel like you still need to be on watch for my sake."

"Oh, n-no, I just... Can't sleep."

Klein rested his arms on the sill of a window and peered out. The snow had stopped hours ago, and now the sun had just barely begun to color the horizon. "I heard you defeated the enemy commander in battle. Apparently she had quite a fierce reputation; some of the villagers called her the 'Ivory Devil'."

"...Yeah". He turned his head to look at her again. "Is something wrong?".

"No, no... It's fine--", he kept looking at her, a concerned expression on his face. "--...Please stop looking at me like that, General Klein. It's just... She was someone I knew, a bit. But that's in the past... So, it's fine... Really, I'm--". Klein laid his hand on her shoulder. "It's alright, Thea. I would not think less of you for grieving if you need to."

She felt a tear well up, and wiped it away. "Sigune was... Close with my older sister. They were friends... Or, well, sort of--", she sniffled. "They were always trying to outdo eachother, but they really did care about each other... And after our parents died, she was one of the only people in the world Juno could rely on, so she... Become almost like a sister to us as well. And, I... Oh, General Klein, I...".

"...I never knew about your parents. I'm sorry". Klein wrapped his arm around her. "And... I know exactly how you feel. So many of the Etrurian court who supported Bern, I knew them so well. It hurt me to see, let alone when it became necessary to fight them."

Thea rested her head on his chest, tears streaking down her face. "This... T-This isn't appropriate. You're still technically my superior officer, so--". He held her tighter. "Really, Thea, it's alright. Besides, I haven't been your commanding officer since we joined General Roy". She closed her eyes and wiped some of the tears away. "I... I guess... Thank you, General Klein."

He nodded. "We can stay here as long as you need."

______________________________

And that's it I guess.

There's some stuff I thought came across awkward (starting at the end of the story chronologically, that because of how I structured the story as well as me not knowing how to write character development Sigune's actions in chapter 3 might've been jarring, the cameos of two other FE6 characters, the postscript since it changes perspective after 18,000+ words of one viewpoint character) and some I thought came across as kind of, for lack of a better word, problematic (the context around the sex scene – it's barely a sex scene with how I edited it down but you get the point – gives the story sort of an undertone of tired tropes about killing off gay characters and situational sexual behavior), but, on the whole I think it came out alright. I hope if you got through the whole thing you enjoyed it.

Edited by Snack

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