No Army at My Back
Author's note: For Florian and Justin. Merci.
In a dark wood paved with snow living all alone
I forgot long ago what I'm looking for ...
Sunrise burns my fortress down crumbling to the ground
I found my arrow my lightning spark buried in my heart
No hounds to guide me no army at my back
I'm gonna stand up
firecracker lightning seed it was always in me
this is how
you made my heart a hunter
The inn was overcrowded but Flik was in no mood to be particular, stumbling in out of the rainstorm and into the stuffy firelight, a burning pain along his ribcage and a decidedly hollow place in his middle. He stood a moment, blinking and dripping, trying to make his eyes adjust from the lightning flares and darkness outside to the comfortable dim glow of the common room. He wasn't permitted the luxury; a portly trader looking for his evening tankard of stout blustered at him to make way and not stand about like an idle lunatic gawping at a fair. Flik gave ground without much thought. Finally, the trader and his indignation passed, Flik shook himself, winced, and with his arm curled protectively around his side, was jostled in the general direction of the fire. Only one rough wood bench was empty, well into the shadows beyond the hearth, fusty and cold. Flik sank down on it more by pained insistence of his limbs than by any active decision on his part.
He intended, on all honor, to make his presence known to the innkeep, but over the sea of heads and the low dim cloud of pipe smoke he could not distinguish one patron from the other, much less identify the proprietor of the establishment. His vision blurred, doubled; he hissed behind his teeth and pressed his hand against his side. His glove came away slick red, and sticky. Flik closed his eyes.
He did not bother to open them when the benches to his right -- closer to the hearthfire-- traded owners, scraping against the wood floor as two people made themselves as comfortable as possible on the wobbly furnishings. There was much shedding of cloaks, a murmur of disgruntled swearing, and stamping boots to get the mud off. Someone bellowed for ale.
Flik, at that particular moment, was much more preoccupied with perfecting the fine art of breathing without actually moving his chest. The layers of conversation muted into a ringing blur in his ears; but these latest arrivals, once seated, were too close for even his exhausted brain to tune out.
"How many times are we going to go through this, Odessa?" This was a man's voice, rough and not inclined to niceties, the same one that had called for tankards. "I've told you before to just--"
"I have no inclination to discuss this, Viktor." This was a woman-- Odessa, Flik presumed-- and though her tones were even and cultured, there was an edge of authority. It was the voice of a woman used to being obeyed, and not by curtseying maidservants. "Not now."
Flik was intrigued, in spite of both himself and the throbbing pain in his side. He opened one eye.
He saw the Lady Odessa first, framed in perfect profile against the firelight, rainwater dripping from her hair. From the sound of her voice he would have thought her to be much older, or at least thicker of build, but she was a shivering slip of a girl, curled in on herself, ineffectively wringing out the hem of her cloak. Strands of wet hair clung to her pale cheeks. Her face was delicate of feature, almost dreamy, and red from cold and wind. She was indescribably lovely. Flik felt his breath hitch, and not because of the wound in his side.
Her companion, Flik realized, was easy to miss for obvious reasons-- one naturally assumed he was part of the architecture. His arms were tanned and bare, even in midwinter, for surely no shirt had sleeves to accommodate them with any measure of comfort for either party, garment or man. A network of scars of varying age and severity made a strangely intriguing pattern over hard curves of muscle. His face was broad-featured, amicably rugged, and mostly unmarked save for a small scar in the cleft of his chin, and a smaller one that broke his eyebrow. His nose, previously broken, still managed to make it down his face without taking too severe of a detour.
Infantry, Flik thought, eyeing the scars and weighing odds on the man in a fight. Or mercenary. Probably both.
"Here," Viktor said, taking Odessa's cloak from her unconsciously aristocratic hands and twisting it harder. Rainwater seeped out of his thick fingers, hissing as it spattered on the hot hearthstone. She sighed, but let him do it, folding her arms on her knees and staring into the fire as if the splintering logs held the answer to some cosmic riddle.
Flik was momentarily compelled to offer his own cape for her troubled shoulders, but it was threadbare and wetter by far than the one she had discarded. His body begged stillness and Flik, by location, was obliged to listen.
"You really needn't bother," Odessa was saying. "It will only get drenched again."
"No it won't." Viktor shook out the damp wool, and deposited it into Odessa's lap. "You're not going back out there again." He sprawled next to her on the bench, feet towards the fire. "Not while I'm standing."
"You're not," she reminded him, tartly, and fidgeted with her earring. It flashed gold in the firelight, and Flik blinked back multiple vision.
"I'd stop you all the same," Viktor answered her easily, and called out a none-too-friendly reminder to the barkeep that his customers were still wet and wanting for their ale. "You're worth nothing to Humphrey, or to me, or to anyone else, if you're dead. Remember that."
Odessa went sullenly silent, and Viktor was more interested in his newly arrived tankard.
Flik's nerves were singing, and not for the reason that had ridden with him in the saddle for the past ten miles, courtesy of a salamander's claws. The better part of valor had served him then; the long burning wounds along his ribs were earned in judicious retreat. No thought of withdrawal even entered into his mind, now. He did not fully understand the situation, but the stranger's callous treatment of the girl rankled him, and his suspicions as to the depth of her maltreatment grew with every word he heard. He fingered the blue-gem hilt of his unnamed sword, and waited.
"It's been too long already," Odessa stood, and tugged on her gloves. "I'm going."
Viktor snorted into his ale, and made no move to stop her. "Humphrey's dead if you get caught."
"Humphrey," Odessa returned, "might be dead already."
Viktor actually looked up at her then. "Well then," he said, "No point getting wet again, then, eh?" He took a swill from his mug. "Humphrey's a big lad. He can look after himself."
"I don't need your permission," Odessa said, and turned on her heel.
"Oh no you don't," Viktor growled, lumbering to his feet like a bear roused unhappily out of hibernation. He made a grab for Odessa's slim arm, and Flik, coiled like a dwarvish clockwork, sprung.
"My apologies, for intruding," Flik said, tilting his head slightly to acknowledge Odessa, his eyes still on Viktor in spite of the alarming difference in their heights. "But am I correct in assuming that this churlish lout is refusing to offer you even the meanest assistance in your dilemma?"
Viktor stared, momentarily baffled, at the severed tankard handle he held. The rest of the wooden cup was rolling slightly on the floor, ale spattered in a wide arc. It did not escape Viktor's notice that it could easily have been his hand and his wrist to have that sudden distinction. Flik held his sword with a dangerous sort of casualness, lightly in one gloved hand. The noisy inn had gone quiet.
Odessa, blinking, said at last, "...What?"
Flik's boots scraped on the floor. He granted her half a glance, unwilling to leave her erstwhile antagonist unguarded. "I could not help but overhear that a companion of yours would seem to be in peril. This knave refused to offer you his aid, and would even send you out into the night alone on a hazardous errand." Flik put a hand to his chest. "Permit me, if you will, to go and find him for you. I will agree with this man only in that it would not be fitting for a lady to ride out alone on a night such as this."
"Oh my god," Viktor said slowly, amazed. "Are you for real?"
"You will be silent!" Flik said, and, with his attention diverted, he failed utterly to see Odessa's baffled grin and shrug at Viktor. "I have endured your insults to the lady merely to divine your intent, I will not suffer her to have her treated rudely by you again. Nor will I hesitate to indulge you with the full extent of my--"
"Pardon me," Odessa said, tapping Flik lightly on the shoulder. "I appreciate it, handsome, really, but it's not necessary. I can manage my own churlish louts, thank you."
Flik didn't bat an eyelash. In her eyes he saw at last the strength of her voice, steely grey and unrepentant, wise beyond years or stature. Flik's arm held firm; his heart trembled. The pain in his side was forgotten. "I assure you, my lady, you needn't defend him for your sake. I'll see to it he does not do you injury again, and will pay dearly for any harm in the past."
Viktor tossed his mug handle away. "You are for real. What rock did you crawl out from under?"
Flik's sword flashed upwards. "My name is Flik, and in the Warrior's Village we don't treat our women like packhorses."
Odessa laughed, the giggles helplessly bubbling up out of her. "There, you see, Viktor! Chivalry is not dead."
"No," Viktor grumbled, "But it's damn well gonna be if it keeps mouthing off like an idiot. And point that thing somewhere else, kid." Viktor nodded to the sword hovering unpleasantly close to his collarbone.
Flik bristled visibly.
Viktor spread his hands. "Look, this isn't the time or the place, and you are, if you'll pardon the term, talking through your arse, here, Flash."
Odessa interceded, delicately, between the two men before violence could erupt. "It's really very sweet of you," she assured Flik. "But really, Viktor is an old friend."
Flik was deeply dubious, but the code drummed into him since birth would not permit him to go against a lady's will, even as ill advised as Odessa's seemed. The energy seemed to seep out of him. "As you wish," he murmured, sheathing his sword. The inn patrons, now that the immediate prospect of bloodshed had passed, went back to their tankards.
"I shall be at your disposal at any time if you have any need of me, Lady," Flik said. He glared at Viktor with more confusion than animosity, as if there was more than one of him, bowed gracefully to Odessa, took a half step back, and passed out cold at her feet.
"That," Viktor said, as Odessa stared at the limp pile of blue cape and tousled hair, "is the damnedest thing I've ever seen."
Flik, to his own surprise, woke up in a warm dry chamber with sunlight and clean sheets for bedfellows. His sword hung on the far bedpost; his ribs itched. He rolled over, not quite awake, and scratched idly in that direction. His fingers discovered bandages, wrapped expertly around his middle, and precious little else. Someone laughed.
"I couldn't exactly let you bleed to death on my boots, now could I?"
Flik rolled over again, started upwards, and very quickly wished he hadn't. The sunlight thudded into his head like a volley of arrows; and his ears sang gently, reminding him of days spent in fever, in the rain. He fell backwards onto his pillow, closing his eyes and taking a few steadying gulps of air.
"Tell me, Flik of the Warrior's Village," the voice said, from his bedside, "do you often run around defending ladies' honor while on the verge of collapse, or was I just lucky?"
"I would be quite happy to tell you," Flik answered, one arm flung across his eyes, "If I knew myself." He jumped at a sudden rush of air; Odessa had bent over him and unceremoniously shucked his blankets to his hips.
"Erm," Flik said, which was the best he could manage at the moment, trying to wiggle downwards for the sake of his modesty. He had a dim memory of a tavern and firelight, splodged liberally with Odessa's face and name, but little besides.
"Stop squirming," Odessa said firmly, pressing one cold hand down on his middle. "If it's my innocence you're concerned for, you might want to try to have more interest in your hide." Her fingers were efficient and familiar on his bandages, pressing the linen to make sure the wound was dry, making a small noise of satisfaction when she discovered it was. "You've healed well, I'm pleased. It would be terribly ungrateful of you to die on me after all my hard work to keep you alive." She took one look at his face, and smiled brilliantly. "Or maybe it's your innocence you're on the lookout for. You've gone all pink."
"I'm sorry," Flik said, groping for blankets which, to his relief, Odessa let him have. "I'm a bit hazy on the past few days. I don't suppose you'd be willing to fill me in?"
Her eyes seemed bluer now than his feverish memory of them, more girlish. She sat down on the corner of his bed, straw mattress crunching under her. "You don't remember anything, then? I'm hardly surprised, with the amount of blood you'd lost."
Flik coughed. "I'm afraid I might have been a bit foolish."
"You were," Odessa said, delighted. "It was utterly brilliant. I haven't had anyone act like that around me since--" Her eyes flickered, stilled, and then she went on, "No wonder, you were suffering from salamander poisoning. It leaves a wicked fever if it's not seen to right away. Didn't you have any medicine on you?"
Flik sank back onto the pillows, dignity stripped. "I did. I used the last of it weeks ago. I got lost, and there was a storm." Flik sighed, raked a hand through his hair, making his bangs spike out more than usual. "I don't know how long I'd just been going blind and bleeding. Let's hope I didn't make an utter fool of myself on any other occasions."
"You didn't make an utter fool of yourself," Odessa said, making no effort to hide her gaze, since Flik seemed preoccupied with the ceiling. "But you did make quite an impression." Her eyes narrowed. "I do hope you aren't required to be on the verge of death to handle a sword like that."
Flik gave her a long look. It troubled him that he could not place her age; one moment she was a mere child, the next she made him feel fumbling and awkward with his own youth. "I didn't kill anyone, did I?"
Odessa shrugged. "Not that I know of."
Flik ran his fingers over the bandages. "I behaved disgracefully, and yet you saw fit to have a doctor tend to me and provide me with lodgings. I am in your debt, my Lady."
"Don't worry, I won't forget it." Odessa rose to her feet and rinsed her hands in the basin. "As for the doctoring, I looked after that myself; I have some small knowledge of medicine. Enough to know that you should mend well enough, now." She caught his curious look, raised one russet eyebrow. "Does that surprise you?"
"I've never met anyone like you," Flik admitted. He frowned with his eyebrows, struggling to remember. "A friend of yours was in danger, wasn't he? Is everything all right?"
Odessa took a long time toweling her fingers dry, her gaze drawn by something beyond the casement. "Humphrey's all right, if that is what you're wondering. As for everything being all right..." She paused, her eyes still lost on something beyond the window. "That would be a bit much to ask for, don't you think?"
Flik searched in vain for an answer to that, and for some clue as to what worthy object over the rooftops of Lenankamp could hold such fascination for her. He wanted desperately to console her, but there was some nameless loss behind those eyes, far beyond his reach. "If there is anything I can do to help," he said. "I'm afraid I have no money, and I owe you for both your kindness and my keeping. But my sword arm is yours." She turned at last to look at him, and he faltered. "Not that you have any need of men, or swords, but if I could protect you somehow... if you have need of a bodyguard as you travel..."
Odessa considered him. "Do all men of the Warrior's Village offer their blades so freely to strangers?"
Flik thought for a moment to tell her that he was no man of the Warrior's Village, not yet, and his sword was still without purpose. But he remembered the look on her face, determined to go out into the storm alone for the sake of a companion perhaps already lost, and had no heart to be less than a man in her eyes. "Only," he said, "if the stranger is you."
Her eyebrows lifted. "Very well," she said, and the smile on her lips was not the girlish one, but faint, almost mocking, as if she knew a joke he did not. "But I warn you, Flik, you may wish to revoke that vow."
"Only to my own disgrace," he answered. "But I do have one question for you, lady."
Odessa leaned on the casement, crossed her ankles. "Oh really? And what is that?"
Flik gestured ruefully to his blankets. "Where are my clothes?"
Odessa tossed her head, laughed under her breath. "Being washed, if there was enough to salvage."
"Which you would think was unheard of west of Garan. I think the dirt was all that was holding your tunic together." The door to the room opened and two men entered, one of whom would have been quite imposing if he hadn't been standing next to Viktor: fair-haired and with a military edge that Viktor distinctly lacked. His expression was grim, almost sullen, and there was a melancholy air about him that Viktor's boisterous mood did nothing to dispel. Viktor himself was in much better spirits this morning, grinning in a way that took the edge off of his imposing presence. Flik didn't like it one bit.
"Viktor," Odessa scolded. "You know full well it was only that he'd bled all over it." She waved at the two of them, and said to Flik, "This is Humphrey, and I think your remember Viktor, having done such a good job of making a memorable first impression. They'll be showing you around now that you're up. I'll check the stores and see if we haven't got a rune crystal for you... I think there was a loose lighting one floating around that would suit you very nicely. And we're bound to have some better armor, somewhere. I'll see what I can turn up. You two," she said to Viktor and Humphrey, "be good and don't go too hard on him. I know he's a new recruit, and a good sword, but he's still probably weak."
Flik, instead of protesting at being called weak, could only ask, "Recruit?"
Odessa presented Flik with a winning smile, utterly unapologetic. "I'm sorry, Flik. Didn't I mention? You've just joined the Liberation Army."