Wisdom of Snow
Viktor stomped up the front steps of the cabin, carefully avoiding the nonexistent third step and the loose slate of the porch lip. Packed snow flaked off his boots in abstract chunks, turning into a shower as he kicked against the doorpost to clear them off. Viktor was not a man inclined to tidiness, but Flik was not a man lacking in a wicked uppercut if he stepped in a melted snowy puddle in his sock feet. It was the sort of clear-cut argument Viktor understood, and only needed to hear once.
Viktor shifted his burden to one arm, rubbed his chin ruefully in painful memory, and put his shoulder against the cabin door. "Back," he said, kicking his boots into a snowy heap next to Flik's.
There was a sharp crack, and Flik frowned at the pitiful pile of wood he was breaking, and the drafty chinks in the fireplace. "I don't suppose you have a woodstove in that bundle?"
"Sorry," Viktor shook out his hair, scattering snowflakes from his untidy mane. "I was lucky just to find dinner."
"Hmm." Flik fed twigs into the feeble fire. It sputtered and smoked at him in an uncooperative fashion. "Anything in the snares?"
"One poor rabbit that wouldn't be a mouthful for either of us." Viktor put his bundle down on a splintery table of uncertain stability. "I didn't have the heart to kill it. Not in this frost. I let it go."
"You're too soft for a mercenary, you know that." Flik's laugh turned into a cough, rough-edged, and he caught himself against the fireplace. His hand went white knuckled on the mantle as he fought for breath.
Viktor slowly unwound the tattered scrap of wool he was using for a scarf. "That doesn't sound good."
Flik closed his eyes, opened them, and took a slow deep breath before continuing to bribe the tiny fire into life. "I'm fine."
"You still have some of that tea left, right?"
"I said I was fine."
Viktor thumped a bartered pot and tripod, many times mended, barely worth coin, onto the table. "Everything closed up?"
"I don't know," Flik admitted, as a dried brown oak leaf curled up into smoke with an acrid gasp. "I haven't checked it since we left the border."
Viktor laid out the rest of his findings: a rind of salted pork, a trio of rubbery potatoes, some carrots, a handful of barley, and herbs and mushrooms that a village merchant hadn't kept a close enough eye on. "You should let me check it for you. You might have opened it up again on the way up here."
Flik put his hand to his side, jabbing the fire enough to severely discourage its chances of blooming. "Maybe," he said, as close to conceding the point as he got.
Viktor sighed, hauling his boots back on. It was like arguing with a phalanx of spearmen. "I'm gonna fill this up, Then I'll see about getting us some more wood and blocking up that gazebo of a chimney."
Flik nodded, and Viktor took his pot and his helpful attitude outside. Great guy, Flik was. Viktor had always thought so, long before they were stuck in a burning castle and Flik took up arrow-blocking for team McDohl as a new hobby. But pride would kill the man long before a blade broke his defenses, and Viktor couldn't let that happen.
He had more than a few promises to keep concerning Flik.
The pot filled with snow, the chimney blocked in with the loose porch stones, and nearby forest denuded for anything burnable, Viktor returned to find Flik with what promised to almost be a fire, running a whetstone down the gleaming, nearly-invisible edge of his sword.
One thing Viktor had learned early on in the days since they had washed up on a riverbank downstream from Gregminster: Flik of the Blue Lighting Did Not Cook. It was no wonder now how he managed to keep so trim. So Viktor set up the tripod and melted the snow in the pot, pulling the knife from his boot and chopping the vegetables on the hearthstone.
"Lucky to find this place abandoned," Viktor said, pouring vegetables from his broad hands into the bubbling pot. "WE wouldn't make it a night in the open."
Shhk, shiik, went stone on steel, and engraved letters gleamed in the now braver light of the fire.
Of course. Don't talk to the man when he's communing with his blade. it was Viktor's misfortune that his own weapon was entirely too talkative, and was currently wrapped up in a tarp and wedged under the straw mattress. To keep it safe, Viktor had assured the Star Dragon Sword.
Really it was just to make sure it shut up.
Viktor rolled his eyes, poking at the broth with a battered spoon. Here he was, stuck with a sword that talked too much and a swordsman who didn't talk at all. Not fitting company for the season.
"It's Yule tonight, did you know?" Viktor sat back on his haunches, spreading his hands in front of the fire that was at last a proper blaze. The salted pork and mushrooms filled the small room with a comforting, homey sort of smell. Outside, early night had long since set its encampment around the cabin. "I'd love a good pint about now."
Flik made a small noise, the whetstone stilled. "I'll agree with you there." He drew a polishing cloth from his belt, going over the blade until it gleamed in the firelight and Odessa's name danced above the tang. "Not that I'm not grateful you found this place."
"It was here when I passed through before, years ago." Viktor looked up at the roof, but the thatch was mostly whole, and it was too cold outside to start a drip. "Doesn't look like it's been used since then." Viktor tested the soup, frowned, and added the rest of the pepper. There was the distinct sound of a sword being sheathed, and Flik's belt rattled as he laid it down, reverently, on his side of the blanket-piled straw pallet that served for a bed.
"This needs a bit," Viktor said, standing up and brushing at the knees of his pants. "Let's have a look at you."
If Flik hesitated, it was only for a moment, and then he shrugged out of his overshirt, its silver bosses clinking on the plank floor. His undershirt, which might have been yellow sometime before revolution, was a more complicated process. He did not get more than halfway out of it before making a sharp intake of breath, the closest he ever came to admission of pain, and could go no further.
"Here," Viktor said, and his hard brown hands were surprisingly gentle as he freed Flik from his undershirt. "Here, don't hurt yourself."
"A little late for that," Flik mumbled, as Viktor ran firewarm fingers over a makeshift blue bandage, torn from the hem of Flik's cloak.
"Looks good," Viktor said at last, pressing his fingertips carefully against Flik's ribs. "Better clean it up, all the same."
"Really, it's fine," Flik began, but Viktor had already dunked a scrap of cloth into their water bucket, holding it up to the fire until it began to steam.
"Lie down for a minute."
Flik, his lips compressed in a way that said he clearly did not care for being fussed over, obeyed.
Viktor worked the knots free on the bandage, and it slithered down onto the blanket like a tired serpent. The arrow wound was a deep, dark mark between Flik's ribs. Viktor remembered, though Flik did not, a cold riverbank, and ripping the broken shaft free of flesh and bone.
Viktor had thought then that Flik was already dead, and his promise to Odessa was broken before he even had a chance to keep it.
But the bruises around the wound were yellowing now as they healed, and soon Flik would have another scar to match the few that had managed to mark him. Not like Viktor, his body a patchwork of old forgotten wounds. Flik would have just a tiny star, there on his side beside an old set of salamander claw marks.
Like a star of destiny.
"Is there a daisy growing out of it?" Flik growled, and Viktor realized too late that he had been staring.
"Sorry," he said, running the warm cloth over Flik's side, cleaning up the lines of dried blood.
Flik sighed a little through his nose, as he did when he was impatient, or frustrated.
"I'll be done in a minute," Viktor said, not willing to incur Flik's aggravation. Not that it really ever lasted, but it made the nights more pleasant, sleeping shoulder to shoulder with someone actually speaking to you.
Flik shifted his weight with a muted crunch of straw. "No, I'm sorry," he said at last. "I'd be dead ten times over by now..." he paused, considering perhaps that was too forthcoming. "Thanks for your help."
"Ah," Viktor said, not liking one bit the way his face felt hot, or how he kept noticing the elegant ridge of Flik's hipbone before it arched down into the top of his pants. "I promised Odessa you know, that I'd look after you."
Flik went very, very still. For a second Viktor worried he might have said too much; the name of the first leader of the Liberation Army and Flik's sworn true love was not one to be uttered lightly around the warrior. Not even when she was alive.
"She trusted you, didn't she."
Viktor shrugged. "I knew her a long time. Me and Humphrey, back when the liberation was just the three of us."
Flik poked at a straw jabbing up through a hole in the threadbare blanket, musing for a moment, it seemed, on nothing more serious than his own dirty fingernails. "You loved her?"
Viktor laughed somewhere down in his chest, a comforting sort of bear sound, and leaned over to heat up the cloth again. "Like a little sister to me, maybe. Not one of those sweet little ones, but the kind full of spunk, pigtails askew." he traced the cloth in a slowly widening circle around Flik's arrow wound. "Reminded me of someone I knew." His voice softened, barely audible over the crack of logs on the fire. "A long time ago."
Flik tried without success to get the straw to lie back down with the others. "I wasn't even there," he murmured. "I wasn't even there when she died."
Viktor shook out the cloth, and droplets of water hissed and steamed as they spattered on the fire. "None of us ever are, Flik."
Flik reached up and caught Viktor's wrist, his eyes guarded, his voice low. "I should have been," he said.
Viktor twisted his hand only a little, enough to grasp Flik's own wrist, feeling the power of the tendons there beneath a deceptively frail stretch of skin. the lightning Rune on the back of Flik's hand tingled with faint electricity under Viktor's fingers. "I know."
"I will not forget her," Flik seemed to be having some sort of argument with himself, his eyebrows drawing together under the faded blue line of his headband.
"You won't." Viktor said. "None of us will." The fire at his back spread a delicious warmth over his shoulders, and the sound of the winter wind around the cabin was a toothless wolf gumming the walls. But all the heat Viktor could think of was in Flik, the good-looking one, the hero, putting his forehead against Viktor's shoulder and letting the air out of his lungs in a dry sound of grief.
Viktor just held him there, making sure the wound in Flik's side stayed closed while the one in his heart at last bled free, pouring uneasy black to red and finally closing over. There would be a scar there, too, no small artful star but a bold bleached line, the kind that marks a man to the end of his days, the first recognizable feature, the defining trait.
Flik went still, and did not pull away as much as he might have. "The soup smells good," he said at last, his eyes lowered.
"Ready by now," Viktor said, and made a vague one-handed motion with the bandage. The other was still on Flik's shoulder, and his thumb traced a small circle in the hollow of Flik's collarbone. "You hungry?"
Flik blinked hard twice and his face cleared, he nodded. "Yeah."
Viktor let him go then, but only long enough to retrieve the pot and one battered spoon, telling Flik no go ahead, if Viktor ate first there would be none left to have after. Flik ate more than enough to do him credit and passed Viktor the bowl.
"Don't let me sleep," he said, laying down on the pillow of his balled-up cloak. "Let me know when you're done. we should set up a watch of some sort." He closed his eyes, weariness putting an age on him beyond his years. "i just want to rest... for a minute."
"Of course," Viktor agreed sensibly, but Flik was already gone, his chest rising and falling in a deep sort of slumber that Viktor didn't think he had ever seen on the man. He built up the fire for the night, and Flik did not stir as Viktor shoved the straw pallet closer to the hearth. Viktor fell down beside him, his broad back all the wall needed between Flik and the cold. Pulling the blanket up over Flik's bare shoulders, Viktor slept, his head heavy with promises.