At the Sign of the White Deer

by Tenshi

They were four leagues from Toto Village when Flik first noticed something was wrong. Viktor had been complaining bitterly about his horse all morning, calling it everything from an unbroken colt to a piebald sack of bones not good enough for glue. Viktor was never meant for infantry, he mistrusted horses and Flik, who not only loved the speed and versatility of cavalry but also loved horses on their own noble, uncomplaining merits, was used to tuning him out on such matters. Then the next thing Flik knew was that Viktor had stopped talking. Flik enjoyed the quiet for possibly five minutes, and then got worried, glancing back over his shoulder.

Viktor's horse had lagged behind, no longer persuaded by Viktor's intermittent swearing and pleading. Viktor himself was leaning over the pommel, his face pale, sweat beading on his forehead in spite of the winter chill.

"Viktor?" Flik cantered alongside, reaching out to grasp Viktor's shoulder. "Pull yourself together, man. It's not been that long since you've had a good pint of ale."

Viktor shook his head faintly. "Don't think it's the ale that's the problem," he said.

Flik switched his reins to his left hand, and tore off his glove with his teeth. "You're a little hot," he lied, the side of Viktor's face burning against the lighting rune on the back of his hand. "How long have you been sick?"

"Eh, felt a little off color this morning," Viktor grinned, painfully. "Thought I just drank too much last night."

"We camped out last night, all you had was water."

"Oh," Viktor said. "Right. No wonder I feel like shit."

Flik lowered his eyebrows, glancing up the snowy road. "There's an inn a little ways further, just keep up. We'll stop early tonight."

Viktor, who had been pushing them for days to get to Muse before the snow set in, nodded without argument. "Guess I'm not in that much of a hurry..." He sagged over his horse's neck, and Flik reached out to catch him.

"Hang on," he said, and gathering the reins from Viktor's hand, urged his mount to a gallop, pulling Viktor's behind him.

It was a ridiculous place for an inn, as far as Flik was concerned, but he was not inclined to complain at his good fortune. Snow was falling thickly by the time the two horses came to a stop at the gatepost, clinging to Flik's hair and melting instantly on Viktor's shivering skin.

Light puddled on the fresh snow as the door opened, and the pretty young innkeeper wiped her red hands in an apron and smiled up at them in greeting. Flik was prepared to be harsh or lucrative or both, whatever it took to gain them shelter. Few holsterers would be eager to take in a sick man and risk an epidemic. He needn't have worried.

"Welcome to the White Deer-- Oh!" She put her hands to her mouth, and then held the door open to let them through. "Oh my goodness!" She reached out to Viktor with a motherly hand, even though she could not have been more than a year older than he was, and gasped in dismay. "No," she said, to Flik's inquiry about payment, "Don't worry about that. Just take him upstairs to the first room. Pete, take care of their horses!"

"Thank you," Flik said, shifting Viktor's considerable weight and helping him up the steps.

"Sorry for the trouble," Viktor said, as Flik fussed over the ice-coated knots on his boots, his fingers not yet thawed and clumsy.

"You're always trouble, why be sorry for it now?" Flik tugged Viktor's boot free and winced at a twinge of pain across his shoulders. They were not long out of the Toran Republic, and his own wounds were still stiff. He pushed Viktor towards the bed, but Viktor was oddly reluctant, and it was much like trying to push over a brick wall. "Just take it easy."

"I will," Viktor said, swatting away Flik's hands, "Just as soon as I throw up."

Flik judiciously let him go.

Never much on being a nursemaid, Flik spent most of that evening hovering in what he was convinced was a useless manner. Hilda, the innkeeper, had much more of a grasp on what to do. She had an unusual innate sense of motherliness that was surely a comfort to all her guests, even those in the peak of condition. She sent up broth, but discovering quickly that Viktor's fever was not allowing him to keep it down, brought instead a pitcher of cold tea and, in an inspired move, a bowl of fresh snow with a spoon.

"It seems like it was bad food," she said in a whisper to Flik, not wanting to wake Viktor in his fitful moments of sleep between bouts of nausea. She pressed a mug of vegetable soup into Flik's hands, and clinked the spoon to make sure he noticed it was there. "I've seen it before. I wouldn't worry about it catching or it being enough to kill him. He looks like a big strong boy. Once he's done getting all the toxin out of his system, he'll probably run a fever for a while, and then sleep. Don't look so worried."

"You've been more than kind, Lady." Flik finally noticed the soup, and drank some broth. His stomach reminded him how little he'd had to eat himself, and he went back for more so fast that he burnt his tongue. "We could not have landed in a better inn."

She blushed prettily. "Oh, we get all kinds here. More than you expect, really. I know we're out of the way, but my husband is an archeologist, of sorts, and there are ruins nearby that he's studying." She watched Flik keenly for a moment, and then asked, "Were you on your way somewhere, or just wandering?"

"We were headed for Muse," Flik said. "Viktor wants to meet with someone named Annabelle."

Hilda's face brightened as she peeled the wet cloth away from Viktor's forehead. "Lady Annabelle! I daresay he does! She's the leader of Muse, a very important lady." She dunked the cloth into the basin of cold water, and laid it back over his eyes. He shivered and sighed in his fever, like an overworked draft horse. "Are you seeking to enter the army?"

"Viktor said that she might have work for us." Flik glanced down at his mug in mild surprise. It was empty. "We're mercenaries, and we've just come from Toran now the war's over."

"She'll probably have use of you, then. She's not been happy with the way Highland has been acting these last months, I've heard." Hilda squeezed Flik's arm. "I've got to see to my own now, but call me if he worsens."

"We are in your debt," Flik said, and she shushed him. "Not at all. I'm glad you were able to find us." She tucked a bit of hair behind her ear, and smiled wistfully. "We are a little bit out of the way, after all!" She patted Flik's shoulder on her way out the door. "I'll leave a lantern burning on the landing for you." Flik, left alone with Viktor, settled down to wait.

Wounds, Flik understood. Torn flesh, blood, and broken bones made sense to him, simple cause and effect, things he knew how to respond to and care for. Sickness left him at a loss. He sat, unsleeping, as the fever worked through Viktor's body, making him tremble with excess adrenaline. Flik passed the time cleaning his sword, until Odessa gleamed in his hand like a star, her edges invisible thin with sharpness. When Viktor spoke it startled him, but he realized quickly that Viktor was not aware of his words.

Flik listened, feeling like an invader, as Viktor spoke names Flik had never heard him say, long sealed behind his lips even in sleep. "Kyu," he said, and "Nora." Flik wrung out the cloth and replaced it more times than he could count, as Viktor murmured for mother and father and others long gone. But at least twice for every other name, he asked for Daisy. And Flik realized how little he knew of this man. Flik wondered what names he himself had said, when he was delirious with pain and Viktor pulled the last arrows of the Toran war out of his body. Although, Flik considered, glancing at his sword, there was little doubt who he had called out for.

"Ribbons," Viktor said, tossing his head back on the damp pillow, cloth sliding off his face. "Promised...I'd bring you...from town..."

"It's all right," Flik said, and not knowing what else to do, smoothed back Viktor's hair, surprised at how soft it was. Scars that were usually lost in his tan stood out now on his face, a mark that split one eyebrow, a fine line over his chin. There were scars that were old enough that Flik had never seen them made, a place where his lower lip had been cut, and a tiny star shaped one next to his left ear. Flik could name many of the recent ones: there was one on his forehead, almost lost in his hair and still pink, that had been won in the escape from Gregminster castle, and the twin lines on his collarbone marks from a white tiger's claws, as they passed through the forest to Banner Village in the south. And yet, looking down at him, Flik felt somehow like he was seeing Viktor for the first time. Here was no loudmouthed warrior who drank too much and had the manners of a bear, but a man, like himself, with scars.

"Daisy," Viktor said again, and shivered in his delirium.

"It won't last," Flik said, kicking his chair away and sitting on the edge of the bed next to him, wiping the cloth over his face and rinsing it again, trying to think of what his mother had said to him in dim childhood memory. "I'm here."

And Viktor, almost reluctantly, stilled.

When he woke up late the following afternoon, Flik was asleep beside him, head back on the bedpost and snoring faintly.

Viktor smiled, then groped around on the bedside table for the pitcher of tea, polished it off at one go, and slept for the rest of the day.

"Lookit this," Viktor said, shaking his loose belt around his hips. "I've probably lost a stone. I'm down two notches."

"At this rate there might not be enough of you to make two men." Flik tied his headband on with a deft practiced knot, and flipped the ends out of his collar. "You'd better take it easy, you might waste down to the size of a normal infantryman."

"Not likely! I'll prance around on horseback like you first." Viktor grinned, but there was still a lean, ragged look to him, like a bear fresh out of hibernation. "I'll get it back after a good square meal or four."

Flik peered out the window at the blue sky, the deep snow blanketing the hills. "We can make Muse by nightfall," he said, "if the weather holds. Though I don't know if you've got enough fat left to keep you warm."

"Heh." Viktor rattled into his old leather armor, and brandished one bare arm at Flik. "You're the scrawny one. I'll have to skin a bear for you before we get there."

"So long as the bear isn't you," Flik said, and swatted him in the shoulder with his glove. "But you'd better thank the innkeeper, she's the one that saved both our hides. And whatever it was that you ate, do us both a favor and don't eat it again."

Viktor's tan tinged green for a moment with the memory. "Lying kobold. He said those sausages were fresh."

Flik boggled at Viktor in unmitigated horror. "You bought sausages from a Kobold? Viktor, kobolds eat things they find lying in the road."

"I was hungry," Viktor said, petulantly, and then brightened. "And I'm pretty peckish right now, actually. I could go for another one of those meat pies I bought from that Winger in Toto. It's only been in my bag a couple of days, do you think..."

Flik rolled his eyes heavenward. "What I think is that I'm picking the tavern for dinner, and you're paying for it, once we get to Muse." He gave Viktor a good shove towards the stairs, for good measure. "Which isn't going to happen until you go get on your damn horse."

Viktor went, rumbling all the way down that he was only joking, and he did not have a chance to see the swift expression of gratitude that crossed Flik's features. For all that Viktor was a great bear and a burden on Flik's peace of mind, he had to admit that he was relieved to see him looking better.

And then in the sudden silence it occurred to Flik that maybe Viktor hadn't been joking about those pies after all, and he bolted down the stairs in hot pursuit. Friend or no, one more night like the last one, and Flik might just skin that particular bear himself.


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