She was looking at him strangely.
She’d been looking at him strangely since he volunteered to break his own leg, and it had just been getting worse all day, until bedtime, when she’d told him she wasn’t going to tie him down for the night.
She’d looked like she wanted to say something else. Amrit hadn’t given her a chance — though he had managed to thank you. Sleeping with a healing leg was going to be hard enough without restraints.
It had been. In the end, he’d muttered a Working to knock himself out. He’d slept like a log, but woke groggy and still trying to shake off the sleep.
Now he was chopping wood, his splinted leg braced so he didn’t have to put too much weight on it, and she was doing like she’d been doing yesterday, looking up at him strangely, looking back at her work, circling the yard and then coming back to looking at him.
Finally, Amrit put down the ax. “I already promised not to run away and not to attack you,” he pointed out patiently. “What’s the problem?”
She jumped when he started speaking, and looked guilty as she looked away. “Just trying to figure you out.”
“Well, while you’re doing that, you’ve got seeds you need to plant, right? All that plowing and forking and turning over and…” He shrugs. “Spring won’t last forever.”
She smirked at him. “Yes, sir,” she teased. “Looks like you’ve got the firewood sorted.”
“Until I have to go get more out of the hedge, at least.”
She raised her eyebrows at him and said nothing. Amrit shifted his weight and leaned backwards a little, trying to look non-threatening. He didn’t have that much experience with it.
“Look,” he said, picking his words carefully, “I’m here for a while. You’ve clearly thought about this process. I’m not getting away quickly, and I might not get away at all.”
“This is true,” she allowed cautiously, like he’d said something momentous instead of something pretty banal.
“And, look, I’m from not that far from here.” Now why had he said that? “I know how hard winter can be, and, uh. You’re feeding me. I want to carry my own weight.”
“That is why I–” she stopped herself. “–brought you here,” she tried, as if they didn’t both know she’d been about to say bought you.. “Yeah. So you want to, what, help get ready for winter?”
“Of course. I mean, I’m not a shirker. I’m just,” he shrugged. “I’m bad at being told what to do. So, uh. Yeah. It’s your house, your land. But I can help get the wood ready and make sure the house is all warm and snug and, well, everything. I’ve done this before,” he added, because she was looking at him strangely. “I survived the last few winters, didn’t I? One of ’em I even survived on my own, but that sucked.”
She was not looking at him any less strangely. Amrit sat down on the pile of wood and looked back at her. “You’ve been doing this for years, right?”
“Yeah. Since the collapse, really.” She perched on the chopping block.
“And, I mean, most of them were Kept, so, uh, they wanted to make you happy, right?”
She blinked slowly. “Yes. The Bond does that,” she said, carefully. Again, like he’d said something strange and outlandish.
“And what about the human slave?”
“Mostly he just wanted to be free. He settled in after a while and did what I told him, especially once the snow started falling.”
If she was going with one-year cycles, that could have been as much as six months in. “Must have been exhausting.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “Yeah. It was.” There was definitely a challenge there.
Amrit plowed on, ignoring the strange feeling in his gut at her challenge. “So uh. Nobody ever just wanted to help you out because, you know, you were giving them a safe place to stay?”
She stared at him. Amrit shifted uncomfortably. “What?”
“No,” she said slowly. “Nobody has ever offered to help in return for the safe place to stay and the meals. If they had…” she spoke like she was working her way through a minefield. Amrit wasn’t sure he blamed her, even if he wasn’t sure he liked being treated like a dangerous weapon.
Well, she wasn’t the first. He sat there looking as harmless as he could manage.
“If they had,” she tried again, “I wouldn’t have needed to buy people from the slave market.”
“Hunh.” Amrit hadn’t considered that. “Well, uh. I mean, you could put the gag and chain back on me and tell me to not help except what you order, but, um, that seems counterproductive. Besides, I’m gonna get bored just doing basic chop-and-dig sort of work.”
“Can’t have you getting bored.” She smiled at him, a cautious sort of expression, like she wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to laugh at her.
“Oh, dead gods, you don’t want to see me when I’m bored. That’s how I got in trouble, my last place. Got too bored.” He grinned at her, cocky and comfortable again. “It’s no fun.”
He could tell she’d relaxed a little by the way her shoulders shifted and her eyes crinkled a little. She shook her head. “You know, never thought I’d be worried about keeping my Kept – my sl –“
“Your prisoner,” he offered, because she was getting uncomfortable again.
“That works? Yeah. Keeping my prisoner entertained. But now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t lay in some board games and cards for when the winter comes.”
“Probably carrots and venison first,” Amrit suggested. He could think of plenty to do that would keep them both entertained and warm, but if she wasn’t going to suggest it, neither was he. “You know, once this heals up, I’m a pretty decent hunter.”
“You said. Well, you mimed.” She repeated his gesture back at him, drawing a bow. “But that would mean letting you out of my sight.”
Amrit slumped a little. “Yeah. It would.” Damnit, he really wanted some fresh meat. “I could promise, I guess.”
“You’ve been making a lot of promises, lately.”
“You’ve been doing a lot of work, lately. Costs you energy to fight me.” Amrit rolled his shoulders. “Look. I don’t want to be yours. I don’t really want to be a slave, or a captive, or a Kept. But I can help you out and stuff, and not leave until the winter’s over. I’m good at at that much.”
She wasn’t going to go for it. He knew she wouldn’t; why was he even making the offer? Why were his shoulders all hunched again? He shrugged them up, trying to loosen the tension.
“I’ll consider it.” She tilted her head. “I’ve got a couple days to think about it, anyway. You shouldn’t go hunting with your leg all splinted, at the very least.”
He thought she looked guilty. Amrit didn’t know why. He relaxed his shoulders and gave her a half of a smile. “Oh, woe is me. Three or four more days where all I can do is split wood and eat your food.”
“Careful,” she teased, “or I’m going to have you washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen instead of splitting wood.”
She was smiling, and she was teasing him. Amrit’s half-smile grew into a full grin. “Oh no, not that. Not the place with all the food.“
“Whatever will you do?”
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