First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
When Aran tapped her on the shoulder, Nikol hadn’t realized that she’d been asleep. Asleep sitting in the middle of the road in a trapped town. She muttered a couple curses at her stupidity.
“Eat,” he insisted. “I’ve been standing guard. You — I figure that’s the second time you saved my life. Oh. And — I found this one. She says you’re an idiot.” He was holding up a cat.
The cat. A pressure Nikol had barely noticed lifted. She took the grumbling cat from Arran and, very carefully, set about petting the beast. Behind the ears, top of the head, shoulders, spine but not too far back, back to the shoulders.
“I gave her a magical flea-and-tick treatment as a thank you and fixed her worms and the sore place in her left hip. I figured that was the best I could do. The ones travelling with us — they’ll tolerate her, but they’re not going to share a saddle with her.”
“This is her home, anyway.” She petted the cat behind the ears again. “Thank you for paying my debt to her.”
“It’s—” he shifted. “I’m yours, the debt was yours, I’m good with animals, it made sense. You still have to eat,” he reminded her. “Here. The stew isn’t half-bad. The spices in the houses are all stale, but they’re mostly better than nothing.”
“A very strong argument for the food.” She took the bowl from him anyway, let the cat sniff it — not really food, the cat seemed to decide — and ate, sipping the water he handed her, eating some more.
It was indeed not half bad, more than half good. She ate it up and asked for more, if there was more, and it was given.
She looked around as she ate; she and Aran were alone on the street.
“I moved the three of them into the nearest house. They’re doing a lot better already. They’re talking about staying here, since it’s so… intact. Maybe filling up that place with cement and putting up a plaque — here lies the people of this town or something.” He shifted. “Do you think it’s haunted?”
“Only ghosts I’ve ever known of are fae, not human, but that’s not saying they might not leave ghosts. Maybe the Mountain would know, with the shit they’re doing, but —”
“Yeah.” He offered her a hand. She took it and stretched up to her feet slowly. She was sore and exhausted, like she’d run for a day after riding for several days.
Which was, she supposed, not inaccurate.
She needed a week of rest; if she was one of her soldiers – if she was one of her unit’s horses – she’d insist on it.
Hells, their horses probably needed the rest.
She looked around the place. “What’s your feel on our guests,” she asked quietly.
“Not sure. Shell-shocked. Not doing great. But not any of that sort of insidious hate, you know. The sort that means we can’t be around them long.” He looked at her solemnly. “This place — you think we fixed it?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “If there’s something else, I – I’m not sure I’m up to dealing with it right now.” She looked around. “We should, we should go down and get their names if they’re carrying ID. And then we can – we can fill that whole place with concrete and put a plaque on the door or something.”
“Tomorrow,” he returned firmly. “I got our bags and I moved the horses, moved us into the place with the three patients for now. Sign says it used to be a ‘bed and breakfast’. which I figure is, uh, well, something? Don’t know what, but it’s got a lot of beds.”
She kissed his cheek and didn’t praise him. “Sleep,” she agreed. “Me, you. And then we check on them and the horses and we decide what we’re doing next.”
He stilled. She glanced at him. “What?” She reached for her weapon and scanned the street. Empty – except the cat.
“We.” His voice broke. “You said we decide.”
“Yeah.” There wasn’t much to be said about that. “Yeah, I did.” The street was still empty. She dropped her hand back down. “Bed and Breakfast?” she hinted strongly.
“You — why?” He was rooted to the spot. If he weren’t still talking, she’d have been worried something else had taken over his mind.
“Can we —” Nikol huffed. “Maybe after sleep? I mean, in a bed. Maybe with some, uh, cleaning first.”
“Why bother to pretend?” Mountains had been moved more readily than him. His hands were hanging loose at his sides as if he was afraid what would happen if he lifted them. His eyes were boring into her for answers she was pretty sure she didn’t have.
“Because the only sleep I’ve had since rats nearly killed us was drunken, interrupted, or on a street, and because I wasn’t pretending. Aran, I need a bath. I need a bed. Right now, I couldn’t tell you if a dragon was walking down the street.”
He turned to look the direction she pointed — there was (as far as she could tell) nothing but the cat, watching them and cleaning its face. “There’s not.” His voice came from a long way away. “You took my — you took my choices.”
“So I’m giving you one back. But I’m about to take a very specific one away if you don’t tell me where we’re going and help me find a damn bath.”
His fingers twitched; his left hand curled into a fist. He blinked at her, his lips curling up. Not a smile. Sort of a snarl. “You can’t just… shit. Shit, demon balls. You can, you absolute bitch, can’t you?”
“You’re the one that didn’t want your leg broken.” She was running out of — she was running out of everything. She turned slowly to survey the nearest houses. That one was tiny. That one was probably not a house. That one — she wasn’t sure, but it might have something she could use anyway. She started in that direction, surprised to find she was limping.
“Wait, wait.” He caught up behind her. “Did you know you were cut? Caught with something, at least. Have you healed that last one, from the rats? Demon tails, woman, if you drop dead on the road I’m not going to be able to do anything to save you.”
“If I drop dead on the road, you’ll be free.” If she dropped dead, she’d be able to sleep, in theory.
“If you — oh, demon tits. Come on.” He scooped her into his arms. “You’re an awful bitch. You didn’t — you — how are you working for the—” He cut himself off.
“I quit, remember? I mean,” she dropped her voice, “deserted, kidnapped you, ran off into the darkness while they were still gathering up after their win. Why are you—”
“Because your fucking leg is bleeding again, that’s why, and I think you have a rib stuck through it. Hopefully not yours. And I’m seriously fucking pissed at you and I want to get you into a tub before you bleed out on the street.” He kicked at a door and then muttered Words at it until it swung open.
“Are you… does that make any sense to you? Or am I actually losing serious amounts of blood here?”
“You can’t die when I’m pissed at you. Not before I have a chance to tell you what a bitch you are. So you have to get in the damn tub so I can clean you up so you can heal yourself and get your precious fucking sleep so I can yell at you.” He stomped up the stairs with each set of words, jarring Nikol, running her arm and leg into the walls and reminding her that, yes, she was injured. “Okay?”
What was she supposed to even say to that?