A Body Warmed With Demons
It was snowing. They started as tiny specks of black against a gray sky, but as they came closer, dropping to the earth, they expanded into white blobs until he could see the mass of crystals that they were composed of, right before it would hit his face.
Hren blinked, scattering the flakes from his eyelashes, spreading the crystals on his cold cheeks. They didn't melt, his body temperature had dropped so low, and he could no longer feel their cold wetness. I'm going to die here, he thought. It should have bothered him more. Angered him, depressed him, saddened him. Something.
"Jackson! There's a body over here!" The man's deep, thundering voice cut through the silence. Then the crunching echoes of boots running through snow with an underlying huff of heavy breathing. Someone dropped beside him, but his eyes couldn't stop staring up at the gray sky that kept dropping its little white children.
A head popped over him, close, the bare cheek nearly pressed to his lips. The man wore a bright red skikah with white fur lining, the face guard pushed open to reveal his scruffy face. Am I breathing? He must be, because he was still thinking, unless he'd died and his soul didn't know better than to leave.
"Is he breathing?" this man's voice was softer, farther away, a million miles away. It had an accent, Northern.
"Barely, we need to get him warm. Can you handle the sled?"
"Yes," the Northerner said as he moved to the feet-end of the frozen body. "I can't believe you're bothering to save him, it's obvious it comes from Durkshin."
"On three. One, two, three." They hoisted his body in the air, which he could only tell because the sky was moving. His body didn't sag between them, but remained more like a board. He was staring up at the still open face of the man with the skikah. The red was warm against his olive skin, the fur softening his sharp features and hawkish nose. He couldn't see the eyes, they were focused on what he was doing, but they would probably be pale blue like most Northerners. Though he didn't have an accent, which was odd.
He wasn't even aware of his body being slipped into a thermal cocoon. He was faintly annoyed when they started stripping his clothes off, but he didn't feel himself get any colder. Then a half-naked body was next to him and the cocoon was closed so they were immersed in darkness. Arms wrapped around him, burning as the heat broke through his frozen surface.
The ride didn't exist to him. His body was burning in the darkness, being tossed around as the dog sled made its way across the icy tundra. The body beside him shifted naturally with the movements, easing the jostling into a slight sway. The ride was silent except for the Northerner's call to the dogs. It was surprisingly warm in the cocoon, the heat of the other body starting to fill him, making him drowsy even as intense pain shot through his fingers and toes.
The sled pulled to a stop.
"Are you okay in there?"
"Yaya," the man in the cocoon answered, "I think he's just struggling because of the pain."
"Well were here, so c'mon."
The bright white light hurt his eyes, but no more than the rest of his body's suffering. His heat source vanished and the cocoon closed up again before he felt like he was being tossed around like a sack of potatoes. Even so, somewhere in the darkness, he lost himself.
"Where do you plan on sending him once he's healthy?"
"I don't know, Jackson, one step at a time."
"Says you, while he eats our winter rations," the Northerner complained. "Not to mention the day's hunting is wasted."
"Feel free to go out on your own," the deeper voiced man said as he tightened the furs around Hren.
A gruff growl, "Fine, I will." The sounds of preparation, of leaving, then silence.
Hren opened his eyes.
The wooden roof of a log cabin structure was above him, a fire roaring beside him. He was naked, wrapped in thick furs, his fingers and feet were immobilized by bandages. Blinking, he searched the fire-lit cabin for the man with the skikah.
He was sitting, legs crossed under him, eyes closed, hands resting on his knees. The dark face was lit by the fire, throwing deep shadows across his face, making him look evil with his long black hair that hung like wavy curtains around his head. When Hren shifted, his back rubbing against the furs, the whip-lashes flared and he groaned, instantly stilling as the skikah man's eyes opened—they were not blue as he'd expected, but so pale a green that they were yellow.
"Hello," his voice seemed even deeper now, not mellowed by the winds.
"Greetings," Hren said, eyes searching the solemn face of his savior, and then the cabin that he'd been taken to.
"My name is Crane. We found you freezing in the snow and brought you to our cabin."
Hren nodded, having been more aware than the other man realized, "Thank you for your care." He tried to sit, but his body felt stiff and immobile. What little upward motion he'd gathered settled back into the lush furs with a slight wince.
"Your blood is still thawing. When the tincture is ready, it will speed the process. It is better to not move before then."
He didn't argue, just closed his eyes, wondering where his clothes were. He was most definitely in the buff, although the soft fur was not unpleasant against him. "And my clothing?"
"Hanging on the wall behind you, thawing and drying. You are from Durkshin?"
"I was," and he hesitated, before considering that his host deserved at least a bare bones explanation, "I am no longer welcome there." He cracked his eyes to watch Crane's face.
It stayed passive, perhaps a slight twist in the lips, but it could have been the firelight flickering across his face. "And why did you decide to come to the Northlands?"
Hren rolled his eyes, "Wasn't really a decision I had a hand in making. I was escorted here."
It was obvious Crane wanted to ask more, but he didn't. Instead he stood and went to the fireplace, pulling the pot from the holder and setting it on a table for it to cool for a moment. He watched the liquid inside, probably for a color change to indicate its cohesion. "What got you escorted from Durkshin?"
He didn't answer immediately, knowing his answer could be taken just as offensively in the North as it would back home. But Crane didn't look like the judgmental kind. Or perhaps his sluggish blood wouldn't let him think of a better reason, "I was caught fooling around with the King's heir."
Crane nodded, eyes never leaving the potion. When he deemed it ready, he poured it into a glass and brought it back to where Hren still lie prone. Lifting Hren's head into his lap, Crane set the glass to his lips and tilted, receiving no struggle as the tart mixture slipped down Hren's throat. He coughed slightly when the last drops trickled down and Crane helped him sit up more, his muscular arms keeping the furs tightly wrapped around the slowly warming body. "Okay then?"
"What was that?"
"Just some Northern medicine. Heats the blood and will help you keep your fingers and toes, which have already been rubbed with the salve."
"Thank you, again," Hren sighed as Crane gently set him back into the furs, each movement wary of the red streaks across his torso. Crane resumed his meditative position, eyes half closed. "May I ask you a question?" Hren asked. The other man nodded without looking away from the fire, or wherever it was that his heavy-lidded eyes watched. "You're not a Northerner?"
Crane smirked, although his pose remained perfect, "No, I am not a Northerner."
Hren closed his eyes, resisting the urge to dig further. He'd never seen eyes so vibrant before, like the Hunter's moon. But the skin was dark like a Northerner, not like his pale-skinned kin. The nose was a bit like the western Krishin…
"I'm of the Wandering Tribes," he chuckled, "I can see you trying to figure it out."
Warmth flooded through him as he opened his eyes and saw Crane watching him. He had not even considered the Wandering Tribes. "I've never met one of your kiln before."
"Most were killed in the third era and many settled down. Some of us don't have the spirits for that type of life though," he sounded wistful as he divulged more information than he probably should have to a stranger. Hren nodded. He was never one to linger, always going to battle or on errands for the King. His duty as a knight had made sure he was never home long. Only one set of soft hands had been able to lure him off the road for any length of time, but even then he knew it wouldn't last—he was not a proper match for the King's heir. "Are you warm now?"
Hren checked each of his limbs for movement and after a struggling moment, found he could sit. Even as the furs fell down his torso and puddle around his naked waist, the fire was enough to keep him warm. "Yes, I feel much better. That is some powerful medicine."
"Mmm." Crane's eyes had fallen half closed again, a pleased smile on his lips. "So, I'm guessing you were whipped before being exiled?"
He looked down at the fiery red marks that striped his body. They stung, it was true, and they were far more visible than some of the other violences that had been done to him. But now that his body was warming, the pain seemed to be fading; perhaps the medicine was doing that too. "Yes."
"Was it worth it?"
It was impossible not to close his eyes and think of the Prince with his long blonde hair splayed across his lush pillows, his eyes clenched in ecstasy as Hren manipulated his body in whatever way he wanted. "Yes, I would say it was."
"Will you miss him?"
It wasn't a question he was expecting, it was something he was trying not to think about. "No more than when I left any other time—wait," his eyes shot open, looking at Crane's relaxed posture, "you know that…that…"
"That your lover was Prince Lnarsal? He is the only heir of Durkshin, although I suppose most outsiders wouldn't know that," he mused, the smile still teasing his lips.
"I was hedging on that, actually. You follow politics closely, then?" Hren tried to redirect the conversation, red already staining the bridge of his nose.
"In a manner of speaking."
When Crane did not continue, Hren shifted uneasily, but didn't push the matter. It wasn't his business, and they'd already cross boundaries of etiquette—although he wasn't sure what lines existed between a disgraced knight and a Wanderer.
"So, how do you plan on repaying me for saving your life?"
Crane's eyes opened, the smile broadening, the tips curling in sadistic pleasure, "Yes, payment. I do not have a code of ethics to uphold, and my Northerner companion is rather off put by your presence. I think I'm owed something for my troubles."
"I have very little to offer you, you've seen what I carry, and that is all I own."
"So you agree to pay me?"
"If I had anything of value—"
The Wanderer moved quickly, his body pushing Hren's to the floor, arms bridging over his shoulders. The sharp yellow eyes were staring into his for a moment, before soft, warm lips were pressed against his. They were sweet, like he'd dipped his lips in honey just moments before, and Hren found his mouth moving eagerly against Crane's until the Wanderer pulled away and was grinning, embodied by demons for certain.
It was then that he realized what payment was being demanded. But as a knight of honor, could he deny paying what was due?