Nikolai glanced down at the girl's face. She appeared to be out cold, but he could have sworn he felt her staring at him a minute ago. He sighed and started to walk faster. The snow was getting heavier, and he could hear some of the thinner branches above him groaning with the weight of it.

"Almost there," he told the girl. "Not long now."

Obviously, he got no reply.

Nikolai kept his gaze fixed on the ground as he neared the first houses on the outskirts of the village. He wasn't in the mood for making conversation with whoever spotted him first; all the villagers ever talked about was the war or the previous potato harvest. How many times would he have to explain that no, he wasn't going to join the army yet and no, he did not have any potatoes to sell? He grew frustrated just thinking about it.

Lost in his inner ramblings, Nikolai didn't notice he'd reached his front door until he almost walked into it. Grumbling, he fished the rusted key from his coat pocket with one hand whilst managing to hold the girl with his free arm. Finally, he kicked the door open and walked inside, scraping the snow off his boots as he did so.

A soft moan caused him to glance down at the girl in his arms. Her eyes were flickering open, snow clinging to her lashes.

"Are you alright?" Nikolai asked her.

She flinched at the sound of his voice, but remained silent. Her eyes closed again, and she pushed her face into his warm fur coat.

"Of course, you must be frozen!" he cried, carrying the girl into his bedroom. He was thankful his house was on one floor; he probably would have tripped if he'd had to go upstairs.

Gently, Nikolai helped the girl lie down on his bed, supporting her back with his hand so she didn't flop down too quickly. He straightened up, but stopped when he saw how her sodden blue dress clung to her wiry frame.

"Oh," he said, realising what he was going to have to do.

Blushing furiously, he unfastened the girl's belt and began to undo the buttons over her chest, thanking the gods that she was still unconscious. He peeled the wet fabric off her skin. Fortunately, she was wearing underwear.

Trying to look at everything but the half-naked girl on his bed, Nikolai flung open his small wardrobe and rummaged around until he found the spare blankets and a thick, old nightshirt of his.

As he awkwardly pulled the nightshirt over her head—how she could stay unconscious, he would never know—he noticed several bright red marks on the girl's torso. He frowned. How had he not noticed those before? The young man stared at the marks, biting his lip.

They were obviously burns.

Nikolai tasted blood in his mouth. She was probably from one of the villages further east, and they got raided. Yes, that would be it. There was no way she was one of them. No, that was impossible. She was too old. If she was one of them, she would have left Gallsess to fight by now. She was just a normal villager, like him. Nothing more.

Nikolai trailed his fingers along the largest burn, and the girl stirred. A faint whimper escaped her lips.

For the first time, the man studied her face carefully. She had soft, delicate features. She was pretty enough—though not beautiful like Raisa, the blacksmith's daughter—and Nikolai imagined that if she opened her eyes, they would be the colour of honey. Or maybe green, like his.

He shook his head, dragging himself from his daydream. What she looked like wasn't important. She was hurt.

He stood up and wandered into his poky kitchen, opening the small cabinet where he kept medicines. He was no healer, but some of the older women in the village would trade medicinal herbs for the firewood he cut. He sighed, thinking of the sack of dry hardwood he had walked a mile for. It was probably buried in the snow by now. That could have bought him a loaf of bread.

Nikolai fished a potato out of the cabinet and glared at it. It wasn't exactly fresh, and one potato wouldn't do much good on a large burn, but it was the best he had. He rested the potato on the rickety kitchen table and thinly sliced it with his pocket knife, before grabbing some bandages from the cupboard and returning to his patient.

She hadn't moved since he had left her. Was it just his imagination, or did her injuries seem suddenly huge against her thin body?

Nikolai glanced down at the potato slices and bandages in his hand. This was never going to work.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and started dressing the wounds.

When he was finished, Nikolai sat back and studied his handiwork. He'd covered as much of the burned skin with potato as possible, then held it all in place with the bandages. It was a clumsy job, but it would do until he could get a proper healer to take a look at the girl in the morning.

In the morning...

The young man glanced out of the window, and noticed with surprise that the sun had nearly set. A few bright stars twinkled in the darkening sky. No wonder he was so tired; he had been up early that morning.

Without even bothering to get undressed, Nikolai carefully climbed into bed next to the girl, trying his best not to disturb her. When the other villagers found out that she was—no, he scolded himself. You don't know that. If she really was... that, then she would have a lot of difficult questions to answer.

She was going to need all her strength.


BANG BANG!

Nadezhda's eyes shot open.

BANG BANG BANG!

She sat up and jumped from the bed, still half-asleep but poised to defend herself.

There was that banging again, demanding and incessant.

Nadya felt a chill against her bare skin and she shivered.

Wait... bare skin?

The girl stifled a scream as she looked down and realised she was wearing nothing but her underwear and chest strappings. Her damp dress lay in a crumpled heap on the floor.

There was a soft grunt from the bed. Something stirred under the covers.

Shaking slightly, Nadya approached the bed and gently pulled the blankets back, revealing a mop of thick blond hair and pale skin.

She took a step back from the man in the bed—that she had shared with him—and wriggled back into the dress. It was freezing and slightly soggy, but much more dignified than her undergarments.

BANG BANG BANG!

"Agh!" The person in the bed leaped up with a hoarse yell. Dazed, he looked around for a moment, before realising that Nadezhda was staring at him with wide eyes.

"Oh," he said, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously. "You're awake, then."

Noooo, Nadya thought. I'm obviously still fast asleep.

She stared at him some more.

The young man had opened his mouth to say something when there was muffled yelling from outside.

"Nikolai Mikhailovich Tarasov! Open the door this instant, it's freezing out here!"

The young man—Nikolai, apparently—blushed. "Uh, let me take care of that," he said sheepishly. "Wait here for a minute, I'll be right back." He shut the bedroom door quietly and was gone.

Nadya sat down on the bed, glancing around the room. It was messy, with clothes strewn everywhere and open books lying around. On the windowsill stood a few carved wooden sculptures.

She stood up and moved closer to them. They were very well crafted, but evidently made by an amateur. The wood was slightly too soft, the paint a little bit too thin, to be professional. She picked up the nearest sculpture and held it carefully, terrified of dropping it.

It was a horse, carved in mid-canter and painted coal-black. Its sooty tail streamed out behind it, head thrown back in the sheer joy of running free. The horse's hooves barely touched the circular base of the sculpture, as if it were trying to leap out of Nadya's hands and gallop off. She placed it back on the shelf.

The next sculpture was also of a horse, but it was not charging over a vast plane like the first one. Instead, it was plodding along, head bowed. Astride it sat a bearded soldier, brandishing a rifle. Nadya didn't like that one as much, so she put it back behind the first.

The third carving was only half-finished, but Nadya could make out a length of rope curling out from the wood. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands. The knot was intricate, perhaps too intricate. She knew enough about knots to know that it probably wouldn't be practical if it were real. Still, it wasn't finished yet, and she could only see half of the sculpture. Perhaps she was wrong.

She looked around Nikolai's room again, this time noticing all the personal items that were scattered around. A few rough sketches here, an old hair comb there. Nadya wondered what it would be like to have a private room of her own. She had always shared a dormitory with at least five other girls.

The sound of agitated voices from outside the door distracted her from her thoughts. She moved closer and put her ear against the rough wood, trying to make out what was being said.

"...can't just burst in here! Raisa, wait! Please!"

"For all you know she might be a criminal, escaped from one of the prison ships!" That was a woman's voice, clear and sharp like glass.

"You don't know that. Anyway, who I have in my home is none of your business!" Nikolai sounded like he was attempting to be assertive, but he was failing miserably.

"Kiss my ass! It is my business if you've got some crazy psycho living here! She could go on a killing spree and you wouldn't even notice!"

The voices were getting closer, and Nadya backed away from the door just as it flew open. She peered around the corner and came face-to-face with an angel from Hell.


A/N: Fun fact: potatoes are a legit remedy for burns, apparently. That's what Mr. Google Search told me. The starch in then neutralises the burn, and potatoes can also be used to prevent scurvy because of the amount of vitamin C they contain. A little botany lesson for ya there. ;)

Also, I think these two may be the most awkward couple I've ever written. I actually based Nikolai on a couple of guys I know. Hehehe... '^^