Well, this certainly got out of hand... Don't worry, I haven't forgotten there's a plot in here somewhere. xD
Winter solstice is drawing near, along with all the preparations for a week of feasting and drinking and dancing. It's just the sort of thing we need after endless days of snow and darkness, when the rest of the world feels so far away. Even the surliest of Padraig's men get into the spirit of things—I find Wulf from the nightwatch hanging garlands of holly and ivy from the rafters, while Baldric shows Rikker and Nils how to craft a proper wreath out of evergreen boughs and pinecones.
And gifts. I don't usually struggle with finding gifts for people. Most of my men are easy; Baldric's been complaining about needing a new whetstone for his hunting knives, and Doren could use a new quiver. Hansen's mentioned he'd like some raven feathers for fletching arrows. I hunt those myself, if only for an excuse to escape practice with Padraig for a couple of days.
Speaking of Padraig, I have no idea what I intend to do for him, even though the solstice is swiftly nearing. He has everything he needs, and he can get anything he wants with a snap of his fingers. Then, one night, inspiration strikes in the unexpected form of dandruff.
I feel Padraig shift beside me, sitting up with a growl, scratching around the base of his horns.
"What's wrong?" I mumble tiredly, blinking up at him.
"Oh nothing," he grumbles. "Just itchy horns."
"They itch and ache when they grow sometimes," Padraig explains, still itching himself, almost like a big dog. "Especially in the winter, when it's dry and cold."
I peer up at his horns, black and curved, as thick and long as my arms. "They're still growing?" I ask in surprise.
He turns to me. "Aye. They never stop. The older you get, the bigger the rack. Most just cut them off after a while, or file them down. There's no point to horns if you can't even lift your head."
"And that doesn't hurt?"
"Oh, it hurts. They bleed a lot too, if you're not careful."
I sit up, kneeling behind him, tugging him back by the horns so I can look at them. I run my fingers over their ridges, hard thick bone dark as shadow. I can feel a few thin cracks on the surface, little flakes coming off under my touch.
Padraig rumbles beneath me, shaking his head and groaning. "Egh, itchy. Could you at least scratch a little while you're up there?"
I start scratching.
He leans into me, moaning loudly, "Aye, that's the spot. Harder."
"You really should do something about this," I note, scratching with both hands now.
He only grunts and grumbles in reply.
I observe all of Padraig's men the next morning, scanning their horns. Some seem to be suffering the same symptoms as Padraig—dry temples, flaking horns, and scowls that indicate some sense of discomfort. Others don't seem so troubled. Rikker, I notice, has the sleekest, smoothest horns of them all. Come to think of it, he always has his long, ivory curls polished to a shine.
I approach him that afternoon. "Rikker!"
He turns, towering above me. His carrot-colored moustache curves in a smile. "Dragonslayer," he greets me. "How can I help you?"
"I have a few questions about your horns."
"All right. Why don't we talk in the kitchens? I'll get you a drink."
I follow him down into the depths of the keep, finding a couple of unoccupied chairs while he procures two tankards of pale ale.
I take a long drink. "How do you care for your horns? How do you keep them so shiny?"
Rikker smiles proudly. "You want to know my secret, do you? You and half the keep. Truth is, I keep myself on a strict regimen, brush them with egg whites once a week, avoid using soap. You've got to keep them healthy if you want to avoid things like itchy horns or cankers."
"And how would I treat someone who, say, already had this itchy horn thing and didn't have the patience to make any huge life changes?"
He frowns, thoughtfully stroking his moustache. "Well, first you need a handful of iron shavings. You can use them with a bit of water to polish the horns—gently—and buff out those rough spots and bumps. Then you want to add balm to heal the dry patches, and finish with a layer of oil to keep them from drying out. It helps to rub it into the scalp around the horns too."
Rikker peers at me curiously. "What do you need to know all this for, anyway? You don't have horns."
His eyes narrow suspiciously. He finishes his drink and gets to his feet. "Come on. I'm going to show you something."
He takes me to the barracks and opens up the trunk at the foot of his bed. Digging inside, he pulls out a pair of what look like hollow steel horns. He unclasps one, and I realize what they are.
"Armor for your horns?"
He laughs, handing me the other. "Aye, something like that. We use them when things get serious. They protect the horns and make them even more pointy and dangerous."
I prick my finger on the tip. "Ouch."
Rikker takes it back. "Boss dinged his up pretty badly a few years ago, if you're looking to give him something. You'd just need a cast of his horns and Olen could fit him a new pair."
"How do you know it's for Padraig?"
Rikker grins, moustache spreading from ear to ear. "Ach, lass, it only takes a few minutes of indiscretion in the pantry before the whole keep knows what you're up to. Besides, it's not like you were keeping it so secret before, anyway."
"I told him that was a bad idea," I grumble. "And how the hell am I supposed to get a cast of his horns without him noticing?"
Rikker shrugs. "I guess you could find his old covers, if he still has them. Olen could probably work with those."
I sigh. Deep down, I knew this wasn't going to be easy.
I can't sleep, so I just wait for the inevitable hand at my back the next morning, the one that will push me out of bed. I've gotten good at falling, at least. I think Padraig has been rising earlier and earlier each morning, just to catch me unaware.
Soon it comes, the quick shove, the icy floor rushing up to meet me.
I groan softly. "Not today."
I hear him laugh somewhere above me. "Come on. Get dressed. Unless you're in the mood for a quickie."
"You go on," I tell him. "I'll catch up."
He looks down at me, a dubious expression on his face. "Why am I having trouble believing you?"
"Oh, just go."
"All right." He rises and starts to dress. "But you get double duty for being late."
"Fine." Double duty means I'll shovel snow for twice as long and run twice the number of laps, but a little extra work seems worth it to me.
I wait until I'm sure that Padraig's really gone before I rise and get dressed. I open his wardrobe and start poking around. Pretty soon I find them, his horn covers, tucked behind a spare pair of boots. They're massive, heavy steel cases, beaten and battered. Rikker warned me they'd be dinged up, but I didn't expect them to be in this poor condition. One has gouge marks that have shredded completely through the metal, with what appear to be teeth marks around the top.
"I'll have to ask for that story later," I mutter to myself.
I'm surprised he still has them, considering the condition they're in. He doesn't strike me as someone who just holds onto junk—his wardrobe is alarmingly close to empty, and I suspect he wears the same kilt for weeks in a row without sending it to be washed. He doesn't think anybody notices, since all his kilts are of the same dark weave, but I'm still suspicious.
I look down at the horn covers. They must be sentimental. In this shape, there's not much of a chance that Olen can use them to cast new covers anyway. Maybe I can convince him to repair them instead. I wrap them up in a spare cloak, careful not to jar them, and sneak from the room, past the great hall and out into the courtyard. Thanks to my efforts yesterday, there's a narrow pathway that's been shoveled through the snow, leading to the stables and the smithy.
I find Olen inside. As far as Padraig's men go, he's one of the stoutest, maybe a few inches taller than me without his horns. His horns actually make up for his lack of height, two sets of them spiraling gracefully upward from his temples.
"What're you here for, dragonslayer?" he greets me bluntly.
I drop my parcel onto the table and unwrap it. "Can you fix these?"
He frowns down at the covers. "Ah, for Padraig then? I heard you two were getting cozy."
"Can you fix them?"
Olen hums noncommittally. "You're asking a lot, dragonslayer. This would take weeks of work."
"You have until the solstice."
He throws his head back, laughing. "You are aware that's less than a fortnight away, right?"
I fold my arms across my chest. "So you're saying you can't do it." My skeptical expression stops his laughter short.
"Now, I didn't say that," he tells me. "I am the best smith in these mountains."
Olen's eyes narrow slightly. "Oh, come on. You think I don't see what you're doing?"
"Giving you a challenge?" I raise an eyebrow.
"Look, this is going to pull me away from a lot of important work. So why don't you tell me how you intend to repay me."
"What do you want?"
Olen glances around the smithy. "All right," he gives in. "I'll tell you what. My apprentice has been sick all week, and I need someone to clean this place up. You do that, and I'll have these done by solstice."
"So," he sighs. "When can I expect you to get to work?"
I'm already rolling up my sleeves. "How about now?"
I'm gone all day and well into the night, missing all three meals, pausing only to drink a bit of water that tastes suspiciously metallic. "Hey, you haven't been quenching your steel in this water, have you?"
Olen glances at the water barrel, then at me, and only laughs. "It won't kill you, dragonslayer. Might put some hair on your chest, though."
I return to my room sometime after midnight, sorer than if I'd spent the day training with Padraig, and a lot dirtier. Soot has caked into a layer on my skin, streaked only by my own sweat. I find a servant still awake down in the kitchens and beg for a bath. She takes pity on me, and soon the copper tub in my room has been filled with hot water.
I undress, throwing my clothes straight onto the fire, and sink into the bath with a groan. "Gods, that's good." I tilt my head back, letting the water soak through the layer of grime, softening it up so that it'll come off with a little scrubbing.
I've managed to wash most of the soot from my body before I hear my door creak open. I turn my head and see Padraig leaning in the doorway.
"I can tell where you've been," he notes, nodding at the scummy bathwater. "You're going to leave one hell of a ring on the tub."
"Aye," I laugh ruefully.
"I heard Olen had you cleaning out the forge."
"Yeah. My breastplate needed a few repairs. He said he'd help me if I helped him."
"Is that why you skipped out on training?"
"I didn't expect it to take so long," I explain.
"Mm hm," he grunts skeptically. "You missed a spot on your back there."
"I can't reach it."
"All right then," he sighs. "I'll get it. Where's the sponge?"
I hand it to him and lean forward. He kneels behind the tub and starts to scrub, hard.
"Hey! Ouch! Do you mind?" I protest, scooting away from him, water sloshing over the side of the tub. "Any harder and you'd be scraping the meat off my ribs."
"You could use a good scrubbing," he retorts, reaching for me. "Come here."
I try to fend him off, while he grabs my head and dunks me underwater. Splashing and spluttering, I snatch him by the horns and try to drag him into the tub. He's not having it, and it's not like I can win in a contest of strength, but I do manage to spill quite a bit of water down his front at least.
He finally retreats, rising to his feet, with me still clinging to his horns.
"Oh no, you don't," I growl.
Padraig stumbles around blindly, trying to pull me off him, but I put up a struggle. "Damn it, Mora," he curses in a muffled voice. "You're slipperier than a bar of soap."
"I didn't know you knew what soap felt like."
"Now you're just asking for it."
He manages to grab me by the waist, pulling me free. He doesn't set me down, though. He just swings me over one shoulder, carrying me through the doorway and down the corridor to his room.
"There's something about a squirming, squealing woman that makes me want to tie her down and give her a good, hard fucking," Padraig notes cheerfully. "Especially one who missed training this morning."
"I'll give you something to squeal about," I retort.
He laughs heartily and dumps me unceremoniously onto his bed, retrieving a length of rope and twisting it in his hands as he looms over me. "I certainly hope so."
The week of the solstice feels like one continuous celebration, with feasts and drinking and music every night. The servants slaughter fatted cows and pigs, the fresh meat a welcome substitute for the dry, salted rations we've been living off of for most of the winter. Pickled beets and eggs garnish each course, and jars of strawberry and huckleberry preserves have been opened, sweet and tart on a slice of freshly-baked bread. Doren even spends an entire day in the kitchen, mysteriously tight-lipped until after dinner, when he treats us to bowls of candied nuts, lightly dusted with nutmeg and cloves. We crunch happily on them, drinking mugs of Nils's hot five-day cider. Somehow, it gets better with each passing day.
Gifts are exchanged each evening. At first they're just little things, like friendly notes or paper flowers. A flock of messenger birds from the clan surprises us with letters from home. I get one from my father and mother, wishing me a happy solstice, and a letter with news from my brothers, who are enjoying a break in the fighting for the time being, roasting their nuts by a warm fire, as Dougal so delicately puts it.
"Word from your brothers?" Baldric asks, glancing over my shoulder, trying to seem casual.
"They're doing well," I reply with a shrug.
"Anything from Duncan?" His eyebrows rise hopefully.
"Aye. He sent you a letter, too." I hold out the roll of paper and wiggle my eyebrows suggestively at him.
A pink flush colors his cheeks as he takes the letter from me. "Let me see that."
I open my mouth to tease him, only to feel a sharp pinch on my backside. The next thing I know, Padraig's beside me, bending to press a kiss to my temple. He slips something into my hand and winks at me before sauntering away without a word.
I look down at the folded note in my hand.
"Speaking of love letters," Baldric laughs, "what's this say?"
He snatches it from me before I can stop him, holding it out of my reach as he unfolds it and reads aloud:
"Moraine went up north in the autumn,
Finding her love when she sought him.
He was her delight,
Fucked her every night,
For he truly adored her tight bottom."
"Aw, it must be love." Doren flutters his eyelashes at me and sighs exaggeratedly, leaning on my shoulder and making kissing noises.
"He's even writing you poetry now," Tagrit laughs.
Baldric returns the note to me, chortling, "Sounds like another verse for your 'Moraine of the West' series."
"Looks like she finally gets her happy ending," Doren agrees, nudging me knowingly with an elbow.
"Let's see that tight bottom!" Baldric shouts, encouraging the others to start clapping and chanting.
Flushing red, I laugh and let them lift me onto the table, turning and sticking my backside out mockingly to much cheering and applause. I hear a loud whistle pierce the din and turn to see Padraig grinning from across the room. I bow with a flourish.
But the real celebrating begins on the night of the solstice itself, when the fires burn bright and the candles are all lit. They'll be kept burning throughout the long night to greet the new year cheerfully in the morning. The feasting continues, but this time Padraig breaks out casks of fine red wine, gracing us with his traditional toast:
"To blood, brothers, and breasts—the first two are good, but the third one's the best!"
"To a new year!" the men cheer.
Padraig takes a long sip from his glass and growls, "To a new fucking year!"
Light trickles through the windows by the time we stumble to our beds. Padraig throws an arm around my shoulders and steers me to his room.
"I have something for you," he murmurs with a smile.
"More poetry, I hope."
He laughs. "Not quite." He lifts a parcel from the table and tosses it onto the bed in front of me.
I look down at the brown paper, wrapped in twine. "What is it?"
He nods at it. "Open it."
I untie the knots, pulling the paper back to reveal thick silver-tipped fur. I lift it, letting it unfold, a thick bearskin cloak, tailored to fit me.
"Try it on," Padraig encourages me, coming around the bed, turning me to face him. He fastens the clasp at my throat and holds me at arms' length, looking me over. "What do you think?"
"The one we killed? Aye. Figured you needed a cloak of your own, since you're always borrowing mine."
I laugh and pull him into a kiss. "Thank you."
He inclines his head in acknowledgement.
"I've got something for you, too." I gently push him onto the bed. "Sit there. I'll be right back."
"Naked, I hope," he rumbles good-humoredly.
"Later!" I retort with a laugh, ducking through the door.
I return with a satchel over my shoulder and his gift in my arms, wrapped loosely in velvet. He shoots me a suspicious glance.
He unwraps the cloth, revealing the horn covers. Olen outdid himself, not only repairing the bent steel and replacing the brass clasps, but flawlessly replicating the silver-chased pattern on the tips, polishing them to a mirror finish.
"Heard you might like these."
Padraig examines them quietly, his fingers gently tracing the curves of the metal, the chased silver pattern. "My old armor," he whispers, glancing up at me. I'm surprised to see that his eyes are wet.
"I take it you approve?"
He nods, reaching for me, cupping my face in his hands as he kisses me tenderly. With his brow pressed to mine, he murmurs, "These were made from my father's armor." Pulling back, he frowns slightly and adds, "Olen told me they were irreparably damaged."
"Maybe I'm just more persuasive than you are."
"Aye, well he was mad at me at the time, now that I think about it."
I laugh softly. "Come on then. I'm not done with you yet."
He watches me curiously as I shrug the satchel off my shoulder and dig through it, pulling out the makeshift horn-polishing kit that Rikker helped me assemble.
Kneeling behind him on the bed, I pour a little water onto a cloth and pull his head into my lap, scrubbing his horns with the wet cloth. As soon as they're damp enough, I gather a handful of iron shavings and buff out the bumps and scratches just like Rikker instructed. Padraig leans back, eyes closed, letting out all kinds of happy sounds. I wash his horns again, then rub Rikker's balm into them. It has a pungent odor, but Padraig certainly seems to like the way it feels. The closest I can come to describing the sound he makes is a low sort of purr that rumbles in his chest.
By the time I apply the oil, massaging it into his horns and his temples, he groans, "Gods, Mora. This is why I love you."
I stop, hands on his horns, and look down at him. "What?"
Padraig opens his eyes, meeting my gaze. "Don't act so surprised," he chuckles. "I think I've made my feelings for you pretty clear."
"Well, yeah, I suppose so. Hearing you say it, though… That's different."
He sits up and turns to me, cupping the side of my face in a hand. "I love you."
I grab him by the horns and kiss him. "I love you, too."
He pulls me closer. "I think it's time to welcome in the new year."
"And how do you suggest we do that?"
"A good, old-fashioned, midwinter fuck," he growls against my lips.
"Wait," I whisper. "Let me wash this oil off my hands."
He takes me by the wrists. "No, my love. If anything, we're going to need more oil. Plenty more."