“So when you said Lokan taught you to fight while you were holed up in the mountains, what you really meant was you really, really suck at it.” Kyr tilted his head a bit, looking down at Solan where he lay sprawled on the carpet, trying to catch his breath. “A lot.”
Solan rolled his eyes. “You try fighting her.” He pushed himself up to a sitting position and looked at Ceridwen, standing at the other end of the area they’d cleared in the living room. She just grinned at them both, not even breathing hard.
“Yeah, right. I’m having way more fun watching her hand you your ass.” Kyr waved a hand. “Get back to it, you’re the one who wanted something to do.”
Solan gave him a dirty look, then sighed and stepped forward into the middle of the cleared area again, settling himself into position. Grinning, Kyr sat back to watch, admiring the play of muscles in Solan’s bare back as he grappled with Ceridwen. This time Solan even managed to hold his own for a few minutes before Ceridwen knocked his feet out from under him in a move that had even Kyr wincing. Solan spread both hands and asked for mercy, staying where he was on the floor for a few minutes to catch his breath again.
Three weeks had passed since Lokan’s collapse, though it had felt a lot longer. He was recovering, finally beginning to heal, but Torin had said it would still be a month or more before he was fully back to normal. The thought of another month or two stuck inside the house and surrounded by snow was almost physically painful, no matter how much more comfortable Kyr was feeling surrounded by Fae. He still didn’t like them much but as time passed—and after a few more lectures from Torin—he was starting to accept it.
“Help me up.” Solan waved a hand at him. “I still think you should go up against Ceridwen.”
Kyr sized Ceridwen up even as he was giving his hand to Solan and pulling him up onto his feet. “She’s twice my fucking size.”
“That’s exactly why it would be funny.”
“I wouldn’t hurt you.” Ceridwen grinned. “Much. Come on, show me what they teach you in those human training camps. If you can put me down, I’ll do the dishes for the rest of our stay here.”
Kyr considered it, weighing his dislike of washing dishes against the fact that she had a good six inches and a hundred pounds on him. He caught sight of Solan’s smirk and straightened his shoulders, arching an eyebrow at Ceridwen. “Laundry too?”
“You’re that confident?” She laced her fingers together and stretched her arms out in front of her, popping her knuckles audibly. “Of course, if I put you down, you have to do all that yourself. Solan’s not allowed to help.”
“Not even if he really wants to? He’d want to help, right, Solan?” Kyr gave Solan his most charming grin.
Solan snorted. “No way. You lose, you’re doing it all.”
“Thanks, love you too.” Kyr stuck his tongue out and turned back to Ceridwen, trying to judge the best way to go up against her. She would overpower him in a contest of pure strength and he’d seen for himself how quick she could be, especially with such a long reach. Sighing, he resigned himself to a month of washing dishes and doing the laundry for six people, and stepped into the center of the cleared area.
Five seconds later, flat on his back with the air knocked out of him, he was regretting ever agreeing and wondering how the human army had ever managed to put up a resistance against any Fae like Ceridwen. Groaning, he sat up and accepted the hand Ceridwen offered him, letting her pull him up to his feet.
“Even I lasted longer,” Solan said, laughing.
“Should work on your stamina, Kyr.” Ceridwen patted his shoulder. “Otherwise Solan’s going to start complaining.”
“Trust me, in that area Solo has nothing to complain about.” Kyr rubbed at his back where he’d hit the floor. “Best two out of three?”
“Only if you think you can actually give me a challenge.” The way she looked him up and down sparked a brief flare of anger in his chest.
“Try me,” he snapped, but before either of them could move back into position Torin poked his head inside the room.
“Roisin says to stop thumping around and come for lunch.” He glanced around at the furniture, pushed to the walls, and studied Solan, who was only just pulling his shirt back on. “Having fun?”
“I am,” Ceridwen said.
“Tor, you take her on. Didn’t you say you were state champion at fighting or something?” Kyr raised both eyebrows, grinning.
“At boxing, yeah. Somehow I don’t think Roisin would appreciate me KOing anyone in her living room though. You make chicken noises at me, Kyr, and I’ll kick your ass.”
“I’m a little insulted you think you can KO me so easily,” Ceridwen said. “I think you need to show me you’re not all talk, Sergeant.”
Torin smiled, glanced over his shoulder, then stepped into the room. “All right. Let’s go then.”
Kyr pulled Solan back out of the way, trying not to grin too broadly. He’d seen Torin use his fists a few times, mostly in sparring matches but once or twice in deadly seriousness, and he’d been impressed every time. Watching Torin stretch and face Ceridwen, he noted that Ceridwen was smart enough to keep back a little and the first moves exchanged were slow and almost lazy as they tested each other out. Smiling, Ceridwen attempted the same move that had knocked Kyr off his feet, a rapid strike at Torin’s ankles that Torin avoided like he’d seen it a thousand times before. After that the fight started in earnest, for all that it was only a sparring match.
Torin avoided a blow aimed at his ribs and blocked the next blow with his forearm, though the force of it sent him stumbling back a step. Ceridwen quickly followed up the advantage and almost got through his guard before he twisted away, hooking a fist into her side as he did. She grunted and then laughed, tossed her hair back over her shoulder, and grabbed him in a hold that prevented him from using his fists. He squirmed and kicked out at her knee instead, staggering her, and almost got free before she used a throw that landed him on his back hard enough to rattle the collection of figurines in a nearby cupboard.
“Teach me that move,” he managed when he could breathe again. “It’ll come in handy next time Kyr mouths off.”
“Maybe later.” Ceridwen helped him to his feet, pressing her free hand against her side. “You hit hard.”
Kyr exchanged a glance with Solan and they both grinned almost in unison. Taking Solan’s hand, Kyr led the way down to the kitchen and dining room, dropping into his usual seat while Solan went into the kitchen to see if Roisin needed help bringing the food out to the table. Ceridwen and Torin joined him a few moments later, still discussing different fighting techniques. Kyr thought back to Torin’s comment that Ceridwen was almost scarier than Lokan and smiled a little to himself, relaxing back into his chair as Solan and Roisin brought out lunch.
They were halfway through the meal when Lokan limped into the dining room, using one arm to brace himself against the wall. Solan and Torin got up almost in unison, exchanging a look, then Solan carefully sat down again and let Torin go to support Lokan. Feeling his good mood leaking away, Kyr concentrated on finishing his lunch, watching from the corner of his eye as Torin helped Lokan to a seat.
“Have the birds come yet?” Lokan asked, waving away the food Ceridwen offered him. His voice was rough and hoarse, but he sounded stronger and colour had begun to creep back into his face.
“Yes.” Roisin finished her drink. “Should you be out of bed?”
“Much as you might like me to stay there, I can’t spend all my time lying down. What did the birds bring? News?”
“Yes.” Roisin didn’t seem inclined to say more and Kyr glanced back at Lokan, trying not to feel like he was watching a tennis match. Lokan’s expression had gone completely flat and Kyr could sense Solan shifting uncomfortably beside him, though Ceridwen hadn’t even looked up from her food.
“Show me,” Lokan said, then added somewhat grudgingly, “Please.”
Roisin rose without a word and left the room, returning ten minutes later with a sheaf of papers packed neatly into a folder. She handed it to Lokan and went back to her seat to eat the last few bites of her lunch. Kyr didn’t bother trying to be subtle about watching Lokan open the folder and flip through the papers, hoping that Torin, looking over Lokan’s shoulder, would share the contents later.
“Hey, Kyr, don’t forget the dishes.” Ceridwen leaned over him and put her empty plate down on his. She just laughed at the look he shot her, squeezed his shoulder, and went to sit on Lokan’s other side, taking some of the papers he’d started spreading out on the table and reading through them.
Grumbling under his breath, Kyr took the dishes into the kitchen and started washing them, trying to hear actual words from the murmur of conversation in the dining room. Aware that Ceridwen would probably make him redo the dishes if he did them too fast, he worked quickly but carefully, and went back out into the dining room as soon as he’d finished drying the last pan. Solan had joined the little group at the head of the table but Roisin had already left. Sliding in beside Solan, Kyr looked over the papers spread out in front of them and realized they detailed the movements of both the Fae and human fighters still battling it out in the world outside the snowed-in valley.
“They have footholds here, here, and here,” Lokan was saying, marking out spots on a map. It took Kyr a moment to recognize the land it was showing as part of the country that the Fae had already taken over. Looking through the papers confirmed that the humans had been taking back much of the land they’d lost, though the Fae still held most of the north, where the snow made battle impractical.
“So you’re losing?” Kyr asked, ignoring the look Torin shot him.
“You can hold off on your celebration,” Lokan replied without looking up. “We haven’t lost yet. But the army is too fractured and the General cannot hold the wild Fae. Groups have split off and turned rogue, attacking indiscriminately.”
“Not much you can do about it from here.”
This time Lokan did look up, the expression in his violet eyes so direct that Kyr squirmed, though there was no real anger there. “True.”
“Not much anyone can do in the middle of winter.” Torin leaned over to tap the surface of the map. “They might have regained most of the south, but the north is still Fae territory, and splintered army or not, you have a lot more experience moving in the snow and the cold than most of the human leaders. That’s not even getting into the magic factor.”
Lokan shook his head. “I’ve been too long here doing nothing.”
“Except dying,” Ceridwen pointed out. “I didn’t put all that work into you in order for you to go undo it all by rushing out of here. It’s winter. Things will be mostly at a stalemate until spring anyway, so you can just sit tight and concentrate on recovering, old man.” She flicked a glance up at the empty space where Lokan’s antlers had once been and added, “And there’s that other problem. If you’ll remember, we didn’t get a whole lot of respect on our way up here.”
“Then I will make them respect me again.”
“By doing what, waging a one-man war against everyone?” Torin arched an eyebrow.
“If I have to.” Lokan gathered the papers and put them back into the folder, leaving just the map on the table. “But for now I will wait. We’ll move once spring comes.” He pushed himself up from the table and limped out of the room, taking the folder with him. Kyr saw Torin and Ceridwen exchange a glance, then Ceridwen made a slight motion with her head, sending Torin after him.
“He’s up to something,” she said once Torin had left. “Hopefully Torin can get it out of him before we end up in a battle we can’t actually win.”
“He did say something a little while ago,” Solan said. “About changing things now, because of something Lokan said. I don’t know how though. How’s he going to lead when people don’t even think he should be king anymore?”
“So long as he doesn’t get you or Torin hurt, I say let him do whatever he wants.” Kyr got up from his seat and stretched. “I’m going for a walk. Won’t be long, otherwise my balls will freeze off.”
“Wouldn’t that be a shame,” Ceridwen said dryly.
Ignoring her, Kyr looked at Solan in invitation, then shrugged when Solan shook his head. He layered up in the front hallway, making sure his skin was completely covered, and opened the front door to step outside. The sun was still bright in the cloudless blue sky and a path had been cleared at least around the house and the paddock housing the cows, but it was still so cold he walked stiffly for the first few minutes, until the exercise began to warm him up. Running was useless in this weather but he felt better for getting outside and moving, walking the circular path a few times before the cold forced him back inside.
He spent the rest of the day flipping through the books in Roisin’s library without actually reading any of them, playing cards with Solan, napping, and wishing he had something better to do. Even having to do the dishes again after dinner—to Roisin’s evident amusement when Ceridwen explained their deal—was better than nothing. He went to bed early, but Solan woke him up only half an hour later by climbing in under the blankets, bringing a breath of cold air with him.
“Don’t let all the fucking warmth out,” he grumbled, pulling his side of the blankets closer around himself.
“Sorry.” Solan draped an arm over him, nuzzling at his neck. “Better?”
“A little.” Kyr pulled him in and kissed him, sliding his hands up under Solan’s shirt.
“Torin’s on his way up,” Solan said, reluctantly pulling away.
“Really? He’s got the shittiest timing ever.” Kyr sighed as the door opened again. “Hi Tor.”
“Am I interrupting?” Torin sounded amused.
“Yes.” Kyr ignored the poke in the ribs Solan gave him. “How come you’re up here and not staying with Lokan again?”
“He doesn’t need to be watched all the time now. And sleeping in the armchair’s killing my neck.” Torin crossed to the other bed and changed quickly to pyjamas before getting under the covers. “Also, cock-blocking you is hilarious.”
Twisting, Kyr grabbed one of the pillows and whipped it at Torin, his aim accurate even in the dark. Torin only laughed and threw it back, while Solan ducked down under the blankets to get out of the line of fire. Grabbing the pillow again, Kyr scrambled out of bed and swung it at Torin, who met him with his own pillow. The ensuing pillow fight didn’t end until Torin dropped his pillow back on the bed, still laughing, and wrestled Kyr down to the floor, pinning his arms.
“Give up, Kyr?” He grinned when Kyr only squirmed harder. “Come on, you’ve never beaten me once.”
“That’s because you cheat,” Kyr growled, trying to twist away when Torin freed one hand to start tickling his ribs. “Okay, fuck, I give in!”
“Good boy.” Torin planted an obnoxiously loud kiss on his forehead and let him up, backing away with a grin and both hands held up defensively. Kyr just stuck his tongue out and crawled back in beside Solan, who had been watching them with amusement.
“You think Lokan’s okay now, Torin?” Solan asked.
“For now, yeah.” Torin threw himself onto his own bed, punching his pillow back into shape before pulling the blankets up. “We’ll see what happens when we get out of here. For now, sit tight. It’s going to be a long month.”