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Hearth


by wicked_summer

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It was snowing, and windy as well. The cold clawed its way through chinks in the walls, and though the downstairs rooms – just the living room with its hearthfire and the larder with its small wooden table – were warm enough, Ice could feel the cold pushing down on him from above, cruel and determined. It was as though winter had realised there was no one else in the house, and seeped its way slowly in to fill the unclaimed space.

     Ice got up and went upstairs, hearing the familiar creak of wood beneath his heavy clawed feet. There was a lot of battered old furniture, and he broke a table into pieces and used it to board over the windows that gaped into the night. He lined the cracks in the walls and beneath doors with torn fabric from old blankets he didn’t need, and when it was all done he went back down to the warmth and light of the fire. Ice was a Bori, and his fur was thick, but nights seemed colder now he was alone. Darker, too.

     Ice sighed and, slowly, let his head fall backward until it leaned against the back of the chair. The fire was the only source of light, and the corners of the room were thick with shadow. He’d dealt with all the holes he could find, but still the wind sang and screamed and tore tiles loose from the roof. He’d have to deal with those as well, unless he wanted snow breaking through the weakened roof and filling his house with drifts and damp.

     “Tomorrow,” he told the fire, watching it flicker, watching it dance. “No one should have to be out in this weather, not on Givingday.”

     The loose tiles shuddered and slammed. It was strange, Ice thought suddenly, how much they sounded like someone knocking at the door. And then a voice that most definitely wasn’t the wind’s was calling, “Hey! Hey!” and Ice, startled, got up and went to answer it.

     Though much of the rest of the house was falling apart, the door was still grand and old and imposing, made of dark wood carved in worn rounded shapes. Ice closed his paw around the doorknob, twisted it to the right, was unsuccessful.

     “Heyyyyy,” said the outside voice, anxiously. “It’s cold out here.”

     Ice turned the doorknob slowly and carefully to the left, to get it off its guard, and then jerked it swiftly to the right again. He could then open the door, a little awkwardly: it was stiff, and it creaked in complaint. Ice blinked at the filthy bundle of fur and rags on his front steps.

     He was an Usul, his bow too discoloured to make out what colour it might once have been, his rough grimy fur made beautiful by the snow melting in it. He looked to be a few years older than Ice, though it was hard to judge; his face was young, but his eyes were fearful and greedy and old, and darted from thing to thing too quickly to pin down.

     “Hey,” the Usul said again, “I come to ask, uh, food of your hearth and protection of your shelter and that.” He hopped in, shook the snow off his head in a brisk jerking movement that made his ears shake, looked around. “Nice place you’ve got here. Really... uh...”

     Ice, a little wrongfooted by the sudden visitor and the strangeness of him, rather wished he’d thought to close the door, or, better yet, not open it in the first place, but it was too late for that now. He turned to look at his house, trying to see it as the stranger would, noticing with mild shame the dust on the mantel, the darkness in the corners, the sagging rotting chairs. He didn’t think he liked this small shifty person, but a guest was a guest.

     “Really not outside,” the Usul finished brightly, “not very outside at all. I like it.” He shrugged off his soaked coat. Beneath it he was wearing another coat, only slightly less tattered. It had long ragged tears in it that showed he was only wearing one thin layer of clothes underneath, far too little for this weather. He tossed the first coat dismissively onto the floor and scurried swiftly to the fire, which he settled himself at.

     “It’s ‘warmth from your hearth, safety from your roof, food from your table’,” Ice said, watching him. “That’s the traditional thing to say.” The Usul was shivering, and when Ice said this he glanced at him – quickly, his eyes twitching on again to roam randomly over the fire and furniture and walls, but there was a blank, glassy look to his eyes that Ice did not like at all. And he sat hunched in the chair, his coat pulled tightly about himself despite its dampness. He must be very cold.

     “Sounds nice,” the Usul said.

     “What does?”

     The Usul’s brow crinkled for a moment, as though he didn’t understand. Then he said: “Food.”

     Ice nodded. The Usul was very thin. “There’s a flagon of fruit juice on the mantelpiece,” he said. His sisters had left it there, smiling and talking about seasonal cheer and farewell presents. He’d forgotten to drink it. “Grape, with cinnamon and cloves. I’ll heat it.” He went over and poured the juice (already warm from the fire, good) into a pot to heat. It wouldn’t take long.

     “Meaning no disrespect,” the Usul said, watching this mournfully, “but, when I said food, I actually meant... food – y’know, food, as in food of the sort that is food, not drink. Drink isn’t food, not even sort of food.”

     “My sisters gave me this,” Ice told him, a little irrelevantly. “It’s costly.” The Usul’s eyes skittered off him, and Ice explained, “You haven’t eaten for a long time, yes? Drink the juice first, it might help your stomach deal with it. More to the point, it’s warm. I don’t have any warm food around. You need heat; you look half-frozen.”

     “Don’t need heat,” the Usul complained, “need food.” But he hunched closer to the fire. Ice smirked a little in amusement at that, and the Usul glared at him and picked a picture from the mantel, as though that was why he’d moved. “Who’s this, then?” he asked curiously, angling it to catch the light better. “You, looks like, and – these your kin? They’re pretty.”

     Ice saw how his fingers were still shaking from cold. “Put it down,” he said, very quietly, and took a step closer. The Usul gave him a scared shifty look and hunched deeper in his coat, and just then the picture fell from his fingers. Ice cried out and dived for it, fishing it from the fire just as it started to char. He beat the ashes from it, smoothed it out with his claws, breathed a ragged sigh of relief when he saw it was more or less unharmed. He turned to the Usul furiously. “They’re gone!” he yelled, which wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all.

     The Usul flinched backwards at his tone, and Ice realised that he was shouting at a guest, someone to whom he’d promised protection. It shook him, and he took a step backward and said, “I’ll get food.”

     The kitchen was dark and damp and smelled of cold. Ice lit a lamp and set it on a shelf to see what he was doing. There was bread, but when he rapped it experimentally with his knuckles it was rock-solid. He took it anyway, along with some cheese he found hiding at the back, and some snowberries. The berries were slightly shrivelled, and smelt over-sweet, but the cold had preserved them decently. There weren’t any glasses, but there was an old whittled cup and a chipped ceramic mug. He put all these things on a plate and frowned at them. He was trying to remember the last time he’d eaten. It seemed longer than it should have been, somehow. He went back into the living room and said, “I’m sorry.”

     “’s okay,” the Usul said, rubbing his hands together to warm them, “I mean, I’m not exactly sane either. Are those snowberries? I could use some snowberries.”

     Ice let the comment pass. He sat on the edge of the chair opposite the Usul and said, “Really. I’m not usually like this. I used to be... friendly, and painfully naïve, and it would never have even occurred to me to treat a guest so poorly. Hospitality laws are there for a reason.”

     The Usul shrugged, watching the plate hungrily. Ice smiled and balanced it on his knees, trying to break the bread; he managed it, eventually, by slamming his fist into it, hard. Crumbs scattered onto the ground, but the bread was halved, more or less. He passed half to the Usul and said, “We’ve broken bread together, which means you’re safe here. My name’s Ice. Who’re you?”

     The Usul froze with the bread halfway to his mouth. “Rust,” he said eventually. “Rusty. Good old Rusty, that’s me, Rust.”

      Ice knew he was lying, and suspected, somehow, that if Ice was the kind of person to have expensive silverware lying around the house, Rust was the kind of person who would even now be shoving it into his pockets. But it didn’t really matter.

     “You still are, you know,” Rust said, gnawing on bread.

     “Hm?”

     Rust shot him a crooked-toothed smile. “Naïve. Letting some stranger into your house. Who follows hospitality laws anymore? It’s not like they’re, actual, actually actual...” He was babbling, and he snapped his mouth shut abruptly and then said, through gritted teeth, “... laws.”

     “Some things go beyond law,” Ice said softly, and he ate a berry. It was sickly sweet, tasting of rot. He grimaced and offered the bunch to Rust. “People still follow hospitality here because there’s so much danger. They don’t like the thought of some stranger wandering alone in the cold and the dark, lost and freezing – they want to offer aid...”

     Rust had been partway through swallowing the whole bunch of snowberries, and at that he gave a snort of laughter that turned into a choking cough. Ice tensed, but Rust waved a hand in dismissal and sank back into his chair, rubbing at his chest until the coughing stopped. It was a bad cough. Ice hoped the juice would be warmed soon. “Sorry,” Rust wheezed, “sorry, but you, you’re, you’re so...”

     “Naïve?”

     “’s not that folk do this out of compassion or whatever. They help the strangers wandering alone...” At that point he widened his eyes and spread out his hands in an overdramatic gesture. “Because one day the stranger might be them. That’s all there is to it. Just people looking out for themselves, like always.”

     Ice shrugged. “Maybe. But I’m not like that.” Or he didn’t used to be. He’d used to want to help people, hadn’t he? He didn’t really remember. It seemed so long ago, back before he’d been left here all alone. He’d never realised loneliness had such a bitter taste; it lingered in his mouth, sharp and sour and unwelcome. “Anyway, they had reasons. There used to be stories that spirits of the Mountain would bring their wrath down on the unwary.” He widened his eyes, spread out his hands. Rust gave an appreciative little laugh. “Horrible vengeance for those who didn’t treat them right. That kind of thing. You’d tell me if you were a vengeful Mountain spirit, wouldn’t you?”

     “I am,” Rust said solemnly. “I am here to take revenge on you for your truly terrible bread. And for not sharing that cheese.” At that, Ice gave a quiet ‘oh!’ and passed the cheese over to Rust. He’d never much liked cheese anyway. Rust went on, “Anyway, if either of us is a veeeengeful Mountain spirit, it’s you.”

     “...What?”

     “Sitting in a deserted house that once was grand?” Rust said, taking a bite of cheese. He screwed up his face in dislike, but took another bite anyway, and another, quick rapid bites as though the food would disappear if he didn’t catch it in time. “A strange grave white-furred person named Ice?”

     Ice laughed, surprised. “Fair point. Alright, I swear not to take vengeance on you if you swear the same. How’s that?”

     “Well,” Rust said, and raised the last heel of bread in a kind of salute. “Much appreciated. Very kind of you.”

     “You’d be safe anyway,” Ice said absentmindedly, picking up the mug and cup, standing. “If I was... I don’t know, fey or vengeful or cruel.” Or mad. “Hospitality works both ways. You’ve sat by my hearth, you’ve eaten my food, I’ve offered you my protection. I couldn’t hurt you.”

     “If you were fey or vengeful or cruel you might not obey hearth-laws,” Rust pointed out.

     “Fortunate for you that I’m not, then.” He checked the spiced juice, and saw with pleasure that it was ready. He pulled the pot from the fire, carefully, and settled it on the mantelpiece, letting the mixture stop bubbling before he poured it. “This kind of thing is important to me. Less so...” He stopped, abruptly, and poured the juice, even though it was too hot and it hissed at him. He was glad that his back was to Rust. Less so now than before. Nothing seems important, now.

     “Stupid laws, if you ask me,” Rust said, leaning back into his chair. He was a lot more dried out now, his fur fluffy and tousled, and he was looking a lot happier now he was no longer damp. He was still shivering, though, and his eyes still had that unsettling glassy sheen. Maybe they always did. “What keeps you safe?”

     “The same thing that keeps you safe,” Ice said patiently, passing him the mug, as it was the larger of the two. “It works both ways. I give you hearthwarmth and protection, and in return you don’t steal anything or, I don’t know, slit my throat as I sleep.”

     “I couldn’t do that.”

     Ice chuckled. “Good?” he said, settling comfortably back into his chair. He took a sip of the juice. It was hot and spicy and sweet, and it burned his tongue a little. He could feel it coursing down his throat and into his stomach, and it warmed him.

     “The fur on your neck, it’s way too thick,” Rust continued. “Couldn’t get a knife into it. It’d be better to— ” He stopped, abruptly, perhaps noticing how Ice was staring at him. He took a hasty gulp of juice, and then winced at the heat of it. “Sorry,” he said, his voice low and unhappy, “I didn’t... I say things without knowing I say them, I... Ice? You alright?”

     Ice had lowered his cup a little and was staring into it, distantly. Rust’s chatter had been a welcome distraction up until that point, but that comment had been enough to jar him away and back into his thoughts, the same old endless thoughts. He was thinking of his kin, his kin who had left with barely an explanation and barely a concern, as though they’d never thought of how it would be for him. Ice all alone, no one but himself for company, in a house far too large for him, no one but snow for Ice.

     “They really left like that?”

     Ice’s head jolted up, and he flushed. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud. And... oh. Did I speak in third-person?”

     “You did,” Rust confirmed.

     “You must think me mad,” said Ice, and he gave a bitter sort of laugh and added, past caring about how a host was meant to act, “not that I can blame you, I think that too. Sometimes I hear things that can’t be there, and I don’t think I’ve slept for... And sometimes I don’t see things that are there. And, and I miss them, and I love them, and I hate them for leaving, and I don’t know why, and sometimes I think maybe they did tell me and I just don’t... remember. Why wouldn’t I want to remember? What happened? And here I am, on the Day of Giving, the day you’re meant to be with friends and kin and loved ones, and I’m babbling like a madman to someone who I don’t even know, who doesn’t even know me, someone with whom I have nothing in common. And...” He realised he was standing, for some reason, and he collapsed back into his chair unhappily. “And living hurts. It never used to.”

     Ice felt a touch, and looked up in surprise. The Usul had moved forward so he was perched on the edge of his chair, and his hand rested on Ice’s knee reassuringly. “Don’t know about the rest of that stuff,” Rust said, taking his hand away, “but the way I see it, we do have one thing in common.”

     “Yes?”

     “Right now,” Rust said, meeting his eyes squarely for the first time that evening, “right now, right at this instant, right here, right now...” He stopped, frowned, shook his head, finished: “Here and now neither of us is alone.”

     Ice stared at him. Then he smiled and said, “Do you want more?” with a tilt of one ear towards the juice pot. Rust smiled in return, a quick nervous smile, and held out his mug. And they drank to the darkness, and to the cold, and to the warmth.

The End

 
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