There’s meat on the table tonight. Kari is suspicious of this until Daggeir thanks Corporal Gloi for the gift, an apparent apology for the bother of changing billets. It is never explained to Kari why Gloi and his soldiers are here, and Kari does not need an explanation. Not really. He’s not simple, nor a fool. He sees the way Gloi looks at him, the soft smiles the soldier sends his way. Gloi turns to him again and again, asking questions of him, directing his observations, drawing Kari into the conversation no matter how Kari tries to remain unnoticed.
It is clear that Daggeir dislikes it. Gloi speaks warmly of Kari, and Daggeir’s mouth twists with the things he wants to say. But he holds them to himself, and Kari can only be glad of it.
Still, Kari doesn’t understand why. Daggeir is older than Gloi, with a great beard. Gloi is clean-shaven, his hair braided into two neat tails. Fussy, Daggeir might have said on any other day. Prissy, perhaps. Daggeir disdains men like Gloi and women like the two soldiers seated beside him, with their symmetrical braids and sharply tweezed brows, their nails filed flat and straight. Daggeir braids his own hair in a single tail, carves his brows into heavy lines, files his nails round–as befits a warrior, he says.
To see Daggeir hold his tongue now is…odd. Kari doesn’t know what to think.
It must be all their steel, the rattle of their chain and the weight of the swords they carry, their great spears. Daggeir’s spears hang above the hearth with his shield, but they have not come down since he gave up on a son of his own, and saw no use in keeping them in condition.
Kari has no spears of his own. He hasn’t quite ceased to resent that.
“Your son is a fine young man,” Gloi says, and Kari sees how Daggeir jerks around to glare.
“Kari,” Gloi says, smiling.
Daggeir’s mouth works for a moment as though he is chewing a slug. Then– “The boy is no son of mine.”
Gloi blinks. Then he says, with some censure, “It is kind of you then, to take Kari in.”
Daggeir grunts, neither argument nor agreement.
“Do you mean to apprentice him? Or enlist him in the service of our Jarl? My lord takes on any young person hale of body and spirit. I would be happy to speak for him,” Gloi says, all smiles again.
There is a long silence. Daggeir stares at Gloi, his eyes burning with something that could be anger, or something else.
Maybe Daggeir is afraid. Kari wonders at it and then, yes. Daggeir is afraid. Of Gloi.
“I have not thought on it,” Daggeir says at length.
Gloi hums, leaning back to regard Kari as if he were a sow at market. “He’s old enough. How old are you Kari? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“Nineteen,” his mother says, the only thing she has said all evening.
“A man indeed!” Gloi gestures expansively with his cup. “Well, think on it. Kari may not have the build of a frontline soldier, but we have need of scouts, and knowledge of these hills and forests is worth much.”
It burns for a moment, that he should mention Kari’s height, but then … it is meant kindly enough and Kari turns his face away, unwilling to see pity on Gloi’s face or disdain on Daggeir’s.
The talk turns to the winter, matters down on the plain. Daggeir cares little for politics, but he has a taste for stories of adventure and Gloi has many, though never his own. He talks of heroes Kari has never heard of, battles won by cunning and deceit, and the sack of far off towns and cities, and Daggeir listens with an eager ear.
Kari listens, but not so much to the slaughter. He hears other things, the places Gloi glosses over. A war in Logilandi’s north, but he does not say with whom. People displaced, but not by what. Something called the Purge, only he distracts Daggeir from that with a flask of brandy.
“Kari?” Gloi lifts the flask, smiling again. He’s always smiling, and it makes him less unhandsome and more tolerable to look at but the flutter it stirs in Kari’s belly unsettles him and he does not know how to respond. “Will you?”
Kari ducks his head, and wishes Gloi would not look at him like that where anyone can see.
“You can try it from my cup,” Gloi says, offering the cup, and he’s impossible. Doesn’t he know what he’s doing? If he makes Kari feel like this, then Kari isn’t responsible for what happens next. He isn’t. He can’t be.
He takes the cup, his face flaming with humiliation, and sips from it. The brandy sears a line down his throat all the way to his belly. He licks the trace of it from his lip, and Gloi’s eyes are a pale, shallow blue, like the winter sky.
“Have another,” Gloi says, but Kari opens his mouth and the words just fall out.
“What’s the Purge?”
One of Gloi’s soldiers shifts, her knee thunking against the table. Gloi waggles a finger, his mouth curving into only the shadow of a smile this time. “You’re clever.” He presses the cup on Kari, so Kari drinks again, and then Gloi begins a new story. It’s long and convoluted, and in the end it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any Purge at all, but Daggeir, at least, is captivated.
At the end Kari has learned nothing, he thinks, except for two things. First, that whatever the Purge is, Gloi does not want him to know about it.
And second? Now Kari won’t be able to rest until he does.
Two nights ago, when the Jarl’s soldiers first arrived in Palrunstadr, Kari had been exiled from the hearth to the loft. It was comfortable enough up there on a pad of blankets, but so far from the fire, and the chill winter air nipped in between the roof planks leaving Kari cold and shivering all night.
Tonight, however, Gloi declares it too beastly cold to sleep alone, and orders his soldiers to bunk in together.
“Kari,” he says, smiling over his cup. “You can bunk with me.”
Kari’s face goes hot. If he’d wondered what Gloi’s intentions were before, now he’s certain. He mumbles something insensible and tries not to see the look that passes between Daggeir and his mother.
“I should wash up.” Gloi directs it at no-one, but one of his soldiers stands up to ask Kari’s mother for a kettle, and sets about fetching and boiling the water.
When it’s ready, Gloi asks Kari to show him where the washroom is. No-one else says anything.
Kari takes Gloi and the kettle and a candle out to the wash house. It’s freezing, but Gloi strips out of his tunic. His shoulders are broad and heavy, and Kari watches the play of muscle across his back until he realises that he is watching. He mumbles an excuse and turns to go, but Gloi calls, “Don’t leave,” and Kari doesn’t leave.
Gloi wets a cloth and offers it to him, turning far enough that Kari can see the whole length of his chest and his hard belly. His body is a powerfully attractive thing, but oddly bare, all the hair removed. Or perhaps he simply does not grow hair. Kari’s own chest is as smooth as a girl’s, but Gloi is, well, a man in ways Kari isn’t.
There’s a scar across his chest. It’s old, healed, but it must have been painful when it was cut. Kari wants to touch it, the same way he touched the wolf today, but he doesn’t dare.
Gloi pushes the wet cloth into Kari’s hand. “You can wash my back.”
He turns away, soaping another cloth for his neck and chest and under his arms, and Kari does as he’s told.
He’s never touched anyone like this before, never the naked skin of someone’s back. The flickering candlelight makes mysteries of Gloi’s body, and Kari thinks, I’m touching him and he is allowing it, and, If I took off my tunic would he do the same for me? and, Is that a thing I want? I don’t know.
“You have good hands,” Gloi says, and it’s so unexpected Kari nearly drops the cloth. “Clever hands and a clever mind. I don’t think you lied today. But then again, I’m inclined to believe every word out of your mouth.”
Kari bites his lip, and tries not to tremble.
“You don’t know about the Purge, or the dire wolves, but you saw one. And it let you live. I don’t know what that means but I intend to find out.” He turns to grin at Kari over his shoulder. “You must understand the need to know things.”
It’s true. Are they more alike than Kari thought? There is something about Gloi that makes him difficult to ignore. Kari isn’t sure if it’s the same thing Gloi apparently wants from Kari, but the need to know makes Kari restless, and he fidgets as Gloi scours his teeth and spits into the trough.
Now Gloi’s hands are busy at the waist of his trews, and he’s unfastening them, drawing them down. Kari jerks away from him, but all Gloi does is wash himself with the same fastidiousness he washed himself under the arms, now front and back, and then he washes his hands again, drying them on a cloth.
Kari tries not to stare at his bare arse but it’s almost impossible. Hard. Firm. Hairless, again — is he hairless all over?
Gloi tidies himself up, puts his clothes to rights, and turns around. He smiles. “You look alarmed.”
Any word Kari could say dries up in his throat. He stands there like a dullard, silent in his confusion. He feels too many things to say any of them and even if he could his tongue is against him.
Gloi closes the gap between them. “You don’t need to be afraid of me,” he says, his hands cupping Kari’s elbows. Kari wants to tear himself away, wants to fling himself against Gloi’s chest, wants to sink to the floor and…he doesn’t even know. He can barely breathe, and Gloi is waiting for something, so he wets his lip, quivering with…he has no idea what.
It must be enough. Gloi bends his head and takes Kari’s mouth. He tucks Kari’s lip between his own, his mouth dry and warm, and then a little damp, and he tastes of the herbs he used to scour his teeth. Kari feels it in every part of his body like a jolt of hot sunshine, and then it’s over. Gloi pulls away, his cheeks flushed, and this time his smile is sweet as honey.
“There’s water in the kettle if you want it,” he says, and then he walks out, leaving Kari with only the kettle and the candle for company.
Kari lets out all his breath at once, covering his face with his hands. His heart hammers unbearably, and he feels like all his blood is rushing about in his body, racing down his veins in a torrent.
No-one has ever kissed him like that, not at all. He thinks his mother had kissed him when he was small, but if she had it was nothing like the way Gloi had simply…how easily he’d done it, as if it was nothing, as if it wouldn’t leave Kari aching this way. All the flesh of his body feels enflamed, throbbing with his shuddering pulse.
He doesn’t know Gloi. He doesn’t know if he likes Gloi. Kari knows, though, that Gloi wants something from him, this friendly corporal, this hard-muscled soldier who smiles at him as if he’s worth smiling at.
If he hadn’t gone, then…then Kari doesn’t know what he would have done. What comes next? Something terrible, no doubt. Something he isn’t supposed to want.
He takes a deep breath and reaches for the kettle. It’s still half-full and Kari realises–Gloi left this for him, saved it for him as a kindness.
No-one treats him like this. And yes, Gloi wants something in exchange, but if it’s worth it? If Kari gets something better? Is that a bad thing?
He washes up from face to knee, and wonders. He’s wiping the water from his shoulders when he hears the scrape of a boot behind him. It must be Gloi. Kari feels like his chest might burst open.
But when he turns it isn’t Gloi after all. It’s Daggeir, and he’s angry.
Instinctively, Kari makes himself smaller, ducking his head and pulling in his shoulders. A smaller target, a smaller threat. If he’s pathetic enough Daggeir might take pity on him, though that’s rare.
But instead of a blow, Daggeir just stares at him for what feels like an age. Eventually, he says, “You don’t have to.”
It makes no sense. Kari grapples with it and comes up with nothing to fix on, no point at which to prise it apart for meaning. “Have to what?” he asks.
Daggeir’s face contorts with something like irritation. Or maybe shame. “The corporal. You don’t have to warm his bed. He can’t make you.”
And now Kari is speechless because… “Yes, he can,” he says, not thinking about it before the contradiction is out, and then it can’t be unsaid. “He’s stronger than me, he can make me do anything he wants.”
“No,” Daggeir insists.
Kari wonders if he just doesn’t understand. “He has a sword,” he says, but Daggeir shakes his head, growling in his throat.
“No. I won’t let him. Not under my roof.”
It takes Kari’s breath away, which is just as well because his mind is reeling with things he should never say. You beat me for talking back but you draw the line at letting a stranger have his way with me?
And Daggeir is afraid of Gloi, but still he has said ‘no’.
Kari swallows, uncertain of what he’s supposed to do. “It’s all right,” he says. “I…don’t mind.”
“You don’t have to,” Daggeir insists and then, apparently at the end of himself, he rolls his shoulders. “Don’t waste that candle,” he snaps, and he’s gone.
When Kari takes the empty kettle back in, the soldiers are already bunked down on the floor. His mother is in her bed and Daggeir is sitting up on the end of it, whittling something with his belt knife. It’s a pointed and obvious threat, but Kari feels oddly warmed by it.
He blows out the candle, climbs the ladder to the loft, and fetches down his bedding.
Gloi, on the far side of the hearth, lifts the corner of his blankets and beckons him in.
It’s strange, slipping in beside him. He’s warm, a great warm mass, and he tucks Kari up against his chest, wrapping around him at once. Kari closes his eyes and lies very still. He hears Daggeir grunt, and then the tak of the knife laid aside, the rumple of blankets as he beds himself down.
It’s warm and largely quiet, besides the huff and wheeze of people drifting off to sleep and the crackle of the fire. Gloi’s breath warms the back of Kari’s ear, his lips tickling the edge of it, and his hand spread over Kari’s chest is warm and solid.
“I like you, Kari,” Gloi whispers in the dark, and his hand trails down, drawing swirls on Kari’s ribs. “I like you very much. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Kari doesn’t answer, pretends he’s asleep instead. Maybe if he’s convincing enough, Gloi will go ahead and do whatever he wants, and Kari won’t have to do anything back.
Gloi’s hand palms his belly, slips in under the edge of his tunic, and the moment he touches Kari’s bare skin it’s like a hot coal cracked open. Kari jerks, sucks in a gasp, and clamps his mouth shut. He’ll be still and he’ll be silent if it kills him, but Gloi’s fingers trail heat across his belly, and he wants something badly, wants more of this.
Of this? He doesn’t know. It’s too much, he can’t take it, and he turns his head to sob into his arm, muffling himself so Gloi won’t hear.
It takes him a handful of heartbeats to realise Gloi has stopped moving. Then. “Oh, Kari,” and the press of a kiss on his neck, and Gloi’s hand slides out of his tunic, coming up to stroke his cheek. “Shhh, it’s all right.”
Kari shakes. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him.
Gloi folds him up in his arms, murmuring reassurances into his hair, and he feels like his chest is tearing open. He wants more, but he can’t stand more. He’s hot between his legs but if Gloi touches him there he feels like he might die. It’s an agony. And Gloi just holds onto him, humming something and stroking his shoulder until Kari feels…not better, but somehow less awful.
It’s shameful. He’s acting shamefully, like a child. But he’s a man, and Gloi expects him to know, and he does know what Gloi wants. All Kari has to do is spread his legs for it, right? Surely he can’t mess that up.
He tries to tell Gloi this, but he gets as far as, “You can…if you want,” before Gloi is hushing him again, tipping Kari’s jaw up to press a kiss to his mouth.
“You’re all right,” he whispers. “You’re lovely. Tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. It feels so far away. Kari doesn’t know how he can stand the anticipation, the tension of waiting. He wants to do it now, get it over with, find out for certain. But Gloi is firm, nestling Kari in his lap and simply holding him.
It’s nice. It’s the nicest thing he can remember.
He thinks he can’t sleep but he must, because he’s jerked awake by the gust of cold as Gloi pulls away from him.
But Gloi is already up, already pulling on his armour. One of his soldiers is at the threshold with a spear in hand, and the other is fastening Gloi’s boots for him, all in a rush.
Then Gloi is in the doorway with shield and sword, hissing at the others to hurry up.
Kari can hear it now, the sound of yelling and the clash of weapons. He can smell smoke, thick and heavy, and something else, something familiar.
Musk. Old blood. Wolf.
Gloi turns back, seeking Kari. “Stay safe,” he says. “Hide. Barricade the door. I’ll come for you when it’s over.”
Then he’s gone, and it’s just Kari, his mother, and Daggeir.