There was a small stream within earshot, where Flegel seemed content to doze by. And she was surprised to spy another horse, a great bay stallion, who watched them charily through the wood.
Inside, a small fireplace without a hearth, a narrow bed and little else. The floor was dirt. He offered her the one chair, a well-worn slightly off-kilter wooden piece of furniture that despite its lack of balance was very comfortable. He hung her blanket and damp pants near the door, which took up quite a bit of room in the tiny space. He went outside and returned with a brace of rabbits, already bled and skinned. He prepared them with onions and beets and garlic.
“You hunt?” she asked.
“Traps,” he said. “Let’s tend that wound.”
His hands were big, firm and strong. He ran his fingers over her forearm, successfully avoiding the actual cut. He rinsed it.
“The bone’s cracked,” he reported. “You needn’t have taken the blade, you should’ve blocked at the wrist or the hand.”
He smeared salve on the cut, which no longer raged in pain, but ached more like a bruise. The wound was thin, though long and curved, like the blade that had left it.
“You are a warrior,” she said.
“Once upon a time.” He wrapped the arm with gentle, swift assuredness. “You must take care not to jar it too much, else it will heal wrong. You should avoid using it, a month least.”
“A month?” she said.
“Longer.” He squatted by the fireplace and pulled the meal out of the fire. He put her portion in a bowl and ate his straight out of the iron pan. She ate her fill. They sat in silence after dinner. He offered her a puff from his wooden pipe. She’d heard of such practices, but never seen them and passed. The smoke it produced was sweet and thick and lulled her into a semi-doze.
“They say you killed ten Ulic,” Nevan said after some time and with a hint of skepticism.
“That’s what they say,” she said.
“You got lucky,” he said.
She didn’t have the energy to be offended, besides, he was right.
“You’re not going to defend your skill?” he asked as though he disapproved of her not arguing.
“Why should I?” she said.
“Because a great man would,” he said.
“And a great warrior would let action speak for itself.”
Nevan made a noncommittal grunt. He sat with his feet hanging off the bed, his back to the wall, his arm crossed over his thin stomach, puffing away.
“Someone told you that,” he said finally.
She cringed. He was right. Fee had told her that.
“Someone trained you,” he said. “Someone who knew what he was doing. It was not luck. You should not let anyone say as much, for the honor of your master if not for yourself.”
“Isn’t there some measure of luck in everything?” she countered.
“The Ulic don’t think so,” Nevan said through a cloud of sleepy smoke. “They believe in fate. That when you are born, the hour of your death is already appointed.”
Her mood bruised. “What do I care, what they believe?”
“You should care,” he said. “But to truly defeat your enemy, you must know why he fights to begin with.”
“Why did you fight?”
Nevan’s pale lips, his mouth which once might’ve been wide and full, but now, like the rest of him was diminished, turned inward. He turned his pipe over, tapped it out against the rough wood foot end and repacked it.
“I fought for my homeland. To protect my family.” His tone didn’t leave room for further inquiry. “Why do you fight?”
Conlan’s head fell back against the slat wall. “Because I’m good at it.”
Nevan took the pipe from his mouth and for a moment, she thought he was about to scold her. Instead, his lips curled and he laughed. A blunt “ha!” followed by a rolling chuckle.
He slapped the mattress. “So you are,” he said. “So you are.”
For the first time, in a very long time, she smiled.