The furs he had packed away were put to good use as the weather turned icy. After a few days of trudging in thigh-deep snow the gentle fall of snowflakes had turned into a complete white out. Niklaus' leg was throbbing constantly; they had to stop soon or the pain would overwhelm him. It wasn't as if they could see three feet in front of them now.
They weren't that far from Svenk's Lookout, which was a Northman fort overlooking the Tannikan border to the south. It was a place they should avoid, not that they knew Niklaus there. He hadn't been since he was a child, but the less they saw of his kinsmen the better, lest his magic slip out and give him away. Warriors made him nervous and already crippled by the pain in his leg he didn't stand a chance.
"We have to stop!" Niklaus shouted over the roaring wind. He stood in drifts up to his knees, the furs barely shielding him from the cold. "Please!"
The thief heard him, but over the wind it was probably difficult to discern what he was saying. His companion moved to his side, as he had been taking the lead and left Niklaus struggling at least twenty feet behind him most of the journey.
"I have to rest," Niklaus said, breathing with difficulty through the pain.
"Where do you suggest? We're in the middle of a wintery wilderness and freezing our backsides off!"
"Anywhere! Please!" Niklaus was on the verge of passing out and that would be dangerous out here. Not even wolves would be out in this blinding snow, so thick the entire world was white. He grabbed the thief's arm for balance.
They struggled together a few more feet, before the wind began whistling and Niklaus heard the distinct sound of bones rattling. He sluggishly turned his head in the direction of the sound, knowing it would be dangerous but they had to stop somewhere. A cave was nearby, and if there weren't any wolves, bears or bandits within perhaps they could shelter themselves and rest until the blinding snow passed over them.
"I hear a cave."
"How can you hear a cave? Is that part of your magic?"
"It's the change in wind…" and the rattling of bones. Wolves and bears left the bones of their kills in piles near the entrances of caves. He would not mention this to the thief; it would be apparent when they got closer. He hoped the thief would not be deterred from such a grim sight.
"What's that rattling?"
Niklaus took out his father's axe, though he was not prepared to use it. His arm shook as he held it out in front of him, shielding his face from the snow. The thief followed and was hopefully ready because Niklaus could not face a pack of wolves or an angry bear alone.
"Hey! A cave!" The thief said jovially and ran ahead, leaving Niklaus behind as he went to check the entrance. Frozen to the spot, he waited in the wind and shivered. He watched the thief go in and after a couple of minutes he poked his head out of the mouth of the cave and waved him in. "Nobody's home!"
Niklaus doubted that but went inside, skin burning from the cold through his furs. It was dark and he tried to step carefully, his feet slipping on bones of animals and men, fear gripping his heart.
"Found the rattling. Look at this!" The thief held up a deer skull, holding it by the antlers.
"I know," though he could barely see in the darkness Niklaus could smell death around them. "Is it safe?"
"It's dead, farm boy."
"I meant the cave!"
"I doubt it, but it's empty for the moment and doesn't go very deep. There's water further in and the remnants of a fire. Long cold."
"Let's rest then until someone else comes to claim it or the snow lets up."
"Whatever comes first," the thief said.
Niklaus hooked his father's axe on his belt and followed the thief's barely discernable outline further in. He could hear water trickling from somewhere above, falling down the wall ahead maybe. He was glad it wasn't yet frozen from the cold; he was so tired and thirsty. Just as this thought crossed his mind his foot slipped on something and he fell backward. In his panic his hands gathered fire from thin air and he accidentally shot it up to the ceiling, briefly lighting up the cave.
"My gods!" The thief gasped. "What was that?" Niklaus couldn't speak; the wind was knocked out of him. "Your hands are on fire!"
He struggled to his feet, shrugging off the furs around his shoulders lest they catch fire as well. Fire swirled in his palms. Niklaus shook his hands but the fire wouldn't go out, but he did succeed in shaking sparks of it around him, hearing them hiss as they fell by his feet.
"Hey! Careful!" The thief shouted, face lit up orange from the light of the fire in his hands. "Point those hands to the pile of sticks here."
Niklaus looked around the floor of the cave, seeing a moss covered area where perhaps some hunters had taken their rest. The area was thankfully clear of bones. A round circle of stones around some charred wood marked the long dead fire of the abandoned camp and he thrust his hands in it. The fire roared to life but his hands still held some flame. Niklaus knew from experience that he would have to wait until it went away. Water or snow wouldn't snuff his magic, and he couldn't make it stop though it didn't stop him from trying.
"Doesn't that hurt?"
"No, though it would set my clothes on fire." He held his hands out in front of him to prevent that and carefully took a seat by the fire, stretching out his throbbing leg.
"That's …" the thief began, eyes widening as he stared at the flames Niklaus held in his hands. He sat across from him, an amazed expression on his face. "…words fail."
"I'm sorry," Niklaus said mournfully. "I cannot stop it."
"You're pretty handy. Should a bear or a wolf show up just point those hands in its direction, all right?" The thief chuckled as he removed his gloves and proceeded to warm his hands near the newly lit fire. "Does it stop?"
"Eventually, yes. I hope."
"Can you sleep like that?"
"That would be dangerous." He rested his elbows on his knees, still holding out his flaming hands to the fire. It didn't billow up, which was good, very good, or they'd have an inferno on their hands. Instead the flames contained themselves in his palms, swirling in a small circular area just over his skin. "I'm thirsty."
"Let me help you." He filled the canteen from the water that was trickling steadily down the wall, and filling the lower area of the cave. There must be a hole somewhere in the cave floor, as the water rushed down and flood the camp. The thief tipped the skin of water to his lips and Niklaus drank deeply, slaking his thirst.
The thief nodded and took a drink for himself before sitting once more by the fire, a careful distance from him. "So this is what you meant." He gestured to Niklaus' burning hands.
"This and more."
"And it doesn't hurt?"
"No, I said that."
The thief reached out a finger and touched the flame. "Shit!" He shouted, his exclamation echoing in the cave. "It does hurt!"
"Well it doesn't hurt me which is what I thought you were asking!"
"I was!" He stuck his burned finger in his mouth and sucked on it briefly. "I just… I was curious."
"This doesn't frighten you?"
"Not really," the thief said with a shrug. Niklaus stared at him. "It does worry me that you might be left holding that the remainder of the journey. Can't you…hmm, try harder? Concentrate or something?"
Looking down at his burning hands, Niklaus felt at the moment they were the least of his concerns. His leg pained him quite much, but his mind wasn't entirely on that either. Now that the fire was lit, all the white, cleanly stripped bones were visible around them, lining the floor of the cave like a macabre rug. If the fire they had found was indeed from hunters, where did they go and what happened to them?
"The cave's empty. I checked if that's what you're worried about."
"I'm terrified," Niklaus confessed and cast a look around them.
The thief laughed, "Strapping lad like you? You've got fiery hands which are more useful than my blades. Just point them at whatever leaps out of the shadows."
"I can't control it. I could set the whole cave on fire!"
"Rock is not flammable."
"Don't tell me you've never used it to defend yourself!"
"Well keep your voice down and try to get some rest." The thief gestured to his leg. "How's your leg?"
"After some rest I should be ready to travel again."
"I'm beginning to regret this, you know. I thought a mage would be useful. You're basically crippled." Niklaus scowled at him. "Do you want some help?"
"How did that happen anyway?"
"I don't even know your name, what makes you think I'd tell you that?"
"Do you need to know my name? There's just two of us. Do you think the bones would get confused and answer instead?"
Niklaus sighed and dropped back, stretching out next to the fire. He stretched out his arms too, facing his palms up just in case he managed to set the moss on fire with the flames in his hands. "It's not a good story. I was gathering wood for my father in the forest when a group of the other village children found me. They must have seen me go in and followed me. Once I had my arms full they surrounded me, began taunting me. When I told them to go away and leave me be that's when they began beating me."
"You didn't try to stop them?"
"Stop them? How? Of course I defended myself as best I could but there were five of them. I was no match. Wilhelm swung a club at my shin and the others went about kicking and punching me until I was down. The next thing I knew my father was standing over me, and I was back at our cottage, broken and bleeding."
"How did you get there?"
"I don't know. I sort of appeared there. I had closed my eyes for a second, just as Wilhelm's fist was about to land on my face again. When I opened them next my father was crouching over me. I was so relieved I didn't realize what had happened until he told me I had just appeared in front of him."
"That they would have beaten me to death?"
The thief laughed and shook his head. "No, you fool. Never mind. I'm hungry. I've got deer jerky. What did you bring?"
Niklaus sat up and flexed his fingers. The fire in his hands had finally gone out. Good luck too, since he couldn't rummage through his satchel otherwise. He searched it. "Loaf of bread, some apples and a potato."
"Keep your potato." He passed over some jerky and Niklaus shared his bread with him.
After a few moments of eating in silence he could feel the thief staring at him. "Yes?"
"That's what you can call me."
Niklaus narrowed his eyes at him; the name was alien to him. "Is that your real name?"
"No. It's the name I give when people ask."
"It's a bit stupid."
"No stranger than the names you Northmen have," he teased, "Wilhelm? Niklaus?"
Niklaus shrugged; he supposed that was fair. He had never liked his own name. Sjyla called him Nick, but that was before she had found out what he was, when they had been friends… of a sort.
"Svenk's Lookout is close. We should avoid it."
"I thought you never got out of your village? What was it called? Rat Hole?"
"Staatsgard. And yes I have. Once or twice I traveled with father to deliver our produce and meats. Payment for the fort's protection." That was long ago. Once the magic started showing itself in earnest his father had to make the journey alone, borrowing a horse and wagon from a family that hated them the least, whoever that happened to be that year. "Warriors make me nervous."
"I imagine a great deal makes you nervous." He said, smirking across the fire at him. "I have no wish to explain my presence to warriors either, so we're square there, friend. If we're not completely snowed in tomorrow we'll go around the whole place. We're headed to Fallahn's Hold anyway."
"Fallahn? What's that?"
"Who's that. Some bloke that's head of the place. Sliverwood soldier. Keeps them safe, I guess. Don't know what those elves get up to there. Too much snow for frolicking." Niklaus couldn't tell if he was joking or not but didn't press the matter. "Not that they tend to frolic per say…"
"How do you know all this?"
"Ask the right questions of the right people and you may just get some useful information. We're better off with them than out in the open with your kind. Northmen are far too serious for my liking. Also, they'll have something other than mead to drink and you haven't lived if you haven't yet tasted Sunvine liqueur. Careful though, I hear it may be poisonous in large doses."
"Oh I don't drink."
"I saw your mead," the thief said flatly, giving him an incredulous look.
"It's to keep the chill away. How do you think we stand the cold?"
"Whatever. Give me some. The fire isn't doing enough, and I know you brought some with you." Niklaus handed over a bottle begrudgingly, but didn't protest too much. After all he had shared his jerky and had agreed to help him along the journey. He watched Roger—what a stupid name, he thought—gulp down half of it and then wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. He held the rest out to Niklaus, but he shook his head. He wouldn't have it if there was clean water around. "Will you miss this place? I mean, we're not out of this wintery hell hole yet, but it is your home."
"I suppose I will," Niklaus said after some thought. "Not the beatings, mind you," he added as an aside. Roger laughed and he found himself smiling in answer to it. He didn't know quite what to think of the thief yet, but his amusement was infectious. He found he didn't mind his company. It was nice to have someone to talk to. "I'll miss my father more, but he's gone now. There's nothing left for me here."
Roger raised his bottle to those words. "That's what I said."
"Where did you say this college was again?"
"King's Town, in Tannika."
"Have you ever been there?"
"To King's? Sure, but I've only been in the tower once. Ran a sweep of some mage's office but it turned bad."
Niklaus' eyes widened. "You were caught?"
"No, but the damned mage summoned his stolen things back so I never got the gold for it." He laughed and Roger just shrugged amiably. "Clever arsehole. I was young then and I've learned a lot since."
"You've been a thief your whole life then?"
Roger didn't answer immediately; he stared into the fire and finished the bottle of mead. He cleared his throat and tossed the bottle aside amongst the bones around them. "Yeah. What was I to do? I'm a Ro'Kirr. Do you know what that is?"
Niklaus shook his head, studying that man across from him, watching the fire light dance in his eyes.
"It's a cast off; that's what I am. My gran gave one to some bloke and ended up pregnant. Elves don't mix with men and Tserrus knows why she kept her but she and the baby were cast out for it. Sliverwood doesn't let halfbloods live in their camps."
"Right… you aren't religious are you?"
"Northmen worship their ancestors." Niklaus didn't, but it didn't feel right to say at that moment.
"It's the dawn. The sun, really. Elves are big on the sun, Sliverwood or Tangarian, doesn't matter."
"You don't consider yourself an elf?" He didn't look it to be honest, but heritage was of great importance to Northmen.
"Why would I? I've visited with them. They're odd folk and they know how to throw a do when the mood takes them but I'm not one of them. They'd never accept me. I ran from my mother as soon as I was too fast for her to catch up with me." His tone was jovial but Niklaus had a feeling there was some regret there. "Stealing is just a survival tactic. It does help that I'm good at it."
"I've never stolen anything."
"Wouldn't try it if I were you. You'd be horrible. Loudly limping around, though they'd probably see you coming first." Niklaus chuckled but then it quickly turned into a loud yawn. He laid his furs over a section of the moss covered floor of the cave and lay down. Roger finished his piece of bread, watching him jealously as he lay down on the warm comfortable furs. "You…uh…?" he began sheepishly, "Wouldn't mind if I-?"
"Sure, there's room. I won't try to set you on fire."
The thief smiled and settled in next to him. It was too cold to sleep apart. Niklaus fell easily into sleep, face pressed into the crook of his arm, the warmth of Roger's back against his and the hope of a new life not too far—hopefully—in the future.