Yesterday’s flour caked her knuckles as she thrust them into the fresh lump of dough, kneading it without paying much mind. The repetitive motion was therapeutic, busying her muscles so that the nerves felt further away, the anxiety of the years fading into the ingredients.
Strix had done many things since the blood of her friends had coated the cobblestones of Barovia, but chief among them was baking. It kept her whole, kept her sane. Whatever that even meant anymore.
“You know,” she flipped the ball of dough, sending a cloud of flour cascading onto her pre-spattered robes, “when Paultin gets back, we’ll try that Rum Raisin on him. Drunkard might actually eat a normal helping of food if we tell him there’s booze in it.” Her voice, thin and cracked, bounced against the walls of the hut. No words were offered in answer. None ever were.
What did answer was a butter knife, clattering to the floor, spinning in a lazy circle where it fell. She turned her head to see around the crust of her hair, and Simon was seated at the edge of the counter, pointedly not looking at her or the knife.
She rolled her eyes, huffing out a breath that sent more flour scattering. “Fine; your father, Paultin, the upstanding citizen. Uppity little murderous brat.” She muttered the second half under her breath, but she knew he heard it from the way he tilted his head. He didn’t react, so she pointed to the bowl of butter beside him, raising her voice to an audible level. “Bring me the next step before I throw you in the kiln.”
“My son! You can’t throw my son in the kiln!” Paultin spoke with his eyes wide, as full of shock as drink. As though he hadn’t heard her say the same thing a hundred times before.
“He’s a robot! A murderbot! With the killing and the darts and the creepy head-turn thing!” She crossed her arms, shrinking from them as she shuddered, remembering the way its head swiveled on its axis like an untethered hot-air balloon.
Paultin lifted the construct, holding it beneath the crook of its arms and out towards Strix’s face, where it dangled limply. “Look at him. Even if he made mistakes, he’s still alive! He still chooses to follow us and listen. Give him some credit for trying!”
She twisted her mouth to the side, refusing to give an inch. Paultin, satisfied that he had done his part, set the bot down, pulling a flask of wine from his coat. He took a sip, the liquid sloshing inside the silvered container, and then he held it out to her.
She took it, and the bot and Paultin nodded in tandem as she drank with them. She couldn’t help but feel that the bard was influencing the creature, for whatever good or ill that would bring them. Maybe it – he – was his son now.
She blinked, pulling her mind back to the present as Simon set the bowl down, gentle as a lamb. She’d called him Simon after that night, even though she never fully trusted him. You didn’t always have to trust someone to make them family, though. If Paultin made him family, then Strix would have to make him family too.
She smiled at Simon as she lifted the bowl, pushing the kneaded ball of dough to the side and brushing away the excess flour to make room for the butter. The bot trundled back to his perch on the counter, his gait the same, though she liked to think he looked happier.
A tell-tale crunch from behind caught her attention. She spun, already raising her hand to snap her fingers. Waffles, her girth enough to have smashed every bed that Strix had built for her, was again leaning against the side of the tall shelf in the hut, paws on the top to pull it forward. Her beak, covered with crumbs, grasped the stolen pastry delicately as the owlbear froze, eyes wide and guilty as she glanced back at her.
“No! Waffles, bad!” she picked up the hem of her robes and stomped over. The mass of fur and contrition hopped down, shuffling back to her sleeping spot and burying her head beneath the covers. “No, no hiding! This is, like, the millionth time you’ve eaten them!” she glanced up to the display, seeing the spot for the blonde-iced Danish empty. “You ate Evelyn again! Do you know how irritating it is to ice her stupid, shiny armor?” There was a crunch beneath the covers, and Strix lurched forward. “Waffles? Waffles?! You give her back, right now!” She dove under the shredded blankets, trying to get to the confectionary before the owlbear could finish it.
Evelyn laughed, her voice bright and summery despite the frigid winter outside. The bundle of fur in her arms cooed, eyes too big for her fluffy head. Evelyn rocked it, tearing off another piece of the waffle next to her and offering it to the baby owlbear, her smile as matronly as though she cradled a human child. The fuzz-bucket snatched the snack from her fingers, crunching happily as drops of syrup stuck to the sides of her beak.
“Look, she likes waffles. Just…just like her momma.” Her voice fell low, a tender sadness permeating her expression, though she never stopped smiling. “Hey, Strix?”
“What?” she was startled at the sound of her own name, and snapped the word, but regretted it the moment it left her lips. She didn’t want to be abrasive when Evelyn was being so…soft. “I mean, yes?”
“Do you…do you think she was happy? With us, I mean.”
She didn’t need to elaborate for Strix to know she meant the owlbear that had died giving birth to this fresh one. Evelyn looked so open and vulnerable, Strix knew that the loss of the creature was stinging for the Butthander devotee as much as it was for her.
She shrugged, blinking away the tears trying to trickle from her eye’s edge. “Happier than out there in the woods, probably fighting other owlbears or trees or…or dragons!” she waved her hands, stretching to find words that would put the laughter back in Evelyn’s eyes. “She never even had waffles before, and I’m pretty sure nobody is really happy without those.”
That did the trick. The paladin laughed, her curls bouncing against a flush of joy on her cheeks.
She pulled the last shred of pastry away from Waffles. It was little more than crumbs, so she tossed it back, letting the owlbear finish the job. She needed to make something less edible.
“Sorry, Evelyn. Looks like Waffles just misses you the most.” She sighed, scratching Waffles behind the ears before walking back to her task.
Evelyn was going to hate how big their bundle had grown.
“When everyone gets back, I’m going to make them pastries all the time. Just you watch. I’ll be useful.” She set herself to rolling the butter out into sheets, folding it into the dough until there were uncountable layers. “Paultin gets booze bread, and Evelyn gets batches of sugar cookies with extra frosting. Diath – well he’d like something more sensible. Maybe a focaccia. But, a special one. With cheese and olives. Maybe…maybe we could share.” She picked up the butter knife, wiping it on her robes, which did little to clean it, and then she started slicing the dough and shaping it. “I’ll keep everyone fed, and then we won’t get so tired. That’s useful. That’s not flying away on a broom. We’ll get fat and strong. So fat and strong that axes will just…they’ll…” she swallowed, her hands shaking around the handle of the knife. “Won’t be able to cut through us at all! No beheadings, not while Strix is baking!”
The tears, unwelcome and unbidden, fell onto the top of the dough, leaving dark splotches that would ruin the consistency. She wiped her eyes, sniffing and trying to put her horrid memories out of her mind, sweeping them away like crumbs.
“Why do you keep me around?” the fire snapped to punctuate her words, the blaze illuminating Diath’s face as he looked over.
He tilted his head, half-smiling. “What do you mean?”
“All I do is run away when I get scared, and I hide, and that’s not very useful. So…why do you save me? Why not just leave me behind?” They’d not been traveling together long, so she couldn’t understand it. She couldn’t understand what made him tolerate her when she hadn’t been able to help at all, just yell and cry.
He grinned in full, and it wasn’t the same smile that she usually got from people. It wasn’t like he thought she was crazy. It wasn’t like he thought she was weird. It was genuine, and she wasn’t used to that. She wasn’t used to people looking at her like they saw her, all of her, but didn’t want her to disappear when they did.
“Because we’re friends, Strix.”
She blinked, not sure what to say, not sure how to respond to such a thing. It felt unknown. The things he said, the way he looked at her. Unknowable and frightening. Could she run from that? Was that something she could run from, too?
She wasn’t sure she wanted to run.
His smile grew sad, and it felt like it picked her up and brushed off the dust, tossing aside her fears to replace them with something warmer and far, far less lonely.
“I promise,” he said, earnestness blooming from his every word, “no matter what, I’m never gonna leave you behind.”
“You promised, okay?” she sniffed, swallowing the sobs that were trying to break out of her chest and shoving her hands back into the dough. “Diath Woodrow, you promised not to leave me behind. That means no disappearing forever.”
The dough was finished, cut into the shape of stars, folded in just the right angles so that they would bake and rise to look like constellations. She’d take them to the village in the morning, and maybe find someone better than her to help her plan.
She wouldn’t let them leave her behind.