Cullen was smarting. The eye his brother had punched was tender with the promise of blackening, the cut on his back stung, and he was quite literally starving. The throne beneath him, plush with furs, did little to ease his tension. The large communal hall was sparsely populated. Most members of the tribe had returned to their family homes for supper, but Cullen, in defiance of his hunger, was avoiding this journey.
It must have been the lack of food that had gotten the better of him earlier.
It had been years since he and Branson had ended a sparring match with blood and fists, but tonight’s impromptu session had deteriorated quickly beneath Cullen’s foul mood. His younger brother’s blade had tasted the meaty space between the nape of his neck and shoulder before the thane had managed an evasive action. Then, in a flash, he’d dropped his great sword and the two of them were on the ground tussling and throwing punches like untrained children. Bran had stormed off somewhere, and Cullen had spent a great deal of two hours throwing back ale on an empty stomach while silently nursing his resentment. He was feeling the drink too strongly, and he wanted food, but there were two possibilities lurking between the thane and his meal.
One: Mia was furious and ready to chew on him instead of whatever Anwen had prepared for supper. He was uninterested in experiencing this and lacked the reserve of patience he’d need to swallow his older sister’s half-hour diatribe about representing all of Greyed-Bear Hold, then making an ass of himself. He was also just a shade shy of drunk and likely to mouth off, extending Mia’s rant into the three-quarters-of-an-hour range.
Then Option Two: Branson had gotten home before him and sold Anwen and Rosalie some hogwash about beating Cullen in a fight. This was perhaps the worst scenario of the two, because then Cullen would have to rectify the situation by beating the haughty grin off of his fool brother’s face.
The thane gritted his teeth, accepting that an amalgamation of the two possibilities was likely awaiting him. He downed his remaining half cup of ale in a single pull as preparation for his coming torment. It was bitter, too warm to be refreshing, and stale from lack of carbonation. So long as Winnie hadn’t healed the bruises he’d pounded into his brother during their scuffle, Cullen resolved to refrain from decking him again.
He hissed when he rose to his feet, many aches groaning with his sudden shift in posture. A few respectful nods and waves were tossed in his direction as Cullen stalked through the hold, moon gaping lazy and full in a calm mountain sky. The cold air sobered him up a bit, and the thane decided that the pains he was suffering were less of body and more of pride, though his body did hurt.
His home came into view too quickly. He sucked in a great breath, savoring the sharp chill of it as it cut through the buzz of inebriation about his brain. Cullen squared his jaw, his entire eye socket throbbing. He surged through the door into the heat of the well-lit center room, a front of bellicose opposition rolling in behind him with a wave of frozen wind.
“Hi!” Anwen chirped a lone greeting, rocking away from the cold with a clumsy tilt off of her haunches and onto her backside, legs crossing to tuck feet beneath knees.
“Hn…” Cullen’s eyes roamed the common room of his home, wary most of the draping in front of Mia’s bed.
No one pounced.
Cullen stepped cautiously forward, the delicious aroma meandering out of the stew pot enticing him more hastily than perhaps was wise. He paused once more, overlooking the healer in anticipation of reprimand.
“Is it just you then?” he ventured after a ten count of continuous silence.
“Y-yes.” Winnie was flushed a most unflattering shade of red, and she was staring at her left knee. Her fingers, pale and delicate, weaved through the dark blue cotton of her favorite skirt, skritching at the thin material.
This behavior was…suspicious.
His hackles rose. Mia was not above allowing petty revenge if Branson had managed to convince her of Cullen committing some incredible wrong, causing the whole fight. His siblings were devious little mongrels. They could’ve involved Anwen in some dilettante ploy to lower his guard.
Or he was very drunk and overthinking things. Whatever was in that pot was going to be absolutely delicious. There was lamb in it. He loved lamb.
“You and I,” he pressed, “and not anyone else?”
She leaned her body so far forward her nose nearly touched the knee with which she was pretending to be so fascinated. “Yes…” her accent softened the affirmation.
Oh, the greatest of victories! It was almost too good to be true. He’d beaten them all home, and was going to enjoy a meal in peace.
“Ha!” he pulled a fist toward himself in an expression of triumph. “And the conqueror claims the spoils.”
“What?” the lowlander switched into Trade Speak, her way to signal that she had misunderstood a turn of phrase. Her tone had been particularly affronted, and Cullen was terribly confused by her horrified look.
“I get stew and Branson doesn’t…” he quirked a brow at her, hoping she wouldn’t understand how childishly he was behaving.
He really needed to eat. A few more moments of his buzzed antics and the cover of baleful thane that Cullen had convinced Anwen he commanded would be completely blown. Also, eating some food would end his stomach gnawing on his backbone.
“Oh,” she sighed, pressing a hand to her chest and laughing. Loudly.
Side splitting laughter.
He glared. There went that cover. Smithereens.
He stomped past the (now helplessly giggling) woman, and sat in his spot at the head of hearth, quickly getting himself a heaping bowl of food. And another, because that one was gone momentarily. Then a third.
It was lamb, and it was amazing.
Out of nowhere, in the midst of Cullen thoroughly enjoying his third bowl of stew, he was disrupted. Accosted! Anwen stretched her leg out and kicked his bootless foot.
“What?” he shot a look in her direction, outraged.
She jerked away from him, big brown eyes full of hurt. For about three total seconds, Cullen felt like the worst and most heartless man in all of the Frostbacks. Then he remembered that she had kicked him. He also aimlessly wondered when he had taken off his boots.
“What was the kick for?” he altered his questioning, looking away from her and speaking with less edge.
The food had sobered him up much more than the brisk walk, and he shouldn’t have snapped at her. He should also remember where his boots were located. Cullen started glancing around, setting the mostly empty third bowl aside.
“Uhm-well-Oh!” Anwen gasped falsely, covering her mouth in the most ludicrous display of fake surprise the thane had seen in his life. “You’re hurt!” she pointed to Branson’s handiwork on his shoulder.
“I am the healer,” she declared proudly, speaking over him and scooching near. She perked, lifting herself back onto her haunches and leaning toward him. She cleared her throat mildly, awkwardly wiggling even closer one knee at a time. “I could heal that up for you.”
There was something off about the way she was speaking. It was in the language of the Avvar, and her accent was not particularly atrocious at the moment. The words were from her chest, he decided. Low and provocative, they were delivered like a caress.
“Uh…” he didn’t know what to do with any of this. Of course she was the healer. That’s why she was here. She shouldn’t waste her efforts on a shallow cut. “Nah. I’m fine.”
Her face fell comically slack. Even her freckles seemed disappointed. He couldn’t stop from barking a few chuckles at the utter heartbreak, then he considered himself. He was clearly being unkind. Terribly unkind for not allowing the healer to waste her efforts on trivial cuts and grazes.
“I suppose if you-“
“Yes!” she lurched into an upright kneeling position, inadvertently hurling herself at him.
They shared a startled shout in unison.
Cullen caught his weight with the arm on his other side, taken completely by surprise with both her lack of coordination and the force that she’d used to sit up. While Anwen wasn’t always a creature of extraordinary poise, she wasn’t one to slam her full body into people she was preparing to heal. Or unnecessarily touching Cullen, for that matter.
In fact, as he righted himself and offered her yet another offended glance, Cullen could not remember a time that the lowlander had settled herself this near to him without the insistence of himself or one of his sisters. Her knees, covered by the under layer of leggings, were touching the outside of his thigh.
“I regret causing you pain!” she formally apologized, not knowing the casual words to express that particular sentiment. Her hands hadn’t left him, and now began prodding and patting.
Perhaps the food hadn’t sobered him so much. Did he seem worrisomely drunk?
“It is forgiven,” he responded, trying to manage some eye contact.
It was impossible. The woman was fretting all over, glancing here and there with a fluttering of hands, lashes, and soft words. Her touches were cool. The skin of her fingertips and soft scrape of her nails was raising gooseflesh on his arms.
“I regret harming you deeply,” she gave another wording of the formality, and he managed to catch her with a scowl.
“Uh…” she was slack-jawed, round eyes held wide and panicked.
“Are you feeling ill?” Cullen asked.
“Oh, me? No. No, I’m fine.” She smiled prettily, doing nothing to smooth the nervous zeal from her person.
“Huh. You look…” he was trying to think of a word she’d know in their tongue, but switched to Trade Speak instead. “Flustered.”
“Heat,” she responded, then winced, seemingly horrified anew. “Warmth, warm. I am overly warm.” She squeezed her eyes closed, buttoning her lips together and hanging her head.
“Huh,” he repeated.
Her hands were freezing. How could she expect him to believe that she was hot? There was no denying, however, that heat flushed her cheeks and neck, crawling up from the swell of her chest. She could have a fever. She’d gotten sick a few months back, having little tolerance for the climate. Or, again, he was far more intoxicated than he’d thought. Even after three bowls of stew, he stank of mead.
He hadn’t had any mead. Only ale. Why did he smell mead? And where were those damned boots?
“Actually,” Winnie flopped away, foot catching his leg once more. She was going to need to stop that. His temper was short tonight, and he did not enjoy any of this kicking being passed his way. The next words she huffed utterly halted the thane’s perusing thoughts. “I am going to take these clothes off.”
He watched, bewildered, as she hooked her thumbs into the waist of her leggings, taking advantage of the folds of her long skirts to do so. She was still seated on the ground. Thus, Anwen was forced to jostle and wriggle to move the clingy fabric down.
And she didn’t stop there, oh no.
The lowlander woman, who had refused to bathe with his sisters until three months of solitary hygiene in the glacial stream had nearly killed her, doffed her clothes until she was in nothing but the skirt tied loosely at her hips and the band straining to contain her breasts. This was no unusual clothing for an Avvar woman to wear in the warm common room, so near to the hearth, and Cullen thought little of the exposed skin. The knowledge that it belonged to Anwen was nothing more than another novelty on this strangest of nights.
Time spent in his home had shown Cullen that, despite living with them for nearly a year, the lowlander customs of impractical modesty ruled Winnie’s approach to all. She tucked behind the hanging linens that blocked her from view when she shifted clothing. Rosalie openly teased her about covering her body in too many layers almost daily, and even Mia sometimes mentioned the peculiar shamed way Anwen hid herself when bathing.
Perhaps all of these bizarre things meant that he hadn’t actually come home. Cullen could have drowned himself in all kinds of brew, including mead, and simply blacked out in the main hall. All of this could be his mind telling a nonsensical drunken tale. It was more plausible than the careful way Winnie tucked her bare knees back against his thigh.
“I would heal your shoulder now, if you will let me.” She offered this in that practiced, perplexing, sultry tone.
Cullen nodded, then was further convinced of his own unconsciousness when Anwen tugged at the hem of his long sleeved linen shirt. He didn’t object, shrugging out of it with abandon and choosing to consider this delusion (or whatever it was) a general win. Now, if only he could think of a way to turn her attention to the pain of his eye without sounding like a whining child…
Cullen’s thoughts snagged once more. He couldn’t be passed out in the hall. He was sure that he was really home. The lamb sat warm in his stomach, and his pulse beat the tightened skin around his eye like a drum’s face. The thane didn’t feel the alcohol as anything more than a brush on the inside of his temples, and he was just certain of his arrival back.
Light and flame met the skin of his injury, startling Cullen with their sharp sting. “Ow!” his whole side jerked, catching Anwen in the belly.
Winnie fumbled through a rush of words in a language he didn’t understand, pressing her torso into his side and soothing the newly worsened wound with the proper subtle glow of healing magic.
“You burned me!” Cullen accused, on the verge of pushing her away.
“I regret causing you-“
“Yes, I know, but you have!” his voice was too loud. She was shaking. “How did that happen? You haven’t got-“
Oh. Oh, by the Mountain Father’s bristled beard. She was the drunk one!
Winnie, the demure lowlander noble girl who declined even the weakest ale at meals, reeked of mead. Her face was flush with the burn of alcohol, and her magic was as out of her control as her body because the little princess couldn’t hold her honeyed-wine.
“You’re drunk!” Cullen pointed at her and sniggered, not thinking.
“Huh?” Anwen dropped back down, weight on her heels. “No! Well,” She scratched at the back of her head. The ghost of a guilty smile twitched the left corner of her mouth. “A bit. Mostly. Yes, I am drunk.”
“Why are you drunk?” he asked, marvelously tickled with this development.
“No reason!” she defended. “Ugh,” her cheeks puffed. “I’m getting more mead.”
The thane’s laughter echoed over the crackling fire, taunting Winnie all the way over to the heavy ceramic jug in the corner. He read more obviously now the clumsy laxity of inebriation in her frame while she moved. It sent her tilting and side-stepping across the house. How had he not realized she was drunk?
“You sure about that?” Cullen prodded after watching her down a generous swig, not having bothered to get herself a cup.
“Most definitely,” she sashayed…or attempted to sashay, back over to sit beside him.
“Perhaps don’t drink too much more,” Cullen suggested this conspiratorially, hoping the tone would keep her from drinking more for the simple fact that he had suggested she not.
“How about you drink more too?” the pale glazed cask was thrust into his face.
“How about I don’t?” he pushed it toward the ground.
“Hey!” Anwen pouted toward him, adjusting the jug so as to bring it back to her lips. “You only have to say, ‘no thank you.’”
This was moped over the mouth of the bottle, her peculiar bowless upper lip sticking to the ceramic as she spoke. Her voice reverberated with the round echo offered by the jug.
Cullen frowned as she tipped the flask. It was precious that she thought her business involved correcting his behavior, but he’d have about as much of that as he’d have of the kicking. Though her semi-scalding had rankled a bit, Cullen decided that drinking should not be done alone. As brilliant as it might be to mock her eternally for the follies of her first alcohol induced stupor, the healer was good company. He may as well enjoy some more himself to even the field.
Cullen gave a rueful, acquiescing snort. “Give me the mead,” he ordered good-naturedly.
Winnie did without hesitation, smiling brightly and giving a small happy bounce. Cullen drank, testing the shoulder she’d healed and finding the job done. His mouth opened, an appeal for his eye on the tip of his tongue, then he reconsidered. The quirk of fire she’d accidently summoned kept him from the request. Instead of words, Cullen passed the alcohol back over to her. She drank, sighed, and then extended it once more. This is how it went until the end of the mead.
There was a sense of ambient languidness. It was as though the buzz had soaked from within him out into the surroundings. Pleasant warmth moseyed against Cullen’s skin. The hearth’s heat came in great fickle sweeps that only occasionally provided direct sensation. Anwen, however, was a soft and constant source. She’d readjusted her position so that she was on her backside, hip against his. When one or the other of them breathed deeply, their sides met for the full curve of her lower torso until she tapered at the base of her ribs. This proximity allowed him to enjoy the heat and scent of her body beneath the mead and stew.
Which healing herbs did she smell of today?
It took him a moment, but he placed the heady crystal grace and the touch of elfroot with a small effort. She must have been making poultices at some point.
There wasn’t much conversation. Cullen preferred it that way. Anwen would sporadically twitch, huff, and mumble some trivial question or another. He returned monosyllabic grunts or shrugs, enjoying the warm calm. The thane was trying to passively insist on one of the companionable silences he enjoyed with the healer during more sober moments, but she was having trouble.
“So,” Winnie cleared her throat again. “Who did you fight?”
“Mnhph.” He didn’t want to talk about it. His siblings would be home any time, all of this would be ruined, and she’d hear plenty about his black eye then.
“I’ve never seen you wounded from simple sparring...”
He scoffed. Was that meant to be flattery, or teasing? She’d seen it plenty of times.
She made a throaty sound, then gave a discontented wiggle. “Cullen,” she began, then stopped.
There was an awkwardness in the air that prevented him from just ignoring her attempt. “Hm?” he questioned, not bothering to open his eyes. They had lazily drifted shut at some point.
She slumped toward him, causing his eyelids to snap up. Her nose caught in the tuck where his elbow rested against his side, as he’d leaned toward her in an attempt to keep her somewhat upright. His hand was holding her far hip against the ground by her knee, and her arm had managed to catch her weight behind him. She sagged against his back and side. He was sure it left them a knot of odd limbs, but Winnie was still mostly sitting, through the efforts.
“I’m dizzy…” she mumbled weakly.
He chuckled at her. “I’m sure you are.”
“Maybe I should go to bed,” she supposed.
“Maybe,” he agreed.
There was some more quiet. Cullen was distracted away from trying to get her sitting more comfortably by the wisp of her lips and breath on the bare skin of his side. It was, indeed, something worth being distracted over. She should get to bed, and drink some water too.
“Get up,” he leaned toward her, tilting her body back into the correct position.
“Help!” she whined, resting the whole of her weight against him and adjusting so that her cheek was at his shoulder and his arm was behind her. “I can’t.”
“Help me?” she asked in a more mature voice, beginning to struggle to her feet.
He obliged, hauling her unsteadily up alongside him. While Cullen was more than convinced of his own intoxication at this point, he may as well have been sober compared to Winnie. She was a mess. Snickering and wobbling, the healer was led back to the bed she shared with Rose. He was careful to keep his hips away from hers. There was an oil lamp lit in the corner that he hadn’t noticed behind the curtain. He’d have to warn Anwen about that when she was sober. It was ridiculously dangerous to leave those things burning unattended in nooks full of bedding.
Anwen flopped down against the mattress on her back, trapping his left arm beneath her and wrenching him into an awkward half-upright position.
“Give that back, Woman.” He tugged at his arm to no avail. She curved her back to put more weight on it and prevent him from reclaiming the limb. He sat uncomfortably on the floor at the bedside. The mattress rested on the floor as well, a bit shorter than his chest now that he sat.
She giggled, eyes meeting his, not half as cloudy as he’d expected. “Cullen?” she asked, not at all slurring.
“What?” the thane’s tone was abrupt and suspicious.
“Do you find me pleasing?”
This was a trap.
“To talk with?” she blinked slowly, not breaking eye contact. “To look at? To be near?”
He pulled at his arm. “Go to sleep, Winnie.”
“Fine,” she sat up.
Cullen jerked his arm away. He flexed his fingers, feeling less cornered now that he’d regained them. There was a motion that he was shocked to recognize out of the corner of his eye as Anwen drew her breast band over her head, baring her chest. It would be a lie to say he looked away, because he did not. Not once did he avert his eyes as she tumbled back against the bed.
Her body was fuller than Brenna’s or the lover he’d taken before. Exact details of partners earlier than the last two were difficult to bring to mind. Anwen was paler, her skin milky and nipples more pink than ruddy. She had freckles everywhere. They coated her cheeks and forehead, shoulders and arms, and he’d seen plenty of them on her legs. Cullen now found that the little golden speckles enigmatically decorated the belly and breasts that were never ever exposed to the utmost of Winnie’s ability. How the sun had coaxed them into being on even the undersides of her breasts was a mystery.
Before Cullen managed to draw himself out of ogling, Anwen arched. Her fingers dug into dark tresses, cradling her skull. Her brow knit together with the fervor of the stretch. Her pointed chin jutted away from her body, delicate neck displayed, lips parted with a blustery moan escaping them. Only her shoulders and hips held contact with the mattress, the whole of her spine curved upward. Her breasts, high-ridden as they already were, sat pertly just beneath her clavicle. The roundness of her belly had caved to the position, navel now sunken lower than the visible carriage of her ribs. She was still too full for the notches of the bones to show through. Her thighs, exposed as her skirt had ridden up, were splayed. The toes of both her feet curled into the bedding.
It was perhaps the most lurid thing Cullen had seen in the fifteen or so years he’d taken to having lovers, which was preposterous. He snapped back into his mind, leaning over her, grabbing two handfuls of the blanket, and tucking it around her body. This flattened her against the bed and left her covered from pale little toes to the rosy tip of her nose.
“Sleep well, Anwen.” He moved to flee.
“Hey!” she accused, flinging the blanket off of her. “Wait a minute!”
“No,” he shook his head.
The healer grabbed his wrist, flouncing as she sat up. “Gods on fire, Cullen!” she swore. “I am making a pass at you! Why are you running away?”
“You’re too drunk to be making passes at anyone,” he excused her behavior. “Just sleep it off, Winnie.”
“No, you idiot!” she gave a hard tug, pulling him back to the ground. “The whole night was a pass at you, even before I was drunk!”
He stopped struggling, befuddled. “What?”
She groaned, exasperated. “I got everyone to leave the house, made your favorite food, wore my best clothes, fawned all over you, drank for courage, and then stripped! How could you not know?”
They stared at each other for a small time. It still wasn’t falling quite into place for him. When Anwen saw this, she released him. “Oh, never mind.” She laid back down, pulling the blankets half over her. “Just go.”
Cullen didn’t go. It was confusing to hear, but not wholly unwelcome. He had much affection for Anwen. While he’d been trying and failing to place things in a more plutonic light, as was the responsible approach, it seemed that the mild infatuation toward him that he’d noted in Winnie months ago had developed unexpectedly.
“You know what,” she sat back up. “Wait. Don’t go. Listen here,” she pointed at him in a condemning manner. “I didn’t have to pick you! I wanted you! I thought you wanted me too.”
He grinned at her pouty drunken rage. It was quite endearing, though he found she could be doing a great many more offensive things that he’d likely consider endearing at this particular moment. “Anwen-“ he tried to interject.
She spoke over him. “But, it’s fine that you don’t. The next time that I want to hear a man tell me that he finds me pleasing, I’ll just make supper and take off my clothes for Aelric. He’s made it known from the Frostbacks across the Waking Sea that he’d be thrilled to have me.”
To Cullen’s credit, he did not laugh. “Oh?” he posed. “Is that how it’s going to be?” She sniffed, tossing her hair. “You didn’t even give me a moment to consider properly,” he defended himself.
“Why should you need a moment?” she countered. “At least four men who are more than desirable themselves have gone about letting me know that they find me as such. They wouldn’t have needed a moment.”
An ornery shade crept into his smirk. He wasn’t sure if it was the snooty humph Anwen gave, or the honest bit of jealously that snuck in beneath his confidence, but Cullen was looking forward to giving her a jolt. Under the blanket, he crooked a hand behind her knee, tugging her. She kicked on impulse, and he renewed his hold on the inside of her thigh. His palm rasped against the supple dimpled skin as he pulled her from the bed and into his lap.
Her indignation vanished behind a mask of those wide doe-eyes and a loose jaw. Anwen’s hips were on his, and he was sure that she could feel the stirrings of the erection he’d been concealing since she’d tucked into his side. Anwen squeaked, a sound that had also become pleasant despite his usual considering of it to be annoying, then fled off of him and back beneath her blankets. She had inadvertently delivered another kick to his outer thigh as she lurched back into bed. That made three, and he was willing to see that he had perhaps deserved that last one.
She was terribly inexperienced, and he knew this. She had never been around a man in any state of arousal, and he’d pressed himself into her hips. That had been appallingly rude of him. And yet he was smug.
It was a time that Cullen was more than willing to blame his actions on drink.
“So, Winnie,” he leaned over her, pressing his nose against her blanket covered one. Her eyelashes brushed his as she blinked. “I have taken the moment that you so generously provided me, and decided that I am more than interested in accepting your offer of sharing beds. However,” her forehead was blushing at this point. “Not only should you sleep off this round of drinks, and then come find me, I’d like it best if you did not pursue any of the four other men who’ve made it so obvious that you’re pleasing. I’ll be more than happy to display to you that I find you as such myself.”
He pushed a kiss over her lips through the blanket, and felt that she was smiling.
This night had indeed turned out a general win for the thane. He snuffed the lamp in the corner and returned to his own bed. Cullen was looking forward to being less intoxicated the next time Anwen had fewer pieces of clothing on around him.