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Hidden Daggers

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Sihtric was the son of a dead slave girl and he loves being a free man, he loves carrying swords and serving Uhtred and wearing silver arm-rings. He loves sitting in taverns with Finan and Clapa and Rypere after training all day, he loves having men closer than brothers to spend his days with. He doesn’t think of it too often because this is how his life has been for a few years now, but on this night he’s drunk and happy, his arms over Finan’s and Clapa’s shoulders and they’re all singing a bawdy little ditty, and the tavern girls are laughing and their cheeks are blushing pink in the firelight. He raises his eyebrows at one and she smiles at him, blushing harder, and he grins back. Sihtric knows why. They’re warriors, men who have killed, men who earn silver with their strong arms and courage, and they’re singing about the delights of firm tits and plump arses, and who better to bed a woman than a warrior?

They finish the song and break apart, draining their tankards, and the girls are quick to approach. Finan gives an indignant yelp as a girl sits beside him and he sees three around Sihtric. Sihtric shoots his shield-brother a wicked smirk and pulls one girl onto each leg, then grabs the third’s hand and guides her to come between his knees. The girls on his lap are crooning, rubbing their hands over his chest and shoulders, and he knows it’s because he’s young and strong and handsome, and besides that he knows they know he has silver. Sihtric may be young but he isn’t entirely foolish. If he weren’t a warrior, if he weren’t Uhtred’s oath-man, how many of these women would approach him?

The girl between his knees is older than the other two, more subdued, and she isn’t vying for his attention as hard so he chooses to give it to her. She’s standing, but he knows if he weren’t sitting he would tower over her slight frame. Her hair is long and dark, catching the smoky firelight in waves, and her face is pretty but not striking. Her eyes, though, speak to something in Sihtric that he’s thought long buried. Maybe the ale makes the memory of it easier to summon, and suddenly Sihtric is heedless of the two girls on his lap and they both squeal in shock as he stands, dumping them to the rush-covered floor.

Finan is cheering behind him as Sihtric leads the woman toward the back rooms, but he barely notices. He hasn’t taken his eyes from her, the small woman with dark hair and eyes that burn with the raw, determined courage of enduring. He knows the defiance in her eyes because it lives still in his heart, buried beneath these years of freedom and fighting but still there, so fundamental to his being that one look at this small woman is nearly enough to shatter him. He follows her into a room and shuts the door, and by the time he turns toward the bed she’s already sliding her dress over her head.

And Sihtric, drunk and shaken, feels tears welling in his eyes as he steps forward. He traces a gentle finger over the scars on her forearms and knows she used them to shield herself. He feels the fists of his father, bruises and cuts long healed that sting fresh as he traces her scars, and all the while she looks at him with defiance in her eyes.

He’s kissing her before he quite realizes what he’s doing and her mouth tastes like fresh ale and smoked meat and her fierce little hands are ripping at his tunic. He breaks the kiss so she can pull it over his head and she moans at the sight of him, his broad shoulders and flat stomach and myriad small scars, and Sihtric knows she understands the story of enduring that his body tells. The small knife he’d sewn into the right sleeve of his tunic clatters as it hits the floor. Around his waist is belted an ax and his short-sword, Hound’s Tooth, named so he never forgets his mother’s fate. They follow his tunic to the floor, and then the knife concealed at the small of his back.

The dark-haired woman is laughing as Sihtric removes a knife from each boot, grinning up at her sheepishly, and when he stands she yanks his breeches down from his hips and pulls him to the bed. Sihtric is a warrior and he’s never touched silk but he knows it can’t be as fine as her thick hair as his fingers tangle in it, and he sinks into her with the force of a rutting bull but she rises to meet him like he knew she would.

After they’re through, Sihtric holds a handful of silver coins to her but she shakes her head, looks at him with those eyes that understand him the way no one else ever will, and molds her body to fit into the curves of his. She murmurs her story against his broad chest. He wipes the tears from her cheeks and tells her his story, and then she wipes the tears from his cheeks and pulls her to him again. Sliding into her feels like coming home and they’re slower this time, her hands mapping his body and soothing all the places that once ached and stung beneath his father’s cruel fists and enemy blades.

Sihtric stays the whole night in that tavern room, and when the sun streams through the grimy windows he thinks that he would like to wake up every morning to the sight of her dark hair on the pillows and her warmth next to him.