"Are you under the impression that all dwarves are idiots, or are you just that cocky?" Meklavar demanded, holding her axe over her shoulder. The prisoner grinned at her, managing to look cocksure even with a black eye and blood staining his teeth.
"What if I told you that this was all a misunderstanding?" He asked, and that he had the nerve to keep eye contact with her was infuriating.
"We caught you with your hands on our jewels," She said, stepping closer. "That's a rather large misunderstanding."
"Inexplicable things happen every day." He said, grin not dimming at all. It must hurt to keep is face like that, what with all his bruises.
"Inexplicable?" Meklavar asked. "I don't think so. What's your name, cat?"
"Pike," He said. "And yours?"
She ignored him; she refused to converse with a prisoner.
"Do you know how we punish thieves?" She asked.
"No," Pike said easily. "But, as I see it, I've already been beaten. You've already taken my money and my weapons and my dignity. Why not let me leave with my life and body intact?"
"Dwarves aren't known for their mercy." Meklavar said.
"So it's true, then," He started. "You are all just-"
"Shut up!" Meklavar swung her axe until the blade hovered close to his throat. "Shut your mouth."
"Struck a nerve, did I?" He asked, and he had the nerve to stare her down over her blade. "I thought dwarves were supposed to enjoy executions."
"Did anyone hire you to take the jewels?" She asked, refusing to look away from his eyes. From far away, they had looked black, and she was surprised to see they were actually a deep shade of blue.
"It's good to know there are some dwarves who don't enjoy death," He said, like she hadn't spoken. Then, his grin widening: "You won't hurt me."
"You don't know that," She said, though she had trouble keeping her hand steady. "I've killed in battle."
"In battle," He started. "When your enemies are obstacles, instead of people. But have you ever had to look someone in the eye when you kill them? I assure you, it's a very different situation."
"You're abhorrent." Meklavar said, the words throwing themselves from her mouth without her permission.
"Maybe," Pike conceded. "But I do what I have to do, to keep the people I love safe."
"And stealing from us, was that for them, too?" Meklavar asked, and she lowered her axe, letting it swing downwards.
"If I say yes," Pike started. "Will you let me go back to them?"
"I can't do that," Meklavar said, and finally, Pike's grin dropped. Instead, he sneered at her and that was almost worse.
"Then no; It was purely selfish," He said, mockingly. "I wanted the jewels for myself and myself alone, because I'm an awful, cruel person. That good enough for you?"
"Why not just tell me the truth?" Meklavar asked.
"It doesn't matter, does it?" He asked. "I'm going to die, either way."
"If you won't answer my questions, I won't waste my time with you." Meklavar said, the hand gripping her axe shaky, suddenly. She turned on her heel, to leave him in the cell, but as she was shutting the door the prisoner called after her, loud and desperate:
"I don't deserve to die for this!"
The metal cell door creaked as she opened it, and the prisoner's head shot up when he heard the sound, his eyes fixed on her as she walked into the room. He frowned, and sniffed the air, but didn't say anything.
It had been a couple of days since she'd last seen him, though she hadn't been able to go long without thinking about him, either.
I do what I have to do, to keep the people I love safe.
It had been bothering her ever since. It meant he had people he cared about, people who could be waiting for him. Maybe even people who relied on him. People that he was trying to protect.
He looked much worse than the last time she'd saw him; his body was littered with fresh bruises and cuts, and his face was caked with dried blood. He glared silently at Meklavar as she put the tray down by his feet.
She pulled over the only other chair in the room, and then picked up the cold broth and bread.
"Don't tell anyone about this," She said, as she ripped part of the bread apart and dipped it into the cold soup. Really, she wasn't supposed to be down there at all, but the thought of him rotting away in his cell refused to leave her alone. She held the bread out for him, close enough that he could stick his head out and eat it. "Here."
"It's not poisoned, is it?" he asked, and his voice was so dry and croaky that Meklavar's own throat tightened in sympathy.
"It's not," She said. "Promise."
And then, like something had snapped, he attacked the bread in her hand, practically ripping it out of her grip. She hadn't even started wetting the next piece of bread by the time he'd swallowed the first one, almost whole and unchewed. He waited wordlessly for her to hold it out for him, only to snap it out of her hand when she did.
"This would be easier if I could use my hands." He croaked.
"Sorry," Meklavar said. "I don't have the keys to your shackles."
He grunted, and then kept eating the food she was giving him. When he'd run out of bread, Meklavar switched to a spoon. She held it up to Pike's face, and he glanced at her warily before he leant forward and ate it.
"Can't you just pour it into my mouth?" He asked. "Or let me use the spoon myself?"
"It's got chunks," Meklavar said, ignoring that last part.
"That's fine; I can handle that." He said, so Meklavar tilted the bowl down until it touched his lips, and he opened his mouth to eat the soup.
He stared at her while he did it, and Meklavar knew it was to intimidate her. But she'd been dealing with arrogant, aggressive men her whole life, so she stared back, right into his deep blue eyes.
When he was done, she put the bowl down onto the floor and began to wipe of the streaks left around his mouth with the dirty sleeve of her work dress.
"Would you like me to thank you?" Pike asked, staring at her evenly.
"No," Meklavar said. "But don't tell anyone about this."
"You have my word." Pike said, with a sly grin. And with that, Meklavar turned on her heel and left.
They'd put her on guard duty. They'd taken her out of interrogation, because she was terrible at it (though she'd told them she would be when they picked the role for her). She'd only joined her village's guard enforcers because her brother had, years and years ago, and that was the only reason they'd accepted her, too. As it turned out, she'd never been particularly good at the job.
So she put on her armour and took her leather flask and went down to the village's dungeons. Pike was asleep when she got there, so she stood by the wall and waited. He looked so pathetic, slouched forward in his chair, arms and legs shackled to the side of it. Meklavar wondered when he'd last been allowed to stand, or if he'd stood at all while he'd been there.
"I'm not sure I appreciate you staring at me," He said, and Meklavar started. He rose his head, not asleep after all, and looked her dead in the face.
"Oh. It's you," He said. "I didn't recognise you in all your armour."
"Say that a little louder, why don't you?" She asked, glancing towards the door. She wondered if someone could hear them.
"As hilarious as that would be," He started. "I'd rather not. I take it you're my company for the night?"
"Not company," Meklavar said. "I'm here to make sure you don't escape."
"Silly," he said. "They think I have more information to give them. I don't."
She walked into the cell, and poured some of the water in her flask onto the rag in her hands. She brought it up to his filthy face and started to clean off the grime.
"Close your eyes," She said, and he stared at her silently for a couple of seconds before closing one eye, the other fixed firmly on her face. She wiped the cloth over his closed eye as gently as she could.
"The other one?" She asked, and he switched eyes, watching her through the eye she'd just cleaned instead. When she was done with his face, she moved down to his neck, and she revealed more of his skin she imagined what it might feel like pressed against her face if she kissed under his jaw.
Instead, she finished washing his throat as quickly as she could, and pulled back. She threw the rag into the corner of the room and looked down at him. His chest was moving quickly, rising and falling with his fast breaths. Meklavar understood why. He was a prisoner and she had just had her hand at his throat, after all.
She unscrewed the opening of her leather flask and held it out to him.
"Here," She said.
"You won't have to baby me, if you let me have an arm free."
"I can't do that."
"I swear to you, no trickery." He met her eyes and didn't look away, barely blinking. His eyes were dark and serious and full of promises, and in the low light, Meklavar could barely even see the blue.
With a sigh, she let one of his arms out, and the first thing he did was stretch it and groan. Meklavar heard the obscenely loud cracking and popping of his bones, and swallowed. Her suspicions were confirmed: He hadn't been allowed to move at all since he'd been brought there.
She handed him the flask and he drank from it like he'd die otherwise.
"Thank you," He said, handing it back to her when he was done and the flask was completely empty.
"Don't thank me," Meklavar said. "I'm going to have to put your shackles back on soon."
"Please, just wait until you absolutely have to. I haven't been able to move in so long."
"What did you mean when you told me you do whatever you have to, for the people you love?" Meklavar asked, without meaning to, the question bursting from her mouth. Pike glared at her, eyes narrowed. He pressed his lips together.
"What did you think I meant by it?" He asked.
"I don't know," Meklavar said. "That's why I asked."
"It means I've been in dungeons up and down Aurita, and you won't break me." He said, voice hard.
"I'd rather not break you," Meklavar said. "I'm asking because I'd like to understand you."
Pike gave her a strange look, one brow furrowed and the other one raised.
"What?" He asked. Meklavar heaved a sigh.
"It's been niggling, in the back of my head," She told him, as he watched her. "You said there were people out there who you cared about, and you were willing to do anything for them. I wondered if that meant, maybe, there were people waiting for you."
There was silence. She glanced at Pike to find him staring at her, eyes on her face, unblinking and unrelenting. She was just about to change the subject, to tell him he didn't have to answer her, when he spoke again.
"There are," He said. "My mother and my siblings and my nieces and nephews."
"They all rely on you?" Meklavar asked.
"Yes," Pike said. And maybe he sensed some weakness in her, because he said: "They'll die without me."
"I can't let you go." Meklavar said, her voice sounding breathless, her stomach twisting and writhing. Some people she'd never met might die because her village was holding their provider captive.
"I didn't think you would." Pike said, and he sounded resigned. He smiled at her, but it was sad and tiny. Meklavar looked away.
They didn't speak again. Meklavar spent the rest of her guard shift outside the cell, unable to properly look at Pike, who she knew hadn't taken his eyes off her. He wanted to make her uncomfortable, she supposed. It was working.
She didn't re-enter the cell until she heard the bell outside, signalling she only had a few minutes left. Her stomach turned; that bell was installed a few years ago, to let guards know someone else would be taking their place, so to wrap up any torture they might be doing.
Pike was perfectly obedient as she locked his arm back up. He didn't plead or fight, but he didn't take his eyes off her face, either. Then, just when she was about to leave:
"Thank you," He said, with some finality. "I appreciate your kindness."
Meklavar's eyes burned. She hadn't done anything for him. She turned on her heel and left without saying a word.
The shouting started not long after Meklavar had settled down to sleep. It was annoying, and then distracting, and then worrying. People outside her house were all yelling to each other, and she had no idea what had happened, until someone was pounding at their door and yelling.
Her father rushed to open it, and in the doorway stood the head guard, snarling. Her eyes landed on Meklavar immediately and she pointed a finger at her, her hand shaking with what Meklavar assumed was rage.
"You!" She hissed. "You stupid child! What did you do?"
"Excuse me," Meklavar started. "What are you talking about?"
"The prisoner," She spat. "He's gotten away and the last person to watch him was you."
"No, he-" Meklavar said. "He was secured in his chair before I left, I made sure of it."
"Well, since you lost him, you have to help find him." She snapped, walking into the house and pulling Meklavar out by the fabric of her nightgown.
Meklavar joined the search party, and they split off, some guarding the houses and others off looking for Pike. Meklavar was sent close to the border of the village, where the forest started. She gripped her torch, cursing herself. It was a mistake to trust a member of the catfolk.
She started into the forest, but she hadn't gotten far when she felt a presence at her back. She spun around to face him, but all she found was empty air. She loud out a harsh breath.
"I never actually learned your name." Came a familiar voice, but Meklavar couldn't see its owner. She spun around again, but she couldn't find him.
"Show yourself, cat!" She shouted.
"I'm right here," Pike said, directly into her ear, and when she turned toward it he was standing close to her, almost bent over her.
"These are yours," He said, holding Meklavar's keys out to her on the end of his tail.
"Is that how you did it?" She asked though clenched teeth, and he gave her a weak smile.
"Yes," he said. "They set my execution for the morning, but I had to leave. I have a family to take care of, after all."
"Why are you still here, then?"
"I wanted to thank you." He said, and Meklavar frowned.
"But you already-"
He dropped the keys from his tail, instead using it to wrap around her wrist and pull her in, where he grabbed her with his hands instead. One on her arm, the other sliding around and gripping the back of her head. She took in a sharp breath, just as Pike leant down.
The skin of his lips were ragged and sharp, but Meklavar did not pull back. It was a soft kiss, but it lasted a long time, with Pike pressing his lips to hers again and again. Tentatively, she put her shaking hand on his waist, and his hand tightened in her hair. She felt his tail wind around her leg.
She could feel his heat pressed against her, so hyper-aware of everywhere their bodies touched. Butterflies attacked her from the inside, like they were trying to be free, as heat crawled up her spine. She had no idea how long they'd been stood there, all thoughts in her head pushed out and replaced with an overwhelming yes!
Pike stopped suddenly, his ears swivelling round, his eyes darting about in the dark.
"Someone's close," He said, quietly, and it was only then that Meklavar remembered where she was and what she was doing. Sure enough, a second later she heard light footsteps.
Pike looked down at her, his eyes shining in the torchlight. He let go of her, his tail tickling her as it unwound from her leg. Meklavar almost reached for him, missing his warmth the second it was gone. He leant down, close enough that their cheeks rubbed together.
"Saro village," He said. "Its a few moons south from here. Come and find me."
Her sentence was exile. She was lucky that she hadn't ended up in the same position as Pike, but instead all they did was separate her from her family and her belongings and sent her out to fend for herself. For making a mistake (though it was a mistake she did not regret).
She'd been travelling for days and she still wasn't exactly sure where she was going, all of the dirt roads looked the same after a certain point, and she'd barely rested, catching any sleep she could beneath the shade of hidden-away trees.
Saro Village was apparently hidden, out of the way, and difficult to find. Though Meklavar wouldn't expect anything else from a man like Pike.
There'd only been a few other people she'd passed on the journey, all of them catfolk, and all of them secretive about it. She sighed. She wondered if she'd ever find it, or if this was a fool's journey and he was sat somewhere, cozy with his newly reunited family, laughing at her for even trying.
"Where are you, you bastard?" She said aloud, her voice hard with the bite of frustration.
"I'm not a bastard, I'll have you know." Said a voice from up in the trees. Meklavar let out a strangled, angry sound.
"You are!" She shouted, up at the trees, unable to actually see him. "Just how long were you going to let me wander around this forest?"
Out of the corner of her eye, there was movement, and Pike fell gracefully to the ground, landing on his feet like the cat he was.
"I swear to you, I only saw you a small while ago. And your face was all screwed up and it was just so cute-"
Meklavar grabbed the front of his linen shirt, and pulled him down so she could cover his lips with her own. His lips were much softer than the last time they'd kissed, and he grinned and wound his arms around her waist.
"I was exiled from my village." She told him, when they broke part after far too long.
"So you've come here instead?" Pike asked, with a sly grin.
"I was always going to, anyway." She said, and with a chuckle, Pike leant down to press one more kiss to her lips. He hadn't let go of her, still holding her firmly to his body.
"I know," He said. "And I just remembered something. I sill don't know your name."
"I'm Meklavar," She told him. "It means 'she who is made of steel.'"
"It suits you. Meklavar," He purred her name at her, grinning, and Meklavar had the sudden image of him curled around her, purring into her ear.
"Now," He said, as he finally let go of her, only to take her hand and start guiding her instead. "If you're going to be staying with me, you should probably meet my mother."