breath, bone, and soul

After, when frantic relief has given away to silence and his skin is almost warm to the touch and slick with sweat, Gwendolyn presses her palm to his chest, fingers spread wide as they can go, and counts the heartbeats against her palm. They come slowly, even now, and the flush is beginning to fade from his skin.

Oswald lets out a slow breath, then covers her hand with his. His fingers are already cold. “I’m all right,” he says. “My wounds are nearly healed.”

She says nothing, but rises up to her elbows above him, leaning so that her white hair slides over her shoulders and curtains her face. Even the shadows that it casts are pale upon his skin. Oswald finally opens his eyes and looks up at her. His eyes are solemn and dark, like old bloody cuts in his pale face. A moment later, his thumb brushes the edge of Titrel, where the metal has warmed to her skin.

“It is fine,” he whispers to her. “We have left that place behind.”

Gwendolyn sighs. She ducks her head for a moment, but peeks at him from under her lashes. “I do not mean to be ungrateful,” she says. “I simply — my lord, the cold still clings to you –”

He curls his fingers around hers; lifts her hand and kisses it. “Odette is newly-dead,” he says. “But her shadow has lain upon me nearly all my life. This is her last memento to me.”

There are things she might say to that: how she hates it, how she could warm him again, or shyly again of her love. Instead, she turns her hand in his and laces their fingers together. His fingers are long and slim — they do not look like a warrior’s hand at all — but they return the strength of her grip easily. She can feel the calluses along the fingertips and the top ridge of the palm. Gwendolyn closes her eyes to kiss him, soft across his open mouth. He curls his other hand behind her neck, his rough fingers against the nape of her neck. She opens her eyes again and meets his. This is a man she has defied gods and her own father to win back; she has spilled a battlefield’s worth of blood, and knows she would do so again.

“And if it were I,” she says against his mouth, her free hand braced to his chest, again over his heartbeat, “sworn to Queen Odette and lost to the living world …”

“Then I would come,” he promises. His fingers tangle in her hair, which is coarse and heavy and warm. “I would fight for you, and I would kill even Death herself for you.”

“Ah,” Gwendolyn says. She lets go of his hand and curls her fingers lightly around his neck, counting pulsebeats and the faint muscle movements of breath. He is calm in his declaration: this is his warrior’s oath, given to her in a promise that goes deeper than blood. It is in the bone and marrow and soul of him.

Pleased, she smiles.

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